My life: A memoir by Chana Fischer


A mother, wife and daughter reminisces



I was born in Pinsk, Poland. My citizenship papers say I was born in 1921, but based on the information on the back of an early photo of me and the stories my mother told me, I was probably born around Passover in 1922.

For some political reason, when I was born they couldn't get me a birth certificate. Later, my grandfather was able to get me one when a proclamation was issued that everyone born in 1921 should re-register because a fire had destroyed that year's birth certificates. So, although I was born in 1922, my grandfather took this opportunity to register my birth for a year earlier.

I remember a very happy childhood surrounded by relatives and servants. My mother was always close by.

So was my grandfather. He seemed to be very tall and loving. Every morning my grandfather went to shul (synagogue). I used to go to a corner street, with our cat following us, and wait for him to come back from shul and hold onto his capote (black long coat) as we walked. He use to take me along to shul sometimes, and I remember hiding behind him when there were other people around.

We had a cat that I played with that was supposedly born the same day I was.


We had an orchard and a vegetable garden, and a cow and a horse. There were a man who did the farming and took care of the animals and a woman caretaker named Helen, whom I was with a lot.

I used to visit my Aunt Malka and Uncle Moishe (Kolodny), and I'll never forget her potato latkes, as they were the best I have ever eaten. My cousins took time to play with me and take me places. I have no memory at all of my grandmother Sarah. I was probably too young when she died.

I remember starting kindergarten, and my youngest cousin, Meyer (Kolodny) let me erase the blackboard in his class. He was a teenager at the time.

 Chana seated next to kindergarten teacher.

My Aunt Malka always wore a sheitel (wig) or scarf on her head. I remember watching her sew on a sewing machine at her house. Once, she and her husband went to Warsaw to see a doctor, and they came back with a doll for me. It was my first doll. It was porcelain with moving eyes.

Helen would take me for hayrides in our wagon with her man friend. She used to talk to me in Russian, and my mother, grandfather and other relatives talked to me in Yiddish.


When she fed me things that she ate, I remember my mom telling me not to tell my grandfather that I ate Helen's food, as it was not kosher.

A teenage son of neighborhood friends of ours named Slutzker once took me to a barber to shave my head. My mother said I wouldn't let her wash my hair. He carried me on his shoulders.

On Fridays, we had a table full of yeshiva boys who came for dinner and discussed the Talmud and studied together with my grandfather. They called him Reb Eliezar. It was very noisy.

We had company quite often, relatives and friends who came to get advice from my grandfather or borrow money from him or to pick fruit from our orchard. My grandfather was very well liked and respected in the community, from what I was told.

We lived in a small house, but he owned a big house in the back, more like a big living room that was rented out for parties and weddings. There was a barn for a cow and a horse, plus two small apartments above that, which he rented out, a big orchard and vegetable gardens.

We lived near railroad tracks, and I was told that every time there was a war, the area was run over by the Russians, the Germans, and back to Poland. So the soldiers used our big house as a barracks while they were in the area.


Story of a foundling

I remember an incident of a baby boy being left at our doorsteps and how my mother and grandfather took care of him. One morning my mother opened the front door, thinking she had heard a cat mewing, and it was a baby boy in a basket that someone had left.


She called the doctor to examine him, and my grandfather had the mohel over for his circumcision. I remember the occasion as a lot of crying, noise and like a big party with a lot of men present.

The story was that this was the child of an unwed mother who had paid someone to put the child on the railroad tracks. Instead, this person knew about my grandfather's kindness and left him at our doorstep.

My grandfather did a lot of investigating and found out who the mother was and the father. Meanwhile, my mother took care of the little boy for about three months.

The baby's father was the son of a rabbi, but he wouldn't marry the mother. My grandfather persuaded the mother to take the baby back and to go to America to start a new life with the baby. My grandfather and the congregation of which he was the gabbai (sexton) contributed money to help with the expense to do that.

When the boy was 5 years old, my mother received a picture of him with his mother.

My grandfather used to lift me up to kiss the mezuzah affixed on the door post at bedtime every night. He seemed very tall to me, but I imagine any adult seems tall to a little child.

When he died [in 1928, according to his epitaph], he was laid out on the floor with his yarmulke (skull cap) and black coat surrounded by large lit candles, and the neighbors looking in the windows were crying. I guess I was either 4 or 5 [6 or 7], just before we left for Cuba.

The Kolodnys inherited my grandfather's property, houses and gardens. We corresponded with them until 1937 or 1938 until they quit writing because my parents couldn't help them with money, and they needed that.

My parents


My father, Abraham Levik, had met my mother, Dweira Mindla Kagan, in Kiev, Russia, right before the revolution. She was working in a Kiev bank as a bookkeeper, after having taught mathematics in a gymnasium (secondary school) in Poland. The reason she had left Poland was her dislike of teaching. She was hoping to find a different kind of job in Russia.

She lived with an aunt and uncle in Kiev.

My father used to have dealings with this bank through which he bought and warehoused his drugs. He was a pharmacist and a feldsher (a doctor's helper). He was 13 years older than my mother.

