Berman’s Branches
Barbara Hacker Berman
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Interviews - Martha Berman

INTERVIEW WITH MARTHA BERMAN
AUGUST 4, 1995
(and updated)

Martha’s father, Leon Schlam died in 1989 at age 107. He was born February 16, 1881. His SS number was 060-09-7794A. He came to the USA about 1900-02 from Lemberg, Jawrov, Galacia. It was a poor village in Austria, then under Poland’s rule. It is now part of the Ukraine. They seemed to have discovered Kerosene there. He left so as not to be conscripted into the Army. He began his career as a brush maker as an apprentice at about age 7 or 8 in Lvov.

When he went to the United States he brought the rest of his family with him, except his father--who everyone said was “crazy”. His father’s name was Moses. His mother was Rachel. Leon had sisters named Sarah, Minnie and Rose. He also had a brother, Joseph who Leon put through Cooper Union. He was devoted to his Mother and siblings. He helped educate many, including a nephew, Charlie, who became a lawyer.

Tangibles were not important to Leon. Education and culture were. Martha remembers him taking her to the Opera. For $.50 they could stand in back!

The Schlam family and the Rohr (Helen Rohr was Martha’s mother) knew each other in Jawrovror. Helen and Leon marriage was mainly due to the fact that Helen was pregnant with Martha. Martha was born a 9lb. 7oz. “premature” baby. Helen was made to feel uncomfortable with her mother-in-law and never went there. Neither did her mother-in-law ever visit Helen’s home. Rachel considered Helen a “loose woman”. Once when Rachel saw Helen in the street with Leon and Martha in a carriage, she went over to her and slapped her. That was the extent of their relationship.

A bit more about Helen and her family before we continue with their wedded bliss--Helen was born in Austria March 3, 1892 and died in Miami Beach May 23, 1980. She came to the USA about the same time as Leon, maybe a few years later. She and Leon are both buried at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, Glendale, NY. As most immigrants, they first settled in the lower East side of NYC.

Helen’s father, Hersh, was a Talmud, that is his job was to study. He was also quite prolific--he and his wife, Rebecca had 12 children. Eight of which survived. The children were Clara, Sylvia, Helen, Dave, Sam, Israel (the black sheep), Jack and Rose. Every Saturday night all eight children, and their families, would gather at their parent’s for a dinner of sour milk, potatoes, herring and onions. Martha remembers those gatherings fondly--they had a party atmosphere.

Their apartment was crowded--they slept on chairs, no beds, and worked in shifts. Everybody was in one apartment with a bathroom down the hall for the whole floor. Helen’s mother was very religious. She had a non-Jewish person light the lights during the Sabbath. As poor as they were, every Friday night when they lit the candles, they put a penny in a box for “the poor people”. Martha spent a lot of time with her grandmother. She was a kind woman. Money was not important to her. She stayed with Martha when she was ill and Lewis was a baby.

The pushcarts sold many things, among them oranges. The oranges were wrapped in papers. Martha would go to collect the papers to use as toilet paper. Being pretty, she could get a lot! When Martha was about 6, she used to take the unbaked loaves of bread to the bakery and they would bake them for about 2 cents. (It was cheaper than baking at home.)

Martha’s first home was in the lower East side of NYC at Avenue C and 8 Street in a tenement building. No one came to visit Helen and Leon’s home. It was not a happy place. Martha always felt like an outcast, due to her birth situation.

Helen was an independent woman who was way ahead of her time. She only thought things important if they were tangibles. Money especially! She would do almost anything for money!

Helen’s sister Sylvia married Guido, who was an Italian. Her father died shortly after their marriage. The family said it was because Sylvia married Guido!

Martha spoke only Yiddish at home. She did not learn English until she went to school. Although Helen did not go to her mother-in-law’s home, Martha did go with her Father. One Passover Martha clearly remembers an incident. A relative named Katie also was there. Katie took Martha for an ice cream. Martha thought for sure she would die form eating ice cream on Passover! Such was her family’s teaching. She was relieved to find out that was not true!

Martha’s two younger brothers are Seymour and Melvin. When Melvin was about 8 they moved to the Bronx. Melvin had something wrong with his eyes. The air was supposed to be better in the Bronx.

Helen and Leon did not live together for long. Martha was about 12 when they separated. Martha was very ashamed. Divorce was almost unheard of. He went to live with his mother and stayed with her until she died. Martha was torn between living with him and her mother. Once her father took her and bought her a beautiful new green coat for $12.00. It had a fur collar and she loved the coat. Helen saw it and had a fit! She saw it as a waste of money, took the coat back to Klein’s Department store, got the $12.00 back. She bought some wine colored material, for much less then $12.00, made Martha a coat and had money left over!

Helen was ambitious and, as I said, would do almost anything for money. They had many “boarders” who would pay to stay in the apartment--and receive special favors from Helen! She had many affairs. Helen’s “loves” were jewelry and houses.

Her sister, Clara, worked for a lingerie house. She taught Helen and Sam (brother) how to cut lace. Helen started doing work at home. Martha and her brothers, Melvin and Seymour would help. They would get burlap bags with garter parts. They would put them together.

Clara gave Helen so much work that she started to contract out with other women to help do the work. Melvin and Seymour helped with the business. It was all done in homes. Then the unions came in. A friend of Al Berman’s, Ruby Blacker was then with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He helped to get the Union off of their backs. They then moved their work into a rented loft. Martha had nothing to do with the business by that time.

