Irving’s story is more than a childhood memory


We had an open porch facing the yard at our childhood home.  After the war, the G.I. vets looking for work closed it off and installed knotty pine panels from which we hung pictures and bas-relief decorations.  We called the narrow chamber a “den,” and our guests and visitors smoked their pipes, cigarettes and cigars around a wonderful ashtray stand, as we talked or listened to records or watched early TV.

One of the friends who came by was Irving Weinreich. I knew but only vaguely that he had arrived in town after the 1938 Hurricane, although I did not think to  inquire about his earlier boyhood … until this spring.

I  telephoned him to ask if I could go back in time and listen to his story, and he graciously welcomed me at his home. He furnished me with excellent and easy directions, served me fine, fresh coffee he had brewed for my arrival and showed me a painting of Temple Emanu-El in the parlor and also a letter from Rabbi Wayne Franklin thanking him warmly for his work on the planning committee for the annual Holocaust Memorial event.

I sat stunned by his account.  “My family was living in Danzig, between Poland and Germany. My mother pushed my father for us to get out while we still could. First to Warsaw to escape Hitler. Then, when the Polish military wanted to deport Germans out of the region, we were trapped and wanted to head for Palestine. My father was sort-of in the men’s furnishings business.  He had contacts with the local police, who needed uniform shirts. They warned him of the day his wife might be deported. He hid my mother in a closet and told me – I was 7 and very slight – that she was away visiting relatives.  The troops searched the house and when they reached the wardrobe room he said it was locked, and he had lost the key.  They threatened to come back but never did. My family left immediately and took the last ship out and away, and that was how we got to Ellis Island.

“We arrived because we had cousins in Rhode Island.  My mother carried me in her arms and told me to pretend I was asleep, so that the doctors would not examine me and see that I was ill. We came with nothing at all, lucky to be alive and free to find our way, right here on Camp Street, which was a Jewish neighborhood then. I went to Jenkins Street School and Montague Street School and attended Howell Street Synagogue. I have been a faithful member of Temple Emanu-El for many years!”

But Irving’s tale goes on from there. His relatives had their own gold fillings removed from their teeth to purchase tickets to America! Some got out to go to Shanghai, a few to Palestine and some to the concentration camps. One uncle was liberated from Auschwitz. Later in his life when he was here, he used to sometimes suddenly take on a fetal position in abject fear,  a leap into the memory of being beaten by guards.  In 1949 when Israel was still a brand new nation, Irving’s parents sent him to Tel Aviv to visit a grandmother.  “I remember there was a crowd visiting a memorial to Theodore Herzl, and also I recall the moving image of the Star of David as we arrived at the harbor, and I was still a high-school boy learning and studying our history.”

Irving thanked me for listening to him; it is amazing, the gratitude of people for merely asking a question and taking in the answers. For his gracious hospitality and deeply intriguing memories, I return his eager words of recognition.

It turns out that Irving was related to many familiar family names in Jewish Rhode Island. We are, in fact, one wide extended clan, connected through stories and links of rescue and reception, recognition and renewal.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at RISD.