Interviewer: Hello. This is Bill Cohen from the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. Today is July 12th, 2021 and we are here to interview Erwin Cohen, no relation to me except perhaps back in the days of Moses. Mr. Cohen, first of all, let me ask you this. Do you have a Hebrew name?
Erwin: Yes. Yitzhak ben Nachum haCoheyn.
Interviewer: And maybe we could start with this. How far back can you trace your ancestors? Do you know who your grandparents were or great- grandparents?
Erwin: Actually not. I do know my father’s grandparents were in the United States. His parents were turned back at Ellis Island and yet, they lived long enough – his father died in 1935 and his mother was killed by the Germans, so…
Interviewer: Your father’s mother…
Interviewer: …was killed in Nazi Germany.
Erwin: Well, no, she was, in Russia.
Interviewer: In Russia?
Erwin: Yea, when the Germans invaded Russia, I guess, they overran wherever they lived.
Interviewer: Okay. So, you have some roots, your ancestors from Russia and do you know where other ancestors may have been from?
Erwin: Originally, I think they came from Spain and went to Austria. I’m just guessing on that, but, my father was born in Russia, somewhere, I think, near Belarus.
Editor’s update: interviewee noted that his ancestors came from Spain and went to Poland.
Interviewer: And your father, his name was?
Erwin: Nachum. Nathan.
Interviewer: Ok, and it was Cohen?
Erwin: But what, he couldn’t speak English when he came to the United States and they, anything with a “C” or a “K” got the name Cohen or Kahn. Now, Israel Kahn, his name was Kogan, the same as my father because he was a cousin of my father’s.
Interviewer: So, your real, your father’s real name was C-o-g-e-n?
Erwin: No, K-o-g-a-n.
Interviewer: K-o-g-a-n, but when he came to the United States, did he come through Ellis Island?
Interviewer: And they, they just misheard what he said?
Erwin: Well, he came with a brother whose Hebrew name is Robert in English, but, and they must have asked him his name and his father’s name was Sam and he must have thought they said what is, what is your father’s name so he said “My name is Sam” and Sam Cohen came here and Gussie which was a younger sister was with him. The three of them came alone.
Interviewer: Your father and two siblings.
Erwin: Right. In fact, Sam Cohen’s grandson is Michael Feinstein.
Interviewer: You are related to Eastmoor’s famous musician and nationally known musician.
Erwin: I am a second cousin, yes.
Interviewer: Wow! So, the three siblings came on their own to the United States, and approximately what year was that?
Erwin: Uh, my dad said he was sixteen but I think he was fourteen in Eighteen…let’s see, I got to think about this for a minute. See, he was born in 1892 and he was 14 so, eight and six… 1906. I believe.
Interviewer: And they came through Ellis Island and their names were changed, the family’s name was changed forever.
Erwin: Right, because we have a cousin who emigrated here in 1995, I think, from Russia and her name was Kogan and she filled us in on everything that we did not know. My father didn’t talk much about his coming from Russia or anything and I just said to him one day, I said, “Dad.” He came over to our house and he gave each child I think five dollars and, we had two children, and I said, “Don’t do this, you’re getting ready to retire and you’re going to need your money.” He says, “I get great pleasure.” I said “Why?” He said “Because my grandparents used to come visit us when we lived in New York and they would give each child” – which they had three at the time- “fifty cents and it made them very happy,” and that was the first time I knew that his grandparents were in the United States.
Interviewer: Okay, now your mother. What was her name?
Erwin: My mother’s name was Shapiro, Lillian Shapiro…
Erwin: …and she was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1896.
Interviewer: Your mother, 1896.
Erwin: And then the family, she was nine months old when they moved to the Lower East Side of New York in a tenement, naturally, and that is basically the story of where we started from.
Interviewer: Now how did your mother and father meet?
Erwin: Funny story. My mother was at Coney Island with her good friend whose last name was, I got to think about this for a minute, uh, Breakstone. Familiar name?
Interviewer: Breakstone? From the cottage cheese or yogurt company?
Erwin: That’s where it started. And they were swimming in the ocean at Coney Island, and she always laughed. She said “Your father, I was a pick-up. Your father picked me up.” He met her in the ocean and that was the start of the romance and they were married in, November 17th, 1913.
Interviewer: And so, they lived in New York City?
Erwin: Yes, in a tenement, in the Lower East Side and the way they came to Columbus was, they had, his sister Gussie had married a man by the name of Saul Dworkin who was in Columbus and had a very prosperous men’s clothing store and Gussie was already in Columbus and she said “Come to Columbus and Saul says he’ll give you and Sam a job as tailors.”
Interviewer: Had your father been a tailor?
Erwin: Not really but anyhow, he would have learned so, they came. They packed up their three kids and came to Columbus and Sam and my dad walked in to the store and said, “Well, we’re here for the job,” and he says, “What job?” and that was the end of that. They were here penniless and had nothing and it was not, it was not a good story. My mother was not a real happy camper about all this. So, he had to do something. He had three children.
Interviewer: One of those children was you?
Erwin: No, no. I’m one of ten children. I’m number…
Interviewer: Wow! So you…
Erwin: I’m number eight of the pecking order.
