When Ruby and Hannah told us why our sponsors hadn’t shown up at Grand Central Station, it was a real shocker. While we were on the “Scythia”, crossing the Atlantic, our sponsors had died in a car accident. Simple as that! They had gone on a trip, collided with a truck, and in those days before safety belts and air bags, their death had been instantaneous. The rest of our distant relatives had heard that we were expected and had made every effort to find us, and Ruby and Hannah showing up at HIAS was part of that.
Ruby (who owned a linoleum store on Rivington Street) and Hannah took us to Jack and Nettie Spirgel, who had adopted my cousin Irene, and lived on Clinton Street, right off Delancey, which ended right there at the Williamsburg Bridge. Irene was my youngest cousin, who had been with me at the Couvent St. Joseph, and whose parents had been killed by the Nazis. The reason I mention all these street names by-the-way, is that they were part of the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, and my mother and I were about to move into that world, probably the last Jewish immigrants to do so. Matzoh bakeries were as common as pickle stores and kosher wine stores. The local movie theater on Clinton Street was the Palestine, although Palestine itself had become Israel two years earlier.
The family immediately started planning for our settlement in America, and that involved finding us an apartment, and more important still, putting my mother in touch with New York’s Welfare Department, because she had no money with which to rent an apartment, and because she was pregnant and without English, she was unemployable. She also had me to take care of. In any case, because of Welfare Department help there was now sufficient money, although just barely, to look for an apartment and to buy furniture. The hunt began while we were still living at HIAS.
I mentioned before that Ruby bought me my first pair of long pants. In Europe it was customary for 13-year-old boys to wear shorts, so I thought nothing of it. In the U.S. it was a big deal for anyone to wear shorts. I still remember when the media first endorsed “Bermuda” shorts as suitable summer wear and the national discussion that provoked! However, on one of those days when I had first arrived in the United States, a girl had stopped me in the street to laugh at me and to make fun of my short pants. I couldn’t understand what it was she said, but I knew it wasn’t pleasant, and so I answered (truthfully enough), “No speakee the English,” and quickly made my get away. When I told Ruby about this incident, he immediately took me to a second-hand clothing store where he bought me two or three pairs of slacks. I was now a grown-up!
It wasn’t long before an apartment was found for my mother and me, at 204 Eldridge Street, a building which no longer exists. It was a fifth floor walk-up, but with its two bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom, it was the most beautiful apartment in which I had ever lived. And what with Patsy and his daughter there, it was a surprisingly interesting one.