Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Reminiscence by Benjamin Kushner

The following is a long post, but pretty special to my family. I never knew Great-Grandpa Ben, and I never knew his daughter, my Grandma Pauline. I knew Ben emigrated to the U.S. from a village in Russia (in what's now Moldova) and loved reading and classical music. I knew that at one point he owned a grocery store in Philadelphia. And I knew that he left a small stack of typewritten pages that he wrote in his 80s describing his life in Russia, his voyage to America and his early years in Philadelphia as a struggling immigrant. We finally got around to typing it up. And here it is. 

I recognize this all may not be as interesting to you as it is to us, but it underscores the need to talk to your grandparents, and maybe keep some notes of your own life, because this is more valuable than any heirloom. The last paragraphs are particularly touching, summing up what he is grateful for and what has caused him pain, including my grandmother's death which had happened within a year of his writing. 

Write it down. Write it all down. Sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones that might otherwise never get told. 


As I begin to write this reminiscence, I am close to my 82nd birthday and my thoughts turn more and more to the days of my beginning.  It is a partial history of my life.  It is not the introspection of old age that leads me to reminisce about my childhood days and about my life in Russia and my early years in America.  I am not yet so far gone that I cannot look to the future, even though less days lie before me than behind.  My grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be curious to know where their Grandfather or Great-Grandfather came from and how life was like in my childhood, so this story is for them and for their children if they wish to pass it on.

I was born on February 22, 1896.  There was some doubt about the date of my birth.  In my days in the old country vital statistics and registration was not kept for the population of Russia and certainly not for the Jews.  We were later able to figure out the day I was born, because it was two weeks before Purim, and my Father remembered a portion of the Torah that week and we concluded that I was born Feb 22, 1896 in a small town on the banks of the Dniester called Vad Rashkov.

My family consisted of my Father Avrum and my Mother Charna, and us six children three boys and three girls.  I was the second child in line of birth, the first boy.  Our house was the largest and most modern in town.  It consisted of 14 rooms and was the only house in town with wooden floors, and it extended almost a city block.  It was surrounded by trees.  We had no sanitation facilities and no running water. Water for drinking, cooking and other purposes was brought in by water carriers with two wooden buckets from a nearby well.  For bathing during the summer, we used the river known as Dniester, and during the winter months we had a special Public Bath House which the entire population used.

I remember vaguely when my brother Burich was born even though I was only six years old.  I remember the excitement and jubilation and the festivities which lasted all week long after the birth.  The birth of a third son made my Father so excited that he wanted to have the best of everything.
I started to go to (Cheder) school at the age of six.  There were no public schools available except a few in the big cities and few Jewish children dared to go to them.  My school was private and in the home of the (melamed) teacher. He only lived in two rooms, so we had to acquire our education in rather crowded circumstances.  In the class were ten boys, who sat along a table five on each side.  

The lessons were in Hebrew.  Our school hours were from 8 in the morning until 9 at night.  We went home for lunch at noon time and for supper about 5 o’clock.  We had school all year long.  In the summer we went barefoot, and in the winter we wore leather boots and heavy clothing with fur hats.  We walked to and from school.  The streets were not paved and the mud was deep.  We had no lights on the streets and during the winter months we carried lanterns which we made out of cardboard with a candle in the center.

The winters were very long.  The snow started to fall in October and lay on the ground until late April.  Winter was fun for us kids.  We would make our own skates and slide one foot over the frozen river the Dniester.  Those who did not have skates were sliding on their shoes, but it was fun.  Transportation in the winter was by horse drawn sleds.

In the summer we would go bathing in the Dniester in the nude.  There were no bathing suits.  When the river was muddy, we came out with more dirt than we went in.  It was a lot of fun though.

