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Memoir by Harry Mirsky
It was on the twenty-second day of August, in the year 1900, when I was ushered into this world. My brothers and sisters, my father and Bobeh Tzipke, the experienced midwife (also my mother’s mother) were very concerned, not for me, because there were already six children, and this latest arrival, having a slightly bluish hue and causing my mother great pain physically and mental anguish, was as welcome as a hornet’s nest at a picnic. I was told when I was old enough to understand, that my mother cried out, “Oh God this is my father, please save my father.” The expertise of my experienced grandmother asserted itself in no uncertain terms, and I was given life and breath. I was told that the contents of a bottle of vodka were sprinkled on me with the thought that the shock would bring life to this latest arrival, another evidence of the miracle of birth. Truly I regret I could not be asked at that time, because I would have told them not to waste any money on any alcoholic beverage, or even Pepsi Cola. The Czar’s army never extended a helping hand to a boy ·from a Jewish family. ·
Many young men inflicted permanent physical injury upon themselves, so that they would be rejected by the army doctors. Of course, if the family had money they could bribe the proper official or pay someone to serve for their son. Graft and corruption reigned supreme.
My three brothers, two of my sisters and my parents have gone to their reward, and the only one left is my sister Jenny, age 94, who refuses to discuss the past. I tell you this because I would have liked very much to discuss and engage in some sort of reminiscence regarding life in this little town of Mir in the early part of the twentieth century.
We lived in a frame house which contained three rooms, a long narrow pantry, and a large tile oven, wood burning, that was used for cooking on one side and sleeping accommodations on the other side. Of course it was not large enough for the entire family, but we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, especially on cold winter nights. In case you don’t know it, the winters in Russia were something to be reckoned with. My father was a black- smith, working in his own koozhneh (blacksmith shop) where he had a forge, hand operated, that prepared the bars of iron which he formed into horse- shoes, scythes, sickles, bands for wheels or whatever the farmers or the duke of the town ordered. The two older brothers, Meyer and Leon used to help take care of the forge and help father when a horse needed new shoes. It was a hard living but my mother was a good manager, and we got along fairly well - Morris, the other brother and I were sent· to chaider and there was always enough food in the house. We didn’t wear Brooks Bros. clothes, but there was never any danger of freezing to death during the long winter months We had a hen house with a feisty rooster, plenty of eggs and good milk, except on the day when our black cow decided to stick her hoof in the pail after she was milked. My mother was forced to sell her to the town katzeff,. the fellow who makes sirloin steaks out of ornery cud chewers.
From what I was made to understand, my father was the restless type. He was young, strong and opinionated, and anxious to get his share of ·the gold with which the streets of the East Side were paved. I believe it was 1904 when he, Meyer and Jenny put their thoughts arid worldly worth together and set sail to the land of the golden opportunities, and as it later turned out to be, frustrations, disappointments and heartbreaks.
There was a period in the life of the married couple (my parents) when a certain situation made life very difficult for my mother. My father had an older sister named Chayeh Goldeh who married a dyspeptic student named Yossel Pinchus. This domineering sister convinced her younger brother that it would be a good idea if she and her husband moved in with her younger strong brother and his attractive energetic and capable wife. In those days there was no such thing as discussing anything with one's wife. The husband was the lord and master, and in this case the decision was arrived at very quickly because of the connivance of his clever sister and her equally scheming husband. In as much as there were three rooms in the house they could accommodate themselves very comfortably, and she could rule the roost, which evidently she started doing, much to the displeasure of my mother. I must say at the outset that what I am telling you is not from my observation, because this unhappy event took place some time in the 1890's. The chief source of my information came from my mother, supplemented occasionally by my sister Frances and brother Leon.
