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By Land, By Sea, By Air, Omaha Jewish Veterans Performed Far-flung Wartime Duties


What follows are short profiles of Omaha area Jewish war veterans I wrote for the Jewish Press and its Passover edition. All of the veterans profiled here served in World War II, with one gentleman serving both in WWII and the Korean War.  To a man, these veterans’ recall of events from 55-60 years ago is excellent.  I had the chance to meet with most of these men in person. Several of them get together every Monday at noon at a local bagel shop to kibitz and kvetch.  The men and the conviviality of this “brunch bunch” will be the focus of an upcoming story I’m writing for the Press.

 

 

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

Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’

May 12, 2011 2 comments

About three years ago or so I heard that one of my favorite actors, Peter Riegert, was going around the country with a feature film he starred in and directed, King of the Corner. His appearance in Nebraska took on greater import for me when I learned that the film was adapted from a group of short stories by noted author Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at the University of Nebraska. Long story short, I obtained a screener of the film and I really responded to it, and then I did a phone interview with Riegert, who proved a delight.  The resulting story appeared in the Jewish Press.  I highly recommend King of the Corner.  And if you don’t know his name or work, I recommend two essential Riegert films: Local Hero and Crossing Delancey, which also happen to be two of my favorite films.  Two of Riegert’s best films, Crossing Delancey and Chilly Scenes of Winter, were directed by Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, the subject of an extensive profile on this blog under the title, “Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling.”

 

 

Peter Riegert

 

 

Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

For months now, noted stage and screen actor Peter Riegert has been taking his new film comedy about “crummy Jews,” King of the Corner, on the road. Best known for his work in front of the camera, he’s the director, co-writer and star of this engaging satire that critic Roger Ebert gives 3 1/2 stars. While this is the first feature he’s directed, Riegert won praise for helming the 2000 short By Courier, an Oscar-nominated adaptation of the O. Henry short story.

In March, he brought his new film to Lincoln, where he has a history showing his work and where his co-script writer, Gerald Shapiro, author of the short stories upon which the film is based, resides and teaches. Although they’d never met before their collaboration, Shapiro’s long admired Riegert’s work. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln creative writing professor, Shapiro utilizes one of the actor’s best known films, Crossing Delancey, along with an audio reading by Riegert of a famous Yiddish story by Sholem Aleichem, in his Jewish American fiction class.

“I was an admirer of his before I ever saw ‘Crossing Delancey’. I loved him in ‘Animal House’. I loved him in ‘Local Hero’,” Shapiro said.

Personally peddling his cinema wares to theater and video chains has Riegert appreciating the irony of schmoozing over a movie whose two main characters are Sol Spivak (Eli Wallach), an ex-door-to-door salesman with a Willy Loman death wish, and his son Leo (Riegert), a newfangled huckster beset by an Oedipal complex.

“I’m turning into Leo and Sol,” a joking Riegert said by phone.

The story revolves around Leo, the dutiful yet resentful son in the midst of an identity crisis that has him questioning everything, including his own religious heritage, and doubting advice given him, especially by his father.

From the very opening, Riegert portrays Leo as a man adrift. Sitting at his office desk, he’s the picture of apathy and narcissism as he sends a parade of wind-up toys marching over the edge into the abyss. This image instantly conveys he’s heading for a similar fall and one he’ll precipitate himself. It’s happens, too, but to Riegert and Shapiro’s credit, the crisis assumes richer, funnier, sadder dimensions than we could imagine.

Continually kvetching about his father wanting to die, his troubled marriage, his rotten job and his willful daughter, Leo acts the meshugina, but he’s really a guilelessmensch short on confidence and, therefore, judgment. More than once, he’s asked, “What do you want?” To his dismay, he doesn’t know.

Where family and colleagues see a protege angling for his job, Leo seems strangely unaware and unfazed by the threat. So depressed is Leo that even when their suspicions prove true, he can’t get angry.

He can’t feel anything, except lost. As men often do, his nonverbalized fears and frustrations drive him to act badly– impulsively pursuing a tryst in a kind of retro-adolescent daze. There’s no question he loves his wife (Isabella Rosselini) and family. But he gives into temptation and reaches for the nearest fix to feel something, anything, again.

In the surreal infidelity sequence Leo revels in his conquest in a most inappropriate way, only to have a moment of self-awareness–too late, as it happens–that’s delicious for how absurd and ashamed he feels.

Riegert has just the right ironic detachment, sardonic bemusement, pragmatic charm, cockeyed whimsy and simmering venom to make his character one we can both laugh at and empathize with. It turns out Leo is a lot like Shapiro.

The actor’s career revolves around New York and L.A., but his many ties here extend to filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a native Omahan based in New York. He first worked with her as the wry friend to John Heard in her Chilly Scenes of Winter and next as stand-up Sam, the lovelorn pickle man (opposite Amy Irving), in her Crossing Delancey. For his new film, he’s teamed with transplanted Nebraskan Shapiro, whose book Bad Jews and Other Stories supplied the plot and characters adapted into King of the Corner.

The film falls into that cinema limbo where many good, small, character-driven movies, either owing to limited distribution or poor studio marketing, end up, which is anywhere but your local cineplex. As unusual as it may seem for someone to make the circuit with their picture, “it’s not an uncommon thing,” Riegert said, for moviemakers “to be out there hustling their film. (John) Cassavetes did it. I’m pretty sure Mel Brooks did it with ‘The Twelve Chairs’. I’ve met lots of indie directors who do it.”

Indeed, Joan Micklin Silver and her producer-husband Raphael Silver made the rounds with her Oscar-nominated feature debut Hester Street and again with Between the Lines. If you want your film shown in theaters, self-distribution is the only route left when your pic fails to win a traditional studio release, as was the case with King. It’s not something entered into lightly, but Riegert almost sounds fortunate when he says, “Basically, I’ve had to learn every part of making movies”–from producing to writing-directing to marketing.

“I didn’t want to distribute the movie myself, but I didn’t find the help I felt the movie needed. I didn’t want somebody to just release it. I needed somebody to nurture it, because it’s that kind of a movie, and nobody was stepping up in any particularly enthusiastic way. So, now I’m learning about every part of movies, and in a way that’s not only theoretical but practical.”

The experience should inform whatever project he directs next. His efforts to get his film more widely seen were bolstered when a national chain took it on.

“I booked the first three months of the tour and then Landmark Theaters, which specializes in independent films, picked me up for June, July, August and September,” he said. “So, that was a big help and a nice endorsement in terms of their confidence. In general, the reviews have been very good and people have been coming out to support the film. We’ve been held over in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, San Francisco. What I believed, which is that there’s an audience for the movie, has proven true. So, I’m seeing there is some kind of word of mouth.”

 

 

 

 

Yes, there’s a nice little buzz about it, but to do any real business–the kind that gets Hollywood’s attention –a big fat exploitation campaign is called for, which is just what Riegert and Elevation Filmworks can’t afford.

“What I’ve learned is that as valuable as word of mouth is, you have to help it along and that’s where a marketing budget comes in. I essentially don’t have one. I don’t have the clout to buttress it with advertising support and I can’t get national press for it” without it being in theaters everywhere.

Minus a wide release and cushy press junket, he pushes King “one city at a time.” On the other hand, he gets to know its audience more intimately than he would otherwise. For example, he conducts Q & As after select screenings. He said he enjoys “my conversations with audiences,” adding the sessions have “reinforced my instinct” about the film resonating with people.

As much as he believes in his film, he knows its real worth will be measured by box office-rental-pay-per-view dollars and by how it stands up over time.

“Anybody who makes a film, or makes anything for that matter, has to have a certain kind of crazy courage or arrogance about it,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself. The audience eventually tells you whether you’re right or wrong. And then, of course, time really tells you whether you’re right or wrong.”

Last winter, Riegert’s road show took him to Lincoln, where King played the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (His picture has yet to be screened in Omaha.). The visit brought Riegert and his project full circle. His appearance there a few years before, for a screening of his own By Courier, proved fortuitous as it was then he was first introduced to Shapiro’s work. The author got someone to slip the actor a copy ofBad Jews. The stories struck a chord in Riegert.

“The title made me laugh out loud and I thought if the book is half as funny as the title then maybe I’ve found what I was looking for, which was material for a feature. I read the book on a plane back to L.A., where I was working, and just thought this guy is fantastic. I called him up the next day and began a process of collaborating.”

