sepia toned image of girl with braids in a frame

Wild Green Goddess (Anna Israel): Her Story

The Little White Handkerchief

by Ken Israel

Well Seasoned Table's Wild Green Goddess Seasoning pays tribute to Anna Israel, the original green goddess and grandmother of Well Seasoned Table's founder, Sarah Wickers. In 1937 at the age of 15, Anna traveled alone from Czechoslovakia to New York City to join her father. Despite not knowing the language and having had to leave the majority of her family behind, she carved out a life for herself and planted roots with her husband, Jerry, and what is now the WST Farm. Her gentle use of herbs, deep knowledge of the land, and fervent passion for cooking have been a lifelong inspiration for Sarah, who spent summers walking through the garden with her grandmother and growing her own love for both the wild and the cultivated. Read more of her story...

Anna Israel at 15 yrs old

Originally published in The Enterprise Newspaper on October 10,1993 with this note (This girl now lives in these here parts and she is over 74 years old).

Living in these here parts is a very special American. She has related a remarkable account of high adventure during her lifetime. The chronicle of her life begins over 70 years ago in a small rural village nestled in the Carpathian Mountains of what was then Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe, and it ends here at Candler, another small town. Her name is Anna and she is a sweet, matronly wife, proud grandmother, and doting great-grandmother. The account is told in her own words. 

My father, Charles (Vasili) Lizak, was in the Austro-Hungarian Army, fighting during World War I. Near the end of the war, he came home and married his childhood neighbor and sweetheart, Olena (Helen) Hercz.  Grandpa Hercz was part German and part Hungarian, and he spoke both languages. Grandma Hercz was part Hungarian and part Belorussian. Grandpa and Grandma Lizak were part Bellorussian and part Hungarian. 

I was born on October 10 1919, just one year after World War I was over. That was the same year that Czechoslovakia was created into a country. It was a very democratic and free country. During my childhood, everyone was so nice. 

I lived at Lovacho, a small town of about 250 farmers in the Carpathian Mountains. The nearest large town was Mukachevo. I remember many white birch trees in our mountains and a lot of oaks. Around the town, we had a lot of wheat - the wind would blow over the top of it, and it was like waves in a golden ocean. This is where I spent all of my childhood and I loved it very much.

I could always see snow-capped peaks in the distance, even in the summer. My papa built a new house for mama and the family. We lived on a very large and productive farm. We were exceptionally comfortable. We had a huge acreage of land and lots of fruit trees of all kinds - cherry, peach, apple, pear, and plums. We had mountains of vineyards. We always grew a lot of potatoes and beans. We grew corn, barley, rye, oats and wheat so we would have flour for bread and food for the animals. We had cows, sheep and lots of hogs. We had oxen which were used for plowing and horses, which were used for hauling large loads. 

My grandparents also had large acreages of land and they were quite comfortable. Grandpa Hercz had mountainsides of grapes which he used for his winery, located in a large cave on his farm, where he stored hundreds of barrels of wine. 

The fall of the year was the most memorable, because that's when young people got together to husk the corn and beat the sunflower seeds. We did lots of singing and dancing. I was too young to court, but that's when a lot of courting went on.

In the winter, we would get together at different homes, once a week or so, and do needlework, mostly embroidery. I didn't remember seeing much knitting or crocheting. It was mostly embroidery, getting their dowry ready for whoever was getting married in the spring. There was lots of skiing, sledding, and ice skating going on during the winter. 

The largest building in the village was the church. It had a tall tower that looked like an upside down turnip - sorta like the tower of St. Basil's church in Moscow. The priests were strict, terribly, terribly strict. 

We went to church three times each Sunday. There was no seating. Anyone who came in had to stand, men on the left side and women on the right. Women who are married always had to wear a kerchief (called bubuskas) on their head. Young girls who were not married were not allowed to have anything on their heads. 

