THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Maine




SYDNEY F. SHAPIRO--
NEWPORT, MAINE


There are a number of unknowns in the data on my family's backgrounds. Unfortunately--as so many of us now regret, I never asked the questions of my parents when they were alive that I would like answered today.

On my father's side of the family, however, I am lucky to have a 93-year-old half cousin with a remarkable and clear memory who, some years ago, agreed to sit down in front of a tape recorder and tell the "true story" of her--and my--family's early days in coming to this country. Believe me, I never even considered how complicated that tale could be.

Apparently, it was quite common at the turn of the century to arrange marriages between widowers, or widows, who came to the States. My father's side of the family was involved in a number of complicated second marriages-with children from both sides being raised by one "mother."

My father came to this country at about the age of eleven, with his father, mother, and two older brothers. As a result of previous marriages there were also several much older half sisters and half brothers, none of whom I ever met. (The previously mentioned cousin was a child of one of this group.) The only half brother who my father ever talked much at all about could not assimilate to the "nonreligious" way of living in the United States and returned to Europe. He and his wife died in one of the concentration camps or crematoria, but some of their children did manage to get to Israel many years ago, before it became a country, I believe. I am not in contact with them and know nothing else about them.

I should also explain that my father's father and the half brother who returned to Europe were Chassidic--or nearly so, if such a status is possible. My father's other two brothers were also very religious, although not to the Chassidic extreme. And my father, although he did not claim to be religious and was unable to attend a synagogue except for the High Holidays, put on his phylacteries and davened every morning for as long as he lived. My mother maintained a kosher household until quite late in her life, but neither of my parents really tried to influence my brother or me to follow their examples. They would not even allow us to learn to speak Yiddish--which I now regret very much. They would almost always speak Yiddish with our grandparents, and often with one another when they didn't want others to understand them, but never with us.

My father always said that he and his family were from Austria, and often told of seeing Emperor Franz Joseph riding past. The few facts I could find from old records, however, indicate that, although his birthplace may have then been in Austria, it later became part of Poland. He would never have accepted that.

Eventually my father's family settled in Biddeford, Maine. (I'm sorry to admit that I don't know how my parents were introduced.) In any case, I was born in Biddeford but my mother and father moved to Newport, Maine, when I was about four. That would be about 1928, not a particularly great time for a person with only a few years of education to find a job. My mother was a high school graduate, but my father went to school for only a few years. He was self-educated, however, spoke and wrote English fluently, and could communicate in several European languages to some degree. But he still was unable to find work, except in road construction and similar jobs, until he used his cashed-in government insurance to buy my grandfather's store when the latter went bankrupt. (I failed to mention that my father served in the United States Army Signal Corps in Worh War I, and was stationed in Europe.)

My mother was born in Dover Foxcroft, Maine, some years after he parents emigrated from Lithuania. An apocryphal story is that my grandfather arrived one step ahead of the Tsar's forces who "wanted him to join the army." I believe that they came to Maine to follow my grandmother' then-prosperous brother.

Through the years, my grandmother never learned to read or write English and spoke very little of that language. She rarely left her house, and therefore had no need for a communication language other than Yiddish. My grandfather, however, spoke fluent English and read much. Afte he retired, he spent most of his time reading softcover novels.

And that brings us to Newport, Maine! Newport, Maine, was a town of about 1,700 residents, if you included the farmers in the surrounding areas of East and North Newport--and probably isn't much bigger today. It was fundamentally a farm town, in that most of the stores in town depended 0 the neighboring farmers for their trade. There were few "industries." Those that did exist included a shoddy mill (it processed reclaimed wool know as shoddy), a sawmill that made lumber from local pine, an ice factory, and a mill that made spindles and such out of the pine.

My immediate family, my grandparents, and for a time, my mother's brother and his family, were the only Jews in town all through my childhood. Sometime after I returned from the Army Air Corps at the end of World War II, however, another Jewish family did move to town to open store across the street from my father's. The only other Jewish family in the area lived in Pittsfield, a somewhat larger town about seven miles away. That family was located there about as long as mine was in Newport.

The nearest synagogues were in Bangor, twenty-eight miles from Newport. My family went there for the High Holidays every year, and my brother and I had our Bar Mitzvahs in one of the synagogues there. For religious training prior to our respective Bar Mitzvahs, my grandparents hired a live-in rebbe from Boston who taught both my brother and me, as well as the children of the Pittsfield Jewish family.

One of my childhood memories has stayed with me through the years and unfortunately has influenced me when asked to contribute to nonstandard "charities." That is of the "poor" collector, usually posing as a rabbi, who "walked" into town every few months to pick up the filled pushkes from my mother and grandmother--and, of course, to stay for dinner and the night. He seemed always to arrive just before dusk. My grandmother could never be convinced that this person could be a fraud--even after I saw him park his very expensive car just outside of town one evening and walk the mile or so to my grandmother's house.