Interviewer: So, you were not born yet but three of your brothers and sisters had been born.
Erwin: Well, three brothers.
Interviewer: Three brothers. They came from New York to Columbus. So what did your parents do with no job?
Erwin: Well, someone told him to sell dry goods. In those days that was linens and all the other stuff like that and they went to a place called Jones Witter, was, I think, was on Chestnut Street and he would go house to house selling linens and stuff and they were to get like fifty cents down and collect every time they went there and that’s how he made a living.
Interviewer: So, he bought wholesale from Jones Witter…
Interviewer: …and then went door to door trying to sell.
Interviewer: And he was successful?
Erwin: Yes. Well, he made a, he made enough to feed the family. Let’s put it that way and they lived on Elmwood Avenue in South Columbus and belonged to the Agudas Achim Synagogue and that’s where they met many of their friends that were their life-long friends and then they all did seem to do a little bit better and move up.
Interviewer: Elmwood Avenue. I’m not quite sure I know where that is.
Erwin: Well, uh, it, it was taken out by the freeway but it was near Mound Street and Washington Avenue, in that area…
Interviewer: Okay. Uh huh.
Erwin: …and there were a good many Jewish people that lived there. The Gareks lived there. I don’t know if you know Moe Garek so that family that were their good friends and they just eked out a living and raised children.
Interviewer: And so, when did you come along? What year were you born?
Erwin: I was born in 1928. I’m going to be 93 years old in a few days.
Interviewer: 1928. And did you live on Elmwood?
Erwin: No. When I, I was born at 805 Heyl Avenue, just off, right off of Livingston Avenue and I, we lived there through seven years of my life and when I was eight years old, we moved to Bexley.
Interviewer: So, do you have any memories of your first seven years, what that neighborhood was like?
Erwin: Yes, we thought it was a huge neighborhood because as a kid we’d play in the streets and I’ve gone back, I had gone back in later years to see the house which was torn down and the street was about, if two cars came there you could hardly get through, but to me, it…growing up, and I went to Livingston Avenue School and my mother fudged taking me to school. I enrolled at five years old. You had to be six to enroll but she fudged and my first-grade teacher was Miss Macintosh who I remember very distinctly and the reason I’m telling all this is because if I waited another two, three years, I probably wouldn’t remember any of it…
Interviewer: That’s why we do these interviews.
Erwin: …and I didn’t go to the second grade. They put me in the third grade. In those days, they skipped you and…
Interviewer: Wow! Now, go ahead.
Erwin: and I also did the fourth grade, I was in the fourth grade when we moved to Bexley so I had a choice. I could be put back in the fourth grade or they would try me in the fifth grade and if I could make it then I would be a fifth grader so at ten years old I was a fifth-grade student and a very interesting side thing is, one of my classmates was Freddie Leveque and we became very good friends and at that time I had to take a street car to go to Hebrew School. Well, Freddie’s father had just bought Olentangy Amusement Park and as a present to Fred, he gave him a little motorized car and we’re talking more than eighty years ago, so, we went out for a ride. I was supposed to go to Hebrew School which I did not go that day and we’re driving down East Broad Street in front of St. Charles. We got stopped by a policeman on a motorcycle.
Interviewer: This was a motorcycle, not a car.
Erwin: No, no. It was a car.
Interviewer: Oh, the policeman was on the motorcycle. (laughter)
Erwin: The policeman was on the motorcycle. I have a picture of this because the Dispatch photographer drove by and saw us and took our pictures and I’m going to show you what it was. (papers)
Interviewer: Yes, I see, this car you say is really about the same size as the policeman’s motorcycle.
Erwin: It was pretty small as I remember. I was the driver and Freddie was standing behind me.
Interviewer: And was this meant to be a real car or was it basically a toy?
Erwin: No, it had a real motor in it. It was a gasoline motor.
Interviewer: And the, the copy underneath the photograph reads ‘Pull over to the curb. Even though Freddie Leveque, 390 South Parkview Avenue, and his playmate, Stewart Kohan, are only twelve years old, they have heard a policeman issue that command and mean it. Freddie, the son of Mr. and Mrs. L. L. Leveque did not have license tags on his midget gasoline driven vehicle and that is against the law. The fact the car is small makes it no different from a sixteen-cylinder sedan.” And “Apparently the patrolman handed Freddie a slip of paper ordering him to get license tags or keep his automobile off the streets.’ Wow! 1936.
Erwin: That’s right.
Interviewer: So, this is when you were twelve years old.
Erwin: I actually was about, I was actually nine years old, nine or ten years old.
Interviewer: Okay, but you had already moved to Bexley at that time.
Erwin: Right. I was in the fifth grade at Cassingham.
Interviewer: And the Leveque family Freddie was a part of, of course built the skyscraper that we’re in.
Erwin: Well, they didn’t actually build it. They bought it in later years. This was built by the American Insurance Company or something…It was
Erwin: …called the AIU Tower.
Interviewer: Yes, You are correct. The Leveques bought it later but most of us know it as the Leveque Tower. Yes.
Erwin: The worst part of this story or the funniest part, is that I was supposed to go to Hebrew School and when the picture came out in the Dispatch, I said, ‘Oh, my God, my mother’s going to see it but she won’t recognize it because the name is wrong.’ She recognized it and did I catch the devils for that one!
