Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Jewish Story

Well, at least that’s what it has always been called in my family, though I think, more correctly, it should be called the Hebrew Story.

My parents hailed from Chicago, where I was born, in 1948. My Dad was an only child, but my Mom had 5 older brothers, Roland, Russell, Wesley, Todd, and Gordon, my Mom’s youngest brother, also known as “Uncle Chick”. I never met her two oldest brothers, or her mother, Lily, who had all passed away by the time I was born. My Mom and Dad moved us to Portland, Oregon, before I was three, so I really never got to relate with much of the Chicago family. My grandparents, on my Dad’s side, visited us in Portland frequently. But the Patriarch of my Mom’s family, her Dad Louis, or “Louie” as he was always called, never visited.

Louie had come to the USA on a boat from Germany with his folks when he was 10 or 11. They settled in San Diego, then moved on to Chicago. His father began a chicken processing business, in downtown Chicago, which Louis eventually took over, and which remained in the family as “Louis C. Snyder and Sons...Chicken In A Halo” for many years, even beyond my folk’s move to Oregon. When Louis died, my Mom received a cash settlement of some kind, since her remaining brothers were well involved in the family business, and had received their inheritance in the form of ownership of the business.

In the seventh grade, 1960, I visited Chicago on my own, arriving by propeller aircraft. During my two week stay, I once had an audience with Louie, who was retired and living with my Uncle Chick and his wife. He called me down to his bedroom, where he holed up with a tv, books, and cigars. We basically sat there, without much conversation, until he pulled out a cigar box full of change, probably $50.00 worth, which he laid on me. It was nice, and a rather extravagant gift, but my memory of sitting there with him, though the memory fades with each year, was a finer gift. My sisters and I feel a bit like we were cheated out of having relationships with our Chicago family, which is quite large, never having really known any of our cousins, or aunts and uncles, so I cherish this memory.

Louie, according to my Mom, others in the family, and by my own observations, was a bit of a mean cuss, a German accented hard nose. One story has him taking the bus to work for a week before he would finally admit that his leg was actually broken. My mother would occasionally speak of such things, and even my Uncle Chick, with his great sense of humor and split front teeth, once eluded to Louie’s grumpiness. Apparently, his words could cut like a knife. My Mom would sometimes mention how, when she was growing up, she would console her mother, as she wept, behind the furnace in the basement of their home.

I try not to be too critical of the man, since I did not really know him, and I cannot walk a mile in his shoes, having not lived his life, or even during his time. I really have no idea what he was up against, running his chicken processing business, there in Chicago in the 30s and 40s, But it is hard to not criticize Louie for his role in “The Jewish Story”.

Louie was a German-Jew. His father was German, his mother a Jew. That made him half Jewish. Louie, however, would never, for reasons we cannot comprehend, acknowledge his Jewish heritage. In my Mom’s family, they were “German”, end of topic. He had two brothers and a sister, Rose. Other members of the family tell me that Rose was a gifted singer who came to the U.S. to study music, on Louie’s dime, and had entertained at some of Chicago’s finest venues while here. When Rose returned to Germany, she fell in love and married a Jewish man. Louie was disgusted by this, and “disowned” his sister, as he had his brothers, for other reasons. Don’t ask me why Louie had such a chip on his shoulder. I dunno. Sounds like a tyrant to me.

When the war came along, and things were heating up in Germany, Rose wrote to Louie to ask that he sponsor her 3 children, to help get them out of Germany. They were, after all, Jews. Louie refused, and in fact, did not even respond to her request. My mother recalled, as a teenager, receiving a phone call from one of Rose’s Chicago friends, whose rant at Louie for his callousness was audible. Likely, those three cousins, perhaps Rose’s whole family, perished in gas chambers.

All of this was sort of buried in the hearts of my mother and her brothers, and never really surfaced ‘til about 1984. On a visit to Portland with his second wife, my Uncle Chick spoke from the back seat of my car, as we returned from dinner out, something along the lines of, “Ric, I am going to have to tell you “The Jewish Story””. That evening, I got an earful.

Days later, I went to see my Mother in the convalescent center where she resided. I said to her....”Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me “The Jewish Story?” Her first words, there lying on her hospital bed, fighting off the effects of her Parkinson’s Disease, were...... “Who you been talkin’ to?”. She was calm as she filled in the holes for me, and admitted later, a bit relieved.

As I mentioned earlier, my sisters and I wish we could have known more about our Chicago relatives, had cousins to play with growing up, that sort of thing. But my longing for that pales in comparison to the sadness I feel when I think that members of my own family were probably gassed in the war, just because of their heritage. It makes me feel like heralding my Hebrew blood.

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