The war years: A Jew in Asheville

Jerry Sternberg


In my last column, I related the incident in 1939 that prompted the local Jewish community to band together and establish a place where we could meet in safety — a home of our own.

In 1940, this dream came true. The community bought a very large, spooky-looking, two-story house overlooking Charlotte Street. Ironically, it was only about 200 yards down from where William Pelley and his Jew-hating Silver Shirts had their headquarters.

The Great Depression was still handcuffing the country, and money was scarce. The members pitched in to do some remodeling, but it was an old house, and the furnishings were used and somewhat shabby.

For us kids, however, it was a magical place where the members of both the liberal and conservative local synagogues could come together in a secular Jewish environment. Here we could overcome the loneliness of being a very small minority in Asheville and come together for great activities such as singing Jewish songs, dancing to Jewish music, putting on plays, participating in sports and Jewish holiday activities, and just hanging with other Jewish kids. We could also speak openly about our culture without fear of offending the members of the Christian community, many of whom viewed us as children of a lesser god.

Shortly after the Jewish Community Center opened, a very generous benefactor gave the money to add a large, attractive social hall. This whole series of events turned out to be astonishingly serendipitous.

In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and our new JCC became a host for the local Jewish Welfare Board, a sort of USO for Jewish servicemen stationed at installations such as Camp Croft in the Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., area, as well as for patients in our local military hospitals.

Pitching in

As part of our war effort, the whole community joined hands to welcome and entertain these mostly young soldiers. Families would invite the men to spend a weekend in their homes. On Friday night, they would enjoy a traditional Sabbath dinner, and the family would take them to services at one of the synagogues. On Saturdays, we would give them a tour of the town, and on Saturday nights, we held dances with a band in the social hall.

It was interesting to meet these young men and hear their stories. Many had been drafted right out of high school, and after growing up in insular communities in big cities like New York, they were experiencing extreme culture shock in the Jim Crow South. In the later years, we began to host older, battle-hardened men, many of whom were treated at Moore General Hospital in Swannanoa, particularly for tropical diseases.

The dance was always a wonderful event. Serving mixed alcoholic beverages was illegal in North Carolina, so it was up to the customers to find their own alcohol. I was in my early teens, and I would help serve ice and mixers. Our lone — but very popular — menu item was a huge New York kosher hot dog served with a kosher pickle from Schandler’s, a downtown Asheville fixture for many years.

In addition, I made change for our six slot machines. At first, a typewriter mechanic kept them working. Luckily, he also showed me how to fix most problems, because suddenly, he was drafted, and it fell to me to repair the machines. It helped that my dad owned a junkyard, so when some law enforcement official would bust up a bunch of one-armed bandits and bring them in for scrap, I was able to salvage parts to keep ours operating.

Before one passes judgment on the morality of gambling and whether a teenager ought to be performing such tasks, keep in mind that the center was on a bare-bones budget, and the revenue from these machines helped keep the doors open so we could provide those services to our service personnel. In any case, gambling is gambling, whether it be slot machines, raffles or church bingo.

Also, the 1930s saw a terrible depression followed by a world war, and we young people grew up fast. We could get a driver’s license at 15, and many drove tractors and big trucks. To put this in perspective, one of my summer jobs was hauling dead horses, mules and cattle in a pickup truck to my dad’s rendering plant. Because our able-bodied men had been sent away to save our country, we “kids” did work of all kinds that was well beyond our years.

Dreams come true

The Jewish servicemen continued to come to our community till the end of the war. We youngsters were so proud to have them in our homes, and we loved hearing their war stories. Once, one of our soldiers took me out to his barracks at Moore General, where he showed me around and introduced me to his comrades. I felt thrilled to be with these great men who were serving our country.

Our guests came from all walks of life. The most famous one was a soldier named Zero Mostel, who went on to have a successful career as a stage and movie actor, including starring in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.

My parents developed lifelong friendships with some of these men. Some came back and married local Jewish women whom they’d met at the parties; others subsequently moved here with their families because they loved our community so much.

For a time during the war, overt antisemitism died down in the community. I have a very vivid memory, however, of some kids stopping in front of our house one night and making a lot of noise. I rushed to the window in time to see one of my classmates from school throw a trash can through our front door, shouting “Jew! Jew! Jew!” I recognized him immediately because he was very tall. I told my father, but he declined to press charges because he just didn’t want to make waves. The irony is that several years later, this same guy married a Jewish girl from a prominent family, and I assume they lived happily ever after.

To close out this chapter I would like to recount one of my proudest moments at the JCC.

On Nov. 29, 1947, many of us gathered at the center to watch and pray for the passage of U.N. Resolution 181, which called for partitioning Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish entities. This led to the creation of the state of Israel. Seeing this 2,000-year-old dream come true, no one could hold back their tears and shouts of joy.

Look for “Cultural Divide,” the next installment in this series, in an upcoming issue of Xpress.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at


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