To Be Honest
Martha and George
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In 1932 Joseph suffered what Dr. Biesenthal, the family physician, thought at first was a heart attack. Dr. Biesenthal called in a specialist; they consulted in private by going into the Ehrlich bathroom; and Joseph’s condition was rediagnosed as a severe case of pleurisy. To recuperate, he would have to get away from the cold and damp of Chicago and into a warmer climate.
One of Joseph’s customers mentioned that her mother, a Mrs. Dever, ran a home for convalescents in St. Petersburg, Florida, assisted by another daughter, nurse Lila Rembarger. For something like a dollar a day patients could rest on cots outdoors in the Florida sun; meals were part of the package. Joseph went off by bus to St. Petersburg, convinced that he was going there to die. But Mrs. Dever and Lila took such care of him in Florida that after a month he returned home “all well.” A year or two later Mathilda was suffering from gall bladder problems; she was sent to St. Petersburg and got not only well “but fatter,” as she put it. For several subsequent winters she and Joseph would alternate going to St. Petersburg; they were unable to go together since they could not afford to bring the children with them.
Joseph had to give up smoking, cold turkey, as part of his recuperation, so he took up chewing gum: P.K.’s, a peppermint Chicletlike gum made by Wrigley’s and sold in machines on pillars at the elevated station. You put in your penny, a little mechanical man would rotate, and the P.K. would come out of a slot. (On one occasion the mechanical man kept turning and a whole series of P.K.’s were produced—greatly upsetting Joseph, since he’d only spent a cent and people were hurrying up to help themselves to the gum windfall.)
He was allowed to continue drinking, in moderation as usual. During Prohibition there was New Life near-beer which he purchased by the case, always dark, restricting himself to a single bottle a night, and offering Martha its last few drops. After Prohibition, if the Ehrlichs had company at 1553 Devon, George might be sent with a pitcher to the local tavern to fetch ten or fifteen cents’s worth of beer—about a quart. Joseph was also known to have an occasional glass of wine, always drunk Old World style in one swallow, and followed by a little hiccup.
Up till now Joseph had picked up and delivered customers’s fur coats by hand, traveling by streetcar; but around 1933 he bought his first car for the business: a Chevrolet two-door sedan with maroon body and black fenders. The car was used not so much to spare Joseph’s health but to enable him to have a more widespread clientele; many customers, including those who moved away from the neighborhood, would never have to come to the store at any time. Joseph never liked to drive, and for his trips to St. Petersburg he would advertise in the newspaper for a driver; a young man who wanted to go to Florida would be hired and get paid transportation there. So as not to worry about maintenance Joseph would trade in the car every year or two, going back each time to the same Chevrolet dealer, who looked forward to these trade-ins since the Ehrlich Chevy tended to be in fine condition with less than 5,000 miles on it.
At this time Joseph also began listening to radio broadcasts of baseball games and boxing bouts, always rooting for the least objectionable boxer. The Ehrlichs bought their first radio, a Majestic, about the time they moved to 1553 Devon; but the first radio George remembered seeing belonged to Leo Kohn. It had enormous dials three inches wide, all calibrated, with Leo wearing earphones busy tuning it, periodically going “Shh! Shh!”—he had to have absolute silence—and on one occasion saying, “I think I have Pittsburgh.”
In February 1933 Martha performed at a piano recital at the Indian Boundary Park Field House. Afterwards Mathilda wrote:
You, dear, weren’t nervous at all, and played very well ... but best of all was that you enjoyed it, and knowing it was worth all the effort to make you admit that you liked what you did this evening. We are so glad to hear you say that at last. We are very proud of you and we are sure you are proud of yourself too.
If not a turning point, this recital was at least a milestone in Martha’s gradual emergence from her own shell of insecurity and lack of self-esteem. “As I grew older,” she was to say, “I was distressed more than a few times to find that I could go through life in my early years as if behind gauze draperies. Instead of clear, sharp images, all my past is blurred and muted. No doubt a self-defense mechanism. If I didn’t see anyone or anything clearly, I couldn’t be seen clearly either, and invisibility was what I sought always, except when playing the piano.”
