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Growing Up in Podwoloczyska

by Dr. Morris Goldring

Editor’s Note: This story is an excerpt from a book written for the author’s children and grandchildren and for “generations to come.” Ruth Kravette, a relative by marriage of the author, sent it to me.

According to Ruth, Dr. Goldring was a very successful physician and saw himself as an example of the American dream come true. His parents had the goal that all of their six children should succeed in the new land. The oldest son became a successful musician following in the footsteps of his father. The author became a medical doctor in New York City. His younger brother became a successful dentist and the three sisters married and raised families. They all were proud of their heritage and of being Americans. They felt humbled by the opportunity this country provided. The author wrote the book during his later years in the hope that his grandchildren would appreciate and understand their roots and the opportunities this country gave them.


The Good Lord endowed me with retentive memories that were recorded in an unforgettable manner from the time I was six years of age in 1900. I was born in a small village of Austria, Podwoloczysk, bordering on Russia. This was a small inland town with small hilly periphery and separated from Russia by a picturesque shallow narrow stream, hurriedly winding along the hilly expanse known as Zbrucz. Street after street presented squat ugly rows of houses, built flush to the makeshift sidewalk and backyards enclosed by crude fences. The people living in them took pride in ownership, possessing something that could be handed down to another generation.

When I was entered in the first grade school at the age of six, a wondrous world opened up for me. The impressionable age recorded indelibly many experiences that I could retrace and recapture – events that seemed so huge and important at the time. I can unmistakably visualize my school building as well as my first teacher, a handsome young man by the name of Pan (Mr.) Richard Keller. The official tongue was Polish, but we were also taught the fundamentals of German and Russian languages. I am in effect the proud owner of my first report card known as Swiadetstwa.

The school building was fairly new, airy and bright during the spring and early summertime, but extremely cold in the winter. The lighting was supplied by kerosene lamps and heat by pot-belly stoves burning wood and coal. A normal school day consisted of seven hours, 8 am to 3 pm with one hour for lunch, six days a week. On Fridays from 8 to 10 am every class received religious training. At this time, I might add that our ruler Kaiser Franz Joseph, a great liberal of his time, sanctioned by decree the religious teachings of the pupils’ own religion and beliefs. I was thus trained in the Hebrew religion by an elderly short stocky built gentleman with a somewhat hoarse voice, Herr Tartakover. One day a week was set aside for physical training known as the Sokol period.

At the end of my school day, I went directly home, where poverty was the order of the day. The main articles of food were potatoes, bread, beans, milk, and chicken with soup. Our bread was baked at home and the loaf was disposed of to the very last crumb amongst the six children. Potatoes and other vegetables were brought in by the outlying farmers who sold these at modest prices, but even small prices posed a money problem. To help matters, my brother and I would go out to the fields in the evenings and dig the already dug potato fields and would almost always find spuds deep in the ground. I might add that all drinking water was brought to the people by water-carriers and sold for a price.

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The cooking and baking oven was a crude chamber made of lime with an iron grate and door, heated by paper and dry wood. The food prepared and ready to serve, our parents and the six of us would gather around a large rectangular wood table. The chairs around the table were home-made, no two alike, and of course tablecloths and napkins were foreign to us in those days. With everyone seated, mother would bring out one large cast-iron pot full of the food, and commence dishing equal portions to each. Mother and dad always ate out of the one plate they shared and this was meant to symbolize love and unity. I might add that bread was doled out in single slices, one for each.

Dinner finished, we went walking and singing, thus conveying a sense of contentment having been well fed. The irregular rough stones of the unpaved walks were full of small reservoirs of mud and water. They had no footways and broke off abruptly at the entrance door. The ordinary street commotion was non-existent, though one could hear the birds sing and the insects hum.

There was little else one could do because there were no movies, libraries, athletic fields, nor amusement places. Darkness came upon us quickly since there were but few widely scattered lampposts which were lighted by the town lamplighter carrying a long wooden rod used to light these kerosene lamps. This obviously necessitated early home-going and so do the school homework by either candle or kerosene lamp.

