From Bialystok to Waxahachie
The Legacy of Isidore Katz
By Lawrence G. Katz
Article from The Jewish Herald Voice
My father, Isidore Katz, was born around 1900 and raised in Bialystok, Poland. I assume that he was part of a successful entrepreneurial family, since he told me that his father had been in the junk business, dealing in metals, rags, bones or whatever could be turned into a profit.
He owned his own land and home, which was subsequently confiscated by the Poles or the Nazis, after the invasion of Poland in 1939.
According to stories that I remember, he said that conscripts into the Polish army were simply taken off the street if they appeared old enough to serve. Traditionally, the Poles have always been anti-Semitic and consequently army life was harsh for young Jewish men. For these reasons, his father did not want him to serve in the Polish army.
My grandfatherís brother and sisters had already left Poland. With the exception of the Israel Silberblatt family, they were all living in Texas, including my great grandmother Mindell. Each family had its own individual business, such as grocery or dry goods stores. Apparently, my grandfather had been reluctant to leave Poland because of his own business interests there.
As a student of history, I know that it was almost impossible to immigrate to the United States in the middle 1920ís because of the mass migration that had occurred earlier in the decade.
My dad recounted the time that, as a young man, he had been instructed to and live in Germany. This he did. He told me that he knocked on the door of a relativeís home, where living arrangements had been made for what turned into a short visit. He was advised that all "Polish Jews" must enter from the back of the house. Since most German Jews appeared to be educated and highly sophisticated, many might have considered themselves superior to Polish Jews. Even though my own father had very little formal education, he was known to be smart, a hard worker and determined.
Later, he told of spending an entire day at a German police station, but ending up with a passport Ė an accomplishment. I was too young at the time to really listen and understand, but there are no additional details about this particular episode, other than what follows.
Isidore Katz, my father, came to the United States sometime near 1925, passing through Ellis Island, to the best of my knowledge. It is assumed that his name was shortened to Katz from the from the family name of Katzenellenbogen when he arrived in America. Someday I will try to verify this when I am in New York, trying to find the manifest of the ship that brought him to this country.
After arriving in New York, he lived for a short time with either friends or distant family relations. There have been references to family members there in the printing business, but no specific names are known. His major difficulty at the time was that he did not speak or understand English.
As a result, the only employment available then would be menial hard labor. Living on the Lower East Side of the city, he found work in a hot, dirty, dusty basement, separating rags, which were dumped from trucks up above.
When his father, Simon, learned what his son was doing, he contacted his family in Tyler, Texas Ė the Smiths. They were told that he wanted his son out of that environment.
As the oldest son in the family, his father must have had respect and/or clout as this turned out to be not just a request, but a command. Perhaps this was one of the Katzí traits.
In any event, the family in Texas had relatives in Baltimore, Maryland and they assumed the responsibility of gong east to get my father.
My Fatherís first cousin, Sol Smith, later told me that he and his brother Israel drove to Baltimore during the summer of 1927 with instructions from their Uncle Max Katz to bring Isidore to Dallas, where the uncle had moved from Tyler. Uncle Max had decided to get out of his retail store and go into the real estate business.
This history might have turned out differently in respect t my subsequent birth, since Sol lost the address and almost did not make the connection. Ultimately, when they were on their way, my father made a deal with the two cousins that if they would teach him English, he would teach them Yiddish songs during the five-day drive to Texas.
Initially in Dallas, my father worked for Uncle Max. This was a mistake from the beginning. The two were like "flint and stone", when rubbed together they made sparks. There was an incident when Uncle Max took him to a farm on which he had a "for sale" listing. He was coached to tell anyone showing up that day t view the property and that his uncle would be back later in the afternoon to discuss any financial matters or other details regarding purchasing the property.
It was one of those days that affected my fatherís future and what he would end up doing during his working lifetime. Not a single person showed up the entire day. He said there was not a newspaper to read, a glass of water to drink or a piece of bread to eat. When Uncle Max finally returned to pick him up, he said that if that day were typical of the real estate business, he wanted nothing to do with it! (As an aside, Uncle Max became very successful in the real estate business, at one time owning three entire city blocks in downtown Dallas.)
