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Keywords: 1920s; 1930s; adolescence; America; Brighton Beach; childhood; dyslexia; education; family background; family history; father; Great Depression; immigration; Jewish identity; Jewishness; labor unions; mother; name changes; names; New York City; Polish immigrants; Russian immigrants; school; schul; settlement houses; shul; sister; socialism; socialist; synagogue; teenage years; the Bronx; U.S.; United States; US; Yiddish language; Yiddish speakers
Keywords: Abraham Lincoln High School; anti-Semitic attitudes; anti-Semitism in the military; antisemitic attitudes; antisemitism in the military; Brighton Beach, New York; City College; displaced people; displaced persons camps; education; father; France; French anti-Semitism; French antisemitism; German language; German refugees; high school; Holocaust; Jewish identity; Jews in the Army; Jews in the military; Judaism; mother; parents; teenage years; U.S. Air Force; U.S. Army; Yiddish language
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IRV ZUCKERMAN ORAL HISTORY
DAVID SCHLITT:This is David Schlitt and today is June 6th, 2011. I'm here at theYiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts with Irving Zuckerman and we are going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Irving, do I have your permission to record this interview?
IRV ZUCKERMAN:Sure. Well, to begin with, my name isn't Irving. I discovered,when I applied for my first passport, that my birth certificate, January 13th, 1924, read Iva, I-v-a Zuckerman. Where did Iva come from? My mother, who was Yiddish-speaking, and whoever delivered me, I think, was also -- in the Bronx apartment where we lived -- decided on a name. I don't think it was Iva and my 1:00mother called me "Oyving." "Oyvingl [Little Irving]" or "mayn shvartse yerushe," my black inheritance, depending on how she felt about me. Irving, the R, I discovered when I was six years old and went to school. And my name became Irving then. I hated it and I shortened it to Irv. So, only on two or three occasions did I hear Irving: applying for a driver's license, my social security card, and on the wall of the Yiddish Book Center. (laughs) Claire, my wife, calls me Irving whenever I have done something outlandish. But the rest of the time, it's Irv Zuckerman, and it makes me feel more comfortable. My family, as I indicated, came from Europe: my mother from Russia, my father from Poland. Neither of them were English-speaking and I didn't speak a word of English till 2:00the first grade. This was proved to be a certain handicap. It was like leaving sort of a kosher womb of the ghetto and moving into the Christian world for the very first time. Example: Miss MacGillicuddy, because they were all Irish ladies, sisters of aldermen who needed a job during the terrible Depression. Weren't certified to teach, weren't qualified to teach, didn't like to teach, and didn't like children of immigrants, particularly boys, to begin with. And on the very first day of school, my name was called. And I replied in what I thought the other kids were replying -- I said, "President." His picture was on the wall. The American flag was there. I remembered his picture from the "Forverts," and so, I knew who the president was and who he looked like. And I thought this is what they did. They did honor to the president when they were 3:00sitting in his school. The class laughed. I thought they were laughing with me, not at me, and I laughed. The teacher was very upset with me and stood me in the corner. And from that moment on, I hated education and never did well in school. I was also slightly dyslexic, which was totally not -- unacknowledged in those days. And so, I was considered a slow learner and was left back in first grade. Now, you consider a shand [shame] in a Yiddish family when I came home with a report card I did not understand, which my mother had translated by a nosy neighbor and an older sister who was far superior to me, and learned that her stupid son had been left back. And it was the first and last time she ever struck me. It was terrible. I always hated education. I didn't think that 4:00authority was there to be respected. I thought authority was there to suppress. I learned a lot of this from my father, who was a devout socialist, a supporter of Eugene V. Debs, even after his death, and who believed that speaking out against injustice was nothing. Anybody could speak. One had to take an action. And so, I spent my life acting against what I saw was injustice. It turned out that there was injustice everywhere and it kept me rather busy. It also kept me in a great deal of trouble. I found that it was a way of life that I have embraced because, to me, that was what being a Jew was about. I have certain biases I inherited from him. I should tell you of them. The term Jewish is not a 5:00term he felt comfortable with. Jewish meant you -- a genetic accident. You were born to parents who were Jewish. If you were born to parents who were tall, you'd be tallish. If you were born to parents who were blonde, you'd be blondish. Jewish. It had no real meaning. To be a Jew meant not that you were observant, because he wasn't. Never set foot inside a shul until my bar mitzvah. But because you lived by certain rules -- for example, you had to -- were obligated to assist those less fortunate. And if you waited till they asked for help, that was a sin.
[BREAK IN RECORDING]
IZ:My father invented -- claimed that his invention was the greatest assistanceto labor unions, in that you collected for the people beaten up by the police 6:00before you started the demonstration because if you waited till afterward, everyone claimed to have been struck and the money didn't go quite so far.
DS:What was your father's name?
IZ:My father's name was Harry.
DS:And your mother?
IZ:And my mother's name was Celia. The relationship was not one that I realized,years after, was a loving one. After my mother's -- my father died when he was sixty-six. My mother lived on after, till eighty-nine, though dates in those days were uncertain. You weren't born according to a calendar with numbers on it. You were born just after Pesach. You were born just before the harvest. You were born -- and that was how you structured your life. So, I never really knew about her age. And since she lied about it, 'cause I found out later she was a 7:00little older than my father and obliged to lie about it, she left a sweetheart behind in Russia. And she had other sweethearts in America. I found this out because after her death, I discovered a bag, a little shopping -- supermarket bag, those brown grab-- paper bags, filled with letters written in beautiful Yiddish script, which I read. And they came from some swain who was not my father and who wanted her to flee with him to Connecticut, beyond the tenements, where you could see the sky and where he had work. Work was a very important thing. Job was a very important thing. My father was a millinery operator and during the Depression, making ladies' hats was not a significant income. So, he 8:00devised a brilliant plan to see us through the Depression, a plan which would never win the Nobel Prize for Economics. We moved from the Bronx to Brighton Beach, where they rented a big home, a big house and sublet the rooms. We ran a rooming house.
DS:Around what time was this?
