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Interview with Hilbert Fuerstman

Fuerstman, Hilbert
Haas, Steven
Date of Interview: 
Judaism; Jewish organizations; National Federation of Temple Youth; anti-Semitism; Jewish participation in Civil Rights Movement; retail stores; migration; Jewish community; African Americans and the South; segregation
Hilbert Fuerstman describes his early life in New Jersey and joining the Army. He moved to Charlotte in 1941, where he met his wife and many prominent Jewish citizens. He married into the oldest Jewish family in Charlotte, the Millers. He also talks about not witnessing, in Charlotte, the stereotypes he had heard about while living in the North and visiting Virginia. He describes his first jobs in Charlotte, joining the Reform temple and about the early lack of cooperation between his temple and the Conservative temple. He discusses anti-Semitism and describes experiences he has heard about. He also brings up author Harry Golden and his publication, the Carolina Israelite. He expresses his wish for newcomers to join the Temple and explains that the Jewish community in Charlotte is now more vocal on many issues. And to add humor to his story, he tells about his childhood rabbi driving down for holiday services and the humor that came with him.
New Jersey prior to 1941; Charlotte, NC 1941-1989
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Collection Description: 
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Interview Audio: 
SH(Steven Haas): Recite your name so we have it on tape.
HF(Hilbert Fuerstman): Hilbert Fuerstman.
SH: OK. How long have you lived in Charlotte? And how long has your family been here?
HF: I first came to Charlotte in 1941. I was on maneuvers in the Carolinas and I, I met my late wife in 1941 at a community dance. They called it the Progressive Club, I believe was the name of the club. And it was located at Moorehead Street and Tryon Street. Up, on upstairs in the building. And I met quite a few of the other people in Charlotte at the time including Arthur Goodman, Senior, who made a bet with me that I couldn't hitchhike to where I was going and get back to camp on time on Monday. And he said that, and I don't know whether you want to put this on tape, but that he would kiss my something or other, if I could, if I could make, make the trip hitchhike to Knoxville, Tennessee and get back to camp which was at Wadesboro, North Carolina in time. And of course I sent him a card when I got to Knoxville and I told him, I says, "You'll have to give me a chance to collect the crowd down, downtown." But anyway we got, we got to be good friends. I met his young daughter who was in, as I remember, a mini-blouse and long white stockings. She was sort of kept, this is Elizabeth Klein we're talking about at the dance. And I met my future wife Mildred Miller and her sister who was also at the dance.
SH: What part of the country had you come from?
HF: I came from New Jersey. In fact when we came down to North Carolina, when we first came down on maneuvers, I had never heard of Charlotte. I mean we really were you know, in New Jersey we're really provincial. We only know about New Jersey and New York and we knew, the things we knew about the South was that the blacks were treated very badly in the South and that's all--. That's really all we, we knew of. We heard of cities like Atlanta; we heard it got burned you know during the Civil War. And I had been to Richmond as a high school student. That's the farthest south I'd ever been. So I didn't know anything about North Carolina at all.
SH: As a, a Jewish soldier did you make it--, was it a conscious attempt on your part to seek out Jewish organizations or areas to socialize? Was that a--?
HF: Well I was, I had always been very active in the Jewish affairs in New Jersey. I had, in fact I had been the president of the National Federation of Temple Youth, the, the New Jersey chapter, not the entire nation. But I was, I was active in my temple, which was Temple B'nai Jeshurun in, in Newark. Rabbi Solomon Foster, and the reason I am mentioning his name is that he later on played a part in something that happened in Charlotte. He was a, one of the most famous Reform rabbis, anti-Zionists, that there was in the country. And I was bar mitzvahed, a lot of people didn't believe it, in his temple because they didn't think that, some people didn't think that the Reform temples bar mitzvahed the, their youth. And I was also confirmed, and so was my, my brother and of course my sister was confirmed. She wasn't bas mitzvahed. They didn't do that, they didn't do that very well, very often then.
SH: What precipitated your move to Charlotte? And what are your earliest memories of life in the Jewish community, in Charlotte, perhaps some individuals that stand out?