Directing is something Riegert’s longed to do since college, when he made a promising short film. When his acting career took off, years passed before he realized he hadn’t followed up on his passion. By Courier was his “if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it” project.

In Shapiro, Riegert found an artist with a shared world view that sees “the sense of outsidedness many of us feel” and “how we’re the engineers of our own problems.” He also admires Shapiro’s appreciation for how “the drama and comedy in our respective lives co-exist at the same time, which is what I think makes his material so rich.” Shapiro said the two share “a dry sense of humor. I think both Peter and I tend to laugh at things that are not especially funny. There’s something so Jewish about that as well. But where he’s more optimistic, I’m gloomier.”

In the end, Shapiro feels King stands alone as more Riegert’s vision than his own. “I think it has its own voice and its own validity,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, what it captures is Peter’s voice, and that’s how it should be, because he is the author of that film. The thing I learned from watching this film get made is the director really is the author of the film, and in the case of ‘King of the Corner’, it’s Peter’s movie from top to bottom. His vision and his voice are everywhere.”

 

 

Gerald Shapiro

 

 

For Shapiro, the experience of writing the film entailed a series of firsts. It was his first screenplay, collaboration and adaptation.

“I’m not used to working with anyone. I’m not used to hearing someone else’s input or having someone listen to me. So, that was strange. Not having the tool of narrative to work with as a writer–having to have everything visual or come out of someone’s mouth–it’s a huge difference. My voice as a fiction writer is much more than my dialogue. Most useful to me with ‘King of the Corner’ were the staged readings Peter arranged in New York and Los Angeles that I attended. It’s wonderful to hear the screenplay read aloud by talented actors before a live audience, especially if you’re writing comedy. You get to hear if the jokes work. You get to hear the pacing. Because that’s really what a lot of it is hinging on.”

Many of the actors at those readings wound up in the film, including Eli Wallach, Beverly D’Angelo, Harris Yulin and Eric Bogosian.

As funny as it is, the film’s humor springs from heavy, Death of a Salesman themes. Sol’s bitter over a life spent lived out of cars and motels, schlepping a heavy case to support his family. He bears Leo’s disdain and rues his only child’s weakness. Leo shrinks at the notion he’s anything like his dad. Despite an office, a three-piece suit, a fancy title and his focus groups, he’s ultimately a peddler, too.

In his wallowing Leo recalls the bad times. It’s only much later, after his dad’s gone, he looks past the negative to see a more balanced truth.

Near the end, there’s a marvelous monologue, lifted nearly verbatim from Shapiro’s book, in which Leo delivers a raw, hilarious excoriation of his “crummy” Jewish roots. Riegert said the intent was to make Leo’s from-the-gut rant as unvarnished as possible.

Perhaps the most moving scene is the funeral service. Sol’s died a most unflattering death. Leo’s given the freelance rabbi with the silly name, Evelyn Fink, nothing but dirt to say about the old man. Fink runs Sol down so much even Leo’s offended. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and launches into an impromptu kaddish that’s equal parts confessional and atonement. In a sad-comic soliloquy, Leo properly memorializes his father, poignantly coming to terms with the man and his legacy, which is to say, himself.

At the end, Leo’s found himself again. Even though his fate’s unclear, he can dare to dance his troubles away.

The film’s charm is that it’s so real in adeptly showing the fine edge in comedy-pathos, levity-gravity, absurdity-profundity, and how we slip so easily from one to the other. It helps that all the actors underplay their roles in the naturalistic style Riegert prefers. “What I knew as an actor I’m now becoming more confident in as a director and writer,” he said, “which is to let go of whatever control I think I have and just let my imagination loose and figure out what it means later.”

While Riegert searches for his next directing project, Shapiro’s shopping around a new script, drawn from both his novella Suskind: the Impresario, and Bad Jews. The story focuses on a PR man in San Francisco (where Shapiro once lived) struggling with his job, his estranged family and the new woman in his life.

“It’s a comedy,” he said. Producers are reading it, but Shapiro, like Leo, isn’t one to boast. “I’m amazed anybody would ever want to do anything with anything I wrote. I’ve not had the kind of success that leads to the raging self-confidence I see in other people.”

The Much Anticipated Return of the Bagel Bin

December 3, 2010 1 comment

Bagel

Bagel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

 

Coming soon.

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.

 

 

 

Mom and the boys

 

 

 

“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.

Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened Doors for Women Directors

October 10, 2010 1 comment

"Hester Street, New York City"

Image via Wikipedia

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver, A Maverick Filmmaker Who Helped Shape the American Independent Film Scene and Opened the Door for Women Directors

©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 WrathTwelve 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 StreetCrossing 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.”

 

 

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. When, despite great reviews at festivals, the film failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

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 90Mine 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.”

Sam Cooper’s Freedom Road

September 7, 2010 1 comment

Lady Justice Statue

Image by vaXzine via Flickr

 

 

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.

 

 

 

article photo

Samuel Cooper

 

 

“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.

At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transporta...

Jewish Holocaust survivors awaiting transportation to the British Mandate of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben. Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

NOTE: The following story is not about Ben, per se, but about one of the educational events he arranged to promote greater understanding and knowledge about the Holocaust.  The story reports on a gathering that Ben and his wife hosted at their place for a discussion about the trauma of the hidden child.

 

At Work in the Fields of the Righteous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

A gathering unlike any other took place the evening of September 24 at the home of Omaha Holocaust researcher Ben Nachman. Over the course of several hours a diverse group of guests heard three men discuss a shared legacy of survival — one that saw them persevere through the Shoah as hidden children in their native Belgium. Two of the men, Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, are well known Omaha physicians. The third, Marcel Frydman, is professor emeritus at the University of Mons in Mons, Belgium, where he is a psychologist and the author of a book exploring the long-term traumatic effects of the hidden child experience.

Kader and Jaeger, who already knew each other, were eager to meet Frydman and hear his findings since they shared a common past and homeland. According to Kader, a pediatric neurologist, the hidden experience is one that unites men and women, even of different ages and nationalities, in a special fraternity. “Because of the nature of our experiences, whether in Holland or France or Belgium, you do form this kind of a bond with another hidden child. It’s a thing where we both survived, we both were hidden. The feelings we have just resonate back and forth. It’s a common understanding. It’s communication at a different level.”

Until recently, hidden children rarely spoke about their wartime experiences. For many, the events were simply too painful or too suppressed to tackle. But since a 1991 international hidden children’s conference attended by all three men, more and more long silent survivors have been seeking each other out to talk about their shared heritage in hiding.

Frydman, who came to Omaha at the invitation of Nachman and through the auspices of the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, hopes to have his French-language book published in English. Jaeger, a pediatric psychiatrist, has read the book and feels it offers valuable insights into the whole host of circumstances that determines how individuals cope with the emotional baggage of childhood trauma well into adulthood. He said the book provides a therapeutic framework for treating not only former hidden children but anyone suffering from post traumatic stress, which he added is a timely addition to research on the subject in light of the emotional toll the events of September 11 and after have taken on the damaged American psyche.

On hand that evening at Nachman’s were educators, lawyers and journalists, all of whom came to learn something about the ordeal the three men underwent. As the night unwound, it became clear from what was said that the hidden experience is one marked by profound separation anxiety, where youths taken from homes and families go into hiding among total strangers and try to conceal their Jewish identity in order to save their lives. As each survivor described the story of his survival, he revealed something of the psychological scars borne from these searing events so far outside the normal stream of human conduct. They explained how, even after escaping extermination and building successful adult lives now a half-century removed from their ordeal, they remain haunted by the specter of their hidden odyssey, an odyssey that has both driven them and frustrated them.

 

 

 

 

There was something nearly sacred in this solemn exchange between the survivors and their rapt audience. The men and women huddled around the Nachman living room listened intently to every word uttered and asked questions that begged for more detail. The evening was also meaningful for the survivors. For Kader and Jaeger, meeting Frydman and learning of his work helped further validate their own hidden histories, which remained shrouded and inarticulated until they began piecing together their own backgrounds at that 1991 conference in New York.

