Former alderman recalls coming to America

Joseph Garbus, a former alderman, said his life started when he came to this country on May 2, 1951.

Garbus, 77, was born in Pinsk, Russia, on Aug. 21, 1940, during World War II. His name at birth was Chaim Josel Garbuz. He has a brother, Al, who is six years older, and a sister, Esther, who is five years older.

He has only a few scattered memories of his early years. The things that happened during his youth have mostly been told to him by his older siblings.

“Shortly after my birth, my father, Berl, was arrested by the Russians for anti-communism activities and sent to a slave labor camp in Siberia known as the Gulag,” Garbus said. “They claimed he was a ‘war resistant fighter.’ Months after my father’s arrest, my mother was also arrested. They came to take us on transport trucks and brought us to a train headed for Siberia. Before boarding the trucks, we were allowed to pack, and my sister was given an album to keep in fear that we would never see our family again. My brother was not with us at first. My mother wanted him to stay with her parents. Before we left, my brother screamed to be with my mother. Her father brought him back and at the last minute he ran to the train. If he hadn’t done that he would not be here today.

“On the train we were herded like cattle along with other prisoners. As we passed by our grandparents, they stood there waving.”

Garbus said he never saw his grandparents again.

When they arrived in Siberia, they lived in shacks or barracks. It was very cold there and the conditions were poor. The snow was so deep that it covered the windows, which gave some insulation to the barracks. Paths were opened up so the people and horses were able to pass through.

“Many of the people there were prejudiced against us,” Garbus said. “One of the Polish women in the camp discovered we were Jewish and pushed my brother into a fire while he was heating up some food. My brother wondered how she knew he was Jewish. He looked more German or Polish, like my father, who has blond hair and blue eyes. His legs were badly burned. The women in the camp placed his legs into a basin filled with urine to kill the bacteria. My sister had to watch me while my mother took him to get help. My mother carried him on her back for about 40 kilometers (almost 25 miles). He had to stay in a hospital for six months. We remained in Siberia for a few years.”

Garbus remembers that while traveling in Uzbekistan the family was making its way through a Russian flea market in Bukhara.

“The streets were mainly unpaved paths and dust was being kicked up all around. People were milling about large tables along the street, inspecting what was being offered. There were many different colors of material in vivid reds, blues, greens, and even whites. Other wares for sale included trinkets and many other interesting items. Tents with different foods were in another section.”

His sister, who had been left in charge of him, wandered over to a table to look at something and he followed. All of a sudden he felt the sensation of being picked up, and the next thing he knew he was put on a gray-and-white donkey by a man in a striped robe.

“My sister turned around and grabbed me from the man,” Garbus said. “She was hitting the man and yelling for my mother and brother. When my mother heard her, she came running back to us. I was trembling and I think my sister was in shock. My mother grabbed me and hugged me and reached for my sister to try to calm her down. I could have been one of those children on the platform. I later discovered that they were being offered for slave trading. The man on the donkey got away and most of the people didn’t even know what happened. This was a common occurrence. I was almost kidnapped.”

This was the young life of Garbus, and he is working on his memoirs, which are painstaking because of the years and travels that he recalls only in fragments.

But he clearly remembers arriving here at the age of 10, approaching the Statue of Liberty.

“I was overwhelmed as I got closer to the Statue of Liberty. The thought of coming to America and freedom at last,” he said.

“Officially, he was a displaced person, a boy without a country,” according to a Connecticut Post article written in 2011. “The government of the new nation of Israel issued him, his mother, sister Esther and brother Albert identity cards in February 1950 that eventually allowed them to resettle in the United States.”

The family came to the United States in May 1951, sailing from Bremerhaven in Germany and arriving at the port of New York, according to the Post.

Garbus later taught hairstyling at the Robert Fiance School of design in Manhattan, before opening his own salon in midtown, and then the House of Geisha Salon in Fairfield. Now he owns the Hair-Inn in Stratford.

A former Milford alderman, Garbus led the revitalization of the Walnut Beach area, and many other Milford efforts, following what he describes as a mission of “spirituality.” He was recently among a group of Milford residents honored by Milford Speaks Out during its first “Thanks for Coming” awards.

Today, he has his eye on publishing his life story, working to recall the people, places and events that lined his path to freedom and the United States.