The Saga of Bessie


This is how I remember Mama. Part myth, part romance, I make this testament that once she lived, for if I do not do this, who will?

I know little of Mama’s life in Lublin, Poland. The family were very poor, her father learned, her mother delicate with an aristocratic bearing. Second child after her brother Aaron-Lieb, Mama was always her mother’s little helper and the babies came one-right-after-the-other. Then, when Mama was twelve, around 1890, the family set out for America.

Two years before, my grandparents make the decision of their lives and Zaida goes alone to the New World. Who knows how they accumulated the passage money? Who knows the wrench from shtetl life and family to temporary bachelorhood and continued poverty. In New York City, a single man aged about 30, he is one of male immigrant Jewish thousands, coming to break ground for the family. Penniless, he lives with his cousins, the Itche-Meyer Gilashinskys, sleeping on the floor, the kitchen table-top-” Sleep quickly, we need the sheet for
a tablecloth” or stretched out upon three kitchen chairs.

Zaida, a learned Jew, peddles rags, buys and sells old clothes, putting by penny upon penny for his family’s passage to join him. Did it take one year – three? Who is left who knows?

Was grandma even thirty? A woman who had never gone farther from home than to the mikvah, the market and the shul, isolated even in shul by the curtain separating women from the men, here she is left in sole charge of a brood of six children: Aaron-Lieb, Bessie, Morris, Joe, Meyer and Pauline, ages fourteen to four. Husbandless, she manages to support her family, a part-time-effective saleswoman in the local marketplace. And eventually, Zaida sends for her and the children and off she goes, mother and leader, traveling across Eastern Europe from Poland to Belgium to embark, only to be turned back. Pauline has an eye infection or a fever or ringworm and will not be permitted to sail. Only imagine the disappointment and despair as they make the endless journey back to Lublin’s ghetto where they wait six months more before they can make the journey again.

But that is Ester-Devorah’s story and Yitzhok Elya’s. Nobody is left to tell their story-we must imagine it. Ester and Zaida leave their parents and family forever, their progeny surely victims of Hitler’s holocaust-all gone, unrecorded, obliterated. But Ester D journeys with her children to the golden land. Knowing no language but Yiddish, illiterate, ignorant, she leads them once again across the borders of those European nations, facing up against the world of petty officialdom, all goyim. Then, at last, the voyage. Ten days in steerage, far down below decks, subsisting on a diet of bread, water and salted herring-keeping kosher.

2 thoughts on “The Saga of Bessie

  1. Susan Volk

    Sam Rubel of Rubel Ice and Coal was my great uncle on the Shapiro side of the family. His daughter, Honora, was my favorite aunt.

    Contrary to your description of my grandmother, Rose Posner, as being cold, she was an amazingly warm, caring and loving grandmother. She taught me how to bake when I was six years old, and gave me all of my great grandfather’s recipes. I use them to this day. When I was 4 years old, I expressed the desire to fly in a plane. So, my grandparents took me to LaGuardia airport and flew me to Providence to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney for the day. When I was 8 years old, Grandpa Max and Grandma Rose took me on a vacation to California for 3 weeks. They took me to Lake Tahoe so I could learn how to snow ski and then to Los Angeles and on to Disneyland. My grandfather was wheelchair bound by that time, but he never let that interfere with our relationship and memorable outings. Later on, they both were extremely supportive of my career choice in the arts and helped me in talking my parents into letting me attend the University of Pennsylvania for a masters program in Material Culture. I still remember my vacations and time spent with my loving grandparents as if it were yesterday. My husband, Jeff Volk, loved spending time with my warm, caring and loving grandparents. We spent many vacations with my grandparents at their Palm Springs home and have amazing memories to pass on to our daughter.

  2. Susan Volk

    I would like to introduce myself. I am Max and Rose Posner’s eldest grand-daughter. I am also Samuel Rubel’s, of Rubel Ice and Coal, grand-neice (In the beginning of your post, Rubel Ice and Coal was mentioned in a ditty about someone robbing my ancestors’ business).

    In defense of my grandparents, Rose and Max Posner were two of the kindest, loving, charitable and generous people to ever inhabit this earth. I have many fond memories of my grandparents from my earliest recollections commencing at the age of two years old. The other fact that was left out of your recollections of Bessie Posner and her relationship with her son, Max, was that my grandfather supported Bessie and many other Posner family members financially his entire life.

    As a young girl, and right on through the early years of my marriage, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ home. Even though my grandfather was wheelchair bound and bedridden by his Parkinsons disease, he never let it stop him from interacting with and taking his grandchildren on outings…trips to the Bronx Zoo, annual trips to Ringling Brothers Circus and to the Macy’s board room to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with the Chairman, outings to see every Broadway musical and all of Elliot Feld’s new ballet productions. And of course, my grandmother was right there by his side enabling and encouraging him to do all of these activities.

    At a very young age, during my sleepovers at my grandparents home, my grandmother would bake and teach me all of the recipes her father handed down from his bakery in Brooklyn. It was a time for us to bond and talk about life.

    As the eldest grandchild, my grandparents often took me with them on their travels, and trips to visit Aunt Marion and Uncle Alan Sydney in Providence. I remember when I was four, I expressed the desire to fly on a plane. So, Rose and Max called my Aunt Marion and flew me to Providence for the day so I could experience a flight on an airplane! When I was eight, my grandparents took me to California for 3 weeks to visit my Grandma Rose’s two sisters and my California cousins. During that trip, we went to Lake Tahoe and Grandma Rose enrolled me in ski school at Heavenly Valley so that I could realize my dream of learning how to ski. Even though my grandfather was in a wheelchair at that point, we still went to Disneyland so I could meet my hero, Mickey Mouse.

    My grandparents were great role models for me. They valued family, education and charity to others. They were the warmest, most supportive people I knew and were instrumental in helping me achieve my life’s goals.


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