My Life Stories – Grandpa Remembers

Introduction:  I write these stories so they won’t be forgotten …

Excerpt from Book – Prologue 0 to 1929 (Before I was born)

Zayde Kalman Leaves Russia

I come home from school and open the front door with the key that
hangs around my neck on a string.

Mom yells from the kitchen, Is that you, Ronnie?

“Who else would it be?” I yell back as I smell the delicious food she is
cooking for Passover. I go to the bathroom and … whoa … What do I see?
There is a big fish swimming in the bath tub. I scream, “Mom!

Mom comes running with a wooden spoon in her hand and a worried
look on her face. She yells, “What’s wrong? Oh, I see. I didn’t tell you about
the fish. I’ll tell you all about it when you come out of the bathroom.”

I rush out of the bathroom. “Mom, the fish?”

She stirs a pot of chicken soup with a wooden spoon. Then she takes
some Matza dough out of a bowl and shapes it into a ball. After that, she
carefully drops it into the soup so it won’t splash. It smells delicious.

Finally, she says to me. “My mother, your Baba Lena, told me that the
Gefilte Fish tastes better when the fish you use is very fresh. She kept the
fish alive until the very last minute. That’s what I’m doing. I didn’t think you’d
mind going without a bath for a day or two.”

“No, that’s Okay Mom. Speaking of Passover, tell me the story about
how Zayde Kalman told you that you were going to America. It was on
Passover. Wasn’t it?”

“Again, I already told you that story a million times.”

“I know. I just like to hear it.”

“That’s Okay. I kind a’ like telling the story. It was in 1911. We were
living in Odessa, Russia, My father, your Zayde, was thirty eight years old.
He was really handsome, you know, with his straight black hair, parted in
the middle, and his twinkling blue eyes.”

Then she suddenly laughs so hard she is crying.

“What’s so funny, Mom?”

“He was wobbly because he already had three cups of wine for the
Passover Seder. His cheeks were red. He waved his glass in the air and
looked up, like he was talking to God, and said in a voice so loud that God
could hear.”

“On this holiday, we celebrate freedom. Just as Moses led our people
out of slavery in Egypt into freedom in Israel, I am going to lead my family
out of slavery in Russia, into freedom in America.”

Then Mom gets a serious look on her face. She wipes her hands and
dries the tears from her eyes with a towel and goes on with her story.
“My mother, your Baba Lena, gave him a disgusted look.”

Mom stops and looks at me. “Ronnie, do me a favor and get me a fresh
towel, will you please?”

“Sure Mom” I go and get a fresh towel and hand it to her. “What about
Baba Lena? What did she say?”

“Your Baba was thirty three. Her dark brown hair was parted in the
middle and pulled back into a tight bun. She wore a loose fitting gray house
dress and no makeup. She told me that she was taught by her mother that
she shouldn’t look pretty after she was married so she wouldn’t tempt
anybody but her husband.”

“She said to Zayde, ‘Sit down old man. Don’t talk such nahrishkeit.
You’re talking foolish. I can hear the wine in you talking.'”

“Your Zayde looked upset. He really wanted to convince his wife that
they had to leave Russia. He tried something new. He looked at her and
continued. ‘We live in a dangerous city. you know?'”

“Baba shrugged. ‘What’s with the danger? Our neighbors are Jewish?
They’re not going to hurt us.'”

“I could see my Papa getting frustrated. He went on, ‘What you don’t
see is the danger from Turkey. Russia took Odessa away from Turkey in
one of their many wars. Now they are afraid the Turks will invade and take
the city back. Then they would kill all of the Russians living there, just like
the Russians did to the Turks.'”

“‘The Russian people wouldn’t live here at first. That’s why the Czar let
us Jews live here. He could care less if all the Jews got killed. He won’t
let Jews live in any other Russian city. We showed him. We made Odessa
into a very prosperous city. Now the Russians want to live here. He’ll
probably change his mind and kick the Jews out of Odessa too.'”

“Baba stood up and screamed. Her face was red. ‘We can’t leave Russia.                               You have worked hard. We are making a good living from your leather
factory. You are head of the Odessa Communist party. The children
are doing well in school. ‘”

I say to my Mom, “Boy, things got tense.”

