Thanks to the release of the 1950 US Census, I found my very first friend. Why am I so excited? We moved out of my grandmother’s apartment when I was just five years old, but whenever we went back to visit, I would always go downstairs to visit with my friend, Joella. A few years after we moved, I knew she had gotten very sick. She started writing letters to me, but, after a while, her letters stopped coming. What happened to her? Her family, by that time, had also moved away and we had no way of tracking her down. I have worried about her for almost 70 years. Let me start at the beginning.
When I was born, my parents lived with my grandmother in 2054 78th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, NY. At that time mainly Sephardic, Egyptian and Syrian Jews settled in Bensonhurst as well as Italians. Note that my family did not fit into any of those categories. Today, it is not only known as Little Italy, but it also has the 2nd largest Chinatown in New York.
My grandmother lived in a building with 4 apartments and a little fenced-in backyard. At one point in time the building was known as the “House of 4 Sisters” since my grandmother and 3 of her sisters each had an apartment in the building. By the time I was born in 1947, my grandmother lived upstairs in the back apartment. Downstairs in the front, lived my grandmother’s sister, Rose Streicher, and the other 2 apartments were rented out to non-family members. Downstairs in the back, under our apartment, lived the Trupin family. Dan and Sophie Trupin had a daughter named Joella, and an older son named Bob. Although Joella was a few years older than me, we would play together.
To get to Joella’s apartment, I had to walk down a long flight of metal steps, then go down the dark hall to her apartment. I remember hurrying since the “long” hallway scared me, especially since the door to the cellar was across from her apartment door. I had no idea what was down there, except that it was very dark and spooky looking whenever the door was open. One day when I was about 3 years old, I walked out of my apartment unnoticed and stood at the top of the steps calling out “Joella, Joella”. I wanted her to come and play with me. Yikes! I suddenly tumbled down the entire flight of stairs. The noise brought all the adults out of their apartments running and screaming and trying to catch me. Do you think I learned my lesson? Nope, the next day, and the day after that, the same thing happened. I don’t know how many days it took for me to understand not to stand at the top of the steps like that. However, for years, I frequently woke up with the feeling that I was tumbling down a flight of stairs.
Most of the time we played outside. We liked to sit on the stoop or throw a ball against the outside stairs. It was also fun to go into the gated backyard. I remember the tree in the corner. Joella said it was a pear tree and that there was a cherry tree in the corner.
In the photo on the right, I am in the front row left and Joella is in the center. The other children are some of the kids from the neighborhood.
We moved to Queens after my brother was born. However, we visited frequently to see my grandmother, Minnie Wosnitzer, whom I adored. On each visit, I would ask to go downstairs to see Joella. One day we got a phone call. Joella was found passed out in the street and was very sick. I still asked to visit her whenever I visited my grandmother. Now, though, her mother often told me she was too tired to see me, or if I was allowed in, I could only stay for a short time. I can still picture Joella sitting on her piano bench with her long, straight hair while we talked. She was so gentle, kind, petite, and funny.
Sometimes her big brother would pop in. He was about 12 years older than me, so I never really talked to him. Joella told me he got married in 1952 at age 19. Her parents had to give permission for him to get married so young. Sometimes her father came home with exotic smelling foods that made me wince. Having never seen or tasted pizza myself, watching gooey cheese drip from a piece of dough was not appealing back then. I was used to the “Jewish” deli we ate in my grandmother’s apartment. Other times Joella’s mother would give us a piece of rye bread and let us slop up the pan gravy of whatever she was cooking. Now that was delicious!
When I was about 8 or 9, my grandmother told us that the Trupins were moving to another part of Brooklyn. The last time I visited Joella she promised to write to me, and she did! Every time I got a letter, she always drew a border of pretty flowers around the paper. After a time, her letters stopped coming. Knowing that she was still not well, I was scared and concerned and just plain worried about her. Was she ok?
My great-uncle Harry Lieber, my grandmother’s baby brother, had moved in with his sister when we moved out. He told us that he ran into Mr. Trupin somewhere in Brooklyn and they were planning to move to California. However, he did not know how Joella was.
The years went by and every so often I would think about Joella. Where was she and most importantly, how was she? Once you could Google, I would periodically search for Joella, but I could not remember how to spell her last name and there was no one to ask. In early 2022, the 1950’s US Census was released. I looked up my family. I knew in 1950 we were living in 2054 78th Street. There on the same Census page as my family was the Trupin family! I now had their names. Back to Google I went. Would you believe I found an entry for a Joella Trupin in CA? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sat on this information for weeks. I was too nervous to call. What if she didn’t remember me?
On a Sunday afternoon (Eastern Standard Time) in July of 2022, I got up my nerve and called. I was preparing to leave a message when, much to my amazement, a woman answered the phone. “Joella?” I asked. “Yes” replied the woman”. “I don’t know if you will remember me, but my name is Tara Blieden and I lived upstairs from you in 2054 78th Street when I was very little”. “OH, Tara”, she emotionally answered. She remembered me!
We had so much to catch up about. She did tell me she had to be home-schooled from 4th to 7th grade due to ulcerative colitis, and that she weighed less than 50 lbs. when she was 15 years old. At age 16, she had extensive surgery and after that was able to lead a normal life.
Also, she remembered my mother. As a matter of fact, she said she loved my mother so much that she even carved Maisie, my mother’s nickname, in her parents’ headboard! (picture) She said my mother was the “young, hip” mother of the building. She also remembered us running upstairs to get a treat whenever we played together. She said my mother would give us each a freshly peeled, whole carrot. Joella thought that was just the best thing ever! There aren’t that many people who remember my mother, so you can imagine how much hearing these little stories meant to me.
On that first call, she told me her mother had written a book about her own mother’s experience of being one of the first Jewish settlers in North Dakota. The book is called “Dakota Diaspora” by Sophie Trupin. (picture) Joella sent me a copy and I quickly devoured it. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish. It is a book about the early pioneers in North Dakota and it is a genealogical treasure.
From Joella, I also learned the name of the school I attended in kindergarten. I often wondered about that. I now know it was P.S. 186. I still remember the long walk there and how old the building seemed back then. I only remember 3 things about kindergarten: crying and not wanting to go, churning cream to make butter, and passing notes to my teacher since my father wanted to fix her up with his first cousin, Jud Bricker!
During our second conversation we reminisced about the people in the neighboring buildings. Facing our building to the right was Stella, my mother’s friend, who was also a good friend of Joella’s mother. As a matter of fact, Joella’s mother and Stella stayed in touch for many years.
In the building on our left lived the Wassermans. Mrs. Wasserman owned the fish store on 86th Street, which was the main thoroughfare for shopping.
Both Joella and I remembered the bakery on 86th Street where our favorite treat was a Charlotte Russe. It was a delicious cream dessert wrapped in pretty cardboard that was open on the bottom. After you ate the cherry and the cream, you would push the cake up from the bottom until nothing was left. There was so much to choose from in the bakery as the shelves were stocked full of delicious looking treats. However, all I ever wanted was the Charlotte Russe. As much as we each loved going to the bakery, I did not enjoy the fish store as it was very smelly.
If you walked out of our building and turned to the left, went to the corner, and turned to the left again onto 20th Avenue there were a few small stores. I remember going into the shoemaker’s store and the smell of the leather, and Joella remembers a small neighborhood grocery store.
We ended by promising to talk again and I know we will. We still have so much more to reminisce about and to learn about each other. This amazing reunion occurred all because of the release of the 1950’s census and my obsession with my genealogy!