By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
As a group, Omaha’s Jewish World War II veterans performed duties spanning the spectrum of that immense struggle. They served in virtually every military branch and theater of war. They fought in historic battles. They supplied troops with vital war materials. They earned commendations, ribbons, medals.
The men featured here are only a small sampling of Omaha Jews who saw action. Some have siblings that distinguished themselves in wartime. For example, Stuart Muskin is profiled here but his brother, Leonard Muskin, could just have easily been. Leonard, who resides in Calif., received a Navy Cross and a Gold Star for extraordinary heroism as the pilot of a carrier-based torpedo plane during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands.
Lloyd Krasne’s younger brother Bud was a weather observer and his older brother Milton was in the supply division that kept Gen. George Patton‘s 3rd Army fueled.
Every veteran has a trunk-full of stories. In the case of Lloyd Friedman, he was in the presence of three historic figures from WWII: Gen. Patton; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; and President and Commander in Chief Harry S. Truman. Friedman, Muskin and Marvin Taxman fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Milt Saylan was present at the formal surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay.
Lloyd Krasne ended up in war-ravaged Tokyo as part of the army of occupation.
Kevee Kirshenbaum served on minesweepers in both WWII and Korea, along the way interacting with Soviets, Filipinos, Chinese and Koreans.
It turns out anti-Semitism was not an issue for most of Omaha’s Jewish war vets.
Some saw loads of combat and others saw none at all. Some were married with children, others were single. All put their lives on hold, however, to answer the call of duty. To a man, they’re grateful to have simply survived.
By Land: The European Theater
Howard Silber, An Infantryman’s Perspective
Howard Silber experienced anti-Semitism growing up in New York City. Early on he learned to stand up for himself with words and fists.
A fair high school athlete and student, he was denied admission to Columbia University when the school met its quota of Jews. He played football and studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where his freshman coach was legend-to-be Paul “Bear” Bryant and the head coach was legend-in-the-making Frank Thomas. A roommate was future Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.
Silber was a semester shy of graduating when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 at 21. After training with coastal artillery and parachute glider units he ended up a grunt in the 411th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division, 7th Army.
He encountered bias at bases and camps in the States, but once in southern France his faith didn’t matter in a fox hole. His company’s first action resulted in eight members of his platoon being killed. “A baptism by fire,” he soberly recalled. Years after the war he and comrades paid for a monument to the eight and Sibler and his wife Sissy Katelman visited it.
The push through France went over the Vosges Mountains in the midst of the region’s worst recorded winter The Americans were not properly geared for the conditions and German resistance proved fierce in spots. In early engagements enemy ranks consisted of conscripts — an indication of Germany’s desperation.
“I saw German soldiers who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13,” he said. “I also saw men in their 40s and 50s.”
His company later ran up against a hardened SS outfit. “But we managed to fight our way through,” he said. “I saw some hand-to-hand combat….”
After breaking out of the mountains onto the Rhine Plain, Sibler’s company proceeded around Strasbourg. “Integrated into our army corps,” he said, “was the French 1st Army — made up mostly of North Africans. They had come across the Mediterranean with (Charles) de Gaulle. They were good fighters.”
Heading north, Sibler and Co. approached the Maginot Line, with orders to break through, but the Germans were dug-in behind well-fortified positions.
“We woke up one morning to the sound of artillery high above us, exploding in the trees,” Sibler said. He’ll never forget the bravery of an African American anti-tank unit: “When I think of it I become emotional because they were shot up to hell and kept fighting.” The artillery barrage slowed but then a German tank advanced and with the platoon’s bazooka team knocked out, Sibler took action. “I picked up the bazooka, knelt and loaded it, fired once and missed. The last thing I can remember is that tank lowering its beastly 88 millimeter cannon in my direction. I woke up the next day in an Army field hospital. Apparently the shell was a dud but it half buried me in my fox hole. Our platoon medic got me out of there. Both my arms were broken and my left rib cage was pretty well beat up.”
The Battle of the Bulge erupted the next day. His “million dollar wound” spared him from further fighting. He recovered at a hotel turned hospital in the resort town of Vittel. There, bigotry reappeared in the form of a chaplain who said something ugly to Sibler. After complaints were lodged the chaplain did not return.
Back home, Sibler was a reporter for New York newspapers before joining the Omaha World-Herald. In his 34-year Herald career he covered the Starkweather murder spree, he went to the South Pole, he reported from Vietnam and he became the first journalist to fly in a B-52 bomber. He interviewed Joint Chiefs of Staff commanders and senators, but may be proudest of his Band of Brothers legacy.
Louie Blumkin, The Long, Slow Slog
It sounds like a legend now, but when Louie Blumkin was away in the U.S. Army his mother Rose, worried by slumping sales at the furniture store she’d opened a few years before, wrote her son she was thinking of selling it. He persuaded her to stick it out until his return, and the rest is history. Under his management the Nebraska Furniture Mart became a phenomenon of folklorish proportions.
But there was no guarantee Mrs. B’s boy would make it home. A state diving champion at Omaha Technical High School, Blumkin was considered an Olympic-caliber athlete. That dream faded as America drew closer to entering the war against the Axis powers. Blumkin enlisted in 1941. After field artillery training and serving as a gunner on a 155 millimeter howitzer he was promoted to corporal and battalion company clerk. The work suited his inquisitive mind.
His battalion was en route to the Pacific Theater, with a planned stopover in Hawaii, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was turned around to return to the west coast, where he received orders to go to Fort Lewis, Wash. There, he became junior warrant officer of his battalion. He transferred to the 974th Field Artillery and went overseas with his unit in 1942. After training in Belfast, Ireland and in England, he awaited orders for the invasion of Europe.
To help ease the tedium and tension until D-Day, he put on diving exhibitions at Chaltham, England for his fellow GIs.
His group landed on Omaha Beach a few days after the invasion and in the teeth of still stiff German defenses moved inland, first east and then south. In a 1984 interview he gave his niece, Jane Kasner, he described the slow, bitter slog.
“Many times we met with very tough resistance, but we overcame all of our obstacles…For several months, although our progress was slow, we liberated several French cities” and “received a very warm welcome from the French people.”
In one action a fragment from an explosive injured his hand.
By year’s end the weather turned and for a time so did the campaign’s fortunes. By then his unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Armored Division.
“Winter set in while we were in Southern France” and to the north “the Germans were making their counterattack, known as the Battle of the Bulge, in a maneuver which was supposed to drive our forces to the English Channel. Our organization was called to help relieve the Americans in their plight against the Germans…”
When the weather finally cleared enough for Allied planes to attack enemy positions the German offensive was stopped and its last gasp effort to reverse the tide turned back. Blumkin saw first hand the enormous concentration of Allied war materials flooding into the region and recalled thinking, “There is no way the Germans are going to win this war.” He was part of the contingent that crossed the Remagen Bridge, a key link between France and Germany. His unit went toward Austria while others went to spearhead the push into Berlin.
Along the way, Blumkin and his mates came across Dachau concentration camp survivors.
“It was an extremely emotional experience for me, one which I will never forget because of the conditions of both the camp and the individuals,” he said.
His wartime experience ended with Displaced Persons duty — transferring Italian refugees or DPs from Innsbruck, Austria to Riva, Italy. He returned home in time for Christmas in 1945 and after reuniting with his “street smart” mother at the Mart, he became president and CEO during a period of remarkable growth.
Marvin Taxman, D-Day
As a U.S. Army Reserve Corps member, Marvin Taxman was allowed to remain in school at Creighton University until called to active duty in early 1943. He was 22.
He wound up in a glider company, 327th infantry 101st Airborne Division — the Screaming Eagles — and by September sailed to England. In April 1944 his unit was part of a secret D-Day landing rehearsal on English shores. The maneuvers turned lethal when German torpedo boats attacked, killing hundreds of American soldiers and sailors. The incident was not made public for years.
On D-Day itself his company hit Utah Beach aboard landing crafts — with the objective of moving inland to relieve paratroopers who jumped overnight and to secure bridges across the Douve River. Mission accomplished. Things turned hairy the next morning when, he recalled, “on a patrol my platoon attempted to cross the river on rafts and were repulsed by machine gun fire.” That’s when Taxman got in the water and swam back to shore. He and another American directed mortar fire on the German position as cover for their comrades — saving lives.
His exploits made Yank, the Army news magazine, and Omaha newspapers.
Fighting ensued amid the awful, impenetrable hedgerows.
“The Germans would be dug in behind those hundred year old hedgerows and until you knocked out their machine guns they could move to the next…It wasn’t easy,” he said.
The 101st’s next major action came during Operation Market Garden in September. Taxman recalled “serious foreboding” at this airborne invasion of Holland happening between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The operation failed.
He was among a fraction of men in his glider company to ground safely amid heavy fire. Surrounded by German units, the GIs were in a tight fix until British tanks arrived. His platoon advanced on a target bridge when shrapnel from a mortar round cut him down. The officer who assisted him to safety was killed. Taxman was taken to an Antwerp field hospital and then onto a regular hospital in England.
By late December he rejoined his decimated company in Bastogne just as the Allies broke through at the Battle of the Bulge. In April he attended a seder prepared by French Jews. “They proudly announced the plates we ate from were fashioned from the wings of a downed German aircraft,” he recalled.