He had fought in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, which was won by the Japanese. Very few men survived in my father's company. My father had been a great swimmer, for which he received a medal from the czar's wife.

My father studied pharmacology and became a pharmacist. He also had a degree as a masseur. His sister, Rebecca, was a nurse. His brother, Isaac, was an engineer.

Their father, Leib Levik, was taken into the Russian army at the age of 12 and was in it for 25 years. They taught him to be a tailor, which he continued to do at his own shop after leaving the military. My father's mother, Chana, was killed when a brick was thrown at her by a Cossack during a pogrom.

After the revolution, when the banks were closed or appropriated by the people (communists), my father's pharmacy was taken away. He was given a job at a hospital where he assisted in taking care of patients. He worked there until he left for Cuba, in 1928. He was paid with food, like sugar or tea, or sacks of flour that he used to take to his parents' house, where his stepmother baked bread. They shared it with all in the family.

One time, my mother told me, she went to pick up some bread and had a long walk home from there. She was very hungry, so she thought she would take just a little piece and eat it while walking. By the time she got home, she had no bread left and was very upset and cried for a long time.

I guess my parents were married around 1917 or 1918. It was a time of bloodshed, hunger and typhoid epidemics. Their first children, according to my mother's story, were twin girls. They were delivered on a mat on the floor of a hospital that was full of patients from a typhoid epidemic. There was no food and not enough medications. The twins died.

So, a few years later, when she become pregnant with me, she decided to travel to Pinsk, Poland, to be with her parents for the birth. She got on a train and traveled for 12 days from Kiev to Pinsk. The passengers had to get out periodically to chop and gather wood to be used as fuel to make the train go.

When they arrived in Pinsk, everyone on the train was arrested on suspicion of being communists as they had come from revolutionary Russia. With some difficulty, my grandfather got my mother out of jail. Eventually, when I was born, they waited a while to get me a birth certificate.

When my mother wanted to return to Russia after I was born, Russia would not let her into the country. And then, my father wanted to come to Poland, but they would not let him into Poland. So, my parents had to find a different country to go to.

First, they tried Palestine, but England would not give them an entry permit. My mother had a cousin  in Havana, Cuba, and they applied for a visa. That's why they went to Cuba, because they were let in. This ordeal took five years to happen, and we all met in Cuba when I was 5 [6 or 7] years old.

Early life without father

When I was a young child, I don't remember my mother ever talking about my father, but she showed me a photo of him before we left Poland.

I don't recall having missed a father during the first five years of my life, as I had my grandfather, mother, my Aunt Malka and Uncle Moishe Kolodny who had four children older than myself, and they all took care of me. I only knew my father through the picture my mother showed me.

On our way to Cuba, my mother and I traveled to Paris, France, probably on a train. I don't remember really how we got there. I do remember taking a walk near a river and being in a hotel, and then being on the ship.

The ship voyage was uneventful except for one incident. There was a line to get vaccinated. When I saw what was going on, I ran away from my mother and hid downstairs among the luggage in the cargo area. After a frantic search, a sailor found me and brought me back to my mother on his shoulders to everyone's delight into my mother's arms and to get my vaccination. It seemed like everyone wanted to carry me on their shoulders.

Family reunion in Havana

I really don't remember our arrival in Havana, Cuba, but we got there before my father. I remember going to a pier to wait for him with his picture on hand.

My father later told me of his ship voyage to Cuba. Most of the people on the ship were hungry, and the majority became very sick due to the turbulent weather and couldn't eat.

But he was just fine and he ate everyone's leftovers and gained quite a bit of weight. The first banana that he was given he tried to eat peel and all, as he had never seen a banana before.


I don't remember exactly how I felt when I first met my father, but I resented him being there, as I had to share my mother with him after five years of having her all to myself.

He was very outspoken, and my mother used to say that if he had stayed in Russia under Stalin for another year, he might have been a "head shorter" or sent to Siberia for life.

My father used to say the Jewish communists were communists with a little store in their hearts (i.e. wishing to own something of their own).

He was very strict about putting things back into the same place they were taken from. He would make a big stink about it in a very loud voice yelling at me or my mother.

We settled in a room in the old section of Havana. My parents started looking for work and enrolled me in a neighborhood kindergarten. About 1st grade, they tried the Jewish school, but my mother said I didn't like it. It was very crowded, and I felt lost there, so they put me back in a family-run, private neighborhood school. There were many of them everywhere, usually in a private home.

In 1929, I remember when Uncle Sam (Cohen), my mother's younger brother, came to visit us from St. Louis. We went with him in a taxi to visit different places on the island. We ran into a big rainstorm, and the taxi got stuck in a ditch. We had to stay in a grocery store to wait till the rain stopped so the taxi could be fixed. That was the only time I remember being in a car while we lived in Cuba. Also, I don't remember ever using a telephone while we lived in Cuba.

At that time, Uncle Sam gave my father money to start a laboratory to produce perfumes and cosmetics. He made liquid rouge, hair tints, and a hair-restorer called Quina Quina Lim, made of lemon extract and quinine. I used to help mix and filter solutions.


