Vera Klein “Oma Klein”

In childhood, I was a little boy in an aging community. I was the late-comer in the family and most of the neighbors were already approaching retirement- or beyond. The many ladies in the building could delight in having me come in for a cookie or sometimes they would babysit me if my father was photographing a wedding on a Sunday.

When I was born, my mother decided she needed a job to supplement the income. Mrs. Veronica “Vera” Klein was a school teacher around the corner at St. Elizabeth’s and she had just retired. She was the most proper and genteel woman – with a polished mid-Atlantic accent and perfect diction- that one could cast for the role of grade-school teacher.

Becoming a nanny was not something she planned on doing in her retirement, but she must have realized that she had no other retirement plans and she was a natural pedagogue, so when my mother approached her with the idea, she accepted.

From my early infancy she watched me daily, and when I began to talk she taught me to call her “Oma”, the German for grandmother. This was a nice idea since I did not have any grandmothers and she did not have any offspring.

Oma Klein had an old-school expectation of children’s behavior and taught “obedience”. She would tease me about bad children who had to attend “obedience school”. She also had many little ethical sayings that she repeated. One that I remember is, “A promise is a promise and it must be kept!”

A little bit about Vera Klein: She was one of the earliest tenants of the building still residing there. (She appears in the 1940 census here .) She remembered when the building had a long awning in the courtyard and bushes around the periphery. (She also mentioned an elevator operator and maybe a doorman?)  She and her late husband Adam were German-Americans. She was not Jewish, and when asked about a picture of a semitic- looking man hanging in her apartment she assured us that she was not Jewish. She was friendly with all the German-Jewish women in the building though (and could converse with them in German at times).

The entire arrangement was special to me. Oma Klein was as proper an influence a child could have in his early youth. And the experience was one to change her too. My sister’s friend told me that before Oma began watching me, she was known as the woman who yelled down at the kids playing in the courtyard and making noise- sometimes even throwing water at them. Caring for one of the children in the building helped her see them in a different light and, perhaps, brought out a sunnier side of her personality.

When I was still a young boy she moved to California- La Jolla- to be near her sister in her old age. We corresponded by mail and telephone, and she made an occasional visit back east. I will always remember her.

 

The Pachtman’s

Russian Jewish immigrants had flowed steadily through our building since the mid-1970s. There was a pattern to the immigration.A family would arrive. The German ladies in the building would reach out and help them obtain free furniture, clothes, and admission to the local Yeshivas. In a relatively short amount of time the family would be relocating to the suburbs- sometimes without letting us know- and the furniture would sit on the sidewalk for the sanitation pick-up.

In retrospect, it is hard to blame these victims of communism. They had their first shot at the American dream, and they were not going to give it up to practice religion, something they were indoctrinated to see as “backwards”.

The Pachtman’s were an exception. At least Mr.  Pachtman was. He was raised pre-communism. He arrived at these shores and immediately found a shul that he could pray in thrice daily- a privilege he was denied for some six decades in Russia. Despite his advanced age he found the strength and resolve to climb the 187th Street hill after the services in Mt. Sinai Synagogue.

As an adolescent,  I was amazed to see this, since waking for services was a challenge to me.

Well, shortly after they came we invited them for the Sabbath meals. As my father began to make the “Kiddush”, the blessing over the wine and the sabbath, tears were streaming down Mr. Pachtman’s face. He had not seen this performed since his childhood, and now he could sit in freedom and return to his roots.

Later in the meal, he asked for a napkin. As he received it, he proceeded to tear it in half- not wanting to waste a whole napkin. We all smiled, “Use the whole thing!”  As I reflect on this incident I always say in my head: “Yes, Mr. Pachtman, use the whole darned napkin. You have seen enough torture and indoctrination. Your religion, your individuality, your thirst for life has been robbed from you. But that is in the past. Now you can use the whole napkin. But unlike the younger immigrants who moved to the suburbs to make sure they get a piece of the whole napkin, you stay here.

You see, they had nothing to return to, because they were too young to know what was robbed from them. But you, Mr. Pachtman, you came to America to reclaim your roots- napkin or no napkin.

The Pachtman’s lived in our building for several weeks before Mr. Pachtman died. His wife knew nothing of religion. Her children who had arrived in America some years earlier bought her an expensive television set and moved her into a building in the nicer area of the neighborhood where she could have a piece of the napkin too.

Hansel, Gretel and Me

AS00230_3My childhood was spent in a building in Washington Heights. I was born long after my siblings and after many of the families in the building had married off their kids and were tending to emptying nests. This put me in the position to be the doted-upon child of the building. My cheeks were pinched and I got a lot of attention.

Often, on a Sunday, my parents were at work in their side business in which my father would photograph Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and my mother would come along and assist in arranging the “formals” (posed pictures). On such days, I would spend the afternoon at any one of the neighbors’ apartments and play with some toy they still had from when their children were home. Sometimes I could watch cartoons on their small TV sets.

