The Two Faces of Ella – A Tribute to My Enigmatic Late Aunt

My Dad Sam (Front) & Siblings (From Left): Ella, Jack, Dottie - 1932

I have recently become fascinated with my Dad’s family, perhaps because many of them are an enigma. I never met my paternal grandparents – my grandmother Nettie died in 1951 at the age of 67 and my grandfather Abraham died in 1955 at the age of 71. My dad is 90 and has beaten the familial odds by leaps and bounds – a 26-year colon cancer survivor; he has been on medication for hypertension since he was in his 40s. I wrote about my grandfather Abraham in my Triangle Fire article. When I was younger I was not that interested in discovering facts about my mysterious grandparents, but with my dad’s own mortality looming on the near horizon, I feel compelled to fill in the missing pieces. The problem now is that my dad’s memories have faded, although some of the facts were probably unknown even when he was a much younger man. My dad was the youngest child and his eldest sister Ella essentially served as a surrogate mother because my grandmother was in a deep depression after immigrating to America – and for very good reasons. She was separated for years from my grandfather, fending for herself and her children and being forced to board a German soldier in her house during WWI. Most of her family died in Poland, either in pogroms prior to WWII or in the Holocaust.

Abraham came to America by himself for the first time in 1905, leaving behind my grandmother and her newborn baby, my Aunt Ella. He went to work in the garment industry as an embroiderer and could easily have been one of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It is unknown where he worked, but it was most certainly a factory in Manhattan. He went back to Poland sometime in the summer or fall of 1911 – my Uncle Jack was born in 1912 and when Abraham left again for America later that year, little did he know that my grandmother was pregnant with my Aunt Dottie, who was born in 1913. There is no information about where my grandfather worked on this second stint in America, although it is believed he continued to work in the garment industry. World War I broke out and he was separated from his family this time for nearly 8 years. My grandfather became a U.S, citizen on June 1, 1911. The entire family stepped foot on American soil at Ellis Island on April 9, 1921 after sailing from Southampton on the Aquitania. My dad was the first generation and only member of his immediate family born in America, in 1923. By then they were living in Brooklyn, in Brownsville, back then a very modest blue-collar neighborhood. Unfortunately, in the last three decades it has deteriorated into the worst neighborhood in this borough – riddled with gangs and a high violent crime rate.

I knew my Aunt Dottie the best – we would visit her and my Uncle Murray in Akron, Ohio with some frequency when I was a kid. She had a very hard life – Murray suffered his first heart attack at the age of 32, had diabetes, and suffered many subsequent heart attacks. They never had much money, but were sweet and generous people who I dearly loved. Not surprisingly, Dottie was widowed when Murray had a fatal heart attack and died herself of cancer in 1987 at the age of 73. My Uncle Jack was a swell guy as well, although his wife was very combative and contrary. He was a CPA who worked for the state of New York. In his lifetime, he amassed two incredibly valuable collections – rare coins and Tiffany lamps – the latter were purchased at Lillian Nassau in NYC. He sold most of the coins before his death, but the lamps likely netted his estate millions. I did not know him as well as Dottie, but was aware that the rheumatic fever he suffered as a kid severely damaged his heart. Sadly, he suffered a massive stroke on the operating table after open-heart surgery and died in 1972 at the age of 59.

The primary focus of this article is my Aunt Ella because her case is by far the saddest. This article is dedicated to her – when I discovered the photos of her as a young woman, I could barely believe my eyes. The contrast from the Ella I knew is startling and I vowed to find out more from my dad.

Ella, Age 24

The Expression is Telling

Other than my paternal grandparents, Ella was the most enigmatic of my aunts and uncles. There is conflicting information that veils her in an even greater aura of mystery. My dad has stated very clearly that she was born in 1905 – that would certainly be in line with her being old enough to have her own passport when they immigrated in 1921. And the 18-year-age difference would explain why she was more like a mother to him. However, her grave record at Montefiore Cemetery states that she died on April 23, 1984 at the age of 73. That would mean she was born in 1910 or 1911 and my grandfather was in America at that time – he was made a U.S. citizen on June 1, 1911, as I previously stated. I don’t know what to think. I cannot verify any of this because mysteriously, she is not listed on the ship manifesto as coming over with the rest of the family. I have done several broad and defined searches on the Ellis Island website – and there is no matching name, date, and country of origin combination that comes up. I suspect that she was born in 1905 and that the cemetery records are incorrect – perhaps she lied about her age because she was older than her husband Sol (real name Isaac). According to his grave record, he was 79 when he died on November 24, 1990. So that would have made him about 6 years younger than Ella, although to me he always looked older.