IZ:This was around 1930.
IZ:And we had this large home with a lot of rooms, and he figured this: thatthey'd rent the rooms at a slightly higher space rate and we would live for free. One small problem with his figuring, and that is if we couldn't pay the rent, neither could anybody else. And my mother wound up (laughs) running the first settlement house in Brighton Beach. How could you throw these young people out on the street? And so, this was my life. I lived among strangers, people 9:00constantly coming and going in my house. And I saw the strength that my mother needed. She did all the carpentry, the painting, the moving of the beds, which were made of iron in those days. And she was the doctor, the counselor, the everything to the people who lived with us. And we didn't have a room, my brother and I. We lived in whatever wasn't rented. We moved around. And the main living was in the cellar. As I said, I didn't do well at school. I didn't see a future for myself. As I grew up, I became more and more concerned about what tomorrow was going to bring, having been born and living through the Depression. While we were never hungry, because potatoes were twenty-five cents for a 10:00bagful. I didn't realize, incidentally, that potatoes were a food group. You could have potatoes in eighteen different ways. And that's how we made it through, and I was -- what was I going to do with my life? My mother had the typical Jewish bias about career. I was going to be a lawyer. I couldn't pass a math test. How was I gonna be a lawyer, much less a bar exam, which I don't think she understood, and was terribly upset with me when I showed no inclination to be a bright student. In 1941, I was just getting out of high school. I remember the class play was in rehearsal on December seventh and I 11:00immediately, being eighteen, having been left back in first grade, joined the Army. My idea was threefold. First, we knew in high school that the Holocaust was in full bloom because we were seeing kids who spoke a different language who looked very frightened, who clustered together, and didn't mix with the others. I overheard them speaking and I thought it was Yiddish and that they were sharing my problem of not being able to speak English their first day at school and I volunteered to help, only to find out that they were speaking German and that they were so afraid of speaking about themselves that I couldn't break into that group. But I found out what was happening and I enlisted.
DS:Can you tell me a little bit -- I'm sorry to interrupt -- about this group.12:00Were these refugees at your school?
IZ:Yes, they were the very first kids I met who were shipped out of Germanywhile there was still time, while there was still a slight window, by their parents to relatives in my area.
DS:In Brighton Beach?
IZ:In Brighton Beach. And that's where they lived, and went to school at AbrahamLincoln High School, where both Claire, my wife Claire and I, matriculated. And that's where I began to learn what was happening. It took a while to win their confidence to talk to them, because I explained that I was a Jew and that they were Jews and they had that in common and we should help each other. And that's when I found out it wasn't that my parents protected me from this information. My father coming from Poland got letters from his relatives there all the time, from his landsman, landslayt [plural of landsman (fellow countrymen)], there all the time. And so, we knew what was happening. When I enlisted, my mother was 13:00shocked. She said, "Wait to be drafted." And I said, "People who are Jewish wait to be drafted. Jews enlist. That's the difference." She couldn't talk me out of it because I --I remember the argument. It's the only one I ever won with her. I said, "They're killing our people by the thousands every day. If I could shorten the war by one day, that's thousands of Jews." So, she let me go. They put me on ice for a year. I went to City College. And then, when my class came up, off we went to the Army, and an institution that I realized immediately was unjust and that I would have to act against. I used to say that I had as many enemies behind me as I had in front of me. My name in the Army was Kosher. They didn't 14:00take well to Jews in the infantry. You had your choice of service and I requested, of course, the Air Force. I was going to be a hero, till I had the eye test. The eye test had been the bane of my existence, like for forever. When I was in grammar school, we used to line up alphabetically, of course, and being the last in line, by the time I got to read the eye chart, I had memorized it, so I never knew that I was so nearsighted I couldn't see the blackboard, which I used as an apology for doing poorly at school. Nobody believed it, but it sounded good. But I couldn't get a post in the Air Force. I wanted to be something very heroic, very -- wear a fancy uniform, be an officer. And so, I chose infantry and I chose -- you were allowed to choose your theater of 15:00operation and I chose Europe because that's where it was happening and I would personally put an end to it. I decided on a career and it would be thus: that I would be killed in action and my family would get the incredible sum of ten thousand dollars in cash, an unbelievable number. And so, I never looked after myself in the way that you were supposed to do. I never crawled, I never -- 'cause my mother wouldn't like me to be wet and dirty anyway. (laughter) I never took any of the precautions. I must admit, I volunteered. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to be in the thick of it. And you didn't do that in the infantry. You didn't volunteer. I was the 66th Infantry Division -- was made up 16:00of National Guard from Little Rock, Arkansas, not known for their civil rights. And so, I found myself among a bunch of people who had never met Jews before but knew that they hated them. And Lord knows, I was the target of their anger and their resentment. My sergeant used to say, "If it wasn't for this Jewish war, I'd be home in St. Louis." And we were constantly at odds, he and I. I would get every rotten detail that he could think of, and he persecuted me throughout our combat experience. One day, I threatened to kill him, which would be easy. All of us had the weapons and a lot of excitement was going on and people were shot all the time. And from then on, he sort of backed off. But it gave me the 17:00feeling that I was fighting for a strange country, that I was living in a world that I had not been prepared for. My parents never said, Out there, there are people who are not like you and who will not like you. That was my sort of education under fire. I couldn't understand why it was that we were two men to a foxhole but they wouldn't be willing to share the foxhole with me. Was it because I was a Jew or because I didn't care whether I lived or not? I realized later that if I had planned to be killed, nobody wanted to be around when I did it. And so, it seemed logical that a good part of the prejudice against me came from there. But it was the first time that I actually heard anti-Semitic terms, and addressed to me. I'm not physical. I never fought with my fists against 18:00other boys. I never did any of that kind of thing because my mother wouldn't have approved. And so, the idea that I had a weapon in my hands gave me a certain sense of power. And that's how I got through it. When the war ended, everyone celebrated. They were going to go home. I didn't celebrate, because it had left a very deep impression on me that what we had inherited were all these displaced people and what we did with them was put them in boxcars and send them behind encampments surrounded by barbed wire. That's what we did. The program was headed by the greatest anti-Semite in the United States Army, General George 19:00Patton, who put people into camps based on their national origin, so that they would be sent -- repatriated, sent back home. So, everybody from Lithuania was here and everybody from Poland was there and everybody from Latvia was there. A handful, five percent, it was then figured, refused to give their country of origin, realizing that if they went home, they would be killed. And they said, We are Jews. And that's where the story that the Holocaust was overblown, that only five percent of its victims were Jews. It was unknown at the time that France played a very heavy part in anti-Semitic behavior. People didn't really understand that. They thought France was our ally, Germany was our enemy. But I 20:00remember with such clarity coming across a labor camp. They, at every major crossroads, at every major intersection, they had a camp to repair the bombing damage that we had done when we were preparing for the invasion. And we came upon an abandoned camp and the Jews were hiding in a barracks. They wouldn't come out, 'cause men with guns were men with guns and the fact that we were dressed differently had little impact on them.
