Finding the Ruby Slippers and Getting Back Home to Where It Started: The Brotmans

[for my aunt, Elaine Goldschlager Lehrbaum, 1917-1995]

Elaine 1933

Elaine 1933

Many of you who are more recent followers of the Brotmanblog may wonder why the blog is called the Brotmanblog.  In the past several months I have barely mentioned the name Brotman because I have been focused on searching for my grandfather’s family, the Goldschlagers and Rosenzweigs.  But if you go back to the beginning of the blog, you will see that my original search focused on my grandmother’s family, the Brotmans.  That’s where I started my genealogy adventures.  It made sense.  My grandmother Gussie Brotman Goldschlager, my mother’s mother, was the grandparent I knew best, the only grandparent I knew as an adult.  She was the only grandparent my husband ever met, though she died a year before we were married.  It was only natural that I would start my journey trying to learn as much as I could about her and her siblings and her parents.  Once I had found as much as I could find about the Brotmans, I then moved on to my grandfather’s family.  The next chapter will be my father’s family.  But it all started with the Brotmans.

Why do I bring that up now? Because this weekend I will finally get to meet a number of the Brotman cousins I only learned about through doing this research.  There will be over thirty of us gathering in NYC to meet and eat and to visit the Lower East Side, where our grandparents and great-grandparents (and for some, great-great grandparents or parents) lived in New York.  We will walk to 81/85 Ridge Street where the Brotmans first lived, now a public school, once a tenement building, and then we will tour the Tenement Museum to learn more about what life was like for all of them.

If you have not read any of my posts about the Brotmans, I have provided links here and below to some that will capture the essence of their lives.  Even if you once did read them, you may want to re-read them if you are joining us this weekend and want to remember some of the details and themes I wrote about months ago.  The Brotman story is the classic Jewish American immigration story, a story of poverty and heartbreak as a family moved from Galicia to NYC in the late 1880s to a story of assimilation and success as the future generations built businesses, moved beyond the Lower East Side, became professionals, and moved to the suburbs after World War II.  My Brotman great-grandparents were hard-working realists who did what they needed to do to survive.

Although I was able to piece together a fair amount about their lives through census reports and other documents and through some stories my mother remembered about her grandparents, aunts, uncles and mother, at first there was no one else besides my mother and my brother to whom I could turn for information.  My cousins shared stories about their grandparents, but they also knew little about the early lives of their grandparents and had no one left to ask either.  So mostly I relied on documentation to learn what I could.  I was able to put together a fairly complete history of the Brotman family in America and decided to move on to my grandfather’s family.

Then, like a gift of manna from heaven, about a month ago my cousin Jody sent me some notes that her husband Joel had taken from a conversation he’d had with my Aunt Elaine years ago about her family.  I’ve referred to one part of those notes before—the story of how my grandmother Gussie met my grandfather Isadore on Pacific Street in Brooklyn, where my grandmother was living and where my grandfather’s cousins the Rosenzweigs were living in 1915.  In the next day or two I’d like to share a few more tidbits from Aunt Elaine, via Joel’s notes.

But before I do, I want to point out that these notes are incredibly accurate.  Although the conversation Joel had with my aunt must have taken place in the early 1980s, my aunt’s memory for details was astonishing.  For example, she refers to the fact that Hyman’s son Emanuel worked for Kislack Realty.  I checked with Manny’s children, and they confirmed that in fact  Manny was President of J.I.Kislak Mortgage Corporation in Newark, NJ., which was a subsidiary of J.I.Kislak, Inc., a large residential and commercial Realtor based in Jersey City.kislack realty Also, my aunt knew that David Brotman worked in the coat industry, that Max was in the cigar business, and that Abraham worked for a deli in Coney Island.

All of these are facts that are backed up by my research.Brotman brothers trades

On the Goldschlager side as well, my aunt’s facts are corroborated by the information I found in my research.  David Goldschlager lived in Scranton, PA, for some time and was in the hat business.  Betty married a man in the dry goods business and moved to Arizona. goldschlager siblings I point out how accurate this information is to demonstrate how remarkable my aunt’s memory was and also so that you will trust the other statements she made and their accuracy when I report on those in upcoming posts.

In some ways finding these notes was frustrating.  If I had found them last summer, much of the time I spent trying to figure out who Max was or whether Abraham was related to us or whether there were any other children would have been unnecessary.  My aunt knew it all, and it is in these notes.

But as Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz (the movie) when she reveals to Dorothy that the ruby slippers could take her home and the Scarecrow asks  why Glinda had not told Dorothy that from the beginning:

Glinda : Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Tin Man: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I – I think that it – that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And that it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?
Glinda: That’s all it is!

And then when the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow all say that they should have helped Dorothy figure it out, Glinda replies:

She had to find it out for herself.

And so I did as well.  If I had started with Aunt Elaine’s notes, I never would have worked as hard to learn how to research and find these things for myself.  I would never have felt the amazing sense of satisfaction I’ve gotten from putting pieces together and from finding cousins who could help me put those pieces together.

Having my aunt confirm through these notes what I have learned and what I have done is a real gift. She was someone I adored and miss dearly.  It’s like having her here with me again, hearing her say, “You see, Amy Kugel, I always knew you could do anything you wanted.  And I knew some day you would want to know more about your history, your family.”  But, as Glinda told Dorothy, she knew I had to find it out for myself.


Elaine 1926

Elaine 1926

Elaine Gussie Florence 1933

Elaine Gussie Florence 1933

Elaine high school graduation

Elaine high school graduation

Elaine and Phil 1941

Elaine and Phil 1941

Sam with Gussie and Elaine 1945

Sam with Gussie and Elaine 1945

Elaine and Jeff 1949

Elaine and Jeff 1949

Elaine Jeff and Amy 1953

Aunt Elaine with Jeff and me

Phil and Elaine

Phil and Elaine

Enhanced by Zemanta

Brotman Research: Where I am

Having reached the conclusion last week that I was not going to be able to get any further specific information about where in Galicia my Brotman relatives lived and then realizing that even if Tarnobrzeg was the ancestral home that the records there are very limited and too recent to be of much help, yesterday I went back to look over what I have learned and what is left to be learned about my Brotman relatives.

I have learned an incredible amount.  I know much more about my great-grandparents Joseph and Bessie Brotman and about the life they lived in the Lower East Side.  I have found all five of their children—Hyman, Tillie, Gussie, Frieda and Sam– and know what happened to them: who they married, who their children were, where and when, and in most cases, why they died.  I know what they did for a living and where they lived.  I even have been able to trace what happened to their grandchildren and who they married and the names of their children.  I have seen pictures of almost all these people, except Joseph, Abraham, David, and Frieda.   It’s been an incredible experience, so much more rewarding than I ever expected less than a year ago when I first starting dipping my toe into the waters of genealogy.

