Irving Levin's Recollections
This transcript is from recordings made in 1980 in San Mateo, California.
Audio is at bottom of this page.
From the time you and Tom were little boys, you continued to ask for stories about Russia. Most of the stories that I told you had a lot of truth in them, I just colored them a little bit to make them more palatable....
I was born in 1894 in the little shtetel of Volie, which was comprised of one street on the tail-end of a little town called Lunna [near Grodno/Hrodna in what was then Russia, near what is now the western border of Belarus, close to Poland and Lithuania]. That street connected Lunna with another small town. On our street, there were two rows of houses. The street wasn't paved, it was a dirt road. When it rained or snowed, it was a mud road. In addition to the normal horse-and- buggy traffic, there was at the end of the street what they called a poretz, a landowner, really a feudal lord. He owned all the land, including the land on which our house and the whole little village were. We paid maybe a ruble a year in taxes. Where they did farming, they had an arrangement between the farmer — the muzhik — and the overseer who operated the place for the poretz, where a percentage of whatever was grown went for rent of the land.
Our little village was all Jewish people. And just as Volie was Jewish, there was another street, called the goyisher gass, where the gentiles lived. So we were separated. I'm sure the village had been that way for as long as it existed. That's how I found it, and that's how I left it.
In the village of Volie itself, where I was born, they had an independent rabbi, a shul, and a bet midrash, in spite of the fact that it was very small. They had carpenters and tailors and shoemakers. They had people who used to leave the village and go to the landowners, who had a lot of horses and cattle, to make harnesses and do repairs, whatever was necessary. They used to stay for six weeks or two months in a crew with two or three other people. Most of the village's income came from the landowners in this way.
My father Abraham was a cabinet maker, but there wasn't enough cabinet work in the small town, so he used to work in boat-yards alongside the Neman River. They made barges to ship grain on the Neman through the Gulf of Riga to Germany. One day, he hit his knee with an ax, and it became infected. There were no doctors in the place. He died, and that was the end of it.
My father died when I was about two years old , so I don't really remember him. All I knew was that one morning my mother took me out of the place where I slept and stood me up on a table. I remember very vaguely seeing that there was something on the floor with candles alongside, and a lot of people were crying. Subsequently I was told, and I knew, that was my father's funeral. That's the way they used to handle it.
So my mother Ida was widowed with four children; another little child had died before. My brother Joe went to live with my grandmother in a place called Pieski, about four miles away. After a couple of years [in 1900], my older sister Dorothy went to America, where my father's sister Kate had emigrated earlier [in 1891]. With Joe and Dorothy having left, my mother and my younger sister Etta and myself lived in that little village. My mother was about 28 years old when my father died. She had to work terribly hard. She baked bread and sold all kinds of groceries and other things, and in that way was able to support us. She carried sacks of grain on her back to the mill, and then carried the flour back. She had to knead the dough, and bake the bread she sold. It was very, very difficult to deal with the Russian muzhiks. She had a very difficult life, physically and emotionally.
[Didn't your mother make bootleg liquor, as well as selling bread and tobacco?]
Well, it's true. My mother was desperate to support the family. Tobacco, as well as liquor, was contraband and you needed a special license from the government to make or sell it. But in our shtetel, to get those licenses was harder than to go to jail. So my mother decided to sell tobacco. I can't tell you how she ever learned to make liquor, but she did brew liquor perhaps for close to a year without being detected. Then she was caught making it in a small home-made still. She was arrested and fined some money. Fortunately she wasn't punished any further. And of course she had to discontinue in making the liquor. So we're all descendants of bootleggers!
At home, we spoke Yiddish. I knew some Russian sentences and words, not from school but just from hearing it. Gentile people used to come to our house to buy tobacco, bread, and other things. They spoke Russian with my mother, but I was too young to learn.
When I was eight or nine years old, my mother felt that I needed better teachers than we had in the little village, and she took me to a place called Sislevich [Svislach/Svislotz] to enroll in a Talmud Torah or Hebrew school. I stayed there for a couple of years. Those were terrible years for me; I'll never forget it. I had to eat each day in a different place. I slept on a bench in the school, the cheder or Talmud Torah. But there were some very nice women. When I came to their houses to eat, they also washed my head and clothes and looked after me.
Shortly before leaving Russia they sent this photo to US relatives so they would be recognizable. The clothes were probably borrowed.
