Marie Grunfeld Jastrow
1898 – 1991
Chronicler of two critically acclaimed books on immigrant life, Marie Grunfeld Jastrow was born on June 10, 1898, in the Prussian city of Danzig, present-day Gdansk, Poland. The elder of two daughters of Julius and Johanna (Deutsch) Grunfeld, she was educated in a German school, and lived in Serbia before moving to the United States with her family at age ten. They settled in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, which Jastrow recalled in a 1979 interview with the New York Times: “We enjoyed Yorkville when it was a melting pot for immigrants from all over Europe. It was a wonderful time. People were poor in money, but no one felt poor otherwise.”
In 1921, she married Abraham Jastrow, an automobile salesman. They had two children, Dorothy and Robert, an astrophysicist, author, professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth College, and director of the Mount Wilson Institute. Robert Jastrow comments on the Jewish aspects of his parents’ home: “We had an heirloom menorah, my maternal grandfather’s tallith, and not much else. I did however attend Hebrew school and was a bar mitzva.”
Jastrow began writing when she was a young girl, but had always received rejection slips. She was eighty-two when her first book, A Time to Remember: Growing Up in New York Before the Great War, was published in 1979. It was followed in 1986 by a sequel, Looking Back: The American Dream Through Immigrant Eyes, 1907–1918.
A Time to Remember is a memoir of Jastrow’s early days in New York. It tells of her father’s arrival in America, from Austria, in the immigration wave of the 1900s. He was barely skilled and ignorant of the English language. With thirty dollars in his pocket, he came in search of the legendary gold that would provide for his wife and daughter left behind in Serbia. After a beginning that seemed directed to inevitable failure, he survived against impossible odds and sent for his family.
Jastrow potently describes the terrible ordeals of future Americans on the decrepit, less-than-seaworthy ships, and the family’s fears of being turned back upon arrival at Ellis Island. She focuses on the bleakness of the strange new world and on the gap—so much more than geographical—between the Old Country and the New. Jastrow details the perils of the reunited family through portraits of the incredible efforts and teamwork required to survive in the new homeland. Too proud to ask for help, her father collapsed from hunger one day, but the American dream eventually prevailed and better fortune followed. Nonetheless, family conflicts surfaced as her father tried to maintain tradition in the face of her mother’s enthusiasm for the new. Women’s liberation surfaced when Papa pressed Mama to do more ironing in his laundry business. She put her foot down: “No, I will not iron another thing for you in the evening. I have found work in the bakery. For this I will get paid at least, and a thank you once in a while. From you what do I get? Nothing!”
One short chapter in A Time to Remember serves as an example of how Jastrow’s Jewish voice is sublimated to the acculturation experience she chooses to relate. “A Mitzva” tells the story of the good deed done by the landlord of the Hester Street tenement where her father roomed, when he assisted her father to gain employment.
Looking Back is a series of vignettes of some of the people and places Jastrow knew best in the turbulent years between the Panic of 1907 and the end of the Great War in 1918. This book, like A Time to Remember, is a loving tribute to Jastrow’s parents and a nostalgic salute to the fortitude of countless Europeans who, like them, had forsaken their homelands and sailed to America—that mythic place where dreams could become realities.
Jastrow relates the importance of politics to the immigrants and tells of the families divided by sentiments concerning the war in Europe. Although Jastrow makes no claim to anything more than a personal documentary, Looking Back reads like engrossing fiction. The smallest accomplishments are pridefully depicted. The public school system was a precious gift, teachers a special race. The most telling feature of the book is the implied juxtaposition with Abraham Jastrow’s mother’s visit to Serbia—marking Abraham and Marie’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. There the once successful family had been reduced to poverty, while in America the poor who had fled in desperation were enjoying the beginning of success.
Marie Jastrow died at age ninety-three on March 30, 1991, at her home in Tucson, Arizona.
Looking Back: The American Dream Through Immigrant Eyes, 1907–1918 (1986); A Time to Remember: Growing Up in New York Before the Great War (1979).
Jastrow, Robert. Telephone conversation with author, April 17, 1996; Obituary. NYTimes, April 7, 1991, 32; Rose, Peter I. “A Tribute to Latter Day Pioneers.” Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1986, 30; Seebohm, Carolyn. “Non-Fiction in Brief.” NYTimes Book Review, July 29, 1979, 13.