I’ve also been able to locate three of Joseph’s four children from his first marriage to a woman likely named Chaye Fortgang.  I have found Abraham, Max and David, but not Sophie.  I have also been able to learn a great deal about their lives, occupations, families, and homes and have located their living descendants.  Although there are a few missing holes in David’s life story and a number of years for which I can find no records, I know that he married a woman named Annie Salpeter and that they did not have children.  I know that he came to America with his older brother Abraham and that he died in 1946 of hypertension.  Only Sophie is missing from the picture, but given that I do not know either what her Yiddish name was in Galicia or her married name in the United States, I am not sure what else I can do to locate her.

There are many unanswered questions, but most of them relate to their life in Galicia—where did they live, what did Joseph do for a living, what happened to his first wife? These questions I cannot answer, and that makes me sad.  Also, when did Joseph arrive in the US?  I cannot find him on a ship manifest, but will keep looking.   I will also try and fill the holes in David’s story and look for Sophie, but overall, I think I have to say that I have reached the end of my search for the Brotman family.[1]

So what does that mean? Obviously, I hope to continue to develop my ties to my new cousins (and my old cousins, of course), and I also hope that they will help to fill out the personal side of the stories of their parents and grandparents.  It will make the family story so much more meaningful and interesting if people contribute stories or profiles or letters or pictures that bring to life their relatives.  I cannot do that on my own.  I didn’t know Abraham, Max, Hyman, or Tillie—but those of you who are their grandchildren certainly did.  I also didn’t know any of Joseph’s grandchildren aside from my mother and her siblings, but my second cousins—their children—must have memories and stories that they want to survive.  Let me know, and I will be happy to interview you or help you write something you’d like to share.

Thank you to all the Brotman cousins who helped me get this far—for answering my emails and my questions, for sending me pictures and telling me stories, for providing me with names and contact information, for sharing whatever you were comfortable sharing.  It’s been an amazing experience to share with you all, my Brotman family.

The rest of my personal journey to find my family will continue with the Goldschlager and Rosenzweig lines and eventually my paternal lines: the Cohens, Schoenthals, Seligmans, Katzensteins, Nusbaums, and so on!

[1] There remains, of course, a possibility of a tie to the Brotmanville Brotmans, but my research has hit a brick wall there as well.  Without being able to trace back to Joseph’s parents and grandparents and Moses Brotman’s parents and grandparents, I will never know whether Joseph and Moses were siblings, cousins, or not related at all.  Brotman is and was a much more common name than I had anticipated, and we could be related distantly to all of them or none of them.  Without better European records, there is just no way of knowing.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Another new relative: Gustave Rosenzweig

As I wrote yesterday, I was excited in reading the case file of Jankel Srulovici to see that the principal witness who came forward to vouch for him at the hearing to determine his admission into the US was a brother-in-law named Gustave Rosenzweig.  Gustave is the fourth child of my great-grandparents David Rosenzweig and Esther Gelberman whom I have been able to locate.   He was my great-grandmother Ghitla’s older brother and also Tillie and Zusi’s brother.  I had already noted his name on Bertha Strolowitz’s marriage certificate in 1915, but now I have some verification that he was in fact a member of the same family.  Not simply because he testified for Jankel and helped post the bond for his admission, but because he described Jankel and Tillie in his testimony as his brother-in-law and sister.

I have now done research to learn more about this man, my great-great uncle, who had $6000 in assets in 1908 and a painting supply business in Brooklyn and who had already impressed me with his character for helping out his family.  From various records, I have learned that Gustave was born in Romania in September, 1861.  He married his first wife, Gussie, in 1882, according to the 1900 census.

Gustave Rosenzweig and family 1900 census

Gustave Rosenzweig and family 1900 census

It is not at all clear exactly when Gustave and Gussie arrived in NYC, and I have not yet found a ship manifest for either of them.  On his naturalization papers in January of 1892, Gustave wrote that he had arrived on April 12, 1887.

naturalization petition gustave rosenzweig

naturalization petition gustave rosenzweig

Some of the census reports indicate that Gussie and Gustave emigrated in 1881, others say 1888. According to the 1900 census, their first child Lilly was born in Romania in 1884, and if Lilly was born in Romania, the later date seems to be more accurate.  On the other hand, the 1905 and 1910 census reports say that Lilly was born in the United States, and, according to the 1905 census, that Gussie and Gustave had been in the US for 22 years, i.e., since 1883.  At any rate, Gustave and Gussie were certainly in the United States by 1888, and thus he was the earliest of the Rosenzweig children to come to America, at least a few years before Zusi, 13 years before his nephew Isidor Strolowitz, 15 years before my grandfather Isadore Goldschlager, and almost 20 years before Tillie, over 20 years before Ghitla.

Gustave Rosenzweig family on the 1905 NYS census

Gustave Rosenzweig family on the 1905 NYS census

The earliest record I have of Gustave in NYC is an 1892 New York City directory listing him as a painter, living on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side.  His naturalization papers also indicated that he was a painter, as was Jankel Srulovici and his two sons Isidor and David.  It makes me wonder whether Jankel and Gustave had been in business together as painters back in Iasi.  Jankel would have been about ten years older, so perhaps he trained Gustave and brought him into his business.  Gustave might have felt some sense of gratitude to him as well as brotherly love for his sister Tillie, motivating him even more so to help bring Jankel into the country.

1894 NYC directory

1894 NYC directory

Gussie and Gustave moved several times after 1892—uptown on East 74th Street in 1894, downtown to E. 6th Street in 1900, and to Brooklyn by 1905, where they first lived in Fulton Street and then on Franklin Avenue, where they were living in 1908 at the time of Jankel’s hearing.  Throughout this period of time, Gustav was a painter, eventually owning his own paint supply business, and he and Gussie were having many children: after Lilly came Sarah (1888), Abraham (1890), Rebecca (1894), Jacob (1895), Harry (1897), Joseph (1898), Lizzie (1900) and Rachel (1903).  Apparently there were five others who died, as the 1900 census reports that Gussie had had thirteen children, eight of whom were then living.

