Indelebilis, Chapter Two
If you haven't read the preceding hub, you'll want to go there first to read chapter one. This chapter takes place one generation before the last and opens with Ernest Jacobowski, our main character's father when he was a young man in Poland. Enjoy!
Indelebilis, Chapter Two
The New World
(Tczew, Poland, 1921)
Ernest had been visiting with his good friend, Jan, who had just returned from Warsaw as the Polish-Soviet war drew to a close. While they drank Jan’s father’s vodka in his barn, Jan told Ernest about the terrible atrocities he had just witnessed on the front lines. The Soviets behaved as barbarians in his estimation, but he was even more shocked to have seen some of his own countrymen, members of the Pole army, slaying Jews in ways too disturbing to recount.
Jan was obviously quite shaken and Ernest worried that, emotionally, his friend wasn’t fairing well. Ernest did his best to comfort Jan, but the vodka was doing the same work faster. Ernest couldn’t understand why his people were constantly the target of so much hostility and hatred. The two young men cried together, swore angry oaths, yelled too loudly and then finally when Jan passed out from the drink, Ernest decided it was time to go home.
Still a single lad, the only Mrs. Jacobowski in Ernest’s life was his mother, Gitel. Ernest saw within her a woman with a deep yearning to know the things of God, but of course, as a woman, they would always be beyond her reach. Gitel had heard that many were leaving Poland and were making good lives for themselves in America. The unrest in her country and the ones surrounding, frightened her, for her children’s sake. She was more convinced every day that Ernest should seek out safe haven across the sea, and when it was time, her younger son, Leib, would follow. Chaim, Ernest’s father, agreed that it would be best.
The walk had helped Ernest sober some as he neared the center of town. His mother, he was sure, would make a fuss if she knew how much he’d had to drink. He laughed to himself remembering Jan passed out so close to cow’s manure. How could he realize that before he even crossed the street, still in a vodka fog, his life was about to change forever? As he neared his father’s textile shop, he caught sight of her. She was intently looking over the fresh fish that were for sale in a cart, on the sidewalk. She was a painting by Tadeusz Styka, come to life. She was his future wife and he was about to meet her for the first time… or so he believed.
He was stopped dead in his tracks and had been staring for what would have been an inappropriate amount of time had she taken notice of the gawking young man. She looked so familiar to him as his inebriated mind raced to place her until, in a burst of recognition, he realized who she was. Her father was Mr. Aleksander, whose shop of the same name stood only four doors down and across the street from his father’s shop for the past two decades. It finally occurred to him that she was standing where he had seen her stand a thousand times before, right under his nose.
He had been busy with his schooling for the past year or so and hadn’t been working at the textile shop as much as he had in previous years so he’d not seen her for a while. He believed that she was two years his junior, but she was no longer the child in braids that he remembered. They had practically grown up together, surely it would be rude not to say hello! He squinted his eyes as he looked at her. Was he still drunk or was the sunlight following her as she moved?
She was Polish, of this he was certain, but he was also fairly sure that she was not a Jew. Meeting people always carried with it an air of uncertainty. Was she ambivalent, a sympathizer, or did she hate the Jews? Would she spit on him, or completely ignore him? It didn’t matter, he felt no fear at the moment, he was overflowing with hope as he walked towards her. He’d decided that they would work out their differences after they were married. ‘Fortune favors the bold,’ he told himself, and he was feeling emboldened!
“Hello!” he had startled her and she caught her breath on sight of him. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Ernest… Ernest Jacobowski.” He motioned to his father’s storefront. “You may not remember me,” he removed his hat thinking she might need a better look. Where was all this confidence coming from? He was simply brimming over!
“Of course I do,” she smiled. It was, after all, a ridiculous thing to say. She had volunteered to sweep Aleksander’s front walk, for nearly ten years in hopes that he might eventually look her way. “Your father owns the textile shop,” she couldn’t stop smiling, he had finally noticed her. This moment was the compilation of many prayers. “You are on your way home? You have been working?”
“Well, no. No, I should return to the shop soon. It has been a while since I’ve earned my keep, but, no. I was visiting a friend who has just returned from the war. I’m only on my way home for dinner.” His double-vision was beginning to wear off, but she was no less beautiful.
Julita looked towards Jacobowski’s storefront as if she might see his father’s face in the window, but it was Sunday. The only shop open was her own father’s because they sold fresh seafood. “You should hurry then, it’s getting late, I’m sure they’re anxious for your arrival.” 'How very unselfish that sounded,' she thought, proudly.
He wondered if he had responded, but he hadn’t spoken at all, instead, he only stared into her eyes. Realizing that he was stricken by her beauty, she looked away, towards a bucket of flowers. She bent over and picked the prettiest one and handed it to him. He looked from the flower to her and raised his eyebrows.
