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Permanent Exhibitions > Eastern European Jewry > Stories from our Ancestral Homes


Adventure and Tribulation of a
One Day Substitute Letter Carrier

by Samuel Abbey Harrison

Ex-letter carrier, N. Y. P. O.

VISHKI, LATVIA
 

FOREWORD

Since my contemporaries, the Historians, ignore me and the Encyclopedias omit me from their pages, therefore, I dedicate this booklet to my relatives and friends and their POSTERITY, that the latter may know that I walked on this earth, the same as Buddha, Diogenes, Herbert Spencer, Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and Baron Munchausen, making this private history in the clan, in glory of the meek and virtuous pious soul.

 

After serving in the U. S. Calvary five years I entered the Post Office in 1885, at the time the Civil Service Laws were in their infancy, accompanied by severe discipline, and substitutes were expected to and did do work inside the office out of pure patriotism. Although the law provided a salary of $1.00 PER YEAR. I never heard of any one getting it and I subbed thirteen months and earned an average of $30 per month, but nothing occurred worth recording here.
 

This story dates back to the year 1871, when I was eleven years old and in my native land of Russia.

 

 

                                                        Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2005


My Ancestral Mansion
 

At the time of which I write, my parents were living in a little village and way station of the St. Petersburg & Warsaw Railroad, thirty miles from Dwinsk, the name of which was Veesko and pronounced "Whiskers." The village contained, besides my own ancestral mansion, which was a four room log hut with a thatched roof and six windows, (which by the way was quite pretentious for that locality), five or six other houses. Six werst, (41/2 miles) from us there was a town by the same name which had a population of about 1200. There was also a lake between us and the town and in the Winter time when it froze over, the distance was reduced to 31/2 miles.

In those days rural or free delivery was unknown in Russia, except in the very large cities. The mail therefore had to be delivered by private individuals, male or female, who in most cases could not read the addresses themselves. They would bring the letters to the people who were expecting mail and ask them to see if there was any for them.
 

The city of "Whiskers" enjoyed the distinction of having one delivery a week. Petruchnickoff was the Sexton, also the factotum and stooge of the mayor of the town, and as the latter was always drunk, Petruchnick acted in his stead as Tax collector, Sheriff and also was acting Postmaster and Letter Carrier, for which he would receive 5 ko­pecks (21/2 cents), for each letter. As there were no newspapers or magazines through the mail I cannot quote the prices on these.
 

One night the newly-appointed town watchman, who was a stranger in town, surprised an unexpected customer at an unseasonable hour during the night in one of the few stores in town. In the ensuing scuffle the intruder got the worst of it, but in the darkness escaped. The next morning the townspeople were mystified to find Petrutznikoff beaten up and laid up for repairs, although he failed to explain how he received his injuries. No one dared question or even suspect him of any wrong doing.
 

One Friday in February 1871, my father having gone to Dwinsk on business some days before, mother sent me to the railroad station, which was also the Central Post Office, to see if there was a letter from father, as he expected to remain several days longer in the city.

 

The Natchalnjck, (Station and Postmaster), call­ed me over to where he stood and told me that Petrutznikoff had not shown up Monday on his regular delivery and the mail was accumulating fast and if I wanted to take the mail for delivery in the town. Out of the money I would collect I was to give him 10 kopecks and the rest keep for myself.

 

The mail was all first class. There were no newspapers, magazines, calendars, or other stuff that goes to make up the "white man's burden," here. As I was to get 5 kopeck for each letter, you may imagine how excited I became at the prospect of acquiring a fortune so easily.

 

Needless to state that I accepted the position of bus, with alacrity: the P. M. then brought out the "stack" of letters and I started in to count them: there were just eight: no more, no less. Was I disappointed at the quantity? Indeed I was not. I was overjoyed at the prospect of collecting 40 kopecks and having thirty of them for myself. I certainly never had any where near that much in my life before.