Dweire, Chana and Abraham.

My father had a lot of trouble with inspectors and permits for the products. Through my uncle, he sold some of this merchandise to U.S. barbershops, but he lost it all when the big crash came in 1929, and he never got paid for it.

After losing the lab, we did a lot of moving as my parents had all kinds of jobs and could barely earn a living.

At one time, they owned a stand with notions in a market that our friends the Bicks had lent them the money to start. But business was bad, and my parents were robbed by passersby all the time.

My parents worked in some offices, and they collected dues for organizations that people belonged to. They had to do a lot of walking and they would earn something like 10 cents for every dollar that they collected for the organizations.

Moving around                                                                                           


For a while, we lived in the outskirts of Havana, like in the country, where there were lizards on the trees and goats roamed around that came on our porch and messed it up all the time. I remember tasting the goats' milk, which was sweet.

Then, we moved back into Havana into a room in a solar, a place where every family had a room and everyone shared a communal coal stove and bathroom, where we had to stand in line to use them.


They had shower stalls, and we put a pot under the beds to use at nighttime, and then emptied it in the morning.

We shared big basins where we washed our clothes and hung it on lines. We used newspapers to sit on the toilets (and also to wipe ourselves).

We always lived in a multiracial environment in those rooming houses.

Pets and radios were not allowed on the premises. Imagine how it would have been with 20 or 30 radios playing at the same time.

All the buildings where we lived had flat roofs surrounded by fences or barriers. On the roofs, we hung our wash on lines; the children played there and took pictures there. We also set up tables on the roofs for eating on various occasions.

We moved from place to place quite often because my parents couldn't pay the rent and we were evicted.

Among the streets that we lived on were Monte and Reina, in buildings across from big markets.

Those were very unhappy times for me as I remember my parents constantly arguing, and many times I cried myself to sleep. I remember instinctively praying to God that I should grow up soon and be able to help my parents in some way to be able to buy food and clothes and pay rent so they wouldn't be so mad at each other.

(After reading the book "Shtetl," I realize how lucky we were that, due to circumstances, we wound up in Cuba. Our lives were spared. We were "survivors" of the war and Holocaust. Thank God.)

When I was about 8 years old, my mother started teaching me to write and read Yiddish after school and made me write letters to my aunts and uncles in the U.S.A.

They probably enjoyed getting those letters, as they would answer with some money included. That really helped a lot as it paid for the rent once in a while or for a new pair of shoes and a better meal sometimes.

I bit my fingernails, and my mother used all kinds of ideas to break me of the habit, including smearing bitter substances on my fingers. My mother decided to take me to a piano teacher to keep my hands busy. For a year I took lessons, but we didn't have a piano, so I couldn't practice anyway. And the teacher used to take me to church with her and put a cover on my head made of a handkerchief and teach me to pray the Christian way. I knew it was wrong for her to do that, but I never told my parents, as I didn't want to upset them. But I was glad when they stopped giving me the lessons, because they couldn't afford them anyway.


I did stop biting my nails when my parents gave me a manicure set. After receiving the set, I couldn't wait till I had longer nails so I could fix them and polish them.

By the time I was 7 years old, my mother had a baby girl (Sarita). It was a very traumatic pregnancy and very hard delivery with forceps. The baby had a head injury and died at 3 months old.

While my mother was in the hospital, I stayed with the Weinsteins, who owned a Jewish restaurant. Their daughter, Sarita, was 11 years old and she took good care of me for 10 days, until my mother came home from the hospital. I remember helping out in the restaurant, filling the sugar, salt and pepper containers, cutting bread and serving water to customers. They lived in the back of the restaurant in two rooms, and Mrs. Weinstein, her daughter and I all slept in one big bed. During my stay with them, I enjoyed all the food that was available to me.

Thinking back about how and where we lived in Cuba, my parents probably were embarrassed about not being able to earn a living and didn't want the Jewish people to know how bad off we were. They used to say they could be good Jews without living among them. None of our neighbors were Jewish, but we had Jewish friends.

I remember one time when my parents were evicted from our room and they didn't have any cash to get a room elsewhere. A family whose last name was Levy let us move into their home. The room was smaller than the rooms we used to rent, but my parents managed to squeeze in our furniture.

The Levys had a son who was bigger than me in size but younger. He was a little devil. He teased me a lot and made a lot of noise when I tried to do my homework. I kept our door locked at all times, so he would bang on it. One time he poured water over the transom. We didn't live there very long.

It was very sad what happened to that family. The husband had a mistress, and when his wife had a baby girl that was born while she was sitting on the toilet, she became psychotic and was put in a mental institution.

I heard other people who knew them say that the mistress practiced voodoo and put a hex on the wife. The children were raised by the mistress, and the little girl contracted syphilis. I don't know the end of their story. Some said the children did make it to the U.S.

In Cuba, I didn't have any Jewish religious instruction. My parents when to Rosh Hashanah services at the Israelite Center, where they bought tickets to get in, but they never took me along, that I can remember.

