To Be Honest
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On January 28, 1925, George Ehrlich—"Putsy" to his sister—was born at the Division Street apartment, helped along by midwife Anna Bonus. A week later Joseph wrote in Martha's Diary:
You have a little baby brother, Mártuka... In the first few days you were disappointed because you wanted a sister. When you first heard it was a boy, you cried and said to give it back, you didn’t want a boy, just a girl. It took three days for you to accept him, after we let you hold him in your arms, and from then on you loved him and wanted to play with him all the time. My dear Mártuka, I just hope you always will be good to your little brother, never have misunderstandings, and love and take care of him. You will always be the older, and have to be smart and look after him, then you both will be very happy. George is a very good-looking big baby, nearly nine pounds at birth, and looking straight at you while you hold him; you like to watch him and are happy to be with him.
Some years later, writing this time in English, Joseph would redescribe George’s arrival:
The stork arrives! There is a blessed event this afternoon at 2607 W. Division St. second floor front. The temperature is low, and Martha is lower—she wanted a sister. Papa Ehrlich is unemployed, but not for long. Li'l Georgie brought plenty to do—making soup, cleaning house, and of course the inevitable "three-cornered pants" to put the hourly crease in.
Li'l Georgie (Gyuri or Gyurika in the mother tongue) was himself to unsentimentally state: “I was born on Division Street in Chicago, on West Division Street, and even then it was a rather run-down area."
The birth of her nearly-nine-pound son was difficult for Mathilda and it took her some time to recuperate. On George’s birth certificate, her occupation is listed as "housewife" and Joseph’s as "hat manufacturer," but about the time George was born, Joseph began a stretch of unemployment that went on for months. He had had a series of odd jobs, none of them lasting very long—as janitor in a theatre, or cleaning spittoons, or hard labor when he could get it. One time he got a job sewing at a factory by letting on that he knew what to do, and then tried to fake it by watching others. But he did not turn the sewing machine’s light on, thinking he would save electricity, and this gave him away; he was fired after half a day’s work.
"Without experience, everybody
took advantage of him," Mathilda would remark, "and several days he came home
without getting paid—they just telling him not to come back tomorrow. His
hands were sore and swollen so he couldn’t hardly hold his spoon to eat with.
I felt terrible to watch him struggle and never giving up. But he was
terribly discouraged and if he’d had the money he'd have gone back to Europe the
next day. Thank God he didn’t have the money for that at that time..."
Perhaps the worst of Joseph’s odd jobs was that of sweeper in a marshmallow factory, where powdered sugar was always drifting down through the air, getting shoveled up off the filthy floor, and being used again.
In February Martha began attending "regular school, kindergarten," and some cut-out hearts and colored-dots-pasted-on-paper were tipped into her Diary "for you to see later on: this is your first handiworks in school." After praising them and noting that "up to fifteen, you can do arithmetic every which way," Joseph added:
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 most of all be friendly and helpful to your fellow man so everyone will like you, it will make you happy in later life, and never be ashamed that you are a Hungarian.
When Mathilda had recuperated and George was old enough to be placed in a daycare nursery, Mathilda returned to her job at the hat factory. Joseph did not object to wives working outside the home, but his wife shouldn't have to, and "it hurt his ego for me to be bringing home the money,” Mathilda would say. After about four months of joblessness Joseph got work at Mathilda’s factory, stretching hats on forms. To him this must have seemed only a marginal improvement: his wife had to obtain him the job, and as a professional milliner she of course had the more skilled position.
1925 June 9. Mártuka, I feel guilty because I've neglected you lately. You know darling you are not the only child in our house anymore. I always thought I could never love a second child as much as I loved you, but I was mistaken all the time. I do love Gyurika just as much as I ever did love you. Sometimes I play a bit more with him than with you, not because I love you less, but because he is the smallest and more helpless than you are. At first you felt hurt and it made you a bit jealous of him, but now you get used to having a little brother and you too love him just as much as Mama and I do... but once in awhile you ask me still if I love him better than I love you. Believe me, my dearest, we both love you just as much as before, except we can't play with you as much as we used to when you were the only one.
