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True Stories from Chicago's Jewish Past
By Walter Roth
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 Walter Roth
All rights reserved.
MEITES' HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF CHICAGO
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H.L. Meites' classic History of the Jews of Chicago was first presented to the public at a meeting of the Chicago Historical Society on May 19, 1924, the year of its original publication. This invaluable work contains nearly 900 pages of illustrated entries about individuals, organizations and buildings in Chicago from the early 1800s to 1924. A small supplement was added to the book's second edition published in 1927.
Meites, an immigrant from Odessa, Russia, loved his adopted city and wanted to document the Jewish contribution to Chicago's success. He begins his history with the pre-Civil War Jewish settlements along Clark and Wells Streets in what is today downtown Chicago. In 1840, Jews also bought land in what is now northwest suburban Schaumburg in an unsuccessful attempt to settle there. During the Civil War, the Jewish community, numbering less than one thousand, were able to raise a company of soldiers in two days, immediately after the call for volunteers from President Lincoln.
Meites talks about Abraham Kohn and his family, merchants who had originally set up business in Massachusetts. They soon discovered that they had settled in a colony of Christians who, convinced that the end of the world was at hand, had little interest in purchasing anything from anybody. So the Kohns moved to Chicago. Abraham Kohn's daughter later married the architect Dankmar Adler, son of Liebman Adler, an avowed abolitionist and the German-speaking rabbi of Chicago's first Congregation, Kehilat Anshe Ma'ariv, K.A.M. In 1861, Abraham Kohn, then president of K.A.M., presented Abraham Lincoln, on the eve of the newly elected president's departure for Washington, with an American flag inscribed with a Hebrew quotation from the Book of Joshua "Be strong and of good courage."
From the Civil War to the Great Fire in 1871, Jewish immigration to Chicago increased markedly. These immigrants were primarily Jews from small towns or villages in Germany, many of them merchants who set up shops and founded the first Jewish hospital, along with synagogues and early charitable institutions.
Then came the Great Fire of 1871, in which a number of congregations lost their buildings and many merchants saw their stores go up in flames. K.A.M temple at Wabash Avenue and Peck Court survived the fire, while everything immediately north of it burned to the ground. Meites says that the Reverend Ignatz Kunreuther, the first rabbi of K.A.M, always insisted that it was his prayers that had saved his congregation. He offered no explanation of why those prayers hadn't saved the B'nai Sholom synagogue across the way, but it was suggested by a wag of the day that "It was probably because Kunreuther's prayers were in accordance with Minhag Askenaz [the German prayerbook] while B'nai Sholom's prayer book was Minhag Polen [the Polish one]." However, the K.A.M. temple was destroyed in a smaller but still disastrous fire three years later.
It was after this second fire that Jews began to cross the Chicago River and settle along Canal Street. The Mariampoler Congregation, whose synagogue was in ruins, crossed the river and became the first Russian-Polish congregation to be established in what was to become a large new Jewish community on Chicago's West Side as immigrants poured in from Eastern Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
With the arrival of these Eastern Europeans came all the social problems that beset poor immigrants. Meites does not dwell on the perennial German-Russian Jewish tensions, but writes at great length about the charities set up to help aid West Side Jewry. Over and over again, the name of Julius Rosenwald appears as the benefactor of West Side institutions.
Meites deals briefly with the labor movements that emerged from the turmoil of the West Side; he was not equipped, he said, to deal with them in depth, and in fact he had little interest in the working classes. His chapter on the Jewish unions — the Cloakmakers Union, the Cigar Makers Union, and the Carpenters Union — is informative, but skimpy. He does attempt to dispel the apparently widespread notion that Jews were heavily involved in the Haymarket riot. In early May, 1886, August Spiess, one of the Haymarket anarchists, addressed the largely-Jewish Cloakmakers Union, headed by Abraham Bisno. On May 4 nearly 400 Jewish strikers began a march to the Haymarket area, where female Loop factory workers planned to join them. However, the strikers were intercepted by the police, who broke up their march by clubbing them. It was only later that day when the strikers were meeting to discuss the police action, that a worker rushed in to tell them he had just read in a German paper that "an anarchist had exploded a bomb" at the Haymarket.
