• -
  • Stories & Articles by Sonia

Articles and Stories by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

Sonia Pressman Fuentes

End of Life Issue

October 16, 2014

I cannot come to terms with death. My father died in 1968 at the age of seventy-four.  And in the minute of his death, his life and everything he did was all over. And when I die, there will be no one left who really knew him. That is what concerns me.  I wrote a memoir, much of which was about my parents, as a way of keeping them alive but, of course, a book can't keep anyone alive.

My father was born in 1863 in a shtetl in Poland named Piltz, an hour's ride from Cracow.  His mother, who ran a bakery, had several husbands and her third husband, about whom I know nothing, was my father's father. Why he had the German name of Pressman I do not know.

My father never attended any school and had contempt for education all his life.  He was illiterate except that he learned to read printed Yiddish while we were living in Antwerp, Belgium in 1933-4 after fleeing from Berlin, Germany because he'd heard that in order to be admitted to the U.S., one had to know at least one language. A man we knew came to our home in Antwerp and taught my father to read Yiddish and thus my father was able to read the Yiddish newspapers.  In one of them he read that ships were leaving from Antwerp for the U.S. and that's how my family came to the U.S. on May 1, 1934.

When they were living in Berlin and were well-to-do, my mother used to hire tutors to come to our house to teach my father, but he always ran away when he heard one was coming.

When we lived in North Miami Beach, FL and I was attending law school, I'd come home from my classes every day to find my mother seated at a table trying to teach my father how to sign his name.  I don't know if she ever managed it.

At the age of fourteen, my father illegally ran across the Polish border to Germany and there began to work in an establishment and learned how to be a tailor.  Later, he became a prosperous businessman.  My family had maids in our home in Berlin and my father owned and ran a men's clothing store with a small factory in the back. Shortly before we left Germany in 1933, he had bought a 44-apartment building for investment purposes.

Under pressure from my brother, Hermann, who was eighteen in 1933, my father agreed to leave Berlin because of the threat to the Jews from Hitler and the Nazi regime.  So, he sat down in a room with a small group of Nazis and gave them our men's clothing business and the apartment house we had recently bought for a fraction of their value and they allowed us to leave Germany.  My father had already had the foresight to send money out of the country to banks in other countries.

In the summer of 1933, we came to Antwerp, Belgium, but when we couldn't get visas to legally remain in Belgium, and were under threat of deportation to Poland (my parents' birthplace), my father saw that item in the Yiddish newspaper about ships leaving for the U.S., and we boarded a Red Star Line ship for the U. S., arriving here on May 1, 1934. 

When we arrived in the U.S., my father for a while returned to the men's clothing business with a partner in NYC. But he didn't like the pace of life in NYC and, after we took a brief summer vacation in 1935 in the Catskills Mountains of NY State, in 1936 we moved there.  My father had decided to go into the summer resort business, a business about which he knew nothing.  But that didn't faze him.  He eventually bought fifty acres of land in Monticello, NY, on which he erected twenty-five bungalows, a home for our family, a swimming pool, a handball court, a casino, and a small general store.  He ran that colony successfully until 1947, when he sold it and moved first to Long Beach, LI, where my married brother lived, and then to North Miami Beach, FL, where I was attending law school.

He lived to see his son become one of the most successful realtors in Long Beach and to see his daughter graduate first in her class at the University of Miami School of Law.

One of many things I remember about him was that after bribing a clerk in Monticello to grant him a driver's license  (since he couldn't read) he would sometimes drive by himself from Monticello, NY to Miami Beach, FL--without the ability to read a single street sign. I don't know how he did it as he hated asking for directions. When my mother and I were in the car with him on occasion, she'd make him drive up to anyone on the street to ask for directions, and as the person was giving them directions, my father would drive off.

Although short in stature, to me he was bigger than life.

So that is what I resent about death and the end of life:  that it ends and erases forever the life of a man like my father.