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Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one's own way. -Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life." Moses spoke these words to the children of Israel while they were still on the other side of the Jordan, preparing to cross over. But he might as well have been speaking directly to me while I was lying in the sun during my lunch break on the roof of the F.L. Smithe Machinery Company at 44th Street and 12th Avenue in New York City.
This was in the summer of 1946, a year after World War II ended. I had come to the United States in May of that year aboard the S.S. Marine Flasher, one of the first ships to arrive in New York with Holocaust survivors from Europe. I wasn't in the country more than a few weeks when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society gave me the addresses of three companies that might be interested in hiring someone with my kind of technical skills. When I went to inquire, two of them were closed for vacation. The third was F.L. Smithe.
A month later I was already feeling acclimated. I had a good job, $1.25 an hour on the Smithe assembly line, building machines that made envelopes. I had found a place to live, a room in Mrs. Klapper's apartment at 99th Street and Madison Avenue, near my older brother George, who had immigrated to New York before I was born. I knew how to get around the city by subway, and I had discovered a good place to eat-the Horn and Hardart automat, where you put 35 cents in the slot and the door opened for you to take out the dish you had chosen. It wasn't even necessary to talk to a waitress, which made it convenient since I only spoke a few words of English and wouldn't have known what to say. But I didn't need to understand the language in order to see that I had landed in an optimistic country, full of energy and hope, which was a good thing. It suited my own optimistic nature.
At lunchtime I would go up to the Smithe company's flat roof, where I could feel the sun on my face. There I would lie on a bench, close my eyes, and try to imagine all the wonderful things the future might be holding in store for me. However, lying there on that bench, I couldn't help dreaming about the past too. My mother would appear to me as she had been when I last saw her, and my father, dying in his hospital bed years before anyone gave a serious thought to the Germans. And inevitably, most vividly of all, I would see my wife Wusia and my baby Michael. I imagined the three of us as we had been in the Lwow ghetto on the day of the big Aktion. I saw us standing in the endless line of people holding their babies in their arms, their children by the hand, the old people, the younger people, all of us moving slowly toward the Jan Sobieski School building, where we knew something was happening though we couldn't tell what. But mostly what I saw was that moment when the German soldier looked at my identity card with its Luftwaffe stamp and pushed me to the right, the side for people who were going to live, just before he shoved Wusia and Michael to the left. Then I was being forced out the door, and as I turned back my eyes met Wusia's for just an instant. That was the moment I had been seeing ever since. I thought about all my losses, everyone in my family, my mother, my brother Max, my sisters Esther and Dvorah, and their families. But what I mainly saw were Wusia's eyes and her last look as I was pushed out the door and into the school's courtyard.
These were the pictures that ran through my mind every day up on the rooftop and every night, lying alone in my bed at Mrs. Klapper's. I saw their images, and I wondered why I had survived and they had not. I wondered whether I had done everything I could for Wusia and Michael, whether I could have saved them somehow, if only I had made some other decision, or had greater foresight. In my heart I knew the answer was no, but the questions haunted me. My mind dwelled on what I might have done to change fate. The past, with all its anguish and regret, was always there, waiting for me in every quiet moment.
These weren't thoughts I shared with anyone. None of my New York relatives even knew I had been married and had had a son. Wusia and I had lived our few short years together in Lwow, a city that is now in Ukraine, but at that time was in the part of Poland occupied by the Russians in 1939 and then taken from the Russians by the Nazis. It was not a place from where news traveled easily, and afterwards anyone who could have told them about my marriage was dead, so my relatives didn't know. For me the past was alive, loaded with feelings I simply could not say aloud. Telling me at every turn that here in this country, despite the relatives I had found, I was alone, without those who had been my life, my wife and baby, my dear ones who had been taken.
That was the dark side of my emotional life. There was also something inside me that fought against this tide of black obsession. By nature I am not a depressive, but an inborn optimist, and a realist. Lying on Smithe's sun-baked rooftop in the summer of 1946, I came to the conclusion that I had to make a decision. What did I want to do? Did I want to mourn about my personal tragedies for the rest of my life? Or did I want to start my life once more and feel as if I had been born again? "I am at a crossroads here," I told myself. Looking back and being overcome by the past-that turns you into a pillar of salt. That is death, not life, and I decided on the latter. I chose life. "Here in America I am reborn," I thought. "Now I have to see how to make my life over again, from the beginning."
