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Memoirs of Fay Jozefson Bernstein

Born Frejda Jozefson, in Szczuczyn, 1905

Chapter One: My Family

Fay Jozefson, 22
Catskills, New York, 1928

       

I really don't know where to begin. My childhood days were not what you would call pleasant and it is difficult to remember.

I will try to tell you what I do remember, and also what was told to me by my family, especially by my dear mother, may she rest in peace.

I was born in the month of September 1910 [according to her birth certificate and her Ellis Island record, she was born in January 1905] (one day before Rosh Hashanah, the 18th). I was the fifth daughter. I was told there were two more children, one girl and a boy, that would have made seven of us. The boy was 8 years old and the girl 11. Both children became ill with the measles. They developed pneumonia, they both died two weeks later on the same day. It was terribly tragic. My father [Schmuel Jozefson] was an ordained Rabbi. My mother [Hinda Meita Tetenbaum Jozefson] was very religious.

I was six months old when my father died and there were four sisters besides me. My mother was left with five daughters, very poor, without any means of support. In Poland where we lived, if a tragedy like this happened, you were on your own. There was no assistance from the Government. The only thing left to do, was to go begging. My mother would rather die than do it.

At this point I want to tell you a few things that were told to me by mother, whatever I can remember. My mother came from a very religious family, also very educated family. The Polish people were not concerned about an education. They were interested in farm life. They had land. The would plant vegetables, corn and wheat. They raised chickens - they had cows, etc. That gave them a nice income. When there harvest would be ready, the would come to the town where we lived. They would sell their products. They also used to sell a lot of dairy products - like cheeses, butter, eggs. Twice a week they would come. There was a special market place and they used to do a good job in selling. Then they would go shopping to the stores. The store owners were mostly Jewish.

Now, I will tell you how my mother managed to take care of her family after my father passed away. My mother opened a small grocery store. With the help of wholesale grocers, merchandise was given to her on credit. The neighbors, also the Polish people that used to come to the market place twice a week, patronized our store. That's the way mother supported the family. We ate very poorly - she was only interested we shouldn't go hungry.

My mother's father [Herszk Tetenbaum] - my grandfather and grandmother - were very well known in the town. You could imagine a religious Jew and he was the judge of the town. He made a nice living and was able to do the things that the average Jew couldn't afford to do.

My grandmother [Ester Malka Rubensztejn Tetenbaum] was a Rabbi's daughter. Unfortunately my grandmother lost nine children. Each of the nine children lived just a few hours after birth. Being anxious to have a child, my grandmother became pregnant again. They went for blessings, prayers were said constantly and the tenth child was born (my mother) and survived. My grandparents being well-to-do, they did not send my mother to a public school. Private teachers were hired for my mother, and she only attended a private school.

After a while my grandmother became pregnant again. This time she gave birth to another girl that survived [who later married, moved to Germany, and was murdered in the Holocaust], but my grandmother died the same day. My mother was nine - or maybe ten or eleven - years old at that time.

After some time of mourning, my grandfather remarried to a single girl that was 24 years old. She also came from a very religious family - Rabbis, Grand Rabbis, and a family of very learned people. My mother used to tell me that she got along very well with her step-mother [the reason Hinda Meita's father Herszk and step-mother Zelda did not offer financial assistance when Schmuel died was that Herszk had died a few years earlier, and Zelda had her own seven children to take care of, and they soon all left for America]. My grandfather was a good provider. His wife within twelve years gave birth to six sons and a daughter.

Now I will tell you how my mother was married at the age of fourteen [actually, nineteen]. My mother's stepmother had a brother that studied to be a Rabbi. He was much older than my mother. My mother's stepmother and her father made the match. When my mother was twelve years old [probably seventeen], she was told that she was engaged to marry this Yeshiva boy, her stepmother's brother. By the time he will become Rabbi, mother will be fourteen [nineteen] years old ready for marriage. The was no way that my mother could say no.

A decision was only made by the parents. I remember the stories my mother used to tell me - how it was against her choice. And when she was told that she had to shave her hair and wear a wig [in accordance with Orthodox Jewish custom] - she cried bitterly and refused to do it. My mother was beautiful, she was a natural blond. She wore her hair long in braids, her eyes were sparkling blue, and a face that looked full of smiles at al times. As much as she was pressed to cut her hair, she refused to do it and she finally won. She did wear a wig on top of her hair. The wigs those years were without styling and made my mother appear older and not so attractive. I was also told that that was the idea of wearing a wig, not to be attracted to other men.

A trousseau of the finest was purchased for my mother. Jewelry - like diamond earrings, a heavy hold chain, a few golden rings. The stepmother had no objections knowing her brother is going to be the groom. My mother got married as soon as my father became Rabbi.

I have already mentioned my father's early death. I also have mentioned how mother managed to support five children.

My mother was the most understanding person. She was also very education minded. At the age of four I already went to Cheder [religious school]. At the age of six I knew the Siddur [prayer book]. As poor as we were, she managed to give some charity. She visited sick people. In order to do a good deed, she would run for miles, that was her way of life and that gave her pleasure. I will just mention a few of her good deeds that I remember, that will give you an idea the kind of person she was loved by everyone that knew her.

