Rescued from the Ghetto
It had been weeks since the doctor informed Anelia she only had a few months to live and as she rested in bed at home the memories came flooding back as she reviewed her life.
She remembered her son Istvan scurrying off to school through the streets of the ghetto and couldn’t believe they’d made this amazing transition. It was so long ago her first husband Béla fell from a platform on top of a skyscraper being constructed in New York leaving them in dire straits. She was thankful fortune had smiled on them and they’d gone from grinding poverty to riches.
She remembered the construction company had expressed regrets and sent a modest payout and Anelia despite her grief trudged to company headquarters waiting hours to see someone at the lowest levels only to be told they had no further legal responsibility and considering her husband had been a casual laborer they’d been most liberal in making any contribution at all.
Anelia returned home to the lower working-class area of New York and took stock of her situation. They’d been able to cover rent with her husband’s salary as a construction worker and her own income from various work activities such as cleaning houses and washing and ironing clothes for the rich of the city who’d valued her for her honesty and thoroughness.
Asking around among neighbors she had an excellent relationship with it was suggested she should move to the ghetto where rent was cheap, she could survive on her earnings. On impulse she’d poured out her heart to one of the rich women she cleaned house for and surprisingly this woman took pity on a needy woman. Through this rich woman’s husband, a permanent menial job was found for her in her husband’s department store and Anelia started humbly as the odd jobs’ person sorting and placing stock as directed.
Anelia came from Transylvania Hungarian stock and her parents were noted as hard working people whose family were respected in the tiny farming village they’d lived in over generations as honest and civic minded people. They’d instilled these principles in their children, sometimes with the aid of the dreaded fakanál which was more often used as a threat than a paddling with the wooden spoon.
She remembered that fateful day when Béla arrived in her village with his father looking for a new source of fresh produce for their family restaurant in Lugoj only a one-hour horse ride away. Béla fell instantly in love and urged his father to approach Anelia’s father with a marriage proposal. Old Andras was more than willing, he had enough girls in his family of ten and looked forward to their marriage so there’d be less mouths to feed so was quick to accept.
The marriage was contracted and consummated then Béla informed his new wife they were leaving for America to gain their fortune there, but the reality soon became apparent when on arrival in New York language problems only fitted him for construction work where he had to conform to simple rules and work hard. Anelia grasped English much more quickly and their children came in quick succession before his accident.
So, Anelia moved her family to the ghetto with proceeds from her husband’s settlement with the construction company and made the most of cramped conditions learning to deal with poverty and crime around them and limited living facilities. Istvan and his sister Eszti had to learn quickly to deal with threats on the way to school, the chaos of school in the ghetto and negotiating their way home through gang territory but their mother encouraged them to value education and learn despite the environment.
More than once Istvan took a beating from ghetto kids while protecting his sister so she could make it home safely from school, but quickly learned he could handle himself well physically against those undernourished denizens of the ghetto and they grew to respect him after he came to the aid of one of the younger siblings of a gang member and physically beat the bullies before escorting the child home. There was no more trouble after that as he and Eszti were gang protected.
It was in the ghetto the two children received a name change as it was difficult for ghetto children to pronounce their names. So Istvan became Steven and Eszti became Esther, and this was slowly accepted. The new names followed them for the rest of their days. Only their mother Anelia continued to use their Hungarian names.
Anelia loved the hard work at the department store and slowly the middle-class staff and administrative personnel began to rely on her and entrust her with more skilled work rather than her work in the inventory rooms as her English improved. One of the supervisors who was short of sales personnel one day put her behind a counter in desperation to see if she could handle the work. To her amazement Anelia approached customers in the store and in an unexpected diplomatic way sold them items they’d not intended to buy that day clocking up more sales on that counter than any of the other sales staff. Next day the supervisor put her on the same counter to see if Anelia’s drive had been a one-off thing but sales on that counter were once again phenomenal.
The owner of the store happened to be there that afternoon to check on his store among many and decided to attend the staff meeting on his way out to listen. The head supervisor laughingly told those in attendance of this remarkable turn of events and the owner asked to meet this unusual woman. The supervisor led him to the inventory work rooms where Anelia had returned to work after her shift on the counter was over for the day and he watched her in action confidently processing new stock arrivals and sorting them ready to be exchanged with old stock being moved to bargains basement. He turned to the supervisor.
“Does she get overtime pay for working over her normal hours?”
He walked over to Anelia who recognized him from working in his house before the department store work had been offered her and her face lit up with appreciation for giving her this work with a reasonable income to support her family.
“Nice to see you working here Anelia. We miss you in our home as your work was always excellent, but we need you here more. Can you continue to supervise the work in this inventory work section and service counters in the store as a sales assistant as needed while we look for a replacement to supervise receipt and handling of inventory? I’d like to have you in the store full time sales as soon as we can arrange that.”
Anelia’s face lit up and she nodded her head.
On the way out he paused to speak to the store sales department supervisor.
“I have no problem with her accent as that doesn’t seem to hinder her sales skills, but we need to spruce her up a little. I want you to take over making her more presentable. She needs hair styling and of course uniforms and further training. See to it and I’ll take another look at her next week when I return to this store to investigate her progress. I’ll be visiting my other stores for the rest of the week.”
