Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Ashland, Kentucky, to conduct a series of oral history interviews. The trip was funded by the Kaplan-Simons Family Foundation, which was started by the owners of Star’s Fashion World, once a leader among the retail businesses of downtown Ashland.
I was lucky to sit down with Jerry Mansbach for a short interview on the last day of my trip. Mansbach’s father, Joe, founded a very successful scrap metal business in Ashland and became a major supporter of the town’s small traditional shul. Jerry talks here about his family’s story and his father’s success.
More videos from the trip will be available soon on the Ashland, Kentucky, page of our Online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. You can also hear a short radio interview that I did about the project.
Today is Yom HaShoah, and while the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators may seem very distant from today’s American South, many Jewish people in the region have direct connections to the Holocaust.
In the oral history collection, we have interviews with survivors like Mira Kimmelman, who speaks here about settling in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, years after the war:
We also have the story of Meyer and Manya Kornblit, who survived the war and built a life in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Video from an interview with their son Michael was featured on this blog in November.
Our oral history collection also includes an interview with Nathan Swerdlow, of Beaumont, Texas, who was among the first American Soldiers inside Mauthausen concentration camp. Swerdlow, originally from Wisconsin, spoke enough Yiddish to let the prisoners know that the war had ended and that he was an American soldier. For years, he spoke at schools and churches around southeast Texas, educating younger generations about the Holocaust.
These individuals have made a point of sharing their (and their families’) stories, even though it is often a difficult experience. As World War II and the Holocaust recede from living memory, it becomes all the more important to listen to those among us who lived through those events and to find new ways of keeping their memories alive for future generations.
We hope that you have a meaningful day of remembrance, in whatever way you see fit.
For those of you with teams in the tournament, or whose brackets are still alive, enjoy the weekend. I’ve been sitting shiva for my team of choice, the Kansas Jayhawks, but thought it would be good to get a basketball-related post out while I had the chance.
In honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, which takes place this weekend in Atlanta, I want to commemorate the years when Jewish players were an important part of collegiate basketball. As basketball grew in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century, it became especially popular with working class kids in urban areas where cold winters and a scarcity of sports fields made other sports less accessible. Of course, Jewish boys were no less enamored of the sport than anyone else. In the 1930s, young Jewish talent coming out of New York City established area schools like NYU, CCNY and Long Island University as early powerhouses in the history of the college game, which attracted large audiences well before professional leagues took shape. By the 1950s, Jewish players—some from northern cities and some homegrown—regularly played for universities across the South.
A quick perusal of Vanderbilt rosters from the 1950s, for example, yields Al Weiss, Thomas Grossman and Ralph Schulman. While I don’t know much about Weiss or Grossman and cannot guarantee that they are Jewish, Ralph Schulman is a different story. In an oral history from 2010, Nashville’s Betsy Chernau recalled going to a ZBT dance with Schulman, who she knew from high school. In fact, she met her eventual husband, Stan Chernau, at that party. Stan had grown up in Chicago and played for the freshman basketball team at the time.
The most famous Jewish players at southern schools were probably Lennie Rosenbluth, who led the University of North Carolina to its first national championship in 1957, and Art Heyman, who played for Duke and starred on the school’s first Final Four team in 1963.
By that time, though, the era of Jewish basketball was coming to a close. Both racial integration and the growing popularity of the sport made college basketball more competitive, and Jewish players were soon represented in numbers that better reflect our actual population. While basketball is no longer a niche sport for Jewish athletes, we still see the occasional Danny Schayes, Jake Cohen or Jordan Farmar, and it is good to remember the Jewishness of these players would have been less exceptional in earlier decades.