Recently I was binge reading about the small communities of Southern Germany, a topic that drew my fascination when I realized that these were the “shtetls” (think Anatevka in Fiddler O.T. Roof) of the Western European Jews. My eyes watered up while reading a small book by a great Educator who came to these great shores from a small German village- his name was Dr. Hugo Mandelbaum.

In his book (which is suitable for young readers too), Dr. Mandelbaum gives in enchanting detail the picturesque picture of life in his village. While doing so he manages to document a snapshot in time and record some of the customs of the community, the educational structure, and the politics of the small German towns.
The reader can’t help to think that the towns were intact and living the same lifestyle that they had known through the centuries and medieval times. It is the serenity of Hansel and Gretel and the mystery of Silas Marner (and several other books that I haven’t read). But here is a man at the cusp of modernization with a foot in the old system. Dr. Mandelbaum leaves his town to attend a religious teacher’s seminary with the hopes of just being able to return to a town like his and function within it.

Of course, world-war would have its say here, and disrupt that aspiration along with the little town and its synagogue that had lasted many centuries. (In truth, urbanization and the allowance for Jews to enter the craft guilds and apprenticeships had begun to chip away at the town for some time already. This too is depicted in the book.)

And then, halfway through the book, as he reminisces about the little hunch-backed lady who he was afraid of, and how she called down from her window as little Hugo and his family ate in the courtyard Sukkah – “Hugo, have you eaten your soup?”- then it hit me. I am Hugo. The lady is Mrs. Rothschild in my building on Wadsworth Avenue slowly making her way down the hall. Or it is Mrs. Hess on the sixth floor. Or Minna or Ruth (who seemed old to me at the time). Or it is Mrs. Stern who always looked out of her window onto 187th street and as I passed she would say, “I’m going to eat you up!” (though her house was not made of gingerbread.)

I am that boy. And that was my village. And I saw what he saw, though on a different continent.

The people I knew as a young boy had a past. They came from somewhere. From a bunch of little villages across Germany and some of the villages were  neighborhoods within larger cities. They had lived a life that was preserved thorugh a journey of a thousand years. And I saw the tail end of it.

I used to say that in my life this far I have seen a bit of one generation, and heard about the one before that, and seen how it all evolved. I would think about how lucky I am to have been there at crucial transitions. Truthfully, everyone is born in an era and gets to see it morph into the next one and can stick around for a few more. It’s just that some of us get enamored by these changes and some, like me, are naïve enough to think that they were privy to something that needs to be recorded and studied.

The Riots of ’92

I vividly remember hearing the alarm at the old Associated supermarket located on the corner of 186th and St. Nick (today it is a Rite Aid). The people that had taken control of the streets began yelling “Associated!” as they ran up the block to claim their groceries from that establishment. This was the store we did all of our shopping in. It was our grocery. Why are they raping it?

The above video was taken by a friend of my father, a fellow auxilliary policeman. After some 15 minutes of footage from the squad car, there is a news clip from CNN and then a special on the drug problem in the Heights- at the time.

Building Patrols

Another sign of the times during the 80s was the need for security in the buildings.

Stories were accumulating around the neighborhood about muggings in lobbies and break-ins by way of pushing someone into their apartment as they were opening the door or climbing through an open window.

Our building, among others, began a tenant patrol group. Every evening a pair of tenants would have their turn at sitting and reading the paper in the lobby by a table set up in the areas under the staircases in the lobbies. They could see who entered and ask where they were headed and deny entry.

 

 

 

Oh, the Eighties!

Here’s a picture of 247 Wadsworth Avenue in full 1980s graffiti. New York was covered with that stuff, and it didn’t pay to try and fight it. Finally, in the 90s the MTA came out with subway cars that were easily scrubbed and resisted paint. Real estate in New York made a comeback and the Giuliani began prosecuting “quality of life crimes”. Landlords began to realize that if you keep painting over the graffiti, it will stop. And stop it did.

 

 

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The Greek Lent Parade

screenshot-50Once there were people of many ethnicities living in Washington Heights. This included Armenians and Greeks. There were a pocket of Greeks around the church on 184th and Wadsworth, in the building next to the former police station.

There was a sprinkling of Armenians in our building and the area around St. Elizabeth’s. These ethnicities followed the order of the Greek (Gregorian) Calendar and their holidays differ by 12 days from the national norm.

These communities had an annual parade for their “Good Friday”. It often fell out on the eve of Passover when we were sitting at the seder. We would sneak a peek from the window. They sang a spooky song that was almost a dirge.

As the years went by their children left the neighborhood – as it happened to our demographic- and the last time I saw this parade, some eight years ago, it was much smaller. Professional musicians were called in to supplement the missing voices.

One day, no one will know about the community of devotees that marched their religious icon down the corridor called Wadsworth.