Father had learned that there might be a business opportunity for him in Waco and boarded an interurban to seek it out. The interurban was an oversized streetcar that carried passengers and freight on railroad tracks, powered overhead by electric lines. Its route was almost a straight line from Sherman/McKinney, Texas through Dallas, going south to Waxahachie, Hillsboro and ending up in Waco. At each stop there was a 30 to 60 minute wait in order to unload and/or reload merchandise and schedule seating of new passengers.
The first stop was Waxahachie, a thriving community with a farming economy, based primarily on the harvesting of cotton. My guess of the population number then would have been about 6,000 inhabitants. However, among them were only six Jewish families.
Waxahachie is the seat of Ellis County with its center focused around an architecturally interesting courthouse. One could easily walk the downtown area in less than an hour without being in a hurry. My father found himself strolling by a combination dry goods and grocery store called Rothís. As was probably the custom at that time, Roth the owner was standing outside his store. He and my father struck up a conversation in Yiddish that ended up with a job offer. They apparently came to terms with my father working for him for three days, earning a grand total of $1.50 for the three days of work.
When he returned to Dallas, Uncle Max asked him what he had been doing and my father told him. He then asked how much bed and board had cost him for those three days. The answer was about $2.00, whereupon, Uncle Max called him a damned fool. That remark, of course, made my father angry.
The next day my father was on his way back to Waxahachie. This time, on his second tour of the downtown area, he met and talked to Harry Byars, another local Jewish businessman with a store similar to Rothís. Byars, too, offered my dad a job at more pay than he had earned the prior week. Being shrewd, my father went back to Roth and told him of his new offer. He had already proven himself to be a hard worker, so Roth bettered Byarsí offer and my father went to work full time.
He worked from early in the morning until late in the night, taking only 15 to 20 minutes off for lunch. After three months, he had frugally saved $100. He noted that on the south side of the square there was an empty store building, which was then owned by a Mr. Penn, a nice and polite gentleman. My father wanted to go into business for himself and Penn agreed to lease the property to him for $50.00 per month. Dad gave him the $100.00 for the first and last monthís rent. The problem was that he had no money left for inventory.
He approached his Uncle Max, asking him to guarantee a line of credit so that he could buy merchandise. Uncle Max agreed, but there was a catch. His uncle had a nephew on the other side of his family and the deal was that he would guarantee the credit line of $300.00, if my father would take this nephew into the business as a full partner. He had no other choice and the deal was struck. This was strictly a business arrangement and my father signed a note for the line of credit.
His source of merchandise at that time was a wholesale house in Dallas named Higginbotham, Logan & Bailey. This was the beginning of Katz Department Store. It was an inauspicious start because within the first month, he caught his partner "tapping the till" and he kicked him out of the business.
Very quick response from his Uncle Max was a demand for repayment of the $300 line of credit that he had guaranteed. Obviously, the money was tied up in inventory and my father was unable to repay him on such short order. The result was that Uncle Max formally sued him for payment in full.
Canceled checks in my possession attest that my father paid back these funds in $1.00 to $5.00 amounts, as he was able to do so, until he was debt-free from his Uncle Max. This was during the Depression Years and times were tough.
At some point in time during 1927 a shidduch was arranged between my father an d my mother, Annie (Grewshefsky) Gilbert, who lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Fannie and Harry Burk, in Ennis, Texas, 15 miles east of Waxahachie.
Her job was to clean house and act as babysitter for her nephew and niece. She was a late arrival immigrant, along with her father and several cousins. Speaking no English, at the age of 12 or thereabout, she was enrolled in the first grade Ė a very embarrassing moment for her. She had little formal education and often referred to herself as a "greenhorn." The two were about the same age, although my father always said that my mother was older. The marriage took place in April 1928 at the home of another sister and brother-in-law, Etta and Israel Rudnick, who lived in Dallas. Incidentally, contrary to the assumption that the name Katz is a "Cohan", my father always told me that he was a plain "Israelite".