Moomeh (aunt) Chayeh Goldeh would cook special dishes for her husband, especially spring chickens taken from the hen house, and with chicken came chicken soup. It was always for her Yossel, the pampered special person in the family. Friday was a very busy day because all the cooking and baking had to be accomplished before sundown. Moomeh always made sure that her husband had his chicken when he returned from shool (synagogue) at noon on Saturday. We couldn't always afford chicken for the Saturday meal because of the eggs they laid, and which mother sold. This Saturday was one that was remembered by all concerned. My father came home from shool, hungry as a young lion, but the only thing we could afford was cholnt (beef stew), but he knew that his sister had cooked several chickens for herself and her husband. Well, the search was on for the hidden tasty spring chickens. His darling sister hid them in the hen house under a pile of hay. Was he delighted, did you ask? You can answer this question yourself; and what's more, the best part of this little episode is that he ate all three chickens and put the bones back in the pot and under the hay in the same place. When Moomeh and her Yossel stealthily went to look for the coveted Saturday treasure, they found you know what. This incident set the spark for many subsequent disagreements and violent outbursts. Needless to say, my mother was thoroughly disgusted with the entire situation, including the moomeh and her Yossel. There had to be a solution to this nerve wracking state of affairs. My mother was expected to cower, to crouch in fear and to submit to this woman's domination. But not this descendent of the proud Grande family of Spain, who fled their native land rather than to submit to the unrealistic religious demands of the reigning monarch. My mother was not going to take this lying down, so she stood up on her toes like a ballerina and told her young husband: (the equivalent of ) “This 'aint no Metro-Mayer-Goldwin scenario directed by Polanski; either this witch goes or I go.” Evidently my father was both surprised and delighted, because he too was sick of this female despot and his scrawny brother-in-law Yossel. Ultimately they found other living quarters, but the hurt feelings: were never healed. Many years passed, perhaps thirty, after both families were settled in the good old U.S.A., that friendly relationship between them was resumed. But not in its entirety, only a couple of members. They always considered themselves superior to us in every way except physically.
The departure of my father, sister and brother must have brought a certain amount of sorrow to us all, but the presence and reassurance of my mother helped us to regain our courage and confidence in the future. Of course the thought was that sooner or later, after father established himself in this other world, we would all be taken away from this country of persecution and limited opportunity for the Jewish people, and brought to this land of unlimited opportunities and religious freedom. That day came sooner than expected. That day was filled with mixed emotions; feelings of sorrow, trepidation, delight and hope.
But my mother decided, and rightfully so, that until that day of rescue arrives one has to eat, and when there are five mouths to feed there is no time allotted for brooding. She rented the koozhneh to an able blacksmith who paid her for the use of the place and the tools. But that alone would not be enough income to feed her brood. She informed the peasants and farmers that she would dye their wool and anything else the color of their choice, for an agreed-upon price. Monday was the very busy market day in town of Mir, when the goyim would bring their products to the market place to sell and barter with merchants who came from surrounding villages and towns. She informed these simple, hardworking folks that they could have potato latkes and tea, some salt herring and maybe a sip of vodka on a cold winter morning on their way to the market. This gallant lady would rise at three in the morning, bring much needed life to the fire in the oven, boil. water for her dying business, for tea in the samovar for her customers, prepare batter for the pancakes and breakfast for the family. What she did in her spare time is anybody's guess. At six in the morning the guests commenced to arrive. The main reception room was made ready for the elite guests - the ten foot fir table was covered with the finest linens and the long wooden benches were covered with cushiony material similar to David's toilet seat on the main floor. The manners and behavior of these peasants were similar to those of the lions in the Bronx park at feeding time. Tea was served in tall glasses, and every slurp could be heard forty feet away. The man or his wife or daughter would hold a piece of lump sugar between the teeth and take a swallow of the scalding Vesotzki's chai, and the hotter the tea the greater the delight. Of course there was the usual entertainment of Earl Carroll's vanities and Lawrence Welk's accordionist, the happy Norwegian, as Lawrence calls him. Leon helped with serving of the 12" diameter potato latkes and salt herring, complete with the salty brine, called llaak. After an agonizing thirty to forty-five minutes the gentlemen and ladies commenced to leave, spitting and urinating on the heavily sanded podlogge (floor). How my mother was able to stand this type of behavior is beyond my comprehension; but it was some sort of a living and it happened only once a week. The dyeing business took place later in the day, when the gentlemen and the ladies completed their business transactions. This business was conducted on the other days as well, except Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Holy Russian days of which there were many.