“Sir she had to move to the ghetto when her husband died in a construction accident so it’s hard for her to keep up appearance with such limited facilities and money.”
The owner looked at the supervisor and frowned.
“Then get her moved out of there into a rental apartment building I own closer to the store and do whatever it takes to develop her for work in sales. I’ve known her for a long time, and she has a work ethic that will profit this store so it’s worth my investment as she seems to be one of those rare individuals with a natural flair for sales and it’s not just work for her, it’s a passion. I’ll host her rent free temporarily until she is earning enough to do it herself.”
The supervisor shook her head in disbelief. This man was noted for being exacting in his employment methods and she could hardly believe she’d heard right. For that reason, she determined she needed to produce a miracle before the boss made his appearance next week or it may not go well for her. She went back to explain what was to happen to this fortunate woman. The supervisor was resentful no such favors had ever been granted to her or any of the salesgirls she favored. But her resentment was tempered by her fear of the boss.
So, a protesting Anelia was hauled off to the inhouse beautician for a makeover and she was moved into an empty small apartment much to the delight of Istvan and Eszti though the independent Anelia resented this intrusion into her life and challenged the head sales supervisor. She was quickly silenced and told these were the boss’s instructions and if she objected, she’d be without a job. Anelia’s gratitude and respect this rich man who came to the aid of her family removed any further challenges.
Next week this owner of multiple department stores spanning different cities returned with his wife and silently watched as Anelia demonstrated her worth. They were amazed at the transformation in her physical appearance. This woman was quite attractive when made up and in uniform and in her soft and accented English sought out customers and in a gentle but persuasive way loaded them down with things, they’d been convinced they wanted rather than needed to buy when they entered the store. Money poured into the till at that counter.
The rich man Joseph Golding and his wife Martha left convinced they’d stumbled onto an unexpected asset. Martha took the time to interrupt Anelia’s work to congratulate her on her appearance and sales skills and Anelia blushed in embarrassment mumbling her thanks for the opportunity. Martha asked that Anelia stop by her mansion as she wanted to talk with her. Anelia nodded and asked if the following Sunday would be convenient as she had some free time then. Martha suggested a morning visit at eleven.
Anelia arrived for her appointment carrying heavy carry bags which she presented to Martha Golding. Martha gasped in appreciation at the enticing smells as she opened the packages. It was an assortment of Hungarian dishes Anelia had prepared in gratitude for her now secure employment and rescue from the ghetto. Martha called a servant to instruct the cook not to prepare anything for lunch and insisted Anelia join them as they sampled the food to explain the origin and preparation of each dish. Joseph who joined them for lunch was surprised to see Anelia there but interested in what was being served to them by a kitchen aid who looked with interest and envy at this woman who’d spoiled the kitchen routine. Both enjoyed the meal so much they inquired if Anelia had special training in food preparation which made her laugh. She spoke.
“I was instructed in my village by my mother and the fakanál.”
Joseph and Martha looked at each other not comprehending and Anelia realizing this explained the meaning of fakanál or wooden spoon which had the two rich hosts chuckling. Joseph remarked that it had obviously been a very effective training as the food was delicious.
Afterward Joseph returned to his office and Martha drew out of Anelia the story of her life and current situation. Martha spoke after looking at her watch.
“Anelia would you permit your children to do some work for me and if so when would they be available?”
Anelia studied her benefactor carefully wondering what was behind this request.
“I’m teaching my children to work hard as they’ll have to know how to do that if they are to survive in this country. Both must do their class assignments as homework; my son has a paper run to earn money in his spare time and my daughter is learning to cook from me, so they are already well occupied. What do you need them for as you have many servants to care for this mansion.”
There are things I do not entrust to my servants but knowing you as I do would trust your children. If it’s not convenient to you that’s OK but I’d be happy to have them work for me at least on weekends if you could spare them and I will pay them for their work.”
Anelia thought for a few minutes. The money could be saved up for their education after they’d finished their early grades. She nodded in agreement.
“OK, what times would you need them on weekends?”
“How about ten in the morning to four in the afternoon on weekends? We will provide their meals.”
Anelia nodded and saw Martha looking at her watch again seeing this as her signal to leave.
“Now I must leave Mrs. Golding and my children will present themselves to you every weekend you need them at the times you’ve given me.”
Martha accompanied her to the door and watched as she departed down the long drive. For some reason she’d been impressed long ago to help this woman and had urged her husband to give her a chance at the department store. She was glad her intuition had been well placed and he was happy with this woman. She now wanted to have the children in her home to observe them and determine whether it was in their interests and her husbands to give the children a good college education after their elementary years were behind them. It was hard to find diligent working and honest people focused on a job these days and perhaps they could be of use in management of her husband’s business interests later in their life.
To be continued
© Copyright 2023 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved
2 thoughts on “Poverty to Prosperity Chapter 1”
This story had me from the beginning! As a migrant years ago, post war, I found this story to be compelling reading. It reminded me of the work ethic of my own parents which carried through to my siblings and I.
Can’t wait to read more- a very sensitively written piece.
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Thank you so much for the encouragement Barb.