Interview with Saragrace Kenner Haffron and Pearl Bankman Sakol
Friday, May 11, 2007 at Saragrace's apartment in Des Plaines, Illinois.
Present were Leighton and Dianne Siegel, interviewers, Saragrace, Pearl and Pearl’s daughter, Katie Sakol.
Pearl Bankman Sakol
Saragrace Kenner Haffron
As this article was being written in May, 2008 news arrived that Saragrace Kenner Haffron had passed away
as had Sam Bankman, brother of Pearl Bankman Sakol. Sadly Pearl Bankman Sakol also passed away on July 17, 2008.
Pearl and Saragrace have been friends forever and they have never lost touch with one another. They both grew up in Virginia and lived near one another, both eventually settled in Chicago and continued their friendship. Therefore, it was particularly good to interview them together.
Saragrace was born on July 19, 1911, in Virginia, MN. Her father, Abraham Kenner, emigrated from Lithuania The motivation for young men to leave Europe, particularly those areas controlled by the Czar, was to avoid being drafted for a 25 year stint in the Russian Army. When Abraham became of draft age, one by one, he and his brothers were guided through the woods to Hamburg, and they sailed from there to Canada, and ultimately to the United States. Immigrants like Abraham Kenner quickly learned they could own land for $1.00, and so he became a homesteader on Lake Street in Duluth. At a later date, Abraham moved to Virginia, and opened a grocery store. He was one of the original founders/contributors to the B'nai Abraham Synagogue, and was involved in its planning, as early as 1904. The cornerstone for the Synagogue was laid in 1909.
Abraham Kenner married Gertrude (Gertie) Bresky who was from Minneapolis. When asked how they met, the answer was, “When two Jews came to a synagogue and either one had a son or a daughter, somehow they met.”
Gertie's father, also from Lithuania, was an early resident of Minneapolis and was a a founding member of Kenneseth Israel in North Minneapolis. Saragrace had one sister, Julie born in 1909.
Pearl Bankman Sakol was born March 5, 1913, in Duluth, MN. The family later moved to Virginia,MN. Pearl's parents were Ethel and Benjamin Bankman. Ethel’s original surname was Naivedel, which was later changed to Lippman. Ethel Lippman Bankman was from Yurberg, Lithuania. Ethel emigrated through New York to an "Uncle Sam". Pearl's father, Ben, came through Ellis Island, and traveled west by himself. He had some family connections in Minnesota, but went as far west as Denver, and them came back. Early on, he supported himself as a peddler. Saragrace’s aunt, Hinda Abramson, introduced Ethel and Ben to one another. Pearl had three brothers, Julius born in 1906, Jack born in 1915 and Samuel born in 1916.
Virginia was becoming a fairly prosperous mining town, and as such businesses were necessary to meet the needs of the growing community. Both families, as well as many other Jewish and non-Jewish families, had heard there was opportunity on the Range, and indeed there was.
After moving to Virginia, the Bankmans opened a women's clothing store called the Minnesota Store Company, located on Chestnut Street, now known as Main Street. Many merchants and small businesses lined this street. Both Ethel and Ben Bankman worked in the store. The building now contains a different business but the sign on the outside of the building is still there and the original cash register remains in the store..
In Saragrace’s day, it was very unusual for a girl to go to Cheder (Hebrew School), and at that time, there was no such thing as a Bat Mitzvah. Nonetheless, her mother wanted her to learn Hebrew and Jewish History, and made her attend. Julie, Saragrace’s older sister, was not well, and was not sent.
Saragrace said there was a series of itinerant rabbis, who never lasted long because the kids drove them crazy. There was always a comedian who stirred things up. The rabbis taught the old-fashioned way, wielding a big stick.
Pearl went to Sunday school. Rabbi Wessel was a Reform Rabbi from Duluth who came periodically to help the Sunday school teachers with the lessons they were giving the young people. There were a couple of extremely Orthodox families in Virginia, who were opposed to a Reform Rabbi helping the teachers, especially with Jewish history. One particular day, Pearl recalled, two Mr. Cohens sat by the door and wouldn’t let him in. In their eyes, he was a “goy”, (not Jewish) and should not enter the Shul (synagogue). The Rabbi was such a gentleman that he said he understood. He said he had no ill feelings, that these men were “of a certain generation” and he returned to Duluth.
The community tried desperately and made every effort to educate the children. Pearl taught Sunday school but no one taught Pearl how to teach. She taught from a book, and learned from a book.
For Bar Mitzvahs, the community sometimes hired a Rabbi, if they could find and afford one. Otherwise, there would be someone learned in the community, such as Mr. Jaffee, who could teach Hebrew or at least the Haftorah. (Readings from the "The Prophets" following a reading from the Torah.) The community never missed a Bar Mitzvah. When Saragrace’s cousin George Abramson was ready to be Bar Mitzvah he came to her family from a town nearby. He was very athletic and whenever it was time for his Bar Mitzvah lessons, he was nowhere to be found. The Abramsons later moved to Virginia.