DS:Where is this now?
IZ:This was outside of a place called Rennes, in France. And the inspiration forthis, I don't know where it came from, but somebody decided, it being Friday and it being towards Shabbos, we would have a minyan. Most of the Jews in the outfit 21:00-- there weren't that many in the infantry to begin with, but like myself, were bar mitzvah plus thirty days. And you didn't have to be a Jew after that time. You had done your service, you had gone through the routine, and you were free of that. So, none of us really knew the service. But we knew that there were certain prayers that were said. And one of the prayers that we said was the Kaddish. And when we began, from the barracks, came the worst amen I have ever heard. And they came out. And they stood against the fence, their side, while we, in a circle -- incidentally, we couldn't find ten Jews. We found nine Jews and an Irishman who was willing to help and who I heard later became a priest in 22:00Boston. And at the end of it, I was standing with my back to the fence and this man reached through and tapped me on the shoulder. And he said, "Bist a yid? Are you a Jew?" It was a cataclysmic question because I hadn't been, really, in the sense of the observant and the sense of the staying in accordance with the Torah and all the rest of that. But I sort of retreated to the Russian system of dealing with emotional problems, and that is, be sarcastic. And so, I said, "Voden bin ikh, what else could I be?" And it was the first connection I had made with the Holocaust, man to man. Not statistics, not masses of people, but 23:00eye to eye with this individual. Had a profound effect on me.
DS:How so? Explain more.
IZ:I became observant. I became aware that if I was going to pay heavy dues forbeing a Jew, I should be all of it, that I should embrace it thoroughly. I decided that I dislike euphemisms. Letters to the "Times" used to get me furious. "I'm of the Jewish faith." It's not a faith. "I was born Jewish, but I'm no longer observant." What does that mean? Why are you apologizing? Why is the word Jew so frightening? And I realized that among my compatriots, it meant 24:00the black hat, the peyes [sidelocks], the beard, the certain attitudes that made them unassimilated and uncomfortable. And I said, That's not the way to measure your own life. I was bar mitzvahed twice: once when I didn't understand what was going on, and then again at my eighty-third birthday, I had a second bar mitzvah. I spent two years in this preparation. I went to a ben-bat bina [adult b'nei mitzvah] course offered by the temple. I had to learn, really, not just the brokhe [blessing], (laughs) but I had to learn the sense behind my parshah [Hebrew: Torah portion], which was Shemot [Hebrew: thirteenth weekly Torah portion, lit. "Names"], the burning bush. And I realized that all of us in our lives come upon many burning bushes. We elect not to see. We pass them by. And 25:00being alert to the burning bush was what life was about. That meeting that day changed my life. It made it, the whole thing, personal. The idea that the world was so disturbed it would have to be fixed, it would have to be set right. My father, rest in peace, when he wanted to act against injustice, he said even committing a crime is allowed if it's against injustice. In those days, Greenhorns, grine, coming into this country and wanting to work in a shop, in a sweatshop, when you went for a job, the employer, another Jew, would say, "Bist 26:00a grine? You're a Greenhorn?" And when you admitted yes, "Darfst arbetn tsvey vokhn umzist, you have to work for two weeks without any money." Why? Well, you have to learn the measuring system. This, to my father, was an injustice. So, he stole a key to the shop and on Sundays, he would bring in the greenhorns and teach them in an hour what the measuring system was, converting from metric. When they came in Monday for a job, he gave them the instruction on what to say. And so, when they said, "Bist a grine?" "No!" (laughs) "Kenst arbetn [Can you work]?" "Yeah!" (laughs) And they would sit down and they would be paid from the first day. A thousand years later, I became dedicated to the idea that anybody who wanted a job should have one. And I spent two years researching the problems 27:00of job seeking as a communication challenge against various kinds of bigotry. Not just religious, but some people won't hire people who are fat, who are the wrong gender, who are not handsome, whatever biases the employers had. And so, I became dedicated to the idea that I would find the secret of how one successfully searched for a job. I've written books about it, I've lectured on it all over the country, I've taught groups about it. And for nine wonderful years, I worked for NYANA, the New York Association of New Americans, as a volunteer helping the refuseniks from the former Soviet Union to find work in 28:00the United States.
