The Yiddish Book Center's
Wexler Oral History Project
A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.
Paul Kaye's Oral History
Paul Kaye, Navy veteran and officer on the Haganah ship Hatikvah, was interviewed by Hillary Ossip on July 28, 2011 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Paul begins by describing his family background. His father, whose original family name was Kamenetsky, came from Odessa and his mother from Lemberg (also known as Lwow or Lviv). They met on the Lower East Side of New York City. His father spoke only Yiddish, but his mother became fluent in English. Paul was born on the Lower East Side in 1927, but the family moved to a neighborhood near Tremont Avenue in The Bronx when he was four months old. Arthur Avenue, where they lived, was all Yiddish, but there were Italian and Irish neighborhoods on either side of them. When Paul was only eight, his father died. He recounts that as an "orphan," he became a Bar Mitzvah a year early, at age twelve. He was educated in Hebrew at a little shtibl (a small, one-room synagogue) across from his apartment and became a Bar Mitzvah at Fordham Talmud Torah on 181st St. He describes his mother as "super Orthodox," keeping a kosher home with live fish in the bathtub before the Sabbath. Paul was horrified the first time he saw milk together with meat in the Navy. Although the family was poor, Paul has fond memories of his childhood and his mother's cooking, specifically knedlakh (matzah balls) and hamantashen (triangular Purim pastries) with coins in them for luck. Paul attended public schools in The Bronx. He wanted to be an engineer, but through a misunderstanding was sent to Chelsea High School, a vocational school in Manhattan. He graduated during World War II. He had hoped to join the Marines to fight in World War II, but he didn't meet all the requirements. Instead, he joined the Navy in 1945 after a chance meeting with a friend in Grand Central Terminal. The Navy sent him to engineering school and he had orders to prepare for an invasion of Japan, but the orders were rescinded after the atomic bomb was dropped. His mother passed away on the day he was discharged from the Navy, which was a defeating blow to him. After returning home in 1947, while waiting to continue studying engineering at college and working at a record shop, he received a call from a mysterious man recruiting him for a mission. The next day he sailed out of Baltimore as an engineer on the Hatikvah, a sister ship to the Exodus, hoping to bring Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine. In the Azores they were able to obtain fuel after someone overheard him speaking Yiddish. They took Displaced Persons onboard in Italy, but the Hatikvah was intercepted by the British, and the people were taken to detention camps in Cyprus. Everyone there spoke Yiddish, and Paul recounts how on one occasion speaking Yiddish saved him and a friend. After British Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan told President Truman that the captured Exodus ship and those aboard were being taken to Cyprus when they were really being taken back to Germany, the Jewish defense organization Haganah decided to blow up a British prison ship. Paul gives a vivid description of how the charges were set and how the ship was barely evacuated before it blew up in the Haifa harbor. Paul was then held in the Atlit detention camp in Palestine, established by the authorities of the British Mandate for Palestine to prevent Jewish refugees from entering Palestine, but he escaped. He joined the fledgling Israeli Navy and was a member of its first Seal unit, even though he did not know how to swim; he spent the 1948 Israeli War of Independence in the Seals. Once he returned to the United States, Paul got a Bachelor of Science from New York University in physical education under the GI Bill, with the government's financial support, with the intention of using that cover to become a Nazi hunter but never actually worked in that field. Instead, he opened an electronics business and got married. He remained religiously observant and raised his two children to be "part of the Jewish world." He sought to live in Jewish neighborhoods and relates that before moving into a community on Long Island he checked the houses to see if they had Hanukah candles in the windows. Paul was hired by Jewish organizations to speak about his experiences as part of their fundraising. He helped start American Veterans of Israel (known as Mahal, an acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz La'aretz, in Hebrew) and supports the Lone Soldier program in Israel. In 1994 he helped launch a program in which young people traveling to Israel can re-enact the Exodus experience. Paul had thought that Yiddish would die out and appreciates the efforts of Aaron Lansky, president and founder of the Yiddish Book Center, and the Center itself to preserve and expand the language. He repeatedly stresses the importance of Yiddish as the basis of Yiddishkeit, Jewishness, and "the foundation of our being."
This interview was conducted in English.
Paul Kaye was born in New York, New York in 1967.
Video highlights from this oral history
"I Looked for Khanike (Channukah) Candles in the Window": Buying My First House
1 min 17 sec
Slide 1 of 12