My Life

by Esther Denker
(written at about the age of 12)

Submitted by Constance Cowan

Born March 23, 1910 in Jagielnica Austria-Hungary (Galicia)
Died December 12, 1998 in Miami Florida
Arrived January 22, 1921 on the La Lorraine

Inspiration is the greatest stimulus to success. Inspiration has led many of the poorest artists to become famous at a short interval and lack of inspiration has led many a genius to forsake his art and become just a mediocre man with mediocre ideas.  This story which I am about to relate would never have been written, if, however, I would not have had some one phase to animate some genius into me. Each and every incident of my life approaches my vision and becomes very vivid to me as I am reminiscing the adventures of Isidora Duncan in her great masterpiece, "My Life" and thus Isidora Duncan has inspired me to such a great extent, that I am unable to refrain, from relating one epoch of my life.

Of course, I do not profess to be a writer or to be classed in the same category with Isidora Duncan, but to relate the many tribulations of my life is my aim herein.

I was born in a little hut on the outskirts of Poland. We had two barren rooms - one that we termed a "parlor" and the other a bedroom that included the kitchen too. The pride of our household was a beautiful garden in the back of our humble home wherein we planted corn, cucumbers, peas and other vegetables each and every Spring. We cultivated this little garden and the profits that we derived therefrom enabled us to live comfortably.

When winter came, we were all under-nourished and underfed. A wealthy aunt of mine, who had compassion on us, asked my mother to allow me to work for her every morning before I attended school. At the age of six I used to dress early in the morning during the cold and wintry nights and deliver bottles of milk to every household who could afford it. As a token for this labor, I was given a cup of coffee each morning and also some tarts that I would bring home and divide among my brothers and sisters.

I did not recollect what my father looked like, due to the fact that when I was a baby of about three, my father left his native country to seek his fortune in the United States of America and we were left alone except for my grandfather, who struggled bravely to keep us from starvation. We were a family of eight and it was no small wonder that we were forced to go hungry for days, as we were too small to earn some sort of victuals for ourselves.

The day on which my mother fell ill will never be eradicated from my memory. It was a dreary and cold winter day. It was impossible for anyone to leave the house, as the snow was very steep. There was no fuel to keep the room warm; we had no money for milk to aid our mother in her pitiful suffering, no funds for physicians fees and no warm blankets to keep the chill away from the windows which was threatening my mother's life. The baby, who was then just six months old died due to the fact that my mother was too ill to nurse her. There was no one to pay for a funeral and thus the infant had to be buried in a little straw basket. My mother was in total ignorance of the death of her youngest born, but upon her recovery we had to convey to her the sad news.

One day in September, my eldest brother, while playing with his comrades, discovered that people were rushing to-and fro, gathering their belongings and fleeing from the town, with soldiers on hot pursuit. It was the beginning of the most memorable World War that took the lives of thousands of boys and men and thousands of innocent mothers and children.

We followed suit and gathered all our belongings and started to wander with the rest of the troupe. Wailings and mourning could be heard from every angle; mothers were crying for their children who were being parted from them; some slaughtered and others strangled with whips; anyone who disobeyed the soldiers commands was met with death.

Scarcely were we on the road, when a torrent of rain descended upon us accompanied by thunder and lightning. We were all dressed in summer clothes and were drenched to the skin as a result of the terrific thunderstorm.

We all prayed to God not to forsake us in this hour of suffering and anguish. Mothers with a brood of children left the little ones who could not walk to die on the lonely road.

Darkness was approaching and still the storm continued to brew. I was holding hands with my little sister Mary whom I had to drag along in the mud and slush.

We finally reached our destination which was a large wooden hall with straw strewn all aver the floor and which resembled more or less a stable. In the center of the room was a little fire burning by which we tried to animate some life into ourselves.

As a result of walking seven miles in the storm, we were all exhausted and as soon as we sat down on the floor, sleep conquered us all.

At about 6:00 AM of the next day, we had to resume our travels, for the soldiers were menacing us with their whips unless we moved elsewhere. Food was remote from our minds at that time, but the infants were moaning for some nourishment. Mothers stuffed the infants mouths up with handkerchiefs to stifle the sobs for whenever any resounding noise was heard, the soldiers would approach and either torture the babies beyond endurance or thrash the mothers.

Due to exhaustion and starvation, my mother fell ill together with my baby sister. The town was new to us; we had no money; people were in constant fear of trusting others and thus we were at a loss to aid our mother who had suffered so much for us.

My grandfather and the children slept on the floor without any coverlets, but my mother had a little cot and a thin blanket. There was an Immigrants Relief whereby each family was given one quart of black coffee and a half-pound of bread and this had to suffice for the whole family. None of us were dressed for the cold weather and although we wrapped rags around our feet, the snow went through the rags.

My mother's life was despaired of and it was through a miracle that she recovered. Each day and night found us all in the synagogue, praying for our dear mother's life and God in Heaven answered our prayers.

Our next sojourn was to Czechoslovakia where we were given a two-room apartment with $.50 for each individual. The inhabitants were amiable and treated us with the utmost respect for our unfortunate circumstances.
        
My brothers and my older sister attended school but I was not of age and my brother taught me the fundamentals of reading and' writing. My joy was over-brimming when I reached the age of six and could attend school with the rest of my brothers and sister. The girls were taught embroidering and cooking and to make themselves useful in the general household. Boys were taught agriculture and carpentry. We were very happy in our present surroundings and were gradually learning to forget our miserable sufferings and take refuge in our present happiness.