My mother revealed to me that they had to return to Waxahachie that same evening, following their wedding, because Dad had to open the store the next day. They lived in his rented one-room, which had a bed, a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, an ice chest and very little else. The wallpaper was torn and just hung from the walls. This was her honeymoon and she cried herself to sleep that first night.
On the other hand, it could not have been all bad because L.G. Katz, later changed to Lawrence G. Katz, was born on Feb. 15, 1929. Another anecdote was that Uncle Max gave my dad and mom a perambulator on the occasion of my birth. Several months later, there was another argument, and Uncle Max sent my father a bill for the perambulator. It is unknown how or if that account was ever settled.
As a very young boy, I can remember when my mother was studying her book to become a U.S. citizen. This was very important to her and it was my job to read the question to her and she would answer. For example, "Who was the first president of the United States?"
My father was always working. Mom told me that he would leave a nickel or a dime each day for ice to keep the milk from spoiling. On many occasions, when the iceman arrived, the coins were missing. Any and all funds were used for more pressing needs. Times were tough!
My brother, Ed, was born March 25, 1931. Mom and Dad worked together in the store, and at the age of five I was selling shoelaces there on Saturdays. That was the day all the farmers and their workers came to town; it was the big sales day of the week. A business either made it or did not make it, based on its Saturday sales.
My father was a religious Jew, but it was necessary for him to keep his store open on the Sabbath during the year. However, whenever the High Holy Days occurred, the store was closed. He and my mother kept a kosher home, and he took live chickens to Dallas each weekend for the shochet to kill. This was the time that I attended Sunday school, but it was my Dad who taught me how to read Hebrew. Unfortunately, for me, he did not teach me how to read and understand; it was simply rote. Although I learned to understand Yiddish, I was unable to speak other than a few words and phrases.
In the early years my parents spoke Yiddish to each other when they did not want us to know what they were saying. They encouraged all of their children to speak English at all times.
A story of interest: A cotton farmer, whose name I recall was Alsup, came into the store on a weekday. A discussion with my Dad ended up in a friendly argument. Alsup said something like, "A Jew has a very easy life. All he has to do is open a store, sit on his rear, and make a good profit." Dad answered by saying he could outwork Alsup anytime. Alsup challenged him to come out to his farm and chop cotton. One of the big problems for cotton farmers was to overcome Johnson grass that choked out the cotton plants.
On the following Monday morning, Dad, my brother and I were at the farm at 6 a.m. The four of us, including Alsup started chopping. Everyone was amazed at the speed at which our father worked. If he couldnít chop the weeds, he pulled them out by the roots. While all of us stopped for the day, ate lunch and drank iced tea, our father kept on working through the afternoon, clearing out Alsupís cotton field virtually by himself.
Dad told Alsup he wanted a full dayís pay for himself and his two sons. Alsup complied, paying him something like $4.50 for the three of us. Dad did gain the respect of Alsup and the story was the hot topic of conversation between the communityís businessmen. This was a lesson for me and I was very proud of my father.
Dad always read his Yiddish newspapers as his means of relaxation. By 1934, when the "brown Shirts" started marching in Germany, he became concerned about the welfare of his parents and his four sisters and their families. He was the middle child and the only son of his parents. In order to have his parents immigrate to the United States, it was necessary to have someone in America sponsor them, but, my father was not a citizen.
It was at that time that he began his efforts to become a citizen. He was notified by the immigration authorities that they wanted to review his passport, which he sent to them. Trouble followed!
Whether he was knowledgeable about his situation or had been duped, I have been unable to determine. My mother told me when I was in my teens what had happened. Up until that time I had no idea of what transpired and of the pressures on my father and mother, but primarily on my dad.
One night about 10 p.m. there was a knock on their door. It was the F.B.I. and my father was arrested as an illegal immigrant. His passport turned out to be a forgery and belonged to a woman in Chicago. This was not an isolated instance in those days; there were many other immigrants in the same situation.