The Catholic Christians in Cuba were very active in seeking converts, trying to save the souls of people with different religions, as they had done with the Indians throughout the Americas.

Living through a revolution

In 1933, there was a big revolution in Cuba. The people and political activists overthrew the corrupt Machado government. I remember there was shooting on and off for a week and scarcity of food and water, and how I hid under the bed. Whenever I heard the shooting, I would run and hide under the bed.

Batista, an army colonel, took over then, and everyone who was a Machado sympathizer was arrested or killed. The military went from door to door, and anyone with a Machado picture or who was known as a Machado supporter was shot on the spot or attached to the back of a truck and dragged through the streets of the cities.

It seemed like every four years, when the elections were near, there was a revolution. The people argued, shot and knifed each other for their political affiliations.

During the 1933 revolution, our friends the Bick family came to stay in our room because the shootings were much worse in their neighborhood. They brought food, a whole chicken and fruit and potatoes, so we ate very well for a week. They had a dry goods stand at the market.

We also were very friendly with the Golditch family. They had two sons, and the younger one, Pedro, was 4 years younger than me. I took him to school and watched him for his parents when they went out. They had an import-export fruit business. They would either sell to us or give us bruised fruit that couldn't be sold.

(They changed their name to Gold when they came to the U.S.A. and moved to Philadelphia. The older son, Abe, was a prizefighter in Cuba and they all worked in packinghouses as butchers.)

Eventually, I was put in a public school in 5th grade. The genders were separate, and we wore uniforms. It was right across from our rooming house at the time.

We had very good neighbors. They were good-hearted people who watched over each other. If they had extra food, they shared it. I remember them feeding me and taking me to concerts in the parks, for walks and to the movies. It cost 5 or 10 centavos to get into the movies, where we ate cut up watermelon chunks that they brought along in a jar.

My mother and father were away during the day, and I was alone most of the time. Looking back, I think I grew up in a semi-primitive way due to the poverty.

I liked being in an all-girls class in 5th grade at a public school. The teachers were pleasant and good; teaching was a very respected profession. I learned to crochet and write poetry. I made sweaters, a hat and borders on handkerchiefs.

We went on a lot of patriotic parades and learned how to march properly and wore uniforms: white blouses, blue skirts and black shoes. On Fridays, we sang the Cuban national anthem, saluted the flag and read our poetry in front of an assemblage of the students, and we were applauded.

While growing up in Cuba, I was given cod liver oil as a food supplement and intravenous shots of calcium. I used to have colds and bronchitis as my father was a heavy smoker and our room was always full of smoke.

After the 6th grade, we went to junior high. It was very crowded and very busy, many subjects and many different teacher for each subject. It wasn't easy for me. I had to struggle a lot to do well, especially the math.

I seemed to have many friends among the children who lived in the different solares where we lived. One, Carnita Calvo, was very close to me. Her parents quite often fed me vegetable soup, and her father taught us to dance.

I also had Jewish friends, children of my parents' friends, Luisa, Pedro, Ira, and Abraham. They lived near our neighborhood.

One bad experience I had with a neighbor occurred when I lent a love story novel I was reading to their daughter about my age. The neighbor girl was around 12 years old. (Her mother was Chinese and father, Spanish white). They bawled me out to never do that again and told her not to play with me.

My parents never questioned what I was reading, as long as I was reading. So this incident really made me very unhappy, and I cried hysterically a lot that day. I don't think my parents found out about this as they were not around much during the day.

I came to the conclusion that it's not good to leave little children to fend for themselves as much as I was left on my own. I was very lucky that no harm came to me, but I heard of others who were harmed. (When this neighbor girl got older, she ran away with a much older man, who had a stand where he manufactured straw hats.)

I remember playing school a lot and always wanted to be the teacher, and dressing up in my mother's clothes. We played games, checkers and dominoes. Because I wanted to be a teacher, we had pencils, paper and books.

I don't ever remember going to a grocery store in Cuba. We did go to open markets and bought fruit from stalls. We also bought quarter-chickens to make soup and divide up three ways. We had tea, bread and coffee, and milk sometimes. We ate very cheap herring, potatoes and rice and beans. We also had liver, heart, kidney and tongue stews. I guess my mother got those at a butcher shop. Once in a while we had eggs.

When we had to move and couldn't cook, we went to a Chinese restaurant, but not very often. I remember having soup with a lot of bread in it to fill up our stomachs.

My father said he could live on tea and bread if he had to.

In Havana, there were many pushcarts on the sidewalks with different fruits and juices. We bought oranges, bananas and pineapples for very reasonable prices. And on some corners, many unemployed educated people sold neckties. They earned a living wage because people who went to concerts in the parks had to wear neckties because police would not allow them to sit down unless they were wearing one.

Many poor people slept on houses' stoops or in doorways, covered with newspapers, and looked for food in the garbage cans. Some of the children couldn't go to school because they didn't have the money for shoes and paper and pencils. The poor people also begged or tried to steal from shops. I guess that's why policemen were seen everywhere, at least one on each block, but they couldn't do much to prevent the robberies.