Interviewer: For skipping Hebrew School.
Erwin: Skipping and lying about it. (laughter)I don’t think I’ve told a lie since.
Interviewer: That is a wonderful story. Let’s, before we move on to your Bexley experience, I just want to make sure we’ve covered everything with Heyl Avenue. You had some good memories of Heyl Avenue. I just wanted to ask you, there were a lot of Jews in around Heyl Avenue and the Near East Side at that point, do you remember?
Erwin: I’m sorry?
Interviewer: Were there a lot of Jews in that neighborhood on Heyl Avenue?
Erwin: No, we, oh, on Heyl Avenue, yes. Yes. There was, one of the ones I remember was a fellow named Herman Silverman who became Herkie Styles. He was a tap dancer and he ended up as a comedian in California. He was really sharp and his father was Abe and his grandfather was a rabbi. Theses are things I remember and he used to go to, there was a restaurant/bar there and he’d go tap dance there. He was really good and then in later years, uh, he had back troubles and that’s when he became a comedian and I can’t remember the name of the famous comedian said the funniest man he ever knew was Herkie Styles who was really Herman Silverman.
Interviewer: Now, on Heyl Avenue, you say you went to Livingston Elementary School.
Interviewer: Uh, were most of the, your fellow classmates Jews or you were still a minority? Which?
Erwin: Well, I think I was a minority but, you know, I was young. I didn’t think about that so I really can’t tell you, but there were a lot of Jewish people in the area, on 18th Street and Heyl Avenue and Carpenter and the barber was Jewish and there had to be a lot of Jewish people there. My parents had bought a double, side by side, and my dad dug the basement. It didn’t have a basement so he dug it, personally, and then he put a fence around the, the house and we lived there at least, well, I was actually born in the house and Dr. Abe Kantor delivered me.
Interviewer: Right on Heyl Avenue.
Erwin: Yea. My mother, the first three children she had in the hospital. The rest she had at home because, and she was way ahead of her time because in those days you were supposed to have two, two weeks of bed rest and not get out. When nobody was looking, she’d get out of bed and straighten out the house and then get back in bed. She told me that in later years so it’s, and she had a very easy time delivering children and they loved children and that’s why we had, there were ten.
Interviewer: Did she have the children at home by choice?
Erwin: Yes. Well, because they couldn’t afford a hospital plus, she had nobody to take care of the others, the children that were home, so…
Interviewer: If she was in the hospital the question would be what happens to the other children.
Interviewer: So, Dr Kantor would come to the house and deliver babies.
Interviewer: Wow. So, you moved, your family moved to Bexley, uh, in the 1930s.
Erwin: Uh, I’m trying, I’m trying to think about this. Yes, it was in the 30s, yea, because I graduated from Bexley in 1944, so, yeah.
Interviewer: What’s interesting about that, I think, is that a lot of us believe that the general trend was that a lot of the Jews in Columbus waited until after World War II and that was when they accumulated enough wealth to move to Bexley, but your family was there before. It sounds like your father must have done okay.
Erwin: Well, he made a good living, yes and uh, I mean, it wasn’t, we weren’t rich but they, they saved their money and he bought this house and it was all of twelve thousand dollars which was a lot of money, and he had never had a mortgage or anything and so, the real estate man said, “You should get a mortgage on the house,” and he couldn’t stand the thought that he had to pay every month so, after a year he just paid off the house and that’s where we lived.
Interviewer: And where was that house located in Bexley?
Erwin: 112 North Ardmore Road.
Interviewer: And you lived there from the time you were born until…
Erwin: …I got married. In those days you didn’t move out of the house.
Editor’s note: Interviewee lived there from the time he was 8 years old.
Interviewer: Okay. So, you went to Bexley High School, graduated in 1944. What do you remember about your teen years there?
Erwin: Well, I enjoyed, I had a lot of good friends. One of my best friends was a fellow by the name of George Spencer and he turned out to be the best athlete that ever went to Bexley and he was a quarterback at Ohio State as a freshman and he got drafted so he played for Paul Brown at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and when he got out of the service, he became a professional baseball player and he pitched for the New York Giants and he was my really good friend all through my life.
Interviewer: And he was a graduate of Bexley.
Erwin: Yea, he was in our class.
Interviewer: The Class of ’44.
Erwin: He was, he was my really good friend.
Interviewer: Now, was he Jewish?
Erwin: No, he just was terrific. I can’t sing his praises enough as a person. In fact, I had gone to Florida after my wife passed away and I used to come back once or twice a year and I would always see George and the last time that I came back, I said, “I’m coming back and I’m going to take you and Billie,” who was his wife, “I want to take you guys to dinner” and I was at my daughter’s reading the paper and I was going to call George in the afternoon and I see where he had died. It was a shock. I mean, he wasn’t young but, it was a shock.
Interviewer: So, the fact that George Spencer was not Jewish and you were Jewish and you were best friends, does that say anything about the relation between Jews and non-Jews in Bexley in the 1940s?
