This is Naomi Schottenstein. I’m interviewing Bernard Gerson at the office of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, 1175 College Avenue in Columbus. The date is May 5, 2004. Bernard, Bernie, we’re interviewing you because you’ve been a very active part of the Jewish community. You’ve traveled to Israel many times; I know you’re an ardent Zionist, and your love for Judaism has been evident in many ways. That’s pretty much the theme for this interview. Bernie, I’m going to start by asking your Jewish name, and who you were named after and do you have nicknames?
Gerson: My Jewish name is Baruch. I was named after my dad’s father.
Nicknames? Bernie! Sometimes my Dad called me, “Hey, Stupid!” He said
that was my first name. That’s really a joke on myself. I have no nicknames.
Schottenstein: Is this your original family name? Gerson?
Gerson: No, my original family name was Gershenberg. I anglicized the
name in December of 1949 a month or so before having been graduated from New
Schottenstein: Does the rest of your family go by the name “Gerson”?
Gerson: No, I have Glatt by one brother. My younger brother, Irving,
he maintains the family name, he and his family. Cousins of mine at the same
time, there are three of us that anglicized our names to different names other
than just Gershenberg and took Gerson. One cousin took Gersh and a third cousin
anglicized his name from Gervin, which was part of the family which anglicized
the name to Germane.
The truth: things about him that were germane, so he used his name, Robert
Schottenstein: It’s interesting the way names change and the reasons
for it and what happens with different generations as they go on with the name.
Tell us where you were born and how you came that you are now in Columbus, Ohio.
Gerson: I was born in the borough of Manhattan in New York City on
the 22nd of May. The grape was very good that day. It was an excellent grape that day… a good wine. I was
always considered the joke in the family and I followed up with it. In any
event, my fast-forwarding from 1925 to the beginning of 1943 when I enlisted
in the Navy. I was in the Navy about six weeks. I pulled duty in the new naval
base in Sampson, New York and I met a young man there by the name of Joseph
Nichol. He, I believed, lived in Youngstown, Ohio and we became good friends and
when an opportunity presented itself to leave New York for business reasons in
June of 1957, I said, “Voila!”They said I could go anywhere I wanted in the mid-west. So I decided, what better
place than Columbus, Ohio.
Schottenstein: Had you ever been to Columbus before that?
Gerson: I had been to Columbus many times on my travels. I traveled
most of the mid-west from New York. I was a manufacturer’s representative. My
last stop was always Columbus, Ohio before returning home to New York. There’s
Joe, there’s Betty, then there’s family. I’d spend a day or two here and then
travel back home. But no matter where I was, in the mid-west, Indiana,
Kentucky, or Illinois, I made Columbus my last stop on my trips through.
Schottenstein: What were you selling Bernie?
Gerson: Closeouts, novelties, housewares. I represented a number of
manufacturers out of New York City. I was euphemistically known as a peddler. I
was a manufacturer’s representative, representing a number of different firms
and that’s what I did. I covered six mid-western states but my resting, my
asylum after all weeks out on the road, I would be here in Columbus, Ohio! And I
made a number of friends here. The Zeldins, you must remember Sol and Annette of
blessed memory, they were friends… and the Spatts; Mary Ann and Sam. It was
easier for us, Marian and myself, to come here and I’m glad we did.
Schottenstein: Going back, before your arrival in Columbus, can you
tell us how your family came to land in Manhattan? Your parents, where did they
came from originally?
Gerson: They both came from the Ukraine area in Russia. Dad got here
in the early part of 1917. He came because he had friends who traveled with him
and an older brother that came with. They had what they called landsleit.
They landed in lower Manhattan and that’s where they came because of that they
got Russian, my uncle, his dad, his friends. There were four young men who came.
And my mother came also, from an area about thirty miles of where Dad came, in
that same Ukraine area, and she got here in 1918 with her older sister. Their
mother had died in Russia and their dad wanted them out of Russia and he sent
them to two brothers, my uncles who already had arrived earlier in the United
States in 1908 and 1910.
Schottenstein: Your parents, were they married at that time?
Gerson: No. Mother and Dad didn’t get married until 1923. I guess my
uncle, his brother, his wife-to-be, one of the reasons he came to the United
States, I believe, they knew my dad’s family and my mother’s family they knew. There were very close
relationships that they had, so that’s how they met.
Schottenstein: I know you mentioned landsleit and
these are people who came from the same country; they often were even closer or
at least as close as blood relatives and that meant a lot.
Gerson: No, they weren’t blood relatives but they certainly knew each
other. In a very insular type of community that they came out of, the Jews
living in the radius of 30 miles, they came from these small shtetels that
they were called. They seemed to know each other. The Clarions probably went out
every day talking about what’s happening in each area, in each neighborhood.
They knew each other.
Schottenstein: What did your father go into when he came to this
Gerson: At first he enlisted in the United States Army because he,
the two of them before they came, were told that if they enlisted in the Army of
the United States then they’d become citizens by raising their hands and
pledging allegiance. I think that was done by many people at that time. So my
dad enlisted in the army of the United States and served in the army for about a
year and a half.
