A Romantic New Year's Eve Story
A New Year's Eve to Remember
1940 - Uncertain Times for Romance
1940 was a year to remember. The war in Europe was escalating, and everyone was anxious. It was only a matter of time before the United States jumped into the fray. Everyone was living on the edge. The U.S. instituted the first peace time draft, and young men were called to military service. Young people, not knowing what would happen next, wondered if they would be sent off to war before their budding romances had a chance to bloom. The uncertainty of the times lent a feeling of urgency to lovers and many married quickly before the inevitable call to war.
It was in these uncertain times that Steve and Franka's romance began.
Russian Immigrants Raise a Family in New York City
Stephen, called Steve by his family, was born in New York City in 1916 to Russian/Polish parents who emigrated to the United States in their teens. They lived in a small apartment in a Russian/Polish neighborhood, and enrolled their children in a Russian Orthodox school. Prokopi was a hard worker and thrifty. When Steve was in 4th grade, Prokopi had saved enough to buy a farm in Kingwood, New Jersey and moved his wife, Stella, and his children, Stephen, Stella, Lillian and Elizabeth out of the city. Prokopi continued to work in New York City as a presser for a tailor. During the week he stayed in their NYC apartment; on weekends he took the train home to the country bringing sacks of bagels, rye bread, lox and a selection of delicacies from the Jewish delicatessen in the city.
Marriage Bureau booms in 1940
From City Boy to Country Boy
On the farm, Stella and the children took care of the cow, a few geese, some chickens and the garden. Steve and his sisters went to a one-room schoolhouse in Kingwood where they learned English and all about country life. They spoke Russian and Polish at home and English in school. Many of their neighbors were also of Russian or Polish heritage, so the family felt quite at home in the small community. The neighboring families socialized, traded produce and helped each other with their harvests. Stephen grew up working the farm, playing in the fields and woods with his sisters and the neighboring children. When he graduated from 8th grade, his parents decided that it was time for him to take more responsibility on the farm, and Steve left school for good.
Three Generations Before the Return to Poland
Facts on 1940
- Average household wages per year $1725.
- Average house rent $30 per month
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president
- World War II was in progress.
- Walt Disney released his first feature film, Pinocchio.
- Charlie Chaplin stars in “The Great Dictator”
- Swing music was the mostpopular music and Frank Sinatra was every girl’s dream.
- Glenn Miller’s popular hits include “In the Mood” and “Pennsylvania 5-5000”
- Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart were the popular movie stars.
- Ernest Hemmingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- A gallon of gas was 11¢ and a new car cost around $850.
- $100 in 1940 was the equivalent of about $15,000 today.
- Germany started its bombing blitz on London
- Germany invades Denmark, France and Belgium.
- Italy declares war on France and the United Kingdom
- Germany bombs Paris and London.
- The Narrows Suspension Bridge Collapses at Tacoma, Washington
- The U.S. institutes the first peacetime draft as the war in Europe escalates.
- Nylon stockings go on sale for the first time. They cost 20¢ a pair.
Polish Immigrants Also Raise a Family in NYC
Meanwhile in a nearby NYC neighborhood, Frances, called Franka by her family and friends, was born in 1917 to Polish immigrant parents, Stanley and Frances. Frances's mother had come with her daughter from Poland, but was never happy so far from her homeland even though she lived with Frances, Stanley and her grandchildren. When Franka was seven years old, Frances' mother was so unhappy and finally convinced Frances to travel back to Poland with her and the three young children, Franka, Sophie and Stash. The plan was that Stanley would work in the U.S. as a shoemaker for a couple of more years, then return to Poland with a nest egg for the family.
The Return to Poland
However, when Frances and the children reached Poland, things were not as she remembered. Times were harder and the village was less welcoming. While they were back in Poland, her mother drowned in the river as she gathered firewood. Frances missed Stanley as well as life in the U.S. Through the slow mail system, they decided that she would bring the children back to the U.S. Unfortunately, her visa ran out while she was out of the U.S. and she was unable to return. It took five years to arrange passage back to the U.S. Meanwhile, Franka and her siblings, although U.S. citizens, started school in Poland and learned to read and write in Polish. They forgot most of the little English that they knew.
Returning to the U.S.
When Frances returned to the US with the children, little Franka was twelve years old and did not speak English. The passage back was rough, and the Franka was terribly seasick. It was a huge relief to finally sight land and be reunited with the father she barely remembered.
Life in New York City
Franka and her brother and sister were enrolled in the New York City schools where they had to relearn English and try to catch up to their grade levels. Even though they had all been born in the U.S., their lack of English and recent arrival from Poland made them immigrants in the eyes of their teachers and classmates. It was very difficult for Franka, and she turned to books as her solace. She had learned to read Polish, but not English,and discovered that the New York City library had books in Polish. There were no children's books in Polish, but there were all the classics, so, at twelve years old, Franka read the classics in Polish while she struggled to learn English in school.
Franka’s life as a city girl was much different from Steve's life on the farm. Her mother worked in the Horn and Hardart cafeteria and was gone much of the time. Her father was a shoemaker with his own little shop in the neighborhood. Franka and her brother and sister were on their own much of the time, free to play games in the streets or explore the city. They lived in a Polish section of the city and were surrounded by other immigrant families. Parents felt safe letting their children play in the neighborhood or to navigate the subway and bus systems of the city on their own.
