Saturday, September 8, 2018

September 8, 1923


On the occasion of what would be her 95th birthday, it’s time to write about my mother, a woman I’ve described as “lighting up a room, in more ways than one.”

Model photograph, 1973

Harriet Bloomfeld was born in Chicago on September 8, 1923. She told us her families were from Austria and Russia, without any details of where exactly they had lived. Until recently, I had the image of the Bloomfelds as cultured Viennese, while the Saches were probably from Kiev. Abraham and Sarah Bloomfeld in fact were from Bursztyn, a shtetl in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Their town later became part of Poland and now Ukraine. Several members of Abraham’s family – his sisters had the surname Winz – were murdered in the Holocaust. I got my name and height from another great-grandfather, Fred Sachs. At 6’4”, he was as tall sitting down as his wife Fannie (about 5’0”) was standing up.

Fred and Fannie Sachs

Her parents were Meyer and Evelyn, who everybody called “Cookie” because of her round face. Meyer went straight from Marshall High School on the West Side to Kent College of Law, interrupting his studies to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War I. After graduating at age 21, he flunked the bar exam at least twice and worked as a salesman until the day he died at age 86.

Meyer Bloomfeld, law school yearbook 1918

Cookie, one of eight children, grew up on Robey Street (now Damen Avenue) on the site of the present Illinois Medical District. She graduated from McKinley High School (now Chicago Bulls College Prep) but did not attend college. Meyer and Cookie married on February 19, 1922. They would be married for 64 years.

Evelyn "Cookie" Sachs, 1910s

My mother, the first child, was born September 8, 1923, in Chicago Lying-In Hospital. Somebody in the Sachs had a beef with Michael Reese Hospital, where most Jewish children were born at the time, so both my mother and her brother Alan were born at other institutions. Unless I missed it, mom never told me she originally lived on the North Side. Her birth certificate lists the family residence as “4036 Magnolia”; however, there is no 4000 block of N. Magnolia Avenue. I later found the true address was 4836 N. Magnolia, almost around the corner from the Aragon Ballroom. They subsequently moved to the 5400 block of S. University Avenue in Hyde Park, most likely before her brother Alan was born in 1930. The building was razed for the Lutheran theological seminary.

Mom, 1920s

Mom wasn’t big on providing details about her early life. I don’t know if she attended school in Hyde Park (either Ray or Kozminski Elementary) before moving to 6902 S. Clyde Avenue in South Shore. The raised first-floor apartment is across the street from the O’Keeffe Elementary School playground. She graduated from O’Keefe in 1937. My brother and I would attend the school 18 years later.

It was on to Hyde Park High School, where she met two life-long friends, Margie Wallace and Joy Hersh. A girl came up behind my mother in freshman gym class, togged on her gym suit and asked, “Are you Jewish?” It was Margie. Mom gift-wrapped the suit and gave it to Margie on the occasion of her 70th birthday at Chasen’s in Los Angeles. After Margie died last year, her younger son, Dr. Robert Wallace, returned the gym suit to me. 

Hyde Park High School gym suit, 1930s

Joy Hersh and her husband Henry also moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s to avoid Chicago’s winters. She was a very successful Realtor, once selling a house in Pacific Palisades to one of my second cousins, then selling it again after she divorced her husband and moved back to New York City. My parents were visiting the Hershes on their first trip to California, enjoying the beautiful weather in the backyard of their Brentwood home on August 5, 1962, when they heard several police and ambulance sirens. The next day they found that Marilyn Monroe had been found dead three short blocks away. Joy is still hale and hardy. She provided a few details about mom’s life during our last phone conversation.

Grandpa Meyer attended South Side Hebrew Congregation, a Conservative temple, but I doubt mom spent much, if any, time there. She went to religious school at KAM and then Chicago Sinai Congregation . . . wherever her friends were going. They would take the bus to the shul on S. Parkway (now King Drive) and have one person pay the fare, then go to the back and open the door for the others. Her confirmation-class photograph hangs on the third floor of the temple, now one-half block from our residence. 

Former Chicago Sinai Congregation

Graduating from Hyde Park High School in June 1941, mom made the long commute from South Shore to DePaul University for one semester. After informing the instructors she was taking off for Yom Kippur, they said they didn’t realize she was Jewish. Dropping out after the United States entered World War II, the war years remained fuzzy to this day. Joy told me they both volunteered for some type of social-service supporting the war effort, for which my grandfather drove them downtown. According to Joy, mom also worked as a clerk in one or more of the Loop department stores.

