LIFE IN AMERICA BUILT ON 60-CENT
by Barbara Salsini
of the Journal Staff
Hoffman came to Milwaukee from Russia some 70 years ago, she and
her husband and sister had a total of 60 cents.
enough even for a cab, and the newcomers, who didn’t know
anything about Milwaukee, had to take a streetcar.
They found a
policeman who spoke German and got directions to 16th St., where
relatives lived. They spent 15 cents – 5 cents apiece – of their
precious hoard on the carfare. And they reached their
destination without any trouble, a happy omen for the years
life is a story, but not every story gets into the newspaper.
Hannah Hoffman is one of those strong immigrant women who came
to Milwaukee in the early 1900s and, through sacrifice and
struggle, educated her children and enriched the community. She
regrets not having a good education herself. Yet, at age 91, she
is educated beyond the realm of any diploma.
If you know
any “Everyday People” whose stories might appeal to Spectrum
readers, we’d like to hear about them.
91, represents so many immigrants of her generation, who came
here with nothing and built good lives for their families.
not true, of course. Hannah, like the others, came here with a
lot of things. They were intangible things, though, not
something you could pack in a trunk. Things like grit and energy
and courage. And the willingness to work hard and to sacrifice.
interviewed in the scrupulously neat apartment she shares with a
brother on the North-west Side. Also present was a niece,
Beatrice Kapper of Shorewood, who thinks the world of her Tante
Hannah. “She invented the word nurturing,” she said, adding that
when she was growing up, “I took it for granted that this is the
way families were. Everyone caring for each other.”
niece’s help, Hannah reconstructed her past.
English, Polish, Russian and Yiddish, and her voice still has
the accent of her homeland. She learned to speak English during
a year’s sojourn in England, where the family had gone to seek a
better life when she was 5. Then they moved back to Russia.
lived in what is now Dnepropetrovsk, a large city in southern
Russia, she said. She was the oldest child and had to work hard.
“I was a milk lady,” she said, “delivering milk from house to
house.” She also worked in her parents’ grocery store.
In Russia, she
attended a Jewish school. Her father was a musician and
occasionally there were free tickets to a concert.
Then, in 1907,
came violence against the Jews. Her family was saved from a mob
by military officers who had offices in their apartment
building. They knew the family because Hannah’s father belonged
to a string ensemble that played at their parties. The officers
hid the family in a closet.
they decided to come to America. Her parents chose Hannah and
her sister, as the two older children, to come first. So, at age
20, a bride of one month, she came to Milwaukee, where an aunt
had already immigrated. Her parents had insisted that she and
her fiance, Simon Hoffman, marry before they left Russia, she
years, the whole family came to Milwaukee. Like other
immigrants, the family sacrificed to bring other relatives here
and shared their few possessions with them when they arrived.
Many Russian Jews came to Milwaukee because it was a German
city; Yiddish and German are similar.
At first, they
lived with her aunt, then had an apartment at 5th and Walnut. On
the day her father arrived here, he found a job as a musician at
the old Alhambra Theater, she said.
also found work right away, at a soap factory for $8 a week.
Later they had a laundry and a shoe store, then a grocery store
at 26th and Center. She recalled getting up at 4 on Sunday
mornings and preparing 25 pounds of potato salad. She made
pickled herring, pickles and sauerkraut, she said, and people
who had moved out of the neighbourhood would come back to the
operated a rooming house at 28th and Brown. It had 11 units; the
Hoffmans lived in one and rented out the others as
light-house-keeping apartments. The tenants were satisfied, she
said. “They never moved to a different apartment except when
they moved out of town. When they moved in, they stayed.”
housekeeping standards were strict. “I used to get down with
furniture polish and polish by hand the floors,” she said.
“Every inch of the ground was flowers, lilies, rose bushes. It
was just like perfume.”
became lifelong friends. One calls her every day, she said. “If
she doesn’t get me in the morning, she calls me in the
afternoon. If she can’t get me in the afternoon, she calls me at
Mount Sinai Hospital.” She has many health problems, she added.
