Interview with Jack Becker, 1974 — Reminiscences of His Early Days.

Jack (Jankel) Becker, earliest known photo.

PREFACE

My father, Yankel Baker, known in the U.S.A. as Jack Becker, was born in Chotin, Bessarabia in 1904. His parents were Josef, born in 1879, and Refka (Kershner), born in 1881. Both parents were born in Chotin. Josef’s parents, also born in Chotin, were Itzhak and Szlota. Yankel Baker had several sisters and brothers, Mindles, Ruhles, Itzik. Josef supported the family by doing carpentry and catching and selling fish for gefilte fish. At one time the family farmed a little land, raising cherry trees. Soon after my father’s birth, the family moved to Sadagora, a town not far from Chotin. Part of the impetus for this was the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, and Josef, who had been in the Czar’s army (probably a conscript, common among young male Russian Jews) wished to avoid being drafted.

Josef sailed to the United States in 1913 with the intention of bringing his family over with money he planned to earn here. Before he could accomplish this, the First World War began, and it was seven years before he saw his family again. Refka supported the family by sewing for well-to-do Gentiles.

While I was growing up in Michigan and California in the 1950's and 1960's, I heard many times about my father’s boyhood during the wars (WWI and Bolshevik Revolution). If I turned my nose up at something on my dinner plate, he would lecture kindly, "You should be glad you are not starving. You should be glad you are not eating worms!" (The reader will see later on that he had eaten worms when he was in dire hunger.) When the time came for me to do a "Senior Project" for my B.A. in History, I was able to persuade him to let me tape his reminiscences. He had been afraid to do so until then, as he had never become a U.S. citizen and was afraid he would be deported for not having registered as an alien — something the reader will see was an impossible concept for him, a man who was "more American than the Americans."

The following is the transcript of the interview and followup comments made in 1974, when I was doing the senior thesis. I’m offering it for several reasons: 1) I believe it’s very interesting, even to a non-family member 2) other descendants of people from Chotin and Sadagora will probably enjoy the descriptions of life in those towns when my father was living there, and 3) I am hoping that someone related to my own grandparents will see this and let me see photographs of them. They, old-style European Jews, disowned my father when he married outside the faith, and I have never seen what my own paternal relatives looked like.

Thank you, and enjoy this —

Elizabeth Becker Cooksey

P.S. I also wanted the reader to know that my father was a kind and gentle man, always a law-abider as far as I know; that the incidents he tells of with smuggling and such in his boyhood were done out of necessity to stay alive, not because he was an outlaw.


Dash ( — ) often meant a very slight overlap of the conversation between Jack and Elizabeth.

[ ] square brackets mean something I have inserted myself. I worked on this transcript over a few months’ time, and have tried to be consistent in my notations, but may have missed a bracket or parenthesis. One way or the other, if I inserted something, it is marked with one set of them.

Jack sometimes punctuated his comments with a clap of both hands together. These are signified by [clap] or [claps].

A number of "uh" and "er" s have been removed for readability.

Words such as "Germans," " furniture," and " first" were pronounced by Jack as "Joymans," "foiniture," and "foist," but I have transcribed them in standard English for readability. However, some of the charm is lost if one cannot hear them pronounced as he pronounced them.

Words such as "visor" and "we" he pronounced "wisor" and "vee." Again, I have transcribed them in standard English for readability, but hope the reader hears the pronunciation internally.

He pronounced the following words the way I’ve indicated here after the "=" signs:

that = dthat

then = dthen

they = dey

with = wit

He also almost always dropped the final "g" sound in words such as "Going" "Coming."


 

Transcript - Conversation with Jack Becker, July 13, 1974 with his elder daughter, Elizabeth

Transcribed by Erika Milo, family friend, in 1999. Ms. Milo also provided the time line, for which I am very grateful.

Jack and Elizabeth conversed in English. Neither Elizabeth nor Erika knows Yiddish, so there are some times when the rendering of phrases are done as homemade transliterations.


Tentative time line based on transcript

(dates of historical events cross-checked in The Timetables of History, Bernard Grun; dates in brackets are ones which contradict the transcript or were not given specifically.)

1904 Jack Becker born (as Yankel or Jacob Baker) in approximately August [Av — mid-July through mid-August], in the Russian Ukraine. His father has been a Russian soldier for four years; gets discharged about a month after Jack is born? About four months after Jack is born, the Russo-Japanese war starts and his father is recalled by the army, instead takes the family and crosses the border to Sadagora, Austria. [Actually the Russo-Japanese War started in February, thus six months after his birth.]

1911 when Jack is seven years old, his father leaves for the United States planning to earn the money to send for the family. His mother sews for Christians to make a living. The war starts before his father can send for the family...

Ship passenger manifest showing the arrival of Josef Becker, Jack's father, at Ellis Island on the SS Ryndam in 1913. Josef traveled to New York with cousin Abraham.

 

1913 "when I was nine years old." [But this has to be 1914...] "First battle of the War" happens 10 miles from Sadagora; Austrians blow up bridges on the Pruth and Dniester to keep the Russians out; villagers flee deeper into Austria; Jack gets separated from his family: he on the Austrian side, his mother and siblings on the Russian side. Jack scrounges, continues into Austria to Vienna, does odd jobs; stays there "a year or so," then goes back to front lines looking for his family.

[1914?] Jack sees Archduke Ferdinand's assassins brought through Sadagora, on the way to Vienna. During the War... Austria and Russia chase each other back and forth; Jack looks for his family, going as far as Odessa and returning to Vienna in between times; in fact they are far inland [in Chotin?]. Jack smuggles pork from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, gets caught and put in jail in Hungary; released, goes back to Vienna, back and forth, various enterprises.

1916 During one of his trips, Jack sees the Czar near the front lines, shortly before the Revolution.

[1917] "when I was 14 or 15 years old," though he says later 1917, Jack is in Novosolitsa, Russia (just across border from Austria, probably Novoselitsa located at latitude 48’ 13", longitude 26’ 17") in February; sees the first revolution with Kerensky starting, sees soldiers rip insignia off officers. Jack finds out where his family is; meets them in Chotin right around the time of the February Revolution; soldiers abandoning everything. With the War mostly over and the borders open, Jack and family go back to Sadagora; town has been wiped out and is rebuilt nearby. Germany releases its Russian prisoners; they come through Sadagora. Jack's part of Austria given to Romania by the Allies; Austrians fight guerilla warfare against Romania for a while; Romanians invade, arrest all men in Sadagora, shoot most.

1918 Jack in Chotin, Russia [he implies that he had not yet returned to Austria, but this doesn't correspond with other info. Perhaps he stayed there a while because of his smuggling route?]; first hears of Lenin when Lenin overthrows Kerensky's government; Bolsheviks start "herding us all together." Goes back to Austria, which is under Romanian government. (During the Lenin period)Jack is smuggling whiskey from Austria and Russia and tobacco vice versa, "making good money." Also Jack works in Austria and belongs to a communist labor union at some point. His father (not having heard from them in six years) [so 1919 or 1920?] sends a letter to Sadagora; his mother writes back; father sends boat tickets. The Romanian government wants to stop him and his brother from leaving because they are eligible for army; they pay to be let out...

1920 They go to the United States in October. Jack works in a car repair shop.

1921 Jack leaves home in June; comes back for a while; leaves again to work on a farm through September; gets (?or goes to get) a job in a toy factory in North Bennington, ends up boarding with a Jewish family and doing carpentry...joins the U.S. Army, serves in Hawaii, becomes a Mess Sgt. Leaves Army for a girl, "then left the girl too." Three years 22 days AWOL, turns himself in, gets an "undesirable discharge."

Later — meets Anne...leaves her in Detroit, goes to Indiana, gets a job there; she calls him, he goes back. late 1930's sees Kerensky lecture in Detroit, Michigan

The Becker family with Anne's mother, Mary, 1955.
Jack and Anne Becker, 25th Wedding Anniversary, 1974.

 


Tape # 1, 13July1974

[side 1]

E: Can you remember the first time that you heard of Lenin?

J: Yes, I can. The first time I heard of Lenin was in 1917, when — no, in 1918 when Lenin came over and threw over the government of Kerensky; that's when I first heard of Lenin. The first time that we actually were afraid of him — that's when the Bolsheviks, Lenin took over, and the Bolsheviks started herding us all together and keeping us just in line, like you couldn't buy any food or anything, you had to stay in line for two days sometimes to get a loaf of bread. And guards were standing there with guns and watching you that you stayed in line, that you obeyed, just like prisoners. We were actually prisoners under Lenin's first, well, as long as I was there, until we got out of there. Under Kerensky was beautiful, but under Lenin, was just like we were all prisoners.

E: And was this all the people in your town, or everybody in the whole [claps] —

J: No, that was everybody, not — well, no, I wouldn't, no. [That was everybody] I know of in my town where I was at. The rest of the, Russia, was — 'course, at that time you couldn't travel. You know, I didn't travel like under Kerensky. I traveled a little, before that, I traveled all over Europe. But, under Lenin, you couldn't go no place, you stayed in town, that's all. And in that town, where I was at, that's the way it was.

E: What town was that?

J: I was in — At that time I was in the Chotin, Russia, Ukraines, or Bessarabia, in the state where my folks and I was born. And then I went back to Austria, there I didn't like it there, and I finally snuck outta there and went back to Austria. And when I got back to Austria, Romania was in charge there.

E: So, when you were in Chotin, what did you think of yourself? Did you think of yourself as a Russian, or —?

J: No! No. I thought of myself as a German all the time.

E: A German?

J: Yes.

E: Not an Austrian?

J: Well, German, Austrian, same thing. You spoke German, er, Deutsch; German. So, no, I wouldn't say as an Austrian, I'd say as a German, I thought of myself as a German, more than — In fact, we thought of ourselves — in Austria, we thought of ourselves as Germans, not Austrians. We didn't know — as a child, we didn't know the difference. We learned German in schools, we spoke German, and we were Germans.

E: Okay, can you remember anything about, Social Democracy, or did you only hear of Lenin's parties being Communist?

J: No, Social Democracy, well, under Kaiser Franz Josef, I mean, we were, in fact, when I was 'bout three years old or four, they had elections, and there was Socialists and Democrats. And, when the parties used to go through the streets marching, I stood in the window, and I often said, that "When I grow up, I'll be a Democrat. I'll be —"

E: This was in Chotin?

J: No, this would be in Austria, it'd be at home.

E: Oh. Where in Austria?

J: Sadagora. That's where I was raised. They’d go through, and they’d holler "Hoch Dr. So-and-So!" that was running on the Democratic ticket and "phooey!" on the Doctor that was running on the Socialist ticket. And I was always the Democrat, I was, "Hoch Dr. So-and-So Whoever!" — that was me.

E: Was this because of your parents?

J: No, no, just myself, I just liked the name of that Doctor better than I did the name of the other Doctor, and I also liked, because they said, 'hooray' for him, and 'phooey' on the other one.

1922 map of northern Romania showing Czernowitz (Cernauti) near the center, Sadagora just north of Czernowitz, and Hotin/Chotin to the northeast. The border town of Novoselica/Novoselitsa is to the southeast of Czernowitz along the Pruth River.

 

E: How old were you then?

J: I was about three or four years old. So, — I was Social Dem — and I know that after, even when I grew up a little and I started working, I belonged to, what they called, not the Dem — because of Democrats, but actually we wore the red handkerchief in the little pocket as, I would say, it would probably be as Communists, because labor, labor movement is all, Communist, is all "Red." So, that was after the War, after the Revolution, or, well, after the Russian Revolution, but I was in Austria again before we came to United States. I worked there for a while and belonged to a union, whatdyacall — a union, and when we marched on May Day we wore a red handkerchief and we carried red flags.

E: Now did you do this because everybody else was doing it?

J: Right! Because the, the union that I belonged to was doing it.

E: Do you know who led them? Was it Lenin, or —?

J: No, no, no. We were in Romania then, we weren't in Russia, we were under Romanian government.

E: And this was while you were in Austria?

J: Austria, right.

E: But under Romanian government.

J: Right. See, after the First World War was over, the Allies — America, and England, and — split Austria up, and they gave Romania the part of Austria that I was raised in.

E: Oh.

J: And, and Russia, across the border, the Russian part of the Ukraines belonged to Russia. The Austrian part of the Ukraines belonged to Romania, up to the Polish border. The Polish border was only about four hours away from us by train. Then, they turned it over to the Polish government. See, up ‘til then there was no Polish government. After the War was over — and the Russian Revolution — they, Poland, made their own government, brought their own government back.