Mom, early 1940s

On March 22, 1946 (ironically, three years to the day Frank and I were born), mom was fixed up with a 29-year-old CPA home after serving as an MP in the U.S. Army in western Illinois. Evidently, things moved quickly – perhaps in part because both were still living in apartments with parents and a brother – and they married on September 3, 1946. The independent type she would always be, mom refused to wear a bridal gown; dad wore a snappy double-breasted pinstripe suit. They paid the customary post-war bribe to get an apartment at 7130 S. Cyril Court.


Just married, Sept. 3, 1946

As noted, Frank and I came three years later (nine minutes apart), an unexpected occurrence until only three weeks before. This being the tax season, they didn’t have time to buy and set up another crib until after April 15, so we shared one for a short time. By then they had moved to 6738 S. Merrill Avenue. Babysitters were readily available; Meyer and Cookie lived three blocks away, and grandma Helen, a widow since 1942, lived one-mile west. Like other wives of dad’s Phi Epsilon Pi friends, mom tagged along to the then-infrequent White Sox night games in the early 1950s. During one game, the man sitting in front of her and Dort Finder (now 98 years old) turned around and said, “I’m sorry ladies, but I don’t care about the price of chickens at the High-Low.”


Frank and Fred, Apr. 1949

It was time to move to the suburbs – Frank and I were too big to share the one bathtub – and a house with a front lawn, attached garage and backyard. Glencoe would be our home for exactly 15 years, moving in 1955 and back to the city in 1970. Mom stayed home and handled the discipline, since dad was virtually gone from January 1 to April 15 every year (until going into private industry in 1963) and traveling to do audits on Pick Hotels, his firm’s major client. In 1961, Frank and I did something egregious enough for her to ban us from watching the first game of the World Series. She went downtown to meet friends that day, leaving us to come home for lunch and turn on the game. Upon arriving home after school, she greeted us with “You watched the World Series, didn’t you?” The big black-and-white box had long since cooled, but I knew she was bluffing. “Yes,” I replied, “how did you know?” “Because the channel selector was on Channel 12 when I left and on Channel 5 when I came home,” she answered. An early lesson in thinking several steps ahead, indeed.


Mom and Dad, early 1960s

I am forever grateful for her insisting on our learning manners and helping around the house. Cooking was encouraged; cleaning was required. We were taught to say, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am,” to look people in the eye when taking and to write intelligent thank-you notes. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received was from the mother of my college freshman’s roommate, who said “Sign of a good upbringing” after performing some routine task. On the other hand, mom was the arbiter of profanity; dad never swore so it only became permissible if mom said it. She was actually pretty liberal about it.

Mom spent much of her time over the years doing volunteer social service. She was the co-chairman (as they were called back then) of the annual Brandeis University Book Fair in the early 1960s when it was held in a temporary storefront in downtown Winnetka. The Council for Jewish Elderly and JCC were favorite organization for which she contributed time.


Fred, Mom and Frank, mid-1960s

At the risk of TMI, mom had major surgery in summer 1964 that illustrates how much things change. Frank and I were at summer camp, and the director, Nardie Stein, informed us my mother was in the hospital for surgery, and he had arranged with my father to call her. The telephone system in northern Wisconsin was still primitive in those days, so Nardie had to call an operator to place the call. He then handed the phone to me, after which I was told nobody named Harriet Nachman was registered there. Panic-stricken, I said, “Is this Passavant Hospital?” “No, this is the Water Tower Inn” was the reply. What a relief!  BTW, it was a hysterectomy, and dad had to explain what it is to his 15-year-old sons.

We were among the first suburban families to move back into the city, returning while Frank and I were still in college. They purchased a condominium on N. Lake Shore Drive, which cut dad’s commute time to the office. One of their friends needed an attractive, prematurely gray-haired woman to do a three-part commercial for Toni Magic Moment for the 1970 Miss America Pageant. Mom was chosen; it concluded with “I’m a brunette again!”

