My maternal grandfather was born on June 15, 1900, in an unidentified shetl around Riga, Latvia in what was then Imperial Russia. The family was religious, and father Yacob, aged forty, was a tailor “working for rich farmers”. His mother, Rebecca Cotzenelbogan was then thirty-eight. Harvey recalls his siblings as follows “Fannie the oldest, Louis the second, William the third, Harry the fourth, myself the fifth, Sam the 6th, Rose the 7th. As I can recall, between William and Harry there was one that passed away, his name was Hershila.” The year is 1905 and the memory begins with a description of a pogrom in the village, a description of the shtetl, his home, a yellow house with a dirt floor, details of family life, a memory of being lost in the town market, and the decision to and journey to America.
Harvey Delson’s Story
When I was about 5 years old, word got around that there were soldiers coming in our village. There was a big shakeup and it seemed everyone was afraid and excited. The whole village was advised to vacate their houses as soon as possible. The next thing I knew we took some blankets and most everyone went to the river, where we would be hidden from view of the soldiers as there was an incline at the river. Some time passed, I do not remember how long we were there, but we went back home. Apparently the soldiers were gone, and as I remember a lot of looting had taken place, was the common word.
Our house was in flames, being located very close to our Shul. The firemen sprayed water on our house to keep it from burning. Where did we get water to fight off the blaze? There was an artificial lake about 100 foot from our house. The firemen as I remember men on either side worked up and down pumping the water. The Shul burned down to the ground.
The color of our house was yellow. Our house was a one story affair with an attic above. To get there we had to use a ladder.
We had three rooms in our house, with walls and blue borders. In the main room the floors were not covered, it was ground. For heating the house we had a brick built in furnace, an opening at the bottom where wood was burned for heating, the heat was sufficient for the whole house in the winter. Our whole small town consisted of one main street and of course many side streets leading from it. Every house had a lot of ground that was used to grow fruits and vegetables that kept us in food for the whole year. Of course we had to buy things we could not grow (my father was a tailor working for rich farmers making clothes for them). That is how we get along – my father was not rich, and did not earn very much money, and it didn’t take much for our needs.
My grandparents lived about a half mile away. I went there very often as the train used to run near their house. It was so exciting to hear and see the choo choo train – I can still remember the winter we had once the snow started to fall – winter was here and it stayed until spring. There was talk in our house about moving to America – the golden country. The children were growing up and before long one at a time we would be called upon to serve the Czar in the army. No kosher meals and no pay for our family.
Author’s Note: About the Russian Army at this time: According to the Yivo Encyclopedia, between 1874 and 1914 there were more Jews in the Russian Army than in the general population. Jews in Imperial Russia were required to enlist younger than gentiles – aged 12 to 25.
Fannie was the oldest, Louis the second, William the third, Harry the fourth, myself the fifth, Sam the 6th, Rose the 7th. As I can recall, between William and Harry there was one that passed away, his name was Hershila. I do not know the details, but all in all we had quite a family.
Since thinking about moving to America I do not remember details but it was decided that my father, Louis, William and Fannie shall immigrate first, and if things go well, they will see to it that we – that is my mother, Harry, myself and Rosey will be next.
I remember the machinery was set up about a year ago so that we could go to America. I was about six years old, brother Harry about 8, and Rose 4 years old. However, while I do not remember full details, we started at I think it was “Libo”, a port in Russia, from where we sailed.
Author Note: I believe the port they sailed from was “Libau” now Liepaja, Latvia. Steamship lines there such as The Russian American Line ran from Libau starting in 1906 to North America with stops in Rotterdam and Halifax. In 1920 it was renamed the Baltic American Line, and in 1930 the Gdynia America lines.
Before boarding a boat to America all of us had to report two or three times a week to the “center” where my mother had to furnish details. As I well remember and will never forget one one of the trips to the center my mother kept telling us to hold hands so we do not get lost.
I remember as a child stopping at a window where a colored rooster was displayed. This fascinated me, apparently it was a “pathe news” emblem. When I looked around I saw no one of my family. I started walking and looking for my mother, you can imagine how I felt.
This was about early morning. I walked and walked looking for my mother. Apparently my mother interceded with someone to report her loss. I remember walking past an open market, there was plenty of food displayed. I was hungry but wouldn’t ask anyone for anything to eat.
In the meantime my poor mother was worried sick. This was on a Friday. People saw a little boy walking by himself and stopped me to talk to me. I ran away. Later a policeman tried to talk to me and I ran away. I could understand only Yiddish. I kept walking and praying that God would only help me to try to find my mother. I would give $5 to charity if I had it. It was close to sundown.
I was getting tired and hungry. I came across a place which looked like the place where we stayed and then I felt so good. I marched up to a house which was identical to where I lived. I knocked on the door, and a big German man answered the door and asked me “where do you live” again. I ran away. Finally, before it got dark I saw my mother. Was she ever glad to see me and vice versa.
Later we were taken to the port of departure and I saw a big boat. Before boarding my mother was crying. This didn’t affect me though I did not like it. We boarded the big boat bound for America. This was not first class passage as I remember an enormous large room with beds and no privacy. Of course I didn’t mind it as I didn’t know any different.
The voyage took about three weeks. It was fun for us kids (while it lasted. We went by the Statue of liberty, landed at Ellis Island. I remember having a good time eating baloney, which was a novelty for me.
From there we boarded a train. We arrived at Harrisburg, PA at the railroad station. There we were met by my brother William. The next thing I remember I was going to school, I remember it was the primer grade. The teacher’s name was Miss Bernhardt. She tried to talk to me, but I could not understand her. She asked me “sprechen zie deutsch” and I said “nein”.
Author Note: do not think Delson is the family surname, and am exploring alternative, fuzzy spellings or variations of the name – Gerson, Belsohn, Balson, Mendelsohn, Delzon. My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Cotzenelbogel (Katzenelenbogen, Katzenbogen, etc) which ought to help narrow things down, although it was a popular surname at the time. All of the first names mentioned by Grandpa (Louis, William, Rose) were americanized names. At the very least the family should have at the very least passports – as they all emigrated to America around 1900-1907. Other clues to identifying the shtetl and family are the layout of the village with the artificial lake, the pogrom, the emigration dates, and Russian army records. There are many other clues in his story I am also investigating .