“For your mother… for her table,” she doubted he had the means to pay her. “Please, take it.”
He smiled and nodded his thanks, but suddenly his mother was the last thing on his mind. “Thank you…”
“Julita, it’s Julita Aleksander, of course,” she pointed to the sign over her head. She thought it was funny that her own name sounded, all of a sudden, strange to her own ears. She felt lightheaded, but she couldn’t stop smiling.
“Julita,” he said out loud as if that were a song he’d been trying to remember. He found himself nearly falling backward off the sidewalk and it had nothing to do with the vodka. He should have been embarrassed, but his mind was already busy formulating an excuse to return to this exact spot the next day.
The closer he got to home, the faster he sobered. When he reached his parents front door, he entered, flower first. His mother smiled and hugged her son. Every time her boys returnned to the house, no matter if they had only been to town or school, they were greeted with the warmest hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was indeed, dearly loved and it was always good to be home, but something in him had only just awoken to the fact that he was no longer a boy.
For the first time in his life, he imagined his own children sitting under his own roof, while his beautiful wife placed fresh fish and bread on his own table. This vision had suddenly given him great confidence. He decided that he would return to see Julita tomorrow and, with permission, court her until she gave her hand in marriage.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Within the year Ernest and Julita were engaged. Julita’s family were not Jew-haters as were many of their neighbors, however, they probably would not have chosen a Jew for a son-in-law had they been given a choice. Julita had been dreaming of marrying Ernest for the majority of her life and now that she had him, it would take a force of nature to pry him out of her hands. Ernest didn’t know it yet, but it was commonplace for Julita to get exactly what she wanted. He would learn soon enough, the ways of his wife.
During their whirlwind courtship, Julita and Ernest would often find themselves on the banks of the Wisła river, speaking the language of lovers and dreamers. One day, near the Tczew Bridge, Ernest lay his head in Julita’s lap while casually flipping through the weekly newspaper. As Julita stroked his hair, she spotted an article about her favorite silent film star, Pola Negri, a famous Polish-born dancer and actress. Pola had just signed a contract with Paramount Studios and would move to California. Julita had seen three of her films and decided if America was good enough for Pola, it was good enough for her.
On having learned that Ernest’s mother was growing more fearful every day for her eldest son to remain in Poland, Julita began a stealthy campaign to ever so slightly, play on that fear. She was sure this would help get her to the new world where glamor and riches awaited. Ernest did not share his young lover’s desire to leave his country and family, but he could not keep her and his mother at bay forever.
In one ear he heard his mother’s appeals stemming from sacrificial love, and in the other, he heard Julita’s pleas. Though she loved him as deeply as she was capable of loving anyone other than herself, her goals were always self-seeking. Because of Julita’s beauty and her exuberant affections, Ernest, being the guileless sort, had failed to notice the inclinations of his fiancee’s character and in April of 1922, the young couple wed. By September, Julita was able to convince her young man to take her to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Julita, mustered a few heartfelt tears as she stood in her childhood home and told her parents goodbye and then joined Ernest’s family as they took the train to the port of Dantzig where she and her new, handsome husband would board the ship bound for New York City. She only had to be patient a few moments longer and stood to the side as he said his final goodbyes.
It was of the utmost importance to Chaim Jacobowski that he have something precious to give his son, something that would serve him well in the new world. So he hugged Ernest, kissed his cheek then handed him an umbrella, made by his friend Khone Szlaifer. It was black and the handle was made of hand-carved wood.
“When my friend, Khone, made this umbrella for me, he said it would last a lifetime, maybe even two, but only if the bearer shared his shelter with others. Then he told me to remember when the storms come, my one true shelter is Yahweh alone. And so now, I pass these words on to you, my son.” Julita tried not to allow the apathy she felt show on her face, Ernest, was still young and had yet to experience life’s hardships, but at least, he saw the practicality of the gift and smiled at his father’s gentle spirit. He promised that he would never be caught in the rain without it.
Ernest enveloped Gitel in a huge embrace, the way a boy does when he has finally outgrown his mother as if to show her that he was now the protector. A small whimper escaped her lips, she feared that this might be the last time she ever saw her son. Mr. Jacobowski, aware of her concern, gave his wife a slightly admonishing look while he patted her back lovingly. She didn’t care about her husband’s reproofs, her son was leaving forever. She could barely stand to let him go and when she finally did, he squeezed her hands to bolster her one last time. She leaned into her husband, but she could not stop the tears.
