To Make a Dream Come True: Harry Reidinger

To Make a Dream Come True: Harry Reidinger

Stories of the Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Harry Reidinger

Harry Reidinger: A Jew in the Old West 

Like many other young Jewish males, Harry Reidinger left Lemberg, where he was an established prospering tailor, in order to avoid the military draft.  He came to New York in 1902, but was dissatisfied with the economic opportunities for fine tailors.  With no knowledge of English, he answered an ad for a tailor in Cody, Wyoming and went West.  Wanting to fulfill a promise to his father to remain a Jew, he left Cody for the booming copper town of Butte, Montana, which already had a synagogue and kosher butcher. Harry is pictured above on his wedding day with his bride Lottie. The photo was taken in New York City.

He was part of the colorful life of the Old West and made a suit of clothes for “Buffalo Bill.”

He celebrated his 100th birthday at the Hebrew Home.

Big City Fakers

I had another sister living in America already, and she was married and had brought along her little girl from Europe.  She sent me a boat ticket to come here (in 1902).  My ticket cost only $20; I left home and got to Vienna.

In Vienna, the first thing, I was cheated out of money.  I was a greenhorn.  I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know the fakers in the big cities. Up to Vienna I made it pretty good, paid a dollar here and a dollar there.  They told me where to take the train, but in Vienna this man faked me. “Du bist Mechel Reidinger’s son? Oh, a nice Jew, I know him.” The man had a cheap hotel in Schiffstrasse.  Mind you, a cop warned me when he saw me with a bellhop, he knew he was a faker.  He said, in German, to be careful and I could not make out why he would say that.  I was too young; I wasn’t faked yet.

The hotel owner gave me some breads and butter, made a cup of coffee. “Nu, you can’t go yourself after a train ticket to Rotterdam because they’ll see you coming.”  I was a damn fool.  He told me I was still in danger to be caught as a deserter.  He got my $20 from which he bought me the cheapest train ticket; he paid maybe $7 or $8.  But he kept my $20.

Dutch Hospitality

I came to Rotterdam, I put my hand in my pocket, I didn’t have even a cent.  There they tell me I have to wait three days for my ship, and I haven’t got a cent to sleep or to eat.  I went to a hotel and I says I haven’t got a cent to my name and I told them the whole story. Some of them, they laughed.  They thought I’m playing.  I says, “You send me over the owner.”  I told him what happened.  I thought the ticket paid for everything, but it was just for the boat.  He said, “You don’t get anything around here on this ticket.  This is just a boat ticket for $20, what do you expect?”

So I started to cry. He sent over a woman, she wiped my eyes, she said, “Don’t cry, boy, we’ll see that you get there.”  They fed me for three days.  And my ship didn’t come.

So, another boat, a more expensive boat, the Columbia Anchor line, came along. They couldn’t feed me any longer.  And the marched up and put me on the Columbia anchor Line and it took me to New York. I don’t know who paid.

On the ship they gave you food, even.  I was on the middle deck.  Not the lowest deck. Not very good accommodations.  A little bed to sleep on, made like a couch. About ten or twelve in a room.  In the morning they chased us out, we should go in the air.  I was sick.  I had no appetite to eat.  Everything stank. It was dirty.  It was a smell from the ocean.  They were looking for me and I was hiding.  They were going to inoculate me.  Oh, I was so sick.  I don’t even know myself what I ate.  A herring, a piece of bread.  Whatever they gave me, I couldn’t eat it.  I was sick all the time.  It wasn’t so dirty, just sickness from the ship, the air. I couldn’t get used to it.

Mutual Help

At Ellis Island you had to go through a whole line of people.  I found out there were some immigrants who were here in America already and they sent them back.  A man told me, “You’ll see when they make a mark on me or another man, brush it off fast.”   I said, “Will you do that to me, too?”  He said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”  One man makes a mark on you. When another man comes along and sees the mark, he pulls you back.  When they start to look at you, you probably wouldn’t be fit enough.  So, nobody made a mark on me.  There was just one man, they made a mark on him because he had a fur coat that was full of lice, white lice on black fur.  He was the only one that had lice.  He threw the fur coat in the water.

My brother-in-law came and told them I’m a tailor, I can make a living.  They let me go home with him.  My sister and brother-in-law had three or four rooms and three boarders besides me.  Pretty soon I got another place to sleep, a big room with some other men.

I was a tailor in New York. I never worked in a sweat shop. I said to my cousin Annie, she wanted me to work in a shop, “Annie, I’m a very independent tailor.  When I make a pocket it must be just so.  I’m proud of it.  When I make a shape in a coat, I’m proud of it.  It’s not only the money I get, but I’m proud of my work. And you can’t make a cloak operator out of me, because this is not a tailor job.”

