Documenting Maine Jewry : Oral Histories

Memoirs of Bessie Gerber

The Gerber Saga

written for her nieces and nephews
date to be determined


You have asked me to write down what I remember of my early childhood, and what I was told about our parents .

It seems that in 1840 or 1841, a young, blonde , blue-eyed _young man, about 17 or IS years of age, fleeing from a pogrom, came to the village of Pavlevka, Pavlevka was located in Cherson Gebernya, in he Ukraine, not too far from Odessa. His name was Feivel Gerber. The villagers gave him asylum, and eventually he married a young girl named Barcie. I never heard her maiden name, and I doubt if anyone knew it in this country. At any rate, my brother Phil and I are named for these great grand parents. The names appear in the family as Abram's daughter. Bertha, and David's Betty are named for their grandmother, and David also had a son, Paul, who was named for David's father.

Feivel and Barcie's first born son, Moishe Zev or Velvel (Velvel is Jewish, and Zev is the Hebrew name) was born in 1842. He died in 1900 and they said he was 58 years old, which confirms the year of his birth. He had nine brothers and two sisters who grew to maturity. Perhaps there were others, as £he infant mortality was great. The brothers were Chaim, Labe, Pishel, Isrul, Shlomo, Zalmon, Froika, who was Fannie's and Surka's father, Abram , and David. The girls were Raisa and Chaleh. Chaleh had a daughter, Faga, who married Fannie's brother, Moishe. There was a lot of intermarriage in the family. These cousins, and then our uncle Harry. married, his cousin, Bertha, Abram's daughter, and Fannie married her Uncle David.

I have a vague recollection that these great grandparents had what my mother called an 'einfur house'. It was a sort of inn, and the people who carried the mail or post used to drive in there and stay the night. If, however they arrived during the day, they would exchange their horses and proceed on their wsy, picking up their horses on the way back.

Our grandfather, Moishe Zev, married Chiah Ghude, a young orphan, who was related to his mother, Barcie. Our first born sister was named for her (she died in infancy), as was Isaac's daughter, Irene, and Harry's daughter, Helen. They had seven sons and no daughters. Chiah died ten years before her husband, Moshe Zav, in 1890, and her youngest son, Froike, was only 4 years old. The sons were Chaim, Fishel , our father, Isaac, Aaron , or Noskie as he was called, Yossel, Yankel, and Froika. We have pictures of all these brothers mostly in military uniforms, all identified, and all tall, handsome men.

After Ohiah died in 1890, Moishe Zev never remarried, The oldest son, Chiam, was already married, and the youngest, Froike, was only four. You must realize that according to Jewish custom, the boys were married usually by the time they were 16. For ten years, Moishe Zev lived alone and the neighbors and relatives reared the boys. About the time he died, our father, Fishel, had finished his military service, and became engaged to our mother, Golda . I have the engagement agreement, written in both Hebrew end Russian. Our mother, Golda, was 21 and had turned several suitors away. Her father was very angry with her, and said that one of his cheder mates had made a 'shiddach' with a Gerber man, and this bridegroom had an eligible brother, Pishel. Arrangements were made, and Fishel came to meet the proposed bride. They became engaged, and were married on Oct. 24,1901. I h"d their 'Ketubah' which was written in Hebrew and Russian translated by Rabbi Mendell Levittea in 1941.

Mama came to live in Papa's father's home. She had been told that Isaac was still in the Service, and although there were four younger brothers, they were not living at that house and would not be. However, after the marriage, all four, Nookie, Yankel, Yossel, and Proika drifted back, one at a time, and she had the five men to take care of. At that time, the youngest Froika, was ll years old. She worked wery hard, washing, ironing, cooking, and cleaning, and soon became pregnant with Chiah. Ghiah died when only a few months old from a bad cold which probably developed into pneumonia. They called it a 'catarrh'.

When Edith was born, Papa was called back into military service as the Russia Japanese war had broken out. Mama went to the barracks, with her infant in her arms, and told Papa to desert and go to America. He refused, saying it was his duty to serve the Czar. Then she told that if he came back disabled or crippled, she would leave him, but if he would go America, she would leave her entire family and join him, Either she was very persuasive, or he cared a great de"l for her, and he agreed. It also helped when his brother Isaac decided to desert with him.

