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A Family Portrait
A CHILDHOOD OF MEMORIES
by Steven Lasky

"The fact that I made use of cows, milkmaids, roosters, and provincial Russian architecture as my source forms is because they are part of the environment from which I spring and which undoubtedly left the deepest impression on my visual memory of any experiences I have known. Every painter is born somewhere. And even though he may later return to the influences of other atmospheres, a certain essence--a certain "aroma"--of his birthplace clings to his work...The vital mark these early influences leave is, as it were, on the handwriting of the artist."
--Marc Chagall, New York, 1944

pictured left: 520 Williams Avenue, (b. Riverdale and Livonia Avenues), cir 1940. The apartment building in the East New York section of Brooklyn where my maternal grandparents lived for nearly fifty years.
As a small child, the tenement building in which my grandparents lived for nearly fifty years seemed to me to be an imposing edifice. Along the side of the street on which they lived and on the next street and the next, apartment building after apartment building all stood connected to each other, linked together like inseparable sections of a fortress protecting those inhabitants who lived behind their brick facades, their windows and fire escapes. One of these buildings in particular gave shelter, safety and comfort to my own grandparents and their children (and even my great Uncle Charlie) for many decades until the neighborhood fell into decay. I can still see these buildings and others like them in my mind's eye: the barber and butcher shops which stood directly across the street, the corner deli, the candy store and vegetable stand, the local bakery with its breads and honey cakes and cookies with a cherry in the center or sprinkles on the top, the Supreme movie house down the street--all symbols of what was once beautiful and memorable at the time, during my childhood, in my grandparents' neighborhood.

I heard Yiddish spoken everywhere as I walked along the many streets of East New York. I often would smell the rich aromas of Jewish cooking that seemed impossible to avoid (assuming anyone would want to.) These smells are now forever etched into my soul. Feeling part of this neighborhood that was filled aplenty with Jewish immigrants, many of whom had arrived in America through Ellis Island just a couple of generations before, meeting friendly neighbors, making many family visits to my grandparents' Brooklyn apartment on a regular basis in my childhood, these are memories that I will carry with me and cherish for the rest of my life.

I was born in Brooklyn some years after the end of the Second World War, but resided there (in an apartment directly adjacent to my grandparents) for only a few short years. My family and I moved out to Long Island when I was only three years old, my mother wishing to leave what she called "Concrete City." Of course this did not mean however that my family and I were leaving the neighborhood for good. We would often return within the following ten years to visit my grandparents, most often on a Saturday, returning home the very next day.

On the car rides home to Long Island, my sister and I and my parents had our own routines to pass the time. We would often play the word game "Ghost," each of us trying to avoid saying the letter that would form a word. In times of relative quiet, I would often peer out the car window at the out-of-state license plates as they passed by and I would count them, or I would try to make words out of the three letters that would appear with a set of numbers on most every plate.

I remember with great fondness the frequent visits we made to my grandparents, when my family and I would ascend the few flights of stairs and enter their apartment. We were always greeted by a series of smells and aromas that always seemed familiar and welcoming. The two-bedroom apartment in which my grandparents lived had been their home since they moved there from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on Monroe Street, in 1917. It was also the place that my mother called home for the first twenty-eight years of her life, having graduated many years before from the once-renown Thomas Jefferson High School. Just next door to my grandparents' flat was a similar apartment in which she and my father had lived for more than seven years after their marriage, right after World War II had ended. They were fortunate to get an apartment, as I understand at that time apartments were hard to come by.

I recall the layout of the apartment quite well, even though nearly fifty years have passed since I last set foot in it. My grandparents' front door opened into a hallway and was directly across from the smaller of their apartment's two bedrooms. This was the room that was filled with my grandfather Harry the tailor's Singer sewing machine, along with the material he used to make dresses for my mother and sister. I remember that whenever I entered that room, there would always be the smell of cloth material and camphor balls that lay in his tall wooden closet. It is hard to imagine that in the early years, my mother's two brothers and great Uncle Charlie all slept in that same small room. My mother says that she never had her own room, that she always slept on a cot in the hallway.

