It was early autumn in 1964 and Kathy and I were engaged to be married on Nov. 1. We were caught up in the seemingly millions of things to do for the wedding. We were talking with my folks and her mom in Florida as we ironed out the details. All but one. What about a place to live?
We certainly could not afford a house. With my new job as a casework therapist making $6,000 a year and Kathy as a full-time student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studying for a teaching degree, we were limited, like most young couples. That was alright with us; everyone starts off like this.
We finally sort of slid into a plan of meeting at my folk’s home every Sunday to look at the apartments-for-rent section of the Journal. No internet and that was the best means to search. So every Sunday I would pick her up at her apartment on 28th and Wells and go to my parents’ home. They took the daily and Sunday paper.
And so began the apartment ritual. After breakfast and a cup of coffee, we would open the paper on the kitchen table and begin the search. And it was the first time this happened that I saw and felt a change in my parents. A remarkable change. From easy going and talkative, to pensive and restrained. I asked what was going on and they denied. I asked again and my mother told me in Yiddish, zal es zeyn (let it be). I remember Kathy looking at me and seemed to say let it go.
And so we circled apartment advertisements and began to make calls. We had some good leads but in following them up, they weren’t so great. Some places were too big or in disrepair or difficult for Kathy to get to school on a bus line. And each Sunday, my dad in particular got quieter and more anxious at the same time.
Well, in early October we lucked out. A wonderful apartment on the top of an old mansion on 32nd and Wells Street. It was actually the third floor of the mansion with a terrazzo floor, which we heard was their ballroom in the early 1900s. It had a living room, sunroom, small bath, neat kitchen overlooking Wells Street, and a bedroom that was the original eight-sided cupola of the building. It had windows all around and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Heat, hot water, and a garage made from the barn behind the house and all for $75 dollars a month.
There we met Mr. Larson, the owner of the mansion who was in our soon-to-be apartment painting one of the steam radiators. He seemed delighted to talk to us and proudly spoke of the history and charm of the place. When asked how this mansion got to be saved when so many in the neighborhood were razed, he replied that when the Great Depression hit, wealthy mansion owners could not afford them any longer and moved away, and then the wrecking ball destroyed them. However, the owner of this mansion quickly changed the single-family home to a six-family apartment building and found many people to rent them to. The mansion survived. He felt the apartment was easily worth the price and his rules were simple; treat the apartment and building with the respect it deserves, pay your rent on the first of each month, and be nice to the neighbors. I remember him well, saying that we were the youngest couple to move in, and he hoped we would appreciate that the other tenants were older, had been tenants for years, and liked quiet. The look on his face was one of hopefulness.
I remember that we first called Kathy’s mom and then my folks and told them how happy we were to get the apartment. The next Sunday we met again at my parents’ home and had breakfast, coffee, and began to go through more endless details of the wedding. This time, they appeared relaxed and joyous. I asked again what had been going on while we were searching. My dad spoke first. He said they were afraid we would find the same antisemitism and discouragement they went through in 1933. My mother then picked up the story, that they would call a place and be asked if they were Jews because the apartment building was restricted. They would answer an ad and be asked about their religion and then refused to even be shown the apartment. My dad added that one of the worst experiences was when they answered an ad that had a “for rent” sign in the window and as they walked up to the building, the sign was removed. They stood there. My mother apparently turned around and began to walk away, but my dad went to the door and knocked. It was quickly answered by a man who said the apartment just rented. My dad began to ask questions about this, and the door was slammed in his face. “Come on Ervin,” she said, I didn’t like the landlord anyway.” We listened as he said he returned the next day and found the for-rent sign in the window. He talked of his anger and resentment of these terrible experiences. “We went through this and didn’t want you two to feel the hate and humiliation we experienced.” I wondered about the humiliation since it wasn’t their fault. “Well,” he said, “after awhile, it just gets to you.” He sighed and said they thanked G-d we had found our first apartment.
Kathy and I sometimes talk about what happened during that time and their hunt for an apartment. Would we have been tough enough to deal with it? I wonder. We also talk about the bravery and integrity they had as the antisemitism rained down on them: just a young Jewish couple looking for an apartment in Milwaukee in 1933
I was drawn to write about this since I remember it so well and wish it to help others in their struggles, for the current rise of antisemitism causes Jews to be and remain alert, focused and aware. I hope this helps the cause. However, the question remains. Do Jewish parents prepare their children in advance, and how do they do that, or wait to assist them after hate descends on them? However, by the time we as parents begin to think about this, the world has probably begun to teach them the lessons of antisemitism.