Lena Itzkowitz Firester was born on April 18, 1886 in Iasi, Romania. Lena was known in Iasi by her Yiddish name Leah Feiga, named for her maternal grandmother. Her parents were Charles (Chaskel) Itzkowitz and Gussie (Gittel) Schwartz Itzkowitz (see Itzkowitz Family Outline and Flo’s Family). Lena was their first-born child.
Iasi, where Lena spent her childhood, was a source of cultural innovation in the Jewish world. The first professional Yiddish theatre group was founded by Abraham Goldfaden in Iasi in 1876. Goldfaden’s Yiddish theatre spread from Iasi to Bucharest, Roumania, and became popular entertainment and a thriving industry in both Russia and New York City. Iasi is known for another cultural first: HaTikvah–the poem that has been sung as Israel’s national anthem since Israel’s independence day in 1948–was first written by Naftali Herz Imber while he was visiting Iasi in 1878.
When Lena was born, Iasi was in an economic slump since it was no longer the capitol of Roumania–the seat of government having been moved in 1862 to Bucharest. With a Jewish population of 39,441 that comprised 50.8% of the town’s population in 1899, Jews became a convenient scapegoat for the economic problems.
On May 16, 1899, when Lena was 13, a group of antisemitic students, politicians, and journalists held a public meeting in Iasi. As a result of their exhorts to exterminate the Jews in Iasi, crowds destroyed Jewish stores and synagogues, looted homes, and beat residents. According to the newspaper, Egalitatea, “half of Iasi was destroyed.”
Lena was considered an alien even though the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 had granted Roumania its independence conditional on giving full civil rights to its Jewish population. Citizenship was to be conferred to non-Christians according to this agreement.
Roumania ignored this condition with impunity and implemented policies that severely persecuted Jewish residents. In a report published in the Brooklyn Eagle on November 11, 1902, a United States Immigration Service official described the conditions the Jewish population faced as “aliens”.
A Jew may not acquire, hold or work on the land in a rural district; he may not reside in a rural district. He may be dismissed from said towns and expelled from the country by ministerial decree . . . He may not follow the occupation of an apothecary, a lawyer, a stock broker, a member of the Bourse, or stock exchange, a peddler, or a liquor dealer . . . regulation forbids employers of labor to employ a Jew until they have first employed two Christians . . . All government civil employments are denied to Jews, but they are compelled to do military duty under the conscription law, yet advancement in the military service is denied to them. The naturalization of an alien does not extend citizenship to any but the unborn members of his family.”
He found antisemitic statements in textbooks in the Roumanian public schools, such as:
A Jew never eats before he cheats
A Jew is a leach and lives on the blood he sucks from the poor peasants
Never believe a Jew on oath even when he is expiring
There is no tax in Roumania from which the aliens are exempt. Citizens’ children have access to the public schools free of charge, but the children of aliens are taxed at the rate of 60 francs per annum per child.”
As a result of restrictions on education, Lena did not learn to read or write as a child, much like three-fourths of the population in Roumania.
With Lena’s future looking so grim in Roumania, Lena’s Aunt Beckie and Uncle Nathan “Alter” Schwartz, who were living in Brooklyn, New York, paid for a ticket for Lena to leave Roumania and travel to New York City. Lena would depart on the SS Rotterdam, a Holland America Line steamship that sailed out of Rotterdam, Holland (now Netherlands). Her ticket most likely included railroad passage to Rotterdam as well as room and board until she embarked on her sea voyage. She would have stayed at the NASM Hotel, operated by the Holland America Line, across from the line’s wharf.
Lena first had to pass inspection by the steamship company’s medical inspector. Just hours before embarkation, she stood in line for inspection by an American physician–most likely at the NASM Hotel– who gave his approval as required by the United States immigration law.
Lena, alone and just 17 years old, departed Rotterdam on February 20, 1904, aboard the SS Rotterdam. She had left behind in Iasi both her parents and all of her siblings. Lena traveled under the name “Leie Feige Schwartz”–her maternal grandmother’s name–for reasons now unknown.
On Tuesday, March 1, 1904, the SS Rotterdam entered New York Harbor after a voyage across the Atlantic in the dead of winter. On Ellis Island on Wednesday, Lena ate lunch and was detained until 4:30 that afternoon when her Uncle Nathan “Alter” Schwartz arrived and immigration officials released her to his care.
Lena lived on the Lower East Side on Norfolk Street near Delancey with the Rottman family, and she most likely worked in the garment trade there. Not more than six months after she landed in New York City–on November 18, 1904–Lena returned to Ellis Island. This time she was headed to meet Elias Firester, an immigrant who told the shipping inspector that Lena was his sister. Listing Lena as his sister most likely kept Elias from being denied entry to the United States and returned to Roumania as an undesirable immigrant.
Unbeknownst to the authorities, Elias was not Lena’s brother. He was Lena’s future husband. Ten days after he arrived at Ellis Island, Lena married Elias Firester.
To be continued – Family Friday: Elias and Lena Firester
Entry for Iasi at Wikipedia.org
Entry for Yiddish Theatre at Wikipdedia.org
The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, webpage titled “Iasi,” by Lucian-Zeev Herşcovici, accessed June 1, 2015 at http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org.
“Iasi” – Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Romania, Volume 1 (Romania) at jewishgen.org. Translation from Pinkas Hakehillot Romania, Published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1969.
The Fusguyer Story by Gertrude Ogushwitz, ROM-SIG NEWS, Vol. 2, No. 4, Summer 1994, accessed May 30, 2015 at http://www.jewishgen.org
Immigration Archives – Emigration from Rotterdam to the United States circa 1903, accessed May 31, 2015 at http://www.gjenvick.com
Roumanian Persecution Driving Out the Jews, Brooklyn Eagle, November 11, 1902, accessed May 31, 2015 at http://www.bklyn.newspapers.com.
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897; Arrival: New York, New York; Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Microfilm serial: 15; Microfilm roll T715_433; List I, Line: 29; Leie Feige Schwartz
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897; Arrival: New York, New York; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls); Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Microfilm serial: T715; Microfilm roll: T715_514; List C, Line: 4; Elia Schwartz
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Petition for Citizenship, Lena Firester (formerly Lena Iscovich) Petition #385961, June 28, 1943
Marriage Certificate, Elias Firester and Lina Iscovich, November 28, 1904, Manhattan County, City of New York, USA, Certificate Number 24434