In Poland, where we live lived in those years, there was no such thing for a girl to meet a boy friend on her own - the same with a boy - it was done through a matchmaker. It was always the girl that had to have a dowry promised by the girl's parents. If the amount of money promised by the girl's parents was agreeable by the parents of the groom, the rest was easy. The match was made. The wedding was being planned and if the groom was a Yeshiva boy, the parents of the bride had to support the couple.

My mother knew an orphan girl. She was very beautiful, but without dowry there was no way of her getting a boyfriend. So that's what my mother did. She got in contact with a matchmaker and told him she has a way to raise money for this orphan girl and to try to get her a nice young man to marry her. The matchmaker was pleased and found a nice young man for this orphan girl. My mother raised money by going to the merchants she dealt with and some people that she knew could afford to give. She also had some friends helping her. Money was raised to pay the matchmaker his fee - also the dowry for the girl.

The matchmaker was notified and was well pleased. The match was made and the wedding was planned. The day of the wedding, my mother emptied the entire room - that was the only room we had and that's where the wedding took place. My mother still had the jewelry that was given to her by her parents, she made the bride wear it on her wedding day and the joy and the happiness my mother derived from this good deed cannot be described.

Something else I remember. I have already told you, after my father's death my mother had a grocery store, one that brought in a very poor living. Every Friday, she would make up two packages of grocery items, one package she would give to me, one package she would give to my sister Lilly. She would tell me where to go and leave the package by the door and make sure nobody sees me leave the package and to run away. She would send my sister Lilly to a different house and tell her the same. I was too young to understand why mother told me to run away. I remember my little heart pounding from running so fast. When I grew older, I understood the reason. She did not want the people to know who left the package by their doors, because they would feel badly - knowing we were so poor [also, Judaism encourages anonymous charity to avoid embarrassing the recipient, or making the recipient feel a duty to the giver].

I remember how hard my mother worked taking care of the family and store. She never complained. Every chance she had she would teach me how to read and write. I will always be grateful for the Jewishness she instilled in me and how she kept explaining to me how important it is to learn.

I always remember this and it often comes to my mind. So I will tell it to you. In our small town [Szczuczyn] there was a very well-known Yeshiva. A lot of boys from different towns - like Lomza, Bialystok, Warsaw, they would come to study in that Yeshiva. Most of the parents from these boys could not afford to pay tuition and the upkeep. So that was the arrangement we had in our town. The tuition was being paid by the parents. The Rabbi from our town arranged for the boys in homes that could afford to feed a boy for a week - that was every boy was able to get meals free.

My mother was not asked to take care of a boy with meals because the Rabbi knew my mother could not afford it. That made my mother feel bad. So she went to the Rabbi and told him that she would also want a Yeshiva boy come to eat in her house. The Rabbi apologized and the following week a Yeshiva boy came to eat in our house. She did not care if she didn't eat herself, but made sure the boy ate well. That made mother happy.

I could go on and on. I just wanted you to get an idea the wonderful mother I had. As religious as she was, she was not a fanatic. She was a terrific conversationalist. Every chance she had she read the Bible. She used to tell us very interesting stories.

I remember my mother as a woman full of kindness with a heart of gold. I could fill up pages, mentioning her good deeds.


Chapter Two: The Town

The Jozefson house on Gumienna Street.
In 1921 this house
consisted of two houses.

       

Next I will describe to you about my town where I was born, called Szczuczyn. It was a small town, it was a beautiful town, very countryfied. The air was always refreshing. That is about the only thing I remember - that was free to be admired by all. The name of the street where we lived was called Gumienna Ulica. Ulica means street, the number of the house was 27.

Now I will describe to you the way we lived in Poland. We had just one room. The bathroom was about a block away from where we lived. All the people from all around would use the same bathroom, which was on the outside - just picture it. I did not know any better and that was the way of life.

This veranda in the Jozefson house
housed the pump
and outhouse
that serviced the entire block

       

We had no sink or running water in the house. In order to have water, you to go to the well, which was in the yard. There you would fill up a pail of water. That was the water for cooking, drinking, and also to get washed. There was one iron tub bath tub for public use in the town, if you would stay on line long enough you would be able to take a bath. I remember my mother telling me that she knows of two families that have a bathroom and bathtub in their apartment.

Now I will describe to you how we were able to do our cooking and warm up the house in the winter time. We had one burner to cook on, that you would have to put pieces of wood underneath the burner, and to start the fire was very difficult. To warm up the house there was a little stove built in - in one of the walls - that is where you would put in some coal. The room never warmed up enough.

Now picture it, when the temperature reads 20 below zero, the windows are frozen - we did not have any blankets to cover ourselves with. The blankets we had were taken away from us. You understand the rest.

At a young age my oldest sister Sarah immigrated to the U.S. An uncle of ours sent for her. The family was kind to her. She got a job, saved some money and sent for another sister of mine. Her name was Beckie. Now two of my sisters were in the U.S. Within a short time my two sisters sent for my sister Jane. Jane was too young to travel on her own. She had to have older people to travel with. A family that my mother knew were leaving for the U.S., and they were happy to have my sister join them.

I do not remember my sisters' departure. I do remember my mother always in tears. She missed her daughters terribly, at the same time she was happy that they were away and will have a better chance in life. There was no future for them where we lived in that small town. Now were are left, mother, myself and my sister Lilly.

We started to get letters from my sisters, telling us they are working, saving money and it won't be long and we will be together again. We were full of hope.

