My Yiddish Grandma and the Judge: An Immigration Story

The other day, I was speaking to my 95-year-old father on the phone. We were discussing the upcoming election, so I asked my father a question about his immigrant parents that I had never before posed to him.

“Were Grandma and Grandpa Republicans or Democrats?”

I thought I knew the answer, but I really wanted to be certain.

My father’s parents, Sarah and Abram Kamenetzky, were married in May of 1915, and settled into Grandpa’s home in Kobrin, a shtetl (small Jewish village) in eastern Poland, near the border with Russia. There, Grandpa worked in his family’s livestock business. I recall my grandfather telling us in his always thick and often hard to understand Yiddish accent how they never knew from day to day if they were still living in Poland, or if, overnight, the borders had changed again, making them residents of Russia. “It was not easy in the shtetl, or in Poland for Jews. We had a dream to come to America,” he always said. “We could not be safe or have a dream in Poland.”

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My father, Jack Kamen, with his mother, Sarah Kamenetzky, in Chicago, circa 1942.

Sarah and Abram emigrated to the United States from Poland in August, of 1921 — sailing third-class (steerage) from Antwerp, Belgium on the S.S. Lapland, a ship on the Red Star Line. In tow was their 2-year old daughter Doba (Dorothy), with a new sibling only three months away from making its entrance into the world. Grandma would often relate the story of how she managed to board the ship while she was obviously VERY pregnant with my Aunt Fay — which was against Red Star’s trans-Atlantic policy. “Nu, (Yiddish for“So-o-o-o?”), the man who was looking at the passports and the tickets said I could not go on the ship because I was pregnant. The ship didn’t allow this. So I told him he was a rude person for telling me I am fat. So he looked at me and looked at me. And then I looked at him too, and then I walked on the ship.”

That always made perfect sense to me. Grandma was feisty.

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The S.S. Lapland of the Red Star Line that brought my grandparents to America

Grandma’s brother, Harry Baime, sponsored my grandparents’ immigration to Chicago. Once there, Harry helped Grandpa start his own business — and set him up with a tiny kosher butcher shop on city’s west side. Through the years, Grandpa, and often Grandma, worked hard…very, very hard. Still, the family lived in poverty — well beyond the years of the Great Depression.

“My parents were always Democrats,” answered Dad. “I know they never voted Republican.”

That was not surprising to hear. Ninety years ago, and for about 30 years thereafter, Republicans were considered the party of the Northeast, of business, of the middle classes, and of white Protestants. Democrats held the majority among the working classes, organized labor, Catholics, and the South. My grandparents, of course, fell into the lowest working class socioeconomic status. But they embraced what became known as New Deal liberalism — promises of relief, recovery, and reformed financial programs that would provide help to the unemployed and to the poor.

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Grandma and Grandpa in their Kosher butcher shop in April, 1941.

Even though she lived well below the poverty line in America for years, Grandma’s complete love of her adopted country never waned. Grandma loved America. All of it. Poverty here was preferable to her existence in Poland where just being a Jew — of any financial status — posed daily threats to safety, security, opportunity, equality and justice. I have a very faint memory of when I was nearly 3 years old and Grandma and Grandpa came to our new home on the west side of Gary, Indiana for the first time. My father had taken a position as a staff physician at nearby St. Mary Mercy Hospital. After living for three years in a small apartment with two kids and another on the way, they cobbled together the down payment and bought the tiny brick house, styled like a cozy English cottage with a sweeping gabled roof. My late mother often told us the story of grandma’s reaction, which I actually recall slightly. “A mansion! A mansion!” she cried over and over again, clasping her hands in unbridled delight as she walked through the front door. “America! America! I love America!” In that moment, her son’s success and his ability to purchase a house for his growing family was why she sat in steerage while 7 months pregnant for days on end those thirty years prior.

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Our family’s first house. The “mansion” at 304 Cleveland Street in Gary, Indiana.

