By Jeffrey Sanzel
At the suggestion of his daughter, nursing home resident Sam Fox records his life story. “Now where to being with this taping for Eliza? I was a decent man, I suppose.” In that “I suppose,” author/journalist Roni Robbins sets in motion the engaging but unreliable narrator in Hands of Gold, subtitled One Man’s Quest to the Find the Silver Lining in Misfortune (Amsterdam Publishers). Sam refers to some of his dormant experiences as “a ravaging tapeworm” that he wanted to purge. What follows is a textured, first-person narrative reflecting turn-of-the-century European life and North American immigration, as well as struggles with money, family, and health.
Robbins’ novel is based on cassette tapes left by her maternal grandfather. In a decade-spanning journey, Hands of Gold’s sweeping nature never loses its intimacy.
Sam Fox was born in Jacovo, Hungary, in 1905, the ninth child of a poor Jewish family that would eventually grow to thirteen (with his widowed father marrying his wife’s sister to produce the additional offspring). It is a life of farming and prayer for the family.
Robbins provides a vivid depiction of poverty, threatened by violence and unrest, both in the form of anti-Semitism and the threat of war. She creates the cramped, cold conditions of the shtetl, a large family where servings of food were almost rations. As Sam’s mother would tell them, “That’s what you have and that’s what you eat.”
Robbins wisely eschews the easy, idyllic family life for one of constant challenges, exacerbated by Sam’s father’s passing and his elder brother’s return. Always in the background is the hope of America—the land where the streets are paved with gold. At age eighteen, Sam escapes the family (as well as dodge army service), ending up destitute in Prague, only to return home. With his second attempt at liberation, he spends time in Germany before crossing the Atlantic and jumping ship in Montreal. The book is a Brave New World adventure story, a unique take on “Go West, young man.”
In Canada, he falls in love with Hannah Stein. The seamstress-Yiddish theatres’ singer is dynamic, self-assured, and strong with an annulled marriage. From the first date to marriage and beyond, the courtship is beautifully chronicled.
At age twenty-one, Sam snuck over the Canadian border. His first impression is not the idealized United States. “As I stepped off the platform, I noted how closely packed the buildings, how shmutzy the streets were with blackened snow and fetid water …” Four of his brothers and four of his sisters had already made homes in America. But even then, it is not a joyous reunion; his sister, Sophie, greets him with a mixed reception.
He witnesses the conflict between immigrants who have forged uneasy assimilation and those who still cling to their old-world Jewish traditions. Robbins never evokes anything less than an honest picture.
Sam finds work and starts a family. Central to his story is tuberculosis developed at age twenty-six. The repercussions and medical setbacks coupled with the separations from his family plague him for years to come. He is in and out of employment, often spending weeks in the hospital or rest facilities, trying to work his way back to Hannah and his children. As in Europe, his existence was marred by poverty. The book chronicles the organizations that supported people like Sam—both government bureaus and Jewish agencies. The services aided but did not fully alleviate the burdens faced by poor and sick people.
No book on this subject can avoid the effects of the Holocaust. Much of Sam’s family is lost in Europe. Sam’s oldest son served in the post-World War II army, and his experience going through the Displaced Persons camps is poignant and powerful.
Sam ponders generational gaps and muses on the contrast of his childhood with his children. “My children, like most, didn’t comprehend how good they had it. When I grew up, I didn’t always have shoes to wear […] Only on Friday nights did we have to wear shoes. They didn’t necessarily fit properly, but luckily, we only had to wear them for a few hours […] Children learn more when they have their own families to support …”
Robbins captures Sam’s voice, with its European cadence and liberal use of Yiddish. (The words are easily understood in context or using the book’s glossary.) Sam questions many of his choices but accepts their eventual outcomes.
“If there’s something I’ve learned, it’s that some days start out badly and don’t get any better. Other days are quite momentous and you have to hold tight to those. Be thankful for every day you experienced love and blessings because you never know when your faith will be tested again.”
Hands of Gold explores and celebrates the gratitude of one man’s soul. Pick up a copy online Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. For more information on the author, visit www.ronirobbins.com.