As I am telling you this, it's peaceful in Poland. My mother gets along very nicely with the Polish neighbors. They seemed to be our friends. The Polish women did not care for an education. They didn't even care to send their children to school. When they needed to write a letter, they would come to my mother. It was always the Jewish families that were education-minded.

My sister Lilly had Jewish and Polish friends. I used to play with the little shikses. I spoke Polish fluently, that was my native language. One afternoon this Polish friend of mine, I remember her name (Grelka). All of a sudden she comes over to me, spits all over me and says to me - I will never play with you again, you are Jewish and you killed my God. I was in church today and that's what the priest told us - the Jews, they are killers. I ran to my house and fell on my mother's shoulders crying, telling her what happened. I remember my mother telling me: "My child, we did not kill anybody's God. God lives forever, and could never be killed."

And gradually trouble began. Now with my sister being in America and writing to us very encouraging letters, we had something to look forward to.

I was in public school at that time and with my mother's encouragement, I kept learning, studying and always getting the highest marks.

The children in my class did not like me, they wouldn't play with me. They were jealous because the teachers would always praise me. One thing I found out was that small children could be very mean. Now that I am in my older years I keep thinking, why did they envy me? I had no father, we were very poor. I did not know what it meant to have a decent meal. Most of these girls, they had their parents, they were not deprived of anything and were pretty comfortable. They were very well taken care of, and me, they envied because I was praised.

I remember one time we had to write a composition about a forest, the way it looks in the Fall. I was very good at making up compositions. The teacher assigned to me a few girls that I should help. A few more bright girls were picked to help others. It so happened one of the girls I had to help was my friend. So I went to her house to help her. When I got there, they were having their dinner. Everything smelled so delicious. To this day I just can't forget it. My friend's grandmother told me to go to the next room and wait until they will finish their dinner. I thought to myself, I came here to teach her granddaughter and instead of asking me to join them, she did not want me to watch my friend eat. If she would have asked me to join my friend to have dinner I would have refused anyway. So I did not wait for my friend until she finished her dinner and went home instead. When I came home and told mother what happened she kissed me and said to me, "You did the right thing my child."

In later years when I was in the U.S. a cousin of this friend of mine came to me for a donation for this once-rich friend of mine.

Even in those times there were plenty of people that were making a nice living. That of course was when things were peaceful in Poland.


Chapter 3: Hebrew School

Some of my friends went to a private Hebrew school. I wanted so much to learn Hebrew. I spoke to my mother about it, but she explained to me, she would be happy to send me to Hebrew school [but] that will mean monthly tuition and she cannot afford it.

But God works in mysterious ways. I am going to tell you how I learned Hebrew. It will lead to a little story. Our school ran a play called Little Red Riding Hood. The money raised from that play was going for charity. Talented children were picked for the play. I was chosen to be Little Red Riding hood. The money raised from that play was going for charity. I suppose the teacher picked me for the reason that I had a good memory and there was a lot to memorize. I was told I have to get a red velvet dress, a red hood and white apron. I realized that it will be impossible for me to get the things needed for the play. So I told the teacher, I won't be able to do the play, that my mother cannot afford to buy me the outfit. My teacher thought for a while, then she said: Do not worry, you will do the play, I will buy you the entire outfit.

So after a few months of rehearsals, myself and some more girls, I did the play and it was very successful. A nice sum of money was raised for the poor. I remember I also recited a poem. Boxes of candy and flowers were thrown on the stage - that was the custom in Poland at that time. I did not forget my lines and I was very happy.

About a month later, I found a Hebrew book. When I brought it home, mother and I looked to find to whom the book belongs to. There was the name of the girl that lost it and the Hebrew school she attended. So the following day, right after school, I went to return the book. When I came to the Hebrew school, I walked into the classroom and went over to the desk, showed the teacher the book that I found, and told him I came to return it.

When the teacher saw me, he yelled out, "You are the one that played Little Red Riding Hood! You also recited that beautiful poem." He asked me to sit down, started to tell me how much he enjoyed the play. Then he said to me, "My wife couldn't come to see the play. She became ill that day. How would you like to do some parts for my wife and recite the poem for her, the way you did it on the stage?"

To this day, I can't believe how I got myself to say to the teacher what I said. "Oh yes, I will be happy to do all the parts from the play for your wife, I will even try and get some of my friends from the play to do their parts, I am sure your wife will enjoy it. I would also like to ask you to do something for me. I would love to learn Hebrew. My mother cannot afford the tuition. If you will teach me Hebrew, I will be very grateful. I also promise you, I expect to go to America and when I get older and as I will start working, I will pay you back, whatever I will owe you." "I will be delighted to teach you," the teacher told me, "and I do not want any payment. You could start Hebrew school tomorrow." I was so happy, I started to cry from joy. I came home running, not walking to tell my mother the good news. I did not waste any time, the following day, right after public school, I ran to Hebrew school.

I was not too strong with the Hebrew language. As I mentioned before, at a very early age, I knew how to daven. I knew the Siddur pretty good, but I did not know how to write Hebrew, or converse in Hebrew. When I walked in to the classroom, the very first day, the teacher welcomed me warmly and point to a seat for me and there I was, ready to learn.

I soon realized the class I was in was an advanced class. What I really needed was a beginners' class. The teacher explained to me that it was in the middle of the term. As soon as the term will be over, he will put me in a class where I belong. He asked me to be patient.