DS:This was in the 1970s and '80s, or --
IZ:This was, yeah, yeah. It was wonderful. It was like I was meeting all mycousins. (laughs) The strange thing about it was that they didn't understand, because they had been raised to escape from Judaism, they didn't understand why I was there. And they would constantly ask me, Why are you doing this? And I would try to explain, "This is Jews helping Jews." No sale. "Well, the world has been fairly good to me. I wanted to give back." No sale. They decided among themselves that I was part of a government plot. I would help them get good jobs, they would pay high taxes, and I would get a percentage. I loved it. It 29:00gave us (laughter) a chance to really connect, because otherwise, I was too far above and away from them. I didn't realize the respect they had for the person at the head of the room with the chalk in his hand. They gave me an honorary PhD. I became Dr. Zuckerman in all the classes that I ran. It was wonderful. It sapped a great deal of energy, but it was nine years of learning about a culture that my family had left behind. But these were brilliant people. And while my mother and father saw no future for themselves, but their kinder [children] should enjoy the fruits of America, these people had one or more PhDs and I couldn't see them wasting their lives and their talents so that their children 30:00could benefit. And so, that's why I dedicated myself to this particular calling. I was able to do it because, in order to find a career for myself, the law being out of the question, I became a court Jew. I sought out twenty-six of this country's most bigoted corporations and I became their consultant. My degree was in industrial psychology and I was working out programs for modification of behavior, changing from systems that didn't work to systems that would. My mother heard this and she said, "Let me understand this. You're telling people 31:00how to stop doing what doesn't work and how to start doing what does work and they need you for this?" And she never, never could understand what I did for a living. At one point in my life, I was stricken with phlebitis. If you spend a harsh winter in a foxhole, you're gonna inherit certain problems below the waist and that was one of them. And my doctor said, "You must keep your limb elevated for six months." And I explained that I'm a working person, that I lecture, that I travel and what's gonna happen if I don't keep my limb elevated for six months? And being a Jew, he said, "To me, nothing," (laughs) which frightened me to death. And so, I got a limousine and I rode with my foot in the back and I 32:00had a chauffeur. I would pick my mother up in Brighton and take her up to our home in Westchester and she would look at the environment and she would get very nervous. Was what I was doing honest? How could I possibly live this well? And she would try to trap me into confessing that what I did was slightly illegal. Her favorite ploy was to say, "You know, Irving, I knew a salesman. He's in jail now." And she wanted to see if I would blush. It was a wonderful career. It really was. I spent forty years among the gentiles with rod and gun. I found out something wonderful: that if you are in the majority, you don't have to worry about cause and effect because effect didn't happen. To a Jew, whatever goes on 33:00is going to affect you in some way and you would be concerned about it. The joke about is this good for the Jews or bad for the Jews is not a joke! Whatever occurs could, in some way, reflect on what your life was like at that time and what it would be in the future. So, living among the people, working among the people who were in the majority was an education in itself. The monosyllabic names, the attitude that the world was theirs. They booked restricted hotels where I couldn't get a room but they were in that hotel to hear me. So, I would check in, they never thought twice about it. Didn't have to. I would check in and be told that they didn't have a room for me. And so, I would have to tell 34:00them, "Okay, I'm leaving, but when the seventy-five executives from Owens Corning Fiberglass get here, would you please tell them that there's no meeting 'cause I've left?" (laughs) And that's how I would get a room. I made it not bother me because I realized that this was the total world. I lived in a very small part of it and that if I was gonna do any good -- once again, take action against injustice -- it would have to be in that environment. For example, one of my contributions to what I thought was social justice was integrating the salesforce for Johnson & Johnson. They were all Scotch-Irish, but their sons were graduating from law school and they didn't want to shlep a bag in the inner 35:00city of Philadelphia and call on druggists, mom and pop drugstores. And so, they turned the problem over to me and I said, "I'll recruit a new immigration." We need people who speak English. I said, "They all speak English. They were born here." But they're black. "Who else would you send to the inner city of Philadelphia?" Our druggists won't like it. I said, "Forgive me, your druggists are my people, not yours. They will have three attitudes about it. One group will say, 'S'iz sheyn tsayt, it's about time,' and they will think well of you for having taken this step. Another group, unfortunately, is accustomed to the 36:00shvartse [Black people] helping out. And so, when they start cleaning the windows, they would be accustomed to it. And the third group wouldn't notice. 'You got it done? I'll sign here,'" and it was finished. It was wonderful. But every meeting began with racist jokes. And I had to brief my candidates that this would be the environment in which they found themselves. Every board meeting that I attended began with anti-Semitic jokes. Two Jews got on a trolley car. It took years for me to learn how to deal with that. I would stop the speaker and say, "Before you continue, does anyone here have a recorder? 'Cause we could get sued. They could take legal action against us." I was part of the band, part of the group. I was defending them. And so, they would stop doing 37:00that and I felt I had made a major -- also, they told them terribly. I can tell good jokes about two Jews going on a trolley car. They couldn't! They couldn't do the accent, they couldn't do the punchline, they didn't understand the lilt of the language. How could they (laughs) from where they came? So, it was sort of a growing up for both of us. Sometimes, they called me by the first Jewish name they could think of. I remember the guy from Mobil Oil who said, "There's a dealer in Brooklyn. I would tell you his name but you probably know him." And I said, "Oh, sure, we meet every Friday night. They can't find a hall big enough for us to get together." I was Goldberg to a lot of people because that was the 38:00name that they liked the best. They were more comfortable with it. Now, people would ask, How could you put up with this? Don't you feel ashamed? Don't you feel -- and I said, "No, because part of it, part of what I'm doing is our heritage." Throughout our history, we worked for Polish landowners. We worked for kings, we worked for royalty. We were the advisors. Roosevelt had a coterie of Jews around him and I was proud to be among their number, though I lacked their talents. In my own small way, what I was doing was showing off. It was a 39:00pleasure to hear the CEO of the National Biscuit Company worry about whether he should speak before me and then be forgotten once I was on or speak after me and have trouble getting the audience's attention. (laughs) And I thought, That, to me, is power. And also, in those wonderful cases where I was able to really strike a chord with what being a Jew was about -- I was a problem-solver from practically birth, and it got me into a lot of trouble. When I was in the Army, I was assigned a lot of dirty jobs because that's -- was their habit. One of the jobs I remember was I had to wash the windows. And I thought, If I washed each 40:00window individually -- this was in Alabama -- if I washed each window individually, I'd be working all day at it. They came right out of the frames. I put them in the shower. I ran the hot water on them. I had a can of GI soap. I made holes in it. I spritzed them with hot soapy water, I rinsed them again, I let them dry, and I put them back. Or I tried to put them back. But the green wood in which they had built these barracks in a hurry expanded and I couldn't fit them. When everybody came back from their twenty-five-mile hike, hot, dirty, sweaty, they looked at -- the windows were spotless. You could hardly see them. You could hardly see them 'cause they were in the shower. (laughs) And in Alabama, the mosquitoes were rather interesting. They didn't bite you. They 41:00carried you off and ate you with leisure. And so, there we were, the place swarming with mosquitoes, the shower