Our sorrow was indeed great when the Governor petitioned every immigrant to migrate to his or her own hometown. We felt as though we were leaving a part of our life behind, but our protestations did not grant us any favors and we were thus forced to go back to our hometowns.

After a most tiresome and hungry trip, we arrived at our little hut that was beyond recognition. The whole town was devastated; windows were broken, stores were robbed, beautiful gardens were completely ruined and most of the beautiful homes were completely demolished. Our humble home was not destroyed because it was not situated near the main road.
        
The first night of Passover, my grandfather was sitting at the head of the table, performing the Jewish rituals pertaining to a Passover night, when suddenly and without warning, we heard horses hoofs and someone demanded entrance into our home. I was very much frightened and alighted from my mothers lap and went over to my grandfather who proudly opened the door. To our great dismay, it was a Cossack.  He promptly and without much ado demanded rum and at the same time commenced to beat my grandfather with his whip. The Cossacks pulled the tablecloth off the table shattering all the dishes and upsetting our feast. Seeing a bottle on the window and deeming it to be liquor, they vanished just as completely as they came, taking the bottle with them, without stopping to ascertain what was contained in the bottle. However, their consternation must have been great, for the bottle contained kerosene and not the liquor which they were seeking.

The Cossacks were feared by everyone. I was then too young to understand the fear of the young girls for the fierce Cossacks, but it all comes back to me now. The first day upon our arrival at our hometown, my aunt whispered to my mother about some of the harm, which the soldiers had accomplished.

One young mother with a babe in her arms was imprisoned in her home and suffered the tortures of a Cossack. A few months later, late at night, a woman found her near a well, drowning two infant babies. The whole town knew about the catastrophe that had befallen this woman and shunned her, pointing her out to the whole community as a fallen woman. Each and every person knew that the same plight might have befallen any one of the women or young girls, yet they refused to acknowledge her wrong as something unavoidable. Her husband sent for her to meet him in the United States and she forthwith packed her meager belongings and took her only boy with her and left the hometown. Her husband is still unaware of the fact that she had borne two children of whom he was not the father and I don't suppose that he ever will find out about her past.

One day, a pretty neighborhood girl was standing near her home when two Cossacks approached her. She swiftly ran into her house which adjoined ours and through a rear door ran into our house and with a ladder that led to the attic, ran up the said ladder in great trepidation and pulled the ladder up with her. My mother was standing in the kitchen, kneading bread as she was preparing for the coming of Sabbath and was totally unaware of what was happening, when suddenly she was commanded to open the door. The Cossacks searched the whole house thoroughly but were unable to discover any identity as to the whereabouts of the young girl.

Thereafter the young girls were always hidden in the cellars and attics and were afraid to venture out into the streets. Many women and girls were forced to work for the soldiers, which Included peeling potatoes, cleaning their huts, boots and washing their underwear.

If any prosperous individual emerged into the street with a new pair of boots or an overcoat, the Cossacks would immediately help themselves. Our life was a constant fear of the Cossacks. Any incoming money was taken by the soldiers and thus we were cut off from the rest of the world for any help.

My infant sister, due to improper nourishment, started to walk quite late and when she was about three years of age, I took her with me to visit our little friends. On our way, she dropped an apple that she was clutching in her hand and due to her inability to walk, tried to push forward in order to pick up the apple. At that time a Cossack who was riding on a horse rode past and trampled her with the horse. Upon approaching her I thought she was indeed dead and commenced to exercise my lungs for help but found that she only suffered a few scratches and a dirty bib.

We had two boy cousins who were just a year older than my younger sister and I. At the time we were sweethearts, I was ten and my cousin was eleven. He was of great help to me in my studies, especially Russian, which I could not master as well as I did Polish and German.

The affair prospered so far that when my father sent for us to come to USA. I promised to send for him upon my arrival, which was only a child's promise. Nevertheless, I was indeed heartbroken to part with my little pal and cried many days on the trip to the United States. My grandfather refused to leave his native land and stayed behind in his barren little hut.

Upon reaching Berlin and in the act of boarding a train that would bring us to the Promised Land, a soldier demanded 100 marks for carrying our luggage and which my mother gladly gave him. However, when the train was about to start and everyone was inside, he commenced to argue with us and demand another 100 marks for his trouble. My mother refused to give him said money, whereupon he grabbed me, for I was standing right near the door and he tried to pull me out of the train. Everyone started wailing and succeeded in drawing me back but not before my hand was clamped in the door and I was unable to withdraw same. I lost consciousness and when I recovered, I found that my hand was bruised and I was unable to move same. I suffered intense pain and anguish throughout the entire journey.

Upon approaching the La Lorraine [steam ship to New York], the examining physician ordered all children's hair to be cut off in order to prevent malaria that was circulating among the passengers and immigrants. I had beautiful red curls that were the pride of my whole family. I was reluctant to have them shaved off, but it was a matter of choosing between going back to our native land with my curls or proceeding to my father minus my curls. I chose the latter and sacrificed my beautiful hair.

Upon reaching Ellis Island where we met my father, he asked my mother where the two little girls he left behind were and who the two little boys were, by reason of the fact that my sister and I looked like boys because of the shaven heads. My mother certainly had to do a lot of explaining.

Some day I hope to write about my life here in the United states, but at present I am unable to satisfy my aim, because my story would implicate too many of my friends. There are certain experiences about which even our best friends are kept in ignorance of and were I to relate them at the present time, many incidents would be revealed that have been heretofore concealed.


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