In liberated Paris he ran into several Omaha chums, including Warner Frohman, Lazer Singer and future brother-in-law Nick Ricks.
“Together we toured the Louvre, the opera and the Folies Bergere. Those were not to be forgotten days.”
Across the Rhine into Germany Taxman’s outfit was moving toward Munich when they encountered Dachau survivors.
“It was gruesome, but we had no idea of the enormity of it,” said Taxman, who was detailed to help sift out German soldiers among the flood of refugees on the roads.
By mid-May the war in Europe was over but more adventures awaited Taxman. He visited Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. He filed reports for a division newspaper. He was put in charge of a troupe of Hungarian singers and dancers. Redeployed to France, he took a class at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps, where he was befriended by French Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding in the mountains. He listened to their tales of woe and attended Yom Kippur services with them at a theater.
He married and raised a family after the war and he continues to enjoy a career in the wholesale optical business.
Stuart Muskin, In Patton’s 3rd
When America entered World War II Stuart Muskin enlisted in the U.S. Army while still a University of Nebraska senior. He was able to complete his degree before reporting for basic training.
He got the cushy job of regimental clerk and saw what looked like a good deal: volunteering for overseas duty earned 30 days leave. He got his leave alright but still owed Uncle Sam So, with the war at its peak, he shipped out in late spring 1944 as part of a light machine gun squad in Company C, 3rd Infantry Division.
En route to England the D-Day invasion had commenced. Upon landing in Liverpool the wounded from Normandy were being brought in from across the Channel, the dull booms and thuds of artillery barrages thundering in the distance.
After one day on the island the Yanks headed for France. Aboard the landing craft Omaha he arrived on already secured though badly scarred Omaha Beach.
“It was still torn up from just a week ago when the Allies invaded,” he said.
Before he knew it his squad squared off in the Battle of Saint Lo, fighting Germans hedgerow to hedgerow. The combat was costly to both sides.
“I wrote a letter to my mom telling her, ‘Goodbye, you’re never going to see me again,’ but then I thought to myself, That’s dumb to say that, so I tore it up and wrote another letter back to her telling her everything is fine.”
The brave front didn’t change the fact he feared for his life. “I was by myself, I didn’t know anybody, a Jewish kid, and I was scared as hell.”
He ended up in a Nebraska unit of Gen. George Patton’s 3d Army.
“You’d think a guy like Patton you’d never see him — we saw him all the time, he was always around,” said Muskin, “and people would yell out and call him every name in the world and he would smile because he liked a soldier that was mad.”
Patton kept his troops on the go.
“One day we walked 28 miles with packs on because we were moving and we were not getting any resistance, and that went on for maybe two or three weeks,,” said Muskin. “Finally we got to Nancy, France, the trucks rolled in and the French girls jumped all over us and all of a sudden snipers up in the buildings were shooting at us, and it emptied out just as fast.
“The next day we crossed the Meurthe River and the Germans flew over us like they did a lot of times broadcasting that our wives and girls are getting screwed back home and we ought go home. That was the first time we knew there was a big resistance by the Germans.”
Taking the high ground was crucial to breaking through, but the enemy wasn’t giving up anything without a fight.
“They started throwing mortars down,” said Muskin.
While he could tell by the sound where an artillery shell would land, a mortar round was too unreliable to predict. In late September a mortar-fired projectile exploded near him, fragments and splinters hitting him “in a lot of different places — my arm was the worst, and my leg.” “Fortunately,” he said, “I got picked up and brought to a big tent hospital.” It was there he had a fleeting but surreal encounter.
“There was a guy walking around with fatigues on tapping guys on the shoulder and asking, ‘How you doin’ soldier?’ and I look around and it’s Bing Crosby. He was visiting the troops.”
Once Muskin registered the unmistakable face and voice he remarked what an unusual circumstance this was, whereupon the crooner-actor replied, “It’s no big deal — what you guys are doing is.”
From there Muskin was slated to be flown to a hospital in England but Operation Market Garden tied up all available air transport. Instead, he went by train to a Paris hospital. After three months recouping he rejoined his unit on the front lines, still in France, teasing them, “Can’t you guys move without me?”.
His last major action came in the Battle of the Bulge, when a last ditch German offensive cut off thousands of Allied forces amid the harsh winter in the Ardennes Forest. His squad got pinned down by German machine gun and tank fire. As Muskin and his men pulled back a tank shell exploded near him and metal shredded his bandolier and bloodied him but only slightly wounding him.
Muskin, a staff sergeant, announced to the squad, “Boys, I’m going to get home alive if I can get through that.” His unit advanced as far as the Elbe River, where aside from a skirmish they waited out the end of the war in relative calm. Hordes of captured German soldiers marched past them.
Back home, Muskin was a traveling salesman before he bought into a children’s wares business that took off as Baby Town, later renamed Youngtown. He married, raised a family and feels grateful to have lived the good life at the ripe age of 88.
Lloyd Friedman, In the Presence of Ike, Old Blood and Guts and Give ‘Em Hell Harry
Lloyd Friedman’s five-year military odyssey began in late 1940. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ROTC graduate helped oversee a black regiment in the 25th Infantry at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He returned to Omaha ready to resume civilian life when Pearl Harbor put him right back on active duty.
The next three years he was assigned units tasked with patrolling and defending the west coast. He went from the 134th National Guard Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division to the 137th Infantry Regiment.
As D-Day neared in June 1944 Friedman, by then a captain, became regimental adjutant under Col. Grant Layng, which entailed being “his gofer or shadow.”
Friedman was one of two Jewish officers in his regiment. While in England his unit was inspected by Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
His outfit hit Omaha Beach in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion but they discovered an area still hot with enemy activity.
“The Germans had the cliffs fortified,” he said. “That was pretty rough, We fought a little bit there but we got out of that. Normandy, above Saint Lo, was made up a lot of hedgerows. You couldn’t see what you were shooting at.”
In an account for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, Friedman wrote:
“On the first day of combat we lost the colonel to machine gun fire. I was not with him. It was tough to see friends wounded and die. The lines did not move very fast.”
Then, he wrote, “I saw in the air the most bombers ever. They practically leveled Saint Lo, and even a few stray bombs landed on our troops.”
Every time the regiment got orders to move, Friedman went with the advance party.
“My worst job,” he wrote, “was reconnoitering for the new headquarters as the lines moved forward. There were times I got ahead of the front lines. On one occasion my jeep driver and I were going up a road, dodging brush and debris. After passing, we looked back and saw that they covered mines…We breathed a sigh of relief.”
More relief came with the break out across France. His company was attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. He got to see the irascible, flamboyant commander up close.
“He was a buddy of our new colonel and visited us for so-called ‘lunch’ one day. I will never forget his two pearl handled pistols.”
At times Patton’s forces moved so fast they outstripped their supply lines.
“As we neared Germany things slowed down,” Friedman wrote. “We had some fierce fights across the border (Mosel River). By Christmas…we were sent to Metz for what we thought would be a well-earned rest. We were so wrong. Immediately we were moved north to outside Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge). Those were horrible days. Between the cold and driving the Germans back, it was miserable.”
“We were near Berlin when VE Day came in May (1945). Our regiment was sent to Boppard on the Rhine for occupation duty. On July 11 we assembled near Brussels and were picked for the honor guard for President Truman who was en route to the Potsdam Conference.”
Friedman, who was never wounded, won five battle stars, including the Bronze Star.
During an R &R stint on the French Riviera he ran into Omahan Stanley Slosburg and upon returning to the States he met another Omahan — Stuart Muskin, who served in the same division but in a separate regiment.
After the war Friedman married and became a buyer and merchandise manager for Herzberg’s before making his career in insurance.
By Sea: The Pacific Theater or Bust
Milt Saylan, On the Battleship USS South Dakota
When Milt Saylan entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 he was 24, married, a father and the owner of his own grocery store in Charter Oak, Iowa. The Omaha native developed a taste for the food business working summers at an uncle’s store.
Compared to many he served with in the Navy, he said, he was “an old man. I was a little different than some of the young punks that went in. We called ‘em kids — they were young, single, with no responsibility.”
Saylan had his own store four years by the time he became a seaman apprentice and, he said, that experience naturally “put me in the galley” — first at Shoemaker Camp in Calif. and then aboard the battleship USS South Dakota.
As a meat cutter he readied enough chops, steaks and roasts every day to ensure there was enough for the next day’s chow.
The South Dakota became part of Naval lore through a stunning series of engagements against Japanese forces — sinking several vessels and bringing down multiple planes in major sea and air battles. It was the most decorated ship in WWII. So as not to make it a special target, the U.S. military withheld its name from the press — its exploits chalked up to Battleship X or Old Nameless.
“We were the flagship of the 13th fleet,” said Saylan.
The South Dakota earned battle stars at Guadalcanal and in action in the Coral Sea, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Midway, before eventually sailing into Tokyo Bay. From the deck of the South Dakota Saylan and his fellow 2,200 crewmen witnessed Japan’s formal surrender on the USS Missouri tied up alongside it.
There were times he wasn’t sure he’d make it through the war. One of those was when kamikaze attacks wrecked havoc on the ship at Okinawa.
“We got hit and we lost 37 men,” he said, the memory still making his voice quiver.