I felt very much out of place. The children in the class I was in were almost four years older than me. I thought right then that I would not return the following day and forget the whole thing. I remember the teacher giving homework to the class and a poem that had to be memorized.

I came home and I was very unhappy. I told my mother my day in Hebrew school and that I decided not to go back. I surely thought my mother would agree with me, but no - she said to me "Listen to me my child, you have nothing to lose by going. The teacher does not expect you to memorize the poem, or to do the homework, meantime you are in the classroom and whatever you will learn is better than nothing." So I decided to go back.

Anyways, I did all the homework with mother helping me. Then I tried to memorize the poem. Hours and hours I spent trying to memorize the poem. I got very tired, I gave up and went to sleep. When I got up in the morning and feeling rested, I knew the whole poem.

When I came to Hebrew school the following day, when the teacher checked the homework, the teacher was really surprised to see that I did the homework. Later in the day, he called on the students to recite the poem. Everyone that he called on, when they started to recite the poem, not one that called on memorized the poem. I raised my hand and the teacher called on me and to the teacher's surprise I memorized the whole poem.

When it was time to go home, the teacher called me to his desk and asked me where I have learned Hebrew before. I had a hard time convincing him that I never attended a Hebrew school before. It did not take long and I did the same advanced work. The teacher kept praising me, telling the other students, they have straw in their heads instead of brains. By doing so, I suffered by it. The pupils in the class hated me. They wouldn't even talk to me. Many days, I would come home crying. I would tell my mother what's happening and not wanting to go back to school. Again my mother would say to me, "Don't worry my child. Do not pay any attention to them. Let them be jealous. Make believe you are the only one in the classroom, meantime you are learning." So I would go back again.

Now you have an idea how I came to know the Hebrew that I know, and I wish I knew more. I could freely say, I do know Jewish [Yiddish] how to write, to read fluently and I did not forget any of it.

Before I start telling you about when the first world war started, I want to tell you about the accident I had when I was a little child, and what my dear mother went through to see me get well. This happened after my sisters' departure for the U.S. When my sister Jane left for the U.S., I was crippled then. Until the day she saw me walking normally, she was always worried the day will come and we will have to go to America - what will happen with me, because anyone handicapped would not be admitted to the U.S.

Now I will tell you how it happened. My sister Lilly was going to play with her friends, I wanted her to take me along, she refused to take me so I ran after her and I fell. My leg got swollen. My mother put compresses on. Seeing my leg get worse she took me to this so-called doctor. He was not a doctor, he just knew some remedies. She followed his instructions, but my leg kept getting worse. All this was told to me, I do not remember any of it. Next, I was removed to the hospital, where I was operated a few times.

There were no antibiotics in those days and no specialists in our town. I was sent home. I was not able to walk on my leg. I had to bend and use my hands in order to walk. Image my poor mother seeing me such a cripple. When I am telling you this, it is peaceful in Poland.

One day a cousin from a nearby town came to visit us. When she saw me she became hysterical. She said to my mother, "How could you let your child go like this, why don't you try to do something? Look at that beautiful child, she will grow up a cripple like this, she will curse the day you gave birth to her. She is poor, no father, what is her future? Why don't you take her to a big town, where there are big doctors, she is so young, I am sure something could be done for her."

Mother listened and explained the situation to her cousin. "What am I to do? I have no money, I have the store to take care of and where will I leave Lilly?" Our cousin told her, "I know your parents gave you some expensive jewelry, if you still have it, sell it, I will stay here and take care of the store and take care of Lilly. You go and save your child."

So that's what my mother did. She sold every piece of jewelry that she had (she always kept it for sentimental reasons). The following week my mother made arrangements, she was taking me to Kennisburgh [Konigsberg, now called Kaliningrad, Russia]. At that time Kennisburgh was the capital of Germany.

When I got older and mother used to tell me how difficult it was for her to go to Germany, getting me into a hospital. Mother never traveled. That's all she has ever seen was that small town Szczuczyn where we lived. Coming to a distant strange country was not easy for her.

When she finally came to Kennisburgh, I couldn't be admitted to the hospital, she had to have somebody to sign for her, somebody to be responsible for me. The reason was, some mothers came with illegitimate children, leave them and never came back to claim them. The place where my mother stayed when we came to Germany, the landlady signed for mother.

The doctors told mother I may have to be in the hospital for a t least a year and maybe more. They are not ready for surgery yet. And they advised mother to go back to Poland and she will be notified when to come. That German woman that my mother boarded with was very kind. She used to come to see me in the hospital when my mother went back to Poland. I remember very vaguely she used to bring me toys and candy. After many months being in the hospital, mother was notified, she has to come to Germany (to the hospital) - she has to sign that they are going to operate.

That cousin of ours stayed again with my sister Lilly and my mother came to the hospital. She was told they will do their best, they did not promise anything. Mother stayed on, after the surgery she returned back to Poland. A few months later, mother was notified to return to Germany, she had to sign again, for the second operation. Again she had to come to Germany to sign for the surgery. Again mother had to return to Poland. She was told by the doctors next she will be notified when to come to take me home.

I remember vaguely when I was taken off the bed, wondering whether I will be able to walk or not and the doctors and nurses came over and they were kissing me, they were so happy to see me give a few normal steps. That cousin of ours, she often comes to my mind. She was really a messenger of God, sent to save me. That could give you an idea what my dear mother went through in her life.


