MEMOIR: My father's bizarre street-corner debates
The current revival of old-style Jew-bashing in Europe--often camouflaged as criticism of Israel--has revived for me an unusual memory as a boy growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s. It involves my father and the strange street-corner debates in which he and his friends would engage during the evenings after dinner with their families.
My father and virtually all his friends were immigrants from various regions of the former Czarist Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires--most of them now independent countries. As Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany moved into the neighborhood, some joined my father's social circle.
I cannot recall the existence of any bars or saloons--common evening social gathering places for adult men elsewhere--in our neighborhood. Instead, we had the southwest corner of 170th Street and the Grand Concourse playing that role, at least in good weather.
The rise of Nazi Germany and the much publicized anti-Semitic tirades of Father Charles Coughlin, a Detroit-based priest, and other domestic Jew-haters provoked the strange arguments that now dominated the evening social gatherings of my father and his friends.
The increase in Jew-bashing in the U.S. and abroad reminded them of anti-Semitic experiences in their native lands.
That induced them to argue over whose native country had been the most hostile to Jews. Their arguments took on a peculiarly boastful tone, as if there were some kind of honor attached to those who had suffered the most as Jews.
My father, who was born near Warsaw, argued that no country treated Jews as badly as Poland. Not so, claimed a man from Bessarabia (now Moldava), pointing to the notorious Kishinev pogrom some 35 years earlier. Nonsense, argued another man, Ukraine was even worse for Jews than Poland and Bessarabia. "You think you had it bad," countered still another participant in this bizarre debate, "you should have lived in Lithuania!"
And so it went. Natives of Latvia, Hungary, Rumania, and Slovakia put in their horrid claims. If my mother, who was born in the province of Minsk (now in Belarus), had been there, she would have contributed Russia to the debate.
Listening to the competing claims, one of the handful of Sephardic men in the group submitted his own tragic tale. A native of Salonica, he said that the Jews had been tolerated by the ruling Ottoman Turks, but that life had become horrendous when the Greeks drove the Turks out and gained their independence. Interestingly, there were no reports of anti-Semitic experiences in the Scandinavian countries. But then, of course, Jews had not even been allowed to live in those lands until the mid-1800s.
If I had no school homework, my father occasionally allowed me to go out with him after dinner. To me the debates my father and his friends conducted were somewhat freakish. Their arguments sounded almost like a contest in suffering.
They were a powerful commentary on the plight of European Jews, however, and a dramatic display of the factors that had lured these Jewish men and their families to America's hospitable shores. Their new homeland provided a life allowing them and their descendents a tranquil existence and opportunities that were unknown to them in their native lands.