Grandmother Stories

By Rachel Stolzman | February 28, 2020
Grandmother Stories


A couple of months ago, while having lunch with my Dad, I reminded him that my great-grandmother, Sara, had come to America alone, at the age of twelve—an unaccompanied minor. Of course, no one called her that then. She was just an immigrant, among thousands, who happened to cross the Atlantic without her parents. My dad looked introspective at the idea of me calling Sara an unaccompanied minor. “Your other great-grandmother was too.” He went on to tell me about his grandmother, Rose, who travelled from Germany to New York at sixteen without her parents, a story which showed a girl of great chutzpah and courage. When I sat down to write the stories of both my great-grandmothers, I realized I needed a lot more of Rose’s story from my father. I wrote him and asked a series of questions. What he wrote back was so beautifully told and so much more direct than my retelling of it would be, that I asked him to share his reminiscences with mine. You’ll find below the stories of our matriarchal lineages told side-by-side.

Sara’s father came to America from a small village in Austria before the rest of his family. He needed to earn money to pay for passage for the rest of the family. He left behind his wife, his eldest daughter, “Saralach,” and three young sons. All the children were under seven. For five years he worked the docks of lower Manhattan and in garment factories. He lost track of how old his daughter must be. He saw children working on the slips of the lower east side, unloading smaller boats that brought imports from the Caribbean Islands and other nearby destinations. He heard that girls of thirteen were working in factories all over Manhattan, sewing. Even at seven, when he’d last seen her, Saralach could sew by hand and on a machine. He sent a telegram to his wife; he wired money for Sara’s passage. There wasn’t yet enough passage money for the five of them. Sara would work in a factory beside him and they’d raise the rest of the money twice as fast.

I have no way of knowing what his wife would have said had she had the opportunity to send a reply. I imagine she had no authority or means by which to respond, but that her entire being must have revolted at the idea of sending Sara across the ocean alone. So instead of a response, she sent her only daughter. I wonder often how she made this journey. Was Sara tightly dressed in many layers? Did she carry a satchel of bread, meat and cheese? Did she have any money hidden on her? I’ve always imagined that she stayed distant on that ship, almost invisible, to avoid the trouble, the predation that a girl of twelve alone on a ship of hundreds might encounter. Maybe it was somewhat better than I’ve imagined. Maybe she knew trustworthy adults who had passage on that ship. Maybe she travelled with a family she knew. The other poor Austrians in steerage were her countrymen. She spoke their language. But the only thing my grandma Lill often told me was that her mother came alone, and that she was only twelve.

When Sara’s father met her at the harbor at Ellis Island, he took one look at her and wept. Sara told her daughter, decades later, that her father cried, “You’re a tiny girl. I thought you could work in the factories. But instead I’ve brought over another mouth to feed.”

She may have comforted him. “Papa, I might be little but I can work.” Or maybe she wept too.

He did get her factory work. She sewed in a factory surrounded by other children and teenagers from throughout Europe. With the money Sara and her father earned, they brought the rest of the family from Austria by ship to join them. The years were 1890-1895. Sara escaped the pogroms in Austria by making that journey alone. She married a young man named Myron Jacobson, also from Austria, from Vienna. She had thirteen children and twelve of them survived. She worked through her adult years at the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory. She wasn’t there that day in 1911 when it burned to the ground, killing hundreds of women, mostly Jewish immigrants who sewed there and were trapped in the wooden factory. She wasn’t there that month in 1911 because she’d just given birth to her tenth child, my grandmother, Lill. I suppose, Lill saved her life.

I’ve heard so many stories from my grandma and her sister, Nell (Menucha), who lived together on the Lower East Side for over sixty years. Every Thursday night I ate dinner there, and they told me countless stories about their mother Sara, who could make anything with her hands, who could sew, knit, crochet, do leather work, and milliners work, tend animals, garden, was an herbalist, and managed to give her children love in a life that gave her almost nothing to work with.

One great and terrible story they liked to tell me, was that when their mother was six months pregnant with their older sister, Nettie, her husband got drunk and beat her. She delivered the baby early. Nettie was so tiny and premature that Sara wrapped her up against her stomach and kept her swaddled there twenty-four hours a day, feeding her hourly with droplets of breast milk. She kept the baby pressed to her body for two months. My grandma claimed that her father didn’t even know the child had been born. Nettie survived but was mentally disabled. They loved telling me stories of Sara’s cunning, her capableness and her loving hands.