Helen (known to all as “Ma”) was not always honest in her dealings. For example, she would cut 12” bows 11 1/2” and get more per dozen. She stockpiled ribbon spools out of what she “conscripted”. Or she would put 11 rosettes in a pack that should have been 12. It really bothered Martha--this lack of honesty.

Melvin and Seymour went into service in World War II. Helen came down with phlebitis. Although Martha was not part of the business, (not by her choice) she came to help Helen during this time. She got a whole $25.00 per week for all her work. Helen continued being a successful, and ruthless, business woman for the rest of her life.

Later in her life, Helen did donate an ambulance to Israel. There was to be an oneg to be held at Temple Beth David in Miami to celebrate this gesture. It was customary to the person making the donation to pay the $300.00 for the food for the oneg. She wouldn’t do it. She said she didn't want to feed the hogs! Al paid for the party.

It embarrassed the family when Helen went with them to a restaurant for dinner. She would line her pocketbook with napkins and take everything she could get her hands on--leftovers, salt and pepper shakers, etc. Ma’s driving was legend. She always paid to get her license--that is bribed someone. Almost every year she had an accident. None to serious, thank goodness. I remember Dad (Al) telling us that he was driving with Ma and she zipped through a yield sign. He yelled that she had done so. She said, “What does yield mean?”

Clara was quite a gal herself. She was feisty and loved men--especially married men.
She was married twice. Brother Israel (Izzy) was known as a thief. Sam and Dave owned delicatessens. Jack owned a grocery store.

Martha met Alfred David Berman at the Bronx Y on Fulton Ave. In the cellar they could bowl for five cents per game. The group went to dances and basketball games. They would go out to eat Chinese food at 25 cents for lunch and 35 cents for dinner. Al said he wanted to date her but he wanted her to lose 24 pounds--she was a bit chubby. Also, he could only take her out if she could pay part. She was 14 or 15 when they met.

Martha was also quite ill, on and off, from ages 12 to 16 with meningitis. Her mother cried to the doctor that she could not afford the $2.00 per visit cost (she could). The doctor was convinced to see her for free. Martha was operated on when she was 16 for the meningitis. During her hospital stay, Al came to visit and brought flowers. Helen would never visit anyone in the hospital, nor go to funerals, so she did not visit Martha in the hospital.

On their dates they went skating in Central Park, hiked, and went rowing. They had no money to get married. Helen said she should find a rich man. Leon said since he was good to his mother, sister and brother he would be a good husband and to marry him.

Al’s father died at age 37. His name was Louis Harold Berman. He was born in the USA. Al’s mother, Pauline, came to the USA when she was about 6 months old. Pauline died in l966, of colon cancer. She died at Montefiore Hospital in NY. Al’s sister Ruth married Moe Gebaide. They had two sons, Michael and Larry. Al’s brother Edward was retarded. He did marry and held a job until his death in Miami Beach. Ruth also died of cancer a few years after Pauline died.

Martha said she learned about kindness from Al and his mother, Pauline.

Back to the marriage of Al and Martha. Martha went to work to help earn money for them to be able to get married. Al was also working. When they finally did marry, Helen held their money wedding gifts. She used them to pay for the wedding. Martha was furious and wanted that money. They were counting on it--about $400.00. They went to live on Franklin Avenue in a place owned by Helen. Martha got back her $400.00 by not paying her rent!

Martha always wanted to be independent. She once had to borrow $400.00 from Al’s boss for gall bladder surgery. But they paid it back.

In October, 1995, on a visit to Martha, she gave us old pictures she had located. I have since arranged them into an album. But most importantly she gave us a baby book, partially completed for Lewis’ father, Al Berman! Information I got from it: An invitation return card addressed to: Louis Berman, 413 E. 173 Street, Bronx, NY. The card was blank and read: Kindly respond be January 15th, M________________, will______attend reception and dinner. It is quite old. We have no idea what the occasion was. Information from the baby book read: Name: Alfred David Berman, about 8 pounds. Dr. Oberel. Nurse Mrs. Wolfson. Parents: Louis and Pauline Berman. Grandparents: Mrs. and Mrs. M. Berman, Mrs. Julia Berger. Visitors: Grandma Berger, Aunt Sarah, Cousin Millie, Sonny & Sister Kantor, Mr. & Mrs. Glockner, Mrs. H. (?) Finger.

Additional Info from M. Berman 11/30/96: Uncle Sam was a milkman in the early days. He drove a horse with wagon--and loved the ladies along his route! Then he had an accident and hurt his back. Aunt Clara taught him how to cut lace at home to earn money. Helen Schlam started also. That is how her lace cutting business started. When Martha was young--5 or so--she did home work also. They took the two pieces of a garter hook and put them together. Then they were taken to be sewn on girdles. During World War II when Melvin and Seymour were in the Army, Martha pushed a hand cart through to streets of NYC to deliver and pick up goods.

Helen Schlam bought a new car each year. She also bought her license and her way through almost yearly accidents! She was a notoriously bad driver. She could never pass the test. I remember Al Berman telling me the time he was driving with her when she zipped through a yield sign. “Ma”, he yelled, “Why didn’t you slow at the yield sign?” She replied, “Yield, what does that mean?”

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