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§04-01 Ben Lazarus

By Levi Clancy for לוי on

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Writing a story about my father is, perhaps, the hardest writing task I have ever had as doing so is so filled with memories and emotions which were successfully buried for the past 22 years since he died in 1967. It isn't because there is so little or so much to say but the nature of what needs to be said that makes this task so difficult for me. My dad was a very special man, very human, very warm and very different in ways that are hard for me to describe, but I'll try. He was a very great man.

February 22, 1896 marks the date on which Benzion Paltiel was born in the little Russian town of Dziewieniszki. He was named after his grandfather of the same name. His parents were Shmuel Lazar Paltiel and Malka (Lewin) Paltiel and he was their first child. His parents were also the first, and therefore the oldest, children of their generations. To their Jewish community, the town was referred to as Devenichok in Yiddish, the only language the family was fully fluent in although they must have had some small ability in the Russian, Lithuanian and Polish languages of the gentiles in the same town and area. When only a year or so old, Ben fell down hitting his eye which rotated the lens of the eye and, effectively, made that eye useless the rest of his life. In the process, he had a bad cut over the eye which was closed by Malka pushing freshly baked bread into the wound. No physician was available to the family in those early days. The following year, probably while Malka was still pregnant with Yosel Paltiel, Shmuel left for Leeds, England. THat was in 1897. Yosel was born in the Fall of that year. By 1899, Shmuel had sent home enough money so that Malka could emigrate to Leeds with her two sons.

When Shmuel Lazar Paltiel entered England, he was asked his name and he responded only "Shmuel Lazar". The immigration official wrote down Samuel Lazarus and a new family name was born. When the rest of the family arrived, Malka, Benzion and Yosel Paltiel became, respectiely, Annie, Benjamin and Joseph Lazarus. They had four more Lazarus siblings born in Leeds, namely Millie "Mimi" in 1900, Myer (Meyer, Myron Herbert) "Mickie/Mickey" in 1902, Rebecca "Bee" in 1904 and Nellie in 1906. Six children in ten years made a family of eight to feed which must have been difficult in the ghetto of Leeds right around the turn of the century.

Ben Lazarus spent his meaningful childhood in Leeds and completed the eighth grade of schooling there. He always bragged that he got a better education in those eight years than people in the United States got after completion of high school. I think he was right. He told a story of the strict discipline in Leeds schools. If children got out of line, they were instructed to hold out their hands, palms up, and were given stiff raps with a stiff yardstick. To the best I can determine, Ben went to "The Leylands" and/or "The Roundhay Road" schools in Leeds. During his young life, he worked in the Lazarus tailoring shop and learned that trade probably starting at about age seven. As an adult, he exhibited a hunched back which he always said was from leaning over a sewing machine for too long during his growing years. Probably so. By the completion of the eigth grade, he got a work permit allowing him to quit school and go to work, which he did. I don't know what he did in Leeds unless it was to help in his father's business. It didn't last long, however, because he left Leeds for Toronto with his father in mid-1910.

Just what Ben did in Toronto when he and Sam first got there is unknown to me. I suspect that Sam set up a tailoring shop and Ben may have helped him. Of course, at that time, we think, Morris and Annie Levi may have already been established there.

My assumption is that some nestegg money must have been saved up in Leeds before any of them left for Toronto so I don't think they were destitute---just somewhat poor, with perhaps enough to buy sewing machines, etc. Ben may had had jobs outside of the family to begin with and, at one time, worked in a fabric factor along with brother Joe. It wasn't long until Sam had savd up enough money to send for the rest of the Lazarus family. Malka and the children left for Toronto in the Spring of 1912. Joe had gone ahead with Mary Levi in May of 1911. Ben and Joe did not attend school in Toronto. They had to work. While in Toronto, the rest of the Lewin siblings leaving Leeds arrived in Toronto. These were the families of David and Mary Levi, Eli and Ada Singer, Brina and Rubin Levy and Fannie Levi who was single at the time. She married Simon Forman at the Lazarus shop in Toronto in 1916.