Life continued uneventfully. Morris and I went to chaider. I went to Fetter Schmerel, Broche's (mother's sister) husband, who had about 10 other pupils, and Morris to Fetter Yeinkev, the other brother-in-law. He taught Hebrew in the secondary school. He had a brilliant mind but an uncontrollable temper and ego. His left leg was amputated and he walked with the aid of a crutch, which he used to hit the student who was guilty of the minutest insubordination. 'This happened one day to Morris, and when mother saw the wound on the boy's forehead she left her work, went to the school and told the uncle if he did not stop these shenanigans she would personally change his face. He was no match for this fiery tigress.
Life was hard and opportunities for advancement were few and far between especially for the Jewish person. Anti-Semitism, graft, and corruption were rife. Progress was slow, ignorance, superstition, blind religious belief and poverty were everywhere. Of course there are always exceptions. In our town there were the Kamenetzkys, Miranskys, Laizer Kaplan der haicher (the tall one), Yossif the grain dealer, and a few others like the Optecker (druggist), a couple of doctors, feldschers, who are called medics in this country, a few struggling barbers who divided their time between cutting hair and filling in for the doctor when a sick person needed baankes, an enema, piafkes (leeches) or some other semi professional duty to perform. Of course there was the liquor store, patronized by those who could afford a bottle of vodka or some other alcoholic beverage such as shlivovitz, med, etc.
My mother had many periods of sorrow and dejection. precipitated by attacks of measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc. And with very little money on hand to call the doctor, she had to be both provider and doctor, psychologist, neurologist and everything else that a mother of five had to be. There was enough to do and worry about without any extraordinary occurrences, but fate dictated otherwise. It was one of those busy mornings when mother was occupied with her dyeing operations. She had just removed a quantity of wool from the large cauldron, lifted the kettle with the intention of getting rid of the hot colored dye water onto the outside, when a five year old lively blond boy named Laizer decided he wanted to run out and play with his colored pebbles. As fate would have it, the boy and the scalding water collided. I screamed with pain and fright, clutching my face and right side. The family was in an uproar and my mother nearly collapsed from the shock, blaming herself for everything that happened. Everybody knew it was not her fault. There followed sixteen weeks of nursing and vigilance, not to mention periods of fear because some of the neighbors predicted that I would never survive such a catastrophe. One neighbor's remedy of cooked beets finely chopped and applied to the affected parts would work wonders. The wonder was that this ridiculous nostrum did not inflict more damage than it did. Wherever. the beets were applied and later removed the skin went with them. There was no end to the amount of ointment and medical attention I would need to bring me back to health. The medicine required was very expensive and the doctor's fees were not donated. Finally, after much discussion and consultation a method of healing was decided upon, warm compresses of soft cloth soaked in soap suds. The treatment was administered around the clock with my mother and the older children taking turns. Yes it took sixteen weeks, periods of prayer, loving care and reassurance, and finally the little person was again able to romp and frolic to his heart's content, and to the annoyance of his older brothers and sisters, because all this coddling must have given him an air of importance. It didn't take long Before the older members of the family made him lose that inflated air of importance. It stands to reason that the other members of the family were not immune to the other diseases that laid low many inhabitants of this rural village. Diphtheria and measles were the most feared because they took many lives. Fortunately my family weathered all these storms and emerged more or less victorious. My mother was reassured that the marks of the burn should disappear in time. Yes, it took about twenty years.