It’s mind-boggling on many levels.  First, how did the support and feed all those children and where did they fit them?  And secondly, how did they endure the deaths of five children?  I’ve seen this many times.  In fact, on the 1900 census for Bessie Brotman, my great-grandmother, it reports that she had had nine children, only four of whom where then living.  I cannot imagine how these mothers coped with losing these babies.  Did it make them less able to bond with each newborn, fearing they would not survive, or did it make them cherish each new child even more, knowing how fragile life was and how difficult it was for a child to survive?

In addition, it appears that one of the children who survived infancy, Harry, died as a teenager in 1913.  Perhaps all this did take its toll on the family.  By 1915 it appears that Gustave and Gussie had separated or divorced. Gussie is living alone with the children in 1915; I cannot find Gustav at all on the 1915 census. The census reports for 1920 also had me somewhat confused.  I found Gustave on two reports, one in Brooklyn on Bergen Street, living with the four youngest children, and another in Manhattan on East 110th Street, living as a boarder with another family.  In the Brooklyn census report, Gustave is listed as having no profession; on the Manhattan one it says he was a painter.  And I could not find Gussie anywhere, though the Brooklyn census said that Gustave was divorced.  What I finally concluded was that the Gustave in Brooklyn was really Gussie, despite the fact that it said Gustave and listed him as male.  My guess is that, as was often the case, the census taker was given or heard confusing information and misinterpreted it.   It makes more sense, given the times, that the children would be with their mother and that a woman would not be employed outside the home.  The Manhattan Gustave, the painter, is obviously the actual Gustave Rosenzweig.

Rosenzweigs in Brooklyn 1920

Rosenzweigs in Brooklyn 1920

Gustave Rosenzweig in Manhattan 1920

Gustave Rosenzweig in Manhattan 1920

By 1925 Gustave was remarried to a woman named Selma Nadler.  I was able to find a family tree containing Gustave and Selma which included this photograph, apparently of Selma and Gustave.  Selma had also been previously married and had ten children of her own.

Gustave and Selma Rosenzweig

Gustave and Selma Rosenzweig

Between them, Selma and Gustave had nineteen living children in 1925.  Imagine what that family reunion would look like.  The last record I have for Gustave is the 1930 census.  I have not found him yet on the 1940 census.  I have found two death records for men named Gustave Rosenzweig, one in 1942, the other in 1944.  I have ordered them both to determine whether either one is our Gustave.

Meanwhile, Gussie continued to live with one or more of her children in 1925, 1930 and 1940.  I do not yet have a death record for her either.  I have been able to trace the nine children with varying degrees of success.  Lilly appears to have had a child out of wedlock in 1902 named William who was living with Gustave and Gussie for some time in 1905, but who was placed in an orphanage (father listed as Frank with no surname and deceased) for a short time in 1906. William Rosenzweig at Hebrew Orphanage Then Lilly reappears on the 1910 census living with her parents and without William.  I’ve not yet learned what happened to either Lilly or William.

Similarly, the other four daughters Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Lizzie, all became untraceable after they left home since I have no idea what their married names were.  As for the sons, Abraham married and had two daughters, who for similar reasons I cannot find after 1940.  Jacob/Jack also had two daughters, and Joseph I’ve not yet found past 1920.   So at the moment I have not located any current descendants, but I will continue to look to see if I can somehow find out the married names of some of Gustave’s granddaughters.  The NYC marriage index only contains records up to 1937, and these grandchildren would not yet have been married by then; thus, I have no readily available public source to find their married names.  It may take a trip to NYC to see if those records are available in person.  Or perhaps I can find a wedding announcement.

UPDATE: Much of the information in the preceding paragraph has been updated here, here, here, here, here, here, and other posts on the blog on Joseph, Jack, Rebecca and Sarah.

So that is the story of Gustave Rosenzweig as I know it to date: a Romanian born painter who married twice, had nine children, real estate and a painting business, and who came to the rescue of his sister and her family.  It would be wonderful to know what happened once they all settled in America.  Gustave obviously stayed in touch with Tillie and her children, as he was present at Bertha’s wedding.  Did he help out Zusi, his little sister, when her husband died? I had hoped to find her living with him on one of those census reports, but did not.  Did he help out my grandfather when he arrived as a 16 year old boy in NYC in 1904? Did he help out my great-grandmother when she arrived in 1910, a widow without any means of support aside from her children? I certainly wish there was some way of knowing the answers to these questions.  From his conduct at the hearing for Jankel in 1908, I’d like to think that Gustave was there for them all, but we will never know.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Another Addition to the Brotman Family Tree: David Brotman and his wife Annie

Family Tree drawn by Elaine Goldschlager Lehbraum

Family Tree drawn by Elaine Goldschlager Lehbraum

As you may recall, a couple of weeks ago my cousin Jody made a big discovery: handwritten notes that her mother had made of Joseph Brotman’s children.  It included all the children we already knew about: Bessie’s children Hyman, Tillie, Gussie, Frieda (Florence in her notes) and Sam, as well as the two sons we knew of from Joseph’s first marriage, Abraham and Max.   My brother had recalled that our aunt had said Joseph had had four children from his first marriage, but we did not know the names of the two remaining children, and I had traced every possible Brotman I could find to see if there was a link.  I had hit many dead ends and found nothing that linked these other Brotmans to our family.

My aunt’s notes were a huge discovery because for the first time we had evidence of the names of those two missing children: David and Sophie.  As I wrote when Jody first sent me the tree, I was able to locate a David Brotman from Austria who was a possible match for Joseph’s missing son, but I needed to check further and obtain some documentation in order to be sure.

Well, those documents arrived the other day, and I was so excited to see that on David’s marriage certificate in 1897, he listed his father’s name as Joseph Brotman and his mother’s as Chaye Fortgang.

David Brotman and Annie Salpeter marriage certificate

David Brotman and Annie Salpeter marriage certificate

You may recall that Max had also listed his mother’s name as Chaye on his marriage certificate, so this confirmed that Joseph’s first wife was named Chaye, but now we know her surname as well.

Max Brotman marriage certificate

Max Brotman marriage certificate

In addition, the marriage certificate gave David’s current address as 85 Ridge Street—the same address where Joseph and Bessie were living in 1895 when Gussie was born, according to her birth certificate.

Gussie birth certificate

Gussie birth certificate

This confirmed for me that David was Joseph’s son, Max and Abraham’s full brother, half-brother to Hyman, Tillie, Gussie, Frieda and Sam, and our great-uncle.  I am still in a state of amazement that I was able to find him.  Thank you, Aunt Elaine, for leaving behind this great clue to our family.