HF: My, my, my usual I would say modus operandi when I when I come to a new town was to, to seek out the synagogue or the temple. No matter where I went I always tried to find out where it was and what it looked like. And when I, I came on maneuvers of course the, the evening that I met my wife and I met, met Arthur Miller, Arthur Goodman, that was the first time I'd been in the city. That was on, on a weekend off of the maneuvers in Wadesboro, in that area of Wadesboro. We had about, it must have been about 800,000 soldiers down here from the North that were on maneuvers in the area. And, I, I don't remember going--. I was only here for that weekend and of course I went to Knoxville and then I went back to camp. But I came back again after I'd met my future wife. I came back again several weeks later, and I believe I went to the synagogue, which was on Seventh Street, for the first time. And there was a Rabbi Nathanson who was the rabbi at that time. And I thought you know, it was a quaint service because I was used to Reform services and this was a Conservative. Although I had been to Orthodox synagogues before, so I knew that you know the, the difference was very apparent between the service that I was used to and the one that they were doing down here. But of course I, I enjoyed it. And I, I met quite a number of the people in the community at the time, too. I met Mr. Blumenthal, Mr. I. D. Blumenthal and Mr. Morris Speizman and these were some of the people that were, you know, well known in the community. And there was another gentleman named Gittlin who was very popular in the community, Jewish community at the time. He has since moved away, but he was a wealthy member of the community. And that's a, you know I just thought if they acquainted with the people in Charlotte while I was in uniform and then when I got married several years later I came back to Charlotte to live, because my wife had already gotten an apartment in the city. We lived on Hawthorne Lane. We had a small apartment that had been occupied before us by the Brownsteins who were the owners of Brownlee Jewelers and they were in--, they were involved with, George Brownstein was a partner of Buster Levy who was a cousin of my wife's. So we're sort of connected in that, in that respect. But the Miller family that I married into was the oldest Jewish family in the city. They had, when I say the oldest Jewish family, there have been Jews in Charlotte since I would say the 50s, 1850. But most of those families have either died out or have converted to Christianity. There are still some names that are Jewish which are in the Charlotte phone directory, but they're not affiliated with the Jewish community anymore. Now whether these people are, and some of them I know there was a Baumgarten who was a photographer here in town and there are some Baumgarten here in town. But these families were, seem to have dropped by the wayside as far as the Jewish community is concerned. But the Millers were Jewish always and H. Miller, my wife's grandfather, was the first president of Temple Israel.
SH: What was life like in the Jewish community here in Charlotte at, as far as somebody, you know, activities surrounding the synagogue, perhaps some of the rabbis or--? What Jewish life was like within the Jewish community?
HF: Well I can't, actually I, I am not really the best source of that kind of information because at first, when I first lived here, although my wife had an apartment here, I was in the Army. So although my, my main contact with the Jewish community was when I'd go to Temple, when I'd go to Temple Israel. And there, at that time I had heard that they were starting a, a Reform temple. And I didn't actually contact the people of the Reform temple until I got out of the Army. And once I got out of the Army of course I decided, I told my wife, well if she had come from the Temple Israel that I wanted to join a Reform temple, and I thought she'd like it. She went to one of the services, they had the services on, on Moorehead Street, up over, there's a, there's a group of stores there right now, but right near the Memorial Hospital on, on Moorehead Street. And that's where we had, that was the first time that I had been to a Reform service. I understand that they had services before that at the Hotel Charlotte, where I had stayed you know when I was on, I'd come in for a weekend occasionally. But the Conservative synagogue always seemed to be at odds with the people who were with the Reform synagogue. Although there were people who organized the Reform synagogue from, who came from the Conservative in a group. Arthur Goodman, Senior was one of them who belonged of course to Temple Israel and helped organize Temple Beth El. And there were, there seemed to be some antagonism, I noticed that between the two groups. I tried to be friendly with all of them myself but, and I'd go to affairs, most of the affairs were being run by Temple Israel. So if there was a dance or if there was a party or something and my wife was, my wife was going to it, I would go to those things at Temple Israel. But the, the Temple Israel people seemed to look down on the ones that came from Temple Beth El; it was a little, seemed to be a little animosity. I mean that was, that was my opinion. I, I didn't think that there was too much cooperation between the two temples at the time. Of course it's far different today, yeah.
SH: As a Northerner coming to the South--.
HF: Yeah.
SH: Did it live up to expectations? Did you have any preconceived ideas especially with regards too--?
HF: Well as I mentioned before I said all we knew about the South was that the blacks were treated poorly here. You know and they, that this was a very prejudice area. I found that not be the case. I, I, I found that there was some difference in treatment of course, but I would hear from my friends in Richmond, when I went to Richmond that the, a white person would walk down the street and a black person would have to walk out, out into the gutter when a white person passed. I mean those were the kind of stories we would hear. And then that's, that's the kind of thing when you're raised with that, that type of information you're looking for, you're looking for something very strange done to you. Of course we didn't find it that way in Charlotte. And--.
SH: What about the anti-Semitism?
