The Jewish Quarter
of Philadelphia

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     The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia did not have great numbers of survivors of the Holocaust settle in the area after 1945.  However, the story of Alter Blatt is one story.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jews were moving out of the old Jewish quarter, not into to it. (Some, if they could, moved near relatives in other sections of the city.)  Because restrictive immigration rules had prevented refugees from entering the country during the 1930s, new faces were not seen at the shops and stores on S. 4th Street and South Street, the two main immigrant shopping streets in Jewish Philadelphia in the 1930s.  In the 1940s, small flags with stars began to appear in the windows; some had more than one star, soon some had gold stars—badges of honor proudly displayed by an immigrant generation.[i] In kosher butcher shops, American flags were placed along side hanging chickens. 

     At a meeting of the S. 4th Street Businessmen's Association, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, the membership was urged to become more active in "Civilian Defense—in supporting Air Raid Wardens—in collecting money from members for the purpose of supplying air raid equipment to our stores and families."[ii]  At synagogue, the older generation, unable to help relatives in Europe, turned their attention to synagogue business.[iii]  In Europe, Vernichtung, annihilation of the Jewish people was taking place.   

     In late 1945, Thomas J. Hamilton, a writer and editor of the New York Times summed up the refugee problem during the war:

Alter Blatt, 1944

WASHINGTON. Dec. 29—Some five years ago American consuls received orders that when granting visas to refugees they should do so not on the basis of how much benefit would result to the refugee, but how much benefit the United States would derive from the admittance of the refugee.  This was a hard-boiled rule, which was unquestionably unavoidable in time of war, but was nevertheless difficult to reconcile with the Government's often-expressed desire to help the hundreds of thousands of Hitler's victims.  It remained in force throughout the war, and even after the war ended.  The United States, once the haven of refuge for the oppressed peoples of Europe, has been almost as inaccessible as Tibet.  

     After the war, veterans returned eager for a new life.  At the same time, the older generation searched desperately for information about family members in Europe.  Most searches were in vain.  Alter Blatt, the sexton and Torah reader at Kesher Israel who lived at 429 Gaskill Street, to the rear of the shul, searched for his large family.  On April 24, 1947, he submitted an inquiry to the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany, seeking to find out what happened to three of his five children and his wife.  His inquiry identified Paula (Pesel) Blatt, Rudolph (Raphael) Blatt, Lilly (Recha or Rivka Leah) Blatt and Helene (Chaie Tube) Blatt, nee Orenstein, his wife.  He indicated that his last contact with Helene was a letter he received from her from Germany in which she indicated that "she is awaiting her deportation to Poland in November 1941."  He provided the Tracing Service in Arolsen with names, and dates and places of birth of this part of his family.  All his children were born in Munich and Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany in the 1920s and 1930s; Helene was born in Bochnia, Poland.

     The microfilm copy of the Master File of the International Tracing Service (Arolsen) in the archives of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—indicates the four Blatts were deported "east."  Handwritten notes on the records indicate that as of November 1941 they were awaiting deportation to Poland.  The names of Helene and Rivka Leah appear on a list of those deported from Frankfurt-am-Main on November 22, 1941, to Kovno.  All 2,934 people in that group were executed three days later at the notorious Ninth Fort in Kovno.  In 1942, two of his children from Munich were in Lublin, Poland.  Notes on their records indicate:  "Nobody is known to have returned." 

     At Kesher Israel for a number of years, recognition of the death of a loved one was given expression by the placement of yahrzeit plaques on two large wooden boards on the eastern wall of the main sanctuary, the Yaron Chapel. The following small plaques scribed in handwritten calligraphy hang there today. (Penciled guidelines to assist the penman are yet visible.)