Chapter 4: The First World War

Next I will tell you just a little what we through when the First World War started. I do not even care to remember the next few miserable years that I spent in this miserable place called Poland, but I started, so I will continue. It is finally happening. Germany is at war with Poland. As the news goes, the Germans are not far from the border. I could see mother terribly frightened, we don't know what to expect. The Polish border was about 3/4 of a mile away from the German border, and that's what made it so dangerous and where we lived, we were actually a walking distance from the border.

Map of border area showing
Szczuczyn just to the east
of the Prussian/Russian border

       

The next thing I remember, people are running from their houses, not even knowing where to run. One of our Jewish neighbors came to tell us, to leave everything. We followed the people and we came to a basement. That basement had a metal roof and metal doors. Loads of people came to that basement - it was terribly packed and the smell was just awful. Lots of women with small children. Some infants that were crying bitterly. I was thinking and wondering whether we will come out alive.

We were in that basement for about two weeks. We had no water. We ate some stale bread, raw potatoes, I could only say I wish that these miserable days spending in that basement would never come to my mind. We were told to leave - the shooting stopped. The Germans were driven back. So we returned home. We found our walls full of bullet holes and we stayed on again. That was only the beginning.

This I could never forget. It is Friday. My mother just lit the Sabbath candles. The month is December. The temperature reads below zero. There is loads of snow outside and it is very icy.

Let me tell you what happened where we lived when it snowed. It is not like here in the United States. The Sanitation Department [here in America] takes care and the snow is being removed. Where we lived in Poland when it snowed and the snow became icy. The snow would stay until the summer months, when finally the weather would dissolve it.

There is a knock at the door and a policeman walks in, bangs his gun on the table with full force and yells out: "You must get out before the Germans come in. You are Jews, you are spies, you have a half-hour to clear out." Just think for a moment, what do you do, where should we go, where do we turn? We were so upset, we couldn't even cry. We look out of the window and we see the Jewish people walking, running, not even knowing where they are going. We did not have any warm clothing. I just described the weather to you. We had blankets at one time, but the soldiers took it away from us. We had one old blanket, so mother put it over me, I shouldn't freeze.

As we started to walk, this woman that my mother was friendly with, her husband owned a horse and wagon. With that horse and wagon, he used to take people to different towns, that is how he made a living. This woman, her husband, and her four children were on that wagon covered with blankets. My mother begged them to take me, as crowded as they were, but they did take me. It was already dark. I did not even realize that mother and my sister Lilly were not with me. I surely thought that mother and Lilly were on that wagon.

The wagon went slow. The roads were icy. We finally came to some kind of a deserted place. There was just one house. A lot of people came to that hiding place. I just felt terrible realizing that mother and my sister are not with me, I did not stop crying. They all felt badly for me.

The man that owned that house, owned a wind mill and there was a big forest right nearby. He used to store away a lot of fruit in his basement. He gave everybody fruit to eat and that's what we lived one. I refused to eat and they thought I will surely die.

(You will be wondering why in the middle of telling you this, I will be talking about a dog I had, but you will soon find out the reason why.) My sister Lilly and I had a dog, that we raised from the day he was born. The mother dog, when she gave birth to the puppies, was killed by a horse and wagon the same day. My sister Lilly and I were given one of the puppies. We raised it with an eye dropper. The dog grew big and Lilly and I loved that animal. When I was put on that wagon when we were escaping, I did not know that my dog - his name was Sharek - got on that wagon.

The owner of the place we were hiding gave orders to be as quiet as possible.  We were in total darkness. He warned us if soldiers should pass and find out we are hiding here, we will all be killed. At night, when we laid down to sleep, all of a sudden I feel something near me. I got terribly frightened. I realized it was my dog. I was so happy. I forgot all my troubles. I could never figure out how the dog got near me and how he got on that wagon. He kept quiet, like he sensed something. I only wished he shouldn't start to bark. Everything was alright for a while. All of a sudden, probably some soldiers were riding around the area, my dog started to bark. Could you imagine how I felt? The owner, the people, they started to ask who could have done such a stupid thing to bring along a dog. Now we could all say our last prayers. I was lying quietly. I made believe I did not know that dog. I remember how the owner grabbed the dog by the neck to make him stop barking and as far as I knew my poor dog was dead.

That is why it never surprises me when I see people get attached to an animal. The only time you feel it is when you own one and get attached to it.

It has been three weeks now, we are still in that hiding place. I don't know where mother is and I don't know where my sister is. I keep thinking, if only we were together. I refuse to eat. The people are being kind to me. They are telling me, as soon as the shooting will stop we will return to our town. One day, I hear the woman, the one that took me along on the wagon, she said to her husband, "Look at that child, if she wouldn't be joined with her mother and sister, she wouldn't last much longer. We did not hear any shooting for a few days. It is possible that her mother and sister are back in their house. Suppose you take her to town." So the following day, he took me to our town to see if mother and my sister were there.

When we reached the town, everything seemed to be quiet. He stopped by the house where we lived. He said to me, "Hurry, run in to your house and see if your mother and sister are there." I ran as fast as I could. My door was open. I noticed the wall were full of bullet holes, the windows were broken, mother and sister were not there.

