Sam Singer and his Russian Roots


 [Author’s Note: These stories about my family are being written so that our generation and those that follow will get to know these people as more than just names on a family tree; so that they will be remembered for both their good traits and deeds and their bad. They were people who lived, loved, worked and died, but these memories of them will live on.]

Meyer and Esther Wedding Photo

Meyer and Esther Wedding Photo

Sam Singer’s parents, Meyer Singer and Esther Shpeen, met, married and had a family in America. However, their story truly begins back many years ago in Russia.

In the mid 1800’s in different small towns in Russia, two families worked and lived.

The Singer family’s records begin with Seymour Singer and his wife, Miriam. They had two known children: Anna

Etta Bella Singer and daughters

Etta Bella Singer and daughters

Singer and Louis Singer. Louis met and married Etta Bella Levine and they had three children: Meyer and two sisters whose names are not known.

Schlemel Speendock grew up and married a local girl, Rifka. They had 6 children: Louis, Isaac, Yonkel, Herschel, Gussie and another girl whose name is not known.

Louis Shpeendock became Sam’s grandfather on his mother’s side. Meanwhile, his brother Isaac shortened his last name to Spen and married Anna Singer, sister to Louis Singer who was Sam’s grandfather on his father’s side. This was no doubt how the two families became acquainted.

Both families lived in the outskirts of Kiev, a larger city in Russia, in what we would call a ghetto today and was comprised of Jews who were not allowed to live in the city of Kiev.  Louis Shpeendock, however, was such a fine cabinet maker that the Russian government needed his services and allowed him to live in Kiev as a boarder in a rented room.

Louis & wife Rose Shpeen

Louis & wife Rose Shpeen

Louis Shpeendock married Rose Chizik (her Jewish name was Shana Raisel Chizik) who was born about 1872 in Zhinkov, Russia. Their first baby girl was brought into the world on June 11, 1890. She was named Esther and would become Sam’s mother.

Louis spent the next five years in the Russian army, so their next child, Morris, wasn’t born until Oct. 17, 1895. Two more children eventually followed: Isaac Milton in 1896 and Sara in 1899.

In 1903, Louis decided that life in Russia was so hard and that he could do better for his family in America, the Land of Opportunity. He made his way there and began to find work in the city of Philadelphia as a builder and carpenter. There he  shortened his last name to Shpeen.

Louis and daughter Esther Shpeen 1904

Louis and daughter Esther Shpeen 1904

A year later, 1904, he was able to secure passage for his daughter, Esther, to join him. She was only 14 years old, but found work in one of the infamous “sweat shops” sewing dresses. They worked hard every day and saved enough money to bring the rest of the family over later.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, young Meyer Singer was conscripted into the Russian Army and was sickened by the deplorable conditions soldiers were forced to endure. Even in his home, which was likely a wooden cabin structure, the north wall on the inside would be covered in ice due to the extreme cold weather of the area.

“Meyer”, his mother, Etta Bella, said to him, “You should leave here. Go to America. You have cousins there. There is work too. You are a fine carpenter and Louis Shpeen needs help.”

“But what about you and my two sisters?” Meyer asked.

“We’ll manage. Perhaps your sisters will be able to leave this place too someday. But you must go and have a better life than the Russian Army has to offer. You are only 18 and have your whole life ahead of you.”

While reluctant to leave his family, Meyer knew his destiny was somewhere else and so he followed his dream of a better life. Packing a suitcase with a few clothes and possessions including some of his best tools, he deserted the Army and began a 1300 mile trek across Russia all the way through Europe until he reached England. There he boarded a ship that took him and many more refugees across the Atlantic and deposited them at Ellis Island, the gateway to the New World.

(Meyer’s sisters did also make their way out of Russia, but they ended up in South America somewhere and the family lost touch with them.)

Meyer was exhausted and dirty from his long, arduous journey from his homeland to this frightening new land where he didn’t know the language and couldn’t read any of the signs. He spoke and could read only Yiddish and Hebrew. Suddenly, he was thrust into this huge building, full of other people much like himself, all disoriented and scared for themselves and their future.