The reason that we came to the United States was that there was no future for us in Russia. My father's sister, Kate Friedberg, had already emigrated to America [in 1891]. My father's brother Sam had emigrated to Scotland, and was married and had a family, but at the time we had no contact with him. She had sent for my older sister Dorothy [in 1900], and subsequently they decided to bring us all over. Dorothy worked and saved some money, and my aunt chipped in. First they brought my brother Joe, who got a job. Then my mother, my sister Etta, and I came to this country in 1907. It took us ten days by train from that little village to the port of Hamburg. Then it took thirty days on the ship, the Batavia. [Actually June 22 to July 10, 1907]
When we got to Ellis Island, we were almost sent back. As a favor to some neighbors from our shtetel, we brought along with us their son [Chaim Weinstein], but the immigration law didn't allow an underage person to come without a parent or guardian. But we got through.
Ellis Island record shows "Lewin, Chaie & 2 ch[hildren]" were detained for nine days after being denied entry, then administrative appeal. See line 14. Apparently the problem was that they had brought Chaim Weinstein, line 15.
When we got here, my sister earned about seven dollars a week, and my brother Joe earned maybe four or five dollars a week. This was the total support of the whole family. I was thirteen, too young to work, and at first I spoke no English. My sister spoke English well, but my brother Joe always spoke like an immigrant. During his whole adult life, he had difficulty with the English language, because he continued to read Yiddish newspapers and spend his time with friends from the town in Russia where he had lived with my grandmother.
When we came to the United States, we lived in Brooklyn, close to my aunt. It was a poor neighborhood, but with respectable working-class people. I went to public school for about a year and a half or two years, but I never graduated. I left school at the age of fourteen or fifteen to work.
My first job was at a place called Copeland's Bazaar, in Brooklyn a few blocks from where we lived. Copeland was the uncle of the composer Aaron Copeland. The job consisted of sweeping the place, stoking the furnace, and making deliveries. They taught me how to make and to hang window shades. Subsequently they allowed me to sell from behind the counter. The hours were from seven-thirty in the morning to eight o'clock at night, Mondays to ten, Saturdays to eleven. I worked there for about a year and a half.
Some of the salesmen there told me that in the lithography trade they only worked from eight in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon. That appealed to me! So I wrote many letters to lithography firms, telling them that I sought to be an apprentice. I finally got a response from one, and got a new job. The man's name was Shankman. Our principal work was making engravings on stone, letterheads, labels, and so forth. We worked for the American Can Company, making labels for cans or printing on tin. This job was in New York CIty [Manhattan]. I had to travel each day by the Elevated and by streetcar, and it was very time-consuming. I did that for seven years, until I became a journeyman. It was nothing unusual in those days.
Most young people like myself who came from working-class people didn't even go to high school. When they graduated from public school, they went to work. If they were ambitious — and most of them were — they went to night school to advance themselves. Many of them became dentists [like Jack Daniel Phillips], which at that time didn't require a college education, and a lot of them went to Cooper Union, to learn engineering and chemistry. While I was working, I went to evening high school, and I continued on to Pratt Institute, and subsequently I went to Cooper Union. This was to help me in learning the trade; they taught me design and lettering and things of that nature.
I knew the artist Ben Shahn then. He and I were apprentices, and worked together in the same lithographic engraving place, at 101 Beekman Street, New York City [near the Brooklyn Bridge]. I also met him on one of my trips to Europe a few years later, and we reminisced about the times we worked together. He was going to France. At the time, he wasn't famous, but he was on the way. He was a man who drew and painted to show what was happening in that period of time, the class struggle between the working people and their employers. He was very conscious of that. His purpose in going to France, he told me at the time, was to refine his particular style. Many years later, a friend of mine Al Dorn was the President of the Famous Artists School, and he told me that Ben Shahn was on the board. I said that I would like to meet Ben, because I knew him from previous years, so he invited us both for lunch, and I met Ben again, and we again reminisced about our days being apprentices together. Later on, at an auction at the Ethical Culture School, I bought the two pictures drawn by Ben Shahn's daughter, Judith Shahn, which we still have.
After I worked for this man for about two years, American Can moved their plant to Baltimore, and they took Mr. Shankman with them. He wanted me to go with him, but I couldn't leave New York because I had to contribute to the upkeep of the family. I again wrote to other lithography firms, and I got another job with another firm to continue my apprenticeship. After four additional years, I became a journeyman and got my union book.
1917, age 23.
About a year after that, the First World War broke out. My brother Joe was an electrician, and they drafted him into the service. Because my mother was a widow and they wouldn't take everyone from the family — they always left one — I remained. First I was engaged in making maps, then working in a shipyard making blueprints for the war effort.
When the war was over and my brother came back, he wanted to borrow some money from me to go back into the business which he was in before. I had previously loaned him money for his first venture, which he lost, so I wasn't inclined to give him more money. So he proposed that we go into business together. We did that; we started a retail business on the East Side.
