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The Mankita Family Story

Rachmil Mankita's story posted by Daniel Koch on October 08, 2012 at 4:53 pm. Rachmil emigrated from Vilnuis, Lithuania to Boston, Uniteds States in 1962

Rachmil Mankita was born on June 12th, 1920 to Josel Mankita and Leja Pimptova Mankita. He was born in a little town called Glubokoe, which at that time was part of Poland. Bella Belickaja was born in Odessa, Ukraine on August 2nd, 1920 to Benjamin Belickij and Rachel (maiden name unknown). The journey that brought them together began in 1938 during the Nazi advance into Poland. With little time to spare, Rachmil’s father gave him a bicycle, and told him to ride as far as he could into Russia. So Rachmil rode it until it broke, and then hitched rides in cars and trains until he ended up in Omsk, Siberia. He never heard from his parents or sister again. After he immigrated to America, he learned that his parents and sister (name unknown) perished in a concentration camp. He never found out which one. Rachmil’s anger for what happened consumed him for his entire life and he refused to speak about his family. 

Bella’s parents barely made ends meet in Odessa so they decided to move to Dnepropetrovsk. They tried to find work there but were unsuccessful. They moved once again to Omsk, Siberia because it was one of the few places with job opportunities in those days. These jobs mainly centered on rubber manufacturing.  Their lives were tremendously difficult and there was little discussion about ancestors. When Lisa began asking questions, Bella could no longer remember names or details.  In Omsk, Rachmil met Bella, who had already been living there for a few years with her parents, two sisters (Eva and Etia) and one brother (Boris). In 1942, Rachmil and Bella were introduced and married two weeks later. They lived in a small and drafty log cabin. The cabin had no running water and sanitation (plumbing) was a big issue. People used outhouses during the day and metal buckets at night. Keeping warm was a daily challenge, even when one had the money to buy coal and wood. Fuel shortages affected everyone. In the winter, people often went out at night and literally ripped the wood from other people’s homes so they would have something to burn. Bella risked her life scavenging for coal and wood to keep the cabin warm.  The daily chore of carrying coal to heat the stove and water was very physically taxing. As a result, Bella developed severe carpal tunnel and shoulder pain.   Rachmil labored for long hours at one of the rubber factories in Omsk. There were no safety standards of any kind and his health suffered from inhaling rubber dust and other pollutant byproducts. At night, he secretly worked at home designing the “upper” leather for shoes.  Private enterprise was dangerous and punishable by imprisonment. Trust did not exist in those days, not even between husband and wife. The fear that a break from a spouse could cause revelations of dangerous secrets was the norm in those days. This was the lifestyle into which Lisa’s brother Boris was born in 1944 and Lisa in 1948.

In 1950, Rachmil’s greatest fear materialized when he was arrested for engaging in private enterprise. From that day forward, the entire family went into panic mode when anyone knocked on the door. In order to bribe the officials into letting him go, the family gave up everything they had and sold it. They moved back to Bella’s family in Dnepropetrovsk with just the clothes on their backs.In Dnepropetrovsk, they lived in a very small apartment where they shared two rooms among seven adults and three children. As one can imagine, trust became an even bigger issue because they lived in fear of being reported by their neighbors, friends, family members, or even their children. Life without trust created many problems and resulted in people who lived angry and resentful lives.By this time, Bella’s sisters had all married. One of her sisters and her brother still lived with their parents in the two-room apartment. There was so little room that her brother slept in the unheated kitchen. There was barely enough coal to heat the other rooms at night, and he grew tired of being cold. As a result, he decided to enlist in the army. He was killed almost immediately after joining. Bella’s mother never recovered from this blow and suffered from crippling depression for the rest of her life. 

Soon, Rachmil received word from someone that jobs for shoe designers were opening in Vilnius, Lithuania. After about one year of living in Dnepropetrovsk, the family moved to Vilnius. They got their own apartment in Vilnius, but still did not have any running water. Although they lived in a large city, they still used an outhouse during the day and a metal bucket at night. Every week Bella, “did the laundry” by boiling the linen in a big pot on the stove and the clothes in a shallow metal tub full of water. When the laundry was done, the hot water from the pot was added to the metal tub, and the entire family proceeded to bathe themselves using this water. Lisa usually went last, as she was the youngest. The lack of running water and sanitation made personal hygiene a low priority until they immigrated to Wroclaw (Breslau) Poland where they had running water and a bathroom inside their apartment. Until they moved, Lisa’s family used tooth powder for brushing teeth and coarse soap for washing. Every day, more than one bucket of water had to be brought in from the outside spigot for cooking, dish washing, and personal hygiene.In Vilnius, food for daily consumption was a huge challenge because one never knew what would be available for purchase in the open air market. Regardless of season and weather, the family could never predict what they would (or would not) find. It was common for a live chicken or turkey to freely run around their apartment until it was ready to be cooked. When the family was ready to eat the animal, Bella would need to kill it, pluck its feathers, and clean it before she could cook it. The family did the same with fish. They would let them swim in the same tub they used for bathing, until they were ready to cook them.