A newspaper article of 1957 which was an interview of Ben Lazarus, quoted him as saying he moved to California in 1914. His official immigration papers say it was 1916. I can't tell you for sure as what was on documents "ain't necessarily so". In those days of World War I, there was a lot of border crossing to avoid being drafted. Joe says that Ben did return to Toronto once but the exact date is unknown and the stay didn't last long. If I had to guess, I'd guess that he first went to California for a year around 1914, returnd to Toronto in 1915, and then went back to California in 1916. Joe emigrated in 1917 and they all met at the home of Morris and Annie Levi in Fresno at that time. To get the proper feel for this phase of the history, it is necessary to read the family stories of Joseph Lazarus and the biographies of Morris and Annie Levi and David and Mary Levi, elsewhere in this book.

Probably around 1916, a photograph was taken of Ben Lazarus with the horse and wagon of "Hanford Junk Company" which must have belonged to Morris Levi. For some reason, unknown to me, Ben had a Post Office box in Lemore, California, near Hanford, at that time. Ben made a living going around the farm lands of the central valley collecting junk and selling the scrap, probably to Dave and Morris Levi and others. He recycled old car batteries and tires and even sold prophylactics. Anything to make a buck. Eventually, the old horse was replaced by an old Dodge truck.

Ben lived and worked in San Francisco for a while, probably around 1920, give or take a couple of years. He worked for a firm that made leather-bound steel piggy banks that looked like books. These were given away by real banks as promotional items. I think I still have a couple of those buried away someplace. I think that Ben returned to the Fresno area around 1921 and worked for Dave Levi for a while. In Fresno, Ben met Ida Florence Levine and they eloped and were married in San Francisco on December 5, 1922. On their return to Fresno, Uncle Dave fired Ben. I think that dad carried a grudge over the incident for many years. I don't know why it happened.

Ben and Ida spent the first ten years of their married life in Fresno where Ben tried to make a living selling wholesale automobile parts. He also must have continued in the junk business somewhat and also raised pigeons for food, fun and perhaps profit. During that time, Ida worked in a department store in Fresno. They were childless.

[Ben Lazarus business card for 909 L Street, Fresno, California.]

In 1932, Ben bought a dying wrecking yard at 8th and High Streets in Delano, California, and he and Ida moved there. It was called Delano Auto Parts and Wrecking Company and it did all of that plus had a gasoline filling station out in front. Those were the years of the depression and it wasn't easy to build up a business. Luckily, Ben had been saving up gold coins for several years and he and Ida were able to keep food on the table by spending the gold coins. If they still existed, they would be worth a fortune to coin collectors. I still have a remaining few which dad managed to save. At that time, Ben and Ida lived in a small frame house at the rear of a property at 5th and High Streets in Delano. They were poor. It was from that location that they adopted me late in 1945.

In 1940, a rental property for the business became availabel at 1411 High Street in Delano, so dad moved the whole shebang to that location. In 1941, when money was a little more abundant, the family residence moved to 1307 Lexingon Street, a more middle class and respectable neighborhood, and near the public schools. There are some pictures of the stores and houses in the picture section of this book.

The second world war was a time or a business boom and dad's business grew too. In addition to auto parts, wrecking and gasoline, there was space at the 1411 address for him to sublet a portion to a garage mechanic who also supported his business. At this time, the cutting and installation of automobile glass was added to the business.

[Business card for Delano Auto Parts and Glass Co at 719-721 Main St in Delano, CA]

After the war, the landlord decided to evict dad from his location on High Street. He bought a lot on Main Street and erected a 40x60' quanset hut where he moved the business in 1947, renaming it Delanu Auto Parts and Glass Company. It was now an automatic and natural evolution to include all tpes of glass in the operation. The filling station and wrecking yard operations were discontinued. This shop at 719-721 Main Street was the final location of Ben's enterprises. By the late 1950's, the auto parts business had dropped off to the extent that the principal business was Delano Glass Company. The remaining automobile parts were donated to the local high school automobile shop class around 1964. The business was finally closed by me in 1965 after it became apparent that Ben and Ida were too ill to continue it in any way. In those early 1960 years, they were both ill but were able to keep the store going with the help of neighbors and friends in Delano.

[Addl business cards at same address.]

