To Be Honest
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On June 27, 1926, the Chicago Progressive Fur Club had a Sunday picnic at Lincoln Park to which the Ehrlichs and the Ruhigs went. “As usual there were all sorts of programs to entertain everybody,” including running contests for all ages, and Martha entered the five-to-ten-year-old race and won it. “But the surprise came next day, when a letter came for you by name, saying that you’d won a two dollar savings account in a bank.” The club’s letter expressed hope that this would be the means of beginning Martha’s success in life; Joseph called it her “first real earnings” and wished they could leave the money there a long time for her.
Martha had completed first grade and was “very happy for vacation,” staying outdoors all day; her parents still had to keep at her to practice the piano. “When you learn one of the parts, then you love to play it over and over, and no more problems, until the next new part comes along.” Martha’s handwriting was poor and Joseph intended to help her with this (“I’m going to teach you during vacation”) but he was usually too tired when he came home from work in the evenings. “He still tries to spend some time with you and George if he’s still awake,” commented Mathilda. “He isn’t used to such hard and fast life as in the U.S.A.”
After July 1926 no entry was made in Martha’s Diary for nearly a year. By the following spring, after eighteen months or so of working for the Ruhigs and learning the fur business, Joseph opened his own store at 1539 Devon* Avenue, considerably further up the North Side from the Ruhigs’s place, not far west of Loyola University and Lake Michigan. For at least a year and maybe two, the family lived in a two-room-and-water-closet apartment in back of their ground-level store. This was the first home George would remember: “The ‘bathroom’ there had a sink and stool only, and I had to take a bath in a rubber folding bathtub. We lived in a kind of loft situation.”
The Ehrlichs’ shop had a built-in steel storage vault, always called the “wault,” where coats were stored during the summer. Mothballs were kept inside the cedar-lined vault (cedar also repelling moths) and theoretically the vault provided cold storage, but didn’t. Materials and linings were stored in a couple of sheet-metal safes featuring big combination locks.
By the time their new store was furnished, the Ehrlichs had no money left to buy furs or trimmings; but Joseph had already established himself as a man of his word who always paid his debts promptly. Dealers offered to extend him credit till after Thanksgiving, when customers would pick up their furs from storage and pay for them. The fur business was very definitely a seasonal activity, with an ebb-and-flow cycle that Martha would one day explain:
“All summer long he had done the repairing and the glazing and the cleaning, and then everything was stored in the vault. And also during the summer while he was working, there was no money. When they picked up their things, then they paid. Well, the first snowfall netted George and me each a nickle, that was a big celebration, we got a whole nickle, because it was snowing and that heralded the beginning of the season. Then they got the coats out, and all during the winter, as the money kept coming in day by day, that’s when Dad paid his bills.
“And of course he was the soul of honesty and everybody knew it, so they gave him lining on credit, they gave him furs on credit, and of course the first thing when money started coming in, the bills had to be paid first. So by the time the bills were paid and everything was caught up, it was almost the end of the season, and we were back to nothing again.”
Joseph was a competent and dependable furrier who did his work well, came through on time, and gave good value for the money; he could also be possessed by an occasional whimsy, such as the time he made George a miniature “collegiate” raccoon coat. But he had a continuing struggle with English that hampered communication with his customers. Joseph’s grasp of English would always be clumsy and this would always profoundly embarrass him; he never liked to speak at length in English. After calling on the more fluent (and far more self-confident) Mathilda for interpretive help a few times, it was decided that she should give up her job at the hat factory rather than risk getting fired. From then on she worked with her husband in the fur store.
Along with his local reputation for honesty and debt-settling, Joseph had another significant business asset: his Old World charm and gentlemanly manners, especially effective with the fur trade’s largely (so to speak) female-matron clientele. To those who understood Hungarian he would say “Kezét csókolom,” a polite phrase serving as “Good day Madame,” but more literally translated as “I kiss your hand.”
One day a couple of men visited the store, and men coming into a fur shop without women was suspiciously unusual. Whether they were sizing the place up or not, Joseph became concerned about having some sort of protection. The store had an alarm, but he thought a watchdog would be more dependable and so got a shepherd called Peggy from the Ruhigs. Peggy would let anyone come into the store, but would not allow them to leave until Joseph gave her the go-ahead.
While watching the family eat, Peggy drooled to such an extent that puddles formed between her paws, and she had to be banished at mealtime.
1927 May 14. It’s a shame, almost a year has passed since I wrote in your diary, but all the worry wehad and trouble took up all my time. Although it isn’t everything rosy yet, but your Daddy has a fur store now which gives us something to look forward to for our future in a better way. The best part is that now we are all together all day, and I’m not scared and don’t have to be afraid I won’t be able to find a job.
