To Be Honest
three generations of unexpectedly dramatic family saga
P. S. Ehrlich
with the assistance of S. R. Layden
To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not to be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.
—Robert Louis Stevenson
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József Ehrlich is born in 1894 in Győr, Hungary, the son of a Neolog rabbi. After his father’s death Józsi is sent to Budapest, where he puts himself through school by tutoring other students. Excelling at mathematics and deciding religion is a crutch not needed by educated people, he stops going to temple. Attending teacher’s college when the First World War breaks out, Józsi is soon called up, shipped to the front—and shot through the foot. While recuperating in Budapest he calls on relatives and finds them being visited by an elegant young lady: a visitor from Transylvania.
Appendix: Ehrlichs—The Previous Generation
Matild Kohn is born in 1895 in Kolozsvár, the capital of Transylvania, which at this time is a Hungarian province. Her father is a well-to-do appraiser of goods, but the Kohn children are taught respectable trades to fall back on if necessary. In 1915 Matyu is trained as a milliner in Budapest; there she meets József Ehrlich, who falls in love with her at first sight. After a year of correspondence Józsi comes to Kolozsvár on furlough; he charms Matild’s family and Matyu herself. They are engaged to be married as soon as the war is over.
Appendix: The Kohns/Kuns in Kolozsvár
3 “Apart and Together”
The war drags on; Matyu’s mother, searching for an MIA son, dies of heart failure. József, aiding the transport of Hungarian troops to the western front in 1918, comes down with influenza and is sent back to Kolozsvár to convalesce. Fearing the war might last forever, he and Matild marry. A few months later the Allies are victorious: Romanian troops occupy Transylvania, marching into Cluj (as they call Kolozsvár). The Ehrlichs want to return to Budapest, but Communists take over Hungary and are overthrown in turn by reactionaries. So the Ehrlichs stay put in Cluj; Matild teaches József hatmaking and they await the birth of their child.
Appendix A: Berta's Death and Resting Place
Appendix B: Casa Matei Corvin—and the House Next Door
Márta Ehrlich is born in 1919. Her parents begin keeping a diary to record her progress, anticipating “when years later you grow up and want to know what kind of baby you were.” The Ehrlichs are harassed by the Romanian police: József is declared an alien and has to hand over much of the family income to blackmailing city officials. Losing their millinery shop, the Ehrlichs have to move in with Matild’s sister and work at the family tailoring salon. But little Mártuka helps them forget their troubles.
5 “Episodes and Happenings”
Extracts from Márta’s Diary for 1921:
will try to give you a picture of what kind of a child you were: in this book we
will try to write down as close as we can,
episodes and happenings we think will interest you when you are older and can read it for yourself.
6 “Kivándorol Amerikába”
Extracts from Márta’s Diary for 1922. The Ehrlichs debate whether they should emigrate to America. Matild’s relatives in Chicago try to help them get the permit, but the United States has begun to clamp down on immigration. Caught half-aware in this historical pinch, the Ehrlichs wait to hear from the American Consulate:
will take quite a few months before we will be able to really leave for the
States, but we made our minds up already and,
my dear, you will be an American miss after all … Hope by the next time I write in this book for you, I could tell you the date of
our trip to the new country of ours.
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7 “Departure and Arrival”
1923: the Ehrlichs obtain their passport and prepare for the trip, selling their jewelry to buy third-class passage for three. Parting from friends and family is hard, but the Ehrlichs’s biggest problem is getting their visa approved, since József was not born in Transylvania. At the Consulate in Bucharest, when asked if Győr is “far from here,” József answers “Not so very far”—and is astonished to see the visa approved. Following a grim voyage on the broken-down S.S. Constantinople, the Ehrlichs (now Joseph, Mathilda, and Martha) arrive in America and make it to Chicago.
8 “The First American Year”
Mathilda quickly finds work at a wholesale millinery and does well there, but Joseph realizes he will never be able to teach in the United States. Determined not to be a burden on Mathilda’s relatives, he takes the first manual job offered. After a few months the Ehrlichs are able to rent an apartment of their own:
When we look around … and see how well we did in such a short time, your Mother
and I, we are kind of proud of ourselves and
say, "It was hard, but we could do it" … It is true we work every day and work hard, but at least we can enjoy it because we
don’t have to be afraid of anyone, not even of the policeman.
They are lonesome for their family back in Cluj, who want to join them in Chicago; but by now immigration has been effectively cut off.
George Ehrlich is born in 1925. His father Joseph, unemployed for months after a series of unpleasant odd jobs, admits to being terribly disappointed in America. Kindergartener Martha overhears her parents worrying about how to pay the rent:
I never intended for you to know about it, and did not think you heard and
understood what we were talking of … I hope, my
dear, that whatever I can help to make easier for you I’ll be able to do. And all that didn’t come true for me, I can help to make
come true for you in life. Be a good girl and study hard my dear … and never be ashamed that you are a Hungarian.