Erwin: I think that was it because my, in the fifth grade my friends were like, Ted Huntington from the bank, of course, Fred Leveque, a fellow named Hector Eschenbrenner whose father was extremely well to do – they had a, I think a concrete factory or something – and a guy named Bill Jones and Andy Matzer. I was the only Jew in this crowd, but we were really good friends and some of those friendships carried on through most of my early life. Ted was killed in an automobile accident with Bob Shamansky. They were in the Army, and, let’s see, Bill Jones and I, we were just really good friends with the remaining people.
Interviewer: So, Jews and non-Jews got along pretty well, at least…
Erwin: Very, very well…
Interviewer: …the young people.
Erwin: …didn’t know what anti-Semitism was, really did not know, never felt it. I mean, I was just one of the people.
Interviewer: You never experienced any…
Interviewer: …any verbal abuse, any violence, nothing.
Interviewer: Were you active at all in any Jewish groups as a teenager? Did you go to the Jewish Center?
Erwin: No. I don’t, there was not a Jewish Center. There was Schonthal Center…
Interviewer: Schonthal Center, yes.
Erwin: …but no, the only, the closest I came to that was when I’d go to Hebrew School which was right across the street from, I think it was on Rich Street.
Interviewer: so, you did go to Hebrew School.
Erwin: Yea, I had to go to Hebrew School. That was the thing.
Interviewer: You had to go.
Erwin: Oh yea, to be bar mitzvahed. That was important to my family and to me and in those days, they didn’t have these big parties like today. In fact, I couldn’t have a party because my mother was having the house painted inside [laughter] so, we had a kiddish after in the basement of the Agudas Achim and that was, that was my bar mitzvah, but it was fine.
Interviewer: So, did you go to Agudas Achim for Shabbat services or holidays?
Erwin: Yes, that was, that was, and my father was a member there and on one Yom Kippur, I don’t remember the year, someone stole his siddur, and…
Interviewer: …his prayerbook.
Erwin: …his prayerbook and also his yarmulke and his tallis. It was all in there, and he got so upset that he didn’t drop out of Agudas Achim, but we joined Tifereth Israel and Temple Israel, so I was confirmed at Temple Israel and bar mitzvahed at…
Interviewer: Agudas Achim
Erwin: …Agudas Achim.
Interviewer: So, as you left Agudas Achim, you then joined two other synagogues?
Erwin: Yea, but we never really left there. My father still kept his dues or whatever, but he did not go there for a long time. He went to Tifereth Israel. Then he went back in later years.
Interviewer: But let me understand. He was also a member of Temple Israel and Tifereth Israel at the same time?
Erwin: And Agudas Achim, all three. He paid dues at all of them.
Interviewer: Did he ever explain why he…
Erwin: Well, he, I knew why, because he couldn’t believe that somebody would steal, steal, steal…
Interviewer: …his prayerbook. Well, I understand why he didn’t want to participate at Agudas Achim anymore but, I didn’t quite understand why he wanted to be a member also of Temple Israel and Tifereth Israel.
Erwin: Well, he liked Tifereth Israel and he thought that it would be good for his kids to go to Temple Israel for a while, which really didn’t, didn’t work for me, even though I was, I was confirmed there. He went to a Men’s Club meeting one night and they served ham sandwiches and my father, that was it for my father. He never went back. [laughter]
Interviewer: They served ham sandwiches at a Temple Israel event.
Interviewer: I knew that they were Reform, but I didn’t know they were that Reform.
Erwin: They were pretty…they’re not the same. I mean, today they’re closer to being, in my mind, Conservative than they are to being ultra-Reform. They were ultra-Reform under, I can’t think of the rabbi’s name but…
Interviewer: So, Temple Israel, at least from your experience, was very, very, very Reform.
Erwin: Yes, in that part of it, but when I got married, we were married at Agudas Achim by Rabbi Zelizer from Tifereth Israel and also Rubinstein. We had two rabbis.
Interviewer: So, you came home, in a way…
Interviewer: …to Agudas Achim. Fascinating. There were, for teenagers, there were Jewish fraternities or Jewish clubs. Was that at all a part of your experience?
Erwin: No, that was not a part of my time. The person who kept me out, became my good friend in later years. [laughter]
Interviewer: I don’t understand. Somebody kept you out?
Erwin: Yea, if someone didn’t want you in the fraternity and they said “No,” you were out. They wouldn’t take you and later, many years later I found out who it was and he was my good friend and I never let him forget it. [laughter]
Interviewer: Somebody who was your friend kept, black-balled you.
Erwin: Well, at that time he really didn’t know me…
Interviewer: I understand.
Erwin: … but in later years we became friends.
Interviewer: Wow! And what group was that. Do you remember?
Erwin: No, I don’t remember.
Interviewer: But it was some kind of Jewish…
Erwin: …like a little fraternity or something.
Interviewer: Wow! So, while you were in high school, World War II is erupting and you get out in 1944 of Bexley High School. What happens in your life then?
Erwin: Well, all my friends joined the Army or the Navy and I was 15 years old.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s right. You had skipped two grades.
Interviewer: You were younger.
