Once upon a time there was a shtetl in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became a shtetl in Russia, and then a shtetl in Poland. It was called Kapitchinitz.
Each time the borders shifted, after wars and skirmishes and treaties, there were new teachers in the schools, a different portrait on the wall — it could have been of Franz Josef or the Czar — and a new flag to salute. But these changes meant nothing to the people, because they knew those changes would make little difference in their lives. Their only hope of escaping the poverty, the pogroms, and the hatred aimed at them because they were Jews was to emigrate to a better life in the “goldina medina,” America, where, they were told, the streets were paved with gold.
So my grandfather, Hersch, and his two daughters, Emma and Gertie, with financial help from family already in New York, emigrated in 1927, leaving my grandmother, Rachel, and their two sons, William (my dad) and Paul, behind. There wasn’t enough money for everyone to go. But my grandfather was sure that soon he would earn enough money to send for the rest of the family.
It didn’t happen.
Although New York City in the 1920s wasn’t Eastern Europe, still, life wasn’t easy for immigrants fresh off the boat, speaking no English. It took years before my grandfather was able to save up enough money to go through the bureaucracy to get documents and then send money to the family back in Poland. For example, Rachel and Hersch had to have a proxy marriage, with Hersch here and Rachel in Poland, since according to Polish law they had not been married legally. They had been married by a rabbi in Poland, but only weddings performed by a priest were registered.
So time passed, William grew older, and pretty soon he was 18. That made him eligible for compulsory service in the Polish military. He had to be younger if he was to get the papers that would allow him to leave Poland. His birth certificate was changed to make him three years younger. This was done — for money.
Corruption had its benefits. The family reunited in 1933 and life moved on.
Time passed — rather quickly it seems. And suddenly William realized that he wanted to collect social security in order to retire when he reached 65, but his records showed him to be three years younger than he really was. He went to the local social security office; the administrators there had no problem with his request. They knew that many people from Europe and elsewhere had inaccurate birth certificates. They asked that he show three pieces of evidence proving his real age. He did have a school report card with a birth date on it, he had his bar mitzvah certificate, and as a last resort his older sister wrote a letter attesting to his birth date. Social security would give him only two years, instead of the three he requested.
So he became two years older.
Again, time passed, even more quickly, and William died in 1989. He was 79, according to the social security office decision. He had a life insurance policy that he had taken out years before. The insurance claim was filed along with the death certificate. According to the insurance adjuster, the insurance company would be unable to pay the full amount if William indeed was older than he said he was when he took out the policy. I told the company that my father was from Europe, and no one really was sure when his birth date was. The adjuster said that I should send three pieces of evidence to show that he really was younger than the date on the death certificate.
I sent his driver’s license showing the later birth date and a business license showing the later date, and as a last resort I sent a copy of the application for the disputed life insurance showing the later birth date. Payment was approved.
So now we know how my father could be three different ages at the same time. Was he really three years older than his revised Polish birth certificate showed? Was he really two years older, as the social security office determined? Or was he three years younger, as the insurance company decided?
This story is an homage to my father, who had a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed telling the story of his three different ages. He would have gotten a kick out of how I proved to the insurance company that he was three years younger. The important thing is he was able to come to the United States, before his town was completely destroyed, and everyone who stayed was killed.
Judith Liebman of Hackensack retired as a program development specialist for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She belongs to several groups advocating for the advancement of women and the prevention of domestic violence, including the Bergen County section of the National Council for Jewish Women and the Zonta Club of Northern Valley, NJ.