The smell of camphor quickly would dissipate as we walked down the hallway that led into a kitchen with plain white walls and linoleum flooring. Even before entering the kitchen, we could all smell the Jewish food. already cooking on the stove, a delicious aroma so richly evocative that so many decades later I can still imagine the odor of schmaltz and freshly-made chicken soup wafting through my nostrils. I can hardly picture my grandmother being anywhere else but in the kitchen. It seems that, with whatever memories I have of my visits to my grandparents, I usually see her there, cooking or cleaning. Memories are funny that way.

It's hard to believe that my family and I only visited my grandparents over a span of less than ten years, before my grandparents were forced to vacate their Brooklyn apartment and move to Long Island to live with us. Sadly, my grandmother had already developed cancer, and very soon after she left their Brooklyn apartment to be with us she went into the hospital and passed away there. My grandfather had experienced first-hand the effect of a changing Brooklyn neighborhood of the early to mid-1960s. Having been the victim of a mugging not soon before, finding himself older and frailer, he was not so reluctant to leave Brooklyn for safer surroundings with my parents, my sister and me. For him though, life on Long Island was boring, and he always felt that there was more for him to do in his old surroundings of Brooklyn. I think this feeling was common for many of our parents or grandparents that were accustomed to "city life," perhaps where they were closer to other members of their extended family or landsleit. Though this was true then, my dear grandfather was not well either, and he too developed cancer. Had he still lived in Brooklyn at that point, his activities would have been limited then even there. I was fortunate that, frail as he was, my grandfather was able to attend my bar mitzvah ceremony and affair. This occurred within a year of my grandparents moving in with us -- and within a year or so after this seminal event in my life, my grandfather too passed away.

My grandfather Harry
(ne Avraham Chona), standing,
with his parents
Rywka and Srul Gniazdowicz,
Sniadowo, Poland
(then part of
the Russian Empire.)
My grandmother
from Jedwabne,
Flora (Blume) Burak.
This early photograph
was most likely taken
in the United States.
My grandparents' wedding
in New York City in 1914.
Flora and Harry
 and their three children.
The photograph was probably taken in Brooklyn, New York, cir 1920-1.

Of course I feel so very fortunate to have had the years and experiences I had with my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandparents had passed away, also in Brooklyn and also from cancer, a few years before I was born, so I never had the pleasure of knowing them.... The time I spent together with my grandparents Harry and Flora was all too short, and I wish that G-d in Heaven will give me the chance some day to be with them (as well as all my other beloved family members) once again. I have only good memories of them and cannot say a bad word about them. I often think that there is yet another wonderful memory that I have forgotten about, that hangs on the rim of my consciousness, ready to be recalled, if only...

It is perhaps the greatest legacy that grandparents can leave their grandchildren, a forever memory of love and connectedness. Like so many families with parents or grandparents who came to America from such countries as those in Eastern Europe before the war (in the case of my grandparents, who came to the U.S. between 1906 and 1907), they never talked about their lives in Poland. I know that they used to read the Yiddish Forvets all the time, so perhaps they got their news of what was going on back in Poland from this newspaper. Knowing what I know now, it isn't surprising that they didn't want to talk about their early years when they lived in Europe, having left their homes in northeastern Poland while they were still in their teens, never again to see many of their own family members who they left behind. My grandmother Flora was from Jedwabne, a town known now as a town where, sometime in 1941, whatever Jews were left in the town were gathered into a barn and burned alive by their Polish neighbors. Fortunately four of my grandmother's five brothers immigrated to New York before the war. One brother Zalman stayed behind along with whatever family he might have had, along with their mother, and presumably they all perished during this terrible time, though I will never know of their fate for sure. All I ever knew about my grandfather Harry and his family's life in Poland was that he came from a town called Sniadowo, and that his father owned a flour mill.

Still, even with the loss of so many of my grandparents' family members during the Holocaust, it did seem that a number of his relatives did make it to America, though most of them did so before World War II had begun. I can remember the occasions when, from time to time, various cousins and aunts and uncles would come to the apartment for a visit. I have only faint memories of these visits, some of them from relatives I may have only seen once or twice in my lifetime and only here. The only way I can explain to you how I recall these visits is that when they arrived through that same hallway into the kitchen and sat down at my grandparents' kitchen table, it seemed as if each was a surprise guest, making an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show.

