When my grandfather Bill was about 3 – the age he is in the picture here – he and his mother Charlotte went to go visit her parents in the Bronx. They lived in Newark, New Jersey at the time, so it wasn’t a long trip, and it’s one they had made many times before. While sitting together in the apartment at 1703 Washington Avenue, my grandfather noticed that one of its regular occupants was missing. He never really knew who she was, but now she was missing and he was curious, so he asked: “Where’s that old lady who used to be around here?”
That “old lady” was his great-grandmother Sadie Weiner Kadin, who died September 7, 1924 at the age of about 92 — and regardless of how surprised everyone might have been by Bill’s question at the time, Charlotte thought it was hilarious and repeated this story for years.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any other stories that have been repeated about Sadie herself. The only stories I have are the ones gleaned from the few records I have found about her and from these spare facts, I can build the outline of a person.
Sadie — also sometimes called Selma in census records — was born between 1832 and 1836, probably somewhere near Minsk in what is now Belarus. She married Chaim Koidinowsky, who may have been a religious school teacher in Borisov in 1879, and they had at least 5 children who lived to adulthood and immigrated to the United States, where they shortened their last name to Kadin. Chaim died sometime before 1893, when Charlotte, the first grandchild to be named after him was born. Until 1906 or so, Sadie lived what I imagine was a relatively typical life for a widowed lady in the Minsk gubernia. Most of her children had relocated to the United States before 1900, and after her son Herschel left in 1904, she was most likely alone – though hopefully surrounded by extended family and some friends. Whatever she had left in Belarus, though, didn’t keep her from making the decision to immigrate to the US in approximately 1906 when she was about 73.
I have one other relation who boarded a ship and came to the United States in his more elderly years, except that was a man with a young daughter whose older children came and picked him up in order to bring him to Chicago. A widowed woman in her early- to mid-seventies leaving home to come to a new world on a ship all alone (as far as I know) is a very different order of things – at least, I think it is. A quick search of Ellis Island records for the relevant time period and age group shows most widowed ladies of Sadie’s age accompanying large exoduses of children and grandchildren, so as not to be left behind in the old country. I haven’t been able to find the ship manifest documenting Sadie’s arrival, so it could be quite possible that one of Sadie’s children traveled with her. But it’s also possible that at 73 (or so) — an age not exactly young by 1906 standards — Sadie felt perfectly capable of taking such a daunting trip alone. Sadie’s two daughters and several of her granddaughters and grandsons lived into their 90s; two of Sadie’s sons and many of her other grandchildren lived into their late 80s — and though 73 might have been kind of old for many other residents of the year 1906, for a Kadin, it was almost nothing.
Whenever it was that Sadie actually arrived in New York, by 1910, she was living with her older daughter, Rae Peskowitz, in Brooklyn. Sometime between the 1920 census when she was still living with Rae and Rae’s family and her 1924 death, Sadie made the move to the Washington Avenue apartment that her younger daughter (my great-great-grandmother), Minnie Hurdus, shared with her husband Sam and her son William.
I’m curious to know what she would have made of New York City in the teens and twenties, a place that must have been so different from the shtetl in Belarus where she spent most of her life. It’s certain she probably only spoke Yiddish, though that wouldn’t have posed much of a problem in New York where it was so common that even Irish boys like James Cagney could speak it. In fact, just about the only person in her circle with whom she wouldn’t have been able to communicate is 3-year-old Billy. Though both of his parents were fluent in it, he only learned phrases and words here and there – never enough to understand what they were saying when they spoke Yiddish to discuss things for their adult ears only. And so, by the time he was born (in the apartment at 1703 Washington Avenue), she was just an old lady who sat in a rocking chair and didn’t speak the same language he did.
Luckily for me, Bill does speak my language and, even though this last week saw him get another year older, he’s far more vital than the old lady who used to live around his grandparents’ apartment. Luckier still, he has the stories to share with me that help me piece together our mutual past.