filled with windows, and my popularity, which was never big to begin with, shrank immediately. I was constantly doing this. I was constantly inventing ways in which I felt things were superior. I had no physical ability whatever. This is very important in the infantry. My mother did not allow me to run with the trombeniks [trouble-makers]. This meant that I could not play with the kids in the vacant lot, get my knees skinned, get sweaty, dirty, have my shirt come out of my pants. When she sent me to school, I was the only kid in first grade whose shirt was buttoned to his little satin 42:00pants with mother-of-pearl buttons. Come recess, m'darf geyn [you have to go], I was the only kid who couldn't unbutton in time. I spent a good deal of my childhood damp in school. But it made me physically inept. You may have seen all those films with people leaping ditches and walking on logs and climbing walls and swinging from ropes. Never me. I was falling down. I was, yeah, (laughs) in terrible shape. And they gave me a great assignment: I was the one who shlepped the radio on his back with the big antenna. And since I would volunteer for patrols, which was an odd habit I had, it was as if a finger was pointing and 43:00saying, Him. But I kept falling down and breaking the antenna. So, I went to the motor pool and I had the motor sergeant take a big piece of copper wire, bend it in the spring, and put it at the base of the antenna. It was a conductor and it gave. I invented, I think, that whole idea of the spring antenna, the spring joint. And it saw me through the war. I kept falling down because I just had no -- kayn feyikayt [no grace]. I was not physical. Never had been. The idea of catching a ball -- I'd wait till it stopped rolling and I picked it up. It worked just as well. However, the other guy was on third by the time I had 44:00accomplished this feat. And so, I had all kinds of devices that I invented. For example, I had no sense of direction. There were guys in my outfit who knew what side of the tree the moss grew on, farm boys who had driven a truck when they could see over the dashboard. I couldn't drive. (laughs) Who needed a car in Brighton Beach, even if my family could have afforded one. So, I was completely out of sync. I used to say that I delayed the end of the war by six months. But what I had to do, then, was memorize -- we had what we called firing coordinates, artillery coordinates. The entire world is a grid and all these little squares had numbers. And when we called in artillery fire, you had to remember which numbers. But if I stopped to write them down, my patrol would 45:00leave me and I did not know where to go. So, I would remember them. I committed them to memory in my head. I could remember dozens of sequential firing coordinates. Created a skill. I could never pass math and this gave me a sense of numbers, which, years later, when I was managing budgets for corporate programs, I could keep them in my head and I could move them around. When I returned from the military, I found that nothing had changed in terms of anti-Semitism in the United States. I thought I would go, on the G.I. Bill, to the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School of Business. I'd heard a lot about it. And so, I applied and I got back a form to fill out. They wanted my 46:00photograph and my mother's maiden name. Let me assure you that my mother was not planning to go to college. Why do they want my mother's maiden name? Why do you think? Just in case I had changed mine. I didn't go. I was in what was then a year of what they called pre-law on my mother's insistence. I decided that wasn't gonna work for me and I went downtown to City College, the Baruch School of Business, and I went -- I found that there, I was at home. People spoke my language, used their hands, were friendly to me, and were sympathetic. What else did I need? I'll never forget the wonderful woman who did the intake at the admissions desk. She looked at me in a motherly way and she said, "You're back 47:00from the war?" "Yes." "What countries did you serve in?" I said, "France and Germany. That's where the war was." And she said, "That takes care of your language." (laughter) Abi gezunt [As long as you're well]. "What did you do?" I said, "Well, I was an infantry rifleman." She said, "So much for physical education. What else?" I said, "I also operated a radio." "That takes care of your sciences." (laughs) And so, I did about two years of school in about fifteen minutes. However, it was required that if you wanted a business degree, you would have to learn accounting. A shvarts yor [Cursed be, lit. "a dark year"], accounting. That meant numbers. That meant addition, subtraction, division. I was in trouble. I could never pass math. I was also on the stage. I 48:00liked acting. I had been in the Armed Forces Radio after the shooting war and so I loved the idea of being on. And so, there was a theater in the basement of City College and I was appearing in "Arsenic and Old Lace." I was playing the part of Teddy Roosevelt. I never got the romantic lead, always the character. And I was early for rehearsal and just killing time and so I read the bulletin board. And it said, "The following names of people are not going to get their degree because they failed the following courses." And lo, my name led all the rest. To have a Zuckerman first was kind of unique. What had I failed? I'd failed accounting. I knew I hadn't done well. I couldn't balance the book. And 49:00finally, I just left it in despair after the ninety minutes and I was asked to see the professor, which I went to do. And he said, "I made the test easy for returning vets. You'll notice that practically everybody left the room in the first thirty minutes. You were the only one who took the entire ninety minutes and you still failed. You didn't get it right. And I looked at my paper and in the cold light of dawn, there it was: "I. Zuckerman." And I had brought the I into the debit column and had a thousand somethings that nobody else had. And he said, when I explained what I had done, "Too bad your name wasn't George." And I said, "That wouldn't have helped. It would have been a six." Accountants don't 50:00laugh, but he did and he said, "I'll tell you what. If you would swear never to become an accountant, I'll give you a D and you can get your degree." I swore. We shook hands and I left. I hired many accountants but I never became one, I'm happy to say. It didn't bother me. But what it did was it gave me an idea of survival. If any instinct was important to a Jew, the instinct of survival was it, how to acclimate yourself to what's happening. And I realized that of all the deficits in my education and my skills and my ability, that was the gift. Example: at the end of the shooting war, this sergeant whose life I'd been 51:00threatening wanted to get rid of me. And so, they needed to detach one person from the entire outfit and send them in a shipment of men to Vienna. Everybody else was going to Salzburg to hunt down the wolf packs, the Nazis still hiding in the mountains who refused to surrender. And since I would be with him and still have a gun, he wanted to get rid of me. And so, I was sent to Vienna. We were sent in a boxcar, six of us. And you could tell from the quality of the people that none of us were potential Medal of Honor winners and easily spared by whatever unit we were serving in. On the wall of the boxcars, which had been sprayed with DDT, a white substance, and therefore, in intaglio, you could read 52:00it, were the goodbye messages of its original passengers in every language you can imagine, carved into the wall. French, Yiddish, German, some I didn't recognize. And I spent the entire trip moving my comrades around so I could read them all. I should have written them all down. I didn't. Survivors? No. They weren't. I hoped they were, but I doubted very much that they were. But then, I saw the other boxcars with alive people in them and that was when I realized that we didn't win the war, that the war won the war, that these people were 53:00going to be wandering forever. And that's why I was depressed. Got to Vienna and I had a stupid job. I sat all day in a room filled with these huge drawer files in which were the maps of underground Vienna: the gas system, the electric system, and they were rebuilding Vienna. And I would be visited by engineering groups maybe twice, three times a day, and pull out the maps that they wanted. It was boring as hell. And so, I complained about having a boring job and they sent me to driving a garbage truck, even though I explained that I could not drive. "Everybody drives!" And when I backed the truck and the prisoners of war who were collecting the garbage into this big pit, they agreed that I couldn't 54:00drive and they said, Go up to the Kahlenberg, which was a big hill outside Vienna. Housed that big Ferris wheel that everybody knows.