This was at a time when America was trying to keep out of another war and the public mood was definitely isolationist. My father was taken to Dallas and put in jail. My mother was hysterical. Fortunately, she had the good sense to call her cousin, E.L. (Ellie) Gilbert, who was an attorney living in nearby Fort Worth. He agreed to defend my father. Because of Dadís financial situation, this was almost a charity case for Ellis.
The rest of the legal story I am able to relate in detail. When Ellie died many years later, his son gave me all the correspondence between his father and mine, along with copies of letters to congressmen, senators, Arbiter Ring and anyone else that might have been of help in this situation. However, I am now getting ahead of myself in telling this story.
A trial was held in Dallas. My father had a small, thriving department store in which he employed three people in the community and had developed a good reputation. The mayor, his banker, and many other local citizens turned out on his behalf to testify as to his good character. The jury found him not guilty.
Although it is hearsay, it is my understanding that during the trial, Uncle Max purportedly offered to bribe the federal attorney handling the case. This was a time when there were a lot of "red necks" in Texas, as well as many others who were suspicious of foreigners. They may have felt that immigrants were taking away jobs from Americans at a time of economic turmoil in the nation.
Although my father was not convicted of a federal crime, he was still an illegal immigrant and the federal attorney was obsessed with having my father deported to the port of his embarkation, Bremen, Germany. This meant certain death would await him at the hands of the Nazis.
My sister, Lynette, had been born on July 14, 1936, so my mother and her children were all United States citizens and could not be deported. Since that was the case, she told my dad that she was not going with him! This was pressure on him from more than one area.
With time growing shorter, the federal attorney finally agreed to compromise. My father could go to any other country that was not contiguous to the United States. This meant he could not go to Canada or Mexico. Very few, if any, other countries would offer a safe haven at that time for any Jew. The only alternative was Cuba.
My mother told him, again, that she was not going with him. After pleading his case to anyone that would listen, Ellie found a sympathetic congressman who went to bat for my dad. Congressman Fritz G. Lanham submitted an individual bill to the U.S. House of Representatives, authorizing Isidore Katz to be granted full citizenship. At that time, the congressman was chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, which was not a related committee.
Congressman Lanham wrote to E.L. Gilbert on May 4, 1937: "Dear Ellie: I am glad to be able to advise you that I succeeded today under great difficulties in getting the House to pass the bill I introduced on behalf of Isidore Katz. On this calendar there were about twenty cases dealing with immigration. This one which I introduced and one other are the only ones that passed the House of Representatives.
"I devoted the morning to seeing those on each side of the House designated to study and make objections to bills on the Private Calendar that are considered objectionable.
"I succeeded in convincing them of the merits of this bill. No debate is allowed on the bills on the Private Calendar but by unanimous consent a few of us talked and I had an opportunity to differentiate this bill from the others, which were to be considered.
"I shall try to remember to send you a copy of the Congressional Record which will come out tomorrow. It seems to me that the bill should have easier chances for favorable consideration in the Senate. I am taking it up with both of our Texas Senators and I am supplying them with a copy of the bill and the Committee report.
"Representative Luther Johnson, in whose district Waxahachie is situated, is doing likewise. It might be a good idea for you and friends of Mr. Katz in Waxahachie to write to our two Texas Senators about this. I think the House is a greater hurdle than the Senate with reference to a bill of this sort. It is a most meritorious case and, though I am an ardent restrictionist, the merits of this case appealed to me strongly.
"I have been glad to be able to get this favorable action in the House of Representatives. With cordial regards and best wishes, I am, Sincerely your friend, Fritz G. Lanham."
This bill was, subsequently, submitted to the United States Senate and it was passed, again. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill that allowed my father to remain in this country with his family! This is recorded in the Congressional Record, Seventy-Fifth Congress, First Session, Vol. 81, No. 85, Washington, Tuesday, May 4, 1937.