His cousins were supposed to meet him here and so he had to wait for them as he knew not another soul. He had to use the bathroom very badly, but here was a big dilemma! He didn’t see one nearby and couldn’t even ask anyone as the people here spoke English and he didn’t.

“If I walk away to hunt for a bathroom, my cousins could come for me and not find me. They’ll leave, never to return and I have no way to contact anyone! I’ll be stuck here all by myself. I have all of my possessions in this suitcase. Surely, if I leave it, someone will steal it and I will have nothing. But if I take it and am gone from this spot, my cousins won’t find me. Oy vey!” Meyer said to himself.

So, in spite of his mounting discomfort, Meyer sat with his suitcase in his spot and waited. And waited. The cousins did not come for him that day. Perhaps there was a mix-up about the date Meyer was to be at Ellis Island. Perhaps the ship docked a day early. At any rate, they did arrive the following day and located Meyer with his suitcase. Deeply relieved, Meyer’s first question in his new life was probably, “Nu, where’s the closest bathroom!”

Meyer worked with Louis Shpeen as a carpenter and so met his daughter, Esther. They were married on June 11, 1911 when she was 21 years old and he was 25. They had 4 children: Adolph (called Al), Sam, Ruth and Adele. Meyer received his citizenship papers Dec. 10, 1917 at 31 years old.

Blanket Chest made by Pop for Marcia

Blanket Chest made by Pop for Marcia

Esther died July 10, 1955 at the age of 65. After this, Meyer went to live with his daughter, Ruth, and her family which included her husband Eddie Pascal, and sons Richard and Phillip. Meyer was no longer working full time as a carpenter, but worked at the Store taking cash and was known to everyone, including the customers, as “Pop”.  He still occasionally made items out of wood such a large blanket chest for Sam’s wife Martha, a smaller one for granddaughter Marcia and a desk top for grandson Jeff. Marcia still has the last two items in her possession.

When Marcia was in her senior year of high school, 1967 to 1968, she got out of school in the early afternoon and was paid to go to the Store to relieve Pop from taking cash so he could eat lunch. He ate breakfast at the Store everyday also. It was an easy task and Marcia got to eat a good lunch herself as she didn’t like what the school served up.

At some point around this time, Ruth and her husband moved to Florida. Sam and Martha went to visit later, but the heat and bugs convinced them this was not going to be where they retired!

Pop then lived in a small apartment on his own and while he wasn’t very religious, he did leave work early on Fridays as was the Jewish custom. However, he did have to work on Saturday because the Store was open.

About 1971, Sam and his brother Al decided it was time to sell the Store and move on. When that happened, Al and his wife moved out to their home in Patchogue, Long Island, Sam got another job and Pop moved to Florida to live once again with Ruth. He stayed with her until he began to have more problems than she could handle and he was put in a secure facility for his own good.

Ruth told of us of some of the problems and one is especially funny in a gross way. Pop became something of a pill addict at this time and took something to help him sleep, then wanted another pill to help him get through the day. It got to the point where he would take any type of pill or medicine he could find and Ruth had to keep them locked up away from him.

One day while Ruth was out, Pop found a bottle of laxative and not even knowing what it was, drank it all down. Well, you can easily guess that the result was…overflowing. Ruth came home to a huge stinking mess of feces just about everywhere! He would also leave the house and wander off and not be able to find his way back until someone found him. She didn’t have it easy, but she took the best care of him that she could. Still, he was safer in a place where professionals could keep an eye on him.

While Pop was physically fairly sound for a man his age, his mind wavered in and out of reality and it seemed like just one day he decided he’d had enough of life.

Meyer “Pop” Singer lived until March 29, 1977 when he passed away at 91 years old. Ironically, Sam Singer died only two months after his father, at the young age of 63, on May 27, 1977 due to a heart attack caused by diabetes and emphysema.



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