Meites calls himself the first "card-carrying" Zionist in Chicago, and some of the most valuable research in his book concerns the founding and activities of the Zionist organizations where, by 1900, the Knights of Zion had taken over the leadership of the city's Zionist movement. He includes an unforgettable picture of the Volunteers of Zion, young men dressed in military uniforms, marching in "soldierly precision with a Zionist flag seen for the first time on Chicago streets ... head[ing] parades, preserv[ing] decorum at public gatherings, and guard[ing] the dignity of the Jewish name." These Zionist military units and bands marked the death of Theodore Herzl on July 3, 1904, with a mass parade on the West Side. Poale Zion, the workmen's branch of the Zionist organizations, was organized in Chicago about this time; and a few years later, in 1916, local Zionist leaders founded the original American Jewish Congress in the city.
As an intriguing aside, Meites includes the entire text of "The Blackstone Memorials" by the Reverend William E. Blackstone, a Christian evangelist who advocated the return of the Jews to Palestine, and whose work Meites obviously considered a valuable contribution to the Zionist movement in Chicago. Blackstone's first Memorial was widely circulated and presented to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891; the second Memorial was presented to President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Blackstone was motivated by the fundamentalist belief that the return of the Jews to Palestine would result in the "Second Coming" of the Messiah. Whatever his motivation, Blackstone was a favorite of the American Zionists and often spoke at their gatherings.
Meites records patriotic Jewish activities in the First World War, including the numbers of Jewish volunteers, the names of Chicago Jewish ranking officers and those men who died; the proportion of Jewish combatants to non-combatants; decorations and citations awarded to Chicago Jews; lists of those who were involved in Liberty Loans and Four Minute Men, who took part in loyalty demonstrations, served on draft boards, and helped to entertain servicemen. He lists also the contributions of Jewish women to the war effort.
After that war, American Jews undertook a great drive for relief for the six million Jews of ravaged Eastern Europe. Julius Rosenwald pledged $1,000,000 on the condition that a total amount of $10,000,000 be raised in the entire nation. Woodrow Wilson wrote to Rosenwald acknowledging his gift and adding, in words strongly applicable today: "The Russian Revolution has opened the door of freedom to an oppressed people. It is to America that these starving millions look for aid; and out of our prosperity, fruit of free institutions, should spring a vast and enabling generosity. Your gift lays an obligation even while it furnishes inspiration."
There are many chapters in Meites' book on the work of Jews in public office; in industry, commerce and finance; in the labor movement; and in athletics. Other chapters deal with religious, cultural, educational, welfare, fraternal and social organizations, and with homes and hospitals.
When this book was published in 1924, America was peaceful and prosperous in the main. Jewish life was developing in Chicago. On May 18, 1924, Congregation Rodfei Zedek laid the cornerstone of a new temple, designed by Abraham Epstein, at 54th Street and Greenwood Avenue. In that same year on September 5, K.A.M., the oldest congregation in Chicago, dedicated a new temple at Drexel Boulevard and 50th Street, and on September 12, Isaiah Israel dedicated its new temple at 51st and Greenwood. The Jews of the South Side were then at the peak of growth and prosperity. Many other new religious buildings would be built in other parts of the city during the ensuing years.
Meites could feel justifiably optimistic about the future of the Chicago Jewish community. But in his remarks at the 1924 celebration of the book's publication, Judge Harry M. Fisher of the Circuit Court pointed out that a new immigration bill had just come into effect, closing American borders for the first time in its history, except for those who could be included in a yearly quota for each country. The Polish quota was about 3,000 persons a year. Does this immigration bill, asked Judge Fisher, portend a new era? "Is there not some little cloud upon the horizon that may spread and overhang and darken the next chapter? Who knows?" And indeed, this "little cloud" spread until it prevented the escape of millions of Jews from the Holocaust.CHAPTER 2
WHO WAS LAZARUS SILVERMAN?
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In the October 1909 issue of The Market World, a New York Wall Street publication, an article entitled "A Portrait of Lazarus Silverman" begins:
Born and educated in Bavaria, a pioneer banker in Chicago, a contributor to the equipment of regiments for the Union army in the Civil War, a more than generous philanthropist in the days following the Chicago fire of 1871, author of the bill for the resumption of specie payments by the United States Treasury in 1873, a charter director in the company which first exploited the Mesaba Range and Vermillion County as the richest source of iron ore in the then coming age of steel construction, and a prominent figure in that group of men who have guided Chicago to the position of the second city in the Western world — such is the brief record of the life of Lazarus Silverman, who died at the age of seventy-nine in Chicago, last June — a record which will be more of a monument than stone."
