My life: A memoir by Chana Fischer
A mother, wife and daughter reminisces
For some political reason, when I
was born they couldn't get me a birth certificate. Later, my grandfather
was able to get me one when a proclamation was issued that everyone born
in 1921 should re-register because a fire had destroyed that year's
birth certificates. So, although I was born in 1922, my grandfather took
this opportunity to register my birth for a year earlier.
I remember a very happy childhood
surrounded by relatives and servants. My mother was always close by.
So was my grandfather. He seemed to be very tall and loving. Every morning my grandfather went to shul (synagogue). I used to go to a corner street, with our cat following us, and wait for him to come back from shul and hold onto his capote (black long coat) as we walked. He use to take me along to shul sometimes, and I remember hiding behind him when there were other people around.
We had an orchard and a vegetable
garden, and a cow and a horse. There were a man who did the farming and
took care of the animals and a woman caretaker named Helen, whom I was
with a lot.
I used to visit my Aunt Malka and
Uncle Moishe (Kolodny), and I'll never forget her potato latkes, as they
were the best I have ever eaten. My cousins took time to play with me
and take me places. I have no memory at all of my grandmother Sarah. I
was probably too young when she died.
I remember starting kindergarten, and my youngest cousin, Meyer (Kolodny) let me erase the blackboard in his class. He was a teenager at the time.
My Aunt Malka always wore a sheitel
(wig) or scarf on her head. I remember watching her sew on a sewing
machine at her house. Once, she and her husband went to Warsaw to see a
doctor, and they came back with a doll for me. It was my first doll. It
was porcelain with moving eyes.
Helen would take me for hayrides in our wagon with her man friend. She used to talk to me in Russian, and my mother, grandfather and other relatives talked to me in Yiddish.
When she fed me things that she ate,
I remember my mom telling me not to tell my grandfather that I ate
Helen's food, as it was not kosher.
A teenage son of neighborhood
friends of ours named Slutzker once took me to a barber to shave my head. My
mother said I wouldn't let her wash my hair. He carried me on his
On Fridays, we had a table full of
yeshiva boys who came for dinner and discussed the Talmud and studied
together with my grandfather. They called him Reb Eliezar. It was very
We had company quite often,
relatives and friends who came to get advice from my grandfather or
borrow money from him or to pick fruit from our orchard. My grandfather
was very well liked and respected in the community, from what I was
We lived in a small house, but he
owned a big house in the back, more like a big living room that was
rented out for parties and weddings. There was a barn for a cow and a
horse, plus two small apartments above that, which he rented out, a big
orchard and vegetable gardens.
We lived near railroad tracks, and I was told that every time there was a war, the area was run over by the Russians, the Germans, and back to Poland. So the soldiers used our big house as a barracks while they were in the area.
Story of a foundling
I remember an incident of a baby boy being left at our doorsteps and how my mother and grandfather took care of him. One morning my mother opened the front door, thinking she had heard a cat mewing, and it was a baby boy in a basket that someone had left.
She called the doctor to examine
him, and my grandfather had the mohel over for his circumcision. I
remember the occasion as a lot of crying, noise and like a big party
with a lot of men present.
The story was that this was the
child of an unwed mother who had paid someone to put the child on the
railroad tracks. Instead, this person knew about my grandfather's
kindness and left him at our doorstep.
My grandfather did a lot of
investigating and found out who the mother was and the father.
Meanwhile, my mother took care of the little boy for about three months.
The baby's father was the son of a
rabbi, but he wouldn't marry the mother. My grandfather persuaded the
mother to take the baby back and to go to America to start a new life
with the baby. My grandfather and the congregation of which he was the
gabbai (sexton) contributed money to help with the expense to do that.
When the boy was 5 years old, my
mother received a picture of him with his mother.
My grandfather used to lift me up to
kiss the mezuzah affixed on the door post at bedtime every night. He
seemed very tall to me, but I imagine any adult seems tall to a little
When he died [in 1928, according to his epitaph], he was laid out on the floor with his yarmulke (skull cap) and black coat surrounded by large lit candles, and the neighbors looking in the windows were crying. I guess I was either 4 or 5 [6 or 7], just before we left for Cuba.
My father, Abraham Levik, had met my
mother, Dweira Mindla Kagan, in Kiev, Russia, right before the
revolution. She was working in a Kiev bank as a bookkeeper, after having
taught mathematics in a gymnasium (secondary school) in Poland. The
reason she had left Poland was her dislike of teaching. She was hoping
to find a different kind of job in Russia.
She lived with an aunt and uncle in
My father used to have dealings with
this bank through which he bought and warehoused his drugs. He was a
pharmacist and a feldsher (a doctor's helper). He was 13 years older
than my mother.
He had fought in the Russo-Japanese
War of 1904, which was won by the Japanese. Very few men survived in my
father's company. My father had been a great swimmer, for which he
received a medal from the czar's wife.
