Photo Credit:
The Scharf-Eisenberg family in America with Baba Devorah (front center, holding baby), 1933.

First there was New York. None of her visits to Czernowitz, the “big city” closest to Mihowa, could have prepared her for a city with close to seven million people, a quarter of whom were Yidden.

And the buildings! Avrum, now Abie, had taken her to see a tremendous skyscraper, the Empire State Building, which he called “The Empty State Building” because most of its floors were empty as no one had money to rent office space. Looking down at the city from the observation deck, she couldn’t believe how high up they were. This is what birds see, she thought, smiling, and if it were only a bit higher and she stood on tiptoe, she might even be able to see Mihowa beyond the ocean.

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Her children also took her to see a motion picture, something about a Tarzan man, and translated the dialogue for her. What a strange story – about a pretty girl who goes to Africa and falls in love with a handsome man who lived with the monkeys and protected the jungle. Her children loved adventure, and this was an adventure film, they told her.

Her family was indeed adventurous and special. From the moment she got off the boat they had treated her like a queen. When she took a bath, her Avrum would sit outside the door, talking to her the whole time to make sure she didn’t drown. He was always giving her American candy he carried around, something called “charms.” It meant chayn in Yiddish, he said, mazeldik chayn. And indeed he was mazeldik, lucky, with a good job on Orchard Street.

On several occasions Devorah visited him there on the Lower East Side. What a neighborhood, full of Jewish stores! But a few streets away they were gone and all you saw were Chinese people. Chinatown, they called it. The Chinese preferred to live together, just like the Jews, which was why so many of her family in New York lived near each other.

Her sisters and brothers in New York – Molly, Sadie, Joe, and Moshe Leib, and their families – either lived near each other or came to visit all the time, as did their children. There was Molly and her husband, Srul Nachman – he had been Molly’s teacher in Mihowa, a widower with two children, and now they had three more of their own. Sadie and Sam had three as well, Joe and Rifka had two, while Moshe Leib and Hudel had three – and their youngest, Minnie, was now Devorah’s daughter-in-law.

Almost everyone had an Avrum in their homes – it was comforting to Devorah that her father, who died so young, had so many handsome grandsons named after him.

The next generation had no boys yet. Benzion and Betty had Bernice, a sweet baby girl who reminded Devorah of her granddaughter Zilly in Mihova. Benzion was a butcher but had been a dental mechanic and he made tiny false teeth as a present for every new baby born in the family. How the mothers would laugh when they saw those teeth! (Benzion made a set for Zilly but by the time Devorah brought them home Zilly already had real teeth.) Freida Sima and Mordche had their Shirley with her big green eyes and Devorah’s fiery red hair, and Abie and Minnie had beautiful Muriel with her long black curls.

Like the “Tarzan man” in the film they saw, little Muriel was crazy about monkeys. During Devorah’s first year in America, she would take Muriel to the nearby Bronx Zoo every day to see the monkeys. What a place that zoo was – all those buildings filled with animals and in the middle the big round pool with seals and their long whiskers. They reminded her of some of her neighbors in Mihowa, with their long mustaches sticking out in all directions.

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Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is director of the Schulmann School of Basic Jewish Studies and professor of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. She is the author of, among several others, “The ‘Bergson Boys’ and the Origins of Contemporary Zionist Militancy” (Syracuse University Press); “The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain, 1938-1945” (Purdue University Press); and “Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory” (University of Wisconsin Press).