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Reisa Bunick

Full text from interview with Reisa Bunick in 2011. Highlighted section are included in audio presentation. Audio requires QuickTime player (free download from Apple) or equivalent MP3 player installed with your browser. 

Reisa Bunick grew up in Chelsea, where she was born, in 1945, the third child of Reuben and Florence Bunick. Her family rented a flat in a three story home where there was never enough heat or Reisa Bunickenough room, but there was much love and security. Eager to be on her own, she went to Smith College on scholarship (with a junior year at the University of Toronto).  Upon graduating, Reisa moved to New York and after two years came back to the Boston area, where she remains.

She worked mainly in software design and development and her last job in the field was using artificial intelligence techniques to construct a financial planner. This experience was useful when her mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed, and she stopped working to be her caregiver. Her father waited until after Florence died seven years later, and then he exhibited Alzheimer symptoms. Although he was in an assisted living and a nursing home, he occupied all her attention for several more years.  Reisa is now a retired person with lots of interesting and enjoyable volunteer jobs. For example, anyone who calls a certain non-profit on Tuesdays may talk to her and anyone who likes theater matinees may be seated by her.

Part 1 – European Ancestors and Early Life in Boston – Approx. 4 minutes.

A:     They can’t afford to renovate but I think they can afford a battery.

Q:     All right.  I’m going to start this.  So today it is September 16th.  I am at the home of Reisa.  I want to make sure I’m pronouncing your last name correctly.

A:     Bunick.

Q:     Bunick.  And we’re going to be discussing some early Chelsea memories. I just want to start off asking you some questions about your family history and background.  If you can just start off with your date of birth.  Where you were born.  And then move into where your family came from when they came to this country.

A:     OK.  I was born at the Chelsea Memorial Hospital on Bellingham Street in Chelsea.  It’s not there anymore.  November 25th, 1945.  That was the end of that question I guess.

Q:     Yeah.  So how did your family get to this country and where did they come from?

A:     My father’s family came from the Ukraine.  The cities he told me about were Konotop and Chernigov.  And so I just assume that it’s near where Chernobyl is but I don’t know.  His father was a bartender or whatever the version of bartender was there.  As far as he told me.  And he was a wanted man when he left the Ukraine because he beat up two non-Jewish Ukrainians who wanted him to serve him during Sabbath.  My grandfather was closing for Sabbath and two men came in and according to my father -- I don’t know if this is true -- he picked them up and slammed them down and injured their legs and had to leave the country.  My grandfather who was Nochem Bunick I guess in that country had two wives.  His first wife was Esther.  His second wife was Annie.  His first wife he had four children with.  And then he came over as you saw with Annie and his four oldest children.  Although Annie was using the papers of Esther.  I’m assuming he didn’t come over with both wives.  That was probably the situation.  They settled in East Boston.  My father was born about eight months after they arrived.  So he probably was conceived in the Ukraine.  And born in East Boston in the house which was on Chelsea Street in East Boston and is no longer standing because it was right where all the construction around Maverick Station is.  The highways and tollbooths and all of that.  So the house isn’t there anymore.  He was a dealer in rags as people used to do at that time.  They used to go with a wagon and pick up discards and then pay people and sell them.  And he was also a bootlegger during Prohibition.  And my father helped him out with that.  And he was also a gambler, which didn’t help the family very much.  According to my father his mother was a scholar who translated.  People used to bring letters for her to translate and to write.  When they got letters from the old country.  And my father had one younger sister who was a couple years younger than he who’s name was Mary.  And that was the family.  Is there anything else?

Q:     And what about your mother’s family?

Belorussia - Mother

Nathan, Fannie/Florence (Reisa's mother) and Dora Atkins in Belorussia before immigrating to Chelsea. Their mother and her three youngest children immigrated in steerage aboard the Mauretania in 1914. They left Liverpool March 7 and arrived in New York March 13. Their father and four older surviving children were already in the U.S.

