BENEFITING: CHINESE AMERICAN PLANNING COUNCIL INC
ORGANIZER: CHINESE AMERICAN PLANNING COUNCIL INC
EVENT DATE: Aug 03, 2014
Hi Friends and Family,
Why is working with the immigrant community important to me? And why am I asking you to donate a few dollars to CPC? It goes back to my Great-grand parents and the battles they fought – literally and figuratively, to get to the US.
America is a nation of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. My grandfather, our "Big Daddy" was the son of Selig Hendler and Rose Kirschon Hendler who immigrated to the US in the 1910-20s. So much of our family legacy depends on this fact. Whether we think of this or not about him, Big Daddy was a first generation immigrant. Through him, and our Great Grandparents Selig and Rose, I have always felt compassion for new, arriving immigrants to this country, especially those who are trying to find a better life, or just survive whatever has happened to them in their home country.
When Big Daddy’s father first came to the U.S. he passed through the same neighborhood where I work today. In the 1910 census, it lists Selig Hendler living on Clinton Street not a stone’s throw from where I worked at Grand Street and where I work today at CPC. Selig was staying with on Clinton St. with our Great Uncle Isadore. Though Isadore was reputed to be the monied man of the family - he was definitely not wealthy at that moment – as he lived in the densest, most populated and lowest income area of NYC - where Irish, Jewish and German immigrants lived in tightly packed rooming houses. These buildings were called tenements and they had little light or air. What was our Great Grandfather Selig doing there on Clinton Street, hanging out with Uncle Isadore, and how did we end up in Texas?
Great Grandfather Selig, like many Russian Jews in the late 1880’s to early 1900’s escaped his home country due to instability at the time, and the desire to escape persecution. A series of bloody pogroms were launched against Jewish communities – by Tsar Alexander the II, Alexander the III, Nicholas I, and then at the start of the Russian revolution, by the Red Army. We don’t know if our earlier ancestors moved to the “Pale Settlement” of Lithuania by choice or under the persecutions of the earlier ruler of Catherine the Great – but eventually they settled in a shtetl of Birzai, in Lithuania. During this time, threatened by anti-Semitic views, many Jewish men were forcibly conscripted into the armed forces of the day, if they were not outright killed in the many waves of violence directed at local Jewish enclaves. Jews were made to pay extra taxes, were forced to move, and many other forms of religious persecution.
What I have found working closely with immigrants in NYC is that they are like our relations who came over. There is a reason people leave the life they were born to, to make a try at a better one. Though I remember Great Grandmother Rose’s stories, told in her thick accent, of her adoration of the handsome man Selig who walked her home from a Shakespeare play, the reality of their life was not romantic in any way. At night, terror often struck our family’s people, whole communities burned, men killed, women raped or killed for the nature of their beliefs.
[update- Selig was trained as a pharmacist, though was not able to have the same status/license in the US.] When Selig was forcibly conscripted, he knew he would be poorly armed and trained. Jewish men were usually placed at the front lines of various battles at that time as cannon fodder. He luckily made it into the Navy. (I've added a picture of him in his uniform - and also a picture of him as a child.)
PHOTOS: Albert 'Big Daddy' Hendler with Pauline plus 8!; Selig Hendler as a child; Rae Hendler, friend and Selig in uniform; Rae, friend, and Henna Hendler; Rose Kirschon Hendler and Florence as a baby several years after arriving in the states; Big Daddy as a boy with dance partner; Pauline and Albert out on the town; Pauline, Albert with kids Bobby and Charlie; Chicken Shack crew of Hendlers in Waco, Texas; Thsnksgiving 1994; Polly Anne Hendler Pagel's wedding with Hendler crowd in Dallas.
Instead, on a boat, he and his entire ship did not make it to battle. Rumors from varied relations differ. Some say his boat mutinied against their captain and escaped. Others said that they had to go to port due to the influenza outbreak. Whatever the cause, he apparently had what in my mind must have been an adventure. He travelled across China, and took a boat to San Fransisco. Can you imagine what that must have been like – how bad the conditions must have been him to want to leave everyone he knew, his large family in Birzai? How brave our Great Grandfather was – to travel out of his home country, through places he didn’t know, to finally get his way overseas like that? Selig eventually made it to The US and joined the U.S. army – which at the time brought him citizenship.
