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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Podcast Extra – VERA BURSTYN

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AM: So when did you start to think of yourself as a Holocaust survivor? And when did you start to tell this story?

VB: You know, I remember when the Holocaust Museum was here in Skokie on Main Street. I went and I wanted to volunteer to speak, but for whatever reason, they rejected me. But then, you know, I retired and I got older and all that, and then somehow I got in touch with the museum and started to speak occasionally.

AM: And was that a difficult process to start speaking publicly about this experience?

VB: Well, you know what? In the beginning, I was just very anxious, very nervous, like I am today too, just talking to you. It was like a new experience for me. You know, I had never done that before. And I was hoping that I’m telling my story that it’s going to leave an impression. I always read that, you know, from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, that quotation. And I always tell the young people when I talk to them that, you know, not everybody’s going to like you, but that doesn’t mean that you have to hate them.

You know, in Skokie, we have signs that says “Skokie welcomes everyone.” And in my community, I have the whole United Nations living here. You know? And when I go to the grocery store or the fruit store, when I did this morning, you know, people from all over the world, they come and they shop and they do their thing. I mean, you know, people that make their home in the United States, they want to make a living. The people that I know, especially in the very beginning when people came to the United States, we worked very, very hard, day and night, to get a foothold in this country. You know what I mean?

AM: And what kinds of jobs did you and your family have in Chicago?

VB: Well, you know, so we arrived in the United States in December, and then we lived in this rooming house, and eventually — eventually the HIAS got us an apartment on Avers and Lawrence. And then, of course, you know, my mother and I, we started looking around, how are we going to go and how are we going to earn some money? You know? So my first job was a dollar an hour. It was on Devon and McCormick, in that neighborhood on Devon Avenue. There was a guy that was renting a store and we were gluing together airplanes, toy airplanes. You know, there was no ventilation or anything, and I remember getting headaches. You know? Now when I tell the kids that story, I said, “You know, I didn’t know that from glue you’re supposed to get high.” You know? I just got a headache. You know? But that was my first job.

And then eventually, I went to Zenith Corporation and we were sitting in a long line, you know, a long line, and there were like maybe 50 women, mostly women, on this assembly line. And we made televisions, Zenith televisions. You don’t have those anymore in this country. At that time, there was Magnavox; there was Admiral. You know? There was three, four other brands of televisions that we made in the United States.

AM: And was that in the city of Chicago?

VB: Yes, it was in the city. Yes. It was in the city. And that paid at that time $2.20 an hour — you know? — so we were working on that. And, unfortunately, you know, my dad didn’t get a job till September of 1957 and he got a job — elevator operator, which doesn’t exist anymore. Now my husband and I sometimes say, what would we do now if he came to the United States? You know, what kind of job would we have? You know, those jobs disappeared. Anyway. So that was another job I had.

And then when I got married, on Foster and Kedzie, there was also a small business that they were making hot water bottles. You know? So I worked there, again, you know, with my hands. And in 1959, the end of 1959, my first child was born. And from then on, I was helping out my husband and his business occasionally, but I didn’t have a job job, then, for some time.

AM: And how long have you been married?

VB: I have been married 62 years. My husband lived in an apartment building that was actually bought by his three brothers. My husband had three brothers and they came to America in 1951. And in 1954, they saved enough money to put on a down payment, three brothers for the six lots. And the family lived — you know, my brother-in-law with six kids lived on the first floor and we lived on the second floor. And my next-door neighbor was my other brother-in-law. And my mother-in-law and father-in-law lived on the first floor — you know? — trying to get ahead, saving on rent.

You know, you talk to survivors and they will tell you that they lived in basements for four or five years. They never went to a movie. They never went to a restaurant or for coffee. And I think the survivors, by and large, made good in this country because they were able to look ahead and they were able to sacrifice today for the good that’s gonna come, you know, tomorrow. I mean, a lot of families in 1950, beginning in 1950, were able to put a down payment on a home in Skokie. Of course, at that time, a house was like $15,000 or something. You know? The salaries were very, very, very meager too. And people worked very, very hard.

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Photo credits: David Seide

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