THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Texas




JULIUS LESHIN--ROBSTOWN, TEXAS
 

My name is Julius Leshin. I was born October 25, 1925, in San Antonio, Texas. I have been retired for five years, after spending over forty years as a department store owner in Robstown, Texas--a small agricultural community about twenty miles west of Corpus Christi. This will be an attempt to condense in a few paragraphs my memories and reflections of growing up and living in Robstown (population 12,000) for over half a century (1927 to 1987)

This story begins with my parents, Louis and Ada Leshin, who moved to Robstown in 1927 to open a very small mercantile store. The family unit consisted of my parents, my older brother, Marvin, and myself. The move to Robstown from San Antonio was made when my parents were advised that Robstown would be an ideal location for a man with very limited financial resources to get started. I do not think that they believed this would be the last move they would ever make.

My father immigrated to New York City from Russia sometime in the early 1900s with an older brother and their father. Only my father and his brother, Carl, remained in America, as my grandfather returned to his village in Russia to better observe his Jewish beliefs. After some travels to the upper Midwest, my father settled in Waco, Texas, where he met my mother, Ada Lieberman.

My mother's parents were immigrants from Latvia who settled in Troy, New York, where my mother was born around 1890. Then, in 1905, they moved to Waco. My mother's family consisted of her parents, two sisters, one brother, and herself. My parents were married in Waco in 1913. In 1923, they suffered financial reverses and moved to San Antonio.

In 1927 Robstown had a population of about 4,000, most of whom were farmers. The poor Hispanic minority eked out a living as farm laborers. Robstown was a haven for Mexican citizens who crossed the border, which was about 150 miles south and west, to work on the fertile South Texas farms. Discrimination of every kind was practiced against these poor people and repercussions from this are still being felt politically, socially, and financially.

The Leshin family was buffeted by all of the problems that a poor Jewish family could endure in an alien environment. Early on, only months after moving to Robstown, Marvin, who was four years older than I, became ill with polio. This illness did not leave any crippling effects but was an event that my parents never forgot.

My parents were attracted to Robstown for the same reasons as other Jewish families before them. At least two other Jewish families were established in the dry goods business prior to 1927, and they considered themselves to be an elite group. There was very little interaction between them and us, and they offered little or no encouragement. This feeling did not diminish over the years and carried over to the present generation. From 1930 to 1960 there were four Jewish families involved in the dry goods business on Main Street in Robstown. Other Jewish-owned businesses included a jewelry store, two shoe stores, and a fabric store. For the most part, there was a heated competitiveness, and about the only thing they held in common was the closing of their stores to observe the High Holidays. The Gentiles really knew when Rosh Hoshonah and Yom Kippur came--Main Street closed down!

The Jewish community was neither cohesive nor friendly. There were no attempts made to have any social interaction, and this was reflected in the attitude of the Jewish children. There were six of us growing up in Robstown, and all were born between 1920 and 1930. The only time we came into contact was to car pool to Corpus Christi for Sunday School. This was a forty-mile round trip ride every Sunday, and one that I did not look forward to (that is a considerable understatement). The coolness between the children carried forward into our adult years, and the attitudes were passed on to our children, the grandchildren of the original Jewish settlers. How unfortunate!

Jewish education was limited, at best. I was not interested in Sunday School and found every excuse for not attending training for Bar Mitzvah, which was difficult, and easily abandoned. My parents were tied to their store and could not afford the time to take us to Corpus Christi during the week for Hebrew classes.

My early childhood memories are happy ones. I enjoyed my playmates, and I enjoyed going to school. The teachers in the lower grades were women who had lived in the community for many years and were dedicated to their profession. The schools were very segregated. Through the sixth grade the Hispanic children attended a separate school, and the few black children attended a separate black school. The education in the Robstown public schools was adequate. I remember having excellent teachers. My brother graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1938, and I graduated in 1943.

During these high school years there was an emphasis on athletics especially football--that was almost religious. The sons of the pioneer farm families were reaching high school in the 1930s and 1940s. These boys were rough and tough, and when they were not exhibiting their hostility toward each other they liked to take it to the football field. The Robstown Cotton Pickers (can you believe that name?) were a scourge on the gridiron in those days. The coaches delighted in playing the large schools from San Antonio and Houston and beating them. My brother and I were not mean enough to play football, but were recruited by the coach to write sports and cover all of the games for the Corpus Christi daily newspaper. This was very important, as Corpus Christi High School was the mortal enemy, and the championship game was played on Thanksgiving every year. The communities looked forward to these contests and 10,000 fans or more attended. I really enjoyed this sports reporting, and it added a real dimension to my education. The only sport that I enjoyed playing was tennis, and I represented my high school for about three years.

There was nothing remarkable about those early years. The Great Depression was in full swing, and we were poor, but so was everyone else. The struggle that my parents were having was fully evident at home. My brother and I demanded very little, but we never suffered for a good home and loving parents. My mother often remarked that the only reason that we stayed in Robstown was that we did not have enough money to move!