Advertisement, early 1970s

On March 29, 1973, barely two months after Janet and I married, mom returned home in the late afternoon to find her brother waiting in the lobby. She figured if something had to do with their parents, 76 and 73, he would have called from his Hancock Building office. Alan told her my father had died suddenly at age 55. As noted here, it hit us like a ton of bricks. http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/12/sudden-death-in-family.html Mom was just short of 50 at the time.

Not too long after, mom told me she would like to marry again. Once the shock wore off – who could possibly replace my father? – I realized she couldn’t spend the rest of her life mourning the tragic loss. One year later, after a few “dates” that went nowhere, she met Irving Nathan, who had been divorced for a few years. Irv was the opposite of my father – outgoing, a born salesman and good-time charley – which was a good thing, for he took what were eventually the seven of us (Frank, Martha, Grant, Julia, Janet, Marisa and me) as his own. They traveled the world together, too many places to list, on what mom called “a long date.” Winters were eventually spent first in Phoenix, San Diego and Palm Springs. Old friends remained as they made new friends.


Irv and Mom, mid-1970s

I came to realize mom considered Janet to be more her wonderful daughter and me the pesky son-in-law. Coming from Brooklyn knowing nobody in Chicago, Janet needed large doses of support, especially after the tragedy that virtually kicked off our marriage. Mom did countless things for her and never stopped extolling her virtues to friends and family.

Janet and Mom, 1973

Irv’s health took a turn for the worse in 1996, and he passed away that August. After two marriages, mom figured it was enough and very much enjoyed the single life. Thanks to my uncle Adolph and aunt Ros and, later, her good friend Sonya Reich, mom traveled to Europe twice, as well as taking the entire family on a Mediterranean cruise. She accompanied us to New York City several times, always a fun getaway, and kept busy volunteering for Working in the Schools (WITS) and Jewish Community Centers (JCC).

Mom, Janet, Lady Liberty and me, New York City, July 2008

Mom was planning for her 90th birthday celebration in September 2013 when her health began deteriorating. We shared an internist, who told me mom practiced “ostrich medicine.” She often said if anything was found, she was too old to treat it. Constant spinal pain got progressively worse, and she suffered a stroke in March. After a few days, the doctors sat us down and, to our surprise, told us scans showed pervasive cancer throughout her upper body and would be discharged into hospice care. The end came rather swiftly – two weeks – and the entire family were with her until right before she passed away. Her death on March 26 was three days before the 40th anniversary of my father’s death.

Not a particularly religious person – she had resigned her temple membership a few years earlier after 30+ years – mom often said she didn’t wasn’t a rabbi at her funeral. Because it wasn’t in writing, I considered having somebody officiate. Before that, I had found my father’s prayer book from his South Shore Temple confirmation in 1932 that contained a mourner’s service. I took parts of it – retaining its beautiful archaic language – and led the service, calling on those in attendance on the cold but sunny afternoon, to speak as they may. Sonia led off with a very poignant tribute as did several others. 

My father's prayer book, 1932

Mom was not the most patient person, so I opened my remarks with, “I don’t know about you, but I think I heard mom say, ‘C’mon already!’” I said I’d apologized to Joy for mom being short with her in recent months; she’d replied with a laugh, “She was always short with me!” I concluded with one of hers and one of my favorite sayings: “It’s been charming” and “When you see dad, tell him everything turned out all right.” Even after five years, Janet and I still have many “Wait ‘til mom hears this one” moments. This is another one.

Friday, August 4, 2017

August 4, 1917


One hundred years ago today, my father – Marvin Norden Nachman – was born in Chicago, probably at Passavant Hospital. I’ve written little about him before – his military career (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-fathers-army.html) and what turned out to be our last Sox game together (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/11/major-gives-us-day-to-remember.html) – but not much else in biographical form. So on the 100th anniversary of his birth, here’s my tribute to a wonderful man who left us way too soon.

Dad, age 3 months

Dad was the son of Isadore and Helen Norden Nachman. His father – called Jim – came to the U.S. around 1900 from Iasi, Romania. Helen was #9 of 9 children of Adolph Norden, who had 7 children with his first wife. The Nordens emigrated from Germany in the late 1880s. His grandparents, Abraham and Chaia Schwartzman Nachman, also left Romania for the United States and are buried in the family’s section of the First Roumanian Congregation at Jewish Waldheim. Chaia was the sister of Sophia Schwartzman Pritzker, the grandmother of Abram Pritzker; great-grandmother of Jay, Robert and Donald; and great-great-grandmother of, among others, Tom, Jennifer, Penny and J.B. That and my Ventra Card get me around the city cheaply and efficiently (no discounts at Hyatt hotels either).