My father Charles Lizak, left our home for America in 1922 when I was three, and a couple of months before my sister Mary was born. His Papa, Charles SR., was already in America. He was a coal miner and lived in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. My father became a United States citizen. When my father left for America, Czechoslovakia was a free and democratic country. His family was living in very comfortable circumstances. Papa was just a type of person who wanted to see what was on the other side of the world, and he did.

In 1931, he came back home for the first time to be with the family and make plans to bring the rest of the family with him to the U.S. At that time, I was 11 and my sister Mary was nine. He had a visa for two years, and in those two years he was home, my two brothers were born. The oldest was Vasili (Charles) and the younger was Gerogi (Greg). When his visa was up and he had not been able to accomplish his papers to take mama and the children, he returned to America. 

I believe at that time there was a terrible depression in America. He could not do anything about the family, for he had no money for their passage. Even the coal mines were shutting down. Years later, Papa told Mary and me that they did not have enough work so everybody was having a tough time living, and many times he only ate a piece of bread and mushrooms that he had collected in the woods. 

This went on for four years. He had no work or very little. Meanwhile, his father died, so he lived alone. In 1936, he started a visa for me and got it finally in 1937. He had to have $1,500 in the bank so the United States would not be responsible for me. So my father borrowed the money and brought me first. 

My father sent for me and it was very exciting getting my passport and clothes together. I was 15 ½ years old. I was put on a train by my mother. I can still see her waving a little white handkerchief, crying and standing beside my two uncles as the train left the Prague station. 

They put a tag on my blouse and I traveled for two and a half days from Czechoslovakia through Germany into France to Cherbourg. That was where the Queen Mary docked. While I was in Germany, they assigned a girl to look after me as I was not of age yet, so she had to kinda keep an eye on what I was doing. 

For one solid week, I went through all sorts of physical and mental examinations by doctors - a week before I was to set sail. Finally I passed my health and everything else. Aboard I went on the Queen Mary. It was beautiful and I had a wonderful time the first day. Then I was terribly seasick for the next three days. 

When the Queen Mary docked March 2 1937 in New York, there was no one to meet me. No papa. After breakfast, there was a lot of commotion going on, a lot of goodbyes and crying. Everyone had someone coming to get to them but me. I just sat there on a hard bench in the waiting room of the Queen Mary, waiting for someone to get me but nobody came. I did not know where to turn to or where to go. I waited all day long until late in the afternoon, but still nobody showed up. 

I didn't know how to ask anyone anything. The only words in English that I could speak at this time were “yes” and “no” and nobody spoke my language as I only talked and understood Ukrainian and Czech. All of the people that I had met on the Queen Mary who spoke my languages had already left the ship. All I saw were the stewards working on the ship, walking back and forth, looking at me, smiling and going on with their work. I also saw my first black person. 

I sat on the ship growing more panicky waiting for my papa to come and get me. Late in the afternoon I saw a stranger looking at me holding my suitcase and finally he stood in front of me and said something. I didn't know what he said because I didn't understand the language. I guess it was English. Finally he said to me, “passport.” Now passport is a word used in any language so I handed him my passport and he looked at it. On the passport, it said I was going to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. 

Then he picked up my suitcase and took me by the hand. I'm sure he must have said, “Come with me.” But I didn't understand a word he said. Here I was following this strange man that I had never seen before and didn't know where he was taking me.

What he did first was to take me to a restaurant and feed me. I had nothing to eat since that morning and it was getting dark. From there he took me to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station. I saw him talking to somebody there. I don't know who, it was at the office I guess. They put me on a train, and this strange man sent my papa telegram telling him to meet me. It was a most horrifying experience for I didn't know where I was going and I could not ask anybody. It was dark and I couldn't see out. I didn't know anyone. The conductor would come and go, and smile at me until I got into Wilkes-Barre about midnight where Papa was waiting for me. 

What had happened was that the Queen Mary had to leave two days early because that was her very last voyage before World War II began. She was to be converted into a troop ship. Papa didn't expect me until two days later. That's why he didn't come, so it was a really big surprise for him and for me. 

