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


My Autobiography
by Samuel Grabsky

WARSZAWA, POLAND
 

After working fifty years as a tinsmith, I and my dear family decided that it was time for me to retire. In the year 1954 on the first of May I did so, becoming a retired businessman. And as I have plenty of time on my hands now, I made up my mind to write my life's history from the day I first remember myself to the present day in 1959.

I do remember myself when I was three years old. We lived in Warszawa on Wspoolne Street. At that tender age I met with an accident and I still have a scar on the right side of my head to show for it. My mother had a crockery store. She took care of it as my father was working outside because there wasn't enough profit in the store to support a family of four children. My mother put me on a chair to play with a small pair of scissors and I fell off the chair and cut my head with it. That is my earliest recollection.

I was born on the 28th day of September 1885. At the time we were living at 24 Marshalxosha (?) Not long after that accident we moved to 20 Chlodna.  There my sister Rose was born in what year or month I do not remember exactly. My very first brother, his name was _______, got killed by a truck at the age of four. My second brother was born sometime during the month of December in 1875. His name was Harry. My oldest sister Sarah was born four years later in 1879. My second sister Celia was born two years later in 1881. Later, I was born in 1885. After me came my sister Rose. After Rose came Helen, and after her came my youngest brother Simon, born in 1895.

When we moved to Chlodna Street, I became sick with typhoid fever. I was laid up in a hospital room for seven weeks. After leaving the hospital, my face was entirely disfigured. I remember that my sisters cried when they lookEd at me. After a few months of my dear mother's care, I became normal again. But things were very bad, and my folks had a hard time feeding us five children. So they decided to move out of my grandfather's house in Ochota in order to save on rent. My folks packed us all into a cart, children, furniture and all. Off we went to Ochota, which was located on the outskirts of Warszawa. We moved first into one of the grandparents' houses as it was very bad at that time. There was a crisis occurring all over Poland, and my folks needed to get some sort of free rent. However, my grandfather wasn't the kind of man to give things away for nothing.

So every month when the time came to collect rent, the same thing happened over and over again. He wanted us to move out of his house. But we couldn't because four of us children got eczema and it was very contagious. So we had to remain in my grandparents' house under doctor's orders until all of us children were well again. This took a few months. In the meantime there were arguments and fights over the rent my folks could not have paid. So when we finally did get ready to move, my father broke all of the windows and doors in every one of grandfather's houses. We then moved back to Warszawa. This time our address was 66 Chrielna(?) I was then eight years old and a few months later my sister Helen was born. She was a beautiful red-haired baby with big blue eyes.

Since my father had now received a contract to repair all the government roofs, we were eating regularly again. We didn't live there very long as the place was very small for a family of five children. My older brother was already learning a trade and was living somewhere else. We moved once again, from this house to one with three bedrooms on 26 Wilchna. Everything was going along very nicely, and then my baby brother was born in March of 1895. After living at this house a number of years, we once again had to move elsewhere due to anti-Semitism.

We were the only Jewish family living in a building of forty-five tenants. So we decided to move to 16 Swarde, located in a populated area that was very much Jewish. After living there a year or so, I turned thirteen. I attended school until three o'clock, and after that I went to Hebrew school. That's how it was until I was fifteen years old.

I remember when my brother Harry got married and worked at the tinsmith trade for somebody else. Then he worked for himself until a strike broke out in the trade. He couldn't sign up with the union and had to leave Warszawa for America. By that time, Max Thierman, the husband of my sister Sarah, had also immigrated to America because he couldn't make a living in Warszawa. He had already been in America for a year by himself. It wasn't until a year and a half later that he could send a ticket for his wife to come to America. So my brother Harry landed in America and lived with my sister Sarah and her husband. I was a young man of eighteen and also had become a tinsmith's helper in Warszawa at the age of fifteen.

My father wanted me to become a jewelry worker. I learned the trade in almost three years, though without any joy whatsoever--only dinners and that wasn't such a wonderful future for a young man like me. I wanted to make something of myself, like others my own age. All the doors, however, were closed for young Jewish boys in those days, so instead I had to work as a jeweler for next to nothing. I began to look for work as a tinsmith's helper where I had more luck. I was being paid more money than I ever had before this. I earned enough money to pay for my food and also to clothe myself in a halfway-decent manner.

