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Interview with Minnie Silverstein Sutker

Sutker, Minnie Silverstein
Goldstein, Faye
Date of Interview: 
Jews and Charlotte; Jews and the South; World War I; World War II; Zionism; immigrants; discrimination; anti-Semitism; Jewish religious education; Jewish traditions; Jewish youth organization; politics; civil rights movement; civic involvement; youth recreation; Holocaust; Passover; religion
Minnie Silverstein Sutker discusses her life as a member of Charlotte's Jewish community. She talks about her father's earliest days in Charlotte in the late-nineteenth century and discusses her parents' integral roles in the community. Sutker recalls the limited scope of Jewish activities and leadership during her childhood. She talks about Jewish youth recreation that was present and the statewide network of events and friends that she and others developed in North Carolina. In terms of adult organizations, she discusses women's organizations within the Jewish community like Hadassah. Sutker describes the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Charlotte as being fairly good, despite the instances of social discrimination she recounts, and she tells of early differentiation among Charlotte's Jews. Recalling wartime Charlotte during the First and Second World Wars, Sutker details her own family's personal experiences with the Holocaust.
Charlotte, NC 1910-1990
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Collection Description: 
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Interview Audio: 
FG (Faye Goldstein): OK, what we'll start with, Minnie, is I'll ask you to identify yourself and then talk about how and when your family first moved to Charlotte and some of your experiences and memories as a child in the Jewish community. So many. Let's go. All right, if you'll identify yourself and then give us something about your family and personal history with regard to Charlotte and the Jewish community, you know, in that context, Minnie.
MS (Minnie Silverstein Sutker): I was born in Charlotte, the daughter, the youngest child of nine children. My father came to Charlotte in 1893. He had come to the shores of this country about '92, but he did not like New York, so he went over to Philadelphia where he had cousins and someone told him that Charlotte, North Carolina, the streets were lined with gold. Well, that's an old saying I understand in Isr-, in the European countries, that they think the streets are lined with gold.
US(Unidentified Speaker): Can I ask you to start over and when you begin, tell us who you are,
FG: Identify yourselves.
US: and then give us the names of your parents, too?
MS: And then go into my father?
US: Yeah, and then--.
MS: Well, how will I tell them who I am [Laughter] other than the youngest?
FG: My name is Minnie Sutker.
US: My name is Minnie Sutker.
MS: Oh.
US: I was born here in Charlotte.
MS: Oh, oh. I'm sorry.
FG: That's all right. Every--. The rest was perfect.
MS: Sorry.
US: So, so whenever you're ready.
FG: Go ahead.
MS: Do your--?
FG: Do you want me to ask you again?
MS: Um-hum.
FG: OK, if you'll identify yourself, Minnie, and then tell us about how and when your family moved to Charlotte.
MS: I'm Minnie Silverstein Sutker. I was born in Charlotte, the youngest of nine children. My father came to Charlotte in 1893. At that time, my parents had a son and a daughter. The son remained in Poland with his maternal grandparents until he was bar mitzvahed. That was a very lucky thing to have done because he, at that time Charlotte just did not have Jews who even had bar mitzvahs. There were a few families, but most of them moved away. He found Mr. Harris Noah had come here six months before him, and the families who were here were so small they did not have a minyan. My father and Mr. Miller's nephew got on their bicycles, my mother had not come here yet, and drove, and rode to Wilmington, where there were just lots of Jews. They tried to get some of the families to move to Charlotte, and they were successful in the Paul family, who were a great asset to the Charlotte community. One son became the first Jewish lawyer in Charlotte. However, he not only was a Jew, but he was a Republican, and therefore he actually was not a very successful lawyer, but he did go to Washington, D.C. where he became a very fine attorney.
FG: Very good. Do you have any early fond memories of the Jewish community where the temple and worship in Charlotte that you can relate?
MS: We didn't have a temple until 1916. We hardly a minyan, but we did, and the Jewish congregation was chartered in 1895, but we met in places above stores. One was at the corner of Third and Tryon, and later there was one on East Trade Street. But with a lot of effort, finally enough money was raised that we could build a temple on West Seventh Street.
FG: And bring in a rabbi?
MS: And at that time we did not have a rabbi, though it was an Orthodox synagogue, our temple, which was then Agudath Achen, was dedicated with a Reform rabbi from Savannah, Georgia.
FG: Do you have any specific individuals that really stand out in your mind in terms of the Jewish community as you grew up in Charlotte? [Pause] You may have several.
MS: There are a number of people who come to mind. Of course, my father was, was certainly one of them. He was the second president of Temple Israel. And I can well remember Mr. Michael Kirschbaum, who was the superintendent of our Sunday school once we had a Temple. As far as our Jewish education, it was very, very small; we just didn't have the teaching that most Jewish children have.
