Fred Gottesman

Legacy with a Deadline
February 28, 2016
From Shadow to Light
March 2, 2016

The journey of an immigrant family escaping from the pogroms in Odessa and building a new life in America.

Prologue: Journeys



Clara Hyman approached the depot for the L&N, Louisville and Nashville Railroad, and bought a one-way ticket to Washington, D.C.  A few minutes later, hands finally free from the heavy suitcases, Clara leaned gratefully back into the seat, preparing for a journey of over thirty hours, when she spied a familiar silhouette through the train window.

It was her older brother Dave. He came onto the train.

“Come,” he said. “You need to get off.”

Clara looked at him in disbelief.

 “Had these plans for months, Dave!” she said.

 “Doesn’t matter.” He gripped her arm. “You can’t go. Nice nineteen-year-old girls don’t leave home to go live in a boarding house.”

 Clara enmeshed herself more firmly in her seat, resisting his grip. He pulled harder, trying to pull her bodily off the train. His family’s honor was at stake—and as oldest son, he saw it as his duty to make sure everyone upheld it.

She turned away from him. Unable to pull her off the train, Dave left as the whistle blew.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Clara settled down into her seat as the train pulled away.

Spirited and adventurous, her home life stifled her. All day it was, “Clara, help me cook dinner, Clara help clean the house, Clara iron your brother’s shirts, Clara scrub the floor.”

She could still remember when there was only one egg in their poor immigrant family, and rather than divide it evenly, it went to Dave, the future doctor. Dora was the pretty one in the family and got attention for that. The boys were favored just for being boys. I’m not pretty and not a boy. So what is my role in the family? she often thought to herself.  Clara was tired of being a servant to her four brothers, dealing with her mother’s critical tongue and her refusal to give her money for recreation. She also chafed at her parents’ attempts to keep her religious.

World War One gave her the opportunity she was looking for. Men and boys were drafted to the Army, leaving job openings and unprecedented opportunities for women. It became acceptable for young women to leave home and join the workforce.

After a brief time studying French in Newcomb College, Clara took a stenography course, and in a flurry of correspondence between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, she obtained a civil service job as a stenographer and made plans to live in a Jewish boarding house run by a Mrs. Fisher. Despite her parents’ clear disapproval, she persisted in her plans, dreaming of love, independence and escape from her stifling home life.

The train sped onward, leaving the sultry port city of New Orleans. Perhaps, as states whizzed by, fragments of family history came to Clara’s mind. 

She closing her eyes tighter as if to erase the images playing in her mind. But the movie reel had started and there was no pause button. The memories burned in her mind, only a tiny drop in the sea of time, but one burned an indelible imprint in her personality forever. She could still feel the same terror she felt as an eight-year-old, her heart trying to rip itself out of her chest.

Her family crouched in a cellar, hearts beating a fast rhythm. Any moment their hiding place could be discovered as Cossacks rampaged through their house. Isaac stood outside the cellar, gripping a mallet in his work-roughened hands, the scar on his left hand stretched taut. He drew himself up to his full height of 5 feet and 3.5 inches, light-colored eyes blazing. This image of their father prepared to defend his family to the death remained engraved in his children’s minds forever. Suddenly, inside the cellar, a cry rent the air. Two-year-old Jake was crying. The other family hiding together with them turned urgently to Pearl. “Cover his mouth with a pillow,” they breathed out in a panicked whisper that tore at the cold dry air.

Pearl shook her head, horrified. “He’ll smother to death if I do that.”

“We will all die if he doesn’t,” they said.

Pearl refused. Jake’s cries miraculously went unheard, and eventually the family made their trembling way upstairs.  They never forgot that traumatic night in the cellar. Years later, the boys would tease Jake when he did something they didn’t like. “We should have smothered you that night in the cellar,” they would say jokingly.

It took days before Isaac felt safe enough to venture outside, taking young Morris with him.

They returned, faces ghost white.

“I heard thousands were killed and injured,” Isaac’s voice trembled as he told his waiting family.

Morris mutely nodded. In his mind’s eye he saw the taleisim fluttering on the trees, caught there by the wind, waving a sad farewell to their owners lying so still in the cemetery. So many bodies everywhere. He shuddered.

“So many businesses destroyed, so much damage.” Isaac continued. “Families are left with absolutely nothing.”

The family listened in silence. There was nothing to say.

“That’s it,” Isaac said. “We can’t stay here anymore. We must find a way to emigrate to America.”

Pearl contacted her older brother Solomon  who lived in New Orleans with his wife, Simmy (Volforwich), and their eight children, and they generously sponsored tickets for Isaac and the oldest son, Dave, on a ship called the Trave.  Once in New Orleans, they lived with Solomon’s family, Isaac working as a peddler and saving every penny until he earned enough to buy tickets for the rest of his family. Solomon too, had worked as a peddler, hitching up his blind horse each morning and managing to sell his wares to customers despite a very broken English. He’d been able to save money enough to open a furniture store on Baronne and Poydras and kept it closed on Shabbat despite the hardship and loss of income.


 Clara shifted in her seat trying to get comfortable. She ached from sitting for so long. A new wave of energy passed through her when she heard the conductor announcing her destination—Washington, D.C.—only a short distance from Baltimore, where she passed through immigration ten years earlier, as a nine-year-old child.

 I906. The Switach family huddled nervously together as they waited to pass through immigration. Their boat brought them to Baltimore, the second leading entry point after Ellis Island, and they needed to pass through the all-important medical examinations. Their gait was unsteady after all that time on a rocking boat, and their stomachs hurt from non-stop throwing up during the unpleasant journey, packed like sardines in steerage class. They trembled at the thought of being sent back because Jake suffered from chickenpox. It was bad enough that Morris had to be left behind when a cinder flew in his eye as he traveled on the train to the boat that was to take them to America. He’d had to turn back and move in with his grandparents in Austria. Luckily, Pearl’s sister Chia (Clara) agreed to take Morris with her when she was scheduled to travel some months in the future. But it would be catastrophic if they had to turn back to Odessa because of Jake’s chicken pox. Somehow they concealed his illness, and they all cleared immigration. Their next stop was New Orleans, where Isaac and Dave awaited them.

New Orleans, as a port city and home to many immigrants, had a sense of familiarity. Odessa too, was a port city with a multi-ethnic population, on the Black Sea. Clara and her family settled in with her Uncle Solomon and Aunt Simmy until they were able to afford an apartment of their own.

The Heimans’ house was large, with eight bedrooms always filled to capacity with family and relatives, and two kitchens, one for meat cooking and one for milk. Simmy worked hard, cooking and cleaning for the constant stream of family, relatives and strangers sitting at her table. Clara soon became acquainted with the Dryades Street Market where her Uncle Teles  was the butcher who plucked and slaughtered the chickens on the spot for the family to take home, after which Simmy soaked and salted the chickens according to Jewish law. She made the family’s favorites for Shabbos, filling the home with the aroma of gefilte fish, cabbage soup, and meatballs wrapped in cabbage. The children loved sitting in the kitchen, with the extra wood stove for warmth. They sat close to the stove, waiting for the sweet potatoes to get soft enough to spread with sweet butter.

Clara remembered the many visits to this elderly uncle and Aunt Simmy. “How long do we have to visit them?” her brothers once complained.

Isaac looked his children in the eyes. “For somebody who saved you, you go all your life.”


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