On October 24, 1919, Helen Friedfeld was born to Harry and Sadie (nee Hecht). She was called Hilda all her life and discovered her legal name, Helen, when she was married and needed a birth certificate. One child preceded her by 18 months, a girl named Esther.
Her parents were married in June 1916 on a Friday afternoon. Harry’s parents were Nechamia and Fraida, his father being one of the founders of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin. Harry had six siblings: Max, Helen, Morris, Rose, Sally and May. Max married Hattie and was a haberdasher in Bensonhurst where he resided. Helen married Joe Fein and lived on Eastern Parkway; we are still very friendly with their daughter Connie who lives in California. I never knew the occupation of Joe who, I was led to believe, was not a very aggressive wage earner. Morris was a dress jobber in Chicago who was married to Lila. May was married to Jessie Spielholz who worked in the Post Office; May worked in the NYC school system as an administrative assistant. Rose and Sally never married, the latter working for the US Navy. Incidentally, when I was in the Naval Reserve, and in order to maintain my commission, was required to be tested monthly; she always graded my test papers. Of course, this was sheer coincidence. Harry’s parents lived on Sterling Place in Brownsville.
Sadie’s parents were Zvi Elimelech -called Hersh Malech- Hecht and Yitta Dreizel. Sadie also had six siblings: Joseph, Lena, Sam, Minnie, Lottie and Buddy. Joseph married Sadie and owned an apron factory. Lena married Izzy Rosenbaum who owned a grocery; they had two gifted twin sons. Fishy, who was an accomplished musician, was the leader of an orchestra that played at my wedding. Unfortunately, returning home early in the morning in June 1941 from the Catskills where he was performing, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed into a concrete abutment killing him instantly. His fiancée, riding in the passenger seat, went through the windshield tearing her face almost beyond recognition. She was exceptionally pretty and, fortunately for her, plastic surgery restored her face to almost the way she looked previously.
Their other son was Peretz, one of the world’s greatest graphic artists known as Paul Rand. His contributions to the art world are legendary.
Sam married another Sadie; thus creating 3 Sadies in the Hecht family. He owned a black van in his piece goods business, which I would call, chidingly, a hearse. There were six sons in his family: Shloma, Moshe, Avraham, Yaakov, Peretz and Shalom. The first three were all rabbis having pulpits in Chicago, New Haven and Brooklyn, respectively. Yaakov, also a rabbi, was the founder and executive director of a Lubavitch enterprise called the National Foundation for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, emanating out of 770 Eastern Parkway, the home and headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbi. Peretz went into the printing business and Shalom owns a Judaica business on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. Avraham had an excellent position as rabbi of a Sephardi Synagogue on Ocean Parkway until he made some very unwise comments regarding Israeli politicians that resulted in his being discharged from his pulpit and cannot enter Israel to this day.
Lottie married Bill Volet who was deputy NYS comptroller for many years as long as Arthur Levitt was the Democratic comptroller of the State. Minnie and Buddy were never married, Minnie dying in her thirties and Buddy working for the Bregstein Underwear Co. as head bookkeeper for most of her life. Lottie, Bill, their son Andrew, Buddy and her friend Bill Warfman were annual Passover Sidorim guests at our home years later when we were married.
Two girls were born to the Friedfelds after Hilda; Corinne (called Chippy because of her Hebrew name Zippora) born April 1, 1925 and Pearl born May 20, 1929. The family lived on the second floor at 338 Hopkinson Ave. between St. Marks Ave. and Prospect Place; this section of Brooklyn being on the perimeters of Ocean Hill and Brownsville. Sam and his family resided on the first floor. Both families did not have to pay rent since the house was owned by Hersh Malech, who lived around the corner on Prospect Place, his building housing a mikve on the first floor, which he managed, and his family living on the second floor.
My first introduction to the Friedfeld household was, at best, a lukewarm reception. As soon as I met Sadie, I immediately fell in love with her and, I believe, she liked me as well. Chippy was eleven with the most beautiful, almost white curls and with a face to match. Pearl was seven, extremely lovable and pretty as well.
