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