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Interview of Moshe Atlasowicz (Morris Josephson "M.J." Atlas)

Conducted By: Scott J. Atlas, July 5, 1982, Houston, Texas

Interview with M.J. Atlas:

SJ: Uncle Morris, one of the first questions I wanted to ask you was based on a conversation we had once before in which I asked you about the origin of the name "Atlas." I had always heard that the name originally was "Atlasowicz," but you told me that before that it was actually "Atlas"; so why don't you tell me about that.

MJ: That's correct. The original name was "Atlas." It stems from the German, which means that our family originally came from Germany. In Germany, satin silk is called "atlas." The name indicated that one of our ancestors, perhaps my great-great grandfather, was engaged in the silk business. We came from Germany, which was near Poland. Our town, Radzilowo, was only a few miles from the German border at that time.

SJ: Do you know how to spell the name of the town, Radzilowo?

MJ: Radzilowo. Spell it? R-a-d-z-i-l-o-w-o. "W" in German as well as in Polish is pronounced "v."

SJ: Like "victory."

MJ: "V" in German is pronounced like "f." Like "von" is pronounced "fon" -- that means "from". At any rate, there was much migration across the border: from Germany into Poland, from Poland into Germany. Our family came over from Germany and settled not far from the German border in Poland. In the Slavic languages, the suffix "owicz" means "of" or "from." Atlasowicz meant "of atlas" in Polish as well as in other Slavic languages, like Russian. To give you an example, my father's name was Joseph. In the Russian language, his name was Osip. When I attended the gymnasia in Russia, they used to call me "Moise," which is my first name in the Russian language, "osipowicz", which meant the "son of osip." "Cz" in Polish is the same as "ch" in English. "Owicz" means "of." Consequently, "Atlasowicz" was changed to be more consistent with the Polish language and at the same time reflect the origin of the name, "of Atlas."

SJ: Do you know at what point the name was changed again in this country to become "Atlas"?

MJ: My first brother, my eldest brother, Abraham, who was the first one to come to this country, changed it back to the original.

SJ: About when did he come?

MJ: He came to the United States twice. Once, when he was still very young. We didn't have any bank in our town, Radzilowo. And my father, being a merchant, always in need of cash for his business transactions, carried a sizable sum of money on him. And this brother of mine, at age 16, stole some money from father and ran away to the United States. Subsequently, my father received a letter from a Rabbi in New York who had originally lived in our town, came from our town, and had been a close friend of my father's. In that letter he told my father that Abraham was idling, that my brother would often visit his house where he was welcome, but the Rabbi did not think my brother had any purpose on his mind, and consequently the Rabbi asked for father's advice. Father sent him [the Rabbi] money with instructions to put him [Abraham] on a boat and give him a small sum of money, enough to come home from the port of disembarkation, which was Hamburg in Germany. So he came home. He stayed at home a couple of years, got married, and then went back to America for the second time. I would say this was maybe 1902 or 1903. That second time, he shortened our name to "Atlas."

SJ: Why don't you tell us a little bit about what life was like in the old country, although I've read the biography you wrote, and I think that that probably will be more or less sufficient. I think I would like to hear what you remember particularly about life in the old country, and about the family over there.

MJ: The Jewish people in our area were very pious and I would say strictly honest. It was a stratified society. At the top, we had a small class of what you might call "the elite." They were well-learned. They were Hebrew scholars. They were well learned in the Talmud, and they belonged to what was known (in Hebrew) as "Hevra'Sha'as," meaning an association for the continuous study of the Talmud. They would choose a volume at a banquet given every year by the outgoing president. At that banquet they would choose a volume for study the following year, and they were very active in studying. My father, besides studying once in a great while -- evenings -- would get up very early Saturday morning and catch up on his studies. From time to time, these people would meet in order to discuss a difficult passage in the Talmud. In our house -- incidentally, we had the biggest house in town, it stood on two front lots in the marketplace -- it was customary for some of these "elite" people on their way to the synagogue Saturday morning to stop over at our house and drink tea with condensed milk. At a long table they would sit and drink tea, 1-2-3-4-5, sometimes 6 glasses, not cups but glasses. And during these sessions they would discuss Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, Jewish customs, and occasionally, not very often, they would express skepticism about some religious tenets.

