On Tuesday I wrote about my great-grandmother Eva, nicknamed Little Eva after the “Locomotion” singer because she was under five feet tall. Eva left a fairly comfortable family in Europe on the eve of the Great War to start from scratch in America. She arrived in New York on her sixteenth birthday, married at 17, and raised four children in Brooklyn.
Even before I embarked on my family history quest this year, I knew a fair amount about her life. Eva was one of many children (more than 10, maybe 15), and her father was a prominent local official in their hometown in Europe. When she was 15 she was offered the chance to attend university, rare for a girl in Europe in 1910, but instead chose to come to America with her even-younger sister Maria. They had a cousin living in Brooklyn, a young man then in his twenties, who wrote of how free and wondrous America was, and Eva lapped it up. After leaving, she never saw her parents or other siblings again, and many of them were killed in World War I and subsequent conflicts just after.
To learn more about the life and family Eva built in Brooklyn, keep reading.
As I learned with certainty only a year ago, Eva and Maria landed in New York in February 1911, on Eva’s 16th birthday. They moved in with their bon vivant cousin Daniel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Eva left home for was not exactly the paradise her cousin had promised. She found some work as a housekeeper in the brownstones of nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill, but lost more than one job when the children of the house entertained themselves by teaching the new immigrant to complement their parents with American curse words.
Although the streets of Williamsburg were not paved with gold, cousin Daniel’s infectious good humor and fun group of friends made life enjoyable. They lived just steps away from the Grand Street ferry to East Houston Street in Manhattan. Daniel used to take them across the river to go out in “the City.” In a dance hall on Second Avenue, about a year after she arrived, Eva met another immigrant, John (originally Ivan). The first night they met he said, “I’m going to marry you.” And later that year, on October 21, 1912, they were married in Manhattan. John was 23 and Eva 17 at the time. Eva moved into John’s apartment on East 9th Street in Manhattan for a short while, but they soon moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to be closer to her few relatives in New York. John had no family in America.
Before and after his marriage, Luka lived on Barren Island, a strange place off the bottom tip of Brooklyn. Since the 1850s the island had been Brooklyn’s main garbage landfill and the dumping ground for many dead horses, but it also had a small number of residents scattered about. They worked in a collection of factories that transformed the refuse into useful products like glycerin, fertilizer, and glue. The population was diverse. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the African-Americans and recent immigrants got the worst jobs. It was a malodorous place full of rag pickers and garbage sorters. As Underwater New York tells it:
Residents of Barren Island were completely separated from mainstream life in the city, and their daily reality was as distinct as if it were another country: at the turn of the last century, the island had no electricity, no post office, no doctors or nurses, four saloons, five factories boiling vats of garbage day and night, and a one-room schoolhouse. School let out early so children could help their parents sort garbage…To this day, as the sand placed there to cover the landfill erodes, you can find all sorts of old trash at Barren Island: ancient glass bottles, cans, rusting hunks of metal, you name it. It’s a disgusting but fascinating place to roam.
In , the city stopped sending garbage there, and all but one factory, a horse rendering plant, closed. Chemical compounds were replacing natural materials for cleaning and the automobile had cut way down on the number of horses needed, and therefore dying, in the city. In 1926, the waters around Barren Island were filled in with garbage, sand and coal to make what’s now Floyd Bennett Field. In 1936, [state and city highway and parks czar] Robert Moses ordered evacuation of residents to build Marine Park Bridge, the island’s cottages were bulldozed and everyone was scattered.
When Luka lived there it truly was an island and you needed a boat to get there. Luka¸ who had grown up rowing boats, moved there to work in a glue factory. Later, when my great-grandfather John found him work as a longshoreman, he rowed each morning to the Brooklyn “mainland” (quotes because Brooklyn itself is on an island, Long Island), where he caught a trolley clear across the borough to go to work.