By 10 PM, the six of us had to retire to bed for the night and each bed was improvised by means of chairs, boards, and any bed coverings around the house. The boys doubled up and so did the girls. Fortunately we were equally divided in three boys and three girls so that embarrassing moments were avoided.

I would like at this time to examine the economy of this unique town which was void of industry yet solely responsible for its own existence. The population numbered approximately 2,500, including adults and children. There were two standards, those who enjoyed a modest existence with ordinary comfort, and the very poor who just lived on from day to day. The upper class was principally engaged in wheat dealing and running general merchandising shops, while the poor class included tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, and blacksmiths who sold their services.

Interestingly enough, the little old man who operated the only flourmill in town stands out in my mind as a most unique figure. There in front of his mill, which was a flour-covered wooden shack, stood the little man all white from flour dust, wearing a long peaked cap covering his head, watching whoever passed by.

There was also one small tobacco, butcher, and bakery shop in town as the only choice for its inhabitants. I also remember the location of a table billiard parlor and a small alcohol distillery. Especially interesting was the operation of the slaughterhouse, specifically because all anemic female adults were sent there by the town physician, where they drank some blood of the freshly slaughtered cow. As a physician, I can now see the folly of this cure, knowing that this blood is completely destroyed in the stomach.

In the center of the town, there stood a two-story building which housed the police, fire, and post office. The upper floor held those who broke the law and were confined for a twenty-four-hour period only. They were then sent to another town to stand trial. One of the police officers acted as the town’s news dispatcher, known as the “Crier.” He would be sent by his department to a desig- nated spot in town carrying a snare drum supported by a strap over his shoulders. There he would roll on his drum for several minutes to summon the folks and then read the bulletin. In this manner he informed the people of all and any important events. This same officer also assumed the duties of the town lamplighter.

Then there was the postmaster, who handled all incoming and outgoing mail that arrived in town by railroad and horse-drawn vehicles. The fire department was handled by volunteers who would actually pull the two-wheel apparatus with a hand-pump set on it. In any emergency, the folks would assist with buckets of water in addition to the pump. You must remember that every fire was a potential catastrophe because of the housing construction which consisted of lime blocks, wood, and often thatched roofs. This brings to my mind an unforgettable experience which occurred one summer night when a fire broke out in the neighboring Russian town but one mile away. I was then about seven years old when dad awakened the family and rushed outdoors. He then brought out the two straw mattresses we owned plus several blanket covers and the six of us were placed down as mother and dad stood guard, carefully watching the wind-borne sparks flying overhead. Fortunately, our town was spared and we all returned to continue sleeping peacefully for the rest of that night.

As for public health facilities and sanitation, very little progress had been made. The only preventive measure known was smallpox vaccination. The commonly known childhood diseases, such as measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and diarrhea, relied largely on nature’s help. The people in effect believed that every child must get measles, so much so, that they purposely exposed their young to those afflicted so that they would get over this disease at an early age.

Tuberculosis was rampant, particularly in the spine, causing crippling. Cholera and typhoid epidemics were not too uncommon and very little was known of their cures. Surgical conditions such as appendicitis caused many deaths because they were not diagnosed or were overlooked. Another very common condition known as rickets was not understood and as a result caused deformities. Let us look back and examine the life expectancy. You will find that in 1900 it was forty as compared to seventy in 1964.

Our town was fortunate in having two good physicians in our midst, one Dr. David and the other was Dr. Swiderski. There were also two midwives, one of whom, Frau Scharf, delivered me and the rest of my brothers and sisters. Obstetrics was a very limited scientific field and neither physician nor midwife were properly trained to treat the abnormal cases. There was one most unfortunate incident I remember distinctly because of the fact that it infected the entire town for many weeks as the result of a widely accepted superstition. This unique case in point I have never forgotten, and if I describe this gruesome truism, please forgive me.

There lived in the town a young married lady, Mrs. Wagshal, who was about to deliver her first-born. Here I have no knowledge as to whether or not she was attended by a physician or a midwife. That, however, is immaterial so far as the superstition was concerned. After several days of difficult labor, apparently due to a serious anatomical dystocia, not permitting normal delivery, this unfortunate woman succumbed to a serious infection and died with the child unborn. I might add that today, these tragic conditions are averted by performing Cesarean sections.

