Interview with Sylvia Schecter in 1985 by Alice Malin. This interview is taking place in Columbus, Ohio as part of the Oral History program of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Interviewer: Sylvia, were you born in Columbus?
Schecter: Yes, I was. I was born in Columbus, Ohio, in my mother’s
home – not in a hospital – which was on Washington Street, right off of
Fulton Street. Right now it is a freeway. It was next to what later
became Levine’s Chicken and Fish Shop. It was probably a mid-wife.
Next door to me, was born Dr. Harry Topolovsky where his mother lived.
He was born a few weeks or a couple days after or before me – I don’t
remember. My mother used to suckle both of us because she didn’t have
enough milk. Isn’t that funny?
Interviewer: What year was that?
Interviewer: When did your family first come to Columbus?
Schecter: My mother came here at the age of twelve, about 1901. Do
you want to know how she got here?
Schecter: My uncle, C.H. Furman, had the Furman Coal Company on the
westside and one of the first dealerships for Mac Trucks. The Furman
family was very prominent in this community. He was president of Beth
Jacob and helped organize Beth Jacob. My mother was also president of
the Sisterhood at Beth Jacob and I was, too, later on, thirty-five years
ago. He came without anyone here. He stole across the border because he
would have had to go into the Austrian army – they lived in Austria.
When he left Austria, he was given some money by his father (he was one
of eight or nine children). He was the oldest son and he came to this
country and landed in New Straitsville, which was a mining town. I guess
that’s how he got involved in coal.
Interviewer: Is that in Ohio?
Schecter: Yes, it’s a mining section down in southeastern Ohio.
Then he went to Zanesville which was another little city near there
which is now in the Federation’s jurisdiction. He married a lovely
woman from the Abrams family and then they moved to Columbus. When he
came to Columbus, he sent money back to Austria for his brother. His
brother didn’t want to go – he’d gotten married and had a baby. So
they took the next two children who were daughters – the rest of the
children were all daughters. One was my mother. Her name was Mary Furman
and her sister, Lena Furman, who is now Lena Margulis. That’s Julius
Margulis’ mother. My mother was twelve years old and Lena was
When they came to Columbus, my mother was a maid – they were called
Denston in those days – for the Greenberg family. They had the famous
clothing store on East Long Street. They were one of the largest retail
people in the city. She lived with the family as a maid at the age of
twelve or thirteen. Bob Shamansky, today, is an offshoot of the
Greenberg family. My mother told me stories about them and how wonderful
the Greenbergs were to her. I guess that was one way some of the Jewish
women came to Columbus. They became . . . I don’t know what my Aunt
Lena did. I never did ask her. She’s ninety-five years old but doesn’t
know she is.
Interviewer: How about your dad?
Schecter: My father was one of five brothers and two sisters. How
they got here, I never knew. I don’t know why you always know what the
mother does. They were a big family. They were the Cohen family. He was
a carpenter. The reason I didn’t know too much about my father’s
family is because he died in 1915 at the age of twenty-six. I was three
and a half years old.
Let me go back to my mother. I think it is interesting what people
did to earn a living in those days. She became a cherry dipper in a
candy factory. They found out she was below age and they had a great big
fight about it, she and my aunt. They wanted to fire them both but my
mother cried and carried on because she had no way making a living – she
had left the home of the Greenbergs and they were living together in a
room or a house.
They used to participate in balls. They used to have big Jewish Purim
balls and they used to have Yiddish shows (like the Gallery Players) in
which they participated. She met my father at a Yiddish show that they
were in together. Very few people know that this existed in those days.
That’s how she met him and married him. She was eighteen and a half
when she married him. I was born a year later. I have two other sisters
– Ruth and Sophie. I was three and a half, my middle sister was two and
a half, and my baby sister was four weeks old, when my father died. He
was a carpenter and his brother, William Cohen, was a blacksmith. He was
a very prominent man in Columbus – active in the synagogue, head of the
cemetery committee which was supposed to be a big job at Beth Jacob. The
whole family was very active in Beth Jacob in those days. The rabbi was
Rabbi Felkowitz when I was little and then Rabbi Greenwald that I
Interviewer: What was your father’s name?