Kader said a book like Frydman’s “gives more credence to the feelings that survivors have. When hidden children get together they end up talking about the same kinds of things and what they talk about has often been well-repressed.” Kader said the more hidden children he gets to know, the more he realizes “all of us, in our own way, have the same sort of common thread of experiences and we all go through the same kind of process of finding a way out of it (the trauma) to make something of ourselves.” He said Frydman’s work helps demonstrate survivors “can cope and manage. Even though you may have these recollections of traumatic experiences in the back of your mind you can get past that point and go on with your life. His research shows all sorts of common denominators. You realize what you’re going through is a natural evolution other survivors go through. It’s reassuring to know we’re all not crazy.”

For Frydman, whose work in this area was sparked by a group of survivors at the who asked him to lead their counseling sessions, the evening was a chance to share his findings with fellow countrymen who endured a similar fate during and after the war. In writing his 1999 book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions, Frydman found an outlet for his own survivor issues and a forum for examining the consequences of the hidden experience, many of which he found overlap from one survivor to another.

For his book he returned to the very site where he was sheltered after the war — a home for hidden and abandoned children of both Jewish and non-Jewish descent — and to the same group of individuals with whom he shared his early adolescence. To his astonishment he discovered that in spite of their war deprivation many of these individuals have achieved great professional success, with an unusually high percentage ending up in the healing arts, as evidenced by himself, Kader and Jaeger. As he studied this population he identified elements and conditions that explained the apparent anomaly of survivors reaching such heights from such depths.

“In my opinion, two factors were important,” Frydman said. “First, the quality of family life before the war. These children knew there was a possibility of recovering the family unit. They felt forsaken but they knew their parents didn’t abandon them. This was very important when they were confronted with the conditions of an institution where the affective life was very low. The second factor was the quality of the environment in which the child was placed during and after the war. If this environment was good and supportive, he could find again a normal life, mobilize his potentialities and perform very high. It’s no accident that hidden children have chosen social or therapeutic professions. If you have experienced something as hard as we did you may be more skilled to help others.”

Frydman finds survivors exhibit a remarkable resilience as a result of having endured what they did. Jaeger believes he and his peers managed compensating for the trials and deficits of their interrupted childhood because attaining success, coming as it did against all odds, became an act of defiance. “Resiliency is an act of defiance in some ways,” Jaeger said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You were wrong,’ to those people who said, You can’t do this, or, You won’t ever reach a certain point. As Marcel (Frydman) points out, the thing that contributed to this resilience was the love and nurturance we were inculcated with despite everything going on around us.”

Recently, Jaeger found poignant evidence of the love he was endowed with via two formal family photographs his mother, who escaped the Shoah, commissioned at the time of the roundups and deportations. “I was struck by the fact that she felt it was important to have a memory to sustain our family even in the midst of what was going on. It reinforced what Marcel said about how important the home environment was. It probably provided a buffer that sustained us when we left home and went via this underground railroad into hiding.”

Another impetus for survivors to strive so hard, Jaeger said, was their strong desire “to get on with things and to accomplish anything and everything we could. Most of us wanted to find acceptance — to be included in the mainstream.”

Frydman, Kader and Jaeger were hidden at several sites but their protective custody mainly came in institutions run by various good Samaritans, including Catholic nuns. They are glad to have ended up in such good, caring hands. Frydman said there long was an assumption children placed with foster families were more fortunate than those placed in institutions, “but now I can say that wasn’t true because the child placed in a family was alone in his stress — the family sheltered him but couldn’t share his loneliness and sense of forsakeness — whereas the child in an institution eventually discovered he was not alone and any stress experience is made more bearable when the stress is shared.”

In addition to drawing on his own experiences for the book, Frydman drew on his past work counseling “forsaken children” — orphaned or otherwise abandoned youths — which provided a field of reference from which to extrapolate. What Frydman found in comparing and contrasting hidden children with abandoned children is that “the trauma of the hidden group is more complex and is provoked not by one factor but by a succession of factors,” he said. For example, he points to the roundups of Jews that Nazi authorities began staging in the early part of the war that invariably sent detainees to death camps. The fear engendered by these roundups signaled to children that they, their families, their friends and their neighbors were in peril. He said, “Even if you were not deported you heard about what was happening from other Jews who witnessed these events and the anxiety of the adults was communicated to the children.”

 

 

 

 

As it became evident the only way to save children was to hide them, an underground network formed to shield them. Because it was easier and less conspicuous to hide a child alone as opposed to a family, children were usually separated from their parents.

“Little children couldn’t understand why they had to be hidden and without their parents,” Frydman said. “It was a safe thing to separate them, but for the children it wasn’t a healthy thing. They were lacking the presence of their parents. They were missing all the affective, emotional ties. And children understood there was a danger of being denounced. We were told not to reveal our real name and not to reveal our Jewish identity. The child understood this, but it increased his anxiety. He understood too that the parents were also in danger. Sometimes he knew one or both of the parents had been arrested and deported, and sometimes he hadn’t any news of there whereabouts. You don’t find these conditions when you study forsaken children.”

Prolonged exposure to such danger and distress left many former hidden children with deep-seated feelings of apprehension and insecurity, said Frydman. “Because they lived for years in an environment perceived as menacing they have some problems associated with anxiety. This has been fixed, at least on the unconscious level, and so they develop some defenses in order to adapt themselves. There’s often a lack of trust and a sense of guardedness toward others. Some of them think they must control every aspect of a relationship because during the war they had no control. For example, some of my subjects told me they resist forming new relationships because it means risking being forsaken another time.”

Even when in the same institution Frydman said hidden children demonstrated fewer issues of desertion than abandoned children because prior to being harbored hidden children presumably enjoyed a stable home life. “They had the chance to be in a normal family before,” he said, “so they were better prepared to confront the separation. They knew there might be a family to try and find after the war whereas the forsaken children knew there was no family to be found.” A striking difference he found in abandoned children versus hidden children is the slowed mental development of the former group compared with the latter group.

The author conducted his research for the book with the aid of one of his students. Interviews were completed with more than 50 adults who found sanctuary in Belgium or surrounding countries during the war. Frydman and his assistant used a non-invasive technique to draw subjects out, some of whom had never before verbalized their hidden past. “The interview was a non-directive one,” he said. “We didn’t ask questions. We just gave the subject the opportunity to evoke his experience and helped him to express what he had to say. For some of the subjects, recalling the past was an ordeal. Some cried. They couldn’t stop. The trauma came back. And, yes, for some it was the first time they’d spoken about it.”

 

 

 

 

The fact that so many hidden children remained resolutely silent about their past for so long is a phenomenon that Frydman has tried to explain in his book. He said it was a case of hidden children growing up in an atmosphere where the subject was viewed as too painful to revisit or misunderstood as something that could be easily dismissed.

“Just after the war hidden children didn’t feel they had the right to speak because speaking about the trauma implied reliving it,” he said. “They would have spoken if they could have found some help, but in post-war Europe we hadn’t any psychologists. And adults didn’t understand what to say, so if they spoke about the war at all, they said, ‘You were lucky.’ Of course, it’s true, we were lucky not to be deported, but we suffered. If every adult says to you, ‘You were lucky,’ you haven’t even the possibility to express your suffering.” Or, as Jaeger explains, “People were getting on with their lives and moving away from that ordeal and, in effect, really nobody was there who psychologically gave you permission to speak. That listening ear and that permission just weren’t there.”

As the trauma is denied or ignored, Jaeger said, it festers like an untreated wound, only buried out of view, yet never too far away to be reopened. “In psychology there’s a phenomenon where you either dissociate or you compartmentalize things that have been extremely bad. Children exposed to bad events can lose memory of those things. That’s a protective mechanism to enable you to go on, but those feelings are always there at the surface. Certain sounds can evoke fear and anxiety in former hidden children. The sound of a truck is one of the most feared sounds because trucks were used in the roundups. It was the sound of your future. Of being rounded up, deported to camps and confronting almost certain death. Vulnerability is always just below the surface for some of us.”

Jaeger said it was only recently, upon reading Frydman’s book, he recalled suffering panic attacks as a boy after the war. He remembers the episodes occured while riding in cars and presumes his anxiety was triggered by dim memories of deportations. Because Kader and Jaeger were quite young when they went into hiding, their memories are somewhat tenuous. Those who were older when hidden, like Frydman, retain clearer memories of the events and the trauma.