As I am walking out of my house to get into the wagon, the German soldiers and the Polish soldiers meet and they start shooting at one another. I see soldiers falling on the ground. I ran into the wagon. The bullets were flying over me, over the wagon. The bullets were actually near my feet. I was not even afraid; it seemed I did not care any more. My life did not mean much to me. I did escape death. I could only say my time was not up. The man was beating the horses to run fast. I remember the man telling me how he almost lost his life trying to help me. I felt guilty. I did not know what to say.

After six weeks being in that hiding place, Mother and Lilly were finally located in a village nearby and we were together again. The Germans were driven back, we returned home.

We found our house a total mess. The merchandise in the grocery store we had was all gone. Our bedding was taken away, we were left with straw mattresses. I remember Mother trying to encourage us. Wait and see - it will pass - someday we will be joined with our family in America. We must pray, we cannot give up, we must go on.

My brave mother, she did not give up. Again she got credit by the wholesale grocers and started the grocery business again. At the Polish border it is quiet now, but the Jewish people are not at peace. They feel that trouble awaits them. The Jews are told: our homes must be totally dark at night. Questions are not to be asked, you just have to obey.

I want to mention to you this terrible experience that I went through. As I have mentioned to you, we are not allowed to have any light at night. He had our windows covered. We had a tiny kerosene lamp that hardly have any light, and with the windows covered, did not show on the outside.

We did not get undressed at night. In case of emergency, it was easier to get out. We slept on the floor, on the straw mattresses. After a few weeks sleeping with our clothes on, we felt itchy and we kept scratching until blood would come out.

One night Lilly suggested we should take off our clothes, so we could lay comfortably on the mattresses. So that's what we did. I still remember, it as such a relief. We fell asleep, in a deep peaceful sleep.

We hear someone knocking on our window, calling my mother's name. Mother rushed to the window, there was one of Jewish neighbors. "Don't you know what's happening, the Jewish people are being chased out again. Hurry get out or you will be killed with the children."

We started to get dressed in a hurry. That little light from the kerosene lamp was out, we were in the dark, I could never forget it. We have no idea where to go. The winter is almost over, the month is March. The snow and ice was still on the ground. There were a lot of non-Jewish drivers asking the Jewish people where they would want to go. That was a good way for them to make money. We had very little money. Mother told him to take us to Lomza. We had cousins living there.

All the way going to Lomza was raining, pouring and being in an open wagon for a few hours. Mother, Lilly and I were soaked. We finally came to our cousins' house. Our cousin was very nice and she made us feel comfortable. My cousin had just one large room and a very tiny kitchen. The parents, four children, grandparents. There were also several sewing machines. Four workers that were making caps. All in one room. Picture it when mother, myself and Lilly came.

After being all chilled up from that miserable ride on that open wagon I became very sick. There was a leather couch in that room - that's where my cousin was kind enough to let me use. I was all swollen. When the doctor examined me, I heard him say to my mother that he doubts if I will pull through. I was badly swollen, I could not talk, but I did hear what the doctor said. Quietly I prayed, "Dear God, please don't let me die. I want so much to go to America. I want to see my sisters that I love so dearly."

The doctor prescribed meditation, there was no improvement. The doctor was called again. He prescribed medication again. When mother went to the drug store for the medicine, she met a woman that she knew from our town. When this woman saw my mother crying, mother told her that the doctor said there is no hope for me. She also told her how swollen up I am.

This woman told mother that her friend's child was frozen at one time while chased out, she was told by the doctor she will not make it. "A salve that was recommended by a nurse was applied on that child three times a day and the child recovered. I happen to remember the name of that salve. Listen to me, come with me to the drug store, get that salve." Mother felt, the medication the doctor prescribed did not help me, so she bought that salve.

Believe it or not, as soon as that salve was applied on my body, I felt like mountains are being removed from me, and gradually the swelling started to go down, every day the swelling went down, more and more. Then I remember how my skin was feeling from my body and even my face was peeling. And the first time in two weeks, I felt like having something to eat.

Let me describe to you, how meals were served in my cousins' house. My cousin had a big kettle - let's say about twenty people were able to eat from it. A vegetable soup would be cooked. Everyone would get a portion of soup and if available a slice of bread. Now that I felt better I couldn't wait to have something to eat. I remember the grandmother bring me over a little vegetable soup. I thought I never tasted anything so delicious. I think ten books wouldn't cover what I went through.

So many times, when we went to hiding places, mother would carry books with her, so she could teach my sister Lilly and me. I kept thinking, what's the use of learning, we don't even know if we will be alive the next day. Mother, like she would read my mind, used to say to me, "Learn my child, if we will live, we might as well not be ignorant." She was unbelievably education-minded.

Things seemed to quiet down. We hear news that there will be mail coming from U.S. By now, we have no store, everything was taken away from us. We have no money to buy food. My sister Lilly is of the age of 12 or 13 years old. She tells mother not to worry, she will try to find some work in order to support us. She knew this women that used to go to the nearby villages, buy their products, like eggs, cheeses, vegetables, bring it to our town, sell it with a profit and earn her living this way. This woman took along my sister Lilly. They went a few times a week, and my sister Lilly became our supporter.

The first money she earned, we bought some food, so now we had something to eat. I remember when my mother cooked potatoes for us, we were so hungry we grabbed the potatoes out of the pot they were just about half-done.

