Jeanne Wexler Interview

Jeanne Wexler was born June 28, 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in a traditional home. Her mother was a housewife and her father was a furrier-someone who manufactures furs. She has one sister, Sylvia. Since Ms. Wexler’s family was fairly wealthy, they were not hit by the Depression. However, Ms. Wexler was very affected by it. She saw people in her neighborhood suffer. This led her to work at Woolworth’s, a five and ten cents store, throughout high school. She remembers the war very vividly. She talks about rationing, and victory gardens. Ms. Wexler grew up in a Jewish home and lived in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. She was always connected to her Judaism and the Holocaust led her to work for “Pioneer Women” once the war ended. Ms. Wexler married at 22 years old, much later than a lot of other women at this time. Ms. Wexler still holds resentments towards Germans and Japanese. Ms. Wexler currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her son, Phil. She had four children, Phil, Dave, Todd, and Marilyn. She has two grandchildren, Ian and Adam.

Jeanne Wexler Interview

Jeanne Transcript

1-00:00:02

Arielle:

What is your full name and your date of birth?

 

1-00:00:08

Jeanne:

Jeanne Wexler. Spelled J-E-A-N-N-E.

 

1-00:00:15

Arielle:

Okay. And what is your date of birth?

 

1-00:00:17

Jeanne:

June 28, 1927

 

1-00:00:22

Arielle:

And where were you born?

 

1-00:00:24
Jeanne:

New York City

 

1-00:00:26

Arielle:

Did you live in New York City for your whole life?

 

1-00:00:31

Jeanne:

When I got married I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. But I was 22.

 

1-00:00:38

Arielle:

Okay.

 

1-00:00:40

Jeanne:

Okay.

 

1-00:00:40

Arielle:

Where were your parents born?

 

 

1-00:00:44

Jeanne:

Oh. My mother was born in the Ukraine.

 

1-00:00:49

Arielle:

And where was your father born?

 

1-00:00:51

Jeanne:

My father was born in Lithuania.

 

1-00:00:57

Arielle:

Oh okay. Did you get along with your parents when you were growing up?

 

1-00:01:05

Jeanne:

Of course!

 

1-00:01:08

Arielle:

Can you describe your relationship with your parents?

 

1-00:01:12

Jeanne:

They were wonderful parents. My father acted like a father should act. And my mother she was a wonderful mother.

 

1-00:01:23

Arielle:

What did your parents do for a living?

 

1-00:01:31

Jeanne:

Well my mother was a housewife. And my father was a furrier.

 

1-00:01:38

Arielle:

And what was that?

 

1-00:01:41

Jeanne:

A furrier? That was when people wore fur coats.

 

1-00:01:46

Arielle:

Okay. And did he sell those?

 

1-00:01:51

Jeanne:

He manufactured them.

 

1-00:01:53

Arielle:

Oh, okay. [pause] What was–

 

1-00:01:56

Jeanne:

Then, yeah. Then he gave that up and then he went into the stock market.

 

1-00:02:05

Arielle:

And how was that?

 

1-00:02:08

Jeanne:

He did very well.

 

1-00:02:11

Arielle:

Did that… continue during the Depression?

 

1-00:02:15

Jeanne:

No. That…no.

 

1-00:02:20

Arielle:

No. What was…

 

1-00:02:21

Jeanne:

I was a little girl during the Depression.

 

1-00:02:25

Arielle:

Yes.

 

1-00:02:26

Jeanne:

Yep.

 

1-00:02:28

Arielle:

What do you remember about the Depression?

 

1-00:02:33

Jeanne:

Well we lived in a pretty fair place uh nice house. I know my friends didn’t live like you know where the whole family lives in one room. There’s one incident about the depression that sticks in my mind. I was about nine years old, and I’m walking down the street and it was snowing and there was an old lady sitting outside on a chair in the snow with all her furniture piled up. Crying. I guess she didn’t pay her rent, so they threw her out of the apartment and..and she wanted to protect her furniture, so she was sitting near in the snow. Uhh. What an incident that was.

 

1-00:03:30

Arielle:

That’s really sad.