DS:"The Third Man."
IZ:Yes. And they were building a radio station there. "Help them." I thought I'dbe digging footings for concrete things. I went up there. It was a mansion, obviously taken from somebody by the Nazis, occupied by a high-ranking Nazi. Beautiful building, sunken gardens, everything you could imagine. And behind the desk was a captain. Turned out to be Milton J. Shapp, the inventor of the rabbit antenna. First Jewish governor of the State of Pennsylvania. First Jewish 55:00candidate for the presidency of the United States. He was expecting somebody else, obviously, because he asked me, the first question was, "Can you do band remotes?" I had seen them in the movies, from atop the hotel with somebody holding his ear and speaking into this -- looked like a toaster. And so, I said, "Benny Goodman never complained." Benny Goodman never complained because he didn't know I was alive. That seemed to satisfy Captain Shapp and I got the job at the radio station. And all the -- since I was the last man hired, so to speak, I got the jobs nobody else wanted. One of them was as the announcer for the Stadt opera. The first thing they wanted back was the opera. The building 56:00itself had the back blown off by artillery fire and bombing. So, when it snowed on the garret in "La BohÃ¨me," it snowed. (laughs) The audience sat in coats and hats and gloves. When you hear an audience applauding wearing gloves, it's ghostly. And up there, in a booth way high on the wall, despite my fear of heights, was me, reading the libretto one page ahead of the audience. I had never seen an opera. (laughs) I knew nothing about opera. But I was educating the Armed Forces Radio as to what the next scene was, what the main arias were, and how the plotline was developing. It was wonderful. I spent six months here. On the night of my arrival, the first time that I was officially there, a very 57:00strange thing happened. The staff was dining off damask with enough cutlery to do a kidney operation. The cooks in the kitchen were prisoners of war, chefs for important German restaurants -- when all of a sudden, a man walked in dressed in civilian clothing, but beautifully dressed. Beautifully polished shoes. Well-fed. Well-fed civilians were to be suspected because it meant you were not in the resistance. You were not a victim. You were a victimizer. He introduced himself to me. He sat opposite and he was my tablemate. He said his name was 58:00Pompey, Major something Pompey. I said, "Major of what?" "S.S. Panzer." I was dining with a murderous Nazi. And I said, "What are you doing here? You people are murderers." And he said, "Yes, we are the scum. We always rise to the top." The young lieutenant sitting next to me shamed me forever by getting up and leaving the room and saying, "I won't sit here at the table with this man." I was too intimidated and I didn't move. I just kept staring at him. I don't think I even ate. But it was so -- once again, summed up the fact that the war won the 59:00war. We didn't win the war.
DS:Can I ask you, I'm sorry --
DS:-- about your experience as a performer --
DS:-- and whether you think that relates in any way to your Jewish identity, orhow do these aspects of your character engage with one another?
IZ:Interesting question. I was awkward, felt awkward about the name Zuckerman onthe air. I mean, today, there's Morty Zuckerman at the -- there's Mel Zuckerman, the world is full of Zuckermans. But not then and not there. And I thought I would get a sort of a nom de guerre, that I would pick up another name and another personality. And this lieutenant wouldn't hear of it. He was not Jewish 60:00but he reminded me that I was and that -- the idea, also, that I was looking for my countrymen, that I was trying to connect with my past there. The people with whom I was surrounded, of course, were anything but, except for Captain Shapp, who really was not a Jew in that sense of the word. Yeah, there was no feeling about that. In fact, when he ran for office later -- and I wrote to him when I found out he was a candidate. I sent him a picture of our group. I never got acknowledgement, because that Jew part was not part he wanted to remember. I found that I had a talent for asking questions. Unfortunately, I had a talent 61:00for asking embarrassing questions. I was always looking, as a Jew would in my line, for the untershte shire [bottom line]. What's the story behind the story? We had what was called a point system, whereby you went home based on a series of points that you got for the length of service, the number of battles you involved in, the rank, various other criteria. And supposedly, this system came about in a very democratic way by asking the men themselves what they felt would be a fair way. And so, one of my questions -- I did a man-on-the-street -- was, "Were you ever asked about the point system?" And I was told to stop. I asked 62:00various questions based on what was happening in the world politically. I was told to stop. But I said, "I'd like to know, for myself personally," and it made an interesting program. I got lots of response from it. And I felt that this was the difference between the Jew and the non-Jew: curiosity. What's going to happen? Why is it happening? In some cases, how can we prevent it from happening? And what can we do after it happens in order to survive till the next happening? And I found that while nobody else wanted to do the man-on-the-street, I loved it. Set me out there and I love to talk to people. I had a coach. One of the members sort of took me under his wing and he said, "You 63:00talk too fast. You're using up too much material in too little time. You'll run out. Slow down. Take your time. Listen carefully and then take your time in responding and you'll be able to fill more hours with what you were doing." It was a wonderful life. Then, one day, I decided that I would help two men unload the fifty-gallon drums of fuel that ran our generator. I was the least able to handle any physical work whatever, as I've already explained. And when the barrels came off the back of the truck, they leaned away from each other and then, as barrels will, toward each other and my hand was between them. And my