Visiting the Farm
A Fresh Air Kid Goes to New Jersey for the Summer
When Franka was in her early teens, she was lucky enough to be able to spend her summer in the country as a Fresh Air Kid and was sent to a farm family in Kingwood, New Jersey. She saw fields and cows and forests for the first time. The family she visited had a daughter her age, and she and Olga became fast friends.
Franka and Steve meet
Steve’s family lived about a mile from Olga’s. He and his sisters went to school with Olga and her sister, and knew each other well. The families socialized, and the younger generation picnicked and often hiked to a popular swimming hole called High Falls. In the summer, the older kids were drafted to help load the hay wagons and bring in the harvests. The city girl, Franka, joined the family in their farm work, and so Steve and Franka met.
At summer’s end, Franka went back to the city to continue school, but at 16, she quit school to enter the workforce in the garment district. It was exciting for her to earn her own money and to be able to contribute to the family income. A young woman of the city, she dated the boys in her neighborhood, went skating in Rockerfeller Center, went to the movies and visited Coney Island with her friends. She and Olga continued their friendship, and visited back and forth.
Meanwhile, Steve stayed on the farm, taking on more responsibility in his father’s absence, expanding the crop farming and the dairy herd. He looked forward to Franka’s visits to Kingwood each summer. Sometimes, he accompanied his father into the city where he would meet Franka for a movie and dinner.
Franka and Steve Fall in Love
Summer 1940 —a Romance Blooms
It wasn’t until the summer of 1940 that the friendship blossomed into a romance. Neither family was thrilled with the idea. Franka’s family thought Steve was a country bumpkin and that his prospects as a farmer were bleak. Franka’s mother, a devout Catholic, objected to his Russian Orthodox background. They didn’t want their daughter to move away from the city. Steve’s family thought that Franka was a bit standoffish and didn’t think the “city girl” would fit in on the farm. They didn’t like that she was Catholic and would probably want to convert him. In spite of this, Franka and Steve became secretly engaged.
A Romantic New Year's Eve
A Plan to Elope
After a rather romantic Christmas Eve, Steve and Franka were reluctant to part again. At twenty three and twenty four respectively, they were ready to be married and be together permanently. Before Steve left to go back to Kingwood on Christmas Day, they decided it was time to get married. They would elope. In the city it was easy to get a marriage license and walk into City Hall and get married.
Last Couple Married in NYC in 1940
Last Couple Married in 1940
On December 31, 1940, Steve caught the train back to the city. Dressed in their best clothes, Steve and Franka hurried to City Hall, telling Franka’s parents that they would be going to dinner and then to Times Square for the New Year's celebration. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, just before the offices closed, Franka and Steve were married by a New York City Justice of the Peace in City Hall. They were the last couple to be married in 1940, and a photographer captured their kiss on film as they were pronounced husband and wife.
A Front Page Wedding Announcement
The next morning, New Year’s Day 1941, the NYC Daily News featured a picture of the last couple to get married in 1940 on their front page. And so, Franka's father, glancing at the paper before heading off to church with his family, saw a picture of his daughter and new son-in-law as they sealed their wedding vows with a kiss.
Thus, Franka and Steve’s marriage was announced to her parents, their friends and relatives.Their first day as husband and wife was filled with tears, recriminations and rantings in three languages as parents and newly weds confronted each other. Frances and Stanley were livid with their daughter and refused to recognize the marriage since it was outside of the church. They confined Franka to her house until the sinners could be properly remarried by a priest.
Newlyweds Move to the Farm
Back on the Farm
Steve was sent home to await arrangements for a church wedding. Without a telephone on the farm, Steve's parents didn't learn of the marriage until the next day, so were blessedly out of the ruckus.
Back on the farm, Steve's parents were also surprised, but he was their favored child and they soon accepted his decision. They invited all the neighbors and threw a good old fashioned Russian party for their neighbors with freely flowing vodka and whiskey for all.
A Church Wedding
In late January, Franka and Steve were married by a priest. With the blessing of the church and their families, they moved out to New Jersey to the farm, but the city soon drew them back. The U.S. entered the war, and Steve was anxious to do his patriotic duty. After their first child, Stephanie, was born in 1942, they moved back to the city with it's lure of better jobs and opportunities. Steve was devastated when he was rejected by the military because he failed the physical. He was blind in one eye from a childhood sledding accident and he had also lost a finger on his right hand due to blood poisoning. Determined to do his part for the war effort, he got a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard building ships for the war. Their second child, Robert, was born in the city in 1945.
Franka and Steve eventually moved to New Jersey where they raised their four children, but they always had a bit of wanderlust in their blood, moving from house to house in central NJ their whole lives. They carried on many of the traditions of their Polish/Russian heritage and passed them down to their children and grandchildren. Franka and Steve were married for fifty eight years. Every New Year's Eve, they threw a party to celebrate their first romantic New Year's Eve and told their story again as they celebrated their very special New Year's Eve anniversary.
Franka and Steve were my parents, and this is a true story as it was told to me by my mother. Since there was never any written family history, there are a few gaps in the story and a few guesses as to the sequence of events, but the basic facts are accurate.
I hope you enjoyed this story of a romantic New Year's Eve in 1940.
©copyright 2012 by Stephanie Henkel