Schottenstein: Where was he established at that time?
Gerson: He was sent to a lovely place, Augusta, Georgia, Camp Gordon.
He loved that place. He Americanized himself, I think. My dad didn’t know about
motherhood as much but he certainly loved apple pie. He loved apple pie. You
know, his first taste, I think, down there, he had an unusual career down there.
May I digress? About my dad?
Schottenstein: Sure, sure. I want you to.
Gerson: My dad could not eat the food that the army was serving. He
used to say he couldn’t bring it to his nose, he just didn’t like the food. I’ll
take ham hocks, or whatever it was, and he just couldn’t eat it, so there was an
officer there from Chicago, my dad tells the story, a Jewish officer who came to
him and said, and he may have even spoke in Yiddish to him, I’m not sure, said,
“Harry,” (my dad’s given name was Harry,) “you can’t do this, you
have to eat!” So my dad told him the story that he can’t even bring it to
his nose. So this army officer from Chicago arranged for my dad to become the
orderly to the head of the colonel that was on the base and my dad served the
colonel and the colonel arranged for my dad to get the kind of food he would
want. I’m not saying it was kosher, but my dad was getting the kind of food he
Schottenstein: When you say served, you mean like…
Gerson: He polished his boots and he ran his errands and he was the
gofer for this term and my dad really enjoyed it. And there were residents
there from Augusta, Georgia who took, embraced these Jewish soldiers. There were
Jewish residents there, and my dad made friends down there. And it was about 17
or 18 months there and then my dad was discharged and went back to New York. He
tells the story that when he enlisted, he was approximately 140 pounds and when
he got back to New York after a year-and-a-half or so, he went back weighing a
little over 170 pounds! Everyone looked at him and were amazed at the weight
that he had gained and they called him a “cup of chuck”, whatever that
means, I don’t know. Bubblegum, filled out, chubby, I don’t know. Chunky. And
then he went to work through his brother, the one who came with him earlier on,
he went to work for a friend of his brother’s, in a slaughter house. They had
slaughter houses in New York and there he met my mother and his brother who
worked there, also, and lo and behold my uncle at that time, my mother’s
brother, and he had a sister they would like my dad to meet. Well, they made an
arrangement for my dad to meet my Uncle Harry’s older sister. When they entered
the apartment, they saw the younger of the two sisters that came earlier on,
about two years before, about 1918. By 1922 when he was working these
slaughterhouses he went to this house to meet this woman but his eyes fell upon
this younger girl. They became friends and then they got married. My mother, her
name was Sandy. Her maiden name was Wanetik.
A few years ago there was a fellow in this community who had the same name,
Rick Wanetik. We found out there was a relationship because they came from the
same town. There were many Wanetiks in the United States and New York and
California. Rick did some work in the arts council. By chance I was able to find
out where he came from and he put me in touch with an uncle up in New England.
By extension they were mishpacha, all the Wanetiks but some spelled it
Wanetick, others spelled it Vanetick. They all came from this one town called
Tamastphul, phonetically. It’s in the Ukraine in the Vata area and they were
married on August 19, 1923. I was born May 22, and I was blessed by having a
brother-in-law they named Jerry on February 29 and we just celebrated my
brother’s 18th birthday in Berkeley, California. Owing to leap years
you multiply by 4. We lived in Manhattan for a while then they moved to the
Bronx and we spent time there until I was 18 and I was the baby, et cetera, et
cetera, et cetera. But all they are was Harry and Sandy, my mother and dad. I
was very lucky that they were born before me but they really inculcated me and
one of the good deeds that they did I remember them.
Schottenstein: They did well in raising a son. I don’t know your
brother but I know you and you’ve been very passionate about your religion and
your country. Tell us about your brother.
Gerson: Well, my brother was born on February 29. He got ill. He was
five years of age. He had rheumatic fever and St. Vitus Dance. My brother was a
lovely man, he was a lovely child, but he was an ill child. He spent a lot of
time in bed; he was bed-ridden. We supported each other because he did something
for me that was most important: I stopped being an only child by having a
brother. Only child is lonely, not alone, because there’s always mother and dad,
but just lonely. He changed all that for me…
Schottenstein: Was he able to go to school?
Gerson: He went to special schools for a while. We were told that he
would probably not live beyond the age of 16, but I was very fortunate also; I
guess Fortune has always been with me… I met a physician when I was in the
Navy, who was from New York City. I met him when I was in Camp Lejeune, North
Carolina. I had been transferred out of the Navy into the Marine Corps to serve
in the American arena and we became friendly and we shared a number of private
information, the physician and myself, and I told him about my brother. He told
me that when I get discharged out I should bring my brother to where he
practices. He was at this very special hospital in upper Manhattan… And I took
him up on it and I got Irv there. He was 15 years of age at that point and he
started going to treatments there and this physician really set him on a good
path. He worked with him and Irv was getting better and better and then when Irv
went on to high school and then college and then graduate school, then Dr.
