During the Great Depression Sidney Kronish was, like countless Americans, out of work. He hunched over a typewriter for hours in his family’s cramped Bronx apartment, eventually mailing hundreds of job application letters. Other days, he took the subway to employment offices along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. “No job was beneath me,” he says. After a series of menial jobs, he found his career in teaching.
A keen sense of self-sacrifice, and a family he leaned on for support, kept him going, Kronish says.
In the final years of the Holocaust, Leo Helmreich hid with his wife from the Nazis, living by his wits. After World War II, among the survivors of the Final Solution, he immigrated, nearly destitute, to the United States, where he returned to the diamond business he had learned years before. With a never-quit drive and a licensed handgun he carried for several years to keep him safe on 47th Street, he kept his life and dignity. In a few months Helmreich will turn 100.
Guts and religious faith sustained him, Helmreich says.
A teacher in the Ukraine, Rita Katselnik left her profession and her homeland when anti-Semitic thugs attacked her husband. They came, also nearly penniless, to the U.S., learned English and the American way of life, saved their pennies and chased — finally catching — the American dream. Today, Rita and her husband Arkadi own their own businesses and are affluent.
An immigrant’s drive, to thrive in freedom as they never could under Communism, was their incentive, the Katselniks say.
With America in the grip of the worst recession since the Crash of 1929, and with the personal fortunes of thousands of people decimated, the stories of Kronish, Helmreich and the Katselniks offer case studies in resilience and strategies for getting through hard times. And theirs are the kinds of stories, say rabbis and mental health professionals, that can serve as sources of inspiration for those today who are struggling to survive the recession and to start over after great loss. Their stories have particular resonance for a Jewish community that is built around an ethos of surviving.
“The value of stories, the power of memory, is enormously underrated today,” says Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, executive medical director of Four Winds Hospital, a mental health treatment center in upstate Katonah.
Seek out these stories, the rabbis and mental health professionals advise. Read these peoples’ memoirs. Interview grandparents about their experiences in the Shoah. Invite them to speak at your synagogue or school. Ask them why the vagaries of life did not defeat them.
“After 9/11, what sustained people was the stories of [other] people reaching out to each other” in the aftermath of the murderous terrorism that brought down the Twin Towers, says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, a long time expert on Jewish healing and recovery.
He says Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the esoteric chasidic leader in late 18th-century Eastern Europe, advised his followers who were going through difficult times to share the stories of earlier pious people who had overcome challenges.
The practice of Shemot HaTzadikim — literally, the names of the righteous — would give strength to his generation, Reb Nachman would say.
The World War II generation understood, Rabbi Weintraub says, that problems could be overcome. “‘This too shall pass’ — I believe our parents’ generation carried that phrase.”
The current economic crisis is a teaching moment for the country, the mental health professionals say, and inspirational stories tacitly answer the question, “How can I go on?”
“The goal is to find answers to the most meaningful questions, to make sense out of the apparent unfairness of life, to discover how to go on when life doesn’t seem to be worth living,” Rabbi Benjamin Blech writes in “Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs” (American Management Association, 2003), about the dot-com bust in the early 2000s.
The rabbi’s own life is an example of what he writes about. A prominent New York-area author and spiritual leader, he lost his life’s savings in the Nasdaq implosion early in this decade but with faith pulled himself out of a spirititual hole.
The hole that Sidney Kronish was trying to climb out of was an economic one. As the Great Depression bore down on the country, Kronish, living in a small Bronx apartment, drew strength from his family — a financial and emotional safety net, though not an affluent one, in dark times. His immigrant parents — his father, a tailor-turned-dress designer, his mother a homemaker — and four older siblings, lived in a “very kosher home,” Kronish says. Now a few months shy of 97, Kronish, his mind sharp, is sitting in a small conference room of Kittay House, a seniors’ independent living center in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, where he now lives.
After his mother died in 1929, his father became despondent and never worked again. Kronish, his father and his youngest siblings moved in with an older brother, a dentist. It was the memory of his mother’s words, Kronish says, that kept him going. As she was dying, she told her oldest children to continue with their education, even in the teeth of the Depression. Eventually, Kronish’s college tuition was paid for by an older sister and his dentist brother.
But after he married and entered an unforgiving job market, in 1938, he leaned on his philosophy of selflessness. “I answered every personal ad in The New York Times and The New York World,” Kronish says. He mailed “probably 500 letters.” And he patrolled the Midtown employment agencies, applying to be a cook, dishwasher, “any kind of a job.” He eventually logged time as an elevator operator.
Finally, aptitude tests landed him city jobs as a social welfare investigator and a public school teacher.
