The Autobiography Of David Lelewer – Edited and Annotated by Nancy Lelewer
Copyright © 2013 by Nancy Lelewer
Born in poverty in the province of Posen, which was then part of Germany, David Lelewer, like his father, Selig M. Lelewer, dreamed of someday owning his own business. Selig’s dream had ended in 1847, four years after David’s birth, when he was lost at sea trying to reach the United States. For David’s mother, the loss of Selig meant years of sorrow and backbreaking work, but it was due to her determination and hard work that David, an excellent student and eager reader, was able to complete high school and an apprenticeship with a furrier.
In 1861, after a year of working as a journeyman, David decided to immigrate to America. He arrived in New York in May at the age of 18, speaking no English, with $2.50 in his pocket; a $5 gold piece, a gift from a family friend for emergencies, hidden away; and few belongings. Fort Sumter had fallen. Lincoln had already called on the northern states for a militia of 75,000 men and was now asking for more volunteers. While the country held its breath as it waited to see what would happen next, the economy slowed almost to a standstill, and the immigrants on Orchard Street in New York shared their cramped living spaces with each other and the cockroaches and prayed for piecework.
David’s story follows the history of the United States. He is here for the economic lull as Civil War begins. He has friends who are swept into the Union Army, some of whom return, some of whom are lost. As the economy improves under the wartime demand for goods, his life improves. At the war’s end, he is among the people lining the streets to see Lincoln’s funeral cortege pass by. He marches with the trade associations that have turned out to show their respect for the assassinated president. He moves west to Indianapolis to start his own business and take advantage of the boom times that follow the war. He marries, has children, and is swept into the Panic of 1873, known as the Great Depression until 1929. When all fails in Indianapolis, he moves to Chicago, establishes a business and prospers as Chicago prospers. As Chicago becomes Carl Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders,” he rides streetcars, follows the rise and fall of businesses, and sees his children marry and have children of their own. And so his life went, through the rigors of the nineteenth century and into the wonders of the twentieth century.
In 1908, David at the request of his children wrote the story of his life. By 1909, David had turned most of his business over to his only son, Seward. Again at the request of his six children—Sadie, Seward, Blanche, Nellie, Sylvia, and Harriet—David began to write his autobiography, one handwritten copy for each child. The work would continue until 1911, occasionally interrupted by a trip back to his home country and rides in that wonderful new invention—the automobile.
The Autobiography of David Lelewer is far more than the life story of a young immigrant to the United States. It is the story of nineteenth-century America from the time of the Civil War through the first decade of the twentieth century.
Nancy Lelewer Sonnabend, David Lelewer’s great-granddaughter, lives in Boston’s Back Bay. She is the creator of games and a calendar to help children understand space and time and is the co-author of journal articles dealing with learning differences based on her research at MIT and Harvard Medical School. Her two books, Something’s Not Right: One Family’s Struggle with Learning Disabilities, which won a Parents’ Choice Award Commendation, and The Lelewer Legacy, Traditions of a Loving Family are published under her maiden name, Lelewer. In 2007, her short story “Sue and Grace” was published in Harvard’s HILR Review. Although she has many interests, her real passions are her family, travel, and helping those with learning differences, Asperger’s Syndrome, others with social/communication challenges, and those with hearing loss.