Once I had this information confirming the relationship, I located whatever census reports and other records I could find for David and his wife, Annie Salpeter.  I found them on census reports for 1900, 1905, 1910, and 1920.  David was a tailor according to the first three census reports, and he and Annie were living on the Lower East Side until at least 1910. At times Annie’s brother Morris lived with them as well as a cousin Meier, but there were no children listed on any of these census reports.

At the time of his World War I draft registration in 1917, David and Annie had left the Lower East Side and were living at 143 Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, which was also their address on the 1920 census report, when David’s occupation was given as a cloak dealer in a “cloak house.”  Annie and David were now 44 years old and still had no children living with them, so I assume that they never had children. So there are no more second cousins to find and probably no pictures of David and Annie.  (But I’ve learned never to say never.)

I’ve yet to find David and Annie on the 1930 or 1940 censuses, but I am still looking.  It seems unlikely that they had left Brooklyn.  I was able to locate a 1946 death certificate for a David Brotman married to Anna living at 10 Sumner Avenue in Brooklyn, and I believe this is the same David, despite the fact that the death certificate has his father’s name as Isaac.  I’ve learned enough to know that death certificates are notoriously unreliable.  I will continue to see if I can find anything about David and Annie after 1920.

I do have David’s petition for naturalization in 1920, and it indicates that he had arrived in NYC on October 14, 1889, on the “Updam” from Tarnof, Austria.

David Brotman petition for naturalization 1920

David Brotman petition for naturalization 1920

Tarnof could be Tarnow, a city about fifty miles north of Tarnobrzeg/Dzikow and even further from Czchow, the two areas that I have been focusing on as the Brotman hometown based on Hyman’s listing of “Jeekief” and “Giga” on his documents.  But Tarnof could also be Tarnobrzeg, the larger town that is near Dzikow.  So did this new information help our search for our hometown in Galicia or did it just make it more confusing?

That led me to search for the ship manifest for David, now that I knew when he arrived and on what ship.  With some help from Renee, I located a September 4, 1889,  German ship manifest for the Portia, sailing to Rotterdam, listing Dawid Brodmann as a passenger.  I was excited to see that David was traveling with his older brother, Abe Brodmann. I had not previously been able to find Abraham on a ship manifest, so this was another exciting discovery.

David and Abe Brodmann on the Portia 1889

David and Abe Brodmann on the Portia 1889

On the Portia ship manifest, Abe and David are listed as coming from “Grambow, Russland,” not Austria at all, let alone Tarnow, Tarnobrzeg, Dzikow or Czchow.  I would have found this an indication that these were not the right boys, but there is a town right near Tarnobrzeg called Grebow, and according to a 1914 map, Tarnobrzeg was very close to the Russian border. So perhaps our family lived in Grebow? Or maybe that is where Joseph lived with Chaye and then moved to Dzikow when he married Bessie?

On the manifest for the Obdam, sailing from Rotterdam to New York arriving on September 19, 1889, David and Abe are listed as coming from Austria, not Russia, which appears to be correct.

David and Abe Brodman on the Obdam to New York 1889

David and Abe Brodman on the Obdam to New York 1889

There is obviously some confusion and conflict here, but it’s another clue and another place to look for the Brotman home in Galicia. I already have contacted several people researching this area to see if I can uncover more clues.

I have a few more leads to follow to fill in the gaps in David’s life story, and maybe they will even lead me to Sophie, the only remaining child of Joseph to locate.  There is also some potential evidence that will link our family to the Brotmanville Brotmans, but again, I need to do more research before it is worth speculating about that connection.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Where they lived: East Harlem in the Early 20th Century

One of things that puzzled me when I started looking at the census reports for the Goldschlagers between 1905

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south...

English: Looking from 96th Street in the south, northward along Second Avenue towards Spanish Harlem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and 1915 was where they were living.  I had always assumed that my grandfather, like my Brotman ancestors, had settled in the Lower East Side when he arrived in New York.  I thought that was where all poor Jewish immigrants had settled in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Yet at the time of the 1905 census, my grandfather was living at 2213 Second Avenue, near the intersection with 115th Street, in the neighborhood we know as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem.  He was living by himself (at age 17) in a building with some families with Jewish names but mostly families with Italian names.  What was he doing there? Why was he living up there and not on the Lower East Side?

When Moritz arrived, they remained in East Harlem on 109th Street, and after Moritz died, Betty and Isadore moved in with Tillie on 109th Street.  In 1915, all of the surviving Goldschlagers were still living on 109th Street.  Eventually, Isadore moved to Brooklyn, and David, Betty and their mother moved to the Bronx, until Betty and Gisella moved to Bayshore, Long Island in the 1930s.  But why had they started and stayed in East Harlem?

330 East 109th Street today

Some quick research revealed that East Harlem was a huge Jewish community in the early years of the 20th century, but that that community had disappeared and was for the most part forgotten.  As David W. Dunlap wrote in The New York Times in 2002, “On the map of the Jewish diaspora, Harlem is Atlantis. That it was once the third largest Jewish settlement in the world after the Lower East Side and Warsaw — a vibrant hub of industry, artistry and wealth — is all but forgotten. It is as if Jewish Harlem sank 70 years ago beneath the waves of memory, beyond recall.”  Dunlap then described the many signs that Jews once lived in East Harlem in the churches that were once synagogues.

Former Temple Israel Jewish synagogue, now Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. Detail: Star of David.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church in East Harlem, originally Temple Israel

The neighborhood had been rural until the subway and elevated trains arrived around 1880.  Soon after tenement buildings were constructed, and immigrants moved in, first German and Irish immigrants, then Jewish and Italian immigrants.  According to Wikipedia, there were 90,000 Jews living in East Harlem in 1917; however, the neighborhood was predominantly Italian and came to be known as Italian Harlem or Little Italy.  That is consistent with my study of the names in the 1905 census.

Photograph shows 105th Street between Madison and Park avenues in 1929, with traces of Jewish Harlem, including the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Harlem <i>(left)</i> and the synagogue called Beth Hamridash Hagadol of Harlem.

My mother remembers that her father spoke several languages and was quite fluent in Italian.  He must have learned Italian living in East Harlem in his first ten years in New York.   He was not a religious person and had left Romania at least in part to escape the anti-Semitism there.  Perhaps living in a mixed neighborhood made him feel more American, although obviously there was a well-established Jewish community there as well with many synagogues and other institutions.   Maybe it was cheaper than the Lower East Side, maybe the Lower East Side was already filled beyond overcrowding, or maybe East Harlem was a better neighborhood, not a cheaper neighborhood.  I don’t know what drew my grandfather there or why he stayed.