E: So how did you get from Austria to Chotin?

J: Oh, I was in Chotin before I got back to Austria.

E: We really ought to go back from the beginning, and figure out this _

J: Yah, I think — I think that would be better, see —

E: Okay.

J: Now here is the way that it all happened. My father was a Russian soldier when I was born. When I was 'bout four months old, no, when I was born, just about a month later, he came home, he got discharged, after four years in the army. That was in Beesta [sp?]. That was 1904. Then when I was born, shortly after that they recalled him because they started the war with Japan. Instead of going back into the army, he took his family and jumped across the border to Austria. So, I was four months old when we came to Austria. Now, in Austria, we lived there seven years, until I was seven years old, when my father left for the United States.

E: Why did he leave?

J: Because he couldn't make a living — a good living — in Austria. Also, United States was the "golden country," you raked gold in the streets. So everybody that could possibly go to United States, went! And he had an opportunity to go to United States; somebody else took him along to pay his way, so he went.

E: How did that happen?

J: Some friend of his that wanted to go, and didn't want to go alone, he had lots of money, so he took my father with him. But when my father came to United States, then he was gonna work and make enough money to send for us. But by that time, the First World War started. And, when the First World War started — just before the first battle they had was about ten miles from my hometown. And during the time when they knew there was going to be a war, they kept telling us that, "We got to be afraid of Russia. If Russia comes in, they'll rape the women, and cut their breasts off," and things like that. So when — we had two rivers near my home.

E: What were they, do you remember?

J: Pruth River on one side, and the Dniester on the other. 'Course the Dniester was quite a ways away. But when they — they busted, they blew up both bridges so that Russia couldn't come in, or they thought, see.

E: And who's the "they" that blew up the bridges?

J: The Germans — er, Austrians, Austrians, blew up these bridges. But, it was about one o'clock in the morning when we heard the blasts. We just thought that the Russians were already on the doorstep, so everybody grabbed whatever they could, little bundles, and started running away from that town, towards — back into deeper Austria. I was always a lazy kid, so instead of me walking with the rest of them, there was, maybe three or four thousand people, I saw a wagon going, so I jumped on the back of the wagon, with my little bundle. I was nine years old.

That was one o'clock in the morning. By daylight, I was ten miles ahead of — we were ten miles ahead of the people that were walking. Six o'clock in the morning, when daylight came, Russia did come in, and all the ones that were walking were caught on the Russian side. All the ones in wagons and horseback were caught on the Austrian side, were on the Austrian side. So we couldn't go back.

My mother and the rest of the children were caught over there. They couldn't come to me, I couldn't come to them. So instead of going back, I kept riding with these people, further, and I kept going until I jumped off the wagon and started scrounging around on my own. But all the regiments that were going to the front would stop and make meals in field kitchens. So I'd go over and I'd wait 'til the soldier got through eatin', and then he'd give me his mess kit, and I'd go over and hold it up, and the cook'd put a bunch of food in it and feed me. If I needed a shirt, they'd give me a shirt; I'd roll the sleeves up; too big. Or pants, I'd roll the pants up. They'd give 'em to me and that's what I wore, the clothes. And I kept on going deeper into Austria, until I got to Vienna. When I got to Vienna, or Wien [pronounces this "Ween"] — when I got to Wien, I made a living holding horses for officers, and they'd throw me a penny or two, selling newspapers, and any little odd things that I could do. Then — I stayed there for about, oh, a year or so — then I thought I'd go back to the front lines and wait at the front lines. During the six years that the War was on there, or five years, Austria and Russia chased each other back from my hometown about four or five times.

E: Now, this was Chotin?

J: No, this was Sadagora.

E: Sadagora. Okay.

J: Yah. Now. When I got back to the front lines, I stayed there, and in a few days, Russia would chase Austria back and I was on Russian side. Then, my mother — we always knew that they were born in Russia, but they didn't say where in Russia — so, I went looking for them. And I went as far in as Odessa. But, just going around the streets looking; I didn't know where, but I'd walk around the streets. I couldn't find them. But they, instead, were way off the main drag, they were about 150 miles inland, near the Dniester, or near the state of what they call Podolia. I didn't know that.

E: How did they get there?

J: When the Russians came in, they drafted wagons from where my mother and father were born, to haul food and supplies for the Russian soldiers. Well, one of those Russians recognized my mother, that lived in her hometown, so he took her and the children back to Russia, to where her family was, or where her family had been. And that's how they got there, see. And, then, 'course, Germany chased Russia back outta there, or Austria, but they never got to where my mother was. They got halfway to Odessa a few times, but never to where my mother was. So, I always came back and forth, and then kept going back to Vienna.

E: Oh, as far as the lines would go, you —

J: As far as the lines would go, I'd go, and then I'd go back. So I went back to Vienna, and I started smuggling with pork from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna. A German officer showed me, told me how, what to do, and gave me the address where I'd buy the meat, and I'd strap it around my pants, inside, put on the pants; pork, bacon, stuff like that. And I'd bring it — until I got caught in Hungary. I got caught, and they put me in jail, they —

E: Who did?

J: The Hungarian police, they called the Hoolaner [sp?], they wear those hats with the big feathers. They put me in jail overnight, and — on a bunk — and then morning came, the bunk goes into the wall, and drops you on the floor. (laughs) To wake you up! And then I came before the judge, and he told me to get back to Vienna, 'cause I was just a kid, and never to come to Hungary or Budapest again. So I went back to Vienna. Then I went back to the front lines, and when I got to the front lines, I learned that you can get — all right, again. I waited ‘til Russia chased Germany, er, Austria back, I was in Russia, but I learned that you can go to a bakery and buy those little white rolls, and eggs — hard-boiled eggs — and I'd take a basket of hard-boiled eggs and a basket of those rolls and I'd go down to the front lines, and when they got through shooting each other, when the lull came, I'd go up to the trenches and sell those rolls and hard-boiled eggs to the soldiers.

E: Which side?

J: To the Russian side.

E: Oh.

J: That time. Then, when Austria chased Russia back I was back on the Austrian side, then I took it to the prison stockades, where the Austrians had the Russian prisoners. And we'd sell them, and whatever money they'd put through the wire fence, five or ten or twenty dollars, didn't make any difference, that's what it cost for the roll and the eggs. They rob 'em.

E: Now, what kind of money did they use?

J: Russian money.

E: It was — it was rubles —

J: That was, rubles, Yah, Yah, but they were good in, in Austria. Yah, we could exchange it (laughs). And, so, whatever-be-it money, stuck in our pockets. Anyway, until — also, oh, there was half a dozen different ways that I made money, made a living. I'd take, go over to in, front lines and I'd get boots and stuff that came off of soldiers that were buried, take 'em back to a field hospital, and the Russians were allowed to draw new boots if they turned in old ones. So you'd give 'em an old pair of boots and they'd bring you their new pair of boots, I'd give 'em three or four rubles, and then I'd take 'em fifty or a hundred miles away from there and sell 'em to the farmers for ten, twelve rubles. So I made money that way. And anyway, until I was fourteen — about fifteen years old when the first revolution with Kerensky started. And when the first revolution with Kerensky started, I found out where my mother and the children were. They had thought I was dead and I had thought they were dead. But, I found out where they were alive, I met somebody that seen them (that was in Chotin). That's how I got to Chotin. I met them, got back together with them. And that's when the Revolution started. Then —

E: That was after the February Revolution?

J: After the — well, just about around that time. 'Cause everything open then, gates, I mean, there was no borders or nothin’, see. And the Revolution started, the soldiers left everything, right laying there wherever it was at. Guns, rifles, ammunition, trucks, cars, horses, wagons, warehouses full of cigarettes, tobacco and stuff like that. So, I took another boy — we took a wagon with the horses, went over to the warehouses and we loaded it up with cigarettes and sugar, and we took it and buried it in the cellar, and then we sold the horses, the team of horses and the wagon, we took it away about fifty miles away from there, and we sold them to a farmer. And then, finally, I went to where I met my parents, and we met in there, the border was still open, we came back to Austria, Sadagora —

E: Your mother.

J: My mother and the children. We came back to Austria. I told her that the house is still there. See most of that town was wiped off the map, but our house was still there. And they built the town about six miles away from where it originally was.

E: Why did they do that?

J: Because they didn't want to take all the brick, brick and rocks and stuff like that, it was too much work. So they just left that lay there and they built a new town. And, we came back, and when we got back there, they were talking about — I mean, they divided up, the Allies divided up Austria, my part, and gave it to Romania. They gave it to Romania. But we, in that town, didn't allow, didn’t want Romania to come in. So we fought them guerilla warfare for a while. But they came in anyway. They came in and they arrested all the men in town. At that time there wasn't too many men, was about five hundred men, mostly old men.

E: Now who arrested —

J: The Romanians arrested these men. They took them out on the field, 'course I was a kid, and, in fact, I used to play, if I didn't want to do something for the soldiers, I used to stiffen one leg up and I was a cripple. And I'd walk around like a cripple. I was perfect at that. And,

they gathered those men up, they took 'em out on the field, and they had 'em count off. And each tenth man they let step out, and the others they killed, they machine-gunned them.

E: And you watched that?

J: Yah! And, they — one out of every ten, saved. So, out of five hundred men, I think fifty men were saved. But the rest were all killed. And then they — if you got together on the street and stopped to talk to two other men, they took you to the police station, they gave you twenty-five whips, across the back. Or, I saw them take a father and son — father and son stopped to talk on the street — and they took them to a police station and made the father and son slap each other until they were exhausted.

E: This was the Romanians.

J: The Romanians did that. And then, I started smuggling with whiskey from Austria to Russia, and tobacco from Russia to Romania, er, to Austria, or Romania. And I was making good money. And, then my dad sent a letter to Sadagora to the postmaster to find out if we were still alive, or if we were there, see, 'cause for six years neither one of us could hear, we from him or he from us. So, we were to a wedding that night, when the letter came. And the postman, that had been our postman for 30-some-odd years [perhaps a slip of the tongue; perhaps 13 years?], came rushing to the wedding to see my mother and give her the letter. And the letter was that if we are here, to let him know, and he'll send us money, send us tickets to come to United States. So Mother wrote to him right away, let him know, and he sent tickets and money, and I told Mother — I was making lots of money, I was making four and five hundred dollars a night, and everybody in town, all my buddies, boys and girls — as soon as I'd come to town, they'd meet me, and, and — ice cream was fifty cents a spoon, a teaspoonful of ice cream was fifty cents, and I'd buy the whole gang ice cream, and cakes and stuff like that — but the money was nothin’. So I told my mother that I didn't want to go to United States. To take a friend of mine, and tell my dad that it was me. But she started crying, so, I came. To United States.

E: Now you didn't really need to get the money from your dad, then; you could have used your own!

J: Yah, I had plenty of money!

E: So did you bring that with you when you came?

J: Yah! 'Course I didn't stay home very long, either. I only stayed home not quite a year, and I left home.

E: I'll have to get that on a different tape.

J: Yah. But anyway, also, during that time, during the wartime, we did something that I guess I've had a lot of nightmares of. During one time, they took us — the Russian soldiers, the Russian Cossacks, one of the times when I was in Russia, took us, grabbed us all off the street, little boys and girls, and old men, to dig trenches. And one of the soldiers, one of the Russian soldiers, raped a little girl about twelve years old. And an old man hit him over the head with a pick, killed him. And, in the trenches, we built officers' little rooms every fifty or a hundred yards. So I helped the old men and a couple of other boys and girls, helped dig a hole, and we buried the soldier in there. And, they never found out. 'Course I beat it then. That night, I was gone from that town. Whether they went looking for that soldier or not, I don’t know.

E: They probably saw a new grave —

J: No, the new grave they couldn't see because we were digging fresh trenches —

E: A lot of dirt around, then?

J: Right, so you couldn't tell that it was a new grave or not. I don't know if they ever discovered it or not.

E: Now, was he a Russian soldier?

J: He was a Russian Cossack, yah.

E: Now what's the difference between a Russian soldier for the government and a Cossack?

J: Now, they were both for the government, only they were different branches. The Cossacks were mostly — this one, were, where Stalin came from, —

E: I don't remember.

J: Georgia — the Georgians, they were permanent soldiers from the day they're born, the Cossacks. They belong to the government, and that's all they do is soldier. You see, there's three what I’d call three branches of the Russian soldiers. There was the ordinary soldiers, they're just plain farmers, didn't know nothin’. You drove 'em, like, one night, when they were going to the front lines, we asked one of 'em, he said, "Oh, I'm going to the front lines and I'm going to kill me fifty Germans." And, so we asked, "Supposin’ they kill you?" He said, "Why should they kill me?" That’s how they — they didn't know, I mean, they were driven like sheep.

