MY FAMILY’S JOURNEY
By Rob Hassett
1st Published in April of 2008
Updated with New Information on December 13, 2015
In 1905, 19 year-old Lieb Chusid left his home near Kiev, Ukraine, for a better life in America. Sometime during his stay at Ellis Island, his name changed to Louis Hassett—later to become “Papa Louie” to me, my siblings, and my cousins.
Louis’ final months in the Russian Empire were harrowing. At age 18, he was drafted into the Russian army and sent to Manchuria to fight in the Russo-Japanese war—a war over the control of full-year seaports in Southern Manchuria. Initially, the war was popular in Russia. However, due to the incompetence and corruption of the Romanov government, the Russian troops received little training and support, and the Japanese won most, if not every, battle.
Louis told my father that the soldiers did not have enough weapons, warm clothing, or food. Exhibiting the resourcefulness and determination that he would later pass on to his sons, Louis waited until the military situation was especially confusing, and he deserted. Riding on trains and with great care, he managed to travel back from the warfront through Siberia to his hometown.
Back home, Louis knew that he could not remain in the Russian empire. He decided he would try to move to the country that offered the best promise of freedom and opportunity — the United States.
Louis got word that soldiers were in town looking for draft dodgers and deserters, with a quick death as the usual punishment. The soldiers used tactics such as curfews to make an escape from town supposedly impossible.
Louis took his modest savings and some money his parents and grandmother gave him, said goodbye to his family, cut open a mattress, and stepped inside. Louis’ grandmother sewed the mattress back up. T hen, the family put the mattress with Louis inside, on a wheel burrow and Louis’ grandmother pushed the wheel burrow to a nearby train station. Louis then got out of the mattress and jumped on a freight train headed west.
He barely escaped arrest by border guards, resorting to bribery on at least one occasion. He made his way to Hamburg, Germany, and there boarded a ship to the United States. He thus reached New York, passed through Ellis Island and settled in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia he met the woman who would become my grandmother, Yetta Friedman. Yetta Friedman had come to America from Poland as a young child. Louis and Yetta married in 1908. Louis first worked as a wallpaper hanger. A short time after they married, Louis was offered a job by Yetta’s sister’s husband, Hymie Greenstone, who owned a successful store in Staunton, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, near Charlottesville. Yetta and her sister were close, and Louis, ever the adventurer, accepted the job. Louis learned how to operate a business from Hymie and then became a partner with Yetta’s brother, Harry, in a store in South Hill, Virginia. Louis later moved on with his family to Colonial Heights, Virginia, where he opened a dry goods store. Louis and Yetta had four boys, Harry, Sam, Abe (my father), and Jay. Papa Louie was a wonderful father—something his sons appreciated more and more as they grew older.
Around 1928, Louis was riding on a train from Petersburg to Ocean View, a beach in Norfolk, Virginia. The train broke down in Franklin, a pleasant little town about 60 miles from the coast. Louis walked around the town and loved it. He sent Harry and Sam to open a store there. A few years later, when Abe turned 18, he turned down a scholarship to Virginia Tech and followed Sam and Harry to Franklin. When Jay finished high school, he joined his three older brothers.
Franklin, which then had a population of about 5,000, was a rural community where farmers grew peanuts and raised Virginia hams. The Union Bag Corporation (later Union Camp and now International Paper) operated a paper mill. Prior to 1950, the only Jewish families in Franklin were the Hassetts, the Sifens, the Sobles, and the Hirsches. The Sobles eventually moved away. Franklin lured Dr. Hirsch and his wife, who were Holocaust survivors, to the city because it needed a surgeon, which worked out very well for everyone.
Louis’ belief that Franklin would be a good place for a second store proved correct. Eventually, the Franklin store became much more successful than the one in Colonial Heights. Around 1953, after Grandma Yetta passed away, Papa Louie moved to Franklin .
From hiding in Ukraine to thriving in rural Virginia
Louis’ resourcefulness carried over to his sons. In the late 1940s, Sam and Jay shared ownership of an airplane. They kept it at the little Franklin airport, which had no lights and could accommodate only daytime landings. One day, Jay flew to Norfolk, about 50 miles away. The plane had no radar, and the only way Jay could navigate was by following the roads. On the return trip, Jay realized that he was following the wrong road. He turned around and eventually found the Franklin airport. However, it was already dark, and he could not see the runway.
Jay considered his choices. He was running low on fuel and began buzzing the homes around Franklin, hoping someone would realize the problem and help him. A man, who later lived near us on the same street, figured out what was going on. He called about twenty friends and led them all down to the runway, where they lined up ten cars on each side, turned on their headlights, and waited for the plane to land. When Jay saw the headlights, he turned the plane around, approached the runway, and safely landed. Visibly shaken but relieved, Jay spent the next hour shaking hands with and thanking the rescuers.
Sam also showed courage and ingenuity under pressure. When I was ten years old, Sam and his wife, Agnes, took me fishing in the sound on the back side of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It was a beautiful day, and we were catching lots of fish. Suddenly, a huge water moccasin slid out of the reeds and headed toward our little boat. I alerted Sam to the snake. He attempted to start the engine, but it would not start. The snake, probably attracted by the fish hanging off of the boat, was coming at us full speed. Sam grabbed an oar and waited as the snake approached.
Just when it was at the side of the boat, Sam, a former semiprofessional boxer, hit the snake on the neck with great force and killed it. Sam said he had to hit the snake in just the right place to avoid flipping it into the boat. Years later, when Jimmy Carter talked about how he courageously fought off a rabbit, Sam, Agnes, and I had a good laugh.
From a young age, Abe liked working with electronics. At age 13, using parts he found mostly in junkyards, he built a working ham radio from scratch. In 1941, Abe was drafted into the army. He was stationed at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, where he taught radio repair and learned about television.
In 1945, soon after Abe returned to Franklin, the brothers started selling televisions. They had a competitive advantage, because Abe was the only person in Franklin who knew how to fix them. Later, they were the first in town to sell window air conditioners.
Around 1947, one of the Sifens set Abe up with Peggy Scher, the daughter of Joe and Josie Scher, who lived in Portsmouth, Virginia, about an hour’s drive east of Franklin. Abe and Peggy were married in 1948 and had four children, Ellen, Lewis, Bruce and me.
There were lots of Hassett cousins in Franklin. Harry Hassett and his wife had two daughters, and Jay and his wife had one son and four daughters. Sam had no children and spent a great deal of time with his nephews and nieces.
Papa Louie spent his final years in Franklin with an aura of calmness and generosity. He played cards with his daughter- in-law, Peggy, and his grandchildren. He traveled to Richmond with my mom, my sister, and me. He enjoyed taking walks in the neighborhood.
As it turned out, the lives of four children, thirteen grandchildren, eighteen great grandchildren, and even a few great-great grandchildren all resulted from the courage, cleverness, and determination of a nineteen-year-old boy hiding in a mattress over 100 years ago. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to him, which I hope we have paid in part with this article.
My mother, Peggy; my brother Lew, his wife, and two children; my cousin, Hank Greenstone (grandson of Hymie); and three Sifen children and their children now live in the Atlanta area.
I do wish to thank my brother Lew; cousin Hank; my brother Bruce, who lives in Vienna, Virginia; cousin Valerie Hassett Drazen (daughter of Harry), who lives in Lake Mary, Florida; cousin Ray Hassett, M.D. (son of Jay Hassett), who lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina; cousin Kim Hassett Slagle (daughter of Jay), who lives in Richmond, Virginia; and my wife, Lynn, for their contributions to this article.