 

Now, I want to make the observation that while we were not rich in the ordinary sense of the word, we were fairly well to do, considering conditions in Russia at that time. As there was no school in the village, father was obliged to keep a private tutor in the house for us boys. I was the oldest of the six, for which he (the tutor) received 25 rubIes, ($12.50) for a season, including his keep, of course. Spending money we had none: we could not spend it if we had for the simple reason there was no place we could buy anything. When father would return from his journeys to the City he would invariably bring us candy, etc., but we very seldom had a kopeck to ourselves. So no wonder that 30 kopecks looked good to me.

 

Imagine then my chagrin and disappointment that when I brought home the mail. and made ready for the trip, my mother objected to my enterprise and would not listen to my pleading to go and deliver the mail.

 

I was in a dilemma. I had to choose between filial duty and my ambition to deliver the mail. (the 30 kopecks, of course, were not considered), but destined as I was for my future American career, I was instinctively prompted to adopt the latter course. While my mother was busy with her house­hold chores, never thinking that I would dare dis­obey her, I surveyed my attire and found it was not exactly suitable for the undertaking across the pond. I therefore slipped into my father's Schooba (a sheepskin coat) and his vulickes (felt boots), No.9, and his bashlick (a pointed collar and hat combination). I was, in this nondescript attire, literally out of sight. I stole out unobserved by anyone, with the mail in my bosom, and struck out in the direction of "Whiskers" for my first trip as a regular sub.

 

 

 

Starting from my home at 11 A. M., I arrived at my destination about 2:00 P. M. As the snow had been very deep and my attire somewhat bulky I did not make much progress.
 

The town had only two streets laid out in the shape of a cross. At the intersection was the business part of the town, while the private reached out to the four corners. None of the mail in my posses­sion was addressed to any store, and, as I had no idea of routing, I necessarily crossed and recrossed my steps many times before I finished the delivery of the eight letters.
 

And now I wish to make a verbatim report, as it were, of my delivery and the successful results of collecting the postage due. Of course, in the lapse of time I have forgotten all the name of the addresses which is of no way important, but the principal incident is indelibly impressed on my memory.
 

The first letter I offered for delivery, the addressee nor his wife was at home, but the son was a youth, about twenty. I handed him the letter and waited. He opened it, read it and laid it on the table and looked at me. "What are you waiting for?" he exclaimed. "Why, for the 5 kopecks of course: I explained. "You do not expect me to pay you? Do you imagine I have money?" he said "Then who will pay me for the letter I delivered to you?" I replied. "Why, my father, of course who else?" he said. "Well, then, where is your father?" I asked. "My father and mother are working on the Count's estate and will return about 1 or 12 o'clock tonight. You can wait for them here or come back when they return. It is all the same to me." Of course, I had no alternative but go away and say no more about it, as the boy was much bigger than I.
 

The second letter I delivered to the man, to whom it was addressed, without first asking him for the 5 kopecks. In the first place, I was too timid and I did not anticipate the regulations under which I would be working in the future regarding "postage due." When I ventured to ask him for the kopecks, he said, "I have nothing to do with you I have made arrangements with Petrutznikoff  to pay him every three month, and ,as I paid him off only two weeks ago, you collect from him or come here ten weeks hence and I will give you the money. It is all the same to me." The ten weeks have passed a long time ago, but I have not  yet called to collect.
 

The fourth letter brought me to a home where I found an old man alone in bed. He was either sick or crippled. I had too much respect for old age to ask payment in advance. When he was through reading the letter he observed, "You want 5 kopecks for this letter don't you, my pretty boy?" "Yes, Honored Patriarch, if you please," I answered. He reached under his pillow and drew out a bundle of rags and started to unwind same, When he was through he had the whole bed nearly covered with rags and finally produced a three ruble bill and asked for change amount to two rubles and ninety-five kopecks. "Honored Patriarch, I have no such large sum in my possession, but if you will let me have the bill I will go and have it changed at the Inn," I answered, "My angel faced child," he exclaimed, here I was very much surprised and pleased, how did he know I was angel faced, since he could not see my face as only my nose and eyes were visible. "That is utterly impossible for thou must know this bill represents the savings of my life time. What would I do if the Prophet Elijah should happen to descent from Heaven in his fiery chariot, the same as he went up, and take you with him before you return with the change, or maybe the rashlackis (the female devil of the species) would like to possess themselves of such a pretty boy as you. I sincerely desire to pay my debt and you are certainly entitled to the 5 kopecks, and no matter when you come with the change you will find me here." What was there for me to do but bid him good night and depart for the next address.
 