Most, but not all, families kept kosher. The families that didn’t keep kosher were quiet about it. Saragrace’s mother was religious and kept strictly kosher. Mrs. Kenner was called Rebbetzin because she was so religious, but she hated being labeled in that way. Pearl’s mother, Mrs. Bankman, was also called Rebbetzin. She was religious and kept kosher, but also didn't like being called Rebbetzin. There were at least two schochets (ritual slaughterer of kosher meat) in Eveleth, one being Chaim Siegel and the other a Mr. Cohen. Saragrace tells the story that when she came home from college one year, Chaim Siegel left a big bundle of meat on their doorstep. Her mother asked, “why such a big bundle of meat”? And Chaim said that Saragrace was home from college and she would need meat. Originally everyone went to Eveleth to get his or her kosher meat. Later, the shochet would deliver. For a short time, the Rubensteins from Gilbert had someone in their family that was a shochet. This person lived on the East side of Virginia, and didn’t stay in town long. Every week after Shabbat sundown, the women and others would walk a four to five mile round trip to Eveleth to pick up their meat. Saragrace would walk with her mother. In that group there was often a small boy named Abraham Kaplan. Abraham Kaplan became a professor at the University of Michigan and eventually moved to Israel.
In the 1990s, when Pearl heard that the synagogue was no longer operating, she called John Siegel and Dorothy Karon, the two individuals with keys to the building. Dorothy told her they were going to sell the synagogue as real estate. Pearl said, “Oh no you’re not, there are too many of us who have memories and you can’t let it go.” She believes that she also called Marilyn Chait and also talked to whoever puts buildings on the Historic Register. She did not want to see it sold. There were also synagogues in Eveleth, Hibbing, and Chisham. They have all been sold or destroyed leaving B’nai Abraham as the only remaining synagogue building.
During the High Holidays everyone came dressed in their best clothes. There was always someone like Mr. Jaffee to lead the service. There were lots of kids running up and down the aisles while their mothers were sitting upstairs in the women’s section and Mr. David Schibel, the father in law of Jeanne Schibel Gross, was trying to keep order. As loud as the kids were, he was louder. Saragrace remembers a railing going up to the shul from the outside. One year, they put prongs on it because the kids were using it as a slide.
The membership of the synagogue varied from 40 to 100 families. There were Jews in most of the little towns in the area. Some came to Virginia for the holidays like Saragrace’s relatives from Aurora, while those from Gilbert went to Eveleth.
The Jewish holidays were very important to life in the Jewish community. After Yom Kippur, most people broke their fast at home rather than in the synagogue. For Hanukah, they put on skits that they made up and performed in the synagogue, which their parents thought were wonderful. Hammentashen for Purim was also made at home. The women remember a Sukkoth in the synagogue backyard. People had parties and other events in the social hall of the synagogue. It was at such a function that Pearl first tasted Bratwurst.
They had poker games at the shul (synagogue) every Sunday night. Legally they weren’t supposed to do that, but they did it quietly. The synagogue got the “rake off” which helped support it. The community just loved these Sunday evenings and everyone would turn out for the card game and the wonderful supper that the women served.
Saragrace, with Pearl's daughter, Katie Sakol
in the background
Pearl being interviewed by Dianne Siegel
David Bourgin and Nate Keller were instrumental in starting the Jewish cemetery in Virginia the late 50’s, early 60’s. Before it was established, many of the Jewish people from Virginia were buried in Duluth and Superior. The Superior cemetery was the original cemetery. There are a lot of connections between Superior, Duluth and the Range towns. Many, many families are interrelated. The Milavitz clan in particular consists of Milavitz, Kaner, Kenner, Karon and they are spread out all over the Range names. A typical discussion between people from the Iron Range confirms many family connections. Leighton Siegel (one of the interviewers) and Saragrace decided that they were related through the Milavitz side and also the Kenner side. One of the family connections was Jane and John Siegel, who lived their whole life in Virginia, and were Leighton’s aunt and uncle. Jane’s mother was a Kenner. Leighton’s grandmother Pia Milavitz Siegel and Saragrace’s father, Abraham Kenner, were related. Much of the community had come from Lithuania. Saragrace felt that the only families that she could remember who had not were the Baers and the Kellers.
In general, the families stayed within the Jewish community for their social activities. They were a close-knit group. Everyone knew everybody’s business and if they didn’t, they made it a point to find it out. Parents were very involved in synagogue life.