My father studied pharmacology and
became a pharmacist. He also had a degree as a masseur. His sister,
Rebecca, was a nurse. His brother, Isaac, was an engineer.
Their father, Leib Levik, was taken
into the Russian army at the age of 12 and was in it for 25 years. They
taught him to be a tailor, which he continued to do at his own shop
after leaving the military. My father's mother, Chana, was killed when a
brick was thrown at her by a Cossack during a pogrom.
After the revolution, when the banks
were closed or appropriated by the people (communists), my father's
pharmacy was taken away. He was given a job at a hospital where he
assisted in taking care of patients. He worked there until he left for
Cuba, in 1928. He was paid with food, like sugar or tea, or sacks of
flour that he used to take to his parents' house, where his stepmother
baked bread. They shared it with all in the family.
One time, my mother told me, she
went to pick up some bread and had a long walk home from there. She was
very hungry, so she thought she would take just a little piece and eat
it while walking. By the time she got home, she had no bread left and
was very upset and cried for a long time.
I guess my parents were married
around 1917 or 1918. It was a time of bloodshed, hunger and typhoid epidemics.
Their first children, according to my mother's story, were twin girls.
They were delivered on a mat on the floor of a hospital that was full of
patients from a typhoid epidemic. There was no food and not enough
medications. The twins died.
So, a few years later, when she
become pregnant with me, she decided to travel to Pinsk, Poland, to be
with her parents for the birth. She got on a train and traveled for 12
days from Kiev to Pinsk. The passengers had to get out periodically to
chop and gather wood to be used as fuel to make the train go.
When they arrived in Pinsk, everyone
on the train was arrested on suspicion of being communists as they had
come from revolutionary Russia. With some difficulty, my grandfather got
my mother out of jail. Eventually, when I was born, they waited a while
to get me a birth certificate.
When my mother wanted to return to
Russia after I was born, Russia would not let her into the country. And
then, my father wanted to come to Poland, but they would not let him
into Poland. So, my parents had to find a different country to go to.
First, they tried Palestine, but
England would not give them an entry permit. My mother had a cousin
in Havana, Cuba, and they applied for a visa. That's why they went to
Cuba, because they were let in. This ordeal took five years to happen,
and we all met in Cuba when I was 5 [6 or 7] years old.
When I was a young child, I don't
remember my mother ever talking about my father, but she showed me a
photo of him before we left Poland.
I don't recall having missed a
father during the first five years of my life, as I had my grandfather,
mother, my Aunt Malka and Uncle Moishe Kolodny who had four children
older than myself, and they all took care of me. I only knew my father
through the picture my mother showed me.
On our way to Cuba, my mother and I
traveled to Paris, France, probably on a train. I don't remember really
how we got there. I do remember taking a walk near a river and being in
a hotel, and then being on the ship.
The ship voyage was uneventful
except for one incident. There was a line to get vaccinated. When I saw
what was going on, I ran away from my mother and hid downstairs among
the luggage in the cargo area. After a frantic search, a sailor found me
and brought me back to my mother on his shoulders to everyone's delight
into my mother's arms and to get my vaccination. It seemed like everyone
wanted to carry me on their shoulders.
I really don't remember our arrival
in Havana, Cuba, but we got there before my father. I remember going to
a pier to wait for him with his picture on hand.
My father later told me of his ship
voyage to Cuba. Most of the people on the ship were hungry, and the
majority became very sick due to the turbulent weather and couldn't eat.
But he was just fine and he ate everyone's leftovers and gained quite a bit of weight. The first banana that he was given he tried to eat peel and all, as he had never seen a banana before.
I don't remember exactly how I felt
when I first met my father, but I resented him being there, as I had to
share my mother with him after five years of having her all to myself.
He was very outspoken, and my mother
used to say that if he had stayed in Russia under Stalin for another
year, he might have been a "head shorter" or sent to Siberia for life.
My father used to say the Jewish
communists were communists with a little store in their hearts (i.e.
wishing to own something of their own).
He was very strict about putting
things back into the same place they were taken from. He would make a
big stink about it in a very loud voice yelling at me or my mother.
We settled in a room in the old
section of Havana. My parents started looking for work and enrolled me
in a neighborhood kindergarten. About 1st grade, they tried the Jewish
school, but my mother said I didn't like it. It was very crowded, and I
felt lost there, so they put me back in a family-run, private
neighborhood school. There were many of them everywhere, usually in a
In 1929, I remember when Uncle Sam
(Cohen), my mother's younger brother, came to visit us from St. Louis.
We went with him in a taxi to visit different places on the island. We
ran into a big rainstorm, and the taxi got stuck in a ditch. We had to
stay in a grocery store to wait till the rain stopped so the taxi could
be fixed. That was the only time I remember being in a car while we
lived in Cuba. Also, I don't remember ever using a telephone while we
lived in Cuba.