One problem I came across from growing up in such a small town with no other Jewish families, was that of dating when I reached the age to do so. My mother made it quite clear to me that I could not have dates with local girls because they were not Jewish. (My brother, only three years younger, did not meet with this problem, perhaps because he reached the dating age at a more liberal period during World War II--at the time that I was in the Pacific islands.)

Other than that, there were no real Jewish-Gentile problems. Of course, there were occasional comments that were definitely in reference to my being Jewish--and therefore different. But I don't remember many really overt anti-Semitic attitudes. Perhaps they existed, but I was too dumb to recognize them. In any case, both my brother and I, and my cousin for the short time he lived in town, were "townies." We were active in school clubs and, after World War II, the Junior Chamber of Commerce. (We only had about ten members, but we did try to do "good" things.)

But, anti-Semitism did exist in Newport. My clearest memory of one example is when I attended an American Legion convention with other veterans from town. (I attended with two old friends from town, one of whom was the son of the former governor of the state.) In one of the hotel rooms, which had become a sort of meeting place for Newport's vets at the convention, one of those vets told me quite sincerely that "You are different from all the other Jews. You were in the Army and fought."

Consider that this statement was made by a National Guard member who was forced into service in the Pacific and spent his entire overseas time in Australia as a mail clerk. And, he received a disability pension for "war damage" that we all knew existed long before he went into service. The "different Jew" in this case flew forty-eight missions from various tiny Pacific islands against the Japanese in a B-24 as a radio operator-gunner, survived a midair collision, and received many air medals. He also was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross when his crew volunteered to lead the remainder of their Air Force Group back to hit a target from which only ten percent of the crews survived the two previous missions. (His crew, whose pilot incidentally was also Jewish, was the only one to return from his squadron on the first mission.) And, this "different Jew" did not claim a disability pension even though he still has a hearing loss caused from firing fifty-caliber machine guns within a semi-closed location. (But now I am digressing to tell war stories.)

Because there were no other Jewish boys in Newport, I spent most of my "play" time with Gentiles--or with my cousin during the short period he lived in town. It wasn't until after the war that I spent much time with the Pittsfield Jewish children. But, then I didn't have much occasion for even that since I entered the University of Maine immediately after my discharge from the service. The school year had already started, but I was able to join the freshman class because I was a returning vet, and there was a very influential veterans' representative at the university. Remember that vets returning from World War II received priority attention, unlike those returning from Vietnam.

Once I was at the university in Orono, Maine, where there was a sizable Jewish group, I began to associate with Jewish friends. And, because Bangor was close to Orono, I went to social affairs at the Bangor Jewish Community Center--where I met my future wife. But that is another story .

I must admit that religious observances meant rather little to me as a youngster or even later. Although my parents and my grandparents kept kosher households--and my father donned his phylacteries for his daily prayers, I paid little attention to Hebrew holidays except for the High Holidays, Pesach, and Hanukkah. And that attitude stayed with me, because even today those are the only Hebrew holidays that I pay much attention to.

The lack of formal Hebrew education also influenced my later life to a great extent. For example, I will not accept the frequently offered aliyah at the small local temple where my wife and I are members. I don't feel comfortable since I do not read Hebrew well. (But, of course, I gladly accepted the aliyah when my two granddaughters had their Bat Mitzvahs).

After my marriage (during college) and after I earned a Master of Arts degree, my wife and I moved from small-town Newport, Maine, to bigtown Dorchester, Massachusetts. Seven years later we moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts, a medium-size town of 18,000. This brought about major changes.

I have to admit that the Holocaust had little impact on my life, at least at the time it was occurring, in part because we were all quite naive about the entire matter. There really was very little mention of concentration camps in the United States press, certainly not of the crematoria. And, what little there was would hardly have reached very small Maine towns.

My father had no contact, that I know of, with his half brother in Europe. If he did, which is very possible, he did not mention it to me. Actually, it was not until many years later that I finally learned what had happened to the half brother--or even knew much of his existence.

My father and mother made every effort to protect my brother and me from many of the unpleasant facts of life. We knew, of course, that Jews were being mistreated in Germany. I can remember my father listening to broadcasts of Hitler's speeches and saying that the translations were not accurate. He understood German and claimed that the speeches were being censored for United States consumption--by American journalists and government officials to eliminate the true malice in Hitler's references to Jews. But, my father would not discuss it with us beyond those comments.

Certainly, there was no reference by our non-Jewish friends in Newport to a "Holocaust," at least not prior to World War II. Remember that the term hadn't even been used yet to identify what was going on in Europe at the time. Even today my non-Jewish friends rarely, if ever, refer to the Holocaust. They are astounded if I mention having had in uncle and aunt who died in it. Certainly, our closest non-Jewish friends know of the Holocaust. Possibly some of their distant relatives were involved in it--on either side. But, we don't discuss it today.

In Newport, there certainly was no intermarriage among Jews and non-Jews. There were too few Jews--and strong parental pressures even against considering such unthinkable acts. If they existed in Dorchester, and they must have, I know nothing of interest about them.

 

 


 

 

 

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