Ernest looked at his brother and shook his hand. Leib was seven years his junior, an unexpected, late in life, blessing for his parents. Ernest pulled his brother in for a hug. At fourteen, Leib was just shy of six feet tall, his shoulders were broad and he was mistaken for a grown man whenever his back was turned. Leib’s mother believed that he got his genes from her side, the Hungarian Jews whereas Ernest’s more average stature represented his father’s Polish bred relatives.
“Leib, you are already a giant among men,” Ernest chuckled. “I expect you will only become more impressive every year.” He leaned in so that only his brother could hear, “If you must know, you are the reason I am leaving. How could I ever compete with Hercules for a brother?!” Ernest laughed, but Leib’s mind was set on one thing.
“I want to go with you Ernest, please let me go!” his tone was very serious.
Ernest took his brother’s arm and led him away from the rest of the group he spoke quietly again, but this time, there was not a hint of humor in his eyes. “Be very brave Leib. You must stay here and take care of Mother should anything happen to Father. I know that I tease you for your stature, I know everyone does, but you really are special. You must become the man Yahweh has created you to be. You will be leading prayers very soon now. I am truly sorry I will miss that, but I know that you will one day be a great man who will rise to any occasion. Your time is coming and you must be prepared, so be strong. Do you understand?” Leib nodded soberly.
Ernest’s instructions were weighty, but neither brother could have known how significant his words were.
“I will send for all of you as soon as I have the means. You will be patient, yes?” Leib nodded his agreement.
Ernest took his brother by the shoulder and clapped it hard as he led Leib back to the group. He looked at each member of his beloved family one more time, then for fear that he might lose his nerve, grabbed Julita’s hand, turned and together ran up the gangplank of a ship bound for the promised land.
That would be the last time Ernest would ever see his parents.
The trip was nothing like Julita had imagined. She had pictured them standing on the upper decks, hobnobbing with the well-to-do. She had not realized that third-class meant that she would be sequestered in the bottom of the boat with thousands of others. The smells of unwashed humans and unsanitary conditions were abhorrent. Their meals were scant and though the food had been tolerable at the beginning of the trip, it had become as bad as the stench as the weeks rolled on.
More than a few times Julita wondered aloud if they hadn’t made a terrible mistake, drawing looks of agitation from fellow passengers, some of them suffering greatly. She took to eating only crumbs to get by. Had the journey lasted even one more day, Ernest believed his wife might not have. Nearly three months had passed when the young couple finally reached Ellis Island. Though they were all weak and disheveled, as they made there was on deck, they saw the statue of liberty for the first time and it brought dozens, if not hundreds to tears.
They made their way off the ship and were offered food at the station and though it wasn’t much of an improvement over the ship’s fare though no one turned it down. As they stood in line for the inquiry portion of their inspection, their legs made an effort to assimilate to dry land. Though Ernest spoke some English, Julita spoke very little, but she was very astute.
Ernest was showing off for his young wife, translating the English signs for her, but she wasn’t listening to him. She was tuned in to a man behind her, a man from the upper decks. He was explaining to his wife why it was vital that they change their last name. He told his wife that in America, the less ethnic your name sounds, the more likely you are to make a better income. He said some were shortening their names and some were changing them completely! She whispered urgently to Ernest, “We must change our surname, Ernest!” She grabbed the pen and papers from his hands and crossed off the last half of their name.
He was dumbstruck. What on earth was she doing? If Julita was determined to do anything, it was to improve their station in life, if dropping a few letters from their last name helped her achieve this goal, then it was non-negotiable. He reached out to grab the papers, but she had already stepped forward and handed them to a man in a uniform. The employee exhausted from processing hundreds if not a thousand of immigrants a day, spoke in a monotone voice and began a bombardment of questions, nearly thirty, Ernest counted.
Though she was thin, dirty and had barely escaped an early demise on that boat, Julita smiled from Ernest to the Ellis Island employee and answered each question as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Her head was full of dreams and she would do whatever was necessary to see them to fruition. Soon, the Pola Negris of the world would be reading about her!
Julita looked at her husband as if she’d done him a great service and said, “Mr. Ernest Jacobs! I like the sound of that very much! Very modern, very American!” Ernest wondered if he would be able to assimilate to this new world. He felt overwhelmed and questioned if he should just let Julita take the lead. He began to worry about what he would say when his father learned he had changed their last name. They had been Jacobowski’s for generations, now with the stroke of a pen, he was a man without a history. He should have said something, done something…
“The Jacobs” had only their physicals remaining and when they were complete, it was determined that they were free of illness and disease. They were both handed their “okay card” and sent on their way. Julita squeezed her husband’s arm, filled with excitement as they walked out the doors and into the streets of New York City, of which neither had ever seen the like. Ernest already missed his family, but he buoyed his hoped and stepped into the new world.
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© 2019 Elisabeth Ellis