My mother, named Tema Leah bat Moshe Reuven Kelner, was born in Satanov, pre-WWI Russia (today Ukraine), on 1 June 1900. She married my father, Joseph Lang, who was born in Chorostkow, pre-WWI Austrian Eastern Galicia (today Ukraine) in 1921, by then Poland, where I was born in 1923. In 1936, my mother and I arrived in Montreal, Canada, where my father had emigrated in 1929. This information is necessary to understand the problem of validating my mother’s age when, at age 65, she became eligible for the Canadian Pension Plan. And hereby hangs the tale.
My mother had no birth certificate, which in Tsarist Russia was not necessary, particularly for girls. To complicate matters, my mother’s marriage certificate lists her date of birth as 1901 and her Polish passport as 1902. Neither shows a day or month of birth. But in those days, no one mentioned minor discrepancies when dealing with officialdom for fear of undue delays or worse and of other complications. In this case, the Canadian authorities preferred to accept the passport date because that deferred eligibility for payments for two years. Unlike most ladies who would welcome a younger age, my mother bragged about her age until her dying day, one month short of her 100th birthday.
The lawyers we saw refused to touch this case and those who showed the slightest interest indicated that it could prove costly without any promise of success. I therefore decided to give it a try on my own, based on stories my mother had told me over the years about her life in Satanov in Tsarist Russia.
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The stories always began with the fact that she, the youngest of four siblings, was born on a Friday before Shabbat Shavuot. This had caused consternation to her family, because they had to remove the cholent from the oven and add to it for a kiddush the next day, when she would be named in the synagogue with half of the town expecting to be invited to the home after services.
The next chronologically important event was the fact that, when WWI was declared between Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1914, units of the Austrian army crossed the border from Husiatin and entered Satanov that same evening. Almost the entire town, including my mother, ran to the bridge to welcome the liberating soldiers of Kaiser Franz Josef, the great emancipator of Jews in Galicia. When she returned home that evening, she received a painful spanking and remembered receiving a severe scolding from her father “because 14-year-old girls” do not run around welcoming foreign soldiers. Clearly, the most significant fact is that she was fourteen years old in 1914, confirming her birth in 1900.
The next very significant aspect of the story is that during the summer of 1917, a number of Jewish boys from Chorostkow, including my father, came to Satanov to avoid being drafted into the Austrian Army. My father became a boarder at my mother’s sister’s house. As my mother told it, confirmed by my father, she, a 17-year-old girl, and my father developed a mutual attraction. This was perhaps due to the fact that both of them became involved with the town’s Yiddish amateur theatre and were cast in the lead roles in several productions. The relationship culminated in their marriage at the end of WWI in Chorostkow, now Poland, in 1921. Problematically, her date of her birth on the marriage certificate was listed as 1901. That was the first neglected and later troublesome error, later compounded by her passport listing 1902 as date of birth.
I should note at this point, particularly for North American readers, that although historically the end of WWI is dated as 1918, fighting in Eastern Europe continued until 1921. This was the result of a Ukrainian revolt against the Soviet Bolsheviks, a Polish invasion of the Ukraine and a subsequent retreat because of a Soviet counter-offensive into Poland, until peace was achieved in 1921.
We can now resume relating how my mother’s birth date of June 1, 1900 was confirmed, authenticated and legally accepted.
Fortunately, a number of people, from Satanov and Chorostkow resided in Montreal at that time, including a lady who was a childhood friend of my mother’s. All of them confirmed the events as my mother related them. My rabbi also consulted a Jewish calendar to find the dates for Fridays before Shabbat Shavuot between the years 1898 and 1903. Lo and behold, June 1, 1900 was just such a date. It now remained to convince the Canadian authorities to accept this date as my mother’s legal date of birth.
Once more fortune smiled. My father had opened a newsstand and candy store shortly after his arrival in Montreal; over the years he had developed cordial relationships with many of his largely non-Jewish customers, even close friendships with some. One such friend was a French-Canadian judge. I now turned to this judge for advice. He suggested that I obtain sworn affidavits from the individuals willing to confirm my mother’s circumstantial evidence, including the rabbi’s discovery of the date, and turn them over to him. This was done and with his intervention, the Canadian authorities accepted my mother’s legal age as 65 and her immediate eligibility for the Canadian Pension Plan.