This post is part of of the JCPA’s project “Celebrating New Americans” a part of Jewish American Heritage Month. By Susan W. Turnbull, JCPA Chair. It was just a few months before his 18th birthday that Sol Josef Wolf arrived at New York Harbor. The moment he stepped down the gangplank and entered the United States, he was an American citizen. It was 1925. A year before, restrictions on immigration law changed the future for countless hoping to come to the U.S. for a better life. Sol didn’t really understand how lucky he was.
His father, Zallel, had fled conscription in Galicia with Sol’s older brothers in 1914, leaving his wife and younger children behind. But, before his youngest son reached the age of 18, Zallel applied and received his American citizenship, allowing his wife Mina to arrive in New York with her two minor children to be welcomed as immediate citizens of the United States. Sadly, when Mina Adlersberg Wolf came to America with her youngest children, she left two adult daughters behind. Sol’s sisters, their young families, and the rest of Mina and Zallel’s extended family did not survive the horrors of the Shoah.
My father Sol Wolf, never told me much about his “story”. Before he passed away in 1983, I had never really asked. I knew tidbits and like most children growing up in the fifties, I was a little embarrassed. My dad was a cab driver. We lived very modestly in a two-family house. He had an accent that I always thought of as a speech impediment. I always understood somehow that his memories were complicated, but he seemed content. And of course, I was too self-absorbed to pay attention.
Prior to immigrating, his family was in the timber business, owning miles and miles of land in the Carpathian Mountains of what is now Ukraine. They couldn’t bring the land or business with them. After arriving in New York, they quickly joined other family in Cleveland, Ohio. When my Dad would describe his life as a child, it was described in almost bucolic terms with servants, horses, and the outdoors. He spoke 8 languages fluently and it was apparent that he once had a classical education when he would sit and watch the news or read the newspaper–cover to cover.
Year later as I walked through the rooms of his huge house in the foothills of the mountains with my own family, I realized what he had left behind.
My father worked long hours and sent his three children to college on close to a minimum wage and tips. His name was never on the front page of the newspaper, he never invented something or discovered a cure to an illness. But, he made our world a much better place by loving his family and teaching us that we could have opportunities that he never had. He set an incredible example for his children and grandchildren. He taught us what is important and to remember where we came from.
This month as we celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, I smile as I celebrate the life of a very special New American. My guess is that this story is familiar to many of you, too. Let’s remember those who traveled across the ocean for a better life and celebrate the richness they brought with them. They made us so very fortunate.