Now he knew the electrical business, and I didn't. My responsibility in the business was selling and office work, and he took care of most of the mechanical work. In those days, it was very fashionable to have bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other social events in social halls, churches, and synagogues with large center crystal fixtures and wall bracket fixtures. Due to my ability to do sketching, I was able to make some drawings. We submitted them, and got orders based on those sketches. That was the beginning of the kind of business in which I spent the rest of my life.
I had some differences with my brother, so I left him that retail business. The owner of a firm that had sold us imported components proposed that I go to Europe with him: he would pay all the expenses, and we would share equally in the profits from whatever we buy on that trip. I went with him, we bought various merchandise, and it was very successful. As a result of this trip, he proposed that I become a one-third partner in his business. I left my brother and joined this man.
Part of our purchase was a couple of million electrical bulbs, which were originally made in the United States and exported to Europe during the War with the explicit understanding that they weren't to be brought back to the United States. When we left the United States, we didn't know anything about these bulbs. We found the merchandise in some warehouse in Belgium, bought the entire lot and shipped it back to the U.S., and it was a very successful purchase.
After a few months, I went to Europe myself to buy similar merchandise as on the first trip, including some electrical bulbs that were manufactured completely in Europe. When I returned from my second trip and met my associate on the pier, he didn't appear very enthusiastic. I wasn't too pleased with his attitude, so I put it right to him that afternoon, "Charlie, what are you unhappy about?" He said, "During your absence, I met a man who manufactures electrical bulbs." While I was in Europe, this man Charlie who was my partner became fifty-percent partners with this other man who had a factory in the United States making electrical bulbs, and he felt that this was the type of business that he would like to pursue, to become a manufacturer rather than an importer. So I asked him whether he would like to disengage himself from our arrangement.
That was what he wanted to hear. We called in an accountant to figure out during our operation of six months whether we lost money or made money. My share of the profits came to about $3500. He gave me back in merchandise the amount that I had invested in the company, but this profit he postponed paying because he was going into this new business and needed the money. He told me that he would pay in the near future, but I never got that money because his business went very bad.
From that day on, I operated my business as a sole owner and proprietor. My business kept on progressing. I didn't make a great deal of money, but I didn't lose any money, and I made some money each year. I had two or three people working in my office, and a couple in the shipping room. That was in New York City [Manhattan] in a loft. So my brother and I started out in 1919. I left my brother in 1922, and went with Charlie. We made that trip, and then I became a partner. From 1923 to 1927, I operated with help, but no on else had any financial interest in the business. In 1927, I found I needed someone to manage the office while I travelled, and I asked Sam Brown, who was married to my sister Etta, to join me.
I met Carol and her sister Mary when they came to our store to buy lamps. This was in 1923 or 1924, when I was still with Joe downtown. A friend of mine sent them when they moved from one place to another and needed some lamps. We didn't have what they were looking for, so I sent them to the manufacturer's showroom. They selected what they wanted, and after they got what they bought, I received a check from the manufacturer as a commission for sending the customer. Since they were friends of a friend, I sent the check to them. They thought I should keep the check, so I just said, "I'll blow the check in, and we'll spend the money." [CAROL: We all went to the theatre, I remember.] I don't know what we did with the money, but I wish I had it now. [CAROL: Oh, sure!] It was something like sixty dollars, enough for four people to go out for dinner and theatre and a cabaret.
We became friends and every once in a while I would send a postcard when I was on a trip. [CAROL: We got married in 1929.]
I continued in that business, importing and selling merchandise to lighting fixture manufacturers, lamp manufacturers, novelty manufacturers, and electrical jobbers. We sold lighting glass, which we imported from Germany and Czechoslovakia. We sold fixture parts from Czechoslovakia and Italy to domestic manufacturers. We sold alabaster, marble and metal lamp parts from Italy. We also imported bulbs, including Christmas tree bulbs, and friction tape from Japan. From 1927 to '37, during the Depression years, almost all our business was import. In 1937 or '38, when conditions in Europe indicated that there might be a war, we started to replace some of the imported parts by making our own molds and have domestic factories manufacture them exclusively for us.
In 1939, we purchased a glass factory, because the owner couldn't supply the quality and variety of merchandise that we required, and he didn't want to make an investment in equipment for that purpose. During the war, we remained in business as a result of our domestic contacts. We did have to close our plant in the United States, because we were not part of the war effort, we were just working for regular business, and we could not get fuel. We used natural gas, which was required by other factories such as DuPont. We closed the plant, and contracted with other glass plants that were allowed to operate because they were also making more necessary items.