During combat he manned a battle station. His job: help corpsmen tend wounded and get them into sick bay. During the Okinawa attack he went to the forward part of the ship, where the kamikazes struck, and amid the carnage helped carry the wounded away on stretchers.
He wasn’t close to any of the sailors who lost their lives that day but burying that many comrades at sea left its mark.
The South Dakota, which supported carrier strikes against Tokyo, made its way ever nearer Japan in anticipation of the planned Allied invasion. When the atom bombs ended the war the battleship made its way into Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender. As a precaution against a Japanese ambush, said Saylan, the crew was in full battle gear. Nothing untoward happened.
He said the “very somber” ceremony on September 2, 1945 proceeded aboard the Missouri with the assembled crews of the Missouri, the South Dakota and other ships topside to observe the historic moment. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William Halsey and Southwest Pacific Area supreme commander Douglas MacArthur led the U.S. contingent in accepting the surrender of their Japanese counterparts. It all went off without a hitch. Saylan and his shipmates followed orders by not expressing any emotions that might dishonor the Japanese.
Saylan was discharged as a first class petty officer.
After the war he remained in the grocery business and by the mid-1950s he retired. Bored after a few months, he took over a window wares company that became a big success. His son now has the business.
Saylan’s visited the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls SD.
Kevee Kirshenbaum, C.O. of Minesweepers in WWII and Korea
Kevee Kirshenbaum had the distinction of being assigned six different minesweepers in two separate wars during his U.S, Navy service.
He was a University of Nebraska sophomore when he joined up in 1942. His first assignment came as an ensign aboard a sweeper sent to the Aleutian Islands. At Cold Bay, Alaska he helped train Soviet naval personnel in minesweeping techniques as part of the top secret Project Hula, which was to ready the Soviets to invade Japan from the north.
Once while traversing an igloo-like tunnel on base he ran into an old chum from Omaha — Lee Bernstein. When they see each other today they’re still amused at meeting each other in such a desolate spot.
Kirshenbaum went from one extreme to the other in the Philippines, where he said, “we swept mines all the way along the coast down close to Borneo.” He said sweepers lived by the motto: “where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”
His worst WWII experience came while anchored in Subic Bay during a typhoon. Ordered to get under way, the ship’s fluke caught on the open hatch of a sunken boat. That left the ship riding out the storm like a top on a string.
“We stayed there for 48 hours, just going around in circles. You never saw so many sick people.”
His group made preparations for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. It was then he took command of his first ship, the YMS-49, in Shanghai, China.
“My best experience of the war really was when I had command of a ship. The war was already over — what we did was sweep the mines in the Huangpu River. We didn’t find any mines there but we found an awful lot of bodies. You would see Chinese boats going by with a hook picking the bodies up.”
Becoming a C.O. at only 22, he said proudly, “was an accomplishment.”
Some fears he harbored were soon quelled.
“When I went aboard ship I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my being Jewish. The Navy had as a whole very few Jewish personnel. Then there was my age. I knew some of these guys knew more than I did. Half the crew was much older than I was and more experienced. But luckily enough I didn’t have any problems. The crew was very good and respectful.”
Back home he finished school, joined the Navy Reserve, went to work and got married. Then the Korean conflict broke out and he was assigned minesweeping duty again. In Sasebo, Japan he served on a ship and transferred to train the South Korean Navy, which helped shake off the rust of four years away from active service. Later, he went to Korea to command the USS Redhead, which swept mines in hostile waters, even past the 38th parallel. The mine fields were thick with danger and his ship and others came under fire by shore artillery batteries.
Mines, especially the magnetic kind, were the main threat. A replacement ship venturing where the Redhead would have been was sunk by one. His most harrowing duty came sweeping Wonsan Harbor at night when the Redhead set off a magnetic device whose blast destroyed the vessel’s mine cutting gear. Luckily, the hull was intact and the ill-conceived operation cancelled.
The small, wooden minesweepers were the runts of the fleet but being small had the advantage of being resupplied every few days, which meant fresh eats.
Looking back on all the responsibility he assumed at such a young age, he said, “I felt good about it.” He’s most grateful for coming out alive. The retired entrepreneur feels fortunate to have had the chance to lead “a successful life.”
Stan Silverman, A Dry Dock Navy Tour
Homefront contributions to World War II often get lost in the haze of history. But the men and women who worked the factories, fields, docks, warehouses and countless other jobs vital to the war effort made it possible for America to execute its battle plans and achieve final victory.
Long before Stan Silverman ever entered the service he worked on a ditch digging crew opening the earth with shovels to accommodate water mains at then Offutt Field on the old Fort Crook base. The site is where the Martin Bomber Plant would be built and where Offutt Air Force Base would house the Strategic Air Command.
His family ran a grocery store on Vinton Street and he and his folks lived above it.
The Central High graduate earned a chemical engineering degree from Iowa State University at a time when quotas limited the number of Jews accepted into higher education and certain career paths. “That irritated me,” Silverman said.
While at Iowa State he said the school’s physical chemistry department secretly played a significant role in the Manhattan Project by purifying the uranium for the atomic bombs ultimately dropped on Japan.
After college he went to work as a chemical engineer for Phillip’s Petroleum Company in Kaw City, Ok., where he fell in with a mix of engineers, Native Americans and roughnecks. He learned to play a mean game of poker there. Oklahoma was a dry state then and Silverman said when he’d come home to visit he’d stock up on liquor to bring back to his parched buddies.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and though he looked forward going to sea it never happened. His wartime service consisted of training school assignments from Indiana to Mississippi to Chicago to California. As an electronics technician third class he worked on radar, sonar and radio equipment that was big and bulky in the days before transistors and microchips.
He got married while in the service and his wife Norma, who did clerical work for the 5th Army Corps in Omaha, joined him at various stops.
His arrival on the west coast coincided with VJ Day and the memory of the jubilation over Japan’s surrender is still vivid.
“I was in San Francisco, where they had a helluva celebration. People went wild.”
The war was officially over but he was still Uncle Sam’s property and the wait for his discharge made the time drag by.
“I was sitting there not doing a helluva lot.”
The one time he was assigned a ship the orders were cancelled before he got aboard. He was a statistician on Treasure Island, where a military unit was set-up. The closest he came to shipping out was riding a Navy launch across the bay.
All in all, he said his time in the service was agreeable. He never ran into any any-Semitism and he was able to practice his faith and attend High Holiday services.
After his discharge in early 1946 he worked a variety of jobs the next several years, including men’s furnishings at J .L. Brandeis. Helpjng him get by was a $25 a week stipend from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Allowance fund.
He was with the Container Corporation of America in Chicago before moving back to Omaha to work for the City’s smoke abatement division. He was later at Quaker Oats. He eventually joined his father-in-law Ben Seldin and brother-in-law Ted Seldin in the Seldin Company, a commercial real estate, multi-family management and development organization. At 88 he still goes to the office every day.
By Air – The Philippines, New Guinea, and Stateside
Bernie Altsuler, A Love of Flying
Bernie Altsuler was only 20 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, but he was already a married working man. The Omahan was inducted in the service in Calif. because at 19 he’d gone to Los Angeles with a brother in search of new horizons. His fiance joined him there and the two were married.
As he had some college — he attended Creighton University — he was put in base operations logging flight records. When assigned a training command unit at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, NM, his wife came with him. Rookie pilots trained in twin-engine Beechcrafts.
He said his only encounter with anti-Semitism occurred there.
“I was working on the line — that’s where they brought planes in — and there was a master sergeant, and boy he laid into me. He gave me all the problems you could imagine, but I was only there six months before I got transferred. I loved Albuquerque but I was sure glad to get away from that guy.”
Altsuler then ended up in Fort Sumner, NM as part of a command training navigators. He was there 15 months and once again his wife accompanied him.
“My wife was a shorthand expert and she became the base commander’s secretary. That’s probably why I stayed there 15 months,” he said.
After another training stop stateside he shipped overseas in 1945 to the Philippines, where fighting had ceased. All the zig zagging his ship did to throw off enemy subs slowed the voyage to a crawl and he remembers “one of the longest craps games there ever was” played out over 39 days.
He said troops from Europe began filtering in as the Allied Pacific force geared up for the anticipated invasion of Japan. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled the invasion to everyone’s relief.
By now a sergeant, he went from Tacloban, Leyte to Zamboanga and the 18th Fighter Group, which consisted of a P-38 squadron that only months earlier had escorted B-24 bombers in live missions over Japan.
“Our squadron commander was an ace — he had shot down five Japanese planes.”
As part of his duties Altsuler had frequent contact with pilots, whom he admired.
“They were all cocky young kids,” he said. “We got to know them very well.”
Despite no combat, there were still risks. Accidents happened. He remembers a couple planes cartwheeling down the runway and bursting into flames.
He developed a lifelong love of flying in the service, his appetite whetted by junket flights he hopped.
“We had a C-47 in our operation overseas that we’d fly all over the Pacific to many different islands picking up supplies, and I went along.”
Within a few years of his return from the war he earned his pilot’s license and instrument rating in a Piper Comanche along with his friend, Harold Abrahamson.
Ironically, he said during his nearly four years in the service he never bumped into anyone he knew from back home until the day of his discharge. He stayed in L.A. a few years before returning to Omaha, where he opened his own wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business. He later sold it and retired.