Anyhow, I just went into hysterics when I met him. I was so happy that I finally was at the end of my trip. Papa took me home. I was in America!

The next morning I couldn't wait for daylight to see what America looked like. All I saw were these huge, flat mountains of black waste slag and dirt from the coal mines. It looked dirty and black everywhere and there were very few trees. From then on, I was with him for three months, if that long, crying and wanting to go back home and Czechoslovakia in the worst way. 

I missed mama and friends and what disappointed me more than anything was the fact that hardly anybody spoke English. The place where Papa lived most were coal miners and they spoke Czech, Hungarian or Russian. They were mostly middle European people and that was the language they talked except the children. The children would converse with the parents in their language and with each other in English. I begged my father to send me back home. One day I said, “Papa! Is this America?” I just couldn't believe it. I said, “Papa! I don't want to live in America. This is not what I read about. I don't like it and I want to go home.” Papa answered me, “This is where the bread box is. Those flat black mountains you see over there. That's where bread and butter is. I work with those rocks.” He didn't send me home. He made other arrangements.

On his voyage back home to Czechoslovakia to see his family, he had met a young American Jewish couple. They began corresponding. He wrote to them and asked “could Anna live with them and look after their small children because he did not want to send his daughter Anna back home and that Anna was very unhappy in Wilkes-Barre.” 

The next I knew, I was put on a bus to New York City. The young couple met me and I stayed with them for two years or so. They had a maid, and my only job was to take care of their two small children. The little girl was the biggest help as far as teaching me the English language because children talk…they always talk and she would repeat things to me over and over again. They also sent me to night school where I had to learn to read, write and speak English a little better. And I did. From then on things were kinda nice. I went to every museum, every concert, every opera and every play. I was living. This was America! The family was good to me. They bought me clothes and put $25 in a checking account for me each month. I sent mama more than half of it and spent the rest. 

And then two years later, Papa brought my sister Mary over. Mary came over much the same as I did. Papa had to borrow money to get her here. She came on a very small ship. It took her over two weeks because it went to Canada first. It was carrying tires. When she came in 1939, things were buzzing with war. She saw lots of German soldiers moving through Europe. If she had waited a few months later, she would not have been able to get out of Europe. She stayed with me and this family for a few months. Then another family sorta adopted her. 

Shortly after Mary got to America, Papa went home. He had most of his papers together to bring my mother and my two brothers, Charles and Greg. When he got there, it was late in 1939 and war started breaking out. He was told that either he had to leave immediately for the United States since he was an American citizen or join the army. He had exactly 24 hours to make his choice. He wanted to stay, but my mother begged him to go. She thought it would be better for everyone for him to return to America to be with Mary and me. So he came back to the United States without Mama or my two brothers. In Czechoslovakia he would have been taken into the German or Russian army, and he had strong dislikes for the Nazis and communists. So he came back by himself. When we met Papa at the ship, there was no Mama. We had no idea that Mama was not coming. We asked, “Where's Mama?” That was one of the saddest moments in my life. At that time, I could only picture Mama crying with her little white handkerchief in her hand and waving goodbye to me. 

By late 1939 and early 1940 The war really broke out – it went into full speed and there was turmoil all over Eastern Europe. The Russians and Germans were at first allies, but Hitler double-crossed the Russians. In a surprise move, he sent the Germans army marching eastward all across Eastern Europe and Russia to the outskirts of Moscow. The Germans then occupied all of Czechoslovakia. During that time, the Russians first claimed and then the Germans claimed the place where I was born. Mass confusion took place, and it was years before we heard from my family.

In the United States, I got my American citizenship. I was already an American citizen because I was under 16 When my father became a citizen. But I wanted to get my own citizenship. 

Mary and I each left the places where we were and got jobs. Then we got apartments. I got in with the U.S. Radium in New York City, and we painted dials on the panels of submarines and airplanes. The company that I worked for used to send two or three of us girls to New London, Connecticut to repaint the dials that we're about aboard the submarines with radium. We would be there a week, sometimes less. When a submarine came in they would bring all those things in a room where we worked and we would paint those things and put them aboard. Many times we would go into the submarine and paint the dials there. Then we would go back home. 