My grandparents and uncle Adolph, c. 1916

His first residence was the Van Dorn Apartments at 6054 S. Michigan Ave., across the street from St. Anselm Catholic Church, best known from its role in James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogies. Isadore worked downtown in a belt and suspender business with his brother-in-law, C.J. (“Jake”) Wolfson. His brother, Adolph, was five years older and had started at Carter Elementary School and the religious school at South Side Hebrew Congregation up the street before the family moved to South Shore during the early 1920s.

Van Dorn Apartments and South Side Hebrew Congregation religious school

Home was a two-flat at 7430 S. Bennett Ave. A relative told me the side streets were still unpaved back then. Adolph and dad attended Bryn Mawr Elementary School on the 7300 block of S. Jeffery Blvd. My cousins Jim, Bob and Cathy would also attend Bryn Mawr, as did Michelle Robinson Obama. The Robinsons lived around the corner on S. Euclid Ave. several years later. Both boys skipped grades and would have attended South Shore High School one-and-a-half blocks away but it wasn’t built yet. Instead, they took the streetcar north to Hyde Park High School. After one year at the University of Michigan, Adolph came home to attend the University of Chicago and the university’s medical school. Dad was offered two choices after graduating high school in 1934: attend the University of Chicago and live at home or the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He chose the latter. My grandfather borrowed on his life-insurance policy to pay the tuition, room and board.

7430 S. Bennett Ave. and Hyde Park High School

As South Siders, Adolph and dad became White Sox fans, something all five children inherited. Adolph saw his first game in 1921 and my father shortly thereafter. They took the Wentworth Avenue streetcar to the ballpark. Adolph bought season tickets after returning home from World War II, and my father had tickets to all the night games – less than 20 – in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He and Adolph attended all three home games of the 1959 World Series (Frank and I saw Game 1). My first Sox game was in 1954 (or maybe 1953) and have seen at least one home game every season except 1970 since, although I saw a game in Boston during that terrible 106-loss season.

Ticket, 1959 World Series

My father pledged Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity as a freshman, majoring in accounting. He would make several lifelong friends there but, unlike many of them, did not marry one of the U of I sorority sisters. His first roommate was Norman Cohn, a senior, who would go on to head a construction company that built Old Orchard Shopping Center (he reminded us countless times “My college roommate built this place” while shopping there) and later became part of JMB Realty. My grandmother thought it was so wonderful that dad has such a nice Jewish roommate when visiting them that first year. She remarked how neat their room was, until she opened a closet door and piles of stuff cascaded out. Only one of his brothers is known to still be with us, Eddie Stein, who is going strong at age 100.

Phi Epsilon Pi, 1937-1938. Dad is 1st row at left;
Eddie Stein is last row in front of the door

Dad achieved several honors, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Despite being an accounting major, he was editor of the 1938 Illio, the university’s yearbook. His colleague at the Daily Illini was Jack Mabley, who had a long career as a Chicago newspaper columnist. He received the Sachem and Ma-Wan-Da awards as a junior and Beta Gamma Sigma, the national honor society for business students. The only other accounting major to achieve similar grades and honors was Thomas A. Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors from 1974 to 1980.

The Daily Illini, 1938

Despite his academic honors, my father could not get a job with a Big 8 (now Big 4, all of whom are headquartered in Europe) accounting firm after graduating in 1938. Why? Simply because he was Jewish. I was told by a 1972 U of I accounting graduate with similar honors that certain firms even then were known to be less hospitable to Jewish applicants. Dad joined a Jewish firm (I don’t remember the name) and later became a partner at Katz, Wagner & Co., where his main concentration was auditing. His clients included Pick Hotels and Speedway Wrecking, which would later demolish the first Comiskey Park. He worked for the firm until 1963, minus the three years he was in the Army during World War II.

At work, unknown date

My grandparents lost the two-flat toward the end of the Depression and moved to a high-rise apartment building at 7300 S. South Shore Drive. Grandpa Jim died in 1942 at age 57 while the boys were in the Army, and they returned to a small apartment after the war ended three years later. I think the tight living quarters had something to do with my father marrying Harriet Bloomfield on September 3, 1946, after having gone on a first date back on March 22. Adolph would marry the following year. They had to pay somebody under the table to get an apartment at 7130 S. Cyril Court. Home would later be 6738 S. Merrill Avenue, which was destroyed by fire in 1982.

