Label and Runya Goren
In 1890 a marriage was celebrated in the shtetl called Terespol, a small town near Brest Litovsk in a region of the world that is now on the Russian‑Polish border but was then well within the domain of the Russian Czar. Runya Feinstein married Label Goren. What thoughts rushed through the minds of those two teenagers as the rabbi spoke? They may have thought about the children they both wanted to have. Perhaps they even thought about their grandchildren. But could they ever have imagined that one hundred years later, a half‑a‑world a way in suburban Detroit, using a home computer, their great grandchild would be typing their life story? The world is full of wonderous surprises.
Runya Feinstein was born in 1874. Her mother's name was Chiah Magid. Little is known about her or her family. Magid is a word for a travelling preacher, so perhaps this offers some clue. We do know that Chiah was married twice. she had one daughter by her first marrige named Yenta. Her first husband apparently died. Chiah remarried to a man named Shmul Feinstein. Shmul Feinstein was rumored to have been born in Germany. Shmul and Chiah Feinstein had three children. A boy named Tevye, a boy named Shirl and a daughter named Runya.
Label Goren was born in 1872. Label's parents, Velvel and Dora were poor, like almost every other Jewish family in Terespol. Nonetheless, they had six children, Label being the oldest.
Label was a kindly religious man; Runya was a strong ambitious woman, who always had a sweet smile on her face. Runya ran the household. Together they had ten children. All except the youngest, Libe, survived to adulthood. The family lived in the home of Runya's mother, Chiah. Chiah lived in one room. Label, Runya and their 10 children lived in another room and Runya's brother Sam and his wife and four children lived in the third room. The only other room was a kitchen. The floor was made of dirt covered with sand. There was no running water, and of course no electricity. The house was lit by candles which were used very sparingly.
Label used to work as a laborer, doing whatever work he could find. He was also a dairyman. In fact he was the third generation of Goren dairymen. He would go to a nearby farm and transport the milk by horse and cart from the farm to the nearby city of Brest Litovsk. Meanwhile Runya ran the family grocery store, a small shop on a street lined with small shops. Runya sold milk, cheese, butter, pickled herring and other such essentials. Thr children would spend the day playing with their friends in the dusty streets coming to the store when they were hungry or otherwise needed their mother.
By 1910, despite all of the efforts by both Label and Runya to support their family, life had become unbearably hard. Label went to the town Rabbi, Rabbi Solovatchik and asked permission to go to America. Although the details have been lost, apparently Label's two younger brothers, Nathan and Abraham, had already gone to America just a few years before. Velvel, Label's father also went to America, although I am uncertain when. Dora, Label's mother, had died years before, sometime between 1895 and 1900. Label's three sisters remained in Poland. They would have been around 70 years old during the holocaust. If they did not die in the holocaust, surely some or all of their children and grandchildren did. They were the only members of the Goren family remaining in Europe at the time of the holocaust. As for Runya's family, her father, Shmul, died in Europe when Runya was a child. Her mother Chiah died in Poland in 1907. Sadly, but apparently not uncommonly, neither Chiah nor Shmul lived to celebrate their sixtieth birthday. Runya's older half sister by another father left for New York. She died in Brooklyn in the 1920's. She was probably in her sixties. Runya's two brothers also came to America. Their descendants are spread across this country from Charleston to California.
Despite the mass exodus from Europe to America which had been taking place since 1881, or maybe because of the exodus, Rabbi Solovatchik told Label to stay in Terespol. He said that jews in America did not retain the orthodox traditions and often had to work on the sabbath. Label was a very religious man. He stayed in the village for the time being despite the hardships. He asked again afew years later, again the rabbi said no, and again he stayed. Finally, in 1914, just three months before WWI erupted, Label left his family and sailed off to America.
For Runya, life only got harder. With her husband gone and communications to America disrupted by the war, she was on her own. She had eight children living with her to care for by herself. Four of her children were under 10 in 1914. Only her eldest child, Sam, had left home‑‑not voluntarily. Sam Goren was drafted by the Russian army in 1911. He served in the Army for three years, returning home to his village in 1914, just a few months before the war. When the war began Sam was redrafted. Harry injured his arm and managed to avoid military service until 1915. The third son Saul, was also drafted. The next oldest son was Phil who was just 11 when the war began and 15 when it ended. Sam and Harry both became prisoners of war held in Germany and were not heard from till after the war. Saul managed to run away from the army and hide out in Germany.
