Fit to print

My cousin Fred recently enlisted a researcher at the Dakota County, Minnesota, archives who dredged up the following articles about our great-grandfather, David Blumenfeld. They provide an objective corroboration of the life that he detailed with some melodrama in his Diary, in the early part of the 20th century.

Interestingly, they also elucidate that he indeed did have contact with his aunts, uncles, and cousins in Tukums, Latvia, although they never made it into his writing and it took nearly a century for their fate to come to light by a series of accidents and persistent genealogical sleuthing.

Of course even the chaos and carnage of World War I, which extended into his native Courland, now Latvia, as the Germans wrested territory from the Russians, was soon to be surpassed by the Nazis' depredations.

"On August 1 Germans had captured all Courland, ... and the front line stretched from the Gulf of Riga [65km from Tukums] to city of Daugavpils."

This second article, from 1930, really astounds me. Whereas the existence of his Diary remained unknown to his family for decade upon decade, and we'd assumed when we found it that he had not only effectively hidden it but hadn't even finished writing it, here it becomes clear that not only did he consider it finished, he was publicizing it in the local press!

His spin on the book is also interesting, as in reality, rather than his family story being merely interwoven, it was the broad historical passages that were incidental to the saga of the Blumenfelds.

The next two articles from 1920 are strictly business, but they too provide a fascinating sidelight.

For yet another angle on David, here is what his grand-daughter, my mother, remembers.

How much did you know about your grandparents’ life stories? 

Very little. Occasionally my mother would talk about where her grandmother came from, which was Lithuania, I thought, and she mentioned Kovno [now called Kaunas]. And my grandfather talked about living in Odessa...  he was an apprentice to a tailor, and that’s how he learned tailoring.
…My mother did talk about tailors going from farmhouse to farmhouse in a cart and staying at a farm and making dresses and suits for everybody there, and then going on to the next farm, [being] an itinerant tailor instead of a peddler.  
…I doubt if [my grandmother] Lena ever talked very much to [my mother] about anything that had happened to her because she was just not that kind of a person, she was not confiding, she didn’t talk over old things; she ran the household, she was very practical.… My mother liked to talk about whatever she knew, but what she knew was bits and pieces.  There was never a real connection in the stories that I heard, and I only vaguely knew who she was referring to because I didn’t know all the connections of who all the people were.
My first memories of [my grandfather] David are associated with a bedstead that we had that was very beautiful. It was painted a very soft shade of blue with a little bit of wood showing that was very golden under it, and it had these finials on the corners of the bed and they had these bulbs on them, beautifully carved, and I never got to use that because it was a double bed and my brothers used it.  
…That was a beautiful bed set and that went off to somebody somewhere when they moved from the brown house, which was on the main street of Concord Avenue, in South St Paul. I remember it had a wrought-iron fence around it... but you could hear people next door, which was a saloon, and there was a little garden in the back. I remember waking up and hearing my grandmother downstairs talking to a farmer because the farmers would come to the door with cantaloupe and stuff like that and she would buy from them.
…I remember planting things and going out into the garden... the garden wasn’t wider than five feet, because when you got beyond the house — maybe 10 feet, there may have been an alley back there — the hill arose. After they moved to the top of the hill in an apartment house, my grandpa would come down the hill at 5:00 in the morning and turn the lights out in his store that had been on all night, and write until 8:00, at which time he would go back up the hill for breakfast, and then come back down the hill and stay in the store for four or five hours, and then go up the hill for lunch, and then down... and that may have been the reason he lived until he was 96! 

Lena was a nice grandma. She always liked to give us cookies, we knew where the cookie can was; she’d always gave us money when we were leaving, she gave us each a quarter out of her big pocketbook. And I would go down hang around the store, I liked the store, and my grandfather also had a case full of cheap jewelry and I would be looking in there; eventually I got one or two items from that, there was a false pearl ring that I vaguely remember.
…I think I must have been four or five when my parents broke up, and my dad [Art Singer] moved to Texas and my mother’s family gave her money and insisted that she go to Texas, and I think she may have gone there to get a divorce... and maybe they got a Mexican divorce, I don’t know, I never heard where. My dad had rented a house for us [in Dallas] where we stayed at first, and then we moved two or three times before we settled in a small house that we lived in fairly comfortably. And then there was the [1929] Crash. And then my mother and dad decided to reconcile and we moved back to Minneapolis….
We went straight to the lake, White Bear Lake. Because my Aunt Belle had rented a house at the lake, a summer house for my grandmother and grandfather to stay in and for us to stay in, and so we spent the summer there. Belle would come and take my mother house-hunting in Minneapolis... and so that’s where I got to know my grandfather a little bit more. He’d come and take us for a walk and there was a store he liked to walk to and buy his White Owl cigars…. I always loved those and I liked to wear those little bands like a ring. And I always loved him very much and wanted to hold his hand wherever we went.