Irving Gershenberg had four Fulbright scholarships to his name and went on that
special committee of Mr. Nixon’s. He was one of eight professors, traveled
throughout the world and spent a great deal of time in Africa, particularly
Uganda, and Kenya and I was a recipient and beneficiary of his being there. I
traveled there and spent time with him in Ugan & and Marian and I went to a
nephew’s bar mitzvah that was held in Kenya. That was 23 years ago.
Irv married Linneya and the oldest was Aaron Gershenberg. He’s 40 now. And
there are two sisters: Lisa, she’s married. Aaron has two lovely children and
they live in Redwood City, California. Lisa’s name is Humphrey and
they live in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, she and her husband and her three
children. And then Sara, the youngest, is married and she lives in Napa Valley.
She has three children also. Their name is Pendleton. Sarah married John
Pritchard. Lisa’s husband’s name is Michael; so we have an extended family.
Irv retired back to where he had gone for his graduate studies in Berkeley,
California but he’s traveled Europe, the Pacific Rim, lived in Africa. He was a
professor of Economics with a home base at the University of Massachusetts. So
we’ve lived vicariously. We were very fortunate in having Marian’s
sisters, she has two sisters. They have lovely children, they have family….
Schottenstein: Tell us about your schooling…
Gerson: I’m a product if you want to call it that, of the public
schools of New York. I attended grade school in The Bronx; I attended high
school in The Bronx and then went into the Navy. I was fortunate that there was
a G.I. Bill of Rights because after my service I attended New York University,
graduated with an A.B. degree in June, 1960. I so-called majored in History,
specifically the Italian Renaissance, that’s where I put most of my efforts and
studies… I minored in language: Spanish, and I took a second minor in
Elizabethan English and graduated and looked for a job in 1950. I was in it
mostly to teach but in a sense I got very fortunate. A group of people were out
there recruiting and I took one of these tests they were giving. It was the
Underwood Typewriting Corporation. It was a summer job. They were looking for
interns to work with their sales force. WOW! I really liked that. I liked the
sales. So I returned to school. I wanted to stay in Sales. I got very lucky and
through a friend of Marian’s I went to work for a manufacturer of toys and
novelties and lo and behold, today I am a salesman.
Schottenstein: Are you still working?
Gerson: No, I’m retired. I’ll be seventy-nine in just a few weeks.
I’m retired. I do other things. I learned a long time ago, you just don’t retire
from, you retire to something. So I retired to do what I do. I read a great
deal. I speak a great deal, maybe too much for that matter. I attend lectures,
I’m up at Ohio State University trying to complete a master’s program. I’m not
auditing. I’m trying to complete a program in History of the Middle East,
specifically because I have a “smattering of ignorance”. I can speak
out about what I really knew and I try to reinforce myself. So what I’m saying
is that in the 20th century, how the Islamic shirai affects
their political structures. That’s what I’m doing, basically and hopefully next
year, in June, 2005, I’ll complete all my studies and do my paper, and hopefully
get it approved and take tassel and move it from one side to the other and get
another stripe on my gown.
Schottenstein: Good luck! You mentioned Marian a couple of times.
Tell us how you met Marian, when you got married and about her family.
Gerson: I met Marian at a dance. On Friday nights and Saturday
nights, particularly Saturday nights, there were places in New York City,
usually temples, synagogues, hotels, people would go to dance. You would look
into the local papers, particularly the New York Post where you could go to
dance, and they would list all the different places where a Jewish person could
meet a Jewish person or not even a Jewish person, and go dancing. And I like
dancing. I went with two friends of mine this particular Saturday night in 1951.
I had returned from a trip to Florida visiting a cousins of mine and so it was
the Winter Dance. It was the twelfth of February, 1951 on the upper west side of
Manhattan. I lived in The Bronx. I’m trying to remember the name of this
particular temple. There were young men and young women standing around …I saw
this display, saw a young lady standing there, we started to talk and I asked
her if she would like to go out and have a drink at the end of the day. I asked
her if she liked beer. I like beer. First, it was inexpensive and I didn’t have
a lot of money. I don’t think I was even working, I don’t believe, and she said,
And then she asked me something and chances are she could have ruined the
whole thing. She asked me if I had a car. I didn’t have a car, in fact, I go by
subway! That was about a year after I’d gotten out of school and I may not have
even been working at this time and she said, “Yes,” so we went to a
bar, but she would order beer. But then I looked into my pocket to see how much
money I had… We talked and talked and talked. We took a bus because she lived
in Manhattan, lower Manhattan, lower east side. We talked, got her to her
apartment, turned around and got a bus, a subway back up to the Bronx and I
felt, “Well gee, this takes about an hour and a half. I don’t know if this
is going to work out for me,” `till I called her again. I knew I was going
to see her again because I asked her if I could see her again and she said,
Schottenstein: What was she doing at that time?
