Bella Wolf was born on February 1, 1914. Her records list her official birth date as February 1, but Bella celebrated her birthday on January 1. Her Uncle Harry Tillem insisted January 1 was the correct date and her mother was ill at the time and confused. Bella was given the Yiddish name Chaya Bayla. Her parents were Israel Jacob (Yiddish name: Yankel) Rubinstein and Rose (YIddish name: Ruchel Leah) Tillem Rubinstein (See Rubinstein Family History and Harold’s Family).
Bella lived with her parents in Ostrow-Mazowiecka, Russia, known to Jewish residents as Ostroveh (now Poland). Ostrow-Mazowiecka is a town about 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Poland, midway between Warsaw and Bialystok. It was a town with about 10,000 Jewish residents at the time Bella was born. About six months before Bella was born, the First World War had begun between Germany, Austria, and Russia. The battle lines surrounded the area where she lived.
By September of 1915, Germany occupied Ostroveh.
The German Army requisitioned goods from Ostroveh stores and food became scarce. Food could only be obtained using ration cards. People lined up for hours to get food. Ostreveh was a town filled with many old wooden houses that were somehow spared the fate of other nearby towns and villages which burned to the ground during the war. Residents of those towns found refuge in Ostreveh, exacerbating the food shortage. The town experienced typhus and cholera epidemics, with people dying in the streets. As recollected by another resident in his memoirs:
…large advertisements in German, Polish and Yiddish hung on poles and on walls stating that everyone, without exception, must come to the steam-baths to be deloused. On the wall of Nachman Goldberg’s brick house and at the pig-market, a large notice was hung, on which was drawn a gigantic, terrifying, shocking louse, with feet like bears’ claws and a snout like a mole. In its mouth the louse carried the poison which spread the epidemic throughout the city. Underneath the drawing of the gigantic louse was written in all three languages: “Take care, this animal is dangerous. It carries death from house to house.”
Bella remembered as a small child seeing dead horses in the streets of Ostroveh. It might have been during this difficult time (if not earlier) that Bella’s older brother Joseph died.
After the war ended and Poland gained its independence, Bella was old enough to attend school. There were three types of schools:
- “Algemina Shul” was the Polish-sanctioned school, with seven grades, for Jewish children only. There were no classes on Saturday (Shabbat), only on Sundays. At first they taught only girls in this school. In later years they added boys but only a small number. This was the largest school in town. The curriculum was exactly the same as the government school for Polish children. The language of instruction was Polish, not a word of Yiddish, not a word of Hebrew.
- for boys, the old-fashioned heder and the modern heder which taught Hebrew writing and arithmetic
- “Shul Tarbut” run by the Zionists, founded in 1922 and “Shul Yavne” run by Mizrachi, the religious Zionist group, both with an emphasis on Hebrew language and culture. At the “Tarbut” school all subjects were taught in Hebrew: mathematics, science, nature, history, geography. Literature, history, geography and Polish were taught according to the official curriculum in the government elementary schools.
There was opposition in the religious community to the boys and girls learning together at the “Tarbut” school and to teaching Hebrew as an everyday language. The school was visited by three renowned rabbis who came with the intention of closing the school. As a result, parents withdrew their children and the school which had enrolled five hundred pupils ended up with only one hundred.
Bella was enrolled in the “Tarbut” school where she excelled enough to win a pencil set that she recalled with pride many years later. Like the other religious leaders, her paternal grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Yehezkel Rubinstein, objected to Bella attending. She was withdrawn after completing the 6th grade.
In 1925, Bella’s father left his family in Ostroveh and settled in New York City. Four years later, when she was 15, Bella–along with her mother, two sisters, and three brothers–left Ostroveh. They boarded the Baltic-America Line’s SS Estonia in the Port of Danzig on March 18, 1929.
On Tuesday, March 26, they arrived in the Port of New York.
The day Bella’s ship docked, the holiday of Purim was being celebrated throughout New York City, one of the happiest days of the year for observant Jewish families. The financial news of the day was anything but happy, though. The day before they landed, a mini stock market crash occurred as investors started to sell stocks at a rapid pace. The stock market slide continued until it crashed on October 29, now referred to as “Black Tuesday,” the beginning of the Great Depression.
Bella, though, found a far more comfortable life awaiting her than she had in Ostroveh. Her family moved into a modern apartment with indoor plumbing–a convenience her home in Ostroveh lacked. They lived for a short while in an apartment at 1434 Bryant Avenue in the Bronx.
Sometime between 1930 and 1933, Bella moved with her family to Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a big city, with a population of more than two million, compared to about 17,000 in Bella’s hometown Ostroveh. Bella first lived at 171 Taylor Street, just a few blocks from the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge had allowed upwardly mobile Jewish residents to leave the crowded Lower East Side for Brooklyn and still remain close to jobs in Manhattan. Soon, Bella’s father was able to purchase a home nearby at 106 Marcy Avenue.
At a social club, Bella met her future husband Abraham Wolf who was living on the Lower East Side across the East River. On September 14, 1935 they were wed, celebrating with their families in a catering hall above the stores at 318 Grand Street in Williamsburg.
To be continued – Abraham and Bella Wolf
Project Ostrow-Mazowiecka webpage at JewishGen.org.
Town History, at ostrow-mazowiecka.com
Translation of Sefer ha-zikaron le-kehilat Ostrov-Mazovyetsk, jewishgen.org.
Reminiscenses from Bella and family members
1930 U.S. Census
1940 U.S. Census
1933 Brooklyn Directory
New York City Marriage License, Bella Rubinstein and Abraham Wolf
Google Maps, Streetview, 1434 Bryant Avenue
Google Maps, Streetview, 106 Marcy Avenue