Schecter: My dad’s name was Benjamin Cohen and my mother didn’t
get married for ten or eleven years. She was always afraid that her
children would be mistreated. So she did marry a man who was very nice.
He had a very ______. They had a boy whose name is Ivan Romanoff. She
was married to him for five or seven years. (Could not
hear……) She divorced him and a few years later, my uncle
William Cohen, got her together with Mr. Rubin. He owned the Fulton
Bakery for many years. They lived a very happy life for nineteen or
twenty years until he passed away. These were people who were all very
involved in the Jewish community in Columbus and lived here all their
Interviewer: You mentioned Beth Jacob several times. Tell me a little
bit about the neighborhood and the synagogue.
Schecter: Beth Jacob was on the corner of Donaldson and Washington.
It was an offshoot of the Big Shul, Agudas Achim. Right next to that was
a Little Shul called Ahavas Sholom which was called _________ (Yiddish),
meaning “torn away from.” And Beth Jacob had torn away from
that one. They were over on Donaldson and they were a medium shul.. It
was a beautiful little synagogue. That picture over there is the way it
looked in the olden days. I can name the people in that picture who were
very active in the shul – the Schlonskys, the Furmans, the Brodys – they’re
all in there. That’s a watercolor somebody did.
We were very active in the synagogues. I have to tell you about my
uncles. They were my fathers. C.H. Furman, William Cohen – we moved from
Washington Avenue when we were little children and lived in rented
houses that were like little houses right next to each other on Stauring
Street off Washington. We were in the nicer area. The street was red
brick and the sidewalks were also red brick. On Fridays, everything was
cleaned and lovely. We had nice big yards in the back and everyone had a
little side gate. The houses were two stories high, they each had a nice
big kitchen, a dining room, a living room and two bedrooms upstairs.
They were like flats but were not connected. My Uncle William Cohen
lived in one, a door from us. My other uncle, _______ Cohen lived next
to us. Then the Goldbergs (Annie Ross, today) and the Eisemans (Sara
Robbins, today). On the other side of Uncle William Cohen, was another
Goldberg who later moved out of town. Down the street, in the back of
Beth Jacob, lived Sara Schwartz who was Sara Horwitz in those days.
There was a whole gang of people – Sara would know them all. Across the
street from us on Stauring Street, lived the Fines. Today they are Flora
Fine Coleman and Esther Fine. They had a beautiful big house with a
picket fence. Next to them lived the Friedman’s – __________ Solomon,
Ethel Rising – the whole family. On the corner of Donaldson and
Washington was Kanterovitch’s grocery store where all the things in
the neighborhood happened. Kanterovitch was Dr. Kanter’s father. They
were brilliant. They saw their two sons go through college and become
doctors and their middle daughter was a lawyer, Goldie Mayer. Dr. Kanter
is the donor of the Heritage Manor today and Dr. Max Kanter is
The Kanters, they were nice to me. I was what they called a ________
(Yiddish) – an orphan. Next to the Fines, in the back, lived my aunt,
Mrs. Himmelstein, who was Minnie Goodman and Ray Schlonsky’s mother.
She was my father’s sister. Across the street from them on Fulton
Street, was my other uncle, Aaron Cohen, who is Terri Coved’s
grandfather. They changed their name to Covel because when they landed
in New York and they brought the people who came off the ship, the first
one to come off was William Cohen. He was a blacksmith and his name was
Covalchek which in Russian meant blacksmith. When he landed and said his
name was Covalchek, someone said to him, “Make it Cohen, it’s
easier for you in this country.” So they all became Cohen but when
the kids grew up, they said they didn’t like the name Cohen because
they really weren’t Kohanim so they changed back to Covel which is an
offshoot of Covalchek. Another Cohen with a big foot (he had a high shoe
that he had to walk on and he limped), he had six or seven sons and one
daughter (the daughter is now Lotty Leiberman) and Flora Fine married
one of the sons. Here was this large family and they brought their
mother over. My grandmother is buried here.
Interviewer: How old was she when she died?
