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Rachel Calof, Part 2


Yesterday, we introduced Rachel Bella Kahn, a Russian Jew who came to the United States in 1895. Her move was a desperate attempt to escape the obstacles she had been facing – physical abuse, being an orphan, separation from her siblings, and being forced to work for a rich aunt who didn’t want her. At 19, Rachel was not yet married and would soon be past her prime. When she was given the chance to impersonate another woman who backed out of an arranged marriage to a Jewish man in Devils Lake, her relatives were relieved to see her go.

In her memoirs, Rachel Calof’s Story , she recalled the day she first met Abraham Calof’s dirt poor family. The shack belonging to his niece’s family horrified her.

“...(nothing could have prepared) me for the scene inside the miserable shack which was this woman’s home,” she wrote. “ heart turned to ice... This was my first sight of what awaited me as a pioneer woman. The furniture consisted of a bed, a rough table made of wood slats, and two benches. The place was divided up into two sections, the other being the kitchen which held a stove and beside it a heap of dried cow dung. I was told that this was the only fuel this household had... I silently vowed that my home would be heated by firewood and that no animal waste would litter my floor. How little I knew. How, innocent I was...”

The young couple made for Abraham’s little house. But the roof had blown off in a windstorm, and they had to stay with his parents. Rachel and Abraham were promised a private space within the shack, but it was merely a pit scooped from the center of the 12' by 14' dirt floor. The family’s only lamp was useless, because there was no kerosene, so at dusk, everyone went to bed.

“The arrangements called for me and the mother to occupy the bed,” she wrote, “while the (three men) were to sleep on the earthen floor. Charlie and Faga’s youngest, a boy of two and a half years, had remained...when the others left. The old woman stated that the boy would also occupy (our) bed – conditions at Charlie’s place were so foul the child might not long survive there...

“In the fading light,” she continued, “I surveyed my dreary surroundings. How could these people, unwashed, with little to eat, dressed in tatters, coarse and illiterate, escape the doom which already held them by the throat? The holes in the walls and roof...were stuffed with bits of paper in hopes of keeping some of the flies out. How could they expect to last out the coming winter in this structure, I wondered. Had there been revealed to me at that moment my involvement in the solution of this particular problem, I would have run screaming into the night.

“Quickly, the darkness became total,” Rachel wrote, “and I had no choice but to retire. The boards of the bed, without mattress or spring, were covered with straw which pricked my skin at the least movement but did little to ease the hardness of the bare boards. Still what bothered me the most was occupying the same bed with the old lady, a person whom I had never even known until a few hours ago. I lay as stiff and unmoving as I could while the sound of snoring rose to an ever higher crescendo until it seemed that the very walls shook.

“Suddenly I began to feel quite warm. The little boy had emptied his bladder and quickly followed with a healthy bowel movement. I removed myself as far as possible...and gave myself up to utter despair... The people, the overwhelming prairie, America itself, seemed strange and terrible. I had no place to turn. There were no other homes to be seen on the vast expanse of the great plain.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm