Oldest Soldier in the World, Served Czar and in Civil War (1918)

This article was published 100 years ago today:

OLDEST SOLDIER IN THE WORLD TO UNFURL FLAG

“The oldest soldier in the world, an inmate of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged Association, will raise the American flag over the Home at 131 S. Boyle avenue, Sunday, April 14. He is Mr. B. Corn, 110 years of age, who served 35 years for Czar Nicholas I. He was taken from him parents’ home when a mere child of eight years and was forced into the army training school where he suffered for many years and was forced to abandon the Jewish religion. He finally escaped to the United States where, under the protection of the Stars and Stripes, he shared in the liberty to worship in the Jewish faith. He became a soldier in the Union Army and served under General Grant.

“To his pride, once again, in the last of his life, he will raise the American flag over the Home for the Aged while the children of the Jewish Orphans Home will participate by singing “America.” All are invited to witness the grand scene.”

– – Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, April 12, 1918

There are many Jewish people who came to the United States as veterans of the czarist army. There were also many people who came to avoid being drafted by the Russians army.At the time that Mr. Corn was drafted, any male between the age of 12 and 25 years old could be conscripted for a standard service of 25 years.

On account of the extremely long conscription, some Russian Jewish young men cut off their trigger finger to avoid being drafted. I have several friends who clearly remember their grandfather thus having one shorter finger; though people rarely mentioned the reason why.

However, Mr. Corn was like many Jews who did service in the czarist Imperial Russian Army, where he suffered greatly.

The Gless House

The Gless House was the early location of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged, located at 131 S. Boyle Avenue.

It’s amazing that after all that, while advanced in years he served in the righteous ranks of the Union Army, to put down the Confederate slave-state rebellion and defend the freedom of the United States.

It also very touching that as Mr. Corn raised the flag over the Jewish Home for the Aged, which at the time was located at the old Gless House, where he had become a resident, that the choir was led by children from the Jewish Orphans Home, which at the time was located in a boarding house across the street from Hollenbeck Park. The children in the choir would have been around the age he was when he was taken into the czar’s army.

The Russian Cantons: The Draft of Jewish Boys

And one of the common Eastern European Jewish family stories is the epic of how their family members or ancestors were sent away lest they be taken by the czarist Russian army.

Today, I ask us to consider the life of a Russian Jews boys who were subjected to the czar’s draft in the 19th century.

This was a real and terrifying concern.

Czar Nicholas I ordered that the Russian draft into the Imperial army also apply to the Jewish communities in 1827. At that time the scare of conscription was extended to potentially affect every single young Jewish boy.

Though it is important to note that it wouldn’t have been the Russians who would have selected and taken the young Jewish boys… it’s a bit more complicated than that. The terrible task of selection was done by the “kahal,” by the Jewish community body. And it was them who handed the young boys of their community over to the Russians.

And because of this authority of selection being in the hands of the men of the community, it happened that a disproportionate amount of those selected were children. This was further justified based on the idea that these boys didn’t yet have a family and dependents to support. So the younger ones were often sent instead of the more mature youths.

And when young men could not be found to fulfill the quota, they would start to take boys as young as eight years old, and sometimes even younger. Taking these boys from their families, the kahal would often employ their own informants and send “khappers” (kidnappers), to steal these Jewish boys before they could be hid or sent away by their family.

They were then taken by the community and handed over to the army for 25 years. Some 30,000 to 50,000 Jewish children were taken to be conscripted into the cantonist army schools and prepared for service in the Imperial army.

Though Jews were drafted into the army, they were limited in the roles they could serve. Only about 8 people are known to have risen above Russian racial nationalistic policies.

Most often the boys were deprived of their Jewish practice and pressured to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. And some did – as much as one-third of the young Jewish boys converted to Christianity – for better treatment and opportunities. Though many more struggled to maintain their Jewish identity under impossible circumstances.

In 1856 this policy would be abolished by the by Czar Alexander II, thought it would take a few years to entirely abolish the canton policy. All unconverted young men under 20 years old were then given back to their parents. All those who had converted were given to their Christian godparents.