HF: I as a young fellow in, in New Jersey I didn't notice very much of it at all of course, because I was in a fairly good Jewish community area. And in high school we had our own fraternity, a Jewish fraternity, so that I didn't--. Again I, I was very friendly with the people. I was very active in high school, and very friendly with the non-Jews in the school. And if there was anti-Semitism, I just didn't pay any attention to it. I didn't, it didn't seem to bother me because we weren't concerned with being a part of their groups. And they didn't seem to be interested in our group. So you know there wasn't any outward anti-Semitism. And now when we came South I, I noticed that Charlotte unlike some of the other cities, which I found out later on, had no major Jewish department store. Every other city in the South, frankly without exception, had a major Jewish store. Rich's in Atlanta, Pizitz in Birmingham, Thalheimer's in Richmond and, and in Charlotte it was strictly the non-Jews that owned the big stores, the Belk and Ivey. And I, I thought there was something strange about that, that we didn't never got a foothold here. And I found out that that was really the case, that the Jews really operated smaller businesses and didn't get into the big operations. So as far as outward anti-Semitism I, I learned that the Jews couldn't go into certain clubs in the city. But I seemed to get along with the people myself and I just, I just didn't notice it. I think that anti-Semitism was somewhat muted here because of the blacks. That they, they took off on the--.
SH: Explain it a little more.
HF: About anti-Semitism?
SH: Yeah.
HF: That, the, I would hear stories, some interesting stories about anti-Semitism. And one of them in particular which I, I think is very well known was the one referring to Heineman, the--. He became a, a very wealthy stock broker in New York originally from Charlotte--. [Background Noise] [Pause] Heineman was a very wealthy stock broker in New York. Had been, come, came originally from Charlotte and his parents were buried at the Hebrew Cemetery, one of the old, old graves at the Hebrew Cemetery. And he decided that when a, he retired he was going to come to Charlotte to live. And before he came to Charlotte he requested a membership in the Charlotte Country Club because he was a very wealthy fellow. Of course he was turned down. So he decided not to come to Charlotte, although he, he put in his will that he wanted to be buried here alongside his parents. And he was buried, he's buried out at the Hebrew Cemetery. But he gave money to the hospital, the Heineman Foundation, that's the heart foundation here. And I don't think that the people, a lot of the people who make use of it, realize that a Jewish person was the one who founded it and funded it. So that's one of the signs of anti-Semitism that I heard about. Of course I was very friendly for many, many years with Harry Golden, the writer. And I would spend a lot of time in his office, and I'd give him stories as I traveled around because I later became a, after I got out of the Army I got to, I got to be traveling in the jewelry business. And I'd pick up information from around the South. And Harry would use some of the stories that I'd give him and his paper the
and make, make, make good stories out of them. I, I would give him the information and he'd make up a story. But Harry of course was very much involved with anti-Semitism in his own writings and also anti-black information, which he always you know talked about.
SH: What kinds of changes have oppressed you most about being Jewish in the, in Charlotte through the years? Is there anything about the past that you miss?
HF: No, no I don't feel, [Laughter] I don't feel like that there's anything that I would like repeated you know in the past. I think that, that when they started the Jewish Community Center on Amity, Sharon Amity Road it, that sort of brought, started to bring the Jewish community together again. There were a lot of people that were in the Reform temple that got to be, lets say again friendly with the people in the Conservative synagogue through the community center. I was originally a member, most people don't realize it or know it. But I never paid any due, I never paid any dues [Laughter] or paid, at that time I didn't have too much money. And of course after so, so long a time I lost my membership because I hadn't paid it, which was like in the first year. And I never became a member again until the new Jewish Community Center started. By this time I could afford to belong when they built the new center here. But, so I, I again was not involved as much with the community, let's say, social life. Although my wife, being from the first family of the city, knew everyone in town. I mean she, she knew all of the old families and knew all about them. And of course this was one of the things that we'd go anywhere that we would go. She was knowledgeable as far as the old people in the city. You know she knew everyone.
SH: Which--?
HF: All my children incidentally were born here. And, and my wife's family has the distinction, my late wife's family, of being the, her father was born in Charlotte. Her grandfather came from Europe and he came here, came to Charlotte in 1889. So the, of the present families he is the, the Millers are the oldest. Now there's one descendent that's still here in the city and that's Shirley Silverstein. And of course her children, that's Morton Silverstein's wife. And she is a daughter of my wife's father, father's sister. So she's still here.
SH: Which of the, let's say, lay leaders of the Jewish community or, for that matter, let's say spiritual leaders do you feel influenced you in some way or you feel that stand out among the crowd?
