The Matusow Family
This information was written by H Joseph Matusow and donated by D. Dav.
Having reached my 80th birthday, and being the lone survivor of the children of Solomon and Feige Matusow, I feel a responsibility to chronicle the lives and fortunes of our family.
Bereshit - from the beginning
For me, history is something very real. The past lives on. I lived through that part of history which included six wars and many revolutions, one of which resulted in the overthrow of the Russian Government and the assassination of Czar Nicholas and the Royal Imperial Family, the inner struggle between Lenin and Trotsky which resulted in the emergence of Russia as a Communist country under Lenin. When Russia changed to an atheist government it affected Jews and Christians who were no longer free to practice their religion. Communism cast its shadow on the entire world and gradually encouraged and forced other countries to embrace Communism as their form of Government. To this very day, Communism is one ideology under which people cannot live in peace and freedom.
I have seen changes in living and working conditions of people, most of which can be attributed to unionism. I have seen development in science of medicine that eradicated most of the major diseases, including measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, polio, typhoid fever, and medicine to control diabetes, heart conditions, and even cancer. I have seen development in gas, water and oil, automobiles, airplanes, radio, television and many other inventions that have bettered the lives of all people.
I saw women's suffrage enacted. I saw prohibition come and go. I saw anti-Semitism diminish in America. I lived in the time when six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped to end World War II, but it left us with a weapon which threatens to destroy the whole world.
I saw Israel gain her independence and the miraculous defeat of all the Arab countries in the Six Day War and later in the Yom Kippur War.
I lived at a time when assassinations took the lives of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, in addition to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the leader of the Black Americans seeking equal rights, especially in the South.
I saw President Nixon resign from office because he participated in the Watergate scandal.
I saw the beginning of a peace movement for Israel when President Carter initiated peace talks with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, as well as Sadat’s visit to Israel. Finally, I saw our astronauts reach the moon and return. These are only a part of the events that I witnessed, so with all of the facts, how does one begin to write a history?
Molly Picon in her own story asks the very same question of her husband, Jacob Kalish. His answer was from the beginning, “Bereshit.” The most difficult part for those wishing to write their memoirs is the beginning, as it takes one back so long in time. If perchance a person has a diary or historical records to guide them, it could be called a history or an autobiography; but when one must depend on his own memory of things that occurred in his lifetime, it is truly “memoirs.”
My earliest recollection of our family history dates back to the year 1908, when I was four years old.
My parents, Solomon (Zalmen Laib) and Feige nee Levitt, had twelve children, two of which died in infancy. The other ten, which consisted of five girls and five boys, grew to adulthood. I was the youngest of them all.
Their names, according to seniority were, Sarah (Sorke), Benjamin (Berke), David (Dodge), Anna (Chashke), Clara (Chyke), Bertha (Bracha) and Helen (Hennie) were twins, Isidore (Isaac), Hymen (Chaim), and Joseph (Yoshke). It is about my parents, brothers and sisters that my story will be written.
We lived in Russia, in the state (Gubernia) of Vitebsk, in the township (Gorod) called Surazh. Our town was bounded by the Dvina River, which was a major waterway, and was split by a tributary called the Kasrlea, which flowed into the Dvina River. Thus, there were two parts to our township. We lived on the lesser side.
Our street (gass) extended from the river’s edge to the main street, which was the road used by wagons, coming from and going to Vitebsk. This road extended to the edge or the “Kasrlea,” which had to be crossed in order to reach the main part of our township.
The crossing was by a small footbridge or by a ferry operated by a hand cable. The bridge and ferry were operated by an individual owner whose name was Layzer, who charged local residents a half kopeka (a tzweir) to cross and transient workers a kopeka. The ferry was used mostly for animals and wagons, and the charge was more. The river Kasplea at this point was not very wide. In the winter the river flowed over and crossing was over the ice.
Our side of the town had homes, stores and workshops. There was a tannery (kashevna). There were shoemakers, carpenters, fisherman, blacksmiths, a dry goods and sewing shop, a bakery, a general store (krome), a liquor store (manipolia), a butcher, a post office, and a police station. There was a primary Russian school (Class), which was free, but not compulsory, attended by boys and girls. There was a church and a synagogue. Hebrew was taught mostly by Melamdim (Jewish teachers). Some took on individual students; others had a Cheder (Hebrew school). One of them was run by Rabbi Grenem, who may fit in later in my story. There was also a small Yeshiva for advanced students, conducted by a recognized Rabbinical teacher, whose name was Rabbi Naftolye. There was a bathhouse and Mikvah. There were a few orchards and further out there were farms and pastures.
Most of the stores that I mentioned were located on the main street, as they catered not only to the town’s people, but also to transients passing through our town. There were some stores and workshops on the other streets.
The main part of our township was more populated and had more stores, businesses and workshops operated both by Jews and non-Jews. There was a marketplace where townspeople and those from neighboring towns came to purchase their supplies. There were a number of Russian churches and one large synagogue. This part of town had Russian and Hebrew schools, also a high school-junior college, which was named, “Gratzkoya Utchiuiasta” in English, Gratz Institute. Graduates from this school were eligible to go to professional schools located in large cities. Students wishing to enter Gratzkoya had to pass an examination and pay for tuition and books. There was a town square where people could sit on benches or walk around (spatzir) for pleasure. There was a landing for the River Steamer (Parachod), which came from Vitebsk three times each week and went along the Dvina River to Velizh, stopping at some of the larger towns bordering on the river.
The population on this side of the river was much greater and had many more Gentiles than Jews. The outskirts had farms, mostly operated by Gentiles, who in most cases were tenant farmers, also forests (vald) owned by rich landlords (poretz).
The main police station and jail (astrog) were there. Hearing and trials for local, minor crimes took place in front of the chief of police (pristiv). Serious crimes and crimes against the state or government were sent to Velizh, the county seat, for hearings and trials. The main post office was also on the other side of the river.
Business was conducted by various methods; for example, barter sales of goods in exchange for goods or services, but mostly for cash. Goods and products which were not made or raised in our town were brought from Vitebsk, Velizh, and sometimes as far as from Riga. The mode of transportation was by wagon, coach, and river steamer. In the winter it was by sled. An express man was called a balegola, who could be hired to take you from place to place or bring in products for your store. Local merchants and peddlers would take their products to farms and small villages. Periodically, there would be a bazaar (yarid) in a town where the merchants brought their goods to the people who would gather to buy their supplies, which would last them until the next bazaar.
Our town was comparatively a safe place to live. We knew of no such things as pogroms. Disturbances occurred mostly when transient workers, who worked on farms during the harvest season or those who would pass through the town on the way to forests adjoining to cut trees, would get drunk and rowdy. The police would generally take care of these matters. However, there was a group of Jewish men who formed into a town watch, who would take care of things if they got out of hand. The police under the Pristiv were divided into two parts. The Gardavey were guards who carried no arms, and the Strazhnicks carried swords and guns. They were in charge of the Utup, which marched the prisoners who had to be taken to Velizh for trial or to jail.
Weatherwise, spring would start at about the middle of April, and mild weather would continue to the end of June. July and August were warm, and September was mild. By October and November it was cold. Winter was extremely cold, and the snow often stayed on the ground the entire winter.
Stoves were used for heating and cooking and were fired by wood, wood shavings, and sometimes peat moss. Kerosene lamps and candles were used for lighting. There was no outside lighting. Those who ventured out at night would carry a lantern (founar).
There was no plumbing. Outhouses were used for toilet facilities. Water was kept in a barrel and replenished from the river. If a person could not handle the pails, they could hire a professional water carrier, who charged a small fee for his service. Bathing facilities were available at the bathhouse (bude). In the summer bathing was also done in the river. Clothes were washed in the river too. There was a Mikvah for ritual bathing.
Health needs were provided by a Felsher who had served as an apprentice to a doctor and, therefore, had some knowledge of medicine. An Apteker (a pharmacist) provided simple medication such as Quinine, Mustard Plasters, and various salves used to stop infection, bandages, and medication for bug bites, lice, roaches, etc. Serious cases were sent to Velizh, or Vitebsk, where there were doctors and hospitals. Births were usually attended by midwives.
A barber known as a sherer or goller was able to place vacuum cups (barikes) or place leeches to draw out impurities.
Musicians known as klezmer were hired for weddings and other simchas. The Chevera Kadisha took care of preparing the dead for funeral services and burials.
Our home consisted of two houses. The first was a small house, which we used as a factory (mysterskaya), where my father made and repaired boots and shoes. Having a sewing machine, which few of the other shoemakers in our town had, he was able to provide service for them. He also made and repaired other leather and canvas goods. It had a stove, which my mother used for cooking and baking. Above the stove there was a boidim (loft), which was used for sleeping quarters. Heat from the stove provided a comfortable temperature.
This was the original house and when the family began to grow a larger house was built. This house was more modern and contained a large room (zall), which was used as a living room/dinning room in addition to two bedrooms and a place for a stove used mostly for heating. The stove had a brick top, which was used for sleeping (lazhonke). It was not unusual for children to sleep on the floor, which was covered by a feather or straw mattress (perine). The house stood on stilts. There were windows facing the street and the garden. Steps led from the house to the ground, and a walkway connected the two houses, which was covered by a roof. There was a closure or fence between the two houses on the street, which you had to enter in order to go into either of the houses.
The attic of the big house was used for storage and could be reached by a ladder. The area between the houses had many uses. Boards covered some of the ground upon which stood the water barrel, such foods as sour pickles, wine, herring, and sauerkraut. In addition, there was a room for a sukkah, which was built every year.
There was a stable area, which housed the horse, two cows and chickens. Sometimes, geese were raised. There was a yard which had an outhouse placed on stilts to allow the pigs to eat the garbage. Next to the outhouse was a barn in which hay and straw were stored, as well as food for the animals. Wood was stacked along the barn.
Our garden ran the width of both houses and the barn, extending all the way to the next street, a distance of over an acre of ground. We grew potatoes, onions, cucumbers, string beans, beats, carrots, radishes, some sun flowers and berries, cabbage, and other vegetables, all for our own use. Fruit, meat, flour, fish, and other edibles were purchased, as was kerosene oil, clothing, linens, and other necessities. Having two cows, we had our own milk, cheese, butter, and eggs, some of which were sold.
On one side of our house lived a beautiful older couple. His name was Berel Nossen and his wife was Sora. They had no children. Apparently he must have been well to do as he had a large and well furnished home and even employed servants to help with household and other chores. He was a pious man, and he and his wife both loved children. Mr. Nossen was well learned and served on the “Bet Din.”
On the other side of us was a gentile family, Ivan Griskoy, who was referred to as Ivan-Iranowitch. His wife was Marya, and they had three children and a dog who was called Volchuck. They lived in a large house and also had servants who cared for the livestock, tended the garden and worked in the orchard, which extended ten acres across. They grew apples, pears, plums and grapes. Our families were friends and we played with their children. On our side of the street towards the Dvina River were three other families. The one I remember best was one that had a small store and the children, Zishle, Itke, and Boruch were of similar ages to my sisters Bracha, Hennie, and Chyke, and considered to be good friends.
The synagogue was located on the corner of the main road. It was a wooden structure, which had a high ceiling, windows on two sides, and an enclosed balcony which could be reached by a stairway. The balcony was where the women sat during services. The only time a man could go up there was to allow the women to kiss the Torah. The main part of the synagogue had benches arranged facing the East, except one row for the men who sat in the East, (Mizrach). They were the well learned men and in some cases the more affluent men who were the principle supporters of the synagogue. The bimah stood in the center of the synagogue, facing the Ark in the East. There was a reading desk for the leader of the daily prayers on the floor near the Ark. On one side of the room there was a long table, which was used by the men for learning Gemorah, Michnah, and other books of learning. After daily minyanim, on Saturdays, at kiddush, during Shala Shudos and other occasions, men studied the Ethics of the Fathers. The Shamus conducted a “Cheder” for new members of the synagogue.
My Father’s Family
My father had four brothers and one sister. They were Yosef Shlomo (Joseph), whose wife was Rach Leah; his second wife was Libbe. He had a large family. His children from Libbe were Ida, David, Harry, Golde, Jenny, Isaac, and Julius. With Rach Leah he had Abe, Beryl, who were born in Russia, and Fay, born in America.
Mendel (Morris) and his wife Leah had four children, all of whom were born in America: Jenny, Rachel, Simon, and Abe.
Berel Hirsch (Benjamin) and his wife Moose had five children who were also all born in America: Isaac, Albert, Bessie, Louis, and Max.
Henie Pesta and her husband, Berke, had five children: Jenny, Rose, Edward, Rebeka, and Sara. They too were all born in America.
Avrom (Abe) and his wife Channah had three children, all born in America: Joseph, Isaac, and Eli.
My Mother’s Family
My grandmother, Merke, lived with my mother’s sister, Seine Rochel, whose husband was Avremel-Chaim. They did not have any children. My mother’s brother, David, lived in Vitebsk. No doubt there were other relatives; however, since they did not live in Surazh, I cannot really remember them.
At the time my story begins, all of my father’s family had immigrated to America, except Yosef Shlomo, who was the last to immigrate.
My father was born in 1861, as the second son of Itzhock, Isaac, and Zlate Matusoff. My grandfather worked for a rich owner of forest land, who’s name was Shya Libenson. It was his duty to supervise the movement of trees formed into rafts along the Dvina River to Vitebsk and Riga. This occupation was called “Prikastchick.” My grandfather was also a chazan (Baal Tefila), who knew old traditional tefiot and songs, which were probably acquired from others. As a traveler to other cities, he had an opportunity to hear great cantos and choirs. He used some of the melodies he learned while traveling when he officiated as a chazan.
My grandfather surely must have had brothers and sisters. It is unfortunate that I do not have any knowledge of them. We do hear of other Matusow families in Philadelphia and in other parts of the country; however, we never attempted to trace them.
My father learned Chazanut from my grandfather, but he was never permitted to lead the Mussaf Services until he was married. At that time it was said my grandfather took off his tallit and put it on my father, who then became the Chazan of his synagogue. My grandfather died on Simchat Torah and was buried with Tehillim and songs.
There are other stories that were told. My father was due to appear for an examination and induction in the same draft period as his older brother, Yosef Shlomo. According to the law, the oldest son was entitled to exemption when two brothers appear in the same draft period. My father went into hiding in Poland, which was then part of Russia, and consequently, his brother, who was entitled to exemption was inducted into the service. My uncle never allowed my father to forget that incident, and throughout his life my father felt an obligation to help his brother.