At that time, Uncle Sam gave my father money to start a laboratory to produce perfumes and cosmetics. He made liquid rouge, hair tints, and a hair-restorer called Quina Quina Lim, made of lemon extract and quinine. I used to help mix and filter solutions.
father had a lot of trouble with inspectors and permits for the
products. Through my uncle, he sold some of this merchandise to U.S.
barbershops, but he lost it all when the big crash came in 1929, and he
never got paid for it.
After losing the lab, we did a lot
of moving as my parents had all kinds of jobs and could barely earn a
At one time, they owned a stand with
notions in a market that our friends the Bicks had lent them the money
to start. But business was bad, and my parents were robbed by passersby
all the time.
My parents worked in some offices,
and they collected dues for organizations that people belonged to. They
had to do a lot of walking and they would earn something like 10 cents
for every dollar that they collected for the organizations.
For a while, we lived in the
outskirts of Havana, like in the country, where there were lizards on
the trees and goats roamed around that came on our porch and messed it
up all the time. I remember tasting the goats' milk, which was sweet.
Then, we moved back into Havana into a room in a solar, a place where every family had a room and everyone shared a communal coal stove and bathroom, where we had to stand in line to use them.
They had shower stalls, and we put a
pot under the beds to use at nighttime, and then emptied it in the
We shared big basins where we washed
our clothes and hung it on lines. We used newspapers to sit on the
toilets (and also to wipe ourselves).
We always lived in a multiracial
environment in those rooming houses.
Pets and radios were not allowed on
the premises. Imagine how it would have been with 20 or 30 radios
playing at the same time.
All the buildings where we lived had
flat roofs surrounded by fences or barriers. On the roofs, we hung our
wash on lines; the children played there and took pictures there. We
also set up tables on the roofs for eating on various occasions.
We moved from place to place quite
often because my parents couldn't pay the rent and we were evicted.
Among the streets that we lived on
were Monte and Reina, in buildings across from big markets.
Those were very unhappy times for me
as I remember my parents constantly arguing, and many times I cried
myself to sleep. I remember instinctively praying to God that I should
grow up soon and be able to help my parents in some way to be able to
buy food and clothes and pay rent so they wouldn't be so mad at each
(After reading the book "Shtetl," I
realize how lucky we were that, due to circumstances, we wound up in
Cuba. Our lives were spared. We were "survivors" of the war and
Holocaust. Thank God.)
When I was about 8 years old, my
mother started teaching me to write and read Yiddish after school and
made me write letters to my aunts and uncles in the U.S.A.
They probably enjoyed getting those
letters, as they would answer with some money included. That really
helped a lot as it paid for the rent once in a while or for a new pair
of shoes and a better meal sometimes.
I bit my fingernails, and my mother used all kinds of ideas to break me of the habit, including smearing bitter substances on my fingers. My mother decided to take me to a piano teacher to keep my hands busy. For a year I took lessons, but we didn't have a piano, so I couldn't practice anyway. And the teacher used to take me to church with her and put a cover on my head made of a handkerchief and teach me to pray the Christian way. I knew it was wrong for her to do that, but I never told my parents, as I didn't want to upset them. But I was glad when they stopped giving me the lessons, because they couldn't afford them anyway.
I did stop biting my nails when my parents gave me a manicure set. After
receiving the set, I couldn't wait till I had longer nails so I could
fix them and polish them.
By the time I was 7 years old, my
mother had a baby girl (Sarita). It was a very traumatic pregnancy and
very hard delivery with forceps. The baby had a head injury and died at
3 months old.
While my mother was in the hospital,
I stayed with the Weinsteins, who owned a Jewish restaurant. Their
daughter, Sarita, was 11 years old and she took good care of me for 10
days, until my mother came home from the hospital. I remember helping
out in the restaurant, filling the sugar, salt and pepper containers,
cutting bread and serving water to customers. They lived in the back of
the restaurant in two rooms, and Mrs. Weinstein, her daughter and I all
slept in one big bed. During my stay with them, I enjoyed all the food
that was available to me.
Thinking back about how and where we
lived in Cuba, my parents probably were embarrassed about not being able
to earn a living and didn't want the Jewish people to know how bad off
we were. They used to say they could be good Jews without living among
them. None of our neighbors were Jewish, but we had Jewish friends.
I remember one time when my parents
were evicted from our room and they didn't have any cash to get a room
elsewhere. A family whose last name was Levy let us move into their
home. The room was smaller than the rooms we used to rent, but my
parents managed to squeeze in our furniture.
The Levys had a son who was bigger
than me in size but younger. He was a little devil. He teased me a lot
and made a lot of noise when I tried to do my homework. I kept our door
locked at all times, so he would bang on it. One time he poured water
over the transom. We didn't live there very long.
It was very sad what happened to
that family. The husband had a mistress, and when his wife had a baby
girl that was born while she was sitting on the toilet, she became
psychotic and was put in a mental institution.
