May 20, 2005

The Blue Dress

By Anna Mark Waldman

I grew up in Babince, a small village near the town of Rohatyn, in a part of Poland that is now Ukraine. I came to the United States in 1936, when I was 18. My family - my father and mother, sister, and three brothers -- came in April, 1939. But much earlier, in 1922, our family almost left Poland. We didn't leave, because of the blue dress.

Before World War I, my mother's parents had migrated to the United States, along with her younger sisters and brother. My mother was already married, and she and my father remained in Babince. My mother's family settled in New York City, in upper Manhattan. Her father was a rabbi, Rabbi Charles David Gabe. In New York he had a shul in the basement of their brownstone. (My grandfather Gabe also translated prayers from the Siddur and some Torah and Talmud into Yiddish, so that women, who traditionally were not educated in Hebrew, would be able to read Torah and prayers. He also gave my mother, who was very smart, a proper Jewish education, such as a boy would receive. But that is another story.)

In Babince, my parents, my father's parents, Hillel and Rifka Mark, and my father's younger brother Shloime all lived near one another on our property. My parents had a dry goods store in the village; along with my grandparents, they also farmed part of our land. They had a good life. My father's father was a stelmach, a maker of wagons and wagon wheels. At that time, there were almost no cars at all in Poland, so this was an important occupation.

My grandfather was very good at his trade. He was also the only stelmach for miles around. (This was according to a family agreement - and also is another story.) I am the oldest of the five children in our family. There was a new baby about every two years. Our family was close and loving.

When I was small, my grandfather would bring me a cup of milk from the cow every evening. In the winter, he would put the boys on a sled and pull them through the snow to cheder. My father could be exacting, but he was also a gentle, loving parent. Ma and Pa had a cradle beside their bed, because there was always a baby. Pa tied a string to his foot, and tied the other end to the cradle, so that he could rock the cradle if the baby cried during the night. At the time of this story, there were only two children, my sister Lora and myself.

The family in the United States was constantly urging my father and mother to come to New York. In 1922, when I was about four, Ma and Pa decided that we would go. They saved up the money for the tickets. Pa took the money and went alone by train to Warsaw to be interviewed by the American Consul for the visas and to get the tickets. This was a long trip, more than two days of travel on the train. When he got to the city, he did not go directly to the American Consulate. Instead, he walked around, through the market and shops in the city.

In one store window, he saw a beautiful silk dress for a little girl. Ma and Pa sold fabrics; he knew what this was. There had probably never been any dress like it in Rohatyn. There had certainly never been anything like it in our house. Ma made all of our clothes, often using fabric from the old clothes that the family in the US sent to us. The little silk dress was dark blue, with a white inset bib in the front, edged with lace at the collar. It had long sleeves and a full skirt. My father bought that dress for me. Then Pa bought other things that could not be found in our town. I'm not sure what he bought - probably fabrics and gifts for Ma and for the rest of the family; maybe also some delicacies to eat. I imagine that he was very happy that day. He had wonderful things for the family, and there was no longer enough money to go away to the United States.

When Pa returned home, Ma was stunned. She, who never lacked for words, didn't know what to say. And then, because of the dress, Ma decided that we must have a family portrait made. Pa engaged the photographer. We are all in the picture. My Uncle Shloime, tall, with dark curly hair, is in the back. Ma is to the left, young and beautiful, proud, in a light-colored dress with the kind of square neckline that she always favored, and a necklace. Pa is standing to the right, handsome and dignified in his suit, looking very pleased. He and Shloime are each wearing a watch on a chain in their vests.

Seated in the center are my grandparents, my quiet grandmother in her dark sheitl and my grandfather with his hat and full beard. My grandmother holds baby Lora on her lap. I am right in front, standing close to my grandparents, in my beautiful dark blue silk dress, with a fancy white bow that my mother made for me in my hair. I am posing for the camera, holding out the skirt of my dress with one small hand. In the picture, Grandpa is holding the lulav and etrog that he always bought for Sukkot.

Looking back, I expect that my father had to do some explaining when he came home. But, we had a very good life then. We were all together, and, at that time, there was no reason to go wandering to a strange land. Later, that would change.