In general, there was never enough food to go around, so they supplemented their food supply with a little garden where they grew corn and potatoes. Unfortunately, Bella did not enjoy cooking and one of Rachmil’s favorite jokes was, “Bella washed the floor today, so I guess we’re having soup.” She retorted by saying, “Just because I am a woman does not mean I should love cooking.” Lisa realized late in her thirties that her mother’s thinking was very ahead of its time. They also almost never ate fruit. The first time Lisa saw bananas they were brown and she thought this was their normal color. There was no refrigeration throughout their lives in Siberia, Dnepropetrovsk, Vilnius, and Wroclaw. They would cook a meal and then eat it for days. As a result, they all came to the US with serious bacterial infections in their stomachs. These issues were treated as ulcers for many years. Eventually, someone identified that Eastern European Jews actually had bacterial infections, not ulcers, and the family got proper treatment. In 1953, Rachmil found his American cousin, Chaika Skolnik, through a Jewish agency called the, “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.” Chaika signed an affidavit which affirmed that if the family came to the United States, they would have a place to live. As a result, the Mankitas began the immigration process. Since Rachmil was born in Poland, he was allowed to register in a shorter line than Russians. Lisa and her family lived in Lithuania for about five years while waiting for their freedom. In 1957, they were given permission to come to the United States, but they would need to travel through Poland or Israel first. Rachmil heard that getting work in Israel was actually more difficult than in Poland, so they moved to Wroclaw (Breslau), Poland. The long wait to immigrate was blamed on the US government. The authorities wanted to make sure that the immigrants did not have any diseases and were not communists. In Poland, they waited five more years before finally immigrating to America in 1962. In the meantime, life got a little easier. They had plumbing, sanitation, and stoves in the rooms where they slept. In their previous homes and apartments, they only had a single stove in the kitchen. However, heating the stoves in all of the rooms meant Bella needed to go down four flights of stairs to a rat infested cellar where the coal was stored. Lisa’s family lived in a two-room apartment but in communist Poland, one family was not allowed to have two bedrooms. As a result, they took in a boarder who shared one of the rooms with Boris.  Lisa shared the other room with her parents. She did not realize the joy of having her own room until they reached Boston.

They arrived in New York harbor on Monday, January 15th, 1962 where they were greeted by a representative of HIAS. The most memorable photograph, and one that Lisa treasures, was taken when the family docked. The family immediately moved up to Boston. At that time, Boston was the shoe capital and Rachmil believed he would find work there. In addition to paying for all of the family’s travel expenses from Poland to New York, HIAS also helped them while they got on their feet. The organization found and paid for an apartment, which they furnished and outfitted with all the basic needs, right down to the bed linen.  

One of Lisa’s most vivid memories is of her first night in Boston. Lisa and her brother went into a small neighborhood grocery store for the very first time. It was a huge store when compared to the open air markets of Poland and the U.S.S.R. In the store, they discovered Kasanof’s sliced black bread and salted margarine, luxuries that they never experienced in neither Poland nor the U.S.S.R. They promptly bought some, went home, and ate everything in one sitting. In Lisa’s own words, “It is still the best meal I have ever had.”  

Lisa and her family initially settled into an apartment in Mattapan, a neighborhood of Boston. Rachmil found work in a children’s shoe factory. He worked in the Green Shoe Factory in Roxbury (another neighborhood of Boston) where he made StrideRite shoes. Working conditions in the factory were horrid. Also, his health had gotten much worse. He suffered from a heart condition and lung problems.

At that time, factories paid for production labor by the piece as opposed to a fixed hourly wage, so Rachmil would labor for ten hours a day making shoes as fast as he could. The competition was fierce and people were vicious. About a year after arriving, Bella also went to work. She folded and hung clothes in a department store called, “Filenes” for over 10 years. The work was very hard for her because of the serious carpal tunnel in her hands. 

Lisa said that her father was incredibly smart and he proved this by taking an unpaid apprenticeship with a cobbler in Dorchester (also a neighborhood of Boston). For more than two years, after working all day at the factory, he worked at night to learn to fix the bottoms of shoes. Rachmil wanted to open his own cobbler shop. It took him more than 10 years but he eventually reached his goal and went from being a factory worker to a small business owner. He opened his own cobbler shop in Needham called, “Ralph’s Shoe Hospital.” Bella worked in the shop with him. They sold the shop after Rachmil suffered a stroke and was unable to continue.

Shortly before Rachmil purchased the cobbler shop, he purchased his first gold-colored Lincoln Mercury. For a man who lived his entire life (at this point he was over 40) without any luxuries, the car became his pride and joy. When Lisa learned to drive, she was not allowed to use her father’s car for practice. Only Rachmil drove the Mercury. When the gold Mercury was about 10, Rachmil traded it in for a new maroon-colored one. Lisa lost Rachmil on December 5th, 1992. His passing was very peaceful. He got into his car, put on his favorite driver’s cap, and passed.  Bella lived for another ten years. She passed away on January 10th, 2002 in her own home with her two little Chihuahuas by her side. She had several strokes that began almost ten years earlier. Eventually, Bella was unable to walk or eat unassisted. She passed peacefully in her own bed surrounded by Lisa, her husband Steve, and her caregiver Zoya Nesterova. Zoya came to Boston from Zapharozhe, Ukraine and loved Bella like her own mother throughout the three years she helped Lisa care for her.   

Even to this day, Lisa goes into panic mode when someone knocks on the door and she is not expecting anyone. It takes her a few seconds to realize that she does not need to panic. Lisa considers herself a very lucky person who owes a huge debt of gratitude to her parents for having the guts and unwavering determination to reach the United States. She is thankful to her parents for providing the opportunity to enjoy a better way of life and the freedom from religious persecution, anti-Semitism, and second-class citizenship that they experienced in the Soviet Union.  

 As Lisa looks back at her parents’ lives, she recalls that Rachmil never spoke about being a Jew or what it meant to him to be Jewish. Lisa recalls only a single comment from when she was about 12. At the time, the family was living in Wroclaw and she had just experienced one, of the many, anti-Semetic attacks. Rachmil simply said, “In America, Jews live in peace.”

The story is written  by Daniel Koch, the BGI student, 2012.