The Caplans — The Trip From Russia

Abe cannot testify to the truth of these stories—only that as he sat under the dining room table on Saturday nights he heard the Aunts and Uncles telling them.

The Caplan Family lived in a small village called Volochisk on the Zbruch River not far from the Black Sea in the Ukraine section of Russia. The town is noted for having a train station.  (For more information, please see ShtetlLinks, a website dedicated to the Ashkenazim Jewish villages of Eastern Europe).

The family consisted of Sarah and Morris Yitzchak Caplan and eight children—four boys and four girls. The boys were Aaron, Smilick (Sam), Labisch (Louis), and Velvel (Willie). The girls were Bruchie (Bertha), Rose, Bronsie and Ethel.

The Caplan family did some gardening and purchased produce from landowners in the area, traveling with it by horse and wagon to a nearby large town, probably Kiev, to sell it. The family was very enterprising, with the four husky boys helping on the wagons. There was a story that one night Louis was accosted on the road by highwaymen and he fought them off.

The river divided two towns which were in two different countries. Volochisk, in Russia, and, on the other side of the river, Podvolochisk, which was in Austria at that time. This was before World War I. In 1910 a marriage was arranged for Aaron, the eldest son, with Sarah Lederman from a town called Polska Barr. Sarah often referred to it as Polska Nabalia. Sarah’s family was very poor, but the men were Hebrew scholars, very religious, and this was considered to be a prestigious match. Sarah herself was educated, not common for a girl then. She could read and write Yiddish and spoke several languages. But Sarah never learned to read and write English.

Sarah left her family, as was tradition, and moved in with Aaron’s large family. They had a son, Sam. The family felt that they should try to emigrate to America, because under the Tzar times were bad for the Jews. They did not want their boys to have to fight for the Tzar. Aaron told the story that he pulled out all his teeth to make himself look older so he would not be taken.

It is also evidently true that the parents blinded Velvel (William) in one eye so that he would be ineligible for the draft.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his book “In My Father’s Court,” speaks of Poland during World War I. At that time Poland belonged to Russia. Singer says “Poland was full of malingerers with punctured eardrums, extracted teeth and amputated fingers. Why serve the Tzar?”

In 1910 Aaron left for America alone, leaving Sarah and Sam with his family until he was able to send for them. Aaron headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because he heard there was a lot of work in the steel mills. He worked a while in the mills, then, because of his knowledge of horses, opened a stable. For a time he was a delivery man for Reicks milk company with a horse and wagon. Finally, because of his knowledge of produce, he started a business in the produce yards, at that time called “The Yards.” In 1913 his brother Sam had followed Aaron to Pittsburgh, and they both worked in the Yards. Sam started by repacking distressed tomatoes. The Caplan brothers were industrious and hardworking, as they had always been. They eventually owned their own businesses. Sam had a building on 18th Street. Aaron, in addition to his store in the Yards, had a building on Bedford Avenue in the Hill district. He lost the building in the Depression, but it still stands and you can see “A Caplan” carved in stone on the front of the building, though it is now used as a church.

Meanwhile in Russia things were getting worse for the Jews as the Bolsheviks waged war against the Tzar. The story is that Louis was a Cossack, the Red Army’s First Cavalry Army. In order to become a Cossack, he had to pass the initiation, which was to carry his horse on his back. This was no problem for Louis because he was so strong. He was tough, and strong as a bull. His hands were as big as baseball gloves.

One time when he was on guard duty with the Cossacks, he fell asleep on duty.

He would place his bayonet with the tip against his cheek, so if he dozed off it would prick him and he would wake up. But while he was asleep another man came by and kicked the rifle out from under him. The bayonet made a deep cut in his cheek, leaving a permanent mean scar.

One time Uncle Louie carried a 300 pound ice box, not a lightweight refrigerator, but an old fashioned heavy ice box, up three flights of stairs on his back. He bent over, told Abe and his brother to tip it onto his back, and up he went.

Uncle Louie loved riding fast on his horse. In this country Louis always drove fast in his car. The family would tease him that he thought he was still riding his horse on the Russian steppes. He eventually died in a car crash.

Anti-Semitism was not approved by the Red Army, but deep-seated bigotry still remained — especially among the Cossacks. Louis may have kept his Jewishness quiet. The Cossacks were daring and cruel. They attacked and plundered townsfolk.

