Friday, September 4, 2015

More with Michael Kuzma, a Memoir of A Bygone Era and A Happy & Healthy New Year

Happy Labor Day and Happy New Year to all!

Things are fairly slow here and I am doing everything I can to avoid cleaning up my office this morning, so my attention turned back to an interview I did at the end of July with Trenton native and former Trenton resident Michael Kuzma.  As I mentioned previously, Mickey is not Jewish, but you would never know that from talking with him.   Over the course of two days, I listened to Mickey regale me with stories about what Old Trenton was like.  His stories ranged from touching to funny, from heartfelt to slightly embellished.  His love of the city in which he grew up was never in doubt and his honesty about what Trenton was and what it means to be from Trenton was apparent.   A few weeks ago I posted a short story he told about another former Trentonian, Gussie Siet, who left here and become world famous opera singer Gloria Lane.  Today, I pick a short excerpt of our conversation about the old neighborhood and about the company that employed his father, Sokalner Brothers and how the Sokalner family took care of his father and family after a devastating loss.

(double-click video for full screen)

Also, this morning I received an e-mail from Bernice Schwartz (nee Nitzberg), who had written a memoir of her days in Trenton for a writing assignment a few years ago.   I share it with you today, hoping that with the long weekend ahead, you have some extra reading time.  I publish this without editing.  Political comments at the bottom do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this blog.


Bernice Schwartz(nee Nitzberg)

I was relieved that I did not live in Jew Town. As a child, my home was on the top of the Market Street hill, just above Jew Town in Trenton, New Jersey during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. We lived above and behind my parents’ wallpaper store. The boundary between Jew Town and the rest of the city was the four corners where Broad St. crossed Market St. A large bank, the county courthouse, a red brick church, and Stover’s anti-Semitic drug store occupied the corners. As Market St. descended, the character of the hill changed, from a quiet lower middle class community to a bustling noisy market place.

I was often sent there by my mother on errands. Every Friday I bought horseradish for Shabbos. It was ground in front of me on an old wooden, not too clean, grater at Shulman’s store. 


I picked up the halvah at Palats deli and also lox (from the belly per my mother’s instructions). Siegel’s deli served me wonderful milk shakes which my parents hoped would fatten me up. 

Kunis’ was a thriving vegetable market, run by recently arrived Ashkenazi Jews who, (in my eyes) were dirty and unattractive. The store would have been a joy to today’s subscribers of the organic food movement.
Kunis' and Ben's Del (right)  

 All offerings were unwashed and unsprayed. Consequently, I did not like eating such items as apples or peaches because I never knew what I would find inside. Jake’s deli served delicious hot pastrami sandwiches which I became allergic to in my thirties. (a Jewish woman!) The fish market had live fish swimming in large tanks which were killed and cleaned in front of me when I bought them. Cohen’s (sic) bakery sold the traditional breads: rye, corn, pumpernickel – never (G-D forbid) white. Kosher meat markets abounded. There was even a Kosher restaurant, Benny Hocks. My father felt that one of the perks of being married was not having to eat there. Jew Town was full of people buying and selling. The streets were unkempt. I can still see the paper and offal lying in the gutter. Most of us knew each other. I was called the Nitzberg girl.
As I grew older, I made friends with other white Jewish girls living in Jew Town or its perimeters. I was hardly aware of the African American community at the bottom of the hill. One street, Parker Street was mostly unpaved with shacks on each side. However, in high school I befriended Juanita Turner, a brilliant, sweet black girl. One evening I visited her home in the area. It was heated by a large coal stove and lit by kerosene lamps and candles. The family was diligently doing homework. Juanita later received a full scholarship to Howard University and later became a professor at Columbia.

The Jewish community’s second generation also produced talented people. Siegel’s deli’s son, Alex, was a famous theater director. Ernie Kovacs was our neighbor. The Fuch boys became psychiatrists. A friend, denied a secretarial job at Roeblings Steel Company because she would not work on Jewish holidays, opened an insurance company and became wealthy. Skippy Rauch, who became a respected mathematician, was on the faculty of Yeshiva University and a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Other professionals, too many to name.

Recently I rode through Market Street.  Jew Town had disappeared. In its wake were steel and glass government buildings. The streets were empty. My father’s store at the top of the hill was a bodega. The tidy home of the school teacher next door to us was abandoned and boarded up. I remember Miss Clayton  sitting on a chair at the top of her stone steps waving and gossiping with those who stopped. My mother would sit outside, in front of our store, and gossip too. Now the neighborhood was in ruins.

I mourn the vibrancy of the streets of my youth. I deeply hope these new immigrants can recapture the spirit of the old town. I wish that they can obtain the skills needed to succeed, as we Jews did. But currently I am saddened by the paralysis that Republicans have visited on the government’s ability to help poor people. Perhaps the USA will wake up.

Finally, for those of you who have asked, if you are trying to find the burial location of a loved one at one of the old Trenton cemeteries--the ones no longer with affiliated institutions--you might have luck by sending an e-mail with specific information to:  No phone calls, please.  They do have maps of some the old cemeteries.   If a loved one is buried in a cemetery where the institution is still in existence, start there.  Synagogues should still have those records.  Again, please respect the no phone calls request.
Our best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year.


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