Mendel Letter 59 — Coming to America
January 8, 2022
Happy New Year! I hope you are well, wherever you are!
A couple of weeks ago, my cousin Robert and I, visited the Mount Judah cemetery where Bubba and Zayda, your mother and father are buried. It is one the Brooklyn-Queens border by the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I had been there a few times, but Robert hadn’t since Zayda’s funeral in 1975. Bubba had died earlier, in 1968. Their plot is part of a larger area that belonged to his village mutual aid society, the Burstyner Chewra Linas Hazedek. Anyone left in the village after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, including your grandfather, an aunt, and two cousins, was exterminated by the Nazis. As best we know, they were loaded on cattle cars to be transported to the city of Lvov and then sent to a concentration camp, but at one point the Germans needed the train as they were retreating from Russia so the Jews were unloaded, shot to death, and their remains were left on the side of the train tracks. After the war, the society placed a tombstone in the plot for all of the people they had lost.
Bubba and Zayda were both from Galicia near the Polish-Ukraine border. Solomon was born in the village of Burstyner with a population of fewer than 3,000 people, all Jews. When Solomon was eighteen he met a neighbor who had just come back from the United States and who told him of the glories of that far off place. In 1907, at age twenty-four, Solomon decided that he would go to America too.
Solomon ventured from Lvov where he was living to the town of Podheijce, hoping to get money for the trip from his father. Instead, he ended up married to Fannie Steinfink. She was 23 and the daughter of a successful coat and cloth merchant. Fannie had cataracts and glaucoma that rendered her nearly blind and left her unable to read or write. The Steinfink family decided to make the match, and agreed to set up Solomon as an itinerant peddler in the dry goods business. They also agreed that once two children were born to the couple, the Steinfink’s would buy back Solomon’s stock so he would have enough money to travel to America. Fannie and Solomon were married on February 2, 1909.
In 1912, after their second daughter was born, Solomon sold his stock to the Steinfink family for the money he needed to travel and Fannie and the two children moved in with her family. Solomon headed for Berlin where his youngest brother Marcus David lived. There he borrowed 100 German Marks to help cover his passage. In Hamburg Solomon boarded the Augustus Victoria and headed for America. In June 1912, Solomon Singer discovered the New World, Ellis Island, and New York.
After being processed at Ellis Island, Solomon was ferried over to Manhattan where he jumped the turnstile on the subway and headed for East Harlem. There he found his brother Abraham, whose entire family was already living in America. Abraham was working as a presser and had managed to move his family out of the Lower East Side and up to East Harlem. Solomon spent his first night in America at his brother’s house. After two days in America his brother gave him a Yiddish newspaper, pointed him towards the Lower East Side, and told him to find a job. He recommended pressing, his own “profession.”
On Houston and Lafayette Streets, Solomon found a shop willing to teach him how to make pants. In return he had to work there for two weeks without pay. He stayed a couple of days but didn’t like the work. He decided to follow his brother’s advice and get a job as a presser. He answered a street sign add for a shop on Second Avenue and Second Street. The owner saw he was a “greenhorn” and offered to teach him the work if he paid him $40 and would work for 4 weeks without pay. Solomon shouted at him, “If I had $40 I wouldn’t come here. How do you expect a man to eat for four weeks?” Finding a trade in the land of gold was not as easy as had expected.
Solomon was finally able to get a job with a landsman from his village where he was paid five dollars a week. As he became more experienced, he was given increases to six and then seven dollars. This was a good job, but good times do not stay forever. Though he was also Jewish, the boss pushed Solomon to work on Yom Tov Succoth. Solomon refused. He told his boss, “I didn’t come to America just to see you, there are other places where I can work.” He next found a job at a shop that had been unionized. Though the union scale was $14 a week, the boss offered to pay him only $11. The union was not strong and let this slide by.
By 1914, Solomon had saved enough money to bring his family to America. Immigration officials on Ellis Island hesitated to let Fannie enter the country because of her eye problems, but Solomon came to pick her up, posted a bond, and she was admitted. When Solomon met Fannie he learned that she had come alone. The two girls had died in an influenza epidemic. Solomon had not been told because her family feared he would abandon her.
Until his wife had arrived, Solomon had lived as a boarder at 312 E. Houston Street. Now they had to seek out their own apartment. The Singer’s first apartment was at 156 Stanton Street. Solomon arranged the apartment through a landsleit who had a vacancy in the building where she lived. Most of the Brustyner landsleit tried to remain together in the same area. They had a society that visited them when they were sick, arranged weddings, funerals, and loans and met every week or so to continue ties and community that had existed in Europe. The society also maintained a schule on Attorney Street near Delancy Street.
Their first apartment had a living room-kitchenette, one bedroom, a boarder to help pay the rent, and two quick children. Kate (Kala) was born in 1916. Abraham was born in 1918. Soon another child, you, was on the way and the family was forced to move. They found a new apartment a few blocks away at 95 Pitt Street.
You were born July 1, 1920. A few years later, the family moved to 275 E. 7th Street, where you lived until the 1940s. While living on E. 7th Street, Solomon and Kate got involved in ward politics. On Election Day Kate would be paid to poll watch. Solomon had some influence and in 1927 was able to get his friend Lippa Landau a temporary job in the Post Office. Solomon stayed loyal to the Democratic Party until the 1940s when he supported his union’s decision to back the Liberal Party.
Solomon learned English so he could work in an English-speaking world. He never had much of an education and he never learned to read or write English very well. Often he would feel uncomfortable talking in English with non-Jews. Yiddish was spoken in the home and none of the Singer children learned English until they went to school.
Fannie Singer never learned English and rarely left the house except to go shopping. Kate remembered her being in the kitchen 24-hours a day. No matter how poor they were, she was in the kitchen when they woke up and when they went to bed. On Friday’s she would cook and bake, preparing for Shabbos.
I remember one story you told me about my Zayda. “Pa liked his bread soft on the inside with a hard baked crust. He would come home from work, or possibly from sitting in the hiring area all day, and sit down for supper. If he was in a bad mood no one would move until he had inspected the bread. Heaven forbid if the bread was not baked right. He would scream and throw the bread across the room, along with the silverware and anything else he could reach. The bakery knew how our father was about the bread and the children were very careful to make sure it was just right.” I think we inherited our love of fresh bread from him. Both your and my favorite bread is seeded rye with a crisp crust.
When my son, your grandson, was born in 1978, we named him after your father.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1