Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The second part, “The Education of Bernice Cohen,” appeared as the front-page essay in the Feb. 24 issue; part four will appear in April.
“I was sitting in our dining room on a Sunday, listening to the symphony on the radio and doing my homework. Suddenly there was a big interruption and a voice came on saying that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Nobody believed it. Everything stopped dead. And the United States was at war.”
With these words my mother-in-law, then known as Bernice Cohen, recalled the outbreak of the Second World War. December 7, 1941 would remain a date engraved in the minds of an entire generation of Americans. On that day their country had been violated, their world was changed, and they found themselves swept into the bloody conflict raging in Europe.
More than a year earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed the Selective Training and Service Act, instituting national conscription in peacetime. Few Americans objected to serving their country. Even among conscientious objectors, nearly half entered the military in a non-combatant role.
For American Jews, the wartime draft was not only an opportunity to express their patriotism, it was also their chance to fight Hitler. Bernice recalled her numerous relatives who served in the armed forces:
“My uncle Manny was drafted even though he was 32. He was in the infantry. One cousin became a military policeman and was shipped over to Bari, Italy. Another was sent to the engineer corps. A third ended up in the artillery and was sent to Burma, China, and India. Even my mother’s first cousin Delores became a nurse in the infantry and was sent overseas.”
Bernice now found herself at a crossroads. Filled with the same patriotic fervor as her cousins, the diminutive green-eyed teenager yearned to serve her country. But as the unmarried eighteen-year-old eldest daughter in a traditional family, it was unthinkable for her to leave home and join the military.
“I had wanted to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, but that resulted in a serious conference at home and the resounding answer was ‘no!’ My parents as well as my Zeide Victor and Bubbe Lena, who lived with us, would not even consider the possibility.”
So what could a patriotic Jewish teenage girl do to serve her country?
“Everyone regularly wrote to all the family members who were in the army so I became the family correspondent, my Bubbe Lena’s letter writer. She had a son, nephews, and a niece in the military and I became her editor-in-chief.”
One by one Bernice’s friends – from the neighborhood, from college, and from the Bronx YMHA where she had spent her youth – were drafted into the armed forces.
“Until then, American Jews had prayed for the Jews of Europe. Now, all day long you would also pray that these American boys and girls would come back. That became your new focus. So you sent them mail, you sent them packages, and your life was bound up with them.”
A few of Bernice’s Jewish girlfriends married their boyfriends before the young men went off to war; one was soon widowed when her husband was killed in combat. Others decided to wait until their young men came home before committing themselves for life.
“Luckily I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I was spared that choice,” she said with a smile.
Bernice wanted to do more for her country. True, she was going to college, working part-time at the Bronx Y, and helping out at home while her parents ran a Judaica store providing mezuzahs, taleisim (prayer shawls) and seforim (religious books) to the East Bronx Jewish community. But none of that was related to the war. What could she do for the war effort? How could she contribute to making America stronger so that her country could better fight Hitler?
Her chance came during the late spring of 1942 when she was nineteen and a junior at Hunter College. As the war progressed, migrant fruit and vegetable pickers were drafted, creating severe farm labor shortages.
“People in New York City don’t necessarily think of America as an agricultural country, but that’s what much of it really is,” Bernice noted. “They couldn’t use old men and women to farm, so logically they turned to the colleges, and particularly women’s colleges, as men were in the army.”
* * * * *
A year before the official creation of the Women’s Land Army, New York State had instituted a volunteer labor program that sent women to work temporarily on dairy and poultry farms, fruit orchards, and farm trucks from mid-July to early September. Bernice described the system:
“They came to the colleges, you were interviewed, you had to present a doctor’s certificate that you were in good health, and if there was a farm close by to where you lived, you were assigned to the needs of the farmers. You signed a contract for a minimum of one week’s work.”
It wasn’t every day that a young woman from a traditional Jewish family volunteered for farm labor, but for Bernice, the decision was an easy one. This time there were no family discussions.
“I have no idea how my parents felt about it. I just went. I was nineteen, a junior in college, living at home. I liked gardening. I liked the possibility of doing something for the war effort. People had to eat. People needed produce. So I signed up and was accepted.”
Within weeks she and two Jewish girlfriends from Hunter College were informed that they would be sent to a fruit farm in Lattintown (today part of Marlborough) in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
“Those girls assigned to a particular area were given a list of instructions and told to meet at the 42nd Street pier by the Hudson River Day Liner. As soon as we boarded the boat, our work began. The gorgeous scenery, the flowing water, the leafy trees were all ignored while we were given an orientation about our assignment. It was a beautiful day but we were there to work, not to sightsee.”
The group traveled up the Hudson River to Newburgh, where they were met by local farmers. The three Hunter College girls were assigned to an Italian-American couple, farmers who grew currants, string beans, and cherries, all of which were ready for harvest. For city girls accustomed to string beans in piles and cherries in baskets, it was a new experience to encounter them in their natural environment while still connected to the earth.