Symbols can also summon the horror of a perilous childhood. For example, Jaeger said some survivors have “a problem trusting authority or trusting the system” because they associate those things with the uniformed soldiers or officials who menaced them and their families.

Jaeger admires Frydman’s book for its clear, thorough assessment of the hidden experience. “It is an exquisite explanation of the dynamics of the experience and of its long term effects. It really has a kind of global description that applies to you no matter what your own hidden experiences were. He helps us understand how we arrived at where we are. Also, it’s really one of the best explanations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and its long term ramifications. There’s been lots written about PTSD, but this sampling of a population from a psychological point of view is somewhat unique in that here we have a group of people still living 50-plus years after the fact. It often takes that long for hidden children or camp survivors or other trauma victims to share their experiences because they evoke an emotional vulnerability that is not that easy to deal with. Everybody has to do it in their own way. There are people who to this day still don’t say anything. They haven’t reached that point. This is so applicable to what happened at the World Trade Center because that trauma will be imprinted over generations in some cases.”

Ultimately, only fellow survivors can truly understand what their brothers or sisters of the Holocaust have gone through. Still, every time they share their story with others it gives added meaning to their witness bearing — allowing their testimony to live on in others. The need to testify grows more urgent as the number of survivors dwindles. “Time is of the essence in that we’re the last generation of witnesses left,” Jaeger said, referring to hidden children like himself, Kader and Frydman. In an era when the nation’s moral fortitude is being tested by the threat of terrorism at home, he said, it is more vital than ever to stand up and speak out against evil.

Bringing to Light Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust

September 2, 2010 1 comment

Image via Wikipedia

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben. Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

The Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation that the following article discusses and that Ben founded was eventually absorbed into the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha.

Ben’s interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Bringing to Light Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A new Omaha foundation is looking to build awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate and courageous band of deliverers whose compassionate actions saved thousands of Jews from genocide. A school-age curriculum crafted by the aptly named Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, focusing on the rescue efforts of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, is receiving a trial run at Westside High School this spring.

The rescuers came from every station in life. They included civil servants, farmers, shop keepers, nurses, clergy. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. The mostly Christian rescuers hid Jews in their homes or placed them in convents, monasteries, schools, hospitals or other institutions. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities.

While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is an accompanying story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly — some exacted payment in return for their silence — the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. These individuals’ noble actions, whether done unilaterally or in concert with organized elements, helped preserve one of Europe’s richest cultural legacies.

Hidden Heroes is the brainchild of Ben Nachman, a retired Omaha dentist who decades ago began an in-depth quest to try and understand the madness that killed 23 members of his Jewish family in the former Ukraine. While his despairing search turned up no satisfactory answers, it did introduce him to Holocaust scholars around the world and to scores of survivors, whose personal stories of survival and rescue he found inspiring.

He said he formed the non-profit foundation “to promote specific Holocaust education efforts and to promote the good deeds of hidden heroes. Most people are aware of only a handful of individuals, like Oscar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued Jews but there were many more who risked their lives to save others. Our mission is to bring to light the stories of these dynamic people and organizations and their little known activities. We hear enough about the bad things that went on. We want to tell the story of the good things and so our focus is on life rather than on death.”

Before he came to celebrate rescuers, Nachman spent years documenting the heroic and defiant stories of survivors. Among the accounts that stirred him most were those of former hidden children residing in Nebraska. Belgian native Dr. Fred Kader avoided deportation through the ultimate sacrifice of his mother, the brave efforts of lay and clergy Christian rescuers and a confluence of fortunate circumstances. Belgian native Dr. Tom Jaeger found refuge through the foresight of his mother and an elaborate network of civilian rescuers, all of whom risked their lives to aid him. Lou Leviticus, a native of Holland, eluded arrest on several occasions through a combination of his own wiles, an active Dutch underground movement and the assistance of Christian families. Nachman interviewed each man for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education), a worldwide endeavor filmmaker Steven Spielberg started after completing Schindler’s List.

Nachman’s work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable loss, continued embracing life. “I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” he said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

As he heard story after story of how survivors owed their lives to the actions of total strangers, the more curious he became about the men and women who defied the Nazi death machine by harboring and transporting Jews, falsifying documents, bribing officials and doing whatever else was necessary to keep the wolves at bay. “I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews,” he said. “I was interested in knowing what made them do what they did. I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — the late Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat credited with saving 62,000 Jews in Hungary while posted to Budapest as vice consul during the Second World War. At the center of an elaborate conspiracy of hearts, Lutz defied all the odds in devising, implementing and maintaining a mammoth rescue operation in cooperation with members of the Jewish underground, the Chalutzim, and select Swiss and Hungarian officials. He established protective papers and safe houses that helped thousands avoid deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

 

It is a story of how one seemingly insignificant statesman acted with uncommon courage in the face of enormous evil and personal risk and to do all this despite extreme pressure from Hungarian-German authorities and even his own superiors in Berne to stop. The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him, including being named by Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.

What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man.”

Nachman began searching for a way to make known to a wider audience little known acts of heroism like Lutz’s. In 2000 he and some friends, including former hidden child Lou Leviticus of Lincoln, formed Hidden Heroes. With Nachman as its president and guiding spirit, the foundation is a vehicle for researching, producing and distributing historically-based educational materials that reveal rarely told stories of rescue and resistance. It is the hope of Nachman and his fellow board members that the stories the foundation surfaces cast some light and hope on what is one of the darkest and bleakest chapters in human history.

One of the foundation’s first education projects, a curriculum program focusing on Lutz’s rescue efforts, is being piloted at Westside this spring. The curriculum, entitled Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites.

The curriculum was written by Christina Micek, a Holocaust studies graduate student and a third grade teacher at Springlake Elementary School in Omaha. With programs designed for the sixth and eighth grades and another for high school, Micek based the materials on the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.) by noted Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, a consultant with the foundation. Micek developed the curriculum with the input of Tschuy, who made a foundation-sponsored speaking tour across Nebraska last winter.

 

 

 

 

Foundation secretary/treasurer Ellen Wright said, “The Holocaust was obviously one of the biggest travesties in history and we feel it is valuable to tell the stories of individuals like Carl Lutz who rose to the occasion and acted righteously.” Wright, who away from the foundation is deputy director of the Watanabe Charitable Trust, said the foundation wants the story of Lutz and other rescuers to serve as models for youths about how individuals can stand up to injustice and intolerance.

“Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at an individual like Carl Lutz and seeing that while his actions were extraordinary he was just like you and I. The difference is, he saw a need and became not only impassioned but obsessed by it. When you consider the 62,000 lives he saved you realize he made it possible for generation after generation of descendants to live and do wonderful things around the world. It’s a remarkable feat and that’s what we want to impart.”

Wright added the foundation seeks to eventually make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska, across the nation and around the world. In addition to the current curriculum package, she said, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM as well as Tschuy’s book available to schools.

The idea of Hidden Heroes’ education mission, members say, is to go beyond facts and figures and to instead spark dialogue about what lies at the heart of bigotry and discrimination and to identify what people can do to combat hate. Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans that allow for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.

“I don’t see teaching history and social studies as something where a teacher is lecturing and the kids are writing down dates,” she said. “I really want students to feel they’re historians and to feel like they know Carl Lutz by the end of it. I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”

The sense of discovery and empathy Micek wants the curriculum to inspire in youths is something quite personal for her. Recently, Micek, a Catholic since birth, discovered she is actually part Jewish. Her mother’s German emigre family, the Feldmans, were practicing Catholics as far back as anyone recalled. But the maternal branches of Micek’s family tree were shaken when relatives searching for records of descendants near Frankfurt, Germany came up empty and were instead directed to a local synagogue, where, to their surprise, they found marriage records of Josef Feldman, her maternal great-great-great grandfather.

Like many Jews in Europe hounded by pogroms, the Feldman family hid their Jewish identity and adopted Catholic traditions around the time they emigrated to America in the late 19th century. Some family members remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. This revelation of a lost heritage has been a life-transforming experience for Micek and one that informs her work with the foundation.

“I felt a great personal loss. My family was kind of cheated out of their culture and their religion,” she said. “And so, for me as educator, I feel it’s important that people realize what hate and not understanding other peoples can do to families and cultures. I was attracted to the Hidden Heroes mission because it shows children that, yes, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy but that were good people who tried to help. It shows something more than the negative side.”