Jack Epstein, A Long Way from Home
The son of an immigrant fruit peddler, Jack Epstein was married and attending then-Omaha University when drafted into the service in 1943, ending up in the U.S. Army Air Corps. As a company clerk in remote outposts, he never saw any action but was a part of the huge logistics apparatus that fed the Allied war machine.
Military life didn’t exactly agree with Epstein, yet he persevered.
“I didn’t take to the Army very good, but I managed to do OK with it because of the fact I knew I wasn’t in danger and I had something to do all the time. I was busy. Time went pretty fast,” he said.
His wartime odyssey overseas began with a voyage aboard a merchant ship from southern Calif. to Brisbane, Australia. From there he went to Milne, New Guinea, where he remained the next 27 months. The only time he laid sight of the enemy was when Japanese surveillance planes flew high overhead.
New Guinea natives were rarely glimpsed.
He never came under fire but he did contract malaria. The rainy season there soaked everything for weeks on end. Mosquitoes had a field day. The oppressive heat rarely let up.
Epstein was part of a unit comprised of two officers and 28 enlisted men. “We took charge of all the 100 octane gasoline on that base for airplanes,” he said. The gasoline came in 150 gallon barrels unloaded from supply ships and then stored and secured on base. Thousands of barrels were stacked on site. The fuel serviced fighter planes as well as troop and cargo planes.
“We serviced all of them,” he said.
Planes came and went all day, every day. “From the Philippines they came, from Okinawa they came, from all over. They were in and out — they didn’t stay,” he said. The roaring engines were a constant companion. “Maybe that’s the reason I can’t hear so good (today), I don’t know,” he ventured.
He was tasked with inventory control.
“I was the company clerk you might say. I kept track of the ins and outs of the barrels that came in and the barrels that went out .”
As staff sergeant, he said, he became “very close to the two officers. We played bridge most of the time we were there.” Finding diversions on an island in the middle of nowhere, he said, was vital for maintaining one’s sanity. Besides playing bridge there was fishing, but reading and writing letters was his main relief.
“I wrote my wife every single day and she wrote me most every single day and it was really great as far as the camaraderie we had with each other.”
He still marvels at how their letters arrived without interruption, as did the air field unit’s supplies of everything from canned foods to typewriter ribbons.
“One reason we won the war was our supply lines,” he said. “No matter what you wanted we had it — about anything you could imagine. Our supply was unbelievable.”
By war’s end he was sent to Okinawa, where he endured two typhoons, and then back to the Philippines. En route home by ship he suffered chills and fever from his malaria. It took two years before he was over the symptoms.
After three years of separation he and his wife reunited and raised a family. Epstein ended up in the distillery business. At age 88 he still goes to work every day.
Lloyd Krasne, From Audubon to Tokyo By Way of Leyte
Lloyd Krasne clearly recalls hearing over the radio the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He was driving a truck into Omaha to get supplies for his Ukrainian immigrant father’s grocery story in Audubon, Iowa. Krasne soon joined the war effort as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman.
“They needed people very badly, so it was rush rush, rush,” he recalled.
Initially pegged to study cryptography he wound up learning power-operated gun turrets. Seizing an opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School he put in and made the grade and after completing the course in Aberdeen, MD he was commissioned an officer. He did more schooling in aviation ordinance before assigned a unit in Calif. charged with training B-29 crews on operating the bomber’s state-of-the-art gun systems.
He said as the conflict progressed and America’s production of war materials advanced, the Army Air Corps found itself in a constant state of flux as new planes came on line that required different support.
With his unit scattered to the far corners, Krasne was transferred close to home, first to a base in McCook, Neb. and then to one in Harvard, Neb.
He made second lieutenant. In early 1945 he got overseas orders, prompting he and his fiance to get hitched before his departure. The couple went to Salk Lake City, Utah and then to Calif. before he shipped out to Manilla and then to Hollandia, New Guinea. No sooner did he arrive then new orders sent him right back to Manilla, where he was reunited with a commander in Tacloban, Leyte.
“Across from the house we quartered in was a little hut on stilts. There was a plank from the front door going down to the ground and in the morning here’d come a couple chickens, a pig, a couple kids — that’s the kind of economy it was.”
On Leyte he attended a memorable Yom Kippur service in a cockfighting arena. He learned years later a fellow Jew from back home — Nate Katelman — was there too.
Krasne said anti-Semitism faded in wartime, when differences seemed mute in the face of life-and-death stakes: “You were in this together. You wondered what would come next.” However, he did witness racism toward blacks that disturbed him.
He said his C.O. showed him the plans for the invasion of Japan — kept in a locked safe — that thankfully never had to be executed. After Japan’s surrender he went to Tokyo to serve in the army of occupation.
“We saw a country that was torn up,” Krasne recalled. “The main buildings were made of stone and they were alright but the areas constructed of bamboo and paper the fire bombs had reduced to nothing. Whole blocks were empty.”
After initial distrust, the Japanese warmed to their American occupiers, but persisted in their blind obedience to authority. “It was quite an observation because the people were still oriented that the emperor is god and can do no wrong and whatever he says goes,” said Krasne, who saw citizenry dutifully bow to policemen.
“It brought home the fact these people were oriented differently than anybody we’d ever met. It was quite an experience.”
Though he meant to quit the grocery business when he returned home he found it the only sure thing and remained in the field the rest of his working life.
Old Warriors Never Die, They Just Fade Away
Like veterans everywhere, Omaha’s Jewish vets run the gamut when it comes to how much or how little they’ve invested themselves in things like post-war reunions and commemorations.
Some, like Lloyd Krasne, Stuart Muskin and Kevee Kirshenbaum, have been to numerous reunions. Muskin, Kirshenbaum and Bill Cohen of Omaha traveled on a Heartland Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Some of these same men attended a tribute two years ago honoring Omaha area veterans and Holocaust survivors. Some concentration camp prisoners met their liberators.
Other vets want little to do with any fanfare over those times.
Some have scrapbooks and mementos, others — nothing.
For most veterans, Omaha’s Jewish ranks included, wartime service was something they spoke little of after returning home and getting on with their lives. It’s only in the last two decades, as major anniversaries of the war were observed, they began openly telling their stories.
All lost something along the way. Buddies. Time. Innocence. Their humble attitude about going to war, which Lloyd Friedman summed up with, “somebody had to do it,” helps explain why they are the Greatest Generation.
Several vets get together Mondays at the Bagel Bin. They may be gray and fragile now, but there was a time when they cut dashing figures and did heroic things. As their numbers grow ever fewer, they represent a trove of history not to be forgotten
- What dose the Battle of the bulge and The battle of Britian have in common (wiki.answers.com)
- The Battle of the Bulge (theroadtovictory.wordpress.com)
- Leo Adam Biga’s Survivor-Rescuer Stories Featured on Institute for Holocaust Education Website (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Sisters of the Shoah: Three Survivor Tales, Three Golden Fates, Three Iron Wills (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
There’s a popular, family-owned bagel shop or bagel factory in Omaha that was out of commission for 10 months due to a fire that destroyed the place and even though the family, the Brezacks, almost immediately set about rebuilding, delays of one kind of another kept the new Bagel Bin from reopening. That left its die-hard customers, of which there are many, without their fix for the New York-style bagels that the family, who came to Omaha from Long Island, serves up. The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the midst of the Brezacks’ frustration with the red tape that was preventing them from reopening. Since the piece appeared on Dec. 1, 2010, the Bagel Bin has indeed reopened and its bagelmaniacs are reportedly flocking there in record numbers. Even though the Bagel Bin has been around for 30-plus years in my hometown, I had to admit to the owners that I had never eaten there, and so one of my must-dos this weekend is to stop by and indulge in some of their famous bagels, which for my taste and for a lot of other folks are a perfect food group unto themselves. The place even makes authentic New York style pizza, another perfect food group. Can’t go wrong there.
The Much Anticipated Return of the Bagel Bin
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The words on the hand printed sign affixed to the glass doors of the rebuilt Bagel Bin, 1215 South 119th Street, seem benign enough. Behind the hopeful words though is the bittersweet story of a family-owned kosher bakery that went up in flames Jan. 7.
The three-alarm blaze left a total loss of the beloved business the Brezack family opened there in 1978. It meant starting from scratch and a touchstone neighborhood place being out of commission.
Owner Sue Brezack, whose late husband Joel started the Bin, says she and her family were inundated with expressions of concern from people: “Anything we can do for you? We hope you’re coming back.”
The decision to rebuild was easy for her and sons David and Scott, who’ve run the business with her since Joel’s death in 2004
“We realize we’re kind of an icon in this area. Everybody meets here,” she says.
For weeks though the reopening has been pushed back by pending city inspector approvals and contractor delays.
“It’s been a long year,” she says. “It puts us into a stress mode because you think you’re going to open on a date and then somebody throws a monkey wrench in. Something has to be done, then it has to be ordered and installed. Then you need to get the permit.”
“Everything’s done. We have enough supplies we could open today,” David said two weeks ago.
“We keep telling everybody, it’s not us,” says Sue. “The codes are crazy.”
Rather than risk disappointing people again, she says, “We’re not going to commit to any dates.”
All the while the rabid fan base, evidenced by a Rebuild Bagel Bin Facebook page numbering hundreds of friends with comments of support, press the owners for a firm relaunch. Regular customers call or email, some stopping by to gauge progress and kibitz. Members of the Monday Breakfast Bunch, who’ve met there for years, peek in, reserving their spots for when the joint’s up and running again.
