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A Stor y of Jewish Experience in Mississippi North American Jewish Studies Series Editor IRA ROBINSON (Concordia University) A Stor y of Jewish Experience in Mississippi • LEON WA L D O F F Boston 2019 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Waldoff, Leon, 1935- author. Title: A story of Jewish life in Mississippi / by Leon Waldoff. Description: Boston: Academic Studies Press, [2018] | Series: North American Jewish Studies | Includes bibliographical references. Identifiers: LCCN 2018048878 (print) | LCCN 2018050196 (ebook) | ISBN 9781618118905 (ebook) | ISBN 9781618118882 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781618118899 (pbk.) Subjects: LCSH: Jews—Mississippi—Hattiesburg—History—20th century. | Jews, Russian—Mississippi—Hattiesburg—History—20th century. | Hattiesburg (Miss.)—Ethnic relations. | Waldoff, Leon, 1935Classification: LCC F350.J5 (ebook) | LCC F350.J5 W35 2018 (print) | DDC 976.2/18004924—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018048878 ©Academic Studies Press, 2019 ISBN 9781618118882 (hardback) ISBN 9781618118905 (electronic) ISBN 9781618118899 (paperback) Book design by Kryon Publishing Services (P) Ltd. www.kryonpublishing.com Cover design by Ivan Grave Published by Academic Studies Press 28 Montfern Avenue Brighton, MA 02135, USA press@academicstudiespress.com www.academicstudiespress.com To the Memory of Paul and Eva Stein Waldoff Table of Contents Introduction#8;vii Chapter 1:  From Russia to Mississippi#8;1 Chapter 2:  A Merchant, After All#8;26 Chapter 3:  Fear in Low Profile: An Incident in the 1930s#8;53 Chapter 4:  Our Home#8;76 Chapter 5:  Surviving the Depression, Finding Acceptance,           Anticipating War#8;97 Chapter 6:  Breaking the Silence about Segregation#8;121 Chapter 7:  Fear in High Profile: Terrorism in the 1960s#8;156 Afterword#8; 185 Endnotes#8;190 Acknowledgments#8;204 Introduction S ince leaving Mississippi more than sixty years ago, I’ve often been asked, “How did your parents from Russia come to settle in Mississippi?” It wasn’t a question I heard when growing up there. Our small Jewish community in Hattiesburg of approximately thirty-five families in the 1930s and 1940s consisted almost entirely of immigrants from Russia and Poland and their children born here. The first few arrived around the turn of the century, followed by others well into the 1920s, including my father in 1924. In the 1940s his small department store was one of six clothing stores and one shoe store owned by Jewish merchants on the same side of the street of one city block. For the first eighteen years of my life, my parents’ history didn’t seem so unusual. I heard the question for the first time during my freshman year at Northwestern. Although it continued to turn up on occasion in the next fifty-plus years, I gave it little thought. But several years after I retired from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where I had been an English professor since 1967, my daughter Jessica asked that very question and this time it struck a deeper chord. By then both of my parents had been dead for many years. She had never known my father, who died two years before she was born, and she knew my mother only from brief visits during Jessica’s first nine years. I began answering her by describing how my father’s family came here, mentioning how their experience was part of a general pattern in which networks of immigrant relatives helped one another (what historians call chain migration), and then added several of my parents’ stories about their early lives in Russia and Mississippi. Jessica said the stories were fascinating. What I heard in my answer, however, was a lot of stumbling and uncertainty, making me realize how little I actually knew about my parents’ experiences as young immigrants who had to learn a new language, find a way to make a living, adapt to the laws and customs of segregation in Mississippi, and survive the Great viii Introduction Depression. Trying to answer Jessica’s question proved to be an unsettling and eye-opening moment that would eventually lead me to begin researching my parents’ experience as young immigrants and to discover that their story was indeed remarkable. The first step was deceptively easy. I began to make a record of my parents’ memories of experiences and events, as they had been told to me, from their early lives—for example, that my mother’s father had been stripped and beaten during a pogrom in Warsaw in 1905, that she had once heard Trotsky speak, and that guards at the Russian border with Romania stuck pitchforks in the hay wagon in which she and other emigrants were hiding as they made their escape out of the Soviet Union in 1921. I also recalled that when I was eight or nine years old she showed me two small pencil drawings her brother Scholym had sent her (which now hang in my sister Fay’s home). He had been an artist before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, become a soldier, and been killed at the front in 1942. Although tinged with sorrow, and at times interrupted by an outburst of