The town of Mir, in spite of its insignificant size in population was known far and wide for its Jewish men of learning, many Greek Catholic churches and training grounds for the Czar's soldiers. Rabbis from the neighboring towns of Vilna, Minsk, Pinsk and even Warsaw would come here to discuss certain passages of the talmud, gimorrah, rasheh, etc. Fetter Yeinkev, Morris's rabbi , was one of those who joined in their learned discussions. His opinions were valued very highly inspite of his erratic behavior in the schoolroom. I am going to make a regular cholnt or beef stew out of my reporting the events in Mir about 75 years ago. Sunday was a day of prayer and worship for the illiterate, hardworking peasants. They could not read anything in their prayer books, but they were duty bound to attend church on the prescribed day, Sunday, and give their donations. It was positively mandatory. We would look through our windows at the women, trudging wearily over the rough roads on feet covered with lopches (rags) because comfortable shoes size 11, 5E were not to be had at any price. All day long they would work in the fields barefoot, which enlarged the feet considerably but they would carry their shoes until they reached the church, at which time they would remove the lopches and painfully force their calloused feet into their shoes. Can you imagine the agony they suffered wearing those unwanted shoes, listening to the priest praising all the saints and the Czar and his family? They were simple folk, unschooled in the ways of the world, born to the plow and with the avowed duty to bear as many children as the priest dictated and the husband lusted. Many a child was born while the mother was in the wheat field. They would cease work long enough to give birth to the infant, wrap it in the necessary rags and continue their work. What the infant mortality rate was is not a matter of record. And how many of these young women reached old age was not a matter to be discussed, because the authorities would not waste a pinch of Bull Durham Snuff to talk about such unimportant matters. But don't misunderstand me. Life was not always dull in this little town of Mir. At certain times of the year hundreds of soldiers would be brought here for the purpose of training. They would engage in varied maneuvers, marching, running, jumping, shooting and other practices. There would also be a great deal of merriment, especially in the evening hours. Tossing coins in the air and betting on whether they would reach the ground heads or tails. Of course there was plenty of drinking during those periods. Leon once took me to one of those parties, and while I watched the coin being tossed into the air I was not mindful of its direction. To my misfortune there was a light wind blowing in my direction causing the coin to descend perpendicularly on my forehead, opening a gash with a subsequent flow of blood. The soldiers, in their drunken stupor, laughed at this spectacle and refused to lend a helping hand. Leon gathered me in his arms and hurried home, where my mother exercised her expertise in stopping the flow of blood. I still have the scar on my forehead. It was the second shock and trauma to which I was subjected in my beginning years of life in this troubled world. It seems to me that I never ceased to give my dear mother cause for worry and concern. But we (Charlotte and I) did not abandon her in her old age, many thanks to my dear, patient and understanding wife.
It was in the latter part of 1906 that my father returned to his roots from the land of opportunity. Nobody ever told me whether it was loneliness or disappointment or optimistic thoughts that caused him to come back to this quaint village, but frankly speaking I couldn't have cared less. I did not know the man and was ambivalent about being introduced. There is one thing that made an indelible imprint on my mind… for some reason I was given a thrashing by this stranger. An event that has lived with me through the years and which I will remember to my dying day. Perhaps I was insubordinate, perhaps I was unresponsive to his command, perhaps, perhaps it was something else. In any event he did his thing and the hurt remained with (rest of sentence missing)
It is said that time heals all wounds, or at least most of them. Be that as it may. Life continued as before. Father took over the blacksmith shop, mother resumed her duties and the other children went about their usual chores - gathering potatoes, cucumbers, onions and cabbages from our little farm. Gathering raspberries and currants in our little garden, preserving and storing for the winter months, taking care of the hen house and any other chores that presented themselves. We all felt that this is not the worst kind of life to lead, not knowing anything else. Yes, it is said Ignorance is Bliss, and so it was with us, but fate had decreed otherwise.
It was the month of March 1907 and Passover was drawing near. There is much doing in the Orthodox Jewish families this time of year, such as cleaning, scouring, etc. Even the humblest of homes had two sets of pots, pans, dishes, knives, spoons, forks, etc. One set was used during the Passover week and the other set was kept for the rest of the year. Pantry shelves and cabinets had to be washed to render them kosher for this memorable holiday, reminding us of the emancipation of the Jews from Egypt.