During the second world war, Ben headed up the scrap iron drives for the war effort. Everyone was patriotic and mountains of metal scrap grew in community vacant lots. The country needed metals to make armaments and Ben was there to help. He also sold "War Stamps" in his store. During the war, he served as an Air Raid Warden and in the California Stat Guard and later as a sky-watcher for the Air Defense Command. He also sponsored students from the High School Automobile shop classes who used his wrecking yard for spare parts. Looking back at those war years now, I think of how we had black-out blinds in our homes so that the enemy couldn't find our towns from airplanes at night. It is now comical. We must have been very scared or had huge small town egos to think that any enemy would pick out Delano to bomb or invade. Why would anyone bother? But we did what we were supposed to do. After the war, the huge "Voice of America" transmitting station was built outside of Delano and that was a real worry as a target for Russian attack, so the Air Defense Command observation post was always well manned. Dad was an observer and I did it too for quite a while.

Growing up in Leeds, Ben had an intensive educated and attended "Chader", a Jewish religious school after regular school hours. He learned Hebrew very well. He was also able to speak, read and write in Yiddish, fluently. Throughout his life, Ben maintained his Jewish heritage proudly. Although not deeply religious on a day to day basis, he always closed the store for the Jewish Holiday and hung up a sign in the window stating the reason the store was closed. He told me that if we didn't show respect for our own religion, others wouldn't respect us either. He was proud to be a Jew and was always willing to speak publically about his European-Jewish heritage.

Ben Lazarus was a very active person in community affairs and was well respected for his involvement and philanthropy. Some of the certificates and awards he received are represented in this book. I am glad that he was so honored by his town and friends. I'll relate some of the activities I remember but I am sure that there were many more that I cannot recall. Especially those small stories where he helped individuals with personal problems or with aliens requests for his help to gain their citizenship. He was a champion of the immigrant and the minority people and those who had troubles.

Across the street from the store at 1411 High Street was "Rose Cafe", where we often ate lunch. Since the store was adjacent to the railroad tracks, we often were approached by transients for a handout. This usually meant that they wanted a little pocket change to buy a bottle of cheap wine. Dad was understanding but firm. No booze. He often phoned the cafe and arrangd for them to give a hot meal to the transient, and dad would later pay them. Plenty of food but no booze. He always felt that bums were humans too. I think he was way ahead of his time.

Ben was a charter member of the Delano Lions Club which started up probably around 1944 or so. This club, with Ben pushing, sponsored and began the first "Delano Wine and Harvest Festival" in the Fall of 1946, a festival with [a] county-fair atmosphere and a very successful event even to this day. However, the church-mongers of Delano decided to drop the "Wine" from the title and changed the name to the "Delano Harvest Festival". No matter that the Delano Vinyards [sic] at that time were the biggest in the state and the backbone of the California wine industry, Napa County notwithstanding. At that first festival, he sold beer at the Lion's Club booth and contracted pneumonia by doing so, as attested to by the letter from fellow Lions in this book. He almost died but he recently produced Penicillin saved his life. As a very active member of the Lion Club, during a membership drive in the late 1940's, he decided that he was going to integrate the club by signing up a dozen merchants in Delano, all of minority ancestry. He succeeded against some prejudice which he was able to put down. I'm not certain if he was able to get a black man into the club but he certainly succeeded with at least one each of Phillipino, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican. He was years ahead of Martin Luther King, but with much less fuss.

I think that dad held most of the offices at the local level of the Lions. His favorite position was as chairman of the boy's and girl's committee. He loved kids. In that position, he made sure that the Lion's programs for buying eyeglasses and hearing aids for underprivileged children were successful efforts. A lot of children were helped. Also with that committee, and beause of his boy scout involvements, he was able to start and coordinate annual used toy drives to aid underprivileged kids. Starting each Fall, toys would be collected all over town and brought to the back of his store.In November and December, te Lions members and local boy scouts would get together at night and fix and paint up old toys such as tricycles, wagons, etc. in time for Christmas. It was mighty cold in that shop at night but by Christmas, for a dozen years, no child in Delano went without at least one Christmas present. Dad would get letters from good neighbors in town suggesting who needed help. The local Priests and Preachers would also tell dad who needed help. Dad never failed to meet the challenge. He was "Santa Claus" to the poor of Delano and was thought of as being "very Christian" which he understood but didn't find flattering. He was Jewish and being charitable was Jewish long before Christians were invented.