Just married, September 3, 1946

My father was pretty much out of sight from January 1 to April 15 every year. In fact, my brother and I were born on March 22 (very ironic) and, because my mother didn’t find out she was having twins until three weeks before we were born, Frank and I had to wait to get our own cribs until the tax season ended. Dad would wake us up in the morning just to remind us he was still around. During our first family trips east, we stayed at the Belmont Plaza (now the W New York) in New York City and The Lee House (now demolished) in Washington, D.C., both Pick hotels.

The twins, one week old, 1949

After April 15, dad travelled frequently to do audits at Pick hotels, one of which was the Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. He told us that numerous Ohio State football players were on the hotel’s payroll, but the only time he ever saw them was when they came for free meals. This made the Illini graduate very unhappy when his school was placed on probation for minor offenses, particularly when one of the whistleblowers was a staff member who had been passed over for promotion.

One memorable anecdote relates to the Sahara Inn, a motel near O’Hare airport owned by mobster Manny Skar. The Sahara had declared bankruptcy shortly after its construction in 1962, and Pick Hotels was one of the creditors. A creditors’ meeting was held over a weekend at the Schiller Park establishment, requiring the attendees to stay two nights; however, Illinois Bell had yanked all of the phones in this pre-cell phone era. My father’s parting words to our mother were, “If I’m not back by Sunday, call the police.” Skar would be gunned down in a mob hit in 1965 as he exited the garage in his N. Lake Shore Drive building after dining with Mrs. Skar at a deli on Oak Street. Because take-home purchases were noted in the newspaper reports, our family joke was “Manny Skar died clutching his salami.”

Sahara Inn matchbook

In 1963, Les Weil, a freshman brother when dad was a senior, bought majority interest in American Envelope Co., which also had plants in Baltimore and Washington. He asked my father to join him as chief financial officer and treasurer. Not only would we see him now during the first three-and-a-half months of the year but he also received a company car in order to drive from the north suburbs to the offices at 3100 W. Grand Avenue, just as Frank and I were getting our driver’s licenses. The company at the time was the largest supplier of envelopes to Hallmark Cards and, as a small business, qualified for government contracts, including envelopes for draft boards.

3100 W. Grand Avenue

The company did well during the remainder of the 1960s, and Les and dad somehow found time to visit the Baltimore company in October 1966 when the Orioles played the Dodgers in the World Series. Thanks to the previous owner, who had been instrumental in bringing the O’s from St. Louis, the company had four season tickets right behind the Orioles’ dugout. I worked in the plant during the summer of 1968 (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2014/07/transcendence-in-envelope-factory.html) and will never forget going into the front office before traveling home to see dad balance a half-million bank statement in his head and know where the few missing dollars were. It helped to have a photographic memory.

Ticket, 1966 World Series

My father was a scrupulously honest man, but he did teach me a few lessons about the realities of business life. During his tenure, the company bought the building next doot on Grand and needed to build an enclosed walkway between the two buildings. This required a permit, which was granted by the local alderman, in this case, the very powerful and very crooked Thomas Keane from the 31st Ward. They got it, after dad gave a cash payment to one of Keane’s bagmen who came by to pick it up. No cash, no walkway. Keane would be sentenced to five years in prison in 1974 for federal mail-fraud and conspiracy convictions. In another instance, he was an unattributed source in a front-page newspaper story on a shady state deal. When I asked why he didn’t use his name, he told me, “I don’t know who’s behind these people. I don’t want a firebomb at our front door.”

Les and dad decided to sell the company in 1970 after it had moved to larger quarters at 4400 W. Ohio Street. Unfortunately, the sale was completed as a recession set in, and the acquisition disqualified it as a small business, thus ending its government contracts. Dad had an employment contract but felt – as he later found out, rightfully so – the new owners were trying to find cause to fire him and bring in a low-paid bookkeeper. Dad seemed much more edgy after I returned home from college and a summer in California in August 1971 and even fretted about taking off time to meet my soon-to-be in-laws in New York the month before our January 1973 wedding.

