Starting Life in America

Benjamin B. Ferencz

It was only by chance, after I had passed my eighty-fourth birthday, that I became aware that I had entered the United States under false pretenses. The records of the immigration authorities on Ellis Island showed that I came into the country from the town of Ciolt, in Romania, on January 29, 1921 as a 4-month-old single female by the name of Bela. The truth is that I am, and always have been, a male. I was at least two-and-a-half-times older than the record stated, and no one has ever called me Bela, although my Jewish name was Berrel. The indication that I was unmarried at that time is probably accurate. I doubt whether even the Immigration and Naturalization Service would treat the errors on the ship’s manifest as valid cause for deportation. I shall always be grateful for the generous immigration policies of the United States at that time.

I was accompanied on the midwinter voyage from Europe by my 27-year old father, my 24-year-old mother, and my three-year-old sister named Pepi, although she was called Perril. We had both been born in the same little peasant cottage in Transylvania. When she was born, Transylvania, inhabited largely by Jews and Gypsies, was part of Hungary. After World War I, parts of Transylvania were ceded to Romania, a country that gained fame as the home of the mythical vampire Count Dracula. Romania was also noted for its persecution of the Jews. Hungary enjoyed a similar reputation. Whether it was called Hungary or Romania, it was a good idea for Jews and Gypsies to leave. The only reason we traveled in third-class steerage across the cold Atlantic in January was that there was no fourth-class. I am told that I kept howling with hunger, cold, or colic all of the time. The oldest of my mother’s five brothers came with us. His name was Leppold, but Americans called him Leopold. He often reminded me in later years that he had saved my life when he stopped my father, who became enraged by my incessant crying, from throwing me overboard. Frankly, I did not recall the event, but I was always grateful nevertheless to my Uncle Leppold, whatever he was called.

Please allow me to set the stage and take you back to my first memories, as faded or jaded as they may be, of my earliest childhood days in this golden land of promise. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) provided shelter for my family when we came off the boat. There were some days or weeks sharing crowded space with poor relatives while my father searched in vain for paid employment. For reasons still unknown, my father bore the same name as the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Ferencz Josef. Ferencz is usually a first name, equivalent to Franz, Frank or Francis, but we seemed to be backward people, at least in name. As far as I know, my father was not of royal blood. He was only a one-eyed Jewish shoemaker who couldn’t possibly find a job in America in the vocation to which he was apprenticed.

Despite having lost an eye as a youth, and very limited schooling, he boasted that he could make a pair of boots from a single piece of cowhide. He had lugged his heavy anvils, hammers, and shoemaking tools all the way from his little village to New York City. No one had told him that there weren’t many cows in New York City, and even fewer customers for boots hand-made by a Transylvanian cobbler. He soon learned, to his surprise and sorrow, that Americans wore shoes made by machines he couldn’t operate. At 26 years of age, he had a 23-year old wife and two small children to support. Unable to speak English, barely literate, homeless and penniless, he was happy when a Jewish landlord offered him a job as a janitor tending three apartment houses in the New York district known as Hell’s Kitchen. It was, as I later learned, the highest density crime area in the nation at the time. We were given permission to live in the subterranean cellar. We were happy to have found our new home in the promised land. That’s where my memory of the world begins.

I was about three years old when my mind came out of its cocoon. I recall the our apartment had been partitioned off from the rest of the cellar. Its wood-burning stove was near the large and deep sink that served as a basin for washing mops, clothes, and children. The gas lights had to be lit with a match. There were niches that served as bedrooms for parents, kids, or paying guests (known as boarders). The room that had the two windows facing the alley that led up to the street served as both kitchen and dining room. Hungarian immigrants often came for a home-style meal prepared by my mother for a modest price. A new portable zinc tub could be filled with pails of hot water where adults could take their weekly baths. Other parts of the cellar were frequently occupied by alcoholics or pungent vagrants who came in out of the cold to sleep on beds made of old newspapers taken from a stack by the stone wall. My mother, who normally spoke to me in Yiddish when she was not scolding me in Romanian or Hungarian, regularly warned me to stay away from “the bums.” I learned that “live and let live” was the best policy.

The basement at 346 West 56th Street became my preschool kindergarten. It was there that I learned to muse about life and death, the spirit of free enterprise, business ethics, the perils of gambling and alcoholism, the advantages of law over crime, and similar subjects taught primarily in the school of hard knocks.

Let me begin with what may be my first and perhaps my most profound observation. What can a little child know about life and death? Put yourself into the shoes—or better still the improvised bunk—of a skinny little blonde-haired boy who began to ponder the questions left unanswered by ancient sages. At the foot of my bed, which was regularly shared by my sister or visitors, there was a shelf that framed the opening into the kitchen through which some light and air could pass into the “bedroom.” It was on that shelf that the “Yourtzeit” (literally, Yiddish for “time of year”) glasses were placed. In orthodox Jewish tradition, the memory of deceased loved ones is celebrated by lighting a candle on certain anniversary dates that are recalled on a special calendar. Each candle was set in a glass filled with paraffin that would burn for many hours. They were readily available and no respectable Jewish home would be without them. After the candles were consumed, the memorial vessel became the common drinking glass on Jewish tables.

In response to my incessant inquiries, my mother explained the significance of the fire that flickered in that odd-shaped glass placed on a shelf at the foot of my bed. She told me that it reflected the soul of a dear departed, and it was a way of remembering and communicating with that loved one. I understood what she said but I wasn’t quite convinced. I watched the flames very carefully but I never detected any souls or spirits. The only movement was the flame and some drifting smoke. What was particularly striking was the fact that very often, when it seemed that the fire was about to go out, it would ignite again with a bright flare and continue burning. That might happen several times before the flame finally disappeared in swirling black smoke and then was gone forever. I concluded that the flickering candle was a true reflection of real life. When it looks like there is no hope and the end is near, there may still be life left and it can keep on burning for a while longer. I learned never to blow out the candle of life before its time has come.