My Grandfather, Sam Gonshak
Blast from the Past is an ongoing series of posts reprinting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer.
“My Grandfather, Sam Gonshak,” by Amber Glassberg
Originally appeared in The Volunteer, V.9, No. 3, November 1987.
An essay submitted for an Honors English Class for which Amber received and A++ by her teacher Mrs. Adams.
“Amber, you have certainly captured the “Essences” of your Grandfather! You have done an exceptional job on this assignment!”
My grandfather has always been a special person in my life. He loves me a lot and I love him. Every time he comes to see me, he brings me a package of lifesavers and a ten dollar bill. If I refuse to take these things he tells me I better or I will break the tradition! He is always worried about me and concerned about how I am doing. My grandfather knows a lot about me, almost as much as I do. When I began interviewing him I realized how little I really knew about him and his life. I discovered that he has had a difficult life and one that has been quite different from mine.
Active is a word to describe my seventy-five year old grandfather. He and my grandmother live in Brooklyn, near Coney Island. My grandfather is retired now, but is always on the go. He spends many hours a week working for an organization, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Once a year he sets up a dinner for over one thousand people to commemorate the involvement of the veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Although he complains bitterly about the amount of work, he loves it. In his spare time he helps my grandmother, reads, visits me and friends, watches sports events on television, and talks to all the little kids in the neighborhood. His is very interested in politics. At least once a year, my grandfather travels to Spain on business and pleasure. He always returns with gifts for everyone. He is a giving generous person both to us and others.
Life began for my grandfather, Samuel Gonshak, on September 22, 1911. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Samuel grew up on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of New York. His family was very poor, sometimes living on potato peels. His father was a cap maker and his mother was a housewife. He had one brother who died fifteen years ago.
One of my grandfather’s fondest memories is his uncle’s weekly present of a nickel. A nickel a week bought a lot in those days. Often Samuel used it to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons to see a double feature, newsreel and comic strip. Sometimes he shined shoes to earn some money. He would watch the gangsters emerge from various restaurants dressed in the fashions of the day (including big wide brimmed hats, double breasted shark skinned suits, and alligator shoes) while smoking Havana cigars and hope to earn a tip hailing them a cab or running errands for them.
Samuel did very well in school, skipping two grades. He was always a very good athlete and was a member of the basketball, swimming, and track teams. Knowing that his family could not afford college, he quit school in 1928, before finishing the twelfth grade.
Sam got a job immediately working in his uncle’s store. He stayed there for about a year before quitting. The plight of the poor people during the depression concerned him, so, despite the fact that he was making a good living in his uncle’s store, he began to working on behalf of the poor. It hurt him to see people sitting out on the street surrounded by their furniture with no place to go. He helped put their furniture and belongings back, and undertook other activities, which resulted in his being arrested and put in jail for a year.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, my grandfather left America to fight against fascism. My grandfather feels that this is one of the biggest accomplishments in his life.
The other major accomplishment of his life was marrying Lily Bass and having a baby, my mom! They were married at the outbreak of World War II. My grandfather then left to fight in the Philippines. My mother was born in 1945, at the close of the war.
My grandfather returned home, spending the next twenty years of his life as a family person raising his child and working hard to provide for his family. He worked as a presser in the garment district of New York. Both his lack of formal schooling and his political activities prevented him from getting any other kind of work.
Throughout the years, my grandfather has always been a very caring and concerned person. My grandmother has always been sick and my grandfather has always taken care of her. He took care of his parents when they were old. He worries about my family, cautioning us to eat well, get enough rest, and to overexert ourselves. During his life he worked hard, not only for himself, but for other people too. He knew what it was to be poor and in need and felt for others. I admire him for it!