She sold the
rooming house 19 years ago, after 30 years in business. She
lived in Shorewood before moving to her present home. Her
husband died 22 years ago.
married 49 years and we never went separate for dinner, “ she
said. “When he had a meeting I went with him, and when I had a
meeting he went with me.”
suddenly, of a heart attack. On the day he died, he had taken
her out to lunch at a fine restaurant, she said. He had been in
poor health for a long time before his death.
“I worked hard
all my life,” she said. “And I gave my children a good
education.” Of all her achievements, Hannah is proudest of that.
There were five
children, but the only Hoffman daughter died when she was in her
teens. A son, Max, a local dentist, died a year ago. The other
sons are Joseph and Sol of Kenosha, and Hermes of Glendale, a
dentist. Joseph played viola with the Milwaukee Symphony before
his retirement and he and Sol also ran a music store in Kenosha,
There are nine
grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren. They include doctors,
dentists, a college professor, a government official; four
great-grandchildren are in medical school.*
always a priority in the family. All her children had musical
training. During the Depression, when money was scarce and a
dollar was a dollar, she paid $20 for Joseph’s music lessons
from a prominent Chicago teacher, she said. All four sons went
to college; two to what is now the University of Wisconsin –
Milwaukee, two to the Marquette Dental School.
She would pay
the tuition in monthly instalments. “It was awful hard,” she
education paid off for her, too. She had been having problems
with her teeth, she said, and had several sets of dentures made
but couldn’t wear them. But when one of her sons fitted her with
a pair, she never had any trouble again.
regrets, she said, is not having a good education herself. When
she came to Milwaukee, she went to night school for a week, but
“my husband told me a married woman doesn’t have to go to
school,” she said.
He was still a
“greenhorn” then (that’s what the new immigrants were often
called) and later he changed his mind, she said. But by then she
was too busy. So she educated herself, reading books and
newspapers and absorbing her children’s school lessons.
self-educated,” she said. “I used to make out the income tax. I
used to take care of the bank and mortgage, all myself. And they
used to look at my writing and they’d ask, ‘Did you go to
was intensely involved with politics and social reform. She
keeps up on politics even though she doesn’t plan to vote for
any of the candidates this year. “There’s none of them good,”
she said emphatically.
about inflation, not for herself, but for young families. “For
myself, what I buy, a nickel or dime more. But those people with
children. How can they manage? They have to feed their kids
bologna sausage. And bologna is high, too.”
Beatrice Kapper, observed that her aunt knows about food prices
because she still does her own shopping and added that
generations of Hoffmans had relished her aunt’s cabbage borscht,
potato pancakes and apple strudel.
Hannah applies her energy and high standards to turning out
exquisite crocheted items. She made about 20 tablecloths –
cherished as family heirlooms – out of fine imported linen with
crocheted inserts. She just finished a bedspread for a
grandniece, an off-white queen-size spread that measures 99 by
113 square inches and required 50 balls of yarn. It took about
three months to make. Then, she started immediately on an afghan
for another relative. She doesn’t crochet for profit, only as a
hobby for family members, who supply the materials, her niece
The family is
close. She praised her sons and daughters-in-law. Her sister
calls daily and a son comes to lunch every Wednesday. The family
takes her to temple with them, she said, and she is always part
of family gatherings.
She has been
honored by the Jewish community, including the Milwaukee Jewish
Federation. Her two big projects were the Jewish Convalescent
Home and the Jewish National Fund. For years, she raised money
for the latter, going from door to door with a black satchel,
insisting on paying her own bus fare, even though the fund
offered to pay it, she said. The money was used to plant trees
and reclaim land in Israel. People would be waiting for her
visit, she said, and would invite her in for coffee. Some still
bring contributions to her home.
And at her 90th
birthday party, at the Milwaukee Jewish Center, she was honored
by the fund, and told that 1,000 trees had been planted in her
honor in Israel.