Tukums, LatviaA few years pass for Leah Blumenfeld, my great-great-grandmother, and her baby David. It is now around 1870, in Tukums, Latvia...
[Her father] Yanke Hennes had a premonition that something unusual was going to happen in his house this Passover, and with this idea in his mind he was worried all day.
Coming home from evening prayers in the synagogue, Yanke Hennes closed all the windows and shutters carefully, drew down all shades inside, and bolted all doors of the house before taking his seat at the table, for the Damascus Blood Accusation of 1840 was still fresh in the minds of European Jewry ...local communities [still] had to be very careful so as not to incite and to guard against mob violence which was a favorite pastime during Passover week.
Propaganda cartoon depicting the alleged ritual murder of a Damascus Catholic priest by JewsNo sooner had Yanke Hennes ended his Seder singing than there was a soft thud at the door. Yanke Hennes’ heart leaped to his throat for a moment and his face paled. … A second, more harsh knock on the door was heard, and a voice was heard saying, "This is Ben-Zion! Open the door, do not be afraid, this is me!"
With a trembling hand Yanke Hennes unbolted the door. He could hardly believe his own eyes when he beheld Ben-Zion standing there before him. There was an outcry in the room and Leah ran to meet him, falling in his embrace. They both wept and covered each other with kisses.
...Leah was quickly disillusioned and the light of joy soon left her eyes when she took a good look at her husband Ben-Zion, so shockingly changed and no more the man he was before. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes were dim, his entire frame weak and emaciated from the hunger and privation he had endured while in the service.
Ben-Zion was born in 1839, in Koenigsberg, Prussia, now Kaliningrad.
Koenigsberg, PrussiaThe only thing he had gained during his four years in the army was knowledge of the tinsmith trade. He had become a good mechanic and, as an honorably discharged solider, had full right to ply his trade anywhere in the empire. Thus he hoped to begin life anew. ...As Ben-Zion had no capital to open a shop and wait until trade should come his way, he decided to become a trader among the peasants in the nearby country villages. He began his life plodding through the country, but he could not make it go. ...He was unfortunate in his business ventures, failure seemed to follow in his wake.
The Ingulez River today, Ukraine...Ben-Zion moved his family to Zagradovka, near the city of Kherson, in the Ukraine. There he bought out a small flour mill situated on the snaky, treacherous Ingulez River, which was operated by water power, and took to grinding grist and flour. He enjoyed a large patronage from the neighboring peasants and it looked for a time as if Ben-Zion was on the way to financial success. In the spring of the third year, quick thawing of the unusually heavy snow of the winter and heavy spring rains caused the river to swell and overflow its banks. It submerged thousands of acres of early seeded wheat and rye and undermined hundreds of frail farmhouses and sheds.
After the water receded it was seen how the ice had broken up and carried away the entire mill. ...All his hard labor and savings were wiped out by the flood.
...Ben-Zion saw slim chance for a living, so he decided to go to the Crimea where competition was not quite so hard. He hoped to build up a trade, as he was a good worker...
Melitopol, UkraineMelitopol was surrounded with large suburban villages on three sides and the river Molochna on the fourth side, spanned by a drawbridge for entrance into the city. Ben-Zion decided to locate there. With difficulty he succeeded in borrowing sufficient capital to open a small tinshop. In a few years he went bankrupt. Despite his persistent efforts, he barely succeeded in keeping himself and family afloat and always felt that his life was a failure, despite the fact that he had worked hard.
By this time there were four children.
...In order to reduce expense at home Ben-Zion decided that David [the eldest, my great-grandfather] ought to learn a trade wherewith he could earn a living independently, though he was only ten years old. [ed.: Thus it is now 1875.] The father contracted him as an apprentice to a master tailor named Bradsky for five years.
...Ben-Zion had one hope. He heard so much of America, the “land of the free,” where everyone might enjoy the reward of his labor, and as the old rabbis have said, “change of location leads to change of luck,” that he urged Leah to bear up with patience. ...They determined with all the power at their command to see America some day.
To be continued...
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