The fifth letter brought me to a young couple, recently married, and as the letter was a congratulation from a rich relative, with the promise of a nice present, it made them happy and not only did they give me the 5 kopecks, but a piece of cake and a glass of homemade beer besides, (I doubt whether it was of the 2.75) and with good wishes for their future happiness, I took leave of them for the next address quite content, as I had 10 kopecks in hard cash on my humble person.

 

 

         Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2005 The Widow’s Cozy Home

 

By this time it was getting dark and I had still three letters to deliver. My sixth letter took me to the "suburb," about 500 yards or so from the square. There on the hillock was a small dilapidated log house with a thatched roof. (It reminded me of the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born). One window originally contained four panes of glass, three were missing and stuffed with straw. Inside was a platform, about three feet from the ground, reaching from the front wall to the back; I should have judged about 12 feet long and 5 feet wide. That was on one side of the door. On the other side of the door stood an oven without a chimney. There was a hole in the roof to let the smoke out but now stuffed with a bundle of moss. There was not a spark of fire in the oven which took up nearly all the remaining space in the hut. An inverted barrel completed the furniture, as far as I could see. The addressee was a young widow, who stood at the further end of the platform, where I could discern three little figures huddled in the corner, covered with rags and straw to keep them from freezing, and crying. The mother was wan and haggard, covered with what was once a sheepskin coat, but now moth eaten and full of ho1es. On her feet she had lapchess (slippers made out of stripes of bark and held in place with ropes around the ankles), and shivering from the cold. My heart sank within me as I saw this sad picture of misery and want, a mother and three little ones dying from hunger and cold. A feeling of compassion overcame me; how could I take from this starving family that which they had not to give? A sudden inspiration brought to my mind the words in the good Book, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." With a deep feeling of pity I handed the young widow the letter without mentioning the 5 kopecks due. She could not read and as there were no lights within, in the fading twilight outside and bitter cold of a February at­mosphere of that latitude, I read the letter for her. If I remember rightly, it was from an uncle or brother-in-law, a farmer in a distant state, and a reply to her appeal for aid. It contained the following interesting information. "His only horse was stolen; his two cows were confiscated by the government for taxes, foxes broke in the hen house and nearly destroyed the whole flock. His only son and help was drafted in the army and on top of all this his was dying of consumption, and that he was heart­broken and could not help her in the least." As I finished the letter the poor woman, stricken with grief, fell to the ground in a heap; the children seeing this cried out in misery and despair. When she revived somewhat between sobs the mother told me they had nothing to eat that day, and only the day before some charitable neighbor had given them some Shuee, (a mixture of cabbage and bran) and as there was no charity organization in that town the outlook for the poor family looked hopeless.
 

Young as I was I realized in an instant my obligation; could I, a fellow human being, do aught else but offer my 10 kopecks to save these poor mortals from starvation and death? With tearful pleadings I finally persuaded the poor woman to accept the money. She showered me with blessings and kisses of gratitude. Strange to relate, a feeling of keen satisfaction overcame me as I parted with my fortune I prized so highly; however, I reasoned she needed the money more than I.
 

The seventh letter was for a Jewish small merchant by the name of Hirshe Maharam. This being Friday night (Sabbath) the law had prohibited the transaction of any business whatsoever, and therefore would not receive the 1etter but in a very kind manner asked me to bring back the letter Saturday night or Sunday morning and he would give me besides the 5 kopecks a big piece of candy. At this the dignity of my position deserted me and I broke down and cried. Hirshe Maharam, (how well I remember the name) surveyed me with compassion for awhile and then suggested that if I would open the letter for him he would find a way of paying me off. This proposition appealed to me, though I had my private scruples in that respect, but necessity knows no law. I tore open the envelope. When he was through reading. he took a knife and inserted it in a small coin box, lifted out a 5 kopeck piece and handed it to me on the point of his knife, thus overcoming the interdiction of handling money on the Sabbath. Now I want to state that this gentleman was a dear friend of the family and would have gladly invited me to supper, which I would have appreciated hugely, but having compromised myself in the act, I did not dare disclose my identity. However, I had the consolation of having again in my possession 5 kopecks. I would have bought something to eat but the stores were all closed now and I had still another letter to deliver.
 

