Arthur J. Kolatch

by Walter Weglein

Arthur J. Kolatch died in 2011. His obituary was in the papers. AP from the West Coast. I’d forgotten all about him, I was surprised that he’d become such a big deal. But then my daughter, the wife of a strict Orthodox Jew, knew he’d written many learned books about Judaism. She’d read some of them.

From the obit I learned that he was 11 years older than I was. When I was 12 years old I’d thought of him as much older. As the newly appointed assistant rabbi of Anshe Emeth Temple and Hebrew School principal in Youngtown, Ohio, one of his tasks was to prepare sons of congregation members for their Bar Mitzvahs. That’s how I first met him and how he helped me turn my unhappy young life around.

I was born in 1930 in Nuremberg, Germany, the son of moderately prosperous parents. Even in 1930, before Hitler became Reich chancellor, my parents sensed the tensions of being Jews in the waning years of the Weimar Republic and its extreme anti-Semitism, and so, like many of them, they decided to have only one child.

I loved my young life in Nuremberg. I lived across the street from the moat and hilltop castle that divided the modern city with its art deco houses from the walled old city. Cobblestoned streets wound among ancient leaning stone houses in the town center. As a 5-year-old I was never aware of danger as I walked among the marching Nazi soldiers to the center of town, where my mother’s parents and brother owned the city’s largest luggage store. The store was on the ground floor of the main shopping street. My grandparents lived on the floor above, while the top floor housed the workshop where the large steamer trunks were manufactured.

I went to a Jewish school outside the city walls, which was still isolated from the turmoil in the city, a city that would ultimately become famous for the dreaded Nuremberg Laws. Most of my family—uncles, aunts, cousins—lived in nearby Fuerth. We visited them almost every weekend, where, as the ‘baby’ in the family, on Chanukah I always got a new piece for my electric train from an uncle who was ‘king’ of the world-renowned Nuremberg toy business.

I only became tense and unhappy when my parents and I emigrated late in 1939, among the last of Nuremberg’s Jews to flee Hitler. Most of my relatives would later die in concentration camps.

A few months after our arrival in New York with its large Washington Heights concentration of “refs,’’ as the German Jews were called, my unhappiness grew. The Hebrew Immigration and Sheltering Service (HIAS) relocated us to Ohio where HIAS believed my unemployed father would be able to find work.

My mother, who had never worked, put to good use her girlhood training as a baby nurse, tending to the needs of large Jewish American families. It took awhile, but my father finally found a job in a factory that prepared heavy leather hides, very different from the office work he was used to as the comptroller for his uncles’ large chain of shoe stores throughout Germany. The heavy labor contributed to the heart attack he would suffer when I was in high school.

My own life in Youngstown was painful too. Though we lived among the few Jewish families who had fled the Nazis and had settled on Youngstown’s pleasant Northside, I went to a grade school where no Jewish students attended and plenty of young hecklers called me a “Nazi” because of my German accent, which I tried rapidly to lose, although apparently not fast enough. The girls by and large ignored me, except one who followed me around. She had a clubfoot.

I took refuge after school in the Youngstown Public Library, where I lost myself among English and American books, all new to me. I also loved Hebrew School at Temple Anshe Emeth. Shortly after Mr. Kolatch arrived, he started giving me Bar Mitzvah instruction. Sensing my unhappiness, he appointed me ‘director’ of the temple’s small library. He turned my Bar Mitzvah preparation into fun. He told me what books to read for pleasure and urged me to develop my writing skills. I guess today you’d call him my mentor. He was still a bachelor and must have roomed with one of the congregation members. Later he would have a large family with many children on the West Coast.

One of the loves we shared was New York City. After my Bar Mitzvah, I spent part of each of my summer vacations there with my uncle, aunt and two cousins who had arrived from Germany a year ahead of us. I constantly roamed the city streets with the $2 a week unlimited ride subway pass. Kolatch would tell me where to go and what to see. It was obvious from the way he spoke that his love for New York—his home town—was as great as mine. Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Washington Square, the Battery and the farmlands in outer Brooklyn and the beaches of Coney Island and Rockaway—I loved it all. Each summer I yearned for those two weeks, which began with the fifteen hour Greyhound bus ride to the city. A round trip cost $15 in 1943.

Ultimately it was Kolatch who made me a man, not in the Bar Mitzvah sense but by helping me find my self-confidence. By the time I entered junior high school I had started to make friends. Some of those friendships have lasted a lifetime.

I’d forgotten all about my childhood mentor until I saw that Times article in 2011. It reminded me that my long life has been filled with people who’ve helped me smooth out some pretty rough patches. I’m grateful for all of them and for the self-confidence they instilled in me, and for my long-forgotten mentor, Arthur J. Kolatch.

Walter Weglein is a former editor of the Voices print edition, along with Judith Fried.  His writing has been in journalism, public affairs,government affairs and speech writing …never a published author, his most appreciative audience has been his wife, Phyllis, his son, David, and his daughter, Jessica, a superb writer…