Immigrant Journeys
Foreign Born? Ancestor's/Relative's Story? Stories Shared A Little About Me Resources/Links Contact Home

Odornya, Russia (now Belarus), mid-1890’s


The Hat Decides
Written by Peter D. Springberg, M.D. about his grandfather, Shmuel (Sam) Springberg

In the mid 1890s, in the tiny Russian village of Odornya, a Jewish family owned a prosperous inn. Their only son, Shmuel, was athletic and intelligent, but his sense of humor sometimes got him in trouble. He teased his father saying, “Abba, I think you wear that elegant sable hat whenever you make major decisions; does that mean it has the brains in the family?” His mother heard him, laughed out loud and said “Shmuel, you’re lucky you survived that episode.”

One morning Shmuel said, “Eema, I’d like to visit Cousin Pinchas in Kiev. He’s my age and can show me the city.”

His mother smiled. “You’ve done your chores lately without grumbling and your father will be happy to avoid your teasing for a while. Write to Pinchas.”

Shmuel beamed. Under Russian rules, most Jews lived in small villages called shtetls. Because Uncle David was a skilled woodworker, he and his family, including Pinchas, his oldest son, had residence permits to live in Kiev. Shmuel had traveled there only once before, buying supplies with his father. At eighteen, no longer under Dad’s vigilant eye, he could explore the city and really have fun.

It was hard to wait for Pinchas’s reply. When it arrived, all it said was, “Come soon.”

Shmuel hitched a ride on the back of a produce wagon driven by a family friend. He finally arrived after five jolting days and then relaxed over the delicious kosher meal his Aunt Rivka had prepared. She asked about his abba and eema; Shmuel just said, “They’re both fine.”

The morning after he arrived in Kiev Shmuel said, “Can we walk through the central market, Pinchas?  It must be wonderful to enjoy all the freedoms you have here,”

Pinchas said, “The Jews of Kiev usually do well enough, but last month there was a pogrom only forty miles away.”

Shmuel shut up. He knew about pogroms, deliberate attacks on the Jews. Some Russians hated Jews and blamed them for every problem.  Sometimes they went to Jewish sections of towns, broke windows and beat up anyone they saw walking about. Sometimes they even killed the Jews. He shivered at the thought.

The cousins left Pinchas’s home and walked until they arrived at the market, a huge square, packed with booths and lined with shops. The whole area was filled with the exotic smells of strange spices and the mingled sounds of a great throng.  They saw two boys eating a large meat pie that smelled delicious but almost certainly wasn’t anything Shmuel was allowed to eat. His family, like most Jewish families, ate only kosher food. Shmuel watched a skilled street juggler throw three, then four and finally five wooden clubs into the air. He felt nearly hypnotized by the thrill of being there.

A tall, well-dressed man approached Pinchas while Shmuel was peering into a shop. Shmuel pretended to pay no attention, but he eavesdropped on his cousin’s interaction. “Who is that handsome young man?” the stranger asked.

Pinchas smiled. “That’s my Cousin Shmuel, from Odornya. I suppose you have a girl you would like to match him up with.”

“I might indeed. I’d like to meet him,” the matchmaker said. “I’ll find out if he’s right for a special young woman I know.”

Pinchas rolled his eyes. “He lives in a tiny village. Why would a girl from Kiev marry him?”

“She’s nineteen already,” the matchmaker said. “She can’t be too picky.”

Pinchas called Shmuel and introduced him to the matchmaker. Shmuel agreed to meet the girl the following evening. The matchmaker showed Shmuel her picture; she was quite pretty.

But, as Shmuel found out later from Pinchas, the girl the match maker had picked out for Shmuel was not impressed by him.

She had found a corner in Pinchas’s favorite inn that night before she was to meet Shmuel, so she could get a secret glimpse of him.

The next morning she had said, “Mother, I saw that man the matchmaker wants me to meet. He doesn’t dress as well as the rich men I’ve seen walking around wearing their fancy fur hats. He wasn’t even wearing a hat. I won’t marry a man who doesn’t own a proper hat!”

Shmuel was relieved. He hadn’t gone to Kiev to get married anyway and certainly hadn’t expected to be judged on his clothing. With a light heart he returned to Odornya, this time on a cart carrying bolts of cloth.

