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2: FDR

In l934, the year that Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the Presidential oath, the year of the Great Depression, the year of the great national despair, the Rosenthal family moved from Sioux City, Iowa to Brooklyn, New York.

Poppa, a baker, developed an allergy to yeast and had to give up his job in the Iowa Bakery. The Mayo Brothers told him he’d have to find other work. But what work? There wasn’t any work even for people with a college education.

Now Momma had an aunt living in Brooklyn, New York, whose family had prospered in spite of the hard times. They owned a small chain of grocery stores and the aunt wrote us to move to New York, with the promise they would teach Poppa the grocery business and he could have a job in the store managed by cousin Willie.

Poppa went alone first, found an apartment and then sent for Momma, my brother and me. We came on a Trailway bus, my brother sick most of the way from eating a greasy donut at a bus stop my mother warned him not to eat in the first place. But he never listened.

It was a small apartment over a garage on Coney Island Avenue. I hated the place. No trees anywhere and a trolley car ran all night making a lot of noise. I had to sleep on the couch in the small living room. Rent was $l8 a month.

Within a few months, Momma’s aunt died, and Cousin Willie forgot his mother’s promise and sold the store to a stranger who no longer needed Poppa’s services. Poppa was again out of work.

We spent a lot of time worrying about being evicted. Although I was only seven years old, I remember the shame of eviction — the embarrassment I felt for families sitting on their furniture out on the street until some relative or kind neighbor, took them in. I would lie on the couch and listen to Momma and Poppa whispering in the kitchen. They had only $20 left. I worried too.  

It was a long and bitter winter. My brother broke his arm roller-skating on the street and I came down with scarlet fever. We were quarantined. There were doctor bills to pay and there didn’t seem to be work for anybody in the entire city of New York.

One evening there was a knock at the door. Because of the quarantine, we were forbidden to allow anyone to enter.  

“Who is it?” my father called out.  

“A landsman,” was the answer in a woman’s voice. (a landsman is someone from the same hometown).

She must have placed her head right next to the door. “Mr. Rosenthal, you are from Bialystok,” she said, “and so was my husband. You knew each other as children. He used to talk about you. I read your name in the landsman bulletin and since you live not far from me, I came to ask for help. My husband died two months ago leaving me with two small children. No insurance. I haven’t a penny. What should I do?” She was crying.  

I was lying on the couch in the living room and could hear every word.

“Don’t cry!” Poppa called to the lady. “You came to the right place!”

Without another word, he took the two ten dollar bills out of the sugar bowl on the buffet, folded them and slid them under the door to the unknown lady in the hallway.

“God bless you!” I heard her say.

Momma was standing at the kitchen door during this transaction. All she said was: “Why not ten for her and ten for us?”

“Because you have a husband,” Poppa said. “And that poor woman does not. With God’s help, I will provide for the family.”  

Within a few days, former Sergeant Abraham Rosenthal received a check for one thousand five hundred dollars, as part of the Bonus Act for World War I veterans. A fortune!  

A miracle! Momma always said.


Several days after receiving the bonus money, my parents bought a small grocery store in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The year was l934.

My parents struggled to make a living from the store. Momma worked right along with Poppa, from early morning till late at night; six and a half days a week, and they never complained but just went about doing what had to be done, even managing to send my brother to the University of Missouri so he could study journalism.  

In l940, the first supermarket opened in Brooklyn and it was right around the corner from our grocery. It really distressed my parents to see all their customers troop down the block to save a few pennies. Poppa managed to pay all his bills, locked the door, and that was the end of our grocery days.

My father went to work for the Alcoa Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and we moved to another neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I’ve lived in California almost 50 years and haven’t been back to Brooklyn since I left. My parents moved to Berkeley, California in the Fifties, and with my brother and his family also here, there was no reason to return.

Recently, attending a dinner party, I struck up a conversation with the woman seated to my right. Her name was Roz.

"Where are you from?” I asked, although her accent was obvious.

"Brooklyn,” Roz answered.

"I grew up in Brooklyn,” I offered.

"Where?” Roz asked me.

"Well, I lived in East Flatbush.”

"I lived in East Flatbush too,” Roz replied.

"I went to Winthrop Junior High School.

"I went to Winthrop Junior High School,” Roz said.

"My father owned a small grocery store on the corner of East 9lst Street and Clarkson Avenue,” I told her.

”But my father owned a grocery store on the corner of East 9lst Street and Clarkson Avenue,” she said, all excited now.

We agreed there was only one grocery store on the corner, and comparing further, we came to realize it was my father who bought the store from her father in l934 … the year my father got the veteran’s bonus and her family moved to Queens. We both used to do our homework on the same little enamel table in the back of the store while our fathers candled eggs.

 Here we meet, in Walnut Creek, California, some 65 years later!

Page One of Magic and Coincidence, Family Tales<<

Jean Harris was educated at Brooklyn College and the New York Public Libraries. She married Edward Harris in 1948, a surrealist painter and jazz impresario.  They pooled their talents (creativity, imagination, chutzpah) and produced our own radio programs for Mutual Broadcasting system.  With the birth of their first son in 1950, they left New York and show biz moving to Walnut Creek, California where they have resided ever since.
In 1958, after birth of third son, Jean opened first of three womens' apparel shops over which she presided for forty years, traveling the world buying for the shops. She's been a writer since the age of seven, filling notebook after notebook with stories, poems, plays, essays, lectures, and stories.  Some have been published, most not. 
An inveterate optimist, Jean sees order where others see chaos, and is still awed by the wonder called life. You may reach her at



©2006 Jean Harris for SeniorWomenWeb
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