It seems that Hilda, although, only seventeen, had been courted by wealthy suitors previously. One, in particular, was the son of one of the owners of Dilbert Bros., a chain of grocery stores in Brooklyn and Long Island. He would come to pick her up with a chauffeur-driven car. Therefore, when she related to me her interrogation by her father concerning my father’s “business”, I could understand Harry’s concern about her falling for a poor boy. My understanding did not match my being uncomfortable in his presence. After asking Hilda what my father did for a living and she responding that he was in men’s clothing, he actually referred to the phone book looking for the “Prager Clothing Co.”; naturally none existed.
What made matters worse was the fact that he never greeted me for the first 2 years of our courtship and to add insult to injury forbad Sadie to say hello as well. Most of the time we met on her street corner to avoid friction. Her sister Esther joined the ostracism but not for the same reason. She being the older sister, found it hard to digest her younger sibling being so popular with boys. There was practically no rapport between Esther and me for about 2 years. Fortunately, things changed dramatically later on in our lives. I got along well with Chippy and Pearl right from the start, they treating me as a big brother. Whenever Hilda and I were together in the house, which was usually Friday nights, Pearl was instructed by Harry to chaperone us. He evidently trusted me as far as he could throw me.
If things weren’t bad enough on the second floor of the building, the six boys on the first floor never greeted nor said a word to me in the 4 years that I visited Hilda. I was considered a “goy” because I did not cover my head; in fact, none of my Orthodox friends did. I was extremely happy that Hersh Malach and Sam, the father of the boys always greeted me warmly.
Hilda and I would see each other almost every night and three times on Saturday. We would daven together in the Hapoel Hamizrachi at Anshe Zedek on Park Place; I would visit her after lunch and at night we would go to the Congress Theatre on St. Johns Place. After the movies, we had a hot-fudge ice cream sundae. The cost of the movies was 35 cents and the sundae was 15 cents; this was my treat since from the 30 dollars a month I was earning at school I kept 10 and gave the balance to my mother. Very often on weekday nights we’d go to a different theatre that charged 10 cents and dispensed dishes and other gifts as well; we’d go “dutch-treat.”
In the summer of 1937, at the age of 19, I wanted to get a job badly in order to start giving instead of receiving. Along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan were all the employment agencies of the city. The elevated trains that ran above this street did not in any way interfere with the activity going on below.
As soon as the college session ended, I began my quest for employment in earnest. I strolled along Sixth Avenue reading all the paper notes attached to the walls of each agency; each “help wanted” note specifying the type of work, hours and days of employment and the wage. Since almost every note stated 5 ½ or 6 days, I spent several days walking and looking for a company open only 5 days not wanting to work on the Sabbath. Finally I found a note desiring an experienced polisher to work 5 days for a salary of $10 per week. My elation was great and I decided to bluff my way at least with the agency to obtain an opportunity to be interviewed by the employer. I walked up one story and of course I knew that I would be asked if I had experience as a polisher; that was the only question asked of me. Thank the Lord that she did not ask me what I polished or the firms that I worked for.
The agency sent me to T & P Optical Co. located in a building on the corner of 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. The owners were Messrs: Toscano and Pomerantz. When I arrived, I was ushered into the latter’s office and his first remark was: “This is not a job for a Jewish college student.” How in the world he knew I was Jewish and a college student was beyond me as I didn’t tell him that at all. He kept trying to persuade me that the job would be very difficult for me and the only employees doing this type of labor were black and Latinos. He obviously knew that I had no experience in polishing and that immediately after the summer I would leave and return to college.
I literally pleaded with him to employ me since I was a Sabbath observer and could not find a 5 day job. I assume he pitied me because he hired me against his better judgment. When the head of the polishing department escorted me to the buffing machine and I gazed upon the polishers, I wanted to make a hasty retreat. They were all dressed in very old clothes, which were covered from head to toe with a pink powder, as were their faces. I am sure that you all are familiar with the shoe polishing machines used by cobblers; these machines were very similar.
The company manufactured metal eyeglass frames that had to be polished to a high degree of gloss. After a very short instruction period, I commenced working as a polisher. The powder immediately entered every orifice of my face and covered my hair and clothing. The working hours were 8 am-5 pm with an hour for lunch, which I brought from home. After work, we all went to a large room with a long, double-sided sink in the shape of a trough so that many were able to wash off the powder at the same time, precluding waiting on line. We used a detergent that came in cans as those used by workers who are exposed to grease. Of course, I brought old clothes the following morning.
