I am curious about my forebears. I don’t grow up with any sense of history, my father’s generation wants nothing so much as to erase every taint of the old country and their Yiddisher past. It is a mad dash to Americanism.
Moritz Moses is my father’s father. At 21, he and Gazella leave their shtetl in Piotra Neami, Romania, travel to Liverpool overland, and set sail on the Lake Champlain to Canada, final destination New York, packed in steerage with immigrants from all over Europe, whole families with little children and old men, from Russia, from Poland, Germany, a polyglot community with one common language, Yiddish.
Moritz is a barber by trade. He and Gazella rent a walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side on Fourth Street and by 1910 have two children, Fannie, 8, and my father Sigmund, a toddler. By the next census in 1920 they have three more children, 8, 6, and 4. My father, the only boy, is 12 and his older sister works as a bookkeeper but still lives at home. Beds are scarce, privacy is rare. My father sleeps on two chairs pushed together and the bathtub is in the kitchen, when not in use it is covered and used as counter space. The toilet is in the hall and shared by five families.
Moritz and Gazella do not always get along, it is rumored that my grandfather has an eye for the ladies. When they refuse to talk directly to one another the children act as go-betweens, ma, pa says he wants chicken for supper, pa, ma says she needs a dollar for the butcher.
In 1924 Gazella dies on the operating table while undergoing gall bladder surgery. She is 42 years old. After her death the children pitch in to keep things going, cooking and cleaning. Moritz does not remarry, he opens his own barbershop and becomes the head of the First Piotrer Sick Benevolent Society, has a mustache, a little portly maybe.
One by one the children get married and move away, get drafted, until only the youngest is left, Esther. She has to stay and keep house for her father, this is the way things go and she is stuck without a chair when the music ends.