My Grandpa Henry by
(294 Stories)

Prompted By Refugees

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

HANNAH & HENRY  circa 1915

In the early 20th century there was an influx of East European Jews coming to the States seeking refuge from troubled times at home.   Among them was my maternal grandfather Henry who came with his widowed mother Gertrude,   his younger brother David,  and Gertrude’s elderly and blind widowed father.   They came from the town of Obertyn,  then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,  now part of Ukraine.

Gertrude’s late husband had been a sofer,  a skilled scribe entrusted to pen sacred Torah scrolls,  each containing the five books of the Bible.

In fact when the young widow arrived in New York and was questioned by immigration officials,  she said her late husband was “Moishe the sofer“,   and thus she entered the States as Gertrude Soffer.

The family settled into their new life except,  understandably,  for Gertrude’s father.  Blind and unable to speak the language,  the old man begged to return to Europe and it was decided that young Henry would accompany his grandfather on the ship,  and then return to New York on his own –  and he did.

Living in the beach town of Far Rockaway,  Henry and David became good swimmers,  but one day when the brothers were teenagers tragedy struck.  Swimming far from shore David developed a cramp it was believed,  and he drowned.  Years later I was named for David,  who,  had he lived,  would have been my great-uncle.  (See Call Me by Their Names)

Henry was a good student,  attended law school,   and became an attorney.   He met and married my grandmother Hannah whose family had emigrated from Romania,   and they had two sons and a daughter who would become my mother Jessie.  (See Art Imitates Life)

Then in 1938 New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed my grandpa Henry to  a city judgeship.  The young boy who had sailed alone from Austria had come a long way.

Dana S. Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

Visit Author's Website

Tags: Family, Refugees, Grandfathers
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Excellent tale of how your ancestors came to this country, Dana. I love how Gertrude got her last name. There are many stories like that, coming through Ellis Island. I particularly like yours. Being a Torah scribe was a demanding, but high-worth profession and the family must have been very proud. Being named “Soffer” because of it is amusing.

    Tragic to learn that your great-uncle David drowned while swimming, but your are his legacy. May his memory be a blessing. And yes, your grandfather did come a LONG way!

    • Thanx Betsy!
      Sadly Henry died when I was only 7 but I have wonderful memories of him, even of the garters he wore to hold up his socks!

      My paternal grandfather died when I was an infant so of course I have no memories of him, but thankfully both my grandmothers lived into my adulthood.

  2. Dave Ventre says:

    A great story. Immigrants seem to accomplish more than averages would suggest. Maybe you need to be a highly driven person to make such a drastic move, or survive it if forced to make one.

  3. This is a succinct and powerful narrative that packs so much in a short span of paragraphs. You built emotion for the reader with the understated way you wrote it; the drama of the narrative did the talking, and you had no need to make it more elaborate or explicit.

    Cool that your grandfather was anointed/appointed by the great Fiorello LaGuardia.

    I too have a great-grandparent who came to the USA and then insisted on going back in the 1930s, and did. In her case, not because she had limited vision or due to the language gap. She simply found the people and life of eastern, small-town Ohio, where my Dad and others in the family were living, to not measure up to the civilized, cultured life she knew back in Poland. (She was killed when the Germans bombed her town.)

  4. Suzy says:

    Wonderful story, and I love the picture of Hannah and Henry. You look a lot like her. And, like Betsy, I particularly love that Gertrude got the last name of Soffer because her husband had been a Torah scribe.

  5. Marian says:

    I love how the surname Soffer became part of your family, Dana. This story resonates with all of us who are Jewish and have eastern European roots. My maternal grandmother lived where current day Poland and Ukraine intersect. She considered herself Austro-Hungarian because that is who ruled the area in the late 1890s.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Many of us have shared stories like yours. I feel very lucky that our brave ancestors undertook such a difficult journey, in your grandfather’s case twice.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    The photo was lovely, and the story as well. It is remarkable what people go through in their lives, and inspiring when they overcome great adversity. You have some wonderful ancestors. Thanks for sharing the story.

  8. Such courage! The widow, her young boys and a blind grandpa! I’m reminded of a patch of tough, hearty seedlings, after blowing in the wind, taking root in the hard-scrabble soil of a new territory. One question: do family stories carry any news of what happened to grandpa after he returned to Europe?

    • Thanx Charles, and good question about my great-grandfather returning to Austria. As with so much else, I didn’t ask and now there’s no one left to tell me.

      The young widow Gertrude married again to a man named Avram. She predeceased him and after she died Avram came to live with his stepson Henry and Henry’s young family.

      Avram was religious and to please him my grandfather Henry, who by then was a non-practicing Jew, sent his eldest son – my mom’s older brother Milton – to Hebrew school.

      At some point the old man died, and Milton asked his parents now that grandpa Avram was dead did he still had to go to Hebrew school. They said no, and Milton unceremoniously dropped out!

  9. Susan Bennet says:

    The American Dream personified, Dana. Would you not agree that resilience is essential to surviving the immigrant/refugee experience? I am always so impressed that for many new families, success is achieved by the next generation, so quickly. I always applaud the individuals behind stories like yours.

Leave a Reply