“We love seeing them as they come up here,” Sue says. “It’s great to know they’re all around. If we’re in any other big city and we had this fire I don’t think anybody would have been that upset. People would have just moved on. But Omaha’s such a wonderful place. People are very caring here.”
Her customers’ devotion, she says, “makes me cry.”
She and Joel felt Omaha’s embrace when they made a leap of faith in 1977 to relocate here from Long Island, New York. She says “the community kind of came together” for them, a young Jewish couple who invested everything in the start-up. It’s remained a staple in the Jewish community, though most customers are Christian.
Why Omaha? Sue did part of her growing up here when her father was hired as chief programmer at Strategic Air Command. After she moved to New York she and Joel, a Brooklyn native, married and started their family. On vacations, Joel fell in love with the city’s quiet and its slow pace, except he couldn’t find a decent bagel in town. That deficit, he figured, could be his gain, and so he learned the bagel biz inside-out before moving Sue and the family to the Midwest to become bagel evangelists-entrepreneurs. They had the territory to themselves, before competition arrived, but as David says, “we’re still here.”
“We found our niche here,” adds Sue.
The couple’s three sons were enlisted right from the start. When Joel died David and Scott were already helping run things. Their brother Glenn is in construction and he finished out the rich new interior at the remade Bin. The spiffy new digs has some worried the homey old charm will be no more but David insists, “nothing’s changed.”
Feelings run deep, say the Brezacks, because it’s an old-school place where repeat customers are known by name and preference. As soon as they pull in the parking lot their favorite bagel’s toasted and coffee’s poured. Regulars love being pampered almost as much as exchanging good-natured barbs with the owners and counter staff.
“The people are just great, they really are,” says Sue.
All that’s left to reopen is the city’s final approval. Well, that and “we need our oven lit by the rabbi”, says Sue, adding, “But we can’t have him do that until we get the OK.”
Off-the-record, Dec. 1 became the new target date.
“It’s going to be a crazy place,” says David.
For updates call 334-2744 or visit www.bagelbin.com.
- New York makes the best bagels. Period (charactercompany.wordpress.com)
- New York Bagels: 7 Spots… What’s Your Favorite? (PHOTOS) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Cafe offers something new to the local bagel scene (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Bagel Schmagel (thegypsycook.wordpress.com)
- bagels! (eatsleepreadlove.wordpress.com)
Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened Doors for Women Directors
Something I tend to harp on is the tendency for my home state, Nebraska, to neglect the significant figures from here who have made their mark in film. One of my favorite Nebraskans in Film is Joan Micklin Silver. The Omaha native became a maverick filmmaker who helped shape the American independent film scene in the 1970s and opened doors for women directors. If her name and work are unfamiliar, then take the time to discover this artist. The following article for the New Horizons is one of a few major pieces I have done on her over the years. You will find my other stories about her on this same blog site. In some ways she was born too early to enjoy the increased freedom and opportunity that today’s women filmmakers enjoy, not that they haven’t had to overcome barriers themselves because the film world is still very much a male-centric arena. Let’s just say though that Micklin Silver is someone who deserves more recognition and that her films merit more viewers. Her feature film career lost steam in the mid 1990s, when she began directing movies for cable networks. More recently, she’s been developing some documentary projects. She would still like to realize a long held dream of coming back to Nebraska to direct a film. If she does, I will be there to cover it.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For a sparsely populated state far removed from Hollywood, Nebraska has produced an amazing array of movie greats. From the daredevil highjinks of Harold Lloyd to the graceful arabesques of Fred Astaire to the rugged heroism of Robert Taylor to the dignified stature of Henry Fonda to the demure charm of Dorothy McGuire to the brooding machismo of Marlon Brando to the laconic swagger of James Coburn to the bright spirit of Sandy Dennis to the volatile bravado of Nick Nolte, Nebraska-born stars have been as beguiling as the Sand Hills themselves.
Besides these bigger-than-life performers, Nebraska has yielded a bumper crop of storytellers and starmakers who have helped shaped the movies. Darryl Zanuck was a case in point. The Wahoo native catapulted himself from Warner Bros. screenwriter to 20th Century Fox movie mogul, overseeing many Oscar-winning classics (The Grapes of Wrath, Twelve O’clock High) during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Decades later, a new generation of Nebraska filmmakers emerged to put their dreams on celluloid. Take Alexander Payne, for example. The Omaha native is a writer-director of small, edgy, wickedly satiric feature films (Citizen Ruth and Election) that have earned critical praise if not box office success.
In between the old Hollywood of Zanuck and the brash new screen world of Payne came Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey), who arrived on the scene in the 1970s to help spark the American independent film movement and gain a fresh foothold for women behind-the-camera.
Based in New York, where she has lived the past three decades with her husband Ray Silver, she has made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. Born in Omaha in 1935, she is the eldest daughter of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came separately to America in the wake of the Russian Revolution and met and married here. Her father later founded Micklin Lumber Co.
Micklin Silver’s deep love for the movies was first nurtured in pre-television Omaha. “I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid,” she said by phone from her New York home. Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays.
The stories told by her family of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation — held her enthralled from a young age. Micklin Silver said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.
“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So, when I began making movies, I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.”
Her beguilement with those tales informed her acclaimed first feature, Hester Street, a 1975 film scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband. It takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.
Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met her future husband, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.
Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of mavericks like John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened when she struck up a friendship with Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company, and ended up writing and directing a series of short educational films. One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.
Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With her feature scripts lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west. When it became apparent she and the veteran Hollywood director (Mark Robson) assigned to it had a “very different take on” the material, she was replaced. Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.
“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.” She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’”
It took guts for a woman to try directing then because women were simply not taken seriously in the male-dominated film world. Chauvinism reigned supreme.
“When I started,” she said, “there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing.”
She followed Hester Street with a string of features that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. Lately, she has directed television movies for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime (Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.
Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”
More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”
She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and her peers made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.
Of her daughters following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”
Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, Micklin Silver still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast, gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.
A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a troubled romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.
A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey, a 1988 film adapted from the Susan Sandler play, was picked-up by Warner Bros. While not a Jewish director per se, she often explores her heritage on film and with Crossing Delancey she revisited the Lower East Side, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions. In the mid-‘90s she directed the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Most recently, she directed the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, Mine Enemies stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. The film marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.
In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”
Showing her versatility, she followed Crossing Delancey as the hired-gun director of two decidedly non-ethnic, screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release).
Her career has also seen its share of unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”
Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.
“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”
Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.
Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.
About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas…and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”
She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue. Upcoming projects include directing a movie adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime this spring. She eventually hopes to make a long-held film noir script.
Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. Her visit included a drive across Nebraska that reignited her passion for the prairie.
“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.” A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.
If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.”
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I saw in the paper one weekend that someone I profiled a couple years ago passed away. Sam Cooper was a Douglas County Court judge in Nebraska. I believe my late mother, Gemma Pietramale, was a classmate of his at now defunct Mason Elementary School in Omaha. He was Jewish, my mom Italian, and the school a veritable melting pot of European ethnicities. A diminutive man in terms of height, his stature in local judiciary circles ranked high, as much for his fair, gentle manner as for his legal acumen. When I met with he and his wife it was clear to see he was on the fragile side physically, but his mind and spirit were sharp, and his abiding love for America and its freedom was evident in the way he spoke almost reverently about the opportunities this nation provide his immigrant family. My story on Cooper originally appeared in the Jewish Press, and I offer it here as a remembrance of this kind little man with a big heart.
Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Retired Douglas County Court Judge Samuel V. Cooper’s immigrant parents always told him anything is possible in America. They were living proof. Sam, too. Like them, he came from “the old country,” and like they did he’s taken what America’s offered and made the most of it.
His success as a lawyer, as a Democratic Party operative and as a judge fulfilled the family’s dream of becoming productive American citizens. His life became the embodiment of the Great American Ideal he once wrote a prize-winning essay about. None of it would have happened without his family having the courage of their convictions and leaving totalitarian Europe for freedom in the United States.
He said his father, Martin Cooper, made his way here after escaping the turmoil of war-torn Europe. Martin (Mayer) was a Russian Army conscript in World War I and was taken prisoner by the Austrian-Hungarian Army. Once released, he yearned to follow his brother Harry to America. Harry ended up in Omaha, where he built his own successful construction company. His Cooper Construction Co. built the old Beth Israel and Beth El Synagogue buildings.
But before Martin made the leap he first settled in Chelm, Poland. That fateful move led to him meeting his future wife, Ida (Chaya), who operated a candy store. The couple married and began a family. Their two oldest children, Jack and Sam, were born in Chelm.
Memories of Chelm are still with Cooper. How, for instance, his family lived in an apartment complex with a central courtyard that contained a common well from which residents drew water.
Cooper said his father could no longer ignore the itch to find something better and, so, in 1924 he embarked on a new start for the family by going on ahead of them to America. In classic immigrant tradition he planned to establish himself in some trade and then send for his wife and kids to join him. No one could have imagined how long it would take for the family to be reunited.
