Streets of Mud, Streets of Gold

by Fruma Klass

My father loved Fiddler on the Roof. He used to play the tape over and over, remembering the Polish-Ukrainian village he had come from. But he always laughed at the dance numbers. “Singing, yes,” he said. “People did sing. But how could you dance in mud?”

The streets of Podhajce were mud, all right, except in the heat of midsummer, when they were baked clay. The town of Podhajce (pronounced Podai”itz by its Jews and Podheitzer by its Christians) was hardly a town at all— it had almost no stores, for instance. The nearest city was Lvov, and that was days away by horse-drawn wagon. When you needed to buy something, you would wait for market day; occasional peddlers brought salt, cloth, newspapers. But Podhajce did have a church, a huge Russian Orthodox church that the main street led up to. Mostly, my father said, Jewish children avoided the street altogether.

The problem was the potatoes.

“It was whispered,” he said, “that if you went up to the church and said you wanted to become a Christian, they would give you potatoes. Even one potato, baked, maybe, or boiled, hot, with butter and perhaps even a little milk.... You can’t imagine what a potato could mean to children who were starving.” It was hard to resist, but no Jewish child ever took the bait. Probably the whispered tale wasn’t even true.

But they really were starving, not dramatically, like children in famines in Ethiopia, but gradually, steadily, nonstop. When my father was nine, he found a way into a flour mill and stole handfuls of flour, which he ate at once. He was never suspected and he didn’t do it often, but sometimes the hunger was too great. There were always more children in the family, and that meant there was always less to eat.

Although the family was getting larger because of the new children, it was also getting smaller. One or two at a time, the aunts and uncles were leaving Podhajce. They were going to America.

Now, you might wonder (I did) how they could afford to go to America when they couldn’t afford beds, or shoes. My father slept on chairs that were pushed together at night to form a flat surface a child could sleep on. His shoes well, fortunately, most of the children didn’t wear shoes except in the coldest part of winter. They walked through the mud with bare, cold feet. They didn’t dance.

In America, now, the streets were paved with gold. Everyone knew this, though they didn’t believe it, not for a minute. If the streets were gold, they reasoned, someone would have scraped up a little bit of it and sent it to Podhajce, to Galicia, to Poland. The uncles, the aunts who had gone ahead sent no gold; no one did. In fact, no gold ever arrived. Very wealthy people (yes, there were some) might have a tooth, or even two, capped in gold and glittering when they smiled. Otherwise, the only gold they ever saw was in the form of the fat globules that swam on the surface of the chicken soup, the golden soup they dreamed of. Sometimes, after all, there was chicken soup, even though, as the story put it, if a poor man ate a chicken, one of them was probably sick.

Streets of gold was just a dream. There was a much better reason to go to America.

Long before an American president said the phrase, they knew it was what they wanted, wanted badly enough to set out for an unknown world to find: Freedom from fear. To be free to walk down any street, even one with a church on it; to be free of the village toughs who with the tacit approval of the local government-appointed priests delighted in throwing a boy’s skullcap (or a boy, or a man) on the ground and jumping on it (or him); to be free of the all-pervading fear brought by the police, or the army-- if they took a man away, he might never be seen again; to be free, finally, of the ever-present terror of the pogrom, a word coined the year of my father’s birth for an old activity: the organized massacre of helpless people, specifically Jews. This was the reason they dreamed of golden America, not the simple desire to make a living. (Of course, if you could also make a living---)

Beyond it, one more reason, not usually talked about but there nevertheless: the yearning for something of a larger life, a chance to learn and to go as far as their own talents and skills could take them. And a chance for their children to go even farther.

Years before the new word pogrom for the old activity, the extended family was struggling to find ways to get to America. They succeeded. “That’s why your mother was born in America,” my father said. My parents were first cousins, but they didn’t meet until a year or so before they married. “By the time I got off the boat in nineteen-twenty,” my father told me,”some of the family was here already, and in different cities.”

How did they do it? What gave them the power to make this golden dream a reality?

They started with a meeting, a family meeting.

The time is 1903. The Kishinev pogroms have just taken place, supported and encouraged by a government that hates Jews. The family’s sense of urgency is acute. They know that pogroms are infectious, and it is just a matter of time before one hits in Podhajce. They know how vulnerable they are-- poor people in a flimsy wooden hut, with nowhere to run. They know that if--no, when--a pogrom hits Podhajce, they would be very lucky to survive. And they know that you can’t count on luck.

Of course, all the participants in that meeting have since died, and I know only what I was told. My father, who told me about it, was an infant in 1903, so he couldn’t have simply remembered. But the history was important, so it was told to him, and by him to me, and I can envision it almost as if I had been there myself.

The meeting would have been at night, because during the day they were all scrabbling at trying to make a living. It would have been in the home of the family’s patriarch, my great-grandfather. (His beard would still have been black then; he was not yet fifty.) And it would have been in the kitchen, the only room in the small house that could hold them all.

A couple of candles burn in plates on the table--or maybe just one candle; it’s not the Sabbath, and candles cost money. The room is rather dark, and close. They sit around the table, the patriarch and his six children. (There is no matriarch; in this world, women seldom survive long enough to grow old.) The oldest child, the one who will become my grandfather, is twenty-six; he is with his wife and baby (my father). The youngest is ten.