Mom answers “Yes, I got scared and changed the subject. I said to
Zayde, “Papa, you once told me you wanted to be a Rabbi. Why did you
change your mind?”

“Then Papa smiled at Rose, my younger sister, and me. He loves us
and we adore him. He waved for us to come to him. He said, ‘Look at my
two Ziese Meydele, my sweet girls, so smart and beautiful.'”

“Then he answered my question. ‘I decided that the Communist Party
will make life better for everyone. We will live in a classless society. The
Russians will not be our enemies. We will be comrades.'”

Mom gets serious again, “Getting back to the story, Your Baba got red
in the face and yelled at Zayde. ‘Why don’t you pay attention to your son,
Chaim? He is only ten years old, yet he helps you in the factory every
day after school. See how handsome he is. He dresses like a grown up.'”

“Chaim, my older brother, your Uncle Herman spoke up. He didn’t want
anybody to talk for him. He said, ‘Rabbi Schwartz, my Bar Mitzvah teacher,
told us there are 150,000 Jews in Odessa. Most of us are doing well.'”

“Baba looked proud as he spoke. ‘We are doing well. That is good.'”

“No,” said Chaim. “Rabbi Schwartz said it’s not good. The Czar is like the
Pharaoh of Egypt. He is afraid that we will join his enemies.”

“‘Pooh, he was just trying to scare us.’ Said Baba Lena.”

“‘No Mama,’ protested Chaim, ‘the Rabbi says the Czar is planning
more Pogroms. He will send the Russian peasants on killing sprees against
the Jews and let them steal their homes and properties. He wants to take
over our businesses and factories and give them to his friends.'”

“Papa got very serious. He told us, ‘The Russian sheriff came to visit
me. He warned me if I didn’t quit my Communist activities, he would
take Chaim into the army when he turned twelve.'”

“Baba turned pale. She was finally convinced we had to leave
Russia. She pulled Chaim over to her and hugged him tight. Chaim looked
scared. He told us, ‘My friend, Hershel Greenbaum, was taken away into the
army last week. His mother Rachel says he was as good as dead. The
family is sitting Shiva. That’s the ceremony for someone who is already
dead. I am too young to die. We have to leave Odessa.'”

“Zayde looked relieved that Baba agreed. ‘We have to do this quietly or
the Sheriff will call in the Cossacks to wreck the, factory. He doesn’t do it
now because I pay him for protection. Boris Karpoff, the head sewing
machine operator, will pay me a few kopeks for the business.'”

Mother continues making Matza Balls. She says “Your Zayde Kalman,
told me how he went to the office of the sheriff, Ivan Ivanovski, the next day.
I’ll tell you the story exactly how my Papa told it to me.”

“Ivan sat there behind an unpainted desk, drinking vodka from a dirty
glass. A red cap with a gold star was on his bald head. A visor shaded his
red nose. His arms were folded across his huge belly, ‘Hello Kalman, You
are my favorite kike. I hope you gave up that Bolshevik activity. I’d hate to
take that smart little Chaim into the army.'”

“He gave Papa a bear hug. Papa could smell Ivan’s body odor and onion
breath. Ivan asked, ‘Did you bring something for me?'”

“Then he asked, ‘How can I he be of service to you, tovarich?'”

“‘I want to take my family on a trip to visit my relatives in Warsaw. Then I
want to go across the border to Berlin to visit my wife’s family.'”

“Ivan bragged, ‘We have a good business arrangement, no? It takes
six months to get such a passport, but I will have yours ready in a week.'”

“Ivan waved goodbye to Papa as he left and said in a loud voice,
‘Dasvidaniya. I will see you soon, tovarich.'”

“Papa waved back and smiled as he whispered through clenched teeth,
‘Dasvidaniya, Tovarich. I will never have to see you again. Never again.'”

Mom finishes making Matza balls as she finishes her story. She turns
off the gas under the soup. She says to me.”Ronnie, you can thank God
we are safe in America and you can thank Zayde for bringing us here.”

Written by  Ron Lever

Select all writings of  Ron Lever

Select biography of  Ron Lever

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