My mother, Bronia Dauermann Fellig, (In the U.S., she married Sol Gross and was called Esther Blanche Gross), was born on October 4, 1907 in the shtetl of Jaworow in the Austro-Hungarian empire, now Ukraine. Before World War I, her parents emigrated to the United States and left her, her little sister Anna, and brother Shlomo (who died of cholera at age 10) in the care of their loving Dauermann grandparents.
Few stories remain of the children’s lives in Europe but Mother often repeated that her grandparents took good care of the girls. Indeed the transcript (italicized words are verbatim from the transcript, edited for clarity) contains such references as My mother just left us and she went to America. She said she’ll come back and in the meantime the war broke out and she never sent two cents worth…She never sent us a penny, support for Rose, nothing (Rose was the third sister – if these words are accurate, she was born in Europe).
I went to school there, Polish school and they sent me to Hebrew and my grandfather was so proud of me. He really liked me because I was named after his mother. They sent me to a school where they were teaching Jewish but a different kind of alphabet. One they called flower alphabet … and my grandfather was so proud of me that I could do all these things… I can’t say that I was the best dressed girl there but I had everything.
A recurring theme of Mother’s life includes the cruelty, nastiness, stinginess, and divisiveness of her parents, Bertha (Dauermann) and Abraham Fellig. No matter how intelligent, a child rejected by her parents can’t emerge emotionally whole. Yet, as my 1981 Mother’s Day letter attests, she was a fine mother despite her difficult life.
Although (I shall call her either Mother, Esther, or Blanche because those were her American names) Esther spoke little of her early years, she grew up in a shtetl at a time of great Jewish cultural flowering in Eastern Europe: it is remarkable that she and her friends knew so many languages. She notes, I knew Hebrew, I knew Jewish, I knew Polish …I understood Russian pretty well and German… And the album entries reveal that they read and quoted poetry, talked about politics, and many became Zionists.
In 1925, Mother came to the United States with her 13-year-old sister, Anna. They arrived at Ellis Island and were terrified to find no one to meet them. When they finally arrived at the Fellig home at 3221 Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island, their father had already arranged a factory job for her, which she was to start immediately. In her words, My father gave me 50 cents. My grandfather gave me five dollars. He knew where he was sending us… The job was on 46th Street near Fifth Avenue (41 West 46th Street on the postcard sent to her from Sheva Ausubel in Paris) …I just came over from the other side. I didn’t know any English and my father tells me ‘even a dummy would know how to get there.’
I look on this train and that train – finally I found Sea Beach. I take the Sea Beach Line, I go to the last stop – 42nd Street was the last stop and I had to go to 46th Street, so I had to take a local to 46th Street. I take the local and I get to 46th Street and I come out there. I don’t have to tell you on 46th Street, 42nd Street, what’s going on there. I’m standing on the corner, you know how on 46th Street how the streets go. Here is Broadway this way and this was 6th Avenue and this way is another street and I have to go to a very long number near 5th Avenue on 46th Street. So, I’m standing and I see 46th Street and it’s pointing this way, so I go this way and I see the numbers go higher. It started from 120, it’s 126, 128. I said I’m not going right, I need to go lower number. See, I don’t know which way to go – this way or that way or this way. I’m standing on the corner. This way is a different street. This way is a different street, so I figure I’ll take a chance and ask somebody.
I go over and I start talking to him in Jewish because I thought he was a Jew, so I see he doesn’t understand so I show him – I have the address of the place where I was going. He said ‘Oh, all right,’ and he takes me by the hand and he brings me over to the number, a low number in the 20s or in the 30s. It was right near – they had a cafeteria there – the Luxor Cafeteria. See, words come back to me – Luxor Cafeteria towards 5th Avenue. He brought me to the door – over there. I said all right, thank you, and then I find out that he was a priest. Priests used to wear that frock. Anyway, he did me a great favor and once he brought me to the door I looked up and I saw where the factory was and then I went in there. Coming back there were some Jewish girls there. They didn’t understand Jewish, but we understand each other and they said don’t worry, we’re going the same way. We’ll take you to the subway. So, that’s the way I started going by myself to work. Even today, 90 years later, the fear and anxiety reveal themselves in her language.