My father used to take me to free symphony concerts in the parks. The schools took all the students to opera performances. The performers were often from other countries, and I loved going to these.

On to junior high and high school

In junior high school, the classes were coeducational and very crowded. Many times we had to sit two to a bench desk. The girls wore blue dresses with long sleeves and white collars and black stockings and shoes. It was very uncomfortable because of the hot weather most of the time.

We carried a big load of subject matter and had a variety of teachers who came around to each class and never really got to know any of the students. The teachers only knew how we were doing by testing us. It was a very nerve-racking year.

Once during those years, my mother fainted in the street. The doctor told us she was anemic, and I had to go to the butcher every day to buy a slice of liver, steam it and squeeze it out and give her the bloody liquid to cure her anemia. I think I did that for about a month.

After junior high, my parents had to choose a high school for me. There were mostly private ones, and they didn't have money for tuition. But they found out that the public technical high school, Escuela Superior de Artes y Officios, would accept me for free if I passed their entrance test.

So they hired a tutor, Mr. Thomas, to get me ready for the test. I know my parents could hardly afford it. It cost $5 a session. He did a very good job, and I passed the test.

In a class of 75 students, we were five girls, and two of us were white. I was the only one of foreign birth and Jewish. Despite being a minority of one, I had no problems with my classmates or teachers. They all tried to help me if I had any problems.

It was a great educational institution. The teachers really cared about each and every one of us and tried very hard to help each student become proficient in whatever trade or art they chose to study.  While there, I had my adenoids out in a hospital, and many of them came to see me and brought flowers.

Several of the boys helped me carry my books on the way home, as it was a very long walk and the books were heavy.

I got to know my friend Helen Lieberman (Parness) then, because she worked for her brother in a store ("Joe's") that I passed every day on my way home. If she was outside on the sidewalk, we used to chat for a while.

In high school, I majored in chemistry and was trained to do qualitative and quantitative analysis of products. We started class at 7 a.m., and at 11 a.m. we went home to eat and came back at noon or 1 p.m. for a four-hour laboratory training session. Twice a week we had physical education at 4 or 5 p.m. and did calisthenics and played volleyball.

While in high school, the doctor wanted me to wear a cast on my back to straighten it. But I would have missed six months of classes, so I declined. I wanted to graduate with my class and try to find work.

In 1939, when I was a high school student, I was not aware of the terrible things going on in Europe. I guess we didn't read the newspapers at the time.

I joined a Jewish group at the Zionist organization, where I became acquainted with other Jewish young people or reacquainted with former neighbors, Luisa Bick (Grabosky), Pedro Golditch, Esther Roizen (Bogdanoff), and Jacinto Raigorowsky.

When I graduated in 1940 with a certificate of "Industrial Chemist," I couldn't get a job or a scholarship to the university because I was a foreigner.

In school, we used to go on parades on patriotic holidays and we were trained to yell "Cuba for the Cubans." That's why they [the native Cubans] got all the available jobs. I sure didn't know what this would do to me as a foreigner, as I did that yelling too.

There was no anti-Semitism that I knew of, but foreigners had a hard time finding jobs, because the Cuban natives were hired first.

One of my classmates, Roxana Yanes, and I went to a sugar plantation in the remote area of Cienfuegos, Camaguey, to learn how to assess cane juice to figure out how much sugar it would make. To get there, we took a train, and my parents were very nervous and worried for me.

Her brother was in the military and we stayed at his family's house. It was very interesting, educational and fun. We traveled everywhere on horseback.

Some of our graduates got to work in the plantation's laboratories, and some went to the university and studied engineering. A classmate told me about a children's hospital where they trained lab technicians in their laboratories if we worked there for free. So I applied and was accepted and worked there for a year.

A year later, Uncle Sam (Cohen) and Aunt Mildred wrote to my parents that they wanted to sponsor me and bring me to the U.S.A.

When I first heard about my future trip to the U.S., I was at the sugar plantation in Camaguey, so I guess my parents were working on it for a while without me knowing it. I really didn't know about the correspondence between my parents and my aunt and uncle. So it was a surprise when I was told I was flying to America. To me it happened like overnight.


The last year I spent in Cuba, we had a Mrs. Finer staying with us in Havana. She was a German refugee whom my parents took off a boat that arrived in 1941. She was the mother of my cousin Leslie Cohen's violin teacher in St. Louis. She was very old looking; we have a picture of her. I learned quite a bit of German from her, as that was all she could talk.

My parents rented a second room next to our room, and I had my bed moved into there with her. She came to the U.S. about five months after I did. She died about two years after arriving in the U.S. She had a son and a daughter, and her husband had been her uncle, she told me. Neither of her children ever got married.

Departure from Cuba


Several years before Aunt Mildred died, I asked her what gave them the idea to bring me to St. Louis. She told me that Uncle Sam was a spendthrift and didn't really have much money, but as she was thrifty and had her own savings account, she decided to bring me.