 

1-00:03:31

Jeanne:

It is.

 

1-00:03:33

Arielle:

Did you see a lot of that growing up during the Depression?

 

1-00:03:36

Jeanne:

No well that was one incident. Then I had a girlfriend and the family lived over a store. There were like five..five or six members in the family. And they were-they only had two chairs. Could you believe that? And the family would sit all day on a chair looking out the window.

 

1-00:03:59

Arielle:

What was a normal day like for you and your family when you were growing up?

 

1-00:04:09

Jeanne:

Well. I just went to school. Came back. I was one of those people that did homework at the last minute.

 

1-00:04:23

Arielle:

Did you get good grades?

 

1-00:04:25

Jeanne:

Yeah. I did. And I shared…I shared a bedroom with my sister. We had twin beds.

 

1-00:04:39

Arielle:

Did you only have your sister? Was she your only sibling?

 

1-00:04:43

Jeanne:

Yes. She’s a younger sister. Yep.

 

1-00:04:45

Arielle:

What’s her name?

 

1-00:04:47

Jeanne:

Sylvia.

 

1-00:04:48

Arielle:

And how many years younger is she?
1-00:04:51

Jeanne:

Five years.

 

1-00:04:52

Arielle:

Five years younger?

 

1-00:04:53

Jeanne:

Yep.

 

1-00:04:55

Arielle:

What was your relationship like with her when you were growing up?

 

1-00:04:57

Jeanne:

Uh a good relationship. You know a lot of siblings fight with each other. We didn’t fight—the only time is when say I ironed out a blouse and it took me an hour and she, she wore it. I used to get mad about that.

 

1-00:05:19

Arielle:

Did you have any extended family nearby? Like any aunts or uncles?

 

1-00:05:24

Jeanne:

Well my grandparents.

 

1-00:05:28

Arielle:

How far away did they live from you?

 

1-00:05:33

Jeanne:

Well until my father bought the house we lived in my grandfather’s house. He owned the house and we lived in the apartment downstairs and they lived upstairs.

 

1-00:05:49

Arielle:

What was your neighborhood like….when you were growing up?

 

1-00:05:54

Jeanne:

It was a good neighborhood. Uh well, our street like like mostly Jewish people on that street. And then like if you walked straight down the street like there’s a Polish neighborhood so a lot of Polish people lived there.

 

1-00:06:16

Arielle:

And did you see a lot of separation between the Polish and the Jewish community?

 

1-00:06:21

Jeanne:

Yes. There was. Yep.

 

1-00:06:23

Arielle:

How so?

 

1-00:06:24

Jeanne:

And there was also non-Polish neighborhood…there was a black neighborhood.

 

1-00:06:29

Arielle:

Was there a lot of racism?

 

1-00:06:35

Jeanne:

Uh no. I don’t think—well… I remember one incident. I was walking to the library when I was a kid with my sister. And I had a notebook with a ruler sticking out. And this black kid jumps out in front of me and he starts yelling names, you know, like “dirty Jew,” and he was running back and forth and wouldn’t let us pass. So you know what, I took out my ruler and I hit him over the shoulder and he ran away crying.

 

1-00:07:10

Arielle:

So there was a distinct separation between the black community and the Jewish community in your neighborhood?

 

1-00:07:18

Jeanne:

Yes.

 

1-00:07:19

Arielle:

And was there a distinction between the Polish community and the Jewish community?

 

1-00:07:23

Jeanne:

Yes.

 

1-00:07:25

Arielle:

How were the relations between all the different communities?

 

1-00:07:31

Jeanne:

I think—they each stuck to their own kind.

 

1-00:07:38

Arielle:

Did you have a lot of friends in your neighborhood?

 

1-00:07:42

Jeanne:

Yes I did.

 

1-00:07:43

Arielle:

Who was your best friend?

 

1-00:07:47

Jeanne:

Let me see. I had a lot of good friends. I had the girl next door. I think one summer we played Monopoly every day the whole summer. And uh…I had a lot of friends. Rita..I had another friend named Rita. That was the one that lived over the store.

