Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Two Women Take Charge

Fannie was one of our original interviews and one of our natural storytellers. You can read some of her stories from our initial interview in Fire, Light and Legacy. For this interview her daughter Miriam joined us.

Fannie is petite and attractive with an elfin charm. She quickly takes command of a room. At 95 she still has an energy that reminds me that she was an active force in the Jewish community.

In our prior interview, Fannie had told us a story of how her mother had sat her down as a child and told her stories with the instruction to "Shreibes arupt", write it down. She began to do that in her 70s, subsequently publishing several books. I asked her if she had shared her stories in a similarly purposeful manner with her daughter.

Fannie replied, "I tried in my way. It was not like my mother. My mother used to say, “Ich vill zuchen epis” . I’m going to show you something. And I just blurt things out as I go along, as we live and I say, this is what happened and this is what happened so they …."

Miriam: So when we’re together, inevitably…
Fannie: I talk

Miriam: She talks about different times, different events and different people that are all in the books and …

Fannie: If they’re not in one, they’re in another
Miriam: Exactly

One of the most delightful aspects of this interview soon proved to be the interaction between our interviewees. There was a rhythm to the way they jointly told these oft-shared stories, like a ping pong ball batted back and forth between them. It was more than finishing each other's sentences, it was as if they jointly told the story, each one contributing a sentence followed by the other. I've tried to preserve the flavor below.

We began by asking Miriam if there was a favorite story of hers and she told us that the most exciting story was that of how her grandparents got together and immigrated to the US.

Miriam began,"When Mariam wants to marry Shimon, but other relatives of the family have other plans for Shimon so Mariam’s mother, my Bubbe Ruchel, gets together with Shimon's mother and they have a plan to sneak Mariam to …"

Fannie: America

Miriam: Well to America

Fannie: They have to get down to Bucharest

Miriam: They have to get down to Bucharest first and Mariam doesn’t have a birth certificate so she takes her best girl friend’s birth certificate because her best girl friend is married, she’s not going anywhere, so her name is Mary Greenberg. So she took Mary Greenberg’s birth certificate and she goes with

Fannie: She went alone to Bucharest and when she got to Bucharest she wasn’t well received of course, but Shimon was there

Miriam: And Shimon was traveling with another aunt.

Fannie: No Shimon was traveling with this group.

Miriam: Yes, but it was an aunt, right?

Fannie: Yes, yes

Miriam: Not his mother, an aunt, and the aunt had other ideas. She wanted her daughter to be with Shimon. Gittel.

Fannie: Gittel, that’s right.

Miriam: She wanted Gittel to be with Shimon.
Fannie: They all went there

Miriam: She’s not happy, but she’s traveling with Shimon and Gittel and the aunt and whoever else was there and they get to America. They get to the port and they look at everybody’s papers and her papers have a different last name. And so they didn’t let her off the ship when they let everybody else off the ship.

Fannie: They let her off and they put her in…

Miriam: A holding place, a detention place. So anyways, because she had a different last name, they didn’t let her off with the family. So Shimon had to come back a day later…

"Four days," interjected Fannie.

"Four days later to retrieve her, " said Miriam.

Fannie informed us, "If you’re not picked up in four days, you’re shipped back. So Shiman promised her, I’ll be here in four days. Don’t worry. On the fourth day, he did come and she will tell you to the day, that it was after fourth of July. It was on the fifth of July. Why do you say that? Because all of the streets were covered with confetti and they had a parade, it was the fourth of July the day before. And the streets were still dirty on the fifth of July and that’s when they came for her. And she asked specifically, “Why are the streets so dirty?” Because it was the geboyrn tog (birthday) of the country."
"Imagine how frightened she was," exclaimed Miriam sympathetically.

Fannie confirmed, " She was frightened, absolutely."

We asked Miriam what she loved about that story and she replied," Well that the two mothers got together to sneak her off."

They then related how Mariam's father opposed her marrying Shimon, but the mothers put their heads together and snuck the daughter out on a stage coach to Bucharest and then to America while the father napped. Strong matriarchs definitely populated this family.

The stories of Fannie's mother were very colorful and held a very dominant place in family legacy. I asked Fannie and Miriam if they had new stories in America that became part of a new legacy.

They began by telling me of Fannie's son who is a world traveler and related how he stopped in Iran to meet the family of their Persian kid.

"Persian kid?" I queried.

" We brought a kid home, a family of ten children. He stayed with us from ninth grade to…well he forgot to go home.." replied Fannie wryly.

She then related the story of his older brother who was a resident doctor cajoling her into sponsoring his 14 year old brother. It was to be a one year stay, but he stayed until he went to college. Fannie continued in the role of Mom.

"He lived on campus, but where did he come? " Fannie asked. "He came to me. Who was Ma? I was Ma."

Gradually his other brothers started coming as well.

Miriam related waking up and coming downstairs to find the floor covered with Persian rugs, their Persian kid and fourteen family members.

Fannie reported, "The Shah had come to town. And they came home from the shindig and they grabbed me and took me back to the Lemington Hotel and I sat right across, eye to eye with the Shah of Iran. He was handsome."

In the space of our interview we had covered two very different immigration stories. This was to be a theme for several of our interviewees, reaching out to help a new immigrant make their way in America. Is this a form of passing it on I wondered?

I asked Miriam what she thought of as her mother's legacy and she spoke to her long history of community involvement both within the Jewish community, but also in the community at large. Whether it was community relations, food shelves or youth programs, Fannie had been in the vanguard. Often she drew Miriam in as well.

Our interview closed on a forward looking note. Fannie had told us of her granddaughter who is studying to become a rabbi. Fannie was of course very proud of her and touched at the thought that she may have played a role in that choice.

Well she says to me, “It was because of you Bubbe”.

What did I do? I didn’t do anything.”

And she said, “Oh yes you did”. That’s all she said.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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