The Jewish Quarter
of Philadelphia

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Throughout the morning of Tuesday, December 23, 1930, and as a consequence of the closure of another bank the prior day, desperate immigrants ran to withdraw their life's savings from M. L. Blitzstein & Co., popularly known as the Blitzstein bonk, located on the northwest corner of 4th & Lombard Streets. The bank attempted to meet the demands for cash, but it could not do so. Early in the afternoon a small note was posted on the bank door: "Because of the unusually large withdrawal of deposits we are compelled to close our doors in order to protect the interests of the depositors."75 Immediately a crowd gathered outside. When asked if it was true, two policemen from the 3rd & Delancy Street station who were posted at the door nodded their heads and comforted the shocked depositors.

Blitzstein building, northwest corner of 4th & Lombard Streets, 1959.
Courtesy of Urban Archives, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

     The news spread quickly through the old cobblestone streets and immediate­ly the telephones at the Yidishe Velt (Jewish World), the only Yiddish daily newspaper then printed in Philadelphia, began to ring. Callers asked the same question: Is it true? No one could believe the bank had closed, and despite the wind and the cold, merchants, shopkeepers, and nearby residents came and stood for hours. In the evening many more came.

     Established in January 1891 by Marcus and Anna Blitzstein as a ticket order and money exchange office, M. L. Blitzstein & Co. thrived. When Marcus died in 1897, Anna, known in the family as Babushka, managed the exchange and eventually converted it into a successful, private, unregulated, immigrant bank. In the first decade of this century, Congress established a Commission to look into the subject of immigrant banking:

     The Immigrant Bank is an institution which flourishes in every part of the United States where immigrants from southern  and eastern Europe are gathered in any considerable numbers. These banks bear little resemblance to regular banking institutions. They are without real capital, having little or no legal responsibility, and for the most part are entirely without legal control. Immigrant bankers, as a rule, are also steamship-ticket agents, and usually conduct some other business as well. Consequently the "banks" are, for the most part, located in groceries, saloons, or other establishments which are natural gathering places for immigrants.

Besides handling the savings of his patrons, the immigrant banker performs for them many necessary services. He writes their letters, receives their mail, and is their general adviser in what to them are important affairs.76

Immigrant banks, found in poster-bedecked offices of the immigrant representatives of steamship companies, cared for the overnight deposits of countrymen, and transmitted money abroad. Jewish immigrant bankers spoke Yiddish. Almost all immigrant banks were unincorporated and individually owned. The term " & Co." and other terms of a corporate nature frequently appeared in the names of these establishments but were meaningless in a majority of cases as far as indicating any distribution of ownership. The terms were used in the belief that they added a certain dignity to the firm. Immigrant banks were easy to identify. Advertisements adorned the windows, walls, and signboards. Available space in the office was filled with steamship posters, money-changing notices, and many-colored placards.

The Blitzsteins were the passage agent for the American Hamburg Packet and other steamship lines. Anna Blitzstein, perhaps the first woman banker in Philadelphia and one of the first women bankers in the country, was known for her wise advice. In the early years of the 20th century, efforts were made by federal and state authorities to regulate banking, including immigrant banking. When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed the private banking act of 1911, Anna was able to continue to run her private bank without state interference or regulation, being grandfathered under exemption six of the act.77 Anna eventually outgrew her first bank.

The second Blitzstein bank, and the first built as a bank, was located on the northwest corner of S. 4th & Lombard Streets (the first Blitzstein bank stood on the northeast corner of the same intersection).78 During the 1920's the bank prospered and assumed a central role in the area's commercial life. It was, however, dealt a setback upon the death of its founder, Anna Blitzstein.79 The new owners ­ Anna's son, Samuel Blitzstein, and a son-in-law, Constantine B. Voynow - recovered quickly. In the fall of 1930, they expanded the bank north along S. 4th Street and almost doubled its size.80 At the time the bank closed, it had six thousand depositors, many of whom were local merchants.

On Monday morning, December 22, 1930, the day before the Blitzstein bank closed, another Philadelphia bank, Bankers Trust Company, composed of nineteen branches with 135,000 depositors and over $45 million in deposits, closed its doors. The Pennsylvania Secretary of Banking, Peter G. Cameron, closed Bankers Trust Company to prevent the disastrous results of a run on the bank and stated that the closing would have no effect on any other bank in the city. The banking community, however, sensed disaster. In an effort to prevent runs on other banks, a statement was issued by a Clearing House committee that same afternoon:

"We [the leading bankers in the city] believe that the financial situation in Philadelphia is basically sound and there is no occasion for depositors in other banks and trust companies to become alarmed on account of the closing of the Bankers Trust Company. "81


Notwithstanding this assurance, on the afternoon of December 22nd, a run began on another Philadelphia bank, the Franklin Trust Company, which had deposits of $37 million. At the close of the business day the city was in turmoil. That evening, the mayor of Philadelphia went on the radio and urged the people to be calm and not precipitate a run on any bank. But the mayor's words hardly calmed a frightened populace. In fact his words did just the opposite; they added to the panic, at least among the immigrants. The run on the Blitzstein bank began the next morning.82 And within less than twenty-four hours of the mayor's broadcast, the Blitzstein bank shut its doors.

Upon the bank's closure, crisis meetings were held at the family home. The Blitzsteins were a close family and even the children participated in these tense gatherings. A granddaughter remembers hearing the oft-repeated outcry: "Thank God, Babushka's dead."83 But no matter how traumatic the bank's closing was for the family, depositors understood the Blitzstein bank was an "innocent victim of the panic created by the closing of the Bankers Trust Company."84 Three days after the Blitzstein bank closed, a throng inside the nearby large hall of the Brith Sholom building, 506-508 Pine Street, selected a committee of fifteen to represent depositors in upcoming court battles. Later in the day over two thousand persons gathered in front of the bank to pour their hearts out to anyone who would listen. At one point someone shouted: "Let's go to the Yidishe Veltf"

Soon the business offices of the newspaper were filled with hundreds of Russian Jewish immigrants, but neither the Yidishe Velt nor the courts could help. After 1930, the Depression widened and Jews who lived in the South Street area, like most Americans, struggled to put bread on the table. Real estate held by the bank as security for mortgage loans was impossible to sell, and cash on hand was inadequate to fully repay the immigrant-depositors. Overnight, the Blitzsteins and local shopkeepers awoke to the reality of the Depression. The Blitzstein bank never opened again.85

The closing of the bank was painful to the Blitzstein family. But in a larger sense, the closing signaled the beginning of the end of an era. Other signals abounded. As we have seen, immigrant shipping at the port of Philadelphia stopped in 1924. Fresh new east European immigrants no longer replaced long-time residents of the South Street area when these residents moved to outlying sections of Philadelphia. Even though the Depression and World War II postponed the exodus, immigrant Jewish life was coming to an end. Two generations of east European Jews had settled around South Street, made a bisl gelt (some money) and then, like Joshua, they moved on to the promised land: Strawberry Mansion.







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