Gerson: She was working as a full-time bookkeeper. She had graduated
high school when she was 17 and had to work. It had been a number of years at
this one particular place and I do remember the name of the place. It was called
L. They were involved with regalia that they made for organizations like the
Shriners, their caps, and all kinds of organizations… It was in Manhattan not
far from where she lived. She lived on East Second Street and this was up around
Thirteenth Street and Lexington Avenue and we became friends. We remained
friends, she and I.
Schottenstein: So you were able to manage that hour and a half
Gerson: Yes, I did… I did. And as her mother said, we shlepped around
for a few years and her mother, a lovely woman, also, my mother-in-law, was fine
but she said, “Do something,” because she had another daughter at
home, a middle sister, my sister-in-law, Edith. The older sister had married and
she was no longer at home.
The older sister, whose name was Lynn, she’s now 82 and living in Augusta,
Georgia. Her children are Loren, Jonathan and Andrea. The middle sister is two
years senior to Marian. I haven’t told you their maiden name. It was Slomowitz.
Middle sister Edith had married Fred Gottesman and they had two children. One
was Rabbi Gottesman, a rosh yeshiva who went to high school in Flushing
and a yeshiva in Flushing, New York. And my niece is a physician who lives in
one of the five towns, Cedarhurst, the daughter. Between the two sisters there
are eleven grandchildren. The rabbi and his wife have six, and the doctor and
her husband have five. It’s a large extended family and I’m very fortunate. They
call me “Uncle Bernie” and they do call me. First they used to call me
“Uncle Bernie, the toy man” because I would treat ’em – not money, but
the largesse that I would give them would be the toys that I was selling.
I am fortunate to have a large extended family.
Schottenstein: So Marian is the youngest of three?
Gerson: No, there were four. There was a younger brother, truly a
wonderful man. We have a word we use, a mensch, in all aspects. He was
caring. He understood what severity was all about. He understood more than
anything else I think, the meaning of family. When I think of him, and
what I just said, I think always of something that I read a long time ago… in
fact I read it while I was still in college, one of Eldred Hubbard’s works. He
wrote a short story about something that occurred during the Spanish-American
War. Do you remember reading “A Message to Garcia”? The message that
truly burned into my mind during college and I carried it with me all these
years. There were two things he spoke about, there were two messages to Garcia.
One was about initiative and the other was about loyalty, and he said in the
writing that “an ounce of loyalty is worth than a pound of
cleverness”. That’s what he wrote, and if anything exemplifies that it was
my brother-in-law Hy. I called him Hy, not Hyman. He preferred Hy, he really
Schottenstein: You’re talking about him in the past tense.
Gerson: He died…a young man. He died six years ago. He passed on.
He was ill and he collapsed. He lived not far from a hospital and he collapsed,
in fact, right next to the hospital in New York City, but he died. He died six
Schottenstein: Had he been married?
Gerson: He was never was married. He was in the import/export
business but had never had married. Truly, truly loving. He was a
mensch. Loyalty to family… He reinforced me in many ways. I had
difficulties and he saw the end of the tunnel. I may not have but he did
envision the end of the tunnel. He was the youngest of the family.
Schottenstein: So you went with Marian for a couple of years…
Gerson: …and then we married. I remember…the B’nai
Jeshurun Temple, Synagogue. We got married there. We danced. I really enjoyed
the wedding, had a great time. It was a very formal, afternoon wedding. B’nai
Jeshurun is a wonderful place. Marian’s background was her faith of practicing
Orthodoxy. I did not come from that background at all. My family, we knew the
origins, we were Jews, but they were mostly political. We didn’t practice
Orthodoxy in my family.
Schottenstein: Did you go to services, did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
Gerson: Kind of a BaMitzvah. At the time I was
thirteen my father’s older brother took me to a small store that was two blocks
away from where we lived. It was called a shtiebel, it was a store-front
synagogue of some sort. I remember their taking me there and I remember my
cousin, Michael, would come to my house a couple of days a week or so before,
and two weeks before, and there he taught me the same prayer and we went there
and I was Bar Mitzvahed and they went off to work.
There was no party that we know of.
Schottenstein: I don’t think a lot of , when you say you had
“kind of a bar mitzvah“, don’t even try to compare it to
today’s bar mitzvahs. They’re extravaganzas.
Gerson: No, I was bar mitzvahed. My brother got bar mitzvahed
because the way he was, they did give him a party and it was like
closing one door and opening another. It’s part of what we do. I was glad to
take his, but I didn’t have a “coming-out party” or “pay-off’
parties. Today I see everybody’s “paying back” everybody else and they
haven’t been invited. Our fates are really solved at those parties. We didn’t
have that, I didn’t have that at any rate.