           …We went to Passover two or three different times [at their house] and it was always very elaborate and very long, with books passed out for people to read from, and it was questions and responses... and at one time the youngest gets up and he’s given some matzoh wrapped in a clean white napkin and it’s put outside the door for the angel, I think, to bless the house or something like that. My grandfather would go by bus into St. Paul to keep the high holy days even though he was a Shriner and belonged to the businessmen’s stuff in the town.  
They had a little mezuzah on the wall to keep the bad spirits away or bless the house or something like that. And she did have several sets of dishes so that you served meat things in one and milk things in another. You couldn’t mix them for some ridiculous reason. I never learned much about Judaism.
           My grandfather also had a big dark bookcase enclosed in glass doors with all these big heavy-looking books and I asked him what kind of books, and he said they were in Yiddish [Hebrew?] and German and Russian... you know, he could speak all these languages and they were in all of these old books of his. After he died, they sent me a newspaper clipping from the South St. Paul newspaper that said that all of his books were given to the local library.

           My mother just completely left the family. She was ill treated, and they were trying to arrange a marriage for her that she wasn’t interested in. Her sister Belle had gone to college for two years; they had no plans to send my mother to college. Anyway, Belle invited some of her college friends for a party, and one of them they had picked out for Helen to marry. I think he was a dentist. And he was friends with my father.
According to my grandfather, Helen first started going with my dad’s friend, Moishe Rosen, which I had never heard anything about; he remained a friend of my father’s till death. And then Moishe found someone else he liked and he introduced Art to her; maybe he was the one who brought Art to a party at their house. And the Blumenfelds really didn’t like him because he laughed too loud, according to my grandfather. His voice was too loud. He was very hearty, you know.
They sent my mother to a Normal School, and she was supposed to be learning to teach deaf and dumb children, she was learning sign language; but what they didn’t know is that she had given my father her address and they were corresponding and he persuaded her to run away with him, and get married. And so they did.   

Your folks had this on-again off-again fiery relationship... how did David and Lena seem to get along? 

Lena treated David like dirt. Every time he opened his mouth to say something, she’d say, “What do you know?” as if he were some sort of inferior being. And he would just sit there and give this little laugh and not take part in the conversation. It was really cruel. And she was sort of like the queen of the party and wanted everything to revolve around her, and she was the one who did all the cooking and was praised for the cooking and all that. We couldn’t go to see her because my father was away all the time with the car. But when he came back then we had to make these journeys from Minneapolis to South St. Paul. I remember driving there through the snow and singing “Over the River and Through the Woods” ... all these familiar landmarks as we went through St. Paul to get to South St. Paul. And then we’d get within about five miles of South St. Paul and we’d say, “Oh, there’s South St. Paul, we can smell it!” The smell of the stock yards, miles away.
And I remember looking out the front windows [of my grandparents’ house] upstairs and you’d see these farm fields in the distance, and then woods, and then there would be a railroad track, but the railroad track would circle around and come right down across the street; from the main street there would be buildings on each side but behind the buildings would be the stockyards. The trains would pull up and the cattle would get out. And I don’t know if it’s in my imagination or not but [I remember] I could hear cows mooing and that sort of thing. I do know that smell was just on the air for miles and miles.