My grandmother's brothers, my great-uncles, I got to know early on through these visits, as a number of them were already living in the neighborhood or somewhere else in Brooklyn. I had developed a deep affection for them early on. Others who visited were cousins whom I had never met before and would never really get a chance to know and would see them again perhaps only at a bar mitzvah event or wedding.

Returning to the topic of our family visits to my grandparents, my mother, sister and I would often arrive at their apartment directly from my father's haberdashery in Jamaica, Queens, New York, which was just a subway ride away.

As a young boy, I always liked taking the subway. I enjoyed looking at the changing scenery high above the street level, one minute riding on the El (elevated subway) looking across and down onto the city landscape; other times traveling underground in a tunnel, the cars clanking loudly as they made turns along their route.


HARRY AND FLORA NESS
They visited our home in 1957.

When we planned on paying a visit to my grandparents, my mother, sister and I would often go with my father to his haberdashery/army-navy store in the morning and stay with him in the store for a while. My mother would occasionally help out with customers; my sister and I would amuse ourselves by watching our parents in action.

The neighborhood where my father's store was located was a poor one and predominantly Portuguese. I can still remember the smells of his store, from the coffee in the cups that sat on the glass display counters, the smell of cloth and other clothing that sat on the wooden shelves, the cardboard boxes, all the work clothes and fancy men's hats that were ready to be bought.

I can remember the many times my father's customers would not have enough money to pay him for what they needed, so they would pay on informal installment plans. This seemed to happen more often than not.  My father would write down the amount owed by each person with a wax pencil on the wall by the cash register. Every time they paid some money -- I suppose on "installments" -- he'd cross out the old amount and write on the wall what was left to be paid. My father, may G-d rest his soul, was a wonderful salesman. He had always wanted to be a lawyer, but his mother didn't believe in education, so she set him up with a clothing store once he got out of the Service and got married, and that was that.

It was always said about my father that, even during his later years, after he had to close his store and look for employment elsewhere, if a customer came into the store solely to buy a shirt, he would sell him a sport jacket, a tie and two pair of pants to go with it. As I worked with him during vacations and summers during my many years of college, I can attest to this. He certainly took a great deal of pride in his work.

I remember the times when my mother, sister and myself had already arrived at our grandparents' apartment in Brooklyn, and my father would come to be with us after his day of work. He'd stay overnight with us and we'd leave for home the next day. He would usually join us for dinner, and afterwards he'd sit down and talk to my grandfather. Both my grandparents liked him very much.

When we were then at my father's store and it was time for my mother, sister and I to leave my father's store for Brooklyn, we'd begin our trek down to Jamaica Avenue in order to catch the subway to my grandparent's place. We'd often stop right by the overhead El at the Concord Cafeteria for a bite to eat.

When we arrived at Livonia Avenue, the subway stop nearest to my grandparents' home, we would walk down the stairwell from the overhead El subway platform, myself at least in eager anticipation. I looked forward to stopping in at the little candy store/smoke shop that was ensconced in a small spot right in front of the stairwell exit. I liked to collect comic books back then, so we would stop in there sometimes, and I would buy a comic book or two. What a treat! After that, we would walk the five blocks to my grandparents' apartment, passing store after store, apartment after apartment. I remember that when we would pass by the corner bakery, we would stop in to buy cookies or cake. I would want to buy one of those cookies with a cherry in the middle on top; my sister always liked the cookies with the sprinkles. Sometimes we also picked up one of those deliciously fresh honey cakes.

When we finally arrived at the apartment and entered the kitchen, I can and will always remember first going to my grandmother (most often she was wearing an apron), and giving her a big hug; I would always receive a warm kiss on the cheek in return. I will never forget how her appearance changed in the last year or two of her life as she became ill with cancer; it seemed to me, even at my young age, that she aged so much once she became sick. I can also remember my grandfather, and how much he loved us children. I recall that he enjoyed rubbing his stubbled cheek on the small cheeks of my sister and myself. I can remember the times when he and I would sit down in the living room and watch TV together. He would sit on the armchair, and I would sit on the floor between his legs. He would usually press his knees against the temples of my head and squeeze, thinking it was funny; it was! I remember too that I liked to watch TV there (and everywhere else), and that my grandmother's favorite TV programs were "As the World Turns" and wrestling. She liked to watch wrestling!

