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Mother’s Day Letter

Esther Blanche Gross died on December 19, 1989, at the age of 82. This letter was found among her papers.

Mother’s Day 1981

Dear Mom,

What can one give a mother who “needs” nothing? The search for an appropriate gift for you has long since been doomed to failure. So perhaps this letter may substitute for a thing.

All your high intelligence, talent, and energy, and they were substantial, you invested in your family: Daddy, Irwin, and me. You had no great career as a lawyer or teacher, your words have not been published in heavy tomes. Yet your work will live in memory, because you were a very good mother. In a time when many mothers stifled their children, taught them false values, imbued them with insecurity, you somehow managed, without the help of Dr. Spock or a strong example in your own mother, to produce two intelligent productive, functioning adults.

When other mothers were deprecating their daughters’ minds, you taught me that I could think for myself. When other mothers were teaching their daughters that a “good” marriage depended on money and prestige, you taught me only to marry someone of quality whom I loved. When other mothers were teaching their daughters that women are somehow physically weak because they are women, you taught me that being a woman, menstruating, having children and breast feeding them signify health and strength. When other mothers’ daughters were taught to be dependent and cling to someone else, you taught me self-sufficiency, so that I can face the world with my head held high. When other mothers taught their daughters to sit silently in a corner or on a pedestal, you taught me to speak out and stride into the world as an independent person.

For these and countless other lessons of value that you taught me, I am not only grateful but I shall keep your influence with me long after you are gone, and I shall in turn teach your lessons to my children and they shall teach their children, and in that way you shall earn immortality.

Your loving daughter,

Phyllis Mindell

Sol Gross’s letters (1970)

December 21, 1970

Dear Grandchildren,

Your mommy has written us asking us to tell you about our families. I wish there were much more tell you but as you grow older you will begin to understand a great deal more about the way Jewish people lived in our old land in Europe. First let me begin with your grandma. Her mother’s parents owned a hardware store in a little city called Jaworow. They were religious people, very charitable and highly respected by all their neighbors. They had three sons and two daughters. One daughter was your great grandmother Bertha Fellig. She was married to your great grandpa, Abe Fellig, in 1906 and when your great grandpa saw that there were no opportunities to make a living, he decided to come to America and your great Grandma joined him a year later. She left your grandma (Bronia) and a sister (Anna) and brother (Shlomo) in Europe in charge of your great grandparents. I will stop now and continue this story a little later.

We now come to your great grandfather’s family. His mother was the daughter of the richest man in Przemyśl (pronounced Chemish). His name was Yoshe Teich. He owned tremendous amounts of real estate and had a large family of sons and daughters. After he had been married many years, his wife died and he married a young woman and she spent most of his money on expensive living and left him a poor man at his death. One of his daughters married Israel Fellig, your great grandfather’s (Abraham) father in Lemberg. He was in the insurance business and a chasid of the Rabbi of Belz. He had a remarkable voice for singing in the synagogue and was famous all over our country. Due to his voice he made many friends, which brought him new clients and he always made an excellent income and had a beautiful home and tutors for his children. He was once invited to become a cantor in one of our New York synagogues at a very high salary. He came here for a short while but found that the Americans were not as religious as they were able to be back in Europe so he would not stay here. This was a most unfortunate decision as, in 1914 the first world war broke out and he died shortly afterward from the effects of this struggle and on his death the fortunes of the family changed and with the coming of Hitler the lines of your great-grandparents were destroyed completely. When Hitler’s troops came to round them up, they ran away to the Jewish cemetery in town, where they were gunned down.

Let me begin with your grandpa’s (meaning himself) background until he came to America in 1907. My great grandparents weren’t around when I was born but I heard from my father (Isaac) that his grandparents were bakers. My father was a housepainter, and his father was a religious man who had five sons and four daughters. Due to the fact that they unfortunately were quite poor, they had nothing to lose and when my father’s oldest sister came to America at the beginning of the century and started working and saving to help bring over one member of the family after another, almost the entire family was saved from the Holocaust. The oldest brother was already married with family and chose to remain in Europe, so, with the exception of one daughter who went to Argentina, the family also went under. Somewhere in the family there is a picture of my grandfather, grandmother, and some of their sons and daughters. (Note: it’s on Phyllis’s library shelf.) Our fortunes in America were similar to millions of other immigrants who came in with practically nothing but strong backs and a ferocious willingness to work hard to better ourselves. Those who came in with superior intellectual equipment took advantage of the educational opportunities and working by day and toiling upward in the night they achieved professional standing and the monetary rewards that went with it.