Long before the Federal Women’s Bureau raised the necessity of providing suitable accommodations for girls serving in the Women’s Land Army, New York State ensured that the volunteers would be housed in proper quarters.
“We were sent to a farm that had been turned into a hotel, owned by a boxer named Tony Canzoneri, a three-time world champion. It had a swimming pool, toilet facilities, and rooms where we three girls slept together. They provided linens; we brought our own hats, towels, and working clothes, and as it was an all-girl program, there was no problem of supervision.”
Bernice had already been away from home at a Jewish summer camp, but this was the first time she would be out of the house in a non-Jewish environment. Nearly all the girls in the program were non-Jews. How would they treat a traditional Jewish girl living with them? And how does one deal with kashrus on a large Italian-American farm in the Hudson River Valley?
Bernice had brought along a can or two of tuna fish “just in case,” but the culinary aspect of her farming adventure turned out to be remarkably uncomplicated. Breakfast was served in the residence dining room, “where there was cereal, milk, and fruit, so that was no problem whatsoever.” Lunch was eaten in the field, provided by the farmer who raised no eyebrows when informed of her dietary limitations.
“I was given a hard-boiled egg in the shell, tomatoes, and vegetables.”
Dinner was a repetition of lunch, “and that was that. We were there to work, not to eat.” As for the attitude of her young non-Jewish co-volunteers, none commented about Bernice’s refraining from meat, fish, or cooked food.
“We weren’t singled out as Jews, maybe because we were all white college girls, putting us in a different category from most young women our age. No one asked about our religion. And, of course, everyone was in this because of the war.”
The hardest part of the experience was the fieldwork.
“The work wasn’t easy, being a farmer wasn’t easy, and picking currants, those little red berries that were delicious to eat, wasn’t easy. I had never seen currants before and suddenly discovered that they grow in clusters close to the ground, so we bent down and began working.
“What city girl is familiar with farming? My partner and I figured that to get to the currants, we should first break up these green spokes they grow on.”
Seeing her plants being destroyed, the farmer’s wife quickly taught them the right way to harvest, on their hands and knees.
“By the end of the day my hands were red from the berries, my body ached, and when I closed my eyes at night I could still see rows of currants waiting to be picked!”
The young volunteers quickly fell into a routine. They awoke at 5 a.m., dressed, breakfasted, were picked up by their farmer, and were in the fields by 7. With the exception of a short lunch break, they remained in the fields until 3 p.m.
“We had hats to protect us from the sun, and the farmer’s wife would come by with water to make sure we were comfortable.”
Bernice discovered she loved the taste of currants, but she soon learned not to eat the fruit she was picking. “It made no sense. Because you were getting paid for your pick, and if you ate your dividends you were losing money.”
Bernice’s fear of heights turned her into an expert on harvesting currants.
“String beans grew on stalks, but to pick cherries you had to climb a ladder. So I said no thank you and remained where I was.”
Her days were spent crouching on the ground, moving down the rows of currants, all the while chatting to her partner. “Boy, did we bellyache about the work. It was hard, it hurt, but we felt were doing something for our country.”
The city-turned-farm girls may have been patriotic volunteers, but they were also young women with the usual impulses. Because their residence boasted a number of amenities, the girls initially looked forward to their hours off for socializing and recreation. The reality of farming changed their expectations.
“The only thing they told us in advance was to bring bathing suits,” Bernice remembered.
Knowing my mother-in-law’s love of water, I asked whether she’d had a chance to go swimming.
“You bet I did. That’s how I worked off the muscle cramps! There was a pool, a library, a radio, and even a tiny television set, which was a rarity in those days. In the evening we talked, listened to the radio, and one time the farmer took us to the movies. But you were in bed by 8:30. We were so tired. Who could stay up? Your muscles hurt so much. So we went to sleep.”
* * * * *
After a week of hard work in the fields, Bernice and her friends made their way back to New York City via the Hudson River Day Liner.
“We were all aching when we got off the boat, and looking forward to our bed at home,” she recalled.
That was also how she solved the problem of Shabbos: “We just came home for the weekend.”
Each girl was paid a base fee of 33 cents a pound for what they had harvested all week, against which the price of their room and board was deducted.
“So after five days I wound up with $1.32. That was my net pay. Obviously none of us did it for the money but for the country.”
Some of the girls returned for an additional week’s stint on the farm, but Bernice’s agricultural volunteering had come to an end.
“The summer was over, the Jewish holidays were coming up, and I had to go back and finish school. My fascinating, illuminating, patriotic adventure was over.’
By the next summer, when the Women’s Land Army was operating throughout America, Bernice was working full time. Unable to volunteer for round-the-clock activities, she continued corresponding with friends and relatives in the military, serving sporadically in war-related projects, some connected to her home away from home, the Bronx Y.
It was her longtime connection to the Y that comforted her as she waited to hear the fate of friends and family in the military. The Y was the organizational framework that had sustained her since childhood, and in more than one way was about to shape her future. But that’s a story for next month.
This installment of the Bernice Chronicles honors Bernice’s 94th birthday, the 29th of Shevat, which this year fell on February 25. Until 120!