Memoir tells of fear, prejudice and successful life of former Milford alderman
If you were born in the middle of the last century and your parents were Jews, Belarus wouldn’t have been the worst place in the world for you and your family, but it would be safe to say that your childhood would not be one of plenty.
Most people in Milford know Joe Garbus as a former alderman and advocate for a number of worthy causes in the city. But he was born in Pinsk, Belarus, in 1940.
Most people who make it to their late 70s have a yarn or two to tell, and Garbus, 78, has more than most. He is scheduled to sign copies of his short memoir, “Kid From Pinsk,” on Sunday, Sept. 16 at the Firehouse Gallery, 81 Naugatuck Ave.
As a Jew in what at that time was part of the USSR, he was in for a very rough ride.
His dad was sent to a gulag in Siberia, and he and the rest of his family were soon shipped off to Siberia but to a different labor camp.
His mother had to scrounge for food. In one harrowing attack, his older brother was pushed into a fire, badly burning his legs. His sister, being the most pitiful of the three children, became the family beggar.
The Nazis took their toll on the family, too.
“There are no survivors on my mother’s side of the family,” Garbus said.
Things got even more precarious after the war. The family was sent to Bukhara, Uzbekistan, where kidnappers preyed on children. He recalled one scene where children were standing “on a platform where men were sizing them up as if they were livestock.”
The family made it back to Pinsk. The children found themselves for a time in an orphanage where they had to pretend that they weren’t Jewish to survive.
“The war was over but it was still dangerous for Jews,” he said. They moved about after that — Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany.
With Rosh Hashanah arriving at sundown Sunday, Garbus said that there was little in the way of apples and honey to celebrate the holiday in the traditional fashion when he was a kid.
“It was pretty much bread and water most days,” he said. “But, you know, the experience taught me to appreciate the things we have today. Maybe there’s a little too much kvetching going on now.”
Still, there were occasional acts of kindness. And finally, on May 2, 1951, Garbus and his mother arrived in the United States after a family offered to sponsor them.
“It was on a troop carrier — packed in like sardines,” he said. “I didn’t know a word of English. I knew Russian, Polish, German and Jewish (a dialect spoken by Jews in the Baltic states; it differs from Yiddish and Hebrew), but no English.”
He said that his “second life” began when he stepped on U.S. soil.
Garbus signed on with the Army in 1959 and was selected for training in its elite Ranger unit. He was soon to discover that the ugly cloud of bigotry that turned his childhood into a living hell would make another appearance in his life.
“Some of the guys in my unit were from the South, and they weren’t averse to using the N-word,” he said. “It was always ‘N this’ and ‘N that’ with them. And, believe me, they weren’t too fond of Jews, either.”
He said that he had no choice but to ask his commander for a transfer out of the unit — and back to the regular Army.
“I was proud of being a Ranger, but I just couldn’t trust those guys,” he said. “When you’re in a combat situation, you really have to know that they’ll have your back, and I couldn’t depend on them. I just couldn’t trust them — if they found out that I was a Russian Jew, well, things can happen when you’re out in the woods on patrol.”
He was sent to Korea where he spent the remainder of his obligation to Uncle Sam. He was 20 when he was discharged. After that he became a hairdresser, and for a time worked as a high-end stylist in New York. He still works a couple days a week at his shop, the Hair-Inn Salon in Stratford.
Garbus has lived in Milford continuously since 1984. He served as an alderman representing the Walnut Beach enclave from 2003 to 2007, and he has been gently prodding the city to turn the Stowe Barn, around the corner from where he lives with his wife, Carol, into a summer theater.
“It would make a fantastic theater,” he said wistfully on a recent visit. “They’ve got to do something with this building — it’s so much a part of Walnut Beach.
As for his past, he said that “it was a life that I hope that no other child will have to endure.” But he said that he has no malice in his heart for those who treated he and his family badly.
“That’s how they were brought up as children — to be distrustful of people not like themselves,” he said. “The world would be a better place if we could just accept one another.”