In connection with this incident, when my father was in Poland, he went to a synagogue and led the Sabbath Services. Because my father was a Litvack and did not pronounce their “Ays” and “Vays,” he was not listed. He said that some of the Chasidim informed the authorities that he was a draft dodger. My father was arrested and brought back by the “TJTOP.” Soldiers would march the prisoners a distance and then turn them over to other soldiers until you reach your destination. Afterwards, you would be held for trial and usually inducted into the Army. Since the quota for that period was already filled, and a few rebels were given to certain officials, my father was exempted from serving, and my uncle after serving a short time was discharged from the Army.
My father was a stern man, who was kind and loving to his wife and children. His vocation was shoemaking, and he managed to provide a nice living for his family. He was educated in Hebrew and must have been educated in Russian as he could speak the language fluently and could read and write well. He was highly respected in the community and served in many cases of arbitration, and in some cases appeared as an interpreter for people who had problems with the law and could not express themselves properly in Russian.
As for his vocation as a chazan, he served his synagogue without compensation; however, for the high holidays he was usually engaged by other synagogues from small cities, mostly in Velizh, and received compensation for his services.
My mother was born in Vitebsk in 1862 to Merke and Sholel Ber Leuit. After her father’s death, her mother came to live with my mother’s sister, Seina Rochel, in Surazh. The only other relative that I can remember was her brother, David. When my family came to America I got to know some of my mother’s cousins and other distant relatives.
My mother, in spite of the rigors of bearing twelve children and all the work entailed in caring for a large family, was a beautiful woman. She was a good cook and baker and subsidized the family income by baking bread and selling some to Christians who would come to town to be measured for boots and shoes.
My mother could read and write Yiddish and could read from a prayer book. With all the work there was to be done, including milking the cows, feeding the chickens, attending to the gardens, cleaning the house, taking care of the children, and so on, even with the help of the children, it was not an easy task. Sometimes it was necessary to obtain outside help, especially on the Sabbath.
My remembrance of Sarah, the oldest child, at the time we lived in Surazh is very vague. From the stories that are told, she was a beautiful girl. She was a great help to my mother, a good cook and baker, and was very good at sewing and making clothes. She had a job at the dry goods and sewing shop and was capable of working on a sewing machine. She was a great singer and often joined my father and other members of the family when we sang my father’s songs at the oneg Shabbat after the Sabbath meal. Sarah was the first to immigrate to America, but that is another story.
Berke was the oldest son and the shortest member of the family, barely five feet. It was said that an early illness caused his growth to be stunted. He received a good education in Hebrew and also attended Russian school for a short time. At an early age, he was taught the family business and became efficient in shoemaking. Being the first son, he was very close to my father and helped in the work of measuring, cutting, and making boots and shoes. Often he would join my father in going to farms and small towns, which did not have a shoemaker. They would take the measurements for boots and shoes, go home and make them, and then bring them back to their customers. He was helpful with other household chores. Berke joined my father when he performed as a chazan. He knew all my father’s tefilot and songs. He was a good swimmer and ice skater. His friends were young people who enjoyed dancing and speaking pure Russian, which was a hobby he enjoyed on Saturday afternoons. He was a member of the town watch, and it was said that he was a member of a secret socialist club.
David was a problem child. A brilliant student both in Hebrew and in Russian, he was given an opportunity to pursue his studies without being asked to go to work. He excelled in his studies and was one of the few Jewish boys who was accepted into Gratzkoya Utchilista (Gratz Institute). As you could expect, classes were daily, except Sunday. Jewish students were expected to attend classes on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. David organized a strike of the Jewish students, which was unsuccessful. Rather than accept discipline, he sold his books and quit school. Although he had some knowledge of the family business, he had very little interest in working in it. Restless and undecided, he went to work in another town. He was very active in the socialist society, and it was rumored that he left town because the authorities were investigating his group.
Anna, the fourth of the children, was a very helpful child. Dainty and very pretty, she received a limited education in Russian. Home educated in cooking and baking, she learned to operate a sewing machine. She worked in my father’s shop when he bought a sewing machine for the business. My father was then able to provide service to other shoemakers who did not have a machine to sew the tops of the shoes. Anna had many friends among the young people. It was thought that she would marry a fine young man from a nice family. However, she was just past sixteen years of age when she received a ticket for passage to America from Sarah and became the second in the family to emigrate.
Clara had a limited education in Russian. Her work was that of helping mother. In the process, she learned to cook, bake, and sew. She was a kind and loving sister.
Henie and Bracha, being identical twins, attracted the attention of everyone. It was like a game to identify them. Even the family was fooled at times. They received a Russian education, and they, as the other sisters, received some Hebrew education at home, as there was no Hebrew school for girls. The twins, just like the other girls, had to help with the housework and other chores.
Isaac went to Russian class for a short period of time. He received a good education in Hebrew. He studied with a Melamid who had a Cheder. His name was Rabbi Grenem. Just to prove that even in those days there were scandals...Rabbi Grenem suddenly left town. It was said that he ran away with a chiksa. Isaac, being a good student, was then enrolled in a junior Yeshiva, which was conducted by Rabbi Naftalia.
Chaim, who was two years my senior, was the surviving child of the second set of twins that my parents had. The girl died shortly after birth. He was a talented boy who had a knack for learning. He could sing all of the Hebrew melodies which were sung at that time. If he heard a chazan or a record just once, he would remember the song. He had a good voice. There was only one problem, he was bashful and would not sing in front of people. Chaim was a good Jewish student but did not go to Russian school.
Yoshke, that’s me! I was the youngest of twelve children. Ten were living at the time my story begins. I was the favorite, probably because I was the “mizhinik.” Some even thought I was good looking. Just past four years of age, my ability as a singer attracted the attention of the town’s folk.
My education started in a cheder for beginners at our synagogue, conducted by the Shammash whose name was Israel Bear. I remember him as a short man with a long beard and bushy eyebrows. He was a kind man who never punished the talmidim, except he would pull your ear if you made a mistake. As I look back, I sometimes think that he was responsible for my hearing impairment!!! By the time I was six, I knew Hebrew, Chumash, Tanakh, and trope. I could daven and recite Tehilhim (psalms). At that age, I was ready for higher education, and my father arranged for me to study with a private teachez, who lived on the other side of our town. I do remember that my father paid him through the barter system-fixing his shoes in payment for my education. I also remember the trip to and from the cheder that required crossing the Kasplea River. In the winter, when the river froze over, I would slide over the ice and would be met by one of the family.
My favorite person to visit was my Aunt (moome) Seine Rochel. She lived in a large house on the main street, not far from the River Kasplea. My Uncle (feetter) Auremel was a balegoole (express man). He would travel as far as Vitebsk, covering towns along the way. He would bring in supplies for the storekeepers and for his own store. They had no children, so you can imagine that I was their favorite. He always brought back candies and other treats for me. My Bubba, Merke, also lived with them. She was a little lady with many kenytches (furrows) on her face and hands. Even though she was in her nineties, she was a bright and alert person who was full of wisdom. She lived to be a hundred years old. I loved to stay with them all and remained overnight quite often.
A story was told that once a gentile came in to purchase bread and herring at my uncle’s store. He also wanted to buy vodka, which my uncle refused to sell to him. It was a grave offense to sell untaxed liquor. The man, who was already drunk, caused a disturbance, which brought the police. Fearing trouble, they sent for my father, who knew the police. With a small bribe the matter was resolved.
Life in a Shtetle
In our house, the day started at an early hour. My father would wake those who had to go to work or do the early chores, while the others could sleep later. Wash up, including “Negelvasser,” was followed by early prayer, “Modei Ani,” after which breakfast was served. This was called “Unbisen.” Boys over thirteen had to put on tefillin and recite their prayers before eating. Breakfast food was usually black bread, herring, eggs, or cheese; and to drink there was tea, milk, or “Tzukuria” (chicicory mixed with a small amount of coffee and boiled milk). Sometimes there was leftover pastry baked for the Sabbath, which was enjoyed by the younger children with milk.
The morning activities kept everyone busy. After Shacharit and breakfast, my father would usually go to market to buy supplies. My mother would be busy with cleaning, milking our two cows, baking bread (twice weekly), and preparing dinner. Ben and Anna would work in the shoemaker shop. Chaya would help mother, and the others went to school or cheder.
Lunch (“Varmes”) was the main meal, usually served between eleven in the morning and noon. It consisted of soup or cabbage borscht, meat and potatoes, pickles or sauerkraut and, of course, bread, which was an important part of every meal. After lunch, everyone went back to work and school.
Between lunch and supper, there was what today is called a coffee break, or what we called “Mittag,” a snack to hold you over until supper. A Mittag was usually a piece of bread with jelly or shmaltz. Children would like granulated sugar sprinkled on bread and, of course, tea. When the children returned from school, they had playtime. The girls would usually help mother and everyone else went back to work.
Supper was called “Vetchere” and was served at about six or seven in the evening. Most of the time it consisted of a dairy meal, especially in the summer time: chave, beat borscht, herring, potatoes, cheese, cream, bread, butter, and tea. There were other delicacies fitted into the menus like chopped liver, chopped herring, cow brains, knishes, helzel, and pitche. Nothing was wasted.
There were no set working hours. In the busy season, or when work had to be completed, my father would join with Berke and Cashkfand, an apprentice who was hired to learn the trade. Oftentimes they worked late into the night. Chores were plentiful and everyone had to pitch in. There was also time for fun. In the summer, when the days were long, we bathed in the river. In the winter, we would play in the snow.
The Holy Sabbath
The Holy Sabbath was the central theme of the Jewish people in our town, not only because of the religious aspect, but also because of the social life which it affords. Preparation for the Sabbath began in my house early Friday morning. After breakfast, the house was cleaned more thoroughly than on any other day of the week. I can remember well my mother baking challah and pastries. The smell of cinnamon permeated all over the house.
Work stopped early on Friday afternoons. Cheder also left out early; however, after “mitag,” Isaac, Chaim, and myself had to review the sedre of the week to the satisfaction of my father. Later, my father would go to the bathhouse with the small boys, and my mother would go likewise with the small girls. The older children took care of themselves.
The boys joined father at the synagogue for Friday night services (Kabbalat Shabbat). Upon returning to the house, the table was already set for the Sabbath meal. Candles were burning, after having been blesses just before the start of the Sabbath. Mother and the girls always were wearing their Shabbat best. My father would make Kiddush for the entire family, followed by “HaMotzi,” and then we sat down to eat the Sabbath meal.
Our Friday evening meal was the main meal so that additional foods not eaten during the week were prepared for the Sabbath. We started off dinner with an appetizer, usually gefilte fish. Most of the time, the entree would be tcholent. Sometimes we also had chicken, lockshen, or farfel soup. For dessert we had “compot,” which was stewed prunes with raisins and fruit.
After dinner and before dessert, my father would lead us in singing songs for the Oneg Shabbat. He was joined by the rest of the family. Oftentimes, he would call on the younger sons to lead a song. Isaac was not the greatest singer, and Chaim, although very capable, was bashful. It took a threat by my father that they would not get dessert to make them sing. I can remember their crying voices as they sang. After dessert, the Birkat HaMazon was chanted in full.
Oftentimes my Uncle Yosef Shlomo would come over after dinner and bring along my cousins, Isaac and Jules (Youde). My uncle liked to see the children play and would instigate a wrestling match, which would wind up with crying by the losers. Then everyone was sent to bed.
Saturday was a complete day of rest. Chores of lighting and putting out lamps and making fires in the wintertime were taken care of by the “Shabbas Coy.” He also took care of the horse and cows. Father and the smaller boys went to services. The older boys, Berke and David, even when they were home, did not always go to synagogue. Women were not required to go to synagogue; however, there was a gallery for them. Mother often went, especially when father led the service on Sabbath and when he blessed the month, “Birchat HaChodesh.” The Chazan had to make a special prayer for the “Czar” and his family, which was often witnessed by the “Pristiv,” the highest officer in our town, or a lesser officer. My father always made a special effort to satisfy the government visitor. Perhaps, that was why he was able to ask favors for himself and others when they were needed.
Upon returning from the synagogue, and after Kiddush, the afternoon meal was usually the same as the Sabbath evening meal. Since “Cholent” could simmer in the stove, it remained hot. Father would take a nap after dinner. He would make me lay down with him. Of course, as soon as he fell asleep, I would get up and play with my friends.
Recreation for the children varied. Each had their own friends. The older ones would get together, and since the playing of music was forbidden on the Sabbath by Jewish Law, they replaced their dancing music with singing. Walking (Spatziren) was a favorite pastime, usually around the river’s edge, or in the square. Speaking pure Russian and discussing books was a pastime of those who went to school and among the young men. Swimming in the summer was also a favorite sport. The small children played ball (Myatchick), which was hit with a paddle, and other running games.
After having tea and goodies baked for the Sabbath, father would again go to synagogue. Isaac, Chaim, and I would go along. Between Mincha and Maariv, the men would learn “Ethics of the Fathers,” which was followed by “Shaleshudos.” After Maariv, Havdallah was chanted, and on the occasion of a New Moon, there would be a prayer outside. The moon was an important need for all the people as it provided the only lighting, except when they carried lanterns. Upon returning home from synagogue, greetings of a “Goote Voch” were exchanged. The evening meal was then served and the Sabbath was over.
A Special Sabbath
Excitement reigned supreme when it was once announced that the famous Chazan Berele Chageh, from the core shul in Vitebsk was coming to Surazh. He was to be accompanied by his choir and would lead the Friday night and Sabbath morning services in the large synagogue on the other side of our town. Tickets were sold for the performance. My father, being the Chazan of our synagogue, received complimentary tickets. We crossed the bridge with great anticipation that day and were not disappointed. We learned many songs, which we later used even in America, especially, “Lecha Dodi,” “VeShamru,” and “Adon Olam.” It was a great experience. In later years in Philadelphia, I had the occasion to hear Berele Chageh. I approached him after his performance, and he remembered his visit to our town.
How The Holidays Were Celebrated
Spring is the most beautiful time of the year. After a season of cold, wind, snow, and frost, spring is like a renewal of life and hope. The ground is prepared for planting, usually in late April, but first comes the holidays of Purim and Pesach.
Purim was a fun holiday. In Hebrew school, the children were taught how to read the Megillah. The older boys even hand printed a miniature megillah, and some were able to make their own graggers from wood (“Kalckotkes”). In the house, for weeks, a lot of baking took place, cookies in forms of Haman, Mordechai, Vashti, Esther, and other characters from the Purim story. On the eve of the holiday, we would go to synagogue to hear the reading of the Megilah. The noise making has not changed even to this day. The next morning, the Megillah was read again. During the day, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Punm “Shpillers”, clowns, and others dressed as Mordechai, Haman, etc., went through the streets making noise with their Kalckotkes, singing and dancing and carrying on. “Shalach Manot” (gifts) were exchanged among family and friends, usually sweets. Children carrying gifts were rewarded. The day ended with a meal known as the feast of Esther.