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2005The eighth letter was addressed to the richest man in town and as such I anticipated no trouble in collecting my fee and, as it was supper time, a rich man ought to be generous enough to invite a sub to the table. I found the local Rockefeller seated at the table by the samovar drinking tea. On the table were cakes, fruit of different variety and some bottles. My eyes were bulging at the sight of those things. The man had a smile on his face that would seem to indicate that he bore "good will toward all and malice toward none." I approached him with the awe and respect due a man surrounded by so much luxury. I gave the letter but no sooner did he glance at the mark and handwriting on the envelope than he became livid with rage and exclaimed. "Will I never have peace from them? Since she died I am never going to be happy for they insist on making my life miserable. Let them have a care or I will have them exiled to Siberia”' he shouted.
 

Then turning around to where I stood. very much frightened, he yelled. "Here, take that letter back and go to the devil with it. you ill visaged young rogue." (I was very much surprised and chagrined at the same time how he knew that I was ill visaged, as only my nose and eyes were visible). I did not wait for a second invitation and went without wishing him good night. He did not think that I took him at his word. Not only did I go to the devil, but 1 became the Devil himself, as it proved subsequently.
 

Discouraged, disgusted, tired and hungry, with only 5 kopecks in my pocket, I turned my steps homeward. When I walked nearly a mile of the distance I became exhausted and could proceed no further. I crawled up an embankment of snow by the roadside and soon fell asleep.
 

Yakub Galltenzick was a well to do farmer living a little distance from us. Once a week he would take a load of stuff to the market in "Whiskers" and return home any old time during the night with a load of vodka on the inside, and few articles of merchandise on the outside, in the vehicle. He was otherwise a devout Christian and a good neighbor.

          

I was aroused from my slumber by an unearthly yell about 100 yards away, in the direction of the town. Yakub and his team were coming to­ward me galloping. Yakub stood in the sleigh whipping the horses and urging them on at top speed, and for good cause, about 100 feet behind him, were three wolves in mad pursuit. I saw dis­tinctly the outline of their bodies against the snow, although the night was very dark.
 

 

The Climax of the Enterprise
 

I wish here to digress for a moment to explain the construction of a Russian sleigh of the peasant variety. It is somewhat in the shape of a duck's breastbone, high and narrow in the front low and wide in the rear, with open back where one gets in and only about a foot from the ground.
 

I took in the situation at a glance and not having much time to think, I instinctively had to act much quicker, and it was the fastest move I ever made in all my long career.
 

When Yakub came abreast of me, just a few seconds later, I jumped out of my vulickes right in the sleigh behind his feet. (If I had missed the sleigh you would have missed this story.) The volakies being permeated with human perspiration attracted the wolves who fell over and ravenously devoured them, and thus ended the pursuit after the sleigh.
 

With an unearthly yell Yakub dropped the whip and reins, fell on his knees, crossed himself and cried out. "Holy Father of the Seventh Heavens, now what have you done? Did you deliver me from the wolves to throw me into the arms of the angel of darkness, though only half of him is here, the wolves having devoured the other half, for which thy Holy name be praised."
 

There is hardly another nation on earth that can beat the Russians in vituperative epithets. If his accustomed vocabulary becomes exhausted, he can improvise on the instant something to suit the occasion.

But now in his semi-intoxicated condition, when he thought I am he who must be feared, and as I was in rather close proximity to him, he applied only mild epithets, such as "dark," "unfortunate” "misguided” "left” etc. Never once did he refer to me by my right name, "Devil" while I remained as his guest in the sleigh.

