Yesterday more than 50 family and friends gathered at the residence hotel where my mother lives to celebrate her birthday. I gave a short talk about her life and history that deserves to be published. So the following is the history of my 100-year-old mother’s life and times as she continues toward another 100 years.
My talk to the four generations present follows:
100-Years-Old and Counting
She was born in a small town in what is now Macedonia but was then part of the Ottoman Empire, called Monastir, the daughter of the second wife of a Hazan (the name the Sephardic community called a Cantor). Jews first moved there in 1492 when the King of Spain ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. The Sultan Beyazit II of the Ottoman Empire issued a decree to welcome the Jews. The Ottoman Jews are identified as Sephardic Jews from the word Sepharad – which in Hebrew means Spain. Her mother made extra money for the family by taking in laundry from the neighbors which she washed in the nearby Dragor River since washing machines were unknown.
She has lived through 100 years of history from the time she was born on February 29, 1912 until today so many things have changed and she has seen it all happen. When she was born, the automobile was a new invention, indoor plumbing was only available for the very wealthy and unknown to poor Jewish families living in the Ottoman Empire. There were no radios, television, computers, aircraft, rockets, video games, cellular telephones, movies with sound.
Some of what happened around the time she was born include:
- In 1912, the year she was born, Serbia conquered Monastir in the Balkan War ending 530 years of Ottoman rule over Monastir.
- In December 1915 — Monastir fell to Bulgaria during WWI.
- In November 1916 – Serbia retakes Monastir and until 1918 Monastir was shelled by Bulgarian and German troops nearly every day for 22 months.
- During World War I, the battle of Monastir took place on the Macedonian Front between Bulgaria and France in May 1917 when Grandma was only five years old. As a result, thousands of Jewish Monastirlis (as the locals referred to themselves) emigrated to North and South America, Jerusalem, and the Sephardic metropolis of Salonika, in Greece.
Monastir was virtually destroyed. About 6,000 Jews – nearly the whole community – deserted Monastir for Salonika, Athens and elsewhere. Grandma was sent to her stepsister’s house in Salonika, Greece to be safe, get a good education, and help her stepsister with household work. The family in Salonika lived in a big house and was considered wealthy. It was not a very happy time for Grandma because her brother-in-law was very strict and she missed her mother and brothers.
After the war ended in November 1918 Grandma’s mother, my grandmother Mazeltov Hazan, collected Grandma, her brothers Morris and Ralph and her baby sister Becky to leave Europe and emigrate to the US where Grandma’s two older stepbrothers, Israel, Aaron and Albert Hazan had started a new life.
Their emigration was not easy and they stayed in Paris, France for a year waiting for a ship to take them to the US. In Paris Grandma was impressed and still talks about seeing one of the first telephones. The rest of the extended family, including the Stepsister in Salonika stayed in Greece along with about 3000 of the 11000 Jews who lived in Monastir before WWI. In 1941 the Nazi army and its allies reached Monastir and every Jew who stayed in Salonika and Monastir was taken to concentration camps and killed. None returned.
If Grandma, her mother and brothers, had stayed with her stepsister in Salonika, she would not have survived World War II and none of us would have been born.
When the ships, including the one that took Grandma here in Steerage (below water level) carrying people from Europe landed in America, they stopped at Ellis Island in New York harbor. The immigrants were checked to see if they were healthy and had someone willing to help them. Grandma Sarah’s little sister, Becky, was sick and taken off the ship to a hospital on Ellis Island in New York. Her brave big brother, Morris, jumped off the ship, swam to shore, found the hospital and found Becky even though he knew no English. It was a very scary time for Grandma Sarah and her brothers because they knew no English to ask anyone for help except the relatives who had come to New York from Monastir earlier.
People like Grandma’s family came to America because it was a place people could live free and where everyone had an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their family, their religion, race or national origin. If they worked hard they had the ability to succeed. There was no social safety net from the government — only family and work.
Grandma Sarah’s adult stepbrothers had come first and worked in factories where they learned a business. Grandma Sarah, as a little girl, learned how to sew. She worked in sweat shops with many other young girls making dresses. Today, little girls’ 10-years-old, are not allowed to work. In Grandma Sarah’s time she was the only one making money and she supported her whole family.
Because Grandma Sarah had to work, she didn’t get to finish elementary school. She only went through about the third grad before she started working in a clothing factory. She always says how sad she is that she couldn’t finish school because she really liked school.
She sometimes calls herself “stupid.” She is wrong. She is only undereducated. She is a brilliant woman who is smarter than all of us since she is still here enjoying her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren 100 years after she was born. She is probably the smartest person in this room.
She came to America knowing no English but did speak some French, Turkish, Ladino (the Sephardic version of Spanish) and Greek. She learned English, how to sew and was good enough she was asked to be a supervisor. Since she was so fast at her work she gave up being a supervisor because she made more money being paid by the piece rather than on salary.
She was a hard worker, a risk taker, a fast learner and an aggressive go getter. She learned by doing and being strong and unafraid.
As a young woman she married my father, Sam, a Sephardic immigrant from Istanbul Turkey whose family came to the United States about the same time as Grandma Sarah and settled, like her, in Brooklyn. Grandpa Sam was a hard worker who did any job he could get. Although intelligent enough to be a college graduate, he like Grandma Sarah, had to work before finishing elementary school.
He did everything. He worked as a short order cook at Madison Square Garden in New York, drove a taxi cab, worked in the shipyards in San Pedro and Long Beach, California building Liberty ships during World War II (since he was rejected for the military), drove a Helms Bakery truck, drove a delivery truck for a dry cleaner and eventually started his own dry-cleaning business which he operated until he retired after his second heart attack.
The business was a success because he worked 16 hours a day six days a week and only eight hours on Sunday. He was eventually helped by my big brother who operated the business after Grandpa retired. Grandpa Sam supported his family and kept his mother-in-law in our house until she died.
Grandma and Granpa Sam loved each other and tolerated each other. He provided for Grandma and his children. Grandma brought up three children all of whom were successes in their own right. She was there for her children 24 hours a day seven days a week because she and Grandpa Sam felt it was important that their children always had someone to care for them. They taught their children what was important by example not by lecture.
Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Sam are the kind of people that made America great. Impressive, self-sufficient, asking nothing of anyone but the ability to work as hard as they could to live free of fear.
Grandma Sarah’s children grew up with little in the way of things and much in the way of love. We, her children learned by their example, that love and caring for each other was more important than things. Grandpa Sam, when Irving, Starr and I were young, worked three jobs and would leave for work before we woke and not return until after we were in bed. On Sundays he had the right to sleep late but we would all jump into bed with him and Grandma and get into vicious and delicious tickling bouts. You can still tickle Grandma Sarah without even touching her.
People like Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Sam made this a great country – immigrants who took advantage of the opportunities the United States of America provided to them – and made a success out of it without an education by making up for the lack of education with hard work and determination.
Grandma Sarah works every day for her great-grandchildren playing Bingo here at Palm Court. Her winnings go into banks for each great-grandchild who will each receive their share after I am done talking.
Happy Birthday Mother – We all love and respect you and expect to celebrate your birthday on February 29, 2112.