Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Oral History Interviews

Growing up in an Ethnic Community

Two couples stand on a pier looking out to sea, luggage and bundles nearby

Mr. Jacovitz describes being Jewish in Cambria City

When you come to the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center you will see videotaped oral histories of Johnstown residents talking about their immigrant parents and grandparents. The Generations Theater is only able to show brief portions from those interviews. Below are other excerpts from the interview transcripts.

Arriving in Cambria City

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMy father was here for one entire year before he was able to bring mother here. He didn't have any money. When he came to Johnstown, and got off the train, across the street from the station at that time, was a Jewish butcher shop, and everybody who arrived--Jewish people who arrived, went into the butcher shop to identify themselves, and to ask any questions about where the community might be?

And he was directed to go to Cambria City. There was a large Jewish population there, and, of course, there was a large immigrant population in Cambria City. So my father went to Cambria City. He had no money. He found a shoemaker, a Slovak shoemaker, whose name was John Svaltic(?), and Mr. Svaltic had some money, so with his money, and my father's expertise--knowledge of bottling, the two of them went into the bottling business in a small room on Second Avenue in Cambria City.

So my father was here for a year, and he had no money to send for my mother. And at that time things were different from what they are today, we didn't have all the banks that we have today. There were personal bankers, individual bankers, and there was a Hungarian gentleman in Cambria City, whose name was Steven Epergessy(?), and he had a private banking business.

He knew my father, and he approached my father one day, and he said, "Now what is a young man like you, doing here without your wife?" My father was very proud, and he didn't want to tell him that he didn't have any money, but Mr. Epergessy was smart enough to know that that must be the reason.

And he said to him, "I'm going to lend you money, and you send for your wife." And there was a child born before my father had left, so then my mother arrived. My mother told me things were very difficult. They found an apartment. And I came--well I guess my mother arrived here in 1915. I was born in 1916 on Broad Street.


Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptWell as far as prejudice among the Jewish people, yes, there was some. Especially directed towards the Hungarians and the Glissianers(?) they called them. I never could quite understand from what part of Europe they came, something called Galicia. I have no idea where that is.

The German Jews of course always kept themselves very much aloof. And the reason for that was because--I think the reason for that was because they were educated. They could read. They could write, and I think some of the resentment against the Hungarian Jews was also because they, too, had had an education. Most of the immigrants from the Eastern European countries couldn't read. They couldn't write. They couldn't even write their names. And there was some resentment about that. As far as the gentile community, truthfully I guess there were many experiences of anti -Semitism.

I didn't experience that until I was older when we lived in Hornerstown. We had a neighbor, who lived two doors away from us, and they used to call us all kinds of names. And I didn't take very much from anybody, so I used to respond.

And I guess I was about seven or eight years old, I don't know, and my mother would be standing in the kitchen, and she would tell me what to tell them. [Laughter.] So I would--and they were relentless and finally it happened that the father worked for a Jewish wholesale place here in town, and my mother told me to tell them, to threaten them, that if they didn't stop, we were going to tell his employer, and that took care of that.

Now I do remember, and I hope children never see anything like this, the Ku Klux Klan. We lived in Hornerstown at the time, and we could see what is now Richland from our house. And I can still remember seeing the Ku Klux Klan with the fires up there of the crosses. And at that time, too, they were permitted to march on our streets. They paraded, started downtown, came up Hornerstown, close to where we lived, and then went back down. And it was a terrible revelation we had a neighbor two doors up from us, and for one of the parades, we saw this man come out, and he came from a home where we had played with the children. In fact I was very very close with his niece, and we were never aware of his affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. He came out of the house all dressed in this uniform. I can still see him today. We were shocked.

And they paraded frequently up and down the streets. So that's one of the horrible images I still remember from my childhood. And I hope children never have to see that. It's a terrible, terrible feeling.

Joining a Jewish congregation

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcript When we're talking about joining a religious institution, it took many years for my parents to join one. Now at the time that they came here, there were two congregations. There was the Rodef Shalom Congregation that was next to the butcher shop, and that was Orthodox, leaning towards Conservative.

And then there was a congregation on Vine Street that was a Liberal or Reform congregation. I don't know exactly--I don't think my parents joined the--either one of the congregations until much later. I guess I was around five or six years old when they moved from Cambria City to Hornerstown, and at that time, there was quite a number of Jewish people there. And those people there--it's customary that on the Sabbath on Saturday people going to services are supposed to walk. And Hornerstown is quite a distance from Iron Street, where the synagogue was.

And so there were enough families in Hornerstown to be able to build their own congregation there. And so--and there was a congregation there, it was built around 1920-1921. By that time, our family had moved out in Hornerstown. My father was treasurer of the congregation, and my mother was president of the sisterhood for about 15 years. So I don't remember that they were affiliated with Rodef Shalom before they got to Hornerstown.

Cambria City churches and synagogues

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptBut, because they settled at first in Cambria City, and because there were all those immigrants in Cambria City, they never talked about any kind of prejudices. It seems everybody had the same goals, and so there wasn't that concern.

Now if you're familiar with Cambria City, you know that it is a place with many many churches. And, of course, my father being in the business that he was he had constant contact with the churches. And got along very well with all of the parishioners and I can very proudly say that I've been in every single church in Cambria City, attending all kinds of functions, because when they had--and at that time everything--because people didn't have a lot of money, there were no fast food restaurants. There were no activities like there are today, where people can go.

The social life at that time, and I recall even growing up, the social life was centered around the religious institution. So there were always dances and dinners and parties. And I remember so well the grape festivals at the Hungarian church.

Because my father was looking for business of course they would buy from my father, and then they expected that we would be there for those events. And I'm very happy that that happened, because there are many people who didn't have the advantage or take the advantage of attending all these different ethnic celebrations. And I'm very happy that I had that experience, because we went to all of them. And I truly enjoyed--and I think young people and especially children--I think they are robbed of much of that today, and don't have a clear kind of understanding of different ethnic groups for that reason.

Seltzer and soda pop

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptThey all drank the same at the time. It was either white pop or red pop. Now in the cities--and the red pop is cream soda. Now in the cities cream soda was brown, because the base is vanilla, but here in Johnstown, the people would not accept brown pop. They wanted red. So it was either red pop or white pop. And those were the two that they drank.

Well the ethnic groups didn't drink the seltzer, but at that time, of course, we had Bethlehem Steel here with the supervisors and the superintendents, and they had large parties and so forth, because as I said before, there weren't all these grand restaurants and clubs and so forth, where people could go.

And if you visited the old part of Westmont, you will notice those tremendous homes. And they were built by the superintendents and supervisors of Bethlehem Steel, and they had accommodations that they could have their parties there with many, many people. And they were the people who drank the seltzer water.

And fortunately during the Depression, we had to depend on them, because they were the only ones that had any kind of money. They had the parties, and my father sold them the seltzer water, and that was what we survived on during the Great Depression....

 Oh, yes. People drank from the bottle. No straws at that time. No. No. We hadn't reached that point. You can imagine if I'm telling you that my mother helped wash bottles, today you wouldn't be able to do anything like that. I mean everything is so different as far as the requirements are. Even with the machinery, there were no inspectors at that time. There was nothing like that.

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