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By Ruth R. Adams
Trenton, NJ In The 20’s and 30’s
I am now 91 years old and would like more people to know about my amazing parents, Israel and Evelyn Richmond who were immigrants.
. My mother was an ardent Zionist and she helped found the Trenton Chapter of Hadassah. Her interest in Israel began when she was a young girl in Poland. We have a picture of her and her brother, Isadore, with a group of young Zionists. In the United States, she worked hard for the Hadassah Hospital and the Jewish National Fund. My father also believed in the creation of a Jewish State.
During the Hitler years, Mother’s idol was Henrietta Szold, founder of Youth Aliyah. Mother immersed herself in the Youth Aliyah project and helped save many children from the gas chambers in Germany and Poland. She started the annual Youth Aliyah dinner in Trenton, New Jersey, to raise funds. Many important speakers came to those dinners such as Mrs. Morgenthau, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury and Meyer Levin, the author of the Diary of Anne Frank. It cost $250 paid to the Palestinian authorities to admit one child to what was then Palestine under British control My job was to help solicit monies for this purpose. She also worked to raise funds for the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. My father was a member of the Zionist Organization of America and the B’nai Brith. He helped my mother in all these projects and was proud of her. They also helped raise money for the Jewish National Fund.
During those years we belonged to the Har Sinai Temple in Trenton. My sister, Estelle, and I went to Sunday school and attended services with our parents on Friday nights. I sang in the childrens choir on Saturdays. Later, I was confirmed and married in the temple. It was a large part of our lives. Yet, my mother was at odds with the Rabbi, since he did not share her belief in a homeland for the Jewish people in what was then Palestine. During the holocaust and World WarII, I believe he changed. When Israel became a state in 1948, he celebrated with Mother. Sadly, Mother never did get to go to Israel. My first trip in 1979 was dedicated to her memory. I saw the list of people who had worked to make the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus a reality.
My father belonged to many clubs in Trenton, New Jersey, in the 20’s and 30’s. One was the Masons. He had had a meager education in Russia, and difficulty with reading English. He had to struggle to learn everything that was in the book the Masons gave him. I still remember him, behind the closed door of his bedroom, repeating the words over and over again. He even tried to enroll for a degree in the night school at Rider College to improve his English. I do not know this for a fact, but, I believe they found out that he never finished grade school in Russia and rejected him. Today, he would be called a reading disability but the teachers in his early schools called him “stupid”.
Most of the clubs were those at which he could play cards. One was called the In and Out Club. He also belonged to the Press Club where newsmen (no women at that time) gathered. Dad liked to attend court proceedings. When the New Jersey legislature was in session, he sat and listened to the laws being enacted. He liked to talk to people about politics and business. Through these associations, he was admitted to the Press Club. During the Lindberg baby kidnapping trial, he got a press pass and attended the court sessions. This was the way he educated himself. He supplemented these activities by reading the newspaper. He did not know how to read many of the words, but he was too proud to ask his children.
His sister, Fanny, told us that when he was a boy in Russia, he hid under the porch of their home so he would not have to go to school. The schoolmaster beat him because he could not read Russian and then, when he went to religious school, he was beaten because he could not read Hebrew.(Many years later, when my son became bar mitzvothed, he was called to the bima to read from the Holy Scriptires and he did very well). When his mother died, his new stepmother punished him as well and told him he was a disgrace to his father. His father was a grain merchant who took his youngest son with him when he conducted business but this stopped when his father remarried. All of this must have made the young boy extremely unhappy.
When Israel was fifteen, he ran away from home and made his way to America to join his sister, Fanny who had married her first cousin, Samuel Richmond. They were living in Trenton and operated a grocery store. Their children were frequent visitors to our home when I was growing up. Morris, Tillie and Celia told us stories of our father, and how they loved him when they were young. His older brother, Benjamin, also was married and living in Trenton. Israel and Ben opened a haberdashery shop as partners.
Uncle Sam and his family came almost every Sunday to visit us. He was an auctioneer by then, living in Passaic, NJ. My sister, Estelle, and I got carriages for our dolls, sets of dishes for tea parties and other children’s items that were left unsold an auction. He also taught us songs that we could sing when we rode in our father’s Hudson open touring car such, as Happy on the Way, The Doughnut Shop or Sarah Cohen waiting for the trolley car.
A few years later he and Aunt Fanny had a temporary separation, and she came to live with us. She was a gardener and planted berry bushes in our yard. It was at that time that we heard all the stories of growing up in “the old country.” The couple was reunited, and we were sorry to see her move back to Passaic.