For others, without this intellect, they organized the unions and fought bitterly for first, the absolute necessities, then the decencies and even some luxuries, such as the possibilities to educate our children to reach heights to which we could only aspire, and, like Moses, were never able to enter the promised land.

To get back to the personal, I had to leave school and go to work at 15, work which consisted of operating a foot press, or running errands from the fur market to the cloak market with boxes of fur trimmings weighing 30 pounds each. Going to evening high school first to get the commercial course so I could look for a bookkeeping job, then to try for the academic diploma. All this took years until one of my Latin teachers began probing my potentialities as a husband.

So after a few terms at Pace Institute where I studied accounting, I went into the fur business and got married. (The results of which you must be familiar with. At this point I am beginning to feel that I have let myself in for a bigger job than I thought.)

To pick up the strings of your [grandmother’s] story: her parents came to New York in 1912 and 1913. Since he (Abraham Fellig) had never learned a trade, he learned how to press he learned how to press men’s clothes and worked very hard. Grandma Fellig also got a job and even with low wages, prevalent then, they managed to barely get by. The Grandpa joined the union, they went out on strike for better conditions. Grandpa Fellig was a well-educated man and an eloquent speaker and his talents were recognized by no less a man than Sidney Hillman, who later became an advisor to FDR. He offered Grandpa a job in the union, first to distribute the strike benefits (Grandpa soon recognized dishonesty and chicanery and shook this responsibility) then as a business agent where he could have made an easy living but Grandpa Fellig preferred a living from his own honest sweat and remained a workman until he was later able to buy the house in Coney Island where you (Phyllis and Irwin) were born. Then he and Grandma (Bertha) opened a fish store, as you know.

Mama (Blanche/Bronia) and Aunt Anna and the boy (Shlomo) remained in Europe. The boy died as a result of the cholera epidemic and after the end of the war (1918) Grandpa Fellig finally came to Europe and stayed two years (not clear – did he mean Grandma? They finally sent steamship tickets for Aunt Anna and Mama who finally got here in 1925.

Before I close this megillah, I was reminded of the story of the 8-year-old who came back from school with a questionnaire in his hand and asked his parents, “What is sex?” They looked at him and shrugged their shoulders meaning, maybe he’s ready, so they gave him a description of the birds and the bees. Only when they finished he asked how can I put all that down on this two-inch space. You little realized how much there is to write about six generations of your ancestry.

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not include my maternal side. My grandmother died when my mother was six years old. My grandfather was a tailor in the city of Dubeck, Poland. (Note: Dubiecko, the proper name for Dubeck, is situated in Poland, close to Przeml.) He was only a little over 40 years old when she died and he never remarried. He had one son who came to America around 1890. They became the Adams family of Chicago. He also had four daughters and they in turn gave birth to Yette Nager, Chana Goldstein, Jack Gross and my cousin Zlata in Israel, wand others who never came here and were lost. Also the Eidelsheim family is a branch of this tree. Aunt Sadie Eidelsheim was only three years old when their mother died. My grandpa was not able to care for his younger children so my mother was brought up in the home of a cousin where she was raised until she got married to my father in 1902. I was born in 1903 and came to American with my mother in 1907.

SECOND LETTER – UPDATED

Paternal great grandparents: Moshe Aaron Adams (family history informs me that he lost both his parents as a young child and was adopted by a family named Graub which my first aunt who came to this country changed to Gross) was a baker and I hear a very gentle man. His wife was named Yetta, a hard and shrewd business woman who took over her husband’s business.

They had one son and about four or five daughters. The son was my grandfather Abraham (1850-1913). His mother took her daughters in to help her in the business and any money the business earned was set aside to provide a dowry for the girls. The son was given a minimal Talmud Torah education which inculcated only a devout and unswerving belief not only in God but in every jot and tittle of the practice of the faith. She however had no interest in teaching him a trade and he could do nothing in the way of earning a living, except marrying my grandmother (Feige, your namesake, 1850-1935). They had at least a dozen children as follows: Mordecai, Lena (Glasser), Louis Pearl (Waldman), Isaac, Rachel (Memis), Joseph, Beila (Miller), Morris. The others did not survive.