Even while my dreams tormented me, I went about the business of living, which meant first of all getting myself established. And that was going well. After six months F.L. Smithe gave me a raise from a $1.25 to $1.50. My usual dinner at the automat was 35 cents. On Sunday, to vary the routine, I went to the restaurant on the corner of 96th Street and Broadway, where for 80 cents you could have a half a chicken, soup included. My board at Mrs. Klapper's was only $5 a week, and a subway ride cost 5 cents. I was able to save, and I opened up an account at a bank on 42nd Street.
It was my good fortune too that F.L. Smithe, the envelope machine company, turned out to be a good place to work. They had hired me more or less right off the boat. My interview there had been brief. Since my English was non-existent, I couldn't do much more than smile at the interviewer. They had other immigrants working there who also didn't speak the King's English, so they were used to that. They took me to a machine shop and gave me a technical test to see if I could operate the different machines. The biggest challenge was to sharpen a drill bit on a grinder so that the cutting edges were at the proper angles, a procedure that required experience and skill. Back in Lwow I had been an instructor in mathematics and machinery at the Korkis Technical School, teaching Jewish boys before the war, then Aryan boys after the Germans took over (before they sent the Jewish teachers away). I was at home with machines of all types, building them as well as using them, so the tests were no problem.
F.L. Smithe manufactured envelope-making machinery. As the only company in the country that made such equipment, it had what amounted to a monopoly. This would become important to me later on, but when I started working on the factory floor I didn't know it and wouldn't have thought twice about it if I had. At F.L. Smithe I found myself in an environment where most of my fellow workers were Germans and Italians, many of them immigrants like myself. At first the Italians looked Jewish to me, but I was the only Jew on the floor, except for the chief engineer, Abe Novick, a very capable man. The Italians were very friendly, as were the Germans, and I felt no anti-Semitism of the kind I had been used to in Poland. F.L. Smithe suited me well; they paid me a salary and treated me fairly, and for that I was grateful.
The first necessity in building my new life was to learn English. If you wanted to make your way in the United States, you had to know the language. I could not pick up English on the job. On the factory floor each machinist worked from his own blueprint, assembling sections of equipment from the parts in front of him, so ordinarily there wasn't a lot of conversation. And besides, most of my fellow workers spoke broken English themselves. In the cafeteria at lunch you could hear English that I'm sure would have made a native-born American cry-not that I would have known the difference. With the Germans I could converse in German; the Italians were another story altogether. F.L. Smithe was not going to be my language school.
I wasn't going to learn English from my relatives either. When they came to visit me, or I went to visit them, they often spoke in Yiddish, although it was a strange, Americanized Yiddish. There were three questions they always seemed to ask. Everyone I met had the same ones. Du glachst de country? they would inquire, which I discovered meant, "Do you like the country?" In standard Yiddish glach meant "straight." So my understanding was, "Is the country straight?" for which I had no answer. After they asked me if the country was straight, they always asked a second question. Machst a leben? Now, what they meant was, "Are you supporting yourself?" Do you have enough income to live on?" But in Europe machst a leben was something altogether different. It was a question for someone who was well off, somebody who was rich and could afford anything in this life. Over there machst a leben? meant "Are you living it up?"
So, after they asked if the country was straight, they wanted to know if I was living it up; which I wasn't, even with the job at F.L. Smithe. A little confused by my response to this, they often asked, Du geist aus? Meaning, was I going out, having a social life? Except that in idiomatic European Yiddish this was a question you might ask someone on his deathbed (though you hardly would), because it meant: "Are you passing away, leaving this life, expiring?" This one was best of all, even better than asking if I was living it up.
The nearest place to F.L. Smithe where I could go to learn English at night was the Washington Irving Textile High School. There, after working hard all day long, I would have an English class from six to eight at night along with twenty or twenty-five other students. But instead of being tired I found that studying usually woke me up. Afterwards at home I would read my Polish-English dictionary and memorize thirty or forty words. Even if I forgot some, most I would remember, and with time I found I was able to speak, with difficulty at first, but later it became easier and easier.
