The Bluz Family
Sheyna Bluz was my mother. Her parents, Zyvel Bluz and Ester Golda Erlich, had a large house in Rovno and employed servants. Zyvel was a successful merchant in the herring trade. He also was a religious man and served as a cantor at the synagague near their Josielewicza Street home. Zyvel and Ester had seven children: Fivish, Blumma, Sonya, Label, my mom (Sheyna or Szejna, born in 1912), Maurice, and Yoha, the youngest.
It was a happy household filled with plants growing up to the ceiling inside and pigeons outside (kept by my Uncle Maurice). Fivish, the eldest, was a charmer, Label was a studious Zionist, and Blumma and Sonya married young and had families of their own. Grandfather Bluz often traveled to Danzig on purchasing trips, buying herring and groceries for his store. As the Nazi influence grew in the mid nineteen-thirties he was restricted to specific "Jewish hotels" during his stays in Danzig; he became fearful and began to encourage his children to leave the country.
My father, William (Volf) Kagan, born in March 1908 in the Shtetl Kremenets some fifty miles south of Rovno in the western Ukraine, was the youngest child of Moses Kagan and Chana (G)elfant. Chana was born in Shumsk (Wolyn) Russia, and Moses Kagan was born in Brezetz (Wolyn) Russia. They had five children but a tragedy befell the family on a Friday night in 1910 when they ate a bad fish. Moses Kagan and his middle children died. Chana, who didn't like fish, and my father, who didn't eat any, survived, as did Usher, the eldest, who wasn't at home at the time. Chana never recovered from the loss.
Usher and his wife took charge of the household and my father grew up in this small house, never quite feeling at ease. After finishing all the schooling available to him, he began work in the
family businesses: a relative sold fabrics for military and civilian suits, and Usher had a small grocery store. As there were few opportunities in Kremenets or nearby, my dad left for Cuba in 1925, where the family had a cousin, and began to work as a clothes peddler. After a time, he formed a partnership and opened a small store in Havana.
Dad made two trips back to Europe from Cuba. On his first trip, in 1931, his brother Usher took him to Rovno where Usher bought his herring and grocery goods. There my father was introduced to Sheyna Bluz. After a correspondence with her from Cuba, dad returned to Eastern Europe a second time in the fall of 1933 and stayed for some six months while he courted my mother. They married in Rovno in the spring of 1934, but after the wedding, dad had to leave alone, as his visa had expired. He waited in Paris for two weeks until his young bride joined him and together they left for Havana. As mom had never learned to cook at home, the Cuban women around her showed her how. I grew up thinking that Arroz Con Pollo, Picadilla and Paella were Jewish dishes! They came over to New York City by way of Florida in 1939.
My mom's younger brother, Uncle Maurice, survived the war. He had learned to make false teeth at a dental school in Rovno. However, being known as the son of a wealthy man made collecting his payments difficult. In 1936, he decided to move to Kremenets into the house of Usher Kagan, and began dental work there where he was not known.
Every few weeks, he would return by train to Rovno for a visit. On one weekend, his father, Zyvel Bluz, visited him unexpectedly. The Polish military police had come to the house in Rovno for Maurice; he had been drafted into the Polish Army. He couldn't return home anymore. Rather, my grandfather advised him to leave Kremenets at his usual travel time and go to Danzig instead. There he should buy passage on a particular ocean liner leaving for America (being an unknown in Kremenets, he could buy the necessary papers cheaply that would be more costly for him in Rovno as a wealthy man's son).
As instructed, Maurice went to the busy wharf at Danzig and boarded the ship. Looking down upon the hectic crowd below, he saw his father, well dressed as always, looking up at him from the recess of a steel beam supporting the wharf's roof. In a final gesture of farewell, grandfather took from his pocket a white handkerchief and pretended to blow his nose as he waved goodbye to his son. Such were the fears that Nazi spies were everywhere, watching.
Also surviving the war was my first cousin, Moshe Kagan (b. 1922), the son of Usher Kagan. Moshe had learned about the dental trade from Maurice, and he took up the trade after some schooling in Rovno. Moshe had graduated from the Kremenets Gymnasium in 1938 and went to live with the Bluz family in Rovno while attending the Rovno Dental School. After a year of training, a notice asking for dental workers to go to a clinic in Baku drew his attention. Baku had a rich oil industry and they needed skilled medical people to replace those professionals sent to the Russian-Finnish front; good pay was being offered. As his parents in Kremenets were unable to stop him, he went - he was just seventeen.
Until The War began in the summer of 1941, all went well, but afterwards, food became scarce, and scurvy and other illness took hold in Baku. The move to Russia had saved Moshe's life but as a foreigner he could not enter the regular army. Late in 1943, a second Polish army was formed within Russia; with his education, Moshe was accepted as a minor officer.
Moshe entered Berlin with his Polish regiment in 1945. At the war's conclusion, he slipped away from his comrades to join a Polish underground that helped Jewish refugees escape to Israel. In 1948 he, too, left for Israel, where he joined a pioneering Kibbutz, Shamir, and met his wife Sali. Moshe is a well known artist and regional archeologist.
I was born in New York City in 1946. My oldest brother, Martin, was born in Havana in 1936. Martin came with my parents to New York from Miami by train in 1939. He only spoke Spanish then, and thought the kids he met were "loco". He became a lawyer. It turns out my folks never included him on their naturalization applications, so officially he wasn't a citizen. A dozen years ago, some INA wisenhiemer wanted to deport him. My middle brother Sam and I thought that was pretty funny, for a while.
My parents didn't say much about the Old Country. Occasionally, my father and I would go to the lower Eastside of Manhattan on a Sunday morning and visit the "shmattah-shops" to buy socks or underwear. My dad would converse in Yiddish with the owners, pleased to be back in that element again, with all those shoe boxes along the walls and with the Jewish newspapers. Afterwards, we'd visit a Jewish delicatessen like Katz's Deli, which had a self-serve seltzer fountain and a sign proclaiming that it was the original Katz's that coined the "Send a Salami to your Son in the Army" slogan. All that is nearly gone today; the change started in the 1960's. I recall our last trip when my dad bought a suit for me at Newman Brothers. The salesman said the days of Landsmen bargaining in Yiddish were over, we were in America now. Those pleasant Eastside Manhattan trips stopped (except that Katz's Deli is still there).