To Be Honest
The First American Year
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Presiding over the Kohn family in Chicago were Samu bácsi and Jenka néni, Uncle Sam and Aunt Jenny. Sam Kohn worked as a tailor and "looked like a large leprechaun," bald and rotund, with a full white moustache and a little fringe of white hair. He was a gentle and self-effacing man, "the universal grandfather," always making a lap available for youngsters to sit on, always having stories to tell. Jenny was "well-educated and of good family," tiny and birdlike and with a solemn bearing, but extraordinarily active. She did fine quality embroidery, such as handworked monograms on shirts and handkerchiefs, for Marshall Field's: the department store in Chicago.
When the Ehrlichs—whom we shall start referring to as Joseph, Mathilda*, and Martha—showed up on the Kohn doorstep, it turned out that Jenny was back in Europe visiting her aged parents. In her absence Sam asked the Ehrlichs to stay at the Kohns’ large seven-room apartment until they got used to being in America, and could find jobs and a place of their own.
"We accepted it gladly," Mathilda would remark, "as we had no money and we did not speak the English language yet. Our Uncle Sam made us feel at home right away and told us we had to rest at least one week before we should try to look for work. But he took us all over to show us the city, and the first thing was to teach us in the middle of downtown how to get to know which was east, west, north, and south from in front of the Marshall Field's store on State Street, and how to get home on the trollies or cable cars... It was an enjoyable time while it lasted, everyone was wonderful to us and our cousins were lovely."
These were the same cousins Mathilda had met in Kolozsvár that one time sixteen years before. They were all adults now but not yet altogether on their own; Sam and Jenny were already sharing the Irving Park apartment with their younger daughter Margaret and her family. Mild-mannered and good-natured, Margaret had married Marcus Temmer, a quiet man in the laundry business who was literally working his way from the ground up: originally he had delivered laundry by carrying it on his back, then by horsedrawn carriage, and eventually the Temmers would move to Racine, Wisconsin, where Marcus would do quite well running a laundry service for factories.
The Kohns’ older daughter Rose and her family had their own apartment in Chicago, but they came over to meet the Ehrlichs that same first Sunday. Rose was very vigorous and energetic, and Martha would say that "Rose rather fascinated me, because she was always dressed to the teeth, all the flapper-type fashions or whatever was current at the time, she was at the height of fashion at all times." She had married Béla Ruhig†, a talkative man in the Chicago fur business. His two brothers were also furriers, but since the Ruhig boys could not get along with one another, each had a separate fur shop. Rose, who "could sell anybody anything," kept her hand in at Béla's.
Then there was Leo (born László), the Kohns’ youngest child and only son. He worked at the Nash factory in Racine and lived there with the Temmers for a long time. According to Martha, Leo was so super-quiet that you could forget he existed; but he courted a woman named Evelyn for twenty years, and since she was a Catholic and he nominally Jewish, "that was a scandal for twenty years."
The Ruhigs had two children, Evelyn and Ted, and the Temmers had two sons, Ernest and Alex‡. All four were American-born and a bit older than Martha, who was quickly taken in hand by her young cousins "and you all got friendly together, even though you didn’t understand each other," Joseph wrote in Martha’s Diary. "For Mother and me it took a bit longer, but the family was so nice, and they talk Hungarian... We liked one another, and we were sure we’d get along all right." Rounding out the Chicago family circle were Béla Ruhig's sister Kati and her husband Steve Hoyer, who called himself a building superintendent (Joseph would always call him a janitor) and whom everybody called "Hoyer." They had two sons, Ernest and Bill, about the same age as the Ruhig and Temmer children; Joseph would later give the Hoyer boys violin lessons.
This then was the extended family who welcomed the Ehrlichs to America: a group all related by blood or marriage, whose older generation had all been born in Europe, though most had come to the United States while they were still quite young. Joseph would never forget how how welcome they made the Ehrlichs feel upon their arrival, and afterwards. He was a proud man, determined not to be a burden to anyone; though he'd already had to rely upon relatives's support in Kolozsvár, and here in the New World it was absolutely crucial. The bolstering presence of friendly family members was to be of great consolation in the days to come.
"I fell in love with America the very first day there," Mathilda would say. After their week's rest, when she and Joseph began looking for work, Mathilda quickly found a job in a millinery wholesale place. "With my European background and ability, I made good right away... I got all the model hats to copy and could do them all with no effort on my part.