 

1-00:08:13

Arielle:

M-hmm.

 

1-00:08:14

Jeanne:

Yeah.

 

1-00:08:17

Arielle:

What were the houses in your neighborhood like? Were they like brownstones or were they more traditional homes?

 

1-00:08:24

Jeanne:

[Inaudible] Brickhouses.

 

1-00:08:26

Arielle:

Were they all connected? Like they are today in New York?

 

1-00:08:32

Jeanne:

Well…you mean…well when we lived with my grandparents they were like driveways in between each house. But then when my father bought a house…it uh…the houses were connected. [Pause] In fact, Donald Trump’s father was a builder, and he built most of those houses in New York.

 

1-00:08:59

Arielle:

Oh wow.

 

1-00:09:02

Jeanne:

Yeah…it was a Trump house.

 

1-00:09:06

Arielle:

[Laughs]. Have you been back to the neighborhood that you grew up in recently?

 

1-00:09:12

Jeanne:

Well it’s four hours away from where I live now, you know.

 

1-00:09:17

Arielle:

When is the last time you where there…in your old neighborhood?

 

1-00:09:22

Jeanne:

It was when my father passed away. That was, uh, when I went back again.

 

1-00:09:27

Arielle:

And where there any changes from then until when you were a kid until more recently?

 

1-00:09:36

Jeanne:

Well, a lot of Russians moved into the neighborhood. That’s like after I graduated from high school.

 

1-00:09:48

Arielle:

And did you go to high school in New York?

 

1-00:09:50

Jeanne:

Yes. Lincoln.

 

1-00:09:52

Arielle:

What high school did you go to?

 

1-00:09:53

Jeanne:

Abraham Lincoln.

 

1-00:09:56

Arielle:

And what was the student population like at your high school.

 

1-00:10:03

Jeanne:

Well, not many kids. But it was a Jewish neighborhood. So I would say that like 90% of the kids were Jewish.

 

1-00:10:12

Arielle:

Okay.

 

1-00:10:15

Jeanne:

We had a lot of famous people graduating from that high school.

 

1-00:10:19

Arielle:

Like who?

 

1-00:1-:20

Jeanne:

Do you know Arthur Miller? The one who wrote Death of a Salesman?

 

1-00:10:26

Arielle:

Okay.

 

1-00:10:27

Jeanne:

And we had John Forsyth. He’s an actor. That’s not his real name. And um, let me see who else? Neil Diamond!

 

1-00:10:41

Arielle:

Oh, that’s cool.

 

1-00:10:42

Jeanne:

He lived right around the corner from me. And his father, well he’s younger than I am, and his father owned a Dry Goods store. Where my mother used to go shopping. And Neil Sedaka. You ever hear of him?

 

1-00:10:59

Arielle:

No.

 

1-00:11:00

Jeanne:

Yeah. He’s another singer.

 

1-00:11:04

Arielle:

Oh that’s pretty cool.

 

1-00:11:06

Jeanne:

Yep.

 

1-00:11:07

Arielle:

Did you grow up working when you were in high school?

 

1-00:11:11

Jeanne:

Well I had a part time job. In Woolworths. Did you ever hear of Woolworths?

 

1-00:11:19

Arielle:

No I haven’t.

 

1-00:11:21

Jeanne:

It was a five and ten cents store. That’s when you could get something for ten cents.

 

1-00:11:29

Arielle:

And what did you do at that job?

 

1-00:11:31

Jeanne:

You know I stood behind the counter. I worked like Thursday after school like from 4-9 and on Saturday.

 

1-00:11:44

Arielle:

Did you enjoy working there?

 

1-00:11:47

Jeanne:

It’s okay. I really didn’t need the money. But I was very independent. I always liked to make my own money.

 

1-00:12:00

Arielle:

What do you remember about the Depression with your family? You said that your dad was in the stock market?

 

1-00:12:10

Jeanne:

No he got into the stock market after the Depression.

 

1-00:12:13

Arielle:

Oh, after the Depression. So did your family struggle a lot during the Depression?

