Sunday, June 23, 2013

Minnie Joshowitz Tolchin, in her own words

In the mid 1990s, I had an MSDOS-based program called (I think) Biography Maker.  I believe it was by the same company that made Family Tree Maker, and it would give prompts that would help you to write an autobiography.  My grandparents Lou & Minnie Tolchin were in town, and I used it to interview my grandmother.  Unfortunately we never got around to finishing, but it did get a really good feeling of her growing up during the Depression in McKeesport, PA.

Here is Minnie Joshowitz Tolchin's story, in her own words.
My Yiddish name is Mindel, and they called me Mindel or Minnie.  I was named after my father's mother.  I was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania on February 19, 1922.

Minnie Joshowitz as a baby with her parents Josef and Esther (nee Rutner) Joshowitz and brother Izzy, 1922
When I started school, I was only five years old, and the starting age was six.  But my father went to the principal and told him that I had to go to school because there were three younger children at home. I could not even speak English, only Yiddish, because that's what we spoke in the house.  But I learned fast.  It was located in McKeesport [Pennsylvania] on Walnut Street.  It was called Walnut Street School.  It was a big red brick building three floors high.  If I remember correctly, there were two buildings; one was the old one, and then they built the newer one.  The higher grades, of course, went to the newer one.  The school went from first to eighth grade.  It was a public school, and the name of the principal was Mr. Snyder, an elderly gentleman who we all liked.  My younger sisters and brother went to the same school.  Mollie was one year behind me, and the other two, Herbie and Ruthie were five years behind me.  We didn't play with them at recess, but we had to go home for lunch every day which was three blocks away.  Every once and a while we got a penny for candy.  School was easy for me, and I didn't have to struggle.  Another girl and I took first honors when I graduated eighth grade.  We took sewing in school, and we made our own dresses.  We wore them in the May Day dance, and we graduated in them.  My teacher in eighth grade was Miss Newhouse, and she sent me to an elecution teacher to teach me how to give my speech for graduation.
Minnie Joshowitz, aged 9, 1931
We had arithmetic, geography, spelling, English, and science.  My favorite was spelling.  We walked to school every day because we only lived three blocks away.  We never missed school because of the weather.  I won a twenty-five dollar savings bond for a writing contest.

We used to play games in the summer outside because it was hot in the house with no air conditioning.  We lived on the corner with a street light on the corner.  Everybody congregated on the corner under the street light.
Minnie Joshowitz (back row, far right) with friends in South Park, 1939 (I assume no connection to the TV show)
The banks closed because of the stock market crash.  My parents had some money in the bank.  They got most of it out before the crash, because they happened to know a man at the bank who told them to take their money out.  Still, they almost lost the house, but they got a government loan.  We had to be very careful with money because there wasn't a lot of money.  Beggars used to come around the neighborhood, and they asked for money, but they always got a cup of coffee and two slices of bread.  Things were real tough because of the Depression.  My brother Izzy went to work even before he graduated from high school in 1930.  We never had new clothes, entertainment, and only a little bit of chicken sometimes.  My mother made her own bread all the time. I used to babysit when I was in high school.  I got $.25 for a whole night.  When I graduated high school, I worked the whole day for $2.00 for a sale.  They took off $.10 for Social Security, and with $1.90, I was in seventh heaven--I was rich!  I only worked there for about four weeks.  When a man who had a business saw in the newspaper that I was graduating with high honors, he came to our house to hire me.  I started for $5.00 per week.  I walked at least three miles because I couldn't afford the car fare.  I packed my own lunch and went to work.
Minnie Joshowitz's Senior Photo, 1939
After about a month-and-a-half I got a raise to $7.00.  Then subsequent raises to $10.00, $15.00.  I gave my mother most of my money.  I kept a little to go to the movies.  My mother put the money in a bank account for me.  When I got married I had a little money saved.

We used to have a family coming from a nearby town who didn't have a shul (synagogue) nearby.  They would stay at a hotel.  They would come to our house to eat.  We never got gifts.  Sometimes, on Saturday nights, we would go downtown and buy a twenty-five cent box of candy and split it among four kids.  That was a real treat. 
Some of the Joshowitz Family, 1944.  Standing:  Minnie's brother Herbie and father Josef.  Sitting:  Minnie, unknown man, mother Esther
We always had dairy night on Thursday nights.  I can remember when we were kids we didn't have a refrigerator.  We had an icebox. The iceman would come around with ice and we would buy a block of ice and put it in the icebox and put a bucket underneath to catch the water.  If you forgot to empty that bucket, you'd have water all over the floor.

We always tried to eat together if my father came home from work on time.  When we came home, my mother had dinner ready.  We didn't have a radio at first.  We used to go the neighbor's to listen to listen to Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor.  Especially on Sunday night when Eddie Cantor would sing, "I'd like to spend an hour with you as friend to friend I'm sorry it's through.  Let's make a date for next Sunday night...."  I always had to iron clothes on Monday night and listen to the radio for the Lux Radio Theatre with Cecil B. DeMille.  He was a big radio producer.
Minnie Joshowitz, December 1942

 I had only one uncle in Pittsburgh, Uncle Adolf Rutner.  He and Tante came to our house every Sunday on the bus to visit, and that's all the family we had until our relatives came from Europe after the war.

We moved from a small house to a larger house about 1928 from 1027 Market Street to 326 Whigham Street.  In the new house, we lived on the first floor and rented out the second floor.  We still went to the same school.  We had friends on the street in our neighborhood. We didn't move that far away.  We used to go to our friends on Market Street a lot.  It was only three or four blocks away.
Joshowitz home, 326 Whigham Street, McKeesport, PA
When I was young, I used to wash the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, iron, and shop.  I used to walk a lot because we didn't have a car.  My father had a truck, and every Sunday we would pack up baskets of food, and put everyone who would fit on a truck, friends and neighbors and go to the farm.  There was a policeman who lived next door, and he would split the gas with my father.  About five miles out of McKeesport there was a farm owned by another Jewish family, the Weiss'.  We would play ball, and we'd roll in the grass up and down the hill and had lots of fun.

I didn't get an allowance.  We were lucky to have food on the table and clean clothes and a new pair of shoes once in a while.  I always wanted to be a secretary, and that's what I was.

My mother taught me how to knit, and I knitted a lot.  We lived outdoors.  There was a public swimming pool, and we used to go there.  Then, later on, there was a swimming pool at Olympia Park, and my mother bought a pass to go swimming.  We couldn't afford two passes, so one day I went swimming, and the next day my sister went swimming.  We looked so much alike, that we could switch passes.  When we were young girls we formed a club called the "Sunshine Club."  We went to each other's houses for meetings.  We ate a little bit there, and we would get together, pay dues, invite boys and have a party.
That's where the autobiographical part ends.  I'll have to make another entry to talk about her meeting my grandfather, raising two children, and enjoying her six grandchildren.  That entry will have to mention her volunteer work at McKeesport Hospital, knitting ability, Mah Jongg abilities, and so much more!

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