page 7 of 12
February 3, 2008 – Part 1 of 6
Section below transcribed by: Daniel S (2010)
Introduction of Interviewers
My name is Dot, my name is Matt, my name is Alex, my name is Daniel, my name is Becca, and my name is Talia and we are interviewing Harold Gordon for the Telling Their Stories Oral History archives project of the Urban School of San Francisco on Feburary 3, 2008 in Salinas, California.
I remember you telling a story about how you changed your name, how log have people been calling you Harold Gordon?
They have been calling me Harold Gordon since I ????? arrived in Los Angeles in 1946; I couldn't speak english, I couldn't pronounce my name, I couldn't spell my name, which was Gordensky, and it was Henick Gordensky. So I moved in with my uncle and his last name was Gordon so I decided to change it to Gordon, and that was easy to spell and easy to remember. Also my name was Hirschel in Yiddish and Gregory in Russia and Hennick in Polish. So I looked for a word with an H so we had a Harry, Henry, Harold, and Harold rang a bell so I picked Harold. And while your asking me, I also picked my date of birth, my birthday, my birthday is January 1, 1930. Why is it January 1, 1930? Because when I was a little boy my father used to take me, my mother, and my brother in the winter and sometimes would go on a sled with a horse pulling the sled, and the horse had jingle bells and they put a blanket over us, so we would be warm and he would whip the horse and it would go jajajajaja and jingle bells. I remember going down the streets and there were Christmas decorations in the windows. So when I thought of my birthday it was around Christmas time, it was around New Years time. I realized Christmas changes and the date changes, it is not always on the same day the same time. Ill pick New Year's day, it will be easy for me to remember. So that is what I did.
While we are talking about where you are from, Grodno, do you want to think back on your childhood and maybe give us some description of where you lived and what the streets looked like?
I lived on a little narrow street with cobblestones on a very short street maybe oe or two blocks. It was called Naidusa, and my number was eight. Right on the other side of the end of the street was a street named Donmikisky and that was the main street in town. That had concrete blocks in the street. That was the only street in the city with concrete blocks, everything else had cobblestones. In the evening my father and mother used to take me and my brother for a walk. We were very poor, so I always wore very old clothes that I got from my relatives, from my cousins who were older, hand-me-downs. I always remember my father and mother used to tell us to walk ahead of them so we would not be connected to them. So people would think that they were my children and not dressed very well. I remember one evening my father gave me twenty cents to go down to the main street, there was a bakery there. To buy a desert like an eclair, and I would take it home and share it with my family. And I was so scared to run i the dark that I ran very very fast to get to it. Then quickly I bough it and brought it home. I also remember going for walks in the park with my mother and brother. There was not much to do; our life and our radius was very small, eight miles, and the world beyond that did not exist as far as I was concerned.
I remember the pretty trees and the beautiful park and all the nice flowers. Even though we were poor we were able to go out and see nice things. Where I lived there was a courtyard with very old apartments around it. We lived on the 2nd floor, apartments were very hard to get. Mot people lived with their families after they got married, Finally we were able to get an apartment, which mostly consisted of one room and a kitchen. My father and my mother, my brother and I, we slept in one bed, all of us. We had no plumbing in the house. So underneath the bed we had a pan to urinate at night and in the morning we would have to take it out and go somewhere behind and spill it out. It was horrible, but we did not know any better, thats how everybody lived. Most of the time we slept with our clothes because it was so cold particularly in the winter. We had a little tiny stove in the house it had a big hole in the top, it had different rings and when you take off the 1st lid you have a whole this big [hand gesture] thats if you wanted a small fire, for more heat you take the second ring off, and so on and it was cast iron. It was my job to chop wood for the stove it was very difficult to cook, and that is what I remember. I used to chop wood.
How old were you at this time?
I was between nine and ten.
Did you have a lot of responsibilities when you were a kid like chopping wood and running...