Schecter: My goodness, I don’t know but she was buried after my
father died. She lived with the Himmelsteins. When she first came, she
lived in my mother’s house. My mother didn’t get along with her and
my mother felt that with three little children, it wasn’t right for
her to move in on her. She was buried in 1918 at the Beth Jacob
cemetery. I was eleven or twelve years old. Isaac Cohen, the oldest
brother with the limp, lived next to the Fulton Street School on Fulton
Street. So there we were in this whole area. And the family that Raphael
showed was this family on Stauring Street. That’s the reason I got so
excited because it showed this whole family in the book and in his
presentation when he was getting ready to do the book. So here is my
father with four brothers and two sister and a mother all living here in
My mother came with my aunt and then in 1916 or 1917, my uncle, C.H.
Furman sent overseas for my uncle who’s married to his other sister.
The other sister, Chaya, had five children there so he brought over the
husband whose name is Roth – Benson Roth’s grandfather – and then the
war broke out. Not until after the war was he able to send for his wife
and five children. They came back and they lived on the corner of Fulton
and Washington, a lovely house he had bought. He was a junk dealer and
lived with my mother until my aunt and the five children came through
the war year.
When he came, he brought another sister who later married a Peer.
This Peer woman is my aunt and she died at Heritage House. My mother
also died at Heritage House. She married Nathan Peer and her two
daughters are Isabella Rosen and Adele Hellman. So here is my mother
with three sisters and a brother. And overseas there were three more
sisters and a brother. That’s our family tree. Each of these sisters
and brothers have had four to six children so we are a large family in
Interviewer: When you spoke of Beth Jacob, you said you were active
and involved. Was the family Orthodox?
Schecter: Yes, definitely Orthodox. My mother, who was a widow, used
to sell fish on holidays from our backyard and garage to earn a living.
When my father died, my mother had a little bit of money from an
insurance policy . . . she bought a little house right off the corner of
Fulton and Washington. It was a nice, lovely, red brick house. It was
right next to the Rattlebox’s Saloon. Rattlebox lived on the corner of
Washington and Fulton and had a saloon right next door, which was
between us and themselves. The biggest thrill I used to have was to take
a pitcher over there and buy a pitcher of root beer. We had that to
drink in the summer. We didn’t have bottles of pop to drink in those
days. So we used to buy it from the tap.
Interviewer: What was the cost?
Schecter: Ten cents for a pitcher of root beer. We lived in that home
from the time I was six or seven and I lived there until I was sixteen.
I remember we were ready to move out on my 16th birthday. We
moved to 17th Street which was a nicer neighborhood which
today is taken over by Children’s Hospital.
We sold our house to Harry Center who was a butcher. It’s
interesting to know how he became a part of this community. I remember
the story my mother told. They had such trouble with the prices of meat,
things were so high in comparison to the regular price of things that
the women and men of the community got together and sent away and
brought what they called a community butcher. That community butcher was
Harry Center. First he had a little store right across the street from
us on Fulton, then he moved into a corner storeroom. Somebody bought
that corner storeroom out from him and about that time, we decided to
move. So he bought our house and converted the front which was next door
to the saloon, into a big butcher and Jewish grocery store.
Interviewer: Was that the first in town?
Schecter: No, there was Briars over on Donaldson, there was Katz’s
over on Livingston, there were several Jewish butcher shops and I think
there was Godofsky’s over on Parsons Avenue off of Beck Street, which
is the area my husband’s family lived. Today, we’ve got one butcher
and I worry he won’t make a living if we don’t give him more
business around there. He has to compete with present day supermarkets.
I think it’s the responsibility of the Jewish community to give him
business and frankly, I find him just as inexpensive as the stores. I
thinks it’s a shame more people don’t go there.
Interviewer: Just a side question – this is not really historical.
Knowing the history of the community, why has there been such a change?
When the community was small, you were able to support several grocery
stores and now . . . .
Schecter: They didn’t expect to make as much money as they do
today. Kanterovitch had a grocery store and it wasn’t a butcher shop.