My father wrote my motherís cousin and his attorney, Ellie Gilbert, the following letter on April 3, 1941: "Dear Ellie: I am glad to let you know that I received my Citizens papers last Monday. I am sure that you will be glad to hear same. I would have written you sooner, but I have been in bed sick with the flu. I hope that you and Mrs. Gilbert & family are in the best of health. Thanking you a thousand times for what you have done for me. Yours very truly, I. Katz. P.S. I will send you an ok for the balance of $50.00very soon. I have not money right now. Very sorry."
Katz Department Store existed on the south side of the Waxahachie Square until 1941, where it occupied the lower floor of a two-story building. Above it was cotton brokers. The date is not recalled, but a casualty occurred that ended up being fortuitous for my father. A fire started upstairs in some cotton samples from a carelessly tossed cigarette. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, the water damaged all of the storeís inventory. Fortunately, my father had fire insurance to the extent of $20,000, which was not full and complete coverage.
After the damage was determined, the fire insurance company offered my dad an alternative: cash payment in full for $20,000 or $17,500 in cash, plus all of the damaged inventory, which consisted mostly of work clothing. Dad chose the second alternative. He rented another building on South Rogers Street, two blocks off the square, where he put up clotheslines inside and hung all the clothing out to dry. The only real damage showed up as water stains. He had a big sale and most of his goods were sold for less than the original retail prices, but for more than the wholesale prices. He ended up with $17,500 t boot. It was his first time to ever have any excess cash.
This was just before the beginning of World War II, and his business continued to grow with the improving economy. Ultimately, he ended up buying this property and the business continued at that location until he moved the family to Dallas in 1951.
My sister, Ida, had been born Dec. 28, 1939, so the primary reason for his move to Dallas was to provide a means for his two daughters to be involved in Jewish activities and to meet other Jewish children Ė especially Jewish boys. His goals and aspirations in that respect were accomplished.
There are two other anecdotes that I would relate. From a small advertisement in one of his Jewish newspapers, dad learned that the Polish government admitted to the confiscation of Jewish owned properties during World War II. Upon submission of proof of family ownership, Poland had agreed to provide financial compensation.
He approached a Jewish attorney for assistance in filing a claim. The attorney thought my fatherís claim was a very tenuous one and would not agree to help him, since there was stated compensation of only ten percent of an approved claim for legal services. He did not think that this was sufficient compensation.
Dad persisted and filed the claim himself, and inserted the lawyerís name as the person assisting him in the matter. To his surprise and certainly to the surprise of the attorney, his claim was approved for an approximate amount of $40,000, to be paid over a 20-year period, plus interest. The attorney was awarded 10 percent without doing any work whatsoever. As it turned out, three years of payments, without interest, were received by my Dad, but the Polish government, subsequently, reneged and denied any further payments.
For an anniversary present, my brother, sisters and I arranged for Mom and Dad to make their one and only trip to Israel in April of 1965. Their plans had already been made and tickets purchased when he heard from his first cousin, Israel Silberblatt, in Vera Cruz, Mexico. He and his wife were coming to Houston for medical treatment. They had not seen one another for 40 years. My Dad called to ask if I would assist them in any way, and that he would see them following his return to Houston.
Although they thoroughly enjoyed their trip to Israel, Dad returned somewhat depressed for two reasons: He thought there might be an outside chance that his youngest sister might have survived the Holocaust, but he could find no information about her; and while he was gone, Israel Silberblatt died following abdominal surgery. His wife returned to Mexico City for his funeral and two weeks later she died.
Six months later, my father died from cardiac failure.
While few people would have survived these ordeals psychologically, I feel that the pain did impair my fatherís health, contributing to his relatively early death. His legacy is that he had four children, all of whom married Jewish spouses, and in turn produced 13 grandchildren.
My fatherís entire family perished in the Holocaust. Only a young lady who married one of his nephews survived. She immigrated to the United States after World War II, moving to Detroit. She recalled that my grandmother was dragged by her hair out of her home into the street and shot in the head.
But for the grace of God, that same end result might have been my fatherís story at a much younger age. With the exception of Israel, there is no greater country for the safety and security of its Jewish citizens than the United States of America. God bless America!