Shtetl Life

Philip Hoffman April 15, 1892-December 15, 1968. 

Oral history interview Dec. 10, 1968. 

In 1968 the Pittsburgh Section of National Council of Jewish Women, embarked upon an oral history project, “…goal was to collect and synthesize a critical mass of data describing the rich and dramatic immigrant experience as lived, remembered and related by the immigrants themselves in their own words.”  – By Myself I’m A Book,Waltham, MA: American Jewish Historical Society, 1972: p. xiv.  An open ended pilot questionnaire was designed and tested.  Respondents’ criteria were “…foreign born and had immigrated to America between 1890 and 1924…” ibid.  I was active in the project from its early development stages and participated in defining the objectives, interview and training program of volunteer interviewers; personally I interviewed four respondents, one of whom was my father, Philip Hoffman. This interview was never completed.

Q: Can you tell my of your early history?  PH: I was born in Kopcheve [Kapciamiestis], Lithuania, about April 15, 1892, to Moshe Ber Ovchinskas and Beile Kowalski Ovchinskas.

You need to understand the historical background at that time. Lithuania had been in Poland and became part of Russia in 1867. Austria and Hungary were independent countries at that time. Jewish boys went to “Heder” (parochial grammar school associated with synagogue, ends at Bar Mitzvah age 13). There was not free education. If a Jewish boy’s family could find a non-Jewish boy to sponsor him, and if they had enough money, the boy could go onto Gymnasia. Gymnasia cost about $150/year then. It consisted of 2 years of preparatory work in Russian language, history, and mathematics and then 6 years of high school and college. After graduation, a man got a degree of maturity [matriculation] and then could go to graduate and professional schools. There were 13 universities in Russia, one in the Asiatic part of Russia; only 2% of Jews were accepted to university, so many Jews went to other countries to study. There were possibly 3,000,000 [Jews] in Lithuania and Poland and 200,000 in the rest of Russian. Merchants of the First Guild could live in Russia. Grudner, Russia, had 47,000 and 27,000 soldiers. In Bialystock there was a conservatory of music, about 60,000 Jews and a tobacco factory.

Q: Where did you live?


PH: The town of Kopcheve had a shul, church, post office and “Heder”. There were probably about 150 Jewish families. It was the focal town surrounded by small villages. We had a nice house in Kopcheve. The living room was 20’ x 30’ plus a master bedroom; they had logs and wood walls. The dining room was large and plastered because we entertained there; that’s where I slept. There was a separate room for the girls to sleep. The kitchen was 12’ x 18’ with large stoves. Attached to the house was a store, 12’ x 25’, set up like a grocery/hardware store. There was a separate building which was a beer distributor and a barn for the cow and the horse. All of this was surrounded by lots of land with plantings and gardens. My family dealt in grain selling, and my mother did most of the work.

Q: Can you tell me about your schooling? PH: The rabbi tutored me at “Heder” and prepared me for Gymnasia. When I was in “Heder”, my sister, Esther, helped me with my homework. My sisters learned from my lessons. Esther had a fine memory. My mother found a non-Jewish family to sponsor me in Grodno  to study in Gymnasia, and I lived with them. I started when I was 14. 

Q: And afterwards? PH: When I finished Gymnasia and returned home, my mother decided that I should go to America because I was close to service age. She gave me $200 to go, and I left home on December 12, 1911. 

Q:What was the journey like? PH: My father arranged to have me and a friend, Leonard Sobel [later became a dentist in the US] to cross the border. We were in hiding for 2 weeks and slipped out tied under a wagon. The wagon [and we] were released with the baggage on December 26, 1911. From the wagon, a forest ranger bribed a Russian guard to let us cross the border by foot to Germany, and a German helped us get a train to Berlin. From Berlin we took a train to Antwerp. We remained in Antwerp for ten days until the ship was ready to sail. We were ten days on the SS Finland, 3rd class. The crossing was rough; we ate potatoes and herring.

Q: What did you take with you on the journey? PH: I took my passport, tfillin and a pair of candlesticks for Esther, wrapped in a pillow, as a wedding gift. I took books: Russian syntax, dictionary, and Russian literature.

Q: What are your first memories of arriving in America? PH: We arrived at Ellis Island. HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] put a tag on my coat with [Aunt] Esther’s address on it, 114th Street between Madison and Park. I arrived at their apartment at 2am. Esther burned my clothes (lice, etc). I had $20. [Aunt] Rose took me to buy a suit $10, shoes $2.60, derby hat $1.50, 3 shirts @$0.29 and ties @$0.10 on Canal Street. I bought the suit at Vogels, and later an extra suit at Gimbels for $10.

Q: And then? PH: I had to look for a job. A relative, Ruttenberg, was a head cutter on 7th Avenue. I went to see him, and he arranged for me to be a shipping clerk at $3.00/week. The job was 6 days a week, eight hour days. I wasn’t religious. At the end of the first week, they raised me to $3.25/week. Then I worked as an errand boy in the garment industry, for Frankel Brothers; I worked 12 hours/day and earned $5.00/week. Later I worked for a button manufacturer and earned $8.00/week. I arrived in America on February 1, 1912 and by March 1913 I had saved $35.00.  I went to night school to learn English.

I went to Little California, PA, in 1913. I went with Esther and Julian because of Rose and Sam. We took the train to Pittsburgh and went to visit Tilly Berkman on Clark Street. It was a depressing day and terribly disappointing.

Rose and Sam were the only Jewish family there. Their next door neighbor was a banker, a nice person. The gentiles were very nice to us. I worked in a drugstore and lived in a 4 room house with a basement full of rats.