When my Grandma Lill reached ninety, I was thirty. We were in a sense best friends. We saw each other weekly. We often held hands and shared stories. We touched each other frequently. I also helped her with her mail and bills. Sometimes the stacks of envelopes were open, sometimes not. I helped her understand which were bills and which were statements, which were trying to get her to send money and which she was actually obliged to pay. I was confused by how many names she was addressed by. She was Lillian Schorr, Lill Shore, Cecilia Shorr, and any variation of the three. “Grandma, how could you be receiving official mail in three different names?” She laughed and showed me her ID cards, her Medicare card and her Social Security card—all different names. She was a child born at home in America in 1911 to parents who didn’t speak English. She’d only attended school through fifth grade. Bureaucracies didn’t care who she was. Government offices are not careful, organized places. She would never have told someone how to spell her name correctly. Let them guess, just like at Ellis Island. She enjoyed the amorphous anonymity. She had told me proudly that she always had health insurance. Her sister Nell never did. When Nell needed glaucoma surgery, grandma took two weeks off work and pretended she had the surgery, because Nell underwent the surgery pretending to be Lill, with her employer-based health insurance. Your name, your statehood and your documents were mere papers. Who you were was the culmination of your stories.

This photo is Lill and Nell in 1940. My grandma is holding my mother, Marilyn. Sara had been very angry at Lill for marrying before Nell, who was older. Sara said she had shamed Nell. But my grandma always said to me in private, “Nell never married. If I’d waited I would never have had children. And besides, I’ve given Nell a home.” I used to have pictures of Sara but they have disappeared. She was very short, with fair hair and blue eyes, and she always looked miserable. In the pictures I have of my grandma, she is almost always smiling.

—Rachel Stolzman Gullo, February 2019


First, I want to tell you why I had so few contacts with Grandma Russie. Her name was Rose but she was called Russie.

My parents, Harry and Seca, were married in New Hampshire by a rabbi who was supervising the slaughter of chickens in a place that it was difficult to be an observant Jew. It was a quick, unplanned wedding with only my parents, and my aunt Annie there. My mother wore black. I have a photo of that day. Henry felt certain that my mother was pregnant.

Rose could not forgive my father for him marrying an “orphan,” for dropping out of college, and for marrying before his older sisters were married. My parents had no contact with Russie and Louie from the day of the wedding until a month before my sister Penny was born. That was more than twelve years, and four children after they were married. They only lived a few miles away.

On that day in 1949, my grandmother walked into the apartment unannounced. Our door was never locked. We lived in a railroad flat. She entered in the kitchen, walked by my mother and proceeded to collect all the pillows in the apartment and then locked herself in the bathroom, with the pillows, a bolt of ticking material and needle and thread. After several hours she came out with the six re-ticked pillows and finally said to my mother, “Na (“here” in Yiddish), I want a glass tea.” I wish I could have heard the conversation that day.

Russie was born and lived with her family in a small village in Germany. When Russie was sixteen she had a lover who was emigrating to the U.S. She was only sixteen. Her parents refused to let her go. She was heartbroken. Shortly thereafter, a couple in their village had booked passage and had documents to go to New York. The woman died and my grandmother was able to convince the grieving husband to allow her to use the ticket and documents to go with him to New York, pretending to be his wife.

She parted from him in Ellis Island and made her way to St. Louis, where her lover from Germany had settled. She was a sixteen-year-old girl, alone with no money, and spoke no English. When she arrived in St. Louis, she found her lover had married someone else. She sat on the curb crying, when another young immigrant felt sorry for her and took her for a job at the sweat shop where she worked. That night she brought Russie to the boarding house where she lived. A few weeks later, a young man, Louie, moved into the same boarding house. The other tenants convinced them to get married so they could save on rent by sharing a room.

Russie and Louie had two daughters, and then my father, Harry. This young family moved to Brooklyn. Louis was a carpenter. Russie did what she could. I remember once seeing her working in a butcher shop, sitting on a low stool flicking (removing feathers) from a chicken. There was then a fourth child, Sidney, who was much younger than my father. One day during WWII, a soldier walked into the candy store my parents had and my mother said to my father, “I think that handsome soldier is your brother.” They had not seen him in twelve years.

Somewhere along the way Russie opened a candy store in Brooklyn, which my parents later took over. I only once saw Russie again, when I was sixteen. I could sense then that she felt sad that we didn’t have a relationship. I think she tried the most with me. She thought I was the most receptive. But they moved to LA and I never saw her again.

She had many regrets. Especially about her rejection of my mother. Over several years she would mail her diamond ring to my mother who would send it back. In the end, my mother had the ring and I think they both understood each other. I could tell she grew to love my mother, seeing another strong person who didn’t have the benefit of strong people to help her.

And because Rose came into Ellis Island with a dead woman’s papers, she never, in sixty years of life and work and raising a family, became a legal citizen here. She was undocumented for the rest of her life.

—Richard Stolzman, January 2019


Rose Image

Rachel Stolzman Gullo is the author of two novels, THE SIGN FOR DROWNING and PRACTICE DYING. She lives in New York City.