Meites says that Silverman was a "banker from the '60s and an authority on finance for a half century, whose service to the United States government in connection with the Sherman measure (the resumption of specie payment following the Civil War) has been characterized as the greatest national service ever rendered by a Jew."
Who was this man, acclaimed locally and nationally during his lifetime but now virtually forgotten?
Lazarus Silverman was born in Oberschwarzag, Bavaria, on February 29, 1830, and immigrated to the United States in 1849, at a time when many young German Jews were leaving Bavaria for the New World for political, social and economic reasons. As many of his countrymen had done, he first went to a small town in the South, in Alabama, and earned his living as a peddler. In April, 1853, he moved to Chicago and by 1854 had set up a note-brokering and banking business and begun to make real estate investments in and around the city. His Silverman's Bank was established by 1857, surviving despite a severe national economic downturn, and on April 12, 1859, he married Hannah Sachs of Louisville, Kentucky. During the Civil War, Silverman lent the government large sums of money for the purchase of saddles, bridles and other necessities for the Federal Army.
In 1870, a Chicago business publication described Silverman as a "thorough and completely successful businessman," whose bank was well-known in Europe as well as the United States. The bank survived the great Chicago fire of 1871, although the material cost to Silverman was great. Nevertheless, Meites says, he was "instrumental in assisting and helping many poor and deserving people, filling his own house on Calumet Avenue near Twenty-Second Street, with the destitute and homeless, and erecting for others temporary structures for their protection and comfort, also purchasing at that time large amounts of flour and other food products, gratuitously distributing the same among the needy and homeless."
Silverman was frequently involved in large financial operations, and financiers and politicians sought his advice. In 1873 the "specie payment" law, considered Silverman's signal contribution, was enacted. Silverman himself dictated an account of this affair, "His Own Account During His Last Illness," which was published after his death in The Market World. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the currency of large American cities, and of the federal government itself, fluctuated wildly, often causing great economic distress. Silverman's business was of course also affected. He developed a plan to stabilize U.S. currency by making it attractive for foreigners to pay their American debts in gold, thus enabling the U.S. to build a gold reserve to back its own currency. He presented this plan in Washington to Illinois Senator John Alexander Logan, Senator John Sherman, Chairman of the Finance Committee, and other prominent statesmen. The plan was Silverman's, but Sherman apparently adopted it as his own, since it is known to posterity as the Sherman Plan.
By the end of the 1880s, Silverman, at the height of his success, was living in a mansion at 2213 S. Calumet Avenue. He was involved in many ventures with Marshall Field, Potter Palmer and other Chicago financiers; was one of the founders of the Duluth & Iron Range Railroad and the Minnesota Iron Company (later merged into U.S. Steel); and owned acreage in Upper and Lower Michigan, farmlands in Iowa, Washington and Wyoming and many buildings in Chicago.
He was active in a number of charities, the Cleveland Orphan Home apparently being one of his favorites, and he was also a member of the Jewish Agricultural Society, the goal of which was to settle Jews in farming communities. His purchases of farmlands were undoubtedly made in connection with this organization. In many cases, he advanced the funds for farm equipment to help these early farm communities.
Strangely enough, little is known about Silverman's synagogue or other local Jewish affiliations. But Meites says that Silverman was a member of K.A.M. in the 1850s; and that in 1860 he was on a committee that rejected a new reform prayerbook for the Congregation, causing a split among the membership, with the reformists leaving to establish Sinai Congregation, the city's first reform synagogue.
In 1893 the World's Columbian Exposition focused international attention on Chicago. But suddenly that summer several Chicago banks failed, and just as suddenly, the United States was caught in another financial depression — this one, the Panic of 1893, was more serious than most of the others.
