Sandra Harrison’s Family Heritage Story

Following here is a paper I wrote in 1971 for a Sociology class in high school. For my assignment, I interviewed my grandparents to find out my family’s immigrant experience coming to the United States. At this time, I had only one living grandparent on my father’s side Rita Harrison that had emigrated here. My mother’s father Samuel Schild was born in this country but his present wife (who was his 3rd wife Molly Schild) was from Russia so I included her in my assignment:

I was born in the United States as were my parents and one of my grandparents. My other grandparents, like the Pilgrims came to this country with the dreams and hopes of a new life.

Through personal interviews with my grandparents, I was able to obtain the reasons why, when, and how they or their parents came to this country. I will allow them to speak for themselves.

First my grandmother [Rita Harrison] on my father’s side will speak:

My father and mother was buying orchards (fruit). We lived in the province of Minsk ( in the western part of Russia during early 1900’s but now part of Belarus). The winter was very cold and summer was very warm. They had a lot of snow and rain like in the United States.

My brother was writing letters from America. He went there from living in Austria. He said, that I maybe could come out. I went because, everyone wants to go to this country. They didn’t want to give me no papers because I was too young, so I was waiting for them. My father didn’t want to go to this country. They wanted him to go before us but some friends were talking to him. He didn’t. My mother wanted to go. She dreamed this was a big city (NYC). My mother was already in big cities.

My father and mother remained and I went in 1913. I took a train to Latvia and from there we took a boat. I was alone and 16 years old. They took so many people. Not too many. Everyone had their place on the boat. They gave us food to eat. I was sea sick. It was very bad because it was going so slow. Two weeks.

We landed in Ellis Island. My brother came with his brother in-law and took me over right away. His brother in-law made furniture covers so I went to work for him. I felt it was very bad the United States and I wanted to go back because downtown the little children were going like it was summer with only a little shirts. It was very poor. But everything was cheap. I was disappointed. ‘To this country you bought me?’ I said to my brother. ‘Why did you bring me here? There I had apples and plums and here I haven’t got nothing.’

Then in a few years I and my brother sent for my father, a sister and another brother. They came here. My father was two years here and he didn’t want to stay here. He left us and left for me the small children. We lived once in Harlem in the East Side. We didn’t have the facilities that we have now. We were washing in a wash tub the clothes and the stove had an oven. Summer time was very hard for me. In Russia it was pleasant because it was country. We went to Chicago once. I like it because it was a little bit quieter, not so big or as hard.

Then I worked at dresses for three to four dollars a week. I didn’t know English but Yiddish. I learned it when I was working sewing covers and at night school. The teacher was working for ten cents a pupil. The rest of my brothers and sisters came over because they thought they could do better. We heard of the Golden Land but here wasn’t golden. We were poorer than there. We never had religious persecution in Europe or in America. My father said everyone was equal.

We lived in a Jewish community but a cousin lived in a gentile area. He was a black smith. I got married and my husband came from Kiev, Russia and he worked pushing carts (selling fruits and vegetables). He came to America because his father died and he made a hard living in Russia by gluing linings in coats.

Next I spoke with my grandfather [Samuel Schild] on my mother’s side. He himself was born in the United States but he will tell of his parents experiences:

My father came over in the late 1800’s from Austria because of the Pogroms in Europe. They just didn’t want the Jews there. So the Jews came here and worked very hard to save all the money they could to bring over other relatives.

My cousin came over here and like in Austria started a further business in New York City. He worked day and night to bring over his wife, father and my father. They all went into the fur business and became very wealthy. My father due to health reasons had to work elsewhere. He got a job at a gentile book binder that did book binding for Barnes and Noble.

My mother came also from Austria because jobs were scarce. They gave the gentiles most of the positions. She came over in the 1880’s at an early age. Her grandfather and her father had gone to New York City first and later sent for her. They went to the city because it was the Ghetto. They lived in a Jewish community and found jobs easier here. There was no religious persecution here. My mother knew how to sew so she got a job working for a dress maker. Later she married my father. Jobs were easier to find because employers were looking always for Green horns (immigrants) who they started at the bottom for little pay. You had to work hard for little money because they took advantage and even your employer was working cheap, so nobody could pay a working wage.

Both my parents came over by boat. They got money from relatives already living in America. Everyone had to have at least 25 dollars on himself so one couldn’t become a public charity. They traveled in the bottom of the boat. It was called steerage. The voyage ended after a two weeks on the sea at Ellis Island. Friends and relatives picked them up and they stayed with them until they could talk a little and get jobs. My parents never complained about conditions. The only thing is they could not keep the religion as well as they did in Europe because when my father worked in the book binding he worked for a gentile man, so he had to work on Saturdays and thus he didn’t keep the religion, but otherwise he did.

Finally my grandmother [Molly Schild] on my mother’s side will tell of her experiences:

My mother, my sisters and myself came over in 1923 from Odesa, Russia. My brother sent us money ($2,000). At that time it was a lot of money.

The conditions in Russia were the famine, the typhus epidemic and the post-revolution. People were just dying in the streets and we didn’t get enough to eat. The were socializing everything. Our business was taken away and my parents were not trained for any other jobs. They used to give us cards for bread. The bread was very black. Sometimes you stood in line all night and just in front of you they would tell you that there is no more bread. You were just out of luck. We used to get five pounds for everyone in the family. Not long before we left my brother sent every month ten packages by way of the American Relief Association. We used to sell it and used the money for our passports.

My father died and my brother who came over in 1913 to the US was doing well in the coal business and sent for us. We had trouble getting out of Russia until we got our passports. It took a long time. My brother even sent an agent to help us.

We went to Turkey to get a boat. We waited six weeks in comfort there in a hotel. After we left the Quota closed. We came on a French boat and had a wonderful time. We went first class for the thirty day trip with a nice cabin and plenty of food.

When we arrived in New York’s Ellis Island, we stayed for a night and then our brother came for us. He spent a lot of money on us and even bought a house in Borough Park, Brooklyn. We were disappointed in the US because we didn’t know the language or have any friends. We went to night school to learn English and I had a special tutor on Sundays. It took three years to settle down and we had to make the best of it.

All three of my grandparents each told of their own experiences or of their parents. All came over at different times, my paternal grandmother in 1913, my maternal grandmother in 1923 and my maternal grandfather’s parents in the 1880’s. Four reasons why they came could be summed up as the following: 1. religious reasons, 2. political reasons, 3. economic reasons; 4 because it was the thing to do at the time.

Also their economic state of affairs had an affect on the way they were to come to the US and how they were to live here. My maternal grandmother had a healthy family and brother and this were able to afford a nice voyage over and a nice home in the US. My paternal grandmother on the other hand had neither a rich brother or a rich family and this traveled third class and lived poorly.

Also the time they came over made a difference. My maternal grandmother had trouble getting passage and also the quota had only come then into existence, where as my other relations had little or no trouble getting passage.

My grandparents all changed in one way or another into the American way of life. They had to adopt to American ways, learn a new language, get used to a new environment and sometime adjust their religion. Through thick and thin though all my grandparents have stayed in this country and like my grandmother said, “We had you make the best of it.”