Breckenridge woman recalls 90 years of history
BRECKENRIDGE – Esther Friedman was 6 years old when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I.
The Breckenridge woman hails from old Russian Jewish stock. And her history is old as well, dating to the days when her grandparents were merchants, and Jewish children were not permitted to attend school.
“My father was a mere teacher,” she said. “And my mother came from a wealthy family. You know the old story: Romeo and Juliet.”
Her parents emigrated to Chicago in 1903, where her father – full-grown and married – entered the first grade to learn English. Friedman was born and raised there and attended the Chicago Normal School.
She also witnessed first-hand the challenges of the early 20th century. Friedman survived chicken pox, measles, mumps and scarlet fever. A 2-year-old brother died of diphtheria. A sister was born dead. A second brother lived to 79.
When Friedman was 15, her older sister died, leaving a daughter to raise. The girl’s father, Maurice, eventually moved in with the Friedmans – and married a friend of his late wife’s, taking the child with them.
“Much to my chagrin and anger,” Friedman said. “I was so angry at my mother and father for letting this happen. The woman was a fine woman, but the one thing she lacked was affection. She could not unbend to this child.”
That wasn’t the first time Friedman would be exposed to prejudice, but it was among the factors that formed her constitution.
A few years later, she met her soon-to-be husband, Sidney, on a blind date.
“I sure didn’t like him,” she said. “I thought he was fresh. He’d put his arm around me and pull me to him, and I didn’t think that was proper. I guess he was trying to make an impression.”
Sidney worked at a bank, but lost his job when Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks to prevent a run on the money within. The new couple moved in with her mother and worked odd jobs to keep the household afloat.
“My father wanted me to be a teacher so badly,” Friedman said. “I jut couldn’t see that. Teachers were old maids, and I certainly was not going to be an old maid.”
Friedman remembers getting paid in scrip – IOUs – that merchants didn’t accept readily. She remembers the stock market crash of 1929, when her father would come home pale after learning another client had jumped to his death from a window.
From the Depression came the second World War.
“That’s the only way we come out of these dumps, is war,” she said of the ensuing economic recovery. “There were jobs. World War I brought a whole change in our culture. Women went out in the world, they took the men’s jobs.”
Sidney, an Army infantryman, was away for two years, leaving Friedman with two sons to raise.
After the war, Friedman’s parents divorced, and Friedman and her husband followed her mother to California. In Los Angeles, Sidney got a job as a milkman, and she began her long stint as a volunteer in the school district. Once, while walking home, one of the “snotty rich kids” from North Hollywood prevented her from crossing the street by pretending to try to run her over. A friend driving by in another vehicle rescued her, but Friedman was angry.
“They deprived me of my freedom,” she said.
She was further angered during the McCarthy era, when Jewish friends and neighbors were accosted by federal agents seeking out communist insurgents in America.
“It devastated me,” she said. “How could we fight such a war and see such devastation of humanity and start it again in our own country?”
She signed peace petitions, attended rallies and protested against the government’s insistence that Japanese-Americans were traitors. She knocked on doors urging people to register to vote. She defended herself against her husband when he suggested she might end up in jail.
“(Nathan Hale) said, “I am sorry I have but one life to give to my country,'” she said. “I said, if he was willing to give his life for his country, we have to be willing to keep it alive. It’s the principle. You don’t give in to these people. The most un-American thing was happening in America.”
She thinks President Bush is doing the same, 50 years later.
“It’s happened once before,” she said. “Even in temple they got so frightened. That’s what happened in Germany.”
Throughout the decades she spent tutoring children, Friedman was always there to right the wrong and defend the underdog.
She recalls a teacher – the wife of a minister – who was ignoring the Korean and black children in her lessons. She remembers a teacher – a born-again Christian – who proselytized to the students. Both instances, Friedman stepped in.
“I don’t know how people can hold such hatred,” she said. “I don’t know why people want to close others out of their lives. People are people. They all suffer the same things, an they all want what all people want: to work, give their children food, clothing, an education and a roof over their head.”
Beginning in her early 40s, Friedman created books in Braille, punching in the variations of six tiny dots to help the blind read. She did that for 20 years.
She believes everyone is a hero, because everyone has something to offer others – and life is rarely easy. She attributes her long life to luck, and her sharp mind to reading and doing crossword puzzles.
“Ninety years is an awful long time to live,” she said. “When you stop and think, where has the time gone? How did you get so old, Esther?”
Her relatives insist she’s not and already have started making plans for her 100th birthday.
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