The Man Who Couldn's Do Square Roots

Jerry Sheinbach

September 29, 1990|By Jerry Sheinbach

AS A CHILD of an immigrant, I learned as early as the third or fourth grade that my father could no longer help me with much of my homework. Oh, he read and wrote English pretty well, he could add a column of numbers faster than I ever could, and he knew what was going on in the country and the world; but he knew nothing of fractions, square roots and simple equations, and never learned about such things as angles and planes or adjectives and adverbs.

It bothered him that he could not help me and I recall several occasions on which he asked a customer in his store to help me with a homework problem I could not handle. As a 9- or 10-year-old, I was not able to appreciate the significance of such moments -- a customer in a store sitting down for 20 or 30 minutes to assist an anxious father with his child's homework. The customer, selected because he had gone to school in this country, occasionally had difficulty with the problem, but I could see that he wanted to help my father fulfill his role as a parent.

I knew my father would have done anything he could to help me with my math and geometry, and I realized I was dearly loved, but I grew up understanding that he was not at the educational level of most of the parents of my peers. I admired my dad for his combat service in World War I, for his strength of character, and for his understanding of human nature, but in the enormous immaturity of youth I perceived him as an essentially unremarkable person.

As I grew up, I understood much more clearly that I was very much like him, thanks to the example he set and the values he stressed, but he passed on in my twenties and although my admiration for his character and values deepened I continued to think of him as a generally unexceptional person.

A few years ago, my brother and I learned of an 80-year-old woman named Gilda who had been brought to this country by my father and we visited her to ask about the ''old days.''

My father, a Ukrainian, had come to this country alone as a young man and returned to Europe in 1920 to bring a grandmother, his parents, a sister and other family members to America. A cousin who was not able to emigrate at this time had asked my father to take his two children, Gilda (17 at the time) and a 15-year-old brother. Knowing that he had made the journey before, a number of desperate neighbors and even a few strangers begged my father to let them join his group. By the time he started out, he was shepherding several dozen people.

It was an extraordinary odyssey. Many had no papers and had to be smuggled across the Ukrainian border into what is now Romania. Border guards, city officials, even strangers had to be bribed to buy their cooperation (or silence). To obtain Romanian passports, it was necessary to create Romanian identities for the travelers. Family names, dates and places of birth were copied from gravestones in local cemeteries. The group was in constant danger of being jailed or turned back; only the bribes carried them along. As the leader, my father was also responsible for finding shelter and food, settling disputes and uplifting flagging spirits. The group was so large my dad rented an entire baggage car to reach Bucha- rest by train and continue on to Germany.

In Hamburg, the travelers anxiously waited for several weeks but were not able to get the necessary clearances. Learning it might be easier to obtain the clearances in Czechoslovakia, my father backtracked and took the group to Prague. Eventually they made their way to England and boarded ship at Liverpool for the U.S. When Gilda finished her story, I was suffused by a glow of pride and at the same time intense regret over my ignorance of this extraordinary achievement.

The thousands of names inscribed at the Ellis Island museum identify many of the immigrants who came here but few of us can possibly appreciate the harrowing experiences many of these people had. Vulnerable to official abuse, thieves and con men and brutes of all sorts, intrepid shepherds like my father brought their families and friends many hundreds of miles across Europe just to reach a port of embarkation.

Although my dad was not able to help me with fractions and square roots, I finally learned how wrong I was ever to think of him as an unremarkable person.

***Mr. Sheinbach lives, unremarkably, in Towson.

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