HF: Well I, I was always friendly, believe it or not, I, I had a great interest in Judaism as I mentioned that before. I was always friendly with the Conservative rabbis even though I didn't belong to the Conservative synagogue. And I particularly liked one of the rabbis that they had there, Rabbi Levi who had been a war veteran, as I was. And he has been in the Pacific. And we, we had you know some things in common and we talked quite a bit. And I was interested in Talmudic things and we, we had a lot of discussions. And I also, of course, got friendly with Rabbi Tofield who had been, who was there. I, I knew Rabbi Nathanson when he was here. And I knew of course all of the Reform rabbis and I, I mentioned Rabbi Foster. When Rabbi Gerber became the rabbi of our Temple and I was the one who brought him to Charlotte from Dothan, Alabama. He couldn't come the first holiday. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. He wouldn't leave his old congregation for the holidays, which was laudable. And they needed a rabbi so Herman Blumenthal came to he says, "You know you've got us into this problem here. You've got us a rabbi now who's not going be here for the holidays what are we going to do for a rabbi?" And I says, "I think I can get you one for the holidays." And so he says, "That's great. Who would, who would it be?" And I said, "I know a rabbi that's now Rabbi Emeritus, and he's retired. Lives in Philadelphia but he was the rabbi at my temple when I was a boy." He said, "Is he still living?" I said, "Yeah he's like eighty-nine years old or something like that, but he's in wonderful condition." So he says, "Well great! Call him up." And I called up Rabbi Solomon Foster in Philadelphia and believe it or not he drove down here with his new wife and he conducted the services. And I, I, thought there was a very cute story involved with this, because when he was standing in the vestry room, you know, getting ready and the temple was packed of course for Rosh Hashanah, Harold Breitman, if you remember he had just--Harold Breitman, had just been there for a couple years. He came back and he said to me, "You think the rabbi is nervous you know about this service?" He was standing there just sort of meditating. He said, "Do you think he's nervous you know going out here with all these people?" I said, "Yes, Harold, I, I think he is nervous. This is the smallest congregation he's ever preached to." [Laughter] Because his, his congregation had about 3,000 members. That was about the kind of thing he was used to. He wasn't used to a little one like ours. [Laughter]
SH: What's the--?
HF: Incidentally I want to say one thing about Rabbi Foster. Rabbi Foster was at least eighty-nine, I believe at the time. And imagine he rode, he drove down. Of course he was very young at heart. And, and when he sent a picture, I asked him to send a picture down for the newspaper. And I believe, I believe the picture he sent down was from when he graduated from Hebrew Union College. Looked like he was about nineteen years, nineteen years old. He was a little vain. But we, of course we took pictures of him. The newspaper took pictures of him as he got here and the thing that I wanted to point out about him, he was a, really a wonderful man. His, his views on anti-Zionism had mellowed somewhat you know since, by that time Israel had been established and so on. But, but he, when we came time for him to leave--. And he stayed at the Walter Klein's house while he was here. They put him up and was very nice. And he enjoyed himself so much the Temple handed him the check you know for his holiday services and he handed it back to them. Wouldn't take any money. And he, he just said he appreciated the fact that we thought of him to call him down. It was a very lovely thing. I want to also mention, I can't you know, I mention I was very friendly with Harry Golden. I got to be very good friends with Hermann Cohen. Red Cohen was one of the characters in town and in fact Hermann was responsible for Harry Golden still being here before Harry started to get famous. He kept him in, in food and, and shelter. And if it wasn't for Hermann Cohen, Harry, Harry Golden would have probably left Charlotte. But Hermann had a, a dry goods business, sort of a wholesale dry goods business. And I got my first job out of the Army was with a textile firm here from which I got fired very quickly. Because the boss felt like I was, I was spying on him. But I'd take notes all the time trying to figure out what I was doing. He thought I was taking notes for--, it turned out there was a good reason that he thought I was spying because he was later indicted by the IRS for about fifty, fifty different terrible things in New York, and in the New York area because he left Charlotte. But, this boss got rid of me and I had to find another job. So I looked around, I got a job at Sears Roebuck in Charlotte. And, the only reason I got the job was I didn't tell them at the time I had three children. They wouldn't hire me on the pay that they were giving. It was like $32.50 a week. And they said if I had, if I had more than two children of course I couldn't take the job. Well I said, no, no that's--. I actually had three at the time and so they gave me the job and I was able to make commission over it. And pretty soon people started to come down and said, "What's a Jewish boy doing in a place like this?" Unfortunately if I had stayed with Sears Roebuck all this time, they had a profit sharing plan, I probably would have been a multimillionaire you know if I'd, if I'd stayed there. But they, they wanted to derrick me out of there because they didn't think it was right for a Jewish boy to be there. And so Hermann Cohen gave me a job in his textile business and I, I started, he was a jobber. Shipped underwear, things like that, stockings. And I got a job in the shipping department at first. That's what I was doing.