One of the daughters, Celia Richmond, married Izzy Lubow. They came upon hard times during the depression of the late twenties and early thirties. Izzy lost his job and went to beauty school. He practiced on me while my mother watched nervously.
Izzy Lubow was one of the most learned men I ever knew. He came from the Bronx. His father died and he had to drop out of school to support his family. He saw that his sisters continued in school and they became teachers. Izzy, himself, was self-taught. He read and listened as my father did.
During the depression, he began to lean toward Communism. He felt that the poor felt the brunt of the hard times, and that there was no help coming. It was a time of food lines and apple stands. Of course, my father, the Republican business man, could not understand such leanings. He said that Herbert Hoover would lead us out of the depression. (Later, my Dad did vote for Roosevelt.).
Later in life, Izzy Lubow became a union leader in the printing industry, and he changed his mind about politics. He said that the workers did not want to learn, that they were bigots as well. He was bitter about this.
Izzy and Celia loved my sister and me. They took us to our first Broadway show in New York. It was Dead End. Izzy took us to our first baseball game (he was a Yankee and a Giant fan) on ladies days. He even took us to see the Dodgers play although he said they were cheap and did not have ladies days. When I took piano lessons, he bought me a book of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and we played and sang together. I loved him and missed him when he died. Celia came, many years later, to my daughter’s engagement shower, but that was the last time I saw her.
Dad, early on, had set about becoming an American citizen as soon as he arrived from Ellis Island, and he was so proud when he got his final papers. When his father came to take him home to Russia, Israel would not go. He was an American. One of my earliest memories was that on each Election Day, he would go around to the houses on our street and make sure that everyone voted. He did not electioneer for any one party, but told them that voting was something they had to do as Americans. We were the only Jewish family living on that street. Some of the neighbors were unfriendly, but that did not stop him from ringing the bell.
He served in World War I at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I don’t believe he ever got any veterans’ benefits. After the war he started the hat business with his brother Ben. I have a cherished picture of them standing in front of their store. Before that, Israel, the pioneer, started a charge account business with the cooperation of the local bank. People would charge items in the stores to my father, and he and the bank would collect. He also had the first Nickelodeon in Trenton. Reportedly, he allowed all children to enter free. One of my favorite stories about Dad’s early days in Trenton was about his friendship with a doctor who made house calls in his horse and buggy. This doctor was quite the ladies’ man. Dad said that after the doctor’s medical visits the horse knew just where to take him to see the ladies. Dad was thirty six when he married. He had been quite the ladies’ man, himself. He had his suits made to order, and was once praised in the local paper as one of the best dressed men in Trenton. My mother told me that when she first met him, she found love letters from many ladies. She promptly threw them out.
Mother and Dad met when they were vacationing at the Breakers Hotel in Atlantic City. Mother’s background is similar to Dad’s. She grew up in Malawa, Poland, which was under Russian rule. The Cossacks were very cruel, especially to the Jews. Her father had a hardware store. I heard stories about my maternal grandmother from my mother. Her name was Anna, and she was supposed to have a singing voice “as beautiful as a bird’s”. There were six children but when my grandmother became pregnant with the seventh, I believe that a midwife tried to help her to abort and she died. Mother was told to take care of all of the children, even though she had an older sister
My mother spent her life taking care of people. During the depression, she and my father helped many people who could not find work. Mother and Dad belonged to the Council for Human Relations and worked hard to get black men admitted into the unions. Some of the homeless lived in our parking garage (which I will describe later) on Willow Street during the depression. My parents found odd jobs for them. Also, they could not understand why black people were kept out of the unions. One such person was a man named John Mack from the West Indies. He was highly intelligent as well as a skilled electrician. They worked hard to get him admitted to the union. Finally, he was.
My father, when he married my mother, was already in the tire business. He saw that cars were getting popular so he went into the business of supplying people with tires. In fact, when my sister, Estelle, was born, sales soared because of a new “balloon tire” named Bergunian. Dad wanted to give that name to his new daughter, but that idea was voted down quickly by my mother. My sister was named for my mother’s favorite cousin, Esther, but she was called Estelle. Dad later was the first to sell Michelin tires. By this time, my mother became the bookkeeper at the tire shop on Hanover Street. I have a plaque on my wall from the Pennsylvania Rubber Company, celebrating a twenty-year association with the Richmond Tire Company.
