How World War I Saved My Family or My Grandpa Was A Draft Dodger

25 Jun

World War I changed the world! One hundred years ago, Europe became a place of desolation and devastation. Young men from both sides were killed. Millions perished. From all I have read, it was horrible. The use of gases so horrific that laws were later passed banning the use of these and all future chemical weapons. We know that sometimes they are still used. But the world peoples are united against them.

For my family, World War I actually saved my branch of a family. My Grandpa Nat, you see, was a draft dodger.   As he would explain it to me, Jews in Galicia did not really have a chance in the military. They were often put in the worst positions, meant to die. And if they survived, they were conscripted for 25 years. So they never were able to live a Jewish life or return to their families again.

In 1918, when my Grandpa was about 18, his life changed; he received the dreaded notice that he was to report for military duty. It sent his family into action. Nissan, as he was known in Europe, had to be smuggled out of Galicia to save his life.

Thus began my Grandpa’s two-year journey to salvation and survival. He left his home in the middle of the night with just those things he could carry and wear. His intention was to get to British Mandate of Palestine and join the efforts to create a Jewish homeland. But his first goal was to get to his cousins in Belgium.

He wandered through Europe during the battles of 1918 and the aftermath of the war. Slowly making his way to Belgium. He had no real passport. Instead he was using the passport of a dead cousin.

Eventually he made it to Belgium and his cousins. Their reaction to his wish to travel to Palestine was, “Why go to Palestine? It is a desert! Go to the United States, to the Golden Medina. You have an Uncle there. He will help.”

So my Grandpa contacted his Uncle Julius, known as Uncle Yidel to us all, his mother’s brother. Uncle Yidel agreed to sponsor Grandpa to the United States.  But he had one problem, he had been robbed along the way and had to work to earn the money to pay for his trip to the United States.  But finally, after about nine months, the last leg of his journey began. Fortunately for him, his uncle did sponsor him, because when he arrived in the port of New York City, and the immigration site of Ellis Island, he had just a nickel. Without a sponsor he would have been sent back to Europe.

Grandpa often would tell us that we could be whatever we wanted to be. “Look at me,” he would say. “I came to this country with just a nickel in my pocket. And look at what I have.” So we learned early on not to complain to Grandpa and to never give up!

I tried finding my Grandpa’s immigration information from the Ellis Island sites, but could find nothing. My Grandma’s was easy to find. So I often wonder what that passport actually said. And how old he was supposed to be? But in 1920, immigration procedures were not as intense and documentation was not as precise as it is now.

Tanta Molly and Uncle Yidel

Tanta Molly and Uncle Yidel

Uncle Yidel and his wife, Tanta Molly (also known as Malchik)  welcomed Grandpa.

Growing up in Europe, my Grandpa had been a yeshiva brocha, a student of Torah. He had a beautiful singing voice, and perhaps might have been a cantor. But instead, somewhere along the way, he learned to be a baker. When he first came to New York, he worked two jobs. One as a butcher, the other as a baker.  But it is as a baker that he prospered in America. He and Uncle Yidel started a bakery eventually owning a building in New York City. (My Grandma told me that when Grandpa proposed he told her he had a place. She thought he rented an apartment. She did not realize he owned the building!)


Grandpa in his bakery in West New York, New Jersey, 1942.

Grandpa in his bakery in West New York, New Jersey, 1942.

They separated the business after my grandparents married, and Grandpa and Grandma opened a new bakery in Linden, New Jersey.  But in the early 1930s, when my grandmother took their children to Europe for six months, Grandpa sold the bakery in Linden and opened a new bakery in West New York, New Jersey.  He kept this bakery for over 35 years.

Grandpa had many cousins in the United States. His parents were first cousins. So he was double cousins to many of the family. They helped him settle in. But Uncle Yidel was the most important. Uncle Yidel and Tanta Molly were always a part of our lives. They had one son, Ezra.

Whenever we went to see them, we were welcomed in Yiddish. Tanta Molly would come running out to hug us. She would call out our Jewish names: “ Tovaleh, Fagaleh, Chavaleh!” I asked my Mom, “Why does she put an ‘aleh’ on all our names?”

“It means little,” my Mom replied. “Well that did not make sense, Tanta Molly is littler than us!” Was my response. “It means she loves us,” Mom laughed as she said that. Later I found out the ‘aleh’ did mean little, but really was an endearment.

My Grandpa always missed the hills of Galicia. He often told me that he bought his property in the Catskills because it made him think of his home and his childhood. Many years latter when I traveled to that part of Europe, I saw he was right. The rolling, low mountains and hills do look like the Catskills.

My Grandpa forever missed his family. World War I did save him. He came to the United States. But his parents, siblings, and many aunts/ uncles/cousins stayed in Galicia. They all perished in the Shoah.

My Grandpa Nat was a draft dodger, but he never stopped fighting for the right to practice his beliefs and to protect his family in the USA. He loved America. He never traveled outside of the United States. When asked, his reply was always:

“Why would I ever want to leave here? It is the best place in the world.”

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