I also remember that, perhaps it was during Pesach, my grandmother would buy extra filbert nuts. I was taught how to play a game with filbert nuts, just as if each one was a marble. I'd sit down on the floor, flicking one against the other. I also remember the times I used to help my grandmother make kreplach (Jewish ravioli.) We would make the dough from batter and I'd flatten it with a rolling pin. I would cut the dough into squares and place bits of meat on top, folding each one until it was ready to be cooked. I've been told that my grandmother also made her own challah, noodles and gefilte fish. I will also never forget those cobalt-blue colored seltzer bottles with the shpritzers, and the times I helped my grandfather carry the empty bottles down three flights of stairs and place them under the stairwell by the mailboxes, soon to be picked up by the traveling seltzer delivery man.

Since there was no air-conditioning in those days, I would occasionally sleep out on the fire escape in the summer when it was really hot and stuffy in the apartment. Their fire escape was directly across the street from the local barber shop where I used to get my hair cut when I came for a visit. I also remember Bernstein's deli on the corner of Williams and Riverdale, and the candy store across the street from the deli (more comic books), and those red trucks that used to come around from time to time with kiddie rides mounted on them, such as the one that was circular and used to rotate, and even one that had a little Ferris wheel. I recall that my grandfather took me to movie theaters twice, once to the Biltmore Theater on New Lots Avenue to see Vincent Price in "House on the Haunted Hill," and another time to see a movie with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the East Side Kids. I will never forget Benny's Pickles store which stood on Blake Avenue, where vats sat in plain view right behind the large store windows, giving the potential customer a choice of how many and which types of pickles they could buy. Lastly, how could I or anyone who ever lived in the neighborhood forget Fortunoffs, that sold so many things for the household!

These were certainly times that will not and can never come again, not only because the world has changed so, but also because as children, many of us experienced this Yiddish world with the eyes of youthful innocence, surrounded by so many family members. This is also a blessing of youth, the singular period in one's life that we may see and get to experience the greatest number of those relatives who make up our family tree. These were important times in our lives that taught us how important family was or at least should be, and how intriguing the "nuances" of interpersonal family relationships were.

How much times have changed. I remember that my grandmother actually had to clean clothes by hand with a washboard, hang the wet clothes on a line that stretched from the window of her apartment, across the courtyard to another. Also in those days, people actually cooked at home most all the time, and didn't eat out very often. "Take-out" wasn't very big in those days! I was told that my grandmother would never eat outside the home, as she never knew what they put into the food.

I am fortunate that I was born in Brooklyn long after the olden days when my grandparents were forced to live in a dark and dimly lit cold water flat on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, where there was a common bathroom in the hallway that all who lived on the floor had to share. No more iceboxes for my grandparents, as they were able to obtain a refrigerator not long after the war was over. Still there was the possibility of the overflowing "schissel." My grandparents had their own telephone too; no more having to tip a kid a few cents to run up three flights of steps to tell you that you had a call waiting for you at the corner drug store.

My family and I lived in the apartment next to my grandparents until I was three or four, when my mother finally decided that with two kids, enough was enough. She no longer wanted to live in "Concrete City," as she used to call it, so we moved out to Long Island. Over the next nine years we would go back often to Brooklyn for a visit, and for me, a visit to my grandparents was always filled with great anticipation and a warm, fuzzy feeling. Such a visit was always a welcome relief from whatever difficulties I may have been facing as a youth, and I could always count on a needed dose of love from my grandparents. It seems that during the years of these visits, all in the late fifties and sixties, the visits we had with each other took place over a greater number of years than it did. Today, the same amount of years seems to fly by.

It was a time perhaps only fifteen or twenty years after the Holocaust, a time when there were still distinct Jewish neighborhoods all over the five boroughs of New York City, where you could hear Yiddish being spoken every day by immigrants who worked hard every day (most not on Shabbos) in order to feed their families. My grandparents were so very proud to be American citizens. I feel so very fortunate that I had such wonderful grandparents (and parents of course), that I would have the feeling in my heart to care so much about my parents and grandparents, to write about them and make such great efforts to honor and preserve the memories of not only mine, but all our parents, our bubbes and our zaides. I do so, if for no other reason, than to return the everlasting, unconditional love they had once shown us during those important, memorable years of our youth.


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