I read with interest the article by Alan Wolkenstein, “Antisemitism remembered.” This was a well written article bringing back many memories of my youth. I’m sure that many long time Milwaukee residents recall stories from their parents or grandparents with similar experiences.
My parents faced the same housing discrimination when they searched for housing in the 1940s. I reflect back to the 1950s where my exposure to antisemitism was a bit deeper than rental issues. The north side of Milwaukee was predominantly inhabited by a population of German heritage. The 1950s were post World War II years and, with my father having served in the military, one would have expected more appreciation and respect than what our family received.
We were the only Jewish family in the immediate area of 20th Street and Capitol Drive. I attended all public schools and as I got older, I took city buses after school to an Orthodox Hebrew school on west Center Street. Here I was exposed to other Jewish students who were preparing for bar mitzvahs. Not growing up in a neighborhood with other Jewish kids made my meeting and establishing friendships a bit difficult, as I needed to get on a return bus right after Hebrew classes let out.
Not all of our neighbors were antisemitic, but some experiences have left lifetime scars that never left my memory. Up until around third grade, I was given a ride to school by my dad on his way to work until I could get familiar with the streets leading to school. I was probably around 8-9 years old and walked to class at a school on 24th and Nash streets. As I walked south down my block, I was met by a group of teenagers on a porch throwing stones and rocks at me demanding that I get off of their property and “get into the street you dirty Jew!” From that day forward I often saw the same group on their porch waiting for me. Not wanting to get bullied, harassed or pummeled anymore, I would deliberately step into the street and cross to the other side to continue my walk to school (there were no school buses).
On the street where I lived, three houses to the north, was an older German family who would fly a swastika flag on flag days. If they saw me playing in the alley with neighbors, they made sure we didn’t come anywhere near their garage or yard. Unfortunately, we had a party telephone line and this same family would pick up the phone and demand we get off you dirty – – – – (derogatory term for Jews)! I heard that term a number of other times after transferring to a newer high school where there was a Jewish population. I felt obliged to defend my heritage.
Upon transferring colleges in 1966 to University of Wisconsin – Madison, I met many other Jewish students who were predominantly from Milwaukee North Shore suburbs, Chicago and the East Coast. As I got to know them and shared some of my youthful experiences, they looked at me with disbelief. Times and generations have changed, but the memories of these experiences has had a lasting effect on various interactions I have had and continue to have.
Ron Sager is a retired educator of more than 40 years, with his longest stint at a Milwaukee Public Schools high school for 23 years.