It’s always good to learn something new.  Now I know not only something new about my family, but also something new about the history of New York City and the Jewish immigrants who settled there.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York.

2287 1st Avenue, East Harlem, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enhanced by Zemanta

The American Immigrant Experience: The Brotman Story

I’ve been looking over the data I have for all the people on our family tree, starting with Joseph through the children born in the 21st century.  By looking at the various ways our family members have supported themselves, we can see a snapshot of the American immigrant story.

On Gussie’s birth certificate in 1895, Joseph’s employment is listed as a wood and coal dealer. According to the 1900 US census, Joseph worked as a coal agent in the Lower East Side. His death certificate also listed his employment as coal agent; on Sam’s birth certificate he is described as a coal carrier.  As you can imagine, this was hard and dirty work. In an article on the coal industry in Michigan, a son recalled how is father would look after working at a coal yard in Michigan: “Dad would use twine to tie his pants and cuffs so not so much coal would get on his skin. He looked like a clown with his pants blowing out, neckerchief around his neck….The dust would crawl up his pant legs—he’d soak his feet up to his knees every night.”  Another son of a man who delivered coal recalled how black the water would be in the tub after his father took a bath.

In a website devoted to the history of a coal company based in Camden, New Jersey, there is the following description of the type of work Joseph did:

“The man would arrive in a wagon with sacks of coal neatly stacked on top. He would climb onto the wagon and move the sacks to the edge ready for unloading. His face and hands would be completely black from coal dust and he wore a cap or head cloth, which hung down his back. He would grab hold of a sack at the top, turn round, bend forward and pull it onto his back. He then had to walk quite a few yards to the coal cellar, maybe down some steps and then ‘pour’ the coal out of the bag.”

At that same time, Joseph’s older children were also working.  In the 1900 census, Hyman is listed as working as a buttonhole maker and Tilly as a flower maker, obviously both working in the sweatshops described in Streets.  They were both just teenagers at the time.  (That same census reported that neither Joseph nor Hyman could read, write or speak English at that time.)

Joseph’s children, however, were able to free themselves from these oppressive and backbreaking forms of employment.

Hyman was still working as a buttonhole maker in 1917 according to his draft registration papers and his naturalization papers, but soon thereafter left the sweatshops. In 1920 he was working as a chauffeur.  In 1925 he was working in Jersey City as a confectioner, and in 1930 he was working as a storekeeper in a cigar store (perhaps for Max?) and apparently supporting not only his wife and children, but also his father-in-law and his brother-in-law and his wife.  In 1940 his occupation is listed as a bookseller in a bookshop, and in 1942 he simply listed himself as self-employed on his draft registration card.  We know from his grandchildren and from my mother that at some point he owned a liquor store in Hoboken.  So Hyman went from being a poor boy on the Lower East Side, working in a sweatshop and not speaking or reading English, to an independent business owner over the course of his adult life.

Max, a conductor on the railroad in 1900, had his own cigar business by 1910, which continued to be his source of income through the 1940s. Tillie also left the sweatshop world after she married, and she and her husband Aaron owned a grocery store in Brooklyn.  Gussie, who helped Tillie and Aaron by caring for their children while they ran their grocery store, married Isadore, who worked at a dairy company as a milkman.  Abraham worked as a tailor for almost all of his working life and in a restaurant in Brooklyn later in his life.  Frieda was working as a “finisher” in the feather business, which I assume was in the garment industry, in 1920, not too long before she married.  Sam worked as a stock clerk, then in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and ultimately as a cab driver in New York City.

Thus, by 1920 or so, all of Joseph’s children had left the Lower East Side and had found occupations that took them out of the sweatshops.   Three of them became independent business owners, and the others found work in various trades that did not involve breathing in coal dust and carrying heavy loads of coal to tenement buildings.

The next generation continued that trend.  Joseph’s grandchildren became professionals and business owners: teachers, a lawyer, a pharmacist, advertising firms, real estate investment, and retail stores.   When I look at the list of occupations of Joseph’s great-grandchildren, my generation, born in the 1940s through the 1960s, that trend continues.  Although there are fewer of us who own our own businesses, consistent with the decline of the small family-owned business throughout the country, there are still a number of entrepreneurs.  We are also lawyers (fifteen of us, including descendants, their spouses and our children), doctors, teachers of all types, and school administrators.  We are involved in business, finance, sales, banking, the computer industry, and the arts.

Our children, those born in the 1970s through the 1990s, continue in these fields and others—there are a number working in the creative arts and the music industry as well as medicine and the health care, finance, law, business, and the restaurant industry.  You name the field—we probably have someone related to us working in the field.

As for the next generation, those who are still  at home going to school, maybe even still in diapers, we’d like to hope that the possibilities are limitless.  Yes, the world is a more competitive place, houses are much more expensive relative to income than they were for us, the cost of a college education is beyond what anyone would consider reasonable, and the economy is tougher and tighter than it was for many of us when we first entered the job market.

But if a 50-something year old man could drag coal from tenement to tenement to support his family, if our grandparents could rise from sweatshops to become storeowners and tradespeople, if our parents could go the next step and become professionals and business owners, then certainly we cannot be anything but grateful and appreciative and hopeful.  After all, it was only 125 or so years ago that our ancestors first stepped off the boat and into the streets of New York City with nothing to their names, speaking a foreign language, and risking all they had known to take a chance that this life could be better than what they had known.

Streets: Conclusion (Bella’s adolescence)

The rest of the book was harder to read.  As Bella turned twelve and became less innocent, she became more aware of the squalor and ugliness of her world.  She wrote, “I was now twelve and acutely conscious of the sordidness of the life about me.  To escape, I hid behind my books and built up a life of my own in the public school I attended on East Broadway and at the settlement house on Madison Street.” (p. 66)

Her mother married one of the long time boarders and soon was pregnant.  Although their first year of marriage seemed fine to Bella, after the baby was born and soon developed a medical condition that left him scarred and covered with sores, her stepfather abandoned her mother, who was already pregnant with another child. They never saw him again. (There is no explanation of her brother’s condition, but it seemed to continue for several years so was not just a short-term childhood illness like measles or chicken pox.)

Supporting an extra child as a single parent created enough of an additional financial burden for Fanny that she and her children had to move to a less desirable street in the Lower East Side, Goerck Street.  Bella described it as a “tough block” where there were several bars, a lumberyard, and a garbage heap.  There were frequent bottle fights.   Most of the residents of the street were Galician Jews, but there were also Hungarian, German and Russian Jews as well as many Italian immigrants.