They came to Montreal on the steamship 'Montrose' and I still have his boarding pass. They joined Abram in Portland who had come here several years earlier. Abram had fled from Russia as he got in difficulty with the law. The concept of insurance had come to Russia, and Abram had his sickly father-in-law insured, but had had a strong, younger peasant take the required examination. When the old gentleman died and Abram tried to collect the proceeds, the deception was discovered. He fled the country and on the boat, met Mrs. Farber and her children who were coming to Portland to join their husband and father and he came along with them. This explains our presence in Portland, instead of New York or any other place. Several years later, Abram vas able to return to Russia, and he returned with his three daughters, Veta , Bertha, and Prances . I have a vivid memory of Frances, who was 15 years old at the time, helping out at Saul's 'bris'. Saul was born in October 1913, and I was only 4 years old at the time. I forgot to mention that Abram's wife, the Mimi Molka father's name was Cutlerefsky.

Later, Molka came with the three boys, Henry, Maurice, and John. I had a family picture of them, taken soon after the family was reunited. I gave it to Fanny Gerber, Henry's wife in Portsmouth, and she told me that she had loaned it to Prances to have a copy made. When these Gerber women came they were very friendly with Mama, which made Fannie, David's wife very jealous. She told some fantastic lies, saying that Golda had said so. Mama would deny these stories, and Fannie would persist, embellishing them even more. Mama would eat and throw up, and said that Fannie had caused her so much aggravation, that she suffered from stomach trouble.

I can remember going with Mama to visit the A. Gerber family whey they lived on the corner of St. Lawrence St. and later on North Street, and they would walk out of the room, leaving me and Mama alone, and Mama would cry all the way home. Papa would not confront Fannie, saying, 'you know she is a liar' but Mama resented his non-involvement. I remember another incident. Molka had diamond rings and a lovely diamond pendant, which, at that time, was called a laverliere. I admired the diamonds, and in my ignorance, asked Mama why she did not have any diamonds. She said very proudly, "I have diamonds - my children are my diamonds". Years later, when studying Greek and Roman mythology, I came across the story of Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, who said "my sons are my jewels" and I could identify with that. Later, Mama used to say "my boys are my joys, and my girls my pearls".

Mama and Edith came here in September 1906. I have their ticket, and Edith is listed as 'Eta'. By that time, David was also in Portland. His wife, Fannie, and children, Morris and Ida, came with Mama on the 'White Star Line Celtic'. They landed at Bills Island and when Mama was asked whom she was joining, she said her husband. When they asked Fannie whom she was joining she said her uncle. Because the white slave trade was flourishing, the authorities questioned why this young, blonde woman would go to an uncle. They put Mama and Edith on a train going to the Grand Trunk Station, but retained Fannie, and sent a registered letter to David asking for an explanation. He had to go to the local immigration Board and get affidavits that he was not only her uncle but also her husband. It took some time before she was released and she came later.

Since Mama came earlier than expected, no one met her at the station. She showed the address to a man in uniform and he pointed to Fore Street. She walked along, carrying her luggage and Edith in her arms and she met a Jewish man. She asked where the house was, and he asked her whose wife she has, fishel's or David's. He then escorted her to the house where Papa had take a rent, over Mrs, Swonkin, This man was Luzer, Carol Sehwartz's father,

Mama's baggage arrived shortly later, but Fannie's baggage was apparently either lost or misdirected. Fannie was convinced that Mama had sold her baggage and accused her of it. The entire neighborhood heard this story, and each time Fannie told it, her baggage contained more and more valuables. About a year later, the baggage arrived. It had sent to Portland Oregon and re-routed here. All the women ran to see her valuables, and it became a laughing matter - nothing but soiled, bed (feather bed) pillows etc. Mama maintained a dignified silence when the women urged her to denounce Fannie.

Our Maurice and Rebecca (Rita) Fannie's daughter were born the same day, July 15, 1907. David was on his way to tell Papa that Fannie had given birth to a girl, and Papa was on his way to tell David that Golda had had a son. Since Mama's father was also named Moishe, Maurice was named for both grandfathers, Moise Zev. Incidently, Edith was named for Mama's grandmother, her mother's mother, the Boba Eta.

