Monthly Archives: February 2022

From Bialystok to Brooklyn: An immigrant’s trek across three continents

When reflecting on my family’s Jewish immigrant experience, I conjure up images of fleeing westward in hay wagons; crossing the Atlantic Ocean in crowded steerage; catching the first glimpse of the Stature of Liberty, and waiting and worrying in long lines at Ellis Island.The descendants of Harry Oshinsky, however, recall his much more circuitous—and grueling— trek. At age sixteen, Harry left his Eastern European home and traveled by train, boat, and foot through Russia/Siberia, China Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco before reuniting with his siblings in New York City. Harry’s amazing two year long journey was originally published in Yiddish as a series of articles in The Forward (Forvertz) in the 1970s. In 2014, soon after I began writing for The Jewish World,Lenny Oshins, Harry’s son and my friend in Clifton Park, New York, handed me a 60 page manuscript—thankfully translated into English—in hopes I would shape it into a more succinct article. Although Lenny passed away in 2017, with the help of his daughter, Cindy Barnett, and his sister-in-law Natalie Oshins, both Capital Region residents, I am finally fulfilling a son’s wish for his father’s story to be told to another generation.

Harry (née Chonie) Oshinsky was born in 1898 in what was then known as Simova, a small Jewish community in the northeastern corner of Poland. Around 1904, Harry’s father, a hardworking but poor blacksmith, left his wife and children for more lucrative employment opportunities in New York City. He sent money and, over time, passage fare for the four oldest of seven children with plans to have the entire family reunited in Der Goldene Medina, the Golden Land, in the not too distant future. 

Soon after his father left, Harry began attending chedar (school)—the “classroom” tables and chairs set up in a barn—with several other Jewish boys in Simova. The six-year-old proved to be a bright, able student. Within a year, Harry was proficient enough in Yiddish to write the letters to be sent to America not only for his mother but also for other grateful wives who had been left behind. “I had to help keep up the romance,” Harry later recounted. Relying on examples from Yiddish newspaper and texts, Harry composed missives like the following:“My dear husband, I miss you so! When will you send for me?” 

As reports of pogroms in nearby villages began drifting into their town, the Oshinskys received a very welcome letter from their father “Get ready! You will be leaving soon for America!” Enclosed were instructions and tickets for their passage. After weeks of preparations, Harry’s mother and the three siblings piled into a horse drawn wagon driven by a hired agent to make the trip across Poland to the seaport in Bremen, Germany. Unfortunately, Harry’s mother failed the required physical when she was diagnosed with tracoma, a contagious and potentially blinding infectious eye disease. The four, crushed with disappointment, returned to Poland, settling in Ostrów Mazowiecka (commonly called “Ostroveh” by Jewish residents) near the family of a maternal aunt. Despite efforts by eye specialists in the nearby city of Bialystok to stop the progression of the disease, Harry’s mother eventually lost her eyesight.

The family tried to adjust to the new “normal.” Harry’s older sister assumed all household responsibilities while six year old Yitzchak was enrolled in a yeshiva. Although their father continued to send money , Harry, now twelve years old, decided he needed to help support the family by learning a trade. After completing a six-month apprenticeship, he found work as a “tailor boy,” traveling with his employer to small villages where he sewed peltzes, heavy coats, in exchange for room, board and the promise of clothing and shoes. He eventually returned to Ostroveh and found steady work sewing clothes for both civilians and the military. The skills he learned in the tailor trade and the knowledge he acquired through the establishment of nascent local unions shaped both his career and his lifetime commitment to workers’ rights.

Although his “formal” education had ended, Harry used every opportunity to  increase his knowledge. He read newspapers and devoured books he obtained from the town’s tiny attic library. His library “card” came with the commitment for him to provide community service through Bikur Cholim, a volunteer organization established to provide companionship and reading aloud to the sick, thereby strengthening his own literacy skills. He also frequently earned additional income as a “scribe,” writing letters and documents as needed in his community.

Just before Purim, 1914, Harry’s father wrote, “I am coming home!”  Since the family was not able to go to America,, he was returning to Poland. Within two weeks, Harry’s father began lecturing his son on the need for Harry to immigrate to America “where a person who sews with a needle and does tailoring can earn ten times as much as here.” At his father’s insistence, Harry found a job in Bialystok to get more tailoring experience in a “big” city. Harry made a good salary and began dressing like an American with a fashionable “hat and walking stick in my hand.” By August 1914, Harry had developed enough confidence to make plans to travel to America via Bremen, Germany, to New York City, the same route he, his mother, and two siblings had tried to take over four years earlier.

Fate of global proportions interceded: “The War to End All Wars” erupted in Europe. Ostroveh was filled with “tumult and noise,” recalled Harry. German planes flew above them. Polish soldiers, followed by peasants with horse and wagons, marched through the streets on their way to the front. Harry’s younger sister’s fiancé, who had just returned after serving four years in the army, was forced to reenlist. Harry and his father were required to register to work as part of the home guard, which provided weak and ultimately ineffective attempts to stop the encroaching Germans.