It was the Pennsylvania Rubber Company that cooperated with my parents, so that they could submit a low bid to sell tires to the agencies and institutions of the State of New Jersey. The contract gave them money to send both of us to college. By that time, my parents moved the tire shop from Hanover Street to a large building on Willow Street. This building, which they rented, had a parking garage and space for customers to have their tires mounted.
The depression in the 30’s caused my family to lose the building on Hanover Street, which they had bought. The bank foreclosed and they had to move. My mother then took a more active role in the business. It took many years to pay off all the debts after they moved the business to Willow Street.
In the late thirties, my parents started the Richmond Bus Lines that ran between Trenton, Morrisville and Yardley in Pennsylvania. They had to get an interstate commerce license to do this. Still, they were the pioneers with vision. When the bus line started, there were few houses in the areas that the bus route covered. People laughed and said, “If you want to be alone like Greta Garbo, ride a Richmond bus.” However, during World War II, gas rationing led to increased bus riding. Also a big steel mill opened in that area, so my parents were not so dumb after all. The bus line was successful for many years.
When Jim, my husband, and I came to Trenton to visit mother and dad, our children, David and Judy, visited with my sister and brother-in-law’s children nearby. My sister, Estelle and her husband Dr Irving Robinson were our closest friends. Irv was a pediatrican and Estelle, who had graduated from Cornell, was a bacteriologist.
David always went to the bus garage which was located in Morrisville, Pa. John Lamarr, who was the mechanic there for many years, taught David all about the repair and operation of cars and buses. John was from Georgia. As a child, he had to work in the fields and only could go to school when it rained. He had the kind of intelligence which has only lately been recognized by psychologists: visual-spatial. During World War II he worked for a big trucking company and they said he could tell just by looking how a truck should be loaded and how much it could hold.
When Mother and Dad bought the house on Eastfield Ave. in 1921, our grandfather, Abraham Rothman, lived with us a great deal of the time. Sometimes, he would live with mother’s sister, Frances Somers and her family, in Philadelphia. I imagine it was a shock to the neighbors to see our religious grandfather in his tall derby hat and long black coat. I remember walks with him in the snow. He drew pictures for me in the snow of his home in Poland. Every morning he went down into our basement to pray because he did not want to wake us up. The saddest event of our childhood was when my mother went down to see what took him so long. She found him dead of a heart attack. Estelle was with her, and she got the brunt of the shock, hearing my mother scream. Estelle had a bad reaction to this, and never wanted to leave her mother’s side for the next few months.
The neighbors were helpful when Grandpop died, but I do not think they ever fully accepted us, except for Mrs. Rees, who lived across the street. I remember that she kept a diary .If you wanted to know the weather or events for any day in the past, you could ask Mrs. Rees. She was a kind person. When my son, David, was three years old, she sat with him in our car and played “going to California.” She let David pretend to drive.
In the summertime The Rees family would sit in the “summerhouse” at the end of the street, which looked out on the Canal and the Delaware River. It was owned by other neighbors, the Coleman’s. You had to be invited to join them on summer evenings. We never were. My mother (sour grapes?) said that all they did was swat mosquitoes.
When Mother went to the tire shop each day, we hired Peggy Compton as a housekeeper. The going salary then was seven dollars a week. She was our housekeeper for fourteen years. She came from Johnstown, Pa. and told us all about the flood when she was a girl. She bought a new dress each week. She was very pretty. Estelle and I used to watch her as she put her make-up on before going home each day.
In those days, we did not have a washing machine. Peggy washed the clothes in a basin in the cellar using a scrubbing board. The sheets and shirts were sent out to the laundry. We always used a laundry that bought tires for their trucks from us: Blakely’s, and later, The Home laundry. On Tuesdays. Peggy ironed.
My sister and I had a happy childhood. Our parents doted on us and thought we were wonderful. They were both older (for that time) when they married,. Mother was 28` and Dad was 36. Mother made us matching dresses on her Singer Sewing Machine. They were silk: blue for me and red for Estelle with beautiful embroidery across the top. We were always dressed up when we went visiting on Sundays. We visited the elderly who lived alone. We always got a few coins to put in our pocketbooks over Mother’s protests.
Summers we would go to Atlantic City to stay at the Breakers or the President.
“Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end”. But they did. My father died in 1959, and my mother in 1961. They had the pleasure of seeing me graduate from Radcliffe College, and my sister from Cornell. They saw Estelle and me marry, have successful careers, and have children to whom they gave the same love they gave us.
Ruth R. Adams, Ph.D, Professor and Associate Dean Emerita of the City College of New York
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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