By this time, Isaac and Harry were living in Portland, and Isaac bought a white cotton infant's dress which Maurice wore at his bris. Mama preserved this dress and it was worn by the four sons who followed, Louis(Laba), Samuel (Shlomo), Saul (Zalman) and Philip (Feivel). Louis, Samuel, and Saul were named for Papa's uncles, his father's brothers. When Sam's son. Philip, was born in 1943, Mama washed and starched the dress, and he wore it at his bris. When John was born in 1946, Mama had passed away the previous year, so I washed and starched the dress, and John wore it. Since then, I have had Ken Matthew, Neal, David, Billy, Jeffrey, Jonathan, Kevin, and Heath wear it. Each time I proudly presented it, mended it where necessary, and when I am no longer available, I entrust it to Phyllis, as I am sure she will continue the tradition, and will present it for all future boys who are born to us.

I must mention the family business in Russia. Papa's father owned the windmill in the village which ground the grain into flour. The farmers brought the wheat to them. Whenever Papa saw a picture of a Dutch windmill, such as is seen on Delft pottery, he would become very nostalgic and say, "just, like the old home ".

Mama said that after Papa went AWOL, that the equivalent of the FBD came to her, inquiring of his whereabouts. Also, that when she left Pavlevka, she did not have to steal across the border. She applied for and was given a 'gubernator's pass '. When she told me this I became quite excited, as I was studying Latin, and 'gubernator' is Latin for governor. We hear of gubernatorial duties, etc.

As for Papa's brothers who cams to this country, our uncle Isaac married Esther Koslovaky (cousins) in 1911 and they moved to Chelsea several ysars later. He became very successful in business. He was a partner, Gordon, Goose, and Gerber, and they were very prominent in the metal business. His son, William Maurice, was named for Isaac's father, Moishe Zev, was born in 1910, seven years after their marriage, and no child was ever welcomed more. Sherwin was born in 1920, and Irene in 1922. Isaac died in 1932. He had set his brother, Harry, in business, and came to Portland to check out the operation. Harry had mismanaged the accounts, etc. and they had a terrific argument. Isaac had a heart attack and dropped dead in the shop. Papa accompanied the body to Boston, which was quite an ordeal for him. Papa died two years later, in 1934

We had a 1etter from their oldest brother, Chiam, who stated that Isaac was the exact age as his father, who was 53. I told this to Sherwin, and he said that his father was much younger. Mama said that Esther was only 19 when they were married, and Isaac was almost twice her age in 1911. It may be that they were never certain as no records of their birth were kept.

Harry (Noskie) married his cousin, Bertha in 1916, and their son, Billy, was born in 1917. His sister, Helen, was born several years 1ater. She married a Sandier, I don't remember his first name, and had two chilnren. The son, Alan, was named for Abram, the daughter. Mimi, for the grandmother, Molka.

Our grandfather, Moishe 2ev, wanted to 'daven' for the congregation at the Succoth services. Some men protested, he persisted. "When he turned around and saw that the congregation had walked out, he, also, had a heart attack and dropped dead. Apparently, we have a family history of heart conditions, as Maurice died at 53, and Edith at 58 of heart problems. This should serve as a warning to us all - we must not aggravate each other. we must not get too excited and we must be calm.

As for Mama's family, I know very little. Her father's name was not Schechet originally. He had a brother, and the Czar would not take an only son into military service. To avoid this military service, they arranged to have a childless couple declare him as their son, and he took their name. I don't think that Mama ever knew his real name. He married a Freyda Barsutski, and they lived in the town of Rorbach, and he was known as Moishe Rorbacher. Stephanie's middle name is 'Freyda' which mesns Joy.

We have pictures of Boba Freyda who lived to be over 70 and died of starvation following the Russian revolution, She wrote letters to Mama telling of the famine, and how they went digging in the fields for root vegetables which they could cook and eat, I can remember how distressed Mama was. She sold her brass samovar and sent the money to her family. She also contacted Isaac and told him contribute money to the members of his family. We had a tenant at 488, a Mr. Pollister, who made wooden boxes according to specifications and Mama bought shoes at Lane's Shoe store and sent them along with cloth, needles, yarn and knitting needles.