A:     My mother’s family was from what’s now Belarus, from Polotsk.  Her father was a carpenter.  And they came over in stages with the father and the oldest son coming first and the rest of them coming over on various boats.  My mother was lucky enough to come over on the Mauretania with her mother and the other two youngest siblings.  They went third class but apparently it was very luxurious.  They loved it.  And I’ve done a little research on the Mauretania.  I’m assuming they had a room to themselves like in the movie Titanic where there’s the room with the four bunks.  So when I was a child I pictured them all in steerage sleeping in a large room with hundreds of people.  But they probably had a nice clean room to themselves.  And third class was actually in the middle of the boat.  It wasn’t below.  And they had four meals a day.  And free medical care.  And they had lounges.  The third class.  And my mother had ice cream and bananas for the first time.  And my mother and my aunt told the same story.  They both said it was them, so I don’t know who it was.  But one of them got a banana and ate the skin because she didn’t know any better.  And the other one was so -- and one of them was so excited about having ice cream that she kept it in her mouth and ran over to show her mother, who hit her on the back, and it all spat out.

Q:     How did they manage to travel in that?

A:     On the Mauretania?  Well, my mother’s father was a very skilled carpenter.  So he had a really good job.  And his foreman, who was a man whose last name was Sullivan, was actually the sponsor of their coming to this country.  And I’m just assuming that he had enough money saved for them to travel well.  Except that my mother left Belarus -- they had to sneak out.  They were in a hay wagon hidden under the hay.  So they sneaked out of Belarus.  They went to Germany somehow and then went to England.  To Liverpool to board the Mauretania.  And I don’t know what all -- how they got there.  She was only a small child.  She arrived in 1914 so she would have been seven.

Q:     What kind of work did her parents do when they arrived?

A:     He was a carpenter.  Yeah.

 At Home

Reisa's father, Reuben Bunick in State Guard uniform. During World War II he enlisted in the State Guard, Chelsea 9th Company. Reuben Bunick was born in East Boston in 1906 a few months after his family arrived from Ukraine. After he married, he lived in Chelsea until his death in 2001.

Q:     And when did your father arrive?

A:     The family arrived in -- he was born in 1906 so they came in the spring of 1906.  On the USS Pennsylvania, which I actually took a picture of it off the Ellis Island records.  It didn’t look like the Mauretania.  But they made it.

Q:     And is there anything else about their immigration experience that you want to elaborate on?  Other stories they told?

A:     Well, my mother quit school very young and went to work at Walton Shoe Factory in Chelsea.  So she only had -- she could read and write but she had the barest of educations otherwise.  I think she probably could have gone far.  I think she was probably very smart.  My father went to East Boston High School.  And he was a professional dancer for a -- oh this isn’t immigration, is it?  No I guess there’s nothing else that I remember about immigration.

Q:     But continue on.

A:     Except that my mother said that after they arrived here a lot of their family was wiped out in Belarus by the -- yeah.  The Russian population raging against the Jewish population.

Q:     But continue along that same line.  Your father went to East Boston High.

 At Home

Ruby (Reuben) and Reisa Bunick
at 81 Addison St. in Chelsea

A:     He went to East Boston High.  He was a professional dancer.  Which I’ve given you some stories about.  He also wanted to be a lawyer.  And I think he apprenticed for a short while and then gave it up.  He just wasn’t -- he was more interested in having a good time I think than studying.  And he hitchhiked all around the country.  And basically had a good time.  He met my mother on a blind date.  Apparently he and his friends were on a group blind date.  And they told him he could have his first choice of women.  To get him to come.  And you’ve seen my mother’s pictures.  One look at my mother and he picked that one.  And he picked her for her looks.  But they were very much in love until the very end.

Q:     Did you have a lot of other family members that lived in Chelsea and East Boston?

A:     My mother’s family did.  Yeah my father’s family by the time I was born had scattered.  A lot of them lived in Detroit.  Some of them lived in New Jersey.  So they weren’t really around here.  And his only -- his half-brothers were both deceased by then.  One of his half-brothers had no family.  Another one, his family lived in New Jersey.  And his two half-sisters settled in Detroit with their families.  My mother’s family lived in Chelsea though.  They were all around.  Her sisters and her brothers.

Q:     So did you grow up with a lot of cousins?

A:     Well, I was the youngest by far.  The next youngest after me was my brother, who’s nine and a half years older than me.  So they were all around but I didn’t exactly grow up with them.  I knew them.

End of Part 1.... continue to Part 2


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