Erwin: So, even if would have lied, my parents would not have allowed it so, so, I went to Ohio State and I graduated in ’48 but in the interim when I was a senior in high school, I became ill and I had a problem with my hips. It was called bi-lateral apophysitis and in those days they didn’t have hip replacements and only thing you could get to do was have bed rest and I was in a body cast for six weeks, in bed and on a New Year’s Eve, I was at Grant Hospital, still there, and I had an appendicitis attack and Harry Topolosky was a surgeon and it was on New Year’s Eve, and my father called, they called Harry in and he came in from a party and he operated on me in the cast. They cut a hole in the cast and then I developed phlebitis in my right leg so, they had to take the cast off. Now, I had been told, my orthopedist was Dr. Shinbach…
Erwin: Yes, Shinbach. He said, had told me I was going to be in bed for six weeks so after the surgery and they took the cast off, I said ‘Gee, I’m gonna’ get out of bed,’ and the answer was, “No.” I was in bed for a hundred and eighty-six days, six months, as a senior in high school, and I had a tutor come in so I could graduate with my class, and just before graduation, I was able to get out of bed and I had grown five inches in bed and I felt like a giant next to my father who was only five foot five, and I was able to go to graduation and I walked across the stage with crutches, so, that was my early life.
Interviewer: And you, despite all these medical problems, you were able to graduate Bexley High School at the age of fifteen.
Erwin: Yeah. I turned sixteen in July, but.
Interviewer: Right after graduation you turned sixteen. So, at Ohio State you were a very young freshman.
Interviewer: And what did you, what courses or what was your major in?
Erwin: Well, I majored in economics which was not very smart because you couldn’t get a job unless you went back for a master’s and I wasn’t about to go back. Originally, I had applied for optometry school and they said, “You will graduate before you can get licensed, so come back next year.” I just didn’t come back because I had two brothers that were optometrists, so.
Interviewer: So, you had this degree in economics…
Erwin: …and I went to work for my dad in his gift shop.
Interviewer: Oh, he had a gift shop now.
Erwin: Yeah. Yeah. It was at Broad and High, Eight North High. It was just down the street from here.
Interviewer: So, originally, he was selling linens door-to-door, but at some point, they…
Erwin: Oh, then in their lifetime they had a produce stand, outdoor produce stand on Fourth Street where it was an outdoor market.
Interviewer: Was that near the big market near Fourth and Third and Mound?
Erwin: Yes. Absolutely. And they worked, they worked very hard. My mother worked with him and, but, you know, that’s what you did. They did what they had to do.
Interviewer: So, they worked in produce but, at some point, they started a gift shop.
Interviewer: Right at Broad and High.
Erwin: Well, it was a newspaper shop first and then it metastasized into a gift shop and I worked there and all of a sudden, I get a thing from, a draft. I was drafted and I remember taking my physical and, first of all I went to Dr. Shinbach and I said “I don’t think that I’m the right person to go to the Army so, could I have my x-rays. He says, “I was on an examining board and when someone came in with x-rays, the first thing we did was take them into the Army.” He says, “Don’t take…” So, I went for my physical and they said, “Anybody here have any problems?” So, I put up my hand and I told them what my problem was and he says, “Don’t worry. When you get to Fort Knox, you’ll have another exam.
Interviewer: So, they took you anyway.
Erwin: So, I was at Fort Knox. It was the coldest winter I can ever remember and I got lucky. I got pneumonia, so I was at the hospital where it was warm, ‘cause the barracks were freezing and when I came out I went on a long march and about half-way through, my legs wouldn’t carry me, so, I went up to the sergeant and he went to the captain and he says, “Cohen, if you’re lying, you’re on the first flight to Korea.”
Interviewer: Now the year, this would have been…
Interviewer: So, the Korean War is breaking out. Okay.
Erwin: So, I went to the hospital and they did x-rays and the colonel looked at me and says, “How in the hell did you get in this army?” I told him the story. He says,” I’m going to recommend you for a medial discharge. You shouldn’t be in this.” So, about five, I was in the Army all of about five months and I was so happy. I mean, I didn’t want to go to Korea. That’s for sure, so, I, once I found out I was going to be discharged, I went and I, I got home and got my car, ‘cause I was working and I had a new car and all that, and I headed down to Fort Knox and meanwhile the sergeant and the captain…well, the captain didn’t like me because I was a college graduate not an R.A.- that’s Regular Army – so…
Interviewer: You went down to Fort Knox because you wanted to show them…
Erwin: Well, no I was drafted and had to go to Fort Knox and that’s where they found out that, you know, that’s where I had my x-rays in the hospital and then that’s when the colonel said “I’m going to recommend you for a medial discharge.” So, the day that I was discharged from the Army, I came back to Columbus and I parked at Broad and High and went in to see my parents and they just – all over me, you know, happy, happy ‘cause the War was still going on and my future wife walked in and she was a friend of my brother’s and she came in to see Donald, and meanwhile, I had seen her picture in the Dispatch. She was a model for Lazarus and…
Interviewer: And her name was?
Erwin: Annette Cooper.
Interviewer: And she came in the store to see your brother.