My sister Lilly in order to get to the villages she used to walk, it was quite a distance. She was so happy to give mother the money she earned. I also remember how my sister Lilly bought shoes for us. I was going barefooted. The shoes were made of wood. The shoes were too big for me and they made terrible noise when I walked, but I had shoes. Now that things were quiet I went back to school. I did very well in school and always got the highest marks. My friends, they had their parents, they did not do badly. They had clothes and they never went hungry. A lot of merchants, they bribed the policemen so they were left with the stores. It just shows money plays a big part.

One of my friends, her parents owned a store, that carried all kinds of materials. Whenever her father would go to Warsaw to buy merchandise for the store, he would bring back for my friend pretty dresses, hats to match the dresses. I used to feel my friend's velvet dress, how soft it felt, did I wish to have one like that. And what did I wear, a dress that my mother dyed from a white she, she dyed the sheet brown, then she would stay up nights to make a dress for me, all by hand. Picture how I was dressed, with wooden shoes, without socks.

That I remember from my childhood days, in my miserable birthplace, Poland, I would love to erase all of this out of my memory, but much to my regret, I can't help at time and think about it.

I did give you an idea what my childhood days were like. I also described to you, just some of the wonderful deeds about my dear mother, may she rest in peace.

Now I will start telling you, when finally the war is coming to an end. I want you to know, if you will read what I wrote what I went through, it is just about a fraction of what I really went through.

So now I will go on telling when the war is ending. The Jewish people, were more hopeful now, expecting better times to come. Mail is starting to come from the U.S. We are waiting impatiently to hear from my sisters.

Need I tell you the excitement and the joy when the first letter reached us from America. With trembling hands mothers opened the letter and started to read. I could never forget that day. My mother couldn't stop crying, but this time, they were tears of joy. I was so happy to see my mother's joyous face. My sister Sarah writes that she is married, she has a little girl three years old. My sister Beckie and my sister Jane are both engaged and they are waiting when we will come to the U.S. so we would attend their weddings. She is telling us, as soon as possible they will send for us, they can't wait to see us. A few days later we received another letter, telling us, they would mail us tickets immediately, but Harry my brother-in-law applied for his citizen papers. He expects them very shortly, we should be patient, and as soon as possible, the tickets will be mailed to us.

About a week later, we get another letter. My sister Sarah tells us, she was told, that sometimes it takes a few months, until you are called to become a citizen because there are loads of applications and it goes often next. They have no patience to wait, they want to get us out of Poland as quickly as possible. So my sister Sarah gets in contact with an uncle of ours, that lived in London. He was well-to-do. She asked him if possible to send for us. My sister Sarah found out, that from England, we will have no problem getting to the States.


Chapter 5: Going To America

Our uncle did not waste any time. He sent us paper-tickets, with a letter telling us how happy he will be to get us to London. He told us no to worry, we will be well taken care of. The letter was written with full acceptance and full of love.

So we are all excited, we are leaving Poland - we are going to England, then to America. We sold our few belongings which amounted to very little. With all the miseries we went through, it still gives you some kind of a lonely feeling. This was the place where I was born; my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, they were living here peacefully at one time. In the next few days we are leaving. We started to say goodbye to our Jewish neighbors. I remember I went to say goodbye to my Hebrew teacher that taught me Hebrew free. I will always remember when I went to the cemetery to say good bye to my father. I know that I ill never see the grave again. When I used to go to my father's grave during the year I never got a deep feeling that made me cry, maybe because I never remembered my father, but this time knowing that I will never visit that grave again I cried biter. I became hysterical. My mother had to pull me away from the grave. I remember I took off a few flowers that grew on my father's grave. I pressed it in a book. As it happened that book was stolen. I felt badly.

To our Polish neighbor we did not say goodbye. They were mean. To this day I can't forget how our supposed-to-be friends turned out to be enemies. They wouldn't sell us a pound of bread. There was a boycott declared by the Polloks against the Jews. They only wanted to see the Jews killed. They were just as bad as the Nazis, that we were lucky to escape from The Polloks, they sure left a biter taste in my mouth.

Now, we are on the horse and wagon that is going to take us to Warsaw. Our Jewish neighbors and our Jewish friends, they are all around us, shaking hands, kissing us, crying. I remember one neighbor telling my mother. When you get to America [send my greetings to], she mentioned her name in Jewish which was Razel. She mentioned her address, 657 Stone Avenue (she pronounced it Stane Avenue). She did not mark it down, expecting mother to remember. She probably thought Brooklyn was like our small town Szczuczyn. We were happy; a little sad leaving our Jewish neighbors. We are finally leaving Poland[!]

We are going to England, then to America. It was a long, tiring trip going to Warsaw with a horse and wagon. When we came to Warsaw, I was bewildered. For the first time in my life, I saw tall buildings. Department stores. My sisters sent us money, so we were able to buy bread. Now we had to find a place where to stay. We have to find out where the council [consul] is located to get our visas and here we are strangers in a big town.

If you have read what I wrote and told you, when we were in Szczuczyn, about a Yeshiva boy that came to eat in our house. I also told you that he came from Warsaw. Maybe I forgot to mention to you that while he was in the Yeshiva he became very sick and he was taken to the hospital. He refused to eat the food they served him because it was not kosher. My mother used to bring him food every day. When he got better, he was very weak and he had to return to Warsaw to his parents.

