7. The Great Depression


If the 1920s were tough, the ’30s promise to be tougher. Arriving with the new decade, the Great Depression is a national economic catastrophe that lasts through the 1930’s to the first days of World War II. In this period factories are shuttered, and unemployment is the worst in history, at 30 percent! Money in the stock market is wiped out. Many people, including those in the lower eastside, become dependent on breadlines, soup kitchens and welfare. Nearly everyone is even poorer than before and money tighter than ever. This is a desperate period when every penny counts and steady work is a precious godsend.

The Depression shapes the outlook of a whole generation of Americans, Louis and Dora’s six children included. In 1930 these kids are age seven to eighteen, growing into adulthood during tough times. Scrimping is a necessary habit and education is a luxury. The kids are prodded into leaving school to work as soon as possible. Mark and Izzy (Isadore’s nickname) work full time in the Post Office though under aged (they falsified their birth dates) and have to turn their paychecks over to Dora. These jobs are a real prize, as government won’t lay off workers in these hard times. Elsie and Ida spend evenings doing piecework at home. Working with Dora they are up to all hours cutting lace into patterns for use in lingerie. Frances is a secretary for an insurance broker in the Flat Iron Building at $12 per week.

As tough as life has been in America since their arrival, Louis and Dora never complain. This is not because they are oblivious to hardship or because they are upbeat people (Dora certainly is not), but simply because however bad things are, they know it would be far worse had they stayed in Europe.

Even in tough times life progresses. In New York and in Hrubiechev news is eagerly shared in lively correspondence across the Atlantic. On both sides of the ocean there is gossip of new babies, upcoming bar mitzvahs, marriages, jobs gained and jobs lost, and old people passing. Dora’s sister, Chaiya, married to Shmuel (Samuel) Katz, tells the New Yorkers of her son Reuben’s prospering antiques shop in Warsaw; Dora tells the Hrubiechevers of her kids’ Post Office jobs; and so on. Photographs are regularly exchanged to proudly mark occasions. The links to the Krakauers are strong and it is still a close extended family despite an ocean’s distance.

Eventually Louis becomes a cutter in a garment factory, which improves his pay. This allows the family to move into the Lavenberg Homes, a Jewish philanthropic housing project near the East River. They live just off Houston Street at 128 Goerck Street (later to be named Baruch Place.) Here the Brustmans have three bedrooms and a bathroom, which makes the kids feel they are living in the lap of luxury. Louis and Dora use one of the bedrooms, and the others become a girls’ and boys’ dorm. The three sisters share one bed. Mark and Izzy, because they are grown working men, don’t have to share their bed with little Al, who sleeps in the same room but on a cot. Ah, it feels good to have so much space!

Louis is not in touch with family back in Tomaschev except for his grown daughters. He has no relatives in America and only one friend from the old country. So the Brustmans socialize mostly with Hinda and her husband Jack, Morris and his family, and with other Hrubiechevers. Though a townsman only by marriage, Louis becomes the consummate Hrubiechever and is elected President of the Hrubiechev Society. He is proud of this.

Their kids start getting married in the 1930s. The first, in 1932, is a terrible calamity in Dora’s eyes. At age 18 Izzy suddenly marries a high school classmate, Sophie Rinelli, an Italian Catholic. Izzy compromised Sophie’s honor and the Rinellis pressed him to marry her. Over twenty years earlier, Mama warned a scoffing Perl D’vorah America would lead Jewish souls astray. Oh, for shame, this prophecy is being realized! Given Dora’s temperament, there is shouting and wailing. What to do? Dora takes legal steps to have the marriage annulled, claiming the couple was below the age of consent. The Rinellis contest the action, and the court rules in favor of the marriage. The couple soon separates anyway, and the marriage eventually is dissolved by divorce.

There are two marriages in 1935, first Mark to Martha Fawer (an uptown girl) and later Frances to William Schoenfeld, Martha’s uncle. In 1937 the first of Dora’s grandchildren is born: a son to Mark, named Frederick, for Froy’m Krakauer. In 1939 Elsie marries Theodore Heinbach.

First Photo: Frances and Bill
Second Photo: The first grandchild (Fred) with his parents (Martha and Mark)

Continue to Part Eight

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