Thursday 15 September 2016

Russian Immigrant Betty Garoff

"When the soldiers came to look for us, we were hidden in a closet.  She fed them food and drinks until they were intoxicated." (Betty Garoff)

Shoemakers making army boots circa 1903 to 1905 courtesy

In 1913, Betty's Garoff's father immigrated to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Russian Army during the First World War.  Her mother, still pregnant with Betty, sold salt illegally to put food on the table.  At the age of four or five, Betty and her brother were separated from their mother when their town was invaded by the enemy.  The children slept during the day in barns and travelled by night.  Eventually, a couple who knew Betty's grandfather, took them in and raised them as their own grandchildren.  "When the soldiers came to look for us, we were hidden in a closet.  She fed them food and drinks until they were intoxicated.

Reunited with her mother, her father had saved enough money to buy the family tickets to America. The family, with just the clothes on their back, made it as far as Amsterdam when Betty's brother developped an infection from a nail, thereby failing to pass the physical exam.  Their original visa had been for a particular ship on a particular day.  Now it was rendered null and void.  Betty's mother took her two children to Poland to apply for another visa.  They stayed with relatives in a Warsaw ghetto apartment.  Betty remembers the curfew that everyone had to observe; no one was permitted to leave or enter the gate after a certain hour.

In December of 1921, the Carmania set sail for America.  Betty and her family, staying in steerage, survived on hard boiled eggs and raw potatoes.  The Russian farm girl was bewildered by the sheer number of people coming and going at Ellis Island.  Betty waited and waited for her father to come and get her; all of her shipmates had already left when he finally arrived.  It was the first time he had laid eyes on her.  Her mother suggested:  "Stand up and show your father how tall you are."  The first time Betty saw New York's lower east side, she spotted immigrants huddled around metal drums filled with fire, warming their hands.

Betty and her family got a furnished apartment with an outdoor toilet in New York City.  Within a year and a half, her father opened a shoe repair business in the Bronx.  Because Betty only knew how to speak Yiddish, and not English, her classmates would help her to converse with the teacher.  Ten years after immigrating, Betty's mother gave birth to another girl, followed five years later by a boy.  Betty married a doctor, moved to Chicago and "lived a wonderful life."

The Bronx circa 1930's courtesy

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