Micek field tested a revised version of the curriculum with her third grade class and found the compelling subject matter had a profound effect on her students.

“My classroom is 80 percent English-As-A-Second-Language children. Most are new immigrants from Mexico, and so they have a first-hand experience of what it is like to be discriminated against. They could relate to the prejudice Jews endured. It provided my class with a wonderful discussion forum to get into the issues raised by the Holocaust. I thought the kinds of questions my kids came up with were very adult: Why do people hate? How can we keep people from hating other people? It turned out to be really in-depth.

“And my kids have kind of become activists around the school based on this lesson. They’re more caring and they try to help other students when they hear negative messages in the hall. It’s gone a lot further than I ever thought it would.”

She anticipates older students using the lesson plan will also be spurred to look beyond the story of Lutz to examine what they can do when confronted with hate. “I hope that, like my third graders did, they take it beyond the classroom and incorporate it into their own lives To understand what prejudice and hate can do and maybe in their own little corner of the world try and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the Lutz curriculum is, for many reasons, an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.

“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. It does take that rather depressing topic and give it some ray of hope. I was always looking for something that added some degree of positive humanity to it.

“And while I thought I was fairly familiar with the subject of the Holocaust, I had never heard of Carl Lutz, which surprised me. That was probably the main draw in our incorporating this curriculum. That and the fact it provides a framework for looking at the moral dilemmas posed by the Holocaust.

“Everybody asks, How could that happen? In the final analysis it happened because people allowed it to happen. It prods us to ask whether the pat answers given by perpetrators and witnesses — ‘I was only following orders’ or ‘I didn’t know’ — are acceptable answers because in figures like Carl Lutz we find there were people who behaved differently. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”

Bill Hayes, a Westside social studies instructor applying the curriculum in his class, said, “I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.”

Carman said the material provided by the Hidden Heroes Foundation is “done very well” and is “really complete.” He added it is written in such a way as to make it readily “adaptable” and “usable” within existing curriculum. District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”

Lutz became the subject of Hidden Heroes’ first major education project due to Nachman’s own extensive research and contacts.

“In my reading I ran across Lutz,” Nachman said, “and in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

 

Theo Tschuy

 

 

 

Nachman was instrumental in finding an American publisher (Eerdmans) for Tschuy’s book on Lutz. In addition to his work with the foundation, Nachman is a contributor and catalyst for other Holocaust projects. In conjunction with New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla., Nachman did research for two documentaries in development.

One film, which Nebraska Public Television may co-produce, profiles survivors who resettled in Nebraska and forged successful lives here, including Drs. Kader and Jaeger, a pediatric neurologist and psychiatrist, respectively, and Lou Leviticus, a retired UNL agricultural engineering professor. The other film, which American Public Television is to distribute, focuses on the rescue that Lutz engineered. The latter film, Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series (Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust) on rescuers.

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring of Omaha have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the Lutz film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support for research abroad. Swiss Consul General Eduard Jaun, who is excited about the project, said, “This will be the first comprehensive film about Lutz.”

Hidden Heroes is now working on creating new education programs featuring other rescuers. Micek is gathering data for a curriculum focusing on the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of their recipients, including many Jews.

Nachman serves on an international committee working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of Mendes. Other subjects the foundation is researching are: Father Bruno Reynders, a Benedictine monk who found refuge for more than 200 Jewish children in Belgium; the individuals and organizations behind Belgium’s extensive rescue network, which successfully hid 4,500 children; and the rescue of children on the French and Swiss borders.

Wright said when she approaches potential donors about supporting the foundation she sometimes encounters cynical attitudes along the lines of — “I don’t want to hear anymore about the Holocaust” — which she views as an opportunity to explain what sets Hidden Heroes apart from other Holocaust education initiatives.

“While it’s true there’s a tremendous amount of information out there about the Holocaust,” she said, “what we’re trying to do is take a different approach. Through the stories of survivors and rescuers we want to talk about life. About how survivors did more than just survive — they went on to thrive, raise families and accomplish remarkable things. About how rescuers risked everything to save lives. We want to tell these stories in order to educate young people around the world. It is our hope that behaviors and attitudes can be changed, if even one person at a time, so that something like this never happens again.”

Among others, the foundation’s message of hope is being bought into by funding sources. The foundation recently gained the support of the National Anti-Defamation League, which has promised a major grant to fund its work. Hidden Heroes is close to securing a matching grant from a local donor. The foundation anticipates working cooperatively with the National Hidden Children’s Foundation, which is housed within the National ADL headquarters in New York. More funding is being sought to underwrite foundation research jaunts in Europe.

Because stories of rescue have as their counterpart stories of survival, Hidden Heroes is also involved in raising awareness about the survival experience. In a series of events ranging from receptions to lectures, the foundation presents occasional forums at which former hidden children speak about survival in terms of the trauma it exacts, the defiance it represents and the ultimate triumph over evil it achieves.

For example, the foundation sponsored a November visit by Belgian psychologist and author Marcel Frydman, a former hidden child who spoke about the lifelong ramifications of the hidden child experience, which he describes in his 1999 French-language book, The Trauma of the Hidden Child: Short and Long Term Repercussions. Nachman, who enjoys the role of facilitator, brought Frydman together with Drs. Kader and Jaeger, two countrymen who share his hidden child legacy, for an emotional meeting last fall.

Foundation members say each is participating in the work of the Hidden Heroes organization for his or her own reasons. For Ellen Wright, “it is the right thing to do.” For Nachman, it is a source of fulfillment unlike any other. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me,” he said. He noted that as the aging population of survivors and rescuers dwindles each year, there is real urgency to recording the stories of survivors and rescuers before the participants in these stories are all gone.

With reports of anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere in the wake of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis, foundation members say there is even added urgency to telling stories of resilience, resolve and rescue during the Holocaust because these accounts demonstrate how, even in the midst of overwhelming evil, good can prevail.

Ben Nachman Remembered the Heroes of the Holocaust

September 2, 2010 2 comments

Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, po...

Image via Wikipedia

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts.  Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben.  Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Ben Nachman Remembered the Heroes of the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in New Horizons

What began as a hobby for retired Omaha dentist Ben Nachman has become his life’s work. For 30-plus years now Nachman, 70, has dedicated himself to researching the Holocaust. It is a subject this second generation Jewish American has personal ties to, as 23 members of his extended family perished at the hands of the Nazis in the former Ukraine.

For the past seven years this Creighton University graduate has documented the never-before-told stories of Holocaust survivors, including several transplanted Nebraskans, as well as the heroic efforts of European diplomats in rescuing Jews. As he has dug deeper into the Shoah, his work has brought him on close terms with survivors, rescuers and scholars and made him an authority on the subject, one he began probing in a quest to understand how his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins became victims of genocide.

His inquiries in this area have led him to establish an international network of contacts in Holocaust research circles and to participate in and serve as a catalyst for various projects seeking to shed light on the subject.

“It really is a tremendous network and it just came about over the years through exchanging letters, e-mails and faxes and visiting people and it just kind of opened up the floodgates,” he said.

He reads voraciously on the Holocaust, having accumulated a home library of thousands of books, and corresponds with some of the authors of those books. Only last September he and his wife Elaine hosted Belgian psychologist Marcel Frydman, the author of a book on the lifelong trauma faced by hidden children.

The first large-scale research undertaking he took part in was in conjunction with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now called the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) and its five-year endeavor videotaping survivor testimonies. From 1995 to 1998 he was an official interviewer for the Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg started after completing Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film credited with sparking a revival of interest in the Holocaust.

For the Shoah project Nachman conducted exhaustive interviews with 70 survivors residing in the Midwest. Videographers captured the sessions on tape. His work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable loss, have continued embracing life. He feels privileged to have been in the presence of men and women who have borne the burden of a lost generation with such grace.

“I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” Nachman said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

Among the survivors Nachman interviewed is Lou Leviticus, a Lincoln, Neb. resident who as a hidden child in The Netherlands escaped the Nazis but lost virtually his entire family. Before the interview Leviticus, a former agricultural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had never before spoken of his ordeal.

