This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project with Gilda Abramson is taking place on December 27, 1995, at 114 N. Merkle Rd. The interviewer is Hinda Riker.
Interviewer: Hi Gilda, we’re ready to start.
Interviewer: First, where were you born?
Abramson: I was born in Steubenville, Ohio.
Abramson: February 13, 1932.
Interviewer: Who were you named after?
Abramson: I was named after my father’s sister, my aunt.
Interviewer: At what point can you trace your family history? How far back can you go?
Abramson: I can go back through my grandparents on my mother’s side and just my father’s family. My father was an orphan and I don’t know anything about his parents but I know about his sisters and family.
Interviewer: Were they all in the same orphanage together?
Abramson: I don’t really know that.
Interviewer: How long have you been in Columbus?
Abramson: I went to Ohio State University and started in September of 1949 and I was just here for one year. I happened to meet my husband Sam here. So after we were married a few years later, I came back to Columbus December 27, 1953. Today is my anniversary of 43 years.
Abramson: Thank you.
Interviewer: I don’t know if you want to go back and talk about your folks and upbringing.
Abramson: I can.
Interviewer: In Steubenville.
Abramson: I can start off by telling you first that my mother, Sarah Mervis Auerbach, was born in Cevelle, Lithuania in 1895. She was the daughter of Julius and Rose Isenbergh. She was the youngest of twin girls and there were eight children in the family. Four boys and four girls. They took the name Mervis when they came to the states because in Lithuania, they lived on a manor and the owner of the estate was named Mervis. My grandfather, Julius and my uncle, who was the oldest son, Uncle Sam, came to America first in 1899 and settled in Pittsburgh. The rest of the family followed. When they came over the boys were dressed as girls. My mother was four years old. They came steerage and she was so ill on the boat they thought they might lose her. My grandfather Julius was a peddler in Pittsburgh. My father was born in 1892. He was an orphan and the youngest of nine children. He was the only son and he was a Kohane. His parents names were Elka and Yankov. He came to America with two of his sisters from Bucharest, Romania. They first went to Montreal where their sister , Leah was living. The only thing they brought to America was a pair of silver candlesticks. They then moved to Cleveland where they had cousins in the barber supply business. My parents married and lived in Cleveland before moving to Pittsburgh and then Steubenville. My parents both worked in our grocery store as did my two sisters and I. My father passed on in 1951 at the age of 59. My mother passed on in 1968 at the age of 73.
Interviewer: Tell me about growing up in Steubenville. What do you remember about that?
Abramson: Well, Steubenville, of course, is a very small town. Although, thank goodness, Pittsburgh is only 40 miles away. Growing up in a small town does limit your activities. My parents were usually busy in our grocery store. When I was a teenager I did belong to B’nai Brith Girls and Junior Hadassah. I graduated from Steubenville High School and my activities there included the Junior Red Cross, the Y-Teens, and I was secretary of my home room. In younger days during the summer, we would basically go swimming and I did go to day camp. Our vacations were visits to relatives in Pittsburgh and Akron.
Interviewer: Is there a temple in Steubenville? That you remember?
Abramson: Yes, we did belong to the temple. It was Orthodox. I remember sitting upstairs with the women and we always of course went for the High Holidays. The synagogue was called B’Nai Israel. I also remember going to Hebrew School and the rabbi telling me that I was the best girl in the class of course, I was the only girl in the class. (Ha) I graduated from Steubenville High School at the age of 17. Their was one other Jewish girl in my graduating class and their were two Jewish boys. I started Ohio State in fall of ’49. I joined PHI SIGMA SIGMA sorority. I was a freshman staying at Camfield Hall and my middle sister, Lila, was a senior staying at Baker Hall. After my first year in school, my father had been ill and the following summer after my first year I decided not to return to O.S.U. Instead, I worked in Steubenville for the next two years. After my father passed away in ’51, about six months later my mother and my older sister, Eileen, and I moved to Pittsburgh to be near my mother’s family. My middle sister at that time was teaching school here in Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Eileen, was working in Pittsburgh at the Joseph Horn Co. In the import/export department and she had been commuting daily from Pittsburgh to Stebenville, so it was much better for her also that we moved to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, my brother-in-law, Milton, passed away about nine years ago but my sister Eileen still lives in New Kensington. She has three children and two grandchildren. My middle sister Lila lives in Wilmette, outside of Chicago with her husband, Jim, and they have two children and one grandchild, a granddaughter.
Interviewer: Gilda, tell me about your moving to Columbus.
Abramson: Sam and I had not been dating for some time, in fact he didn’t know I had moved to Pittsburgh, but thanks to the U.S. mail for forwarding his letter from Steubenville to Pittsburgh we began our long distance relationship. Sam was in the Navy and stationed at Port Columbus. He and his friend, Don Sholonsky, were both stationed there for their complete tour of duty. In December 1953 Sam and I were married at B’Nai Israel synagogue in Pittsburgh. We honeymooned in New York and then settled in Columbus. We joined Tifereth Israel synagogue where Sam had been bar-mitzvahed and his parents were members. Our first apartment was at the Virginia Lee apartments. I began working at the Columbus General Depot and Sam worked part time and went to Ohio State part time. Our first son, Marc, was born January 24, 1956. Our second son, Michael, October 16, 1958, and our third son, Martin, in March of 1963. After Marc was born, we bought a house in the Willis Park area which was near Country Club Road and Main Street. We stayed there until 1968 when we purchased our current house at 114 N. Merkle Road. During all this time, I was a stay-at-home mom. I was active in many organizations including ARC (Aid to Retarded Children) to Tifereth Israel Sisterhood, United Jewish Fund, Red Cross Blood Donor Drive, PTA, a life member of Hadassah, and a life member of Wexner Heritage Auxiliary. I was also a charter member of the Candlelight Chapter of B’nai B’rith Women. I remember being at the first meeting of the B’nai B’rith Women at the home of Sylvia Schecter. When my youngest son Marty started kindergarten in 1968, I began working part time at the Jewish Center. Mayer Rosenfeld was the director and Howard Banchefsky, the assistant director. I think I worked in every office at the Ccnter, wherever I was needed. Part time eventually worked into full-time and I ended up in the business office. I stayed at the Jewish Center for ten years until 1979 when I applied for the Hillel Foundation position at O.S.U.