Erwin: Right and he wasn’t there and I saw her and I was feeling very flush with money. I had three hundred dollars mustering out-pay in my pocket. I said, “Would you like to have lunch with me?” She said, “Okay,” so, we went to Marzetti’s which was right around the corner and from the rest is history. I asked her to go out the following Saturday and she says, “I can’t go because your brother already” – that was my, one of the older brothers- “fixed me up with his brother-in-law. I said, “Oh, you won’t like Charles. He’s sort of nerdy.” I said, “I’ll make you a deal. If you’re having a good time with him Saturday, I’m going to be at your house at ten o’clock and if you’re having a good time with him and don’t come, then I’ll just get in the car and disappear but, if you’re having a bad, not a good time, which I don’t think you will, I’ll be there.” So, ten o’clock, sure enough, she was home and we went in and asked her father if he could allow her to go with me to Massey’s Pizza.
Interviewer: Massey’s Pizza. Was that way out in Whitehall?
Erwin: Hamilton, Hamilton near Hamilton and Main Street.
Interviewer: And again, the year is…
Erwin: Approximately ’51.
Interviewer: So, Massey’s Pizza had to have been one of the first pizza places.
Erwin: It was and I can remember we ordered one pizza and half way through the, you know smaller one and halfway through the first one we ordered a second one so it would be hot, and the rest is history. The second date, I had with her I took her to a floating crap game. I was a bad boy so, when she got home her father said, “What did you, where did you go?” and she says, “Went to a floating crap game.” She says, “I didn’t understand it,” and he says, “I don’t want you to ever see him again. He’s a bum.” [laughter] So, I finally got back in his good graces.
Interviewer: How did you do that?
Erwin: I just, I guess I nudged him [laughter]. He was a good guy. His name was Sy Cooper and he had a drug store called Cooper Drugs. He was a pharmacist and he eventually had more than one and we were really good friends. We used to give each other a gridgik?, you know, just say something funny, and he was really funny. So, that was in ’51 and we got married in September, sorry, not, in March, we got married in March of ’52.
Interviewer: Tell me more about Annette.
Erwin: Annette was a beauty. If you look around here, you’ll see her pictures and people would pay her compliments like you can’t believe. One day we were in Florida and we were sitting in a Wolfie’s Restaurant. I can’t, it was Wolfie Cohen, I’ve got to remember the name of it. Anyhow it was a very famous deli and this man comes up to her and says, “Excuse me. I have to ask you a question. My wife made me do this.” She says, “Okay, what?” “Who is your facial surgeon?” and she says, “I’ve never had facial surgery,” and she never did. She just was a natural beauty. I was in Saks with her one day. Somebody came up to her a lady says, “Lady, you’re the most beautiful lady I’ve ever seen.” This was constant and God is my witness. This is true. The number one thing with Annette, and she was a good person. If she couldn’t say good about you, she didn’t say anything, and we’re at Bal Harbor. I used to take her shopping at Bal Harbor after nine o’clock because the stores were closed. This was a very exclusive shopping center in Miami Beach but I couldn’t afford it. It was a whole bunch of money, so this lady comes up to her and says, “Excuse me. Are you from Baltimore?” She said, “No.” “Have you been to Baltimore?” “Never.” She says, “Well I know I’ve seen you somewhere but I just can’t place it,” and she was very nice and she walked away. About two minutes later she comes rushing back and she says, “Were you in the Far East lately?” She says, “Yes, I was in Hong Kong.” She says, “I know it. I saw you get off the bus in front of the Shangri-la Hotel.” God is my witness, that’s the truth.
Interviewer: Annette’s face was so striking and memorable that this other woman remembered her.
Erwin: Remembered her from Hong Kong. Unreal.
Interviewer: And she was, Annette, was a model at one point for Lazarus stores?
Interviewer: Does that mean that they would take pictures of her and put them in the newspaper as part of their ads?
Erwin: Exactly. That’s where I saw the pictures and I would say to myself, ‘When I get home on a weekend, I’m going to call her for a date’ and when I came home I would rather go out with the boys carousing, so I never had called her.
Interviewer: And Annette Cooper, she was Jewish?
Erwin: Oh, absolutely. Her father, her family belonged to…not Ahavas Sholom…
Interviewer: Beth Jacob?
Erwin: Beth Jacob. Yes.
Interviewer: Which was an Orthodox, is still an Orthodox synagogue.
Erwin: Very much so. In fact her grandfather was a really neat guy and he was extremely religious and he was on the board of Beth Jacob when they decided they were going to build a new shul, so, he got up at the meeting and said, “I agree that we should build a new one but we have to let the men and the women sit together and Rabbi Greenwald I think was his name, he said, “There is no way,” and he said, “Mr. Cooper, you’re too modren” not modern, but “modren.” [laughter]
Interviewer: He meant modern but he said modren.
Erwin: And to give you an idea what a nice guy he was, we had him for dinner right after we got married and we served tuna fish ‘cause he wouldn’t eat, so he’s halfway through his meal, I said, “You know ___I forget what I called him. I didn’t call him by his first name but whatever, I said, “You know, this isn’t tuna fish salad, this is ham salad,” so he looks me right in the face. He says, “It would be a greater sin for me to refuse to eat in your house than for you to serve me ham.” He was a wise man, a very wise man, very religious and he worked for 40 years for Seagrave Fire Company. They used to make firetrucks down on South High Street and when he retired, they gave him a watch. 40 years.