She told me that their friends, the Moshanskys, had a hand in it. The Moshanskys were from Cuba and knew us and kept after them because they knew how bad off we were and there was no future for me in Cuba. The Moshanskys told Uncle Sam of our predicament, the hard situation of not being able to find work and how bad it was for us and that I was a smart girl.

I received my U.S. visa easily because I was considered stateless. The Polish government didn't consider me Polish because my father was Russian, and I couldn't be considered Russian because I wasn't born in Russia. As a result, I could get a visa because I wasn't included in a quota.

My friend Helen Lieberman left for the U.S.A. on a ship on Dec. 7, 1941. I went to the farewell party at the pier. The ship left in the evening, just as there was an announcement over the intercom that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the last ship to leave the island, because, from then on, everyone feared the oceans would be mined by the Japanese. Thereafter, everyone had to go by air, as it was considered safer. At the time, I didn't know that six months later I would be leaving Cuba for the U.S. too.

I corresponded with Helen, who lived in Miami. So when I got my visa, she offered to pick me up at the airport. I left on July 22, 1942. It was a 45-minute flight.

Helen, who had a job in a photo-processing place in Miami, waited for me for five hours. I was seen by a doctor, my belongings were checked and I was questioned at length. Immigration wanted to make sure I was healthy and wasn't a communist or a prostitute and that I had $500 to show that I wouldn't be a burden to the U.S. government. Uncle Sam had sent me this money.

I stayed for a few days with Helen and her mother before taking a train to St. Louis. To make sure the money was safe with me, Helen's stepfather took me to a bank to have it made into a certified check at a bank. It was made non-transferable in case it was lost or stolen, so my Uncle Sam could get his money back.

The train was very crowded with soldiers, and I made it to St. Louis on a rainy, gloomy day. Everything looked so drab and odd to me. I had never seen brown brick buildings like those in St. Louis. The ones in Cuba and also in Miami were all painted different colors.

Aunt Mildred and Uncle Sam took very good care of me. I got along well with my cousin Leslie, age 7 or 8, at the time. He showed me how to play Monopoly and I began to catch on to English.
My Aunt Ray (Friend) in New York had wanted me to come there to live with her, but Aunt Mildred and Uncle Sam thought that I would get lost in such a big place and that it would be better for me to stay in St. Louis under their care. I think they were right.

I enrolled in night school at Soldan High School to study English and prepare for citizenship.

Aunt Mildred started talking to people about my need for a job, including a secretary to a doctor, the Gradwahl School of Technicians, and then went to Jewish Hospital and talked to Dr. Somogyi and Dr. Gray. She asked them to let me work for free for a while until I got the hang of it and learned the language. They tried me out and three weeks into it they hired me.

Aunt Mildred worked very hard on my behalf. She said she couldn't afford to pay for the technician school that she thought I should attend before going to work.

I lived the first year in St. Louis with the Cohens. They gave me room and board and clothes. Aunt Mildred showed me how to fix my eyebrows so they wouldn't look "like Groucho Marx" and how to get to the hospital where I worked. She sewed dresses for me and helped me immensely.

She taught me how to save my salary for the purpose of accumulating enough to bring my parents over, which I did in a year. And she helped me find an apartment at 5500 Cabanne Ave. and furniture.

At Jewish Hospital, they paid me $75 a month. I thought they said it would be $35, and when I got my first check, I was the happiest person alive. They also provided a meal ticket to get free lunch.
I worked in the urine lab and later in chemistry.

During the year I spent with Aunt Mildred and Uncle Sam when I was earning a salary, I should have sent my parents $10 a month to help them out, but I didn't know how to go about doing it. I was very immature and naive in my social thoughts.

Another family reunion

When my parents came to St. Louis in 1943, I was able to support them until my father found a job as a shipping clerk and mother learned to be a fur finisher and worked for Mr. Jacobs, a friend of Uncle Sam.

In 1945, I visited New York and stayed with Aunt Ray and Uncle Herman in the Bronx and met most of my cousins there. Aunt Ray took me all over to meet her friends who had sons to introduce me to them.

I also saw an old friend (Slutzker), the one who took me to the barber in Pinsk to get the haircut. He had also come to Cuba with his mother, Miriam, and two sisters. They were good friends of my mother's.

He took me out to Radio City Music Hall and to dinner and gave me a frame for a picture of me on a silk handkerchief. Paul Gold (Pedro Golditch) had the picture made by a Japanese artist from a picture Paul had in Okinawa when he was there in World War II.

Slutzker was a watch repairer in New York and he had just been divorced. But that visit was the only contact I had with him, and he was much older than I anyway. I don't even remember his first name. We have pictures of his family as they corresponded with my family.

I also visited New York one other time and went with Aunt Belle (Cohen) and her children and grandchildren to the Catskill Mountains. We stayed in a resort for one week. I remember sleeping in a room with Aunt Belle, taking walks, attending a show and eating in some restaurants. We drove there over a tall bridge.