One night early in 1919 Luka was rowing his boat toward home when he was accosted on the bay by some sort of gangsters who had been harassing him for months. Why nobody knows. In the ensuing altercation, Luka was shot in the head. Another boater, who knew him, took him to shore. He lived but doctors could not remove the bullet from his brain. Luka left the hospital two days after he was shot, and took his family to rural Pennsylvania. His wife was pregnant at the time and their youngest daughter was born there. Only in 1922, when word came that the people who shot him had been sent to prison for a long time for an unrelated crime, did they return to New York. But they lived on the other end of Brooklyn now, never returning to Barren Island.
Luka, carrying the bullet in his head, was prone to painful migraines and erratic behavior. These symptoms intensified until in late 1927, almost nine years after being shot, Luka could endure no more and took his own life. His three children ranged in age from 8 to 12 at the time, and his oldest daughter (the only one to remember the night of the shooting) in particular never really recovered, though the family persevered.
It is perhaps to this string of misfortune that I owe my existence. My grandmother was coaxed out of her depression when she was convinced to take care of my grandfather’s ailing mother, who lived directly across the street. My grandfather, at this time, was divorced with a young daughter and had moved back into his mother’s home. He had been introduced to my grandmother on the street several years earlier but the families didn’t know each other at all. My grandparents, though, spent many hours talking (my grandfather could talk!) in his mother’s apartment. As fate would have it, my grandfather was an electrician and had met my grandmother’s father once when doing an inspection for Con Edison. By spending so much time together, they fell in love and married in 1942, just before my grandfather was sent to the Pacific for over three years in the Army.
Eva was a great cook, particularly Eastern European specialties like she’d grown up with. She stubbornly refused, even in her 90s, to share the secret ingredients in her latkes or paska, saying she needed to have something all to herself. My grandmother never was able to duplicate either. Eva also knitted and sewed constantly, making dresses, tablecloths, Afghans, hats and scarves. Each Easter she decorated eggs: krashanky (boiled and dyed one color) and psyanky (elaborate patterns drawn by hand using a batik, or wax resist, method). Her pysanky were quite beautiful.
During the warm weather Eva used to sit in a lawn chair in front of the house and knit. There was an Italian couple next door, and the husband’s mother, born in Italy and never really reconciled to American life, lived with them. Soon the two widows were sitting next to each other, chatting away. My grandfather used to tease Eva, “Is that lady teaching you English?” In truth, they often couldn’t understand each other’s thick accents, so Eva bought a notebook to write the words down when they ran into trouble. They soon fell into hysterical debates over English spelling, grammar and pronunciation, and my grandfather often came up the block from work in time to announce, “You’re both wrong!”
During my own childhood Eva was still there, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house every single day through her 80s and into her 90s. Several years after she died, I moved into my mother’s old room, next to her room, for a while. Every time I went in that small back bedroom I could feel her presence and almost smell the Tang. My grandmother gave me blankets and tablecloths that Eva knitted, and we still have them in our home today.
Recently I thought back to my own sixteenth birthday, and marveled at how different it was from Eva’s, the day she and her fourteen-year-old sister Maria huddled in the cold on a huge ship, an ocean and a continent away from their parents and home. When I was a child, my grandmother used to drive her cousin, Maria’s daughter, home to Queens after family holiday gatherings. As she drove on the Gowanus Expressway, the Statue of Liberty repeatedly popped into view between the waterfront warehouses, and they would never fail to tell me of the day their mothers had seen the Statue from that ship and realized their American fantasy was now real.
Eva never reached the level of wealth in Brooklyn that her parents apparently had in Europe, and she had her share of tough times. Her firstborn child lived only two days; the family she left behind was slaughtered in Europe; her sister’s husband committed suicide, leaving three small children; she lost her husband when she was only 45; and she buried two more children before their time. Through it all she remained mostly cheerful and never wallowed in her sorrows or looked back. Looking back was left for me to do.
I see Eva reflected in so many of today's immigrants. All they want is a better life.
Coming next: Part III of Eva’s story, where I figure out where exactly she came from.