Married at seventeen: A story of life in Jewish Poland

By Roni Roseberg

My grandmother, Cecilia, was known by various names—Shesha, Tillie, Ma, and Grammy—attesting to her various roles in life.

She was born in Poland, undoubtedly at home, and probably in the same village where she bore my father. But, I’m getting ahead of the story there.

Life as a Jew in Poland: Pogroms and instability

Caricature of Russian army assailant in 1906 Białystok pogrom (Henryk Nowodworski, 1875- 1930)

Like most Jewish girls born in the late 1800s, her financial security depended on a viable, if not wealthy, match by the local matchmaker, not unlike the matchmaker character, Yenta, in Fiddler on the Roof.

Grammy’s family did not have a lot of money, and life in Poland was unstable due to the longstanding tradition of pogroms against the Jews.

She was seventeen when she was matched up with my grandfather David, who was a decade older. He was a labourer of some sort.

He was less educated than her and one could say she “married down”. She had had a few years of learning Russian and some other subjects.

Grammy told me she did not know David, and certainly did not want to marry him.

She may have known he had plans to emigrate to North America, which may have consoled her slightly. However, she told me she cried for three days when David was proposed to her.

She had no say in the decision to marry, and David’s family and hers did.

Grammy became pregnant with twins immediately, and the babies were born prematurely. Sadly, they died. She was barely through that when she then became pregnant with my father, who was one year old when they moved to Canada.

By age 19, she had married against her will, lost two babies, had a living child, and changed countries, not knowing a word of English.

Married life: Financial dependence

Grammy’s role was to cook, look after the home and the children.

Grammy was completely dependent on David and always busied herself at home, mostly in the kitchen.

She was bent on being a good balabusta — mistress of the house — cooking constantly, ironing bedsheets, caring for children, and serving her husband.

The greatest compliment she felt she could give me in later years was that I had the makings of a balabusta.

In Canada, she had two daughters, and several family members came from Europe to join them, enlarging the family. When my father was in primary school, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio (USA), where my parents later met.

Like many immigrants, my grandfather was not well-educated but was determined to make a new life. He learned rudimentary English selling produce at fruit stands.

Things couldn’t have been easy; they moved many times and lived in cold climates. My father attended 19 different schools, never there long enough to make friends.

Eventually, they moved to Los Angeles right after WWII. We joined them soon after that. My earliest memory of my grandfather working was at a tiny gas station in Los Angeles.

My grandmother never learned to drive, but rather, had a route that she doggedly walked, from the house to several nearby markets, and back.

The only deviation in her routine was to go to the doctor’s office. She never worked outside the house, never took a class, never had a hobby. I don’t remember her having friends, either.

Creating change: Through the generations

Grammy’s generation was not taught about sexual and reproductive health, meaning that at the age of 14, I knew more about women’s bodies than she did!

From early morning to late at night, Grammy laboured, usually in the kitchen. Her food, like that of so many Jewish grandmas, was memorable.

Something else I also remember was that she was normally not in the same room as my grandfather, and I never saw affection between them. I guess that is the legacy of an arranged marriage.

Something that shows just how sheltered her life was, was a conversation we had when I was fourteen.

We were both alone, and she surprised me by asking me if I had started my periods. I told her yes and she asked if she could ask me something.

My curiosity piqued, I said yes again. Awkwardly, in her accented English, she asked how babies were made!

Of course, she knew that sex led to pregnancy, but she didn’t understand the female cycle since those things (along with bad diseases, like cancer, referred to only as “C”) were not discussed.

I had a “You’ve come a long way, baby” moment! I was very happy to draw a diagram of female anatomy and proudly explained to my own progenitor what the female cycle consisted of.  She smiled because she finally understood.

Because my grandmother had been so dependent on my grandfather, when he died, she was lost.

Her younger sister, Dora, came from Canada to console my grandmother. They were sleeping in the same bed when Dora rolled out of the bed one morning, dead on the floor. Shortly afterwards, a neighbour also died.

The three shocks took an emotional toll on Grammy and she never recovered. She became paranoid, refusing to open any window — sure that death was going to make its way inside.

She did not speak for the last decade of her life. Yes, she was physically strong until she reached the age of 83, but she was no longer able to cope with reality.

Her survival was a testament to immigrant tenacity in the face of life’s demands. She was an innocent-eyed woman who went from a horse-and-buggy village life, to seeing a man on the moon sweeping changes in just one lifetime.

May her memory be a blessing.

Take action

750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday. Take action to end child marriage today.


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3 Replies to “Married at seventeen: A story of life in Jewish Poland”

  1. Roni Roseberg, ВІЧНАЯ ПАМ’ЯТЬ, Memory Eternal, ВІЧНАЯ ПАМ’ЯТЬ. I felt deeply for your grandmother as I read your tribute to her. How sad that she was never able to realize her own dreams and ambitions. How tragic that her life ended in fear and isolation. She would have been born in the same time period as my Mom. They each faced persecution and hardships in Eastern Europe before coming to Canada. But beyond that, my mother’s path was so different. She and my father met and fell in love. It was their choice to unite for life, and they did so with the blessings of both their families. Throughout life, they were equal partners, always supporting one another. My father was deeply scarred by the persecution he faced under Stalin, and it resulted in him often putting up a wall of protection around himself. Sometimes, he even closed his children out for a while – but never my mom. I am so sorry that your grandmother never found that kind of love from her husband, though I know she received it from you..

    Liked by 1 person

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