I researched life in Rockaway, New Jersey during the Great Depression via local news articles, the 1930 census, city directories, and a trip to the county hall of records to view my grandfather’s house records- both the sale and purchase. I wanted to get a feel for the desperation he must have felt which led to the decision to return to the Soviet Union with his six New Jersey-born children.
The current mood of the country during the Great Recession has helped giving me insight into what happens when people lose their jobs, their homes, and their dignity. An article on an internet site, Sinking Deeper and Deeper: 1929-33 on ushistory.org, stated that “people were scavenging garbage dumps for food, college professors were driving cabs (if they were lucky), and soup kitchens were turning away people because they could not keep up with the volume of those in need.” A local newspaper that my grandfather probably read, the Daily Record, published a story in March 1930 about a local man who shot himself: George Jenks, a married man with two children, son of Mr. and Mrs. William P. Jenks, of Mt. Kemble Avenue, who… in a note to his parents blamed his act on inability to find work.
By 1930, my grandfather had lost his job at the local iron mill and was bringing in money by doing odd jobs. My seventeen year old aunts and my grandfather’s brother were working at a local hosiery mill, and an article in the town newspaper, The Rockaway Record, wrote that their salaries had been cut twice during 1931- first by twenty-five per cent followed by a fifteen per cent decrease. In August of that year, workers went on strike after they refused to accept a third decrease of forty per cent.
My grandparents took in a boarder to help pay the bills, and even my eleven year old father went to work to help the family. He got a job working as a caddy at a local golf club.
In addition to the loss of jobs and drastic salary cuts, Americans living during the Great Depression suffered though the Dust Bowl drought, which was similar, albeit much longer, to the periods of drought during the Great Recession.
Still, knowing all this, I still could not comprehend why my Russian grandparents decided to leave. I finally understood when I stumbled upon a book, The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis. Mr. Tzouliadis’s novel tells the story of Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union with promises of employment at a time when their backs were up against a wall. I found this book thanks to a Google search: Americans Depression USSR.
I read the book and finally understood why my grandparents abandoned their lives in the United States and moved to the Soviet Union. I was horrified when I learned what had happened to the Americans who accepted the jobs in the USSR. More importantly, the discovery of this book, which actually mentioned Dad’s family, led me on surprise journey to the National Archives.