Fast forward to a few years later - and Selig Hendler left overcrowded NYC’s Lower East Side, to move to Texas where he had some brothers –Samuel and Nathan – already settled and living the Texas good life. Knowing that the situation was violent and so bad at home, he wrote his old sweetheart, Rose – almost five years after coming to the US, and asked her to meet him in America.
Rose by that time had somehow managed to both survive in Birzai, and despite being Jewish, to get into the University in Moscow (How? did she hide her identity? Was she “intelligentsia” of the time? A radical? At the time they allowed less than 10% of Jews to be educated over a grade school level - so she must have been smart, tenacious, crafty or all three…) She was working and supporting her family as a school mistress at a Bolshevik school. [update- Our cousin Gloria F. mentioned that Rose would hide her secular school books from her parents inside Hebrew books.]
Rose got Selig’s letter and said yes she would come. She was so seasick she took the train when she arrived to meet Selig in Texas. They married right off the train car at a local rabbi’s home.
Rose was smart, and she had that 1920’s pretty flapper, long thin look. Though she knew six or seven languages, she did not know English when she came over. She was educated, and didn't know how to cook. And surprising everyone, including herself, when she met him again - she found she didn’t really like this Selig guy anymore. In fact, she liked him so little, despite being now married to him, she moved down the block to a relative’s house. [update- family rumor has her also going for a spell to St. Louis where she had relatives.]
Why? This is a family mystery. Perhaps it was due to having not seen Selig for years. Perhaps life had changed him. She must have changed from her experiences in school, and during those five, chaotic years in Russia. I remember as a child reading that Jews were exterminated to anyone with 1/16 “Jewish blood.” I am technically ¼ jewish, that would mean I would have been killed, as would my kids and my grandkids, no matter what their faith was- just for their ethnic identity. Birzai was wiped out so our great grandparents got out in time. Everyone else they knew were sent to ghettos then camps. Many family members of Selig and Rose were killed. [one of the last relations to leave was our cousin Ruth Vinn Hendler Lack- whose entire family were killed and who was adopted by Nathan and Rae Hendler.]
Despite the emotional trials of leaving home and her family to their fate, Rose in Texas studied English. She met others who had come over. She got to know Selig again.
Perhaps Selig - in that way of Hendler men - wooed Rose. It is another family mystery. Rose later reported about her love for Selig Hendler, “and then, it was like a curtain lifted.” They fell in love (again) and had two kids – Albert and Florence. Together, they started Hendler’s Dry Goods in an empty store in town, and did well, eventually opening other stores across Texas. Our Big Daddy was born in Temple Texas, and when his dad Selig died of a heart infection when Big Daddy was ten, he said he wanted to be a doctor. Rose later said he stood on a chair and declared it after Selig’s funeral, “so no one would have to die like my daddy did”. Albert got a degree in medicine at Harvard and had eight kids with Polly. With 8 kids, and now19 grandkids, and many new great grands coming, we are growing in leaps and bounds. I mean, for goodness sakes – for our weddings we can’t get the list of family down to less than 60 people!
NYC has a growing Asian population, coming through the same neighborhoods that our ancestors came through some years ago. Faces change, but persecution and discrimination stay the same. Our success story as a family is repeated each day here, as I see our city’s newest version of Selig or Albert . I have great empathy for anyone who wants to come and experience the same freedoms that our great grandparents hoped for- for their own children and their children’s children. I think of them almost every day, as I work to fundraise for programs at CPC. CPC helps newcomers learn English, helps people find work and provides so many other services to help people join the mainstream and overcome barriers. I think what CPC does is a highly effective way to help new people integrate and become a great and productive addition to our American community.
I hope you will join me in helping the next wave of new American families coming over, looking to find a safe and healthy place for themselves and their children. The theme for CPC’s Walkathon is People Helping People. I am hoping that my people will pay it forward, and help CPC’s People with a small donation. If you have read this far I hope you will take a minute to donate whatever you can.
I’m so proud of our family and all we have achieved from that shtetl in Birzai. Let’s help another family be lucky enough to have many generations of successes like ours.
This summer, CPC will bring together over 5,000 people from across NYC for our Walkathon & Family Day Fair to celebrate generations of community service.
Join us August 3, 2014 at 9am (Columbus Park, Chinatown) to walk and show your support for our community!
Donate, Pledge & Walk.
For more information visit us at bit.ly/cpcnycwalkathon