On Sunday morning, my Father and Mother went shopping for the week.  I had cheder school all day as usual, but we did manage once in a while to run wild until my Father and Mother returned home.  On Monday morning my Father would leave for the week to a railroad station called SHOLDONASHT.  He was a commissioner and his job was to receive merchandise for the town merchants and also to ship all kinds of merchandise to various parts of Russia…

My day began early because I had to be in (cheder) school at 8 o’clock and I had to say my prayers before eating breakfast.  My Mother would say, Berale, put on the tfillin before you eat your breakfast.  After prayers I was served breakfast – kashe with milk, a piece of herring, and a piece of chala.  On Fridays we would have a piece of hot malai, a substance of corn meal with cottage cheese.  We had no juices nor vitamins or cereals of any kind.  Most of our food was flavored with beef fat (schmaltz) and garlic.  Coming home for school for lunch there would be for a change potato soup with noodles or teglich mit fasolis, little creamettes with navy beans.  For supper around 4 or 5 o’clock there would be a russel with a mamaliga, a lamb stew with a substance of corn meal, or dairy such as sour cream with cheese latkes and borsht.  When I came home from school at 9 o’clock in the evening I was served farfel flavored with schmaltz.

Friday was the big day for us.  In the morning when we arose my Mother had already the bread and chala in the oven.  She had it prepared the night before, 2 for Shabas and one for each day of the week.  On Friday the house was cleaned and made shabostic, ready for the Sabbath different from any other day.  My Father’s shoes were already shined when he came home for the week end.  He immediately inspected us kids to make sure our nails are cut and our ears clean.  My Mother was already cooking Yoich mit lokshin, gefilte fish and tzimis from lima beans or chick peas (Nahit).  We went to services and when we came home, my Mother blessed the candles and we ate by the light of the candles and a kerosene lamp.  My Father made the kiddish and later I made the kiddish and when my brothers Burich and Isrul grew older, we sang the kiddish together.

We lived without worry.  It was a time of happiness.  We had no radios, televisions nor phonographs, so during the winter we sat by the stove eating pumpkin seeds and telling stories.  On Friday night my Mother would put the food, such as the beef stew and lokshen kigel in the oven and seal it so it would keep hot for the following day, and when we came home from shul, we would serve dinner.  After dinner when we boys were able to sneak away for a few hours, we would go to the wine yards and pick grapes.  Our district was best known throughout Russia for its fruits and grapes which we shipped to all parts of Russia. On Shabas afternoon we had to go back to Cheder for a few hours.

The week started again and it was always the same, and so the years went by fast until I reached 13 years to become Bar Mitzvah.  I was Bar Mitzvah at the old synagogue where my Father was President for many years.  Most of the synagogues were near the river, six in all.  In my day there were no Bar Mitzvah parties.  One was called up to the Torah, and that was it, but since we were considered a wealthy family, my Mother baked a honey cake, bought a half dozen herring and a bottle of vodka and that was it. 

When I reached 14 years, my Father said it was time for me to join him in his business at the (Stanzia) railroad station where he was engaged as a commissioner, receiving and shipping all kinds of merchandise to all parts of Russia.  Even though I was only 14, I was a big help to my Father. And I assumed responsibilities fit for a much older person.  My Father was able to stay home for a week, and I stayed on the job. 

I continued to work with my Father until I was 16, and then I began to realize that there is no future for a young man in doing what I am doing.  In the early part of the 20th century immigration to Palestine and the United States was at its peak, and my thoughts turned to the idea of going to America.  My Mother’s sister, my aunt Ethel and brother Chaim were already in America since 1908.  I wrote to them about my decision and asked them to send me a ticket which they immediately did, and on July 3rd 1913, I was ready to leave.  On the night before my boyfriends gathered at our house to bid me farewell, and we were up all night eating and drinking and singing.  Since I was of military age, I could not get a passport, and I had to sneak out of the country at night.  They called it “Stealing the border”.  On Sunday July 4th, my Mother made a big dinner and invited some friends to the house to say good bye.  I remember very vividly at the dinner table while the guests offered a toast, my Father broke down and tearfully remarked, He will have everything in America except his Father and Mother, brothers and sisters.  My Father was very emotional and very attached to his children, particularly to me since I am constantly at his side.  On that same evening, Sunday July 4th, my Father took me to his home town (Ribnitza) to say good bye to his brother and to all our cousins and friends.  The following day, July 6th, we left by train to a town called Slobodka where I was supposed change trains and travel to a town far away called Vladimir Volinsk where I was supposed to cross the border from Russia to Austria.  We stayed up all night in the waiting room until 7 in the morning, and I will never forget, my Father did not take his eyes off me for a minute.  When the train arrived, he escorted me to my seat and when the train pulled out, he kept waving until the train was out of sight.  I was later told he fainted and collapsed on the platform.