HOW SAMUEL MET  FELICJA

As I was already a young man of almost twenty years, my folks began to talk about me as being a nice-looking young man. I then began to associate with young ladies that were my type. The more girls I knew, the more I was able to arrange company for myself every now and then. This was until I met Leah. She was a very nice girl, blonde with blue eyes, though she was older than I was. She meant business. She wanted me to marry her right away, but I knew that I wasn't ready to marry anyone as I couldn't make a living yet. Also, I had to wait to find out how I would make out with the Army. In the meantime, I was able to persuade Leah that I couldn't marry yet because of my uncertain status with the Army, etc.

One day while Leah and I were visiting her friends, I noticed a girl walking up from a lower floor. She was talking in Polish. I asked the girl who was living in the house whether this girl was Jewish or Christian. When she told me that she was a Jewish girl, I couldn't take my eyes off her. This was so much so that my girlfriend Leah became very jealous and began to argue with me about it. The girlfriend of Leah who we were visiting at the time was living on the fourth floor; the girl I was keeping my eyes on lived on the third floor.

One evening  when we were at the girlfriend's house, I ask the girlfriend where Felicja, the girl living on the third floor, was. So my Leah got very mad and told me that she forbid me to see her, that I should not even talk to her. So I became mad and walked out of the house, ready to return home. On my way downstairs, I noticed that the door on the third floor was open for some reason or another. The mother of the Polish-speaking girl asked me how come I was going home so early, it was only eight o'clock. So I gave her some excuse and she asked me into her home. At that time, Felicja was combing her very long hair. She was very glad to see me. Her mother made tea and we all sat down for tea and rolls. That was THE day my whole life changed. This was in February 1904. While spending the rest of the evening there, I had a chance to observe the girl very closely. From that evening on, I saw her almost every evening and we became attached to one another.

Although it was very hard for me to converse with her in Polish, and she couldn't speak much Jewish (Yiddish), somehow or other we enjoyed each other's company. She was a very beautiful girl with very beautiful eyes, and she had a beautiful head of blonde hair. I began to act entirely different than I had ever acted before. Even my folks noticed this and they kept asking me what the reason was for this. I kept the reason to myself. The minute I'd get home from work, I 'd clean myself up, put on the best I had to wear, and I went to see this beautiful girl living on Semnia (?) Street. When I was in her company, I was very nervous. I felt for the first time in my young life that I was in love with someone who was very dear to me, and I also felt that the girl loved me too.

That was going on until May 1, 1905. Then there was a demonstration in Warszawa and one of Felicja's brothers was shot and killed in the demonstration. I felt the pain just as much as the boy's family did. We all mourned the loss of the boy--until one evening on the night of May 19, 1905 when I proposed to the girl and told her that I loved her. From where I found the courage to say these words to her I don't know. They must have come out of my heart. Of course she didn't say anything, but that was the first time that I kissed her. This was the kiss that lasted and made us the happiest couple in the world. Even to this day, fifty-four years later, we are still in love.

But let us not jump too far ahead. At that time when I got home, I couldn't sleep because I was only thinking of how I could make this girl very happy. I had no real trade, no security. I had no future and no hopes to make something of myself in this land of my birth. So I began to think of a far-off land that I had heard about so many times in my youth--the land they called America. Never in my life did I every know such worries, but that night I really began to worry. With all my heart and mind I told this lovable girl, this beautiful angel, that I loved her. Now I had the worry of doing something about it. But how? A thousand times how? There was only one solution, and that was for me to go to America, where I could start from scratch and try to build a life for myself and my dear sweetheart, and a real sweetheart she was.

OFF TO AMERICA

During the next number of days when I got together with my dear Felicja, we talked about this matter over and over. By that time it was also about time to present myself to the Army. However, I didn't want to waste three years of my young life for no reason at all. So the next thing I did was to write a letter to my sister and brother-in-law who had already immigrated to America two years before. I hoped that they could help me get out of Warszawa in order to avoid spending three years of my life in the Army. After a few weeks my appeal was successful and they did send for me. After receiving my ticket, I accumulated a few rubles and off to America I went.