This is why I'm telling you his right now. As we are walking, not knowing where to turn [this story was told to me, Fay's grandson David, in a more evocative, dramatic way. As I remember it, great-grandmother was so overwhelmed by Warsaw, and so lost, that, exhausted, she sat down on the sidewalk and started crying, and just when it all seemed too much to bear . . .], you wouldn't believe it, we meet this boy, the one that ate that day in our house, the one my mother nursed back to health. The greeting he gave us, I could never forget. He fell on my mother's shoulders actually crying. He called her "Mamishi." That's what you would call a mother, that was extra special. Our worries how to get places were over. He made us come to his house to meet his parents. They were very poor. Their greeting I will also always remember. We stayed with them. They kept telling my mother how grateful they are for taking care of their son. How happy they are to see her and thank her personally. All seemed to go well with us.

The following day we took our passports, and went to get our visas. Imagine our disappointment when we were told that we cannot get our visas, we cannot be admitted to England. The reason? Our uncle is too old to support a family; that we are too young to work.

Now we are in trouble. Harry my brother-in-law is not a citizen yet, everything seems to go wrong. Here we are in Warsaw. We have very little money left to live on.

We were advised to send a telegram, telling my sisters what happened and what to do. That's what we did. My sisters sent us money to Warsaw by telegram. A letter followed telling us to stay in Warsaw. Harry has his citizen papers, tickets will follow as soon as possible. Within the next few weeks, tickets. The name of our boat we were leaving with was called "Manala" [Mongolia] third class, which were not the choice tickets, the people that could afford more were going first class. We were leaving in the month of December [1920], I don't remember the date.

The parents of the Yeshiva boy that mother took care of took us to the American council. Our passports had to be changed, that took another week. We got our visas and we are waiting impatiently to go to America.

We were not warned that there were a lot of crooks in Warsaw that were robbing, especially the people that came from the small towns. These crooks used to dress up like Chasidim. A few of them would surround that person that they would want to rob, they would get you in the middle, making you feel that it is very crowded and that's the way they used to pick pocket. As we were coming home one day, we were walking on a street called the "Nalefkes," that street was crowded, like Broadway in New York. My sister Lilly carried the passports in her pocket and when we reached home, we found that our passports were stolen from Lilly's pocket.

Our boat is leaving in five days. Without our passports we cannot get on the boat. My mother was hysterical. Lilly and I were crying. Now we are in real trouble. We don't know what to do. The people we stayed with, they were very sympathetic. They called the police, telling them what happened. We were up all night, we couldn't even think of going to sleep.

The next morning we find a note by the door which read "Put $100 in a paper bag." They mentioned a place where to leave it. If you wouldn't follow up what you are told to do, your passports will not be returned. We had about $30 left. The police were notified, the note was given to them.

A bag with papers was placed where it was demanded by the crooks and when the crooks went to pick up the money, the police caught them. We were notified that the crooks were caught and our passports will be returned. The crooks did not have the passports with them, after some severe beating the police followed (there were two crooks) the crooks to their apartment. The crooks had a hiding place in the wall, and that is where they had the passports.

When my mother went to pick up the passports and she saw the crooks so beaten up, she begged the police not to beat them any more and to let them free. Mother was so good natured.

So here we are back again where we started from. We are getting ready to go to America. I though the day would never come.

Today is our last day in Warsaw. Soon we will be joined with our loved ones.  What a wonderful feeling. I would even think of going to sleep, I wouldn't want to fall asleep. Every minute thinking of joining my family was not supposed to be wasted with sleep. The people we stayed with during our stay in Warsaw, they were the nicest people you would want to know . The time we stayed with them they tried to make it for us as pleasant as possible. They come to my memory very often. I always have kind thoughts about them.

We are finally leaving Warsaw. We are nearing the boat. My heart is pounding, I am so excited. I have never been on a boat before. I was not frightened at all. My only thoughts: When will I see my sisters, I don't even remember them. It will possibly feel strange. I dismiss these thoughts. I just know they are my sisters and I love them.

We are supposed to arrive to Ellis Island with two and a half or three weeks.  I felt fine on the boat. Mother also felt alright. My sister Lilly, from the day she got on the boat, until the day she got off the boat, she was seasick, she couldn't even get off the cot.

Many times it was very stormy and the boat was very shaky, so the passengers would start to sing. At one time I remember, all the passengers were handed out life preservers, everyone suspected the boat is in trouble. After going through so much, so nothing frightened me any more. I felt very much relaxed. Time was passing and we are getting closer and closer and finally we saw the Statue of Liberty. We were explained what it represents and here we are in Ellis Island.

Ellis Island is really an experience to go through. You worry again. You have to be examined and you hope that all is well, to be admitted to the States. I was worried about mother. Here eyes were red for some time, caused by so much crying, but the doctors found that redness not contagious. My sister Lilly and I were found in good health, in spite what we went through. We were in Ellis Island about four days.

My sister Jane, may she rest in peace, Alex, may he rest in peace, they came with a row boat when we were on the boat, and with a rope brought us up a package of food. We were so happy, we are all admitted to the States.

Every minute is getting more exciting. We are on a subway now. I never rode or saw a subway before and I was frightened. We got off Rockaway Avenue station. That was Brownsville. We were going to my sister Sarah's house. My sister Beckie and my sister Jane, they both lived in Sarah's house.


Chapter 6: America [Will be added soon]

[Memoir continues with Fay's life in America]


Material contributed by David Bernstein. Editor's notes are entered in [brackets].

Copyright 2002 by David Bernstein and Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.
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