During the war, to stay in business, my effort was to try as best possible to duplicate with domestic manufacturers the kinds of things we used to import. The only way this could be done was to find particular places that could do one operation nearly as well as they were doing the total operation at the European factories. At the European factories, they didn't specialize. One factory made everything: pressed glass, semi-automatic, automatic, blown glass, opal glass, clear glass, decorated glass, frosted glass, antique glass. In this country, if you were a hand-made factory, that's it. If you're semi-automatic, that's it. If you made window glass, ... and so on. They required very large quantities to keep the plant operating. Most of the plants had to operate twenty-four hours a day, because you had an automatic tank, melting twenty-four hours a day; you couldn't stop it. It was fed in one spot, and glass flowed continuously from the bottom of the tank.
After the war, we again made contact with factories that had worked for us in Europe. We sold our plant in Morgantown, and we farmed out our glass needs to various factories. We did this because each of the factories specialized in specific types of manufacturing, so they were able to manufacture each item for less money. They were more economical than a factory that made a variety of items. So, if we needed pressed glass, we went to a factory that specialized in pressed glass; if we needed automatic blown glass, we went to a factory that specialized in automatic blown glass. In that way, we were able to economize and compete with other people who didn't have that kind of operation.
In the following years, we continued to run our business in such a way that, for that limited type of business, we became the number one source of supply in the United States. We were probably the best- known company in that business, to the extent that in 1966 we had several offers to buy us out from companies that were listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and we sold our business.
To explain why, I have to back. In the early 1930s, Sam Brown unfortunately had some eye trouble. During the subsequent years, he had four retina detachments, and eventually he decided to move to California where his sons Arnold and Edwin Brown were living. In 1962, he left our company. Also, in about 1960, my son Arthur came into our business. At that time, he was twenty-four years of age. He came into the business after he finished college and two years of military service. Of course, I had great hopes that Arthur would carry on the work that I was doing. While he was very capable, and everybody in the industry had a very high regard for him, for whatever reason he himself wasn't enthused about making a career out of continuing that business. After the first year, he started to indicate that he would rather pursue some other profession than stay in that business. He kept asking me, "Why don't I sell my business?" In 1964, while he was in Japan on a buying trip, I had a heart attack. I was then seventy years old.
During that period, there was a great movement of conglomerate corporations buying out businesses. We had several offers from companies that were interested in buying out our business. Since Arthur didn't want it, and there was no one else in the family to go into it, after a while I decided that the best thing for us to do was to sell the business. After selling the business, I had to do the usual things that a retired person has to do: first, you have to take care of taxes to the government, and then you have to take care of your money. And that's what I did.
From the year of 1923 until we sold our business, I used to make one or two trips a year to Europe, and a minimum of one trip around this country. We did business over the entire country. I personally made many trips to contact people, and they became our customers. Subsequently we had salesmen who worked for us exclusively, and we also had sales representatives who handled our line in conjunction with other lines.
One of the trips that I particularly recall was to Czechoslovakia in 1939. I had the usual appointments at the Prague trade fair, and I visited the fair on the Sunday before it opened. Many Czech friends with whom I did business and knew socially cautioned me about what they thought might happen. In fact, they urged me to leave Prague and go back to the United States. I didn't take it seriously, having an American passport and not being a political person, being there purely for business. I didn't have as much concern about being there as my Czech friends did, so I remained.
The same night, while I was at the hotel before my dinner, I was sitting at the bar, and some other men were conversing in English. They said to me, "What are you doing here?" I told them I was here on business. They said, "If I were you, I wouldn't stay here. I'd get out as fast as I could." It turned out they were newspaper people from the United States. Directly across the Wentzelsplatz from the hotel was a big sign that said "THE NEW YORK TIMES."
I had an appointment the next morning with a manufacturer who was going to pick me up and take me to his factory about a hundred kilometers from Prague so that we could organize our business for the next year. I had done business with Mr. Bruno Palme for many years, and we were very good friends. Over the weekend we had talked on the telephone, and I told him that I was getting advice from other people to leave. He kept assuring me that nothing would happen, everything was normal, and everything I was hearing was rumor.
I got up Monday morning, got all my papers together, and went downstairs to wait for Bruno. I was sitting in the lobby, and I saw Bruno come through the revolving door, and right behind him was a German soldier with a gun. I said, "Bruno, look who's behind you." He turned around, and suddenly he was on the floor. He fainted! When he actually faced reality, it affected him to such an extent that he couldn't stand on his feet.
