Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Joseph Rubinstein first saw the Statue of Liberty arriving in this country, alone, from Minsk, Russia in 1913. Admittedly at age 20, he recalls ,any sentiment at seeing the great lady of liberty competed with a youthful eagerness to begin a better way of life here.
It was the poverty of my family's existence in Russia that made me anxious to come to America. I looked around me and saw my father working long hours as a tailor, my mother peddling food from a pushcart in the market, I was working in a drugstore, my sisters from the time they were 12 worked, and yet we were so poor. When it came to special occasions like a wedding, we had to borrow the clothes. Life was very hard, there seemed to be no future.
Jews were excluded from working at certain jobs, which included working at the post office, on the railroad, or being a policeman. Added to this were the threats of pogroms against the Jews, though I was fortunate to have been spared the terrifying experience during the time I lived there. Jews could only live in certain places of the country. A Jew could not live for example in Moscow, but Minsk had a large Jewish population.
Many Jews had no exposure or opportunity to learn the Russian language. There was no compulsory education and the Hebrew schools taught by rabbis were often of poor quality. It wasn't until I had the chance for two years, at age 11, to attend a public school that I first learned the Russian language.
If education wasn't mandatory, service in the military was. And I considered myself extremely lucky to be allowed to emigrate, since at age 21 I would have had to serve for three years in the Czar's army. With an older sister already living in New York, I eagerly accepted the $35 ticket she sent for second-class passage.
The ticket not only paid for my trip, but I could avoid the unhealthy crowded conditions of those traveling below in steerage class and the delays and medical exams faced at Ellis Island at the end of the 14-day journey. The fear of every immigrant was being forced to return home, and the eye examination was what they dreaded the most. Comparatively, my medical exam and the processing of my paper work was routine.
I never believed the stories I heard about the abundance of riches in this country. And when I lived for a short time amidst the teeming immigrant population on New York's Lower East Side, I experienced poverty and crowded living conditions. Hot water was a big thing if you had it. The kitchen was the main living area because it had the only source of heat which was the coal stove. And there often were boarders living with a family. The family needed the money this brought in and the newly arrived immigrants needed a place to stay.
I was hopeful that the Bolshevik Revolution would bring my family left behind in Russia a better life. When this did not prove true, my two sisters applied for U.S. citizenship in 1924.
That was just at the time when an immigration quota act was passed by Congress that set small quotas for those arriving from Eastern European countries, while favoring those from England, the Scandinavian countries and Germany. Though my sisters had visas to this country, they could not leave Russia because of the restrictive quotas imposed.
Looking back, I wish I had pursued their arrival here more strongly. My remaining family perished with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. In 1936, three years before the outbreak of the war, I returned for a visit to Russia and was surprised how little things had changed to improve their living conditions. A bathtub and hot water were still luxuries and the houses were still small and shabby. My sisters never asked for money or help in any way though. I still think of their tragedy.
But, for me, a new life had begun and even the $15 a week that I earned as a house painter represented opportunity. Preparatory schools gave immigrants like me a chance for further learning and settlement houses like the one on Henry Street a place for socialization.
From New York City, my wife and I came to Concord 11 years ago to live in the same town as our daughter, Sylvia Gold. I enjoy doing volunteer work with kindergarten students at the Alcott school, and they tell me I am the oldest volunteer.