During the next month, we prepared for Pesach. Wine, which was put up in late fall, was now ready. Mother made schmaltz (goose fat) and marinated beats for Pesach Borscht. Matzot were baked at the home of Berel Nossen, our next door neighbor. He was a very pious man who owned a big house with baking facilities. It was a sort of community project whereby each family bought their own flour, according to how much matzah they needed. Members of most of the families participated in the work. The project was called a “Padrad.” The matzot were round. I remember participating. My job was a stapler. I used a fork to make the lines so that when the matzot were baked they could be broken into parts. When they were finished, the matzot were wrapped in sheets and stored in the house until Pesach.
About a week before the holiday, the house had to be scrubbed. After the floors were washed, hay was spread out and not removed until the day before Pesach. Dishes were brought down from the attic, washed and scrubbed, and then placed in a separate room where there was no chometz. Utensils permitted for Pesach use were scoured and boiled in water. The evening before Pesach, there was a ceremony for finding and burning the chometz. By noon of Erev Pesach, no chometz was permitted to be eaten or kept in the house. Cooking and baking went on all day. Gefilte fish, chicken soup, knadells, cakes, desserts and goodies for the holiday were all prepared.
The table is set. The men and boys go to the synagogue for the evening services, and upon returning, the candles are found lit and the family is now ready for the Seder, the Pesach meal.
My father sits at the head of the table, leaning on a pillow; he raises his glass and begins the Seder with Kiddush. Ben and Dave also make Kiddush. After participating in the explanation of various symbols of the seder plate and the reason for breaking the matzot, and then hiding the Afikomen, the recitation of the Haggadah begins. As the youngest, I asked the Four Questions. The answers were given as the men of the family, led by father, recited the Haggadah, not leaving out a syllable until after the first part of the Hallel. Wine poured and consumed, and washed, we are now ready for the meal, which was always judged by how good the fish was and how light the knadells.
After finishing the main meal, the Birkat HaMazon is said in full, and dinner is completed. Then, as the door is opened by the oldest daughter (if single), the ceremony of welcoming Elijah begins as everyone watches Elijah’s cup to see if he drinks some wine. Following this ceremony, the Hallel is completed with each of the family members, even the girls, participating in prayer and song. The fourth and final cup of wine is poured, as all join in the singing of Chad Gad Yah and other Pesach songs. With the finding of the Afikomen, the Seder is completed.
On the following day, not only men and boys, but also many women went to the synagogue because the prayers of “Tal” and “Hallel” were chanted, and especially because father, as the Chazan, officiated. Later that evening, the Second Seder was a replica of the first. The intermediate days were, more or less, a semi-holiday so most people did some work. During the week of Pesach, family visitation for Kiddush after services, or for tea in the afternoons added to the holiday spirit and, if spring came early, the smell of the budding plants and lilac trees filled the air with a sweet aroma and truly made this the loveliest and most enjoyable time of the year.
The period between Pesach and Shavuot, during which the counting of the Omer occurs, was strictly observed as a period of mourning. No simchot were allowed, even the cutting of hair is prohibited except on Lag B’Omer. On Lag B’Omer, the time of mourning was lifted and all the usual events, like weddings and forms of entertainment were allowed. On this day, the cutting of hair was permitted and was a tradition when a boy turned three-years-old. A party, called “Opshereness,” honored a boy’s first haircut. On Lag B’Omer it was also customary to eat eggs. Children would dye the eggs and then a contest would be held to find the best looking egg. Onion skins were used to make the dye. There is a story told that at a Opshereness (party) for me, the men drank so much that a few were observed eating the eggs without bothering to remove the shells.
By the time Shavuot arrived, planting had already been completed and some of the vegetables had ripened. The trees and bushes were in full bloom, and summer was just around the corner.
Shavuot, which is also known as the time of the giving of the Torah, observes this auspicious occasion in Jewish History. It is an important religious holiday and, thus, only the most pious men are called to the Torah. I remember my father leading the Hallel and Musaf service. Food for this holiday is mostly dairy; blintzes, cheese, and knishes were specialties. With the beautiful, warm weather, visitation and entertaining friends and family was a big part of the social life.
A Jewish Wedding
After Shavuot, weddings were allowed, and usually took place outdoors. A “Chupa,” (wedding canopy) was set up under a tree. My recollection of the first wedding I saw is of the Chazan standing under the canopy, dressed in a long capote. The groom (Chatan) is brought in by his parents. The Chazan sings the “Miadir,” and then the bride (Kallah) is brought under the chupa by her parents, holding lit candles. The bride’s parents escort their daughter around the groom seven times as the Chazan then makes seven blessings and the marriage contract is read. The groom next breaks the glass and the fun begins. The main feature of the wedding day activities is the wedding dinner and the announcing of the wedding presents. For seven days, there is constant activity in honor of the newlyweds.
Summer was the most enjoyable time of the year. The weather was warm and we had very little rain. With the fruits ripening and the vegetables planted, we all helped in harvesting. My mother would take the girls on outings to pick berries and mushrooms. They seemed to know which were good and which were poisonous. Swimming in the river was fun, as was watching the river steamer and rafts flowing down the river. In mid August, Tishabaav was strictly observed by fasting. The synagogue was draped in black. Benches were turned over and “Aicha” was chanted in a dirge. My father was an expert in the recitation of “Aicha.” In my family, Tishabaav was a prelude to Shabbat “Nachamu,” which was my birthday.
I was now six-years-old and beginning to understand the serious things that were happening in our family. Sarah and Anna were already in America. Ben was now the only helper father had in his shop. It was, therefore, necessary to take on an apprentice to help with the workload.
The First Automobile
There were many firsts that would occur in my sixth year. This one was a first for our town, an automobile. It was an open car with a canvas top. It had solid rubber tires and a hand horn. I can still remember the smell of the fumes. It smelled like they were burning benzol. It was driven by an army officer and had as a passenger a government official. It excited not only the people of the town, but also the animals and chickens, who scattered at its sound.
My First Trip Away from Home
For many years, my father was engaged to perform as a chazan for the High Holidays by a congregation in Velizh. When he davened in Velizh, my father took my brother, Ben, and had a few singers from there which was organized by a doctor who had studied in Riga and knew how to lead a choir. Since he changed positions, he decided to take Ben and me to Elozina.
It goes without saying that for the trip to Elozina I was clothed very nicely and wore a pair of patent leather boots, which were made for me. My father went by river steamer, as he had to be there for Selichot. A day before Rosh HaShanah, my Uncle Avremel took Ben and me to Elozina in his wagon. It was quite cold that day and my uncle covered me with his coat. I remember stopping at a few inns on the way, where my uncle and Ben would have a few drinks while I got hot milk and tea.
Upon arriving, my brother and I were put up in the home of the owner of the biggest bakery in town. My father stayed in the Gabbi’s house. After the evening service, when we arrived back at the bakery owner’s house, I became lonesome for my father and cried. I was taken to the Gabbi’s house to join my father. The Gabbi’s house was beautiful; apparently he was a wealthy man.
On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, Ben and I helped my father with the services, and I was allowed to sing a solo. Ben overheard a man saying that it was not proper to bring a child to sing when he does not know how to daven. Ben immediately informed him that I could daven as well as some adults. In the afternoon, a Tashlich service took place at the River Dvina. Before we left for home, a party was given by the Gabbi, at which my father received great praise for his performance.
By the time we came home, our sukkah was already built. It stood in the walkway between our two houses. It was made of boards with a schach on top and had a table and chairs. Before Sukkot, it was decorated with fruit. On erev Sukkot, the candles were blessed by my mother in the sukkah, and upon returning home from the synagogue, my father would make Kiddush in the Sukkah. The weather in October was generally cold, and it took a hardy individual to eat in the sukkah. My father dressed in his overcoat and would eat dinner in the sukkah. Sometimes others in the family dared to join him. Without fail, by the time dessert was served, everyone had come in the house.
Sukkot was a most enjoyable holiday, both religiously and socially. The synagogue services included the blessings of “Geshem,” “Hallel,’ and the procession of the lulav and etrog were attended by almost everyone. The whole week the holiday was celebrated with visitations amongst family and friends. The culmination came with Simchat Torah, where a great deal of levity went on, especially among the men who would test their drinking abilities. HaKafot was participated in by all. Everyone had an opportunity to carry a Torah in the procession, which was completed with the singing of “Sisu V’Simchu,” which was my solo from the time I was five-years-old.
The day of Simchat Torah was special in our house as it was the yarzeit of my paternal grandfather. On Simchat Torah, men coming from shul would invite each other to their homes for Kiddush and refreshments. The women, knowing what was going to happen, would hide some of the food so that the family would not starve. However, the vodka flowed freely and by the end of the day, a lot of men had big headaches.
A story was told about a group of young men, including my brother Dave, who were celebrating the holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, which continued into the night. Apparently, they consumed a little too much and soon lost their sense of direction. When Ben came home that night without Dave, a check made with friends who were celebrating together found that they were all home. A search was started but without results. Finally, the police were called, and they joined my father and friends in a search of the woods. They had almost given up when they heard a man singing, “Moshe Olo La Moreim,” from my father’s Simchat Torah song. They immediately knew that it was Dave.
Beginning of Emigration
My father’s brothers, Abe, Morris and Berel Hirsch, who had served in the Russian Army and were in the Reserves, were subject to reinduction, should there be an emergency or war. My Uncle Abe, who had made quite a reputation for himself and was liked by the regular army officers, received word from one of them that a war with Japan was imminent and that soon all passports of reservists would be called in. At this point, the brothers immediately made arrangements to leave and together, with their wives, left for America. How they selected Philadelphia from all other cities is not to my knowledge, except that their wives had relatives in Philadelphia. After establishing themselves in business, Berel Hirsh as a shoemaker and Abe Morris in a small junk shop, they began to help others emigrate. The first they helped was their sister, my Aunt Hennie Peshe, her husband, Berke, and a daughter Jenny.
Berke was a tailor. After working in other shops, he established his own business from his home at 2nd and Thompson Streets. My Aunt was the prime mover in bringing over my sister, Sarah, and my cousin, Ida, who was the oldest of the children of Uncle Yosef Shlomo. They lived with my aunt.
My sister Sarah went to work in a clothing factory. Through my uncle she met a young man who was working for a merchant tailor, and in 1909, they were married. Soon after Morris Goldberg, my first brother-in-law, joined the two others to form the firm of Marks, Silverberg, and Goldberg. Their tailor shop was on 8th Street, between Vine and Race Streets. They had a prosperous business. In 1910, my parents’ first grandchild was born. His name was Abraham. Now I was an Uncle!
In the spring of 1910, Ben had been called up for the draft by the Russian Government. He had to appear in Velizh for examination and possible induction. My father, who was a bit of a politician, went with him. Ben was short, barely reaching five feet, the minimum height requirement to pass. There were methods used to help a candidate fail his physical examination. Some went to extreme methods; for example, puncture an ear drum, rupture or damage to limbs, and others. There were teams, who for a price would help. In Ben’s case, it was determined that if he would drink, miss sleep, and weaken himself for a week before the examination, he would not be able to stand straight and thus would measure under five feet. Ben had a number of friends in Velizh who were happy to help him with the plan and it worked. Ben was given a year exemption, but it was necessary for a candidate to stay until the quota was filled, otherwise, there were no exemptions, except serious illness. The boys who were already inducted would not allow the ones exempt to leave town unless they were given money, which they used for having a good time before leaving for service. My father paid off and sent Ben away from home so that he could not be found if the quota for that year was not filled. When my father found out through friends that the quota was filled, Ben returned home. Since Dave would have to appear the following spring, plans were made to send Ben and Dave to America.
Soon after the holidays, Ben and Dave were dispatched to America. Since they were not eligible to leave the country because of their draft status, my father fixed things with the officials and the two traveled with false passports. It was absolutely necessary to keep their departures a secret as there were serious penalties for both the individual attempting to leave and the parents who are responsible to present their child for the draft. Therefore, only the immediate family participated in the farewells, which were tearful. We now had four of our family members in America.
The Last Year in Russia
At Chanukkah time, we received word that Ben and Dave arrived safely in America. Soon after arriving, they both found jobs working in a factory, which manufactured trunks and suitcases. The name of the company was “Belber,” a name that is still in existence today. Ben also helped my Uncle Berel Hirsh in his shoemaker shop on the weekends. Soon my parents were informed that Anna, who had a job in a shirtwaist factory, and Sarah, who’s husband Morris was a partner in a merchant tailor shop, together with Ben and Dave, were anxious to bring the rest of the family to Philadelphia. Between the four, they would purchase the steamship tickets. They consulted a travel agent who agreed to let them pay for the tickets in installments.
My parents received the news with mixed emotions. My mother was reluctant to leave because she would have to leave behind her mother, who was past ninety-five, her sister, Seina Rochell, and her brother, David. My father, on one hand, was hesitant to go because he would have to leave his business and his chazaness. Furthermore, he would have to leave a place where he commanded the respect of the townspeople, for what? A land where he was not sure whether he could find a business to make a living for his family, or practice his religion, or maintain a strictly kosher home. At his age, forty-nine, he was not sure that he would be able to start over in a new land. On the other hand, he faced severe penalties if he did not present Ben and Dave for examination and possible induction into the army. The penalty could be a large monetary fine, or confiscation of your property. With assurance from the family in America that Jews were free to follow their religion, that there were opportunities for my father to make a living, and for the children to receive an education, my parents reluctantly agreed to emigrate.
My father secretly started to negotiate the sale of his houses and business, which would take place before the spring. The winter dragged on and my father was away on a number of occasions in order to negotiate a deal with officials in Velizh and Vitebsk, which, for a nice fee, would absolve him of his responsibility to present Dave and Ben at the draft.
In the spring, when the draft occurred, my father appeared in Velizh and signed an affidavit that he did not know of the departures or whereabouts of his two sons. Since the case was fixed he was not culpable; however, he was fined three hundred rubles. From that point, there was nothing else to stop our family from leaving Russia. As a matter of fact, we would be able to travel to America on a Gubernator Pass (a passport issued in my father’s name). You can now surmise what influence my father had in the community, and what he was leaving behind.