 

1-00:12:18

Jeanne:

No.

 

1-00:12:20

Arielle:

What was it like seeing other families struggle and you guys weren’t struggling as badly?

 

1-00:12:29

Jeanne:

Well, you know, I didn’t feel superior to anybody. I felt that they were just like me.

 

1-00:12:38

Arielle:

Did you notice a distinction between the different communities? Like the Polish and the Jewish and the black communities, was there one group that suffered more during the Depression than the other group?

 

1-00:12:57

Jeanne:

Well everybody suffered I think. But I think the maybe the blacks suffered more.

 

1-00:13:04

Arielle:

Why do you think that was?

 

1-00:13:07

Jeanne:

I don’t know.

 

1-00:13:08

Arielle:

Did they work a lot–

 

1-00:13:09

Jeanne:

I remember after we moved, near the train station-the subway, on Friday, black women would come down from Harlem, and they would, you know, want to clean your house. And my mother got one of these black women, Lucy. I remember her name. She used to clean every Friday and she would clean the house for a quarter an hour. Would you believe it?

 

1-00:13:47

Arielle:

No. Okay so now we’re going to kind of switch into after the Depression and into the war. So how do you remember hearing about Pearl Harbor?

 

1-00:14:02

Jeanne:

I remember I was sitting in the kitchen on a cold December morning. December 7th. I was eating breakfast and we had a little radio in the kitchen. And it came over that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That’s when I first heard about it.

 

1-00:14:23

Arielle:

And do you remember what your first thoughts about it were?

 

1-00:14:29

Jeanne:

I was kind of shocked. I was shocked about it.

 

1-00:14:37

Arielle:

How did your parents react to Pearl Harbor?

 

1-00:14:44

Jeanne:

Well, everybody you know, my father had relatives in Europe. And of course, he was worried about his relatives. [Pause] My mother was very patriotic. Yeah, but they had food rationing. They had food rationing during the war.

 

1-00:15:18

Arielle:

What kind of rationing did you have? Was it a lot?

 

1-00:15:20

Jeanne:

Yeah well. It’s not like food stamps. You couldn’t get meat. You know, you had to show the stamp, and you only got a certain amount of meat a week. And canned goods-you could only get a certain amount of canned goods. And you couldn’t get coffee. You couldn’t get coffee at all. And they had some kind of coffee substitute, called Chickery. And you couldn’t get—you had to have a stamp to get sugar.

 

1-00:15:59

Arielle:

Was it hard living off of rations?

 

1-00:16:02

Jeanne:

Not really. And my mother, we had a floor backyard. And she planted a garden.

 

1-00:16:11

Arielle:

Was it a victory garden?

 

1-00:16:14

Jeanne:

They used to call it a victory garden.

 

1-00:16:16

Arielle:

And what was that like, having a victory garden?

 

1-00:16:20

Jeanne:

Well, I don’t know how much [Inaudible]. But also when I went to Lincoln high. We had a piece of land next to the school, and some of the kids planted a victory garden over there.

 

1-00:16:36

Arielle:

Did a lot of people in your community have victory gardens?

 

1-00:16:40

Jeanne:

Not really. But my mother liked to garden.

 

1-00:16:45

Arielle:

How did the war affect your life?

 

1-00:16:52

Jeanne:

Well as a typical teenager, it didn’t really affect my life. But we had cousins that were in the armed forces. My cousins.

 

1-00:17:05

Arielle:

Did you have a lot of people in your family go fight in the war?

 

1-00:17:11

Jeanne:

Well one cousin was sent to the Panama canal zone to protect the canal zone. His younger brother was in the air force and his plane went down and he died.

 

1-00:17:39

Arielle:

How was learning about Pearl Harbor and World War II different than learning about more present wars such as Vietnam or Iraq and Afghanistan?

 

1-00:17:52

Jeanne:

Well I think people were very patriotic. I lived a block or two away from the beach and they had a boardwalk going all the way down for 3 miles. And they were afraid that there might be submarines so every light on the boardwalk was painted black.

 

1-00:18:21

Arielle:

How was that? Was it scary?

