Leni Kunstler Farkas, Immigrant Woman in the Land of Dollars

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by Rebecca Stevens 11 Views

My great-grandma Leni Kunstler Farkas (1865-1938) was the prototypical strong immigrant woman. Just look at her, posing for a photo in the mid-1930s, and you can see her determination.

Until I read Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, I didn't realize that Leni's strong-willed matriarchal tactics were typical of immigrant women running households in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Leni (Americanized as Lena) married Moritz Farkas (1857-1936) in Hungary. They raised a family of 8 children while he leased land and supervised farming. When Moritz's crops were destroyed by hail in 1899--the one year he failed to buy insurance--he escaped his creditors by sailing on the S. S. Spaarndam to New York City, leaving wife and children behind with her mother.


After a year, Leni sailed alone to New York to be with Moritz. Four of their children joined them a year later, and the remaining four were finally reunited with their family 18 months after that--having been forced to wait for forged documents so the boys could avoid conscription in Hungary.

In America, Leni and Moritz had three more children, making a grand total of 13 mouths to feed. Finding herself in a dollar economy rather than a farming community where barter was common, Leni had to find a new way forward for the family.

Leni was a strict disciplinarian, giving orders, assigning chores, and tolerating no backtalk. She sent the older children out to find work and made sure they went to night school to learn English; the youngest attended P.S. 188 on Lewis and Houston streets. On payday, she demanded the pay packets from all her working children and handed back some nickels for carfare (bus or subway) plus a bite of lunch. The older boys got some carefare but had to walk home many days.

Leni's husband, Moritz, had weak lungs; he found work intermittently as an apple peddler and a presser. As a result, the children's wages were needed to cover household expenses. Still, there were some years when Leni put aside enough cash to vacation by herself in the Catskills for two or three weeks during the stiflingly hot New York City summers!

The family thrived under Leni's control and as the children grew up, married, and had children of their own, all returned to Leni and Moritz's on a regular basis. The children formed the Farkas Family Tree to continue their close-knit relationships. The patriarch and matriarch were honorary members. Every March after Leni and Moritz died, the family tree would hold a moment of silence in their memory--a tradition started by my grandpa Tivador Schwartz, who married Leni and Moritz's oldest daughter.

This post honors my great-grandma as a strong woman, the focus of week 10 in Amy Johnson Crow's #52Ancestors series. And a big thank you to my Cousin B, who began collecting family stories and cranking microfilmed Census records more than 20 years ago! She saved the memories of her mother's generation and now I'm passing them along to the next generation via my blog and in many other ways.

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