In April 1934 Joseph wrote in Martha’s Diary:
Your piano playing improved very much, and now you really enjoy sitting at the piano and playing just for pleasure. There are times when you go to practice without anyone prompting you to do it, which is very good. It’s true you can play well but just because I insisted on your practicing every day so you learned your lessons. But music isn’t in your blood. But I am going to keep you at it because I know there will be times in your life when your music will be a help to forget all your troubles and to help you make adjustments when you need to, and keep you from despair.
The love of animals was in Martha’s blood, and she tended to volunteer at holiday times to bring home any small creatures being nurtured in school classrooms. Once this included a snake, which escaped from its container and got into the fur shop. There was always at least one representative of Nature resident at 1553 Devon, thanks to the presence of Peggy the drooling watchdog and her successors. After Peggy’s death the Ehrlichs looked for a suitable replacement and seemed to find it in a big shepherd called Rin, who “was so ominous-looking that people would cross the street rather than walk past the dog. Except the dog was an absolute milquetoast.” Since Rin looked horrific he would have been ideal, had he not been so huge that he could (and did) eat out of pans cooking on the stove. By 1934 he was displaced by Patsy, a much smaller Belgian shepherd, who “really had a nasty temperament, except with the family; would tolerate absolutely no one else... and barked up a storm, snarled, teeth flashing—consequently was exactly what we wanted.” Patsy would remain with the family for nearly a decade.
Among the other wonders of Nature intermittently in the Ehrlich household were a little green turtle or two, and a couple of experiments concerning canaries. Whether it was “Would it be nice to have a bird sing?” or “Would it be nice to have it for the kids?”, the Ehrlichs’s canaries were not be nature singers, nor did they live very long.
In February 1935 Joseph returned from another visit to St. Petersburg, bringing home a ten-inch baby alligator—under his coat, to keep it warm in the wintry Chicago climate, and possibly also to keep the neighbors from gossiping. The Ehrlichs tried to keep their alligator alive on flies and bits of raw hamburger, and “I just love it,” Martha wrote. “I am worried about it though because it will not eat.” Its general lack of response caused Joseph to call it Dumbkopf, which Martha abbreviated to Dunky for the remainder of its brief life.
Earlier that year Martha had encountered a dog “laying in the street as if he was dead,” stretched across the streetcar lines so that a conductor had been obliged to drag it over to the curb. Observed the indignant Martha:
One woman went to call the dog hospital and they sent out an ambulance. It must have been broken ribs. The dog was a beautiful police. Big, strong, it didn’t cry or whimper, just lay there. A man called it across the street and it got hit by a car. The man that hit it disappeared, nobody knew who it was.
