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?“
America. A place where people would ask of him not “who are you” but “what can you do.”
Sam made up his mind to keep going. In desperation, Sam simply left Birmingham and started walking yet again. To Liverpool, for a boat to America. And, so goes the tale, he took with him the money he had from selling sponges. A polite way of saying that he simply skipped town with the money.
On a passenger list — “Schedule A –Names and Description of Passengers” — there is a listing for a 19-year old laborer born in “Russia” — i.e., Warsaw, Poland. Sam, whose English was rudimentary and handwriting poor, was marked down as “Sam Goldberg,” passenger number 90 with the destination of “New York.” On November 26, 1898, the Dominion Line’s ship Labrador, with Sam Goldfish (Goldberg) on board, slipped away from the Liverpool docks, headed out into the Irish Sea, stopped briefly in Londonderry, Ireland, to pick up more passengers and finally headed due west — to Canada.
Sam sailed steerage for fifteen dollars, the money giving him either an “iron berth, a hammock or… (a) cot.” His clothes were his sheets and blanket. The belly of the Labrador was both airless and badly lit, the combination of little air and light with the storm-tossed North Atlantic in winter making most of the passengers sick.
At three-fifteen in the afternoon of December 4, 1898, the Labrador sailed into the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Whether “Sam Goldberg” jumped ship that day, or stayed aboard while the Labrador sailed on to St. John, New Brunswick, is unclear. What is clear is that Sam walked the rest of the way to his destination. On January 1, 1899, records his Declaration of Naturalization, he is believed to have crossed the U.S. border somewhere in the vicinity of Milltown, Maine. Yes, it is possible Sam even crossed illegally — the records are incomplete. But quickly enough, after the requisite time, he made himself known to authorities and became, eventually, an American citizen.
The snow on the ground when Sam crossed the border that January 1st was deep, the air freezing cold. Sam would later recall, writes his biographer, that upon entering America “he literally got down on his hands and knees and kissed the ground. He did not know a soul within four thousand miles.”
On he walked, trudging “through more snow than New England had seen in ten years. Sometime in late January 1899, he arrived in Manhattan, his head full of the stuff on which American dreams are made.”
Sam had no money. But at last he was on his way to becoming what he had always dreamed of becoming.
THERE’S MORE to Sam’s story. Much more. You might recognize Sam’s name today not as Schmuel Gelbfisz or Sam Goldfish or Sam Goldberg but as Samuel Goldwyn. That’s right, the Samuel Goldwyn of the legendary Hollywood movie studio MGM — Metro Goldwyn Mayer. And of Samuel Goldwyn Productions. The Sam Goldwyn who made his way from New York to California to become in the 1930s the King of Hollywood. Author Scott Berg tells Sam’s story in his book Goldwyn: A Biography. Out of companies bearing Sam’s name poured film after film after film in the Great Depression lionizing America and American values.
It was Sam’s company that made Mickey Rooney a star in that classic of American stories, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was Sam’s company that took Mickey Rooney from Huckleberry Finn to the serial of films immortalizing an American boy who lived with his All-American family in the All-American town of Carvel, Idaho — Andy Hardy. It was Sam’s company that told the tale to Americans of Dorothy (Judy Garland) believing “there’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz. It was Sam’s company that distributed Gone With the Wind.
In 1940, Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, whom Sam was supporting over FDR’s third-term bid, saw Sam’s film The Pride of the Yankees. The film starred Gary Cooper as the fatally stricken New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Instead of simply focusing on Gehrig’s baseball career, the film opened with the story of Lou Gehrig’s immigrant parents, featuring Lou’s mother, a cook who worked at a Columbia University fraternity to pay for her son’s education so he could become an engineer. Gehrig became a baseball player instead — when his mother needed an operation and he accepted an invitation to play for the Yankees, using his signing money to pay for her operation.
Said Willkie to Sam, both acutely aware that Europe was already engulfed in a war that was on the verge of bringing in America: “Sam, you have done something very important here. You help democracy everywhere by showing what opportunities there are in America.” Replied the man who had trekked across half of Europe to realize his dream of coming to America:
“Why shouldn’t I — who knows better than I do the opportunities in America?”