As the Polish army fell and the Germans moved closer to Ostroveh, Harry, who had just turned sixteen, was in imminent danger of being drafted into the army. Harry’s father, insisting that his son find whatever way possible to the United States, to safety, gave him the family’s passport as an illicit form of identification  With Europe engulfed in trench warfare and German u-boats lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, Harry and Yankel Goldberg, a friend also facing conscription, decided to take  an alternative but much more grueling route. Ellis Island was no longer their destination. Instead, the two would make their way across Russia/Siberia to China and Yokohama, a Japanese seaport, and first touch American soil on Angel Island Immigration Center in San Francisco. They boarded a train in Bialystok for Minsk, Russia, in late fall 1914. 

Although eventually reunited in New York City with Yitzchak, his youngest brother, Harry would never see again his parents, who died in Poland, or his younger sister and her family, who were murdered in the Holocaust. Harry and Yankel, the two refuges at least for the time being were free—at least for the time—and on their way to America.

Harry’s Journey Part I: Simova, Poland ➡️ Bremen, Germany ➡️ Ostrów Mazowiecka , Poland➡️ Bialystok, Poland  ➡️ Minsk, Russia

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, February 17, 2022

So Many Books, So Little Time!

Shortly after my parents were married, their first argument was about reading. With an $18-a-week income as a sales clerk in Alburgh, Vermont, my father was spending up to $4 a week on magazines and books. My mother managed to curb his spending, but neither curbed their love for the written word.

My parents were first-generation Americans, with three out of four of my grandparents Jewish Lithuanian immigrants. Children of the Depression, economic reality squelched any hopes for education beyond high school. My parents compensated for their lack of opportunity with a legacy of literature: books, magazines, newspapers, and frequent trips to the libraries in the small towns in Vermont and upstate New York where they raised their four children.

As a result, my siblings and I grew up in a house full of books. Two rooms had floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with novels, second-hand encyclopedias, and American Heritage anthologies. I remember sitting on my mother’s lap as she read Golden Books to me. Birthdays and holidays always meant new books: The Wizard of Oz, Shirley Temple’s Story Book, and, in later years, the latest Nancy Drew mystery which my father would purchase in New York City on his business trips.

When the books in our house weren’t enough, I walked to the small but well-stocked library around the corner from our house in Keeseville. An early reader, I soon graduated from the six-foot bookshelf stuffed with picture books like The Cat in the Hat and Curious George and moved onto the twelve-foot high shelves with more challenging books. Pippi Longstocking and Alice in Wonderland were followed by Helen Keller’s autobiography and The Good Earth.

It was no surprise, then, that my four years of college focused on literature. I spent hours reading, discussing, and analyzing Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, and Hemingway. My literature courses were not work. They were an academic extension of those leisurely afternoons in the green lounge chair.

When I met Larry, one of the first qualities we found that we had in common was our interest in reading. His first gift to me was a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose; my first gift to him was Thoreau’s Cape Cod.

As our parents did before us, Larry and I passed this legacy on to our own children. Bedtime was always a time for us to introduce them to our childhood friends—Francis the Badger, Amelia Bedelia, and Ramona the Brave—and meet new ones, including the Berenstein Bears, Corduroy, and Sylvester and his magic pebble. Books filled their shelves, and they got library cards as soon as they could write their own names. Adam became immersed in Tolkien and C. S. Lewis; Julie in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and Jane Austen. Our conversations with our children still include discussions of books we are reading. Now that we are grandparents, our special times include reading to them–Ramona for our granddaughter; Go Dog Go and anything with trucks for our grandson–whether in person or on FaceTime.

Those conversations have also been with friends. For thirty-four years, I was a member of a monthly book club in Upstate New York. The members of the group changed over the years as people moved away or had other commitments. The format, however, remained the same. Taking turns meeting in each other’s homes, we spent the first half hour socializing in the living room. We then moved to the dining room, where we discussed future book recommendations and scheduling over beverages and too many desserts—at least one had to have chocolate— candy, nuts, and fruit. Then we began our discussion about the pre-determined book of the month. 

The fiction and non-fiction we read reflected the stages of our lives. Books on raising children gave way to those on balancing work and family to dealing with aging parents to our own retirements. We often chose best-selling and/or critically acclaimed fiction and non-fiction. With some help from discussion questions from Reading Group Guides, the group took time to weigh in on our opinion of the selection. We all loved Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto; we all struggled through Annie Proulx’s Shipping News

 Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love literally split the table: One side thought the author was an irresponsible witch; the other side admired her independence and courage. 

The means with which we read our selections also evolved over the years. The hardcover and paperback books were replaced with audio books and electronic readers. My personal favorite, a reflection of my aging eyes, was anything in large print. No matter what the selection or the means, the discussions were lively, the food was plentiful, and the pleasure of spending an evening with fellow readers was immeasurable. Once I retired, I doubled my pleasure by joining Clifton Park’s Hadassah Book Club.

Saying good-bye to my book clubs when I moved to Florida was one of my hardest tasks. Not surprisingly, I immediately joined a new book club. The women in Book Babes have helped make my transition to Florida easier, as I again enjoying the company of bright, articulate women who love to read and to discuss good literature. The pandemic has had its perks: thanks to Zoom, I have “rejoined” my Upstate New York Hadassah book club. Most recently, the group chose Fradel’s Story, a book I wrote with my mother. Having the chance to discuss questions I had written and getting feedback from my friends gave me–and hopefully them–so much pleasure!

Dr. Seuss wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” So hundreds, maybe thousands of books later, I continue to grow from the legacy that was given to me by my parents and that I have shared with my family and friends. So many books, so little time! But what a good time I am having!

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.