bitterness against the tsar more than twenty years after he was assassinated, her stories gave me a sense not only of certain deep resentments she still harbored about her life in Russia, but also of the strong bond she felt with the family she had left behind. My father’s memories, by contrast, were rarely about his family and more often about his observations and experiences. When the Germans occupied Kiev in the last year of World War I, he told me, they brought a much-needed sense of order to the city. In recalling how he’d once sold cigarettes on the streets of Kiev, he emphasized that he’d been able to do so with some success until the Bolsheviks came to power and confiscated all the tobacco he had kept stored in a loft until it could be rolled into cigarettes. He told my brother Milton that in his first year as a peddler in Mississippi, walking from one small town to another, he at times had to get off the road and hide in the woods to avoid being robbed. He once surprised me with the story, still amused by it himself, of a man who had come to his store to see what a Jew looked like, believing Jews had horns. But it was the story my father’s sister Rose told a day or two after his funeral in 1962 that stood out above the others: their father had left for America without first informing his wife, in effect abandoning her and their three children, s omething neither my father nor my mother had ever said a word about. Then, following, my mother’s death twelve years later, my sister Fay, my brother Milton, and I found a batch of letters in Russian my father had written to my mother while he was courting her. Once we had them translated, they proved Introduction ix to be a treasure trove. Here was my father in his own voice as a young man of twenty-one on his way to America with his mother, sister, and brother, revealing his thoughts and feelings to my mother and, after they were both here—he in New York, she in Baltimore—telling her of the conflict with his parents over his plan to go to Mississippi. We also found other letters from my mother’s family, most of them in Russian, a few in Yiddish, which we added to a small collection of documents and photos. Later I found ship manifests, naturalization papers, and census records that enabled me to establish basic information about dates, ages, name changes, and the like. Yet there was so much more still unknown to me. My parents’ memories and the family letters referred at times to historical events and to the social and economic restrictions under which Jews in Russia lived. I began to see that I needed to know a great deal more if I had any hope of understanding how my parents’ early history had shaped their lives before they arrived at Ellis Island. Even though I had grown up in Hattiesburg, I knew little about its history at the time my father went there, and nothing about his experience as a Jewish peddler going from one small town or rural community to another. I also knew very little about the history of our Jewish community, both the years before I was born and the years after I had left Hattiesburg. I realized I had a lot to learn. I began reading memoirs and histories of Jews in Russia, of their experience as immigrants, of Jews in America and in the South, as well as histories of the South, of Mississippi, of peddling, and other related subjects. I also searched through city directories, the Ellis Island website, court records, more than twenty years of the old Hattiesburg American on microfilm, and other materials held in archives in Hattiesburg, Jackson, New Orleans, and Cincinnati. One of my father’s stories of a long-forgotten incident in the history of the Jewish community in Hattiesburg proved to be a turning point in my research and helped me to understand the larger story beginning to take shape in my mind. His memory of the incident, mentioned to me only in passing when I was a teenager, and about which I failed to ask any questions, began to haunt me. Chapter 3 is devoted to it. It concerns a young Jewish man—at seventeen, perhaps more boy than man—who with his black accomplice robbed a local gas station in 1931 and was tried and convicted of a murder committed during the robbery. The story of the murder, trial, appeals to the Mississippi Supreme Court, and strange death of this young man in his jail cell, I would come to see, revealed the underlying fear with which Jews in Hattiesburg lived in the 1930s, despite their generally positive but qualified acceptance by the predominant white Gentile majority and their event until eleven o’clock. 