Arrangements were made now for the family to leave the country at the end of October 1911, after the holidays. Pesach, which was early in the spring, passed without incident. The holiday was rather sad for my parents as they knew that this would be their last Pesach in Surazh. Bubbe Merce, Tante Seine Rochel, and Feter Avram were all at our first seder. The next day my father led the Musaf service in the synagogue, and he was very impressive with the blessings of Hallel and Tal. My brother, Isaac, and myself were his choir. Most of the congregants had an inkling that this would be his last Pesach as their Chazan.
Summer was especially warm and the crops were good. My seventh birthday in August was observed on Shabbat Nachamu. My father read the haftorah, which I already knew as this would be my maftir when I became a bar mitzvah. By that time, it became known to the family that my father was engaged to daven again on the High Holidays at the synagogue in Velizh where he served as Chazan for many years. It was a great surprise to us when Isaac and I were told that we would go with father as part of the choir.
When the time came to go to Velizh, I was quite excited, as we were going by river steamer and it would be my first time ever. We waited at the landing, which was on the main side of our town. The boat was very nice. It had a buffet where one could buy fruit, cake, bread, candy, tea, or vodka. A small band played for the enjoyment of the passengers. The trip took about three hours.
Velizh was a small city. It was the county seat of the State of Vitebsk. There were many streets of homes and stores. There were factories and government installations. There was a hospital, bathhouses, and other facilities that they did not have in Surazh. There were many churches and synagogues. The one where we davened was the largest . We stayed at the Gabbi’s house, which was quite large. The Gabbi was a land owner and had a grain mill. The house was beautifully furnished, far more elaborate than what I had ever seen.
The services went well. At seven I was already an accomplished singer so that my father allowed me to sing a number of solos. I was small for my age but had a good loud voice. The congregants could not imagine where the voice came from. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are often referred to as the Days of Awe. I have sung and prayed in many synagogues in my lifetime. Some were more modern than the one in Velizh; some more beautiful, some had better cantors, and larger choirs, but I can truthfully state that on Kol Nidre night in Velizh, as I stood on the bimah and saw the older men and younger married dressed in white kittle and tallit, the women in the window enclosed balcony, the lamps lit and large candles burning, nothing was more moving. As the service is about to begin, the elders of the congregation hold the Torahs. There is a hush in the synagogue as the chazan and choir chant Kol Nidre three times, ending with Shecheeyanu. I had a feeling of awe, which left an impression on me which has never surpassed, even to this day.
After Neilah on that Yom Kippur, there was a great breakfast at the Gabbi’s house. Many songs from the holiday services were repeated to the delight of the Gabbi and his family. My father received not only his salary, but also a parting gift in appreciation for the many years that he served the congregation as Chazan. This present was a tallit with an embroidered atarah, which my father cherished and wore in America.
Sukkot and Simchat Torah were celebrated both in the synagogue and at home. My father, assisted by Isaac and myself, led the services. He put more into the blessing of Hallel and Geshem than ever before. It was truly a performance that was meant as a remembrance for the congregation. At home, many neighbors and friends were invited for Kiddush. On Simchat Torah, my father was the host for Kiddush at the synagogue for all the men of the congregation.
Preparation for our departure escapes my memory, except the goodbyes to my Uncle Yosef Shlomo, his wife, Rochleah, my cousins who would later come to America, and my playmates. My farewell to my grandmother, Tanta Seine Rochel, and Uncle Avram will always remain in my memory. Now I was leaving people I really loved. My Bubba Merke was a little lady, bright, with all faculties. Her brow was furrowed as were her hands. She probably knew that she would never see us again and gave me her blessing. My Tanta Seina Rochel, then in her sixties, was a beautiful woman. And my Uncle Avram was a strong man who always wore a smile. I will always remember my Uncle for the many goodies he brought me when he came home from a trip.
For weeks my parents were busy packing those things which would be shipped to America. They had to sell the furniture and other things which would not be taken along. My uncle, who was an express man, hauled the things to Vitebsk, our point of departure. Now we were ready to leave.
Our trip to Vitebsk was by river steamer, which was the beginning of an adventurous journey. In Vitebsk, we stayed at the home of my mother’s brother, David. Having already seen Elozina and Velizh, Vitebsk was, in my eyes, a modern city. They had cobbeled streets, trolley cars, and some homes had electric. There were stores and factories and the town had a good size population. There were many churches and synagogues, two of which had famous cantors.
After three days in Vitebsk, we bade farewell to my mother’s family and took a night train to Riga. From the train we went directly to the pier where we boarded a channel steamer, which we referred to as the Kleine Shiff (small ship). Most of us took the first sea adventure in stride, except my mother who was seasick from the first day. I seem to remember that we passed through locks as we approached Liverpool on the English Channel. Here we were quartered in a building, which served as a health examination facility. All immigrants had to pass a physical examination before they were permitted to board the ship for America. I remember that everyone passed the exam except Chaim. You can’t imagine the anxiety of our family when we heard stories of families who had to leave their children, or in some cases parents. Fortunately, for us, Chaim recovered before the day we were to sail.
There was much to be said about Liverpool. We saw many ships in the harbor being loaded and unloaded. People dressed differently from the way we dressed. Here I saw colored people for the first time. I also saw fruits, such as bananas, which we did not see in Surazh.
I experienced another first when my father was invited by a relative who lived in Liverpool to daven in his synagogue on Shabbat HaChodesh. He took me along, and I had the opportunity to see a bit of the city and saw multi-story homes for the first time. The synagogue had a beautiful structure, ornately furnished with pews, and a bimah in the center and an Ark at the East side of the building. This was an orthodox congregation and my father had no problems with the nusach. I did my part with the singing. Now I could say that I have sung in synagogues in Surazh, Elozina, Velizh, and Liverpool.
Monday was set as the day the ship would sail. The name of the ship was The Haverford. My father cashed his Russian money into American dollars through the agent who directed the trip. Everyone received a tag to identify himself. Hand luggage was also tagged. My father cautioned us to stay together while he handled the luggage. As we boarded the ship, we realized that Chaim was missing. After a frantic search, he was finally found. My father reprimanded him, but he was forgiven when he showed money that he found on the pier.
We were quartered in the fourth class deck, which was one deck above steerage. We slept in bunks. The washrooms had many sinks and toilets. There were a few showers, something we never saw before. There was also a dining room for everyone. For my brothers, sisters, and me, the food was adequate and good. We had herring, potatoes, soup, and meat. For breakfast we had bread, cheese, and milk or tea. Sometimes we got an egg. At night, before going to bed, there were large round biscuits and tea. Other things could be bought if you had money. My parents observed kashrut strictly, even on this journey. My father tipped the steward so that they had eggs every day, as well as herring, black bread, and tea. My father also bought fruit, and with that they were able to satisfy their hunger.
As in the first ship, my mother was very seasick and thus ate very little. One day she asked the girls to go to the upper deck and bring her some snow. The girls could not imagine how she could hear the scraping. Sure enough, when they reached the upper deck there was snow. My mother always said that the snow saved her life.
Youngsters never have trouble finding entertainment or making friends, as it was with my brother, Isaac. He saw some boys playing and wanted to join them. These were not Jews, and when they refused to play with him and called him a son of a bitch, he did not know what it meant and mimicked them by calling them son of a pips. This started a fight, and Isaac, who was eleven-years-old, acquit himself in his first fistfight ever. (In Russia at that time, wrestling was the national sport).
We were not allowed to go above the third deck so my adventure was going to the second-class deck. There were some American Jews coming back from a visit to Russia. I heard a girl sing, so I said I could sing too. They liked my singing and I was rewarded with fruitcake and candy. I surprised my family with the goodies. We met families from our region and made many friendships that lasted for years later.
As the days passed, the passengers became acclimated to sea travel and even my mother was no longer seasick. The few ships we saw were far away and hardly visible. We were trying to forget what we left behind and anxiously awaited to see the rest of the family, as well as what the future would be for us in Philadelphia. Our first time we saw land is when we entered the Delaware Bay. We moved slowly up the bay where we saw other ships. We then came up the Delaware River and even before we came into Philadelphia, we saw towns and small cities. A tugboat took us in tow and we were guided into the pier at Washington Avenue, which was an immigration station.
Here again we had to go through a physical examination. The passports had to be verified. Then, there would be an oral examination by an immigration inspector, who usually asked questions in the language you were most fluent in. In my case, they asked me my name, and I told him it was Yoshke. The next question was what is today. I told him Chanukkah. I passed. We all passed the physical and oral exams. The main question to my father was how will you be able to support your family. At that point, my brother-in-law, Morris Goldberg, came forward and showed his bank book, guaranteeing that he would support the family until they could support themselves. I think we were among the first families to leave the pier.
It seems that our whole family in Philadelphia, including brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and landslight were there to meet us. After a tearful greeting, we started on our way to Morris and Sarah’s house. The trolley car we had to take was number 47 and ran on Eighth Street. We marched on Washington Avenue. It now reminds me of the march that the Jews made from Anitefke in “Fiddler on the Roof.” As we boarded the trolley car, Morris stood near the conductor and paid a nickel for every passenger. It seemed that the register rang all the way to Parrish Street.
WE WERE NOW IN AMERICA!
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL
Sarah and Morris Goldberg lived in a two-story house on Parrish Street near Eighth. The house had six rooms and a bathroom. This was the first time that I saw a bathroom inside of a house. The home was nicely furnished. Morris apparently had a good business. The party that was given for us was very festive, something to remember. We ate red tomatoes, which we did not have in Surazh. Otherwise the food was the same. Sarah was a good cook, and she baked in the same style as mother. A little thing that dampened the spirit of the party was an announcement by Ben and Dave that they picked up the luggage at the steamship line and discovered that all the goodies that my mother had baked and hidden were confiscated as food was not permitted to be brought into the country. However, other things such as bedding, clothing and other household things were left intact.
After greetings among family and friends, and meeting the new cousins and aunts that we never saw in Europe, the most important thing to me was getting acquainted with my nephew, Abe, who was now two-years-old. The party went on into the evening, but finally it was time to go to our quarters that would be our first home in America.
The family had rented a third floor in a house at 121 Green Street. It consisted of a large room which had a coal stove for cooking and baking, also a sink with running water. This room was to serve as a dining room, living room and kitchen. The rest of the floor was divided into four rooms to serve as bedrooms. There was no bathroom inside the house, but there was a toilet in the yard, which had water. It was called a water closet. During sleeping periods if one had to use a toilet, buckets or pots were used, which were emptied and cleaned in the yard. The apartment was lit by gas that was serviced by a meter, which was called a quarter meter. You had no gas. The large cooking stove also served to provide heat. Coal was used; however, at night when the stove went out, long underwear and quilts kept us warm.
The family was somewhat divided. Anna continued to live with
“Tante” Hennie Peshe. Ben and Dave lived together in a rented room.
Helen lived with Sarah. The rest lived at our home.
At that my father’s family lived close to each other. My Uncle Berl
Hirsh, his wife, Moose, and three children lived across the street in a two-story house. He had a shoemaker shop. My Uncle Morris, his wife, Leah, and two children lived next door in a second floor apartment. Uncle Abe, his wife, Chanah, and one child lived in the same house on the third floor. Hennie Peshe, her husband, Berke, and their two children lived at 2nd and Thompson Streets. They were all engaged in business. Abe and Morris were partners in a junk shop, and Berke and Hennie Peshe had a tailoring shop for cleaning and repairing clothing. Although they were not getting rich, they were making a modest living. They kept kosher homes, but they did not observe the Sabbath. Having been in Philadelphia a number of years and having children in school, they learned some English and were not considered “greenhorns.” Our situation was quite different. My parents were strict observers and seeing their own children going to work on the Sabbath, because it was next to impossible to get a job if you did not want to work on Saturday, my father worried about how he was going to get a job.
Kashreth was not hard to observe, as there were many grocery stores, butchers and bakers that were kosher. There was no great problem with language as most Jews spoke “Yiddish.”
There were many synagogues, some large ones, but most what you might call “storefronts,” as people coming from various parts of Russia, Poland and other parts of Europe, sought their own “landslight” and established synagogues using their own “Nusach.” My father went to one at 2nd and Brown Streets and soon served as their “Chazan.”
The Family Becomes Americanized
Let me say that the Americanized names for our family at this time were Solomon and Fannie for our parents, Sarah, Benny, Dave, Anna, Clara, Bertha, Helen, Isidore, Hyman and Joseph, my brother-in-law, Morris Goldberg, and my nephew, Abe.
After a few weeks to become acclimated to our new environment, we were informed that children 6 to 14 years of age were compelled to attend school. From 14 to 16 you could quit school by obtaining working papers. Many children were registered at older ages when they came to this country so that they could start working sooner.
My cousins, Israel and Abraham, registered us at school. They were going under the family name of Mathason, which was erroneously given to them when they first went to school and could not clearly say their name. Their family never changed their name; therefore, my brother, Hyman, and myself were registered as Hyman and Joseph Mathason. I was placed in a kindergarten class even though I was past seven years of age. By the time the term was over in January, I had not yet learned English, so I was not promoted. However, before the next term ended in June 1912, I was already in “2A.”
Teachers were very strict. If you talked, the teacher would put a plaster across your lips. If you said a dirty word, you would get soap in your mouth. If you got into a fight, you would be taken to the principal’s office and get so many smacks on your hand with a wicker stick or put in the corner of the classroom and kept after school. I must confess that I suffered every one of the penalties until I learned the meaning of cuss words and stopped using them. School was not really hard for me. I soon learned to speak English without an accent and was never called “greenhorn.”
Except for Hyman and Sarah, the rest of the family spoke with an accent for a long time.
School started at 9 a.m. Children would be in line and marched to their room. There was a prayer every day from the Bible (New Testament). Only Christian and American holidays were observed. Jewish children taking off for their holidays were marked absent on their report cards. Christmas and Easter plays were allowed, but Chanukah plays and other Jewish events were not observed. The James Madison School was a comparative new school, very clean and warm in winter. Vacation was Christmas-New Year week, a few days at Easter, and summer vacation –
end of June to September. I stayed at that school until we moved in the summer of 1913 at which time I had completed the third grade.
The Family Goes to Work
This was the situation of our immediate family as we started life in Philadelphia. Sarah was married to Morris Goldberg. They had a son, Abe. Ben and Dave worked in a leather goods factory, which manufactured suitcases. They lived together in a rented room. Anna worked in a shirtwaist factory. She took in Clara to work in the same place. Helen stayed with Sarah. Anna continued to live with the Levits. Isidore and Bertha were registered at Northern Liberties School. Helen went to the Thomas Jefferson School and Hyman and I to the James Madison School.
