Coming to America

An excerpt from:

Read All About It

Reminiscences of an Immigrant Newsboy

By Joseph E. Wilder

"... Many business and professional men were disenfranchised and repressed by an increasingly anti-semitic government. One of these was Beresh Abramovitch, my mother's uncle. He was a successful general merchant in Ploesti who also ran a flour mill and other interests.

For years Uncle Beresh sold his flour through trusted agents who would take his product to markets some distance away, sell it, and return immediately with the cash. But these agents were Jewish; soon they too were forced out of business, to be replaced by other, less honest men. The new agents cheated and stole from Uncle Beresh. And the authorities would do nothing about it.

It wasn't long before Uncle Beresh's business began to fail. He realized he would soon be unable to meet his bills - and Roumanian law was very harsh on debtors, especially if they were Jewish. So he didn't wait for it to happen. Instead he gathered all his liquid assets, and in 1903 took his family of four to America - or, to be exact, Winnipeg.

He chose Winnipeg because he knew about the imminent boom western Canada was going through. Since Winnipeg was so well advertised as the "Gateway to the West", he figured it was the perfect place to start a business.

At the time, my oldest brother Harry attended school in Bucharest. My father had bought Harry an exemption from compulsory military service - a common practice in those days for people with money and influence (something my father had before he lost his job). As a result Harry was able to acquire a university education.

He decided to go with Uncle Beresh to Winnipeg. With his training as an accountant, and his knowledge of several languages, Harry had little trouble finding a job as a clerk, foreign correspondent and interpreter for a Winnipeg bank.

As for Uncle Beresh, he was right about the boom in western Canada. He set himself up as a general merchant and did very well.

We had a few other relatives scattered over America, and received a steady stream of letters and beautifully illustrated pamphlets, all praising this new land and telling us of its unlimited opportunities, "Why don't you come?" they pleaded.

To us there was no distinction between Canada and the United States - it was all America, the land across the sea, full of hope, freedom, and the opportunity for a better life. It was of little importance where you went in America, we thought, because there was opportunity everywhere. Winnipeg attracted us simply because Harry and Uncle Beresh were already established there.

In our own country, we were becoming more and more uneasy. Hatred and bigotry against the Jews grew in intensity, and became unbearable for those who were forced to endure it.

Our neighbourhood, the Jewish district of Ploiesti, was frequently harassed by roving bands of vagabonds bent on theft and vandalism. Occasionally, an army patrol would tramp into the area, making great sport of terrorizing anybody unlucky enough to be in their path.

As children we were often afraid coming home from school. I can remember walking home with my brothers one day, absent-mindedly kicking pebbles down the road. Suddenly one of my brothers shouted, "Joe, Sam - run home! The Goyim are in the bushes!" We knew what that meant - a shout of "Zhidan!" (Jew), and a volley of stones and obscenities.

Sam and I ran home as fast as we could, shut the front gates and dashed into the house. Mother came running, asking, "What happened? What's the matter? Where are your brothers?" We explained, and she watched anxiously out the front window until they appeared, bruised, beaten and torn.

We were never taught to fight back, not even consider it. To do so was asking for more trouble. So we avoided the Goyim, and ran if they ever found us. We were ever fearful of being attacked.

It was a bad time for all Jewish children, for the hatred crept into the schools, turning teachers and fellow classmates into tormentors. We children were fortunate in this respect since we went to an all-Jewish school, where we were happy and did well. The only exception was my sister Mary, who had been a bright and eager enough student to gain admittance to a Gentile school. She read a great deal, and whenever the teacher would ask a question, Mary's hand would be up first. She could never understand why the teacher would never ask for her answer. Finally, one day, her teacher turned on her angrily and snapped, "I don't want any answers from you, Jew!" Mary came home in tears, and never attended school again.

Meanwhile, cards, letters and pictures kept arriving from America. We would spend long evenings going over and over them. It became a land of dreams; we talked of little else. No one ever said. "Let's go to America"; the idea just grew to be a part of all of us.

Or most of us, anyway. My grandmother, who lived with us, hated America because she knew she would never be able to go. She said terrible things about it, hoping we would not go either. She was bedridden and very old. I can still remember seeing her - a tiny, frail old woman, sunk into a huge feather bed, with just a small wrinkled face showing and smoke curling from the pipe that was always between her lips. I have always believed that our decision to go to America hastened her death, but we put off our departure until after it happened.

About this time, a sever impetigo epidemic swept through the children of Ploesti. Many had sores about their noses and mouths which formed ugly scabs. It was painful, infectious and running rampant. All children had to report to a special clinic set up in the town square. A doctor from Bucharest came to examine us. I can still remember the smell of the awful salve he gave us. It smelled so bad that few people used it. My mother made her own concoction of goose fat, coal oil and vaseline which cleared up our skin long before the Goyishi kids.

But even in this medical crisis, there was fear of anti-semitism. Before we went to the clinic my mother instructed us not to give our real names. Instead we were to use typical Slavic names like Stefan, Ivan or Gregory. Had we not done so, we feared we would be pushed aside and abused.

It was a fear we had come to know well. Jews no longer had any rights in Roumania. We were not allowed to vote, we could not enter college, we could not own property, and debts owed to us were declared null and void. Truly we were citizens no longer; we had no home.

America was our hope. Harry was doing well in Winnipeg, working for the firm of Alloway and Champion, and for the Law Courts as well. His letters were full of praise for his new home, and my parents discussed moving more often. They wanted the best for their children, and America seemed to have everything Roumania lacked - good schooling for all, freedom of religion, and plenty of opportunity to improve one's lot. But they were sad, too, at the thought of leaving dear friends and family.

For me, though, it was on of the happiest and most exciting times of my life. I thought about America all the time. I could hardly think of everything else. And how vividly do I recall the day my father announced, "I have the tickets for America!"

Last revision: 3/4/96

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