I heard other people who knew them
say that the mistress practiced voodoo and put a hex on the wife. The
children were raised by the mistress, and the little girl contracted
syphilis. I don't know the end of their story. Some said the children
did make it to the U.S.
In Cuba, I didn't have any Jewish
religious instruction. My parents when to Rosh Hashanah services at the
Israelite Center, where they bought tickets to get in, but they never
took me along, that I can remember.
The Catholic Christians in Cuba were
very active in seeking converts, trying to save the souls of people with
different religions, as they had done with the Indians throughout the
In 1933, there was a big revolution
in Cuba. The people and political activists overthrew the corrupt
Machado government. I remember there was shooting on and off for a week
and scarcity of food and water, and how I hid under the bed. Whenever I
heard the shooting, I would run and hide under the bed.
Batista, an army colonel, took over
then, and everyone who was a Machado sympathizer was arrested or killed.
The military went from door to door, and anyone with a Machado picture
or who was known as a Machado supporter was shot on the spot or attached
to the back of a truck and dragged through the streets of the cities.
It seemed like every four years,
when the elections were near, there was a revolution. The people argued,
shot and knifed each other for their political affiliations.
During the 1933 revolution, our
friends the Bick family came to stay in our room because the shootings
were much worse in their neighborhood. They brought food, a whole
chicken and fruit and potatoes, so we ate very well for a week. They had
a dry goods stand at the market.
We also were very friendly with the
Golditch family. They had two sons, and the younger one, Pedro, was 4
years younger than me. I took him to school and watched him for his
parents when they went out. They had an import-export fruit business.
They would either sell to us or give us bruised fruit that couldn't be
(They changed their name to Gold
when they came to the U.S.A. and moved to Philadelphia. The older son,
Abe, was a prizefighter in Cuba and they all worked in packinghouses as
Eventually, I was put in a public
school in 5th grade. The genders were separate, and we wore uniforms. It
was right across from our rooming house at the time.
We had very good neighbors. They
were good-hearted people who watched over each other. If they had extra
food, they shared it. I remember them feeding me and taking me to
concerts in the parks, for walks and to the movies. It cost 5 or 10
centavos to get into the movies, where we ate cut up watermelon chunks
that they brought along in a jar.
My mother and father were away
during the day, and I was alone most of the time. Looking back, I think
I grew up in a semi-primitive way due to the poverty.
I liked being in an all-girls class
in 5th grade at a public school. The teachers were pleasant and good;
teaching was a very respected profession. I learned to crochet and write
poetry. I made sweaters, a hat and borders on handkerchiefs.
We went on a lot of patriotic
parades and learned how to march properly and wore uniforms: white
blouses, blue skirts and black shoes. On Fridays, we sang the Cuban
national anthem, saluted the flag and read our poetry in front of an
assemblage of the students, and we were applauded.
While growing up in Cuba, I was
given cod liver oil as a food supplement and intravenous shots of
calcium. I used to have colds and bronchitis as my father was a heavy
smoker and our room was always full of smoke.
After the 6th grade, we went to
junior high. It was very crowded and very busy, many subjects and many
different teacher for each subject. It wasn't easy for me. I had to
struggle a lot to do well, especially the math.
I seemed to have many friends among
the children who lived in the different solares where we lived. One,
Carnita Calvo, was very close to me. Her parents quite often fed me
vegetable soup, and her father taught us to dance.
I also had Jewish friends, children
of my parents' friends, Luisa, Pedro, Ira, and Abraham. They lived near
One bad experience I had with a
neighbor occurred when I lent a love story novel I was reading to their
daughter about my age. The neighbor girl was around 12 years old. (Her
mother was Chinese and father, Spanish white). They bawled me out to
never do that again and told her not to play with me.
My parents never questioned what I
was reading, as long as I was reading. So this incident really made me
very unhappy, and I cried hysterically a lot that day. I don't think my
parents found out about this as they were not around much during the
I came to the conclusion that it's
not good to leave little children to fend for themselves as much as I
was left on my own. I was very lucky that no harm came to me, but I
heard of others who were harmed. (When this neighbor girl got older, she
ran away with a much older man, who had a stand where he manufactured
I remember playing school a lot and
always wanted to be the teacher, and dressing up in my mother's clothes.
We played games, checkers and dominoes. Because I wanted to be a
teacher, we had pencils, paper and books.
I don't ever remember going to a
grocery store in Cuba. We did go to open markets and bought fruit from
stalls. We also bought quarter-chickens to make soup and divide up three
ways. We had tea, bread and coffee, and milk sometimes. We ate very
cheap herring, potatoes and rice and beans. We also had liver, heart,
kidney and tongue stews. I guess my mother got those at a butcher shop.
Once in a while we had eggs.
When we had to move and couldn't
cook, we went to a Chinese restaurant, but not very often. I remember
having soup with a lot of bread in it to fill up our stomachs.
My father said he could live on tea
and bread if he had to.