I am terribly disappointed in America. I have to work very hard, and even so I have a lot of worry and haven’t got the spirit to play much nowadays. For the last four months I was unemployed, and you overheard when Mother and I talked about where we could get money to pay the rent for our apartment. You understood our worry and now every so often ask me if we have money for the rent. I am sorry dear you have to worry with us, I never intended for you to know about it, and did not think you heard and understood what we were talking of... [Joseph]
Mathilda’s home millinery shop "just didn’t go at all," and with it the $300 spent for materials were written off as lost. The Ehrlichs had to take a loan to pay the Division Street rent, and at this grim time the family was near to completely destitute; but of course there would be no question of "burdening" their relatives. Even so, they could at least be nearer friendly faces, and around August the Ehrlichs moved back to the North Side:
It took quite some time, but finally we did find a suitable apartment for ourselves and in a very nice neighborhood, 807 Lakeside Place, close to Lake Michigan, which is lovely. When we look out of the front window we can see the beautiful Lake just across the walk, with a large sandy beach full of people.
The new apartment was basement-level, but the Kohns and Ruhigs lived within walking distance and on weekends the family could get together on the beach and in Lincoln Park. "We had a lot of fun together." Things gradually began to look up for the Ehrlichs. They spent much of that summer in the park, going out for inexpensive strolls just as they had in Kolozsvár. According to Martha, "Our Sunday afternoon entertainment was an endless walk for I don’t remember how many miles, to a 'country' type area where we sat on grassy knolls and watched the trains go by." They would usually pack a lunch for these outings and eat it overlooking the train tracks.
Around this time things got busy at the Ruhigs's fur shop, and Rose and Bela asked Mathilda and Joseph to help them out by sewing up small furs. As Mathilda was to say, "It was quite a surprise to everyone" that Joseph took to this, learning "every kind of fur work and doing a good job on all of them." The Ruhigs asked Joseph to stay on and work for them steadily as a finisher; he agreed, although his pride and determination not to be a burden doubtless gave him the driving ambition to open his own fur shop sometime soon.
If not yet content, Joseph was for the time being feeling more cheerful. In September Martha had become "a real school girl," beginning first grade; the Ruhigs's store was not far from Lakeside Place, and sometimes Mathilda and Martha would bring George in his buggy there so that the family could walk home together. "Soon the work started to interest me," wrote Joseph, "and it was better than no work at all, and we all got along pretty good." He presented Rose Ruhig with a watercolor he had painted of three roses, dated September 3, 1925, and signed Józsitól ["From Joe"]. That same month Martha turned six years old ("Honey, time sure flies") and her parents gave her a colossal party:
By the time the party was on, we had twenty-two kids around the table. Luckily we have a large living room, and everyone enjoyed the food and games and had a wonderful time... Mother baked a large birthday cake with pink frosting, also made lots of fancy cookies. We served ice cream, and each guest got a paper basket full of candy. Your little brother was sitting in his high chair right with all the children at the table, his big eyes wide open watching everything, and trying so hard to talk... We have lots of fun with Gyurika, you love each other and play very nicely always. Sometimes just to tease you I pretend I am angry at him and talk loudly, but you run to me and beg me to leave him alone.
In a few days we’ll be two years in the U.S.A. You hardly remember anything or anyone from our old home. Still talk Hungarian but your English is perfect already, no accent, which I believe your good ear for sounds and music is to thank for. I wish I would have more money, I’d love to start to give you music lessons, but we are quite poor, even a violin seems too expensive. Mártuka, it is bad to be so poor as we are, but we all have our health, and right now that’s the main thing. [Joseph]
At Christmastime Martha "got lots of lovely presents which made you happy, you still believe in Santa Claus, so we had for you a nice Christmas tree. You could be happy my dearest while you believe in such illusions, and we like to prolong it till we possibly can without harm."
So Joseph wrote; but for Martha, Christmas posed a considerable problem. In Europe there had been St. Nicholas filling shoes with clowns and chocolate, "but that wasn't a godly figure," she would remark. "And in America, it's God. And that’s what disturbed my father terribly, and that is why he didn’t want me to have any part of it, and I was so torn between wanting to take part and be with the other kids, and the loyalty to my father."
For Joseph the Neolog rabbi's fatalistic son, religion was something educated people did not need as a crutch. However carefully you might plan and make provision for the future, what was going to happen was going to happen, and you were inevitably going to have to cope with it; that was that. "Yes," Martha would sum her father’s philosophy up, "reality—everything had to be reality."