FG: What about a woman? Does any woman stand out in your mind? I'm sure your mom would, but--?
MS: [Laughter] My mom, of course. [Laughter] Our house was open house, and there was hardly a Jewish person who came to Charlotte for medical reasons or for services that they didn't stay in my home. Our house was always filled with people. We never knew who was going to be at any one meal, because my father always, they always brought them. We moved to Graham Street. Actually, we, act--. We first lived on West Ninth Street. Both places were very close to the Temple, and my father always walked in with whoever was, whoever was at Temple for services. For Kiddush was always held at our house.
FG: What Jewish holiday was the most meaningful to you and how did you celebrate that?
MS: I suppose the most meaningful was Passover, because my older sisters and brothers who had gotten married always came home for Passover. We had a very, very large family with the children, grandchildren. My niece once said that she didn't think she would ever graduate to the main table because the children were seated at other tables. And I don't think she ever did, though she's now in her sixties.
FG: That's, that's neat. What about the highlights with regard--, your remembrances of Jewish education, either you as a person or the development of Jewish education in Charlotte. Do you have any comments on that?
MS: Well, as I said, it was almost nil when I was coming along. The only thing that I really remember we always, always had, a Queen Esther play at Purim. One ra--, the rabbi that we had, we had rabbis on and off, and they never stayed very long with the exception of the Rabbi Greenberg was here for ten years, and Rabbi Tofield, and [Pause] Rabbi, my last [Laughter] rabbi, who was here. But the rabbis actually, in my--, in, when I was growing up, just were here for such a short time that they didn't get very much done educationally in, in any way, so we really suffered from that standpoint. I was in the first confirmation class, and David Nabow was my teacher and, of course, I admired him very, very much.
FG: Were there Jewish youth groups or, or children's groups?
MS: None, none whatsoever until my son organized the first--, my husband, the late Nathan Sutker, organized the first AZA group, just shortly after we were married. I guess it was about 1931. And that group lasted until these boys went off to college, and then it dropped and was reorganized some years later.
FG: You mentioned David Nabow. Was there any other Jewish lay or spiritual leader, whether a rabbi or not, that had a great influence on you?
MS: Well, I.D. Blumenthal, of course, always comes to mind with what he did with so many of the young boys. My son was not ready for that, but the group that came under his guidance were certainly fortunate children because he took them to Sabbath services every Saturday for a number of years. And I know that they gained a lot during that time.
FG: OK. Now we're going to move into culture and politics and questions on that particular vein. We may come back if you have more recollections that you want to add. How did the Jewish community relate to and get along in the community-at-large in your experience, Minnie?
MS: I think there was always a very, very good feeling. I think we were always friendly with our neighbors, and I cannot ever remember any anti-Semitism in my own life. I do know that there were certain restrictions: there were areas where Jews were not invited; there were clubs that Jews were not admitted into, particularly the Charlotte Country Club. And I am told that Dannie Heineman, whom I'm sure you all have heard the name, was not, was not admitted when he returned to Charlotte a grown man. His father and mother--. He was born here, and it was always his wish to come back to Charlotte when he grew up. And after his father, his father died, and that's why his mother took him back to Germany. But when he grew up and came back, he wanted to come to Charlotte, but did not come because he was not--. He felt he would not be welcome in the Charlotte Country Club, so he went to New York. But he is buried, as you know, in our cemetery because it was his wish that he be buried next to his father in Charlotte. And so I can't say that, that we really knew anything about anti-Semitism except in a broader view. We did know that we were not active. I don't know whether that was because the Jews didn't care to be active in politics or whether they felt they didn't have a chance. I really do not know.
FG: Were there any political organizations or Jew--, that Jews were associated with in your knowledge or Jewish politicians, etcetera, or people that stand out that you might remember over the course of history with regard to politics in Charlotte? Do you remember any of the first people?
MS: In the early days, I believe that Gladys Kahn's father, Gladys Lavitan's father, Mr. Kahn, was active in politics. And of course, later, Arthur Goodman, as you know was a representative. But in the very, very early days I really cannot recall any names who were very active in politics.
FG: You talked about no major recollections of anti-Semitism. Are you aware of any memorable positive experiences between the Christian and Jewish communities or any other communities that interrelated with the Jewish community in Charlotte?
MS: I really, I really can't say, except that of course when the Conference of Christians and Jews, it was embraced beautifully by both Christians and Jews as I'm sure it was nearly everywhere. But, I cannot remember any particular--.
FG: Do you have any comment on Jewish and black relations over the course of years?
MS: I think it was very good, and I think that when the civil rights movement came into being, some of our outstanding citizens worked silently, behind the scenes, and helped make it--, make the path smoother.
FG: I'm sure you've known Jewish artists and musicians and other cultural contributors to Charlotte's history. Do you have any comments on that?
