Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of a multipart series on the life and times of a young woman who came to America on her own in the early 1900s and made her way in a new country. The fourth part (“The Marriage of Freida Sima”) appeared as the front-page essay in the Jan. 15 issue; part six will run in March.
How does a 32-year-old spinster cope when two weeks after meeting the love of her life, she marries him and finds herself the stepmother of four boys ages ten to nineteen?
What if she wants to keep a traditional home but the boys and their father have been used to living for years as freethinkers?
How do they respond when less than a year later a new baby – a girl – enters into the family equation?
Where does this young mother turn when weeks after her daughter’s birth, her husband is stricken with a life-threatening illness?
This was the situation my grandmother, Freida Sima (Bertha) Eisenberg Kraus found herself in during the early 1930s, less than twenty years after she had come to America on her own as an immigrant girl of fifteen, in search of an education.
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Following a whirlwind courtship, Freida Sima and Mordche (Max) Kraus were married in February 1928. Insisting on a traditional Jewish home, Freida Sima reached a compromise with her communist husband: he would not interfere in household matters of religion while she would turn a blind eye to whatever he would do outside the home.
Things were less simple when it came to her four stepsons. At nineteen and seventeen, Hymie (Herb) and Sammy (Stewart) had been used to a very different way of life for years. Although they always treated Freida Sima with respect, soon after they realized she would not compromise on running a strictly kosher home they made plans to return to California where they had been raised and where their late mother Sadie had family. Hitting the road, they eventually reached Los Angeles where they began working in the jewelry business.
The two younger boys, Ben and Herschel (Harry) managed the transition with less difficulty. At fifteen Benny was more withdrawn than his brothers and adapted to the changes with little comment. Harry, on the other hand, seemed openly delighted to have a stepmother; his own mother had been incapacitated with heart disease for much of his young life.
The delight was mutual and he soon became for Freida Sima “my Harry.” That closeness grew through an interesting twist when Max reluctantly informed his new bride that he could not take her on their planned-and-paid-for honeymoon due to an unexpected painting job he had accepted.
“Just because you can’t go, Mordche, I’m not giving up on that honeymoon. I’ll take Harry!” she retorted. The two spent a week in the mountains, forging a bond that lasted throughout their lives.
Freida Sima recalled how on Yom Kippur eve when she prepared to go to shul alone, Harry suddenly stood next to her. Recalling the previous Yom Kippur when he and his newly orphaned brothers, living with their very religious grandparents, were told to accompany their zeidie to shul to say Kaddish and memorial prayers for their mother, he suddenly blurted out: “I don’t have to say Yizkor anymore because I have a mother again.” Taking his hand, Freida Sima explained that if he didn’t want to go he didn’t have to, and promised to say Yizkor for his mother for the rest of her life. And so she did.
As immigrants from Eastern Europe with similar backgrounds, the Kraus and Eisenberg families had much in common. During her first year of marriage Freida Sima found herself growing close to her in-laws as her own parents were five thousand miles away in the Bukovina. They, in turn, were overjoyed to finally have a child with a kosher home in which they could eat.