Let me remind you that in the ancient world where notions of natural laws were still unknown, it was perfectly natural that miraculous events of every description were considered as indubitable phenomena. Our little town, being no different, was a storehouse of folklore, custom, superstition, and legend, handed down from father to son and magnified in the passing. Most of the superstitions are examples of illogical thinking. Some folks still believe that mental stability is dependent upon the phase of the moon; in other words, watch out when the moon is full. Years ago, mothers placed a bag of asafetida around the necks of their children to ward off germs. Some people even today wear copper bracelets to ward off arthritis. There are relatives who are afraid to use the clothing of a person who died of cancer, lest they too catch the disease.

The community at this time began buzzing and after many hours of deliberation with the Rabbi of the town, it was decided that the mother must not be interred with the unborn child, lest a plague would befall the town. It was therefore decided that measures be taken to bring about the delivery of the child by relying upon a miracle. This procedure consisted of tying a long rope to the hand of the deceased mother and extending this rope all the way to the dug-up grave. Needless to say, the impossible did not come to pass, nor did the curse fall on the people of the town.

As for the sanitation of our town, there were no bathtubs and very little hot water. Oddly enough, there was sufficient soap because each home made its own. There were no sewers nor means of sewage disposal to take care of communal latrines. There was little known on how to prevent the spread of contagious and infectious diseases such as typhoid, measles, typhus, diphtheria, and many others.

There were two ways one could take the weekly bath. One was an old shack called the Russian bath consisting of a series of wood benches reaching upward toward the ceiling. The hot steam was generated by the pouring of cold water with buckets over the glowing hot coals. The higher up the bench the hotter it got, so much so that one had to use a towel saturated with cold water to enable him to breathe. The other alternative was that narrow shallow stream that separated Russia from the Austrian border. This obviously was utilized in the summer solely. I might add that this running stream was the place where all family wash was accomplished by beating the wet clothes over rocks and rinsing them in the stream.

This somewhat primitive existence varied little from day to day until one day in the summer of 1903 when an influx of Russian refugees were actually smuggled into our town. All these escapees were Jews who escaped the Kishinev pogroms which had been raging for many months with the sanction of the Tsarist government.

While the newly adopted land raised the hopes of the refugees, it also inadvertently gave our economy a definite lift due to the additional spending and the establishment of additional shops. I was now ten years old when my dad, always under pressure in his desire to provide for the family, embarked on a novel idea, including me in the scheme of things. Believing that I possessed some musical talent, dad began teaching me chords on the violin, and after several lessons I was ready after a fashion to accompany him as a second violinist. This turned out to be a stroke of good luck.

With the new addition of people, our town became alive and hopeful for better days. A professional dance master from a neighboring town set up a dance school in our village and immediately engaged dad and me to supply the musical rhythm for the pupils. While the earnings were small depending on the number of pupils, it nevertheless was of unbelievable help to us. This school lasted three months, during which life was pleasantly satisfying, and for the first time in several years our family enjoyed the luxury of new clothes and shoes for the Passover holidays. I believe it might be fascinating to learn the type of dances that the master Herr Kohn taught. There was of course the popular waltz and polka, as well as the mazurka and the Russian dance known as padespan. The musical accompaniment never varied much, so you can see that there was very little for me to learn in the way of songs. Please believe me when I say that I still remember the musical compositions, that no doubt were the beginning of my plans for the building of a better and brighter future, for my earnings in the years that followed made it possible for me to pursue my studies, as I will later describe.

The dance master remained just three months and left the town, as did most of the newcomers who began looking forward in search of new and better opportunities. Once again, conditions seemed dismal and with the children getting on in years, mother and dad looked ahead to America, the new world of opportunity and equality for all. Mother was unusually bright and alert. She decided then that it would be good procedure to send my oldest brother and sister, ages seventeen and sixteen respectively, to America, who eventually would earn enough to bring the rest of the family to this great land. Now serious planning began with repeated letter writing to our dearest Aunt Annie living in Newark, New Jersey with a plea to aid in any way she can, making it possible for two to get to America.