Martin worked for a time with his brother in the construction company but found his niche in the grocery business, said Cooper. One of the stores Cooper’s father worked for was Tuchman Brothers. With $500 his father saved, Cooper said, the enterprising man opened his own grocery store at 21st and St. Mary’s Avenue. By 1929, nearly six years after leaving his family in Poland, Cooper’s father finally saved enough to buy passage for his wife and two sons.
The image of saying goodbye to friends and schoolmates at the seder he attended is still fresh in Cooper’s mind. He recalls sailing on the S.S. Leviathan, in steerage, and arriving in New York. After a few days there a train took him, Jack and their mother to Omaha. He recalls nobody was at Union Station to meet them. A taxi took them to the address Martin had sent. The reunited family was the subject of stories and photos in the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee News.
If they had stayed in Poland just a few more years they might well have become victims of the Holocaust. Family that remained behind were never heard from again.
Sam was 8 when he arrived in Omaha. He and his family lived in back of the store.
His parents had little formal education, he said, but were quite literate and well-informed. He said his “very well read” father “read The Forward religiously. The radio, of course, had news about world events and he was very up on that.” As his father “felt his foreignness,” he said his dad took pains to improve his English and thereby better assimilate. Growing up, Cooper worked in his father’s store.
He said his mother was “a simple woman” who had small aspirations for him — desiring only that he find some stable work, perhaps a store of his own. She spoke of nothing high falutin, such as the law. Besides, where would the money come from to study a profession in college?
Cooper was a good student at Mason Grade School, where he received special help with his English language skills. He got so proficient so fast he became editor of a mimeographed school newspaper. The oratory abilities that would help make him a lawyer and, later, a judge, found him serving as MC during the dedication for a school addition. But it was at Central High School where he really shined. Active in speech and debate, his coach encouraged Cooper to enter a national essay contest conducted by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
His entry, entitled “The Benefits of Democracy,” swept local, regional and national honors, earning Cooper a $1,000 grand prize that he used to pay his way through Omaha University. He wrote the essay at a pivotal, anxious time in world history. It was 1940. Nazi Germany was on the march. Great Britain was under siege. The entire world would soon be at war. Most agonizingly for Cooper, Jews were being persecuted back in the country of his birth.
In a fervid paean to his adopted homeland, the young patriot expressed his love for America and its democratic ideals, contrasting the freedom he and his family enjoyed here with the tyranny they would have otherwise faced abroad.
“Democracy to me is not something abstract and far off. It is with me at home, on the street, at school…It is like the very air I breathe. We do not have to sit on a special bench, nor wear a certain type of clothing…None of us need fear that somebody will report us to a storm trooper. We can read any book, newspaper or magazine that is published and they are not censored. We can go to sleep at night and be assured that we will not be awakened and be dumped across a border. We can awake in the morning and hear footsteps and know it is the milkman, not the gestapo.”
Clearly, for Cooper, the unfolding tragedy in Europe was not an abstract or remote problem. Although his parents were not political, he said they, too, followed what happened. He said his father “did get involved with some of the newly arrived people. They met like on Saturdays and discussed things — the news especially. He also helped a lot of refugees after the Holocaust to get settled.”
Economics intrigued Cooper while at Omaha U. but the practical side of him ruled the field out when, he said, he discovered “you can’t make a living at it.” His studies were soon disrupted by the war. Drafted in the Army in 1943 he ended up in the Quartermaster Corps, serving in England and Belgium. After Germany’s defeat in early 1945 he and fellow servicemen were on a ship that sailed through the Panama Canal to the Philippines. They were en route to the South Pacific to supply troops for the planned invasion of Japan. When the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s bloodiest war finally came to an end. A few months later Cooper headed home.
Inspired by a friend from his youth who became a lawyer Cooper used the GI Bill of Rights to study law at Creighton University, where he completed an accelerated program that saw him get his degree in two years. This Jew delighted in the Jesuit rigor he found at Creighton.
“I enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere. Most of the professors would stir up something in your mind.”
To this day he feels indebted to the framers of the GI Bill for giving him the opportunity to complete his higher education and enter a profession that became his career. He takes offense to any suggestion that, for example, the Social Security Act was the greatest legislation ever passed. “The GI Bill is a little bit above that,” he’ll tell you.
Upon passing the bar Cooper first practiced law with Joe Friedenberg. As the courts’ Referee in Bankruptcy Friedenberg appointed the young attorney Trustee, which meant Cooper dealt with creditors and collected assets from those filing bankruptcy, netting him $5 for each case he cleared. He applied his fee toward his office rental. Later, attorney Loyal Kaplan tabbed Cooper to join him in a practice dealing with interstate and intrastate commerce applications for truckers’ routes.
Cooper next joined Jack Mayer for “a whopping sum of $50 a month and office space.” He certainly wasn’t getting rich in law. Indeed, he was barely getting by. Things were tight, especially after he married the former Judith Steinhorn of Dallas, Texas and the couple started a family. Things weren’t much more lucrative after he, Norm Denenberg and Ed Mullery formed their own law firm.
“I think we took any type of law business we could get, including divorces, filings for bankruptcy, drunk driving cases,” Cooper said.
He first entered politics in the mid-1950s. His abiding love for the democratic process and current events led him into that rarefied sphere.
“I got interested in politics,” is how he simply puts it.
Helping spur his interest were his struggles making ends meet as a lawyer. “I had time on my hands,” he said. “The law practice wasn’t going that great…” The opportunity was there to give back to America and he chose to take it.
“In the early years I ran for the original City Charter Convention that we’re operating under now in Omaha,” he said. “There must have been about 75 candidates running for 15 positions. The idea was to write up a modern charter. We met several times. We hired an expert that had done it in other places.
“One of the features, by the way, we placed in the charter was a provision requiring the mayor to appoint a review committee at least once every 10 years to assess if any alterations were needed in the charter. And I got appointed to two subsequent Omaha Charter Study Conventions.”
The first time around, in the ‘50s, he said, “I guess I was one of the younger members of the convention.” By his second time around, in the mid-’60s, he was a veteran politico who’d done his share of canvassing and campaigning.
“I worked for the Democratic Party on behalf of Adlai Stevenson, who was sort of a hero of mine. He sounded so well in his oratory.”
Cooper beat the bushes on voter registration drives and getting people out to vote for the Democratic ticket. Twice Stevenson opposed Dwight Eisenhower in the presidential general election and twice he lost. The egg head couldn’t defeat the war hero. Cooper said the dichotomy of the candidates then reminds him of the current presidential race that pits an intellectual dove in Democrat Barack Obama against a war hero hawk in Republican John McCain.
Election nights particularly appealed to Cooper. Whether his candidate won or lost, it was the culmination of the democratic process in action. Besides, he said, he enjoyed the party atmosphere on those electric nights full of anticipation and excitement. The hopes and efforts of weeks of work came to a head.
Omaha lawyer and political boss Bernie Boyle introduced Cooper to then-Nebraska Governor Ralph Brooks, who was responsible for Cooper becoming further entrenched in the political apparatus when he appointed the up-and-comer Douglas County Election Commissioner. “That was a fun job,” Cooper said. Again, he most fondly recalls the election night buzz that prevailed as ballot boxes came in and the results tallied. His wife made things homey by bringing in pans of baked chicken and all the fixings to tide Sam and his staff over as they worked into the wee hours.
Asked what he thinks of the ballot irregularities that have surfaced in recent U.S. general elections. he said, “We didn’t have any of those problems” under his watch at city hall. The controversy attending the disputed Florida results did not happen when Cooper presided over a recount here. When illness forced incumbent John Rosenblatt to retire in ‘61, the mayoral race came down to a dead heat between Jim Green and James Dworak. Green lost by a slim margin — a few hundred votes, Cooper recalled. The law required a recount. Cooper oversaw the process and he said the result “came pretty close to that same number.” End of story.
Cooper’s calm, cool demeanor and professionalism in that potentially volatile situation would become his trademark.
In 1964 Cooper once again took a leadership position within his party by serving as Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman, an experience he termed “great.” He said that year’s state convention “was one of the finest conventions we’ve seen here.” President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the year before and as a memorial Cooper had printed “a sort of farewell” salute with photos and sayings of the slain leader of the free world.
By the fall of ‘68 the nation was reeling from the assassinations of three more leaders who inspired hope — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Civil unrest plagued many big cities. Anti-war protests mounted. Amid this incendiary backdrop the rancorous Democratic National Convention unfolded in Chicago, where youth demonstrators were brutally dispersed by city boss Mayor Richard Daley’s thug police force outside the convention hall.
Cooper was there as an alternate delegate — not in the melee on the streets but inside the contentious, smoke-filled convention that finally nominated Hubert Humphrey. Chicago wasn’t his first national convention but it was his most memorable. While he didn’t witness any overt violence with his own eyes he said the wire mesh covering the windows of the bus that transported him and fellow delegates from the hotel to the hall was a stark symbol of the discord.
“We didn’t see much of the demonstrations going on,” he said. “We heard about it. Speakers talked about it.”
Reform legislation in the Nebraska Unicameral aimed at modernizing the county court system resulted in Cooper throwing his hat in the ring with other lawyers vying for a spot on the bench. Cooper won election in ’72 and later was retained. He said James Moylan was “very helpful in my election.”
Wearing the judge’s robe seemed a good fit for Cooper.
