I believe that the CCNY School of Business was either the only one or one of many few colleges in the country that required a thesis to be written to qualify for a baccalaureate degree. Several years after I graduated, this requirement was discontinued. In the student’s senior year, one was given a choice of writing on an accounting or economic subject. Being always an activist in my religion and ethnicity, I decided on merging economics with the Jewish minority in the United States. The student had to submit the title and subject to Justin H. Moore, the Dean of the School of Business for approval. He was the personification of the term “WASP”, who, incidentally, never passed the CPA exam after sitting for it seven times.
After submitting the title “Economic Discrimination of Jews in America”, I received an immediate rejection; evidently, it was politically incorrect to use the word “discrimination.” When I revised the title to “Occupational Difficulties of Jews in America,” the dean was relieved and I obtained an immediate approval.
Now the year-long period of research began and I enjoyed every minute of it. Prager not being an especially Jewish surname and my facial characteristics passing for those of a gentile afforded me entrance to many financial district employment agencies, all being manned by WASPS.
It really is quite incomprehensible for a person in the year 2003 to realize the extent of bigotry and discrimination that existed in 1938. Jews and Catholics ‑ especially those of Italian extraction – had to combat the quota system on applying to the Ivy League schools. Many of my friends who opted for the field of medicine were forced to travel abroad, i.e. Syria, Mexico and European medical schools. Employment opportunities in the fields of finance, utilities, insurance and architecture were practically non‑existent for Jews and Italians.
When I interviewed the employment agencies, I disguised my reason for being there by telling them that I was writing a thesis on the significant role these agencies were playing in the personnel field. They were delighted to hear my ruse and proceeded to “spill the beans”. They all gave me samples of the applications they submitted to those desiring employment.
Each and every one contained a line reading “religion”. When I would question the agent as to the need for this line, he answered that he personally was not a bigot, but he had to abide by the wishes of his clients. I never told them that I was attending CCNY, but that I was a Columbia student.
The N.Y. Times want ads all asked for resumes of the respondent, including religion. In addition, rental ads in the newspapers always had the words “near a church”; thus, assuring that the apartment or house would not be rented nor sold to a Jew. Fortunately, years later, laws were enacted prohibiting these practices. However, it would be foolish to state that discrimination was completely eradicated as I will later on write about my personal experiences in this respect.
My thesis was a little over 100 pages and, unfortunately, I waited too long to have it typed by Hilda. I had to submit the paper on Monday at 3 pm. As luck would have it, my girl friend took sick on Friday with a bad case of the flu and a high fever. Because of the Sabbath, nothing could be done till Sunday when I implored our next door neighbor’s son to do the typing and ensure my graduating. I gave his mother the name “Mrs. Evsher hut yir” ‑ translated ‑ Mrs. Perhaps you have. Almost daily, this woman would knock on our door and say: “Mrs. Prager, evsherhut yir a tzibale (onion)” etc. The young man worked all day Sunday and on Monday till I P.M. and I was able to submit the thesis by 2:30. Of course, he was well compensated for his Herculean task.
The commencement exercises were held in the evening at the Uptown campus on 139th Street. Since we were given only 2 tickets, only my parents attended. The super of our building, who was Polish, also attended with his wife as their son also graduated. We all went home together on the subway and they invited us in to their apartment for drinks to celebrate this momentous episode in both families’ lives.
Finally, after 15 years of schooling, I was ready to commence a career and start working at a steady job. Answering a great number of newspaper want ads for a junior accountant and stating that I was a Sabbath observer produced no responses. I even wrote to accounting firms whose names included “Prager” hoping that perhaps they would feel an affinity to their namesake; again no replies. It seems that every accounting firm in the city labored at least 5 ½ days.
This dilemma lasted for a period of four months and I began to doubt my ever gaining employment in my chosen profession. With a very heavy heart I informed my parents that I was ready to “throw in the towel” and succumb to the inevitable. Since I was their only child who was still Orthodox, they were not too happy to hear of my decision. They too realized that their son would perhaps never obtain employment unless he violated the fourth commandment. To make matters worse, I could not sit for the CPA exam unless I worked for a CPA firm for one year.
At the end of May 1939, my first response to a want ad resulted in my being interviewed by Clarence Rainess & Co. a CPA firm located in the garment district at 570 Seventh Ave. My interview was conducted by the managing partner, Mr. Irving Schwartz. When he discovered that I had graduated four months previously and that I had not worked during that time, he asked me why that happened. When I told him the truth about my “caving in” and that I was not very happy about working on the Sabbath a very close and warm relationship began between the two of us. He was raised in an Orthodox home and in fact both his parents still remained devout Jews. He understood my dilemma and stated that he too went through the same situation when he graduated.