SJ: Was your father a learned man?

MJ: Yes, in Hebrew. And he also acquired some secular education by force. Among other businesses, he operated a lumber yard. He would buy timber, sometimes raft logs that were floated in the river quite far from us, and convert them into building materials. We had people working for us, and he had to figure out square inches and square feet and cubic feet and so forth. So he was self-taught in some higher mathematics like geometry and algebra.

SJ: What do you know about your father's background?

MJ: Nothing. Absolutely nothing except the fact that he hailed from a town called Jedwabne. It was in Poland, it was only about 15 miles from our town. My mother hailed from another town called Stawiski, which was also about 15 miles from our town, in the opposite direction from Jedwabne. They were all in the province known as Lomza.

SJ: Do you know how your father and mother met each other?

MJ: I really don't, except that I heard from others that my maternal grandfather had heard about my father's availability, so he took his wife, my maternal grandmother. . . he was a teamster; -- he had people working for him. He owned several teams of horses that made trips as far as Warsaw and brought goods back for distribution. So he had a private carriage, and he hitched a horse or two to that carriage and went to Jedwabne and met my father and perhaps his parents, too. My maternal grandfather took him [my father] back to Stawiski, where my father met my mother.

SJ: Do you know how old either of them were when they married each other?

MJ: I don't, except I think my mother was 17 years old.

SJ: Now your father's name was "Joseph," and he was married twice: once to Miriam Libby, and another time to a woman named Chaya Peltynowicz.

MJ: Her [Miriam Libby's] maiden name was Niedzwiadowicz.

SJ: How many brothers and sisters did you have?

MJ: Originally, we were ten - five and five.

SJ: Were all of those the children of Miriam Libby?

MJ: Yes. My father had no children with his second wife.

SJ: According to what I have on my list, what you told me last time, one of the two youngest children, Freida, died in World War II, and Freida had a twin sister who died in infancy.

MJ: Right.

SJ: And I also have that from the youngest to the oldest, the youngest was Esther Nad, then Freida and her twin sister, then you, then Julius, then my grandfather, then Max, then Abraham, then Sarah, then Rivke.

MJ: Correct. Incidentally, I don't know whether I have mentioned it or not, but here in the United States your grandfather was mis-named.

SJ: What do you mean mis-named?

MJ: Well, his Hebrew name was "Shlomo." That means Solomon. His name was not "Samuel."

SJ: And when he came to this country and they heard his name was Shlomo . . .

MJ: Somebody said, "Oh you're Shlomo. You will be Sam." And it stuck. But his real name was Solomon.

SJ: Tell me a little bit about the sequence of migration of your family, the ones that came over to this country. Tell me about the sequence of how they left the old country to come over here. You have already told us a little bit about Abraham.

MJ: Well, Abraham had five children. One of them died in infancy. The other children, the first one was Phillip: the second one was Marian Schneider, who lives here, the third was Sol, Solomon, who died; and the fourth is Rose Bottfeld, who lives in Miami.

SJ: Sol lived in New York. I met him 10 years ago.

MJ: Lived in New York, yes, all his life. Not in New York City; he was born in New York City but lived in Great Neck, Long Island. And after him came Rose.

SJ: Right, I have all of the children's names, because we got that last time. What I wanted to know was the sequence of when your various brothers and sisters came over to this country, what prompted them to come to the United States, when they came, and who they came with.

MJ: Next came Max.

SJ: Okay, Abraham came once, you said, after stealing some money from your father, then returned to Poland, and then came back to the United States again.

MJ: Right.

SJ: You said that the second time he came back to the United States was around 1902 or 1903.

MJ: Yes. He took his wife over after my mother died . . . I believe I told you that. His wife then came. She had been living in Grajewo, about 35 miles away from Radzilowo. It was then right on the German border, about 3 miles from the then German border. It [the border] has now been moved farther west. At any rate, she came to us exactly one week after my mother died.

SJ: This is Feigel, Abraham's wife?

MJ: Yes, Feigel. She stayed with us until about one week before my step-mother came to us. They did not meet. Feigel went back to Grajewo, and within a few months she left for America. That was in 1906.

SJ: Was Abraham already in America?

MJ: Yes. He took over Feigel and their one child, Phillip.

SJ: So 1906 is when Abraham's wife Feigel came to the United States?