But to get back to you, Mártuka. You are a nice and healthy seven-year-old girl, and in second grade... We still have to make you practice piano, but I am so sure you will like it and will be a very good player sometime, and you will thank me for it when you are grown up, and it will help you in later life. The most punishment you get is for fibbing. I am sure it isn’t anything to worry about, but I have to correct it before it gets to be a habit. Then you are stubborn, which in itself isn’t important except when you show resistance with me, I can’t have that. [Joseph]
1927 July. You love to read anything and everything, and second best you love playing outdoors, where you run, jump, and act very lively, and we have to force you to come in when it gets dark. You love George very much and now he is old enough to be out with you, but you don’t like that because you have to look after him and he hinders you in your freedom. Otherwise there’s no problem between the two of you, even when he starts a fight with you, because Gyurika is a darling little fighter. He’s watching every move you make, and tries to do the same thing. When you read, he gets a book and tries to read it too. Or when you dress up in anything, even rags, he wants you to dress him up too...
You don’t care if you are late for school, we always have to rush you otherwise you’d be late. Once we even had a note from your teacher because you were late and it made me spank you, but it did not impress you at all. You are leisurely slow getting ready, although you love to go to school. You can’t hold onto money, as soon as you get any, you run to spend it. You never so far save till you get two cents together, have to buy candy as fast as possible. I hope when you get older you will change and learn to save your pennies somehow. Learn it, Mártuka, if you save one hundred pennies you will have a dollar. 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... [Joseph]
After a year of teaching Martha the basics of piano playing, Joseph wanted her to take more advanced lessons from a regular teacher. The one he had in mind was much too expensive, but she recommended a pupil of hers, a “beautifully accomplished young woman” named Dorothea Claussen, who later married and became Dorothea Virus. She was to teach Martha for the next ten years.
1927 Aug. 20. Today we received a letter from your Grandmother Ehrlich [in Budapest], she is a very old lady already. She sent you a lovely poem for a remembrance. So sad to see you don’t remember her, nor anyone else from home. Europe and our close relations are all gone from your memory, although from over there they still write how much they miss you and can’t forget you. We were a very close family, loving and respecting each other, and hoping with all our heart that we soon can go back for a visit, and show a really loving family you have there. That’s everyone’s wish there too. [Joseph]
To darling Mártuka as a remembrance
Live in the lap of life’s luxuries
In countless years to come
And promise to still remember often
Who wrote you these few lines
Your beloved blossoming face
Will be kept forever in my heart
My only wish for you my dear is that
Nothing ever goes wrong in your life
Live gaily and happily ever after
Your loving Grandma Ehrlich.
Romania was eager for the West to permit Jewish emigration, and certainly there were many Jews in Romania who would have been happy to leave. In December 1927 Romanian students staged a series of pogroms, wrecking synagogues and burning Torah scrolls in public squares. The riots spread to Kolozsvár/Cluj, and eight synagogues there were looted by the mob.
But in the United States, the National Origins clause of the 1924 Immigration Act had gone into effect in July. The quota for all Europe was now fixed at a mere 150,000 a year, with each country’s share in direct proportion to the number of its nationals in America. Britain’s quota was huge and seldom filled; central, eastern, and southern Europeans would have to wait years for even a chance at getting a visa.
American immigration, for all intents and purposes, had been cut off.
Martha proved to be a good student in the third grade. “Although not the best, you are in the higher average,” her father characteristically wrote. She appreciated that her parents’s fur business was successful, since she now got more spending money; this mostly went for candy and soda pop. “Ice cream doesn’t appeal to you somehow,” Mathilda wrote in one of her now-rare Diary entries:
My darling little girl, it is ages since I had a chance to write in your book. I had no time nor patience to do so. I still can’t get used to doing all the hard work that Americans have to do, if they have no help. I do love it here, but life’s so much more complicated for Dad and me than we ever could have expected.
Though Mathilda had to do most of her own housecleaning, Joseph “in his old-fashioned, European, gallant way, scoured the bathroom once a week,” according to Martha. “This was one area which was beneath the dignity of his lady.”
George was not at all pleased at being left behind when Martha went off to Stephen K. Hayt Grammar School. “He holds onto you and doesn’t like it when you leave for school and he has to stay home with us.” When the summer of 1928 rolled around, George “had a lovely time in the vacation because he tagged along with you all day, he was out of doors with you playing and you took good care of him. People told us you were like a little mother to him”—a role that Martha mightily resented. When she began fourth grade that September, George outdid his previous reaction. Years later, retrospectively and in English, Joseph would write:
It was here that you had your first great sorrow. In fact it was a daily sorrow. Martha leaving for school, accompanied by your tantrum and shrill “I want to go too’s.” Your first disappointment came at 3½, when going out to meet the world, you were rejected by the Hayt kindergarten as “too young.” However a few months later, the school authorities repented their first hasty decision, and you were enrolled.