The flow of correspondence between us and Aunt Annie was indeed promising and hopeful. Even though no quotas existed at the time, it nevertheless presented other problems such as passports, medical examinations, and the purchase of railroad and steamship tickets before clearance to obtain the permission of the authorities to emigrate.

In the meantime our life seemed brighter and more hopeful each succeeding day . This waiting period resulted in a real restlessness and with it, constant daily questions of all those who had personal know-how previously. Some of the stories told us were that of money rolling in the streets just there for the picking and we actually believed very word.

After several months of tenseness and anxiety, the two steamship tickets finally arrived on one summer day. You couldn’t conceive eight happier faces than those of our family singing and dancing. Packing and getting ready for the voyage was no problem at all, for their worldly possessions of clothing and accessories could be carried in one small bundle tied with rough rope. The following day in the summer of 1905 my brother and sister began their long-awaited and hoped-for journey to America.

Three weeks following the departure, we received the first letter informing us that after two days train travel to Hamburg, Germany, they embarked the ocean liner, the name of which I do not recall, and at the end of twelve days ocean travel, they were met at Ellis Island by our aunt and taken to Newark, New Jersey, their new home. They were received graciously and wholeheartedly at their new home.

Within one week, they found employment in a celluloid factory where they earned six dollars a week working ten hours a day, six days a week. This fortunately is non-existent in our day, but they were content and commenced saving for that day soon when they could bring about the emigration of the rest of the family. It was quite obvious that it would take the better part of a year to be in a position financially to make the first payment to the travel agent plus a promissory note to pay the balance within eighteen months.

Letters became infrequent and we accepted it. It was evident that their earnings were insufficient to spend for postage and it certainly was more prudent to save every penny where possible. After extreme patience and gross apprehension, the long-awaited tickets for the remainder of the family arrived in October of 1906.

We were so very happy and prepared to leave. By now, I had completed six years of schooling and getting closer to my thirteenth birthday with the hope that now I shall be privileged to pursue my education. I might add that my parents took special pride in my school accomplishments and let it be known in no uncertain terms that one day their son will be a doctor.

The following day we were off for Antwerp, Belgium, whence we sailed on the S.S. Kroonland, steerage for America. This ship was very old and was retired the following year. In steerage, each compartment herded six to eight passengers in the upper and lower berths with very little comfort. At mealtime, all passengers gathered about long tables that seated all vis-a-vis. The quantity of food was rationed, giving each two slices of bread and tea in addition to a small plate of soup with a meat portion. Our dad was very fond of tea and the only way we could get an extra glass was for my brother and me helping the ship’s steward to serve.

The nights were most trying because of the many seasick passengers and the creaking of the old ship. Despite all these hardships, our spirits were high in the anticipation of a new and better home. We were all full of joy and actually pushed the ship in our thoughts. Try as we would, there was nothing we could do but wait impatiently for November 6, 1906 when our ship reached Ellis Island. Yes, we were tired but oh so very happy, acting like racehorses at the starting post ready to take off.

After approximately three hours of a rough time, going through regular channels of custom inspection and health inspection, we were driven by car to Newark, New Jersey, our very first home in America. The apartment consisted of four rooms in railroad arrangement. Although the toilet facilities were in the backyard of the house, it was nevertheless a great advance over the facilities or actually none we had in our little town. I now felt like an explorer full of enthusiasm setting out with a spirit of adventure.

I recall the very first thing my younger brother and I did was to go down the street and become oriented with our new environment. The very first impression amazed me in seeing the brewery beer wagon drawn by a team of horses, the sizes of which I had never seen before. To me, they appeared like elephants which I pictured in books only. Here I was in a new world, one that I dreamed of with promises I had hoped and longed for. I remained in the street as long as I was permitted and then summoned for supper that had the earmarks of a banquet that thrilled us all. We stared at one another, sighing and smiling. At last we had found complete happiness.
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