Her thirst for learning shines through the tale of her first English school:
The nearest night school was at Fort Hamilton Parkway. Now from Coney Island near Sea Gate where my father lived on 33rd Street to go to Fort Hamilton Parkway you have to pass about twenty empty blocks where you couldn’t see a soul. I was going there several nights. I was scared stiff but I was going. I wanted to go. They started teaching us (inaudible) and there was a lot of Russians. For the Russians it was harder to learn because their alphabet is (inaudible). (Inaudible) I already bought a newspaper, I bought a dictionary and I was trying to learn the language by myself, so I don’t learn very much and here I’m scared stiff to go, but still in all I was going. One night, winter time in January, the snow was so deep, so many empty blocks. What can I tell you? I was scared. One night as I’m walking towards Fort Hamilton and I hear some steps behind me. I started walking faster. The steps are starting faster. Well, if I didn’t die then and here we don’t see a living soul. I’m looking on all sides – nobody there and it’s dark. Finally, I see somebody coming. It happened to be a man. I went over. He said don’t be scared. I’ll stay with you and he waited with me and then he took me a little way over to the school. So I learned on my own. I learned all on my own. I bought a newspaper.
I started reading and my father gave me encouragement. He said even a dummy can learn, so that’s the way I learned. I met some friends that I knew from Europe and these friends I’m still very friendly with. Her daughter just gave birth to a baby and I went over there to give her a nice gift and they come to my house, I come to their house and they’re very friendly. In fact, her brother took me to his prom. He asked me so I asked him, I said, look, is there anywhere a high school because I was above public school in Hebrew – is there a high school where I can go to inquire if I can register there to go to school at night after work? He said yes, there is a school downtown on East Broadway. So I went there and I went into the principal’s office and explained to him that I can’t go on learning on my own, but I would like to go to school to learn. I want to get some knowledge. Could I register here? He said to me, look, as a principal of this school I would love to have you as a student because you know a lot better than some of my students, but as a friend I would like to (inaudible) So he says all right, let’s try it and register you…
Saturday and Sunday I used to go the 42nd Street library to look up the encyclopedia to do school work.
The transcript reveals that she kept getting salary increases at the beading factory where she worked and that she was a serious and excellent student. But her mother took most of her money every week and left her a tiny allowance (apparently she was expected to repay the cost of her passage to the United States). Eventually she moved to her aunt’s house (Tante Dauermann) and finally had enough to buy herself some clothing. I used to like nice clothes. I used to buy whatever I liked. When I lived at my mother’s I couldn’t even buy a pair of stockings. She took every penny I had.
My father’s family rented a summer room in the apartment behind Abraham’s fish store and that was how they met. He’d been brought to America as a baby in 1907 so he had no accent; indeed his page in the autograph album reveals his lovely handwriting and alludes to Shakespeare. Although he wasn’t much of a businessman, he was a true intellectual and he adored my mother. She used to say that he was God’s compensation for her dreadful parents. They married the weekend the banks closed in 1932 and moved into the tiny apartment above the fish store – it had a shared bathroom. My brother was born into that apartment and I followed; when I was one year old (1938), during the depression, they bought the four family house at 1724 West 1st Street in Brooklyn. My beloved Aunt Anna (Murray Mohl’s mother) loaned them part of a down payment (the house only cost $4,000 in all). That house meant they never had to worry about rent again, although my mother took on the role not only of manager but also of janitor.
Although they never were prosperous, they gradually grew more comfortable; my father gave up his meager pieced Persian fur coat business when I completed Brooklyn College in 1957. He got a job as an auditor, which gave him a reliable $100 a week and vacation time. After my dad died in the early 1970s, Mother sold the West 1st Street house and took a lovely apartment in an elevator building on West 3rd Street. She lived there happily until diabetes took over and she moved to an independent senior living hotel on the water in Sheepshead Bay; in 1986 a stroke brought her to the Jewish Home of Rochester (where I lived). She lost the ability to produce words and spoke neo-linguistic jargon in all the various languages at which she had excelled.
Her depression era washboard sits on the wall of my kitchen here in Washington, D.C.; it reminds me of where I came from and how hard Esther Blanche Gross’s life was.
When I moved to D.C. in 2013 after (my dear husband Marvin died in 2011), the little blue album, along with a few photos and old postcards, came with me, but the multiple languages rendered it difficult to read. In training to be a docent at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I undertook to have translations done and to trace the lives of the signatories. The cruel murder of the Jews of Jaworow, Lwow, and countless other Eastern European shtetls has left millions with no evidence that they ever lived except a few rescued photographs, letters, and in this case, the autograph album. This translation and its accompanying documentation reminds my family and the world of a few of the lost as well as of the lives lived by those who survived.