|Canadian Jewish News
September 1, 2005 27 Av, 5765
Immigrant remembers hard labour and loneliness of Cuban layover
By BILL GLADSTONE
When he turned 18, Tsvi Shapiro decided to leave his home shtetl of Butrimantz rather than be
conscripted into the Lithuanian army.
With a half-brother working as a lawyer at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York, he should
have had an excellent chance of being admitted into America and fulfilling his dream of studying
philosophy at Columbia University. But a strict new immigration quota system imposed in 1923
effectively closed the drawbridge to Shapiro and countless others.
An immigrant without a destination, he landed in Cuba for what he hoped would be only a temporary
stop. Instead, he was stranded for four years of homesickness, worry, hard labour, loneliness and
insufferable heat. For the first part of his Havana interlude, he scrubbed floors daily for 12 hours and
often studied English in the evenings.
"I sometimes take a short break and rest, for otherwise it's impossible because of the terrible heat
which prevails even at night," he wrote to his mother and sisters. "One is simply soaked in sweat,
and you have to wipe yourself constantly with a towel because otherwise you can't do anything.
Naturally such heat saps one of strength."
Many comforting letters reached him from family members and friends in Lithuania. By contrast,
missives from his wealthy half-brother in New York were infrequent and terse.
Shapiro ultimately became a successful businessman in the United States and the letters from his
Cuban period were relegated to a cardboard box in the attic. His widow discovered them about eight
years ago as she was preparing to sell the house.
A niece, Lily Poritz Miller of Toronto, co-ordinated their translation from the original Yiddish and
oversaw their publication this year as A Thousand Threads. She and her sister, Olga Zabludoff,
co-edited the collection, which they translated with the aid of Torontonian
If absence made Shapiro's heart grow fonder of Butrimantz, his relatives were quick to remind him
of the terrible conditions that prevailed at home, where they were struggling with new tax burdens
and other oppressive commercial measures imposed against
"It saddened me that you are homesick," his cousin Leah wrote. "I'm very surprised that you are
allowing yourself to be so foolish...You have to realize that you cannot always be glued to your
mother's apron. This is no ambition, not for a young person. Believe me, dear Hirshela, that you
should thank God that you are already out of that small, dirty
town of Butrimantz."
His brother Shlomo was even more direct. "In one word, you have nothing to miss," he wrote. "I
believe that if you would come to Lita [Lithuania] now, you'd want to run wherever your eyes would
take you." And later Shlomo elaborated: "Times are very critical here. There are many bankruptcies
in Kovna, and this is spreading to us. They chased out the national council. They are requesting that
Jewish signs be removed. We feel like we're being driven out - like we're being exiled."
Meanwhile, poor Shapiro was hearing from his contacts in the United States that life in America was
no picnic, either. "The reason I did not write to you for so long is that I don't feel good," wrote an
uncle. "My heart is bothering me very much... America is a difficult land for everyone. I developed this
condition from working too hard. The strongest person can barely endure it, but the weaker person
The uncle offered aphorisms to Shapiro to explain his half-brother's aloofness: "You're wondering at
Itzhak's coldness towards you. This is America. The rich can help but they don't believe, and the poor
believe and cannot help. The Americans have a saying, 'Help yourself.' Put your hope in God, not in
Containing many such platitudes and expressions of popular wisdom, the letters illuminate many
aspects of the immigrant experience and highlight the "thousand threads" that connect the Jew to
his family and friends in the shtetl, no matter where he may be.
The affectionate tone and intimate expression of many of the letters highlight their underlying
But as Poritz Miller observed, the letters also chronicle the worsening conditions for the Jews of
Eastern Europe. "I got such a strong sense in the letters of the everyday struggles of the people and
of the insidious ways, even in the '20s, of how the Jews were being pushed out," she said.
A published playwright, Poritz Miller is currently writing a film script based on A Thousand Threads.
She and Zabludoff previously co-edited If I Forget Thee... The Destruction of the Shtetl Butrimantz,
published in 1998.
A former editor at several major New York publishing houses, she worked in Toronto for 18 years as
senior editor for McClelland and Stewart. While she judged A Thousand Threads too important a
sociological document not to publish, she explained that she chose a small publisher because she
knew it would not appeal to a mainstream audience.
Still, the translated collection offers a dramatic story and reads like an epistolary novel. "It's a journal
of the immigrant experience and it reflects the changing conditions of the times and the dreams that
we had," she said. "I think it will speak to many people."