E: Were they drafted?

J: Yah! Oh, yah, sure! They were driven like sheep! They didn't know; they weren't educated. So, "Why should they kill me?" He's going to kill Germans but he didn't know why they'd kill him. Anyway, that was the soldiers. Then there was what we call the Don Cossacks, that come from around the Don River. They wore red stripes on their uniforms. They were all mounted, all cavalry. Red stripes, the hat with a little visor on the side with the big bushy "hair" sticking out. I dressed like that quite a lot.

E: You — you wanted to be like them —

J: Yah, I thought that was (claps) terrific. That was the Don Cossacks. They were all blonde, they were all white, blonde. Then there was the black ones, or, not black, but dark ones, the Notice [meaning unclear to me]. They wore six little bullet pockets on their overcoats, and they wore a Turkish knife in front, curved knife — plus their saber, plus their rifle, plus they had long spears that when they rode in war there was a strap on the foot and a strap on the hand, and when they ran against an enemy, they'd bend that, stick him and throw him over. So that's Cossacks. Now they’re trained from the time they were born, to be soldiers. They were the government soldiers, and they were trained — the government paid for their food, paid for their property — free property, free horses, free everything, and got paid. Now, when there wasn't any wars they were home, working the fields. But they trained every day, a couple hours. And the children when they were born, they trained them to be soldiers. That's the Cossacks, the Circassian. And that was one of those. They were mean, they were very mean. And they were from around, like I said, Turkestan, or, uh, where Stalin comes from.

E: Georgia.

J: Georgia, yah. And they were great dancers, terrific dancers. That's where I learned to Cossacksky (sp?). I did a terrific Cossacksky — I could do a Cossacksky on a plate without breaking the plate, a dinner plate.

E: Wow!

J: Yah. And I learned that — ‘course, little kids, you pick that up easy. They were terrific dancers. Always happy-go-lucky. But they were mean, they were tough. [end tape1, side 1]

E: Okay, those were two branches. Now, you said there was another —?

J: Well, there's — no, there was the regular soldiers, then the Don Cossacks, and the Circassian.

E: Oh! Two different types of Cossacks.

J: Yah, right, right. The Don Cossacks were, like I say, blonde, all, practically all blonde, and they wore completely different uniforms, they wore the cut down pants, I don't know what you call 'em, you know, like, tight here [hand motion] and — like people wore, I don't know if you ever saw, riding pants [your] Mama’s and mine — those kind, you know, tight here —

E: Yeah, I know what you're talking about —

J: And boots, 'course they all wore boots, all the soldiers wore boots, Russian soldiers all wore boots. And, they wore the stiff caps like policemen [wear] here, with a —

E: Visor.

J: Visor, a shiny visor — but they wore a chunk, a chunk of hair on the side, they always wore their hats — 'course we have a song, even, in Jewish, that says, about wearing the hat on the side:

"He's a crook, he's a crook,

A Russian soldier's a crook,

A Russian soldier's a crook.

The way you can tell he wears his hat on the side"

In Jewish it rhymes, I dunno. Yah. It's:

"Fonye, fonye ganev,

Fonye, fonye ganev,

Eroto ban yetsigi ganvit"

"He took everything, from — mein schlieg — from my house.

—Suh ziden bechers — seven wine cups"

Uh — It's a, a funny song in a way:

" — Ziden bechers — four were nice, three with holes,

Fonye, fonye ganev,

Fonye, fonye ganev,"

"Oi — where tag gezold

Who told you that Fonye is a lad, [...]

Who told you that the Russian soldier is a man

He wears [schtive luch ] and [sporinetz ]," — that's, "boots with spurs"

Spurs — schtiveluch — and sporenetz , and

A sitel in bazad — a hat on the side.

That’s —

E: Oh! And who's saying this? Which kids?

J: The Jewish — the, Austrian-German Jewish kids.

E: Was it just during the wartime, kind of made up then?

J: Yah, right, right, right. And, — like I said, when that happened 'course I left that part of the country. In fact, all my life, I've run away from, unpleasant things, instead of facing it. I've always run away from it. I've always changed climates. In fact, when I saw that I was falling in love with [your] Mother, I ran away.

E: (laughs) What's unpleasant about that?

J: Well, I didn't want to settle down, I didn't want to get married, didn't want to settle down, see. But, I guess I loved her too much, it was too late. 'Cause, when I left, home, I mean, left where [your] Mother was in Detroit, and I got to Indiana, and I got a job there, I moved into a house, so I dropped her a postcard and I told her, "If you want to, you can write, I'm here." So she called me, and cried over the phone, and wanted me to come back. I said, "Okay." So, I jumped in the car, and by jumping in the car I split my head wide open on the mirror, you know that mirror?

E: Yeah —

J: Cut my skin, my head, bleedin', got into a gasoline station and he thought somebody hit me over the head, and I told him what happened, so he washed it off and he put a wet towel on it, he taped it down, so it'll stay, and I got back in the car and drove back, got back to Michigan about three o'clock in the morning. And right across the street from her room was a little restaurant that was open all night. I sat there from three o'clock in the morning ‘til seven in the morning when I saw the light in her room come on, and she came down, from then on we were never apart. But I ran away from that too, almost made it! If I'd a got to Chicago it'd have been too late, would have been gone, "Bye-bye!"

E: If you hadn't written the postcard —

J: Or if I hadn't written the postcard, right. But that's what I've done all my life. That's why I ran away from the Army, same way.

E: Well, what was unpleasant in that?

J: Well, it wasn't unpleasant so much, I met a girl, and the Army wouldn't let me out, so — I — left, and then left the girl too. (laughs). I was three years and twenty-two days away from the Army before I turned myself in, and they gave me a discharge, a blue discharge, what they call an "undesirable discharge," but they gave me a discharge, didn't ever have to do any prison time.

E: Mm_hmm. Okay, now I'll ask you a couple more questions. Um, what did you think of the Czar? Do you remember anything —?

J: Yah, I remember the Czar, in fact, I saw him, during one of my trips; he came down to the front lines, or practically the front lines, not quite the front lines. He came within, oh, maybe fifty miles of the front lines during one of my trips across the borders.

E: This must have been during the First World War.

J: This is the First World War. Yah, that was before the Revolution. Yah. It must have been 1916, 'cause it was shortly before the Revolution, not too far from the Revolution. And he came to visit the front lines, and I saw him, 'course everybody running up saw him, and then, as they left, he went across a bridge, and he wasn't across that bridge twenty minutes when the bridge blew up.

E: Who blew it up?

J: Who knows?

E: Oh! Now, in class we've heard of him referred to as the "Little Father Czar." Do you remember anybody talking about —?

J: I wouldn't know, I wouldn't know that much about him, no, because, again, I lived mostly in Austria, so Russia was "taboo." So, I wouldn't know how good he was. The only thing that I know I remember about Russia, the time that I did spend in Russia, was that most of the land belonged to a few people, and most of the farmers worked for them and didn't get paid, or just got enough for food, and they had to wear burlap bags on their feet for boots in the wintertime, because they didn't pay them enough or didn't give 'em enough money. And I think that's the reason for the Revolution, I mean the people were much better off under this regime, 'course, not under the first bunch, the first bunch that came in were under Stalin. 'Cause he —

E: Stalin?

J: Yah, Stalin, you know, became head after Lenin.

E: Yes.

J: So under Stalin, that was very bad, he was, absolutely an ogre, we would call him. But I was here already then; but I heard. But after, Lenin came in was very bad, for the Russians, for everybody; they didn't have any money — you see, the main trouble was, with Kerensky, that the United States and England wouldn't recognize Kerensky, his regime, see. If they would have recognized his regime, Russia would have been, not maybe quite a democratic country like ours, but it would have been a socialistic country. See, when Kerensky took over, the Russian money, they took a wheelbarrow full of Russian money, that is the Czar's money, to buy a loaf of bread. Now, Kerensky started printing his own money, in stamps form. Even dollar, Russian dollar rubles was a stamp, ten rubles was a stamp. But, it was only good there, it wasn't good for exchange for other countries. So, how long would it last? No time. I think if the United States and England and them would have recognized Kerensky, Russia would have been a terrific country — socialistic, not — maybe, democratic — but, they believed that manufacturers should make the say, 25,000 a year, and the help should make decent wages. Instead of him making 150,000 a year and the help, nothin’.

E: Now, where did you hear what Kerensky said?

J: Oh, I was —

E: — Was this afterwards, or when you were there?

J: Yah, when I was there.

E: Who told you?

J: Well, it went around, I mean, it wasn't any shush-shush; I mean, I was there in Russia then, but that's before I got back into Romania. So — it was common knowledge.

E: Did you — do you remember anyone coming to the villages and talking?

J: No, no, they didn't, we didn't have those, like they did under the Bolsheviks.

E: Yeah, uh —

J: No, Kerensky

E: One of the slogans, under Kerensky's — right before the February Revolution, was about, people were shouting through the streets, "Peace, bread, and freedom, Peace, bread, and freedom."

J: Yah.

E: So people were starving and all —

J: Right —

E: — Do you remember that?

J: No. No, because, again, under Kerensky when I first, you know — was still pretty good. I mean, we had to have a lot of that money — but it still wasn't starving. 'Cause when I was smuggling — now, a lot of this I may remember, about Kerensky, I may remember already being in Austria, and when I smuggled, I was in Russia a few times, so, it may be then, but I had it good, 'cause, I was making lots of money. So, I don't remember people starving. Like, the kids in my part, like I say, I used to buy 'em ice cream, fifty cents a spoon, but they had it [it was available]; cakes, they had; it was high, but they had it. So I don't remember them starving. After I came to the United States, then I read all about the starvation and killings and all that.

E: But you didn't see any of it, when you were there?

J: Not starving, no.

E: How about no clothes? They were freezing —

J: Well, freezing, they were freezing — Yah, that I, I mean —

E: No fuel —

J: No fuel, yah, they took all the houses that weren't occupied. They tore the windows and the doors and the floors — for wood, for fires.

E: Who's the 'they' in that?

J: Well, everybody, townspeople, anybody. What I do remember most about the Revolution that amazed me was, that when the Revolution first started, that soldiers would go over to officers and rip off their ranks and then walk alongside of them. Soldiers used to have to walk six or eight paces in back of an officer and talked to him when they walked. This way, they wound right up alongside of 'em, and if they [about three unintelligible words] the officer got slapped in the face, or kicked, or booted, or, they did just what they wanted with the officers.

E: We studied that the whole garrison in Petrograd revolted against their higher commanders —

J: Right —

E: — and that if that hadn't happened, it wouldn't have gone over, the Revolution wouldn't have been as successful —

J: As successful as it was.

E: Right.

J: But that only — not only that, but that happened even on the front lines. Now that much I remember —

E: Before Kerensky?

J: Just before Kerensky, yah, when the Revolution started, yah.

E: Okay, let's try to finish up —

J: Well, actually, actually, the Revolution started with Kerensky being the head, or, leading them; that's when the first Revolution started.

E: There was Kerensky, and Miliukov —

J: I don't remember Miliukov. I remember Kerensky.

E: It was several people, in — as ministers of different things.

J: Well, they may have been, yah, but Kerensky was the head. Kerensky was the government, I mean, the head of the government. He was like, "what'shisname" is, Nixon is here. Yah. That's when the first one, the first day when the Revolution started. 'Course, we didn't hear of Kerensky then.

E: Who did you hear of?

J: Nobody. All we knew is that the soldiers dropped their guns, and went over to officers, and tore their, uh —

E: Insignia.

J: — insignias off, hit 'em, kicked 'em, they just didn't have no respect; left everything there, like I said: the buses, the trucks, the — the horses, everything; jumped on trains, and went home. They even ran trains themselves, grabbed trains to go home, walked home, any way at all, just absolutely dropped everything and went home.

E: This was all the military, that you're aware of —

J: All the military, yah. That was the first thing we knew about the Revolution.

E: So, in February, of 1917 —

J: I couldn't tell about what month it was; I couldn’t tell you what day.

E: Well, this is the beginning of that Revolution, —

J: Right.

E: — so do you remember where you were?

J: Yah! I was in — Novosolitsa, Russia, just across the border from Austria. Yah.

E: How did you hear about this, did you just see the soldiers —?

J: I saw them do it!

E: Did you know it was a full revolution against the Czar?

J: Yah, oh yah, that I knew.

E: Had you been expecting anything like that?

J: No.

E: No?

