It is April 11, 1914. Fannie Saphirstein, 28, signs the Department of Labor’s Naturalization Form #2203 in which she describes herself as white of fair complexion, height 5 feet and weight 118 pounds with brown hair and blue eyes. She was born in Bialistock, Russia, on the 25th day of March in 1886. She immigrated to America from Antwerp on the vessel Zeeland. She attests that her last foreign residence was Bialistock, Russia. Her occupation? A cigar maker.
She says: It is my bona fide intention to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, of whom I am now a subject; I arrived at the port of New York, in the State of N.Y., on or about the 3rd day of January, anno Domini 1902. I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein: SO HELP ME GOD.
Fannie signed this document, as did Benjamin A. Kellogg, Deputy Clerk for Alex Gilchrist, Jr., Clerk of the District Court of the United States in 1914. Four years and one month later, on May 14, 1918, she signed a certificate of marriage to Emil Meyer. On January 23, 1919, my mother, Edith Jane Meyer, was born in a one- bedroom New York City walk-up on East 79th Street.
How do I know this family history? I found the documents in the basement of Mom’s house, folded unceremoniously in a cardboard box I almost tossed when cleaning out her house after her death. These priceless documents helped me understand snippets of conversations and anecdotes my Mom told me.
While my grandmother spent hours playing with me in the years before I went to kindergarten and Mom taught science in high school in the early 1950s, Grandma never told me of her travails as a young Jewish girl growing up in Bialistock, Russia, during the pogroms.
It was my mother who told me about Grandma and what she endured – a daughter (whose mother died in childbirth) of a rabbi who managed to smuggle her out on a ship bound to America in 1902 so she would not perish during the pogroms. The horror of the pogroms did, in fact, take place in June 1906 in Bialystok (ca. 80 dead) organized by the Russian secret police conducted by that Czar to whose allegiance she was ironically required to renounce 12 years later.
All I knew was her warm, quiet smile every day she entered our lower East side apartment to play with me, feed me that boiled chicken she made and the cupcake she brought from the bakery. All I knew was her love, not her pain; all I knew was her nurturing support comforting me when I fell and bloodied my knees on those cobblestones, not her fear and loneliness as she boarded the vessel Zeeland for a new land of freedom.
All I knew instinctively was her strength, not her bravery. Little did I value my inheritance – a Jewish child thriving in the land of the free and the home of the brave – my refugee grandmother and all the other grandmothers and grandfathers like her forged to give freedom to me, my children and my children’s children.
But in these last two years in the America in which I reveled and thrived – a Jewish girl, that cigar maker’s granddaughter, who earned a PhD from Stanford University and who was the first woman to become commissioner of education in Connecticut since 1838 – my heart is frightened. How do I make sense of the events of this past week, let alone the past two years? How I wish I could talk to my brave heart Grandma now!
I think she would show me to be quietly strong. I think she would smile as I encourage my children, my children’s children and my colleagues to put relationships first – developing them by looking at each other eye-to-eye, not post-to-post. I think she would smile as I stand up for those whose words and actions set a positive tone and course for all of us in America. I think she would smile as I enter the voting booth on November 6 and help get us back on course in the America in which her offspring thrived and will continue strong and free.
Betty J. Sternberg is the mother of two young adults and has five grandchildren. She is the former commissioner of education and runs a program for teacher leaders in Connecticut’s public schools.