As my field of work is German translation, I have learned a great deal about my own German roots (From Germany to Missouri: My Own Family Story.) However, as I have begun translating more and more genealogical documents, I decided to delve into some stories from my father’s side of the family as well. Luckily, my grandfather, the first child to be born in America after his family immigrated from Russia in the early 20th century, wrote a self-published autobiography before he passed away. My grandfather’s name was Ben, and he was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 15, 1913.
One of my grandfather’s earliest memories was going into the room of his 21-year-old brother Hymie, who was sick in bed with the flu pandemic ravaging the world in 1918. As a four year old, Ben remembers walking into Hymie’s room, who, although he was deathly ill, gave little Ben a loving smile when he entered. Hymie passed away shortly after, one of the millions of people to succumb to the illness worldwide.
A few years later, in the early 1920s, ten-year-old Ben received his first job. A widowed woman living next door to his family had quite a fondness for tobacco, but was somewhat ashamed to go into the store and buy it herself as tobacco was a “man’s habit.” She then asked Ben’s mother (my great-grandmother Gertrude) if she would allow Ben to go to the store buy it for her (I suppose a ten year old buying tobacco was more acceptable than a woman?). After his mother reluctantly agreed, Ben was officially employed. Whenever the woman had a craving, Ben would receive a nickel for the tobacco and a nickel to buy himself a little ice-cream cone. However, after a few days of noticing how much the lady enjoyed the tobacco upon delivery, young Ben decided that tobacco clearly must taste better than his own ice cream. Therefore, the next time at the store, the ten year old decided to use his nickel to get a tobacco plug for himself as well. After giving the lady her plug, Ben snuck away to the darkness of his basement to try it himself, expecting a burst of sweetness or some other amazing flavor that had the grown-ups enthralled. Swallowing the tobacco juice, however, he was immediately disgusted and became ill, forced to lay outside in the grass “sick as a dog” for the next several hours. Ten-year-old Ben thus swore to avoid tobacco from then on out, a promise he mostly stuck to throughout his remaining seventy-seven years.
Ben’s Mother Gertrude Ben, ca. 1923
One last story comes from the 1930s, when America was in the midst of the Great Depression. As anyone who went through elementary school social studies knows, FDR created the New Deal at this time to help boost the US economy. My grandpa, then around 20 years old, was thinking about taking part in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a part of the New Deal intended to employ young men to build parks, roads and other public buildings. Upon hearing that the next batch of men in St. Louis was being sent to Georgia or Florida, he and his friend Harry decided to sign up to escape the cold winter in Missouri and spend a few months working in the warm sunshine. A few weeks later, they said goodbye to their girlfriends and boarded the train for the enlistees. However, after an hour or two, the men realized that the train was not heading south towards the warmth, but north, north and more north. Faced with a carful of angry men, the commander then informed the enlistees that they were being sent to Bimidji, Minnesota, where they would be cutting roads through a forest in the state to make traveling easier between cities. As a Minnesota winter is much worse than a St. Louis winter, let alone a little bit colder than the sunshine-filled weather in Georgia or Florida, my grandpa was not happy. However, his stay was made a little easier when he met an “attractive Indian woman” in Bimidji who did his washing and ironing in exchange for candy and other treats from his forestry camp store. She also taught him how to make beaded bracelets and rings, which he then sold back at the camp to make a little extra money. I never knew my grandpa was a jewelry connoisseur!
Although I knew my Grandpa for fifteen years, reading his autobiography took me back to a time I only learned about in history books. By learning his story, I’ve realized that the past can come alive through the memories of our ancestors, transporting us to the days long gone by.