J: No. To me, it just came all of a sudden.

E: You said that Russia was, um, taboo. Does that mean you didn't talk about it because you were in Austria, or did your family not talk about it?

J: No, they didn't talk about it much; we knew Russia, it was Russia, that's all. But, we didn't know anything about it.

E: So your family didn't talk about the Czar or anything —

J: Never talked about it at all, no. In fact, I guess Dad, by running away from there, didn't want to talk about it.

E: Yeah, that's what I wondered, if that was —

J: Being a deserter, [he] didn't want to talk about it. So we'd seen a few Jews — see, in my hometown, in Austria, that's Sadagora, was the Rabbi of the Jewish faith; the biggest rabbi, just like the pope in Italy, was in my hometown. He had a regular castle with twenty, thirty big houses, and the big rabbi and the small rabbis were all there. And it was right across the street from my house where I lived; in fact I played with that big rabbi's children, or one of the rabbi's children. And they had a house, what they called for Succoth, a certain feast, holiday, after the — like here, Thanksgiving, after the harvest is in — where the roof rolled off the building in halves, and then they put corn stalks on it —

E: Oh, yes — well, they build little shacks —

J: They build little — yah, homes, build little shacks, yah, but this was for the whole congregation, for to hold the rabbis, or rabbim. And people come from all over the world to these rabbis for blessings. Like a man and woman who couldn't have a child, the husband would come there and the rabbi would bless a coin, give it to him, tell him put it on her belly-button, she'll have a child. And when I played with those children I used to eat — I used to go to the store, uptown were stores, where they sold pork, bo— not bologna, but, like Polish sausages. I loved 'em.

And we weren't s'posed to eat them, see. But I'd buy 'em, and I'd give these rabbi's children, give them some too (laughs). And eventually, after — I didn't see it but I heard it that the girl — see, you have a boy and a girl — the girl who married a German, or Austrian officer, a Christian officer, that was the rabbi, the pope's daughter, I heard that, that (laughs) — that story

E: How were the Jews treated, did you, were they — ?

J: In Austria they were treated terrific, all the time, just like United States. In Russia they weren't — But, in Austria, until the Romanians came in, then they kept them down pretty much.

E: But were you aware of anything being done —

J: Oh yes!

E: —I mean to you?

J: No, no. No, I — I didn't act like a Jew — I didn't hang around amongst them too much. I had friends in all the, I mean, in the Christian — in fact I had more friends in Christian boys and girls than I had in the Jewish boys and girls. So, I always leaned more towards the Christian side than I did the Jewish side. I never liked the teachings in the Jewish, like it teaches when we go by a church to spit three times and say a certain prayer, and then the church'll fall down on the people in there, and stuff like that. I didn't like that. So I was gonna convert the — (laughs) the rabbi's children, converting them into Christianity. I guess that's what was in the back of my mind. It may not be that, but that's, uh — And, even when I came to United States, I've lived amongst Christians all the rest of my life. [However, during his daughter’s girlhood, he spent countless hours with the town’s Jews, cooking the synagogue Seder every year, "hanging out" with Jewish buddies at the local coffee shop, bringing his children to temple to dance on Purim, etc. He always made sure we had plenty of Jewish food in the house — halavah, lox, bagels (before they were commonly known among Gentiles), and so forth.]

E: But your family didn't —

J: No.

E: So was your —

J: They — disinherited me when they found out I married a Christian girl. Or, not disinherited me, but they said what we called a shivah, they sit seven days on the floor, and in stocking feet, and then you’re dead.

E: A wake.

J: Right.

E: Well, when your mother was in Russia, did she have any problems being Jewish?

J: No, during the wartime there was no problems at all, during the wartime — they were satisfied to be left alone, the soldiers; they didn't rape, they didn't — they were satisfied to be left alone, they were scared to death to go to the war. And — it wasn't nothin' at all that what they said it was. Oh, it may have been they may have robbed a couple of stores when they got into Austria there, they may have robbed a couple of stores, for whiskey and stuff like that, but, they weren't really mean, or —

E: Well, how about that, that movie, "Fiddler on the Roof," or the play, when the soldiers all come into the village, and —

J: That was — yah, that was in Russia way before the War, oh yah, they had pogroms there. In fact there was times where the Russian Cossacks again, they speared children from over their horses, and that was in the last hundred years or less.

E: And did your family ever remember this?

J: No, we — no. 'Course, where we lived, there was no pogroms at that time. We always lived in fear in Russia there, as far as the Christians, were always against the Jews, so you always lived in fear, yes, but we didn't live there that I know of except during the wartime, and during the wartime, nobody bothered you. They were satisfied to be left alone. But, sure, they had pogroms, they had, — we read about 'em, we saw a play about 'em, like the one in Communist Podolsk Gubernia [sp?] where they tried that man that they found a bloody shirt under his bed, where the Christians killed a child and blamed it on the Jews — on this one Jew, and they had a trial, and he got out of it, and then there was a play about it, on all the Jewish stages. But, if he hadn't a got out of it they would have killed every Jew in Russia. They were always, the Jews were always, in fear of their lives. So "Fiddler on the Roof" is a true story. And in some of the towns like where my mother was born and raised — there, in that town, they didn't bother them; the few Jews that lived in a little section like a ghetto, used to, uh — like my mother's family always made clothes for the Christians: sheepskin coat, sheepskin pants, and they sewed for them. And then the others used to buy the wheat from them, buy the milk from, the cheese from them. So — they didn't bother them much. But every now and then, in certain sections the few soldiers or few Russians got drunk and they started a revo— not a revolution, but what they call a pogrom, and then they'd kill a bunch of Jews out, and — until the police come and settled it or stopped it.

E: But there wasn't any police action against Jews —

J: Not — no, not really, no. No, not really, that I know of or ever heard of. No, strictly a bunch of drunks or a bunch of hoodlums or bunch of — well, like some of the people that's going on now, like these killings in San Francisco, the black, revolutionaries or whatever you call them, the "Zibras" —

E: Oh, that's L. A.?

J: No, San Francisco too. The, uh —

E: Oh, "Zebras."

J: Yah, Zebras. Stuff like that.

E: Okay. Do you remember anything about Rasputin when you were there?

J: No, not excepting just what they told about him.

E: Well, that's what I want to know. What did you hear?

J: We heard that he was, uh — he had hypnotized the Queen and he ran the country, he ran Russia. Uh — they couldn't do nothin' with him, he — That's about all that I heard about him.

E: Did you hear anything against the queen, being —?

J: No, no.

E: Because I read about that —

J: No, no, no. No, that way I didn't hear too much about the, uh — we did hear when they killed the family.

E: Do you remember that, what happened, who told you —?

J: Yah, well, we heard about it or knew about it, maybe, a day or so after it had happened, because, you know, it went all over the world, everybody knew about it, everybody knew.

E: But do you recall the —

J: But I don't recall feeling either way about at, no, because it wasn't where I was it, it didn't happen — [end of tape #1]

Jack, the backyard gardener, 1966.
Jack and Anne Becker, 1940s.
Jack and Anne with daughter Elizabeth (1950s).
Jack with daughter and grandaughter (1969).

 

[Tape #2, 18 July 1974, side 1]

J: [tape leader/missing a few words] ... that killed Prince Ferdinand. They brought them in chains through my hometown, that is, Sadagora, they brought them in chains, they were taking 'em I guess to Vienna, and that's how we knew that they were the ones that — we saw them — that killed Prince Ferdinand. Another thing that I remember to say to you, now starting to remember, because I got to get my — stop it [the tape recorder] for a minute now ‘cause I got to get my [thoughts together][recorder stops; starts again] — another thing I remember that I didn't tell you before, is when the War was over, when the Revolution started, Germany let all those Russian soldiers go home, on trains or whichever way they could. But every trainload that came through my hometown, they grabbed us and made us go up to the trains and take out all the dead soldiers off the trains, off the boxcars, and then dig graves right there near the railroad tracks, and bury them. Because in every station that they went through, there was at least half a dozen or so dead.

E: From what?

J: From starvation. See, Germany didn't feed them, starved them. They didn't have enough food for themselves so they couldn't feed their prisoners, and there was, oh, hundreds of thousands of them that left Germany, that went back to Russia, that worked in whatever fields or wherever they worked them. But coming home they didn't have nothin’ to eat, they were on the trains for days, six, eight, ten days, twelve days without food, and they were weak and sick and cold, and so a lot of them died. It's surprising to me — we had two outbreaks of typhoid fever. It’s surprising to me that a lot more didn't die. We, by us, we handled these cases. Another time I remember, after a battle they drafted us to dig a grave, and we buried five hundred soldiers in one grave, and, just took their dogtags off and gave them to whoever was in charge, a soldier.

E: These were Russian soldiers?

J: That was the Russian soldiers. Every regiment that went through to the War, I doubt it if five percent got back alive. The ones that weren't captured, they were killed. I had a cousin of mine, that was in the Russian [army], in fact he was wounded seventeen times, and he kept goin’ back. Finally they discharged him with his horse, they gave him — he was in the cavalry — they gave him his horse, his own horse, to take home, discharged him. And he wrote letters from the front lines, when he was on the front lines, and he'd write, to camouflage it, he'd say, "We went to a wedding last night," (that meant a big battle) "and there was a lot of presents — very, very few from the bride, but piles and piles from the groom."

E: And that was — the bride was Austria?

J: Germany, or Austria, and the Russians were the groom.

E: He wrote to you, then?

J: Not to me, no, to his folks. We read the letters and we heard about them after we got there. Of course, my mother heard about it before the children, but I heard about it after. I saw him after he was home already. He had the roof of his mouth shot out, his legs, his arms, he was wounded seventeen different times. He kept going back, so finally they had to give him an honorable discharge.

E: He was in the Russian army?

J: He was in the Russian army. In the cavalry. So, that’s how they fell. They fell like flies. Another time, I heard — now, I don't know how true that is — but there was a rumor going on that Germany had built a plane, an airplane, with a box underneath it that would light up, and they dressed one man up as Christ to lay in that box and they flew over, when they heard the Russian regiment goin’ to the front lines, they flew over and he motioned to 'em to stop, and they stopped and kneeled — they were very, religious — and they, the whole regiment stopped and kneeled, and he gassed out the whole regiment —

E: Oo!

J: — with the plane. Now, I don't know how authentic that is, but that's the —

E: Shows what kind of rumors were going around.

J: Right. And that was during the War. Also, the Germans would leave dynamite in candle form, with wax on it. And the Russians, y'know, they were religious, would take the candle, y'know, and light it, and it'd blow up and kill ‘em. Booby traps, like that. That, now, I seen the candles, I seen those booby traps, 'cause we were taught not to — Uh — they had all kind of booby traps. But this plane business, now — that's stuck in my mind ever since I heard it — I just couldn't imagine how dumb people can be, to hear the motors and see Christ lying in that box lit up, and motioning to 'em to [hand motion ends sentence].

E: Well, it probably was a rumor, unless it was the peasants, as you said, that were —

J: That could be, now, like I — I don't know how true it was, but why would somebody bring out a rumor like that, at that time, if it wasn't something to it. You know what I mean? Why would they come out with something like that, well who would think of it?

E: Well, during wartime, I guess there's just about anything possible —

J: Yah, right. 'Course, I did go up in those planes with the spotters, with the Germans when they spotted for the guns to shoot, see, they hit the railroad, and I went up in the planes, those planes that you took a bomb and threw it off of the plane, with your hands (laughs), now I went up in those planes, they took me up, the soldiers took me up. I was a kid, I was, I don't know, I guess, a kid that anybody, everybody liked. They used to pinch my cheeks 'til it almost bled, see — rosy cheeks, and full of fun all the time. And I spoke practically fluent Russian, I spoke fluent German, and good Romanian. I spoke those languages like I was one of them.

E: Can you still speak Russian?

J: Fairly. I can get by, yah, I couldn't — I mean, I'd have to — I could get by in Russia if I was back in Russia say, six months I'd speak it probably the same way [I did then]. I spoke Russian about as good as I can English now.

E: Oh, while we're on the subject of the languages, what was your name when you were born?

J: Well, my name was, Jacob [pronounces this "ya-cob,"] or, not Jack, but Johann in German, Jacob in German, or, Jewish was Yankel, y_a_n_k_e_l, and Baker, b_a_k_e_r, instead of Becker.

E: One of my teachers said that didn't sound very Russian.

J: Baker wasn't very Russian. Neither is Becker.

E: How did your father[’s family get that name?] — [conversation overlaps]

J: I don't know! When — maybe, a hundred or two hundred years before, the family migrated from Germany. Now that may have been, I don't know.

