When Fred Firnbacher was 6 years old and living in Straubing, Germany, a 9-year-old boy beat him up in front of his house. Firnbacher, now 89 and a resident of Leisure World, said he grabbed a horse whip from his father’s buggy and struck the boy.
He was expelled from school – and his parents had to appeal the expulsion.
“You can imagine them going to the Nazi headquarters and asking for me to be let back into school. They were very nice to [my parents], and told them they would take it under advisement,” he said. “It was six weeks later we got the decision I could go back to school. But at the end of the school year, all the Jewish children were expelled.”
Acts of anti-Semitism have been on the rise in recent years worldwide, with defacement of headstones, mass shootings at synagogues and an ocean of hate on social media. The Anti-Defamation League reported 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017 and 1,879 in 2018.
That’s now. We wondered about how seniors in the Washington area experienced anti-Semitism in decades past.
Marsha Bernstein, 69, grew up in Lincoln, Neb., where, in the 1950s, there were only four Jewish girls and four Jewish boys her age. She said that when she and her best friend walked through the neighborhood, a young man would regularly call them kikes and other names. Other incidents like that were common.
Verbal jabs like this were not a unique experience. But the attacks were more than verbal on Nov. 9, 1938, when soldiers came through Firnbacher’s town.
“Crystal Night [Kristallnacht] they broke into the synagogue,” he said. “They did not burn the synagogue because it was a residential area. So the synagogue still was there, but they went in with axes and everything, chopped the place up, and they confiscated a lot of the stuff and they took it different places.”
Firnbacher’s family was able to get affidavits and apply to immigrate to the United States. They left Germany in January 1939. In preparation, they went to the American consulate in Stuttgart.
“We had to stay at a hotel, and they had a little placard on the desk in the hotel room that said on it, ‘Anybody of the Jewish faith will kindly take their meals in their rooms,’” Firnbacher said. “In other words, we couldn’t eat in the dining room in the hotel.”
Firnbacher’s family made a stop in New York before coming to Washington. In Manhattan, Fred Shapiro was attending a high school that allowed students to leave early on Fridays if they were Orthodox. That didn’t quite work out for Shapiro, though.
“Guess what my first class was when I had to leave on Friday like 5 or 10 minutes into the class?” said Shapiro, 87, a resident of Leisure World. “German. I had to take the same test every Friday that they were taking for an hour, even though I was only in the class for 10 minutes at the most.”
Getting a job and being a Jew in the workforce was also difficult. Victor Granatstein, 84, applied as an electronic technician in the 1950s in New York. He aced the entrance exam.
“They started showing me around the laboratory and introducing me to people,” said Granatstein, of Silver Spring. “And then the fellow who was showing me around, he asked me, ‘Granatstein, what nationality is that?’ I told him it’s a Yiddish name. In very short order I was ushered into the human relations office.”
He was told the company had no job openings available.
Rosalind Feldman, 82, attended nursing school in New York. In 1955, she was set to finish and get a pin to wear on her uniform.
“So, the dean of the school decided that the pin should be a cross. And we were kids from all over New York City. And when the Jewish kids objected, we were just ignored,” Feldman said.
The graduating students couldn’t simply forgo the cross-shaped pin.
“In those days, you had to wear a pin on your uniform to signify that you’ve finished nursing school,” Feldman said. “So were you were really stuck with that pin.”
When Bernstein got a job as a typist for a medical company in Nebraska, the owner constantly stood over her to watch her type. One day, she said, he was wearing a nice tie, so she complimented him — to which he responded that he paid an exorbitant amount of money for the tie.
“I said, ‘Oh wow, I don’t think my dad pays that much for his ties,’” Bernstein said. “And the guy said, ‘What is he, some kind of a Jew?’”
These seniors were mixed on the state of anti-Semitism today. Regarding jobs, Granatstein said it’s less discriminatory now in the United States. And Bernstein hopes Nebraska has improved since she left.
But Shapiro said the anti-Semitism now is more overt than when he was growing up in New York, pointing to recent rallies and demonstrations. Firnbacher named the neo-Nazi “Jews will not replace us” chant and current political rhetoric as concerns.
“We have a history we have to overcome, and unfortunately some people don’t recognize that what they see is a very subtle form, not very outspoken, overt, like all these demonstrations,” Shapiro said. “But I think the Jewish community has to always be aware that it’s out there, and you just can’t sit back. You have to fight the battle.”