A death in the family

I'll never forget Dec. 1, 1944. That's when my cousin Shirley Cohen died in the operating room of Jewish Hospital. She was 18 years old. I was told that she had purpura, a bleeding condition, and that she needed a splenectomy. We were told that the operation went well, and as I was taking the elevator back to work to the lab, an intern, Dr. Cassel, asked me if I thought the family would let them do an autopsy.

You can only imagine what a shock it was to hear that she had died. She went into shock after she was given a blood transfusion. Was it the wrong type of blood? I will never know.

I wanted to quit at the hospital, but Aunt Mildred prevented me from doing so.

Making friends in America

In St. Louis, I kept on going to night school at Soldan High School until 1947, when I passed the exam for U.S. citizenship. After becoming a citizen, I went to Washington University night school for two years, taking Practical English Speech and Grammar.

At Washington University, I met my friend Rita Cohen, who was studying Spanish, and we both belonged to a Spanish club there. Another member of the club, a man named Flaherty, was studying at Concordia Seminary. He became very friendly and wanted to teach me to play tennis and to take me out. But I had negative feelings about it as he was Christian and studying for the ministry.

At Soldan, I met quite a few foreign people who came from France, Russia and Poland. I was taken out on dates by one young man who had been a Russian soldier and by one from France, a chemist, and a dentist from Poland. The dentist and I used to go for walks in Forest Park, to the Muny Opera, and to the JCCA for dances.

But mostly I wanted to meet an American-born Jewish man.

When I first came to work at Jewish Hospital, the laboratory was located on the 3rd floor next to the interns' quarters. We worked eight hours a day, five days a week, but we were asked to volunteer for evenings or very early mornings due to the war. We went to City Hospital to draw blood from the draftees. They told us it was for practice.

In 1945, Dr. Gray brought in a black person (Bessie Henderson) to be trained as a technician. Back then, black people were segregated from whites in the dining room. Bessie had been working for Dr. Gray in his home, and he thought it would be a good idea. She worked for Jewish Hospital for 37 years. In 1997, she was 81 years old.

During the seven years that I worked in the lab at Jewish Hospital before I got married, I felt useful and productive and had fun at the same time. We had picnics and celebrations during the holidays. And everyone there was very friendly.

Before I got married, I belonged to Council House, a Jewish women's organization, and made many girlfriends there: Dorothy, Carlie, Elsa, Rita, Sylvia, Doris. We went to the Muny or theaters, and Forest Park. We went to Friday night services at Jefferson Barracks and served as hostesses for the servicemen during World War II.

Meeting my husband


I met Morris in 1947 or 1948 at a dance at the JCCA. He was dating Dorothy Kellner (Brasch) at the time, and she introduced me to him, and the rest is history, as they say.

He started taking me out, and I fell in love with him and vice versa. He took me to meet his parents, and I guess they approved of me, as he had told me that they disapproved of other girlfriends he had brought home before me.

We went to the Muny Opera and dances at the "J" and on rides on the Admiral boat that traveled the Mississippi from downtown to the south side. It was a four-hour ride, and the whole family went and brought along a picnic lunch.

He was a very nice, sweet person who always tried to please everyone in the family. He was a hard working person at whatever he was doing. At the time we married, he worked for his parents in their dry goods store.

We were engaged in 1948 and got married on Jan. 9, 1949, at the Gatesworth Hotel on Union Avenue. (I still have my wedding dress, and the red bridesmaid's dress that I wore for my friend Rita's wedding.)

Our wedding party was great. We had an orchestra, the Rader band, for dancing. The ceremony was performed by Rabbi Halperin of B'nai Amoona Congregation. All of my aunts and uncles came from New York.

Only Aunt Mildred wasn't there. She had had a spat with Uncle Sam because she wanted to drive in the bad snowy weather and he insisted on driving, so she went back into their house and didn't come to our wedding. A friend of her's, a Mrs. Frager, helped with the serving, so I gave her Aunt Mildred's corsage to wear.

Morris's sister, Lucille, and her husband, Bill Alexander, were in the wedding party; also my cousin Leslie Cohen. Victor Weisskopf was the ring bearer at 5 years old. He was Morris's cousin from his father's side.

My friend Rita Cohen sang at the wedding. She was pregnant with her son Michael at the time. Many of my other girlfriends were there, and many of the hospital interns and my bosses and co-workers, also.

It was a nice crowd. I had saved up enough money to pay for the party ($250) and I felt so proud to be able to do that. The orchestra, recommended by Rita's mother, cost $25.

Dr. Probstein, a surgeon at the hospital, lived at the hotel. He happened to come into the elevator as I was going to the wedding party and he invited himself and his wife to the wedding.

We went to New Orleans on a train for our honeymoon. It was rainy and foggy most of the time. We took in some of the shows and a wrestling match---a first for me.

Morris's parents gave us the house at 4827 Nebraska Ave., where we lived until September of 1959. The house had three rooms downstairs (where we lived) and three upstairs for rent. The location was perfect for Morris to go to work for his parents at their dry goods store at 7209 S. Broadway. We visited my parents on Sundays at 5500 Cabanne Ave.