SH: Did a lot of that sort of thing happen because of the small Jewish community?
HF: Well they, of course, the thing about the Jewish people like Morris Speizman was one of them that said, "What are you doing here?" But Morris Speizman didn't offer me the job. Hermann Cohen offered me the job. But the fact was that I got the, let's say the beginning of my jewelry experience because of Hermann Cohen. That's how it worked out. I had a uncle of my wife's that was in the jewelry business and he heard of an opening in New York, traveling in this area, in the Carolinas for a watch company. And I was working for Hermann Cohen and I didn't want to take a chance on losing the job that I had and going into a new field. So I asked Hermann if it was OK if I worked in the afternoon for the watch company and in the morning for him. And he said, "Sure, that would be fine." And he let me do that for about well three or four months when I found out I could, I could actually make a living on the other business. He was very nice to me.
SH: Were there any events, or single event
HF: Yeah.
SH: in your time in Charlotte that impacted the Jewish community to a greater extent than other things that may have happened in Charlotte?
HF: That--. Well, when you say impacted you mean that, that something that I did that involved the Jewish community or--?
SH: Something that happened you know nationally or internationally or locally that really was a milestone, let's say. That created a lot of--.
HF: Well I remember this. I remember that there were, that there were certain acts of anti-Semitism around the South that didn't seem to come here, there were, especially during the freedom march period. Charlotte wasn't very active in that, in that respect. I'm talking about the Jewish community wasn't very active. There were a lot of Jewish participants in the freedom marches around the country. But not from Charlotte, we weren't--. Even though Harry Golden was writing all the time--. Harry was really the main, I would say the main voice which the Jewish community didn't particularly care too or care about too much. That they kept saying he's not our spokesman. You know they were trying to disavow their connection with Harry. But Harry became the spokesman for, for the Jewish opinion in the South it would seem. And whenever the New York papers would quote someone they would quote Harry Golden. They wouldn't quote I. D. Blumenthal, I. D. Blumenthal maybe didn't like it too much because Harry used to work for him.
SH: Why do you think that was, was there--?
HF: Well Harry became very famous. He became famous as a writer. His Carolina Israelite got all over the country.
SH: I mean in particular to the Jews of Charlotte saying Harry Golden is not our spokesperson. Do you think Jews of the South preferred a less visible--?
HF: Yeah, I think the Jews of the South--when I say the Jews of the South I'm only speaking of the Jews of Charlotte--the Jews of Charlotte were more of the, and there were other cities of the South that were the same way I would say. I'm not, not just saying that it's Charlotte that don't rock the boat. They were that, of that type. Don't you know, don't make waves. Harry Golden was making waves and they didn't like it too much. But Harry Golden's waves were being received all over the country and he became, he really became a, an ousta--. I mean they asked, I mean I could see, I could see how I. D. Blumenthal would feel when he'd go to New York and they'd say, "Do you know Harry Golden?" Because that's, that happened. It happened with I. D., would happen with Herman. It would happen with anyone that was, you know, prominent in the community. They didn't, they always asked about Harry Golden. "Are you, do you know him? Are you friends?" He'd say, "Do I know him? He owes me plenty." You know that, that type of thing, but that was a kind of situation. But Harry became very famous.
US (Unknown Speaker): Has changed in Charlotte. Are we more courageous? I was thinking we would probably have to rock the boat.
HF: I would say yes, I would say that the community, your question are we more courageous I would say yes we're a little bit more outspoken than we used to be. Particularly today with Rabbi Wilson, Rabbi Gerber. And since Rabbi Gerber has been here, he's always been outspoken. And always has written you know letters to the editor. Most of the other rabbis were more laid back and didn't speak out as much as Rabbi Gerber. Gerber is one who I would say deserves the most credit for starting it.
US: And what advice would you give to future generations of Charlotte?
HF: Well, well, I don't think I'm, I'm a good one to advise them. I would say that participating in Jewish affairs is most important. That's one of the reasons that I belong to the Jewish Community Center although I very rarely ever come here. I'm, I'm a regular full member but I don't make use of the facilities. But I feel it should be supported. It's the same thing with the temple. I don't go to temple now as much as I should. But my daughter-in-law is a singer there, and I mean off, off and on. And I think that the Jewish person coming into the city should affiliate himself with the temple and with the community center. I think that that's important because you get, that way in unity there is strength.
SH: Well we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. ( )
HF: So glad to do it. All right.
SH: We hope to be speaking to you more. Thank you, Hilbert.