Interviewer: So, his point when he was talking to you about the tuna fish was that more important than religious ritual is courtesy and friendship.
Erwin: Exactly, but when he said that, I never forgot that because, he just was a terrific guy.
Interviewer: So, you and Annette were married in 1952 and what happened in the few years after that?
Erwin: Two years after, well, we rented our first apartment. I had to pay money under the table to get it. There was a shortage of apartments and we moved into the apartment and two years later our daughter was born.
Interviewer: And where was this apartment?
Erwin: 274 North Chesterfield Road.
Interviewer: In Eastmoor just east of Bexley.
Erwin: Right. Right and we had, we had nothing so, one night we went to Cincinnati to visit her family. We came back and it was a hundred degrees in the apartment and it was so hot we couldn’t stay so we went to my mother’s and slept out on the porch or something, I don’t remember now, and next day we grabbed what little money we had and we went out and bought a fan for twenty dollars and it saved our lives. And then two years later Susie was born.
Interviewer: Susie, your first-born daughter, and what were you doing for a living at this point? Were you still working at your father’s gift shop?
Erwin: Well, I was there but then my brother Seymour who was just older than me, we started a store to sell televisions and stuff like that at Main, we were at Main and High. He used to work for Sun TV and he was really a good salesperson so, we opened the store and we were doing really nice and along came a slowdown. It wasn’t a depression but it was a really bad time and we had to close up.
Interviewer: This was in the early 50s?
Erwin: Uh, yeah.
Interviewer: And you were trying to sell televisions.
Interviewer: And at that point, most Americans did not have a TV but it was a new thing.
Erwin: It’s about 1953. They were starting to buy them.
Interviewer: Starting to buy.
Erwin: Right and we did well and then when this slowdown business, it just went pot so, we closed. Then I went to work for a company called Zep Manufacturing out of Atlanta.
Erwin: Yes. Today they’re huge but, and they hired me and I had to move to Toledo, which I, I liked the company but I hated Toledo because I would go out to sell and I didn’t know one soul in the whole, in the whole city. So, after nine months, I said, ‘I’m going to go into business for myself,’ and I came to Columbus. I went back to Columbus. She was still in Toledo.
Interviewer: So, you moved your family, your wife and your daughter, to Toledo and then came back.
Erwin: Actually, I had a son also, so, that had to be forty…1956, so, we had a son Howard. So, they’re in Toledo and I had no money and I could have gone to her father but I just wouldn’t do it ‘cause he would have helped. I know he would, so, I went out and I rented a little part of a warehouse for like fifty dollars a month or something and then I had invoices pri…and everything ready to go and there was a family in Columbus, the Luckoff family…
Erwin: Luckoffs, yea. Well, my friend Buddy Roth married Bea Luckoff and they had junior department stores, so, the first day I was in business I went there to see Buddy ‘cause he was the manager of this store and he said, “You know, I’d love to buy from you but I can’t because my mother’s best friend is in the same business. Her name was Anna Sborowitz. His mother was Rosie Roth, so…
Interviewer: You wanted to sell, what product were you trying to sell?
Erwin: Cleaning supplies. I didn’t say that. I’m sorry. That’s what Zeps was.
Interviewer: And the cleaning supplies were so that the stores could resell the cleaning supplies?
Erwin: No, for their own use.
Interviewer: For their own use to clean their own buildings.
Erwin: I felt bad, but what could I do? So, the next day I went out and I had a five or six hundred dollar sale which was huge in those days because that’d be like three or four thousand dollars today, and I figured, well, I’ll go back to Buddy and tell him that I would really like his business. So, I went back. He says, “No, I really can’t buy from you but I want you to go see this lady, Mrs. – we called her Mrs. S, but Anna Sborowitz. “She’s looking for someone like you” ‘cause they had a little company which I’ve written a whole story about, by the way, It’s an eleven page story and “Go see her.” Well, I figure I’ll go see her. Maybe she will buy from me and I’ll spend an hour with her, so, I went to see her at this little store she had and what was going to be an hour was four hours and she offered me, she would like me to come there and she’d give me a chance to buy fifty percent of the company out of future profits, because I had no money and I said, “Okay,” so, I call my wife in Toledo and I told her “I’m not going in to business” – I was scared to death to tell her that – I said, and I told her the whole story of Mrs. S. She says, “Don’t do anything. I’m coming to Columbus.” She didn’t have any money so, she went to a grocery store that we had gone to while we lived there and asked them if she gave them a check, would they hold it for a week and so she could buy her airline tickets. She flew to Columbus and felt exactly the same way about her that I did, so we had a wonderful relationship. She was my partner forever, even though after ten years, she insisted that I buy her out and I kept saying, “I don’t want to buy you out.” She said, “You’ve got to or you’ll spend the rest of your life paying off my heirs,” so, we worked out a plan for ten years. I bought her out over a period of ten years, but she was still my partner as far as I was concerned and if I took a perk, she got the perk and…
Interviewer: And her name was Hess?
Erwin: Anna Sborowitz.
Interviewer: Anna Sborowitz. She came from Europe, a refugee from Czechoslovakia with her husband and they had started this little business and he died. He went to sleep one night and didn’t…he was forty-nine and she was forty-two, something like that, or maybe she was forty, I don’t know, so…
Interviewer: What was this business?