MJ: Yes. Abraham had been here a year or two. He returned to Poland, and then he brought Feigel back to the United States.

SJ: What did Abraham do in this country?

MJ: He was a baker.

SJ: Living in New York?

MJ: Yes.

SJ: Did he remain a baker all his life?

MJ: Subsequently he went into the same business in which he finally succeeded. May I say that at first when he went into business he was struggling and that your grandfather helped him quite a bit because your grandfather, too, was a baker.

SJ: So Abraham set up as a baker in New York?

MJ: First he worked as a member of a union, a baker's union. He worked for wages. Eventually he went into business for himself. And the baker's union was very well organized among the Jewish workers in New York. Your grandfather, Sam, of course, was a union member. But he [Sam] would come and help him [Abraham] out without pay.

SJ: Okay, we'll get to that in just a minute. Who was the next child who came over to this country after Abraham?

MJ: Max, my brother Max.

SJ: All right. About when was that?

MJ: I think it was in 1906 or early 1907.

SJ: What made Max decide he wanted to come over here?

MJ: Max was away from home studying. He came home to report for military service. It was required. The Jewish people were not very enthusiastic about serving in the Czar's army because of the existing discrimination, open discrimination, against the Jewish people. He reported, was accepted in the service, and then escaped.

SJ: At the time Poland was a part of Czarist Russia?

MJ: Yes. The biggest part of Poland belonged to Russia; the smaller part, to Austria; and the smallest part, to Germany.

SJ: But the part of Poland in which your family lived, Radzilowo, belonged to Russia?

MJ: Right.

SJ: So Max was drafted into the Russian Army?

MJ: Yes, he was drafted, then he escaped. By Max's reporting and then escaping, Max kept my father from having to pay a fine, a penalty. Otherwise the penalty was a minimum of 300 rubles.

SJ: When you say "reporting," what do you mean?

MJ: If a son, failed to report for the service, for the draft, the parents were assessed a penalty.

SJ: But if the son reported to the army and then deserted?

MJ: [If he reported first] and then escaped, the parents were absolved.

SJ: So Max left the army and caught a boat over to this country?

MJ: He was supposed to report for active service, and he was accepted. At that time, he was smuggled across the border into Germany and escaped to America.

SJ: Do you know who helped smuggle him across the border?

MJ: Father, naturally.

SJ: And he caught a boat to New York.

MJ: He came to New York, yes.

SJ: Did he stay with Abraham for awhile?

MJ: He did. Then later on, first he went in business; there was something like hairdressing that was then a going business, but then it went out of fashion, so he became a salesman. He worked as a salesman for a company called "Harris," which in my time was managed by a Dr. Harris. But it had been established by a man who had changed his name to "Harris" but who originally had come from our town and was a friend of my father's. He worked for the Harris firm for as long as he lived in New York, as a traveling salesman.

SJ: Did anyone else come over to New York before Max left to come to Houston?

MJ: Yes.

SJ: Who was next?

MJ: Your grandfather, Sam.

SJ: When did that happen, and on what ship?

MJ: I am unable to tell you the exact year. My best estimate would be that it was in 1908. 1 do not know the name of the ship on which he came.

SJ: And what prompted Shlomo to come to this country?

MJ: He was in love with his wife, your grandmother. And she was somewhat older than he. He was quite young, only 17 at the time. And he had been working for my sister and brother-in-law, who had purchased the bakery from my father in Radzilowo.

SJ: Which sister was this?

MJ: Sarah. Her name was "Sache," they called her "Sache" -- that's the diminutive affectionate name. Your grandmother did not seem to see any purpose in remaining in Radzilowo. Her brother sent her a ticket. I'll come back to tell you the claim that your Aunt Golda has made about that ticket, which I consider to be false. At any rate, your grandmother left for America, and your grandfather in a haste resigned his job as a baker with my sister and followed her [your grandmother].

SJ: And they were not married at the time?

MJ: No.

SJ: Do you know how they met?

MJ: We lived right next door. They knew each other from early childhood. In fact, I remember her since I remember myself. I think he caught up with her before she boarded the boat for America. And they got married in New York. My best information is that it happened in 1909.

SJ: And what kind of work did Shlomo do when he first got to New York?

MJ: Your grandfather was a baker.