Fanny and her children moved their belongings to the new tenement with a pushcart, taking several trips to do so. Bella described the new building as follows:

“Our house, like the others, had four families on each floor, two to the rear and two to the front.  There were two windows to the front room which either faced the street or the yard, one window in the kitchen that faced an extremely narrow, lightless airshaft, and in the bedroom a tiny square window that faced the hall. … Separating the front room from the kitchen is what my mother called a ‘blind window.’  It was simply a square hole, framed by woodwork, which allowed some of the front light to filter into the kitchen and stop at the entrance to the bedroom.” (p. 82)

In this small, dark and airless space, Fanny and Bella found cockroaches and rats.  As before, Fanny took in numerous boarders to help her pay the rent and also took on sewing jobs to supplement her income.

Bella graduated from grade school and was determined to go to high school, unlike many of her classmates and friends who had to go to work in one of the factories in order to help support their families.  Fanny was fully supportive of Bella’s desire to go on to high school, even though she was told by many that she was foolish and should make Bella get a job instead.  Bella enrolled at George Washington High School in Manhattan, about two miles away from the Lower East Side, and was excited to be continuing her education.

Bella, however, did also take on a part-time job, working Sundays as a trimmer at a man’s coat shop on their street.  Her mother also received financial assistance and other support from the United Hebrew Charities and worked long, long hours sewing to earn extra income.   When the second baby was born in May, 1913, the charity covered her rent for the time that Fanny could not work. In return, however, the charity wanted Fanny to consider sending Bella to work full time.  Fanny resisted, and Bella continued to go to high school.  Bella resented having to justify her desire to continue school to the charity.

Bella, however, was now much more aware of the precariousness of their financial condition, and it was often a struggle to pay the rent, which was often paid late and in partial payments.  When she was not at school, Bella took care of her two baby brothers while her mother continued to work as much as possible, taking in sewing work.

Bella’s feelings at this time are poignantly conveyed in the memoir:

“I looked at the sleeping tenements and down at the street strewn with garbage and wet newspapers. Was this living?… It was all so hopeless.  When would it end?”  (pp. 103-104)

Although Bella still loved school and had friends with whom she had some good times, it is apparent that she no longer felt the somewhat joyful attitude she had had as a child.  Although it does seem that their financial condition was worse than it might have been earlier, the poverty and squalor she described must also have been very much present in the neighborhood where she lived when she was younger.   It is likely that as Bella was exposed to more of the outside world through school and books, she also became much more discerning and outraged by the conditions of her own world.

When Fanny finally was unable to pay the rent one month in 1914 and received an eviction notice, Bella offered to quit school.  Fanny refused to consider it, saying that Bella was “going to be a lady. Not like me, a schnorrer!” (p.110) Fanny swallowed her pride and begged the United Hebrew Charities for assistance.  They agreed to give her fourteen dollars, which she used to move her family out of the Lower East Side and up to First Avenue and 49th Street (where the UN now sits).  The charity also provided her with some sewing work.

Thus, Fanny and her children left the Lower East Side and moved to what was then called the Dead End neighborhood, an area of slums that were torn down in the 1920s.  This was not a move up, but a move to a cheaper neighborhood.

The last chapter focuses on Bella’s experiences while living in that neighborhood, a more mixed neighborhood where she had many non-Jewish neighbors.  The accommodation was comparable to what they had had on the Lower East Side, a three room tenement apartment.  Fanny was heavily dependent on United Hebrew Charities for support and grew increasingly despondent over her situation and over the health of her older son. At one point her relationship with Bella was so fraught with tension that Fanny lost her temper and began hitting Bella quite violently.  Bella realized that she needed to get away and spent the summer before her senior year working at a boy’s school in the Catskills as a chamber maid and waitress.

Bella somehow managed to graduate from high school while also holding down various part-time jobs, including working in another factory, tutoring, and helping her mother with extra sewing work.  She also continued to take care of her little brothers.  Right after she graduated from George Washington High School in June, 1917, whatever was left of Bella’s childhood innocence ended abruptly when her sickly little brother died from whatever medical condition had burdened him since infancy.  That is where Bella abruptly ends her memoirs as well.

In an afterword written by Lois Raeder Elias[1], who knew Bella for over thirty years, Elias commented that although Bella ultimately found great personal and financial success, saw the world, and knew many important and impressive people, she was permanently scarred and haunted by her years of poverty, growing up on the Lower East Side.  She never felt financially secure and lived always in fear of poverty.

If the chapters about Bella’s early childhood left me feeling somewhat hopeful about how our family lived on the Lower East Side, the rest of the book left me feeling incredibly sad.  How did our grandparents and great-grandparents cope with these conditions? How did Max, Hyman, and Tillie, all of whom were born in Europe, manage to pull themselves out of poverty and become a cigar dealer, a liquor store owner, and a grocery store owner in one generation?  How did all our grandparents manage to support and raise their children, who all somehow managed to achieve comfortable middle class or better lives in good neighborhoods in NYC and its suburbs?

Reading this book filled me with renewed respect and gratitude for our great-grandparents and grandparents.  We should never forget what they accomplished and what a gift that has been for all of us.



[1] There was a surprise gift inside this book when I received it.  I had ordered the book from a third party vendor through, and inside the book I found a handwritten note by Lois Raeder Elias to friends named Sheila and Alan.  The note reads,”At last we have received copies of Bella’s memoirs. We thought they would never come.  This one is for you.  I hope you enjoy it.  I’ll talk to you this weekend.  On to Turkey! Love,  Arthur and Lois.”

I hope that Sheila and Alan, whoever they were, appreciated this book.  I fear that they just passed it on without ever noticing the card left inside by their friends, Arthur and Lois.

Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Spewack, Part II (up to age 12)

It was interesting to read about Bella’s childhood and developing American and Jewish identity growing up in the Lower East Side.  Not surprisingly, there was a wide range in the level of religious observance among the Jews on the Lower East Side.  Some Jews were very observant. Bella described the household of one of her childhood friends as follows:

“It was a decidedly quiet house—and more so on Friday and Saturday when religious observance forbade everything that would tend to introduce noise.  On Friday before sundown, the four girls of the family would comb their hair, the mother helping the youngest who had to wear hers in curls.  Before going to bed each would draw a cap over the freshly combed and plaited hair.  In the morning, the cap was removed but no comb touched the hair until Sunday morning.”  (p. 53)

On the other hand, Bella and Fanny seemed to live a very secular life.  A few pages after this passage, Bella described how she spent her Friday nights.  She would meet all her girlfriends and play loud and active games of tag and other outdoor games.  Bella also wrote that she felt “no everyday kinship with the synagogue” and “had an idea that it belonged to the menfolk only.”  (p. 47)   She wrote that she only went to the synagogue on holidays.