I left Warszawa in the month of August 1906. You can only imagine how badly I felt about leaving my folks--Father, Mother, my sisters and a brother, and my dear sweetheart, especially because I loved her so dearly, more than anything else in the world. I felt that I was leaving a part of me behind when I said Bon Voyage to her as I was leaving on the train that would eventually bring me to America. But I always had in my mind that whatever torture I would have to go through in order to make something of myself for my dear one, for my future life, it would be well worth it, and off I went. After traveling a half of the world, I did arrive in the land of opportunity. And now my struggle began in a new land, not knowing the language, the customs, not knowing from where to start, how to begin. After a couple of days, I found a job in a tinsmith shop for six dollars a week.

LIVING IN AMERICA

After a few weeks in America, I began to pick up a few words here and there. This was too slow for me, so in the evenings I went to night school. I don't know whose fault it was, the teachers or me. In the daytime I worked very hard--as a green young man they made me work very hard. So in the evening, during night school, I fell asleep.  After this happened once or twice, the teacher told me that the next time I should bring a pillow if I wanted to sleep. I got insulted and embarrassed as she said this in front of the whole class, so I never went back to that school again. I made up my mind that I would have to learn the language by myself. Little by little I picked up a word here and there, and by myself I made sentences out of it. In one year's time I could have a conversation in the English language, at least enough to get by. I learned English a little from the pictures and a little from reading the English papers looking for work. I learned enough English so that nobody could sell me short in English. This allowed me to look for better jobs that paid more money.

MEANWHILE BACK IN WARSZAWA...

In the meantime, I didn't forget my folks. I had always written to them, telling them how I was progressing in this environment. I also managed to send them a few dollars every now and then. I had also done the same thing for my sweetheart, writing a letter to her every week, letting her know how I was getting along in this new world of mine, and sending her a few dollars when I could. I wasn't making much money, but it was better than it was at the beginning. I had to dress and feed myself. I tried to make myself presentable in not very expensive clothes. What I wore was nice and clean. Every now and then I also used to send home some pictures of me to show them that I was trying the best I knew how to build a future for myself and what was going on. This was so until I began to receive letters from my father that I either had to send home one-hundred and fifty dollars or show up to present myself to the Russian army.

The police were threatening my father, telling him that they would take away all of his household possessions in order to pay the money they demanded. I received letter after letter asking me what I intended to do in this matter. Finally I decided that, instead of trying to send that amount of money, it would be better if I go back there myself and take my chances. If for one reason or another they would let me go, I would still be able to return to America and continue to make my future here. If, on the other hand, they would take me in the Army, I would try to run away from them, as I felt that I already knew my way around the world.

ESCAPE FROM THE RUSSIAN ARMY

So on November 8, 1909, I boarded the ship PHILADELPHIA and was on my way back to Warszawa. After eleven days I was back with my folks and my dear sweetheart. After being there for four weeks, I presented myself to the police. After a short examination, they made me a solider to be stationed somewhere near the Black Sea. The name of the city was SEVASTOPOL.

Now my real worries began. The police locked me up, not giving me any chance to prepare myself for escape. It was on a Tuesday, and in two days later I was supposed to be shipped to Sevastopol. So I had to think quickly and decide in my mind what I needed to do. I had very little money to go anywhere, but I had to make my first move first. So when the time came for us recruits to be shipped out, there were almost a hundred of us. We were lined up with real soldiers who were around with guns on their shoulders. When the signal was given to march ahead, the order was to turn right. So I took a chance and went left!!

They kept going full speed right and I went full speed left until I had walked about a mile away from the recruits. I hired a carriage to take me to my girlfriends' house, late at night during the month of December. I remained there four full weeks until my girlfriend's brother Ed, who had been freed the same year from the Army for having poor vision, was able to help me. He took a passport out that was in his name and I used his name in an attempt to travel back to America, or rather, to flee Warszawa. Luck was with me so far. In a few days I found myself in Holland, waiting for a ship to take me back to America. As I am now writing my story on paper, I am reminded that this wasn't so easy.

FROM HOLLAND BACK TO AMERICA

I had no money at all when I arrived in Holland. Now I will try to tell you how I got to Holland. I had just enough money to go to Berlin. That's all. So I arrived in Berlin and I had to figure out how to continue my travel to America. This wasn't as easy as some people might think. While I was traveling from America to Poland, I had met a few fellows who had already traveled back and forth to and from America. They told me that in Berlin there was an organization that helped immigrants go anywhere they wanted. So when I was in Berlin I looked up this Jewish organization and went there to get some financial help. They asked me all kinds of questions and they stripped me from top to bottom to see whether I had some money, whether I had been telling them the truth.