See there’s a difference. Nobody had super markets, they had little
grocery stores. They were content – they didn’t have to make a lot of
money. Now Kanterovitch did pretty well. He was able to put three kids
through college. And it wasn’t that expensive to do in those days.
Very few people went to college, very few people got past the eighth
grade. Everybody was working to help and to bring people over from
Europe. That was the intent in those days. You came here, you earned a
little bit of money, then you sent for the next person. That was how we
got this migration coming to the States. This happened in every family –
my mother’s family, my father’s family – one or two would come out,
they would work, marry, then send for the next person.
My mother was a widow and she bought this little house. During the
holidays, she would sell fish in the backyard. She was active in the
Sisterhood and they would do dinners there so she got into catering. She
catered for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. She taught others how to do it.
Most of the catering was done by her giving her services for the weekend
and she’d be paid $25 plus extra for whatever she brought in.
Interviewer: From what you remember, was your mother a different kind
of widow than other widows of that time?
Schecter: She had to be. There were three children. We didn’t have
aid from the city. We didn’t have medicaid or welfare. There was a
little welfare but not much. Not enough to keep going.
All of us went to Fulton Street School. In junior high school, I went
to Mound Street School. I was already enrolled in Central High School
when we moved to 17th Street so my sisters went to Roosevelt
Junior High School and to South High School. I was one of the first
groups to go to South High School after the old Commerce High School,
over on Broad Street, closed. There’s an insurance company there now
(across from the old Memorial Hall) – girls usually went there to take
commercial courses to be secretaries and then go out and earn money.
They closed up the Commerce High School and made a double kind of thing
so it became Central High School. I was one of the very few people from
the Jewish community who went there. Most of the people from the Jewish
community went to South High School. If you lived on the other side of
Washington, you went to Central High School. I lived on this side of
Washington and was supposed to go to South High School but it didn’t
work. I insisted I wanted to go where my girlfriends went and that’s
where I went. My girlfriends were Ida Schlonsky who today is Ida Marx
and Nan Harris who is Nan Schlonsky. I graduated high school in two and
a half years – I was fifteen and a half and graduated with honors. They
didn’t have any kind of scholarships and I was dying to go to college.
I had all the credentials for it. But I didn’t go. I always felt that
someday I would go back. After I graduated, I went to night school and
took my chemistry and algebra and geometry. I was taking that when I met
my husband and got married. College went out the window – I was married
when I was nineteen
Interviewer: And you never went back?
Schecter: No, I never did. Things weren’t the same as they are
today. We were very, very poor and I had to work with my husband in the
My mother did catering and that’s the way catering was done in this
community. She taught Mrs. Margulis and she catered, too. The catering
wasn’t done as it’s done today where you pay for the food and make
money. You didn’t do that. And my aunt, Mrs. William Cohen was a doll.
She didn’t have to work because William Cohen had a blacksmith shop on
7th Street and Grant between Stauring and Fulton. He and two
more people (Larry Schaefer’s father was one) bought a laundry on
Parsons Avenue called the Reliable Wet Wash Laundry. They did the
laundry for the city. We had the old fashioned washing machines and the
ringers you turned by hand. I bought one of the first automatic Bendix
when my daughter was born. Debbie is 44 years old. My cousins thought I
was terrible – I took the business away from my uncle and I did my own
laundry. That was the forerunner of the laundromat. Everybody went to
the laundry if you wanted your clothes done right and since I worked all
my life – I was working with my husband. . . . talk about women and
careers – Jewish women worked. They either worked with their husbands or
they were always doing something. By the time they got done with all the
housework and everything, they were really working harder than a career
woman. I did that.
Interviewer: Was that fairly typical of . . .?
Schecter: I think it was. Some of the women got married and never
worked. Some of my girlfriends didn’t work – but they worked later on
in life. Everybody did something. In those days, it took just as much
money to take care of a house as it does today, only the proportions
Schecter: The Bornstein family bought out Rattlebox’s Saloon.