It was a rather balmy day, Father was in his blacksmith shop shaping an iron bar into a horseshoe, while sister Frances was scouring a set of wood shelves in preparation for the coming holiday which was almost around the corner. This beautiful girl was in her teens, approaching womanhood, smiling and singing while she was doing the washing by the lake which was a short distance from our house. It was late afternoon and the peasants had completed their business affairs in the market place and were driving their horse-drawn wagons homeward. We lived near the road and travelers could see any activity in and around the lake. This traveler imbibed a little too much Vodka for the road, and when he saw this young maiden at the lake he thought he would like to create a more intimate relationship of him and her. He halted his horse and commenced to make ungentlemanly advances, which I am sure were very unwelcome. She started to scream in alarm, and when father heard these cries of terror he left his work, holding the two foot heavy blacksmith's kleschch in his hand. It was a heavy tool which he used when he was forming the iron shoe. The peasant stupidly stood his ground and my father hit him a resounding blow. He picked himself up and left, vowing vengeance. This threat was executed less than two hours later when father left the shop for bite to eat, intending to return to finish his work. He hadn't thought of locking the shop because there was no necessity for it, he would be back shortly. Well, that was not to be. Three burly muzhiks, armed with a sledge hammer, an iron bar and blacksmith's pincers broke into our house, raving and ranting and ready to kill. My father made a dash for the door to holler for help, but the peasant hit him on the head with the hammer, sending him sprawling and bleeding. My mother ran outside to escape from this murderer, but the same hammer hit her between the shoulder blades, knocking her unconscious. We were mortified and frozen with fear. The peasants accomplished their mission and departed, laughing and bellowing, proud of themselves for punishing a family of Zhidi (Jews). How they survived such severe punishment was a miracle of God. It took quite a while before they could return to their tasks, but plans were beginning to form to sell everything with the hope of buying passage for the family for the purpose of settling in America, where hopefully there will be no danger of future pogroms. Of course this task could not be accomplished immediately. It had to be planned, money had to be earned, nerves had to be put at ease. Yes, the police were notified of this attack, but all we received was a cluck of the tongue, and a slight assurance that it will not happen again, and a warning to lock the shop when it is not being used.
Living was not easy, and the long hard winters did not add to our comfort, and adding the threats and molestations perpetrated by the mujhiks on their way home from the market place, half drunk, knocking on our door, hollering zhid parchh. Yes, undoubtedly, mother had plenty to contend with, and if one of the brood misbehaved and showed his restlessness. it added to her woes. More often than can be counted brother Leon gave her much concern and pain. With the man of the house and the oldest son and daughter in America, seeking their fortune, she had to have someone with a male image of authority to try to control the outbursts of this bright but unruly boy of fifteen or sixteen. Much as it was against her will to ask Fetter Dovid for his assistance, she had to do it for the welfare of the rest of the family. And besides, it was a feather in Uncle's cap to be asked to perform this masculine duty of correcting the behavior of a hard-to-control youngster. He had a wood working shop about a quarter of a mile away and when the call for his assistance came, he would remove the heavy leather belt from around his waist, put his work aside and stride gallantly to the trouble spot. Evidently he had already experienced the pain of too close contact with that belt, because Leon made it to parts quite a distance away from this unwelcome but at times necessary keeper of the peace.
Dovid married my father's sister Sloveh, which made him our uncle. There is a little anecdote that needs to be related about this wheelwright, for this is what he was, and a ridiculous perfectionist to the bargain. When he was given an order to make a new wagon wheel, it had to take three or four weeks, which was the reason there was never enough food in the house to feed this childless couple. If the customer was able to wait this length of time Uncle would get the order because his work was the closest thing to perfection. Uncle did have an order to make a wheel for the duke of the town, but in as much as he was called out of town for some ill explained reason, he hired an experienced mechanic to perform the work in his absence. The man was experienced and made the wheel in three days, and proceeded to do the other jobs that were waiting to be done. When Uncle returned after five days' absence and saw the finished product, he almost lost his mind. Work performed so quickly, no matter how well, cannot be good~ whereupon he took a hammer and smashed the wheel to bits. The man quit in disgust and told Fetter Dovid that he refuses to work for an idiot. His wife Sloveh pleaded with the man to stay, and tried to stop the destruction of this fine piece of work, but it was all in vain. Little wonder that they slowly died of malnutrition. My mother was always willing to extend a helping hand, but his arrogance and stupidity brought about their demise. You see, there was no welfare department in the Shtetl Mir. And besides, the Czar did not believe in Social Security except for his own family. He did believe in gaudy uniforms with intricate gold braid and a host of medals, most of which he did not earn.