We have a wedding picture taken when the youngest. Mama's sister Libby, was married. The entire family, including the spouses and children, are in it. Mama, Papa, and Edith as an infant on Mama's lap. Immediately, following this wedding, Mama's papa was a struck by lightning, and after the funeral, Ma left for the United States.

Mama had four brothers and three sisters. Berel was the oldest brother and he had a son who left for Buenos Aires after Mama left Russia; the second brother was Chaim, who was a prosperous and well known businessman; he married a girl named Etta Riva who was a very cold and selfish woman. They were very wealthy but childless. He was interested in a poor girl who lived in the village, and whenever he went to visit her, his mother would send Mama to tell him to come right home. She would not accept this poor girl, and he married Etta Hiva, whom no one really liked. He always came to my mind whenever I read John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Maude Muller". "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these 'it might have been'.

He would arrive in Rorbach in a 'phaeton' driven by two matched horses, and all the townspeople would come running to gather around and admire the equipage (sic). When Lazer Langburd came to Chelsea, he asked Mama if Chaim was her real brother, as he knew him and had done business with him. Chain wanted to come here and wrote to Mama asking her advice. She discouraged him, as she could not bear to see this distinguished, educated man go into the rag or scrap metal business. Shs always regretted this decision as she said his presence would have elevated us all.

The other two brothers were Levi and Isrul. The sisters were Etta Weinstein, Charna Koolberg, and Libby Wishnevetski. Their husbands were Mottel Weindstein, Hershel Koolberg and Lazar Wishnevetski.

When Mama had been in Portland only a short time, she was told that a good wife took in boarders, washed their clothes and cooked their meals. She refised to do this and said that they could manage without working for strangers. She also insisted that Papa not work on Saturday and b" a "ahomer Shabbos", a Sabbath observer. Papa did as she requested, and because of this David gave up his Saturday work reluctantly, and always made derogatory comments about her and her ideas. Abram and David said that Papa would always be a poor man and that she stood in the way of his making a lot of money. However, up to the time of David's illness he would go to his shop on Saturday afternoon to supposedly feed the cat. There was no cat, but boys waiting for him with junk

Papa was a honest, law abiding man, and would not take any chances with buying any stolen merchandise, as did the others. For this, he was ridiculed by his brother, Nookie, and his uncles, Abram and David. He was proud to the day he died that he did not have a police record, as did many of the Jewish men, for either buying stolen merchandise, or bootlegging during Prohibition. His was a good, honorable name, his greatest legacy to us, and we are all very proud of our parents.

I must make mention of our brother, Louis . His Jewish name was Labe, but we called him 'Abie'. He contracted spinal meningitis, and died on Dec. 13, 1920. His funeral was on his tenth birthday, according to the Jewish calendar, but actually, he would have been ten on Jan. 11, 1921. He was born Jan. 11, 1911; Samuel was born May 9 1912, and Saul, on Oct. 11, 1913. These boys were all born sixteen months apart, and poor Mama was all worn out, as there was little help. Our youngest, Phil, was born April 10, 1916.

Papa and Isaac bought the three houses at 84, 83, and 85 Cumberland Ave. in 1911. However, we did not move up to 88 Cumb. Ave. until the fall of 1913, right after Saul was born. We installed steam heat the following year and lived there until 1922. We moved across the street to #35, as Mama could not stand seeing Louis' empty chair. We all had our places around the table. Steam heat and a bath were installed at #85 and we lived there until 1955 when we moved to 19 Rackleff St. Edith and Sue came here to live following Phil Trombly's death in Sept. 1954.

T kept the property on Cumberland Ave. until 1971, and then sold it for $45OO.OO. I could not take care of it--the property began to deteriorate. I had sold #84 and #88 after Mama's death, in accordance with her wishes and divided the money among Edith, Sam, Saul, and Phil. Maurice and I took #(not clear) for our share, and when he died in 1960 I became the sole owner.

In Mama's lifetime, following Papa's death, she paid Isaac's share of the income to Sam Cousins, who was the administrator of his estate, along with Esther. She then bought out their share, and Harry Judelson handled the transaction.

She was great believer that everyone should have a will. Saul was a student at Peabody Law School when Papa was sick, and he drafted Papa's will, leaving everything to Mama. Mama had a will written in Jewish, but when she was in the hospital, she summoned Harry Judelson and gave him her instructions, and signed the will typed in English.