On the train, I met many young people from all over Russia, and after travelling 48 hours, we reached the town Vladimir Volinsk from where we were supposed to be taken to the border at night.  An agent met us at the station and took us to a boarding house where we were kept in hiding. During the night the boys were taken to a nearby stable where six of us slept on straw on the bare floor.  The following night we were ready to be taken to the border.  Even though it was the month of July, the mud was knee deep.  We finally reached a place, a wooded area and we were told that someone would soon be here to take us across the border.  We waited almost three hours.  In the meantime, it started to rain and we were soaked to the bone.  Finally a Russian soldier appeared and told us to give him each two rubles and he will lead us across the border.  We were 33 boys and he led us across the border.   After walking several hours in no man’s land an Austrian soldier appeared and took us to a boarding house to dry up and have some coffee.  This is where the story of the cup of coffee originated, which years later I used as a bed time story when I put my children to sleep, and it remained as a legend with them to this day.  The following morning we boarded a train and after traveling for 3 days we finally reached Hamburg Germany which was our embarkation point for America.  We waited 3 days in Hamburg and on July 16th we finally sailed on the German American Line on an ocean liner called Printz Adalbert which was named after the oldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.  On July 16th at 3 P.M. the ship began to move and I realized for the first time that I am alone and far away from home, and the tears began to roll.  On the ship I met many people and I had a good time.  I travelled 2nd class and in those days 2nd class passengers were very few.  The meals were not bad, but nothing to compare with the present day luxury liners.

Finally on July 30th at about 7 A.M. we sighted land and at about 11A.M. the ship docked at Front & Washington Ave.  I immediately spotted my uncle Chaim and I started to yell real loud in Jewish, Chaim, Chaim here I am.  He noticed me and motioned to keep quiet.  He was obviously embarrassed since he already changed his name to Herman.  After going through customs which was no problem for me and the doctor’s examination I got off the ship and met Chaim.  We started to walk from Washington Ave. to 16th and Tasker in a 95 degree temperature and me with a fur coat and a big black hat…On the same day Chaim took me to see my Aunt Ethel who was my Mother’s sister and I also met my cousin Sylvia who was then one year old.

For almost two weeks, I was taken around to see the sights of Philadelphia.  In the meantime, I enrolled at a night school at 515 Pine St., and one of my school mates was Dr. Brenner, who later became a dentist since his brothers were doctors and lawyers.

After resting for 2 weeks, I began to look for a job and soon found out that it is not the goldina medina and money is not strewn on the streets.  After looking for several days I finally found a job at a jobbing house at 2nd and Market and my assignment was to sweep four floors and help unload the trucks when the merchandise is delivered.  My salary was Four Dollars a week.  I stayed on this job for two weeks and got the pink slip.  They soon noticed that I was not the type for this job.  I started to look for another job and soon found one at 6th and Moore St. at Frank’s soda factory and my assignment was to wash empty bottles. In those days there were no washing machines yet to do the washing.  I stayed on this job one week.  I continued changing jobs for almost 8 months.  One of the jobs was at 17th and Reed St. and my assignment was to kill chickens and clean chicken coops.  I began to feel discouraged, degraded, and my thoughts turned to the idea of going back to Russia, but on May 14th 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe and of course I gave up the idea.