Martha wrote this on January 3, 1935, in the Diary her parents had kept for her since her birth, and had given her the previous September when she had turned fifteen. Beforehand, both Joseph and Mathilda had made final entries of their own:
1934 Sept. 27. I just looked over your diary once more before giving it to you. Fifteen years is a long time, dear, but to me it seems like it was yesterday when we made a party for your sixth birthday. It was a big party, lots of children and presents too, but you don’t remember anything about that. I wish you could, Mártuka, because childhood is the most precious time in life. Before I close this book to give it to you to keep, I’d like to give you only one piece of advice, and hope it will help you out. If you ever come to a hard problem in your life that you don’t know what to do about, just stop for a second and think: What would Dad advise me to do? If you think I would say go ahead and do it, then you could be sure it will come out OK. But if you have any doubt about it, then don’t do it at all. One more thing, my dearest: always love your brother George, he is a good boy and loves you very much. We can never know what the future brings for us in life. But we are better off by knowing we are a family thinking [of] and loving each other forever. [Joseph]
[Same day] My darling, it is ages since I wrote anything in your diary, but since you are grown up to be a young lady, there isn’t much happenings I could write down for you. There’s so much more I’d like to say in here, but as you are growing up we don’t see all the little things that were so important before. Except what I think is interesting to jot down is you have a stubborn streak just like Daddy. When you decide you want to do something, it has to be done no matter what. I argue with you about this and try to show it is wrong, but in the end you always win because I can’t argue, never did for long, so I give in. My dear, I hope this won’t get you in trouble. Sometimes you need to be stubborn, but then you have to learn when you do too have to give in to someone else also. Tomorrow you will be fifteen years old, my darling, and I wish you all the joy and happiness for the rest of your long life. Never to know disappointment, and to be contented with life. Best of all my dear, remember you have a younger brother to love and to be good to. Be a good girl, which won’t be hard I am sure, and try to remember with a kind heart your old parents, we love you dearly always. [Mathilda]
When Martha was given her Diary, Joseph had to read it to her since she could not read Hungarian well enough to translate it. The following day Martha herself began writing in it:
1934 Sept. 28. Daddy read me pages of the book and I cried like a baby. I want to thank everyone who wrote in my book, and I think it is the best present I ever got. If I ever go back to Europe, my first visit will be to my Uncle Janika and Aunt Fáni, to let them know I still love them even if I don’t remember how they look. I’ll be always grateful for their love and goodness to me in my earliest life with them. I shall try faithfully to keep the first and best diary of my life...
The next day she added: “Today I just remembered that when I felt very dramatic, I always acted as if my life story were being written. I read a lot and often imagine myself doing things people do in books.”
That month Martha also began tenth grade at Nicholas Senn High School, which had “truly some very good teachers in what today we would call college prep courses.” Among her tenth grade classes were Zoology, taught by Gertrude Eckaros, and Geometry, taught by Clyde Brown. These teachers made a great and lasting impression upon Martha; in January 1935 she wrote, “Mrs. Eckaros and Mr. Brown are the two teachers that make going to school worthwhile. I love both of them and hope I shall never do anything to make them ashamed of me.” She had given both teachers Christmas cards: Mrs. Eckaros had liked hers and reciprocated, but Martha had “laid Mr. Brown’s on his desk and scrammed before he came in.” Earlier she had wistfully written:
I wonder if when I graduate will I have any boyfriends? I am fifteen years and one day old, and boys are still holy terrors. I hope I change because it does not make a girl very popular with boys if she is afraid of them.
“Woe is me,” Martha went on in March. “I think I shall become an old maid and teach dumb kids their ABC’s. Here’s hoping not.” But little by little she was gaining shreds and patches of self-confidence. When she turned fifteen she was finally allowed to stay home alone, and buoyed by this freedom she would sit at the piano and play “mood-release” music—Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Liszt. It must also have been around now that Mathilda defied Joseph (a thing unheard-of) not just once but twice, the only times Martha was to remember, and both times on her account. One was when Martha wanted to shave her legs for the first time, and Joseph told her to just keep wearing stockings—they would “rub” the hairs off. The other time Joseph pounded (or at least slapped) the table and declared that no daughter of his was going to appear on the beaches of Lake Michigan dressed like that. Both times Mathilda intervened and got him, albeit unenthusiastically, to let Martha go ahead with that.
By the age of sixteen, Martha the pianist—according to her own grudging admission—“played really well. It was not really concert caliber, but close to it.” Hers were the closing performances at Miss Claussen’s recitals, and she won a tryout to become one of three accompanists in the Senn High School orchestra. “So I felt an ego-boost there. I was good, and that—that—I was able to admit.”
