By Harriet Gold Maizels. This post is part of the JCPA’s “Celebrating New Americans” project as part of Jewish American Heritage Month.
I remember that my Grandfather Felix was a stern and frightening man. I would learn later that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He had seen his older brother slaughtered by a Russian Cossack and constantly relived the sight. Every time we saw him, we heard the same horrible story. My grandmother Jenny, however, was a lovely woman. She was very large and made her own bread and butter.
The Gold family settled on a farm in what now is the middle of Portland, Oregon. My father, Louie, milked cows, tended chickens, and cared for several horses. The horses pulled the cart my grandfather used for his transfer and storage business. Because of dad’s early life on the farm, he became an outdoorsman who hunted, fished, skied, kept his own horses and even climbed Mt. Hood! Eventually he owned several grocery stores and ran one of the largest butcher shops in Portland.
My dad was a true product of the American West and was quite different from his Jewish friends. Keep in mind that there weren’t many Jewish families in Portland at that time, so Dad had friends in the grocery business, friends with whom he went hunting and fishing, and many Japanese, Chinese and Italian pals. The Japanese farmers perfected and grew new strains of wonderful berries, melons and fruit, and the diverse group mingled with grocery store owners each morning at Portland’s Produce Row.
One day in 1942, a Japanese friend approached Dad to say that he needed to sell his store quickly because he and his family were being sent to a WWII internment camp near the California/Oregon border. He said if a buyer wasn’t found, he would have to lock the door and walk away. Dad knew that the government could have confiscated the property, and he was advised against buying the store. He also knew that this was an act of civil disobedience and that he might be putting his family at risk. But he detested the internment, so, with a handshake, my dad added another store to the ones that he already tended.
I remember some parts of the war and even remember one day when whistles and sirens blew. When I asked, my mother told me the war was over. I was only six, so I said, what’s a war?
What I never learned until after my father died, was that the grocery store he purchased from his Japanese friend thrived during WWII. My father started a bank account for his friend and paid taxes on the store’s earnings. His attorney, his accountant and the manager of the bank nearby all eventually learned what he was doing. The Japanese friend returned to Portland in 1946 and received cash to pay for the land, building and a large share of profits earned during the time of internment. The family resettled in California.
A recent book published in Portland laments a curious lack of Jewish opposition to the wartime Japanese American policy of internment. The author was taken aback by the “Jewish silence in Portland and determined to understand it”* and stated that “Portland was also a community where there was relatively little contact between the Jewish and Japanese American Communities.”* She would have been delighted to meet Louie Gold.
Dad told all of us many stories about growing up in Portland. But this, the best story and example of his true character, he never told. Shortly before he died in 1989, we learned the story that he and my mother had kept secret. I never got to tell him that I was proud of his personal act of civil disobedience and the way he protested racist government policies.