She also instructed us to stick together, not to be angry with each other, and if one of us needed help, to give it to him at once. As for our economic situation, we were definitely not rich. However, we owned our own home, we had income property, and received rentals. There were many people who could not pay their rent during the Depression, but we carried them and never evicted anyone .

There was always plentv of food. Mama baked bread twice a week; baked cakes, cookies, put up pickles, jellies, jam, and even made grape wine and cherry wine. We had several old ladies who come every Saturday for dinner and each was welcomed with hospitality. Saturday afternoon, more women came and it was my duty to serve cake, preserves, and tea. Actually, it was almost like group therapy, as they all had problems, and came to Mama for advice. She never went to anyone's home, never went to Lincoln Park, where the women all assembled, but kept to the house to catch up on her reading. She subscribed to the Corning Journal, and also to a weekly magazine, which ran serials and articles of historic interest. It was her great pleasure to discuss these with Mrs. Vemikov and the others.

Mama and Papa belonged to all the various organizations, paid dues, and made contributions to the Shul. Mo one soliciting a donation or selling tickets was ever refused. They were among the first to donate toward the Jewish Home for the Aged, and their names appear on the wall. We owned our own seats in the Shul, and I still have the deed for the seats there.

We did not have luxuries like bicycles, cars, or fancy, expensive clothes. Mama made most of our clothes, but as our family pictures, and school group pictures attest, we were always cleanly and suitably clothed. I never worked and was never urged to go to work until I joined the Metropolitan Life Ins. in 1930. I graduated from Portland High School in 1926, and went to Gorham Normal School, graduating three years later in 1929, having taken their Junior High course. I was offered a rural school near the Canadian Border which my parents would not allow me to accept. There was outside plumbing and I was expected to keep a wood stove burning. I then decided to go to Shaw's Business College, but left after three months when I obtained a job

at the Metropolitan. Uncle Abram had an insurance office on Exchange St. where he had put his son, Maurice, in business. Dr. Davis happened to mentioned that the head cashier at the Metropolitan had had an accident, and there was a job open. He suggested that I apply for the job. As it happened the manager, Mr. Goldthwaite, had a daughter who had been in all my classes at Gorham, and he hired me immediately. I remained there for over 38 years, retiring on Dec. 6, 1968, having reached the highest job as Office Supervisor in 1963.

I think that as a family we set a record for steady employment- and job loyalty. Maurice went to work for Josephthal & Co, an investment firm in the fall of 1926, and when Papa was taken sick, Maurice left his job and came home to carry on his business and to offer comfort and help to him. Papa was operated on in Boston and the prognosis was not good. Mama, Edith, and I were in Boston, but I came home to attend Phil's High school graduation, in 1934. Pearl accompanied me at Saul's request, and it was the first time I had ever been in her company for several hours.

Papa died on Dec. 7, 1931, and after selling the metals to the American Smelting Company. Maurice returned to Hew York in March of 1935. His firm had kept his job open for him all those months. Then, he joined the Army in 1942, was stationed at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned to work. He died in 1960, his career was a Registered Representative in the stock market over after 34 years. He had accounts in Portland, and recently, one of his clients said that Maurice had made a lot of money for him.

Sam joined the Portland Fire Department in 1939, and retired in 1972 after 33 years of service, having reached the rank of Captain. He would have gone further but he had arthritis, and his state of health would not permit it. Phil graduated from Gorham formal School in 1939, taught at Albion, Maine for two years, and joined the Portland School System In 1941. They permitted him to complete the school year in June 1942, and he was inducted into the Service. He returned in the fall of 1945 after being honorably discharged. He was promoted to Director of Pupil Personel, and retired in June of 1975. He was overseas for three years, in North Africa, and Italy.

We all had education beyond High School except Sam. Edith attended Business College; Maurice attended evening classes at NYU and also took courses in accounting and banking; Saul graduated from Peabody Law School now the University of Southern Maine, passing his bar exams as the youngest member that year; Phil from Gorham Normal, as I did, and which is now the University of Southern Maine. We both make annual contributions to the Alumni Association, We all attended Hebrew School and even had private tutoring, as Mama was not satisfied with our performance and knowledge. Edith and I both took piano lessons for many years, and we have a group picture of Edith with the class of Mrs. Anna Willey, the teacher. I showed the picture recently to Gertrude Seiger Krigar, and she was happy to see it as she did not have one.