"We both found jobs,” wrote Joseph, “but not what we hoped for. But this is America. Here it doesn't count what you think or what you are, as long as you take any job and can earn enough to live on." Despite these brave words, the heartbroken Joseph "saw right away that I never could teach in these United States. So I took the first manual job I was offered, and we both went to work."
He had come to These United States at the age of not-quite-thirty, thinking of himself as a cultured and educated gentleman. He found to his horror that in Chicago, Hungarians were disparaged as "Hunkies"—crude and uncouth, qualified only for unskilled labor. "A teacher with no trade of any kind to fall back on was very hard up," Mathilda would say, adding that Joseph felt "miserable, he had no experience other than teaching school, which didn’t keep him back from trying any and all jobs that were available, though nothing was suitable and nothing that paid fair wages."
For Joseph and Mathilda everything was strange in their new surroundings, but Martha seemed to adapt to her new home straight away:
You like it very much that here we have several nice rooms to play in. As I mentioned before, in Europe we lived with Aunt Fáni and all we had were three rooms for the two families together. You like it better here which you tell us often enough. Surprising how little you mention the family we left behind, but if I start talking about them and name names, you start to cry and we can hardly quiet you down. We have to even keep our mail away from you, and read it when you don’t see us. Otherwise you
cry just to see we got a letter from home. Although when we don’t mention them you seldom think about them and don’t seem to miss them at all.
Martha was left at the apartment with the Kohns's maid and the Temmer boys, Ernie and Alex. "Mártuka, you certainly are a good pupil to them, they taught you to be just like a boy, which we don’t like, and we can't recognize our little 'lady' daughter anymore. You are just as noisy and boisterous as they are." Joseph and Mathilda would leave for work early in the morning and not come home until just before suppertime, and their Princess who always used to be "watched over all day long didn't think of doing things you shouldn't. But now you too can upset the whole house all by yourself."
The maid was supposed to look after Ernie and Alex and take care of Martha too, but she neglected them and Martha had to dress herself. "We find you occasionally dressed all wrong, your socks the heel where the toe should be, and the left shoe on the right foot. I could cry when I see that, thinking you had to walk that way all day without anyone noticing and correcting it." Martha also had to wash her face alone, but "you are very proud that you can wash all by yourself, and you wanted to show us how you do it. You found a tube of toothpaste and squeezed it all out and smeared it on your face, and were so happy how nice you smelled."
I have to tell you that every night we find you looking so dirty like a chimney sweep that Mommy has to dunk you in the bathtub before we can have our dinner, and can hardly scrub it off before she puts you to bed. But you love to have a bath, we have such a nice bathroom here. So to make it easier all around we bought you too some coveralls, just like the boys here wear. This way at least your knees stay clean.
Martha was quickly picking up genuine Chicagoese from the Temmer boys, and "some of the words we hear you say we aren’t too happy that you learned... But I have to admit it, dear, your English is getting better each day, and we will try as soon as we possibly can to send you to school somewhere. So far you are too young, and must stay at home with your little cousins."
Joseph and Mathilda wanted to find an apartment for themselves, "knowing that our Aunt Jenny would be coming home and they would need our room again soon. Besides, it was time for us to start out on our own once more." (Not least so they could reteach Martha to be a well-behaved little lady.) The Ehrlichs spent some weekends looking at apartments nearby, but discovered they could not afford them.
Around December 1923 the Hoyers helped them find a place near "a nice-looking small park, and the place looked freshly painted, and we put a deposit on it. The Hoyers lived a few blocks away, and we thought we did the right thing. We didn’t want to be a burden to our relatives, as we’d promised before we came to America that we never would." The Ehrlichs's new home was on the West Side not far from Humboldt Park, several miles southwest of the Kohns's apartment, and "we were surprised when Uncle got very angry at Kati. He said she was wrong, and he didn't like for us to live in that neighborhood. But it was too late to change it then." Joseph had not asked for Sam's advice, not wanting to "burden" him even in this way.
Extracts from Martha's Diary, translated from the original Hungarian:
1924 February 10. Our wish came true, we have a home of our own for the last two months now. We have a five-room apartment on 2603 W. Chicago Avenue on the second floor, and you have a room of your own which makes you very happy. It didn’t take too long till we made enough money to buy nice furniture and live by ourselves, although we both had to work very hard and save all we possibly could. But we did it, and now when we look around in our apartment, 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."