Music was not to be George’s road toward finding himself: around 1933, when he was eight, his violin lessons came to an end. Joseph had been teaching him and Joseph was a perfectionist, and “if you didn’t get it right the first time, or the fortieth time,” Martha would remark, “you played it the forty-first time, to get it right.” And George found playing the violin a chore. He was developing facial tics and not sleeping well—“the kid was a nervous wreck,” Martha was to say, “he burst into tears at a sly look”—and finally dug his heels in and refused to go on. Which Joseph allowed, expecting him to come to his senses in time. Martha was intended to become a teacher (particularly as talkies dried up the silent-cinema-pianist market) but Joseph had ambitions for George to make music his life’s profession. He told his son that being able to play the violin might be of help in case another war broke out, since George could then “join the military band and stay out of combat.”
This was not enough to sway George, and when the PTA asked Mathilda how her talented children were getting along, “I had to tell them that Georgie didn’t want violin lessons very much, so we stopped it.” Nevertheless she too remained hopeful: “I still had for years afterwards all the violins in one bunch in the closet”—the quarter-size, half-size, three-quarters and full-size violins, awaiting George’s coming to his senses. Eventually the violins had to be sold, and as Joseph was getting them down from the closet shelf and putting them together he said, “They look just like coffins.”
Far from coming to his senses, George (along with two other kids) gave Joseph material for a new Three Boys story, written in English:
Once upon a time there was a good little boy who got into bad company. That made three bad little boys. They filled their pockets with stones, and went out to conquer windows. One little boy got twelve, another got five, you got only one. When you came home that afternoon, you murmured incoherently about stones, but who would dream that you.....! You were such a good boy. Nevertheless a plainclothes man came with a warrant, and next morning I awakened you early to appear in court. I was more scared than you. You were soundly lectured and I was fined $2.75.
“That was my total juvenile delinquency record during the Capone era,” George would say. In spite of this, he demanded at the age of nine that he be allowed to go downtown alone, and this was granted—at a time when big sister Martha was still being escorted everywhere by Joseph, even to the theatre across the street.
Downtown Chicago was an exciting place for a youngster to explore. It was the year of the 1933-34 World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress Exposition,” which the Ehrlichs could not afford to visit as often as they would have liked. But there was no admission charge at Chicago’s many museums and George began systematically checking them out, partly because there was such a “wealth of museums—probably there was no equivalent in terms of the variety, except New York, at that time.” Grant Park boasted not only the Field Museum of Natural History but also the recently-opened Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium; there were the Botanical Greenhouse, the Chicago Art Institute, the Historical Society of Chicago, and what was then called “the Rosenwald Museum”—the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, which began to develop after the World’s Fair. George would go to all of these, “not all in one day, but it would be a typical weekend kind of thing... half entertainment, half ‘What do we do on Saturday?’” He was to be a museum buff from this point on, and in later years would attribute a great deal to having had such an extraordinary educational opportunity while he was growing up.
George had been just as glad as Martha when she was given her Diary, and he enjoyed looking at it, though the only thing in the book he could understand was its photos. At least until Martha began writing in it herself; soon she was grumbling that “George is so nosy I think I will have to lock my book up somewhere.” At Christmastime in 1934 she noted that “George got a diary from Daddy and is he proud of it. He also for the first time in his life, I think, saved up 75¢. He counts his money every little while and acts as if he were a millionaire miser.” Granted a chance to write in the little memorandum book that served as George’s diary, Martha contributed:
Don’t forget that after you read this you still have to dust. You make a better “Scrooge” than “Scrooge” himself. I hope that when you grow up you won’t be as tight as you are now. Happy New Year and the king of hearts. Martha (I am your sister).
Having gotten a diary of his own, George judiciously observed: “This is not so good as Mar’s but I like it. I don’t know when I will write again but I will have something interesting when I do.” His next entry mentioned that he was starting a stamp collection and getting an album for his tenth birthday; Patsy had cut her foot and was limping (Joseph made her a little shoe out of fur to protect the cut foot, but Patsy was not enthusiastic about the shoe and kept working it off with her teeth); and “Martha is a big pest. I bought 25 stamps for a nickle today and I still know Martha’s a pest.”