In Terespol, Runya and her seven children struggled to survive. Hunger was an unhappy fact of life. Before long their Russian village was captured by the Germans. The Germans paved the road. Phil lied to the German soldiers and said he was 14 in order to get a job. It was the first time since the village became inhabited in the fourteenth century that it had a paved street. In 1915, all 500 families from the village were forced to leave the strategic location to live behind a barbed‑wire fence in a refuge camp guarded by German soldiers. They remained there until the end of the war.
When the family returned to Terespol, they found the entire town had been burned except for a few buildings which were being used as a barn. With the help of a neighbor, Sam found his way back to his mother and the rest of his family. Life was very hard. Label wrote to them. He said he did not like America. He said the rabbi was right, it was not the place for a religious man. He wanted to return. Runya, who had always been more practical than religious, told her husband to stay. In 1919, with money sent by Label from America, Sam arranged to go back to Germany with the hope of somehow making it to America from there. Runya decided that Phil should go with Sam. In those hard days of desperation, Phil had joined up with some local communist revolutionaries. Six decades later, smiling from his comfortable chair in his suburban Detroit home, Phillip explained to me it is easy to become a communist revolutionary when you do not have food for your stomach. To keep Phillip out of trouble, his mother sent him with his oldest brother Sam. Runya went with them as far as Warsaw. There, some Jewish smugglers were paid to take the two into Germany. Of the thirty people who attempted to sneak across the border, only seven people succeeded. Sam and Phil were among the victorious. Runya did not see her two sons for three years. They were reunited in Detroit in 1922.
Runya came to Detroit with her five remaining children in 1921. Harry and Saul remained in Germany after the war and met up with Sam and Phil in Breslau where they all worked until they had enough money saved to make the trip to America. The youngest child, Libe, died of an illness during the hard years in Terespol.
In Terespol, the nearest doctor was 5 miles away. A traveling merchant would send the message that the doctor was needed. At times it could take three weeks for the doctor to arrive. He charged 5 rubels. By comparison, even a poor father was expected to pay 400 rubels to a prospective son‑in‑law as a dowery. Would Libe have lived if she had been given modern medical care? We will never know for certain.
Once in America, the family lived together and pooled their money. Runya was the matriarch who ran the household. As the man, Label was boss, but Runya still had the true power. Runya was very accepting of her son‑in‑laws. They took care of her daughters and helped provide for her family. Her relationship with her daughters‑in‑law, however, was much more strained. After all, they had "stolen" her sons from her.
Label and Runya never really adjusted to American life. Neither one drove. Neither one even learned English, although they lived in America for over a quarter century. Label was forty‑two years old when he came to America. Although he was too young and too poor to retire, he had no skills. So, he became a "ragmen" going door to door with a horse and buggy selling rags. Somehow he managed to save enough money to buy the family a three bedroom house. Still, Label and Runya needed the help of family to survive. Each day, their eldest daughter Dora would bring them groceries. Anything else they needed they would get from their youngest daughter Thelma who lived above them or from one of the other family members, some of whom lived with them and the rest of whom lived nearby.
Religion remained important, particularly to Label, but also to Runya. They kept their household kosher. Runya wore a wig, and Label wore a yamulka and a beard. They observed the holidays in the old fashioned ways with long ceremonies before the meals. Runya would let the children sneak a few bites during the long prayer services‑‑supposedly without the knowledge of Label. Each Friday night the shabbus was celebrated with a family gathering for prayers followed by an elaborate dinner served in the dining room on a linen table cloth. During the depression, Label met a homeless jew. Label invited the homeless man to share his family's shabbus.
There are other stories of Label's kindness. Label was friends with a man named Usher. During the depression, Label was concerned that his friend would not be able to afford to buy enough food for the shabbus dinner. So a day or two before the shabbus, Label would loan the Usher family $2 to buy chicken. The Ushers would pay Label back the next week. This exchanging of $2 continued week after week, long after the Ushers needed the money. Years later, when the Usher family became well‑to‑do, they helped Label's son Phil become a plumber by loaning Phil the money to buy his first set of tools. When Phil tried to memorialize the loan with a written document, Mr. Usher ripped it up exclaiming, "I know your father." That was the way of the world in those days. And, that was the reputation of Label Goren.
Label died in 1949. Runya died in 1950. They are buried side‑byside at Hebrew Memorial Park Cemetary in Mount Clemens, Michigan. They were survived by nine children and 23 grandchildren. They now have 48 great‑grandchildren. Most importantly they have an evergrowing number of great‑great grandchildren who will insure that the wedding ceremony which took place in the small town of Terespol in 1890 will touch the lives of hundreds of souls well into the twenty first century‑‑and undoubtedly well beyond.