WILLIAM KAPLAN; Kurenits.
BIRTH DATE: DECEMBER 29, 1905
INTERVIEW DATE: 8/23/1991
INTERVIEWER: JANET LEVINE
WHY I CAME...
LEVINE: Okay, Mr. Kaplan, welcome and I'm happy to be talking with you
and maybe you can tell me now the name of the town where you lived in
KAPLAN: It's called Kurenits.
KAPLAN: That's right.
LEVINE: Okay, now can you tell me a little bit about Kurenits? What
kind of a town was it?
KAPLAN: Well, it was what they call a shtetl, that you heard many times.
There's hundreds of them there. And it was, it was about I don't know
if you, they have in Russia, not kilometers it was Viorst; it was called
LEVINE: And what do people do there?
KAPLAN: What did people do? Was a poor life. It was, some of them, in
every shtetl there was a marketplace. Some of them had stores to sell
the, it used to be a place like a --it's pretty hard for me --villages,
all along, farmers used to bring their merchandise, to bring into the
marketplace and they used to sell it. They used to buy it and the farmers
used to buy things back from the, like their needs, like salt or they
used to have, for their wagons they had to have oil to oil the things
here, and there was no money, very little. There was a lot of wheat,
you know, that the farmers used to bring to market, calves, wheat and
that's what people made a living out of.
LEVINE: And so they were trading...?
KAPLAN: Trading, yeah, trading.
LEVINE: More than money transactions.
KAPLAN: There was very little money involved.
LEVINE: Now how about your father, was he a farmer?
KAPLAN: No, my father was a musician. He left when I was about four
years old. He left for America. And, if you have seen the picture of,
what you call that one with the...
LEVINE: Fiddler on the Roof?
KAPLAN: Fiddler on the Roof, the movie where there's a wedding and the
musicians are going and the kids are running afterwards, well that was
my father in there, playing; that was his life.
LEVINE: He played a fiddle?
KAPLAN: No, let's see, he used to play a trumpet. Yeah, a trumpet player.
And he came here.
LEVINE: Trumpet, oh. Now was he, that was what he did for work, he played
KAPLAN: That's what he, that was his way of making a living. In the
communities surrounding these here areas, which was maybe between five
mile areas there was a lot of communities. They used to have weddings
and things like that and that was their way of making a living.
LEVINE: When he came here, then who was left? Your mother,...
KAPLAN: My mother, my brother and my brother. I had an older brother.
LEVINE: So, when your father was gone, then did your mother have to
KAPLAN: That was the tragic part. You see, 1913,'14, my father was supposed
to send us a, to come back to this country. The war broke out: World
War I. And we were stuck there. We were living with my grandfather.
My grandfather had a farm outside of the town and we survived with him.
LEVINE: Really, I see. Did your father eventually send you money to
KAPLAN: Well that was after, yes, yes, that was after the Revolution.
The Revolution was in 1917.
LEVINE: What did you see of the Revolution itself? I mean, did you see
KAPLAN: The most violent things you ever want to see. What happens --there's
a community. You know, people live in a community and the Revolution
came. There's always trash in a town, you know. They gave them arm bands,
you know, and they were the ones that, and they were the authority.
There was no police out there, they became, you know, you know this
guy here is a bum, you know, but I mean, they came and they started
coming into your homes and ransacking everything, taking everything,
especially in every community there's people that have a little bit
more than others, you know, and they started coming into the homes and
started taking things out. And, whatever they were able to get a hold
of, you know, you couldn't fight with they because they were, all of
a sudden they became the authority.
LEVINE: When you went from, when your father did, he sent money for
you to come?
KAPLAN: Yeah, yeah.
LEVINE: Did you have much extended family in the town where you were?
I mean did you have uncles and aunts and cousins?
KAPLAN: Oh, yes, we had my mother, all my mother's sisters and brothers
and all this here. During the Holocaust they were all, they remained
there and they were all annihilated. My, I remember one of my aunts
that came, that was hidden, she came and she was telling me a story,
you know, what happened, what she saw. There was, well you saw it in
the movies, there was a barn and they grabbed everybody that they had.
They were hiding in there and they put them in that barn. All the people
that they were able to, put them in the barn. They locked it. They put
gasoline over it and put it on fire. And she was telling me who was
the, who they grabbed. Kids that I played with that I remember that
was . . She came here after the war and told me, told the story. For
six months I dreamt about it; I couldn't sleep to remember. Then they
had that movie, you know, you saw those movies on television. What was
it called, the (pause) the Holocaust? They had a television program
about the Holocaust and they went through the whole thing with the fires.