So the German Army marched into Czechoslovakia, and occupied our hotel. Only four foreigners were permitted to remain in the hotel: one from England, one from Galeries Lafayette in Paris, a lady from Holland, and myself. The rest of the hotel was occupied by the German Army. The four of us were put up in the garret and not allowed to go out of the building. During the next ten days, I visited the consulate about a half-dozen times. Each time, I had to get a pass to leave the hotel from some authority and, in the event we were stopped, to show the pass. The consulate was mobbed by Czech people and also Americans who wanted to get out of Prague.
To get a visa to get out of Czechoslovakia, you had to pay ten dollars in American money, but it was impossible to exchange foreign money. One lady was absolutely desperate, all her papers were in order but she didn't have the ten dollars in American currency. I loaned her the ten dollars. She ended up in Detroit, and subsequently I received the ten dollars back.
After ten days, I got my pass to leave Prague. As soon as I received permission to leave, I went back to the hotel, packed my things, and went to the train station. It was very crowded. As I was sitting in the train waiting to pull out of the station, I recognized the porter of the hotel running toward the train and waving his hand. I got very frightened. I though that I would have to have to get off the train and go back to the hotel. What happened, however, was that at the hotel I had taken out my removable dental bridge to clean my teeth and forgot to put it back in. The porter found it, and he returned it to me at the last minute.
There were many similar incidents, under happier circumstances. I used to visit Czechoslovakia, and in each little town I would stay in the same place. Very often, I would forget something when I left one the hotels. The next year when I visited that hotel, after I registered at the desk, I would find my pajamas, hairbrush, or whatever I had forgotten on top of my bed.
I learned to ski in Czechoslovakia. Rudolph Linke, my Czech commissioner in the area where they make crystal prisms, Jablonec [the Czech name] or Gablonz [the German name], was a great sportsman: skiing, bowling, swimming, et cetera. In Czechoslovakia, skiing was almost like walking. School-children used to go to school on skis. Adults spent their weekends, holidays, and vacations on skis. There were several outstanding skiing areas such as Riesengebirge and Ertsgebirge in the Carpathian mountains.
On one occasion, on a holiday weekend, Linke and his wife were anxious to go skiing. I happened to be there, and he suggested that I go with them. I told him that I had never skied. He told me that with a few basic suggestions, I'll be able to ski and enjoy it. His brother, who was about my size, was doing his regular army stint. He loaded me his outfit and his skis, and we took the train from Gablonz to Unterpolau, which is at the bottom of a mountain. All the skiers got out of the train and walked towards the mountain area. When we got to the bottom of the mountain area, everybody put on their skis. I had a knapsack with food and a little bottle of Cognac, which appeared to be the usual baggage that skiers carried with them. Linke showed me how to walk up the mountain on skis. It was very difficult in the beginning, but I was young at that time and had enough energy to do it. To my own surprise, after two hours of climbing, I felt very well and invigorated, but we still hadn't reached the top area. There was a mid-way house where everybody stopped and had something hot. I ate my first bowl of soup so fast that I didn't remember having it, and I insisted that I hadn't had my soup. They all laughed, thinking that I was just clowning around.
After having the soup and some hot coffee, we started up again. It took us two hours more until we reached the top of the mountain. By that time it was dark and we were all very tired. We ate whatever was available, and we went to sleep. Our sleeping quarters were also something to write home about. We didn't have separate rooms, so they took a blanket and made a curtain out of it. I slept in one part of the room, and Linke and his wife slept in another part.
The next morning, we had our breakfast and we started out skiing. He showed me a few simple basics steps on skis, but principally how to fall so I wouldn't get hurt, in the event that I approached a tree or any other obstacle. By the time the weekend was over, I was able to be on my own and enjoy skiing. In subsequent years, I used to arrange my schedule to be able to go skiing - - that's how much I enjoyed doing it.
After the war ended, and everyone in Europe was enthused that the war was over. However, when they sobered up, they realized what was ahead of them. They had to rebuild their factories, rebuild the whole infrastructure all over again. The new problems, political and economic, were so overwhelming that people were beginning to complain. Before and after the war, Czechoslovakia was a democracy. The president was Tomas Masaryk, then Edvard Benes, who was a liberal, I believe an American- educated Czech, in whom the Allies had a great deal of confidence. But the Communist Party was very powerful, and in view of the bad economic conditions, the Czech population supported the Communist Party, and with Russian help they became a Communistic county.
We were therefore obliged to do business in Czechoslovakia in an entirely different way than before the war. Prior to the war, there were many manufacturers with whom we did business. After the war, they had a single association called, in our industry, the Glass Export Company. We had dealing with them only. There were no competitive prices for any item. The quality of the merchandise was much inferior to the quality we had gotten before the war.