In Havana, there were many pushcarts
on the sidewalks with different fruits and juices. We bought oranges,
bananas and pineapples for very reasonable prices. And on some corners,
many unemployed educated people sold neckties. They earned a living wage
because people who went to concerts in the parks had to wear neckties
because police would not allow them to sit down unless they were wearing
Many poor people slept on houses'
stoops or in doorways, covered with newspapers, and looked for food in
the garbage cans. Some of the children couldn't go to school because
they didn't have the money for shoes and paper and pencils. The poor
people also begged or tried to steal from shops. I guess that's why
policemen were seen everywhere, at least one on each block, but they
couldn't do much to prevent the robberies.
My father used to take me to free
symphony concerts in the parks. The schools took all the students to
opera performances. The performers were often from other countries, and
I loved going to these.
In junior high school, the classes
were coeducational and very crowded. Many times we had to sit two to a
bench desk. The girls wore blue dresses with long sleeves and white
collars and black stockings and shoes. It was very uncomfortable because
of the hot weather most of the time.
We carried a big load of subject
matter and had a variety of teachers who came around to each class and
never really got to know any of the students. The teachers only knew how
we were doing by testing us. It was a very nerve-racking year.
Once during those years, my mother
fainted in the street. The doctor told us she was anemic, and I had to
go to the butcher every day to buy a slice of liver, steam it and
squeeze it out and give her the bloody liquid to cure her anemia. I
think I did that for about a month.
After junior high, my parents had to
choose a high school for me. There were mostly private ones, and they
didn't have money for tuition. But they found out that the public
technical high school, Escuela Superior de Artes y Officios, would
accept me for free if I passed their entrance test.
So they hired a tutor, Mr. Thomas,
to get me ready for the test. I know my parents could hardly afford it.
It cost $5 a session. He did a very good job, and I passed the test.
In a class of 75 students, we were five
girls, and two of us were white. I was the only one of foreign birth and
Jewish. Despite being a minority of one, I had no problems with my
classmates or teachers. They all tried to help me if I had any problems.
It was a great educational
institution. The teachers really cared about each and every one of us
and tried very hard to help each student become proficient in whatever
trade or art they chose to study. While there, I had my adenoids
out in a hospital, and many of them came to see me and brought flowers.
Several of the boys helped me carry
my books on the way home, as it was a very long walk and the books were
I got to know my friend Helen
Lieberman (Parness) then, because she worked for her brother in a store
("Joe's") that I passed every day on my way home. If she was outside on
the sidewalk, we used to chat for a while.
In high school, I majored in
chemistry and was trained to do qualitative and quantitative analysis of
products. We started class at 7 a.m., and at 11 a.m. we went home to eat
and came back at noon or 1 p.m. for a four-hour laboratory training
session. Twice a week we had physical education at 4 or 5 p.m. and did
calisthenics and played volleyball.
While in high school, the doctor
wanted me to wear a cast on my back to straighten it. But I would have
missed six months of classes, so I declined. I wanted to graduate with
my class and try to find work.
In 1939, when I was a high school
student, I was not aware of the terrible things going on in Europe. I
guess we didn't read the newspapers at the time.
I joined a Jewish group at the
Zionist organization, where I became acquainted with other Jewish young
people or reacquainted with former neighbors, Luisa Bick (Grabosky),
Pedro Golditch, Esther Roizen (Bogdanoff), and Jacinto Raigorowsky.
When I graduated in 1940 with a
certificate of "Industrial Chemist," I couldn't get a job or a
scholarship to the university because I was a foreigner.
In school, we used to go on parades on
patriotic holidays and we were trained to yell "Cuba for the Cubans."
That's why they [the native Cubans] got all the available jobs. I sure didn't know what this
would do to me as a foreigner, as I did that yelling too.
There was no anti-Semitism that I
knew of, but foreigners had a hard time finding jobs, because the Cuban
natives were hired first.
One of my classmates, Roxana Yanes,
and I went to a sugar plantation in the remote area of Cienfuegos,
Camaguey, to learn how to assess cane juice to figure out how much sugar
it would make. To get there, we took a train, and my parents were very
nervous and worried for me.
Her brother was in the military and
we stayed at his family's house. It was very interesting, educational
and fun. We traveled everywhere on horseback.
Some of our graduates got to work in the plantation's laboratories, and some went to the university and studied engineering. A classmate told me about a children's hospital where they trained lab technicians in their laboratories if we worked there for free. So I applied and was accepted and worked there for a year.
When I first heard about my future trip to the U.S., I was at the sugar plantation in Camaguey, so I guess my parents were working on it for a while without me knowing it. I really didn't know about the correspondence between my parents and my aunt and uncle. So it was a surprise when I was told I was flying to America. To me it happened like overnight.
The last year I spent in Cuba, we
had a Mrs. Finer staying with us in Havana. She was a German refugee
whom my parents took off a boat that arrived in 1941. She was the mother
of my cousin Leslie Cohen's violin teacher in St. Louis. She was very
old looking; we have a picture of her. I learned quite a bit of German
from her, as that was all she could talk.