Mathilda went to Hayt and asked the school to please admit George, “because he wanted to go to school so badly that I don’t know what to do with him.” George finally got his wish the following February, beginning kindergarten at the ripe old age of just-turned-four.
1928 Oct. 12. It isn’t laziness that I didn’t write this long, but the worries I had took my mind away from everything. Besides, we had some sickness in our family, and more worry too. Thank Heaven things got better and so with a lighter heart and mind I can pick up my pen to chat with you again.
You are in the fourth grade now and an average good student. Mathematics is hard for you, so I am helping you in that every day... You surprised me with a mark of forty in math, you explained it was because you didn’t finish just half of it. Your usual marks are ninety or over, so I didn’t scold you for it although I found out you cut paper dolls out and pasted them on paper when you should have been doing mathematics. [Joseph]
Joseph also noted that Martha, who kept her hair long at a time when most girls had theirs bobbed, had gotten into a hair-pulling fight. “You don’t mind a good fight now and then. Not your brother, he is a little fraidy-cat.” (So much for Gyurika the darling little fighter.)
By May 1929 Martha had a best friend, neighbor Dorothy Peterson, and an unbest friend, the piano at practice time. Joseph praised her playing (“you go through the hardest things with ease and learn very quickly to play from memory, and your technique is very good”) though he said she would be outdoors playing all day if he didn’t make her practice.
But Martha had few children to play with as a child. When Dorothy Peterson was not available, “there was nobody. So this is why most of my life was spent reading. My books were my friends... And you know, although I think it worried Mother that I didn’t have friends, Dad seemed to feel this was okay, because books would never disappoint me...
“But the thought keeps coming to me: that if parents feel and talk and act with a child the way my parents did, why did I have no self-confidence, no ego—I should have been the most egotistical kid in the world...”
Having paid off their basic debts and established their credit, the Ehrlichs were doing well enough to move to a separate apartment at 1512 Rosemont Avenue, just south of the fur store. They were living there on June 12, 1929, when “Josif” Ehrlich—aged thirty-five, standing five-foot-seven, with blue eyes, brown hair, and no visible distinguishing marks—was granted his Certificate of Naturalization and admitted as a citizen of the United States.
To achieve citizenship, Joseph and Mathilda had studied English so they could answer pertinent questions. A husband’s naturalization no longer automatically made his wife an American citizen, though, and illness would delay Mathilda’s getting her citizenship until July 1936.
Things looked very promising for the Ehrlichs in the summer of 1929, not least because Martha had saved up $1.50 for the first time in her life:
Your happiest time is if Mother or I ask you to lend us some of it once in awhile. Then I pay it back and give you some interest, to teach you what it means to save, and you like that. But you ask me to give change, because it seems a lot more that way than if you get a dollar bill. You’re saying you feel grown up since you have money of your own, and can lend some to us when we need it.
Joseph was glad to encourage this, but sorry to have to discourage Martha’s reading “to all hours of the night... I’ve found you several times in the early A.M. awake and reading in bed. Finally you had to be punished for that because you are drowsy all day after these bouts.” Martha’s punishment was to write My father told me not to read in the bed and I’m not going to do it any more, fifty times. If the next day was not a school day, Martha was allowed to stay up later. One time she finished her book early, but when Joseph asked her, “Now what will you do?” she answered, “I’ll start reading it all over again.”
Around July 1929 George was taken to Michael Reese Hospital for a tonsillectomy. “Now he won’t eat. We have to use force to feed him, although it is over two weeks since he had his operation.” When George began eating again he was very picky about it, and began a lengthy holdout battle against vegetables. Conditions deteriorated to the point where he would touch nothing but milk and ham sandwiches. Mathilda was perfectly willing “to make ham sandwiches ad infinitum,” Martha would relate, but one day Joseph decided George was going to eat vegetables or else. “Both being totally stubborn males, neither would give by a carrot slice, and finally the ultimatum was proclaimed: George would either eat what had been put on his plate, or he could leave. Period!”
What resulted was young George—wearing winter coat, galoshes, and round hat with ear flaps tied under his chin—marching away downstairs, his face dry-eyed and expressionless. At the top of the stairs Mathilda was wringing her hands, Martha was “sobbing uncontrollably,” and Joseph was “waiting for the kid to give up, turn around, and return to eat the damned carrots.” But George was apparently ready to join the Foreign Legion.
In the end it was Joseph who had to back down. “The era of ham sandwiches continued for a few months,” Martha would conclude, “then disappeared naturally.”
Proceed to Chapter 11 of To Be Honest
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* Pronounced "Dee-VAWN" in undiluted Chicagoese.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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