“When the opportunity came along,” he said, “it looked like steady money coming in and I thought I’d like the position. People said I had the temperament for it, and I think I did. I’d listen to both sides fairly and try to do the right thing in the case.
Did he enjoy the position as much as he thought he might? “Yes, very much so,” he said, adding he liked “the contact with lawyers and the contact with cases themselves.”
The country court’s “high volume” docket kept things humming. “I mean, we didn’t shy away from cases,” he said. “We had multiple jurisdictions. We had to get things done, which we did. We all kept busy. We had to be there at a certain time to start the court and to process the cases. On the other hand, we usually got through by 4:30 or something like that.”
He liked the variety of cases he presided over — from criminal to civil to probate matters. Another judgeship, perhaps in a higher court, never interested him. After 32 years on the bench he retired in 2005.
If his years on the bench taught him anything, he said, it’s that “it’s far more important to be fair than to be tough. It’s important not to lose patience, to listen and to give everybody a fair hearing.”
He still keeps his hand in the law by volunteering as a mediator with the Douglas County Prosecutor’s Office. In a non-binding atmosphere he meets with parties embroiled in legal disputes to discuss their case, putting his skills for communication and deliberation to work, sometimes getting the two sides to settle out of court or to drop the matter all together.
One of his four children, son Justin Cooper, followed him into the profession. “It’s nice to have another lawyer in the family,” the proud papa said.
Some time ago Sam Cooper wrote down reflections about his life. The gratitude he expressed in middle-age is of a man who’s never grown cynical or bitter about the state of the nation that he loves:
“In looking back over those years I consider myself a very lucky person. Lucky to have missed the Holocaust in Poland. Lucky to have come to America, a country of great opportunity, a country that has been very good to me. Lucky to have missed being injured or killed in my Army years. Lucky to have been educated as a lawyer under the GI Bill…Lucky to have become a judge, to have a loving wife, a happy marriage and four children who have grown into exceptional and successful adults and parents, and 11 grandchildren of whom I’m very proud to be my offspring.”
The man he’s become is very much what he imagined as a boy, when he wrote these words as a salute to the democratic ideals that offered him the opportunity to be whatever he wanted to be:
“Democracy is much more than the declaration of independence, the constitution and our laws…It is beyond paper and ink. There is something about the American people that continually seeks freedom. Perhaps it is our heritage and principles. Perhaps it is the ideals that have so long been embedded in our hearts. Perhaps it is the realization that men can live together in peace and happiness. Whatever it is I am glad I might take part in these benefits…I hope I can find my place in this American democracy.”
Sam Cooper found his place all right — as a dedicated public servant and defender of liberty and justice for all. At age 86 he lives the promise of America every day.
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The first and last time I walked into a pawnshop was when I did this story. On second thought, I may have been in a pawnshop or two when I was a kid, accompanying my dad on trips to find some bargain items, maybe a guitar for my older brother Greg or something like that. But otherwise my only take on pawnshops is derived from the movies and from books and articles. My research for this story didn’t necessarily overturn any assumptions I had about these places, other than the fact that they can be extremely large and profitable operations with vast warehouses full of merchandise that rival that of discount department stores. This story for the Omaha Weekly may not dispel any of your ideas about pawnshops either, but after doing the piece I did have a better appreciation for why they are so ubiquitous — simply put, they fill a need or demand that all the banks and loan offices cannot. I try in the piece to present the good, the bad, and the gray about these marketplace and moneychanging emporiums, where commerce of all kinds is transacted.
The Pawnshop Beat
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
In what is a combination bazaar, everything-under-one-roof discount store and cash-on-the-barrelhead lending operation, the neighborhood pawnshop offers something for everyone. This marketplace for buying, trading and borrowing is a center of commerce where the down-and-out rub shoulders with the upwardly mobile in a common search for a good deal. From cars and boats to lawn mowers and weed whackers to guns and games to stereos and VCRs to rings and necklaces, pawnshops, which have been called the world’s greatest garage sale, deal in it all.
Because they are also historically dumping grounds for stolen goods, every single transaction is reviewed by law enforcement authorities, who, based on hunches and crime reports, look for red flags in the merchandise moved there and in the profiles of customers doing business there.
You generally don’t seek a loan at a pawnshop unless some life event — usually a bad one — has brought you to one. Maybe you’re out of work or in between pay checks. Maybe your credit cards and checking accounts are tapped out. Maybe your car’s on the blink. Maybe medical bills are due. Perhaps you’ve lost more than you can afford at Harvey’s.
Whatever your story, and there’s a million of them, you find yourself strapped for cash and unwilling or unable to borrow from family, friends, traditional lending institutions and more non-traditional sources like loan sharks. So, you grab whatever possessions you can lay your hands on and hock them for some greenbacks to help you get out of a bind. Often described as the bank of last resort, pawnshops are, for some, a stop-gap money source for when true crises arise and for others simply a way of life whose no-questions-asked ready-cash supply helps folks get by when other avenues are closed.
Jack Belmont, who’s been in the trade since growing up in the Great Depression, explained the basic appeal for people of doing business at a pawnshop as opposed, for example, to a bank. “It’s a quick deal,” he said from behind the main counter at Mid-City Jewelry & Loan, where he is a partner with owner Don Hoberman. “You walk in when you feel you’ve got something to pawn and you make the loan. You can be in and out of here inside of five minutes. You can come back anytime you want. Nobody knows your business. You don’t have to fill out a balance sheet or anything else like that. It’s very convenient, very quick.”
For those engaged in that left-handed form of human endeavor known as crime, pawnshops are convenient places to unload hot property and turn a fast buck, although the chances of avoiding detection are slim. Indeed, if it wasn’t for pawnshops, police officials say, many stolen goods would not be recovered. When stolen property in a pawnshop is detected and its rightful owner contacted to identify and retrieve it, the owner is invariably upset to find out he or she must pay to get the stuff back. This redemption charge, which is usually a fraction of the item’s cost, may seem somewhat heartless but is completely legal.
Clerking at a pawnshop is a little like being a bartender or a barber. Just about everyone who sidles up to the counter has a hard luck story to tell. Saul Kaiman, the introspective bearded owner of Sol’s Jewelry & Loan, which has four locations in the Omaha metro area, said, “When I first started working in pawnshops in the ‘50s I heard so many tales of people needing $50 to get to a funeral that I didn’t think there was anybody left alive in the United States. I was naive. I believed everything they said at first. After awhile, you know some of them are just stories and you just try to keep a straight face,” he said.
Christy, a pretty clerk in Sol’s downtown store at 514 N. 16th Street, said she has heard it all. “We get a lot of people who need help with their bills or need to get their car fixed or need to get their house repaired. Once in a while we get pawners who’ve never pawned before. They have some family emergency and they actually cry they’re so desperate.”
For a gun lover, getting a loan on a prized weapon can be as torturous as giving up a first-born son. At least that’s how painful it appeared for a man wearing a jacket and hat emblazoned with NRA slogans who came to Sol’s to pawn his Mossbach 810 rifle: “My car broke down and I needed to get it working again and this is all I had to get me what I need to get by,” he said, referring to the gun. “It’s a very fine gun. I just want to get it back.” He said it’s the first time he’s had to give up his gun. As with any pawn transaction in Nebraska, he has four months to redeem his weapon, with interest accruing from the date of the loan.
According to Tedi, a pert and petite clerk at Sol’s downtown store, “There’s a lot of people that come in here that feel bad about the circumstances they’re in. I tell them that it’s happened to everybody. That bad stuff happens and we all need money to get out of jams, and that’s what we’re here for. I try not to make them feel embarrassed about. I try to make them feel like it’s OK.”
Don Hoberman, the sardonic owner of Mid-City Jewelry and Loan at 515 So. 15th Street, explained there is an implied Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell pact in place at pawnshops to protect people’s privacy. “You don’t ask them why” they need the cash, he said. “It’s immaterial anyway. It’s their money. They don’t have to tell me why. Some people just walk in, borrow money and walk out. But some people feel they have to, so you listen,” he said.
A pretty but sad-eyed wife and mother of two recently entered Sol’s looking distraught as she used one hand to push an electric snowblower ahead of her and the other hand to cart a camera case. “I missed a payday at work and I needed a little help to pay some bills today. That way I won’t get behind and I know I still have time to come back down and get my stuff out. I’ve been dealing with Sol’s for 10 years and they don’t ask any questions — they just help if they can.” With her $275 loan in hand, she left with a smile.
Customers don’t always leave happy, however. In assessing the fair market value of a pawned item, for example, there is bound to be some difference of opinion. Christy at Sol’s said, “We get quite a few irate customers. They get mad because we don’t give them what they want or they think we’re gypping them. We’re not. We’re being fair with the game. When they sign the contract they know what they’re signing.” Tedi at Sol’s added, “No matter how hard we try to explain the loan process, you get some people that…don’t seem to understand that the item they pawned a year ago and never paid on is no longer here, because if you don’t come back for it or pay on it after four months we can sell it. A lot of times it was a sentimental thing, and they’re angry about it. Like it’s all our fault.”
Then there are the regulars. Take Judy Johnson, for example. She often pawns jewelry at Mid-City to help tide her over when things are tight. “Right now I’m painting my house, and I need extra money” for supplies, she said one morning at the shop. She still has several jewelry pieces in hock.