4400 W. Ohio Street (the name is still above the door)

My world was shaken to the core at about 2:45 on the afternoon of March 29, 1973, when I received a phone call that my father had been taken to a hospital I’d never heard of at W. Division and N. Cicero avenues. Rather than go into detail here, the following post (http://brulelaker.blogspot.com/2010/12/sudden-death-in-family.html) chronicles that last traumatic day of his life. Now, 44 years hence, I’ve worn his South Shore Temple confirmation class ring he received in 1932 that rolled out of his personal effects envelope longer than he did.

Confirmation Class 1932 ring

It took me a long time to come to terms with losing dad at age 55. Only a few years ago when I knew he probably would no longer be here did I find some sort of closure. Ironically, Adolph lived to be three months short of 102 and was sharp it until the end. I never begrudged him that because it was a great connection to family. Mom remarried the next year to Irving Nathan, a man very much unlike dad, which was a good thing. He was outgoing and gregarious and took the seven of us (Frank, Martha, Grant, Julia, Janet, Marisa and me) in as his own. They traveled the world, kept old friends and made new ones, and he left her secure to the end of her life at age 89 in 2013.

Dad has been gone so long I really must summon up remembrances of him, even as I describe them here. It doesn’t seem like just yesterday. Every so often I think of something, like the time he and mom visited me in Boston and took Frank and some family friends attending Harvard and MIT to dinner at Durgin Park. The brilliant CPA didn’t know the restaurant was cash only and didn’t have enough to pay the bill. He had to borrow money from us students to settle the tab.

His last photo, with Reuben Shore, March 1973

One last thought: In August 1973, two families threw a party for some of my school friends who were getting married. As we were saying our good-byes to Dorothy Gutstadt, one of the hosts and the wife of another fraternity brother, she looked at me and started to cry. Her (now ex- ) daughter-in-law said, “Oh, she cries at anything!” Holding back my tears, I looked at both of them and said ‘It’s a long story.” Dorothy is thankfully still with us, and I never fail to remind her of this . . . and how important it will always be to me. Dad knew how to elicit both smiles and tears.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Tale of Two (Empty) Swimming Pools


Within the span of 24 hours on September 9 and 10, I observed two empty swimming pools in the Czech Republic. Each portays the history of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, one symbolizing an almost certain end of the road, the other a rebirth.
The first is in the basement of Petschek Villa, the residence of the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Through a mutual friend, Janet and I visited with Ambassador Andrew Schapiro and his wife, Tamar Newberger, in the late afternoon and evening of September 9. Along with two couples and two guests, Andrew and Tamar took us on a tour of part of the 70-room residence.

The Villa was built in the late 1920s, during the brief flowering of the first republic of Czechoslovakia by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. The Petscheks were a German-speaking Jewish family, and their wealth was attributable in large part to coal mining and banking.

While the mansion was being built, the family lived in the present Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence. The Petschek grandparents continued to live there after the rest of the family moved into their new home during the winter of 1929 - 1930. Otto Petschek became ill and died in 1934.

In 1938, with the growing Nazi threat in Europe and specifically toward Czechoslovakia, the Petschek family (a son and three daughters) sold their holdings and departed for the United States, where members of the family still live. After the Nazis occupied Prague, they seized the house, and it became the residence of General Rudolf Toussaint, the head of the German army occupying Prague. A considerable number of Nazi aides and soldiers were quartered on the property during this seven-year period.

Taking us into the basement and switching on a light in a huge dark room, Andrew revealed an empty swimming pool with an interesting history. NOTE: Because of the family’s wishes, photos of the pool and other rooms in the residence will not be posted here or on social media.

The swimming pool is said to have been used during only one winter. By one account, after one of the Petschek sisters caught pneumonia after swimming and nearly died, her father decreed that the pool should never be used again. Another account holds that a family member dived in and broke a leg, which resulted in the ban. Another explanation for the pools’ disuse (a less dramatic one offered by a family member) was the pool was too expensive to heat, even for an owner of coal mines. Either way, the pool has remained empty for more than eighty years.

Terezin concentration camp

The second is in the Terezin concentration camp, 40 miles north of Prague, which visited the following day. The Nazis took over the fortress built by Hapsburgs between 1780 and 1790 that had been used a prison for army and political prisoners. It served mainly as a transfer camp, although thousands died here from disease, starvation and execution. For a visit by the Red Cross, the Nazis built facilities that were never used by the inmates, including rows of sinks on each side of a long room.