Though the family is nearly destitute, Joseph can entertain his children by telling them stories illustrated with shadows cast by streetlamp on the bedroom wall.
A cousin of Mathilda’s teaches Joseph the fur business, and in 1927 he is able to open his own shop. The fur trade is exceedingly seasonal: nothing gets paid for till the coats are picked up from storage (around Thanksgiving), by which time there are six months of bills to deal with. Always settling debts promptly, Joseph urges Martha to save her pocket money: "Don’t live just for today, think of tomorrow also, because today is gone in no time, but our tomorrows will stretch ahead of us in a long row."
11 “New Deal on Devon”
Chicago is hit hard by the Depression. The Ehrlichs, living frugally, survive by repairing and restyling old fur coats rather than selling new ones. In 1932 Joseph establishes Ehrlich Furs at the Devon Avenue location where it will remain for the next twenty years. This done, he retreats into a protective shell of Family and Home: "I want you to remember how nice it was to be at home together," he tells his children. "Think of your home as your church."
12 “Martha and George”
Martha, given her Diary for her fifteenth birthday in 1934, continues it herself: "Today I just remembered that when I felt very dramatic, I always acted as if my life story were being written." For years Joseph has intended to make a schoolteacher out of his firstborn; after Martha graduates from high school in 1937, she heads for Urbana and the University of Illinois to try achieving Joseph’s dream.
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Three: And Beyond
13 “New Horizons”
Martha majors in biology and student-teaches at local schools. Graduating in 1941, she finds a teaching job in rural North Dakota—and a role-playing identity there as "Miss Ehrlich the Teacher." Joseph, assembling George’s Scrapbook, suggests that his son might become an engineer. George goes off to the University of Illinois in 1942; at the same time Martha returns to Urbana to teach junior high. Visiting her classroom, Joseph always takes off his hat and speaks in whispers, as though he were in a sacred place.
14 “Left All by Ourselves”
Joseph and Mathilda are on their own for the first time since 1919. From the family back in Europe they get letters that make Mathilda cry; then, abruptly, the letters stop coming. Hungary, though a German ally, holds relatively firm against Hitler’s Third Reich until 1944, when the Nazis take over and subject the Jews there to the most methodical deportation and extermination of the entire Holocaust.
Appendix: Jenő's Family
15 “A Strange Funny World”
In 1944 Martha meets and marries Murel Lewis, a sailor from Florida. Joseph decides “even if it doesn’t last long, it’ll be a good experience for her”; but he has difficulty understanding when Martha gives up teaching: "I know your ideas are all different now and I hope you get what you want, but we live in a strange, funny world." George, drafted in 1943, serves in the Pacific as a radar navigator. He returns to college in 1946 as an architectural design major; on the same day that he graduates in 1949, Martha’s daughter Sherry Renée is born in Miami. A few months later Sherry’s parents break up, and Martha brings her to Chicago.
16 “The Little Princess”
Readjusting to single life at thirty, Martha goes back to Urbana. While she gets resettled over the next year and resumes teaching, Joseph and Mathilda enjoy their first chance to raise a baby without money worries. Mathilda keeps a record of Sherry’s early life, and in 1953 translates Martha’s Diary from Hungarian to English.
17 “The Little Postscript”
In 1955 Martha marries Nick Mlinarich; friends who predict the marriage won’t last four weeks are proved wrong. George (after spending a year recalled to the Air Force and another working as a computer draftsman) begins teaching art history in 1954 at the University of Kansas City. He marries Mila Jean Smith in 1956; a year later their son Paul Stephen is born. Joseph and Mathilda can ask for nothing better than to see both their children teaching for a living, married and with children of their own.
18 “Fortitude and Delicacy”
In 1959 Joseph and Mathilda move to St. Petersburg, Florida, their longtime vacation haven, where Joseph tells people he is a retired teacher. The Mlinariches and Sherry move to Mojave, California, in 1958; the elder Ehrlichs regret the family is spread so far apart, but enjoy occasional visits. George and Mila Jean have a second son, Matthew Carleton, in 1962. Joseph is diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease, stemming from his bout with influenza in World War One; he dies in 1963.
He would not have viewed his fortitude in adapting to life as an accomplishment,
because he had not been able to achieve the
goals he had set for himself. First and foremost he had wanted to be a teacher, and to a lesser extent a musician and an artist;
Fate (as he saw it) had frustrated him in all these pursuits when he was a young man.
To the end of his
life Joseph wanted to go back to Budapest, if only to see the school he had
taught at, to see if it was still there.
Otherwise he stopped dreaming of what he could have done. Instead he dreamed for his children, hoping they would want to
achieve what he had not, and be able to achieve it with his and Mathilda’s encouragement and support. And the dreams came
true—if not in the most straightforward manner—and that gave Joseph that great and deep satisfaction which is born of
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Last updated September 08, 2011
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Copyright © 1986, 2003-2009 by P. S. Ehrlich; All Rights Reserved.