For two weeks I labored as a polisher and my health suffered as I was very often nauseous and vomited quite a bit. It bothered Mr. Pomerantz as much as it did me; consequently, he transferred me from polishing to a drill press machine. The arms of an eye glass frame have small screws, which attach the arms to the body of the frame. The drill press punches holes in the metal to be the receptacle for the screws. I would sit all day pushing a piece of metal with my right forefinger into a small hole on the machine and simultaneously kick a foot pedal with my right foot which would lower a long, thin metal pole which punctured a small hole into the piece that I placed with my finger.
Unfortunately, one day, being extremely bored and having my mind somewhere else, I didn’t remove my finger fast enough and the press punctured the nail of my finger. Naturally, the pain was quite severe and blood flooded the nail. Perhaps God was looking after me that day because I didn’t want to work on the Sabbath. Coincidentally, the son-in-law of Mr. Pomerantz, who was a physician, was visiting that day. He immediately cut the center of my nail to release the blood to prevent my losing the nail. I was told by Mr. Pomerantz to go home and come back when I felt better. Mac, being the son of Ruchel Prager, refused his kind suggestion and immediately was transferred to a different machine, which enabled me to continue working that day and for weeks thereafter.
Believe it or not, I received 3 raises that summer to the magnificent sum of $16 per week. I told my parents that I would like to continue working and go to college in the evening. Mama agreed with my suggestion, but Papa refused stating that he wanted at least one of his children to be a college graduate; and I complied with his wish.
Since I wanted to graduate in 3 ½ years, I took two courses for 2 nights a week that summer; commercial law and economic geography. Every school night around 10 o’clock my devoted Hilda would stand and wait for me at the train station at Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue, 8 blocks from her home. She walked me home 4 blocks and then walked home alone the remaining 4 blocks. In retrospect, it would seem to be a lack of consideration letting her walk home alone; however, she realized that I had to arise at 6 the next morning to go to work and also a girl walking alone at 10 pm in those days did not present the danger that exists today.
I must mention at this time, while I am relating to you her wonderful character, an almost daily episode that occurred while I worked in the college library. After graduation from Franklin K. Lane High School, Hilda went to work for her father at Pearl Dress Co. at 501 Seventh Ave. in the garment district as a model and head bookkeeper. Since she graduated taking a general course, bookkeeping was foreign to her. In order for her to be able to be hired by Papa Friedfeld, I became her teacher giving her textbooks in that subject and, in addition, would assign homework and actually test her.
About twice a week on her lunch hour, she took the Broadway bus on 37th Street to 23rd Street, walked 1 block to Lexington Ave. in order to sit in the library and stare at her boy friend; if that wasn’t love, I don’t know what love is.
The N.Y. Council of Hapoel Hamizrachi, which consisted of a delegate from each of the N.Y. chapters, would meet monthly at an office building at Broadway at 24th Street. At this time, I was elected as a delegate from the Park Place chapter and remained in that capacity for three years. I enjoyed these meetings immensely; especially, rubbing elbows with high dignitaries of our movement and those of the Mizrachi organization. These were world leaders who would occasionally visit the Council and address us. My knowledge of Zionism was greatly enhanced due to my position as delegate. Perhaps, having this knowledge enabled me to be elected president of our chapter at the age of 19; which looking back in retrospect, seems now to be a very young age to lead a group that consisted of older members.
My social life was now completely devoted to activities conducted by the H.H.; and, of course, jointly with Hilda. There was a Hachshara camp in Freehold, N.J., which prepared chalutzim (pioneers) to make aliya to Israel.
In June for the next 2 years our group rented a truck, which would hold about 20 persons and we would spend the day at the camp. As enjoyable as that was, the ride back and forth was even more so as we sang Israeli and Hebrew songs and cuddled during the entire trip.
Also, usually on the last Sunday in June, all the chapters chartered a boat to go up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain. All those desiring to go went to their chapter meeting place on Saturday night to pay for the trip. I was in charge of collecting the funds of my chapter and Hilda and I would bring the money and the list of passengers to the home of Mary Berman, who lived in Williamsburg and who later married Abe Reiss. By coincidence, their granddaughter Elaine married my nephew Shalom Mehler. For several years I took Hilda’s little sister Pearl with us on the boat ride, starting when she was seven. Going on hikes, playing inter-chapter basketball games and social dances were other very enjoyable activities