The only bad thing is that we have to leave you in a day nursery every morning. This is one place you can’t get used to, and you are left there each day crying your little heart out. But what can we do my dearest, we must do it for a little while yet, as we both have to work to pay rent and food. After we leave you start to play OK and there are some children you like but you would like it better if you didn’t have to take a nap after lunch. When Mommy calls for you about five o’clock, she always finds you standing apart from the other children, just watching them but never playing with the crowd. I feel so sorry for you, my dear, but it won’t be too long. I hope Mother could stay home soon with you all day.
You love it so much when all three of us are together at home. Then you play and sing and all is just fine. Too bad I have such little free time to play with you, I’m always busy and have a lot on my mind too. We hope your Aunt Fáni and Uncle Jani will be here soon, it would be so much easier all round. They would live here with us and look after you and the apartment, then you wouldn’t have to go to nursery school. Hoping we can help them by next summer to come. Your Aunt Margit with Bébi and Uncle Imre from Paris, France, are also trying to come to America, but it takes time and a lot of money before they can. It's started to be harder for people to get into the U.S.A. It seems that there isn’t a thing we can do to help them, but we still are hoping.
Your English sounds fine, now that all day in school you don’t hear anything else but English. Even when you talk in your dreams it is only English, no more Hungarian except with us at home. Sometimes you try to teach me too but I am very slow to learn the language. Even Mother is learning faster than I do. I used to learn in school German, Latin, and French, all at the same time, and don’t remember if it was ever this hard like now.
You are again the nice quiet little girl everybody loved at home in Kolozsvár. You speak softly and don’t whine for no reason at all like you did when we lived with our relatives. You seem to live from Saturday to Saturday. All week, every day asking me when will Saturday be? Because we work just till noon that day, which is a real holiday for all of us to be together. Your eyes are not as they should be, so I took you to the eye doctor to see what can be done to help. The doctor gave you eyeglasses [again] and said you’ll outgrow it. Good thing that you don’t mind wearing them, and we hope they will help you.
Now we are living a well-regulated life. 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. No one is bothering us here, none of them come around to blackmail us and say nasty words, or demand money to let us live here. We live a comfortable life and we are happy together, we can even save part of our earnings, and don’t have to be afraid the government will take it away in taxes. All our family from Kolozsvár would like to come to the U.S.A. too, but it's gotten to be very hard now, they've gotten so strict about giving visas or permits for emigration that hardly anybody has come since we got here. It seems after us the U.S.A. closed their doors to all except the people who have lots of money.
And you my little daughter are hardly ever talking about or even mentioning anyone from home, not even Janika you loved so much. You love to hear me talk about our old home and relatives, but I see each day you remember less and less about things. Except when you were three years old, you fell in a washbasin of water; that you still remember. I guess soon all will be forgotten, which is really very sad. We still remember very well, it isn’t easy for us, and it takes time to adjust our life to our new country, but we are trying. [Joseph]
Joseph and Mathilda had taken English lessons in Europe, "but they weren’t enough... naturally anyone who doesn’t speak the language feels lost." At the hat factory Mathilda would write down every new English word she heard, adding to her vocabulary by continually glancing back at the new words while she worked. For his part, Joseph would read his daughter the Sunday funnies. "Not knowing English did not daunt him a bit," Martha was to say. "One of my favorites in phonetics was 'tsook, tsook, shäry.' Translated, we find a familiar phrase found often in Orphan Annie—to whit—'tsk, tsk, sorry!' Truly a man of imagination and resourcefulness."
1924 June 20. You can see, Mártuka, how long it’s been since I have written in your diary. No other excuse but the usual: I didn’t have the time. Our life has changed drastically since we are here... When I leave for work you still are sleeping, and at night when I get home too you are already asleep, so we hardly ever see one another. One morning I kissed you while you slept and woke you up, which made you very happy and you said to me, "Oh Daddy, we saw each other now, didn’t we?" And you always are looking forward to evenings, but when we come home we have to clean house, cook our meals, and anyway I am dog-tired from my unusual work and can’t play much with you, which makes you a very sad little girl.
