A Fourth of July remembrance of one boy’s journey to the land of his dreams.
Schmuel was Schmuel Gelbfisz, born in Warsaw, Poland, in July 1879.
He was the eldest child of Hannah and Aaron Gelbfisz, who were Hasidic Jews. The family had lived in Poland for generations. Schmuel was the oldest of six children.
Two years after Schmuel was born, the Russian Czar Alexander II was assassinated and the blame was laid — falsely — to Jews. The Russian pogroms began. Tens of thousands of Jews fled to Warsaw, then an outpost of the Russian Empire. While this provided a safe haven of sorts, pretty soon the wave of anti-Semitism that had so murderously swamped Russia itself spread to the Russian-ruled Poland. Polish Jews were subjected to violence, to restrictive laws and higher taxes specifically targeted at Jews.
The impoverished Gelbfisz family of eight lived in two rooms in the Jewish sector of Warsaw, survived on a diet of potatoes, frequently eating nothing but potatoes for an entire week. Schmuel would later remember his Polish childhood as both constantly fearful — of anti-Jewish violence — and “poor, poor, poor.”
Aaron, the father, died at 43 when Schmuel was 15. Realizing his mother would survive with the support of his brothers and sisters, Schmuel began to nurse what he called a “fantasy.”
“When I was a kid,” Schmuel said much later in life, “the only place I wanted to go was to America. I had heard them talking about America, about how people were free in America…. Even then America, actually only the name of a faraway country, was a vision of paradise.”
And so, at the age of 16, with his mother’s blessing and nothing but the clothes on his back and a small amount of coins in his pocket, Schmuel left for America the only way he knew how.
First he walked 300 miles to the Oder River. There he used some of his coins to get someone to ferry him across. Schmuel then walked another 200 miles to Hamburg, Germany. There he stayed for a bit, cried off and on, found a meager job through a Warsaw family that had long ago emigrated to Hamburg. Schmuel learned the trade of glove making — and the head of the Jewish family who employed him canvassed the Jewish community to help raise the eighteen schillings Schmuel needed to afford passage on a boat train to London.
In London, still poor, Schmuel existed by stealing food and eating scraps, sleeping in the bushes of Hyde Park. Finally, he started walking again, this time 120 miles from London to the English Midlands. Finally, exhausted, he walked into Birmingham where he located his mother’s sister and her husband. He was welcomed with open arms — but they had no money to support a boy in his late teens. Scrawny, underweight, Schmuel was hired as a blacksmith’s apprentice. He was fired, too weak to do the job. He tried again — and again and again and again — at jobs that, in industrial Birmingham, inevitably required backbreaking physical labor. Schmuel was fired from all of them. At night, in his aunt’s home, he sobbed at his continued failures.
Not knowing what else to do, the aunt handed him over to another set of relatives, one of whom told him it would be necessary to Anglicize his name if he were to distance himself from his thoroughly Jewish heritage. Schmuel Gelbfisz was now known as Samuel Goldfish, and his relatives began calling him “Sam.”
During this period, Great Britain was celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — marking the monarch’s 60th year on throne. Just as Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee would be celebrated in June of 2012, Britain was awash in pomp and splendor. The impoverished Sam Goldfish, now selling sponges and not doing well with his sales, quietly took note of it all — the displays of wealth and comfort, of fine clothes, perfect speech, the careful attention to physical appearance and the air of self-confidence from those associated with the British upper classes. He was so close to it all — yet so far.
While Sam spoke some Polish and could read and write Hebrew, his mother tongue was Yiddish. That had to change, he decided, so he began to study English. He came across one particular quote in his English reader that would stick with him. The quote was from Benjamin Franklin, who had written it in an essay Franklin titled “Information for Those Who Would Remove to America.” The quote?
America, where people do not inquire of a stranger, “What is he?” but “What can he do?”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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