One day while walking on 5th St. with Chaim, we ran into a landsman whose name was Gavril Karol who lived in Allentown.  He was a very good friend of my Father, but I vaguely remembered him.  They told us that they are opening an apron factory in Allentown and since he and his son Alex are constantly on the route peddling, they want someone they can trust to run the factory, to do the bookkeeping, the payroll, etc.  He suggested that I move to Allentown and I immediately accepted, even though I was somewhat apprehensive about my ability to handle the job, but I already had sufficient schooling and I had confidence.  A week later I left for Allentown to begin the job which I felt was more suitable for me than any of the previous jobs.  My salary was 15 dollars to start and I lived with the Karol family.  There was where I acquired my taste for classical music, since the Karol family was a musical family.  I must say that the years I spent in Allentown were some of my best.  I was treated with respect and dignity.  It was a small town then and everybody knew me and I knew everybody. 

I occasionally made trips to Philadelphia to visit my aunt and uncle, but the wheels of destiny keep turning and where they stop no one knows, and one day while visiting a landsman family by the name of Milgrom, I met a young man whose name was Nathan Mosenson, who was a boyfriend to one of the Milgrom boys.  In the course of my conversation with him I learned that his Mother also comes from Rashkov, and of course aroused my curiosity.  He showed me a snapshot of his family and my attention was immediately attracted to his sister who was a very attractive and charming young lady.  Without losing any time, we left for his house to meet the family.  Needless to say it was obviously love at first sight and after a three year courtship we were finally married the date and year January 1st, 1922. 

We moved into an apartment at 4032 Girard Avenue, on the third floor and set up housekeeping.  I was then in the jobbing business for myself, but soon the depression began and like many others went broke.  My beloved wife of six months suggested that she go back to work at Gimbels, but that was out of the question, since she was already pregnant, so my in laws suggested that we put the furniture in storage and move in with them.  Since they lived in a very small house it was rather crowded and with no privacy.  In the meantime, I got a job as a traveling salesman selling boys suits.  My salary and commission were quite well and things began to look brighter, only to be overshadowed by my wife developing kidney trouble during pregnancy and as a result lost the first baby at birth.  Time went by fast and in 1924 we moved into our own apartment at 1201 N. 41st St. where my daughter Shirley was born on July 11th 1925.  It was a time of joy and happiness which did not last long and when my daughter Shirley was 11 months old, my wife was stricken with a kidney stone, has undergone major surgery and was confined to the hospital for seven weeks.  Despite doctors’ advice and to take precaution against pregnancy, my daughter Pauline was born 19 months later, the date and year 1927 April 7th.  

I continued to travel as a salesman and in 1931 my uncle Harry, who was in the wholesale butter and egg business decided to open retail stores.  He opened one on Marshall St., where my cousin Sylvia managed and one at 614 S. 4th St.  and suggested that I quit traveling and manage the store.  To please my wife who was not in favor for me to be constantly away from home, I accepted the proposition, and a year later I took over the store for myself where I spent seven years which I must say under a very unpleasant environment.  In 1939 I moved to 1702 North 42nd St., where I remained until my retirement in the grocery and delicatessen business.  In 1941 after Pearl Harbor, I got a job from 12 midnight to 8 in the morning and my financial condition began to show marked improvement.

I said at the beginning that this is a partial history of my life, so I will stop right here and conclude by just saying that I have lived a full healthy life and I am grateful.  I have no regrets, excepts for the fact that my beloved wife passed away at an early age and was deprived of the pleasure to see her granddaughters married and her grandson become Bar Mitzvah, as well and the pleasure of enjoying together our retirement years.  The subsequent untimely deaths of my two younger brothers and the most recent tragic death of my younger daughter Pauline left a deep scar and an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life.

I remember those who are gone and I look fondly upon those who are with me.  I always believe that a man has an obligation to himself, his family, and to society.  I always believe that man and wife should under any circumstances uphold the oath they have taken on their wedding day.  I believe that one fellow man should try to help another fellow man.  My Father used to say, if you want to stay well and live long, you must help other people as much as you can, and even if he was the most charitable man in town, he died at the age of 57.

As you know I am not a professional writer.  I have written this story in my own words and answered questions to those who may be interested and to those who care to read it, I will just say
  “May God Bless You and keep you well”