Discovering Stored Treasures

Discovering Genealogy, One Ancestor at a Time.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Day 13: Fearless Females: Staring Down Diphtheria

March 13 Prompt— Moment of Strength: share a story where a female ancestor showed courage or strength in a difficult situation.

Yesterday, I mentioned Feige Yarmovsky in passing. Feige was my second great-grandmother. Feige took ill when Minnie my great-grandmother was only ten years old. Caring for an invalid mother, changed Minnie's life. It defined her character, her decisions and her motivation going forward. Most of the stories about Feige after she became afflicted with severe rheumatoid arthritis are of an embittered woman. Today I want share an excerpt from Minnie's memoir, where she recalls Feige's softer side. This story reveals the courage and strength of a loving mother.

This is one of Minnie's earliest memories told in her own words (from Stored Treasures, A Memoir):

Feige Yarmovsky
My own awakening goes back to age three or four when I was very sick with diphtheria* and rode in a horse and wagon to the doctor in the neighboring town of Lida. The year was around 1900. Our own little town did not have a regular doctor. Some brave soul would come take a residence, set up an office, and begin the dreary job of making a living for his family out of doctoring the inhabitants of Belitsa. One had to be pretty sick to find the cash for the doctor, so he ailed on until he either got well on his own or died. For lack of business, these local doctors would struggle along as best they could. Finally in desperation, they would pack up and move on to greener pastures.
Sickness, especially when there is high temperature present, causes drowsiness. Because this was a night journey, I recall waking in the night and seeing Mother step down off the wagon for nature’s call. Again, there would be the jostling and stubbing of the bad road. With each bump, there must have been a corresponding increase of pain, for there would generally be a closer snuggling to Mother’s body and oblivion. It seemed to go on endlessly. My throat hurt. Breathing was difficult. 
From stories I heard told repeatedly about that trip, the doctor told Mother she made the hard journey for nothing.
“Don’t you people have a cemetery at home?” he asked.
However, even then I must have shown the streak of stubbornness that has followed me all my life. I got into my head that it was too soon to give up, so here I am after all those years and many more very serious illnesses. I am hale and hearty and ready to go on for a good many more years or as long as I will be allowed to.
* Diphtheria, caused by a toxin-producing bacterium, results in a severe upper-respiratory track illness that is characterized by high fever, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. Prior to widespread availability of the antitoxin in 1913 and the vaccine in the 1920s, Diphtheria was the leading cause of death in children. There was not much for helpless parents to do but watch as their feverish children suffocated to death in the hands of the dreaded “strangling angel of children” disease.

Feige must have recognize the dreaded childhood illness in her young daughter. For a poor family like theirs, taking a sick child to a doctor was an exorbitant expense. There was no doctor at the time in the town, and her mother traveled on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving five other young children behind, in search of help. Despite little chance of a cure, she took her daughter to the doctor, only to be turned away. This short story, exemplifies the time period and the stuggles poor families all over the world faced then. Sadly, many poor families all over the world continue to face similar hurdles while trying to obtain medical attention for their children. It also exemplifies the strong mothers who put children ahead of themselves, no matter what little resources they have! 

To learn more about +Lisa Alzo's 31 inspirational writing prompts in celebration of Women's History Month visit her blog:  The Accidental Genealogist. It's not too late to join!


  1. Mother's will go to the ends of the earth to save their children. This is a great story and so well written.

    1. Thank you, Betty! Her voice really comes through in her writing. She wrote beautifully, especially if you consider she learned English as an adult. You should read her memoir. It's really beautiful. Of course I'm biased, but I think it's very meaningful for those of us doing this kind of family history research. I've enjoyed sharing snippets of it with my readers!


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