E: The rest of the neighbors around you had Russian-sounding names? The Jews around you —?

J: No, no, no. Was Kershner — was German names — like, my mother's maiden name was Kershner, k_e_r_s_h_n_e_r. So, no. The Jews, a lot of the Jews didn't have Russian names per se, I mean — there was Goldsmith, and Weinberg, and, Goldstein [pronounces this "stine"], Goldstein [pronounces this "steen"], in Russian, were Russian Jews. So no, I wouldn't say that. Unless they migrated from Germany a couple of hundred years before, or whatever, Holland, they may have, because — or Austria — 'course, we were not too far, see, I find out after I found my mother, that, I thought they were way up in Russia some place; the Russia that they were from was only about sixty miles from where we were in Austria.

E: Yeah, so all you needed was a political, not a territorial — [conversation overlaps]

J: Right! Right! But, no, Russian Jews, there were very few that had the name of Molotov, or names like that, very few.

E: So your name was — how — how did people call you when you were little?

J: Baker.

E: No, but your first name, what did they call you?

J: Oh! Well, Germans called me Jacob, in Austria. At home, they called me Yankel.

E: Yeah, your parents, that's what people want to know.

J: Yah, my parents called me Yankel.

E: Now, did you — you told me the differences in your birth dates before, and we've studied the difference between the old-style calendar and the new-style calendar —

J: Right.

E: Was Austria's — it was not under the old-style?

J: It wasn't — no, see, my birthday — I can only go by the Jewish calendar. If you can trace back the Jewish calendar to what we call 14 days in Av [pronounces this "oof"].

E: (laughs) Sounds funny.

J: Yah, see. Av is a month. And Av as close as I could come, was August. And, the way I traced it back, the 14th day of Av, at that year, was the 20th of August. So, I took the 20th of August — on my own.

E: And how did you arrive at 1904?

J: 1904 I was born.

E: You know that.

J: Yah. Yah! Because 1904 my dad jumped across the border. [Because of] the Russian-Japanese War.

E: That's right.

J: So, I was four months old. So, 1904 I was born.

E: Now, a lot have people have asked me, when I told them what I was doing this project on, how you got out of Russia. Was it hard?

J: Oh. Well — no. Well, you see, I didn't get out of Russia — to come here, you mean.

E: Mm-hmm.

J: No. We got of Romania to come here.

E: Now, how did that happen? 'Cause you said you were in Chotin with your mother, when you found her.

J: Yah, that's what I mean. See, when I found my mother, in Chotin right after the Revolution started, then we got together again, the border was open, the War was over, as far as Russia was concerned, and Austria, the War was over. They were still fightin’ a little bit with England, and the United States, but they weren't fighting on that side, that side the War was over. So we went back home! To Austria.

E: And that was Romanian.

J: That was — well, not quite yet, but Romania came in right after that. Or, they eventually come in, like I said we, we tried to stop 'em, but they came in, right after.

E: And if you'd been in Russia at the time that you left —

J: Then we probably could not have come out.

E: Oh, really! Oh. Now, this is what everybody was asking me, and I couldn't understand why they thought you couldn't get out.

J: No. Probably, at that time, we couldn't get out from Russia.

E: Who would have stopped you? Whose government?

J: Stalin — oh, Lenin's.

E: Lenin's.

J: Yah. So, when we were in Romania. They wanted to stop us too because we were both, my brother and I, were both ready for service in the Romanian army. So, in order not to go and to let us out we paid off $6000 American money to the Romanian government.

E: That's a lot of money then.

J: Yah, right, see. So, they let us — we signed that we'll never come back, they'll let us out. 'Cause, both of us would have been drafted within a couple of months after we left there. 'Cause they were drafting them 16 years up. And my brother would have been drafted before that, but he got caught smuggling, and he was in jail.

E: Oh, that's why he wasn't drafted.

J: That's why he wasn't drafted. So, when we got him out of jail, we paid off and we went to United States.

E: That clears that up. I was wondering about that.

J: Yah. So, we were in Romania, we left Romania, not Russia.

E: Now, during World War I, who did you consider your enemies?

J: Russia.

E: You considered Russia —

J: Oh, yah. I was German, I was pro-German.

E: That's because all your life that's —

J: Right! I was raised in Austria, learned in German, and I loved Austria, I loved the country.

E: And your whole family was that then way, too?

J: Right! Well, I imagine so, I don't know, I mean, I don't know how their feelings — I mean my mother — my brothers and sisters were, 'cause my two sisters were both born in Austria, so they were. I don't know, my brothers, we never talked about the feelings of who the enemy — of course, I didn't see them, as soon as the War started! (laughs)

E: That's right. Now, when you were four months old, was it hard for your father to get the family over to Austria?

J: No, but a bribe on the Russian border — the Russian soldiers were the bribing-est soldiers in the world; for five bucks, ten bucks they'd sell you the country! Yah. They were, even to the end.

E: That's the peasant soldiers, not the —

J: The peasant soldiers, yah! Even to the end. For a bottle of whiskey, you could have taken and hauled the whole country away, they wouldn't care.

E: And that's how you managed your smuggling.

J: That's how we managed smuggling, sure. And, when I smuggled, a couple times I got caught, but, see, my sister smuggled too, the older one, one next to me, and she was on the Russian side and I was on the Austrian side when I got caught. I got caught by the Romanian soldiers, and I had a, what do you call it, rucksack—

E: Like a school bag?

J: Yah, but bigger. Full of — no, I was on the Russian side, she was on the [Austrian]— with tobacco. So I slipped it — there's a bridge, we had to go, across the border — I slipped it down underneath; she went underneath, picked it up, and sneaked away with it. So when they came to me, they caught up with me, they said to me, "Where’s your contraband?" "I haven’t got any!" They had to let me go. Oh, there were a lot of ways that we smuggled. Sometimes we’d hire a wagon, make up a double bottom in the wagon, and fill it with whiskey going one way and tobacco going back, in the false bottom and hay on top of it. We could cross a border with hay. They didn’t stop you for that. They didn’t search you ‘til they found out that you carried stuff. Then we had to cut that out. Then we took cans, five gallon cans, and we’d fill them with whiskey. We’d put a tube down to the bottom, with oil. Oil for lamps you could carry. But we filled it with whiskey from the bottom and soldered the edge up. But then they got wise to it and stuck a rod in, and tried to move it! So then we took big washtubs, made false bottoms, and filled them with whiskey, and then on top about that much [finger description] oil. We’d carry it, two men would carry it — until they stuck a rod in and found that out. You know, we always found ways and then they’d find out, or somebody'd tip 'em off.

E: Which side didn't allow whiskey in —?

J: Well, Russia didn't allow whiskey to come in; Romania didn't allow tobacco to come in, so it was both ways.

E: Okay. Now, what nationality do you consider yourself now?

J: Jewish. — No, wait a minute: nationality? American.

E: And you, just before you came, what nationality did you consider yourself?

J: Austrian.

E: So you never considered yourself Russian —

J: Never Russian, no.

E: And, when you said Jewish, you meant religion —?

J: Religion — Jewish.

E: — culture?

J: Culture, Jewish, yah. But nationality, American.

E: Okay. Now, can you tell me what the living conditions were like during your boyhood?

J: Yah —

E: Um, start with your housing, what kind of house?

J: We had a house, a two bed — a two room house, a kitchen and a bedroom. Everybody slept in the bedroom, — and then we had a stove — an oven — in the kitchen, where my mother used to bake bread. And there was a place on the top of the oven that in wintertime, all the children slept on top of the oven.

E: How did your parents keep warm?

J: Just with themselves. That's it. You had a stove in the kitchen, but you only burned it to cook, you didn't — there was no fireplace or anything, no stove in the middle of the room. You just, you warmed bricks and you put 'em, wrapped 'em up, you put 'em at the bottom of your feet, that is, they did, and children did too, when we didn't sleep on top of the oven; of course in the wintertime we slept on the top of the oven.

E: What'd you heat the oven with?

J: Wood for baking, but for cooking and stuff, was either wood, or, we dried out — all summer we gathered straw and manure and we made cakes, and we dried 'em — like wooden, like that Presto logs — we made 'em like that, and then burned that, in the stove.

E: And how close were your nearest neighbors?

J: Neighbors were butted up (claps) against our house. They were Christians.

E: Butted up —?

J: Yah, I mean (claps) all one house.

E: All?

J: Yah, just a wall in between.

E: This was all the way along?

J: All the way out across the house. But we had to go either through a gate or jump the fence to go over to their house. You couldn't go from our house to their house. But, both houses were against each other.

E: And did you live on a farm?

J: Yah, you'd call that a farm, because we had, oh, maybe about 10 acres of land, where we grew corn, vegetables, fruit trees . . .

E: Mainly for your own eating.

J: Mainly for our own. We had a few chickens, turkeys, geese —

E: Turkeys?

J: Yah, we had turkeys.

E: I thought those were American —

J: No; no, no, we had turkeys. Yah. But, see, the turkey is slaughtered in a certain month that's called, in Jewish, Adar [pronounces this "uder"], and the turkeys make a noise that we used to say, "Ooder Ooder Ooo!" see, and that's the turkey. We had turkeys, we had geese, we had ducks, we had chickens—

E: And did your neighbors have these too, —?

J: No, we had 'em, they didn't. They were a whole family of brothers, 'bout four brothers, five brothers, that three of them I think were — no, two of them were married, and three of 'em were bachelors. One of the bachelors was a hunter for the state; that's all he did was hunt for the state. See, there, people can't go hunting, or couldn't go hunting; only state, what we called hunters or jagers [pronounced "yayger"], they used to hunt for the state. They'd go and hunt for the barons, or Kaiser Franz Josef would want a deer or something, so they'd go hunt, or, they go with him, they’d shoot it for him. Then, two of 'em were blacksm__ not blacksmiths but locksmiths, and one was a shoemaker.

E: Now what did your father do?

J: My father was a builder, building houses.

E: And who took care of the farm then, or the garden?

J: We hired; we hired people. What we call farmers, real farmers.

E: So, what economic would you consider yourself: peasants, or, mid__?

J: Middle class; no, middle class; yah. Dad, whatdyacallit, built houses, and when he'd go away, sometimes he'd go away maybe 30, 40 miles, or 50 miles to build a house. And they'd work there all week but Friday he’d come home. Now Friday when he'd come home if he was near rivers, he'd bring home maybe five-six hundred pounds of fish, live fish, in tubs, and then he'd sell 'em to the townspeople, for Friday, for, gefilte fish, for Friday. He made a little money that way. Until he left for United States. Course then, Mother had to take over, Mother suffered, then we were poor, what I'd call; uh — Mother would sew for, again, those Christian people that wore the sheepskin coats, sheepskin. What we call "goyim."

E: Well, the Christians [not the coats] were "goyim."

J: Yah. She sewed for them, and that's how she made a living for us. And, the shoemaker next door to us. See, all our boots were made by hand, we didn't go to store, but we'd only get boots about once every two years. In the summertime we ran bare-footed, all summer. In the wintertime we wore boots. And it was nice boots with three little wrinkles, or corrugated-like, that we loved.

E: Why did you like that?

J: Oh, just the style. You know, fancy. I loved those three corrugated, three little rolls, like. But boots, we wore all winter, excepting we wore a lot of times felt boots.

E: Now, I've heard about that —

J: Yah. Now, the felt boots you could wear even at 50 degrees below zero. Your feet were warm, like toast.

E: That's interesting, because my Russian History teacher said when he went to Russia he felt sorry for the people because they were wearing felt boots!

J: Oh, those felt boots were — your feet were just like right now, I mean like in the house here, that's how warm they were!

E: And they dried faster, too?

J: Oh, they didn't even get wet! Yah. Because, first of all, it was too dry. But even if you spilled water on 'em, they didn't get wet, — the water ran off of 'em, like oil. That's felt. And — we wore in the wintertime, sheepskin pants with the wool inside, and sheepskin clothes with the wool inside. But we were — I mean, me, I did; a lot of Jewish kids didn't, they wore just regular clothes, froze their, uh — themselves. I didn't, I, like I said, I always wore, 'cause Mother could sew them, she made me suits like that. And so I'd say we were middle class until Dad went away — and then, 'course, the War started, and Mother went to Russia. So I don't know how they lived there, I lived fairly good. Oh, there was a few times that I starved, that I couldn't wait for the fruit on the trees to get ripe, and as soon as the blooms fell off of 'em, as soon as they became as big as peas, the apples, I'd go and take a bunch of 'em and eat 'em, get diarrhea, and — it didn't make no difference if I had diarrhea, I still went to eat them because I was hungry! And then, couple times I ate sawdust mixed with cornmeal in bread: half cornmeal, half sawdust, for bread. And, a couple times I ate cornmeal with grass mixed up, just plain grass, and made bread out of it.