As you might read in my own biography, which I find hard to separate from the biographies of my parents, Ben Lazarus was also deeply involved with the Boy Scouts of America. He joined with me in the 1940's and was very supportive. He was on the local committee and then was a district commissioner for the Boy Scout region. He helped at the troop level and arranged for camp outs, trips and special events and officiated at "Courts of Honor". His scouting activities remained one of his chief activities and loves long after I had left home for college and he was well respected for his efforts. His Lion's Club sponsored a Boy Scout Troop and Explorer Scout post. In turn, we helped his Lion's Club toy drive and distribution efforts.

The Mayor of Delano recognized Ben's interests and appointed him to the Delano Recreation and Parks Commission. As a Commissioner, he spearheaded an effort to build a publically owned swimming pool in Delano for summer recreation. In an agreement with the local school district, the pool was built on the High School grounds where it was integrated into the Physical Education department during the school year and then open to the public in the summer. I always thought that the pool should have been named for him but it wasn't. I recall that Ben was also trying to get another pool built on the "wrong side of the tracks" as it were, so that minority children would have more access to the recreational facilities but I'm not sure if that was ever accomplished. There were other achievements Ben produced for the town in his capacity as Commissioner but I can't recall them as, at that time, I was away at college and not directly involved.

Ben was also an active member of the "Oddfellows Lodge" and it's [sic] ladies auxillary the "Rebeccas" which my mother belonged to. He was also a member of the "Moose Lodge" for a time. Attempts to join the Masonic Lodge resulted in being blackballed. He heard from the grapevine that someone didn't want a Jew in the local chapter. So it went. Ben was a joiner but a very active one.

Back in the 1920's, he had a hobby in photography. He liked to miniaturize the larger pictures relatives had. I think that Joe Lazarus might have also shared this hobby. Many of the tiny photos still exist. They are the size for lockest. His later hobbies included stamp and coin collecting, mostly the former. He shared the stamp collecting hobby with his father, Sam Lazarus, and with his uncle, Morris Levi. Every new issue of USA stamps were bought, with some being sent to Napa for Grandpa. Sam would then put them into albums for Neil Goldberg and for me. When Sam died, Ben Lazarus inherited his stamp collection and when Ben died, I inherited the collection. It has a lot of emotional value to me. I hope that someday my kids will get interested and continue the hobby so the collection can be kept in the family. It isn't very valuable but it has a lot of nostalgia attached to it for me.

Ben was an avid reader. In his early California days, he read a lot of books and educated himself. In Leeds, he only finished the 8th grade but always said he got a better education than we did after the 12th grade. That must have been true as Ben was very smart about a lot of things. He faithfully read the "Fresno Bee" daily and the local Delano weekly and bi-weekly papers when they came out. He also digested the then big "Los Angeles Examiner" weekend edition. Besides being fluent in English and Yiddish and having good reading ability in Hebrew, he also knew a little Spanish and Portuguese. He was most fluent in swearing, a talent which I never liked and do not participate in much to this day. He could out-swear most sailors.

Since Delano was such a small town, between 5,000 and 10,000 people when Ben lived there, dad knew just about everyone in the town. He was also on great terms with the local police and judges. I doubt if he ever got a ticket for parking or for moving violations. If we left town on a holiday, the police would always watch the shop or the house and dad would reward them with a couple of cartons of cigarettes. That was particularly significant during the war when "butts" were hard to come by. I'm sure that my dad's good relationship with the judiciary kept me out of trouble too, as I was a typical teenage driver for a while.

Ben, as a person, is hard to describe as he was at the same time a simple man and a complex man. He was strong willed, self-assured and opinionated. Some might have thought him too outspoken, but he said what he thought and believed and let the chips fall where they may. You couldn't get away with much "bullshit" with him as he could see right through it. He always exercised the highest ethics and integrity and was known for his fairness in his dealings with others. His high energy and stamina were legendary, as was his appetite. For most of his life, in his 5'4", 120 pound body, he could out-eat two large men. It was only in the final years of his life that we learned that he had a rare intestinal allergy to gluten, a cereal grain constituent, which caused his to suffer from a mal-absorption syndrome so that his body only used a small amount of the food he consumed. So, he ate a lot. His sister "Bee" also had a similar problem. He worked hard and for long hours. His shop was always open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. and, during WW II, a half of Sunday too. He was seldom ill his whole life until his last five or six years. Even then, if asked "how are you", his lifetime standard answer was, "I've never felt better in my life". And, he meant it. At a young age in California, he had gotten interested in reading the mind-over-matter books by the Christian-Scientist, Mary Baker Eddy. He succeeded in feeling and acting healthy even if he wasn't. This spilled over into his attitude which was always positive, humorous and came with a little twinkle of his eyes. In fact, even after a stroke which left him unable to speak, that twinkle was still there as if to say, "I never felt better in my life."