My parents rented a second room next
to our room, and I had my bed moved into there with her. She came to the
U.S. about five months after I did. She died about two years after
arriving in the U.S. She had a son and a daughter, and her husband had
been her uncle, she told me. Neither of her children ever got married.
Departure from Cuba
Several years before Aunt Mildred
died, I asked her what gave them the idea to bring me to St. Louis. She
told me that Uncle Sam was a spendthrift and didn't really have much
money, but as she was thrifty and had her own savings account, she
decided to bring me.
She told me that their friends, the
Moshanskys, had a hand in it. The Moshanskys were from Cuba and knew us
and kept after them because they knew how bad off we were and there was
no future for me in Cuba. The Moshanskys told Uncle Sam of our
predicament, the hard situation of not being able to find work and how
bad it was for us and that I was a smart girl.
I received my U.S. visa easily
because I was considered stateless. The Polish government didn't
consider me Polish because my father was Russian, and I couldn't be
considered Russian because I wasn't born in Russia. As a result, I could
get a visa because I wasn't included in a quota.
My friend Helen Lieberman left for
the U.S.A. on a ship on Dec. 7, 1941. I went to the farewell party at
the pier. The ship left in the evening, just as there was an
announcement over the intercom that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
It was the last ship to leave the island, because, from then on,
everyone feared the oceans would be mined by the Japanese. Thereafter,
everyone had to go by air, as it was considered safer. At the time, I
didn't know that six months later I would be leaving Cuba for the U.S.
I corresponded with Helen, who lived
in Miami. So when I got my visa, she offered to pick me up at the
airport. I left on July 22, 1942. It was a 45-minute flight.
Helen, who had a job in a
photo-processing place in Miami, waited for me for five hours. I was
seen by a doctor, my belongings were checked and I was questioned at
length. Immigration wanted to make sure I was healthy and wasn't a
communist or a prostitute and that I had $500 to show that I wouldn't be
a burden to the U.S. government. Uncle Sam had sent me this money.
I stayed for a few days with Helen
and her mother before taking a train to St. Louis. To make sure the
money was safe with me, Helen's stepfather took me to a bank to have it
made into a certified check at a bank. It was made non-transferable in
case it was lost or stolen, so my Uncle Sam could get his money back.
The train was very crowded with
soldiers, and I made it to St. Louis on a rainy, gloomy day. Everything
looked so drab and odd to me. I had never seen brown brick buildings
like those in St. Louis. The ones in Cuba and also in Miami were all
painted different colors.
Aunt Mildred and Uncle Sam took very
good care of me. I got along well with my cousin Leslie, age 7 or 8, at
the time. He showed me how to play Monopoly and I began to catch on to
I enrolled in night school at Soldan
High School to study English and prepare for citizenship.
Aunt Mildred started talking to
people about my need for a job, including a secretary to a doctor, the
Gradwahl School of Technicians, and then went to Jewish Hospital and
talked to Dr. Somogyi and Dr. Gray. She asked them to let me work for
free for a while until I got the hang of it and learned the language.
They tried me out and three weeks into it they hired me.
Aunt Mildred worked very hard on my
behalf. She said she couldn't afford to pay for the technician school
that she thought I should attend before going to work.
I lived the first year in St. Louis
with the Cohens. They gave me room and board and clothes. Aunt Mildred
showed me how to fix my eyebrows so they wouldn't look "like Groucho
Marx" and how to get to the hospital where I worked. She sewed dresses for me and
helped me immensely.
She taught me how to save my salary
for the purpose of accumulating enough to bring my parents over, which I
did in a year. And she helped me find an apartment at 5500 Cabanne Ave.
At Jewish Hospital, they paid me $75
a month. I thought they said it would be $35, and when I got my first
check, I was the happiest person alive. They also provided a meal ticket
to get free lunch.
During the year I spent with Aunt
Mildred and Uncle Sam when I was earning a salary, I should have sent my
parents $10 a month to help them out, but I didn't know how to go about
doing it. I was very immature and naive in my social thoughts.
When my parents came to St. Louis in
1943, I was able to support them until my father found a job as a
shipping clerk and mother learned to be a fur finisher and worked for
Mr. Jacobs, a friend of Uncle Sam.
In 1945, I visited New York and
stayed with Aunt Ray and Uncle Herman in the Bronx and met most of my
cousins there. Aunt Ray took me all over to meet her friends who had
sons to introduce me to them.
I also saw an old friend (Slutzker),
the one who took me to the barber in Pinsk to get the haircut. He had
also come to Cuba with his mother, Miriam, and two sisters. They were
good friends of my mother's.
He took me out to Radio City Music
Hall and to dinner and gave me a frame for a picture of me on a silk
handkerchief. Paul Gold (Pedro Golditch) had the picture made by a
Japanese artist from a picture Paul had in Okinawa when he was there in
World War II.