When I told my mother the starting salary was $15 per week, she remarked that they must be crazy as junior accountants received usually $5 weekly. Medical interns were not receiving any compensation; lawyers beginning their careers were fortunate in being paid at all. Since the hospitals and the professional firms realized that one could not sit for licensure examinations before having at least one year of experience, they took advantage of the situation. In my case, a CPA candidate was required to work for a CPA firm for one year before being allowed to take the exam and needed two additional years of accounting experience, one of which had to be with a CPA firm; thus, professionals were at the mercy of their employers.
Our firm consisted of approximately 15 persons; 2 partners, 4 senior accountants, 5 semi‑seniors and the rest juniors. Most of our clients were in the garment trade; manufacturers of dresses, ladies coats and blouses. For the first few months, I assisted a senior or a semi‑senior perform audits of our clients. After this period of indoctrination, a junior’s work was evaluated and a decision was made whether to retain the person or to discharge him.
Our firm was noted for its large turnover of juniors and, of course, I was delighted to discover that I made the grade. In fact, I was called into the office of Mr. Schwartz and he informed me that he was very satisfied with my work and that he had plans for me in the firm; giving me a $2 raise. I was now a semi‑senior and performed some audits alone and accompanied a senior on the more complex audits.
After 64 years, I still remember the names of some of these clients. Lynn Gray Frocks, who’s CEO, was David Schwartz and who later became the most successful dress mfr. in the country heading Jonathan Logan. Washine‑National‑Sands, a producer of chemicals sold to large laundry establishments; this company was located in L.I. City. J.T. Darling & Co. a purveyor of fresh fish to restaurants and cruise ships located on West 61st Street in Manhattan. I would wear my oldest clothes when making my monthly audits as the smell of fish would permeate my clothing and my body as well. Floradora Fashions, a manufacturer of $2.87 dresses located on Seventh Ave. and 35th Street. Kay Cloak & Suit Co. located on 38th Street off Seventh Ave. Admiration Blouse Co. located on Broadway at 36th Street. Another one of my clients was a mfr. of formal dresses whose name escapes me. I enjoyed my monthly visits to this firm because very often Myron Cohen, a piece goods salesman, entertained management with his repertoire of jokes. He later left selling to become a famous comedian.
Another one of my clients was Raymodes Negligees located on Madison Ave. where most of the lingerie and negligee manufacturers were located. Very often when performing an audit at a fashion client, the accountant would be seated at a table in the show room. Thus, he would see all the models displaying the “line” to the buyers. One of these models at Raymodes was a tall, beautiful girl who always engaged me in conversation when she wasn’t modeling. I could have easily fallen for her had I not been going with Hilda and had she been Jewish. One day, she invited me to go roller‑skating with her on the following Friday night in Rutherford, N.J. where she made her home. I don’t remember what reason I gave her for not accepting her offer which, of course, made me feel good. Whether I told her that I was religious and couldn’t violate the Sabbath or that I was seeing a young lady or, perhaps, invented another excuse I really don’t remember. What I do recall is that I told Hilda all about her and her nice proposal.
Being a fast auditor, I was sent to clients who were either out‑of‑town or were located at places that required traveling. One of these clients was located in Philadelphia. Every month I would arise at 5 am take the subway to Penn Station and take the train to Philadelphia and return home after 8 p.m. Another client was in Patchogue, L.I. Since Mr. Schwartz wanted to handle this audit, he would pick me up in his car at a mutually convenient spot and we spent a pleasant trip in conversation. I did not own a car nor did I know how to drive.
In the summer of 1939, Hilda and I decided to spend our evenings after work and our Sundays at the Washington Baths in Coney Island. Each of us rented a locker for $10 for the entire season. Since I worked mainly in the garment center and she likewise worked there, we’d meet around 5.30‑6 pm and have dinner either at Gross’s Dairy Restaurant on Broadway at 37th Street or at a cheaper dairy restaurant on 36h Street. We’d eat very quickly and then take the train to Coney Island where we would arrive around 7.30 in time to enjoy an evening of swimming in the pool and just being together. We’d stay till 10 pm the closing time and return home around 11.
On Sundays, we’d be joined occasionally by my sister Irene, Hilda’s long‑time friend Rose Schneider and her beau Sandy Wasserman and his brother Jack‑ both of whom you met previously ‑ and my friend Itchka. Incidentally, we introduced Rose to Sandy one week after we met and they were married one week after our wedding. We remained close friends until Sandy’s death a few years ago, after which we lost contact with Rose who was quite ill. In the summer of 1940, we again rented lockers at the baths and repeated our wonderful time together.