SJ: Was he working for Abraham?

MJ: I don't know whom he worked for then, but when I came to this country he was working for a well-known Jewish bakery called "Pechter," who expanded very much in subsequent years. After your grandfather, came my brother Julius, who left, I would say, in 1913. I was not at home then. I was attending the gymnasia in Gomel. I had run away from the yeshiva to which my father had sent me.

SJ: And that's described in the autobiography that you wrote.

MJ: Yes.

SJ: What prompted Julius to leave? Why did he leave?

MJ: Well, actually he was a very odd character. He was an exception to the whole family. He attended Cheder, studied the Talmud. He could hardly be disciplined, and father didn't know what to do with him. When Julius expressed a wish to go to America, father, I think, was glad, and father paid Julius' passage. He came to America, where I think your grandfather trained him to become a baker. Julius never cared to hold a steady job. It was customary for every union member, that is members of the bakers' union, to sacrifice one night a week to help the unemployed members of the union. And the unemployed, instead of working six days, they would work 3 or 4 days a week. Julius never cared to hold a steady job. He never did.

SJ: And he lived in New York?

MJ: He lived in New York, yes.

SJ: Who came to the United States after Julius, who was next?

MJ: I did.

SJ: When was that?

MJ: I came here, I arrived on the 5th of March, 1914, on the ship Zealand (Red Star line).

SJ: What made you decide to come over?

MJ: I had inadvertently dropped out of that gymnasia. I think I describe it more fully in my book. I was prompted by the advice of a newly found friend who was visiting a village where I worked during vacation as a clerk for the Jewish cooperative. He came from a very wealthy family in a faraway city, Ekaterinoslav, and he induced me to come to his city. A Dr. Rachilev who had befriended me -- he was a teacher in the gymnasia, and his son, who was a classmate of mine and became a very intimate friend of mine, left for Palestine to help rebuild the Jewish homeland. I felt like I would feel more or less deserted in Gomel if I returned to my gymnasia. I took the advice of that newly found friend, and when my term of service terminated, that was at the end of August, I left for Ekaterinoslav. And there, to my dismay, I found that the family had moved to Harbin, Manchuria, in the interests of their varied businesses.

SJ: The family had moved to Manchuria?

MJ: Yes, Manchuria at that time was under the protectorate of Russia. My friend's grandfather was an extremely wealthy businessman in Ekaterinoslav. And they had vital business connections with the city of Harbin, Manchuria. That was the terminus of the Far Eastern Russian Railway. And so my friend's father was assigned by his father-in-law to organize their business in Harbin on a better footing. I found that they had moved only a week or ten days before; and I found myself stranded in that city. And soon I ran out of funds. But at any rate, it was too late for me to return to my gymnasia in Gomel. So I remained there and began looking for a clerical job. I had finished my third class in the gymnasia. The gymnasia was divided into eight classes. It required eight years minimum to graduate.

SJ: You describe all of that, I think, in your autobiography.

MJ: So I can eliminate that. I then returned home. I describe [in my autobiography] the circumstances under which I returned home. I was forced to return home. When I arrived home, I saw no purpose in staying there. The discrimination on the part of the Russian government against the Jewish people sickened me, and I wanted to continue with my education. So the best place that I thought of was America because I had four brothers here. And so I came to the United States.

SJ: All right. Did any of your other brothers or sisters come to America after you?

MJ: Yes.

SJ: Who was next?

MJ: My sister, Esther Nad. She came here, I think, in 1924.

SJ: And do you know why she decided to come?

MJ: Well, again Poland became an independent nation. And it, too, practiced open discrimination against the Jewish people. They even perpetrated pogroms on Jewish communities. They were very hateful toward the Jewish people. And so she, too, saw no purpose in remaining there. Her husband, Mr. Nad, left for Palestine, and she left for America. Subsequently, she assisted him in coming to the United States. And in 1924, I think, Uncle Max brought them over here from New York. They got married in Houston, and he [Max] helped them get into business.

SJ: Did any of the other brothers and sisters come over to America, or have you described all of them who came to this country? You are talking about a total of six family members who came to America: Abraham, Max, Sam, you, Julius, and Esther. That is all of the family members who came to this country, correct?

MJ: Right.

SJ: Do you know what your father thought about all of his children coming to America?