And then his whole world changed. His father got a cough and a high fever. Within a week he was dead. His mother turned inward, seldom speaking to anyone. Three months later she died too. Of what? Who knows? Maybe it was grief. Shmuel inherited the inn and all of his father’s possessions, including his beautiful fur hat made of gleaming Russian sable.

After his mother died, Shmuel remembered a letter he had received from his friend Saul, who had immigrated to America. Saul had lived for two years in Merrill, a small town in the state called Wisconsin, and had a wife, a child and a good job. He wanted Shmuel to join them. Shmuel had never wanted to run the inn by himself; this was his chance to leave the village. The family business had been very successful, so it was not hard to find a buyer.

Soon Shmuel was ready to join Saul. Now, with money in his pockets, he bought a train ticket for the first time in his life. He wrote to his aunt and uncle. He carefully packed and said his farewells to his friends in the shtetl. Then he left Odornya for the last time, heading to Kiev on his way to the New World. His father’s hat went with him.

When he arrived in Kiev, he went to Pinchas’s house. “I just came here to say goodbye and to go to Shabbat services with you. Then I’m off to America on Sunday."


"Sam and Pearl Springberg with grandsons Peter (left) and Paul."

Shmuel wore his best suit. His father’s beautiful sable hat was perched firmly on his head, covering his abundant dark curly hair. He noticed that the girl he was once to be matched with was watching him as he approached the synagogue. She seemed struck by his new appearance and smiled at his hat. Then she hurried to find the matchmaker before services started. Shmuel eavesdropped again; he was getting good at this!

“Do you remember that man from Odornya?” she said. “Tell him I’ve changed my mind.”
The matchmaker quickly found Shmuel and said, almost tripping over his words, “That girl I tried to match you with before is now very interested in meeting you.”

On Sunday, one hour before Shmuel’s river boat left on the first leg of his trip to America, they met. Shmuel remembered her previous rejection of him because he’d not been dressed as a wealthy man and because he’d not been wearing a proper hat.

“I hear that you’re willing to reconsider,” he said. “I, too, would be willing to reconsider… Unfortunately the hat decides, and it is not interested.”

With that, he strode off to the docks grinning. The voyage to America was not an easy one; he had never been on a ship before. He spent much of his time in a small room they called a hold, filled with other men who spoke languages he couldn’t understand. They all got seasick from time to time.

When they finally got to America, Shmuel passed the medical examination at Ellis Island easily. Then he wandered the streets for most of the morning before a policeman helped him find the home of Saul’s uncle, a gruff man who worked as a street peddler. There he ate a kosher meal and slept in a clean though lumpy bed for a night. The next morning his friend’s uncle walked him nearly four miles to a train station and put him on the train to Wisconsin. He found out the journey to Merrill via Chicago, roughly 1,100 American miles, would only take two and a half days, if things went well.

“I love this country already,” he said, looking out the window of the train. It rolled over a bridge above a turbulent river and through miles of wide open grassy fields. There were no people in sight anywhere. “The air smells better in America, even when I was walking through New York’s crowds. And who back home would ever think of asking a policeman for help in finding his way?”

Within a month of coming to his cousin’s town in Wisconsin he had a job working in a lumber mill with Saul, helping other, more experienced men cut logs and stack up boards. He was becoming a real American and the men he worked with called him Samuel or just Sam. Then he met a bright young Jewish girl named Pearl who admired him for his intelligence and hard-working attitude. She could care less whether he had a fine hat.

When Pearl turned sixteen, Sam made up his mind to ask her to marry him, but here he needed no matchmaker. He approached Pearl wearing his sable hat. “Pearl, I want to ask you a thing, something important,” he said hesitantly.

Pearl smiled at him, reached up and took off his hat. “Whatever you mean to ask, Sam,” she said, “the answer is yes.” She ran her fingers caressingly through Sam’s black curly hair. “And I’ve wanted to do this since the day we met.”

© Copyright Peter Springberg. All rights reserved.





Foreign Born? | Relative's/Ancestor's Story? | Stories Shared | A Little About Me | Resources/Links | Contact | Home
Copyright © 2002-2012 Immigrant Journeys. All rights reserved.
website by: The Ancient Palm