Remaining silent about one’s own Holocaust history is a common refrain among survivors, especially hidden children, because the events are too painful to relive and the opportunity to speak too rarely afforded. Nachman also interviewed Omaha pediatric physicians Fred Kader and Tom Jaeger, whose survival as hidden children in their native Belgium was only made possible by the remarkable sacrifices and hazards undergone by their own families and by total strangers. Leviticus, Kader and Jaeger were among 50,000 or so people worldwide interviewed for the Shoah project, whose data is available to educators, historians and authors. In getting survivors to recount their stories in intimate detail, Nachman was unprepared for the impact the experience would have on him or his subjects.

“It was a very exacting interview we did with each survivor. We went into every little detail of exactly what happened to them during the war — whether they were in a concentration camp or a ghetto or in hiding. All the interviews lasted in excess of two hours. Many survivors were reluctant to talk about their lives, but we managed to get them to really open up. We had times when some startling things were said.

“A lady in Chicago told me about being raped. That’s a really shattering thing to sit and listen to. The trauma was still fresh in her mind. At times like that the survivor would break down. When we finished an interview the survivor and I were spent. It was an emotionally draining experience.”

A new project that has arisen from Nachman’s extensive contacts is the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation, an Omaha-based organization whose aims are “to promote specific Holocaust education efforts and to promote the good deeds of hidden heroes,” Nachman said. “

Most people are aware of only a handful of individuals, like Oscar Schindler or Raoul Wallenburg, who rescued Jews but there were many more rescuers who risked their lives to save others. Our mission is to bring to light the stories of these dynamic people and organizations and their little known activities. We hear enough about the bad things that went on. We want to tell the story of the good things and so our focus is on life rather than on death.”

As an example of its educational mission, the foundation sponsored Marcel Frydman’s recent visit to Nebraska, where the author discussed what it means to have been separated from family as a hidden child, where survival depended on the good graces of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things, and to deal with the lasting repercussions of that experience.

For his book, Frydman interviewed and studied dozens of former hidden children. Nachman said Frydman’s work is “the first to reveal that hidden children face trauma throughout their lives. It is an experience they are traumatized by forever. Their whole life is kind of governed by what happened to them.” In his role as a facilitator, Nachman arranged a meeting between Frydman, a former hidden child in Belgium, and Drs. Kader and Jaeger — who like Frydman were also hidden during the war in Belgium. The ensuing discussion at Nachman’s home proved emotional. “I knew if any of them opened up it was really going to be quite a dramatic evening and it did become that.”

Meanwhile, the foundation is underwriting research into rescue campaigns that went on in several European nations, with Nachman investigating Belgium and Hungary and collaborators examining Holland, France and Switzerland. Their results will inform articles, books, exhibits, films and other educational projects sponsored by the foundation.

Among these projects is an international committee Nachman serves on working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of the late Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Souza Mendes, and two documentary films — one profiling survivors who resettled in Nebraska to forge successful lives here and the other charting Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz’s defiant rescue of Hungarian Jews.

It is ironic Nachman has come to know the stories of hundreds of Holocaust heroes because his initial search was purely personal, as he followed what few leads there were of his ill-fated family in Europe.

His parents, who came to the U.S. in the early part of the last century, were from the former Ukrainian town of Kolomyja, which prior to the German invasion was part of Poland. Except for two uncles who survived in camps, all his relatives abroad perished. According to Nachman, Kolomyja was once home to 40,000 citizens, including 20,000 Jews. At the time of the Nazi occupation Jews from outlying areas were rounded-up and forced to live in two overcrowded ghettos within the town. He said some 55,000 Jews were interred there and “as best we can find there are only 200 survivors” today.

Nachman has ascertained few details about what happened. The skimpy facts he does know came from an uncle who survived a Siberian labor camp. “

I know only my grandfather was murdered in a forest outside of that town (Kolomyja) and my grandmother was murdered in her bed. I spent about a year trying to find some of the 200 survivors and I finally did. I phoned them. I wrote them letters. I did everything I could to try and piece together a story. But I’ve never really pieced together much of one. In all my contacts I’ve only had one occasion when someone remembered a member of my family. It was a man in Chicago, and when I showed him a picture of my grandfather he said, ‘Joseph Nachman, The Parquetnik,’ which referred to the fact my grandfather laid parquet floors” in the Old Country.

Determined to visit Kolomyja in the hope of unearthing more clues, Nachman pestered the Cultural Attache at the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. to seek entry into what was a Soviet-controlled and, therefore, restricted region. In 1988 he and his wife were granted permission to visit, but only allowed a few hours on-site.

“We got to the Jewish cemetery there. It was in the most disastrous condition. Some graves were open clear down to the caskets. Some caskets were decayed to the point you could see bones within them. There was a huge mound in the middle of this cemetery, and that’s where several hundred people had been killed on the spot and put into a mass grave. I looked up, and there was a lady with a few goats feeding in the cemetery. She put her hand on the side of her face and shook her head as if she realized how terrible this must have been to me,” he said.

Dissatisfied by the brief visit he was accorded, he vowed to return one day. After the Soviet Union fell, he did return in 1992, accompanied by his daughter, and enjoyed freer access.

“We found the cemetery had been totally dug up. Any Jewish records in this town had been destroyed. At our escort’s suggestion we went to the local Catholic church, where she thought there might be duplicate records. We were able to find the birth certificate of a cousin born in November 1940 and murdered late in ‘41 or early in ‘42. I got a copy of the certificate and had it translated. That’s the only remnant I’ve ever been able to find of my family.”

His attempts at tracing the tragedy brought him face to face with the bleak reality of a terrible past now largely buried or forgotten. “My daughter and I walked into the forest where my grandfather was forced to dig his own grave and we saw several mounds of earth that I’m sure represented thousands of people. There were no markers. The survivors and their families were finally given permission to put up a memorial in 1993. I was asked to go back, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to.

“An uncle once told me, ‘You should never go back. There is nothing to see.’ And after having been back twice, I agree. The memorial erected there was originally inscribed with the words: ‘Here in this spot, several thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis.’ After several months the Ukrainians took that inscription down and changed it to read: ‘Several thousand Ukrainians were killed here.’ So, you see, they really managed to erase any traces of what happened.”

His trip did yield one bonus when he and Sen. Jim Exon (D-Neb.) aided 10 Russian-Jews in obtaining long-refused exit visas that let them emigrate to America.

More recently, Nachman has turned his attention to a segment of survivors whose lives were spared only by the intervention of individuals who, at great risk, helped them evade capture, deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

“I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews. I was interested in knowing what made these rescuers do what they did,” he noted. “I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — the late Carl Lutz. “In my reading I ran across Lutz. And in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

Nachman has completed interviews with Hirschi and Tschuy for a documentary film now in development focusing on the massive rescue of Jews Lutz accomplished amid the Nazi regime in Budapest. The film, Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series on rescuers. The film, which the Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation is helping fund, is being made by New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla.

Carl Lutz

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support. Upon the film’s completion, American Public Television is set to distribute it. In her filmed interview, Hirschi describes her step-father as “almost obsessed by the idea of having to save these people.”

A full accounting of what Lutz did has been largely ignored. By the late spring of 1944, the Nazi occupation of Hungary was complete, the borders closed, emigration halted and the mass deportation of Jews under way. The situation was desperate. That is when a man of rare courage and insight — Lutz — then Swiss vice consul to Hungary, began a campaign to thwart the Final Solution.

By all accounts, Lutz embodied the fiercely independent nature of his homeland — specifically, the Appenzell region of Switzerland. A fervent Methodist, Lutz was American-educated. An early diplomatic tour in Palestine well-acquainted him with the Jews’ displaced status. In Hungary, he had already assisted the Budapest-based Jewish Agency of Palestine (JAP) in finding safe passage for 10,000 orphaned children. By April 1944 there were still 8,000 children under his protection waiting to leave for Palestine, but their passage was blocked.

Lutz negotiated with German and Hungarian officials to keep the group under his protection. When refused more exit permits, he took matters into his own hands. Overceding his authority and defying the wishes of his timid government, he made Swiss neutrality and the power of diplomatic immunity his weapons in taking assertive steps to safeguard Jews.

First, he granted hundreds of asylum seekers sanctuary in the American legation building. Next, he transformed the Budapest JAP into the Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation, thus securing a measure of protection for its workers and its aims. Then he began issuing Swiss Schutzbriefe or safety passes (which declared their holders to be under the protection of the Swiss) to thousands of Jews (men, women and children) beyond the original quota of 8,000. Thousands more Schutzbriefe were forged and distributed by Zionists.