Schottenstein: I’m going to see if I can close relationships with
Gerson: We were not so-called “Orthodox” or religious. We
were Jews. We know the origin…to me that’s always been the most important thing, to know the
origin… You hear so many different things about where we are in the religious
spectrum. I never could buy into that. I’m digressing here… To me, I’m a child
of the 21st century and we know of the hatred that came out had
nothing to do with how safe, what synagogue you went to, or didn’t attend.
Schottenstein: You were talking about your feelings about your faith
Gerson: So I didn’t care about where we got married, but what we
did was we got married at B’nai Jeshurun. It was a Conservative-practicing group
of Jews and they were Jews. That was the important part. We got married
there…the family went along with wherever we wanted to go. We had a wonderful
afternoon wedding and we danced and the whole family came, friends came and I
was 28. We got married on the 24th of May in 1953. I was born on the
22nd of May. She was born on the 2nd of June she was on and the 24th,
right in the middle there is our anniversary. I saved a lot of money! We had one
big party going for those ten days. We’ve had a good marriage. We lived, for the
first eleven months we lived in the back of an office that my brother-in-law,
his name is Irving, Dr. Irving Rich, he was a dentist in Brooklyn, New York, on
the Fort Hamilton Parkway and for eleven months we lived, we had a bed, no
special facilities, just a bed, and we lived for eleven months, not in the bed
the whole time, because I was working and she was working at this place in
Brooklyn, in the back of his office.
When he first got married and he went into
practice, that’s where he and his wife lived until they moved around to
different places in Brooklyn. So we, Irving offered it and Lynn offered us to
have this place so that’s where we lived. At the end of eleven months we found
an apartment in The Bronx, the west side of The Bronx, near Moshalu Parkway
which is near the Botanical Gardens, and we lived there from 1954 to 1957 and
then we came out here to Columbus. The job opportunity with the company I
represented, they wanted me to move into the territory that I had.
Schottenstein: Was that difficult for Marian to leave New York and
her family and come to Ohio?
Gerson: I wouldn’t say there was difficulty. There was consideration,
we talk of loyalty. I was doing it and she came, she encouraged me.
Schottenstein: You were leaving your family, too…
Gerson: I had been in the service and had lived away from home when I
was in college… I had lived in Mexico for just under 6 months with a friend,
Miltie Horowitz, just bumming around Mexico.
Schottenstein: When did your parents pass away?
Gerson: Dad died in May of 1980 and Mother died in 1998. They had
gone to Florida to live and when Dad became ill we brought them up here, Marian
and I, and they lived here at the Heritage. Dad was 84 and Mother was 102 years
of age when she died. The last eight years were difficult for her after Dad
died. Marian’s dad died in 1960 and her mother died twelve years ago. We had
brought both of them here.
I had my Uncle Joe, Uncle Harry, their wives, Uncle Moms, my dad’s brother,
his wife, aunts, uncles, cousins.
I was close to one particular cousin on my mother’s side. He started out as
Israel Germain. At the same time I Anglicized my name he became Robert Germaine!
We had a cousin Murray who was the first one to go to college, and he became a
writer and my dad used to joke about it. He told me that while I’m out looking
to do something, and he suggested to us in 1949 when he began practicing law
with the name Gershenberg, or Germain, you guys ought to change it, so my cousin
Bernie, also Gershenberg, changed it to Gersh and Israel changed his given name
and his surname, and that’s what happened. He died in 1986, a very young man.
Schottenstein: Do you have a computer?
Gerson: I’m “computer savvy”. I’m on it often enough. I
think those of us who’ve lived in the twentieth century, we saw that revolution.
I think it was great. The technology that passages, it opens to the mind, is
wonderful. It excites me. I truly am drawn to it. I embrace it! Look at all the
knowledge that’s there. I put the computer on and play with that mouse. I have
many friends with computers. I so-called speak to them daily. I have chat rooms,
I have buddy lists, email, all over the world. I have friends that I have made
because of it. I read daily a number of newspapers. I spend a minimum of an hour
reading El Diario de Nueva York or if I don’t I read El Mundo. There are two Spanish papers there and I read
them because I enjoy reading and I enjoy the stories. The world is ours with the
computers. Just being able to do it. I get my letters out, I get my
information…I just love the computers.
Schottenstein: Leslie, next door said it’s like having a lot of keys
to a house and you can keep opening these doors. What have Marian’s activities
been, through the years?
Gerson: She’s been a loyal friend. I’m going to put it that way. She
has been a loyal friend. She has many activities. She never really worked. She’s
volunteered on school boards, going in on ancillary programs that they have for
children. She’d spend an hour or two when she was doing that. She was active in
the Sisterhood here at Beth Jacob…we’re still members there. I like to think
of myself as being a member of every synagogue or temple, whether I’m paying or
not. I’ve got a hang-up about that, you know, where people get along and such.
May I share it with you?
Schottenstein: Sure, if you want it on the record!
