The Power Blog: Holocaust Survivors and Diversity Embraced in a Small Town Called Wauwatosa
By Power of Humans Blogger David Weiss
We shouldn’t aim to simply tolerate change and diversity. We should thirst for change and diversity. Exactly half a century ago, the people of Wauwatosa’s east side understood this and welcomed my Holocaust-surviving grandparents into their city and into their lives. It didn’t matter that my grandparents English was difficult to understand. Nor did it make a difference that they dressed differently and followed different customs and traditions. Just like the people of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin fifty years ago, we should welcome and learn from the unfamiliar, not fear it.
My Grandpa Jack’s career began as an apprentice at Matusinski’s Tailor Shop in Miechow, Poland. It ended as a Master Tailor and owner of “Jack’s Expert Tailoring” in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. A half-century ago, the people of Wauwatosa demonstrated the value of diversity by welcoming a Holocaust Survivor with a thick accent and a special gift.
My grandfather, grandmother and mother arrived in Milwaukee in 1961 after spending fourteen years in Belgium after the Holocaust. As 1966 was approaching, Grandpa knew that his time had come. A business owner in Belgium, Grandpa Jack was ready to live the American Dream. He was going to start his own men’s clothing store.
Upon advice from several people, he set his sights on the city of Whitefish Bay and other Jewish communities in Milwaukee’s North Shore. Grandpa Jack saw some open storefronts but his calls were never returned. When one call was returned, a well-to-do Jewish landlord on Silver Spring had some advice for Grandpa Jack. He told my grandfather that he “wouldn’t make it” and he should be happy to work as a tailor in an established store. With the condescending discussion ending and the rejection firm, Grandpa Jack moved forward.
He recalled driving up North Avenue and seeing an open storefront on 72nd and North in the City of Wauwatosa. This was the middle of nowhere as far as people in the Jewish community were concerned. There were no Jews in Tosa. Wauwatosa was a community with a large German population. It simply wasn’t a place where anyone could imagine a Holocaust Surviving Jew would open a men’s clothing store.
Grandpa Jack met with the owner of the storefront at 7221 W. North Avenue in Wauwatosa. The man was a stocky young American and he expressed concern about a men’s clothing store making it at that location. He said that my grandfather’s English wasn’t adequate, there were plenty of tailor shops in Wauwatosa and he really needed to find a “serious” tenant for the location. Grandpa Jack told the man that he understood and felt bad for the man because the store was vacant for six months. He told the man that if he could just have a six month lease he wouldn’t make any changes to the storefront at all and after six months when the store failed as the man said, at least he would have six months of rent. With that sales pitch, Grandpa Jack pulled out a check that he had already written, good for six months of rent. He also had fifty dollars in cash under the check. It was a deal too good to pass up.
The store didn’t just have a good six month run, it had an incredible twenty-six year run right at that Wauwatosa location (until he retired). Business was always great and there were always plenty of smiles at 7221 W. North Avenue. Wauwatosa was home to the Milwaukee area’s best men’s clothing store.
How did Wauwatosa, a city with virtually no Jewish population and a strong German presence become Grandma and Grandpa’s new hometown? It was the people. The people of Wauwatosa were loving and welcoming. They appreciated the service and loved my grandparent’s warm nature. They would love to learn words in other languages from my grandma and learn songs in Italian, Russian or Flemish from my grandpa. Customers never berated him and told him to “learn English”. He was trying his best and as his 8th language, English came slowly to him. Grandma and Grandpa never spoke English to each other and their employees always spoke Polish in the store. Customers didn’t mind. The world of eastside Wauwatosa from 1966-1992 was a loving, tolerant place. So much so that my grandparents not just owned a business in Wauwatosa, but moved to Tosa.
My grandfather was proud that he knew every business owner on the street. He always knew the mayor, several alderman, most of the policemen and firemen….most of the community it seemed! There was such warmth even though my grandparents and their customers (on the surface) had so little in common. They didn’t need to speak perfect English in order to communicate perfectly.
In a world that often fears change and diversity, we can learn a lot from east-side Wauwatosa. After I finished writing “The Everyday Remember: Holocaust Legacy” I reached out to the leaders and people of Wauwatosa. What I found was inspirational and heart-warming. Many people remembered my grandparents and shared their experiences coming to the store. They told wonderful stories and I was touched to hear the legacy that “Jack’ Expert Tailoring” left behind. I was equally touched by the people who weren’t around when the store was in business. They felt such a feeling of community pride reading about how Wauwatosa embraced these foreign business owners. They are proud that their city is a place that doesn’t simply tolerate differences, but embraces them. I got the same reply from Mayor Ehly, the people at both high schools and the library. It was a community’s sense of pride. Hopefully all communities will take Wauwatosa’s lead and feel the benefits of embracing diversity. To all who played a role in helping my family and to the great City of Wauwatosa…Dzienkuie
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David Weiss was born, raised and still lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Being the grandson of four Holocaust Survivors has always been an integral part of his identity and life. David earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Cardinal Stritch University and a Masters of Arts in Education from Viterbo University. He spent eleven years as a second and third grade teacher before starting his own promotions business. David is also an author and teaches at the college level. David and his wife are the proud parents of a six year old daughter.
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