MS: Well, in the very early days, I can remember that Mr.--, this same Mr. Michael Kirschbaum, who was a son-in-law of Mr. Paul, played the flute, and he was on the Shrine band, which was quite, quite good in those days. And of course Israel Smith and Sam Citron, were among the organizers of the Charlotte Symphony.
FG: Um-hum. How was the Jewish community changed throughout the years? Can you describe that?
MS: Well, it's [Laughter] changed remarkably; it's unbelievable. From the very smallest Jewish community, I would say, in the state of North Carolina, as you know, has become, the largest, and I think the finest Jewish community in the state.
FG: Is there anything you miss?
MS: Anything I miss?
FG: Yeah.
MS: Yes, I, I, I have to truthfully say that I do miss the comradeship that we had with all Jews, not just my Temple, your temple, or what not. We, we were all--. Of course, we had only the one temple other than, there was a reform group who met in homes, and that was a very separate back in the real, you know, in the beginning--. There were German Jews in Charlotte when my father came to town, but they were not interested in the Polish or Russian Jews, as you all know. But there was no animosity. There just wasn't the friendliness, but we'd never thought of that group. We'd thought of our group, who [Laughter] actually were the Polish and Russian Jews, and we felt that we were a family. Their sorrows were our sorrows, and their pleasures were our pleasures. Everyone was invited to everything, even weddings. My sister was married in 1911, and she was married at the Catholic hall. We didn't have a temple at the time, and the parish priest came to my mother and said, "We would be honored if you would use our O'Donahue Hall." Now, of course, that is not the church, but it is part of their fellowship. And my mother said she would be happy to use it. My sister had one of the largest weddings in the state. Her husb--, the groom's parents, relatives came in from England, and it was the talk of the state. Jews came in from all over the state. My mother was her own caterer. She had prepared the geese [Laughter], and I think she used to stuff them. But she had quite, it was, it was a very elaborate affair. I can barely remember it. But-.
US: Can I pop in with a question?
FG: Sure.
US: You said that there weren't a lot of Jewish organizations for young people back in those days, so how did you and your husband meet, and how did that all come about? Where did, where did--? When you were, you know, a teenager or in your twenties, and, where did Jewish people get together? How did they meet their spouses?
MS: We met at dances. We did have--. I said there were no Jewish organizations. The young teen boys, teenage boys in Charlotte did organize, and they called themselves the Progressive Club. And actually, they were the forerunner--. I'm glad you brought that up, because they were the forerunners of the Amity Country Club, which as you know, became the Charlotte Jewish Community Center, and that is an outgrowth of what we have here today. So my--, I met my husband when he came up from Savannah to work for Anderson-Clayton Cotton Brokers. I had been gone for the summer, and he'd heard about me. And when I got back to town, I met him. He was--, he had met my brother. He had come in to actually open the Anderson-Clayton brokerage office. And at that time, my father and brother had bought a stock, a bookstore, who held, who sold office furniture. So he had become very friendly with, with my brother. So, of course, the first, when I got home it was close to Rosh Hashanah. I had gone up to study in Martha's, at Martha's Vineyard Island, the summer, take a summer course, and he, my brother invited him to my home. I had really been studying, what we called it in those days, expression. And I had been taught that one doesn't speak in the accent of their [Laughter] part of the country. And he thought that I was being a little bit stuck up, because I was trying to speak as, you know, standard speech, which is very close to Bostonian or certainly not Charleston [Laughter] or Savannah. But we did meet and liked each other, so we were soon engaged and married. What was the next--? What, where were we? [Laughter]
FG: Well, we were talking about [Pause] recollections, family recollections. How you met
MS: Well.
FG: young, other young Jewish people when there were no clubs as such.
MS: Oh, we had, as I started to tell you, we had one or two large affairs in Charlotte, and the youth came from all over the state. And we went to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, Raleigh, the towns that were large enough to have a youth, have young people who were interested in having affairs. And of course, to have a really worthwhile dance, a large dance, you had to have young people [Laughter]. So we drove from one town to the other, and that was our actual social life with, with the Jewish children. When we went to school, we had very, if any child who was Jewish in a class--. I can only remember one other person in my class when I graduated. And sadly enough, that was true even when my son came along. There were very few Jewish children. Today, the children are very fortunate to start, start right off in nursery school with other Jewish children. So our friendships were as many non-Jews as Jews.
FG: OK, good. That's very interesting. And I have some questions, if we can drop to a different segment, about the World Wars and formation of the state of Israel and response to that. But do you have any stories about Jewish participation or anything of that nature with regard to World War I and around that time?