Because of Ben's community involvement, he usually attended two or three meetings on week nights with the Lion's Club, lodges, Boy Scouts and the Delano Recreation and Parks Commission. He worked hard, played hard and slept soundly. I can still hear the loud snore, which I may have inhereted [sic] by osmosis.

Dad had a strong sense of right and wrong and was aided by learning Juijitzu when he lived in San Francisco. Once, when I was small, a big Irishman came into the store and, after some business he wasn't happy oer, called my dad something like "you dirty Jew". A few seconds later, the man picked himself up from about twenty feet outside the door where dad had thrown him. From that day on, they were lifelong good friends. I was wronged, in my opinion, by a teacher at school one day and ran away from school and went to my dad's shop. I told dad the story and waited for him to put the teacher in his place. We hopped in the car and drove to the school and went right to the Principals office where my dad said to the Principal, "if my son ever does that again, spank him immediately". From this I learned respect for authority. Once I took my dad's business checks and wrote a million dollar check to a school friend. The banker called dad and the next thing I knew was that I was sitting in front of a larger-than-life bank president being lectured. Dad stood by. I once came home with a pencil and eraser I had appropriated from a dime store. You guessed it. off we went to the store where, in front of dad, I had to give the stuff back and apologize to the store manager. Locally, Constable Hecht and Police Chief Oliver were friends of dad. If I got too far out of line, they came around. once, I was shown the inside of the jail. If I did something very harmful at home or talked back to my parents, dad's belt would come off or he would reach for the razor "strop" behind the bathroom door. I hated those few spankings but, looking back, I deserved many more than I got and I'm certain I never got a spanking I didn't deserve. Of course, I got the usual speech "this hurts me more than it does you". Perhaps it did!

During most of his marriage, he also had to juggle all of his activities and work with trying to keep his wife, Ida, going through a series of emotional crises which would now be called manic depressive cycles. Those crises lasted for months or sometimes years, and his ability to cope with her problems, while working so hard, was legendary. I'm sure it took its toll on him somehow although he never complained. Ida was committed to the State Hospital in Modesto on more than one occassion. After six days of hard work, we would drive there and back at least every-other Sunday to visit her. We were a close family and Ben always maintained a positive attitude.

Somewhere around 1920, as my best guess, dad said that he developed some ability with mental telepathy. I'm usually a skeptic over such matters but, coming from the mouth of my high-integrity father, I never doubted this. Other members of the family seemed to have some para-psychological talents too, and I think that "Bee" was a bit clairvoyant at times. All this happened long before I was born so I really cannot relate any details here.

Ben was a lifelong heavy smoker which produced a chronic cough and, eventually, emphysema. By 1960, he was in declining health and had to use oxygen sometimes. In the next few years, he had at least one heart attack and a stroke that left one arm weakend[sic]. After a spell in 1963, he really couldn't work anymore but the shop was kept open by mom and some friends in Delano for a couple more years.

Ben and Ida had their last happy journey when they took a train to San Francisco to attend my dental school graduation in 1964. Dad was very weak at that time but insisted on coming. Mom was also in declining health by then. After graduation, I moved to North Hollywood and moved them down the following year where they were in a Jewish Retirement home for almost a year. Dad went to the hospital in 1965 with a stroke that left him unable to talk. I moved mom to a convalescent hospital and dad joined here there after being released from the Hospital. They shared a room as they continued to decline in health. Mom became senile or depressed and was on insulin for diabetes. She almost didn't eat and I think lapsed into an insulin coma, caused by the injection without eating. She died of that in 1966. Dad lasted another year and died of pneumonia in 1967. The doctor, realizing the hopelessness of dad's situation, underprescribed antibiotics and let dad go. That physician was a hero to led dad slip away without another resurrection to face a useless life, bedridden.

Ben Lazarus was a great man, a good man and an involved parent to me. I still miss him very much. It was a rare priliege to have such a giant of a man as a father who was so small in size. Although I am a half-foot taller than he was, I'll always be looking up to him as the model of what a man and a father should be.