Ostropol, Ukraine

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Shirley B. Goodman

April 5, 2008

I remember the stories my parents told me about their lives in Ostropol. My mother’s father, Steinberg, was a boot-maker; as a rule they sole to peasants and the method of bargaining was for the seller to hold his palm out whereupon the buyer would strike his palm as hard as he could. This punishment would continue until one or the other could no longer endure it. That was the price. My mother claimed this had hardened her hand so well that she had a grip like a man. During the Revolution, the shop was regularly invaded by the Red Army and the White Army. The Soldiers would threaten to shoot my grandfather when he ran out of boots, and only the pleas of his 8 children could dissuade the soldiers from this terminal denouement.

My paternal grandfather Belfer had a shop where workers, local peasants and his own sons, manufactured coats on sewing machines. His position in the community was so prestigious that he became the president of a bank the local towns-people set up. He lost their confidence when he gave the husband, Dave, of my mother’s sister, Jennie, money to immigrate to America when Dave ran away from the Army. Jewish boys were seized for service for 25 years in the Russian Army. The grandfathers, Belfer and Steinberg, had a high regard for one another.

My dad, Bernard, refused to attend school any longer when he was 10 years old. His older brother, Henry, gave him a spanking when he came home from the Commercial Institute he was attending away from Ostropol. Henry could have been the first Jewish Sergeant in the Army in The Ukraine, but he declined the honor and subsequently migrated to NYC where the family sent him to Cooper Union. He did not attend for long because he knew how to earn his living on a sewing machine, he wanted to marry and he wanted to bring his family out of Russia.

My parents told me they were never hungry because they lived in the Ukraine, the breadbasket for eastern and central Europe, but they experienced pogroms where each person went to a friendly peasant family and asked to be hidden. During the last pogrom the Belfer family endured, Grandfather Belfer refused to leave his property and vowed to stay and protect it. His tormentors smashed everything up and tore his beard out. He became ill and died. The children and their mother were able to leave when Henry went to an uncle in Boston and asked for a loan which was scrupulously repaid.

The uncle took a lien on his home. The Belfers settled in Brooklyn in a large apartment. The younger brother, Sam, was only 14, so they sent him to school. He learned English and attended Columbia University and became a pharmacist. Unfortunately, he graduated during the Depression when pharmacy positions were scarce and so he became a Postman, when WWII came, he served in the Armed Forces and after the war, he worked for the Veterans Administration as a pharmacist.

One sister, Edis, had preceded them to the New World, but she was living in Brazil. She had married a jeweler; they traveled to a port, found a ship and asked to be taken to America. For the captain, America included South America, but the couple were unaware that there were two continents in the Americas. Eventually, the family sent them money for passage to New York City. Their oldest child was born in Ostropol, then middle child in Brazil, and their youngest in the US. Edis told a tale of how she wore a piece of liver between her legs so that the Russian soldiers would not rape her assuming she was menstruating.

Social customs were different in The Ukraine. Girls went out in groups holding hands and boys likewise went about in groups. But romance can bloom in the most trying circumstances. The young took on the job of sitting with those struck down by typhus; in this way a girl and a boy could be alone and at the same time, be performing a noble task. Typhus patients were watched until they either died or survived the crisis and their fever went down; the water the town drank came from a river that ran beside the town and was undoubtedly used for many purposes.

My mother Dina, attended the local Russian school in the primary grades, but her formal education ceased after that because the Rabbi of Osterpol (known in Yiddish as Esterpolya) stood on the bridge leading to the school and forbade the Jewish children to cross because the Rabbi feared they would be corrupted and convert, In addition, her father refused to let her continue. When he saw her deep disappointment, he hired a private teacher for her.

My father known as Bennie, likewise attended the primary grades. After that, he studied to become a cantor. When he knew the prayers and the songs by heart, he presented himself to be judged and was informed that his voice was not good enough. This rejection deepened his rejection of religion which he saw as an autocratic and narrow force binding the individual’s freedom.

Bennie and two of his brothers worked in the garment trade in NYC by day and attended night school in the evening. They attended for 3 months but were lured away by the movies. the silent films with the within dialogue. This was a far more entertaining method of learning English and had built in motivation. He had enough English and math to run a small business later when I was two years old and had the willingness to work hard which characterized the Russian Jewish immigrants. He observed that had they been willing to work as hard as the people in America, they could have had prosperity in Russia. Bennie was something of a philosopher in his way.

My mother, Dina or Dinah as her name was anglicized, had a rough passage coming over in steerage and for 3 weeks could eat nothing bur oranges. The ships had no stabilizers then. By the time she arrived in New York City, she had lost a considerable amount of weight. Her relatives greeted her warmly and observed that she was so slim she looked like a yankee. She arrived in 1921 when the fashions favored slim women.

Dinah and her brother, Hyman traveled to Philadelphia where their older sister, Jennie, and her family had settled. After a week in the U.S. , Dinah went to work in a dress factory. The foreman took her under his wing and taught her sewing skills and English. She spoke Russian and Yiddish at this point. When she knew enough English to get around, she began traveling to NYC to visit the Belfer family in Brooklyn, New York where she could see Bennie, her Esterpolya sweetheart. A year later, they were married and 2 years later I was born. My father was put out with Jennie who came to NYC for the wedding and stayed overnight with the bride and groom, sleeping between them. What a lack of discretion!

My mother gave me in an airing every day over the Brooklyn Bridge and back. She gained 50 pounds while she was pregnant because there was no understanding by the public that weight gain should be kept to a reasonable amount. During her last month she journeyed to Philadelphia to be with her sister Jennie who was 10 years her senior, and in this way I was born in my aunt’s house where we remained for 2 months.

In reviewing my stories of my parents ‘lives in Ostropol & the U.S., I have returned to life as it was lived in the last century, by the Belfers and the Steinbergs.

Their descendants have flourished in the United States. They include financiers, doctors, teachers, social workers, psychologists, editors in publishing houses, businessmen, nurses, bookkeepers, pharmacists, engineers, principals, writers, college professors, and dentists. They have served in the armed forces and are all loyal citizens of the U.S.

I am very proud to be one of their group; I have been wife to a very dedicated doctor and a mother to two children, I have been a high school teacher of English and a Psychiatric Social Worker, MSW. My daughter died in her twenties but my surviving son, Gordon is a lawyer and a Vice-President o an oil and gas company where he specializes in evaluating risk. His wife, Terri is an Assistant Vice Principal.

To paraphrase your motto, I would say, Jubilant in Victory, unbearable in Defeat.

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