When I got pregnant, I quit my job at the hospital and stayed home. Dr. Gray and Dr. Somogyi wanted me to just take a leave of absence and come back, but I wanted to be home and take care of my child. I didn't feel I could trust strangers to take care of a child of mine.

Marty was born on Nov. 17, 1949, and I had a load of fun taking care of him, reading to him, taking him to the park and cooking.

As parents, Morris and I loved our sons, Martin and David, dearly. Both of us were amazed about how early they learned to walk and talk. We always read to them and took them to the art museum on Saturdays, to the circus, and we gave and went to many birthday parties.

We always took the children everywhere as we didn't trust strangers to take care of them.
Eventually the people who were renting the upstairs apartment left, so we rented it to my parents. By then my father wasn't well and I took care of him while my mother went to work downtown.

Two years after Marty was born, I had David on Nov. 4, 1951. We took many pictures and gave birthday parties and all the children from our friends and relatives came. It was loads of fun.

When they were old enough to start school, they went to Mt. Pleasant School in the neighborhood and had friends among the neighborhood children. They also attended B'nai El Temple's Sunday school under their grandfather Henry Fischer's membership.

My father was ailing quite a bit and going to the hospital, then home care and eventually to a nursing home, back and forth till 1957 when he passed away. While he was in home care, I did most of the helping with it since 1951 when I was pregnant with David.

Also at that time, my mother fell on the ice and broke her ankle and needed care, but thank God she recovered very well.

My mother-in-law, Martha Fischer, died in 1954, and my father-in-law died in 1956 after they had rented out the store and gave us a car.

Morris worked in a paper route for a time in the near south side, also in some shoe stores and as a cab driver. We sold the house on Nebraska in 1959 and moved to 6516 Oakland Ave. in September 1959.

After that, Morris became ill and went to several doctors and none of them discovered his problem until it was too late. He had testicular cancer that spread to his stomach and eventually to his brain and he died in August 1961. The children were 10 and 12 years old.

Returning to work

When we learned how ill Morris was, Aunt Mildred suggested I should go back to work. She was very practical and shrewd.

I had been away from the lab for 12 years when I started back in January of 1961 with Dr. Blumenthal. He started training me in tissue work and histology. When Dr. Soule was looking for a tech in May of 1961 to help open an obstetrics gynecology research lab, Dr. Blumenthal recommended me. I was trained for cytology to begin with. I was trained by Dr. Agress to do hormone evaluation on vaginal smears, and we did research on senior citizens who were given hormone therapy. I was trained by Dr. Hutton on chromosome studies, which we did on young nurses who were on the "pill."


Chana working at Jewish Hospital.

We did electrophoresis patterns on the blood of pregnant women and also on rabbits, before, during and after pregnancy. I did some pap smear screenings and checked the blood (RH-) of pregnant women.

For two years, we did work for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals to try a shot-of-the-month contraceptive, but it was not approved because it caused mid-cycle bleeding.


As new projects came along, I would be trained for each of them either by going to classes or someone would come to the lab to train me. It was as if I was in school all the time. I worked for Dr. Burstein and Dr. Soule doing lab work for them for 18 years, until they decided to close up shop. It was getting harder to get grants for the research projects, so I went to work in histology for Dr. John Meyer in the hospital's main lab.


 I worked with tissue analysis until my retirement at age 65 [According to Barnes-Jewish Hospital employment records, she retired Aug. 31, 1990, when she would have been age 69.]. Then I started volunteering for the Jewish Hospital Auxiliary.


I liked working at the hospital a lot because it was very stimulating and I was earning a living wage.

I thank God for having been trained as a technician in Cuba and that I was able to take care of myself and the family. I think the Cuban education was excellent; they taught us to be orderly and obedient, to follow directions and to be very reliable on the job.

My mother [Dweira Levik] died in November 1970. I regret not having talked more with my mother in her last years. I should have made time to take her for walks and visit after work and on weekends. I gave my time mostly to my work and the children.





The following is a death notice, revised to correct a couple errors, that was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 11/9/2007 - 11/11/2007:


Fischer, Chana Anita (nee Levik), 86, died November 7, 2007, in St. Louis, MO. She was born in Pinsk, Poland, but grew up and was educated in Havana, Cuba. She immigrated to St. Louis in 1942. Before her marriage in January 1949, she worked for seven years as a Laboratory Technician at Jewish Hospital and resumed working there in 1961 until her retirement in 1990. After retiring she volunteered for about 15 years at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. She was preceded in death by her husband, Morris Sol Fischer; her parents, Abraham and Dweira Levik (nee Kagan). She is survived by two sons, Martin Fischer (Judith) and David Fischer (Jackie Smith) and two grandchildren, Rachel Kayla Fischer and Daniel Avram Fischer. Services: Funeral service Sunday, November 11th, 11 a.m. at Mt. Sinai Mausoleum, 8430 Gravois. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Cancer Society or B'nai El Congregation, 11411 N. Outer Forty Road, Frontenac, MO 63131. BERGER MEMORIAL SERVICE.



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