The problem for my father was how to get work and still be able to observe the Sabbath. At that time in Philadelphia there was a company by the name of Pottash Brothers, who manufactured, cleaned and repaired burlap bags. In order to obtain cheap labor, they advertised in the Yiddish papers that they would employ Jewish men who could work five days a week and Sunday instead of Saturday. Of course the pay was $1.00 a day to start. My father, having no alternative, took the job. It was a dirty job, and my father would come home covered with dust. Hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The First Winter
1911-12 was a bitter winter. It started in the middle of December and lasted to April. It seemed that the first snow, which came before Christmas, lay all winter. The temperatures were below freezing most of the months of January and February. The stove had to be fired all day. Coal was bought by the bucket or sack from peddlers who sold ice and coal. To help provide fuel, Isidore, Hyman and I would go to Delaware Avenue and Beach Street where there was a wood working factory. They would allow us to fill a sack with pieces of scrap wood free. We also picked loose coal that fell off coal cars running along Delaware Avenue.
The trolley car on Green Street was a little one. It looked like a “Toonerville Trolley” in the joke papers. When the snow came, you would have to wait until a repair car with brushes came to shovel out the trolley tracks. The car had a front and back mechanism and a trolley poll. When the trolley reached the end of the route, the operator turned the poll and changed directions. There was no snow removal except in center city. Each one had to shovel their own sidewalks. Pipes would break; water would freeze. A visit to the “outhouse” was an adventure. How we got through the first winter in America, I do not know. It was not so hard for the children, but my parents were disillusioned. My father called the family together and threatened to go back to Russia.
His brothers, Abe and Morris, who had a rag shop that employed 10 men, offered to give him a job, which did not require him to work on Saturday or other Jewish holidays. The hours were from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the working conditions were a little better.
After another year at 121 Green Street, my brother-in-law, Morris Goldberg, found a house for us, and by summer of 1913, we moved into a three-story house at 711 Fairmount Avenue, which had sufficient room for most of the family. More furniture was added and all in all we had a comfortable home and began to enjoy life as a family.
During the summer of 1913, I was recommended to a “Chazan” who was the Cantor of B’nai Halbershtine Synagogue at 6th and Green Streets. This was the leading orthodox synagogue in North Philadelphia. His name was Cantor Lachmanovich. He was short and stout and very good looking. He was not only a “Chazan” but also a teacher and composer of liturgical music. After listening to my voice, he accepted me as a pupil. I went to his house twice weekly for lessons. He lived in a large house on 6th Street. His conservatory was on the second floor. It was a large room, nicely furnished and had a grand piano. I sang in his choir for two years. The fee, which my father received for my service, was $25 a year, plus free music lessons. Soon I was able to sing on notes and was the “alto” soloist.
The synagogue was a beautiful structure: richly ornate, carpets in the aisles, a balcony for the ladies. It had a large Hebrew school and an auditorium for affairs, also meeting rooms. There was a fenced garden in front. There was a chapel for daily minion. The bimah was in the center of the synagogue; the “Arohn Ha Kodesh” was in the west. Padded pews provided comfortable seating for the congregants. There were quite a number of rich members who supported the synagogue with dues and donations. The choir sang only on holidays and Shabbot Ha Chobesh. There were no late Friday services. Singing with a trained choir was a new experience for me. I can still remember some of the melodies, especially the Succoth procession with the ethrog, the Chazan leading the congregants, and the choir responding from the bimah.
My two years at the James Madison School left me with fond memories, as it contained many firsts. This was the first time I ever attended a non-Jewish school. I never before had the opportunity to attend school with girls. I recall that once when I was bad, I had to sit with a colored girl, the only one in our class. Her name was Emma Brown, and once I sat with the prettiest girl in the class. She had bobbed hair and wore a large bow. Her name was Louise Bill. Her father was a police captain. My first teacher was Miss Clark. It was in her class that I experienced the first Christmas in America. All the rooms had Christmas trees, which were decorated with colored balls. We sang Christmas songs, and each child received a bag of hard candies and a candy stick. Looking back in retrospect, I can now realize why the Jewish children were jealous. Their Chanukah and other holidays were not recognized in school, as it is today.
Otherwise, making friends, playing new games, learning reading, writing and arithmetic was a joy.
My other teachers, Miss Lookins and Miss Mears, were great. My first fight was in the schoolyard. It was with a Jewish boy whose name was Sam Banoff. I cannot recall who won; however, I was blamed for starting the fight. I was taken to the principal’s office where I received 25 smacks with a wicker stick. I was friends with Sam until we graduated public school. I really hated to leave my first school.
Summer of 1913 was the beginning of a new experience for me, as well as for my brothers, Hyman and Isidore. My cousins, Isaac and Albert Mathason, had become newsboys and were selling Sunday papers in front of the Hanover Hotel, which was situated at 13th and Arch Streets. One Sunday they took us along and taught us the art of selling papers. We stood in front of a restaurant called Horn & Horn, which later became Horn & Hardart. At that time there were quite a number of Sunday papers published. Among them were the Inquirer, Public Ledger, North American Press and Record. The price for the papers was five cents each. We paid three cents and made two cents on each paper sold. Sometimes a generous person would give me a tip because I was a little boy and sang my papers. All the profits were brought home and we would get spending money, two cents a day for recess and five cents a week for movies on Saturday night. There were some nights when fathers could bring a child in free. When we saw a man without a child I would ask him to take me in please, that way I often saw a movie and saved my nickel. Soon we were experienced newsboys and started to sell daily papers.
Through a driver who worked for the Bulletin, my brother, Isidore, obtained the corner of 10th and Market as our stand. The corner was occupied by the firm of Thomas Martindale, a grocer who also served breakfast and lunches and sold their own baked goods. Across the street there was a department store called Berg Brothers, specializing in men’s and boys’ clothing. Isidore, who had quit school, got working papers and started to sell the morning edition called “Extra,” which came out at 10 a.m. Hyman and I joined him at four o’clock for the “Night Extra,” “Sport Extra,” and “Final” editions. “Sport Finals” were sold by the Fisher Brothers who were going to college and later became doctors.
The evening papers were the Bulletin, Telegraph and Times, which sold for one cent each. We paid three cents for five papers. The Bulletin was the most popular paper with the motto “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”
Isidore and I would go to the Bulletin office to pick up our Night Extra papers, which we sold on the way to our corner. While waiting for the papers, there was an indoor gym where the boys played indoor softball. I was a good player but, being small, the other boys would not let me play. There was a newsboy who had the best corner in Philadelphia at 15th and Market. His name was Lew Tendler. He was a prizefighter and Jewish. He did not like the idea that non-Jewish boys kept a little Jewish boy out of the game and said that I should play. Of course, no one would challenge Lew’s orders, so I played. There were also little checker pool tables, which the boys could play until the papers were ready. Every boy would pay the cashier for the number of papers he wanted and receive a number. The papers came down a chute. The early numbers were served first. We ran to our corner selling papers along the way. The Night Extra edition was the best seller because it had a lot of special features for the ladies. Sport Extra and Finals were more popular with the men as they had late scores. By 7 p.m. we were on the way home, taking with us the papers that were not sold which would be traded in the next day.
On the way home Isidore, who was in charge of the money, would allow us three cents each with which we could buy a hotdog, soda and still have a penny for the movie peep show at the arcade on 8th Street. The rest of the money was given to our parents. Counting the money was a family pastime.
There were many stores and businesses along Market Street. I do remember a Hanscome’s where we could buy a bag of broken ginger cakes for three cents. There was a saloon along 10th Street that catered to the sports crowd. There was a free lunch for customers who bought a whiskey or a beer. We were allowed to eat free after the lunch crowd thinned out. Also, in Martindale’s we were allowed a free cake or a piece of pie and milk.
Trolleys along Market Street were large, closed in the winter, and open in the summer. There were double tracks, the north side going west and the south side going east. There was a stop at 10th Street and passengers would call for papers. That was my stand, and I learned to give the papers quickly so that I could collect the money. Oftentimes passengers would buy two or three papers and give me a nickel. If the car started to move, many passengers, fearing that I might be hurt, waved me to keep the change. That was a lesson on how to make extra money.
Everything was not always smooth. One day two brothers, named Charley and Barney Cooper, started to sell papers on the Berg Brothers side of 10th and Market Streets. They claimed that we had no right to have two corners. This was called “rushing out.” They acted tough. Isidore, who was a good fighter, was only waiting for either one of the brothers to touch me or Hyman. One day Barney hit Hyman and Isidore then challenged Charley Cooper to a fight. They went around the back street where they fought bare handed for an hour before Charles quit. That was the end of the competition.
Mr. Martindale was a great hunter. Every time he went on an expedition, he would receive write-ups in all the papers on his progress. We were asked to save papers for him. He would usually pay for his papers and give a liberal tip. At the end of 1914, Mr. Martindale permitted us to put up a stand. We then sold the Saturday Evening Post, five cents, the Country Gentleman, five cents, and the Ladies Home Journal, ten cents. We also sold chewing gum. On Saturday afternoon I would walk along Market Street and stand in front of the Victoria Theatre selling chewing gum. We paid 60 cents for 20 packages and sold them for five cents each. Some days I would sell two boxes. It was against the law to peddle in center city. One day I was stopped by Lt. Beulah who was the head of the mounted police. He put me on his horse and told me he was taking me to City Hall. Of course, he was only scaring me. He let me go with a warning, and this was the end of my chewing gum sales.
Our paper selling career finished in March 1916, but not before the Phillies won the National League pennant but lost the World Series. The first day of the series when we expected heavy sales, Hyman was not around. He was supposed to go to the Bulletin Building to pick up the Night Extras. Since he did not show up, we had to wait for the Bulletin wagon to deliver the papers to our corner. Soon we were surprised to see Hyman with the Sports Extra. He had only 25 papers left. He sold 75 papers on the way. Isidore was quite angry and demanded an explanation. Hyman told us that he cut school and went to the ballpark at 15th and Lehigh Avenue where he stood in the bleacher line and, with money he saved, he bought a ticket for $1.00. He saw the only game the Phillies won, which was pitched by the great Grover Cleveland Alexander. After the game, he ran to the Bulletin Building at Juniper and Filbert Streets to get the papers. We sold the corner in March 1916.
I dwelt so much on our newsboy careers as it proved that young people obtained business experience from selling papers and learned that, if you want something, you have to fight for it. In later life I met many men that I first met when we were newsboys together; most all of them were either business or professional men and, of course, the famous prizefighter and restaurateur, Lew Tendler.
The year 1915 was the saddest in our family history. My father, who was working for his brothers, lost his job and was in despair. He accepted a job with his congregation, “Anshe Lubavitch,” which had purchased twin houses on 8th Street near Brown and had converted them into a synagogue. His job was to be the ritual director (Shammus) and cantor. Besides his small pay, he had the use of a house, which adjoined the synagogue. It had enough room for the entire family. He also served refreshments and drinks for kiddush and meetings. What I can say is that the members of the congregation treated my father as a leader rather than a “Shammus.”
With all the children except Herman and I working and contributing to the household expenses, we were able to furnish the house nicely and even had a player piano. I was given piano lessons for a while but quickly proved that I would never be a pianist.
Some history was made at this address. My sister, Anna, was being courted by a handsome, young man whose name was Joe Waldow. He represented himself to be a businessman dealing in millinery and furs. He would call for her in a horse and buggy. This was great until his family found out that he intended to marry Anna. They sent a committee of three family members and informed my parents that their son and brother was not telling the truth. They said that he was only a salesman who spent every penny that he earned and could not provide a living for a wife. It is here that the saying “love is blind” proved itself. Anna insisted on marrying Joe and the date was set for June.
The Metropolitan Hall was rented for the wedding, a cook was hired, music arranged and all was in readiness for the great event. A comic interlude occurred on the wedding night. It was customary to have a motor procession from the home of the bride to the hall. Usually the bridal party was given a ride on Riverside Drive. My sister Clara’s beau, Harry Rosenblit, owned a taxicab. In order to save some expenses, he took my parents first and intended to pick up the bride and groom last so that they would arrive at the hall after the other guests. The procession was delayed in traffic, which made the bride and groom very uneasy. They were about to depart in Joe Waldow’s horse and buggy when Harry arrived and saved the day. Perhaps it was an “omen” of what would occur later in their married life. However, the wedding itself was great. Anna made a beautiful bride and Joe Waldow a handsome groom. My mother, in her new dress and “hairdo,” was just beautiful (we have a picture), as were my sisters. My father, in his Prince Albert suit, was handsome and the other “moehatonim” and relatives in their finery lent to a festive simcha. Now there were three of the children married, and my parents had four grandchildren. By the end of 1916 my father gave up his job and we moved to 880 North 6th Street. He went back to work for his brothers.
Ben was married at that house to Ida and our family moved to 917 North Franklin Street.
Sarah Moves From Philadelphia
The firm of Marks-Silverberg and Goldberg had gone bankrupt. My brother-in-law and Mr. Silverberg then opened a tailoring store in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, under the name of “Abe Newman” (Morris’ brother-in-law). Bethlehem was the city where the Bethlehem Steel Company and Coke Works was located and provided work for thousands of people. The town was short of housing and the company built cheap, temporary homes in the hills not far from the mills. In Bethlehem, which was divided into Bethlehem and South Bethlehem, there was need for stores and services for the laborers and their families that were flocking in to work for the steel company. Morris and his partner, Bart Silverberg, obtained a store at 444 Main Street in South Bethlehem and soon their business prospered so well that they were able to pay off their debts and clear their names after which they operated under the name of Silverberg and Goldberg.
South Bethlehem was the home of Lehigh University, which was located not far from the store. Morris and his partner soon had two kinds of customers: the students from the university and the laborers from the steel mills. They realized that their kind of tailoring was not for students and other young people so they took in readymade clothes and haberdashery. Soon they were able to cater to the tailoring needs of all people.
Sarah and Morris had a nice home on 4th Street, not far from the store. They became active in the Jewish community, joined the synagogue, and made many friends. Morris had a Dodge car and would often bring his family to visit us in Philadelphia.
Morris Goldberg was a good son-in-law. He was always concerned about my parents. When his business was on 8th Street, some of his customers were from the theatres (Gayety and Bijou, which were across the street from their store). The actors were often short in cash and would sell their jewelry and clothing. Morris once bought my father a cloth coat with a mink lining and caracal collar, which my father wore every winter until he died. He also bought a solid gold watch with a double case and a gold chain, which would be worth a lot of money today. For my mother he bought diamond earrings and a gold bracelet. Sarah and Morris never came empty handed when they visited.