E: You didn't talk to your family when you got back together, about how they lived?

J: Not really, no. It wasn't — it didn't — enter our minds. I mean, as far as eating. We were alive! That's all, that's all that mattered! So it didn't make a difference what we ate. I stole, a few times — like, I dunno if you'd remember that movie where the little Italian boy begged that American soldier not to go to sleep because he knew that he was goin’ to steal the boots off of him? You didn't see that?

E: Was it Dondi? I don't know, I didn't see —

J: No, I forgot the name of the picture. But anyway, that reminded me so much of myself that [laughs] it wasn't even funny. See, he loved this American soldier, but he knew he was goin’ to steal his boots. He needed them, ‘cause he’d get money for ‘em. So he begged this soldier not to go to sleep, "Please don't go to sleep!" 'cause he knew he was gonna steal the boots off. I went to a turkish bath, with a pair of old ripped-up boots, and we all undressed in one room, goin’ to the steamroom. And then, get steamed up, washed up, then you come back out and get dressed. So I went in there, and I saw a soldier with a pair of brand-new boots. So, instead of goin’ in there, I slipped on his boots and walked out. And left the old pair of boots. [laughs] I got 12 dollars — 12 rubles — for those boots! You had to do things like that, to live! Or you died! So, I felt myself and that kid, that Italian boy — And, when I saw that Dr. Zhivago picture — now! There, in that picture when they had the Revolution, when they were shootin’ those people, now I saw that.

E: In the streets ?

J: Yah! Now that [movie], to me, was just as authentic as if I was right there. And all that going on about rippin’ up the houses, the furniture burning up — I saw all that, that I went through, for a while.

[side 2]

E: I asked before about starving, and the issue of starving causing the Russian Revolution, the first part of it. Can you tell me anything more about that?

J: Well, the first part of the Russian Revolution, really, I don't think was because of starvation. They had plenty of food.

E: Who did?

J: The soldiers, the Russian soldiers. I don't think — I think they just got tired of fighting.

E: Well, I have [read] an essay that talks about how much the people were starving.

J: Not before the Revolution. You mean during the wartime?

E: No, in between the Revolution and the War. I can show it to you after, but you tell me what you remember.

J: Well, I remember up until the Revolution that they had plenty of food. In fact like I say they left warehouses jammed with cigarettes, tobacco, bread, sugar, flour, oils, grease, lard .

E: But this wasn't getting to the people, though, maybe.

J: No, that was the soldiers had that. Yah. Now, the people, as far as I can remember, the people — and not only in Russia, in Austria, in Germany — starved, in a way. Because there was just no cattle slaughtered. In Austria, for a while there, we hauled, we bought all the dried-out horses around the Ukraines and hauled them to — in fact, I worked a couple of trainloads. We just fed, gave them water on the stations where we stopped 'bout three, four times a day, and we hauled these horses to Vienna, and as soon as they got to Vienna, they went right to the slaughterhouse. So, towards the end of the War, there, they ate nothin’ but horsemeat, the ones that could get it. So, yah! There was hunger — but not amongst the soldiers. The Russian soldiers always had plenty to eat. The German soldiers didn't. The Hungarian soldiers didn't. The Austrian soldiers didn't. But the Russian soldiers had plenty to eat. So the Revolution was not because of hunger, I don't think.

E: But peasants in Russia didn't, though, and a lot of the peasants became soldiers.

J: Well, most of the peasants that were soldier material — in fact, anybody from 16 or 15 to 60 were soldiers.

E: Because of the war.

J: Because of the war. Right. So, I think — like I say, I don't think that it was because of no food as far as the army's concerned. I don't remember them, the army, starving; the army had plenty to eat. The army had plenty of horses — in fact they confiscated all the good horses from every farmer along there. So the farmers — the civilians — may have, yes. They may have been hungry, but they didn't have nothin’ to do with the Revolution! The soldiers made the Revolution, and the reason the soldiers made the Revolution, I think, is they just got sick and tired of fighting. They weren't gettin’ nowhere, they were losing, losing, losing. Every regiment that went to the front lines never came back. And then, some of the Russian generals sold out; one Russian general sold out a whole division, went over to Germany and lived in Germany like a prince! And he sold out a whole division, told 'em he was goin’ to be with ‘em, and they surrounded ‘em.

E: So the morale was down.

J: The morale was very bad, the morale was down! But, the civilians were hungry, yes, I was hungry — I was hungry, yes. Like I say, I ate grass and sawdust and cornmeal, when we could get it. I ate green apples or green plums or whatever; as soon as the flower fell off of the fruit! We ate ‘em. And we didn't even throw the stems away. We’d chew the stems and all! 'cause we were so hungry. We got diarrhea, yah, but — so you got pains, and you got worms, worms crawling out of our behinds, live worms. But you were hungry, you ate, whatever you could.

E: Well, Lenin in his writings, keeps saying that they have to capitalize on the peasants' need for food; the peasants go through the streets shouting "Bread, food, freedom —"

J: That's when Lenin came in, maybe, yes, but then when Lenin came in I don't remember anymore too much about it. Because, I was, like I say, when Lenin came in, first, what I remember is when I was making that, transition, that they had lines, where they stayed in line for a loaf of bread for, two days, some of ‘em, for a loaf of bread, durin’ Lenin's — I don't remember what years that was! (claps)

E: Well, apparently he came in right after Kerensky's government.

J: Under Kerensky was fine, under Kerensky wasn't bad. Now, I was on the Romanian side, and under Romania, there wasn't starvation, there was plenty of food, plenty of stuff to eat. They were strict; you couldn't get together with other people, but if you stuck to yourself and just held your mouth shut you was all right, they didn't bother you. They were afraid, 'cause like I say, there were trying to, trying to stop 'em coming in, so they were afraid of the shadow, they were afraid, like, I know friends of mine when I was in the Army, when some of the friends of mine came back —

E: That was the American Army.

J: The American Army. And some of the friends of mine that came back from Russia, from Siberia, a regiment that was there, American soldiers, and one of the sergeants I got acquainted with very well, he told me: says, they used to be afraid to walk outside, because when they'd go outside, they wouldn't come back in. They would kill 'em. They'd cut their throats and, you know —

E: The Russians would kill them?

J: The Russians would, yah! 'Cause, we went to fight — that's something that a lot of people in the United States don't know, that we fought the Bolsheviks, we had war with them, right after the Revolution, the Americans, had —

E: Oh?

J: Yah. We had a regiment in Siberia, or two, and lost. We dragged ‘em back. Because they killed them as soon as they — they go out on guard duty, and they’d never come back.

E: How did you find out about this?

J: From this — these soldiers, that friend of mine that I soldiered with, was the 27th infantry that was over there. I was in the 19th, in Hawaii. And I talked with some of the soldiers that was over there. They told me, they says they were scared to death to walk outside! Because they’d go out even two at a time, go out on guard and they’d never come back. They’d find them with their throats cut, or killed. So, we lost every man, that uh — finally, like I said, we brought ‘em back home. Let ‘em go. But Kerensky, under Kerensky I thought was very good. Under Stalin? I don't know too much about under Stalin, or Lenin rather, because then I was too busy makin' money, and really didn't care what happened, and right after that we came to United States, so I didn't give a hang what happened on the other side at all, absolutely wiped that off my mind, Europe, and then I was home about — we came here October, in 1920, and I was home 'til June in '21, and then I left home, that's it. (claps) I went home on a visit in 1930, '31. When I came home to stay, I stayed three days and left there and never went back. So, I just didn't pay much [attention]. Oh, but, I read in United States news about Russia, about the starvation, or we saw newsreels and like that, that's about all I can tell you, I mean I knew about what happened then after.

Ship passenger manifest showing the 1920 arrival at Ellis Island of Jack (Jankel) with his mother and siblings, on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam.

E: That would be the same thing that people here saw, so —

J: That's right. Yah. But, the only thing that really lays in my mind about the Russian Revolution, the first one under Kerensky — was to see the soldiers go over to officers, that impressed me very much. That the soldiers going over to an officer and ripped their ranks off and if the officer didn't like that he got booted in the hind end or kicked in the face — didn't care. They talked to 'em like ordinary people. That impressed me, that impression is still one I remember. And the impression of ‘em standing in line waiting for a loaf of bread, where I didn't have to, was another impression that —

E: The Russians standing in line, and you didn't have to.

J: Yah, right. I didn't have to. So, like I say, I looked out for myself, I looked out for "Number One." And I was making good money, and I was making — 'course I was doing dangerous work, but, at that time, I don't think it mattered too much about danger, because life, I don't think, really was worth a lot then. During the wartime to me, life was, "I'm here today, fine’ I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow or not."

E: And you saw so much killing .

J: I saw so much killing, and I was on front lines practically all the time — or a lot of times, right on the front lines. So, like I say, you never knew, so you lived today, you lived!

E: Do you remember, did your father ever talk about going to the Holy Land, or [saying] "Next year in Jerusalem!"?

J: No, no, no, I — no, no, I don't think that my parents were that religious. I don't think they were Orthodox, really, because my dad smoked on Saturdays, ate without a hat on and went to synagogue on the big holidays, not every Saturday and Friday. So, I don't think that

they were very religious. I remember when I came to United States, and I smoked then already — 'course I started smoking when I was nine years old, when I left home I started smoking — and, when I came to United States, he thought he'd give up smoking on Saturdays for us, to teach us that we are Jews, and we're not supposed to do that on Saturday. But when we come over, on Saturday morning we got up. I got up, I reached over and took a cigarette and lit it up, and he saw that and he took a cigarette and lit up too, and (clap) forgot about teaching us the Jewish religion. So and then, like I say, to go to synagogue, on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It was fine — I had a bad taste in [my mouth about] that. On my 13th birthday when I was Bar Mitzvah'd. I went to a Rabbi and had him go through with me all the rituals and everything, and then, one time, I was broke on a holiday, on Yom Kippur, and I went to a shul, and they wouldn't let me in because I didn't have a ticket.

E: Was that here in America?

J: No, in Europe, when I was 13, or 14, and I didn't have a ticket and they wouldn't let me in. And I says "Take the religion and shove it!" And that was the end of it.

E: Then why, if your parents weren't so religious, why did they disown you or —

J: That way they were. Marryin’ out of the Jewish religion — That way they were.

E: That was a little bit hypocritical!

J: That's right. That's why I didn't care much, anyway. 'Course, actually, when I came to United States, I wasn't really one of the children. I was more of a boarder. Bein’ away, alone, on my own, makin' my own all the time. So I wasn't really a child in the house. Sure, I knew they were my parents, I knew they were my brothers and sisters and everything, but they weren't in a way, I mean I was there a boarder. So I left and it didn't matter. I didn't miss them. And I don't think they missed me. Because, well, just before I left home — I used to come home, seven o'clock, 6:30, 7:30 from work — I worked in an automobile factory, or, a place where they fixed fenders and radiators, for a while — and I’d come home and wash up, clean up, dress up, and I’d go out, and I’d come home two or three o'clock in the morning. And that's every day.

E: So you never saw them much?