Slutzker was a watch repairer in New
York and he had just been divorced. But that visit was the only contact
I had with him, and he was much older than I anyway. I don't even
remember his first name. We have pictures of his family as they
corresponded with my family.
I also visited New York one other
time and went with Aunt Belle (Cohen) and her children and grandchildren
to the Catskill Mountains. We stayed in a resort for one week. I
remember sleeping in a room with Aunt Belle, taking walks, attending a
show and eating in some restaurants. We drove there over a tall bridge.
I'll never forget Dec. 1, 1944.
That's when my cousin Shirley Cohen died in the operating room of Jewish
Hospital. She was 18 years old. I was told that she had purpura, a
bleeding condition, and that she needed a splenectomy. We were told that
the operation went well, and as I was taking the elevator back to work
to the lab, an intern, Dr. Cassel, asked me if I thought the family
would let them do an autopsy.
You can only imagine what a shock it
was to hear that she had died. She went into shock after she was given a
blood transfusion. Was it the wrong type of blood? I will never know.
I wanted to quit at the hospital,
but Aunt Mildred prevented me from doing so.
Making friends in America
In St. Louis, I kept on going to
night school at Soldan High School until 1947, when I passed the exam
for U.S. citizenship. After becoming a citizen, I went to Washington
University night school for two years, taking Practical English Speech
At Washington University, I met my
friend Rita Cohen, who was studying Spanish, and we both belonged to a
Spanish club there. Another member of the club, a man named Flaherty,
was studying at Concordia Seminary. He became very friendly and wanted
to teach me to play tennis and to take me out. But I had negative
feelings about it as he was Christian and studying for the ministry.
At Soldan, I met quite a few foreign
people who came from France, Russia and Poland. I was taken out on dates
by one young man who had been a Russian soldier and by one from France,
a chemist, and a dentist from Poland. The dentist and I used to go for
walks in Forest Park, to the Muny Opera, and to the JCCA for dances.
But mostly I wanted to meet an
American-born Jewish man.
When I first came to work at Jewish
Hospital, the laboratory was located on the 3rd floor next to the
interns' quarters. We worked eight hours a day, five days a week, but we
were asked to volunteer for evenings or very early mornings due to the
war. We went to City Hospital to draw blood from the draftees. They told
us it was for practice.
In 1945, Dr. Gray brought in a black
person (Bessie Henderson) to be trained as a technician. Back then,
black people were segregated from whites in the dining room. Bessie had
been working for Dr. Gray in his home, and he thought it would be a good
idea. She worked for Jewish Hospital for 37 years. In 1997, she was 81
During the seven years that I worked
in the lab at Jewish Hospital before I got married, I felt useful and
productive and had fun at the same time. We had picnics and celebrations
during the holidays. And everyone there was very friendly.
Before I got married, I belonged to
Council House, a Jewish women's organization, and made many girlfriends
there: Dorothy, Carlie, Elsa, Rita, Sylvia, Doris. We went to the Muny
or theaters, and Forest Park. We went to Friday night services at
Jefferson Barracks and served as hostesses for the servicemen during
World War II.
Meeting my husband
I met Morris in 1947 or 1948 at a
dance at the JCCA. He was dating Dorothy Kellner (Brasch) at the time,
and she introduced me to him, and the rest is history, as they say.
He started taking me out, and I fell
in love with him and vice versa. He took me to meet his parents, and I
guess they approved of me, as he had told me that they disapproved of
other girlfriends he had brought home before me.
We went to the Muny Opera and dances
at the "J" and on rides on the Admiral boat that traveled the
Mississippi from downtown to the south side. It was a four-hour ride,
and the whole family went and brought along a picnic lunch.
He was a very nice, sweet person who
always tried to please everyone in the family. He was a hard working
person at whatever he was doing. At the time we married, he worked for
his parents in their dry goods store.
We were engaged in 1948 and got
married on Jan. 9, 1949, at the Gatesworth Hotel on Union Avenue. (I
still have my wedding dress, and the red bridesmaid's dress that I wore
for my friend Rita's wedding.)
Our wedding party was great. We had
an orchestra, the Rader band, for dancing. The ceremony was performed by
Rabbi Halperin of B'nai Amoona Congregation. All of my aunts and uncles
came from New York.
Only Aunt Mildred wasn't there. She
had had a spat with Uncle Sam because she wanted to drive in the bad
snowy weather and he insisted on driving, so she went back into their
house and didn't come to our wedding. A friend of her's, a Mrs. Frager,
helped with the serving, so I gave her Aunt Mildred's corsage to wear.
Morris's sister, Lucille, and her
husband, Bill Alexander, were in the wedding party; also my cousin
Leslie Cohen. Victor Weisskopf was the ring bearer at 5 years old. He
was Morris's cousin from his father's side.
My friend Rita Cohen sang at the
wedding. She was pregnant with her son Michael at the time. Many of my
other girlfriends were there, and many of the hospital interns and my
bosses and co-workers, also.