Morris was concerned about my father working for his brothers and when one of his friends, who had a junk shop and a stable for horses which he rented out, wanted to rent out his junk shop, Morris thought that this would be a good opportunity for my father to go into business for himself since he already knew something about the rag business. Morris and Sarah also thought that this would be the beginning of bringing my parents and the unmarried children to Bethlehem. My father agreed. Dave, who had worked for a man who had a junk shop and later was the man’s partner, joined my father. Ben also came to Bethlehem. This was their situation. My father and Dave were partners. Ben was a peddler. There were other local peddlers who sold their goods to my father. Private people would also bring their rags, paper, iron and metals to my father’s junk shop. Business was good.
My father stayed with Sarah. He would work from Monday to Friday and come home to Philadelphia for the weekend. Dave and Ben moved their families to Bethlehem. For a short time they lived in the “Hills,” a community of cheap housing that was built by Bethlehem Steel Company for their workers and their families. Soon they were fortunate to be able to rent a house on South Broad Street in Bethlehem, which they occupied jointly. On Christmas Eve of 1917, a son was born to Ida and Ben. They named him Meyer.
My father’s business was going along fine. They now had a double team of prize horses. Dave was gaining experience. He would go to the small country towns and buy from the small junk shops there, leaving my father to take care of the shop.
Dave was able to sell their scrap steel direct to the Bethlehem Steel Company and made connections with other junk shops to sell their iron and steel for them.
One of the dangers of buying scrap metals from private people and peddlers was that some of the metals were stolen, and it was against the law to buy them. The only one that really knew was Dave. My father knew only the rags and paper part of the business. One day when my father was left by himself and had to attend the purchases at the scale, not knowing which metals were not kosher, bought anything that was brought in. Moreover, he did not hide the metals. That day detectives, looking for stolen bell telephone cable, upon search found some in my father’s shop. My father was arrested. Except for the intervention of my brother-in-law, who knew some politicians, and Abe Safranski, the biggest iron and metal dealer in Allentown, my father might have gone to jail. A stiff fine settled the matter.
My father then went home for a few weeks to review his situation. My mother refused to move to Bethlehem because they still had single children. She feared that the children would not have enough Jewish friends. My father also decided that with restrictions on what you could purchase, his junk business would not be profitable. He then sold his prize “grey” horses to his brothers in Philadelphia and quit the business.
It would be interesting to note that the road between Philadelphia and Bethlehem was known as the Bethlehem Pike (309 today). It was a hilly road and in many places it was a toll road. Sellersville hill and the hill leading to Bethlehem were the longest and automobiles would have to use the low gear. Going back to Philadelphia it was mostly down hill. There, again, it was against the law to coast, and brakes had to be applied. The horses driven to Philadelphia by my brother, Ed, made it.
Dave and Ben carried on for a while then returned to Philadelphia. My father meantime opened a junk shop and took in his brother, Berl Hirch, as a partner. Soon Dave joined them and the firm of S. Matusow and Company was born. There was a little controversy between the brothers as Morris and Abe operated under the name of Matusow Bros. The hard feelings soon blew over and the companies traded together for many years. Ben went to work for Matusow Bros. Ed went to work for Baldwin Locomotive Works.
The First World War was then on. My father’s business grew in leaps and bounds. My brother, Ben, went to work for Matusow Bros. Ed, who was then working as a stock boy for the Baldwin Locomotive Works, quit and went to work for my father. Larger quarters were rented and a large Packard truck was purchased. S. Matusow & Company was among the first firms in the rag business that had a truck as well as horse drawn wagons.
What Was the Matusow Contribution in World War I
Well, Harry Rosenblit, Clara’s husband, enlisted, although he could have stayed out because his trigger finger was bent from an accident which he had while fixing the engine of his taxicab. He was a real patriot and wanted to serve. He was in the Ambulance Corps. After training at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, he was sent to Staten Island, where he drove an ambulance at the hospital for shell-shocked soldiers. While he was in the army, Clara, who was pregnant, had a miscarriage. She was treated by a Dr. Stembler at our house, where she lived. The doctor botched up the job and, subsequently, Clara was never able to have children. As for other contributors, Anna and Beatrice worked for J. N. Suskind, who made army uniforms. Even I had a job in the summer at the clothing factory. I recall that we had a record heat wave that summer. A few times the workers had to be sent home.
My Bar Mitzvah
On August 15, 1917, which came out on shabbot “hach mu,” I became bar mitzvah. The service took place at the “Libavtiched Shul” then located at 8th and Brown Streets. My whole family gathered for the simeah. The attendance of members of the congregation, friends and relatives added up to a large crowd. Most of the honors at the torah were given to family members, mostly to uncles who contributed handsomely when mi-shi berachs (a costum) in those days were made. The women who attended the service sat in the balcony and, when I was called to the torah as a bar mitzvah, they showered me with “confecten” (candy), a symbol of good wishes for a sweet future.
There was no question about me knowing the haftorah as I had been reviewing it for many years and, with having a good voice, was able to deliver a perfect “maftir,” so much so that when I completed it I was asked to do the musaph service.
Of course my father would not permit it, first, because he was afraid of “Einhorah” and, second, because he wanted to lead the musaph service himself. Following the service a kiddush was given by my parents at the synagogue, which was followed by a luncheon and open house at our home for family and relatives.
At night there was a birthday party for my friends. We had a player piano so we sang, danced and played games. Some of my friends who attended remained close friends for many years.
November 1917 brought a dark cloud over our family. Clara and Dave’s son, Aaron, who was three-years-old, contracted diphtheria, a serious children’s disease that was contagious. He was taken to the Philadelphia General Hospital and kept in an isolated ward. His death occurred on Thanksgiving Day when there was a shortage of nurses. In order to help his breathing, a tube was placed in his throat. When he was left unattended, the tube fell and he choked to death. In this day and age a cure has been discovered and death from diphtheria is unheard of. The family took his death very hard as he was a loving child.
The Flu Epidemic
In September 1918, the flu epidemic broke out. The first case was discovered at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Within four weeks the outbreak peaked to 4,013 new cases. An emergency was declared and schools, theatres, churches, and all public places were closed. October 16th was the worst day of all. Within the City of Philadelphia itself, 711 deaths were reported that day.
Our family felt the effects. With the shortage of doctors we had to help each other. With the exception of Helen, who contracted double pneumonia and went through a crisis which could have meant her death, there were no nurses to be had, so my sisters and brothers administered to her night and day and, with my mother and father’s prayers at the synagogue every day, she survived. I must say at this time that I was a great help as I was the only one that did not have the flu. Near the end when it seemed I had it, the doctor was called and, after an examination, he told my mother to give me a bath and let me out to play.
About that time we were living at 965 North Franklin Street. This home was one of the nicest homes on the street. It was a brownstone front with marble steps. The windows had awnings, which were used in the summertime. It was a three-story house with hardwood floors, electric, and a gas stove. There were two bathrooms on the second floor, as it contained two apartments, and one bathroom on the third floor front, also a room on the third floor back where there was washtubs, as well as two other rooms used as bedrooms. There were front and rear stairs from the first to the third floors. There was a side yard and a toilet, which could be entered from the kitchen door.
September 1918 was a special time for me. It was then that I entered Central High School. I selected the academic course, which was the hardest. My roster, which was compulsory not selective as it is today, consisted of Latin, algebra, literature, chemistry, freehand and mechanical drawing, botany and zoology, and gym. Passing grades without a midterm or final exam was a mark of 80. Some of my teachers that I can still remember were Professor Snyder, Dr. Blanke, McPherson, Barcuther, Belknap, Dr. O’Brion, Dr. House and Goreckie.
My freshman year at Central was very enjoyable. My marks were passable with the exception of Latin and botany for which I had to take final exams, which I passed. For extracurricular activities I ran on the class track team but was not good enough to make the school team. I tried for the freshman baseball team but made only the second team because I was too small. I sold the school magazine called The Mirror.
Some of my schoolmates that I remember were Sam Brodsky (Esq.), Ben Kresch (Esq.), Marcu (Esq.), Winheld (Dr.), Lorry (Esq.). Other friends who went to Central but who were not in my class were John Brill (M.D.), Al Cowan (Esq.), Al Stiefel (Esq.) and Al Rabinowitz.
Summer of 1919, I am now 15 and looking for work. I get a job as a stock boy in the shoe department at Lit Brothers, which lasts two weeks, then, having a bicycle, I get a job as a doggie working for Western Union and that does not last too long. Then I got a job selling candy at the Girard Theatre. The boss was a man by the name of Charles Marion who had stands in other theatres as well as concessions in Point Breeze Park; Ocean City, Maryland; Wildwood; and Sanatoga Park in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
Socially I joined a young Judea club where I met boys and girls. We met on Sunday afternoon. There I met a boy whose name was Eddie Sherman. His father was a kosher butcher. Eddie aspired to be a theatrical booking agent. He sang in the theatre with me. He organized a group of singers and dancers and entered them in an amateur show under the name of “School Days.” We did not win any prizes and did not last long as a group, but for him it was a beginning. Believe it or not, he eventually went to Hollywood and opened up a theatrical agency. He backed an act called Abbot & Costello and became their agent. What a success they were!
In the fall of 1919, I returned to Central as a sophomore. My subjects were increased with geometry and Greek, which proved a little difficult for me. At that time I should have engaged a tutor to help me with the hard subjects. Instead of that I continued to work in the evening at the Girard Theatre and singing at Ohel Jacob. I also continued my social activities and did not really give my time to study as I should have.
I joined the Central High Glee Club and, with my experience in choral work and having a trained voice, I was soon the soloist. We sang at our school and Girls’ High School where my cousins, Rose and Jean Levitt, attended. I was introduced to some of their sorority sisters, and I was invited to parties where I met some nice Jewish boys and girls.
June 1920, I take a job working for Mr. Charles Marion, who had concessions in Point Breeze Park. This was an amusement park that was not far from the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It catered to the sailors and attracted ladies that were seeking their company. Point Breeze Park also had a velo-drome that held bicycle and motorcycle races. Motor paced races are most thrilling, especially when the performers are world renown cyclers. Every Wednesday and Saturday as many as 5,000 fans attended. There was an artificial lake there, also merry-go-round, a roller coaster, and other rides. There were games of chance in which the player could win prizes such as novelties, dolls, and candy. There were hotdog stands and a restaurant. The park operated from Declaration Day to Labor Day every evening, Monday to Friday and all day Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 12 to 11. In case of inclement weather, the office signaled when you could close and go home. It was my job to work in one of the stands of which Mr. Marion owned three. In the beginning I received $15 a week, which was very good pay. I told my mother that I also received expenses, because I was afraid that she would not let me work. Between tips and shortchanging, my pay really amounted to $30 per week. Soon I became an experienced carnival man and had the responsibility of bringing the money to the boss’ office at the movie house at 333 Market Street. I was also asked by the boss to watch the other workers and to report if I thought that anyone was dishonest. I now opened a bank account and started to save $15 to $20 per week.
September 1920, I returned to Central High where I had to take re-examination of subjects that I flunked during my sophomore term. I passed in everything but Latin and started my junior year taking on an additional language (French) and trigonometry. I struggled through the next six months without success. I got in with a group of students that cut classes and soon came to a conclusion that the academic course was not for me. I transferred to evening high school and took a course in bookkeeping in which I was progressing very well.
Summer of 1921, my second year at Point Breeze Park was a great success for me financially. Mr. Marion put me in charge of the three stands. I had to keep records of the income of each stand, collect the money and deliver it to his office. I had to make a list of the novelties we needed for prizes and especially I had to check the Flasher 48 State game where the winner could get a doll worth $2.50 wholesale. I checked the average income for each doll won and kept my eyes open that no employee could knock down for himself. Of course, we could not be 100% sure that the employees were “honest,” but it was to the satisfaction of the boss. I now received $35 per week and made an additional $40 per week “commission.” That was great; however, at the end of the park season we received word that the park was sold and would not open anymore as an amusement park.
In the fall of 1921, I did not return to school and decided to go to work. My first job was working for the A&P Tea Company in a neighborhood store on Frankford Avenue. This store was managed by my brother, Herman. These small stores were being phased out and soon Herman’s store was closed, and Herman took over a store a few blocks away and had to keep the clerk from that store as his helper so I was out. I next worked for Saylor’s Dairy who had a stand in the Belgrade Market. That job was for three days a week. I learned fast and could have had a job in one of their other stores fulltime, but the pay was very low so I took a job working for my sister, Helen, who had a store on 31st and Berks Streets. I had to get up early in the morning to open the store as people would come in for milk, butter, eggs and cheese. I could not get used to the idea of selling small quantities as compared to large purchases made at the Belgrade Market.
One of my duties was to go to the place where my brother-in-law, Phil Feldman, worked as a manager of the dairy department for James M. Reough. There I would pick up a crate of eggs and take it by trolley car to the store. It was quite heavy, but fortunately I was able to keep the crate up front but had to stand all the way. I stayed at Helen’s house but not for long. I soon quit and had no job.
The next job was with Joe Waldow who had a pretzel route in Bristol, Pennsylvania. I helped him. This did not last too long for him or me and soon I was again unemployed.
The fortunes of S. Matusow & Company again changed as Dave left the business, which was deteriorating due to the post-war recession that started in 1921. My father and his brother moved to smaller quarters and took in my brother, Ben, as a partner. Soon their business picked up. They moved to Front and Girard Avenue. Since they were three partners who worked, they needed someone to take care of the office, send out bills, answer the phones (there were two telephone companies at that time – The Bell Telephone Company and Keystone Telephone Company), go to the bank, and other duties.
My pay was $20 per week. I also took care of the scale and helped lift bales. There were no forklifts used at the time.
My social life changed too. We had a social club consisting of boys, all about the age of 17. We rented a room in a hall where we held dances. The music was a phonograph and the guests paid 25 cents each. One of the members was a fellow by the name of Dave Gold, who was a good dancer. We would meet in his house, and he would teach us how to dance. We would also learn to dance when we would be invited to socials that girls gave in order to meet boys.
One day my friend, Albert Rabinowitz, told me that there was a club called Pannonia that had a junior branch which you could join for small dues. There you could meet nice Jewish boys, you could enjoy Sunday afternoon dances and shows, and you could shoot pool as there were three pool tables. We joined and that was the beginning of my affiliation with Pannonia, which has lasted even to this day. In Pannonia’s club room there were card tables where the men played pinochle and other card games. Pool tables were for hire, and those who played were charged so much per hour. There were rooms where people came to dinner, which was catered by Mr. Kirsch and his wife who were the caretakers of the building. One day Mr. Kirsch asked me if I would like to take care of the pool tables, collect from the players, and turn the money over to him. I received $5 for working Sunday from 10 to 2 p.m.