Next, he established 76 Schutzhauser or safe houses where thousands of Jews took refuge. And, finally, he worked closely with the Hechalutz/Chalutzim (Jewish pioneers) to provide security for the safe houses and communication with the Jewish populace and he cultivated sympathetic members of the Hungarian police and parliament to alert him to any Nazi movements directed at the people in his charge.

Nachman said the protective measures Lutz instituted became models for other diplomatic rescuers, including Wallenburg, who came to Budapest months after these measures were implemented. He said scholars estimate Lutz’s actions saved as many as 62,000 Jews, a number far outstripping that attributed to higher-profile rescuers. Nachman and filmmaker Mike Moehring have interviewed recipients of the Schutzbriefe and visited safe houses, many of which survive.

According to Nachman, Lutz persisted in his rescue efforts in spite of repeated orders by authorities to stop, constant threats to his life and continued resistance from his superiors in Switzerland. His defiance even extended to Adolf Eichmann, whom he confronted on many occasions.

At one point, as a way of pressuring Lutz, the Nazis made him identify authentic Schutzbriefe from forgeries held by a group of Jews — thus forcing him to condemn some of the safe passage holders to death. Despite such pressure, he persevered. “He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man,” Nachman said.

The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him. What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. This is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known of.”

Before his death, Lutz was honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “a righteous among the nations.” He was posthumously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Switzerland issued a stamp with his likeness on it. A touring exhibition, Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats, includes a Lutz display.

Last year, Nachman was an invited guest at a United Nations program honoring the diplomatic rescuers and their families. An English language edition of Theo Tschuy’s biography on Lutz (Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz) came out last fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Early next year, Nachman will host a visit by Tschuy and will appear at public speaking engagements with him.

For Nachman, a modest man who dislikes publicity about his work, the investigation into the past goes on. There are more interviews, more archives, more stories to cultivate. “It has been the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me.”

Ben Nachman’s Mission

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Romani arrivals in the Bełżec extermination ca...

Image via Wikipedia

A dear friend of mine passed away recently, and as a way of paying homage to him and his legacy I am posting some stories I wrote about him and his mission.  My late friend, Ben Nachman, dedicated a good part of his adult life to researching aspects of the Holocaust, which claimed most of his extended family in Europe.  Ben became a self-taught historian who focused on collecting the testimonies of survivors and rescuers. It became such a big part of his life that he accumulate a vast library of materials and a large network of contacts from around the world.  Ben’s mission was to help develop and disseminate Holocaust history for the purpose of educating the general public, especially youth, and he did this through a variety of means, including videotaped interviews he conducted, sponsoring the development of curriculum for schools, and hosting visiting scholars.  He also led this journalist to many stories about Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and educational efforts. Because of Ben I have been privileged to tell something like two dozen Holocaust stories, some of which ended up winning recognition from my peers.  I have met some remarkable individuals thanks to Ben.  Several of the stories he led me to and that I ended up writing are posted on this blog site under the Holocaust and History categories.

His interests ranged far beyond the Holocaust and therefore his work to preserve history extended to many oral histories he collected from Jewish individuals from all walks of life and speaking to different aspects of Jewish culture.  He got me involved in some of these non-Holocaust projects as well through the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society, including a documentary on the Brandeis family of Nebraska and their J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store empire (see my Brandeis story on this blog site) and an in-progress book on Jewish grocers. Ben’s passion for history and his generous spirit for sharing it will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend, you were truly one of the righteous.

Ben Nachman’s Mission

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

Ben Nachman is on a mission.

For the past six years the Omaha native has documented the never-before-told stories of Holocaust survivors, including several Nebraska residents, as well as the heroic efforts of European diplomats in rescuing thousands of Jews during World War II. To date, he has applied his self-taught historical research skills to a pair of international projects — the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now known as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education) and an international committee working to bring worldwide recognition to the humanitarian work of the late Portuguese diplomat, Aristides de Souza Mendes.

More recently, New Destiny Films, a production company with offices in Omaha and Sarasota, Fla., has engaged Nachman to research survivors and rescuers for two documentaries now in development.

One film, which Nebraska Public Television may co-produce, profiles survivors who resettled in Nebraska and forged successful lives here. The other, which American Public Television is to distribute, focuses on the massive rescue of Jews that the late Swiss diplomat to Hungary, Carl Lutz, accomplished amid the Nazi regime in Budapest. The latter film, called Carl Lutz: Dangerous Diplomacy, is intended as the first in a series (Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust) on rescuers.

Nachman and New Destiny’s Mike Moehring of Omaha have traveled to Europe to conduct interviews and pore over archives. The Swiss Consulate in Chicago has taken an interest in the film, providing financial (defraying airfare expenses) and logistical (cutting red-tape) support for Nachman’s and Moehring’s work abroad. Swiss Consul General Eduard Jaun, who is excited about the project, said, “This will be the first comprehensive film about Lutz.”

As Nachman, 69, has dug deeper and deeper into the Holocaust, his work has brought him on close terms with survivors and scholars and made him an authority on the subject. While not a survivor himself, Nachman shares a common Jewish heritage and legacy of loss.

A retired Omaha dentist, the Creighton University graduate began probing the Holocaust 30-plus years ago in a quest to understand what led 23 members of his family (grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins) to become victims of Nazi genocide. He read voraciously, eventually amassing a personal library of thousands of books. He began corresponding with some of the authors of those books. The more he found out about those dark events of the Second World War, the more drawn he was to the personal stories of survivors and rescuers.

His initial search was personal, following what few leads there were of his ill-fated family in Europe. His parents, who immigrated here in the early part of the last century, were from the former Ukrainian town of Kolomyja, which prior to the German invasion was part of Poland. Except for two uncles who survived in camps, all his relatives abroad perished.

According to Nachman, Kolomyja was once home to 40,000 citizens, including 20,000 Jews. At the time of the Nazi occupation Jews from outlying areas were rounded-up and forced to live in two overcrowded ghettos within the town. He said some 55,000 Jews were interred there and “as best we can find there are only 200 survivors” today.

 

 

 

 

Nachman has unearthed few details about what happened. The skimpy facts he does know came from an uncle who survived a Siberian labor camp.

“I know only my grandfather was murdered in a forest outside of that town (Kolomyja) and my grandmother was murdered in her bed. I spent about a year trying to find some of the 200 survivors and I finally did. I phoned them. I wrote them letters. I did everything I could to try and piece together a story. But I’ve never really pieced together much of one.

“In all my contacts I’ve only had one occasion when someone remembered a member of my family. It was a man in Chicago, and when I showed him a picture of my grandfather he said, ‘Joseph Nachman, The Parquetnik,’ which referred to the fact my grandfather laid parquet floors” in the Old Country.

Determined to visit Kolomyja in the hope of uncovering more clues, Nachman pestered the Cultural Attache at the then-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. to seek entry into what was a Soviet-controlled and, therefore, restricted region. In 1988 he and his wife were granted permission to visit, but only allowed a few hours on-site.

“We got to the Jewish cemetery there. It was in the most disastrous condition. Some graves were open clear down to the caskets. Some caskets were decayed to the point you could see bones within them. There was a huge mound in the middle of this cemetery, and that’s where several hundred people had been killed on the spot and put into a mass grave. I looked up, and there was a lady with a few goats feeding in the cemetery. She put her hand on the side of her face and shook her head as if she realized how terrible this must have been to me,” he said.

Dissatisfied by the brief visit he was accorded, he vowed to return one day. After the Soviet Union fell, he did return in 1992, accompanied by his daughter, and enjoyed freer access. “We found the cemetery had been totally dug up. Any Jewish records in this town had been destroyed. At our escort’s suggestion we went to the local Catholic church, where she thought there might be duplicate records. We were able to find the birth certificate of a cousin born in November 1940 and murdered late in ‘41 or early in ‘42. I got a copy of the certificate and had it translated. That’s the only remnant I’ve ever been able to find of my family.”

His attempts at tracing the tragedy brought him face to face with the bleak reality of a terrible past now largely buried or forgotten.

“My daughter and I walked into the forest where my grandfather was forced to dig his own grave and we saw several mounds of earth that I’m sure represented thousands of people. There were no markers. The survivors and their families were finally given permission to put up a memorial in 1993. I was asked to go back, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to.