The question they are discussing is a terribly simple one: “How to get to America before the pogrom hits Podhajce.” And it is instantly obvious that there is no money for the family to go to America. By dint of extraordinary scrimping and saving, they might be able to come up with enough to pay the fare of one person!that’s all! just one person!--but never all of them, not even two of them. So the decision before them is a deceptively simple one: Which one person? Which one of them should they send to America to struggle and save and send back the money to bring the next one?

The one they send must be the one who can be most trusted to swim and not to sink in the strange waters of a new land and a new language. The one they send must be the one most likely to find a job with prospects, not just a dead-end subsistence job. And above all, the one they send must be capable of living on bare pennies so as to save up enough to bring a second one to America, and quickly. Then the two of them could pool their resources to bring a third, and a fourth.

There they sit in that dim hovel, straining to look at one another’s faces. Beyond their voices, there are no other sounds except the usual sounds of the night--the wind blows a branch against a wall, an owl hoots. The stuffy room is warm with their bodies. Who is the one who will rescue them all?

And they select--they select Fani, the fourth of the six children. She is no more than fifteen in 1903, and it’s impossible for us today to imagine entrusting all those lives to an adolescent. She has two older brothers--how come they don’t choose one of them? She even has an older sister, but the family doesn’t select any of those. No, it’s Fani, all right. She is the one who will go to America with the heavy responsibility of bringing over the rest of the family. She is the one they trust. The decision seems more than a little bizarre even today and certainly by the standards of the time, and more than a little frightening. But they were right.

In 1905, the year the Tsar’s government published the bogus but virulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Fani came to America, alone. She was barely seventeen. She traveled steerage, squashed in amongst hundreds of other immigrants in a slow, evil-smelling ship with no food other than whatever the shipping line provided. It wasn’t much for any of the steerage passengers, but for those who maintained kashrus, eating only kosher food, that meant just black bread and a reach into “a barrel of herrings.” She never talked about that voyage, except to describe her first sight of the Statue of Liberty, then still glowing copper, in New York Harbor. “Oh, how we cried,” she said. “Tears of joy.”

Almost at once she found a job. It was not the usual immigrant-girl job, in a sweatshop, although representatives of the larger sweatshops waited at Ellis Island for the new fish. And she didn’t succumb to the blandishments of the well-dressed, soft-spoken men who recruited for what was then called the “white slave trade” or, more obliquely, “Buenos Aires.” This extraordinary girl found a job as a photographer’s assistant, and learned English fast. And she started saving pennies for the next family member, a brother.

More than that. Within a year she was married, a marriage that was to last until her husband’s death at the age of ninety-five. (She lived to ninety-eight.) Her first child was born in 1907. And her hoarded pennies brought one brother from Podhajce in 1909, about the time her second child (the little girl who would become my mother) was born, and another brother in 1912.

Just about the time that they were ready to bring the rest of the family, World War I broke out and immigration stopped.

The Great War brought new difficulties to the family in Podhajce. Their particular corner of Poland changed hands several times; at one point it belonged to Russia, at another point to Austria-Hungary. The two older sons were drafted into opposing armies. My grandfather-to-be was terrified of inadvertently shooting his brother, and he devised a simple stratagem to avoid the front. He broke things--fingers, arms, legs.... It worked. He was left with an ungainly limp, but he never was sent to the front, and the brothers never faced the possibility of killing each other.

The worst part of the war for them was when two bombs fell on the house. Most of my father’s younger siblings were killed, leaving just two sisters alive. As soon as the war ended, they began once more to try to get to America.

By this time enough passage money had been saved for the whole family, especially since there were no small children. They came in 1920, barely beating the clang! of the gates of immigration closing to Eastern and Southern Europeans. My father remembered that trip, and entering the new country. He was sixteen years old. “There were all kinds of people,”he said. “All colors, all different kinds of was wonderful.”

All of them agreed. America was wonderful. You could apply to become a citizen--there were no corrupt magistrates to be bribed. No one was permitted to rob you, to knock you down, to trample on you--there was justice, genuine justice in this golden land. There were libraries, marvelous libraries full of books you could read free. There were night-school classes, also free, where you could learn English. All you had to do was get some kind of bare-rock job, live as a boarder in someone else’s flat, work hard, and save your money (they were used to that) and in a couple of years--five, ten, twenty--you could be doing something important, something useful to the world. One relative started with a pushcart on Delancy Street and moved up to his own dry-goods store; my father began as a sweeper in a furniture store and eventually became a fur cutter and then a union business agent.

Their children became doctors, lawyers, teachers; they included a theoretical mathematician, a couple of optometrists, a commercial artist, a department-store buyer, some sociologists, an accountant, a librarian, and a few rabbis, as well as musicians, mail carriers, and salesmen of everything from shoes to X-ray machines. And in each generation, some of them went to serve in America’s armies. As any of them would say, it was a small payment on the debt they owed America.

Because of their intensity of purpose, and the power it brought them, the old man and his six children got from Podhajce to America. They grew to thirty-one in the first generation. In America’s freedom and security, they grew to over a hundred in the second generation. Now, a hundred years after they anxiously sent all their hopes across the ocean on the shoulders of one frail seventeen-year-old girl, the family probably numbers several hundred; it is impossible to keep track of them all.

At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, when the people are forced to leave their little town of Anatevka, my father always got a little angry. “What’s the matter with these people?” he would demand. “Why are they sad?” Then he would cry out to the characters in the movie: “You shouldn’t be sad, you should be joyful! Don’t you know you are going to the land of freedom, the land of justice? You are going to America, to golden America!”

Copyright © 2004 Fruma Klass