Joseph himself contributed to George’s diary on January 18, 1935, commenting in Hungarian (now in part undecipherable) that when he had been a soldier he could not have imagined having a little son someday to tell war stories to:
When you grow up and read these lines you will be curious about what you actually were like before. You very much liked stories to listen to; in all the world you liked best of all that I told stories to you... On another occasion, you said, “Papa, it is good that you came to America. In this way you became my father.”
(George was at a certain disadvantage when boys began boasting of their fathers’s exploits in the Great War, since Joseph had spent most of his time on the hardly-heard-of Eastern front—and on the losing side.)
By the Fall of 1935 both Martha and George had become very sporadic diarykeepers. On September 10th George wrote:
Dear Dinery, I haven’t written since my birthday because I just went crazy and I quite forgotten you, but today I happen to wish I had a diary and I took you out and wanted to take out the old pages but I couldn’t find a scissors and a customer was in the store and I got an idea I wanted to continue you since Jan. 28th. Dad GOOD OLD DAD went to Florida and when he came back I got a lot of stamps... Mom was sick Dad still takes medicine and Mar’s OK and her birthday is the 28th of this month and I only got 63¢... Oh and Huey P. Long is dead he is a senator of Lousyeana and he was shot. GOOD NIGHT. George.
Even though George had not come to his senses about playing the violin, his parents remained determined that he be given a “well-rounded-out” education. Joseph informed his son that dancing was a useful capability, one appropriate for George to acquire. So once a week for six weeks George attended Mr. Huntinghaus’s Dancing Academy. This was a large and rather dimly-lit room, perhaps an actual dance hall somewhere upstairs on the North Side, where girls and boys were instructed by a tall and lean Mr. Huntinghaus. They learned the foxtrot, the tango, the “fairly entertaining” waltz, and also the polka, which struck George as “mostly kind of a jumping thing.” He learned everything except how to dance.
In February 1936 it was the ailing Mathilda’s turn to visit St. Petersburg, and in her absence Joseph did some cooking for the children. From his youth in Budapest he recalled how to whip up things like kolbász (sausage), but having seen Mathilda pan-fry prézli hús (breaded chops) he decided this was the proper method of preparing cube steak. He put cooking oil in a frying pan and set it on the stove, assuming that as a liquid the oil would eventually boil. When it started smoking instead, “this was a Discovery—I won’t say of momentous proportions for my father,” George would remark, “but the fact you couldn’t make this automatic transference based upon casual observation of cooking.”
If Joseph was tentative as a cook, he was rather indifferent as an eater and not that interested in his meals, except for his favorite Continental breakfast: a big mug of milky coffee into which he would break up a roll, eating it with a spoon. Once in awhile Mathilda would prepare Kolozsvár dishes in Chicago; Martha still enjoyed Transylvanian fruit soups, but George continued being fussy—he tasted one once “and that was it.” The children were always given the better cuts of whatever was on the table, and sometimes there was not much on it. Mathilda became very proficient during the Depression with whatever was at hand, creating another kind of soup out of chicken necks and feet.
Summers were always the hardest times, both weatherwise and moneywise. During the dreadful killer-heat-wave summer of 1936*, both Martha and George held down jobs, and Martha in fact had two: she worked for neighbor Dr. Ascher, a dentist, and also as a waitress at a Walgreen’s drugstore. Mathilda would send George to Walgreen’s to pick up Martha’s tips, and these would buy the family’s evening meal. One night they could afford nothing but rye bread and watermelon, yet Martha and George considered this a treat.
Mathilda would remark that she and Joseph “were very sad because, you know, we never had to do that before, send the children to work. But that summer we needed the money very badly.” George was made apprentice in the fur shop, partly because Joseph said it would not hurt to learn the mechanics of sewing and how to operate the machines, and partly for discipline. The latter was a matter that cropped up more than once when George was eleven. In November he was ordered to write:
Dad—I will always do my work without you having to prompt me. I will take the dog down when I come in from play and won’t make a fuss. I will finish my homework before 8. I will always keep my word. George Ehrlich.