It was difficult in New York to get and keep work suitable for a custom tailor, especially if he couldn’t speak English with the customers and the Italian foreman, so he decided to go west.

(Question: How come you went West if you couldn’t speak English?)  You didn’t need to talk English.  They needed a tailor, not a talker.  There were no tailors; you’re far away from the markets, three thousand miles away. How are you going to get tailors?  He advertised in a woolen house to get a tailor, and that’s where I found a job to go to Cody, Wyoming. He had an ad in a place where I used to buy the woolens.  I happened to look at it.  “All-around tailor wanted.  Must inquire…” When they said an all-around tailor, I said to myself, “I’m the one.”

 Fare from New York to Cody was $59.  I went by train, sitting up.  I left my wife and kids home with her folks in New York.  My father-in-law bought me a wurst, a great big baloney to eat on the train, for two days and two nights.  When I got to Cody I stayed in the boss’s place, Charlie Benjamin. He gave me a room.  He was Jewish, but he didn’t believe in anything.  He didn’t want to be a Jew.

Your Grandma came to Cody with both kids, after four months. Martin was three years or three-and-a-half years old, and Henrietta was a little baby about six or seven months.  I wanted to take her in my arms.  She didn’t know me and cried.  They came in December, 1912. I rented a nice home.  It had everything.

Charlie Benjamin thought he had a tailor to stay forever.  But I thought otherwise.  Because3 I gave my father my hand that I would live as a Jew.  That’s why I remained a Jew.  My father, when I left for America, he took my hand, he says, “Herschel, give me your hand that you will identify yourself as a Jew.”  That’s why I had to leave Cody, Wyoming.

When I came to Cody, Wyoming, I looked around.  It was a different story. No shul. No Yid. Charlie and me.  I said it’s impossible to raise children here Jewish.  I can’t identify as a Jew.  It’s impossible.  We were two Jews.  One didn’t believe in anything. He had two boys. They were born in Brownsville, New York, and neither one was Yiddish.  So, I says to my wife, “Lottie, we can’t stay here.”  She says, “You want to pull me along again?”  You already pulled me from New York!”  She hated it too.  She had a fight with the boss, and with the lady. They were Litvaks.  The Litvaks and the Galitzianers didn’t get along.  They were funny people anyway. There was no Jew in the.  So we left.  I was eight months there in Cody, Wyoming. She cried all night.  She didn’t like it. But then she was afraid there would be no work.  I got $25 a week in Cody. I should say that was good pay.  A designer didn’t make any more in New York.

The Move to Butte, Montana

So, what am I to do?  I have to look for a job in a different town. I happened to pick up a morning paper, and I found Butte, Montana to be a big mining town.  Anaconda Copper Mining Company and another big mining engineer, W. A. Clarke, he also had mines in Butte.  And a miner was getting $3.50 a day; a tailor must sure get $4.

When I came to Butte, Montana, $4 was right.  It must be 1913, the first of May.  I set out to Butte on the train with no job lined up. We just had a little baby buggy; Henrietta was wheeled in the buggy, so tired.  Pick me up.”  I pushed the buggy.  The suitcases we left in the Butte station.  That was about two o’clock when we landed.

We passed by a place, it said Empire Theater and on the other side it said Empire Tailors.  The tailor named himself after the theater.  I said, “Lottie, let’s go into the tailor shop.”  I go in to this fellow, his name is Pete Forgina.  He was a Slovak and I talked German to him.  I says, “Do you need a schneider?”  He says, “Where you from?”

And a man was in the back. He says, “boss, hire this young fellow.”  He says, “What’s the matter with you, John?  You work here don’t you?”  He says, “Yes, but tomorrow’s the first of May; I’m going away.  You knew that. The gang is waiting. I’m a hobo and I told you.  I’m going to go with the hobos.  You hire this man.”  So he hired me.  “You can come tomorrow to work.”  So I got a job already.

The boss says to me, “When you walk clear down Main Street, you’ll find a Jewish butcher.”  I see a kid, he pushes a little coaster.  I say to myself, he looks like a Jewish boy.  So I made a run after him.  I said, “You a Jewish boy?”  He says, “Sure, my name is Pinchas Ehrlich.  My grandfather has a butcher shop.  He’s a shochet too.  You want to come and see my grandfather?  Follow me.”  We followed this boy; he brings me to his grandfather’s butcher shop.

I told him my story.  “I’ve come from Cody, Wyoming, and I have a job to go to work tomorrow.  But I have to have some place to sleep.”  He says to me, “My daughter lives about two blocks this way.  You go there, she’ll make you clear.  I think she has a room for you.”  So I walked and I forgot the daughter’s name.  Well, anyway she gives us a room.  So I already got a home and a job in one day.


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