Yes carrying water, chopping wood. I also had to carry water, but it wasn’t something that I minded to do because it was expected of me. I needed to help and I wanted to help. When I was free I used to go and play with my friends, and we used to go play soccer and used to take a stone put it over here [hand gesture] and a stone over here [hand gesture] and that was the goal. We wold get an old ball and kick it around, that was soccer. I used to like t play a lot and I would get worked up and very hot and when I came home my cheeks were always red and my mom always wiped my sweat because I enjoyed wine and I enjoyed playing. My brother was not so lucky, he had a heart valve that was not functioning very well, so I had to slow down and wait for him many times; and not do my full expectations with my other friends. But that was too my responsibility. And even now I got some pictures the other day to send to Germany, there is a woman writing a book about me and she wanted photographs I scanned it and sent it to her. I looked at my brother and my mother and I still miss them. That was sixty something years ago.
Did you have a really close relationship with your brother?
Well yeah, as close as it could be. I never remember fighting with him because he wasn’t the kind that would fight. He was a subdued person. And I did not fight with anybody, I did fight once with a boy and we were boxing and I used to beat every body, I was very strong. Then one day he gave me a bloody nose and thats when I decided it was not for me and I quit boxing. I did not want to box no more, I didn’t like bloody noses.
What were some of your family traditions?
My family was very orthodox, my father was not. There was a problem that my father wanted to marry my mother and the family objected. Because his family did not keep kosher and the did not go to synagogue, but they were in love so eventually they got married.
How did they meet, your mom and your father?
Oh I have no idea of how the met. That is a good question, I just happened to be there, but I remember when I was a little boy my grandma used to take me and my brother down to the bath house. We lived in the Jewish section of town like a Jewish neighborhood. And there was a bath house and every Friday everybody would go to take a bath, because there was no bath in the house; take a bath and put on whatever nice clothes you had. Then you would go to the synagogue and have a sabbath dinner, all week long we ate whatever we could, herring, dark bread, potatoes, but sabbath was a family dinner and the family sat around at sabbath. So I remember my mother and grandmother used to carry me, I must have been three to four years old, but I remember they used to put me in the water and bath me. Now as I got older my uncle would take me to the bath house and have a nice dinner at home and light a candle. My grandmother used to have a very beautiful voice and she would sing lullabies and we used to just sit around and listen to her sing. Thats what I remember.
My father was a barber and he had a barber shop. He made very little money so I would go there after school and he used go give so some change out of what he earned, some money. I would take it home and give it to my mother and that is how she bought food. We did not have a bank account.
So it just went straight from you father to your mother?
Yeah right, and my mother used to buy live chickens and take it to the Moyel, they used to call them, to have its [motions to neck].
You used to do that?
Did you see the chickens being killed?
No I wouldn’t like that, but what my mother would do first is she would take my chicken and she would put it around my head seven times and say a prayer.
What did that prayer mean?
I don’t know it was just a tradition a blessing.
Do you remember the prayer?
No, I don’t remember the prayer.
Did she do it to your brother too, or was it just you?
Yeah she did it to my brother too.
Was it a blessing to you guys, or to the chicken?
A live chicken, and it would [makes chicken sound] an that is what she would do with the chicken. Another thing very strange when I got sick, with a cold or a flu what ever it was, the doctor would come to the house and he would have a great big bag, black bag. And inside there were little bankes we used to call them. They were like little glass jars. Have you ever heard of bankes? And what he would do, he would have a bottle of alcohol, he would take the alcohol and it poured it on a metal rod with a large piece of cotton on it. Then the doctor would light it and take one of the bankes, I would lay on my back with my shirt up and he would stick it in the glass the stick it on my back like this [hand motion]. Then he would take another one and put it on my back like this.
Did that hurt?
Until everything on my whole back was covered with the bankes and it had to be there for a while. What happened in the glass would vacuum and when you put it on my back it would suck my skin. So about a half an hour later when they took it off, it looked like little salami slices all over my back. That was supposed to withdraw the cold from my body.
Wow like medieval treatments going on in your house.
Yeah it was the normal treatment.
Were there any other traditions like that, like the chicken on the head and placing the bankes on your back?
Yes there was one more, if somebody was sick and they did not want me to be sick also my mother would throw some salt over my shoulder. It worked Im still alive.
Can you describe the difficulty of having your two sets of grandparents having two different sets of beliefs?
No there were no arguments at all. We all lived very close together, but you know what, a woman usually has the run of the house. So we did what the mother wanted. We had kosher food, observed the sabbath, we were very close to my grandmother and my grandfather died when my mother was pregnant. He was a scholar he was sitting in the synagogue all day praying and studying the bible. People used to come to him to be a mediator.