By Ellen Stepak nee Goldenberg
Simcha Goldenberg was my paternal grandfather. He was born in September 1889 and died in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1948, when I was too young to remember him.
A brief timeline from the early days:
- Simcha was born in Shcnasvnoka, a village near Kremenets, in Volhyn, Russia. Today this village is located in southwestern Ukraine.
- Probably at the age of eighteen, he was inducted into the Russian Army, from which he went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) in 1913
- En route to the United States, Simcha spent five months in Paris and six weeks or so in Liverpool.
- Simcha arrived in the US on 3 December 1913. He traveled on the ship Haverford, arriving in the port of Philadelphia.
- There is a Declaration of Intention to become a US citizen from 27 April 1914.
- There is a registration card from World War I dated 5 June 1917. At this time, Sam was living in Queens, New York, and was working for a laundry located at Bell Ave, Bayside, Queens. The card mentions that he had been a corporal in the artillery in the Russian Army.
- On 3 December 1917, Simcha and Dora Kalish (nee Klots) were married. He was twenty-eight; she was twenty-one. By that time, he was working as a furrier.
My father Hy, their oldest son, mentioned that Simcha bought his way out of Russia. He left with a non-Jewish friend. Later, “He worried about his family, his father especially. This is mentioned in his letters. He was sad through most of them.”
According to an unnamed source (my neglect), Simcha’s army service was in the Neshin region of Chernigov in Russia. Today this is Chernihiv, Ukraine. He served in the 44th Artillery Brigade.
Norman, Hy’s younger brother, used to tease me with different versions of how and why Simcha left Russia. In one of them he and an army pal woke up in the morning, to find a third soldier next to them dead from stabbing. So they quickly took off, leaving the army and Russia behind. Following is the last version he told me, and I think it is probably more likely.
Norman’s 2006 account about Simcha’s going AWOL from the Czar’s army:
“Simcha was arrested for passing out political leaflets as a soldier, and was imprisoned. A Russian friend got money, papers, clothes, and gave the money to the guy on watch at the prison/jail, who released him. Simcha and his non-Jewish pal crossed through Austro-Hungary. At a river on a border, they paid someone to ferry them across. In the middle of the river, the man pulled out a knife, and said, ‘your money or your life’ and took all they had.” At some point in the journey, the two parted ways, and Simcha made his way to Paris. Someone told me that this was via Italy.
We are lucky to have a copy of one incredibly valuable document belonging to Simcha. This is a Document of Residence in Paris, from May 1913. Simcha spent about five months there after escaping from Russia, before making his way to Liverpool, from which he planned to emigrate to the United States. It is only from this document that we have the maiden name of Simcha’s mother: Krukstein. Now that I know about his brother Michel being nicknamed “the Parisian”, because he had fulfilled his lifelong dream of seeing Paris, I can no longer wonder why Simcha chose Paris.
On the French document, it says that he plans to work with leather (cuir) or as a carpenter (ebeniste).
If and how Simcha obtained documents (a passport, for instance, as it says in the aforementioned document), I do not know.
He gave his place of birth as Bielozerka (Bilozirka today), where his brother Michel had moved with their father in 1911—his actual place of birth was Shchasnoka, but who would have known?
The following three items are from his “little black book” in which he wrote in Russian, Yiddish, and English:
M. Baron de Rotchil, Paris, 21 Rue Laffitte. Of course, this is the Baron de Rothschild. Maybe he provided aid to poor Jewish immigrants.
Simcha’s address in May 1913:
c/o Volf Vistilka
20 Rue de L’Hotel de Ville, Paris
M-elle [Mademoiselle] Sofie Sapil
X Rue Beranger, Paris 3 arrondissement
“Nothing molds a young man like an affair with a young woman ‘comme il faut’“. This was written in French apparently by Mademoiselle Sofie, and it doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines. [“Comme il fautmeans “as it should be”]
From Paris, he made his way to Liverpool, where he survived for about six weeks along with others, with assistance from a local clergyman, who helped many immigrants. We can’t know just how Simcha made his way there, but it is likely that he traveled by train to the port of Le Havre, from which he may have taken a boat to Southampton, or another port on the east coast of England. From there, presumably he traveled by train again, to Liverpool. From Liverpool he was able to immigrate to the United States. He must have had some financial assistance.From Paris, he made his way to Liverpool, where he survived for about six weeks along with others, with assistance from a local clergyman, who helped many immigrants. We can’t know just how Simcha made his way there, but it is likely that he traveled by train to the port of Le Havre, from which he may have taken a boat to Southampton, or another port on the east coast of England. From there presumably he traveled by train again, to Liverpool.
A Poem Written by Simcha in Yiddish on the Occasion of his Leaving Paris, in 1913. This poem may have been written for his employer at a Rothschild-owned factory on Rue Saint Maur, 54, Paris. Hy (my father) had it translated when he was living in Israel. This is the second verse of the poem, and it shows that he worked for nothing more than a bite to eat.
Don’t Be Sad
So farewell, so long,
My time’s come
Think kindly of me,
I did you no harm.
I was an honest worker,
Though I worked a short period of time;
I did not make money-
Only a black slice of bread,
But that slice gave me strength
Good times I dreamed of
And I thought they would be happier than ones before.
And so, I see a ball of fire rising from beyond the horizon.
It is the sun.
It is rising for me
So let the sun’s rays pour into us all
They will bring freedom
To the oppressed people.
Simcha Goldenberg will always be Simcha in my mind, despite the fact that from the time he immigrated to the United States, he took the name Sam, so as to fit in better. Simcha became a US citizen as soon as it was possible. He studied nights, so as to learn English and whatever he needed to become a US citizen.
(Four years to the day after his arrival in the United States)
In summary, these almost five years (from early to mid-1913 until December 1917) were especially eventful in my grandfather’s life. He was very poor, and could not have had much of an education, yet he was resourceful, and he made his way from a humble existence in Russia to a humble tenement in the Lower East Side, New York City. But soon, with much hard work, he was able to embark on a new stage in his life, and to improve his circumstances.
Ellen (Goldenberg) Stepak
After graduating from the U of Wisconsin/Madison, in 1969 Ellen moved to Israel, and lived on a kibbutz for over a year. It was her second time in Israel. When she left the kibbutz, she moved to Jerusalem; for 46 years, she lived in Ramat Gan. Currently she lives in Tel Aviv.
When her husband Zvi decided to go into business for himself, and started an investment business, she became a “silent partner”.
She has three children: Avner, Amir, who lives in Washington D.C., and Raquel; four granddaughters and two grandsons; and one cat.
Since 1995, Ellen has been actively researching her family’s roots, with ancestors from five modern-day countries. This has included traveling to ancestral towns, documenting old Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania and Germany, writing articles on topics related to her research, and translating material from Hebrew to English. It has been a rewarding, educational experience, involving contacts on four continents, not including Israel, which is in Asia. Ellen has published three family history books: We Were All Klutzes, about the Klots (and Kling) families of Lithuania; The Werthans of Rotenburg an der Fulda; and The Brenn Family of Pinsk.