In the Junior Branch of which I became the secretary, I met quite a number of friends, especially Dewey Smith, Jack Kuntz and Joe Wolf, with whom I remained friends for life. We had a baseball team and a basketball team. There was no Sunday sports or movies at that time, so our Sunday afternoon socials were very enjoyable. We had picnics and other social events.
I was close friends with my cousins, Israel, Albert and Bessie Mathason, and through them met other friends so that my social life was full.
My brother, Dave, became partners with a man by the name of Kravitz who had a junk shop on Rising Sun Avenue at 5th Street. He gave a job to my brother, Herman. Little did we know that in the back of the shop there was a still and that they were cooking alcohol (whiskey). One day a young, black man, who was running away from his home in the South because his grandmother would not let him marry his girlfriend, got off from a freight train, which had stopped at the railroad yard near the shop, and asked if he could sleep in the stable. Mr. Kravitz asked him what he did in the South. The boy, whose name was Elik, told him that he worked with horses, so he gave him a job. I mentioned his name because Elik worked for the Matusow family until I retired from the waste material business at the end of 1969, a period of 47 years.
My First Trip to Atlantic City
In the Pannonia there was a man by the name of Abe Libarkan. He was a member of the Young Men’s Division. His mother had a house in Atlantic City where she rented rooms during the summer season. Abe advertised it among the members that the rooms were clean and comfortable and cheap. So, my brother, Herman, and I decided to take the two-day excursion, which was run by the Pennsylvania Railroad, for $2. We arrived there Saturday about 11 o’clock and found the place. Mrs. Libarkan showed us the room, and we had to pay in advance. We hung up our clothes and went for a walk. When we returned, we found two more people in the room. When we asked why she rented to the other people, she told us that for the price she was charging it would be impossible to just have two people in a room. Well, we put on our bathing suits and went to the beach. We enjoyed the sun and water, and when we returned there were two additional cots in the room and two more people. We saw immediately that there was no use to argue and took it in good spirit. We had a great time and learned that Atlantic City was a great resort.
My brother, Ed, was a good dancer. One time I got him a job working for my boss, Charles Marion, who had concessions in Sanatoga Park, Pottstown. There was a large auditorium that had public dancing to the music of famous orchestras. Ed entered and won a contest, which made him popular with the young crowd who patronized his Flasher game at the park. Ed’s stand was the best stand in the park. He made good money for the boss and some for himself. Mr. Marion’s brother also had stands in the park that did not do so well. He told his brother that Ed was knocking down some of the profits. The boss offered to send him to a park in Ocean City, Maryland, but Ed, having made some money, quit and went to Atlantic City for the rest of the summer. He danced at the Million Dollar Pier, won some contests, was popular with the girls, and did not come home until he spent all his money.
In Philadelphia, there were a number of public dance places among which “Danceland” was the most popular. Ed went there three nights a week to dance, especially when they had dance contests. I would go there sometimes with him.
My father got him a job working in a fruit store, and he was doing pretty well but it interfered with his Saturday night dancing dates. Thanksgiving Eve, which was a busy night at the store, Ed wanted to get off early, but his boss did not agree. So, Ed quit, but his boss did not give him his pay. He left, went to the barbershop for a haircut and shave on credit, went to the dance where he borrowed money from a friend to get in, and won a dance contest.
His next job was driving a team for S. Matusow & Company. Now the whole male part of the family was in the rag business.
My affiliation with Pannonia grew. The Junior Branch broke up, and I was allowed to join the age of 20. My friends, Dewey Smith and Jack Kuntz, and some of the others were also promoted to the Senior Branch and became active in the organization. However, there were not enough people interested in joining as there were no activities such as sports and dancing to attract the young people to join.
In the spring of 1923, my brother, Ed, and some of his friends from the dance crowd rented a bungalow on the lake in Blackwood, New Jersey. I also joined but soon found out that I did not fit in with that crowd. Fortunately, I visited a summer colony that was further up the lake, which had mostly all Jewish groups. There they had all sorts of sports – swimming, basketball, baseball, canoeing, Saturday night dancing and singing, also volleyball.
My brother, Herman, visited there, as his future wife, Frances Fitterman, and some of her girlfriends had a bungalow there. Herman, my cousins, Al and Ed Mathason, and one of their friends, Sam Spector, and myself hired a place for the season 1924. As each bungalow group had a name, we called ours the 4 Ms. This began four years of summer fun, which I will describe later.
Beatrice was married to Philip Hossack. Phil was a good looking young man, well dressed, and drove a Flint car. The family was not sure what his occupation was. But he traveled to Washington and back two or three times a week. Actually he was running “whiskey” between the two cities. It was strictly against the law and, if you were caught and convicted, you could go to jail and even lose your car. He was stopped and arrested in Philadelphia and, while being detained, he was approached by a runner for a lawyer who offered to get him out and for a fee would get him discharged at a hearing.
They became friends and the runner, whose name slips my mind,
offered to teach him the business. They became partners. Subsequently, Phil opened an office, took his brother, Meyer, in for a partner, and took in a lawyer just graduated from college. Phil and Meyer were what was known as “ambulance chasers.” They also acted as adjusters in accident cases. The lawyers took care of the legal work, and they split the profits.
Phil and Bea did very well financially. They bought a house on Gratz Street in West Oak Lane. They had two children, Bernie and Jerry.
In 1927, there was an investigation by the district attorney’s office into the activities of lawyers who were representing people in accident cases. It was not against the law to do this if the case came to the lawyer direct from the person who had the accident. But it was against the law when the case came in from an ambulance chaser or doctor who recommended the client and helped to build up the case often faked. The runner and doctor got part of the fee that the lawyer received from the settlement with the insurance company. Some lawyers, which included two who worked with Phil and his brother, were disbarred and the runner business soon died out.
The next business that Phil went into was a public garage, which was in Wynnefield. He subsequently became an agency for the Auburn Cord automobiles. He did good until the stock market collapse in October 1929. From that point everything went down hill. Most people did not have money to pay garage rent or for auto repairs. After struggling a few years, he finally gave up the garage and was in dire financial shape. They were threatened with the loss of their home because they couldn’t pay the mortgage and taxes.
Sam Hossack, Phil’s father, made a living from going to auctions. He would buy some small things, which he could sell, and often he would get a small fee for staying out of the bidding so that a “ring” could buy at a low price. Phil joined his father in these visits to the auction. At one of the sales Phil bought a lot of goods consisting of odd lots of hardware, paints, and other goods. He needed room for such a large lot. Looking around he found a store and dwelling at Chelten and Wistar Streets, which he named the “Chelten Bargain House.” He developed his business into a hardware and plumbing supply, which he called the Chelten Plumbing Supply Company. His children, Bernie and Jerry, joined the company. Bernie served in the United States Air Corps during World War II. Jerry helped his father. They developed a wholesale business, which supplied builders.
Philip suffered Burgers disease, had to give up smoking, which he did not do. He subsequently died in 1950. His children carried on the business, which was not too successful. Beatrice married again. The marriage did not last long. She then met a fine gentleman whom she knew when she was working in the needle trade. His name was Sam Rose. They lived a very nice life until Beatrice died August 14, 1971. She was 73-years-old.
Bernie married to BeBe. They have two children and two grandchildren. Jerry married and divorced, now married to Elsie. He has two children from first marriage and two grandchildren. The Chelten Plumbing partnership split. Jerry remained with the business. He is now manufacturing plastics and the business is called Chelten Manufacturing Company. Bernie is a vice president with Weinstein Plumbing Supply Company.
Jerry suffered from MS for 30 years and died in 1988.
Bernie died in 1989.
1925 was an important year for the Matusow family and myself.
My brother, Dave, and a partner had rented a building at 1538-40 South Bulah Street as a rag shop, fixed up part of the third floor as an insulated room, and put in a “still” for cooking whiskey, which was called “hooch.” This was during prohibition time and was illegal. After a few months the police discovered the still, and the sergeant and policeman were going back to bring the captain, perhaps to make a deal. The two partners got scared, dismantled the still, and when the captain arrived they discovered nothing. My brother, having borrowed money from S. Matusow & Company for the purpose of sorting rags and selling to the company, offered to turn the lease for the building over to them to cover the loan, which they accepted. We moved from our Front and Girard property, which was being sold, to the city for the Girard entrance to the Frankford elevated.
At that time my uncle, who was a partner with my father and brother, Ben, proposed that he wished to sell his share so that he could join with his son-in-law in an Army and Navy store on South Street. After taking inventory, my uncle was entitled to a sum of $4,000. My father, knowing that I had saved up enough money to buy my uncle’s share, proposed that I become a partner. He also said that his brother should get an additional $1,000 as goodwill. When I asked my father why his brother should get goodwill when he did not ask for it, my father replied that the goodwill payment would eliminate any possibility of hard feelings or jealousy should we be a success in our business and he a failure in his new business.
The next proposal by my father was to take in Ed and Herman as partners. Although Ed could only put up $2,000 and Herman $1,000, my father said that it did not matter, that working together we would be a success. Ben and I agreed. It shows what respect children had for a father at that time.
My cousin, Ed Mathason, opened a set of books for the new company showing the financial interest for each according to their investments. The next step was to buy a junk shop. Herman was put in charge since he was experienced in metals and because he had worked in a junk shop for my brother, Dave.
The next step was to buy a large truck, which Ed learned to drive. We also had a team of horses.
We were now in the rag and paper business, buying from other junk shops and delivering the goods direct to the mills. My uncle’s Matusow Bros. had a contract to haul foreign rags from the piers to a mill on 24th and Vine, which was manufacturing roofing paper. We subcontracted through Matusow Bros. In a short time we bought a large American LaFrance truck, disposed of our team of horses, and bought a small truck. We had four men sorting rags. My father was in charge of that department. In a short time we hired a bookkeeper. Her name was Miss Stern. At the end of our first year as partners, we showed real progress. We were now hauling paper to the paper mill in Manayunk. Our salary was raised to $60 weekly. I could now afford to buy a car. I bought an Essex, which was a model made by the Nash Company. The cost of my first car was $1,060.
1925 was also the year that Ed got married to Lillian Goldstein, originally from Norma, New Jersey. The wedding took place at a hall at 4th and Wharton Streets. There was a great snow that night and, when the wedding was over, it was difficult to get transportation home. Fortunately, Ed had a friend, Harry Kline, who was a taxicab driver, and he was able to get a few cabs to take some guests home. Others went by trolley.
In the Blackwood Lake Summer Colony there was a baseball league, basketball and volleyball league. Our bungalow, known as the “4 Ms,” entered the volleyball league and in the first season won the championship. Our team consisted of Ed and Al Mathason, my brother, Herman, and myself, and Abe Abrams (the basketball referee).
Every Saturday night there would be a dance at the firehouse. Later there would be a canoe ride with singing. Most of the groups had canoes and would join the flotilla.
Swimming was well organized with a club, known as the Hydrophils, acting as lifeguards.
The basketball league had most of the players that played in the Jewish basketball league.
The 4 Ms broke up when Al Mathason and Herman met their future wives and Sam Spector got married. The following year, Dewey Smith, Jack Kuntz, Ed Richter, Charles Katz, Louis Mink, and Ed Von Rillin joined me in renting a larger bungalow in the same summer colony. These were all members of Pannonia so that this intimate group enjoyed many events throughout the year. By the end of 1928, we gave up the bungalow, but our friendship continued.
Matusow Family Moves West
Dave had tried everything without success. His life saddened by the loss of two children was looking to make a new start. He had accumulated debts, which he was unable to repay. His wife, Clara, had relatives in California so Dave planned to go there. The family knew nothing about his plans.
In my father’s house there was what was known as a Jewish corporation (a mutual loan association where members could save and borrow money). Twice a year the secretary rendered a financial report, which was reviewed by an Auditing Committee after which a dividend was declared. It was customary to have a little party after the meeting, and my brother, Dave, was there. It was always said that we gave a farewell party for him because the next day, unknown to all of us including his wife, Dave departed for California. It was almost two months before his wife received a letter from him telling her that he was in Los Angeles. The party was quite expensive to the Matusows in Philadelphia as Dave left quite a bit of debts owing to the corporation. My mother, not wishing to have people say that one of her children did not pay back the money he borrowed, asked the rest of us to chip in and pay back what he owed. He also left owing S. Matusow & Company money, which he had borrowed for merchandise that he was supposed to deliver. This money was never repaid even after he became a successful businessman. The story of Dave needs a whole book and I will attempt to describe it in an abbreviated story of his life.
1927 was also important to the Matusow family as that was the year that Herman was married to Frances Fitterman, who was from an American Romanian family. She had a mother, four sisters, and a brother. The wedding was held in a synagogue at 5th and Warrington Avenue and was officiated by Rabbi Swiran. The reception was at her mother’s house.
I was now the only single member of the family and lived at home with my parents. Our business was progressing. We had four trucks and were a recognized wholesale waste material company. I had a new “Nash” car, traveled with a nice group of men, and enjoyed a good social life.
In the Pannonia Beneficial Association, the membership had dwindled as there was no interest in the kind of activities that were provided. Mr. Joseph Herbach, who was the secretary at that time, saw the need of changing the format of governing the organization by injecting young blood and new ideas that would inspire young people to join the lodge.
A group, consisting of sons of some of the most prominent members as well as other young members, was invited to take over the restructuring of the organization. They formed themselves into a group called Pannonia Council. The first thing they did was to change the time of meeting from Sunday afternoon to Monday night, something unheard of for Jewish organizations at that time. They formed a basketball team, which joined the Jewish League. They also arranged dances on Sunday night, which attracted young people and Saturday night affairs for the members and their wives, so that now we had activities for all ages.
The Pannonia Council became a social group -- except for the eleven original members, all new members had to be proposed and elected to membership. We had our own social affairs. We ran the dances. We published the Pannonia News and generally we ran the Pannonia organization. The first big affair the council ran was the 30th Anniversary of Pannonia. It was held at the LuLu Temple, which was then at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, on Thanksgiving Day. That day my date, Saydy Serody, who was related to the Albert M. Greenfield family, took me to the Penn-Cornell football game, which Penn won. The Thanksgiving Dinner Dance was very festive. I dated her for a while but not on a steady basis. I guess I was not ready to settle down.