"Tomorrow will be George’s first birthday," Joseph wrote on January 27, 1926. "I can’t tell you much of your little brother yet, he doesn’t do much." As for Martha, "at first we worried a lot about you, my dear. For the first three years of your life we always were with you, and all of a sudden we landed in America, and all changed for you and for us too."
On February 23rd Martha got her "first paper in school with a 100 on it"—an exercise in addition, no doubt to her father’s pride and joy, and of course the high-scoring paper got tipped into the Diary. "Hope many more will follow it," Joseph added.
That month he was able to buy a used piano, and started teaching Martha the basics of how to play it. "The first lesson went very well. You learn quickly and have a very good ear for music." Joseph also bought a violin for himself "from a man who needed the money, he asked only ten dollars for it." Mathilda had learned to play the piano in Kolozsvár, and sometimes she and Joseph "played easy duets together," thought not often since Mathilda did not think she was very good. Both thought "it would be nice if we could recapture some of our old lifestyle again in our new country." Moreover, Martha’s piano lessons were viewed by her parents as being "necessary to a well-rounded-out education." Martha herself was to say: "The remarkable thing is that as strapped as they were, and as poor as they were, the things that were listed as priorities to do for the children—there was always money for this. No matter where they had to scrimp. If it had to be for the children, it was there... Dad had time to teach me, but he wouldn’t 'have time' to sit down and enjoy himself, playing for himself."
For Joseph’s thirty-second birthday on March 17th, Mathilda had the first photograph taken of Martha and George together. Martha wore "a lovely new white fur coat and matching tam made from ermine tails, showing a bit of silver greys. George has his first knitted wool outfit with cap on his head to match... Dad was really very happy with this birthday gift."
By mid-March Joseph had been giving Martha piano lessons for several weeks, "but now you don’t want to practice anymore. I have to force you to do it because I can see sometime you will be a very good pianist. Now we get to the point where I have to pay one cent to you, to even sit down at the piano." On the other hand Martha liked to read all the time, to the point where her concerned parents sometimes had to take her books away for fear of eyestrain. (She had started wearing glasses regularly again a few months earlier.)
Mother and I love to read too, but we don't have too much time for that, except when you and your little brother are fast asleep... Good thing we have a library not too far away, and it has a few Hungarian books on the shelves. Also we get the newspapers. Wish we could read English more fluently. There's so much we must learn, and Mother started to read your schoolbooks and it seems they help her to understand and to speak a lot more now. Soon as I find time, I will try to go to school at night; if only I could get to it, I’d feel so much better. But so far I am too tired when I get home, and I like to spend more time with my family.
Joseph was never to go to night school, and his skill at reading English would always lag behind Mathilda’s; in the years to come she would use both her library card and Martha's to check out ten books at a time, every week or two, toting them back and forth in a shopping bag. But however Joseph might feel about life in America, he was always to find solace in his children. Years later, retrospectively and in English, he would write:
Life carries on at 807 Lakeside Place, where all the children of the neighborhood fight for the honor of playing with Georgie—"the darling of the lakefront." This is the place where I initiated you [George] into the exciting realm of Little Red Riding Hood, your favorite bedtime story. No other would do, and it wasn’t long before you were able to chime in on the list of groceries in her basket, and explode at the end of—"leves (soup), hús (meat), főzelék (vegetables), bor (wine), sör (beer), with an emphatic palinka (brandy)!"*
The Ehrlichs’s basement apartment on Lakeside Place had windows at sidewalk level. A streetlamp was outside the bedroom window, and when the bedroom light was off at night the streetlamp would illuminate the room. "Those days," Martha would recall, "were among our more lean-'n'-hungry ones, and 'boughten' entertainment (movies, etc.) few and far between." But Joseph would cut from cardboard little silhouettes of people, animals, birds, trees, buildings, and the like; and at night he would tell his children stories, illustrating them by having the shadows of his cardboard props cast upon the bedroom wall†.
Proceed to Chapter 10 of To Be Honest
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* Both Hungarian words and
English translations in the original.
† Click here to read "Shadow and Tell," a poem derived from the above.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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