Sinks, Terezin concentration camp

Toward the end of our visit, we were taken to an empty swimming pool, surrounded by a fence. Jews and students were forced to build it for the guards and their families in 1942. The inmates used it once . . . for the propaganda film. It was not particularly large or deep, compared to the pool at the Petschek Villa.
Swimming pool, Terezin concentration camp

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews taken to Terezin, 97,297 died, including 15,000 children. Only 132 children were known to have survived. The elderly and families were brought in large numbers to Terezin. Then, in large groups, they were transported to the east, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, when it was fully operational in late 1942. The elderly were sent immediately to the gas chambers, while younger inmates who still could work were temporarily spared. Terezin families were, in some instances, kept together at Birkenau, in family barracks, until their fate was met.
Terezin Concentration camp

Simply stated, the empty Terezin swimming pool was as depressing a symbol of death one can find for the Holocaust. Ovens, gallows, gas chambers and the like our guttural reminders of the unfortunate capabilities of human beings. The pool rather transcends that, as one imagines the slave laborers literally being worked to death for the benefit of the guards and their families, as they were in bunkers below Auschwitz making parts for B-1 and B-2 rockets. Sadness and anger overwhelm the soul as one looks out at the decaying expanse.

Terezin concentration camp

The pool at the Ambassador’s residence is the opposite, a symbol of the enduring strength of the Jewish people. Ambassador Schapiro’s mother’s family lived in Prague during the war. In fact, the Czemer family (his grandfather worked for Shell Oil) lived in an apartment building close to the Villa. Raya Czemer fled Czechoslovakia at age 5 in 1939 and settled in Chicago, where she attended public schools, college and medical school, becoming a psychiatrist. Andrew had a distinguished career in law, including clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, before being named ambassador in 2014. Ironically, the residence had already been made kosher by the previous ambassador, Norman Eisen. Our tour included the kitchen, where the chef displayed the freshly baked challah that would be served for Shabbat dinner.

The story of rebirth doesn’t simply end with the success of the son of a Holocaust survivor. A month previously, Alex Schapiro celebrated his bar mitzvah at the beautiful Spanish Synagogue, where his grandmother's family had worshipped. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City who had been the family’s rabbi at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago, officiated.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague

Two empty swimming pools, one representing death and the cruelty of humankind and one representing life and the will of a people not just to survive but to prosper in many ways. I shall never forget either of them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fenway Tales: September 1968


I transferred to Boston University from Lehigh University after my freshman year, arriving in September 1968 knowing a few people in the area but none at BU. As a transfer student, I was required to arrive early with the freshmen, partly to take a test that exempted me from the language requirement (I passed). Home was Room 401 in Myles Standish Hall, a former hotel in Kenmore Square that housed Major League Baseball teams in town to play the Red Sox or Braves until it was bought by the university in 1950.  Four students lived in the three-room suite; I was assigned to the former living room with a returning student, while another transfer student and a returning student had the single room.
Myles Standish Hall, 2008
With classes yet to begin and Brent, the LIU transfer still not arriving, I found myself on Sunday, September 8 (my mother’s 45th birthday), with nothing much to do. To kill time on a beautiful afternoon, I walked the few blocks to Fenway Park to see what turned out to be my first, last and only professional soccer game. I’d been to the ballpark to see a Red Sox game on a family trip seven years earlier and, although Fenway hadn’t yet reached icon status, it was an interesting place to see an athletic contest. The Boston Beacons hosted the Baltimore Bays in their final games of the North American Soccer League (NASL) season.

Boston Red Sox program cover and ticket, 1961

In 1967, two professional soccer leagues started in the United States: the United Soccer Association (USA), a collection of entire European and South American teams brought to the U.S. and given local names, and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) The two leagues merged in December 1967 to form the NASL, which began the season with 17 of the 22 teams that had participated during the 1967 seasons. The teams used mostly on foreign talent. Despite some successes, the NASL also had significant problems. The teams included only 30 North American players. High salaries for foreign players and steep rents for large stadiums, coupled with low attendances, resulted in every team losing money in 1968. Only 5 of the 17 teams returned next season.