Kronish and his wife scrimped. “There was no savings.”
“There was no panicking,” Kronish says. “Everyone was in the same boat.”
“There is no point in being discouraged,” Kronish says. The retired economics professor, who taught at two New Jersey universities, says history shows that a bad economy, no matter how bad, will eventually improve. “There’s a Jewish expression, ain breira [no choice],” he says. “You don’t give up.
“I’m something of a fatalist,” he says, as a survivor of a recent stroke and an earlier heart attack. “I accept whatever fate dishes out.”
Comparisons between the recession of 2009 and The Depression that began with the stock market crash of 1929 are “terribly misleading,” says Kronish. For instance, he says, unemployment hasn’t reached 10 percent, far below The Depression-era estimates of 25-33 percent; the Obama administration has pushed a series of proactive jumpstart measures; programs that guarantee savings and pay unemployment insurance are firmly in place. A full-blown Depression is unlikely, he says.
Kronish’s generation, which grew up with fewer material possessions, which heard family stories of pogroms and anti-Jewish attacks in the Old Country, had more modest expectations than today’s, Rabbi Twerski says. “The previous generation grew up in a world where things were not handed to people on a silver platter.”
That silver platter was never extended to Rita and Arkadi Katselnik. Typical working-class residents of the USSR, they left their homeland with their 6-year-old son Leon when anti-Semitism at both of their workplaces became untenable, and arrived here in 1978 with almost nothing. “We had $300 in our pocket,” Rita says.
Living briefly with a distant relative in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx, studying English at a NYANA ESL class, they started looking for work. They wouldn’t accept food stamps. “We wanted to get on our feet — almost immediately,” she says in the flawless English she learned after she reached the U.S. “We really wanted to succeed.”
Within weeks of their arrival, on the recommendation an old acquaintance from the Soviet Union, Rita, giving up her beloved teaching career, began working at the NYU Library, in a job that required Russian-language skills. And Arkadi, with a civil engineering background, found a job with a sheet metal company that needed his expertise. Both were come-down jobs for them, but it was the price of getting ahead in America, they believed.
Rita’s NYU job, which included free college classes, led to studies in computer sciences, which led to jobs with increasing responsibilities at the Bank of New York, Ernst & Young, and Cornell University Medical Center. And Arkadi kept advancing until he started his own high-end construction management and general contracting company.
Today, Rita is the owner of Working Solutions, a nanny placement agency she founded in 1993. She had heard about the difficulties many couples encountered finding competent nannies, and, with a friend, investing $500, bet that such a firm would be a success.
She bet right.
“Our story is very typical,” she says. Newcomers work hard for success.
Rita is the chair of UJA-Federation’s Russian Division and a founder of the philanthropy’s Russian Young Leadership Division. She’s become active in UJA-Federation, she says, out of gratitude for its support for NYANA. Leon, who works in his father’s firm, is also active in the Russian Division.
Next on Rita’s horizon: setting up a Jewish-based Montessori School here. “Back to my [teaching] roots,” she says. “Now I am in a position to do it.”
For Leo Helmreich, the key to surviving hard times was his religious faith. It didn’t hurt being a tough guy, either.
“You have to believe in God,” he says. “Whatever happens is His will. Nobody can give up hope if he has belief in God.”
Growing up in Poland, living precariously in Vichy France during World War II, he had learned not to back down when threatened. In Washington Heights, he was mugged twice — unsuccessfully both times.
“I was motivated by growing up,” Helmreich says. “I fought back.”
Now 99, in good shape despite failing eyesight and a recent fall during Passover that broke four ribs, he lives in a modest Forest Hills apartment and speaks matter-of-factly about his life in Europe. At 18, he left his homeland for Germany to avoid serving in the Polish Army. In the next decade he married, moved to Belgium, learned the diamond business, and then, with the Nazis threatening, moved to the comparative safety of Nazi-free southern France.
With the Vichy future looking precarious, the couple went into hiding in the forest, and then was smuggled into neutral Switzerland.
After the war, in 1946, they came to New York, broke like many survivors, but not broken. Helmreich taught himself English, and started over in the diamond business.
Helmreich’s first wife died in 1982; three years later he remarried, to Charlotte, then a recent widow.
A synagogue gabbai and chevra kadisha volunteer and regular minyan attender for decades, Helmreich has had to scale back his activities in recent days, a concession to his Pesach-time accident and previous illnesses.
Using a walker, he still goes to shul on Shabbat.
The infirmities of aging, he says, pale in the face of Nazi Europe and American muggers. “I was a thousand times near death,” he says. “I never gave up.