Prohibition came along and there were no more saloons. The Bornsteins
had about five or six sons and one daughter and they bought the house on
the southeast corner of Fulton and Washington and next to that was a
store and they turned it into a grocery store. Their backyard backed up
to our backyard and we used to have a big plum tree and we had a hammock
under it. We kids would fight over the plums. Today, we are very close
friends. Let me tell you what happened. The Bornsteins had a grocery
store, this is the forerunner of today’s restaurant food suppliers.
You know what a big, big operation that thing is! I can vividly recall,
they had what we called one of the first supermarkets in the city. I
remember their mother – a very old lady with these really thick glasses
who would sit with her legs apart with a long black dress covered by a
white apron on top. She would sit at the counter and you would pick out
anything you wanted and you would bring it to her. In other words, that
was the forerunner of the supermarket where you waited on yourself.
Everyplace else, you got waited on because there were counters. This was
different – in addition of which, they went into the business of
pickles. They used to have these big barrels of pickles and they made
their own pickles. That’s how restaurant supplies got started. They
started making these pickles and putting them in big barrels and the
boys went out and sold them to restaurants. They boys were very highly
educated, especially Jewishly. I think the oldest one went to college.
Another one was a Shaychet. Phil and Sam are all that’s left of the
family. Another was a Meyers photographer. All offshoots of the entire
Bornstein family. Very interesting what they have done.
My husband’s brother married a girl from Dayton. Phil Bornstein
married her sister so we’re sort of related. To this very day, we’re
very close with the Bornstein family.
When I lived on Stauring Street, at the end of Stauring Street there
was the Big Shul, Ahavas Sholom, and next door was a big house. This
house was the forerunner of today’s Jewish Community Center. It was
the Jewish Welfare Board’s place where we congregated as children. I
want you to know, at the age of two and a half and three, ours was the
first Head Start program that taught children. The Jewish people have
always been in the forefront especially when they did the pre-school.
Sara Horwitz Schwartz and I were both children / students at their Head
Start program. I remember the teacher had a large white ________ plus
she had her hair rolled up and she wore a watch on her shoulder. She
__________. She was the welfare director and was unpaid. It was done
voluntarily. She was the social worker who came and checked with my
mother to see if she needed anything. Plus, in those days, people didn’t
live as long. If you had problems and didn’t have it taken care of,
you died early. There were a lot of widowers and a lot of widows.
We would go to clubs there and afterwards, when Daddy Schonthal
bought the Schonthal Center, we would go there. I want to tell you
something ironic. One day I was at Heritage House, having lunch with the
ladies in the back diningroom. We were sitting at a table and we started
reminiscing and I was telling how I used to sit on Daddy Schonthal’s
knee. We used to call him Daddy Schonthal. He was the one that bought
the place on Rich Street and made possible that into a center for the
kids. We had a nursery next door. The Schonthal Center had a big barn
that became a gymnasium in the back. This house that he turned into a
nursery, orphanage for these kids. This shows you how many were around
in those days. They had no way of being taken care of. After World War
II, when the German immigration came to this country, they converted
that into a bakery called the 571 Shop, under Reva Gordon which did
baked goods. They also did beautiful hand work.
We went to the Schonthal Center for class. My synagogue, Beth Jacob,
did not have a Sunday School. Even though it was Orthodox, they didn’t
believe in it. Agudas Achim did and they had an Orthodox Sunday School
but I was part of Beth Jacob. Some of the children would be enrolled at
Tifereth Israel on Bryden Road so Daddy Schonthal created a Sunday
School at the Schonthal Center and that’s where we went. I was in the
first class that got confirmed from the Schonthal Center. I went to
Hebrew School at the age of five before I went to school because my
mother insisted I had to say Kaddish for my father – he didn’t have a
son. So I was enrolled along with Sara Schwartz whose father believed in
a Jewish education. We were the only two girls in this class of boys
which was conducted in the basement of the Agudas Achim synagogue. Some
of the boys in the class were Michael Steinberg, Milton Koller, Freddie
Yenkin (we used to kid him because he always sat on his leg). We were
the only two girls in this whole class of boys and we went through
Hebrew School. Our teacher was a little man, Mr. Mellman. Then they
transferred us when they bought the Rich Street Hebrew School across the
street from the Schonthal Center. I went there a little bit and then
they came to my mother and insisted that she pay tuition. She couldn’t
afford it. She was very, very angry because all my uncles were in the
forefront of the center movement and here they were asking her – a widow
– to pay for my Hebrew School. They didn’t have scholarships in those
days. She felt what they were paying, none of their children were going
because they didn’t want to go to Hebrew School. To go to Hebrew
School was very unusual for a girl in those days. So she pulled us out.
