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The Saranoff Family Embraces America

Hilda Polacheck was one of the WPA writers who conducted oral history interviews in Chicago. Her interview with the Saranoffs, a Russian Jewish immigrant family, was titled "Dust" for reasons you will discover. In the excerpts from that interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, Polacheck describes some of the conditions this immigrant family faced. What can you infer about this immigrant family's attitudes toward the United States? What work did Jacob do? How did Sarah and Jacob try to earn more money for Solly's piano lessons?

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Jacob Saranoff worked in a rag-shop near Hull House. He had come to Chicago from Russia in 1902, bringing his wife and two children with him. The family was met at the train by a relative who helped to find a home for them. They rented four rooms in a rear tenement on Halsted Street. After visiting several second hand furniture stores, the Saranoffs bought two second hand beds, a kitchen stove, a kitchen table and four chairs. They unpacked the bedding that they had brought with them from Russia and spent their first night in their first American home.

The next morning the children were enrolled in the public school. The first great ambition of Jacob and Sarah Saranoff had been realized. Their children were in school.

After paying a month's rent and the price of the furniture and the most necessary household utensils, Jacob had two dollars left. It was necessary for Jacob to take the first job that he could find. The job was sorting rags. His wages were eight dollars a week. The rent was six dollars a month. Jacob and Sarah decided that they could get along.

The rag-shop was located in an abandoned barn. There was a small window in the rear of this barn which had been opened when the horses were housed in it. But since it had become a rag-shop, the window had been nailed up to keep out any possible thieves. Ventilation was not considered.

The floor of the rag-shop was never swept. The dust was allowed to gather day after day, week after week. But Jacob paid no attention to the dust. His children were in school. They could not have gone to school in Russia. There were no schools for Jewish children in the village where he had lived. So why pay attention to dust?

Solomon, or Solly, as he was called, the older of the two children, wanted to learn to play the piano. But how does one get piano lessons and buy a piano on which to practice on eight dollars a week?

"Some day I will learn to play," Solly said. "All sorts of miracles happen in America. Maybe something will happen so that I can learn."

Solly was eight years old. His sister, Rosie, was six. They were learning American games. They now played hide and seek, run-sheep-run and peg, with the American born children. These American born children took Solly and Rosie to Hull House.

The children ran up the stairs to a play-room in which there was a piano. It was the first time that Solly had been near a piano. He struck a note and was thrilled with the sound. He looked around, and no one seemed to mind his touching the piano. So he struck a few more notes. This was indeed a miracle! Such miracles could only happen in America, thought Solly. . . .

So Solly started to take piano lessons and he was allowed to come to Hull House to practice. . . .

[Some time later] "For the last number," the piano teacher announced, "Solly will play a piece that he wrote. I am very proud of Solly, for it is not often that a child of his age can compose music. I think Solly will be a great musician."

Solly played his composition. It was a haunting little melody. There was a little of the Russian persecution in it. There was a little of the joy of Hull House. There was a little of the dust of the rag-shop. . . .

The dream of buying a piano now became an obsession with Jacob. He had heard one of the men who worked in the rag-shop, say that his two brothers were coming from Russia and that they would be looking for a place to live. The idea came to Jacob that he could rent one of the bedrooms to these two men. He broached the subject to Sarah. She thought it would be a good idea. Sarah had heard that pianos could be bought on easy payments. Perhaps she could get enough from the man to make the payments on a piano.

The boarders moved into one of the two bedrooms. A shiny new piano was moved into the bare parlor. A relative gave the family a discarded cot which was put into the parlor. On this Solly slept. Rosie was moved into the bedroom where her parents slept. Her bed was made up of the four chairs. . . .

[Again, time had passed] Solly was ready to graduate from high school. He was to play one of his own compisitions at the graduation exercises. This graduation was another event in the life of the Saranoff family. Jacob was proud of his tall, dark haired son, who was loudly applauded by the audience. Solly bowed again and again. Jacob thought: if only the cough did not bother him; he would be the happiest man in the world. But the cough did bother him.

Jacob would have liked to stay in bed the morning after the graduation. But a man had been fired the week before for staying home one day. So he dragged himself out of the bed and went to the rag-shop. Several hours later he was brought home by two men. They said that Jacob had started to cough and had spit large chunks of blood.

"Yes, the dust in the rag-shop is bad," said one of the men.

Sarah was panic stricken. The neighbors called a doctor from the health department. A week later, Jacob was dead.
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View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.