Erwin: In cleaning supplies and my children still have the business today.
Interviewer: And the name of the company is…?
Erwin: Today it’s called Clean Innovations. It used to be called Columbus Janitor’s Supply but that was, that’s a passe name, but Clean Innovations because they innovate and they do very nicely and I’m allowed to go in there to say hello but that’s it. I, first of all, I wouldn’t understand it today. I haven’t worked in twenty-five or twenty-six years, so, things have changed a lot.
Interviewer: Columbus Janitor’s Supply, though is a name that…
Erwin: The original.
Interviewer: … that many in the community would recognize.
Erwin: Oh, yeah, and they’ll recognize Clean Innovations, too, the newer people but, the older people would know Columbus Janitor’s and every once in a while, I’ll go in there and I’ll see somebody and I don’t remember. They remembered me, the guy’s still a customer so, that was good, so that was the story of my life and I have two really great children and I don’t know if you know either one of them. Susie, she’s married to a fellow by the name Matt Ungar and Howard married Jodi Weintraub from Cleveland.
Erwin: And I became a great-grandpa. My grand-daughter Carly Cohen is married to a fellow named Aaron Blynn, so it’s Carly Blynn and they had a little girl about six months ago in January.
Interviewer: So, you are a grandfather and great-grandfather.
Erwin: That’s the end of my story.
Interviewer: Well, not totally. Let’s talk a little bit more…
Erwin: Okay, I’m happy…
Interviewer: …because I want to make sure I’m not missing something here. You’ve got a lot of interesting stories, so as an adult, have you been a member of a particular synagogue or…
Erwin: Yes. I’ve been a member of Tifereth Israel. I just figured it out. We joined right after we were married which was in 1952 and I’m still a member, a supporting member, even though I was out of Columbus for six and a half years. I stayed a member, so that’s a, Rabbi Berman’s my buddy. He calls me about once a month just to see how I’m doing which is wonderful.
Interviewer: So, you’ve been a member of Tifereth Israel for about seventy years, since 1952.
Erwin: That’s sixty-nine years, sixty-nine years.
Interviewer: … and so you remember Rabbi Nathan Zelizer.
Erwin: Absolutely. He confirmed me. I was also confirmed at Tifereth Israel. I forgot about that. I was, I had a double confirmation and he, Zelizer was one of the rabbis that married us.
Interviewer: You were married at Tifereth Israel.
Erwin: No, we were…
Interviewer: Oh, that’s right.
Erwin: …married at Agudas Achim.
Interviewer: You were married at Agudas Achim but with Rabbi Zelizer…
Interviewer: …there and Rabbi Rubinstein.
Interviewer: Two rabbis. One ceremony. Right. Um, your Judaism, does it, is it important, is it, or is it just kind of a side part of your life? What’s your feeling about that?
Erwin: No, no. It’s very important to me and I’ve been blessed. Both of my children married Jewish which, you know, in this day and age, you can’t do anything about it if they don’t and, because my father told me a story: When he was in Russia, as a child, his father went to jail because there was a girl in another village that was going to marry a Russian, a Jewish girl, and her parents came to their shtetl and asked for help and the men decided to try to help to stop the marriage. As it turned out, one person was, one of the people that went to help was killed and my dad’s father which would have been my grandfather went to jail for, you know, for trying to stop this marriage.
Interviewer: For trying to stop an inter-religious marriage.
Erwin: Right, and when this came out was, my Uncle Sam’s son Leo, nice guy. He married a non-Jew and my father and his father, they were absolutely incensed and that’s when my dad told me the story and as it turned out Leo was married for like fifty-some years so, it was a good marriage. They had no children, and if fact, Leo’s still alive, barely. He’s down in Tennessee or someplace. He’s like close to a hundred years old. Well, I mean, I’m no kid. [laughter] I’m going to be, as I told you, I’m going to be ninety-three.
Interviewer: You were saying Judaism is important…
Erwin: Very important.
Interviewer: …in your life?
Erwin: Even though I am not active anymore, I used to be very active in the Federation. I was the Advance Gifts chairman one year and that was my thing but my new things is Jewish Family Service. I’m very much involved, not involved, but financially I’m involved to a point. I mean, I don’t have the income I used to have, but I do what I can do.
Interviewer: Why is Judaism important to you?
Erwin: I just think we’re chosen, the Chosen People in my head and we’ve survived everything going on and it seems like we’re never going to be totally accepted no matter what we think and it’s just important to me and it’s important to my children. Now, since my wife, my wife passed away, it’s going to be eight years, December, and we were married almost sixty-two years and one thing she always did, and my mother the same, always did the Shabbat candles, so, I’ll show you, well, I won’t get up but I, every, every Friday I light candles. Now I don’t say the Shabbat prayer. I say kaddish. That’s important to me and my children feel the same way. Both children, their wives, well my daughter and daughter-in-law, they light candles to welcome the Shabbat. It’s important to me.
Interviewer: Well, on that note, let’s conclude our interview with Erwin Cohen on this the twelfth day of July Twenty Twenty-One. I’m Bill Cohen for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Transcribed by Linda Kalette Schottenstein 11/21