MJ: Actually, I was hoping to complete my education in America and then return home, first to be close to my father in his old age. But after Poland became an independent nation, my father wrote to me: "You are better off where you are. This is no country for Jews."

SJ: Why didn't your father and his wife come to America?

MJ: Well, in the first place my father was of an independent mind. He had been a successful businessman, and he had heard of his children's impiousness -- he was a strict orthodox, with some degree of skepticism in the tenets of Judaism. He nevertheless would have found it very difficult to adapt himself to modern life.

SJ: Your father apparently was a very successful businessman.

MJ: He was.

SJ: What kinds of businesses did he have?

MJ: He had several businesses. My mother managed a bakery, the largest one in the area, a very successful one. My father was a wholesale grain merchant. He dealt with a lot of noblemen who lived on their large estates within a radius of about 5 miles from our town. Some of them would come to our house for social entertainment. They were Catholics. Nevertheless, on Saturday nights during the winter when the days were short and night fell at 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock; about 6 o'clock they would show up with their chauffeurs in their nice sleighs, beautiful sleighs. And some of the Jewish elite and some Poles of the higher class would come and play cards, including the police chief of our town, who was of German origin, a tall man, his name was Neufeld. They would play cards until midnight, and at about 8-9 o'clock, my mother used to serve a snack, like roast goose, wine. I used to stay up until 10 o'clock. My job was making cigarettes. My father would import Turkish tobacco. My job was making -- I had an outfit consisting of a brass tube that would open up and close with springs and would be tapered at one end to fit into thin paper tubes with large, long tips. And I would force the tobacco from the other end with something that looked like an ice pick, but it was cut off, round, blunt. I had a beautiful box, very beautifully carved; I would fill it in with cigarettes and come to the table and serve the guests. And that was the entertainment that some of these noblemen would participate in. They didn't gamble for high stakes, it was just for amusement, entertainment.

SJ: Apparently your father was quite prominent in the community.

MJ: He was prominent. He was a leading member. As I said, our Jewish society of the Jewish communities was actually divided into two classes. These elite, most of them Talmudists or Talmudic scholars, were also successful businessmen. And whenever an emergency arose, the Rabbi would call together these people that belonged to Hevra Sha'as -- the Talmudists -- and consult with them. And they would tax themselves and also tax the others and allot help to the needy.

SJ: Are there any people here in Houston who were friends of the family in Poland?

MJ: There is one whose father was a friend of my family. That's Marvin Kay. He's a photographer. His real name was Kaplan. They hailed from the town Szczuczyn, which was the county seat. In Polish they called it "Powiat."

SJ: I think Marvin Kay has a photography studio in Houston. Karen Nad had a picture of her grandmother and your father that she took to that studio to get reproduced, and Marvin Kay, when he saw the picture, told her that his father had taken that picture in Poland.

MJ: Right. His father used to visit our town for business, because there were people who wanted to have their pictures taken. See, his father was a photographer, and a well known one. He would come and visit with us.

SJ: Are there any other people from Poland whom you have seen here in Houston or in this country?

MJ: There is one, Rachel Katz, a widow, who came from Szczuczyn, the same town that Marvin Kay had come from. Yes, there are others.

SJ: Did you or your family know her in Poland?

MJ: I knew of her family. They operated a soda water plant. I knew of her, I knew of the family, but I didn't know the family.

SJ: Do you know whether any other members of your father's family, any of his brothers or sisters or their children, did any of them come over to America?

MJ: Yes, a cousin of mine, Abraham Coalesce, and two of his brothers came. Their name was Coalesce. The Polish ending is usually "i," but the Jews usually end it with a "y." I knew them, but I don't know anything else about them.

SJ: Do you know what happened to the remaining -- did any of your brothers remain in Poland, or did they all come to this country?

MJ: I didn't have any more.

SJ: Okay, so what about your sister who stayed in Poland?

MJ: She was childless.

SJ: That was Freida?

MJ: The Yiddish name was Freidke.

SJ: Did you have any other brothers or sisters who remained?

MJ: No.

SJ: O.K. How did the family get to Houston, tell me about how that happened?

MJ: In late 1918, there was an epidemic that raged in the whole country, but particularly severely in New York.

Interview donated and reprinted with the permission of Scott J. Atlas. Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.