It’s a wonder that my father accomplished his version of the American dream.
Born to a poor Jewish family in Poland in 1899, his own father died when he was 2, reportedly choking on some food. Seventy-five years later the Heimlich maneuver would have been invented and might have saved his life.
As a single parent of at least seven children (my father said several infant boys died before he was born), the impoverished young widow baked bread which she and the children, including my father, sold in their little village.
By the time he was 10 his mother could no longer sustain the family. She sent him, by wagon and by himself, to live with an older married brother in Germany. His German sister-in-law was not happy at his arrival and his brief comments in later life about that period told me that he grew up in the streets as a young entrepreneur, running errands for money. In his early teens he attempted to go back to Poland to see his mother. But when he got to the border to Poland, just prior to the onset of World War I, it was closed, he could not get through, and went back to Germany.
He never saw his mother again.
As I contemplated these facts as an adult, I realized he had been a de facto orphan: no father and a mother in a distant land.
The rejection by his sister-in-law completed his experience of little or no effective parenting. He probably never received hugs or an “I love you.”
My father must have plotted and planned to save what little money he earned to pay his passage at age 18 or 19 to come to the United States by himself. He had little or no formal education.
Perhaps he had progressed to what we think of as fifth grade.
But he was smart and ambitious. He must have had some experience in the clothing trade because he gravitated to the garment center in New York. It was the heyday of that center when he arrived, and one could hardly walk in the crowded streets as hand trucks full of clothing were pushed from factory to factory.
He learned the machine embroidery trade and soon started a small business of his own, which he maintained until his retirement in the mid-1960’s. He employed Italian ladies who brought their magnificent hand embroidery skills to their new country, sewing beading and sequin designs on expensive lace cocktail dresses.
My mother and I were gifted with these for special occasions whether we liked them or not!
When I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, my father would bring home 8 x 10 inch squares of white muslin stamped in blue or lavender with floral and abstract designs. He would also bring home beads, sequins and spools of colored cotton thread. I can remember sitting on the floor and endlessly stringing beads after tracing the designs with needle and thread.
.By the time he retired, the garment center was no longer flourishing. The talented Italian ladies had also retired and he disposed of the embroidery machines at a loss.
He saved his spools of thread, however, and I still use them to this day even though they are over 75 years old and faded.
Of course my sewing is limited to buttons and fixing an occasional hem, so the spools will probably be passed on to the next generation.
If my father wanted to emigrate to America today, would he be allowed to? Right now, probably not. Although he came here penniless and uneducated, he educated himself first by learning English in night school, and then by being a compulsive reader of several daily newspapers as well as listening religiously to radio news.
During World War II he was especially glued to the radio.
We would have to sit silent during dinner as he pressed his ear against the cabinet-style Zenith to hear what was happening in Europe and the Far East. He also loved classical music and was proud of owning several Caruso records.
By any standard, he made his dream come true in America. He passed away at age 82.