“An uncle once told me, ‘You should never go back. There is nothing to see.’ And after having been back twice, I agree. The memorial erected there was originally inscribed with the words: ‘Here in this spot, several thousand Jews were murdered by the Nazis.’ After several months the Ukrainians took that inscription down and changed it to read: ‘Several thousand Ukrainians were killed here.’ So, you see, they really managed to erase any traces of what happened.”

His trip did yield one bonus when he and Sen. Jim Exon (D-Nebr.) aided 10 Russians in obtaining long-refused exit visas. The Russians immigrated to the United States.

The opportunity of helping collect a permanent record of Holocaust stories convinced Nachman to participate in the Shoah Foundation’s five-year project videotaping survivor testimonies. From 1995 to 1998 he was an official interviewer for the Los Angeles-based Foundation, which filmmaker Steven Spielberg started shortly after completing Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film credited with sparking a revival of interest in the Holocaust.

For the Shoah project Nachman conducted exhaustive interviews with 70 survivors in the Midwest. Videographers captured the sessions on tape. His work introduced him to individuals who, despite immeasurable losses, have continued embracing life. He feels privileged to have been in the presence of men and women who have borne the burden of a lost generation with such grace.

“I built-up a tremendous love affair with the survivors,” Nachman said. “They’re a wonderful bunch of people. They’ve endured a great deal. They live with what happened every day of their lives, yet hatred is not there — and they’ve got every reason in the world to hate. They’re the most morally correct people I’ve ever found. They’re my heroes.”

Filmmaker Mike Moehring, who taped many of Nachman’s Shoah interviews, has also been affected by his work with survivors: “The thing I come away with from these people is their tremendous resiliency. I feel very fortunate and honored they share part of their experience with me. I know I’m a different person for it,” he said.

Among the survivors Nachman interviewed is Lou Leviticus of Lincoln, who as a hidden child in The Netherlands escaped the Nazis. He lost virtually his entire family. After the war Leviticus lived in Israel, working as an engineer, and later immigrated to America, where he was an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before his Shoah interview, he had never spoken of his ordeal. He was one of 50,000 survivors worldwide interviewed for the Shoah project, whose data is available to educators, historians and authors.

Until his involvement, Nachman had rarely sat across from survivors to hear, first-hand, their personal trials of lives interrupted, of innocence stolen, of everything held dear ripped asunder. In getting them to recount their stories in intimate detail, he was not prepared for the impact the experience would have on him or his subjects.

“It was a very exacting interview we did with each survivor. We went into every little detail of exactly what happened to them during the war — whether they were in a concentration camp or a ghetto or in hiding. All the interviews lasted in excess of two hours. Many survivors were reluctant to talk about their lives, but we managed to get them to really open up. We had times when some startling things were said.

“A lady in Chicago told me about being raped. That’s a really shattering thing to sit and listen to. The trauma was still fresh in her mind. At times like that the survivor would break down. When we finished an interview the survivor and I were spent. It was an emotionally draining experience.”

More recently, Nachman has turned his attention to a segment of survivors whose lives were spared only by the intervention of individuals who, at great risk, helped them evade capture, deportation and almost certain death in the camps.

“I got very interested in the rescuers of Jews. I was interested in knowing what made these rescuers do what they did,” he noted. “I think most of them did it because of their own personal convictions rather than out of some government mandate. For them, it was the only thing to do. They were very, very special people.”

 

 

Carl Lutz

 

 

One rescuer in particular captured his imagination — Carl Lutz. “In my reading I ran across Lutz. And in writing, searching and chasing around the world I found his step-daughter, Agnes Hirschi, a writer in Bern, Switzerland. We started corresponding regularly. She introduced me to the man who is the biographer of Lutz — the Rev. Theo Tschuy — a Methodist minister living outside Geneva. He has done tremendous research into the rescuers and he particularly knows the story of Lutz. He and I have become about as close as two people can be.”

Nachman has completed interviews with Hirschi and Tschuy for the Lutz film. In her filmed  interview, Hirschi describes her step-father as “almost obsessed by the idea of having to save these people. It was really like an obsession.”

While the deeds of some rescuers, like Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, have been widely told, a full accounting of what Lutz did has been largely ignored. By the late spring of 1944, the Nazi occupation of Hungary was complete, the borders closed, emigration halted and the mass deportation of Jews under way. The situation was desperate. That is when a man of rare courage and insight — Lutz — then Swiss vice consul to Hungary, began a campaign to thwart the Final Solution.

By all accounts, Lutz embodied the fiercely independent nature of his homeland — specifically, the Appenzell region of Switzerland. A fervent Methodist, Lutz was American-educated. An early diplomatic tour in Palestine well-acquainted him with the Jews’ displaced status. In Hungary, he had already assisted the Budapest-based Jewish Agency of Palestine (JAP) in finding safe passage for 10,000 orphaned children. By April 1944 there were still 8,000 children under his protection waiting to leave for Palestine, but their passage was blocked.

 

 

One of the safe houses Carl Lutz kept

 

 

Lutz negotiated with German and Hungarian officials to keep the group under his protection. When refused more exit permits, he took matters into his own hands. Overceding his authority and defying the wishes of his timid government, he made Swiss neutrality and the power of diplomatic immunity his weapons in taking assertive steps to safeguard Jews.

First, he granted hundreds of asylum seekers sanctuary in the American legation building. Next, he transformed the Budapest JAP into the Emigration Department of the Swiss Legation, thus securing a measure of protection for its workers and its aims. Then he began issuing Swiss Schutzbriefe or safety passes (which declared their holders to be under the protection of the Swiss) to thousands of Jews (men, women and children) beyond the original quota of 8,000.

Thousands more Schutzbriefe were forged and distributed by Zionists. Next, he established 76 Schutzhauser or safe houses where thousands of Jews took refuge. And, finally, he worked closely with the Hechalutz/Chalutzim (Jewish pioneers) to provide security for the safe houses and communication with the Jewish populace and he cultivated sympathetic members of the Hungarian police and parliament to alert him to any Nazi movements directed at the people in his charge.

Nachman said the Schutzbriefe and Schutzhauser Lutz instituted became models for other diplomatic rescuers, including Wallenberg, who came to Budapest months after these measures were implemented. He said scholars estimate Lutz’s actions saved as many as 62,000 Jews, a number far outstripping that attributed to higher-profile rescuers. Nachman and filmmaker Mike Moehring have interviewed recipients of the Schutzbriefe and visited safe houses, many of which survive.

 

 

 

 

According to Nachman, Lutz persisted in his rescue efforts in spite of repeated orders by authorities to stop, constant threats to his life and continued resistance from his superiors in Switzerland. His defiance even extended to Adolf Eichmann, whom he confronted on many occasions.

At one point, as a way of pressuring Lutz, the Nazis made him identify authentic Schutzbriefe from forgeries held by a group of Jews — thus forcing him to condemn some of the safe passage holders to death. Despite such pressure, he persevered.

“He was just an obstinate, stubborn man who felt right was the only way to go. Lutz was a very devout man and he felt he wanted to be on the side of God, not man,” Nachman said.

The more he has studied him, the more Nachman has come to admire Lutz, who died in 1975 — long before international acclaim caught up to him. What does he admire most about him? “Probably the fact he acted as a man of conviction rather than as a diplomat. He used the office of Swiss consul to shield a lot of what he was doing, but he did things he didn’t have to do. This is one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known of.”

Before his death, Lutz was honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as “a righteous among the nations.” He was posthumously nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Switzerland issued a stamp with his likeness on it. A touring exhibition, Visas for Life: The Righteous and Honorable Diplomats, includes a Lutz display.

In April, Nachman was an invited guest at a United Nations program honoring the diplomatic rescuers and their families. An English language edition of Theo Tschuy’s biography on Lutz (Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz) is due out this fall from Eerdmans Publishing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For Nachman, who has begun speaking publicly about his work, the investigation into the past goes on. There are more interviews, more archives, more stories to cultivate. “It has been the most exciting time of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve ever done that’s had more meaning and made more of an impact on me.”

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The Pawnshop Beat

July 6, 2010 4 comments

Modern pawnbroker storefront.

Image via Wikipedia

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.”

 

 

pawn shop

 

 

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.’”

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