I was born in December 1890 in Russia in the town of Volochisk. I came to Canada when I was almost fourteen years old. My father Henry (Chanokh) was in the reserve army of Russia. During the Russo-Japanese War, every Jew who could get away did, instead of serving the Czar. My father had the good fortune of having his grandfather, whom I remember, die. His grandfather was a “wealthy” man, and by that I mean he must have had 500 rubles (laughing). My dad’s share, as a grandson was 97 rubles. With those 97 rubles and a little loan amounting to about $3 from a friend who was going to America at the same time, he went to America. He needed that money to show Castle Garden, in New York, that he was not going to be a public charge.
Now, it wasn’t hard to run away from the army. You’d have a couple days leave. Our section of the country – my town, Volochisk, was close to the border, so it wasn’t so hard to run away. Volochisk was on a river [Zbruch], right near the Russian-Austrian border. You could smuggle across easily.
I smuggled across on a Saturday afternoon when I was fourteen years old. It was December 1904. It was cold, and the river was frozen. We were trying to get across because, you see, my mother already had tickets to come to America. She could get a passport, a border-crossing card, for herself, but not for us boys, because we had to stay home for the army. We went out on a Saturday afternoon. There were kids playing on the river. We threw snowballs at the Austrian kids, and they threw some back at us. The sentry – there was a soldier every few hundred feet stationed on the border – enjoyed seeing the Russian kids beating the Austrians. I saw I could mix myself up with the Austrian boys – I could speak a little Polish and German. My dad didn’t have enough to make a living, but, by golly, we had private tutors in Volochisk, because there was no such thing as a school; Volochisk was a little village. They’d teach us Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian, and we even had a German teacher who’d come across the border. Kids could go to the capital cities, to the bigger cities, to attend gymnasium.
We knew enough people across the border. When I mixed up with those boys, I told them I wanted to smuggle out of Russia, and they helped me escape. Two kids helped me. One took me under one arm, the other under the other, and we skated across. I had 50 kopecks in my pocket, which is about what 50 cents is now. So I gave them my 50 kopecks, that’s all I had, and told them I wanted to go to a certain place where there was a man, a commissioner on the Austrian side, who used to come across to Russia to buy eggs and lobsters and fish and geese. This man lived about two blocks from the river. When I got there, I saw there was a little synagogue on the bottom, and this man lived above the synagogue. He put me up for the first night.
Copyright by Estate of Bernard Wolf
This page is authored and maintained by Renee Gottesman and Helen May.
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Copyright by Helen May & Renee Gottesman 1998
Last updated July 1, 2012
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