notes: These photos were contributed by Nyna Polumbaum
who tells the following story about her ancestors from
My grandfather, Shlomo Chayim Amdursky, owned
an iron store on the square, on land leased from the count.
(I suspect that he came from elsewhere to start a business
but there is no history of that.)
He and his wife, Nihama,
raised 7 children, but were still hardly over 30 in 1905,
when the extra maid for Passover brought typhoid to all
except the newborn. The parents died, the children survived.
Relatives, many unknown to the children, arrived from everywhere,
divided the children, jewelry and property among themselves,
and burned all family photos, saying the children "wouldn't
feel bad when they saw how young and beautiful their parents
had been". Their house was one of two my grandfather
built. I'm told the rear house was rented to a doctor,
(perhaps named Davidson or something like that).
house went to the neediest aunt (I don't know where she
came from, but it wasn't Mir). Her name was Tsippemirrel.
Last name unknown, but her children in New Jersey and Montreal
called themselves Sloan.
Rachil, my mother, age five, was
left behind in Mir with her aunt, while the others were
each taken to separate places. One died young and none
of the others could learn the cause of death or where it
occured. From the age of nine Rachil had all the domestic
responsibilities. Tsippemirrel, with a mentally fragile
husband, supported the family by selling lumber. Rachil
often had to carry the baby to chayder and stash her in
the cloakroom. If she cried too much she had to be taken
home. She scrubbed floors, ironed curtains, hauled water
and kept the accounts of the yeshiva boys who boarded with
them. Only at an occasional funeral or wedding did the
When Rachel was 14 WWI had already begun,
but she finally convinced her aunt, whom she loved, to
let her leave Mir. The tiny girl set out with a few rubles,
some addresses and a basket over her arm. The first stop
was a relative's bakery in Vilna. Here a famous photographer
of well-off Jewish burghers spied her behind the counter
and asked her to sit for him. When she showed up in finery
borrowed from a friend, with hair pinned-up to look grown-up,
he shouted at her to go home and get back her everyday
looks. He put the photograph in his street display, where
it wasn't much liked by the wealthy customers who passed.
In Warsaw she worked in a millinery sweatshop where she
could hardly reach the foot pedals of her machine.
lived with her father's cousin and eventually saved enough
money to set out for Rotterdam at age 16. She said all
the friends brought food enough for a month to the train.
One of the Warsaw relatives, Matthew Kahan, later a mandolin
soloist in NY, remained her lifelong friend. From Rotterdam
she set out in steerage, but the ship soon returned to
port because of U-boats. The Dutch government provided
a hostel, 4 bunks to a room, with meals, for the passengers
until the waters were safer. Rachil didn't want to just
wait around so she found a job in a hat factory that amazed
her with its cleanliness. She brought several young girls
from the hostel to join her at the factory.
One day she
returned to find confusion in the hostel; the US had instituted
a literacy requirement for immigration. Former students
in the group were organizing a school and asked her to
assist. She was flattered. She'd had such a wretched education.
She was able to pick up enough Dutch to get invited to
Jewish homes and was again amazed at how lovely their homes
were compared to Byelorussia.
Before departure she visited
the steamship company office to turn her earnings into
a second class ticket and found that the men in the office
had set her ID picture aside because she looked so good.
But when this tiny girl came in they said they were disappointed
that she was a kid. The crossing on the Noordam was wild;
near the end she was the only passenger to appear in the
2nd class dining salon. The entire crew had lined up to
salute her and wait on her. She recalled it as the most
thrilling moment of her life.
They arrived in New York
on what was then called Decoration Day (Memorial Day).
The harbor was filled with little boats and celebrants,
so she thought the war was over. Because she was young
and had no family, HIAS took her to Lafayette Street to
decide what to do with her. The next morning she heard
a call, "Amdursky,
your brother's here!" He had searched the passenger
list in the Yiddish newspaper because it was the first
ship in a long time, and there she was. They didn't let
him take her (he had a different last name, but that's
another story) until he could provide documents showing
he was actually a relative.
Beylke Amdursky, a year younger
than her sister Rachil, was the beauty. I don't know the
shtetl where she was taken, or if it is close to Mir. She
was one of two sisters who didn't emigrate to America.
She fell in love with a handsome violinist and went with
him to Kharkov, where he was named concertmaster of the
opera. She became a pharmacist. Her son Solomon, a Red
Army officer, was captured by the Nazis and died very young
as a result. Daughter Natasha grew up to be a pianist and
married a scientist. They, their two children and grandchild
are in Canada and the US.
Freydke Amdursky, the oldest
sister was 11 when Shlomo and Nihama died, learned that
her own mother had died earlier. Nihama had always treated
her as her own. She was taken by her birth mother's family
and later brought to New Jersey as a household slave to
an uncle, Rabbi Bernstein. She ran away at age 15, worked
in a sweatshop, lived in a furnished room and attended
high school at night. She was one of the first women to
be admitted to study chemical engineering at Cooper Union.
Peshke Amdursky, the only pious sister, married into a
family where men studied and women worked. She became a
pioneer in Palestine, probably in the early 1920s. She
ran a grocery and had more offspring than any of her siblings.
Amdursky, who had scarlet fever as a small boy and became
almost completely deaf, set out alone at 14. By great
feats of imagination he tricked the immigration officer into
thinking he could hear. He became a diamond merchant.
Arke Amdursky, the newborn, was eventually taken back from
the peasant wet-nurse who had been paid to care for him in
his early years, and who he thought was his real mother.
Eventually he went to yeshiva before the siblings in
New York brought him there. He became a butcher, and after
retirement to California began to write plays.
Rachil was the only one who ever reunited with every
one of the others. When she was 64 years old she set out
on a search for the sisters in Israel and the Soviet Union,
and found them.
They were an remarkable bunch. Although
they had different upbringings they somehow all
turned out to be secular, generous, sunny human beings of
the most decent kind, dedicated to defending oppressed
people everywhere, perhaps because of their own bitter experiences.