Life resumed in our family, after a period of healing, physically and emotionally, as a result of the private pogrom. The thought of eventually leaving Mir, memories, friends, relatives, etc. was ever present in the minds of my parents. We packed our meager belongings in a few rough sacks, said our farewells and tearful goodbyes to everybody available, and were packed into a wagon which was to take us to the bonn and eventually to the ocean going liner which would take us to America. Every mode of travel made available to us was of steerage quality, the lowest possible.
There was much delay, inconvenience and disappointment before we reached the ship, because special arrangements had to be made to accommodate a number of country folk who had very little possessions, let alone money, and separate them from the more affluent passengers. The day for leaving finally arrived, around the latter part of January 1908. There was much hustle and bustle and we were herded into the hold of the ship, together with a number of others, with instructions from the crew where our bunk beds were located, where the galley was located and when meals would be served. My father was the only member of our family who did not become seasick. Being accustomed to certain simple and nourishing foods in the home town rendered us miserably unprepared for the different kinds of goulash those expert chefs concocted in their kitchen. And the odors coming from the cooked foods were enough to turn anyone's stomach unless it was made of cast iron. Some of the foods were edible - corn bread, herring, some fish and tea. Most of my intake was tea and there were periods I couldn't hold that down. There was so much sea sickness among the passengers in the hold, it kept the deck hands busy mopping and scooping up. Our boat developed a leak mid ocean and we had to be transferred to another, more or less safer. I thought it was fun but how the other people took it, I am unable to say. Finally the boat docked at Ellis Island on February 9, 1908, a cold blustery day, and after some probing and testing and examining by the different officials, we were admitted to this vast, strange looking land, with thousands of people milling around, going hither and yon, some hollering, some talking in tongues unfamiliar to all of us.
I believe Meyer and Jennie met us at the boat, but truthfully I do not remember. They were working and probably could not get permission to leave their work even for a little while. One cannot imagine the low status of the working person at that time.
Yes, an apartment (called flat) was waiting for us - on the fifth floor, a railroad flat of five rooms and kitchen, toilet in the hall, shared by four other tenants. It was a real palace in unmistakable terms. One day I had the courage to look out the window and when I saw how far was downstairs, I cringed with fear. But I got used to it, as did members of my family. There were some beds and a few sticks of furniture. Oh yes, there were some pots and pans, dishes and cutlery, all Rogers 1847. The Persian throw rugs would be delivered another time. I don't remember the color of the paint on the walls, they were so old and pealing, and the ceilings were flaked with patches of yellow (like Miles Standish beard) which told us that the rain had leaked in on numerous occasions. We were on the top floor. On a dry day the rain did not come through because there was no rain. Sounds funny, eh! Of course we had to share the apartment with the creatures who were there before us, the little four legged ones, and those creatures who crept out of the walls and quickly found a warmer place in our beds and the dish closets. These fringe benefits were not ours to have in our home town Mir. Mother used kerosene, hot water and soap and goodness knows what else, but they proved to be stubborn tenants. Fortunately the government decided to build the Manhattan Bridge, and this old rat trap was in the way and had to be removed. What a relief for everyone concerned, especially the landlord, who must have been very glad to get it off his hands and put the money in the bank. That is, if he trusted the bank, because otherwise the greenbacks would be put in a bag or box and stored somewhere under the floor boards, and if the money was not found before the owner went to his reward, the rodents had something else to nibble on that was colored green.
In as much as there was no housing shortage on the Lower East Side at that time, my folks found a vacant flat in a five floor old brick building at 81 Eldridge St. A railroad flat of five rooms, with and without windows, large kitchen and toilet in the hall, shared by five other tenants. When the other toilet was repaired and made available, the tenants had the luxury of two of these palatial, foul smelling palaces. To be so confined was not a condition that we had to contend with in our home town, but it appeared that all our neighbors were satisfied with those conditions, and so it had to be. But we all hoped that some day we will move to greener pastures, where there is a tree or a flower. But it was not to happen for four or five years.
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