MEMOIR: Memories of the Great Depression
The current financial crisis, generating fears that the U.S. faces a serious depression, has triggered my memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
My earliest memory was seeing my young, unmarried aunt, who lived with my parents, coming home from work one evening sobbing hysterically. I can still recall that she carried a newspaper emblazoned with a huge headline printed in red, reading: "Stock market crashes!"
The paper was undoubtedly the now-defunct New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper that routinely published red-ink headlines in large type to stir up reader excitement.
But this was no routine story. It was 1929, and the Great Depression had begun. I was five years old, and I still vividly remember my aunt's behavior that night. She had invested her meager savings, earned as a secretary, in the stock market. Now the savings had been wiped out.
She and other relatives, all people of modest means, had been encouraged by a stock broker/cousin to buy stock. That I can still recall the incident about my aunt and the newspaper headline so many years later demonstrates how traumatic the experience was, even for a young, impressionable boy.
I have other painful recollections of that era. In the early 1930s, my father's business collapsed. My father, who had not invested in the stock market, had operated a small shop in New York, manufacturing men's clothing in partnership with an uncle and brother-in-law.
Over the next decade, he was often unemployed, frequently holding down only temporary jobs as a salesman, usually in the men's apparel or food industries.
I always wondered how we were able to maintain our two-bedroom apartment during those years. We lived very frugally, but I do not recall that we suffered the severe economic indignities that afflicted so many others during the Great Depression.
But I do remember depending on hand-me-down baseball gloves, sleds, bicycles, and roller skates from a more affluent cousin whose father's business survived the nation's economic meltdown.
Only in recent years have I figured out how my parents were probably able to maintain our home during the Great Depression. I have a cousin who has an inordinate interest in genealogy.In his research, he discovered that the New York Times published probate notices at one time in its classified advertising columns. He found one notice revealing that my maternal grandmother (his great-grandmother) had inherited $5,000 from a wealthy older brother.
My grandmother had lived with my parents since their marriage. The inheritance, which she received about two years before I was born, was an enormous sum of money in that era. I can only assume that the funds wholly or partially produced the rent for our apartment when my father was unemployed. By then, my aunt had married and moved out.
When I was a teenager, I played a vital role in my father's search for regular employment. He was brought to this country from Poland at the age of nine, but never had a secular American education. Until he was 18, he attended a religious Jewish seminary where such subjects as English grammar did not figure prominently in the curriculum.
So he turned to me to help write letters applying for work. I remember spending Sunday afternoons with him examining the "want ads" in the New York Times. When he found what seemed to be a suitable job opening, I would compose and type letters for him on my second-hand typewriter, spelling out his qualifications.
My letters produced several salesman's jobs. Among his employers that I can recall were Beech-Nut and Colgate-Palmolive. In each case, however, the jobs proved to be temporary, for he was laid off in the personnel cutbacks that were so commonplace during the Great Depression.
The Great Depression ended only when World War II broke out. The U.S. quickly began to expand its armed forces, defense spending soared, and my father was hired by the War Dept. as an inspector in factories manufacturing military uniforms. That was his first solid job since his own business had collapsed.
My father was always struck by the irony that it took a war to get him on his feet economically. Whatever satisfaction he derived from finally having a good job, however, was offset by his sorrow in seeing his only child going off to war as a soldier.