J: Hardly. So, not only that, but then, one day, my dad said to me [that] I was ruining myself. I know [he was right], I mean now, but — I was 16, 17 — 16 or 17 years old — so, he said to me, "Now, tomorrow night I want you at the table for dinner. Now, if you don't, you better pack your grip and go." So I didn't wait for tomorrow night. I went to my room, packed my grip and left. And I went to where he used to stay as a boarder, before we came to United States. I was still a foreigner. I still didn't know how to speak English, see, I was only here about two or three months, but I hang around with the gang every night. So, I packed my grip and went down, moved down to [the place]. He didn't know where I went. Mother did. But we had a barber, near our house, that we'd go there every day or whenever we needed it and get haircut or shave, and then on the end of the week, or the end of the month, my dad would pay the bill. So, after I was away a week from home, I went out to the barber, Sunday morning. The barber was open Sundays, and my dad was sittin’ in the chair, gettin’ a haircut. And I sit down, and I didn't even say "hello" to him or nothin’. And he got out of the chair and went up to the house. And I got in the chair, and my mother came down, and she asked me why I didn't say "hello" to my father. "He came home cryin’ " (cause I didn’t say nothin’). And she started crying, 'Why don't I come home, where I was at, that he wouldn't say nothin’ to me, that he'd leave me alone." So, all right, I went home! I tell her, "Okay, I move up [out of the boarding house]," and I moved up about three, four days later, moved back into the house. But — it wasn't the same anymore, I mean, just, like I said, boarder. Then I left, and went to work on a farm in June, and, when I went to work on the farm, I worked there June, July, August and September, then I left the farm and went to work — or started [to] get a job in a toy factory in Vermont in North Danville, no, North Bennington, Vermont. And I went to look for a room and there wasn't any in North Bennington, so I went into Bennington, Vermont, and went into a restaurant to sit down and eat and there's a Jewish boy sittin’ at the counter. I got talkin’ with him and I asked him where I could get a room. He says, "Come on up my house, you can stay in my house," so I went up, met his parents, and they asked me what I was gonna do and I told 'em, and they said "Why don't you stay here, we're building a store and a house. You can help the carpenters, we'll give you a room and board and give you as much as they would pay you down there." So I says, "Okay." So I stayed there. Been there about a month and another boy came to work there and [inaudible]. Oh, and meantime, when I was working on the farm I asked the teachers (they boarded teachers there) and I asked them how can I become a citizen quick. And one of the teachers said, "Jack, join the Army. You'll learn the language, and — " [The boy suggested Jack and he join the Army together. {Tape is inaudible but I remember the story.)] I said, "Okay, let's go." So we went and joined the Army. I didn't know that they'd let my parents know, yah, so I went to Fort Slocum, New York, where they sent me. And Saturday morning I hear my name called,. They wanted me in the orderly room. So I came and there’s my mother, and my brother, my sister. [laughs] And they came and they want me to go home. Okay, so I got a pass and went home. Meantime, when my father found out I joined the Army, he had my room locked up, with all my stuff and everything in there. He had it locked up. Nobody could get in there. So I came home; he wouldn’t talk to me. And Mother says they're gonna take me out, 'cause I was still underage. So, he asked me why. And I told him, well, I, I was — in the Army, right, some of the boys saying the reason they joined the Army is that they knocked up a girl, so, I told my mother, [I] says, "I made a girl pregnant, a Christian girl pregnant, and I had to run away."(claps) So, she says, "Well, if you made her pregnant, you'll have to marry her, we take you out of the Army, you marry her." I says, "No, don't take me out of the Army, 'cause if you take me out of the Army I'll just go away tomorrow and join again." So they let me go. And all the time I was in the service, my dad had that room locked up, nobody could get in there.

E: Huh. And when you were in Europe, what was [the extent of] your education?

J: The third grade!

E: And did you go to another school for the Jewish —?

J: Jewish, yah! I would say three years, same three years.

E: Why did it stop?

J: The War.

E: Did other children all stop, did all schools stop?

J: Yah! All students stopped, (claps) yah. No schools at all. All the teachers were in the army. We only had man teachers, no girl teachers. So all schools stopped. And then they didn't start again until after the War, in fact, in Austria, where we lived, they started Romanian, teaching Romanian, not German, so I didn't go to school there. I was already 16 years old. They wanted to take me into the army, anyway; I'd be a soldier anyway. And when I came to United States I started going to night school, I went to night school, about three months I think. I met a girl and that was the end of night school. (laughs)

E: (laughs) How many girls did you meet?!

J: Oh (laughing), you know, at that age — (claps). So, that's what happened. I went in the Army. And, I asked the recruiting officer how far we had soldiers, and he said Hawaii, so that's where I wanted to go. If he'd a said China, 'cause we did have soldiers there, I'd have said, "Send me to China, or the Philippine Islands." He said, well, they needed soldiers in Hawaii then, they had plenty in the Philippines and in China. So I went and I joined the cavalry, I wanted to be on horses.

E: Was that because of your love for the Cossacks?

J: For, yah, for horses, for Cossacks, for horses. So, I found myself in the (clap) infantry, 'cause I didn't know any difference; I wore a hat, a cavalry hat with a cavalry band, all the way until I got to Hawaii.

E: Did you wear it on the side?

J: No, that was the — oh, yah, the cap, I wore the cap on the side. Yah. And I liked the little hairs, oh yah. I wish I’d a had some pictures of that.

E: (laughs) I wish you did too.

J: Yah, oh yah. While I did soldiering, I was a terrific soldier. In fact, one time we went out drilling for competition, squad drilling. And I showed up my squad, I was the only one that was really doing a 128 curve, head-up-chin-in-chest-out, like a real soldier, and the rest of ‘em, I showed the rest of ‘em up. [It showed the rest] was slouches. I hated my officers, because they were too friendly; I wanted them to be tough. I didn't want friendly officers. I didn't want an officer to come in and sit down with me in a restaurant and eat dinner with me. I wanted to have respect for them. So I hated my officers.

E: Hmm. I wonder what Freud would say about that!? (laughs).

J: I don't know! I just couldn't see how an officer could sit down and listen to the men, and talk to them, and say, at the table, "Okay, John, pass me the sugar." I thought they should be up there, [hand motion up] on a pedestal. They had no business with the soldiers. When I snapped to a salute, I snapped to a salute like a Russian soldier. Or a German soldier. And, some officers appreciated it, but [to] a lot of officers [it] didn't make no — a damned difference. "Don't bother me." In fact, when we went over to Hawaii, there I was on guard duty, you know, on the boat, and an officer came by and I snapped to attention with a salute, and he come up to me, "How long have you been in the Army?" And I tell him, "Two months." "No, I mean, how long were you in before?" "Never before." And he says, "You ain't never been a soldier before?" I say, "No Sir. I was a play soldier, when I was in Europe." And he knew I was meaning — He said, "Where?" "In Austria." And he said, "Oh."

E: (laughs) "That explains it!"

J: That explains it. ‘Cause I snapped to attention, and gave him a salute, [inaudible] I couldn’t — like soldiers in Austria. Drink out of the same bottle in the Army. I couldn’t see that.

E: Now — you got to be a sergeant.

J: Yah.

E: So did you expect —

J: No, I was a mess sergeant. So, no, by that time I didn't — it was no use, I'd have had to fight ‘em. To get the — I wanted a squad, I wanted to form a squad that would do the expert drill, I mean, expert, executionary drill, or new — whatdyacall ‘em, rifle exhibition. Like some, you see sometimes, where they go through what they call, what they used to call a "silent manual of arms," where you go through, from "stand," from "at ease" to "attention," to " right shoulder," "left shoulder," "forward," go through the whole thing without a word, boom, boom, boom.

E: Like in parades, the ROTC does?

J: Right! I wanted to have a squad, but, they were mostly farmers. All they cared about is petty kinds of — to shoot dice — or stuff like that — you didn't get soldiering, what I'd call soldiering, very very few. Only Europeans; we had a few Europeans scattered in the regiment; all the European boys were all good soldiers.

E: I know that you don't want to go back, but can you explain any reasons why you wouldn't want to go back to Europe, see what things look like?

J: Well, I wouldn't mind going back to see what it looks like. Yah. I don't particular[ly] have a hankering for it. I mean, I wouldn't mind to take [your] Mother and show her where I was born and raised, to take you children and show you where I was born and raised, but, havin’ a hankering for it, no.

E: You don't sit around and think about it?

J: No, never! In fact — oh, ever since I came to United States, ever since I joined the Army, say, I never talked in any other language but American, I mean my thoughts. I never counted in any other language but American. And I notice, a lot of people say that if you hurt yourself, you curse in your mother's tongue. I never did. I cursed in American. So I blacked out everything except American. And when I was in Milwaukee, during the War, and I saw a flag on the library, that was tattered, that was ripped from the wind, and I called up the head of the library and I gave him holy heck and I says, "You better get that flag down and put a better flag up there, or I'm goin’ to come over to your house and rip your curtains out of there!" I mean, I really —

E: I bet that was — I wonder what they thought of that , with [your] accent — somebody with an accent (laughs) —

J: Yah, well, I don't know whether, really, a lot of, not too many people can tell that I have an accent, I don't think. And they did, they changed that flag, they put a new flag up, the next day. Yah! [Note from Jack’s loving daughter — this was all said with quite a striking accent.]

E: Well, they probably just hadn't noticed it.

J: They probably hadn't, but it hurt me. It hurt me to see that flag. 'Cause I love the American flag. And I love the United States better than any American-born.

E: You told me one time about meeting Kerensky in the United States.

J: Right.

E: Can you tell me when, and uh —

J: Yah, it was in the late thirties. He was in Detroit, Michigan, when I was there, and I talked to him.

E: How did you meet him, was he —?

J: Well, he gave lectures, he went around the United States givin’ lectures. He lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and, I think, if I'm not mistaken, he wrote an article for a newspaper there, the St. Louis paper, but he went around lecturing all over [the] United States. And I talked to him after one lecture, we talked — and I told him what I thought, and he agreed with me; I told him that I thought that because United States and England are Allies, didn't recognize him, that was a big mistake of theirs, and also that he made a big mistake by opening up the gates of the prisons and lettin' all the prisoners out. I thought that he should’ve screened them, or should have waited, before, 'cause as soon as he took over he just opened up all the prisons and just let all the — everybody out, murderers, the political prisoners, everybody. And I think that was a big mistake, that's when Stalin came out, and a lot of those cronies —

E: Lenin?

J: Lenin, no. Lenin was in Germany, Lenin was released from Germany. He was in Germany before, he wasn't in the prisons there [Russia].

E: No, he was in exile [in Switzerland].

J: Exile, right, right. And Germany helped Lenin take over, helped him there — but, no, Kerensky was a very very good man. Very educated man. And a nice man, like I say. He wanted a socialist government. And I think Russia would have been better off, a lot of people would have lived, a lot of people [end of Tape 2]

Tape 3, side 1

— [would have been] much better off, ‘cause we wouldn’t have had a lot of this trouble with Germany, I don’t think, and also with Russia durin’ the Second World War. In fact, I doubt if there would have been a Second World War — if we would have been friendly with Russia before the War started. And if their government was somethin’ like ours — or even say a socialist government, that would have been much better. That’s why I think both sides would have been a heck of a lot better off!

E: Okay?!

J: Yah.

[End of 13 July 1974 interview]


A few days later, we met again for some clarification of points made during the 13 July interview. Here is what we discussed in the second interview (and I beg the reader’s understanding that I was a very young student when I asked my questions and made insistent comments about what I’d learned in classes):

 

E: Now where were you born?

J: I was born — you mean, the exact town? You wouldn’t find it on there. It’s a little country village.

E: Oh, so Chotin is what I should look at — not Czernovitz.

J: Right. Czernovitz is where we migrated to — or Sadagora. Sadagora is about five miles from Czernovitz, or eight miles from Czernovitz. Sadagora is a little bit more inland, away from the Prut River. We walked it, so you can imagine it. When we went there to do shopping, we walked it.

E: What language did you speak most of the time?

J: Well, the Jews spoke German.

E: Yiddish, or German?

J: German. Well, we spoke Yiddish too, but German was our other language, that we learned in school.

E: Did you go to a separate school from the Christians?

J: Yes.

E: Now you said you went to two different schools.

J: Yah, a Jewish cheder, but the Jews went to a separate school than the Christians went to.

E: Why?

J: The Christians — Ukrainian and German.

E: Why did you learn German in school?

J: German and Jewish.

E: Now why didn’t you learn Ukrainian?

J: Because the state — the government — was Austrian. Kaiser Franz Josef. So we had to learn German.

E: Why didn’t the Christians have to?

J: The Christians had to, too, but they had to learn Ukrainian too.

E: You Jewish school.

J: No, they learned theirs (pauses), I’m not sure. They learned theirs in school and church.

E: What church?

J: Their church. Now they learned Ukrainian in their school and their church. I don’t remember that.

E: How did you learn to speak Ukrainian if you didn’t learn Ukrainian —

J: Well, that’s same as kids play around with other kids in town. I learned to speak Romanian too. I didn’t learn that in a school. I learned that amongst the people.

E: Why didn’t the Ukrainian — the Ukrainian Christians learned German where you were, and they learned Ukrainian. Ukrainian was not required.

J: Right.

E: Everyone learned German

J: Right. Cause everyone had to learn German Kaiser Franz Josef spoke German. Just like in Hungary, everybody had to learn German and Hungarian. They didn’t have to learn Hungarian, but —

E: We read a lot about the national movements to make Ukraine a country of its own, and they were very concerned about language.

J: Yah. You see, the Ukrainian language was, at that time, a second language — like a mother tongue. We learned the "must" language, was German. When they went in the army, they had to speak German. All their orders and everything was given in German.

