Photo Credit:
Freida Sima in America, age 18 (1913)

What makes a ten-year-old girl, born in 1895 to a Vizhnitzer chassidic family, decide that her life’s dream is to get an education?

What drives the eldest of eventually ten children to face down her autocratic father, enabling both her and her sister to continue their schooling when he wanted them to stay home and help with the younger children?

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How did she manage, even before she was fifteen, to convince her parents to let her postpone marriage, leave home, and travel close to five thousand miles to a place where she hoped she could fulfill this dream?

And what happened when after her arrival all her plans had to be revised, as nothing was as she thought it would be?

The girl in question was my grandmother, Freida Sima, the eldest daughter of Devorah (Scharf) and Nachman Ensenberg. She became one of the two million Jews who left Eastern Europe for America during the “Great Wave of Immigration” (1881-1914).

Each immigrant had his or her own story, his or her own reasons for immigrating, his or her own dreams of a new life. Most came for economic betterment, many came as refugees from pogroms, some came just wanting adventure.

My grandmother’s reasons were not the usual ones that might have been expected from a young chassidic girl who had been brought up in a Bukovinian shtetl, but then again, her life, even before emigration, was somewhat different from that of her contemporaries.

This is the story of a Jewish farm girl who at seven could milk a cow faster than an experienced milkmaid and at ten could outrace local boys bareback on her father’s horse. It is also the story of a girl who adored the schoolroom and chose geography books over the Tzena Urena most girls read at the time, who preferred education to marriage and was willing to leave everything dear to her to achieve this burning desire.

It is the story of how my grandmother, even before she was fifteen, decided to move to America.

* * * * *

My grandmother was born in 1895 on Friday night Shabbos Bereishis, following Simchas Torah, and was named Freida – joy. Her personality was like her name: cheerful and optimistic. It was this optimism that kept her going to fight for what she wanted and her cheerfulness that allowed her to cope with setbacks in her plan. And it was her deep faith, instilled at home in her youth, that enabled her to deal with what life had in store for her – a life she never could have dreamed of as a girl in a village called the Mihova.

Right before marrying Nachman, Devorah had lost her father. Knowing how much her mother, Malka, adored babies, Devorah sent Freida Sima, shortly after she was weaned, down the road to live with Malka to distract her from her loss.

Freida Sima’s first memories were of her grandmother Malka’s farm. Barely thirty-five when she was widowed, Malka was attractive and surprisingly independent. Knowing the importance of being able to cope on her own, she taught her children not only homesteading and farm skills (hence my grandmother’s excellent milking ability) but also to speak their minds and follow their dreams.

At five Freida Sima found herself back home, now the eldest of three. Freida Sima had neither her mother’s red hair nor her father’s fiery temperament and cheerfully adapted to being the responsible older daughter. Nachman, whose adoration for Devorah had once been the talk of the town, was equally enchanted by his firstborn, now the apple of his eye.

With baby Avrum not yet old enough to help on the farm, Nachman taught Freida Sima to ride bareback, rope cows, and climb trees in order to bring him the finest apple from the topmost branch. To his way of thinking, however, what went on at the farm stayed at the farm, and he was more conservative in his attitude toward his daughter’s education. Although he reluctantly agreed to let Freida Sima attend cheder to learn the basics, as did many girls in the Mihova, Nachman would have preferred that Devorah teach their daughters what they needed to know.

This was the beginning of a clash between Freida Sima and her father that would change her life. As long as she could remember she had wanted to learn. She absorbed reading, writing, languages, numbers, and Bible stories as a thirsty person gulps water. Luckily, in accordance with Austro-Hungarian law, the local cheder taught secular studies along with Jewish ones, and for a fee the melamed allowed those girls whose parents sent them to cheder to study along with boys.

Freida Sima started cheder at five and two years later was joined by her sister and brother, no small financial burden for her father. A farmer and lumberman, Nachman was comfortable but at the same time aware that his livelihood depended on contracts to chop down local forests. By the time Freida Sima was ten and Marium eight, he also had three sons to educate (a fourth having died in an accident). He therefore decided the girls had received enough formal schooling and informed them their cheder days were over.

Freida Sima’s calm demeanor crumpled. She’d already heard that in the city there was a gymnasium where one could study after cheder, but one first needed at least eight years of school. She knew the gymnasium took boys, although she was certain there must be a place in the Bukovina region where girls continued their studies. But how could she get her father to change his mind?

Knowing Nachman’s love for her and his enjoyment of a “bargain,” she combined them for her benefit. When he came home and sat in his favorite chair, she congratulated him on closing yet another lumber contract, and offered him a deal.

At eight, Marium was still a schoolchild in everyone’s eyes but Nachman’s. If he removed her from cheder, people in the Mihova might look at him askance. Marium was, however, a reluctant student while Freida Sima thirsted for knowledge. She therefore proposed that she and Marium split childcare and schooling, saving Nachman one set of cheder fees. Nachman would save face by leaving Marium in cheder for another year or two and Freida Sima could continue her education.

How she got Nachman to agree is a mystery, but he acquiesced, reminding her the arrangement would continue only as long as her mother was satisfied with their help with the childcare and housework.