Henry Ericsson, a builder, was Silverman's friend and client. In his 1942 book Sixty Years a Builder, Ericsson describes the scene in June, 1893 in front of Silverman's Bank in the Commonwealth Building at LaSalle and Washington Streets, where a long line of anxious bank customers had formed:
As they crowded his bank to withdraw their money, Lazarus Silverman stood beside his trusted nephew, Minzesheimer, and on the counter back of the old-fashioned cage heaped up piles of glistening gold and silver and stacks of paper money. Unperturbed and with superb showmanship, he would go outside and mingle with the throng to hear what the people were saying. All along the line, at the sight of him, one- time peddlers, who had become merchants, small perhaps but successful, remembering how he had helped to equip them with their first shop would slip out of line and leave without asking for their money.
Silverman's Bank survived this crisis. He resumed his activities, and Ericsson built a four- story building for Silverman on Edina Place, now named Plymouth Court, the site of the Standard Club. However, on August 1, 1893, the "pork and lard corner" at the Board of Trade, supported by a number of Chicago's largest meat operators, collapsed and many fortunes vanished overnight. Panic gripped the city. Herman Scheffner, a Jewish businessman whose bank had failed, drowned himself in Lake Michigan. No matter what happened on the Board of Trade, people considered that Lazarus Silverman had infinite resources and his bank would always be safe. But this time, his luck had run out. He left immediately for New York to raise cash to meet the expected demands of his depositors. But the collateral he had to offer was not adequate, and he could not avoid bankruptcy.
When he returned to Chicago, the court hearing on his bankruptcy was set for Saturday. This was ironic, because Silverman's Bank was always closed on Saturday, and his checks and notes were imprinted with the phrase, "No business on Saturday." Ericsson notes: "What his inward feelings were no man could discern, as on his Sabbath Lazarus Silverman appeared in court before a Gentile pretrial judge. But there were people who thought it at least poetic justice, for had he not always kept his bank open till noon on the Christian's Sunday and spent his Sunday afternoons inspecting his properties?"
Excerpted from Looking Backward by Walter Roth. Copyright © 2002 Walter Roth. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
I CHICAGO JEWS AND THE SECULAR CITY: BUILDERS, MOVERS, SHAKERS,
Meites' History of the Jews of Chicago,
Who Was Lazarus Silverman?,
The University of Chicago Centennial,
World's Columbian Exposition: Jews on the Midway,
Julius Rosenwald and the Museum of Science and Industry,
Century of Progress: Jewish Day Pageant,
II CHICAGO JEWS AND ANTI-SEMITISM: TRAGEDY ABROAD, CHALLENGES AT HOME,
Adolf Kraus: Efforts to Help Russian Jews,
Return of Russian Refugees Prevented,
Blood Libel: Prejudice on the South Side,
Ambijan: Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR,
Kristallnacht Haunts Chicago,
Robert Adler Papers: Refugee Affidavits,
III CHICAGO JEWS AND ZIONISM: LOCAL IDEALISTS,
Reverend William Blackstone: Methodist Minister,
Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal: Pioneer Zionist,
Leon Zolotkoff: Chicagoan at the First Zionist Congress,
Julius Rosenwald Meets Aaron Aaronsohn,
Zionist Convention in Chicago,
Memoir: Camp Avodah, Summer of 1946,
Memoir: Israel Independence Celebration,
IV CHICAGO JEWS AND ZIONISM: RENOWNED VISITORS,
Einstein and Weizmann: A Zionist Odd Couple,
Chaim Nachman Bialik: Hebrew Poet,
Clarence Darrow and Stephen S. Wise Debate Zionism,
Peter Bergson, the Irgun and Chicago,
Ben Hecht Pageant I: We Will Never Die,
Ben Hecht Pageant II: A Flag is Born,
V CHICAGO JEWS AND THE ARTS: THE PAGE AND THE STAGE,
Rosa Sonnenschein: Journalist, Feminist, Zionist,
Sol Bloom, The Music Man,
Carl Sandburg's Letter to Jacob Loeb,
Edna Ferber: Novelist and Playwright,
Maxwell Bodenheim: Doomed Poet,
Meyer Levin: Compulsion,
VI CHICAGO JEWS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE LAW: COLORFUL CHARACTERS,
Dora Feldman McDonald: Sex, Politics and Murder,
Davey Miller: The Referee's Scrapbook,
Ben Reitman: His Unorthodox Life,
Samuel "Nails" Morton: 20th Century Golem,
Al "Wallpaper" Wolff: G-Man and Untouchable,
Kingfish Levinsky: Fighter Could Take a Punch,
Moe Berg: "The Catcher Was a Spy",