The View From The Jewish Alps

by

04/03/2002

219 Audubon Avenue at 176th Street, NY, 10033

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

Charles Boromeo Eder (Charlie) and Hermine Fleckenstein (Minnie) were immigrants, Charlie from Vienna, Minnie from Habichstal (a 300 person farm village about 80 kms. east of Frankfurt). Both had immigrated to New York City in the late 1920s. Charlie, a waiter at the Essex House met Minnie one afternoon in Central Park, as she was nannying. After a three year courtship, they married, moved to what was informally known as the Jewish Alps (Washington Heights in upper Manhattan), and began to raise a family. Karl (my brother – 13 months older) and I grew up in a difficult time. Catholic Germans weren’t particularly liked by many of the refugee Jews or our Irish Catholic classmates at Incarnation grammar school. In the years between war’s end and graduation in 1952, several memories are vividly recalled. Here’s the view from Apartment 4F at 219 Audubon Avenue (corner of 176th Street) in Washington Heights.

CARE PACKAGES

Every Saturday morning after breakfast (around 10 AM), the kitchen tablecloth was folded up. The table was wiped clean and a piece of large brown wrapping paper and a sturdy cardboard box (about 18″x18″x15″) were placed on the center of the table. (The box and paper were provided by George the butcher in partial exchange for the errands Karl ran.)

Then the care package was lovingly assembled. Only the contents of the package changed. The week it went to Vienna to help my father’s brothers and sister, it contained items needed by folks struggling through life in a devastated city. The contents typically included: soap, shoelaces, handkerchiefs (when our long sleeve white shirts became short sleeved), sugar, coffee, tea, flour, raisins, yeast, spices, handmade jams and jellies, Jell-O, pencils, writing paper, ink, hair brushes and combs, scissors, canned goods, chocolates, shoes, rainwear, scarves, belts, soaps, bathrobes and towels.

The next week the package was prepared for Mom’s family in the Spessart foothills of Bavaria, necessities for her mother, brothers and sisters. These contents included: nails, rope, string, rags, seeds, motor oil, heavy socks and gloves, medicines, pencils, writing paper, petroleum jelly (for the animals), bandages, toys, sewing needles, threads, tools and again, Hershey chocolates.

Each item was carefully wrapped. Items in glass jars were transferred to wooden boxes (Kraft cheese boxes were great containers), soap tins (for nails and screws), or smaller cardboard packages. Items thought valuable and perhaps subject to confiscation by a prying postal inspector (for example, coffee) were carefully disguised and re-wrapped. The contents were snugly nestled in rags or items of clothing.

Then the box was taped shut with adhesive tape and wrapped with the heavy brown craft paper and the address printed in careful broad strokes. Sturdy brown twine was then wound around the package with my fingers serving to make sure the knots were tightly tied.

The little red wagon with the wooden sides was then taken from the hall and the package carefully placed in it. Together our family pulled it to the post office some five blocks away where it was handed over to the postman who weighed it, stamped it and verified the shipping form. On the way home, Karl and I got to ride in the little red wagon until we outgrew it.

CANNED GOODS DRIVE

The Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers who taught at Incarnation were members of worldwide religious orders. As did many global organizations during and immediately after the Second World War, they set about providing some relief mechanisms for Europeans, both refugees and those in homelands devastated by the war. Every Monday Incarnation had a canned goods drive. Students were asked to bring to school whatever canned goods their families could spare. Soups, canned meats and canned fruits were highly prized. Classes would be recognized for the amounts of their contributions.

This posed a problem for Karl and me, since our “spare” canned goods were already being shipped abroad in our family’s private care packages. It was hard – impossible- to explain that to most of our classmates.

That was when Rabbi Rosenwasser and his wife provided a wonderful solution. Rabbi Rossenwasser, a German refugee and a leader in the neighborhood synagogue, lived in apartment 2A. One of the 42 apartments in our building and similar in layout to our 4F, it was across the enclosed courtyard of our building. Members of his congregation lived in about 20 of the other apartments.

Being orthodox Jews, their religious practice prohibited them from dealing with gas and electricity from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. One day Rabbi Rosenwasser approached my mother and me in the lobby and asked if I could help him and his congregation on a regular basis. In return, his people would “pay” me in canned goods, since they also did not have much money. So before sunset every Friday evening I would walk through the building, enter each apartment and shut off all the lights and shut down the stoves. On Saturday, I would repeat my circuit and switch everything back on and relight the pilot lights.

Each apartment dweller provided what was within their means – some three or four cans and tins, others just one. I made sure that one family didn’t see what another was giving, taking the cans back to our apartment and putting them in our brown paper bags or boxes. On Monday morning, Karl and I would carry them the two blocks to Incarnation in an attempt to help our classmates win recognition and as a by-play, provide food to needy Europeans of every faith. It went that way for several years.

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