As I spoke with my Dad, I told him that I found Grandma’s naturalization certificate from 1942 on Ancestry. I told him that the form said “son” as the answer to the question about who filled out her application for citizenship.

“Was that you or Uncle Joe (Dad’s younger brother) who filled out that form for her?”

“That was me,” replied Dad.

“Did you go with Grandma to her test and certification?

“Yes, I did, and so did Uncle Joe,” Dad replied. “I remember that Joe and I worked with her for weeks beforehand, every night, to prepare her for her test. She was a brilliant woman, but she had trouble remembering the names of the three branches of government. Night after night, we drilled her on the Executive, Legislative, Judicial branches…over and over again. But she could not keep them straight. Even on the streetcar on the way to the court, we were still trying to help her with the branches of government. They were big English words for her, and she just couldn’t remember them.”

They arrived on time to the courthouse that Friday afternoon. Grandma’s name was called, and dad walked up to the judge’s bench with her to help with any language problems that might come up. Dad related the conversation that ensued.

“Are you Sarah Kamenetzky?” asked the judge.

“Aw yeah,” she answered.

“Now, you are applying to become a U.S. citizen?”

“Aw yeah.”

“Alright. Mrs. Kamenetzky, can you recite for me the three branches of the United States government?”

Grandma looked at her 17 year-old-son, but he could not offer any assistance, standing as he was, right before the judge.

“Nu, Mr. Judge,” she replied looking sternly at the judge. “Why does it matter if I know what they are? Shabbes (the Jewish sabbath that begins Friday evenings at dusk) is coming and I have to be home to cook Shabbes dinner. You understand?”

“Mrs. Kamenetzky, alright. Let’s go on to another question. Do you ever think about overthrowing the United States government?”

Dad translated the judge’s question for her in Yiddish.

“What???” she asked in complete exasperation. “You want to know if I would do something to make trouble for this country?”

“Yes, I suppose that is the question,” replied the judge.

“Aw Mr. Judge, you talk so foolish.”

“What?”

“You talk so foolish!” she continued. “Here’s what I say to your question. If the president of the United States is going to come to my house and say, ’Sarah, bend down and kiss the ground of America, you know what Mr. Judge? I’m going to go to the ground and do it!”

With that, the judge signed and stamped her petition for naturalization and Grandma became a U.S. citizen. But when they returned home, instead of rushing into her tiny apartment to make Shabbes dinner, Dad remembers that she gleefully took her certificate from neighbor or to neighbor to show them her extraordinary accomplishment. “I had a big test and I pass! Look!” she shouted. “A big test and I had right answers! I belong to America!”

Grandma’s naturalization record

Take the lessons from this as you will. But for me, the overarching lesson is this: America, like it was 100 years ago, remains the dream of people fleeing oppression and persecution. And as her granddaughter, I will, in her name and in the name of all the millions who come to these shores seeking a better life, always fight for THAT America. If I don’t, then I will leave unfinished the work of those who came before me and paved the way for Grandma and Grandpa to come to America — making my own life in America possible.

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Grandma’s original petition for citizenship

EPILOGUE

Grandpa’s younger brother, Pinkhas Kamenetzky, and his mother, Shifra, did not survive as Jews in Poland.

Uncle Pinkhas was born in 1906, and was only 15 when Grandpa and Grandma left Poland. He remained in Poland and became a doctor in 1936, and soon went to work at the Jewish Podnanski Hospital in Lodz, Poland. In May of 1940, Pinkhas was murdered during the series of mass executions of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD (“People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”, the Soviet secret police). He was one of 300 Jewish doctors selected to be executed in what became known as the Katyn Forest massacre.

Great-grandmother Shifra was slaughtered by the Nazis after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. Her remains are believed to be in a large mass grave in the center of Brest, an ancient city on Belarus’s western border with Poland. At the time, Belarus was part of the Soviet nation.

Cincinnati, Ohio-based writer, visual storyteller, PR Specialist and Telly and Emmy Award winning video and documentary producer.

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