Bella in fact experienced real confusion over her religious identity and at one point decided that she wanted to be Christian, not Jewish, much to her mother’s dismay.  This desire seemed to have been rooted in Bella’s perception that Christians were more refined: they were gloves, had clean nails, and spoke perfect English.  Some of it may also have been rooted in her experiences with anti-Semitism, such as the time she and her mother were lost, walking in a strange neighborhood, and were accosted by a group of boys who called them sheenies and grabbed and poked at them.

Most of Bella’s childhood years, however, were spent focused on her friends, books, and school.  In the introduction to the book, Ruth Limmer wrote that the schools Bella attended “were both ideal and wretched—wretched in their overcrowding (class size was forty-five to fifty); ideal…in that they were rigid in their demand that the students seriously attend to learning English.”  (p. xx)

The mission of the schools was to Americanize the children of the immigrants (of all backgrounds) by immersing them in English literature, American and British history, physical training and athletics, and culture. Limmer asserted that as a result, parents often became dependent on their children, who spoke English and who were much more comfortable with the American way of doing things.

The schools also tried to instill values, including discipline and obedience.   Limmer wrote: “The routines began when they arrived at school each morning.  No horsing around.  They were required to line up in order of height on sex-segregated lines and, at the bell, were marched silently to their classrooms.”  (p. xxii)  Bella’s description of her day at school is consistent with Limmer’s overview:

“At school, there was first the assembly period when doors rolled back and mediocre schoolrooms became a vast auditorium.  You marched in with your class holding yourself straight and stiff, turning square corners with military exactitude.  You looked out furtively from beneath your lashes to see if your teacher… noticed that your shoulders were back and your stomach in.” (p. 66)

The students would then salute the flag and listen to readings from the Bible every day, apparently a common practice in the NYC public schools until after World War II, a practice that certainly conflicts with Constitutional principles as we understand them today.

Bella was also a regular visitor to the city’s public libraries and spent her school vacations at the library, reading as much as she could.

Seward Park Library

Seward Park Library

Obviously, she was well-served by those crowded schools and those libraries, as she grew up to be not only capable of communicating in English, but to be a very successful professional writer who contributed to the American culture in which she had been immersed.

Bella’s life was very much confined to her neighborhood; she was at least ten years old before she did much venturing outside of the Lower East Side.  Once she and a friend tried to walk to Andrew Carnegie’s house uptown, but got no further than Fourteenth Street, where they were mesmerized by the department store and its escalator.  Another time she participated in a play with other immigrant children organized by the neighborhood settlement house, another agency engaged in Americanizing immigrant children.  The group of children performing the play went as far uptown as 96th Street, which Bella said was as far from the Lower East Side as any of them had ever been.

Otherwise, Bella and her friends stayed in their neighborhood, where she engaged in common childhood activities, including piano lessons and a sewing club.  There is no mention of religious education.  Overall, Bella’s childhood, despite the poverty and those incidents of abuse and anti-Semitism, was a happy one up through age twelve.  She was a smart, studious girl, but one who had many friends and who knew how to have fun.

Perhaps Bella was looking back with rose-colored glasses, but I’d like to take away from her depiction of her childhood a better feeling about my grandmother’s childhood in the Lower East Side with her siblings.  Yes, they did not have an easy life, and losing their father so young must have been terrible.  But they had their sisters and brothers and a mother whom they all adored.  I hope that like Bella, my grandmother also enjoyed school, played games, and had a network of similarly situated friends with whom to share some of the joys of childhood.

Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Spewack, Part I

I am now reading another memoir, Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side.  The author, Bella Spewack, had quite an interesting life.  She moved with her mother, Fanny Cohen, from Transylvania to NYC in 1902 when she was just three years old.  Fanny Cohen was just a teenager herself and had been abandoned by Bella’s father shortly after Bella was born.  They arrived in NYC with no resources, no money, no relatives to help them, and yet somehow Bella grew up to be a successful journalist first and then a very successful Broadway playwright along with her husband, Sam Spewack.  They are perhaps best known for the Tony award-winning play, Kiss Me Kate.

Bella wrote Streets in the 1920s while living in Berlin with her husband as foreign correspondents, but like A World Apart, it was not published until relatively recently (1995).  I chose to read this book to get an idea of what life was like for our family when they were living on the Lower East Side in the 1890s and early 20th century.

Whereas A World Apart failed to convey what life was like for poor Jews living in Galicia, Spewack does not shy away from depicting the hardships endured by Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side in the first two decades of the 20th century.  In the first chapter, Spewack describes how her mother scratched together a living in the early years after they first arrived in New York.  Like many young immigrant women, Fanny started by looking for employment as a house servant right after she arrived in the US. Fanny and Bella lived behind a restaurant those first days and shared a bed with two strangers.   When after some time, Fanny finally secured a position as a servant, she found the man of the house at her bedside in the middle of the night.  Fanny left and returned to the restaurant and started looking again.  Her second position was in Canarsie (Brooklyn), where she lasted somewhat longer until Fanny intervened to protect a girl living in that home from sexual assault.

My eyes opened wide when I read that they then returned to the Lower East Side and stayed with a woman they called the Peckacha who lived on Ridge Street. (The woman had a pock-marked face, and I assume that’s what the nickname meant.) This would have been in 1902, the year after Joseph died, when Bessie and the children were living on Ridge Street.  Since Frieda was then five and Gussie was seven, it is entirely possible that little Bella knew our family.  Of course, since there were probably thousands of people living on Ridge Street, it’s also possible and probably likely that they never met, but it made reading this section more meaningful for me as it helped me imagine what life was like for those other two little girls, my grandmother and her little sister.  Unfortunately, Bella’s experience with the Peckacha and her children was not a pleasant one.   The children would pick on her, both verbally and physically, while Fanny was out working.

Bella described Attorney Street, the street one block west of Ridge as like Orchard Street, “a market where fruit and vegetable dealers sell to the street and store vendors.  Cases, bulging with oranges or apples and watermelon, line the streets, while men with live, dirty hands darted among them with eyes that took in everything.  People live on these streets as well, rotting in their cases with the overripe fruits.” (p. 8)

lower east side

Fanny soon decided that she would prefer working in a factory to being a house servant.  Her next job was working as an operator in a ladies’ shirtwaist factory for $7.50 a week.  Bella and Fanny moved to Cannon Street where they lived with a widow named Pincus.  Bella went to a day nursery while her mother was at work.  The nursery was located in the basement of a building on Cannon Street, which Bella described as “gloomy but much warmer than the rooms all of us had just left.”  Overall, Bella’s experience at the day nursery sounded positive, with pleasant caretakers, but the days were very long, stretching past seven at night, and the space was overcrowded with too many babies and young children.

