Earliest record of my father’s business. Postmarked January 19, 1926.
Josef Strauss “skin trading” income tax declaration for the year 1927.
For years, any spare time Herman and I had was taken up with in-house work that Oma took on to supplement our income. At one time, we “manufactured” different kinds of artificial flowers. At another time, we made cufflinks for shirt manufacturers that consisted of two mother-of-pearl buttons, linked by two metal loops, using a pair of pliers.
Another summer I worked in a factory making leather buttons for sport coats and jackets. The factory had about 10 employees, some of whom were cutting strips of leather to a specific measured length, and others who were folding the strips into shapes and then pressing them on a steam-powered press into the proper shapes.
My job, as a beginner, was to cut the leather strips into specific lengths, depending on the size of the button desired. The average age of the other employees was probably around 55-60. They worked at a measured pace, just fast enough to avoid the boss jumping on them, which he did often. Knowing that I would be there for only two months, I naturally worked as fast as I could (I just enjoy working), although I did not have to use much (any) of my brain for this occupation.
The objective was to have only the leather, and not your fingers, under the knife when cutting. I produced, in two hours, as much as the others did in a full day, earning a pat on the back from the boss (I was not paid by the piece, but by the hour), and the enmity of my co-workers. They were happy to see me leave at the end of the summer. At one point, believe it or not, the boss even told me to slow down a bit since the others were complaining about my speed.
Oma, in the beginning, took a job as a house cleaner with several families, and as a result, we boys learned at an early age what our responsibilities were at home, namely, doing the laundry, washing the floor, ironing, doing the dishes, going shopping, etc. Later, when Opa’s business required office help, Oma became Opa’s back office, doing the billing and bookkeeping.
Once Opa’s business was up and running, we boys constituted part of his labor force. We worked in the warehouse whenever we could, before or after school and on Sundays. For example, when I went to Stuyvesant High School there were two sessions. I attended the morning session, which started very early and finished by early afternoon. From school I would go to Opa’s warehouse to work, and then home to do homework and study in the evening. We also had Hebrew classes in the evening in Washington Heights.
Many a Sunday we would spend working either in the warehouse, to make up for lost time due to Shabbat or holidays, or going to see customers in New York and New Jersey.
One story worth telling is about a customer, a slaughterhouse, in Flemington, New Jersey. Opa wanted them as a customer and they wanted to help him, but said that due to Health Department regulation he could only come on Saturday when no meat would be moving in or out of the freezers. That presented a problem since that was the one day we could not come. It was solved by their agreeing to let us work on Sunday when all other activity in the slaughterhouse had ceased. “Sunday” here is defined as a 24-hour period starting after Shabbat and ending late Sunday night. We would drive to Flemington Saturday night, work the night through, take a break in the morning, work the whole day and drive back to New York late Sunday night after having loaded the truck with the calf skins that we had been working on all during that time. In the winter we could leave the truck standing in front of the warehouse until Monday morning, but in the summer, we would have to still unload the truck before going home.
The standard joke in the family was that we never had any problem getting a seat in the subway. Due to the odor still in our clothing, even after washing up, nobody wanted to be near us.
I want to relate another interesting instance that occurred in my years working for my father. Salt was an item that was used in large quantities in the business since the raw hides and skins had to be cured in salt brine for a number of weeks before they were ready to be shipped to a tannery. One day my father told me that he had bought a railroad car-load of salt (packed in 80-pound bags) and that delivery to the warehouse would be on the following day. I do not remember whether at that time I was still in high school or already in college, but I did have the time to be at the warehouse to take delivery.
As I mentioned previously, the warehouse consisted of three floors: street floor, where delivery would be made; basement, where the salt bags would have to be stacked; and sub-basement, where the hides and skins were in the salt brine. The bags were going to be dropped through a hole in the floor of the street floor, the same hole through which the hides and skins were dropped upon receipt. I assume this must have been the first time my father bought such a huge quantity of salt at one time, because I do not recall a similar catastrophe ever, earlier or later.
Anyhow, the truck came and the two men started bringing in the salt bags on hand trucks and dropping them down the hole in the floor. Great, since all I had to do is stand there and watch. That is, until I realized what was happening on the floor below. The bags were piling up in a very neat pyramid, and the peak of the pyramid was just about to reach the ceiling underneath the hole. I immediately realized that shortly there would be no more space for the pyramid to grow and the delivery men would have to leave the remainder upstairs. I was also getting concerned about the weight load limit of the floor on which the pyramid was building up.
(To be continued next week…)
By Norbert Strauss
Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and a volunteer at Englewood Hospital. He was general traffic manager and group VP at Philipp Brothers Inc., retiring in 1985. Prior to Englewood Hospital he was also a volunteer at the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital for over 30 years, serving as treasurer and director. He frequently speaks to groups regarding his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.