Skip to main content

Oral history of Harry Rosenbaum

Oral history of Harry Rosenbaum

Taped in Houston, Texas in January, 1982


            My name is Harry Rosenbaum. I was born in Russia in 1892. I grew up there until I was 21 years old and now I’m getting pretty well up in years, I decided to make a little recording of my experience in life, hoping that some day my grandchildren someday will be interested to know…

            The name of the town was Kupel, which we called Kipy, the state of Volyn gobernia (administrative district, like state in USA- N.B.) in the Ukraine. My parents belonged to the middle class people. That means they were not shoemakers or tailors they were business people. There were very few rich people in this small town, which consisted of about 3000 Jewish families.   The Jewish people made their living by trading with gentile farmers who lived on the outskirts of the town and also those who lived in villages and came into our town every Tuesday for what they called a trading day or a market day. And they brought in their produce and livestock, which they were selling to the Jews, and some of the Jewish people who dealt in that kind of business, bought it from them to resell in some larger city for a certain profit. So that was one phase of the Jewish living. Then they also had stores of different merchandise, grocery stores, and dry goods stores and so on in which they traded and the local people bought things from them; and some of the Jewish people were tailors and shoemakers and other artisans.

            There was quite a difference in the social life of the middle class Jews and those who were considered a little bit below them. In those days if a Jewish man was not well educated in Talmud or in other Jewish knowledge, he was not considered very high. So therefore it was sort of a society of castes. One was higher and one was a little bit lower. The reason was of course that the lower class didn’t have a chance to get much education and naturally their behavior was a little bit different…

            In those days most of the Jewish people was Orthodox and a good many of them were Hasidim. And even such it was a small town, there were about 5 or 6 different group of Hasidim belonging to different rabbis. Some of them were from Zinkev, others were from Oshpan, others were from Chortkov, and even those Hasidim believed only into their own rabbi, the others didn’t mean much to them, which was the way they lived. But we got along pretty good as long s they didn’t stop to argue whose rabbi is the highest one or the most trustworthy one. …I remember, there were two brothers, whose father …Rabbi Chaim, lived in Zinkev. When he passed away, his Hasidim divided into two parties. One party belonged to the older son whose name was rabbi Pinkusule, and another belonged to Rabbi Moshele, who was the youngest son. Even those two didn’t agree much with each other; as such almost they belonged to a different religion. Well that was the case.

            The Jewish people in those days, in this small town particularly, wore long coats or kapatus, as they called them. They didn’t dare to wear a short jacket like we do in this country. It was not proper for them to wear a short jacket. And I remember my older brother also wore kapatu until he grew up and became about 17 or 18 years old.

            Then the Enlightening Movement, which we called Askalah in Hebrew, became a sort of social life among Jewish people.  They started to read newspapers and find out what going on in the world and naturally they became a little more knowledgeable and more up to date. Also a national feeling as Jew became pretty strong in those days because at that time there a Jewish literature born in Russia that used to come even to that small towns as our was. We had to subscribe for them.  And also the Hebrew language became very influential among the intelligentsia.

            This town were we lived was in what was called the Pale. Jews could only live there, with the exception of great or high potential business people who belong to the first (trade – NB) guild, or doctors or scientists. … Cities like Kiev or Petersburg, which mostly were occupied by Russians. Well any way my generation became what we called more progressive and started to read Hebrew. We preferred Hebrew to Yiddish because we considered Yiddish as sort of a language of jargon, or a language of a Diaspora. And therefore Hebrew meant a great deal to us and there was also created quite a Hebrew literature and even daily newspapers, which were published in big cities. Most of the writers and artists lived in Odessa, which was on Black sea and belonged to Kherson gobernia.

            … We used to subscribe to Hebrew newspaper from Vilna. The name of newspaper was Hazman, which means “The Times”, and I remember when my older brother subscribed to that newspaper. It took about three months before we got that paper from Vilna by post, and that happened to be on Friday night. On Friday night the Jewish people of course couldn’t light any fires or lamps, but there was a candle burning all night. I practically stayed up all night to read that newspaper, that how eager we were for a little knowledge and education, especially in Hebrew.

            My older brother became a Hebrew teacher. He knew quite a lot of Talmud and Tanach, so he became a Hebrew teacher privately and he used to give lessons, either in private homes or they used to get together in somebody’s home and he would teach a few students right there. We also learned a little Russian. Somebody who happened to live in the large city came down to our town, and gave us lessons in our home for a certain amount of money. That’s how we acquired some knowledge of the Russian language.

            The Ukrainian peasants who lived mostly in our area did not speak Russian; they spoke Ukrainian, which is sort of a slang of Russian. Those peasants were very illiterate; they didn’t even know how to read or write. They were either farmers, or some of them were builders. They used to build some of the houses; they were mostly wood houses with some kind of dirt or pieces like dirt something like bricks, (but not quite as hard as bricks) between the wooden frames.

            Now back to our hometown, Kupel.  …There wasn’t any public library. But we wanted to have a library of our own, so we could read some books, but we had to get a permit from the governor of the gobernia. We applied for the permit, but they didn’t give it to us. They suspected that the Jewish people worked against the Char, and that might have been the reason why they were so strict. So we got together so many Hebrew books from Warsaw, which had a Hebrew publishing company, and from Vilna, and we had about 75 to 100 books. We kept them secretly in certain houses so the authorities wouldn’t find about them.  We used to keep this library for two or three months in one house and then we transferred it to the somebody else house and so on, in order to keep it from being find out. … We had very progressive Hebrew literature and were very anxious to learn and read more. So this was our social life in this town when I was still quite young.

            When I became about 16 or 18 years old, my father was already in the United States by this time. I was the one in the middle of the family. There were 5 children altogether. My sister was the oldest, my brother was the next and I was the third. Well anyway, my father had gone to America in 1909 or so, and he got along my older sister. And later on my younger sister came there too. And only ones left there was my mother, my older brother and I. In 1913, just before the First World War, we decided that it was a time to go to the United States. My mother told me that she doesn’t care what I do in the United States, she didn’t care if I become a mechanic or whatever I will as long as I don’t do it home – because it was sort of a shame for the higher class or the middle class of Jews to engage in manual work and I liked mechanic work very much. And so, in 1913 I left Russia for the United States. My mother and my older brother were the only ones left there because they couldn’t leave Russia during the First World War. Nobody could leave Russia.

            I came to New York, where my father was, and my older sister was married already. She lived in the small town by the name New Rochelle.


            … When I got on the other side of the tape I realized that I didn’t tell much about my parents. So I decided to turn over to the other side and tell some important features about my parent’s life. My father was born in Kupel.  His father was born there, his grandfather and several generations before them. But my mother came from another city. You know customs in those days was that young people didn’t just fall in love or pick out their own future wife or husband. It took a matchmaker or shochrun, as we called it, to find the proper match for them and talked to the parents of young people, and parents decided whether they suitable for one another or not. If they couldn’t find someone in the same city, they used to go up to another city nearby, to look around and see, if they could find someone that would be worthwhile for this boy or girl to marry.

            That how my father and mother met. It seems that the shochrun had been told that family of Estruch had a very nice young lady and she would be a good match for my father. So my grandfather and grandmother hired a teamster to take them to that town Satanov, which was in another gobernia, Podolia. And they went there,