1928 was a significant year in my life. The council was having many affairs, and I was dating Hilda Seinberg and Lillian Mathews. I was attending some of the basketball games at the “Y” where they had dancing after the games. At one of the games I met a young lady who was from the Germantown Center, which also had a team in the Jewish Basketball League. After meeting a few times at the dances, I started to date Kitty Silverstein. At the Pannonia affairs and the Pannonia Council parties, the boys were looking with envious eyes at my date. Some of my friends, including Jack Kuntz and Dewey Smith, were getting married, and I came to the conclusion that I should settle down. So I proposed to Kitty and was accepted.
The Silverstein Family
Kitty was the daughter of Anna and Harry Silverstein. She was the second of five children. The others were Sarah, Nathan, Frank and Jack, in that order. When I met Kitty, the Silversteins had a delicatessen store at Camac and Dauphine Streets. Nathan was attending the University of Pennsylvania. Frank and Jack were in school, and Sarah was married to Samuel Silverman.
Kitty attended West Philadelphia High School, then went to work for Sears-Roebuck and Company at the Boulevard store in the mail order shoe department. There were not too many Jews working at Sears at that time. Except for the Silverstein name, she was not taken for Jewish.
Kitty was a devoted daughter as was Nathan a caring son. Between them they knew the store well and often spelled their parents and enabled them to go out to visit, to meetings and other functions.
I introduced Kitty to the entire family at the wedding of my cousin, Ed Mathason and Lillian Mathews, at which I was best man. She made quite an impression, especially on my brother-in-law, Morris Goldberg, who told me that I picked a beautiful girl for my bride to be but that I could have picked a Jewish girl. Kitty with her light hair did not look Jewish.
Our engagement occurred in the spring of 1929. It was a surprise to Kitty when I brought her to my parents’ house and she found her parents there. She was further surprised when I gave her an engagement ring. The wedding date was set for February 2, 1930. Kitty’s parents engaged Savadov & Getson to cater the dinner at their Ambassador Hall, which was located at Broad and Columbia Avenue. The place was newly renovated and was a beautiful ballroom in which kosher Jewish affairs were held.
Arrangements were made with Izz Senator, a popular orchestra, to play at the wedding, also a photographer to take the wedding pictures, a florist, and a vocalist, and, of course, a rabbi.
The ring bearer was to be Bernie Hossack and the flower girl, Clair Matusow, the daughter of Lillian and Ed Matusow. Bridesmaids were cousins of Kitty and mine, and ushers were friends. The maid of honor was Rose Silverstein, a cousin of Kitty’s, and my best man was Kitty’s brother, Nathan.
From the time of our engagement to the time of our wedding, I had many opportunities to meet Kitty’s family, both in Philadelphia and New York where Kitty had three uncles and aunts and many cousins.
Preparations for the wedding went on for sometime and the eventful day finally arrived. During the day Kitty and I went to the photographer’s studio for picture taking. The procession to the bride’s house was arranged by Harry Rosenblit, who was experienced in directing motor traffic. Limousines and family cars drove to the bride’s house where we were joined by Kitty’s family and some relatives for the ride to the hall.
The place was beautifully decorated with flowers and a walk from the back of the hall to the platform where the wedding canopy stood.
The guests, which represented both families, consisted of brothers and sisters and their children, also uncles and aunts, cousins and Kitty’s and my friends. You might say no one was left out.
While the guests were being seated, we were in the back room engaged in the ritual of writing the wedding “ketura” agreement. This being completed, we were ready for the wedding ceremony.
Esther Cohen, a professional singer who was in the Rosenblit family, sang before and during the ceremony. The bridesmaids and ushers marched to their places followed by the maid of honor and best man. My parents escorted me to the wedding canopy, then to the ring bearer who was my nephew, Bernie Hussack. Then came the flower girl who was my niece, Clair Matusow. A hush occurred as Kitty, who made a beautiful bride, was escorted to the canopy by her parents.
The orthodox ceremony of walking the bride seven times around the chasan (groom) was observed and the seven blessing sung by the Rabbi, which completed the wedding ceremony. Following the wedding reception all the guests marched into the dining room. The tables were beautifully set with flowers and a sumptuous meal was served. Music was provided by Izz Senator’s orchestra during the dinner and after the dinner to 12 midnight. When we left the hall a little after 11, it seemed that all the guests were still there and having a “ball.”
Our first night was spent at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel then located at 9th and Chestnut Streets. The next day we went to New York for our honeymoon where we stayed at the Pennsylvania Hotel.
Not being experienced travelers we did not really take advantage of all things you can see in New York. However, we did see a few shows and ate in a few nice places, visited some of Kitty’s relatives and, after a week, were glad to come home.
“Home” at the beginning of our married life was at the home of my sister, Anna Waldow, who owned a three-bedroom house in the 6600 block of Gratz Street in West Oak Lane. This was a desirable neighborhood at that time. This was at the beginning of the Depression and Anna needed my help, as her husband was not doing too well. It did not take too long for us to realize that living with someone was a big mistake, so we found a house on Bouvier Street, a six-room house with a stone porch and a garage, which we furnished out tastefully.
At first we did not feel the Depression too much.
Our social life was okay. Between the family and friends we enjoyed a good relationship. 1931 was a happy year for us. On October 13th we were blessed with the birth of our first child. We named him Irwin (Yitzchok). Being the first grandson of the Silverstein family and the last grandchild of the Matusow family, he became a favorite.
Sarah was the oldest of our family. She was also the first to emigrate to America. She stayed with my Aunt Henna Peshe whose husband was Berke Levitt, who was a tailor. Sarah had experience with sewing, having worked in a dry goods store in our town of Surazh. She got a job in a factory making shirtwaists. It is funny how people got American names. When applying for the job they asked her name and she said Sarah. Then they asked her second name and she thought that they wanted to know who brought her to America so she said Abram. So they called her Sarah Abrams.
Uncle Berke was working for a merchant tailor whose company’s name was “Getty, The Tailor,” the largest of such tailors in Philadelphia. Among many men that worked there was a young man whose name was Morris Goldberg. The Levitts invited Morris to their home on numerous occasions and soon Morris was pursuing Sarah with serious intentions of marriage. Sarah was a little skeptical because Morris was a Polish Jew and our family was Litvacks. But love had its way and soon they were married.
Morris was an enterprising individual and soon he joined two others from the company and formed their own company, Marks, Silverberg and Goldberg. Their store was on 8th Street between Vine and Race Streets, which was a lively street that also had three theatres -- the Four Paws, the Bijou, and the Gaiety, a moving picture house, a burlesque theatre and a regular theatre.
On 7th Street in the same block was the Hurley House, a hotel and boarding home for actors. Morris’ business prospered and he soon married Sarah. They rented a two-story home at 8th and Parrish Streets. In 1910, their first child was born. They named him Abraham. Sarah was instrumental in bringing Anna to America. After Ben and Dave were sent to America by my father to escape the “draft,” Sarah was the leader of our family in America and together with Anna, Ben and Dave who were now working, they bought passage (shifcarton) for the rest of the family.
When we arrived and needed a sponsor who would support the family until they got settled, Morris showed his bank book and we had no problem getting into America. Morris and Sarah were good to the family. At the beginning they found a large apartment (third floor) at 121 Greene Street and furnished it. They provided a place for Helen who helped Sarah with the housework. After a little more than one year, they found a house for us at 711 Fairmount Avenue, which had enough room for the entire family. Sarah next moved to a second floor on 7th Street between Jefferson and Oxford Streets. There their second son, Isaac, was born. They next moved to a new home at 8th and Wolf Streets.
The actors from the Hurley House would often run out of money and would seek to borrow money from Morris, leaving jewelry and sometimes clothing as security, and most times when they went to work in another city, would never come back to reclaim them. Sarah wore some very expensive jewelry. Morris gave my father a cloth coat with a caracal collar and fur lining, which he wore all his life. He also gave him a gold watch with a double case and heavy gold chain, which would be worth a lot of money today, earrings and a brooch for my mother.
Things went along for them very nicely until the beginning of 1916 when they were forced into bankruptcy.
At the Sheriff Sale of the furniture and fixtures, Morris’ brother-in-law, Abe Newsbaum, was the successful bidder. They stored the fixtures in our basement. Not long after Morris and one of his partners, Bart Silverberg, found a store in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and opened a tailoring shop under the name of “Abe Newsbaum, Merchant Tailor.”
South Bethlehem was the home of the Bethlehem Steel Company and Coke Works, which employed many workers. There was a great need of all sorts of businesses and their tailoring store did very well.
South Bethlehem was also the home of Lehigh University, an exclusive engineering school. Bart Silverberg, who was more Americanized, proposed that they should go into readymade clothes and haberdashery that would attract the Lehigh students and other young people.
Although they had gone through legal bankruptcy, they offered a settlement to their creditors and soon incorporated their business under the name of Silverberg and Goldberg. Their business became very successful and soon the Goldbergs became affluent members of the Bethlehem Jewish community. They purchased a home on Carlton Avenue near the Lehigh University campus. They joined a synagogue that was a member of the “conservative” movement. Soon the synagogue made plans to build a Jewish Community Center, which would have a temple, swimming pool, gym, Hebrew school, auditorium for affairs, and other facilities to encourage the Jewish population of South Bethlehem and Bethlehem to join together in their common interest. As large contributors, both Bart Silverberg and Morris Goldberg were elected to the Board of Directors. Looking back, I remember that I attended the dedication services of the center and the dinner dance that night in 1928.
The third son born to the Goldbergs in Bethlehem in 1921 was named Harry.
The center was called the Brith Sholom Synagogue and Center. We attended many happy family events at the center and one that was very sad, the funeral of my sister, Sarah, who died on Labor Day, 1943, at the age of 55. She was the first of the Matusow children to pass away, and the experience of losing a beloved sister could be the subject of a sad story.
The Goldberg family, with the exception of Harry who married Jennette after serving in the army in World War II, settled in California where he established a business called “Mr. Big.” They have two sons, both doctors, and several grandchildren.
Morris remained in the clothing business. He opened a modern store in Bethlehem and continued active almost to the end of his life on October 5, 1980, at the age of 90. He had the sad experience of losing two sons. After Sarah’s death, he was married two times.
Abe, the oldest son, graduated from Lehigh University, class of “’32.” He attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from Catholic University in Washington, DC, with a law degree, passed the bar in Pennsylvania but never practiced law. He joined his brother, Izz, in the Lehigh Waste Company. He married Miriam in 1942. They have two daughters and a number of grandchildren. Abe died June 23, 1963, at the age of 53.
Izz Goldberg was graduated from Bethlehem High School and was a clothing salesman for a short time. After the end of prohibition, he took a job with a liquor company as a salesman. He joined his uncle, Harry Rosenblit, in the establishment of the Lehigh Waste Company in Bethlehem. When Harry Rosenblit left the company, he was joined by his brother, Abe. Their business proved successful. He married Bea and they had a son and two daughters and a number of grandchildren. Izz was overweight as was his brother, Abe, and his mother. They all suffered high blood pressure and all died at an early age. Izz passed away on August 12, 1968, at age 55.
There is more to write about Dave than about anyone else in the family because his life was full of adventure, starting with his life in “Surazh,” Russia. He was the second son in the family and the third oldest. As a boy, he was given a Jewish and Russian education and early on showed a capacity for learning. After completing primary school, he was one of the few Jewish boys who was admitted to Gradskoya Utilis HTA “Gratz Institute,” a school comparative to high school- junior college. Graduation from this school made one eligible to enter a university. Dave read many books by Marks and Engle and other Socialist writers, and it was said that he was a member of a secret society. He proved his revolutionary ideas when he led a group to protest the rules that forced Jewish students to attend school on Saturdays and holidays or be marked absent and subjected to a loss of grades and suspension. Seeing that he could not win, he sold his books and quit school.
Dave showed no interest in the family shoe business. He went to another small town to work and never showed ability to learn a trade.
When his brother, Ben, was let out for a year after failing an examination for army service and he was scheduled to show up for possible induction the following year, both Ben and Dave were sent to America.
Dave and Ben’s first job was working in a factory, which manufactured leather goods and suitcases. In a short time Dave showed his business ability by becoming a subcontractor, taking a contract for so many suitcases and having workers make different parts of the bags, some work was done at their homes. This lasted a few years. Dave met Wexler, the daughter of a kosher butcher, who lived at 7th and Fairmount Avenue, and they were married in November 1913 in the Fairmount Hall.
Dave’s next venture showed his ability to move in and take over. He went to work for a Mr. Steinberg, who had a rag shop. This man was not knowledgeable in simple bookkeeping nor did he speak good English. Dave became indispensable to him and, in a short time without any investment, became his partner. One day he came to work in a Model “T” Ford, and when Mr. Steinberg asked him whose car he was driving, he told him that it belonged to the business. Dave promised that he would take Mr. Steinberg and his wife for a ride every Sunday. This promise did not last long; neither did the partnership.
In 1917, father buys junk shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Dave joins as partner. Brother, Ben, moves to Bethlehem and works as a “junk peddler.” Brother, Ed, also comes to Bethlehem and works for father and Dave. Business goes well. Dave goes to Bethlehem Steel and is able to get direct orders, which makes it possible for him to buy from other junk dealers and make a profit.
The reason for the break up of the firm in Bethlehem and the move back to Philadelphia by my father can be found in the writing of our family history. The story continues with my father opening a junk shop in partnership with his brother, Berel Hirsh. Dave, after selling out the remainder of the business in Bethlehem, moves back to Philadelphia and joins the new business. They open a large warehouse and name the new firm S. Matasow & Company. The shop was located at 9th and Dauphin. Here Dave showed his business ability. The country was at war and everything was in demand. Dave, having made contracts while in Bethlehem, was able to generate a large volume of business. They were the first firm in the rag business to buy a large Packard truck. They also had a team of horses. Ten men worked for them, and they had a bookkeeper.
There was a bit of controversy when my father’s brothers, who operated under the name of Matusow Brothers, objected to the use of the name “S. Matusow & Company,“ but, being brothers, it was soon resolved.
To do such a large business it was necessary to obtain bank credit and financial help from other sources. One of the ways was to take orders for future deliveries and receive money on account. Much of such advance funds was from Matusow Bros., who had exclusive sales rights in Langs Mills, a manufacturer of roofing paper, also from some wool graders in Massachusetts.
After the war, a recession set in and prices went down in almost all the waste materials. Instead of selling as he was advised, Dave speculated and bought, thinking that prices would come back and that the company would make a killing. Alas, it did not work out. So the business was liquidated and Dave left the company and left my father and uncle holding the bag.