After finding out that I didn't have one cent on me, they did help me just enough so I could get  out of Berlin as far as the German-Holland border, to a town called EMMERICH. It took me and many other immigrants about twenty-four hours to reach Emmerich. All the others had the money or tickets to go further, but not me. I again was in trouble now and had no idea how I would get further from home, nearer to America.


When I arrived in Emmerich, I was turned over to another Jewish organization. I told them my story, that I was a deserter from the Russian Army, that I must get to America. I explained that I was there before and I had (first) papers to show them. After hours of consideration, the elders of the organization finally decided to send me to the city of ROTTERDAM and from there to I should find my way back to America. So they fixed me up with lunch, cigarettes, and a ticket to Rotterdam. Off I went, getting nearer to my destination. After twelve hours of traveling, I arrived in Rotterdam and the Hotel Nasm*, hungry, tired, and again without one cent in my pocket.

The first thing I asked of the people at the hotel was for something to eat. And they did as I was half-starved. After I finished eating it was twelve o'clock at night, so they gave me a place to sleep. In the morning they would take me to the main office so I could explain my situation before them and they would decide what to do with me. I was so tired that I didn't care for the moment what they might do with me, as long as I could sleep for about twenty-four hours. But it didn't turn out that way. At about ten o'clock in the morning, I heard a knock at my door. They wanted me in the main office. I was half-asleep as I dressed myself. They gave me breakfast--milk, cheese, eggs, bread and butter, and plenty of herring. After breakfast, I went into the office. There in the office I was given the 'third degree.' They asked me all kinds of questions over and over again. Finally, someone asked me whether I had any relatives in America. I told them I had a brother and sister in America who would be more than happy to help me come to America.

I also told them that I had gone through their office--to America--three years before. They looked this up and found out that I was telling them the truth. So they cabled my brother Harry in America that I was waiting there for them to help me. In the meantime, they told me that I could stay in the Hotel Nasm until I heard from them. They gave me fourteen days. In case they didn't hear from them, they would have to turn me over to the police to be sent back to where I came from. This was not very good news for me. I waited and waited and everybody knows that when you wait for something, the hours and the days are years long.

But all I could do was wait and hope for the best. When I had arrived in Rotterdam it was Wednesday night. And on that Friday night the same week, a ship left from there for America. So I was left all by myself in the hotel. You can imagine how downhearted I felt, being left alone in a place where only a day before, there were hundreds of people, all with hopes of going to America. The same Friday night after the ship left the port, I went up to my room and began to think. My life passed before my eyes. My past. My childhood from the day I first remembered myself until the day I found myself alone in the hotel, away from my folks, my friends, from my dearest one in the whole world.

I was also thinking of my future and what would happen to me if my family and the organization said they won't help me and because I couldn't buy a ticket. And that is how I fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning, there were already new immigrants. More and more of them were arriving every hour with every train from all over Europe. All kinds of people, young and old, many with very small children. At times I forgot myself, my own predicament. I took a great deal of interest in learning the reasons why so many people were running away from their birth places, willing to travel to far-off America and start life over again.

The answer was always the same. Persecution. In their old places, they couldn't do anything. No living. No education. No freedom whatsoever. So they were ready to sacrifice a few years of their lives in order to start fresh in a free land where there is freedom for everybody. They asked me all kinds of questions, whether this was really so. When I told them that it was so, they were very sorry for me because I left America for the reason I did and had to go through so much agony and torture to get back there. Of course I couldn't make them understand that I had to do it, that so far I had been very lucky, that I am on my way back to America. Before you knew it, there were hundreds of new immigrants ready to go to America. It was already Friday morning, and at eleven o'clock that night the ship NORDAM was scheduled to leave for America.

But I had to sign a paper that when I got to America and started to work, I would send them the money which amounted to eleven dollars for eleven days. I agreed to pay it--what else could I do? And off to America I went. You can imagine how happy I was, as were all the immigrants on the ship. We left Friday night, and the minute the ship left port, we all had a party. Everybody brought out the best they had in food and drink and this kept on until early morning. We all went to sleep and when we woke up we were in the middle of the ocean. No more land in sight. After nine days of traveling over rough seas, I finally noticed the Statue of Liberty. When I saw the Lady with the Lamp in her right hand, I started to cry. It took a while before the others could quiet me down.