172 Chapter 7 The delay had been caused by witnesses for the prosecution (highway patrolmen, city policemen, newspapermen, and Jackson businessmen), “each trying to outdo his predecessor in depicting the fear generated by the approach of the Riders,” Kunstler recalled, “as if they were describing a Martian invasion 44 rather than a few busloads of peaceful American citizens.” When he and the other lawyers got back to their motel, “we were surprised to find Rabbi Perry Nussbaum . . . waiting for us. He had come . . . to beg us to keep Jewish clergymen out of the Freedom Rides. He was afraid that their continued participation would cause a wave of anti-Semitism in Mississippi.” Nussbaum spent the next two hours voicing his concern, one shared by most Jews in Mississippi. “B” had also been asked to help prevent Jews from other parts of 45 the country coming into the state to support civil rights activities. Knowing that Kunstler was Jewish, Nussbaum pleaded with him, “You have an obligation to your fellow religionists.” But Kunstler sided with those who were among the Freedom Riders. “As a Jew, I had been very proud of the many rabbis like Joseph K. Gumbiner and Allen Levine who had joined the Rides. It seemed to me . . . that religious leaders, of all people, have an obligation to 46 put into practice the principles that fill their sermons.” What he didn’t know was that Nussbaum had for years been doing that very thing, most recently by going against his congregation in visiting the Freedom Riders held in Jackson’s jail. Nelson, who had grown up in Biloxi, thought Kunstler did not have “the slightest idea of the conflicting pressures and fears of reprisal and violence that weighed on Nussbaum . . . [including] the keen awareness of his congregation’s vulnerabilities, [and] the hard-earned knowledge that in 47 Mississippi it was often necessary to put realism before idealism.” Now, on the morning after the bombing, and after his long sleepless hours following the explosion, with the continuing presence of police officers, FBI agents, newspaper and television reporters, and cameramen coming and going in and out of the house, Rabbi Nussbaum, still in a state of shock, found himself having to stand and talk with a number of prominent men in Jackson’s religious and political life who had come to express their sympathy. One was Rev. Douglas Hudgins of the First Baptist Church, founded in 1838 and now the largest church in the state. Former Governor Ross Barnett and the Hederman family, owners of The Clarion Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, were among its members. In his brief conversation with Rev. Hudgins that morning, Rabbi Nussbaum let loose of whatever self-restraint he had so far managed to hold onto and, in the presence of others, including Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr., FBI agent Jim Ingram, Kenneth Dean of the Human 1960s  Fear in High Profile: Terrorism in the 173 Rights Council, and an NBC cameraman, he turned to address his fellow clergyman and, “wagging his finger under Hudgins’ nose”, said to him, “If you had spoken out from your pulpit after the synagogue was bombed and told your people it was wrong to have done that, this wouldn’t have happened! Don’t tell me now how sorry you are. Those sons-of-a-guns attacked me and my family! They’ve attacked my house! I don’t want to hear how sorry you are!” Then, in a calmer tone, he said, “Doug, if you’re really sorry about this, get on the pulpit Sunday and tell your people this is wrong. Talk to all those 48 segregationists that fill up your church.” Ingram, who was standing next to 49 Nussbaum at the time, provides a similar account. On the following Sunday, Nussbaum listened to the regular Sunday morning radio broadcast from the First Baptist Church to hear what, if anything, Rev. Hudgins would say about the bombing. He said it was wrong to bomb someone’s house, but did not mention that “it was a rabbi’s house that got bombed” and concluded with the evasive comment that “the Lord works 50 in mysterious ways.” Another clergyman who came to the house to express his sympathy first denounced both the bombing and the bomber, then added, 51 “But isn’t it a shame that the rabbi doesn’t know Jesus.” Some time later, however, according to Ingram, a number of clergymen “held a small demonstration led by an inter-faith group, composed of whites and blacks, and marched to the 52 synagogue. Some, but not many, of the white clergy did step forward.” I don’t know what degree of support Rabbi Nussbaum had prior to the bombing, but according to Nelson, the “great majority of the congregation” now rallied behind him. A day after the bombing a group of “about fifty business and professional leaders of the Jewish community” met at a motel in Jackson to discuss what was to be done. It was decided that Nussbaum and the president of the congregation, Emanuel Crystal, should go to see Mayor Allen Thompson to ask him “to rally the Jackson community behind greater cooperation with the FBI in its efforts to catch the terrorists.” Thompson, an uncompromising segregationist, responded to their request by telling them “he didn’t think the rabbi’s house would have been bombed in the first place if the rabbi hadn’t been involved in civil rights activity.” When Crystal and Nussbaum presented an account of the meeting to members of the congregation, they became convinced they would have to rely on themselves and the FBI, not on Jackson’s 53 police and city officials. Along with this new resolve, however, came an increase in dissatisfaction with Nussbaum over his civil rights activities. It must have been building over a period of years. “Officially, the congregation contin