My Great Grandmother’s Story

A Jewish narrative of child marriage at the turn of the century

Many immigrants have hard-to-believe stories about making their way to America, and my great-grandmother, Bertha Dishler, is one. Bertha, who we called Bubbie, came to America at the turn of the 20th century as what was known as a mail-order bride. Thanks to a combination of luck, verve and the compassion of others, she escaped this contractually-arranged marriage and went on to forge a future of her own choosing.

Born on October 21st, 1893, in Lithuania, she was the eldest daughter in a poor Jewish family of five. To help her father, a tailor, earn enough to feed the family, Bubbie and her two younger sisters learned how to sew. The family desperately wanted to travel to the United States to pursue a better life, but they couldn’t afford the cost of passage, so when a wealthy man from America offered to pay for Bertha’s ticket in exchange for her hand in marriage, they accepted. Quite bravely, a young Bertha set sail for America in the early 1900s, leaving her entire family behind to meet an unknown man in an unknown land.

But Bertha had no intention of living her life married to this stranger. As soon as she met him, she proposed a gutsy deal that would free her from his grasp. She promised to repay him for her ticket in exchange for her freedom. Quite luckily, he agreed, and Bertha set forth to find a job to pay off her debt. With her skills as a seamstress, she quickly found work in a garment factory sweatshop, laboring long hours at her sewing machine to earn a few dollars a day.

During this time, her life changed. She met a man, fell in love and soon decided to marry him—this time, of her own free will. Her chosen partner, my great-grandfather, Isador Dishler, repaid her debt and subsequently sent passage for the rest of her family to join them in America. Bertha had her first child at the age of 22 and went on to lead a long and interesting life driven by her passions. She read voraciously, appreciated fine music, dance and Jewish theater, and together with Isador raised children, who begat grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Looking at the women in my family today, I see shared qualities that emanate from her legacy—strength, gregariousness and a willingness to take on any challenge.

A mixture of gumption, determination, luck and the generosity of others enabled my great-grandmother to live a life of her choosing. As I recall her story, I think about the millions of girls around the world who are to this day married as children, teens or young adults—often against their will. Like my great-grandmother’s parents, the parents of these girls are usually motivated by the desire—and sometimes the desperation—to protect their daughters from danger, provide for them and give them the hope of a better life.

But this decision robs far too many of them of their youth, their freedom—and even, tragically, their lives. Girls who marry early or are forced into marriage are deprived of the freedom to make choices about their lives, relationships, education, economic pursuits and bodies. Research shows that these young brides are more likely to drop out of school, experience domestic violence, live in poverty or die in childbirth. While Bertha was ultimately able to forge a life for herself, countless others like her do not escape.

But there is hope. Bertha’s ability to turn her life around was a result of both her own strength of character and the assistance she received from Isador. AJWS recognizes that ending early, child and forced marriages today requires supporting adolescent girls to gain the confidence to assert themselves, and also working with their communities to address the root causes of this practice, including poverty, gender inequality and limited education about sexual health. Today, AJWS is extending this support to thousands of young girls in India—a country that is home to one-third of the world’s early marriages.

With your help, AJWS funds more than 34 local and national organizations working on this issue in India. These groups embolden adolescent girls and their communities with the courage and the knowledge to follow in my great-grandmother’s footsteps and to seize freedom and shape their own destinies.

To learn more, visit our Ending Child Marriage section to see videos, photo slideshows, stories and original research related to AJWS’s work on child marriage in India.