E: Now, did you ever consider yourself a Ukrainian?

J: No! Austrian!

E: You didn’t?! Now, there is a lot of emphasis in my books on what the Ukrainians thought — that a lot of them wanted to be [regarded as] Ukrainian before they wanted to be [regarded as] anything else.

J: Not before the First World War — or durin’ the war, no. There was no such thing as, "I’m a Ukrainian national," —

E: Well, they had political parties that were up for that, right during that time —

J: Well, they had polit — well, just like the Jews had somebody up there, too.

E: Well, they formed political parties in order to get the Ukrainian nationalist parties —

J: Not durin’ the First World War.

E: During the 70's, 80's — they started out as a cultural movement and went into politics.

J: I was wondering, because you said you came from the Ukraine but you never said you were a Ukrainian.

E: No. I never remembered that party. See, the party that was runnin’ by us was the Social Democrats, and (pauses) — there was two parties. ‘Cause I remember I was goin’ to be a politician (lightly self-deprecative tone) — al[ways] doctors ran "Hoch! Doctor So-and-So," and "Phooey! Doctor So-and-So"

E: Yah, you told me about that —

J: That was the only two parties, and that was no Ukrainian. German speaking.

E: Well, they might have been German speaking, but there were several, seven or eight parties, one or two of them wanted as their main thing to have the Ukrainian people be a country of their own.

J: Well, I don’t know what country that could have been, ‘cause Russian only had the languages, Russian was —

E: No, It started in Russia as an underground movement, because they had been persecuted, and then they went over to the Austro-Hungarian side after they got influenced by the feeling of "Let’s have a country of our own."

J: I don’t remember any part of that at all.

E: That’s why they had a civil war. After the Revolution?

J: Yah?

E: The First World War in 1918 the Austria-Hungarians tried to break free

J: I don’t remember any part of that I think that was after 1920.

E: I have 1918.

J: 1918 I was there ‘til 1920, and I don’t remember no civil war, and I was for a while under the Russian regime, and then I was under the Romanian regime, and I don’t remember no civil war, then. But I do remember readin’ about the civil war in the United States after I left there — then there was a civil war, but I don’t remember no [civil war in] 1918.

E: I have in one of my books a list of dates Civil war so that (flips pages) Yah, (reading), "1919 the Ukrainian Soviet Republic," so Soviet Republic —

J: Yah

E: Here. "Declaration of independence by the Ukrainian (rada?), January 9, 1918" and that’s when they started the Civil War, right?

J: That was on the Soviet side.

E: Well, I don’t know if it was on the Soviet side, but it declared its independence.

J: Not on the Austrian side, of course. Now wait a minute! Here’s something else, there. If they did, they didn’t do it in Ukraines. They didn’t do it in Bessarabia, or Bukovina. Because Romania had both of those, those years.

E: For 1918?

J: Yes! Soon as the War ended. They gave Romania — the Americans and England divided the countries, there.

E: Okay. The war ended December 2, 1918 so it’s one year afterwards that the —

J: Romania had it.

E: — that the Ukrainians —

J: Romania had it. Then, they had civil war, then it was away from Ukraines!

E: It was the major part of the civil war and had the major part of Ukraine in it, because that was in our textbooks and in our notes —

J: Well, then, it was further than Chotin, or further than —

E: Well, it must just not have gotten to you?! —

J: — course not. ‘Cause we were under Romanian rule!

E: ‘Cause Finland tried to pull out and they did. Here (referring to notes/book), and they did, in 1918. Helsinki liberated, Finland pulled out.

J: Now if there was a civil war, then it must have been away, further than the state of Bessarabia.

E: So, did you consider yourself, like a Californian here, a Bessarabian there?

J: Yah! That was —

E: It was that important? Bessarabia was?

J: Yah! Was a state, Bessarabia was a state!

E: Now how ‘bout Bukovina?

J: That was a state in Austria.

E: So you were not in that at all—

J: No, I was in Austria, I lived in Bukovina, in Austria. I was only born in Bessarabia.

E: So, you didn’t get to Bukovina?

J: No, take a look at 1918

[more discussion on those lines; below, I pick up the dialog again when it gets personal]

J: My mother used to do the embroidery. I used to help with the embroidery. The coats were made out of sheepskin with the wool inside. Then, we took a piece of sheepskin lace — not lace — a band, plain strip, and we carved little holes, and we pulled a needle with two, three color threads, in and out, in and out, in and out ‘til it became a lace, like. And my mother would sew that around the color and in front.

E: Women’s clothes

J: Women, used to embroider all their stuff. And that was linen — pure linen, dresses. Skirts, blouses. The Ukrainians went to Russian Orthodox. The Poles went to (pause) —

E: Roman Catholic?

J: Well, somethin’ like Roman Catholic. Catholic, anyway. The Romanians went to Russian Orthodox, only in Romanian language — their priests. Ukrainians the priests spoke Ukrainian. The Polish were in Polish, Catholics. So the Jews of course, Jewish. So there was actually four, four churches in those times.

E: Well, (laughs) I read about little ones. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses were there, it says —

J: Well, I don’t know — but the Russian we could tell the Ukrainian church with the big white domes. What we call the Protestant church, no wasn’t protestant, was Catholic, with the narrow steeple. We knew that was Polish. The Rumanian were like Ukrainian, the wide domes. The same style as in the East —

E: Oh, the mosques?

J: Yah, the mosques. Same style.

E: And how ‘bout food? I know you had Jewish food, but how ‘bout the Christians?

J: Food? They had different kind of food.

E: The Ukrainians ate different kind of food from the Russians?

J: No, the Ukrainians ate the same kind of food as the Russians. Soups, lamb, and beef, pork. The Romanians ate about the same, but mostly lambs and goat. ‘Course the Jews ate chicken, beef and [unclear to me]. The food, it smelled even different, the Ukrainian food than the Jewish food from the Russian food , or their meat. It smelled different. Sometimes the Jews, us kids, couldn’t stand that smell. But I’d go downtown; they had butcher shops where they sold smoked sausages, smoked bolognas, smoked salamis. And I’d go and buy those little sausages, made out of pork, hot, or warm. Almost like a hotdog when they were real sausages. Not so much pork grease in ‘em as they was meat in ‘em. Little chunks of meat. And that was delicious. And that’s against the Jewish —

E: Yeah.

J: — and I got those big rabbi’s children to eat.

E: Yeah, you told me about that on the earlier tapes.

J: Now, how about the Ukrainian music and dancing?

E: The Ukrainian music and dancing was much different than the Jewish dancing. The Ukrainian music and dancing was even different than the Romanian dancing and music. They had different style, different music. But we didn’t call them Romanians; we called ‘em Moldavians.

J: We called the Ukrainians Ukrainians —

E: You didn’t call them Ruthenians?

J: No, we called ‘em Ukrainians.

E: What did they call themselves?

J: Ukrainians. In German, they were Ruthenians. In Russian they were Ukrainians..

E: They were? Oh, yes, I guess the Russians were the ones who renamed ‘em.

J: Yah. "Ukrainski."

*******************

Long passage comparing common phrases in Ukrainian/Russian

*******************

E: Now you spoke the Russian more often?

J: Now, towards the end, during the wartime, I spoke the Russian more often.

E: Why?

J: I got in contact more with the Russian soldiers, as I did hardly with the Romanian soldiers. Because the Ukrainian soldiers spoke German, in the army. During the war, I was mostly in with soldiers. I got my food, everything with soldiers. I dealt with ‘em, I sold [to] ‘em, I bought from ‘em. So, it was strictly German or Russian. I spoke Russian a lot more with them than I did Ukrainian. Before the war, in school, as a child, I spoke more Ukrainian with kids, as I played around, but not too much, because I played around mostly with Jewish kids. But sometimes I played with Ukrainian kids, we’d speak Ukrainian. I spoke all three languages by the time I was 11, 12 years old. I spoke German, Russian or Ukrainian, and Romanian.

E: Could your father do that?

J: My father could speak Russian and Jewish — not even German.

E: And your mother?

J: Also only Russian and Jewish.

E: How about the rest of the children [your siblings]?

J: The rest of the children — two of them were born in Austria, and my brother had to go to school like me, in Austria, so we spoke German. I spoke more — my brother couldn’t speak Ukrainian; my sisters couldn’t speak Ukrainian, nothin’ but German or Jewish. I played around more with Christian kids, I always played around more with Christian kids than Jewish kids — more than they [siblings] did, so I learned the language. Romanian same thing. During the war I learned Romanian ‘cause I was in Romania too. I’d go from one border to the other. Well, I said, if they were fightin’ I’d stay on one side; in a day or two I’d be on the other side. As a child, they never bothered you. As a child, I could walk right across the trenches after they got through fightin’ so I got around that way. And languages, for me, was easy to pick up. ‘Course I had spoken two already, so — Just like American. I spoke American like I do right now, after I was here two years in the United States.

E: What else did he want to know about?

J: Well, I don’t know. That’s the main one he picked up, there, as we went through it.

E: Yah. Well, the only thing I could say about Kerensky is we were free under him.

J: Well, I think I’m not going to be able to put as much emphasis on that as I was going to, because of all these border changes, ‘cause they’re not really dealt with too much in the books.

E: Oh.

J: That’s what I —

J: Well, the border changes (pauses), Well, like you said, when the Ukrainians, when they declared their own independence, didn’t take Bessarabia or Bukovina into consideration there, ‘cause that belonged to Romania at the time.

E: [Puzzled intonation] I’m going to look that up, ‘cause there’s a whole chapter in that, just Bukovina, and it’s kind of interesting. I haven’t really gotten interested enough in that because I —

J: See, they gave Poland back Poland

[more on this tangent]

 


[And some weeks later, he sent the following in a letter. It was typed, something only my mother could have done, and from the grammar and syntax, I am nearly sure that she did not take down a literal transcription. The memory is so interesting that it warrants inclusion; see below.]

 

One time when I was on the Russian side they were shelling the city of Novosolitza. While I was standing there selling little white rolls to troops moving toward the front, a shell fell about 30 feet from me. It made a crater abut three feet wide and two feet deep. We were taught always to jump into a crater where a shell had hit before, because no two shells ever struck the same spot. As I was going to jump into the hole another shell burst behind me and a piece of shrapnel lodged in my leg. In the same town the following day, we were sitting down to eat dinner. One of the girls of the family with whom I was staying went down into the cellar to get some Kosher dill pickles. Just then a plane flew over and dropped a bomb into the yard, and killed the girl on the steps.

The way I got the scar on my right arm — at the age of 10 I was on the Austrian side. I went into an experimental school to watch. They were trying to see at what degree oil would boil. They were using wood to stoke the fire. I always loved to build fires, so I took a stick of wood to add to the fire, but there was no room for it. I kept pushing it until it hit the pot of oil, spilling some down my sleeve. I poured the oil out of the sleeve and stuck my arm into a sink full of cold water. I was crying hard. They rushed me to an army field hospital (all the doctors were in the service then). The doctor looked at my arm. He asked one of the orderlies to hold my left arm and my feet while he cut the blisters open. Then he took some blue water on gauze and rubbed all the dead skin off. Then he put some ointment on and bandaged it. I fainted twice during the operation. He wanted me to come back on the third day for a change of dressing. Since I had fainted twice before, I was afraid to go back to the hospital, so I left the bandage on until gangrene set in. Then it started to hurt badly again. I began to cry, so they took me back to the field hospital. When the doctor cut off the bandage the flesh came off, and it stank so badly nobody could stay close to me. They wanted to amputate, but there were no relatives to sign for me. So nobody wanted to take the responsibility. They put me in a hospital bed with my arm tied up above my head, and they used a medicine made out of oil and lime water, applying it with a feather. I lay there for three months and recovered the use of my arm, but I was so thin my legs were like broomsticks, and I had to learn to walk all over again. That was one time I was glad I was alone without my parents.

At the age of 13 I was on the Romanian side again. There was a whiskey distillery in the town. They broke a lot of the whiskey barrels and the whiskey flowed down the river. Also there was a battle not far from the town, and some of the blood flowed down our river. I drank some of the water and got typhoid fever. They took me to a field hospital where they had civilian women from the town as nurses. I had such high fever that I was delirious. I thought I had given money to one of the nurses to buy oranges. When she didn’t bring me any oranges I bit her finger. Then I tried to jump out of the window to run away. They put me in restraints. To get even I didn’t tell them when I had to go to the bathroom. So I messed up the whole bed. They took me out and bathed me and put me in a clean bed until I got well.

 

Jack with daughter Elizabeth, 1956.
Proud grandpa, 1974.

 


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