“Old fashioned maybe,” Joseph commented in English, “but most effective means of ‘Bringing up Baby.’” As for keeping one’s word, Joseph was never shy about reminding George that in German the family name meant “honest.” (He also assured his son that “you don’t have to be the best—I just want you to be in the top ten percent.”)
As George moved into adolescence, he and Joseph—“both being totally stubborn males”—began to have differences more often; but as George was to put it, “You could not argue with my father.” After a no-win non-argument, George’s recourse would be to grit his teeth, go downstairs, and head outdoors for a several-mile, several-hour cooling-off walk.
Joseph was a devout FDR Democrat, and the economic maxim “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was one he fully agreed with; but he also invariably read the Chicago Tribune, and few newspapers in the United States were further out of sync with Roosevelt (not to mention Marx) than Colonel “Bertie” McCormick’s. George might bring home the more liberal Daily News, but Joseph would never read it. The Tribune had been his newspaper while he was teaching himself English; moreover it was a morning paper, and it took him all day to wade through it. For many years he saved the front page of each Tribune, storing them in a large flat fur-coat box kept atop his safe, with the idea that they might someday prove useful. During the 1930’s Joseph also subscribed to a Budapest tabloid paper, the Pesti Napló [Diary]. When George was asked to bring a non-Chicago newspaper to school for a fifth-grade project, he produced a Pesti Napló, but his classmates would not believe it had come from Hungary.
Mathilda underwent a serious operation in February 1937 and afterwards went to St. Petersburg for the customary recuperative trip, this time with Joseph. The only way they could go together was to take George too; Martha, now in her final semester at Senn High, stayed in Chicago with the Ruhigs. This was George’s first great journey, which Joseph would later call “Marco Polo Jr. or Around the States in Thirty Days.” George was to remember it as one of the more boring episodes of his life, with nothing to do in Florida than eat citrus fruit and do his homework out in the sun.
The following summer he again ventured into the world beyond Chicago, going to a “rural resort”—a forty-acre farm near Glen, Michigan, which boarded kids for about ten dollars a week. This place was discovered by the Ehrlichs’s good friend and former neighbor Florence Kan, “a really extraordinarily fine person” whose husband Michael had sold women’s wear at 1537 Devon when Ehrlich Furs had been at 1539. The Kans’s son Joe went to the Glen farm, and Joseph and Mathilda thought it would be a good experience for George too. He was “absolutely terrified” at the prospect, but parental persuasion got him on the bus and four hours later he was down on the farm. After the first day he adapted well and came to enjoy it tremendously. “I literally learned how to harnass a mule, mow the oat field, rake it, bring it in, and put it in the hayloft so the stock could be fed... I learned how to shovel manure.” George wrote the folks back home that “it’s swell out here,” mentioning that he had gotten a compliment “from some lady on table manners.”
Martha graduated from Senn High School in June 1937. As a graduation present Joseph gave her a treasured book, Sándor Petőfi’s Ősszes Költeményei [Complete Poetry], which he had bought in Budapest twenty-five years before.
His daughter had stayed in Chicago during the family’s Florida trip so as to take the Normal School Tests. She wanted to attend one of the state teachers’s schools, either the Illinois State Normal University near Bloomington or the Northern Illinois State Teachers’ College in DeKalb. Both elliptically informed her that their Jewish quotas were filled, so she set her sights instead on the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
In bringing up Martha, Joseph had (in Martha’s words) “more or less brainwashed” her into thinking as he did: that being a teacher was not only “the most tremendous thing anyone could ever be,” but in her case the only thing to be. Martha never seriously thought of studying to become anything else; and in September 1937 she left home to try achieving her father’s dream.
Proceed to Chapter 13 of To Be Honest
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* During which Mathilda at last received her Certificate of Citizenship on July 8, 1936.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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