hand was caught between the two clanging barrels. Off to the hospital to be 64:00X-rayed. "We have no record of your existence. Are you sure you're in this army?" Well, being named Zuckerman, your page was at the bottom. These were all done in three-ring binders without covers. And naturally, your records could be lost. "Where have you been these past six months?" "I've been at the radio station." "Were you ever paid?" "Who needs money? What would I use with money?" "We have no record of your being. We'll have to look you up." They looked me up and said, You should have gone home months ago! And so, they send me home. There I was, living like a lord in an apartment of my own, on the air, being somebody, 65:00and going home to being nobody. It was funny. I had left the States on Pesach. I came back on Pesach, first night of Pesach. My father and my uncle, my rich uncle and my socialist father, began their meeting where they always began, with an argument about social justice. And they were at the top of their lungs when the doorbell rang. And I said, "It's the police. You've been making too much noise." And it was the police, only they weren't looking for the noise. There had been a shooting in the area with what they determined was a seven-millimeter weapon. Were any of the neighbors freshly returned veterans? And my neighbors 66:00turned me in. And the cops were there for me. (laughs) Did I have weapons? Yes. Could they see them? Yes. And, of course, they have not been fired. I had two pistols that I had taken from people who had -- no longer needed them. And they looked at them very closely and said, Come around to the precinct tomorrow and register them, to which, (laughs) internally, I said, Yeah, yeah and never did it. It became important to have them because later on, in '47, I was part of a system of running guns to Israel and Jewish veterans and non-Jewish veterans who 67:00had weapons were contributing them to be shipped to Tel Aviv. I can't imagine how they survived. They were all different calibers, (laughs) how they found ammunition for them all. But it was an odd connection. It was being able to relate back. In a way, it's this survival system. It's a circle and you really reenact, constantly, in different ways. My methodology, the idea of problem-solving, seemed to be particularly a trait of the Jew. I mean, I could be wrong. In order to gain some kind of money during the Depression, Jewish families always had a rich relative. Even if they had to invent a relationship, 68:00they had a rich relative. My uncle had a sportswear manufacturing concern and he gave me a job. He didn't have to give me a job, but the few bucks I made was his way of contributing to my family. This is how I spent my summer. I was fourteen. To get working papers, you needed to be sixteen. But everybody who was fourteen got working papers because the clerk never looked up. You said you were sixteen, you were sixteen, and here are the working papers, and off I went to my uncle's factory. The cutter, incidentally -- I don't know if you speak ready-to-wear. I will translate. The kate, the cutter had to lay out the vare, the fabric, which 69:00came out of big rolls at the head of a table. They were working in geberdin, gabardine, which was revoysabl, reversable, and you would pull out a huge sheet of it, fifteen, twenty, thirty sheets cut with a huge meser, a cutting knife, and he would cut them into the pattern that they would sew. It was very important to separate the links from the rekhts, the left side from the right side. Very important. And so, I had to mark it with a pencil. Now imagine a stack of fabric and you had to take two, mark, two, mark, two, mark. And if you made a mistake, you made a mistake through the entire stack. The workers never looked up. They were on piecework. You got so much for each sleeve you sewed, 70:00for each amlet, which I thought was an egg. It's an armlet, a veyst. (laughs) And they would be sewing like fury. And because I had marked it wrong, they had to tren, tear it apart. And this was not a way to be popular. I thought about this for a while and what I did was take a big yardstick made of very soft wood. And every six inches, I drove through a number two pencil. And when the cutters said links, I'd put the yardstick across, he would pull the fabric, and it was marked at six-inch intervals, so when he cut them, they were pre-marked. I didn't have to make any mistakes. I did what any Jewish kid would do in my spare time, since I didn't have to mark: I read a comic book. My uncle came around the corner. There was the kate, having finished his work. There was his nephew, 71:00sitting there reading the "Captain Marvel" or whatever we read in those days and he looked at me kind of strange. "Host gemarkt [Did you mark them all]?" There is no Yiddish word "gemarkt." "Host gemarkt?" "Yeah." "Lomir zen, let me look." And he thumbed through it. I remember the way he did it. It was like a bank teller who could, (sound of counting) like back in the old days when they counted money by hand. And he found that they were perfectly marked. Went to another. Perfectly marked. Went to a third. Perfectly marked. How did I do it? And for the first time and it wasn't the last time -- I got constant difficulty with this -- I wanted to get my medal. And so, I told him how I did it and he fired me. It was a lesson. I had simplified a complicated job and I learned 72:00never do that again. Make the hard ones look easy and the easy ones look hard. And that became the banner with my business. When I sought clients, the reason I looked for anti-Semitic clients, and this is terrible and I hate to admit it -- as long as things were good, they were okay. But when they ran into problems, how are they gonna get a different idea if everybody they hired thought the same? And so, that's my court Jew role. I was the outsider. To my uncle, in a way, I was the outsider because he had a fixed idea of what work should be and mine was different. At the end of the war, I needed work. I was on the G.I. Bill 73:00but I was married --
DS:Can you back up and tell me about meeting your wife a little bit before weget into that, the --
IZ:Oh, yes! We met in high school.
