MY GRANDMOTHER – THE EARLY YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!

13 thoughts on “MY GRANDMOTHER – THE EARLY YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • Ellin, you’ve really put a personal face on well chronicled stories. You give humanity to history. Your Grandmother’s Mom reminds me a bit of my paternal Grandma. Enough said about that.

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      • The two stories I know about my mother’s mother is that when they were wealthy in Russia, she bathed in milk. I think it was milk. Something luxurious that you don’t associate with bathing. The other thing is she knew her daughter, my grandmother, was deathly afraid of cats, so she had several. My grandma would wake up her young daughter in the middle of the night, so her daughter could take her to the bathroom and avoid the cats. Or protect her from them. Guess what? My mother developed a life long fear of cats too! Talk about cold.

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    • Thank you. I hope my great love and respect for my grandmother came through in the piece. She was a flawed person but had so much good in her – including a sense of humor about herself.

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  1. My mother was born here, the first of her family born in America. Her memories weren’t really HER memories, but the stuff other people told her. I tried to get more information from the older aunts and uncles, but by the time I was ready to listen, they were very old and had forgotten a lot. It’s great that you got the stories!

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    • So sad to lose the family stories. I come from a family of storytellers so many stories survived. When she had cancer, My mother taped a video of herself telling the family stories. That may be why I remember so many of them so well. She had a real sense of preserving history.

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      • My mother didn’t so much lose them as never had them in the first place. Her family was not big on “the past.” They were the kind of immigrants who felt life had begun for them when they arrived here and in all the years with them, I never heard them talking about “the old days” or the “old country.” Not even once.

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        • Marilyn, that’s interesting that your parents never talked about the old country. Not even after the second world war? Did they still have family in europe during WWII? Did they ever search for family members after the war was over? My grandparents tried to track down family members for years after the war.

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          • I think they knew what had happened because there weren’t many immediate family left over there — and they were old. The odds of them surviving the war … or even the years … was small. The immediate familyh had all come to America. Towards the very end of her life, mostly because I asked, my mother remembered a few things, as did my Aunt Kate who actually DID come from the Old Country. By then, Kate was well into her 80s with serious Parkinson’s. As she pointed out … all that stuff had happened more than 75 years ago. “It has been,” she said, “A LONG time.”

            These days, I find I can’t remember things I was sure I could never forget … then I realize they happened more than 50 or 60 years ago. We DO forget the details, if not the whole picture.

            There was extended family there … more what we used to call in Israel “Far-close,” who are family members who are really member of not direct family members … the aunts and uncles or cousins of married partners. So no, they didn’t do any substantial searching. They considered themselves American. Many immigrant families feel that way.

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