Unfortunately, once again Bella experienced some abuse.  Fanny trusted Mrs. Pincus, her landlady, to get Fanny up and to the nursery, and Mrs. Pincus ended up hitting and pinching Bella, once leaving her with such a huge bruise that Bella had to admit to her mother that Mrs. Pincus was abusing her. These experiences finally led Fanny to decide that she needed to find a place of her own where she would take in boarders to help pay the rent and provide her with some income.  She found a place in a new building on Cannon Street near Rivington Street, a three room apartment (bedroom, kitchen and dining room) with its own bathroom, and took in several boarders.

In the foreword to the book, Ruth Limmer provided a description of early tenement houses: “horrific five- and six- story dwellings that…lacked toilets, running water, fire escapes, and landlord-supplied hear and cooking stoves.” (p. xix)  By 1903, however, newer buildings had been built that were somewhat of an improvement.  “Now each apartment had, in addition to its windowed “front room”…another room that opened onto an air shaft, and interior windows were cut into the walls in order to permit a flow of air.  Little by little, the apartments were fitted with piping for illuminating gas. And instead of backyard privies, families got to share indoor toilets, two per four-apartment floor.  The law also required that fire escapes be affixed to all buildings.”  (p. xix)  The tenements were built on lots originally intended for single family dwellings ( 25 feet by 100 feet), but they housed over twenty families plus boarders in each building.

les interior

I imagine that this is like the apartment that Fanny and Bella were renting in 1903 and likely also what the Brotmans were living in on Ridge Street.  The census from 1900 did not list boarders as living in the Brotman household; perhaps Joseph’s income as a coal carrier/dealer was sufficient to support the family, though I doubt their standard of living would be acceptable to any of us today.

inside tenement

Bella described the many boarders, both men and women, who shared their small space, men sleeping in the kitchen, women in the living room and bedroom with Bella and Fanny.  You can imagine the goose bumps I got when I read that two of the young girls living with them at the beginning were named Frieda and Gussie.  Obviously, those girls were not our Frieda and Gussie, and those were common names for Jewish girls at that time, but nevertheless, once again the book made me realize that I was reading not about some foreign land or a work of fiction, but a work that reflects what life must have been like for the Brotman family living on Ridge Street in 1900.

More to come….

Tillie’s Story


Although I have no memory of meeting Aunt Tillie, I heard her name all the time when I was growing up. (I don’t know which spelling she preferred; sometimes it is Tilly, sometimes Tillie.  I have used both spellings throughout the blog.)  She was very close to my grandmother Gussie, and my mother and her sister and brother adored her.    She was described to me as a lot of fun: vivacious, outgoing, funny and loving.  It seems she was the one who provided a lot of the happy experiences for my mother and her siblings growing up.

Like my grandmother, she had a tough life.  She was born in 1884 and came to the US with Bessie and Chaim when she was 6 or 7 (census reports are in conflict; some say 1890, some say 1891).  In 1900 when she was sixteen, she was living on Ridge Street with her parents, her brother Hyman, and her two little sisters, Gussie, who was five, and Frieda, was three.  When her father Joseph died a year later, my guess is that Tillie must have become a second parent to Gussie, Frieda and the infant Sam.

In 1905 when she was 22, Tillie married Aaron Ressler.  At the time she was still living on Ridge Street with her mother and siblings.  Aaron was 26 at the time and was also living in the Lower East Side.  By 1910, Tillie and Aaron had three sons, Leo, Joseph, and Harry, all under five.  They were living at 94 Broadway in Brooklyn, where they owned a grocery store at 100 Broadway.  In addition, Gussie had moved in with them, choosing to live with Tillie instead of moving in with Bessie after she had married Phillip Moskowitz.  (Bessie and Phillip were still living on the Lower East Side in 1910, so moving to Brooklyn must have been a big deal for twelve year old Gussie.) Gussie helped take care of the boys while Aaron and Tillie worked in the store.  Family lore has it that my grandfather spotted my grandmother while she was sitting in the window of Tillie and Aaron’s store.

Life must have seemed pretty good for the Ressler family in 1910.  By 1918, however, things had changed.  On Aaron’s draft registration form of that year, he reported that he was not employed and was suffering from locomotor ataxia, a condition that causes pain and loss of muscle control and movements.  The 1920 census did report that Aaron worked at a grocery store, although it also said he worked at home.  They no longer lived on Broadway, but on Ralph Avenue in Brooklyn.  Aaron died six years later in February, 1926, leaving behind Tillie and three sons aged 20, 19, and 17.

Tillie continued to run the grocery store for some time after Aaron died. I cannot find any record of Tillie and her two younger sons in the 1930 census, but in 1940 she was living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx with Joe and Harry (Leo had married Mildred and moved to Connecticut by then).  According to the census, she had also lived at this same address in 1935, so at some point Tillie had left Brooklyn as a widow with two almost grown sons and moved all the way to the Bronx.  She never remarried and died at age 72 in 1956 after suffering from painful arthritis.  My mother remembers that she was treated with cortisone, perhaps excessively, and ended up dying in a public hospital on Welfare Island in NYC, where my grandmother would go to see her every week.

I don’t know why she moved to the Bronx, perhaps to make a fresh start.  My mother remembers that Aunt Tillie lived in a one bedroom apartment on the then-glamorous Grand Concourse with her two adult sons, Joe and Harry.  I don’t know how she supported herself after Aaron died, but somehow she did.  My mother was born after Aaron died, and so she only knew Tillie as a widow, yet she remembers Tillie as a happy, upbeat person who would bring my mother baked goods (and once a large easel) that she carried on the subway from the Bronx to Brooklyn on her weekly trips. Tillie was the one who held the family together—the one who encouraged my aunt Elaine to go stay with Leo and Mildred in Connecticut to broaden her horizons, who took my mother to baseball games, who could occasionally get my shy grandmother to socialize. When my sister was born in 1955, Tillie brought treats not only for my mother, but also for the other new mothers who were sharing the same hospital room.   She was a woman who was born in Europe, but spoke English like an American, who brought up three sons, took care of her sisters and brothers, and was one of the most positive influences on my mother and her siblings. She was strong and positive despite all the hardships she had faced.  I wish I had had a chance to know her.