All week you are counting the days till Saturday and Sunday, because those days we all are together and we always find some time to play or tell stories. But Sunday afternoon already is a sad time, because tomorrow is another workday, and you also have to go to the nursery school which you still don’t like. Although now that you can talk with the other children you don’t mind staying to play. Have a few special friends you like better than the rest. You are complaining that some of them are teasing you because of your eyes...
We are moving to another apartment soon, and we think if all goes well next winter, you will have a new baby sister or brother to play with. You were so happy when we told you, and already you are making big plans about what you’ll do, and told me to tell the stork to be sure and bring a little girl, but he could bring both a girl and boy too...
You hardly ever talk about the Old World, and even your beloved Uncle Jani is forgotten. But their letters are still full of love and yearning for you. They were hoping to come after you, but I don’t think it can be accomplished anymore. Immigration is tightened up so that hardly anyone is getting the needed permit to enter the U.S.A. Your English vocabulary is getting so good we are amazed, and sometimes you talk so fast we have to laugh at you. There are even some Hungarian words you can’t remember anymore... [Joseph]
The Ehrlichs had arrived in America none too soon. The new Immigration Act of 1924 had been sponsored by Congressman Albert Johnson, a strong believer in the "superiority" of northwestern Europeans; and it not only cut back immigration quotas from three to two percent of each country’s nationals residing in the United States, but shifted the base year back from 1910 to 1890, before the great influx of southern and eastern Europeans.
Around August the Ehrlichs moved a few blocks north to 2607 West Division Street, closer to Humboldt Park, and Mathilda began staying home with Martha all day, enjoying "more free time than ever before since we got here." She made a few sample hats and opened a small private millinery shop in the new apartment: "It doesn’t bring much yet," she wrote in the Diary, "but we hope when people get to know us better we will have more work and can make a go of it. It would be so nice if we could live without worry." Rose Ruhig gave Mathilda a used hemstitching machine, which "helps a lot, as this kind of work is new and very stylish on many different things, and it also brings more people to get to know me.
On September 27 Martha’s fifth birthday was celebrated, in somewhat different surroundings than her fourth had been. Her parents "made a birthday party for you, twelve children were invited and everyone brought a gift for you, which made you terribly happy." Mathilda was surprised at "all the practical gifts—a woollen dress, a sweater, silk socks and even underwear, which really is a lot more usable," but "in Europe it would have been an insult—a gift was flowers or a lot of candy, never clothes."
We are getting anxious to get our new baby, if all goes on as it should it'll be here in three months's time. You always talk about it and are pestering Daddy to tell you about the stork. I am enjoying listening too, he can talk by the hour and has to invent the story as he goes along. We always enjoy when we hear how you plan what you will do for the baby, and ask all sorts of questions, sometimes hard to answer. Lucky that you still believe the stork brings them.
You hardly ever mention people from Kolozsvár, but if I ask you where you would like to be, here or in Kolozsvár, you proudly answer without hesitation: "In Kolozsvár." If I ask why, you say, "Because I had there Ili, Bébi, Korcsi," and start to name all the rest of your cousins that you had there to play with. We have nice cousins here too, but nobody has time, except Sundays, to visit with them. Yes, my dear baby, I get homesick myself very often and get lonesome for my big family in Europe. But have to be satisfied just getting a letter from them now and then. Who knows if we ever will see each other in this life? We hope sometime we will be able to go for a visit, but it will be a long time because it costs a lot of money, and we are in America only one year now. We think we really did quite well for such a short time. But at what price?... [Mathilda]
Proceed to Chapter 9 of To Be Honest
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* Over the years to come, Joseph's name would sometimes appear
as "Josef," while Mathilda would often spell her name "Matilda." (She
signed her 1936 Certificate of
Citizenship with the H, and its attached photograph without
† Béla had arrived in New York on May 7, 1907, aboard the Bluecher out of Cuxhaven, Hamburg: a 19-year-old furrier from "Wien" (Vienna), heading for Chicago to join an aunt and uncle. He and Rose married in 1914.
‡ Evelyn Ruhig (called "Eve," pronounced "Evvy") was born in 1915, the eldest of her generation. She married Albert Sessler and had three children, Birdie and Sandie and Bob. Ted Ruhig married Nan and had three children, Rosemary and Franklin and Wendy. Ernest Temmer commenced the general family move to California in the 1950s: he married Ruth and had two daughters, Marlene and Susan. Alex Temmer had one daughter, Marcia, before dying of a brain tumor in the mid-1940s.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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