Even in the best of conditions it was difficult for a Jew (even if he had a trade) to earn a living, can you imagine a man without a trade or skill or business ability to provide for a family of 10? He couldn’t and somehow a belief in God brought him sustenance and he and his family lived in abject poverty. Uncle Joe once described the hovel in which his family lived (and I shall not take your appetite away by retelling the story). And mind you, when my father or his brothers or sisters went to their grandmother’s bakery she wouldn’t even offer them a piece of bread and the challah he bought for the Sabbath had to be paid for. May her tail wag in hell. She did not have a good end. Her daughters married and went to America and the son whom she disdained took care of her in her last illness which was an unmerciful and agonizing one. My grandmother was a saintly woman who took what God gave and gave thanks without complaint. May her saintly spirit intercede for us whenever we stand in need of God’s help…

The oldest son as soon as was old enough to carry a package started working and shook the dust of his father’s house. In due time he got married and then the older children grew up and left home. The oldest one (daughter Lena) came first and she started working and saving and one by one the remaining eight came over including the parents between 1898 and 1907. Mordecai was established and had a growing family and like his father he had no trade and he felt he could not earn a living in America so he remained in Europe. He was eventually destroyed by Hitler with his entire house except for one daughter, who married and went to Argentina.

This ends our European saga. If you aren’t fed up yet let me know and I will continue.

Let me go back as I recall things. This Mordecai was captured as a hostage by the Russians during the first World War and was sent to Siberia until after the Russian Revolution and made his way back home in 1919 (about four years as a prisoner). Believe me, he could not have been worse off in America. He worked like a dog all his life only to end in a crematorium. I hope this clarifies some of the obscure points in the previous telling…

Mother’s Day 1981

Mother’s Day 1981

Dear Mom,

What can one give a mother who “needs” nothing? The search for an appropriate gift for you has long since been doomed to failure. So perhaps this letter may substitute for a thing.

All your high intelligence, talent, and energy, and they were substantial, you invested in your family: Daddy, Irwin, and me. You had no great career as a lawyer or teacher, your words have not been published in heavy tomes. Yet your work will live in memory, because you were a very good mother. In a time when many mothers stifled their children, taught them false values, imbued them with insecurity, you somehow managed, without the help of Dr. Spock or a strong example in your own mother, to produce two intelligent productive, functioning adults.

When other mothers were deprecating their daughters’ minds, you taught me that I could think for myself. When other mothers were teaching their daughters that a “good” marriage depended on money and prestige, you taught me only to marry someone of quality whom I loved. When other mothers were teaching their daughters that women are somehow physically weak because they are women, you taught me that being a woman, menstruating, having children and breast feeding them signify health and strength. When other mothers’ daughters were taught to be dependent and cling to someone else, you taught me self-sufficiency, so that I can face the world with my head held high. When other mothers taught their daughters to sit silently in a corner or on a pedestal, you taught me to speak out and stride into the world as an independent person.

For these and countless other lessons of value that you taught me, I am not only grateful but I shall keep your influence with me long after you are gone, and I shall in turn teach your lessons to my children and they shall teach their children, and in that way you shall earn immortality.

Your loving daughter,

Phyllis Mindell

Bronia

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.

cropped-scan43.jpg

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.

Page of Names

page-of-namesA list of male friends and female friends who participated in the party for our friend, Bronia Fellig, prior to her trip to [departure for] America

[Names listed according to column.] [First column, right side]

Etka Altschiller [or Altschuler, Altshuler, Altshiler]
Herzl [previous name uncertain] Kessler [Kesler]
Esther [or Ester] [last name unclear, but begins with ‘B’]
Chaya Grohmann [or Grohman, Groman]
T. Eisbruch
Tzila [or Cyla] Kampel
Nicha [previous name uncertain; possibly Necha — nickname for Nechama]
Bornstein
Naomi Schwartz
Rochel [or Rachel, Rahel] Strich
Tzila [or Cyla] Szal [or Shal, Shaal]
Yitzchok [or Icchok; other possible spellings, too] Kampel [presumably
a relative of Tzila Kampel, listed above]

Meir [or Meyer, Mejer, other possible spellings, too] Baran
[or possibly Baron; unclear]
[Last name in this column unclear; may possibly be “Mr. Tzelner or Delner”
[or other alternate spellings] [or a surname something akin to: “Martzeiner” or “Mardeiner]
[Second column, left side]
Miriam Lewin [or Levin; surname unknown — may possibly be “Lang”]
Rivka [or Rywka, Ryfka] [surname unclear; appears to be something like Mailisk, or possibly Marusak]

Elka Wurzel
Elka Bogen [previous surname unknown]
Tzipora [or Cypora; alternate spellings, as well] Klarfeld
Rochel [or Rachel, Rahel] Fuss
[Name unclear, but appears to start with a ‘k’ and end with an “-el”] Schorr
[No first name indicated] Eichbaum
Marback, Hadasa [or Hadassah]
Malka Kahana
Strich, Naomi
Aleksander [or Alexander] Oringer

Yitzchok [or Icchok; other possible spellings, too] Wimmer