Freida Sima loved everything about cheder in the Mihova. In later years she only remembered the positive, unlike her brothers who told stories of old melamdim falling asleep while teaching. Her favorite subjects were Bible, arithmetic, and geography. She was particularly fascinated by rivers, memorizing the tributaries leading from the Mihova to the Danube and into the Black Sea which she recited to me sixty years later. A natural linguist, she spoke Yiddish at home, picked up Ruthenian from neighborhood children, and learned Hebrew for prayer and Bible studies.

* * * * *

Soon after she reached bas mitzvah, Freida Sima’s idyllic educational life was threatened. In 1908 her father’s job of lumber-overseer took the entire family to the marshlands and forests of East Galicia, known as the Kresy, on a five-year contract. Accustomed to the Bukovina, where Jews were literate, solvent, and had owned land since the 1860s, Freida Sima was horrified by the poverty and illiteracy she saw among Kresy Jews, whom she termed “real country bumpkins.”

The cheder in their new village was nowhere near Mihova standards and it was almost unknown in the Kresy for older girls to study. However, for a tiny sum the local melamed would let anyone sit in the back and listen. Freida Sima’s thirst for education had intensified with age; Nachman was earning well and the sum could be found, but would he agree?

Now she used a different rationale. True, another baby boy had just been born, but as they were not on their farm there was less work to be done. In their new and somewhat dangerous surroundings it would be prudent if she or Marium could accompany their little brothers, Avrum, Ben-Zion and Srul, to cheder and back. If she was already there on alternate days, maybe Nachman could find the tiny sum to let her stay and learn a bit.

Devorah probably intervened as she was the only one who could have convinced Nachman to agree, but agree he did and Freida Sima spent alternate mornings sitting on the back bench in cheder absorbing everything she could.

But as she passed her thirteenth birthday, Freida Sima began worrying how long this state could continue, realizing her father, a firm believer in early marriage for girls, would soon try to marry her off to a local boy. For a girl who dreamed of getting an education, the idea of a match with an illiterate boy from the Kresy whose greatest ambition was to afford chicken for his Friday night soup was horrifying.

“Not only will I have to stop studying when I get married, I’ll die a slow death if I end up like that,” she told Marium. “Better Tateh should just kill me and be done with it.”

Marium understood her sister’s fears, but for her the prospect of marriage was still far off.

“I’m sure you’ll find a way out of it, Babaleh,” she comforted her older sibling, using her family nickname of “little grandmother,” given after a serious childhood illness.

“Maybe if you tell him that you only want a boy from the Mihova he will be willing to wait until we go back home.”

Knowing her father well, Freida Sima didn’t even try. She would have to solve this dilemma through a different type of bargain that would make it worthwhile for her father to let her to leave the Kresy while still single and continue her education.

What were her choices? If she went back to the Mihova she could live with Baba Malka, but she was almost too old for the local cheder there. Big cities like Czernowicz or Lvov probably had a girls’ gymnasium, but where could she live and how could she afford the school fees? Nachman certainly wouldn’t pay.

The harder she looked for a solution, the more she realized that only one option might solve both her problems while offering her father something in return: She would go to America. But it would have to happen soon, long before she turned sixteen, her mother’s age when she married Nachman.

All this would require planning. Her first step was to convince her mother, a secret adventurer at heart, of her plan. Devorah understood that her daughter would do anything to continue her education, even if it meant leaving her beloved parents and moving across the sea.

To Nachman she stressed that if she joined the family in America she could do what myriads of Jewish immigrants were doing – find work and send money back to Europe. And family there was. By that time the Scharf-Ensenberg family already had quite a representation overseas. Feter (Uncle) Yossel, Devorah’s mother’s cousin, had moved to New York at the turn of the century where he worked as a winemaker. He then brought over some of Devorah’s siblings including her brother, another Yosef who worked at the Astor Hotel. The younger “Uncle Joe” was a colorful character, instrumental in sending money to buy tickets for his siblings. Now it was time to help the next generation and the first in line was his eldest niece, Freida Sima.

Nachman loved his daughter but was also aware that his eighth child, Elish, had just been born. While each child brought mazel, there were also needs and expenses. Tempted at the thought of additional income, one less mouth to feed, and one less dowry to provide, Nachman recognized the benefits of Freida Sima’s plan.

No one mentioned marriage and it was understood that the family in America would help her find a suitable match, possibly a relative. Weighing the situation, Nachman sighed and gave his oldest daughter his blessing.

In late 1910 my grandmother began preparing for her month-long journey to America, dreaming every night about how she would start a new life, finding part-time work and continuing her education. As she climbed into the cart to leave, five-year-old Srul ran after her, fist raised and calling his farewell. “Babaleh! Halt Yiddishkeit!” (“Keep Judaism!”), as even five year olds knew America was a treife medine, an unkosher country where too many Jews gave up the religious customs of their forefathers.

“I will, Sruilinkeh,” she called back, not dreaming what such a promise would eventually entail.

When my grandmother waved at her family until they were no more than a speck in the distance she had no idea that very little would turn out as she planned – not work, not marriage, not even her education. But that is a very different story, one we will take up next month.

 

Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz and her family will be celebrating the 120th birthday of her grandmother Freida Sima (who passed away in 1984) this Shabbos, parshas Bereishis.

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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).

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