Saragrace’s friends were all Jewish. Not so with Pearl. Pearl would go walking with friends who weren’t Jewish and they would be just shocked when she told them that she was Jewish. She remembers one person saying that she was a “white Jew.” One said that she didn’t think that Pearl was Jewish.
Jewish organizations thrived in Virginia, especially Hadassah and B’nai Brith. Girl Scouts were outside the community. Pearl belonged to the Girl Scouts, but felt she was on the margin and she was not very enthusiastic about the organization. As far as Saragrace knew, other organizations were also available to everyone regardless of religion. These included the Masons and the Elks. The women weren’t sure that any of the local men belonged. Pearl thought that some were. There was one women’s club, the Sunshine Club. Neither one knew quite what the group did. Saragrace’s mother thought that the members were women who had nothing else to do. Pearl’s mother worked at the clothing store and didn’t have time for such things.
Saragrace characterized her family and the other Jewish families as marvelous Americans. They flew the flag for everything. They weren’t involved in public office as far as these women knew, but they were very interested in politics. Neither remembered labor unions. The community banded together and looked after one another, especially in hard times, such as when the mines would shut down. When non-Jews were in trouble, they helped them too. Pearl remembers her mother taking over meals to people who didn’t have anything to eat. They would be neighbors or perhaps not. Saragrace said they were taught early that you never refuse anyone something to eat. If someone knocked on your door, you wouldn’t invite him in, but you would offer him something to eat. Pearl remembers that theirs was the home that all the really kosher traveling Jews came to for meals. Traveling religious Jews would pass through town trying to collect money for Yeshivahs (Rabbinic teaching facilites), at least that’s what they said. Of course no one believed them.
For fun the young people walked around the town with each other. Pearl loved to dance. She had a boyfriend, Leo Bright, with whom she would go to the dances in Eveleth and Virginia. Saragrace never went to dances. Both Pearl and Saragrace thought Virginia was really dull and they couldn’t wait to get out of there. They would walk to Eveleth every Saturday. It was a four to five mile round trip. There they would visit friends like Grace Pinkus and Phyllis Perlman and go to a special sweet shop to get pecan pie.
The High School graduating class was about 90, maybe 3 or 4 were Jewish. They think that maybe 400 kids attended the entire high school. They thought that the teachers and the education were wonderful. They reason for the excellent schools was that the money came from the mining company and they could therefore pay better salaries to teachers. When Pearl went to Northwestern University, there wasn’t a single credit that didn’t transfer. Pearl’s cousin, Eleanor Lippman, who became a schoolteacher, agreed that there weren’t any schools that were better. Saragrace would have preferred going to the University of Wisconsin but her family couldn’t afford it. So she went to the University of Minnesota.
Both women went to Junior college in Virginia and then left the community never to return except as visitors. Pearl went to college at Northwestern in Chicago and remained there. She was a social worker and married in 1935, at the age of 22, to Samuel Sakol. She went back to Virginia several times a year to visit her folks. Her mother was a champion at packaging. She would send roast duck, and roast chicken. Everyone thought it was marvelous. Her mother didn’t leave Virginia until her father had passed away. At that time she moved to Chicago to be near her daughter. Both parents were buried in the Duluth Cemetery. Her brother Sam, a meteorologists, worked at Los Alamos when it first opened, lived in Chicago and then about 30 years ago moved back to Virginia where he died in, May of 2008.
Saragrace worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago as a social worker. Saragrace married at age 27 to Dan Haffron, a doctor, and they settled in Elgin, IL. Said she, “You get out of Virginia to seek your fortune, but actually you are seeking a man.” When Saragrace met her husband, he was living in Elgin, Illinois. Her husband was looking for a Rabbi to marry them. A new Rabbi came to Elgin and he asked him if he would marry them. Saragrace went in for an interview. When she told him she was from Virginia his eyes lit up and he said, “That beautiful little shul up there? That exquisite little shul?” When he was a student Rabbi he had once come to Virginia and knew B’nai Abraham. He married them.
Exerpt from an email from Katie Sakol (Pearl's daugher) on June 4, 2008.
...it is sooooooooo great to have this. that you took SO much time to write and record it for all but, especially for me and mom and the rest of our family. What a treat and a gem to have always, now. I loved that you did it and the day was such fun and I will cherish it and pass it onto the rest of our family. Thank you sooooooooooooo very much for all your generosity.
I loved being in the synagogue again, when I was up there a few weeks ago. It always feels so good and it IS such a gem. The rabbi that married Saragrace was so right !!! I can't wait to keep hearing all about the
progress. It was fun to meet the carpenter and have him show me around from
his perspective :).
I have always thought it was a gem, and am so glad that
my mom did, and that you all do. You are doing a great mitzvah and I am
grateful !!! Be well, k