I only knew Ella as a rather odd old lady who kept shrinking as she aged and who owned a chicken farm in Lakewood, N.J. I think she was around 5‘ 0” in her prime, but closer to 4″ 5 “when she was in her 70s. We went to visit them and stayed there in 1968 – the three of us flying alone and meeting up with my parents who were vacationing alone in the Catskills. The Lakewood house was always kept dark and I didn’t sleep much with those damn chickens waking us up at 5 am every morning. It wasn’t enough that they worked incredibly hard on the farm – my uncle had to work as a baker to make ends meet. The year they bought the farm, the government stopped giving subsidies to chicken farmers in Lakewood. By the time we visited, their hired farm hand Tommy was no longer around. He died when he burned down the little building he stayed in – he was an alcoholic and fell into a drunken state while smoking.

Uncle Sol Feeding Chickens

Aunt Ella and Uncle Sol with Their Chickens

Janet (Front) & (From Left): Debbie, Ella, Sol, Betsy - August 1968

Before Ella met Sol, she was a very pretty and accomplished woman. She worked in an administrative capacity at the original Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. According to my dad, she was treated there for an emergency appendectomy and instead of just removing her appendix, they performed a hysterectomy. In this day and age, such a travesty would result in a multi-million dollar malpractice suit. She felt so ashamed and scarred by this event that she was forever changed. Her premature aging and diminishing height could certainly be explained by this medical occurrence – those were the days before hormonal replacement therapy.

Ella at Beth Israel

Prior to this tragic event, Ella was outgoing and very social – with many friends and suitors. According to the family, she did not think that any man would marry a barren woman, so she ended up with a crude, homely man with the manners of a peasant. I do have to say that my Uncle Sol was a very hardworking man – and an incredible baker. But he was emotionally abusive towards her and their marriage was a punishment of sorts because she felt it was her fault that she couldn’t bear children. My Aunt Dottie made her feelings about Sol blatantly clear when my dad and her got together, although I’m sure she didn’t say anything to her sister out of love and respect.

Ella, Age 27 - 1932

When I went to visit my grandparents in Miami Beach in January 1977, I also saw my Aunt Ella and Uncle Sol. Unlike my grandparents who lived in a gorgeous condo on Indian Creek Drive in Miami Beach, they rented a tiny little cottage in a somewhat seedy part of town. Ella was dressed like a refugee with old vintage (but not hip) dress shoes with white ankle socks. When Ella was in town for my older sister’s wedding in 1978, she carried her purse around everywhere, like Estelle Getty’s character in The Golden Girls. She told me to look into her eyes and asked if I thought she was nuts. This question made me think so, but all I saw were cataracts and a deep sadness.

My Maternal Grandparents Helen and Alfred with Ella - March 1968

Ella’s sad demise came when she choked on a piece of food in her Lakewood home. After choking, she went to the bathroom, presumably to see if she could cough up the food. Sol looked in on her and then left her to die. He didn’t call 911 for more than 24 hours, and of course, it was far too late. How could somebody do this to his own wife? My older sister had a fairly close relationship with Ella and visited Sol at the farm after her death. Ella had promised her a few pieces of jewelry, but all Sol gave her was a mink stole and a set of butter knives. None of his relatives inherited a thing and when he died, he bestowed the farm and all his worldly possessions to an Israeli charity.

The contrast between Ella as a young woman and the depressed looking women in most of the photos with Sol reflect two entirely different personas. Life can really throw you nasty curve balls and this poor woman deserved better.

Addendum

Miraculously, I was looking for historical documents for my next article, when I unearthed a written interview I did with my Aunt Ella back in 1975. This was part of a genealogical project for a high school U.S. history class in which I interviewed relatives from both sides of my family. Although it didn’t shed a lot of light on her life, two interesting pieces of information cleared up a few unknowns: Ella was born on June 12, 1907 and her English birth name was Esther Rochel. So the date of 1905 is inaccurate, as is the birthdate indicated in her Montefiore Cemetery grave record. This document also includes some very interesting information that helps fill in the blanks for a future article I will write on the grandmother I never knew.

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