Gerson: Why not? I have a hang-up. If somebody asks you what
synagogue or temple you belong to and you immediately see in their face that
they think they know everything about you. I’d rather tell them, “Well, I’m
a member wherever people gather, where everyone feels comfortable.” But
Marian has friends, she spends time with friends, and she enjoys the library, I
know that. She reads a great deal, mainly novels. I don’t find myself reading
many novels but she likes that. She also spends time writing letters by
snail-mail. She uses the phone, but she enjoys writing letters.
Schottenstein: I know you’ve gone to Israel many times and I’m not
going to let that alone; I’ll let you get started with your experiences and
interests in Israel, why you travel back and forth and what it does for you.
Gerson: In 1959, I’ll start there, we went to an Oneg Shabbat at
Beth Jacob. There was a Dr. Abramson. He was a speaker that night and he started
talking that night that we should spend some vacation time in Israel. Up until
then I would take my vacations, and they were usually at the end of the year.
The week after Thanksgiving usually until the first week of January I would not
be working. The people I would be selling to were more interested in selling
than in purchasing more merchandise, the type I was selling, which gave us about
six weeks to take a vacation time and I would usually spend that time either in
Florida or going to Europe. I liked going to Europe, Italy in particular, so we
would do that. This Dr. Abramson who waxed so warmly about going to Israel, I
said to Marian, “What we’re going to do is on our next vacation we’ll first
go to Israel and then go to Europe”. I worked with an agent and we were
able to do that, so at the end of November, 1959, I went to Israel for the first
time with Marian.
We had family there. I had none, but in fact she had this young brother who
passed on, was an archivist. He knew family, had traced her family, where they
came from, from Hungary, Rumania, and we had a list of people living there and
we were going to visit all these people from this list that he had.
Schottenstein:Were you the first from your family to be going to
Israel? In 1959 there were not a lot of people going….
Gerson: I was the first from both sides of
the family to be going to Israel. When I was a kid, because of this uncle that I
had, we were involved in Workman’s Circle, we were involved in Socialism, some
“pink” organizations they used to label them, Communism, whatever it
was. We were involved and I got involved as a kid in Betar, Trumpeldor, that
organization BETAR, from Joseph Trumpeldor, that organization like the Jewish
Boy Scouts. And the fact then it was like the Mapai party, the Socialist Party,
the first Labor Party, that kind of background. I knew of them. It was short
lived, but from the time I was 12 or 13. But in the back of my mind, we knew
about Israel from the end of ’47 till the end of ’48 when it became a
nation-state once again. We went again in 1959 but it was like an elixir! God,
what a… it was wonderful for me!
Schottenstein: You got hooked!
Gerson: Did I ever!
Schottenstein: How long were you there?
Gerson: We had approximately a five or six week vacation and what I
wanted to do was to spend half of that time in Israel so we took a 21 day trip
to Israel, then we went on because I had a friend who I did business with in New
York who had family there so we would spend a few days there. So we went to
Istanbul for three days to be with his family and then we went on to spend a
little over two weeks in Italy, then came back to New York and Columbus.
I really got into that majority. I loved it! Of course, in 1959 we couldn’t
get into the other side of Jerusalem. We went to West Jerusalem. We couldn’t get
into a lot of places because it wasn’t until 1967, after that war that we were
able to see Jerusalem. We had to start with the tall buildings on the west side
and look over. They had this expanse they called “no man’s land,” and
look into Jerusalem at that time. But we did something; we flew down to Eilat
and we had to be very careful how we flew in because at that time there were
only two hotels down there.
Schottenstein: It’s changed, hasn’t it?
Gerson: Well, this last trip that I took, we went with the
Federation. It was the first trip that I ever took with the Federation. I was
reluctant to go with Federation, that kind of organized group of people.
Schottenstein: When was this?
Gerson: Last September, 2003. But that was our 26th trip
to Israel. We liked spending our Passovers there and our holidays, and we went
there for my 65th birthday and we had 28 people going with us from
Schottenstein: I remember how you organized that!
Gerson: I wanted an Independence theme. I didn’t want
to wait until my 80th birthday and I decided I wanted to have a 13th
birthday when I didn’t have a party. So in ’73, six years ago, we had 17 people
who came, plus my family. I had 37 people, not counting myself. My brother
helped me and my two nieces, Loren and Andi, who live in Augusta and Atlanta,
and I think my nephew, Rabbi Bennet Gottesman. There were seven who came from
Schottenstein: I’d say that was a tribute to you. It shows their love
and care about you.
Gerson: Hopefully. I works both ways, you know…
Schottenstein: So when you go to Israel, when it’s not this kind of
organized trip, do you always go with a group or some organization?
Gerson: Frank Nutis, Lev Kucherski and myself about seven years ago,
we called ourselves “The Friendship Boys”. We’ve gone with them, not
all the time, but we found we’ve done good. We brought people over there who’d
never been, and there’s an interdenominational group that we take…
Schottenstein: Do you have goals; do you go just to visit?