 

"Holy St. Martin," he continued, "ten candles will I donate to the church in Thy precious name, if you will persuade the misguided angel to leave me in peace." I remained where I was.

 

"Beloved St. Gregory, Patron Saint of my Venerated Father, fifteen candles will I donate to the church in Thy Holy name, if you will assist the unfortunate angel whose lower body the wolves ate up, to his abode below."

I still remained coiled up like a ball at the bot­tom of the sleigh.

 

In this way he kept biding five more candles at a time and calling on different Saints until he reached fifty candles. While he was talking he never stopped crossing himself, for he believed as long as he made the Holy sign of the cross I could not harm him. But, as a matter of fact, I never intended to, for I had the most kindly feeling in the world for him, but he was not aware of it.

 

By this time the horses not being urged forward, slowed down to an easy gait, or, as I thought, to a snail's pace. When he had reached the 50 candle limit, and I was still his unwelcome guest, he decided to change his tactics and do business with me direct. He addressed his remarks some­thing as follows, in a maudlin, supplicating tone:
 

"Unfortunate angel of sorrow, accept my heartfelt sympathy for your accident, but I was powerless to prevent the wolves from eating your lower extremities, curse them for ever and ever. Though I belong to the Orthodox Church, and am obliged to comply with its rules, many a time I have served and pleased you in indirect ways. Were you not pleased with me last week when I arrived home and brutally beat my wife for no cause at all? Why did I do it, if it was not for the purpose of pleasing you? Even in today's transaction you could not be otherwise than gratified."

He kept arguing in this fashion, but with his face to the front and crossing himself until at last we came up in front of our house where I quietly rolled out of the sleigh almost frozen stiff, particularly my feet.
 

I found my mother in hysterics, my father having returned that afternoon unexpectedly was pacing the floor in an agitated manner. When they beheld me, mother fainted, and when father perceived that I was minus the vulicks, open his arms and gave me such a warm welcome that I felt his loving impression on me for many days afterwards. But that was nothing compared to the shock I received and from which I have not as yet recovered was the discovery that I lost the five kopecks.
 

Under the circumstances am I morally obliged to pay the Natchalnick the 10 kopecks still due?
 

 

 My Escape From Prison
 

It was two years after the foregone episode that I ran away from my parents' home. For months I travelled alone about the various towns of Russia, stealing rides on the railroad trains from place to place, hiding underneath the seats in the passenger cars. One night when I was hiding under the bench on a train nearing Merefa, a village 13 miles from Karhov, I was caught by the conductor, who demanded my ticket. I told him that I had forgotten and left it at home. This did not work and I was turned over to the gendarme, who asked to see my passport, it being necessary to obtain one from the governor of your home town before you can travel to another town. I told the officer the same thing I told the conductor, and I was carted to the stanz, meaning prison.
 

"The stanz was a one roomed affair, with a sort of anteroom, in which a Cossack with a gun stood on duty to watch prisoners in the lockup. I found on my arrival a soldier who was jailed for desertion and was awaiting removal to the city jail in Kharkov. Several times during the evening the Cossack guard would go out and walk about the place. On one of the occasions the soldier told me that if the officials sent me to Kharkov by sleigh I would perish in the cold, it being mid winter at the time. I was told to demand being sent to town by train, which I could do providing I paid my own fare and the cost for guard. This I consented to do, despite the fact that I had but two roubles--about ninety-six cents in American money--in my possession.
 

"It happened that the Emperor, Alexander the Second, was going from Odessa to Moscow, re­sulting in all the passenger trains being sidetracked, giving the royal trains the right of way. This necessitated my remaining in the jail all night, after the soldier had been taken away. During the early hours of the morning the Cossack went out to get a sandwich. Being left alone I took advantage of the opportunity and tried to escape through a small opening in the door through which the food was passed to the prisoners.
 

