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In 1899, the town of Zolochev was not the worst place in the world in which to be a Jew. Today, it is a good-sized suburb about an hour’s drive from the city of Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine. At the close of the nineteenth century, it was out on the unfashionable eastern end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Lviv was called Lemberg. Galicia was the name of the province in which it lay, under the awkward dual control of Vienna and Budapest. It was a crossroads of cultures, and thus of languages. Most residents spoke Polish because much of Galicia had once been part of Poland,* but there was German in the streets as well, and a little Ukrainian, and lots of Yiddish.
Whether for Jews or Gentiles, though, it was not a comfortable or easy place to live. Galicia was the poorest part of the empire, with frequent famines and epidemics. The industrialization that was improving life in much of the rest of Europe was not really being pursued here; that kind of investment was being made, and its profits spent, way to the west. (Although, within a few years, even Zolochev would have telephone and telegraph service.) From these eastern territories, most of what the government wanted was a steady flow of wheat and potatoes. Viennese pastry depended upon Galician flour.
The town had roughly ten thousand residents then, about half of them Jews. If this had been a Russian village, its Jewish residents would have been facing systematic disenfranchisement, attacks, and horrific deaths in the pogroms. In Galicia, by contrast, there was, if not exactly harmony, at least a manageable equilibrium. Quite a few Jews in Zolochev had reached the merchant class, and you could almost tell how successful they were by their language of choice: the more they’d established themselves, the likelier they were to have shed Yiddish for Polish, as they integrated themselves into the local power structure. The town had a Jewish mayor, and it was represented by Jews in the parliament in Vienna. The emperor, Franz Joseph I, had bestowed equal citizenship upon his Jewish subjects, declaring their civil rights “not contingent in the people’s religion.” In return, the emperor was well liked by the Galician Jewish population, members of which wrote appreciative prayers and songs about him that were printed in their prayer books. There were, roughly speaking, three classes of Jews in town: successful bourgeois business folk, who dressed like city people; the poor but observant, whose dress and religious observance were, in the words of one contemporary, “half-civilized”; and the Hasidim, in their black fur hats.
Berisch and Rivka Felig were somewhere on the lower rungs of the middle group. They lived in House 226, according to public records. By June 1899, they had been married for not quite three years, with a son named Elias, and their second child was on the way. Berisch was literate and had learned Hebrew. He yearned to become a rabbi, although he didn’t or couldn’t do what it took to become ordained. In his son’s memoir, we are told that the family spoke German and Polish, but it is overwhelmingly likely (and records suggest, and the rest of the family agrees) that the household language was Yiddish.
Rivka was also educated, and was a little bit further up the social ladder than her husband because her father owned some property and had his own business, supplying food under contract to the Austrian army. (Berisch worked for his in-laws, in fact.) She came from the large and widespread Imber family. An older relative from Zolochev named Naftali Herz Imber was in the midst of becoming a prominent poet, which suggests that he was well-off enough to do more than grub out a living. One of his poems, half a century later, was set to music and became “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
Berisch and Rivka’s second son was born on June 12, 1899. They named him Usher.* That he would, on another continent, become more famous than his cousin (for making art with a camera, a field that barely existed in 1899 and absolutely did not exist in the worldview of a hungry family in Zolochev) was not foremost in his parents’ minds.
When a third son, Feibish, arrived two years later, the pressure to keep the children fed became more intense, and a political shift that took lucrative contracts away from Jews undercut the family business. The local détente was beginning to break down, too: less than a generation later, in 1918, Lviv would be the site of a vicious three-day pogrom. Great numbers of Galicia’s citizens were leaving, and even a not-very-ambitious father could see that a better future lay elsewhere. In the twenty years preceding the First World War, three million people emigrated. About a quarter of those went to America.
Berisch went first, alone, in August 1903. That arrangement was not uncommon. The idea was to get a job on the reputedly gold-paved streets of an American city and eventually send some of that treasure home so the family could reunite. Maybe Berisch was just ready to try his luck in a new place; maybe it was because Rivka had found out she was expecting a fourth child, and he simply couldn’t support six people on the work he could get. He left on the Hamburg-America Line’s steamship Pretoria, packed into steerage with twenty-two hundred other people (plus a couple of hundred up above, in first and second class). It was one of the company’s newer, faster ships, and the crossing took the typical seven days.
At Ellis Island, he named a cousin, Abraham Zwerling (who listed his address in a tenement at 201 East Seventh Street), as his contact in the New World. (At least, Berisch claimed they were cousins; it was not uncommon for immigrants to concoct a kinship with someone already in America, in the belief that it would ease their admission. There were indeed Zwerlings among the Jews of Zolochev, so Berisch and Abraham were probably related somehow.) Berisch—he quickly became “Bernard,” although one document says that he briefly tried on “Barnet” for size—listed his occupation as “laborer,” which is telling; he may have been a learned man, but now he would do whatever it took to get by. When he disembarked, he pledged, in accordance with the law, that he had no criminal record, was not a polygamist, was not an anarchist. He had four dollars in his pocket.