I liked Hebrew so what she did, there was an old man living on Donaldson
and 6th Street. He was confined to bed, he was a melamed, (he
must have been paralyzed) and I would go to him. She wanted me to learn
Yiddish which the Hebrew School didn’t teach so she sent me to him and
she paid him $2.00 a week.
I forgot to mention the Zuravskys who had a grocery store on
Donaldson next to Kanterovitches. Right next to him was the Jewish
“Schvitzver” and I took lessons from him, old man Schwartz,
for years. I could read a Yiddish newspaper and write Yiddish. When my
sisters were growing up, my mother was upset. She had already married
Mr. Romanoff. She had brought a boarder into the house. My mother always
had boarders to earn money. She brought in Leibowitz from Cleveland who
was a student at Ohio State University who wanted a kosher home in which
to live while he was going to Ohio State University. You didn’t live
on campus in those days. You used to live out in the Jewish community.
He lived with us and for his rent and board, he taught us Hebrew – he
was like a live-in scholar-in-residence. It indicates the kind of
attitude those people had about education. It was so important to people
in that day that their children be educated, although a lot of them didn’t
get it because if they didn’t want it, they didn’t go. I was one of
those fortunate enough to be exposed to this. My mother brought in
Arthur Leibowitz who, later became a rabbi in the Reform movement. I had
lost track of him and when one day my name was in the National Jewish
Monthly of B’nai Brith and he saw it and he wrote me. I wrote him back
and he was a rabbi in Las Vegas. When I got to Las Vegas, he had already
I want to tell you another story about the Schonthal Center. In the
back room, they taught sewing and cooking. They had a sewing room, a
library (which they don’t have now – I think it’s terrible to not
have all these wonderful things for small children). I remember the
beautiful library we had there and across the hall was the sewing room
and in between, was the office where old lady Mrs. Sugarman maintained
her dominance over the whole place. We learned to sew and we learned to
embroider. Then we learned to cook – they felt the children of
immigrants had to learn the American way – how to set a table. It’s
true. We would go home and tell our parents how to set tables properly –
where the knife and fork went, where the spoon went, where the plates
were. I’ll never forget, about two or three years ago, Charlotte Kahn,
who lives right here – we go over each other’s house for dinner – I
had creamed peas or something and she said, “Sylvia, your white
sauce is so wonderful. How did you learn to make it?” I said,
“One of the first things I learned as a child in the cooking class
at the Schonthal Center was how to make white sauce because people from
Europe never learned about white sauce. That’s an American kind of
Let me describe the kitchen. It was a huge room with large cabinets
underneath in a sort of square. Everybody was on the outside of the
square except at the front which was the teacher’s desk. In front of
each person, were they stood was a gas hot plate. This is all around the
room so it was conducive to teaching how to cook. Just think how
exciting it would be if at the Jewish Community Center, they had a room
in which they put up these burners – or even microwaves – and taught the
children to cook. It would be so wonderful for children. It would give
them more than these little play groups that they go into. It would be
more meaningful. We learned to cook all kinds of things. There are
things to learn to cook. You don’t have to buy everything ready made.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons they don’t have cooking classes
anymore. Do they teach home economics in school anymore?
Interviewer: To my knowledge, they teach nutrition.
Schecter: But they don’t actually cook. I think it’s important
that girls know this. And even boys. We used to have, once in awhile, a
boy in our class. That’s the kind of thing I want to see at the Jewish
Community Center. The pots and pans were all in these cupboards
underneath. The hot plates were on top and we learned to do things and
how to make them..
Interviewer: We’re going to stop here. Thank you, Sylvia, for
sharing your personal life experiences with the Columbus Jewish
End of Interview