“I miss them a lot,” she said. She is one of several loyal customers to follow Belmont to Mid-City from the shop he and his late brother ran, and that their late father started, Crosstown Loan, which was located on N. 24th Street until it burned down in the 1969 riot, and which later moved to 16th Street. At Sol’s, the regulars include a mother-daughter combo who say they’re such frequent customers that “they should put a revolving door in for us.” Kaiman said many elderly customers, including a man who pawned his Colt. 38 revolver over and over again, make a habit of pawning as much for the social interaction as for the money.
Hoberman and partner Jack Belmont own a combined 90-plus years in the business. For them, the pawnshop is a kind of social laboratory and money changer in one where the disparate mix of human kind meet to haggle and strike a deal.
So, what’s the oddest thing someone has tried pawning? Hoberman recalled the man who came in once and asked, ‘Do you take anything?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘How about an eyeball?’ I said, ‘C’mon quit kidding.’ So, he popped it out and put in on the counter. And I said, ‘Make it wink.’ He couldn’t do it, so I had him put it back.” Then there was the World War II veteran who made a habit of pawning his prosthetic leg, which he never picked up — Veterans Administration Hospital workers did. Hoberman draws the line at living creatures. “We always figure if you gotta feed it or clean it, you don’t want it, so we don’t take it.”
You never know who will show up at a pawnshop, either. Back in the early 1980s then-Governor Bob Kerrey, who became a good friend of the store’s through his predecessor, former governor and senator Jim Exon, whom Hoberman knew from Exon’s days in the furniture business, stopped by to ask, “What do you give somebody who’s a movie star?” Kerrey was referring to his then girl-friend, screen actress Debra Winger. “I told him one of the fashionable things was pearls, and so we acquired 30-inch strand of pearls and he gave them to her for a present. Two day afterwards her picture was taken at some event and she had them on. He sent me the picture. He doesn’t have the girl anymore, but she still has the pearls.”
If all his years in the trade have taught him anything, Hoberman said, it is that people “from all walks of life” — from high rollers to penniless tramps — frequent pawnshops and the thing is you can’t always tell who’s who.
“You can’t qualify who comes through the front door and decide what they’re going to pawn or what they might be able to buy. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. I once had somebody pawn a $5 watch and then he wanted to look at a $1,000 ring. And I thought, Well, why should I show him this ring when he’s having trouble getting $5 together?
“But I soon learned you don’t look at it that way. The guy came back and he said, ‘Thank you for loaning me on the watch,” and he walked over to the jewelry case and plunked down cash to buy the ring. You see, you just don’t decide what they can and can’t do by what they look like.” In other words, assuming someone is broke just because he or she needs fast cash is a no-no. “It isn’t always because you’re broke,” Hoberman said, “it’s because you’re short.”
Or, as a distinguished looking black man said one morning at Sol’s, where he was redeeming a bracelet he originally bought there, “I get paid every two weeks and with utilities the way they are and everything in general going up, I get little shortfalls between paychecks, and so pawning’s a matter of just being able to make it and keep everything current with bills, groceries, bus fare and things like that.” He added, “You know, sometimes you don’t want to do it, but it just comes in handy as a safety net. It’s just another tool in helping you make it through.”
Besides, the kind of fast turnover loans made by pawnshops just aren’t available elsewhere. “Say you have a ring you bought at a retail store for $1,000, and now you need $200 for something. You can’t take it (the ring) to the bank because they don’t loan on products like that,” Hoberman said. “Even if the ring was worth $40,000, the bank still won’t loan on it. I have people come in with $10,000 in their pocket. They need another $4,000 to buy something and they’ve got to do it NOW. They come with something we can loan them $4,000 on and they’re out the door and they’re back.”
Hoberman believes most people find themselves financially short due to their own actions or decisions. He points to the casinos across the river as a major reason why some people end up on the margins or fringes. He said where items were once being redeemed at a nearly 80 percent rate, they are now redeemed at only 62 percent.
“The redemption percentage has dropped because I think people never recover from their gambling losses,” he said. “I have one gentleman who pawns his car here. He stops in on his way to the casino. We loan him money on the car, then we drive him over and drop him off at the boat, and we put his car into storage. On occasion…he hits and he’s back to get his car the same day.” Other times, the car sits in storage for days or weeks before he can afford to retrieve it.
Kaiman, of Sol’s, agrees that gambling addiction, along with drugs, accounts for the lower redemption rates being seen in pawnshops.
“My personal opinion is that a lot of people get financially hurt over at the casinos. You know they pawn their diamond ring or something with hopes of winning over there. They don’t win and they don’t have enough to get it back. The casinos have probably changed the way we operate more than anything than I can remember. It used to be a cyclical thing. From October to February more people were buying things and picking up things, and the rest of the months were more input — with people bringing things in more than picking up. But because the casinos are 12-months a year, 24-hours a day, that’s changed a lot. We get less pickups and just more coming in.”
It’s meant an ever expanding inventory at Sol’s, which must increasingly try to resell unredeemed items, often at close to cost just to reduce backlogs.
Detective Mike Salzbrenner of the Omaha Police Department’s Burglary/Pawn Unit works the local pawnshop beat. He, and his colleagues, follow a daily routine that finds them making the rounds at the local shops, where they scour through identification cards completed on every transaction. Each pawn card includes the customer’s name, address, telephone number, height weight and fingerprint as well as a summary of the transaction and a description of the items dealt. Rifling through the cards, the well-tanned and blue-suited Salzbrenner looks for anything that appears fishy.
“See, this one bothers me,” he tells a visitor one morning at Sol’s. “Here’s a young lady who just turned 18, which is the legal minimum age to pawn, and she brought in a $250-$300 tennis bracelet. Because of her age, that makes me think the bracelet’s her mother’s or somebody’s. That’s one I’ll call and speak with the mother about. I swear, half the time the mother will come back and say, ‘It’s not in my jewelry box.’ And I’ll tell her, ‘I’m sorry ma’am, but she just pawned it and you better find out why.” Often, Salzbrenner said, it’s to support a drug habit or to cover debts.
Although he has no hard evidence to prove it, Salzbrenner is sure that pawning — of stolen goods or not — has increased since the arrival of the casinos. Gambling debts, he said, force otherwise law-abiding citizens to take desperate measures. “A typical case I’m working on is somebody with a gambling problem. They get addicted to gambling and, of course, they run out of money. They turn around and start stealing from their employer. Well, a lot of these people are not common thieves. They wouldn’t know a fence out on the street. But they do know pawnshops, where they go and claim items as their own and get $20 for a watch or whatever. They go across the river, lose their money and they want to gamble again.” So, they steal again. And the cycle goes on.
The job, Salzbrenner acknowledges, calls for much interpretation. “We’re the judgment call beat. We’re looking for anything suspicious. Suspicious to us,” he said, includes youths bringing in merchandise not appropriate to their age or anyone selling things, especially new items, for a fraction of their value or customers not knowing much about the goods they represent as their own.
He said in following up on questionable deals, citizens often grow defensive about what they consider a hassle and an intrusion into their private lives. “We get a lot of accusations thrown at us. A lot of times they say, ‘If there’s no victim, then why are you bothering me?’ Well, I tell them, we’re trying to find out if there is one.”
When his nose tells him something stinks, he said, he’ll track the customer’s pawn and criminal records on the police computer, he’ll place phone calls and he’ll make other inquiries until he’s exhausted all lines of investigation. “Somebody’s going to have to satisfy me someplace,” he said. Until he has an answer, he can put a hold on any item, and it cannot be touched again until he releases it.
Salzbrenner’s superior, Sgt. Mary Bruner, said smart thieves either avoid pawnshops altogether — preferring to exchange their ill-gotten goods on the street — or else enlist accomplices, including residents of shelters, to pawn the booty, which makes suspect identification and apprehension more difficult. While only a fraction of all stolen goods is ever recovered, Bruner said the OPD’s Burglary/Pawn Unit cleared a record $752,000 in recovered stolen property last year. Contributing to that total, she said, was the unit cracking a couple large jewelry theft rings.
According to Hoberman, the way business is conducted at pawnshops these days — with paperwork filled out in triplicate and unredeemed items stockpiled in warehouses brimming with goods from floor to ceiling — some of the joy has gone out of the work. He said there isn’t quite the trust and conviviality there once was.
“People have changed. It used to be word was bond. Way back, a guy would come in with a two-cent lead pencil and you’d loan him $10 on it. Now, that may sound strange, but his word was bond. That’s all he had was his word. He would come back and get that lead pencil. Now, he knew he could go out and buy another pencil for two cents. He didn’t have to come back and pay that $10, but he would. It used to be a little more casual and a lot more fun. It’s still fun, but it’s more business. Back in the old days you could kind of fly by the seat of your pants. I used to keep a whistle under the counter and when it would get really crazy in here, I’d blow the whistle and say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s start this whole day over.’”
- Pawnshops finding unlikely customers (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Pawnshop oddities reflect Gulf struggles (cnn.com)
- Before the Wall Street Crisis, There Was “Poverty, Inc.” (politics.usnews.com)
- Pawning the family heirlooms (money.cnn.com)
- Pawnshops Becoming More Respectable (volokh.com)
- Groupon Founders Reinvent The Pawnshop (fastcompany.com)
- Pawnshops Flourish in Hard Times, Drawing Scrutiny (time.com)