I even took courses to try to eliminate my accent, which was an interesting combination of Yiddish, Polish, and Ukrainian pronunciation. I tried hard, but it didn't work out, probably because at age thirty-three I was too old for such a thing. For a while I was frustrated. Then I found out that Americans didn't seem to bother much about a person's accent, after which I gave up the whole endeavor and just accepted that I was going to sound like a foreigner for the rest of my life.
One of my fellow students was an elderly lady who seemed to speak English fairly well. At the end of the school year, in May or June, she took me aside and told me that the teacher wanted to have a party for the students. Would I like to come? She gave me the address, and I said I would be there. On the given date I took the subway to Brooklyn, and found myself at a private home. When I rang the bell, the: teacher opened the door and invited me inside. And there, of all the students, there were only the elderly lady and myself. It was obvious that the elderly lady was the mother of the teacher, who, it turned out, was herself a single lady. In my state of mind, though, I was not ready to think about any romantic encounters, so much so that I didn't realize at first that this was a plan and I was the target. "This is not for you," said my brother George when he found out about it, which is how I felt too. My emotional life at that time was still ashes and dust, and I had no idea then whether that part of me could ever come back to life.
After my English had improved, I decided to test myself and see if I still had the capacity to study and advance academically. In Poland, before the Germans came, it had been almost impossible for Jews to go to the university, but after the war, when the Soviets took over, the policy changed and I was able to enroll at the Polytechnical University. My idea then had been to earn a degree in mechanical engineering, and this was what I wanted to pursue now in America. Eventually I wanted to teach at a university, which in Europe was the highest profession a person could aspire to. So, along with my sorrowful dreams of the past, I also had bright dreams for the future. I was sure the F.L. Smithe assembly floor was not going to be my permanent home. I was determined to become a teacher.
The first step in that direction was to take the New York State Regents exams in English, physics, and history. I was already studying English, and I felt comfortable with physics, but I needed work in history, and Washington Irving High School was offering a course. When I tried to register, the person in charge refused. The course was open only to veterans, and I had not been a GI. I told him he was wrong and that I had also fought against the Nazis. The Americans had fought against them in the West, while I had fought them in the East, in an artillery regiment of the Polish army in 1939, until the day I was wounded. In the end I had to ask the principal, who agreed that I was a veteran the same as the other veterans, so I was allowed to take the course. At the end of the semester I took the Regents too, and I did well.
Not long after I arrived in New York I met an American second cousin of mine named Alexander Moser. We were both at a family party given for a relative who had just returned from the Army. Since I still couldn't speak English, it was not easy for me to get along at affairs of this kind, and I was happy when Alex Moser came over to speak with me. During the war he had been in an intelligence unit, and he spoke German as well as some Yiddish he had learned at home while growing up, so between the two we were able to talk, even if the conversation might have sounded confusing to someone else.
Alex Moser was a lawyer, a partner in a private firm, who taught government at the City College of New York. He told me that CCNY had night classes in many different fields of learning, including mechanical engineering, and that it was free to anyone who was a New York resident, as I now was.
What Alex said stayed with me, and from the beginning of my studies in English and other subjects I had been thinking that City College might be the right place for me. Since it had courses at night I could continue to support myself by working at F.L. Smithe, and inasmuch as it was free I could afford the price.
Meanwhile, other people in my American family were giving me advice about what I should do to further myself here. The entire family was very friendly, and many of them wanted to help.
My mother's family, the Altschulers, had been coming to America since before the beginning of the 20th century. After World War I the various Altschuler families had sent support to relatives in Europe who were suffering from the devastation. In 1927 they organized themselves into the Ludwig Field Altschuler Family Circle to more effectively help relatives who were in need and do other charitable works. When I arrived it was very natural for them to welcome me and try to make it easier for me to find my way here. They gave me some gifts, which I appreciated very much, and many of them also started giving me advice about what I should do with my life.
Excerpted from ONLY IN AMERICA by William Ungar David Chanoff Copyright © 2005 by William Ungar. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 11, 2006
William Ungar reveals the many twists and turns he maneuvered successfully as he built National Envelope Corporation to the empire it is today. His business instincts are exceptional. This is a book any business owner -- or anyone who aspires to own a business -- must read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.