The Beacons were a new team, while the Bays had been part of the NPSL. The Boston Shamrock Rovers, owned by Boston Bruins owner Weston Adams, were disbanded after playing one year in the USA in suburban Lynn. The Bays, owned by Baltimore Orioles owner Jerry Hoffburger, played in spacious Memorial Stadium, the home of the Orioles and Colts. They lost the only NPSL championship game to the Oakland Clippers.

Baltimore Bays, 1968, Boston Beacons logo, 1968

After purchasing a general-admission ticket (the going price according to tickets for games in Baltimore and New York appears to have been $3.50 – about $24 today - but may have been less), I settled down into a nearly empty section that would have been opposite the pitcher’s mound on the first-base side. The Beacons defeated the Bays, 1-0, before 2,229 fans. The Bays would make it to the next season; the Beacons did not. The Beacons ended the season at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 9-17-6 record. Their largest crowd was 7,319 (not including an exhibition versus Pele and Santos, which drew 18,431) on August 6 against the Atlanta Chiefs. The Chicago Mustangs, who played at Comiskey Park, drew the league’s second-worst average attendance of 2,463.

Beacons' lone goal vs. Bays, Sept. 8, 1968

The following Friday, again with no plans for the evening, I returned to Fenway to see the Red Sox take on the Minnesota Twins. Unlike the previous season, when the Red Sox defeated the Twins on the final game of the season and waited for the Tigers to lose to the Angels to win its first American League pennant since 1946, both teams were far behind the league-leading Detroit Tigers. In the final season before MLB split each league into two divisions, the Red Sox finished 4th,  behind 17 games with a 86-76 record, while the Twins ended up in 7th, 24 games back at 79-83.

One of my goals was simply to kill an evening, as the game started at 7:30 p.m. The Red Sox’s starter was Ray Culp, who pitched for the Phillies during their infamous 1964 season and came over from the Cubs during the winter in another disastrous trade for the North Siders. The Red Sox sent Rudy Schlesinger and cash to the Cubs; Schlesinger had one pinch-hit at-bat in 1965 and would never make it to MLB again. Culp won 71 while losing 58 before retiring from the Red Sox after the 1973 season. Dean Chance, winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award with the Angels sporting a 20-9 record, a 1.65 earned-run average and 11 shutouts at age 23, started for Twins. He won 20 games the previous season, his first in Minnesota, but lost the all-important final game of the season.

1968 Topps cards for Sept. 13 game starting pitchers

The Red Sox, on Culp’s 6-hit shutout, defeated the Twins, 3-0. Attendance was 23,171. A two-run home run by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, his 35th, and an RBI by light-hitting rookie infielder Luis Alvarado (.130 that first season) accounted for the Red Sox’s runs. Harrelson would later become the White Sox long-time play-by-play announcer, while Alvarado would have four undistinguished seasons with the White Sox (4 home runs, 57 RBI and .218 batting average). Alvarado was traded from Boston to Chicago after the 1970 season with Mike Andrews (who left me a pitifully small tip after I waited on his group during my very short stint as a waiter that summer) for future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio after his second stint with the White Sox.

The most important part of the game was its time: 1 hour and 40 minutes. It may have been the fastest game for the Red Sox or even in MLB in a five-year period, and only 11 minutes longer than the fastest night game in MLB history. So much for killing time; I was back on the street by 9:15. I would attend three more games at Fenway during my college days: a Patriot’s Day game in April 1969 (Yankees 6 Red Sox 4) and White Sox’s games in 1969 and 1970, both started by Tommy John. On June 4, 1969, home runs by non-power hitters Ed Hermann, Gail Hopkins and Bobby Knoop gave the ChiSox a 7-2 victory. The following year, my only season not seeing a White Sox home game since going to the ballpark in 1954, Wilbur Wood and Danny Murphy could not hold a 3-1 lead, and the Red Sox won, 4-3. I regret not seeing the Boston Patriots play in their 1968 and last season at Fenway Park.

While picking up my ticket at will-call (thanks to one of my BU roommates, Nate Greenberg) for the Diamondbacks – Red Sox game in June 2008, the agent asked if I’d ever been to Fenway Park. I replied, “Yes, but not for 38 years.” Two things were noticeably higher: a new deck added above the roof level that had been turned into luxury boxes and ticket prices, paying $90 to sit halfway up the upper deck. And, of course, “Sweet Caroline,” which always has me reaching for the mute button.

Fenway Park, 2008