Jewish towns were caught between the two armies, Red and White, as first one army, then the other, robbed, raped and murdered.

(Cossack information is taken from the diary of Isaac Babel, pages taken from the Internet. Some of these pages appear elsewhere on the Under the Dining Room Table website.)

By 1920 it was apparent to the Caplans that they must leave. The money for the trip was probably sent by Aaron and Sam. There was a large group of the Mother, Father, the remaining two sons, four daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and grandchildren. It is possible that Louis escaped the Cossacks by stealing across the border to join them. The Mother’s family and a number of Luntzmen (friends of the family), came along with them. If you watch the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof,” you can virtually see the beginning of the pogroms and this large group of family and friends all leaving at once from their little village to America.

Pogrom is a Russian word. The definition is an organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews.

These came in 1920—all together:

Morris Yitzchak and Sarah Caplan

Louis, his wife Yetta, their daughter Rose (Engel)

Willie, his wife Rose and their daughters Minnie (Klein), 3 years old, and Hilda (Lipsman), almost one.

Bruchie, her husband Motel Silverman

Rose, her husband Joe Gerber

Bronsie, her husband Hyman Zeidenstein

Ethel (Kottler), Sarah (Aaron’s wife) and Sam, who was by now 7 years old.

The Mother’s two brothers, the Klebans, came with their families. They were her brother Serol Kleban, his wife Sepa, their sons Abe and Jack and two daughters who married two brothers named Schwartz.

Her brother Moisha Laib Cleban, his wife Rose, who was always called Mima Moisha Laib, their son Martin and their daughters, Dora (Greenbarg) and Sara (Spitzer). (The difference in spelling probably occurred at Ellis Island, where different clerks spelled names different ways.)

Some of the Klebans went to Chicago. A sister married a man named Spiller, and a brother was supposedly in the rackets in Chicago.

Some Luntzmen who came along were Serulik and Chaike (Claire) Josephson. These people remained lifelong friends in Pittsburgh, along with their children. More Luntzmen undoubtedly came along with them.

So this group of more than 30 people all left together. They brought with them everything they owned that they could manage, never to return to their country. There was a story that Sarah carried with her the glass blue egg with the wine glasses inside. The story was that this blue egg was given to her as a wedding gift from her in-laws and that she carried it carefully in her lap the entire trip.  An antique dealer told Betty Ruth and Abe Caplan that it is expensive Czech glass that was sold all over Europe and also sold in America.  The dates coincide, so that means the story is probably true.  It is still valued by her children as one of Sarah’s most important possessions.

The group traveled probably by horse and wagon, maybe to the train station, which ran in their town. From there they shipped out from Odessa on the Black Sea.

Willie and his family were unable to enter the United States because of immigration quotas, which allowed only a certain number of people from each country to enter. So Willie and his family went to Canada and entered the U.S. three years later by walking across a bridge. By then they had another daughter, Clara. Their story is on another page on this website.

The Caplans prospered in this country, enabling them and their families to live in comfort.

From the time the parents arrived in this country the sons supported them. Morris Yitzchak Caplan never worked another day in his life. He was always immaculately dressed, in black tails with striped pants and spats and a top hat. He carried a gold handled walking stick. He was a pillar of his synagogue. He donated a Torah to his synagogue, the Torach Chayim. His sons paid for the Torah. His wife remained a plain person, religious and hard working. The daughters’ husbands also prospered, and the daughters became active in charity, working at the Bichur Cholim Society, a home for the Jewish ill when Jews were not admitted into the city’s hospitals. They contributed and actively worked at this home for years. Ethel did the cooking at the Home. They also worked and supported financially the Gusky Home for Babies, which later became the Jewish Home for Babies. During the Depression many babies who were not actually orphaned were left at this home by parents who could not afford to feed them. In the next generation Betty Caplan was at one time President of the Jewish Home for Babies.

The Caplans were fortunate to be able to bring the large family circle with them.

Sarah’s family, the Lederman’s, remained behind, and after a few years of letters that Sarah received from her brother, Mayer, contact was lost. Unfortunately we do not have any of these letters. When Sarah would receive one, she just would say that things were bad. Sarah’s parents, her brother Mayer and his family presumably perished in the pogroms.

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