And that's how I got the chance to meet Jerry. He was stationed at New London working with submarines. 

Meanwhile, after the war broke out, things were in turmoil in Czechoslovakia. My sister Mary, Papa, and I had no mail whatsoever from Mama. We had no idea that she was still alive. We thought she was dead, for all of our mail was coming back. Papa went to the Red Cross, which then started investigating her whereabouts. We learned that she was in a concentration camp and that was it. She was being punished for some reason. I do not know exactly why. 

There was nothing more that we could do and for six years we had no mail whatsoever. During that time, the United States entered the war and sent massive aid to Russia. The Russians then drove the German armies back across Europe and Czechoslovakia and on to Germany. Germany surrendered. 

Then in 1945 when World War II was over, I got mail from her. She was home, she was well. She told us that my two brothers had lived with one of my uncles, my mama's brother Vasili Hercz, during the war. 

Through the years, long after the war was over, I learned little bits and pieces of what had happened. I learned that the Russians had taken over Mama’s house and used it for officers’ headquarters. When Mama was released from the concentration camp, she too had to live with my uncle. Long afterwards, and before she died, she got to move back into her own home. 

When the Russians took over, things changed. They annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where I was born and claimed it was part of the Soviet Union. All of our letters had to be sent to the USSR. All of their mail to me was censored and full of black lines where information was blocked out. 

My brothers had to attend schools where they learned only the Russian language and writing. They would write to us that things were wonderful there. Then, in the same letter they would ask for money and things like fur-lined gloves and jackets, shoes and other things not available there. So we knew things were not good. 

The Russians told the family what to grow. Each fall, they would come in and take most of what was grown. They left barely enough for the family to exist. It was hard on the family. 

Several years ago while my mama was still living, I tried to visit her. I started working on a visa. That's when I got a letter from the United States government saying they would not be responsible for my safety as far as Russia was concerned. The Russians still claimed I was a Russian citizen, not American. So I never made that trip. I was worried about how mama would take that. One of Mama's prayers was always that she would live to see her girls one more time. When I learned I could not go, I could only remember Mama crying with a little white handkerchief in our hand waving goodbye to me. 

When this thing happened, Mama wrote back that she was glad that we girls didn't come because of what happened to a young man we knew. We went to school with him in Czechoslovakia and he had come to New York City. While he was here, Mary and I frequently visited with him. He went for a visit to his old home in what was Czechoslovakia but now claimed by Russia. He left his wife and family in New York. The Russian government kept him there and never would let him leave and go back to his family in America. She did not want that to happen to us. 

My brothers were four and five years old when I last saw them in 1937. I never got to see Mama again after she waved her handkerchief saying goodbye at the train station. My brothers are still living; so are their wives. They have children and grandchildren. Jerry and I hope to visit them next summer if conditions are right.

After Mary and I moved to New York, Papa lived with us for a little while. Then he lived at a seminary with the catholic priests, where my papa enjoyed cooking for them. They spoke the same language. 

In 1944, three months after I met Jerry, we married and we have been happy ever since.

Anna & Sarah on the WST Farm

In these here parts, Anna Lizak is known as Anne Israel and her husband is Jerry Israel. Jerry was in the Navy working on a submarine tender throughout World War II. He had enlisted in 1937 and was a career service man. He and Anne lived in several coastal cities, wherever the Navy transferred him. Florida became their home. There they reared two children Greg and Elona (Sarah's mother). 

Jerry and Anne are now retired. They spend their summer months on Lower Glady Ford at Candler, on part of the Israel ancestral farm. During the winter, they live in Florida. She is 100 percent American but she still remembers her mama crying with a little white handkerchief in her hand waving goodbye to her over 55 years ago.

Anna, little Sarah, and Elona in the Keys, FL
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