                                    Chaie Tube Blatt     13 Adar 1942

                                    Isaak Blatt               13 Adar 1942

                                    Pesel Blatt              13 Adar 1942

                                    Raphael Blatt          13 Adar 1942

                                    Rivka Leah Blatt     13 Adar 1942

     Between 1947 and June 1950, Alter Blatt learned that his wife, and daughter, Rivka Leah, were murdered by the Nazis on November 25, 1941.  Why did he use the Hebrew day and month of 13 Adar—a date in the early spring, not November—as the date of their death?  He must have chosen the date because of its symbolic importance.  Speculating, the following explanation is put forth as to why he selected 13 Adar, which is the date of the Fast of Esther, marked on the eve of Purim.  Since Hitler was often compared to Haman, his choice of the Fast of Esther suggests an act of defiance on the part of Alter Blatt.  What can be said with certainty is these plaques have hung in the synagogue for two generations and that Alter Blatt did search for his family after the Holocaust.[1]  For Alter Blatt, the plaques were all he had.  At Rosh Hashanah, he could not go to a cemetery to visit gravesites.  He could stand in front of no tombstone to say Kaddish.  Wrapped up in these small pieces of wood in the sanctuary of Kesher Israel was a faraway lifetime of hopes and dreams—death and sadness.  

     The full story remains unknown, but what we do know is part of one of the more remarkable accounts of the Holocaust.  Born on March 9, 1891, in Sieniawa, in the Jaroslaw district of Poland, Alter (Rueben) Blatt married Helene Orenstein in 1919; the following year they immigrated to Germany and Alter became a textile merchant.  In 1938, in the euphemistic words of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Alter Blatt was "asked" to leave Germany. He was accused of "price violation," according to U.S. records.  Two of the Blatt's sons, Isi (most likely Isaak) and Berthold, were brought to Palestine in 1941, but Alter's wife and three other children were forced to remain in Germany.  Isi died between 1945 and 1950.[iv]  Berthold remained in Palestine and was there when Independence was declared.  Alter had eight brothers and sisters; he lost contact with all of them.

     After being asked to leave Germany, Alter Blatt went to Milan, Italy. In 1940, he was interred [interned] in the Ferramonti Forced Labor Camp, later an "ex-internment camp" on the Adriatic. When asked about time spent in the country, he replied tersely:  "I was persecuted" there.  As the allied armies stormed through Italy, a few days after D-Day, Roosevelt issued an order setting up the War Refugee Board.  Fort Ontario near Oswego, New York, a former Army base, was designated as an emergency shelter by the Board to receive war refugees from Europe until the end of the war, at which time they were to be returned to their country of origin.  Roosevelt sent the Liberty ship S.S. Henry Gibbins to Italy to pick up wounded GIs and bring them back to the U.S. along with 1,000 refugees.  On the evening of August 3, 1944, 982 refugees landed at the port of New York—most of them were Jewish.  The next day they entrained to Fort Ontario where they found safe haven for the rest of the war. Among these refugees was Alter Blatt.  The emergency refugee shelter at Oswego was the only one of its kind ever set up in the U.S.  These were the first refugees brought to the United States during the war. [v]   At the time, over one hundred thousand German POWs had already been brought to the United States.

     Before daybreak on January 17, 1946, 92 of the refugees from Fort Ontario boarded three buses which took them on a short ride across the Canadian border to Niagara, Ontario, Canada.  As a Christmas gift, President Truman "cut red tape" and directed, although the refugees had all signed affidavits that they would return to Europe after the war, they were to be settled in the United States.  "They made the brief journey into Canada because the law requires that visa applications be made on foreign soil."  The three buses then re-crossed into the United States over Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls.  Here the refugees not only saw the Falls for the first time, but they entered into the United States, this time not as stateless detainees destined to be sent back to Europe but as legal applicants for United States citizenship.  The requirement for a passport was waived by President Truman.  The New York Times wrote:  "Ninety-two men, women and children from the Fort Ontario Refugee Shelter found freedom today at the end of Rainbow Bridge.  Some wept for joy; some embraced in mute ecstasy."  Among them was Alter Blatt.