IZ:We were both interested in the drama. She was fifteen. She was very bright.As many times as I was left back, she was promoted. It was that kind of yin and yang. And we were both in this particular play, "You Can't Take It with You." And it was marvelous. It was just like, here are two struggling children and we had a lot in common. I was older and she had a great deal of yearning for the future. I had a great deal of fear of the future. And so, we had a great deal to 74:00talk about. She graduated ahead of me and invited me to her senior prom. I was to be her escort. I wasn't her first choice, but whoever it was must have disappointed her. It was a marvelous occasion. I was pasted together by a number of sympathetic relatives. My shoes came from my rich uncle. (laughs) I had to rent the tuxedo, the dinner jacket and the pants. Everything else was provided by contributions by many. And five dollars in cash, not an easy sum to come by, 75:00was my spending money, plus a few cents in change. At the end of the dancing and things that we did together, we decided on a hansom ride in Central Park. It was our first kiss. It was the most marvelous moment of my life. And we were absolutely -- I don't think love made -- entered into it. We were clinging together in a world that was not of our own making. When I joined up, I wrote to her constantly. A lot of people would have gotten married before they left. But with my particular plan, I didn't think that would be a practical idea. On the 76:00fiftieth anniversary of the war -- she had saved all my letters, boxes of them, and we read through them together. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. Nineteen, twenty years old, I wrote the most dramatic things. It was awful! (laughs) It raised the hackles on the back of my neck. She was at the University of Michigan and I was writing her every chance I got. A lot of times, there was no chance. And so, I would make up for it when there was. It was a strange separation, but it only deepened our feelings. And when I 77:00got back, it was sort of given that we would be married. My mother was horrified. I was supposed to be a lawyer, remember? And then, at the age of thirty-five, when I had acquired a practice, I would marry a young woman whose father would have enough money to set me up in an office on Fifth Avenue. Now, mind you, my mother knew nothing about Fifth Avenue. She knew nothing about what it took to be a lawyer. I mean, there was no way I was gonna meet a young woman in my particular calling whose father would even let me near the house. Claire's father had died. This was my big advantage. I'd met her when she was fifteen. She didn't even understand what men were all about. She thought it was me. And 78:00so, it was a natural connection. My mother said -- when she called, when Claire called, "Dat goyl is on the phone," and I knew who "dat goyl" was, all the time. She was opposed to our marriage. My father said, "Let's take a walk." And we took a walk. He never invited me for a walk. "What is this about?" "It's time," he said, "that you should buy Claire a watch." That meant, "You should declare yourself," because coming up was the landsmanshaft [association of immigrants originally from the same region] banket, the banquet. I would be expected to attend and if I had a girl, she would be expected to attend so that the family 79:00would learn what was next for our group.
DS:And what was the name of the landsmanshaft you were part of?
IZ:This was the Lukover Independent Young Men's Association from ÅukÃ³w inPoland. My father, as I explained, was not much of an economist. He was even less of an actuary. Consider that if twenty or thirty men, all the same age, formed a group, they would all die at the same time. They couldn't afford to bury each other. (laughs) And the young people, myself, were not inclined to join these organizations once we had seen the world. I went to the meetings because it pleased him. I also took Claire, and I had to go to the meetings 80:00'cause she spoke no Yiddish, of course. My mother called her the yidishe shikse [Jewish non-Jewish woman]. And she was raised in Greenwich Village by a single mother during the Depression, by an artist single mother. And so, her connection to Judaism was mixed -- it was me. And so, I would be her translator at these events. And off we went to the banket, people met her, she was wearing the watch. I had bought it in Lausanne, in Switzerland. At the end of the war, we had Jeep tours and we were able to take cars and go anywhere. I went to Switzerland and I bought that watch for her. And when my father encouraged me, I presented it. And we were married. We were married owing four hundred dollars. I 81:00said, What a wonderful country. Here we are (laughs) without a pot and yet we owe four hundred dollars. We have status. From that moment on, my mother adopted her and ignored me. We were living in the cellar of their bungalow. They had gotten rid of the rooming house. They had gotten this little bungalow in Brighton Beach and my mother converted the coal cellar into an apartment for us using the money I sent her. They never spent it on themselves. And so, we had a place to live, which, incidentally, postwar, was very important. I was out militating -- my father -- for the American Veterans Committee. We were trying to generate housing for returning veterans. I had housing. I was one of the 82:00returning veterans who was fortunate. It was the first political action I engaged in on my return and met, for the first time, the kind of attitude that people had that anyone with a petition was a communist and that why we were we being so un-American? I was wearing my Ruptured Duck. Didn't do any good, the fact that I was a veteran. Didn't matter. I was engaged in leftist activity and this was untrustworthy. We were heading toward McCarthy, didn't even know it.
DS:Irv, we're actually -- we're starting to run out of time and this is -- Ifeel like we've only scratched the surface, (laughter) which is wonderful. I expect that this will be the first of hopefully several interviews, and I'd love to get Claire in here, also, at some point.
DS:But as we wrap up, I just want to end with the question of what advice youmight have for future generations, looking back on the wealth of your experience?
IZ:For future generations, I can tell you this story. When I came back lookingfor a job, I wrote many letters. I never got a single response and my mother said, "Oiving, maybe you should change your name." I can't tell you the effect that still has on me when I think of it. To my father's side, be true to yourself. Drop the euphemisms. Say who you are. Believe in what you are. It's the only courage you'll ever have. It's the only way in which you can believe in 84:00yourself. It doesn't mean that you'll believe in the future. The future is up to you. You've got to survive, you've got to carve it out for yourself. But don't retreat from it. Don't retreat from who you are. Don't be born Jewish but non-observant. Acknowledge that there is a wonderful history behind you and remember one thing: that many of the great nations that persecuted us went under and we're still here. Rome is gone and we're still here. And I always thought of that as a way of saying that when I look upon fellow Jews, it's no accident that if you travel -- let's say you're on a tour. It's no accident that out of fifty 85:00people, the six Jews in the group will find each other. Why? We sing the same song. And so, that's what I've been doing. I've been trying to encourage my kids, who did a demographic rarity -- both of them married observant women. My grandchildren speak Hebrew as fluently as English. And so, I, in a way, am out of the demographic. I like to think it's because of my own attitude, even though I know better. And that's it.
DS:Well, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us today. This hasbeen absolutely fascinating for me and like I said, I hope this will just be the 86:00beginning of a continuing conversation.
[END OF INTERVIEW]