My grandpa Louis Wolkenstein was a man of few words — he didn’t say much all the years I knew him. He was just a very quiet and unassuming man. When grandpa died suddenly in 1953, it was my first experience with death, death of a family member, a funeral and all that it entailed. I was anxious and afraid. My mom reassured me that I would be OK and to also not expect a lot of people at the funeral home because so many of grandpa’s friends and neighbors had passed on or moved away. That our family, small as it was, would be there.
On the day of the funeral, a big black limousine picked us up at home, and then grandma Bessie where she and grandpa had lived for 50 years on 10th near Center Street, and took us to the Goodman Bensman Funeral Home. My dad watched over me in spite of his own deep sadness and grief at the loss of his father.
The hall was quiet, but soon many people began to arrive. “Who are all these people?” I asked and dad said they were families from the old predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee coming to pay their respects. So many people that the hall was filled to capacity. My fears seemed to leave as I participated in the service.
After the funeral service the lengthy procession slowly drove to Garfield Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. It was the site of the second Congregation Anshe Sfard. That it was often referred to as the “Russisha Shul” by many in Milwaukee in that most of its early congregants were Russian immigrants to the city. The driver of the hearse stopped in front of the front doors, opened the back of the hearse and stood at attention for several minutes. I asked my dad what was happening and he replied quietly that grandpa Louis was at one time the president of the synagogue and this was a sign of great respect to him. Dad continued by saying that was the reason that during holiday prayers, grandpa Louis sat on the bimah facing the congregants sitting in his high-backed chair situated next to the ark. Oh, I said in great amazement. That quiet unassuming man held such a lofty position in the religious community and I didn’t know anything about that.
But there was more to grandpa Louis’s life that many people did not know. He and grandma Bessie came to America in 1903 and he soon took a job with the Atlantic Laundry as a laundry delivery man. He used a horse and wagon and traveled the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods picking up and delivering laundry. At that time, no one had a washing machine and all washing was done on a scrub board or wash board, so it was a very convenient way to get clean and fresh laundry. At the same time, while phones were available, they were often not in every home.
Many people had family and friends in the very neighborhood grandpa worked and he slowly began to deliver, at first just messages between families. Soon he was picking up packages along with the laundry which he was then trusted to bring to other people in the area. So this trustworthy man of few words would pick up and deliver bundles of laundry and also messages and packages between families. He very seldom talked about his personal messenger service in the community. At a later time, he was given a small truck and retired his horse and wagon. He continued to serve.
And so the families and children of the people he provided his special service to, came to honor him. In grandpa Louis’ obituary in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle in October 1953, he was listed as a “laundry truck driver.” There was so much more. The rest is known only to those he served. Yes, a very kind man of few words who so quietly performed an all-important messenger service. A good and decent man who served others and had no need for personal recognition.
As I think about my grandpa Louis, I am reminded of how deep he planted his Jewish roots into the Jewish community in Milwaukee. He was a member of Congregation Anshe Sfard, B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Convalescent Home, and the Independent Order of B’rith Sholom. Like so many others who immigrated to Milwaukee, grandpa Louis was a gift to our community all of his life.