"I soon found that it was impossible to do this with my clothing on, so I decided to undress. Doing so I dropped my clothing through the opening first and then, after much difficulty, succeeded in crawling through myself. I dressed hurriedly, but none too soon, for the Cossack returned and I hid behind the door in the anteroom. When the guard went over to the fire to get warm I sneaked out. I ran for the railroad station and got on the first train which passed, getting off again at the next station. Here I remained until morning.
 

"In the meantime an alarm was sounded about my escape. I was approached by a gendarme who told me that a boy had escaped from the jail in the next town and that I answered the prisoner's description. I asked him if he thought I was the boy, remarking at the same time that if I would stop so near the place of escape. He agreed with me and without any further word I purchased a ticket, boarded the next train and started on my way rejoicing.

"I travelled about Russia the following four or five years and then went to Germany and from there to England. During my rambling I always wrote to my people, but I was unable to hear from them as they did not know from time to time what towns I would be in. After a short time in England I came to America. --- See my Biography.

 

A Short Sketch of my Biography
 

I was born in Kurland (a German province in Russia) in 1860. After passing more or less eventful episodes of my youth there, I left my native land at ripe age of 14. Anticipating Jack London’s Adventures and struggles in his travels, like him I beat my way through Germany and England until 1878. When I landed in New York on August the 18th, coming over on the steamer Hevetia of the National line, made famous by Jules Verne in his "Eighty Thousand Leagues under the Seas." as a stowaway. Shortly after I got a job in a grocery at the wage of $6.00 a month and board ­the hours were from 5 in the morning to about 10 at night with Saturdays free. Subsequently I got another job in a dairy for $8.00 a month with provisions to cook for myself. Subsequently I enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1880 and served in the 6th Cavalry for 5 years, fighting Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. When I left the army, I passed a civil service examination and was appointed letter carrier--the first year salary was $600 per year. In the mean time, I married Henrietta Sameth of Hungarian ancestry and prominent family. We had three sons and one daughter of which only one son survived. In 1920 I was retired on a pension and migrated to the City of the "Angels”, where I am now residing. This is 1944, and still going strong and growing up with this country which is still young. Furthermore, I am looking forward to the time that Edward Bellamy wrote in "Looking Backward," that is of the year 2000, which is only 56 years off; when the whole world and I will enjoy real civilization without any ifs and buts. AMEN.

 

 

Family Tradition of Genealogy

In relating it, I though best to put it in the form of an interview as follows:

 

Q. What is your name?

A. Samuel Abbey Harrison.

Q. Where were you born?

A. In KurIand, a German province in Russia.

Q. To what nationality do you belong?

A. To the Jewish.

Q. Harrison is not a Jewish name!

A. No, but circumstances alter cases.

Q. What were the circumstances in this case?

A. Well, when Peter the great of Russia introduced western civilization in his realm, he also introduced western military tactics in for his large crude Army. And for that purpose he brought back with him from Western Europe several generals from different European nations. The youngest one amongst them was an Englishman by the name of Lord Edward Maynard Harrison of ancient royalty. When the general came to St. Petersburg, he met and fell in love with a Jewish maiden by the name of Ettah Malkeh, the beautiful daughter and accomplished linguist of French, Italian, German and English, of Hershel Maharam who was one of the wealthiest merchants in the land. He secretly married and as secretly became a Jew (circumcised) and in the course of time several sons were born to them. As time elapsed and the General won many victories in the battles with Sweden, he became a great favorite of the Emperor, who created the General a Kniaz (Grand-Duke) and endowed him with immense estates in Rupyolev, Griveh, Slabodky, and a few castles in the bargain. Thereby arousing the envy and jealousy of his companions in arms. And one day when leaving the Emperor’s presence, he was assassinated in antechamber in the Royal palace. After the General's death, his widow and her children returned to her fathers house and her own people. And the children were, of course, brought up in the Jewish religion, but retained the title of nobility and income which became in time dissipated through prejudice and dis­rimination of ignorance. And so here I am.
 

There are many Jewish Harrisons floating through this country and a number of them here in Los Angeles, besides several are my bona fide nephews, and the rest are probably descendants of the original Lord Edward Maynard, but are timid of claiming relationship for obvious reasons.

 

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