It brought back a lot of memories of my year at school there, because Sam and I spent a lot of time at Hillel. Playing bridge and going to other activities there. In fact, I remember Rabbi Harry Kaplan’s secretary’s name at that time was Gilda. I began working there under Rabbi Sheldon Switkin who was the interim rabbi and Aaron Leventhal. They were both there my first year. In 1980, the next year, Rabbi Howard Alpert became director. He came from the Hillel Foundation in Champaign, Illinois. During that time there was a lot of talk about renovating the building. I remember Edie Garlikov, Lee Skilkin, and Larry Schaffer all played key roles in the sprucing up of the old Hillel. Painting, buying new windows, new carpeting, etc. Rabbi Howard Alperts stayed at O.S.U. Hillel about six years before becoming a regional executive director in Philadelphia. Rabbi Steven Abrams then became the new executive director. Again, there was talk about renovation or building a new building and the board decided the time had come to begin the prospect of building a new building. The original restrooms had never been updated, the furnace, the roof, and other equipment became problematic and the time was right to begin fund raising. Ben Mandlekorn was hired to head the project. Rabbi Steven Abrams played a major role as did Nelson Genshaft, Fred Kastan, Lee Skilken, Larry Schaffer, Jack Zakin, Stanley Yenkin, and Eleanor Resler. I do have to say also that there were many other people involved but I say to this day that if it wasn’t for Ben Mandelkorn, the building would not have been built. His persistence and dedication to the project made it happen. I worked very hard during this time helping with parlor meetings, and fund raising, doing the bookkeeping for the new building, plus all my regular duties as administrator. It was a big job disposing of all the old equipment in the old building. Thanks to Alan Cooper, who was president of the Jewish Student Activities Board, and many other students, a sale enabled us to get rid of most everything. In June of 1993, we vacated the old building and it was demolished in July.
Joseph Kohane, the assistant director at Michigan, became the new executive director that summer. The office staff was moved to 1880 N. High Street on the 2nd floor and koshered their kitchen. Fraternities managers association was located at 47 E. 16th avenue and that became the kosher dining club. Other meetings and dinners were also held there. Summit Church was also very helpful in allowing Hillel to use their building for programming. Many activities were planned at Drake Union and the Ohio Union. In November of 1994 the beautiful new Hillel building at 46 E. 16th Avenue was ready for occupancy. Many exciting things had happened when I worked at Hillel. There were many celebrities who performed at Mershon Auditorium at Ohio State that became a part of our programming. Included were Yitchak (Itzak) Perlman, the St. Paul Symphony, Zubon Mata and the Philharmonic Symphony plus many, many other wonderful happenings. Hillel also hosted many famous people including Isaac Beshevit Singer, Naton Sharonsky, Simon Perez, and Roman Vishniac. It was exciting working at Hillel and being around the young people. There was a definite difference in the atmosphere on High Street from when I began working in 1979 until I decided to retire. In the beginning I would enjoy taking my lunch hour and strolling High Street. And going to the shops and going to different spots for lunch. That I enjoyed. But in later years the atmosphere had completely changed. There were so many fast food restaurants and bars, I know that the city of Columbus and the University are making a big effort to upscale High Street which is much overdue. I had said I would stay in the new building at least one year, and that’s exactly what happened. In December of 1995 I retired from Hillel after over 16 years of what I feel was dedicated service. In late December of 1995 our eldest son Mark and his wife Karen moved back to Columbus. Mark was on a special assignment project for Citibank. In January 1996 our first grandon Mathew Aaron was born. What a joy to have them living only two blocks away. Mathew is the apple of our eye. Our middle son Michael, who’s a sales manager for a car agency, lives there in Raleigh with his wife Sheila. And our youngest son Marty, who is manager of a Kohl’s store, lives in Charlotte.
Interviewer: So, since your retirement Gilda, now have you been keeping so busy since you’ve had such an active past 16 years?
Abramson: I’ve been very, very active. I did a lot of things I hadn’t been able to do for a while. I was playing tennis and bridge in the evening while I worked but now I’m able to do that during the afternoon. I also am doing some line dancing, playing Mah Jong, taking classes at Tifereth Israel, and I have a very busy retirement schedule. I’m planning to do some volunteer work in the very near future.
Interviewer: Is Sam ready for retirement?
Abramson: No. Sam has not retired as yet. He’s a buyer and head of advertising for Globe Furniture Rental. He has been traveling quite a bit lately since they acquired a lot of different stores on the west coast. I’m very proud to say that last month Sam was inducted into the Apartment Association Hall of Fame. In closing, I just want to say that I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family, good health, and many, many good friends.
Interviewer: Thank you Gilda. On behalf of the Society, I want to thank you for contributing your interview today. This concludes the interview.
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