Every time I seen that fire at that barn, it...
THE VOYAGE OVER...
LEVINE: Now your family had to leave Lithuania, Russia and go to Poland
KAPLAN: First we went to, those were the, all of a sudden they say,
"This is Poland." You know, the Polish army, we never heard
of them and they were the worst anti-Semites, the Poles. They were the
LEVINE: How did they...?
KAPLAN: We took a trip. We took a train from our place by train to go
to Warsaw. And it was four nights, four days and four nights. They used
to throw us out of the train, the soldiers. They seen a lot of men and
women, no! Women and children take, in the trains they used to throw
them out at the station. And we had to wait at the next station for
LEVINE: Why would they throw them out?
KAPLAN: They were drunk. We were Jews. And they were Poles. And all
that, they were the, you know in Russia they were anti-Semites, you
know that. But the Poles, they did, I never, never realized it that
they used to take in Warsaw, they used grab people in the streets with
the beards and cut them off, you know. They were very, very, (he laughs
darkly) . . That's when we found out what anti-Semites are.
LEVINE: So when you went then to Warsaw with your mother and your brother,
KAPLAN: And my sister.
LEVINE: And your sister. Now your sister was quite young?
KAPLAN: Oh yeah, she was a little girl. She was about six years old
I think. No, I don't think she was six years old. Well, around that
LEVINE: Yeah, so you went and you had to stay in Warsaw for six months?
KAPLAN: Yeah, six months we stayed there.
LEVINE: Did your father know where you were at this time?
KAPLAN: He knew but there was nothing they could do. That's when the
immigration, 1920,'21. You know, the whole world was going in and you
had to wait six months for your passport, until it came to your turn.
From there we went to Antwerp, Belgium, Antwerp, used to be. We were
in Antwerp for about three, four weeks.
LEVINE: And where did you stay then?
KAPLAN: There, there was, the HIAS had a big place there.
LEVINE: Say what HIAS stand for.
KAPLAN: The HIAS was a Jewish organization that took --it still is in
existence --they take care of immigrants. They supplied a certain amount
of money, the communities in this country gave toward HIAS to, for the
immigrant, for the people to maintain. We were already like in an open,
in Antwerp we were in an open place. They had cots all spread over maybe
a stadium, not a stadium, an indoor...
LEVINE: Like a barracks.
KAPLAN: In a barracks, yeah. And we stayed there for about three weeks
in the barracks.
LEVINE: Now was this supplied by the steam ship company?
KAPLAN: No, no, the HIAS, the Jewish organization. And we had to pay
certain amount, you know.
LEVINE: I see. When you got on the ship, you were, you had a sore on
your neck, or you had some kind of a skin...
KAPLAN: Yeah, boil, boils on my neck. You know it came from my, from
your diet, you know, break out with. Here you have vitamins and all
this here. Over there I didn't know. That's what happened.
LEVINE: When you finally got on the ship, what was that like?
KAPLAN: Well that was a happy day.
LEVINE: Now were you in steerage when you went?
KAPLAN: Steerage, yeah, oh yeah.
LEVINE: And how was that? What were the conditions?
KAPLAN: (he laughs) How can you describe steerage? Steerage is a, it's
in the bottom of the boat. And you have certain little, what do you
KAPLAN: Cots. One on top of the other. And you, that's where you stayed.
You go to sleep there. And you eat whatever they, you're most of the
time, you're out on top there.
LEVINE: On the deck?
KAPLAN: On the deck. Sure, you don't sit.
LEVINE: And was the food okay?
KAPLAN: And the food (he laughs). I didn't know of any food. Whatever
they served, I ate. I don't remember the detail of the food. But the
only thing I could say, the only place, when we got to Ellis Island,
and the HIAS also took care of the immigrant. It wasn't like it is now,
the Ellis Island. They had roped off in different spots, you know, so
many people in from different ships. This one here, this one there.
I taste a corned beef sandwich, the first time in my life. And then
I also I had an orange. That was the first time I tasted an orange and
a corned beef sandwich over there.
LEVINE: Well, what can you say about Ellis Island? I mean, what was
the experience like?
KAPLAN: Well, we weren't there too long. We were there about two days
LEVINE: What was the inspection like? Do you remember that at all?
KAPLAN: Yeah, they used to, they used to check you ov . . , my mother
was getting ready to go back with me to Europe if they ever sent me
back, but they passed me.
LIFE IN AMERICA...
LEVINE: And do you remember when you had the meeting with him (father)?