 

 

Danny’s Quiet Demise

This is the story of a young man who grew up in 615 west 186th street and the mysterious end he met.

Danny was our neighbor. It was rumored that he was adopted. His family was Hispanic, but he had a look that resembled something Philippine. He was a quiet boy and he had cousins on the fourth floor that he spent a lot of time with until they left the neighborhood in the mid-nineties. They were an active bunch and one time threw a bag of garbage on our Sukkah.

As Danny entered adolescence he went through a Heavy-Metal stage. Leather, chains, facial hair. We would talk about music sometimes because I could be heard practicing the drums through the front window.

Later, like many of the youth in the area, he began peddling drugs. Because his family’s apartment had windows facing the courtyard, “customers” could knock on the window to ask for the “proprietor”. That phase passed too.

Danny had matured into a young adult. He met a Dominican girl with the urban rocker look that he sported and they moved into his room in his parents’ apartment.

Not a year had passed and this girl was sporting Danny’s little baby daughter. She put on a ton of weight and began to show a similarity to the middle-aged Dominican ladies who were bringing their laundry down to the basement.

One Friday night, Danny and his girl had a big fight. It was loud and prolonged and it took place entirely on the street. I know, because it was right below my window and it went until the wee hours of the morning.

That Sunday, news came to the building about Danny’s untimely demise.

Danny and his girl had gone to one of the local parks with a few friends. The parks in Washington Heights have some scary cliffs. They had all been drinking and Danny went up onto the stone barrier to perform some antics before his friends. Danny fell and died.

That was the official story. I would believe it had I not heard the troubles they were having. And, had I not seen her shortly afterward with another guy.

Danny left behind a little girl and a grieving family for the short stint he did at 615. His funeral was a week later in St. Elizabeth’s.

1979 phone book entries for the building

Some description and apt #s provided by Benny E. and  by Miriam Z. (Much thanks.) Some repetition as I clumsily merged lists. These are only people with listed phone numbers. There are more that will be added with time and more public resources that I am first learning about.

Bert Adler 927-3076

m arango

ramon arias
mrs saydie s baerenger
barbagiannis konstaninos
ruvim barkagan
J Berlin
beylina s
boris bromberg
m calderin
frances cohen
corrigan e m
greenberg e
Bertha parets
Vincent John Sica 928-5058
Lev Scheider568-4267
Andrew Zopf927-3082

Ettlinger Benny 781-4313 –  3M

Ettlinger Harry and Minna 927-0908-  3D

Fulda  781-0778-   Alfred and Adie –  2D.

greenberg e- 

santiago jimenez –

boris kushlu-1c Had a big black dog. Was a friend of Sadie Barrenger. When he died, Sadie brought his cameras and boxes of pictures and slides to my father (who is a photographer) and asked him to take it. When I have time I shall save all his pictures online. 

 

ray knight- 

alexander krichevsky- 

martin lehmann 568-9871  3B  he was a butcher in Midtown (only one I believe),  they had 2 birds that we used to go see. 

Arthur leidner 568-9605    2G-   one of the 3 kosher grocery owners in the heights

Manfred Meyer  928-5921   4E

Manny and Sylvia Meyer 923-7676 – IH jack of many trades,  need a mechanic,  see Manny. Sylvia and Minna Ettlinger helped many Russian and hispanic immigrants with transitioning to a new life.

tito morgades

Benno pfeiffer795-4143  2E,  he used to yell Yoohoo,  whenever he came home so his wife knew he was on his way up.

Louis Rosenberg 927-1795

David Seff 781-7172 – 5D,  they had a fire in their apartment and the water damage trickled down

Vincent John Sica 928-5058- 

Lev Scheider568-4267- 

Rabbi neil D siegel795-3360- 

David Sperber 927-0193  2I. Was a butcher in the Bronx. After his stroke moved to the building to be near family.

J Tannenbaum781-7673-  4H –  then they moved to Bennett Ave.   She was a Lasdun (from across the street).

Ernst weis 927-0592-  3I-  his wife Margo,  or Margret

Joseph zitter568-2599 –   5J they live in Teaneck now

Andrew Zopf927-3082 – 

Ellen Bascom                           lived in apt. 2H. Her son had problems with the law. Her sister lived with her.

Rose Catsos                             ”      ”   ”     3L. who did beautiful knitting.

Ellen Corrigan                           ”      ”    ”     3C

The Ebners David and Rachel    ”      ”    ”     6D.They eventually moved to Israel. She was a daughter from Rabbi  Bernstein who I believe taught in YU.

Moshe Ibsen  ”      ”    ”      4M. They moved to Flatbush. 

 

Manfred Meyer ”  ”    ”       3E

Adolph Oppenheimer lived in apt. 4E. His wife did beautiful embroidery.

Louis Rosenberg ”  ”    ”    4F. His wife was Lisa.

David Seff           ”  ”    ”     5D.

Joseph Zitter     ”   ”    ”     5J.

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