The opportunities in America.
In 1971, Sam Goldwyn was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the President of the United States.
Tomorrow will be the 236th Fourth of July since the first in 1776. It will be the 223rd Fourth of July since the United States was formed under the Constitution in 1789.
The appalling decision on Obamacare not withstanding, millions of Americans still understand in their bones not only what America was meant to be — but what it can be again.
In 1979, my former boss, the late Jack Kemp, wrote a book called An American Renaissance: A Strategy for the 1980’s. Billed at the time by his publisher as Kemp’s “plan for a return to prosperity,” Kemp quoted from his friend the writer and free-market champion George Gilder. Gilder had summed it up this way in a prescient article for Harper‘s in 1978 entitled “Prometheus Bound.” Remember that in 1978 the Jimmy Carter presidency was already marking its depressing mid-point that would set the stage for Ronald Reagan and a rebirth of the American spirit. Neither Kemp nor Gilder, of course, could foresee the election of Reagan and what was to come. But without doubt both men knew their country well, and Gilder’s words as cited back in 1979 are worth recalling this Fourth of July in 2012 in the Age of Obama. Wrote Gilder as quoted by Kemp:
“The most dire and fatal hubris for any leader is to cut his people off from providence, from the miraculous prodigality of chance, by substituting a closed system of human planning. Innovation is always unpredictable, and thus an effect of faith and freedom.
“In the United States today we are facing the usual calculus of impossibility, recited by the familiar aspirants to a master plan. It is said we must abandon economic freedom because our frontier is closed: because our biosphere is strained, because our resources are running out, because our technology is perverse, because our population is dense, because our horizons are closing in. We walk, it is said, in a shadow of death, depleted air, poisoned earth and water, a fallout of explosive growth showering from the clouds of our future in a quiet carcinogenic rain. In this extremity, we cannot afford the luxuries of competition and waste and freedom. We have reached the end of the open road; we are beating against the gates of an occluded frontier. We must tax and regulate and plan, redistribute our wealth and ration our consumption, because we have reached the end of openness.
“But quite to the contrary, these problems and crises are in themselves the new frontier, are themselves the mandate for individual and corporate competition and creativity, are themselves the reason why we cannot afford the consolations of planning and stasis.
“…To many people, the past seems inevitable and the future impossible. History is seen to have arisen not from unpredictable flows of genius and heroism, but more or less inevitably, from preordained patterns of natural resources and population. For those who doubt the decisive role of genius, courage, and chance in history, the future always appears impossible; they can see no way for free nations to escape a fate of decline, decay, and coercion, as their growing populations press against a closing frontier.”
Jack Kemp picked it up from there, closing by saying:
The truth is, no frontier need be closed for long. Yes, the rich, bountiful earth is limited in what it can provide, but there are no natural bounds to the human spirit and its accomplishments, except insofar as we are cramped by human timidity and fear or by human institutions. In the 1980’s, the first decade of the American renaissance, these are the bounds we must pit ourselves against, so it can be said of our nation in our time, “To her, and to her especially, belongs the future.”
Jack Kemp and George Gilder presumably never met Sam Goldwyn, who died a wealthy, fabulously successful old man in 1974. At the age of 95.
But both men — and Kemp’s plan was the basis for the success of “Reaganomics” that produced 21 million jobs in the Reagan-era — surely would have understood the boy Schmuel Gelbfisz had they met him when the sixteen year-old began walking…walking…walking.
Walking out of a past filled with poverty and religious persecution. Walking literally step-by-step-by-step to a dazzling future that would bring a renaissance to his own life — and through his life’s work in movies, wonderfully warm memories to millions. Not to mention jobs to all the thousands of people who made those movies.
Schmuel Gelbfisz was walking because without ever having read the Declaration of Independence he knew — he knew — that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
So Schmuel Gelbfisz would walk to that place.
He would walk to America.
He made it. And, if the master planners of 2012 will only get out of the way, so will the rest of us be able to keep walking to our own American futures.
Happy Fourth of July.