KAPLAN: Oh, sure, sure I remember. It was a long time ago. See my father,
they were here seven brothers, six brothers. And all my uncles, they
all remember, how I remember them, oy! They used to play with me, you
know, when I was a kid.
LEVINE: Now did you know your uncles from the old country?
KAPLAN: Oh, yes, from there, from the old country. That's where I knew
them from. They all came over. They came over in 19 --before the war
started, before the World War I. During that period, they all came over
then. And when we were supposed to go then the war started and we were
all broke up.
LEVINE: I see. It must have been a joyous time.
KAPLAN: Why certainly, it was, my gosh. You know, as I say, when I see
that was, it's too, some people have talent to describe certain things
and I admire that in people when they describe, writers that they can
describe things. And for me to, I could say there was so much that I
would like to say but it's hard to express myself about those times.
LEVINE: It must have been very emotional.
KAPLAN: It was emotional because once we were here, after we came here,
it was, it wasn't that, it was a strange land, nobody un . . you don't
speak English, you didn't understand. That, that's something, when you're
in the street, somebody asks you a question, you don't know that, that
was a terrible downgrade because while you were there you spoke with
everybody, that's, we all spoke Yiddish, you know, the way we, people
that you were with.
LEVINE: Even if they came from a different country they were still speaking
KAPLAN: Yes, yes, yes.
LEVINE: This was like, now, the beginning of your second life, right?
(she laughs) Once you got to...
LEVINE: Now what was that life like? What was it like when you first
KAPLAN: Well, then I, then we went to night school.
LEVINE: Did you work when you first came?
KAPLAN: Yeah, I started working in a grocery store. We got up at four
o'clock in the morning to deliver to the apartment houses. You know,
people that used to order, I used to bring up the food there. I was
there for about a couple of months, worked there. And then my father,
through my father I got a job with somebody else as a diamond setter,
worked as a diamond setter. I worked in that place for about, oh, my
gosh, it was about a year I think. There I went on to, to another, to
the garment industry, and that's where I remained.
LEVINE: How soon after you got here did you start taking the night school
KAPLAN: Oh, that was about in a couple of weeks. Yes, they started night
LEVINE: Well, what was that like going to the English classes.
KAPLAN: Night school used to go to the regular schools. You know, they
used to, they used go there, and there was a teacher and she was trying
to teach us, you know, they ask questions like how you say it in English
and how you say this. And that's the way, and you learned the reading
and writing like you go to school, I mean.
LEVINE: Now was everybody in the class, they were all from different
places with different languages?
KAPLAN: Yes, yes. No, the ones that we were, were all Jewish. There
was no outsiders during that, it was the East side of New York.
LEVINE: Yeah, where did you go? Where were you living when you first
KAPLAN: On Montgomery Street, on the East side, near the East River.
LEVINE: And how long did you stay there?
KAPLAN: Oh, we stayed there for about, oh, we lived there for a couple
of years, about three, four years.
LEVINE: And how about your mother and father, did they learn too or...?
KAPLAN: Well, they didn't, the mothers and fathers they didn't pick
it up so good, but they used to understand. In fact, my children, one
of my youngest child is still mad at me because we didn't teach her
how to speak Yiddish, 'cause some of her friends speak Yiddish and she
doesn't know how to speak. My other two children they can't speak. They
just get some drift of it. Not like the Spanish, the Cubans.
LEVINE: Maybe your mother or your father, ways of doing things or ideas
they had that they kept from the old country even when they moved to
KAPLAN: Well, you always think about the old country, no matter who
you are, where you are. You always, right now that everything that's
going on and I watch it all the time and I recollect the things that
happened. You always think of this, the place where you were, where
you came and who the people were and their reaction and all this, the
LEVINE: Can you think of any things that your mother and father impressed
upon you and your brother and sister that, you know, had to do with
how you should be...?
KAPLAN: Well the main important thing, the impression was always to
do, the old folks, not only my mother and father, but all the mothers
and fathers: You got to be fruderal.
KAPLAN: Frugal: Save money: Don't spend it: Don't go out and live above
your means. Always make sure that you have some money in the bank, something
left on the side. I mean these are the things that, and that stays with
most of the people that live in this, saving! That's what it is, you
see because this generation I see, they, and we are not brought up like
that. That's the difference.
LEVINE: Well is there anything else that you can think of that has to
do with your three lives that you would like to mention?
KAPLAN: Well, I don't know what else I could tell you except that we,
we are happy to be here, we're happy to be alive and I enjoy watching
this thing with the Russians, that they're going down the drain, the
Communists, a bad bunch.
Ellis Island Oral History Collection