Among the things Roni Robbins’s grandfather left when he died was a box of cassette tapes. When she played them, Robbins heard the voice of her grandfather narrating his memories, including the incredible journey from Hungary to Canada and finally to the United States that Robbins brings to life in “Hands of Gold,” her first novel.
The reader follows Robbins’s grandfather, Samuel, on his journey out of war-torn Europe and across the world to North America, just in time for the Great Depression in New York. He is faced with many hard decisions along the way, including leaving behind his family, mother and siblings to find his true calling in life.
During this journey, he meets the love of his life, Hannah, with whom he will spend the next 65 years of his life, through both good times and bad.
If you don’t understand Yiddish, the language spoken by Ashkenazim from Central and Eastern Europe, you will by the time you have read this book. Robbins has graciously added a glossary of Yiddish words that dot the pages of the novel.
My bubbe, Anna, along with her sister, left behind many siblings when immigrating to New York City from Austria right before World War I. She spoke barely any English, and I vividly remember the Yiddish-laden conversations between her and my parents, especially when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.
Little did they know that we were able to learn their secret language very quickly. This novel certainly brought back all those memories and words I heard all the time growing up.
The struggles encountered by Samuel and Hannah in “Hands of Gold” were a product of the times, making it out of Hungary and landing in Canada before sneaking across the border to New York in the early 1900s. Granted, we have struggles of our own in these more modern times, but nothing like what Samuel and Hannah experienced.
The constant up and downs they encountered were staggering. Can you even imagine having to move as many times as this family had to or having to share crammed quarters with other relatives or friends? These hardships should make us all feel very fortunate with what we have today, especially with the freedom of choice to go where we want and do what we want.
The book details Samuel’s determination to leave Europe in the hopes of a better life in America, even if it meant breaking the law to do so. While still living in Hungary, Sam was able to skillfully avoid being drafted into the army, while working any type of job he could to save money for his journey out of Europe. He was able to board a ship and cross the Atlantic by securing a job shoveling coal from one bin to another to help power the vessel.
When the ship docked in Canada for a few hours, Sam vowed to escape before it embarked on its final destination to Boston. Once again, he had to avoid the law and sneak across the border, making his way to New York without a passport in hand. Sam was very resourceful in moving from country to country.
The novel also details Sam’s struggle with tuberculosis and his willingness to try every experimental medicine and procedure to rid him of the dreadful and debilitating disease that would follow him throughout the course of his life. Again, with his determination and the undying support and love of his wife and family, Sam was able to move forward.
One of Sam’s greatest strengths was perseverance. He was able to live with the guilt of a fatal accident that occurred while he was driving a trolley car in New York — something he never told his family about until later in life. Can you even imagine the pain he felt and not being able to unburden himself with that kind of guilt?
What really touched me throughout this story was the undying love between Sam and Hannah. We have all heard the wedding vow, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Well, this couple lived those words to the max.
Through the Great Depression, grave illness, several children and even some prosperity along the way, their love never wavered, even with all of the trials and tribulations thrown their way. Samuel Fox was a real mensch, and this couple was always there for each other, despite all the obstacles.
Robbins’s story kept me engaged from start to finish and even left a few tears in my eyes. It allowed me to recount some of the dear memories left behind by my bubbe. This fictionalized saga could easily translate to the big screen. Based on the story’s historical context, I asked Robbins if she could see this ever being turned into a movie or TV series.
“I would love for a movie or TV series to be made! My son is a new actor and could play the young Sam, and I have an older actor friend who’d be perfect for the older Sam,” Robbins said. “But we’ll see if anyone contacts me about the possibility or even takes suggestions. Right now, I’ll be happy with getting ‘Hands of Gold’ into as many golden hands as possible and continuing the conversations that the book can inspire.”
I wondered what Robbins intended to leave her readers with after finishing the book. “After enjoying the book, I want readers to appreciate their loved ones more, especially the older generation and the great life stories they can impart while they are alive,” Robbins replied.
“I hope the novel empowers readers to record their older family members in some way to preserve their legacies. I’d also like readers to gain a better appreciation for Yiddish and use some in their everyday lives to make sure it stays alive long after the native speakers have passed on.”
Hands of Gold is available at most retailers, and Amazon. at www.amazon.com/Hands-Gold-Silver-Misfortune-Fiction/dp/9493231852