 

1-00:18:26

Jeanne:

Oh well–and they used to have air raid drills. Every street had an air raid warden. And then when they would blow a siren you were supposed to put all your lights out.

 

1-00:18:43

Arielle:

Did you have those a lot?

 

1-00:18:45

Jeanne:

Yeah. Quite a bit.

 

1-00:18:48

Arielle:

How did those affect your everyday life growing up?

 

1-00:18:54

Jeanne:

It really didn’t affect my life. I was, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Barbie Soxers?

 

1-00:19:04

Arielle:

No I haven’t.

 

1-00:19:06

Jeanne:

Those are short socks. White socks. That teenage girls used to wear. And Frank Sinatra was really becoming popular. You’ve heard of Frank Sinatra haven’t you?

 

1-00:19:20

Arielle:

Oh yes.

 

1-00:19:21

Jeanne:

And was playing at the New York Paramount. Ands the girls would go and stand in line for hours to get into New York Paramount to hear Frank Sinatra. And they would call them Barbie Socks because the girls used to wear those white socks with loafers with a penny in the loafer or saddle shoes. I was one of those girls.

 

1-00:19:50

Arielle:

So you enjoyed music and culture during the war?

 

1-00:19:53

Jeanne:

I still love Frank Sinatra. Yeah I still listen to his music.

 

1-00:20:06

Arielle:

What did you and your parents think of Roosevelt as commander and chief during the war? Did you think he did a good job?

 

1-00:20:14

Jeanne:

Oh, they adored him.

 

1-00:20:17

Arielle:

What did you think about him?

 

1-00:20:20

Jeanne:

I don’t know. I didn’t think too much. I guess I liked him too. You know because of the war, they didn’t want to interrupt, you know he ran for two terms. They didn’t want to have an election with another president, so he entered a third term. And then he died during the war and Truman was the Vice President so he became President.

 

1-00:20:54

Arielle:

What did you think of Truman?

 

1-00:20:57

Jeanne:

I thought he was a great President.

 

1-00:20:59

Arielle:

Did you like him or FDR better as a President?

 

1-00:21:04

Jeanne:

Well Truman ended the war. So I really like him. I remember the last–when the war finally ended and the Japanese surrendered. I remember that day.

 

1-00:21:20

Arielle:

What do you remember about it?

 

1-00:21:22

Jeanne:

Oh, some of my friends and I took the train to Times Square. And there were like a million people there in Times Square. There’s a famous photo of a sailer kissing a woman. Have you seen it?

 

1-00:21:44

Arielle:

I have.

 

1-00:21:45

Jeanne:

Well, he wasn’t the only one kissing. Everybody was kissing everybody. They were so happy that the war was over. I remember that day.

 

1-00:21:58

Arielle:

Sounds like a pretty good memory.

 

1-00:22:00

Jeanne:

Oh yeah. Well you couldn’t forget that. How everybody was kissing everybody.

 

1-00:22:07

Arielle:

What did you think of the decision to drop a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

 

1-00:22:14

Jeanne:

I thought it was horrible. But the Japanese—well, it was either them or us. And I would rather it be us. So we had to end to end the war that way. There was no other way.

 

1-00:22:32

Arielle:

Were there a lot of Japanese in your community? I know that on the west coast there was a lot of internment with the Japanese. Did you see that at all?

 

1-00:22:39

Jeanne:

No there were no Japanese.

 

1-00:22:40

Arielle:

There were no Japanese?

 

1-00:22:42

Jeanne:

No.

 

1-00:22:43

Arielle:

But you did have a large Jewish community?

 

1-00:22:45

Jeanne:

Yes.

 

1-00:22:46

Arielle:

Living in a Jewish community, what did you know about the Holocaust as a Jew living in the United States. Was there a lot of information about it?

 

1-00:22:56

Jeanne:

Not too much.

 

1-00:22:58

Arielle:

What did you know?

 

1-00:23:00

Jeanne:

My father had two brothers. Two younger brothers living in Europe and he didn’t know what was happening with them.