It was a nice crowd. I had saved up
enough money to pay for the party ($250) and I felt so proud to be able
to do that. The orchestra, recommended by Rita's mother, cost $25.
Dr. Probstein, a surgeon at the
hospital, lived at the hotel. He happened to come into the elevator as I
was going to the wedding party and he invited himself and his wife to
We went to New Orleans on a train
for our honeymoon. It was rainy and foggy most of the time. We took in
some of the shows and a wrestling match---a first for me.
Morris's parents gave us the house at 4827 Nebraska Ave., where we lived until September of 1959. The house had three rooms downstairs (where we lived) and three upstairs for rent. The location was perfect for Morris to go to work for his parents at their dry goods store at 7209 S. Broadway. We visited my parents on Sundays at 5500 Cabanne Ave.
When I got pregnant, I quit my job
at the hospital and stayed home. Dr. Gray and Dr. Somogyi wanted me to
just take a leave of absence and come back, but I wanted to be home and
take care of my child. I didn't feel I could trust strangers to take
care of a child of mine.
Marty was born on Nov. 17, 1949, and
I had a load of fun taking care of him, reading to him, taking him to
the park and cooking.
As parents, Morris and I loved our
sons, Martin and David, dearly. Both of us were amazed about how early
they learned to walk and talk. We always read to them and took them to
the art museum on Saturdays, to the circus, and we gave and went to many
We always took the children
everywhere as we didn't trust strangers to take care of them.
Two years after Marty was born, I had David on Nov. 4, 1951. We took many pictures and gave birthday parties and all the children from our friends and relatives came. It was loads of fun.
My father was ailing quite a bit and
going to the hospital, then home care and eventually to a nursing home,
back and forth till 1957 when he passed away. While he was in home care,
I did most of the helping with it since 1951 when I was pregnant with
Also at that time, my mother fell on
the ice and broke her ankle and needed care, but thank God she recovered
My mother-in-law, Martha Fischer,
died in 1954, and my father-in-law died in 1956 after they had rented
out the store and gave us a car.
Morris worked in a paper route for a
time in the near south side, also in some shoe stores and as a cab
driver. We sold the house on Nebraska in 1959 and moved to 6516 Oakland
Ave. in September 1959.
After that, Morris became ill and
went to several doctors and none of them discovered his problem until it
was too late. He had testicular cancer that spread to his stomach and
eventually to his brain and he died in August 1961. The children were 10
and 12 years old.
When we learned how ill Morris was,
Aunt Mildred suggested I should go back to work. She was very practical
I had been away from the lab for 12 years when I started back in January of 1961 with Dr. Blumenthal. He started training me in tissue work and histology. When Dr. Soule was looking for a tech in May of 1961 to help open an obstetrics gynecology research lab, Dr. Blumenthal recommended me. I was trained for cytology to begin with. I was trained by Dr. Agress to do hormone evaluation on vaginal smears, and we did research on senior citizens who were given hormone therapy. I was trained by Dr. Hutton on chromosome studies, which we did on young nurses who were on the "pill."
We did electrophoresis patterns on
the blood of pregnant women and also on rabbits, before, during and
after pregnancy. I did some pap smear screenings and checked the blood (RH-)
of pregnant women.
For two years, we did work for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals to try a shot-of-the-month contraceptive, but it was not approved because it caused mid-cycle bleeding.
As new projects came along, I would be trained for each of them either by going to classes or someone would come to the lab to train me. It was as if I was in school all the time. I worked for Dr. Burstein and Dr. Soule doing lab work for them for 18 years, until they decided to close up shop. It was getting harder to get grants for the research projects, so I went to work in histology for Dr. John Meyer in the hospital's main lab.
I worked with tissue analysis until my retirement at age 65 [According to Barnes-Jewish Hospital employment records, she retired Aug. 31, 1990, when she would have been age 69.]. Then I started volunteering for the Jewish Hospital Auxiliary.
I liked working at the hospital a
lot because it was very stimulating and I was earning a living wage.
I thank God for having been trained
as a technician in Cuba and that I was able to take care of myself and
the family. I think the Cuban education was excellent; they taught us to
be orderly and obedient, to follow directions and to be very reliable on
My mother [Dweira Levik] died in November 1970. I regret not having talked more with my mother in her last years. I should have made time to take her for walks and visit after work and on weekends. I gave my time mostly to my work and the children.
The following is a death notice, revised to correct a couple errors, that was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 11/9/2007 - 11/11/2007:
Do you have a disorganized or incoherent memoir left by an ancestor? Experienced amateur genealogist Martin Fischer may be able to help. He is available to conduct freelance family history projects including searching online databases, creating family trees, editing memoirs and developing genealogical Web sites. For more information, go to http://www.the-efa.org/, click on find a freelancer, and type Martin Fischer in the search box, or go to http://www.apgen.org/, click on search by name, and type Fischer and Martin in the search boxes.