Even the poorest American city dwellers today would find it almost impossible to imagine the density and intensity of the Lower East Side into which he arrived. In the preceding fifty years, the five boroughs constituting New York City (only recently consolidated into one entity, in 1898) had quintupled their population, to 3.5 million. Most of those new people were not American babies but immigrants flooding in from the Old World. First from Ireland and England, then from northern Europe, and subsequently from Italy and Greece and Russia and Austria-Hungary, came ships packed full of people like Berisch turned Bernard, sometimes a thousand per day. Industrial America absorbed them, to fill factory jobs and build skyscrapers and dig subway tunnels. Because New York was the country’s biggest manufacturing center, a lot of these new Americans went no farther than the port city where they’d disembarked.
In 1900, the district known as the Seventeenth Ward, which included that tenement where Abraham Zwerling lived on East Seventh Street, had a population of 130,796, packed into less than half a square mile. The only denser areas were immediately to the south, deeper into the Lower East Side. (Those areas, still pretty crowded, house about a quarter as many residents now as they did then.) A tenement building that today is home to perhaps a dozen people typically held about seventy. Kids slept three and four to a mattress. Some single men did not rent or even share a room; instead, they rented eight hours’ worth of a single grimy bed, and two other “tenants,” if you can call them that, slept there during the other two shifts. If Berisch had a dime to spare, it was most likely sent home to Zolochev, where Rivka was getting help (probably financial, certainly personal, and absolutely necessary in either case) from her extended family.
Usher knew little of the city where his father was living. When the family was in Europe, he said later, “there was one [American] building that was outstanding. They had pictures of it. That was the Singer Building,” at forty-seven stories the tallest skyscraper downtown, brand new in 1908. “That was the only building we knew, and as a matter of fact, nobody believed they really had a building that high.”
As a grown man, Arthur Fellig said almost nothing else about this period of his life. He and his siblings always described their origins as “Austria,” which sounded genteel to many Americans, implying schlag and Sacher torte. It also conveyed the lingering national pride that Emperor Franz Joseph’s benevolence had instilled. Mostly, though, Galicia amounted to a life and a place that Arthur and his brothers and sisters explicitly chose to leave behind.
In adulthood, Weegee told only one extended story about the old country, and he played it for slapstick and pathos. His father, he said, at one point sent home a packet of a dozen “throwaways,” flyers that looked like twenty-dollar bills on one side and carried an ad for a local business on the other. Berisch was probably goofing around (which is what Arthur later suggested), joking as if the throwaways were real cash; he may have been making an honest mistake; he may himself have been conned. In any case, Rivka and her family didn’t know what American currency was supposed to look like, and neither did the local bank. She thought that her ship had literally come in, and she booked passage as soon as the counterfeit $240 had been deposited. The family’s bags were packed when the bankers came after them and canceled everything. It was a disappointing and embarrassing moment, one that left a mark on Usher Fellig.
In New York, Berisch kept working, eventually with a pushcart, and managed to send actual money sometime later. Rivka and the children were headed to America. It was the summer of 1909. They made their way to Hamburg, where they boarded the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, a slightly nicer vessel than the Pretoria. It had, at its launch a few years earlier, briefly been the largest liner in the world, and the well-off passengers in first class experienced luxurious travel. Which is not to say it was especially nice down in fourth class, where the Felligs were: they had paid roughly thirty-five dollars per passenger, which entitled nobody to a cabin. Although conditions in the belly of a steamship had sharply improved in new vessels such as the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria—just a few years earlier, many had not provided separate bathing areas for women and men, and the washrooms had had only cold-seawater spigots—this was no vacation cruise. Bunks were lined up barracks style. If you were seasick (and on the Felligs’ trip, rough weather made a lot of people seasick), being down there amid the cabbagey kitchen stink and the shared bathrooms only made things worse.
The family was reunited on September 4, when Berisch met them at the port. Usher Fellig later recalled having his eyes checked at Ellis Island for trachoma, the contagious form of conjunctivitis that was the terror of immigrants not only because it could blind them but also because it could get them sent back to Europe. Everyone in the family passed, and off they went to their new home. That day, spiritually if not officially, Usher Felig became Arthur Fellig.*
The passenger manifest says that he couldn’t read or write. When he was presented with a banana at Ellis Island, it was “the most amazing thing,” he later recalled. “I’m glad one thing—someone told me to take the skin off.” But, he added, “we didn’t know any difference. I’d never seen anything like that before.” He got an orange, too, and figured out how to peel it on his own.
Berisch had been living in Brooklyn, in a building at 292 Watkins Street. That was smack in the middle of Brownsville, a relatively new tenement neighborhood that had been built up as an alternative to the packed Lower East Side. (Predominantly populated by the poorest of immigrant Jews, it had quickly become a slum of its own. By 1909, it was notorious for street crime, a reputation it still has.) But the family probably needed more space than Berisch had as a single man, and the reunited Felligs soon took another apartment, on the Lower East Side, in a rear tenement at 52 Pitt Street.
That address tells you a lot about the family’s financial status. A rear tenement, or “backhouse,” was a building in the backyard of another, built to double the owner’s income from a small plot of land. Access was usually via the street-facing tenement: to enter the second building, you went in the front door of the first, through a narrow tunnel-like hallway, and out a back door into the yard. The rent in a rear tenement was lower, and so was the quality of life. A backhouse had the unpleasant quality of cutting residents off from the street while offering almost no privacy. The joke popularized by Henny Youngman conveys it:
WOMAN (TO NEIGHBOR): Do you see what’s going on in Poland?
NEIGHBOR: I don’t see anything. I live in the back.
Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Bonanos