Gerson: No, we’ve gone to visit the people, the homes, institutions,
the land. We show that when we go. Right from the beginning, I started in ’59
and I we didn’t go back for four years. We went in 1963, `66. Didn’t go back
until ’68. That was a great trip also. That was the year after the ’67 war so we
had more places to go and then we didn’t go because of illness that came about,
and sadly, the next trip wasn’t until about 1980 with Rabbi Stavsky of Blessed
Memory. We had gone in ’78 and then ’80. We had gone on two trips and then
starting in ’85 or ’86, I’ve been going about once a year and then twice a year.
I have a lot of friends there and organizations, and I’m involved in things…
Schottenstein: I want to ask you about the ambulance program.
Gerson: Mogen Dovid Adom? That was started by Frank
(Nutis) and I kind of jumped in on that and Lev…Mogen Dovid Adom.
That’s been more recent in the past 8 or 9 years. This community has been very
good. Both this community and the Christian community jumped in and that
continues on. We’ve got other projects now! The ZAKA is part of the Mogen
Dovid Adom. It stands for Israeli Red Mogen Dovid, are those people
who go about, the chevra kaddisha of Israel. When people are murdered or
maimed, they go pick up the body parts of these serious bombings that are going
on, and we try to help them and then we’re involved now with Pups for Peace.
That’s training lead dogs for the blind. There are a lot of things that Frank
has been doing. He’s been very busy and we try to help each other getting it
Schottenstein: Now the ambulance program, I want to clarify that.
Have you arranged for purchase…
Gerson: Two! We’ve purchased two ambulances fully equipped. We’ve
done that and we’re still working on that but we have other programs going on
other than those that I’ve mentioned. It’s a continuous thing. With the bombings
going on and the murders going on and injuries that take place, the ambulances
are very important that we’re involved with. The hospitals there and other
organizations like The Schottenstein Cancer Center at Bar Ilan University,
there’s the dessa Besa Zaka program. That’s the Begin-Sadat Tsadak
political institute that they have and then. We have for, this community has
been enriched for what they’ve done for the Schottenstein Family, for what
they’ve done. They have this cancer institute, cancer clinic, I’ve written about
it. I visit it and there are so many things that they do in your family. You’ve
got an extended family (the Schottenstein Family – Ed.). I know your family and
what they’ve done there for Israel, and certainly what they’ve done with the
cancer clinic in Bar Ilan. So I’m involved with that, with the Tel Aviv
University. I’ll tell you why I’m involved with. I’m getting all these nerve
Schottenstein: Great! That’s what I’m hoping that we’re able to
Gerson: I was talking about that earlier… When I came to this
country and my dad toward the end of his days would say that this, “The
United States was the best country in the world because of what it did for his
two boys”, meaning for my brother and myself. “They were able to go to
college and Irving is a doctor…a Ph.D. and my son Bernie is in business and
look, he went to college and all that. The United States is wonderful.” And
he always said that. What I wanted to do in Israel for my dad, who wanted to go
but never made it, he had often said that he wanted to go. He felt for the
people of the kibbutzim, ’cause I said that was his background, the
Workmen’s Circle. He felt very close to that particular party and wanted to know
what the kibbutzim were all about.
Schottenstein: So you were able to bring some of that emotion and
interest and knowledge to him…
Gerson:…and he listened carefully and I’d see that smile
on his face, and he wanted to do something… My brother and I both wanted to do
something for my dad. What we did, in his memory, after my cousin Bob, whom I
mentioned, we started a program, my brother and I, for my 65th
birthday. Fourteen years ago, when we were in Israel, we asked the museum in Tel
Aviv, near the Tel Aviv University, I’d been involved with Tel Aviv University
and the Diaspora Museum but at the Tel Aviv Univesity nothing had been done and
we established, my brother and I, in perpetuity, the Harry Gershenberg
Scholarship specifically to be given to the student of the new olim (immigrants
to Israel-Ed.) any student that they chose, on condition that their family are
new immigrants during the five years the scholarship is given. As many of those
who came out of Russia and those who came out of Ethiopia and South America or
the United States or anywhere, that they had to arrive there within the five
years before the scholarship was given.
It shows that, it could be ten years, it
doesn’t matter, but it had to be at least five years. For that scholarship we
had it in Dad’s name and we added another scholarship, the Robert Germane
Scholarship. We have the other scholarship there that we gave in honor of my
brother-in-law, Dr. Irving E. Rich, and there are plaques that they put up and
all… And the family has continued and to support and we continue to contribute
to it so that his children and my nieces and my nephews in the name of my
father. And the reason it all started was because of my father. And the reason
we did this is we wanted to make sure, we hope, that the family of the new
immigrant, the mother and father or any part of the family, would sometime say
what a wonderful country Israel really is, what a nation it really is that they
gave our children an opportunity to go to college.
Schottenstein: It’s like what your father felt about America.