     At Buffalo, the group started to move out to American cities where they were to be "quartered with relatives or friends."  Blatt was destined to his cousin, Giusse Kaufman[vi], 1123 W. Somerset Street, Philadelphia; he soon moved to Gaskill Street, then to 621 S. 4th Street, just around the corner from Kesher Israel.  On Tuesday, July 4, 1950, widower Alter Blatt married a widow, Rose Zass, at Kesher Israel.[vii]  Tuesday is the most desirable day of the week for observant Jews to be married.  (In the creation story, the phrase "ki tov," or "and it was good," appears twice for Tuesday which transformed that day into the 'lucky' day in Jewish folklore.)  As the 4th of July fell on a Tuesday, Blatt was twice blessed, once through Jewish folklore and a second time through American history.  The 13th of Adar and Tuesday, the 4th of July 1950, were obviously selected very carefully.  One signified eternal defiance in the face of danger and death; the other—luck, and all that is good in mankind: freedom and liberty.  In 1952, Alter Blatt became an American citizen.  One of his sponsors, and a witness on his Petition for Naturalization, was Rabbi Joseph Hillel Snapir.  On the Petition, the last request prayed that "I be admitted a citizen of the United States of America, and that my name be changed to Albert Blatt."  His odyssey ended with a new American name; it ended at Kesher Israel. 

     A question could be asked: just how much luck did Alter Blatt have?  His second wife died shortly after their marriage.  Four of his five children and his first wife were swallowed up in senseless murder.  Was any day his lucky day?  Yes, he was alive—but for what?  To think day and night of what might have been?  Of grandchildren seen laughing in the arms of other people?  To see the easy smiles of American Jews?  To see joy and happiness around him?  Would he have been better off going back to Poland?  Was there a place on earth for Alter Blatt?  Perhaps the only place was the small centered bimah at Kesher Israel where he could be at peace as the sexton and Torah reader at the shul.  We simply do not know. In her syndicated column, Eleanor Roosevelt—after visiting the refugees at the shelter at Oswego in September 1944—wrote:  "Somehow you feel that if there is any compensation for suffering it must someday bring them [the refugees] something beautiful in return for all the horrors they have lived through."

[1]  In 1942, the 13th of Adar fell on March 2.  The Hebrew date for November 25, 1941, is 5 Kislev, not 13 Adar.  On December 14, 1948, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared the 10th of Tevet as the universal Yahrzeit for those who perished in the Holocaust when the date of death is unknown. 

 [i]  Gold stars within these small banners signify a son or loved one killed in wartime.

[ii]  Record Book of the South 4th Street Businessmen's Association, January 26, 1942.  Acc 2753, 7/P-1/1, PJAC.  The Record Book was kept from 1933 to 1944.  The Association's jurisdiction extended along S. 4th Street from Lombard south to Washington Avenue.  Most matters that came before the Association involved the relationship between store owners and pushcart vendors.

[iii]  The synagogue has preserved two framed lists of the names of members who contributed money during this time to pay off the synagogue mortgage.  (One of the lists is titled:  "Roll of Honor.  Names of Donors who contributed to free Kesher Israel synagogue from its mortgage."  Over 60 names of members are included on the two lists and the amounts they donated.  Other synagogues located within blocks of Kesher Israel were occupied in identical endeavors during World War II.  (See, booklet of the Roumanian American synagogue entitled, "Golden Jubilee and Burning of its Mortgage, June 10, 1945.")  

[iv] In 1945, Isi was 20 years old, Berthold 19; both were in Palestine.  In 1950, Alter Blatt knew that Isi was no longer alive.  It is possible that the fifth plaque at Kesher Israel, for Isaak Blatt, dated 13 Adar 1942, is for Isi, although from what we know it appears that Isi was alive as late as 1945.  (In 1945, Alter told an American representative at Fort Ontario that Isi was then serving in the Jewish Brigade in Palestine.)

[v]  Reading through Blatt's official Refugee Case file, one is struck by the language used.  On September 18, 1945, Blatt was interviewed by representatives of the Department of Justice, Department of State and Department of the Interior.  In their Report concerning Alter Blatt, No. 175-3A, titled "Further Interrogation, Panel III," they wrote:  "This man lost his wife and several children through Nazi deportations."  It almost sounds like Blatt's wife and children were misplaced through sloppy Nazi deportation procedures.   Even after the war ended these departments did not feel comfortable using words like murder and kill.  Had they "interrogated" all the Jews, would they have written that 6,000,000 Jews were lost through deportations?     

[vi]  The Kaufman family had four members serving in the Armed Forces of the United States., two in the Army and two in the Navy:  Jakob Kaufman, Adolf Kaufman, Harold Kaufman and Leon Kaufman.

[vii]  The ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Snapir, the rabbi at Kesher Israel.   


 Text  from "The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia" by  Harry D.  Boonin, 1999.





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