BY SHAINDLE SCHMUCKLER / AJT //
My mom was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, brainy beauty. I have the photographs to prove it. Her life as a child and young teen in her small shtetle in Poland was a little easier than most with her typical Polish looks on this typical Jewish girl.
Mom was one of the only Jewish children allowed to play with and later tutor the Polish children. She was able to cross over the imaginary line onto the Polish, non-Jewish side. Mom was popular and had lots of friends, she was a big fish in a little pond.
Life was pretty good for her mother (my Bubie), father (my Zaide), two sisters and little brother. My Zaide however, felt life could be so much better with more opportunity in a land where he’d heard the streets were lined with gold. So, they packed their valises and the family moved to America – the Goldeneh Medinah.
At first, Mom was so unhappy.
Everything was so much more difficult to navigate. She was terribly homesick. She suddenly was a little fish in a very big sea. Not an envious position to be in, for the girl who loved to pose for a photo, dress to the nines, and was used to getting lots of attention.
My Bubie and Zaide opened a fish stand in a market. Mom and her siblings entered night school.College would never be an option for any of them.
As soon as the children could speak a little English, they worked in the daytime, continued attending school in the evenings. After graduating from night school, they all found work in factories.
My mother never had a problem finding work. She was, after all, a beauty with brains. She made friends, went to the weekly community dances, and soon began to love her new country. But, she longed to return one day to the town of her childhood.
Mom’s family lived on the third floor of a five-story walk up apartment building in the Bronx. On the second floor of this very building lived Steve. She was so busy she never really paid him much attention.
Lo and behold one day she finally noticed this good lookin’ Jewish fella’ and fulfilled every new immigrant’s dream! She began to date an American-born boy and, you guessed it, she fell in love. They became engaged, and began to plan their new life.
Then whispers of Hitler reached Jewish communities throughout the United States, including the Bronx.
At the dances, where she met a wonderful group of friends, everyone worried about what would happen to their friends and family still in the ‘old country’. Jews are not called smart for nothing.
A clever method was devised to take relatives out of harms’ way. Send an American citizen to Europe, marry, return to America, after a short time and annul the marriage.
One evening, her friend Morris approached mom and asked if she still wanted to “go back”.
“Yes,” she quickly replied, “what do you have in mind?”
Morris told her about his family back in Poland: his parents, his sisters, their children and his brother Hyman. He wanted to bring them to America. It was very difficult to get permission to come to America.
There was a way, however, that was becoming more popular and acceptable to the Jews in America. He wondered if she would consider traveling to Poland, marrying Hyman, and then bringing him back to the United States.
They would ‘live’ together for three months, at which time the marriage could be annulled. With this plan, his brother would be an American and safe.
Hitler was on the move, there was little time to make a decision. Truth be told, she did not need much time to decide. To save a fellow Jew and to ‘go back’ would be a dream fulfilled.
So picture this if you will: my 5-foot mom heatedly negotiating with this big strong guy. First she would have to explain all this to her American born fiancé; second, there was her salary which helped support the family; third, she would need new clothes for such a trip, and of course clothes for his brother.
Negotiations complete, she left on a ship for Paris; from there, boarded a train to Poland; she completed the journey on a horse and buggy ride to Hyman’s small town.
Mom was shattered when she saw the hovel where Hyman lived. She never saw such squalor. Chickens and goats were wandering in and out of the small house with a dirt floor.
She gave one look at the man she was to save/marry and was appalled at how skinny he was (like a ‘shteken’); and to make matters worse he obviously had not yet grown into his ears. He was uneducated and had no employment skills.
She thought to herself, oy, this could be a long three months. She made a promise, however, and was going to honor her commitment!
Soon they packed up what little he had and traveled to the nearest city to marry. The ring was the very same gold ring Hyman’s great grandfather crafted when he married and was handed down from generation to generation.
Everyone in the family had been married in this precious ring. Although Hyman still had unmarried sisters, his mom insisted they keep the ring for their children who would be born in the Goldeneh Medinah. He begged her to keep it with her.
Hyman’s mom knew what might befall her and the family. She convinced my mom to save the precious ring. After a small celebration, they headed back to Paris to board the boat to America.
Hitler made sure they never saw Hyman’s family again. He was never able to resolve his guilt about leaving them behind.
It was during their stay in Paris, where they were waiting to board the ship to America, that the undoing of every immigrant’s dream occurred! Mom did not marry the American-born Steve! Mom and dad – yes, that would be Hyman – fell in love! She sent a telegram to my Bubbie instructing her to inform her fiancé that the wedding was off. My Bubbie underestimated my mother, and was sure she would change her mind. After more than 42 years of marriage, mom never had reason to regret her decision.
When Mom and Dad got off the boat, everyone was waiting, including Steve, (poor thing). The long trip home only strengthened their resolve to be together. A deep love existed between Mom and Dad, much to the chagrin of Bubbie and Steve. They were blind to everyone and everything, except each other.
My mother taught her ‘greeneh’ husband English, and how to be an American in the Goldeneh Medinah. They moved in with my Bubbie and Zaide (where, by the way, my aunt, her husband and baby daughter, my other aunt and my uncle also lived with – with for it – one bathroom!)
After mom died in 1983, I put together a big box filled with mom’s precious memories. Every year, just before Passover, I look at something new in the box.
One year, not too long ago, in a beautiful chocolate candy box with a fancy gold lid, I found my father’s yellow star, his identification papers, ration card and the gold ring.
My mom must have forgotten all about it.
I immediately called my dad to ask about the ring (I never mentioned the star, afraid of hurting him). He told me the whole beautiful love story.
I honor mom and dad every day by wearing the ring. I honor their memory and the memories of those that married before them. I honor all they gave and gave up to raise their three first-generation, American-born children.
About the writer
Shaindle Schmuckler spreads her energy and humor as a staff member at the MJCCA.