Over the bridge table Tuesday, my eighty seven year old Jewish friend mentioned she was born in Fremont, Nebraska. “Where is that?” I asked.”Near Omaha,” she answered. “How did your parents come to live there?” I wondered. This is the story she told.
“Many years ago my grandfather lived in Poland with his wife and four children. They had a hard life–people of the land–poor and uneducated. They couldn’t read or write and spoke only Yiddish. In 1890, desperation drove my grandfather to leave his family and make his way to America. He arrived in New York, virtually penniless and unable to speak a word of English.
“Somehow he managed to get himself on a train headed for Omaha. That’s where his wife’s sister-in-law lived–the only person in the United States he knew. But when the train arrived in Omaha, they wouldn’t let him get off. The Omaha Jewish quota was filled, they told him, so he stayed on the train and got off at the next stop: Fremont.
“The Fremont station agent couldn’t understand Yiddish but he thought it sounded a lot like German. Feeling sorry for my grandfather, the agent let him spend the night on a wooden bench in the train station and the next morning he called his friend, a German farmer, and asked him to come see if he could help the poor fellow?
“Between the farmer’s German and my grandfather’s Yiddish, they managed. The farmer hired my grandfather and provided him with a horse and buggy. My grandfather sold eggs and hay and other farm products and over time, made enough money to bring his wife and four children from Poland to Fremont. They had five more children. One of them was my father.
“Though my grandfather made lots of money in various businesses, he never did learn to read or write. The bank in Fremont allowed him to sign his name with an X until the first world war. Then the munitions factory opened and many others came to work who also couldn’t write their names. The bank told my grandfather he couldn’t sign his name with an X anymore but to come to the bank and they’d teach him to write. He learned to make the first letter of his first name and the last letter of his last name. Between them, he scribbled something. With practice, that became his signature–one that nobody could copy,” my friend said, laughing.
Our older generation has amazing stories to tell. Let’s all do what we can not to let those stories get lost.
Addendum: “Fremont gained national attention in 2010 when residents approved a referendum that would ban illegal immigrants from renting and working in the town.”