Most of the kind of merchandise that we imported was from the Sudetenland, which bordered with Germany. There were three or four million Germans in that area. After the war, the Czechs insisted that the Germans be expatriated to Germany. Most of the Germans left the area, and there weren't enough skilled people left to do the kind of work that was done before. Nevertheless, there was still a considerable amount of inventory accumulated during the war years that they hadn't been able to export, and there were enough Czechs to carry on some business. But basically there were very few people after the war with whom we had done business before the war. Most of the people left and went to Germany.
Prior to the war, our big source of blown glass was people named Kopp, who lived more in the Czech area, not Jablonec. We were very good friends. After the war, it was a very happy occasion when I came to see them. Fortunately, they did not suffer too much during the war, the Hitler days. Mr. Kopp and his wife were Czech, in spite of their name sounding German. They owned the whole little town of Janstein, including the glass factory. All the working people, about five hundred, lived in houses that belonged to the factory. They also had a considerable amount to land, about which his wife, who was raised on a farm, was very knowledgeable. They had a dairy, and they raised all kinds of food. So they were reasonably well-off during the war. After the war, everything was taken away from them, the factory as well as the land. But they were permitted to stay there and manage the place, and to live reasonably well compared to people from similar circumstances who couldn't continue the lifestyle they'd had before.
We had a great deal of difficulty dealing with the authorities, because instead of doing business from an economic point of view, we had to do business with political people. The heads of departments were all political people, good Communists, and they knew very little about the mechanics of that industry. This created big problems for us, but we didn't have many choices. We did the best we could with them.
Before World War II, we always travelled across the Atlantic ocean by ship, and sometimes there were huge storms. Once I was on an eighty-ton ship coming from Germany. The schedule from Hamburg to the United States was six days, but it took us ten days. We lost time when the ship was standing absolutely still because of the storm and the waves. I brought pictures that perhaps you'll be able to see. I was on a ship once when a sailor was lost at sea. It was an American ship called the S.S. Roosevelt. It was a small ship, and they sent a crew down to try to find him. Unfortunately they never found him, and another sailor was lost in the rescue process.
It was my good fortune that I was never seasick. I always reported for meals, and I was always able to walk on deck, in spite of the fact that the ship was unsteady. We had some wonderful experiences on board ship, with outdoor swimming, mid-day concerts and dancing, all kinds of games. They weren't organized games, but when the weather was good the passengers themselves would improvise games.
My first flights in a plane were in Europe, small planes flying short distances. The European countries themselves are very small, so a plane that flies two hundred miles an hour could start off in France, cross Belgium, cross Holland, and be in Germany in about two hours.
The first time that I flew across the Atlantic was a few months after World War II ended. We flew on a DC-4, which was a two-motor plane. The schedule from New York to London was about sixteen hours, with about four stops: Newfoundland, Iceland, Ireland, and then London. I was supposed to go on to Czechoslovakia, but in London we met up with some bad weather and had to stay overnight. The next day, we got on a Royal Dutch Air plane. We stopped in Holland, but when we got to Prague, the visibility was too bad to land and the airfield was too short for a DC-4 to stop. So we returned to Holland, stayed there for about two hours, and then flew back to Prague. This happened three times. On the fourth time, on the way back from Czechoslovakia, we ran short of fuel and had to land at an American airfield called Schweinfurt in Germany.
Schweinfurt had been one of the most heavily bombed cities during the war because the largest ball bearing factory in Germany was there. When we got down on the ground, the American Air Force personnel separated the American citizens from the other passengers. They asked us into the mess hall, and whether we wanted coffee or anything else. For some reason, the same courtesy was not extended to those who were not American citizens. When we got back on the plane after about two hours, the other people who were not invited to participate in the refreshments were very angry and made threatening remarks to the passengers who were American citizens. However, the next attempt to got to Czechoslovakia was successful.
I had several other incidents involving airplane problems, like everyone who does considerable flying. Once I was flying from Budapest to Venice in a small plane with six passengers. We ran into a snowstorm, and the pilot got lost. We were circling around in the Tyrolean Alps and running out of fuel. Finally, we found a clear spot and landed, and I'm here to tell the story.
The last scary incident I had, my son Arthur was with me. We were flying from Barcelona, Spain, on a non-stop flight back to the United States. About forty minutes after leaving Barcelona, there was some engine trouble, and they landed in Lisbon to rectify it. We stayed in Lisbon a few hours, refueled, got into the plan again, and took off. We were out about ten minutes, over the Atlantic, when one of the motors caught fire. We had a full load of fuel, and it's very dangerous to land a plane with a full load of fuel and an engine on fire. The pilot had to decide whether to unload the fuel before landing or land with the fuel. We didn't know what was taking place; they drew the curtains and darkened the plane. We felt very good about that! After about twenty minutes, we landed and everybody was greatly relieved. They put us up in a hotel in Lisbon until a different plane could be obtained.