Gerson: Absolutely…That’s why we did something for Harry
Gershenberg. And then what we did after the second year, after my mother died,
we gave another scholarship for my mother, Fannie, and the most recent one is
for my brother-in-law and the family evolved and we just supported. But we
started it all because my father, Harry Gershenberg, said, “What a
wonderful country the United States is. It gave my two sons an opportunity to go
to college.” Education was always something really big with him. We’re
tied, we’re all tied together…
Schottenstein: So when are you going back to Israel?
Gerson: We might be going in November for five days.
I might be going back by myself for five days but there’s a conference I do want
to attend at Bar Ilan… We’ll definitely go back next Passover, we’re planning
for that already. We wanted to go this past Passover but we couldn’t because of
illness that came about in the family.
Schottenstein: When you go for Passover, do you just go on your own
or do you go..
Gerson: I don’t want to go, we’ve been
going to the same two places all the time. We go to Jerusalem first of course,
and stay at the Sheraton. It’s the main Sheraton right there in Jerusalem and
then we have to spend the last five days of Passover or any time we’re there we
spend the last five days in Tel Aviv because Marian’s family, that family is
still in place in or around Tel Aviv, B’nai Barak, Natanya, so we do spend the
last five days of any given trip, in Tel Aviv.
Schottenstein: It must really mean a lot for those relatives to have
their American family be there to encourage them and enlighten them somehow.
Gerson: They’re family. They’re family.
Schottenstein: Sure, sure.
Gerson: That’s it for every unit… and their children have visited
with us and they’re family.
Schottenstein:The Friendship Boys – how are those trips coming
Gerson: We have had good response. This
community has really joined in. Those who have gone before to Israel have joined
us, and there were new visitors who haven’t been. We have a good agency. The
Jewish Touring works with us, the people of Israel work with us, institutions
work with us and we honed our skills without getting the people then and the
leadership: Frank. And really Frank has done a great job with that.
Schottenstein: We’re getting near the end of our tape, but I want to
talk about your writing letters to the editor. I’ve read a lot of them. They’re
very, very well written. They’re impressive. I want to know your feelings about
how you’re able to communicate your message.
Gerson: I write because I came, as I said, I came from a family who
were outspoken, unlike some other families that we know and friends in the
thirties and forties. They were quiet, people didn’t speak up. I think it was a
mentality of “Shush!” No mentality, and I’ve always felt and people
who know me all these years, I just can’t keep quiet if I see something wrong or
if, you use the word, “passion”. Or if I believe in something, then I
keep quiet. And certainly we, in our whole march of history, Jews have always
been put upon. We’ve been victims before the Holocaust, before the inquisition.
We’ve always had this and we dare not remain quiet. Too many people did remain
quiet. Not many in my family, and I can tell you my senator, I can tell you
certainly my uncle Morris, my uncle Morris thought that so much that nearly had
a fight with my father-in-law, Marian’s dad, how outspoken this man was. But I
understood that, so I write and I write what I believe in.
A Jew, this happened to me really, is that there were certain things that
influenced me and one of the greatest things that influenced me was a book that
I read in 1967. I keep telling, there were five or six books in my life that
really influenced me. This one book, okay, was written by Bernard Malamud. It
was called, “The Fixer” and in the very next-to-the-last paragraph,
Naomi, he said it best. Here he is about ready to execute the czar, the main
character, Yacov Bok. It burned into my head and what he said was the following,
these are the words of Bernard Malamud, who wrote it, “I’ve never met a
person, especially a Jew who dared remain apolitical. A Jew cannot stand by and
see himself murdered and not do something about it.”
And that burned into me. And to see what was going on and if I was
reinforced, it certainly was by Bernard Malamud. I have also one other book that
really reinforced the attitudes of the fifties and the author said it so
beautifully. Okay, that Maurice Samuels. He wrote that the “Professor and
the Fossil”, and he opens it up and says, “The Jews, in their march of
history are going up to an auctioneer and the auctioneer is telling when the
hammer is coming down, “Going, going”, but it never comes down hard.
But the Jew must stand up for what he believes is being done to him and it’s
true, and that’s why I write and I speak and you know why I do that, in a sense,
it’s my catharsis. I have to speak out!
Schottenstein: It does a lot, too, for the people who read you
articles. I think this is the perfect place to wind up our interview…
Gerson: Let me thank you for opening up all these old nerve centers…
Schottenstein: I hope it doesn’t cause you to stay awake at night…
Gerson: No, no, I ruminate as an old man. Anyway, I’m going into my
Schottenstein: Well, we reserve the right to say what we want and
feel what we want.
Gerson: Same difference. Let me tell you something: my own life, I’ve
lived with a premise and a concern. I ever write on that. A premise is the only
thing that limits me on my own shortcomings. The concern has always been more
important. The concern is that I was forced to recognize an opportunity, so you
know the Schottensteins, the organization there, you’ve given me this
opportunity and I’m glad that I took this opportunity. I hate to say that I let
an opportunity pass me by, but once again repeat myself to thank you and I
really say, Thank You!
Schottenstein: And I want to take this opportunity on
behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society to thank you for your time.
It’s been a pleasure to interview you!