 

1-00:23:13

Arielle:

And were they in Lithuania?

 

1-00:23:17

Jeanne:

Well one brother, the Nazi’s must have got him and his family. We don’t know what happened to him. And the younger brother, who is 14 years younger than my father, he fought in the Polish Resistance Army and they fought in the forest. And he got an eye shot out. And so a Polish family hid him, they took care of him, they hid him in the house, and a few months later the war was over. And he was sent to a displaced persons camp. And then he met his wife there. And her whole family was wiped out.

 

1-00:24:14

Arielle:

That’s sad.

 

1-00:24:16

Jeanne:

I remember my father got him into America. I remember that day.

 

1-00:24:29

Arielle:

When was it?

 

1-00:24:31

Jeanne:

I don’t know. Every member of the family showed up at the docks. People didn’t travel too much by plane in those days. And they had a baby in a carriage, and I remember when the finally walked off the dock there was like 20 people there and every one of us was crying.

 

1-00:24:57

Arielle:

So it was a really good memory?

 

1-00:25:01

Jeanne:

Oh yeah, a really good memory. And then he came to our house. He stayed there for like six weeks or so. We had an extra little bedroom were the three of them had to stay. They couldn’t even get an apartment then. Finally my father found them an apartment. He had to pay $1500 to get the apartment so my Uncle and his family stayed there. And my father gave him a job. But he hated the big city.

 

1-00:25:41

Arielle:

Why did he hate it?

 

1-00:25: 43

Jeanne:

He hated it. So he bought a little chicken’s farm in New Jersey. So he moved to New Jersey.

 

1-00:25:59

Arielle:

What did you know about the Holocaust? Did you know anything specific? Did you even know there was a Holocaust?

 

1-00:26:09

Jeanne:

Not too much. I didn’t know too much.

 

1-00:26:12

Arielle:

Was that information covered up by the Government?

 

1-00:26:17

Jeanne:

I think it was.

 

1-00:26:19

Arielle:

By Franklin Roosevelt?

 

1-00:26:23

Jeanne:

I think it was. What was the ship with about 400 Jewish people that tried to get into Florida to escape what was happening in Europe. I think Roosevelt refused them entry and they got sent back.

 

1-00:26:49

Arielle:

Did you know about this incident at the time?

 

1-00:26:52

Jeanne:

No I didn’t know about it at the time.

 

1-00:26:56

Arielle:

Could your family help at all with for Jews living in Europe or was there really nothing that you could do as an American Jew?

 

1-00:27:08

Jeanne:

No, there was nothing.

 

1-00:27:12

Arielle:

How did it feel not really being able to help?

 

1-00:27:18

Jeanne:

Hard. Especially for my father. Actually his parents died right before, so they didn’t see the horror that was going on. Thank goodness.


1-00:27:36

Arielle:

How did this experience shape you as a Jewish woman later in your life?

 

1-00:27:49

Jeanne:

Well I don’t know. After I got married and I moved to Rhode Island, they were starting in Israel, when Israel was formed, I joined Pioneer Women, they are not in business anymore because they did what they were supposed to do at the time. I remember they had two groups in Rhode Island for the older women and the younger women. I was 26 at the time when I joined them. Their job was to teach women, especially in Yemen. You know, tried to modernize them because they were so backwards, and tried to teach them how to use the sewing machine and how to use the zipper and things like that. And, I don’t know if they still have it, do they still have Kibbutz’s in Israel?

 

1-00:29:12

Arielle:

Yep. Have you been to Israel since it was created?

 

1-00:29:19

Jeanne:

No, I’ve never been to Israel.

 

1-00:29:24

Arielle:

This is kind of a complicated question, but this is just to wrap up the interview for today. Do you consider yourself an American Jew or a Jewish American?

 

1-00:29:40

Jeanne:

An American Jew.

 

1-00:29:42

Arielle:

An American Jew? And why do you consider yourself that over a Jewish American.

 

1-00:29:51

Jeanne:

Oh, well I’m American first. And I love this country.

 

1-00:30:02

Arielle:

Okay, well I think that would wrap up for today.

 

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