I started to drive a car before the war. You had to crank by hand to get it started. I know because my arm got hurt when the handle kicked back. My first car was Ford. I had a Ford; I had a Dodge; I think I had an Essex, an Oldsmobile, a Buick, a Cadillac. I drove almost every kind of car. I drove the first Hydromatic, an Oldsmobile. I got that car the year the United States went into the war, 1941 or '42. That car was in the family for about eight years, and Paula drove it when she went to college, to Vassar.
We used to visit our children at camps in Maine, five hundred miles away from New York. In those days, the roads were not as good as they are today, and the tires were not as good as they are today. To drive five hundred miles on those roads, continuous driving without a stopover, was punishing. But we used to do it on weekends to visit two or three times in the camp season, which generally lasted eight or ten weeks.
I never took automobile trips across the country. I travelled by train, and then rented a car with a driver, because I didn't know the terrain and I travelled in the mountains of West Virginia, which were very difficult. Pennsylvania and West Virginia were the areas where I did most of my domestic buying, to arrange for the manufacture of our domestic products. In those days, it only cost fifteen dollars for a ten-hour day for driving. We'd drive twenty miles from one factory to another, we'd remain in that factory for two or three hours, and then take off, drive another twenty miles, and repeat the same process.
Subsequently, we owned a factory in Star City, which was adjacent to Morgantown. There I owned a company car, but I always had somebody else who was familiar with the area drive it.
When I travelled to sell merchandise, I travelled principally to the large cities. A usual trip would be from New York to Buffalo, from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, from Cleveland to Detroit, from Detroit to Chicago, from Chicago to St. Louis, from St. Louis to Kansas City, from Kansas City to Denver. On the way back, I'd get to San Francisco, Los Angeles, then the southern route. I'd go to Phoenix, cities in Texas, New Orleans, Atlanta, then back to New York.
Each year-end I would take the family on a cruise, or we would go to Key West, Florida, and go fishing. On one of those trips, when Arthur was about twelve years old and weighed about sixty pounds, he caught a barracuda that weighed more than he did. You [Tony] remember that barracuda! Fishing was one of my favorite recreations.
In the summertime, we used to rent a house down at the beach. Several of our friends used to rent a boat, with a captain and a helper, and we'd go out to fish in the Long Island Sound. We'd fish for porgies, bluefish, flounder, etc.
I also went on fishing trips to Canada. A very good customer and friend from Buffalo, New York, Joe Markel, invited me to go fishing with him and about twelve more of his friends. He used to go to the Victoria Islands; there were more islands there than in the Thousand Islands. First, I stayed overnight in his house in Buffalo. The next morning, in three separate cars, we went to Canada, which took about seven hours. It was 300 miles from Buffalo. When we got there, a man was waiting to take us by motorboat to a small island. There was one main house where we had own food and socialized, but we stayed in very primitive shelters. There was no electricity and no telephone. No newspapers. We couldn't be reached, except by boat. Nobody shaved during the two weeks we stayed there.
The schedule was to get up at about six in the morning, shower, have your breakfast, and start out in a small boat with four fisherman and two men, a guide and an attendant. The attendant had flour, salt, and other things to prepare lunch, which always consisted of the fish we caught. We'd start out at seven or seven-thirty, and fish until about noon. Then we would stop off at the shore, the guide and the helper would make a fire, then fix up the fish and fry it with bacon, and we had our lunch. After lunch, we'd shoot craps for an hour and a half or two hours, and by then we were pretty tired. It would take us about an hour to get back to our camp. We'd get there, take a nap, and then get ready for our evening meal. That would take us to about eight o'clock, and we'd go to bed. We'd repeat the same kind of schedule for the whole time.
On those fishing trips, the people were mostly business people. There was one man and his son in the metal scrap business, a huge huge business. There was another man who had a textile mill. Another man was in the automobile business. My friend Joe Markel was in the lighting fixture business, and he was making electric golf carts and other small battery-driven vehicles. They were all extremely well-informed people, people of means.
I went for about three years. The last year that I went to that little island, Germany surrendered the war. A man came on a small boat, going from island to island, to deliver news of the great event. Within a day, we broke off the fishing trip to get back. Everybody was very anxious to know more details about the end of the European war. After we learned that the European war was over, all the discussion were about what was going to happen with Japan. It was anybody's guess what would happen. At that time, no one knew anything about the atomic bomb.
I saw Roosevelt as close as I see you now sitting across from me. He was a great personality, a charmer. He had a marvelous speaking voice, and he was the first national figure to utilize the radio as a tool to reach voters. He had a great talent for it. I thought that he was a very dedicated person, and to my way of thinking he did a great deal of good. Many of the things that he started didn't materialize, but no one can execute everything that they think would be good for the public.
