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More than 2 million Russian and other eastern European Jewish immigrants, among them Bella and Elya Trachtenberg, arrived on America’s shores in the decades between the 1880s and the early 1920s. The two main forces propelling their journey were a pervasive antisemitism at home and the dream of religious liberty and economic mobility in America.

Although most immigrants arrived poor and eventually improved their lives, often dramatically, America was not the goldene medine (the golden land) for everyone. For some, such as the Trachtenbergs, the adjustment proved extremely difficult.

Bella (Beyla) Grubstein was born in Letichev, a province of Podolia, in the Ukraine (Russian Empire) in 1883. The Letichev District was the birthplace of the Hasidic movement and the home of many distinguished rabbis. It was also an area that had its share of severe hardships and pogroms—government-inspired violent attacks on Jews. Orphaned at age sixteen, Bella was the oldest of six children and took on the responsibility of running her parents’ businesses—an iron foundry and a furniture business. The youngest child was only two years old when Bella took over family responsibilities, but Bella was a young woman of determination, and eventually her devotion to family and work paid off. Using her excellent mathematical skills, she made her enterprises thrive, and then succeeded in putting her three brothers through medical school, two in Russia and one in Liege, Belgium.

Trousseau apron - embroidered apron made for the trousseau of Bella Grubstein, Letichev, Podolia, Ukraine, Russian Empire, 1909
Trousseau apron – embroidered apron made for the trousseau of Bella Grubstein, Letichev, Podolia, Ukraine, Russian Empire, 1909, gift of Sonya Trachtenberg Breidbart. 1999.A.162.

When Bella Grubstein was twenty-six, she married Elya Trachtenberg, son of a wealthy family in Letichev. Although he did not need to, Elya worked in his family’s grain business. He was also a leader in and an advocate for the Jewish community in Letichev—a job that, at that time, was not easy to fulfill.

After a civil war broke out in the former Russian Empire in 1918, the chaos and attacks on the Jewish communities led many young people to consider immigration to Palestine or the New World as the only hope for a secure future. When the Trachtenbergs had their second daughter, Sonya, in 1921, they discussed the possibility of leaving for America, where two of Elya’s younger brothers had already established themselves. (The Communists had already taken the Trachtenberg family business away.) Bella was opposed to leaving her hometown and her siblings, who were like children to her. She knew it would be best for her own children, but feared she would never see her brothers and sisters again.

In 1922, after due consideration, the family made the painful decision to leave for America, and Bella never set eyes on her siblings again.

For a man such as Elya Trachtenberg, already 45 years old, adjustment to the new language and the new culture in the United States proved difficult. In the beginning, he had a hard time finding work. Eventually, he sold life insurance and printing labels, but the family spent many years struggling against poverty. Even into his late fifties, the only work the charming and sociable Elya could get was sweeping floors for the Work Projects Administration.

However, before Bella and ElyaTrachtenberg died in 1959 and 1965, respectively, they were able to see their grandchildren on their way to becoming actors in the American dream . Bella Gruhstein Trachtenberg’s talent with numbers was passed down to her children and grandchildren, who have excelled as mathematicians, one becoming a physician as well.

Photograph of Bella Grubstein Trachtenberg and daughter Milya Trachtenberg in Letichev, Podolia, Ukraine, Russian Empire, circa 1915
Photograph of Bella Grubstein Trachtenberg and daughter Milya Trachtenberg in Letichev, Podolia, Ukraine, Russian Empire, circa 1915, gift of Sonya Trachtenberg Breidbart. 1999.P.122.
This entry is also found in the book To Life: 36 Stories of Memory and Hope © 2002 by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.