Growing up in Robstown I experienced little overt anti-Semitic discrimination, but there were a few snide remarks by peers and teachers, which I just ignored. My parents advised us to turn the other cheek because they really felt insecure in this small town environment, and they did not want to make waves. There were many attempts on the part of missionary-minded Protestants to have my parents attend their church. This was especially true when apostate rabbis would come to town to preach in their church, which was at least an annual event. My parents would not yield to this pressure and, gently but firmly, put their missionary zeal to rest.

I enrolled at the University of Texas in January, 1943, and this was my first real contact with Jewish boys and girls at any sustained level. I joined a Jewish fraternity and really enjoyed the social life. I did not find the class work to be overpowering, and the university was really my first look into a cosmopolitan world. In fact, I met the girl whom I later married, Pearlie Pearlman from Palestine, Texas.

This was war time, and the Army offered me a spot in the Army Specialized Training Program, a college program that was to lead to an engineering degree. I enlisted in the Army in the summer of 1943 and was sent to Louisiana State University for the fall semester. After one semester at Louisiana State Universjty, I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training, with the promise that I would be sent back to school in thirteen weeks. This promise did not materialize, and I was delivered to the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In October 1943, on my eighteenth birthday, I went to Europe with the 100th and served eighteen months as a combat infantryman.

I was discharged in early 1945 and decided that I would not go back to school, but would return to Robstown and enter the family business. It was truly a tiny business and really not able to support two families. But I wanted to marry my sweetheart, Pearlie, and I was determined to make a go of it.

Pearlie and I were married January 5,1947, in Houston, where she had moved with her older sister and two younger brothers. Her parents had died a premature death while I was overseas, and I regret not ever meeting them. Those early years were tough financially, but my parents gradually turned the reins of the business over to me. In a succession of fortuitous moves, I expanded the business, and Pearlie came to join me in the store. Both of my parents enjoyed watching the business grow. My father died in 1964, and my mother passed away in 1978. Both are buried in Corpus Christi.

During those tumultuous years, we were also busy establishing a family. My son Mark was born in December 1947; my daughter Libbie in November 1949; and our third child, Barry, was born in December 1954. All three children were raised in Robstown, and Pearlie and I were determined to expose them to more of a Jewish life. Mark and Barry each had a Bar Mitzvah, and all three were confirmed at B 'nai Israel Synagogue in Corpus Christi. Mark was valedictorian, Libbie was salutatorian, and Barry was valedictorian of their respective classes at Robstown High School.

My brother, who owns and operates a feed and seed business in Robstown, and his wife also established their home in Robstown. Their three sons and our three children were close in age, and the cousins were compatible. This relationship was encouraged and kept them from feeling isolated from Jewish values. They all felt proud to be Jews and would not tolerate any anti-Semitic slurs--unlike their fathers in an earlier era.

We did not encourage our children to remain in Robstown. After graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, Mark studied medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He is now a practicing endocrinologist in Dallas. Libbie also graduated from the University o( Texas and, in more recent years, from Texas Woman's University with a degree in nursing. Barry graduated from Duke University and from the University of Texas School of Medicine in Houston. He is currently a professor of dermatology at the Bowman-Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, specializing in Moh's surgery for skin cancer.

During the years that I operated my business in Robstown, 1946 to 1985, I was deeply immersed in the business and politicalactivities. The community was growing to a size of 12,000 people, and I was determined to help it grow. Some of the positions that I held included board member and president of the Robstown Independent School District Board of Trustees; board member and president of the Robstown Chamber of Commerce; board member of the State National Bank of Robstown; board member of the Robstown Utility System; board member and president of Robstown Kiwanis Club; and board member of B'nai Israel Synagogue.

From 1946 to 1980 Robstown had many changes. The population demographics were especially negative from an economic standpoint. In 1946 the population was approximately 60 percent Anglo and 40 percent Hispanic; in 1980 the population was 5 percent Anglo and 95 percent Hispanic. All of the skilled and professional people had moved from Robstown, and the nucleus of an affluent middle class was gone. The change was exacerbated by a deterioration in the quality of the local public school system. The 95 percent Hispanic population was primarily blue collar, entry- level people with less than a high school education. The per capita income was low, and the only people attracted to live in Robstown were more low-skilled, low-salaried Hispanics. The largest payroll was from Social Security! This shift in population was reflected in the political, social, and educational strata of the society.

The business climate deteriorated even more with the advent of outlying shopping centers, the move-in of large discounters (Wal-Mart), and the demise of the energy industry. Main Street in Robstown simply cratered.

My store was the last of independent department stores to close, and that was in 1985. I sold my business in September, 1985, and moved to Corpus Christi in 1987. Our retirement has been enjoyable and rewarding. Pearlie and I have traveled extensively, and we have had the time to visit and enjoy our grandchildren.

My brother and his wife still live in Robstown. Two of their sons, a doctor and an attorney, live in Corpus Christi, and one son practices law in Dallas. At this writing, my brother and sister-in-law are the last Jews in Robstown, a community that in the 1950s numbered thirty-four.

I think that we have lived through and enjoyed the golden years of small town Jewish merchants. Gone from Robstown are the Hayman's, the Posner's, the Lach's, the Lieberman's, the Jessel's, the Wiener's, the Brateman's, the Wolfson's, and the Leshin's. It was a challenging and rewarding life, but now they are only memories, and those memories are just fading away.
 


 

 

 

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