I never really thought much about the relationship between them but I know that as they grew older I began to dislike my grandmother because she was very... she had nothing good to say about anybody.
And as my mother grew up, she also had nothing good to say about anybody. So that when I found out from [David’s] diary how badly they had treated her — and how they thought she was some sort of a mad person, I realized that she had not learned any social skills about how to be nice and how to listen to other people.
I noticed in the diary at one point he seemed for once to be really true and sincere when he said that he couldn’t get Lena to talk to him at all and he had always felt lonely and had no one to talk to. He loved to go to the theater and things like that and she would never go with him. And he took my mother to the ballet, and she remembered that really vividly, that he had the tickets.
And the same thing happened when I was growing up, I couldn’t get my mother to do anything…. My mother didn’t want to go [to a concert] and so she pretended to be sick. She got into bed and said “I can’t go, I can’t go.” And it was that same kind of negation of everything, everything someone tried to do for her, she would just get sick and go to bed and she would not try anything new, not try to meet anybody new. But on the other hand in several cases I caught her when I was home, talking to the next door neighbor and complaining about my father and apparently running through a whole litany of all the things he had done wrong. So that was her social life. She was not a pleasant person. She never wanted to hear anything nice about anyone. It was always, “Well, why are you praising them, why don’t you go out there and win this and do that.” It was very — on the one hand — wanting successes and on the other hand she could never take any pleasure in anyone else’s success. She could never express praise.
On the other hand, she sewed assiduously all her life and made every stitch I wore, beautifully tailored.… For my graduation, we went to the most expensive store in town and tried on dresses, and if there was one I really liked, we would go home and she would sketch it…. She had learned, I think, from my grandfather how to cut a pattern. She would cut a pattern and make the dress, so I had this exquisite graduation dress that she made.
My Aunt Belle was… maybe four feet ten and very small-boned. And bought expensive clothes. And when she didn’t like them or something, she handed them over to my mother, who would make them over for me, so I got used to some very, very beautiful, expensive clothes when I was in high school... suits, tweed suits, and jackets. My mother should have probably gone into the rag business!
…Our visits were very rare.…  We never had — well, few — family get-togethers. We had picnics, a Fourth of July picnic. My Aunt Belle, her great cooking specialty was this sort of French tart with custard underneath and fruit on top, very lovely, and sour cherries; it was very good. ...They did have family and they did have get-togethers, but not with us. Our family was considered sort of beneath them because my dad didn’t have a college education and neither did my mother, and they were sort of the poor relations.         
I can remember one Fourth of July picnic, I remember [my cousin] Lorraine there. I assume her mother [Ruth] was there. I don’t remember [her father, my uncle] Al. Al was much disliked by the family for some reason. They talked about everybody. They talked about Ruth in terrible terms. As if she were beneath them socially. And criticized her all the time. This was Belle and Lena. And I’m sure that’s the way they talked about my mother when she wasn’t around. It’s like they were somehow above us all in some way, which is to me unbelievable, because Lena was totally uneducated.
She never learned English! She learned to talk it from listening to the radio.…  No, she couldn’t read or write. But they were very tight, she and Belle. And I suppose Belle as the older daughter just felt she had to protect her mother in this foreign land and take care that she knew how to do things….
And they had had hard times. When they first started buying property on Concord, the property above the store became boarding houses, you know, rooming, they’d let out the rooms, the farmers would come in town and they’d need a place to stay for a few nights. My grandmother did all the cleaning and so forth and also collecting the money, and they made some money to help pay for the property, I’m sure they needed that.
My grandfather went on tailoring, and eventually opened the store. So they managed to really stay, I suppose you would call it, in the middle class.… They did help our family out [with clothing] during the Depression. Everybody needed help. I think that’s one reason my parents came back to Minnesota. So they’d be near family so they would have some help. There wasn’t any help on my father’s side because his father had died and [my dad] was on the outs with his sisters... but that’s another weird family! It’s a wonder any of us are sane! [Laughs] If you can call us sane! 

Were you aware that David was doing any writing? Did it surprise you that he had that quantity of writing? 

           I knew that he was always writing down there, everybody said that he was writing. But I didn’t know what it was about. After his death, my mother told me that they had written to her that in his will he had left $1500 for a publisher to publish his book, so Abe [Belle’s husband] just crossed that out, being a lawyer…. “OK, that’s not going to happen!” [Laughs]
At the time, there were three or four guys with Jewish names who were writing bestsellers, and they were just trash. And I think those were the ones that my grandfather was reading, and so he got the idea that he could write a novel. But [his books] were so naïve. If he had stuck to stuff that he really knew about, which was the travels through Europe and through the United States to get settled, and if he really knew anything about writing... and of course his English was not sophisticated….

 Did your mother ever express to you that she had any problems with her folks? 

Never. Never. She seemed to be very fond of her father. And I think that probably as she... when he described her as this screaming devil, that they couldn’t control, that as she grew older, he began to talk to her, and she would go up and watch him sew and was learning things about tailoring. Although according to what I read in here, Lena was also good at all sort of sewing.
…My mother was putting together quilts for my grandmother to do the quilting... they did it together... when we were in Texas, sending it back and forth…. My mother was always busy…. 

One theme in David’s writings is that of the Jewish man corrupted by the wicked goyish woman. Do you think he just considered that just good storytelling or that it reflected his real attitude? 

Oh, I’m sure it did.… One thing about my grandmother’s ménage when they lived in the old brown house was that they always had a country girl working for them.... The shiksa, the shiksa, they were always “the shiksa”!` You would never hire a Jewish girl to work for you. 

They didn’t give you a hard time about not marrying a Jewish man? 

They didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t in touch with [my grandparents].… My mother came up… she hated [Nelson] on sight because she had no way of communicating with him, couldn’t figure him out at all. 

…She was so flawed... but then you look at what happened to her at home and read what David said about her, and you understand it. You just understand that that’s what happened to her.… But you just have to deal with that. And thank God I finally understand it after all these years… I could not forgive her for so much. 


That Was the July That Was

Random shots from my July wanderings...
After the brewskis, Cedar River, WA
Antiques, Thorp WA
Basalt columns, Wildcat Creek, WA
Inside-out self-portrait, Weyerhauser Corporate HQ, WA 

Killing time

Left to my own devices for an hour in Portland recently, I happened upon these....