We were given a great deal of love and attention from Mama. She was soft spoken, never yelled or screamed at us, and whenever we did something she did not approve, she would lecture us. The boys would cry and beg her to hit them, and not talk to them as she did. Papa would make a great show of removing his belt, but to my knowledge he never struck them. Mama constantly urged us to learn, to become educated, her only thought was for her children and what was best for them. She was intelligent, she could read and wrote Yiddish, German, Russian, and English. She was also creative, could do beautiful hand work, crochet, knit, embroider etc. I have many embroidered towels, etc. from tier trousseau, as well as crocheted doilies, a tablecloth, and scarves. She was a loving, patient, compassionate woman. We never heard her utter a curse, and she avoided people who did. She always said a curse was not a blessing, and sometimes it affected people it was not meant to. She was also superstitious and feared the 'evil eye' and a 'Kena-hors'. She accepted her lot in life without complaint. She and Papa never argued, and when he died, she stood by his coffin and told us to always remember that they had been married for 33 years, and there never was a time that they were angry with each other, or did not speak to each other. We know that Papa had the utmost confidence in her integrity, and we also know that she was certainly an "Ashes Ghial", a Woman of Valor, as personified in the last paragraph of the Proverbs.

We had a very happy childhood. Our home was open to all our friends, and our friends enjoyed visiting us. Edith always had girl and boy friends around, her office crews, etc. The boys had fellows who always came and everyone was welcomed. We had good relations with our neighbors and tenants, and to this day, we consider them friends.

Also, I think we have an enviable reputation of 'sticking together'. We enjoy each other, we rejoice at the good things that have our way, we are distressed when one of us has a problem and we try to help. I can remember Mama holding up her hand and saying "you are to be as close as the fingers on your hand. If one finger hurts, you will hurt". T can truthfully say that there never was a time when one of us got angry Or 'ongeblosen' and refuses to speak. We never had fights or feuds, we respected each other.

I know I am rambling, and these thoughts are not too connected, but they are part of our growing up together. I have a newspaper clipping when Saul was eight years old, and he and Phil were at the Yacht Club on the Eastern Prom. Saul was not a strong swimmer, and he was over his head. Phil, only five years old, called for help, saying "my brother is drowning". A policeman, named Conley, off duty that day, swam swiftly over to Saul and pulled him out of the water. Saul was taken to the Maine General Hospital, and since I had just appeared on the scene with a paper bag of jelly sandwiches, I accompanied him in the paddy wagon. Sam rushed home, said that Saul had drowned, and Mama, panic-stricken, went to the hospital. On the streetcar someone mentioned that there had been a drowning at the Eastern Prom and Mama cried out in anguish, and said it was her boy. Mama contacted Mr. Gonley and offered him money which he refused to take. He had a little girl and Mama bought her a gold heart necklace. Years later, when Mr, Conley died, Mama and I went to the wake and Mama told the mourners that he had saved her son from drowning.

I want to tell how Papa wanted to become a citizen, and when they offered a class at Portland High, Papa would come home from the shop, change into his Sabbath suit and go to school. He became a oitizen and no one could have been happier. His eyes (blue) would sparkle, much as Sam's and was just exuberant. He made me pick up a $20,00 gold piece and he gave it to his Americanization teacher, a Mrs. True, with real gratitude.

I think this brings us up to our maturity. We look back at our youthful days with a great deal of respect and admiration for our parents. They lived honorable lives, they never hurt anyone, and they never took advantage of people. They did not defraud, go thru bankruptcy, or neglect to pay their bills. They could look the whole world in the face, without shame. I really believe that they would be proud of their children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren. I know that all their sacrifes have not been in vain. We, their children, tried very hard to live up to their ideals. We did not get into trouble, we kept the faith, and we did not embarrass or humilate them. Perhaps, because we honored our parents, and adhered to that commandment, God has rewarded us with the wonderful nieces and nephews we have. May their children give them the same degree of love and respect we gave our parents,

Aunt Bess

Last Updated : February 25, 2008