I had to tell them the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. When at last the boat stopped and were were getting off the boat, I was the first one. A friend on board gave me twenty-five dollars American money so I could show them that I had the fare to go home. The inspectors asked me whether I had any money. I showed them that I had the fare to go to the house that would now be my home, with my sister Sarah in Harlem at 101st Street near First Avenue.

When I arrived there my sister opened the door for me and told me to come in. Again I started to cry with happiness because I was lucky to go through such a torture from the day I left America for Poland on November 8th and was back in America on February 17, 1910 (Editor's note: Ellis Island records show Sam, aka Schmul, left Rotterdam aboard the Statendam on February 6, 1909, not the Nordam, with a single dollar in his pocket, arriving at Ellis Island on February 17, 1909.) For seventy-one days I had traveled over eight-thousand miles and suffered a lifetime in such a short space of time. Now that I was back in America, I had to start planning my future life and decide how I was to bring my dear one over to America.

Now I am thinking back to my sister's house, when I was having my first supper with my brother-in-law Max, my brother Harry and his wife, as I am writing these lines. Max, Harry and his wife are gone now but not forgotten. When we had supper together, they criticized me, asking me why I made that crazy move and returned to Warszawa in the first place. I told them that I did suffer hell on earth before I could come back here, that I would not want to repeat it again though it was an education, and that it is something that I would remember for the rest of my life. Then, after resting a couple of days,  I went to look for a job and joined the union in order to make more money. I had to accomplish some things for my future.

In the meantime, my sweetheart's brother--the older one--was a deserter from the Japanese-Russian war. I had to do something for him. As his parents had done so much for me, keeping me for four weeks in their home, taking a chance, hoping not get caught, not to get in trouble because of me. So the first thing I would do would be to send for him to come to America. So two months later I sent him a ticket, and on the 27th of March 1910 he came to America. I was making sixteen dollars a week then, and so together we made a plan to bring over his younger brother Edward and the sisters of my girl. But things didn't work out the way we planned. The brother got sick and passed away. By that time I had already sent a second-class ticket for my girl, and the way it was now, she couldn't leave so quickly after that terrible loss. So she turned the ticket over to my sister Rose, so she could now come to America. And when she did, the doctors wouldn't let her in on account of her having trachoma, so she had to go back on the same ship.

Some months passed after this double ordeal. I again sent my girl a second-class ticket, and on the 18th of September 1911, I was the happiest young man, embracing my girl on American soil. Then, on the 4th of November, we got married, some six years after I said to her that I loved her. It is so easy to put down on paper these memories of six years back. But how much heartache, how much pain one must endure to tell the story as it really was. We rented three nice rooms with all the improvements and my brother-in-law moved in with us. We were very happy together in this new world, this new environment, but again it wasn't lasting. But that is another story...

ADDENDUM

Sam Grabsky was the fifth child and third son of Louis Michael Bernstein Grabsky and Leah Grabsky. His grandfather's original surname was BERNSTEIN. He became an orphan and was taken in by a family named Grabsky who ran a farm in the suburbs of Warszawa. They raised cows and sold milk wholesale in fifty-gallon urns and retail by jugs of pints of milk to the Jewish Quarter. They also fabricated weighing scales and that is how his grandfather got into the sheet metal business. Louis Michael may have been adopted by the family, though later he married Leah Grabsky, the daughter, and thereafter took on the name Grabsky.

* Editor's Note:
The Hotel Nasm in Rotterdam that Sam refers to was owned by the Holland America Line, first founded in 1873 as the "Netherlands-America Steamship Company," i.e. NASM. Twenty-five years after its founding, the fleet was comprised of six cargo and passenger ships. Its first ocean liner was named the Rotterdam, its first voyage to America was on October 15, 1872, thirty-eight years before Sam's voyage. This shipping line was one of the principal transporters of European immigrants till some time after the turn of the twentieth century, carrying 850,000 immigrants to the country they would call their new home. Most likely, during the time this story takes place in 1909, this hotel was located at the port of Rotterdam, providing temporary housing for those who were to embark on a transatlantic voyage aboard one of their ships, in this case the Statendam.

 

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