I knew Roosevelt not only as a public figure, but it happened that during the war I had an interest in a small shipyard that did repairs. It was located in Newburg, New York, out on the Hudson directly across from Roosevelt's estate at Hyde Park. Roosevelt had a speech-writer and advisor who was a Jewish lawyer by the name of Rosen-something [Samuel Irving Rosenman]. One of my partners in the shipyard was previously in the advertising business, and he used to supply entertainment to the famous Catskill mountain resort called Grossingers. For our yard, we used to send a station wagon to deliver gefilte fish and challah and other Friday night and Saturday dishes to this man Rosen-something, when he was at Hyde Park.
As a result of that contact, when Roosevelt ran for office, he can to our yard to talk to the men. So I had the opportunity to see him very close up.
He was the only man who was ever elected four times to office, and he came into office at a critical time in our history. Whose-ever fault it was, in 1932, this country had eighteen or twenty million people out of work, which was maybe one- third of our working force at that time. Our total gross national product was eighty billion dollars, less than what General Motors or Exxon or AT&T do business today, one company in one year.
The Depression didn't affect us at all. We didn't do as well as we did in subsequent years, but we did business and made a profit. Prices were so cheap; labor was so cheap. People worked for twenty cents an hour. A forty-hour week was eight dollars. Not skilled people, but I believe that was the minimum wage. It was difficult, but from 1932 until the war started in 1939, which I was forty-six years old, I was in the prime of my life, both in experience and physically, I used to travel maybe twice a month to the different domestic factories, and we were successful in carrying on.
When Roosevelt was elected and became president in 1932, the first thing he did was close the banks. There was a run on the banks, because people didn't have confidence in the banks. So many banks were going broke that he felt it's better to close them. In fact, our bank called in advance and said that they'd have to close for about a week, and suggested that we put some cash into the safe, enough to carry on whatever our needs were. We did that, and we were able to help out some people who weren't so fortunate.
Actually, I was at a trade fair in Leipzig, Germany, at the time. When the American banks closed, all the foreigners at the Leipziger fair couldn't do anything with American money. They couldn't buy a glass of beer or a meal. I knew a lot of German manufacturers and Czech manufacturers who were at the fair, so I was able to get money from them. I loaned money to about six American people, and I took out to dinner about a dozen American people who didn't have money to eat. One of these man was in the toy business, we became very good friends. He was floating around Liepzig, didn't have a dime in his pocket. We went to a very nice place to have dinner, and we had a lot of fun because we had enough confidence in the American economy, with Roosevelt coming in. That was an experience: You had money in your pocket and you weren't able to buy a cigarette. Nobody wanted American money.
My opinion of Nixon was no different than what most people thought of him. I never liked Nixon, because he came into politics by hurting other people who were weaker, who couldn't fight back. In those years, the worst thing that an individual could be branded was to be called a Communist. Nixon accused other people of being Communists, and used that to elevate himself in the political arena. He was a trickster.
A politician is a politician; they promise but they don't deliver. If they're a politician, I don't like them.
I'm sure there are good politicians, there's no question. In a country like the United States, with the needs of the different parts of the country — east, west, north, south — it's most difficult for a national politician to satisfy everybody. It's just not possible. If you're a congressman and you have to satisfy your own congressional district, you fight for what is good for them. If you represent California, you fight for whatever is good for California. In the South, because they export cotton to Japan, whatever legislation that comes up pro or con, they fight for whatever is best for their area. That's politics. How they ever intend to overcome that, I don't know.
Photo at the wedding of a relative in New York around 1940.
Standing, L to R: Ed Brown (son of Etta & Sam), Etta Levine Brown (younger daughter of Ida & Abraham), Clara Friedberg (daughter of Dorothy & Mike), Dorothy Levine Friedberg (older daughter of Ida & Abraham), Louis Friedberg (son of Dorothy & Mike), Mike Friedberg (husband of Dorothy), Gussie Pfefferblum (mother of Carol), Joe Levine (older son of Ida & Abraham).
Seated, L to R: Sam Brown (husband of Etta), Rose Friedberg (sister of Mike), Carol Pfefferblum Levin (wife of Irving), Irving Levin (younger son of Ida & Abraham), Ida Levine (matriarch, widow of Abraham).
Missing because they were too young to attend: Arnold Brown (age 10, son of Etta & Sam), Paula Levin (10, daughter of Irving & Carol), Arthur Levin (5, son of Irving & Carol).
1980 recording (9 sECTIONS)
All 2 hours