UPDATE July 1. Thank you to another reader for sharing information about my father’s shtetl: Your father’s shtetl is not Sassov (which was never part of (pre Soviet) “Russia” and was only shifted between Poland/Austria-Hungary/Poland
UPDATE June 24: I want to thank my readers for offering help regrading the name of my father’s town;it seems it is Sasov, and for offering help to find out more about my father’s history.
I think it was a “thing” for most people who not only lived during the war but survived the Jew hating incinerators of Europe and made it to the New World, to stay silent about their lives. Remembering was hard enough, sharing would be unbearable.
My father was one of those people. I knew a few things about him. He was born September 1907. He had two brothers and a sister. He had come to Canada when he was young to be with an older brother who was already here. I don’t know when the other siblings arrived. The family came from a place called Sussef-sometimes in Poland and sometimes in Russia. I think it was mostly Poland when he lived there because he spoke Polish Yiddish while my mother spoke Russian Yiddish and they used to argue over the word for spoon. I know my mother’s history is Russian so that’s how I concluded that Sussef was more influenced by Poland than Russia.
I can’t find Sussef on a map. Google has no idea what I am asking. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, after the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II, Russian-Polish Jews were exposed to a series of organized massacres targeting Jewish communities called pogroms. After WWI, Poland became an even more hostile place for many Jews. A series of pogroms and discriminatory laws were signs of growing antisemitism, while fewer and fewer opportunities to emigrate were available. My father lived through the pogroms. He witnessed children being shot. Perhaps that’s the reason he was sent to Canada.
I didn’t learn about my father until after he and my mother died. The stories he didn’t tell me were in the records I found. The pieces of paper he kept. Perhaps we need to have a list of prepared questions for each new born to ask their parents while still alive.
The most important piece of paper is on my book shelf: his ticket to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland, August 21, 1920 aboard the ship the S.S. Sicilian. It had previously been chartered as a troop ship for the Boer War. According to the ship documents he landed in Quebec or Montreal. The ship was owned by Canadian Pacific at that time. He would have been one of 900 third class passengers. A privilege. My father would have been turning 13 that September. It just occurred to me as I am writing about him that I don’t know if he had a Bar Mitzvah. And if he did – where and with whom?
From Glasgow my father made it to Toronto to be with his older brother. How did my father get from Sussef, Poland to Scotland and on to Toronto? He was 12 years old and I know he came alone. As far as I am aware, he didn’t speak English.
My dad probably felt privileged to leave Sussef – terrified but privileged. How he got from his shtetl to a town where he could board a train; I assume it was a train, to take him to I don’t know where; I have no idea. What documents did he have? Did he have a suitcase? What did he bring with him from home to take to the New World? What did he eat? Where did he sleep? How long did it take? And then to arrive alive in Scotland. How did he cross the English Channel? And from what port? He probably felt privileged to go steerage class on the Sicilian. He would have been one of 900 steerage passengers, cramped together in dark and damp quarters below decks along with the rats and insects and disease. His meals would have been meat generally old, tough, and bad smelling. The fish not much better. The trip across the Atlantic took between one and two weeks. I know he thanked God when he made it to Canada. That was a privilege.
Then came earning a living. At thirteen. These are stories I was never told but I know there was no free ride. He didn’t go to school.
He wanted to be a musician. He lived in Detroit for a while. He played the saxophone. I have a photo of him on my bookshelf with his saxophone. But he wasn’t good enough to make a living from it.
He opened a business and met my mother and the two of them worked hard to raise their children and send them to university so that they could live a better life. He probably considered this a privilege. To do what he wanted without being shot. To work hard and live long enough to see his grandchildren and know that they would be safe.
When I was 8 or 9 years old my dad and I were in the basement where I had a blackboard. He asked me to teach him to read. Imagine that. He could read but not the way he wanted to read. He wanted to be better. I remember him crying when he asked. My mother told me that my Dad began to read a great deal when he retired. I am blessed to have his books. I know he suffered from depression with bouts of mania. I learned after he died that he tried to kill himself at 16. What drove a 16 year old to try and take his life after all he had experienced and suffered to come to Canada? Is this what happens when you live a privileged life?
When my father came to Canada to continue with his privileged life, he changed his name, from Avraham, on the ship’s manifest, to Allan. He met my mother in Toronto. Her birth name was Sarah, but in order to continue with her privileged life she changed it to Susan so people would not know she was Jewish. Her high school teacher told her to do that. My mother was lucky. Her father wanted her to quit school when she could spell cat and rat; that was the joke at home. But my grandmother, a tiny woman, insisted that she finish high school. She was privileged.
I tell you this because I am the proud daughter of Avraham and Sarah. It is a privilege.
My grandchildren tell me about being privileged. That’s what they are told in school. As if everything had been handed to them on a silver platter. How dare they be so privileged? I wonder what my father would say to his great grandchildren about the meaning of privileged. I think he would have told them that we are not the object of our lives. Life does not happen to us. We are the subject; we have the right and the obligation to make choices to better ourselves and others. And it is in that choosing that we bring dignity to our lives.
I wonder what my father would say if he saw people bending the knee to others in shame for being so privileged after everything he survived, never complaining, perhaps pretending it never happened?
What would my father, Abraham, say to his Jewish great-grandchildren when they talk about Black Lives Matter, its connection to Louis Farrakhan, Jew hater extraordinaire, having lived through Jew hatred in Poland/Russia, whatever, before making it on his own at 12 to a new world? Are they at all aware of the life he led that made it possible for them to live the life they live? Is there any gratitude in that privilege?
From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.”