To Be Honest



Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience...  Let diaries, therefore, be brought into use.

                                                                         —Francis Bacon, Essays

Return to Part One: Kolozsvár       Proceed to Part Three: And Beyond

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 7    “Departure and Arrival”

1923: the Ehrlichs obtain their passport and prepare for the trip, selling their jewelry to buy third-class passage for three.  Parting from friends and family is hard, but the Ehrlichs’s biggest problem is getting their visa approved, since József was not born in Transylvania.  At the Consulate in Bucharest, when asked if Győr is “far from here,” József answers “Not so very far”—and is astonished to see the visa approved.  Following a grim voyage on the broken-down S.S. Constantinople, the Ehrlichs (now Joseph, Mathilda, and Martha) arrive in America and make it to Chicago.

 8    “The First American Year”

Mathilda quickly finds work at a wholesale millinery and does well there, but Joseph realizes he will never be able to teach in the United States.  Determined not to be a burden on Mathilda’s relatives, he takes the first manual job offered.  After a few months the Ehrlichs are able to rent an apartment of their own:

    When we look around … and see how well we did in such a short time, your Mother and I, we are kind of proud of ourselves and
    say, "It was hard, but we could do it" … It is true we work every day and work hard, but at least we can enjoy it because we
    don’t have to be afraid of anyone, not even of the policeman.

They are lonesome for their family back in Cluj, who want to join them in Chicago; but by now immigration has been effectively cut off.

 9    “Gyurika”

George Ehrlich is born in 1925.  His father Joseph, unemployed for months after a series of unpleasant odd jobs, admits to being terribly disappointed in America.  Kindergartener Martha overhears her parents worrying about how to pay the rent:

    I never intended for you to know about it, and did not think you heard and understood what we were talking of … I hope, my
    dear, that whatever I can help to make easier for you I’ll be able to do.  And all that didn’t come true for me, I can help to make
    come true for you in life.  Be a good girl and study hard my dear … and never be ashamed that you are a Hungarian.

Though the family is nearly destitute, Joseph can entertain his children by telling them stories illustrated with shadows cast by streetlamp on the bedroom wall.

10   “Furriery”

A cousin of Mathilda’s teaches Joseph the fur business, and in 1927 he is able to open his own shop.  The fur trade is exceedingly seasonal: nothing gets paid for till the coats are picked up from storage (around Thanksgiving), by which time there are six months of bills to deal with.  Always settling debts promptly, Joseph urges Martha to save her pocket money: "Don’t live just for today, think of tomorrow also, because today is gone in no time, but our tomorrows will stretch ahead of us in a long row."

11   “New Deal on Devon”

Chicago is hit hard by the Depression.  The Ehrlichs, living frugally, survive by repairing and restyling old fur coats rather than selling new ones.  In 1932 Joseph establishes Ehrlich Furs at the Devon Avenue location where it will remain for the next twenty years.  This done, he retreats into a protective shell of Family and Home: "I want you to remember how nice it was to be at home together," he tells his children.  "Think of your home as your church."

12   “Martha and George”

Martha, given her Diary for her fifteenth birthday in 1934, continues it herself: "Today I just remembered that when I felt very dramatic, I always acted as if my life story were being written."  For years Joseph has intended to make a schoolteacher out of his firstborn; after Martha graduates from high school in 1937, she heads for Urbana and the University of Illinois to try achieving Joseph’s dream.

Proceed to Part Three of To Be Honest

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Last updated August 22, 2009

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