MS: Well, beginning with World War I, we had Camp Greene, so there were lots of soldiers around. And, of course, our homes were open to them. I know that mine was particularly, because as I say, my mother was used to having guests at all times. And she would go down and work on a Seder. We had public Seder for the soldiers down at Temple Israel. But she would spend the day, helping down there, making gefilte fish, which she was [Laughter] very, very good, and then come home and have a Seder with family, friends, and a few soldiers. And we did not have a lot of men who actually went to war, but we did have a few and--.
FG: With regard to World War II, then, how did the Jewish community in Charlotte react to news about the Holocaust? Was there an uproar? Disbelief?
MS: There was disbelief because we really did not have the media that we have today.
FG: Um-hum.
MS: And it was very difficult to realize, and, I mean, we just didn't know what was happening over there. When we heard, of course, we were in shock, just as the whole country was.
FG: Did you have friends or relatives that were in Europe at that time?
MS: Yes, I certainly did. In fact, I, my father had lost pretty much contact with his family and I didn't realize until after it was all over. When a cousin, two, two cousins, a brother and sister, found each other, and he had lost his wife and children and of course his father and mother and other members in the family.
FG: Were any friends and family able to escape to Charlotte or did they come after the war?
MS: Well, this, this one brother and sister came down and visited. We met them in Richmond. My father had a brother in Richmond. And they had come over later. In fact, I didn't mention that my uncle, who came to this country planning to bring his family over, started back after the First World War and was caught in Philadelphia where they had mutual cousins, and his family suffered there during the First World War that I forgot to mention. But they all got safely to Richmond and--.
FG: And from where did they come? What country?
MS: From Poland. My father and his family were all from Poland. But one brother remained, so it was this one brother who had remained. Some of them had gone to Israel, and they were there in the early days, back in the pioneer days, before it--, when it was still Palestine. We have a lot of relatives in, in what is now Israel but what was Palestine at the time.
FG: After the war, can you say anything about the influx of Jews into North Carolina and Charlotte in particular?
MS: Are you saying after the Second World War?
FG: The Second World War. Yeah.
MS: Yes, there were a few who came in from Germany, but they belonged to our Temple, to Temple Israel. They came and joined and have certainly been a marvelous addition to the Jewish community.
FG: Did most Jews here talk about or become interested in Zionism in your recollection? Were there groups--?
MS: Not really. We--. This is interesting. We had a rather difficult time in organizing a Hadassah group in Charlotte. We had the Council of Jewish Women at one time, and we felt we were all very active in our Sisterhood, and we felt that we just couldn't spread ourselves any thinner. But it so happened that Mrs. Malever, the mother of Hilda Kirshner, did invite down someone who was very, very active in national Hadassah, but they still were unable to get us to, to organize. However, when Rabbi Greenberg came to Charlotte in 1931, he talked to us about having a Hadassah chapter. So, Rhea (Dorsky) White, who was from Connecticut, married to a Charlotte, to a Charlotte man, Abe White, invited a group of people to her home at the urgency of the, of our Rabbi Greenberg. Fourteen women were there, and we decided to, to organize the chapter. And almost from day one, we became a very vital chapter.
FG: What did the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, what kind of impact did that have on the Charlotte Jewish community? And to you?
MS: Oh, well, of course, we were all very, very excited as was the whole country, I, of Jews I imagine. It was very, very thrilling to know that we finally had our own country that we could relate to and feel that we really were important people.
FG: Did you personally have or of your family have anyone in--, go to Israel around that time?
MS: No, not at that time, but I did have family who were already there.
FG: Have you been to Israel yourself?
MS: Yes, I went in 1985. I actually went--. I had wanted to go for a number of years and so had my husband, but we just hadn't, hadn't gone. But when my nephew, Bruce Levin, was married, I had lost my husband and my family insisted that I go to the wedding, and I did. I attended his wedding, and I--. Would you like me to go on? [Laughter]
FG: Sure.
MS: I found it a most marvelous country. I feel that it's a miracle of miracles. I really feel that something, somebody, somewhere, had a hand in seeing that it became ours.
FG: If you had something that you want to tell the youth in Charlotte about, something you'd like to tell them?
MS: The youth?
FG: Anything.
MS: I can only tell them that they are really a very, very fortunate generation. I think that Charlotte has become, as it always has to me, been a wonderful city, and I feel that our Jewish children have so much to be grateful for. And I hope that they will always remember that they must learn about their Judaism. They must join, they must be active, involved in all of the youth groups, not just scouting, which I feel is very important, but also AZA, Young Judea, the temple things, everything that they can possibly do. Because there is no limit to where they can go today. At one time, lawyers and doctors in Charlotte were not too well accepted. But today, they certainly are in the top echelon. And they can be Jewish youth today, can be whatever they want to be if they will just apply themselves with their Judaism and other things, be involved in everything that they possibly can, and the choice is theirs as to whom they will become.
FG: Well, I want to thank you, Minnie. This has been very enlightening.
MS: Thank you.
FG: Yes.
MS: I've enjoyed it.