The liberation of the Jewish boys drafted into the cantons would have be undone just a few years before Mr. Corn would have joined the Union Army and served under General Grant during the American Civil War.

A lot of people have history of their ancestors suffering from, or fleeing conscription.

Though the family story of fleeing conscription is common, it should be noted that Jews are not to be characterized as draft dodgers, as YIVO states:

“Between 1874 and 1914, there were more Jews in the Russian army than non-Jews in proportion to the general population. For example, in 1907, Jewish soldiers constituted almost 5 percent of the entire military but only 4 percent of the population of the empire. These figures make obsolete any vociferous right-wing criticism of the “Jewish draft dodging” that after 1882 and especially after 1905 was considered a collective crime of Jews in Russian political discourse.”

Then later on Jews would also have to deal with fears of Russian Army conscription during the communist revolution. And at that time would send Jewish young men abroad, some of which would come here to America.

We would start to get a lot more Jewish Russian army veterans here in Los Angeles in the first couple decades of the 20th century.

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  • The Cantonist Saga – A horrific era when Jewish boys were forced into 25 years of Russian military service. (Aish)
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The Japanese Diplomat and the Yeshiva Bochurs of Shanghai

As we are ending the observance of Yom ha-Shoah – the Hebrew date for the observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, I would like us to consider this inspirational story.The Bnei Brith Messenger in July of 1946 made this announcement for an upcoming event to be held in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles:

“Ex-Yeshiva Students Shanghai Refugees Awaited Here

“Fleeing the death chambers and concentration camps of Poland, only to find hardships and misery in Shanghai, as prisoners of war, about thirty former students of the Lubavitcher Rabbi, Joseph I. Schneerson, have been enabled, through its efforts to come to the United States.

“About seventeen of them will arrive in Los Angeles on the 16th or 17th of July, and a reception is being planned in their honor by Los Angeles Jewry.

“At a meeting held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Wecksler, Monday night, a group of distinguished rabbis and laymen laid plans for the forthcoming reception, and for the maintenance of these refugees until steps can be taken for their future welfare in the country.

“RECEPTION SUNDAY

“Arrangements have been made for a reception in their honor by a committee headed by Harry Altman and Max Weksler, to be held Sunday evening, July 21, in the Jewish Home for the Aged, 325 South Boyle Ave, at a dinner.

“Others on the committee are…”

Then it gives the names of the people on the committee.

Lastly, it lists this amazing line-up of entertainment for the fete:

“Among those who will be entertain at the program will be Cantors Itzikel Schiff and Joseph Czycowski, accompanied by the world renowned composer Cantor Paul Discount.”

Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, July 19, 1946; Page: 17

The students had been studying at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Otwock, a suburb of Warsaw, when Nazi troops invaded Poland in September of 1939.

Refugee yeshivah students arrive in Shanghai

Refugee yeshivah students arrive in Shanghai, China.

Together the group of yeshivah students, managed to make it to Lithuania, where they obtained transit visas from Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kaunas (Kovno), enabling them to cross the Soviet Union and spend the war years in the relative safety of Kobe, Japan and Japanese-controlled Shanghai, arriving in 1941.

There they would suffer much hardship – the exhaustion of the journey had worn them down. And thn they faced years of being held as prisoners of war, suffering from everything from the extreme change in climate to food poisoning. They were then liberated finally after the end of the war in the Pacific.

Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during WWII

Students and rabbis at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during World War II

After the war they would come to America by way of Los Angeles in 1946, to be welcomed and given support as they came to establish themselves in this country.

Though one of those refugee students would play an important role in establishing the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Los Angeles. In 1948, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Raichik would be sent by the sixth Rebbe – Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory – sent the newly-married scholar to Los Angeles as his representative in California.

Notably, Rabbi Raichik would be one of the disciples of the sixth Rebbe who would plead with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Raichik would be given the mandate by the rebbe to not just focus on building up one synagogue in the city of Los Angeles, but to spread out across the entire city and surrounding area.

Today Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the most widespread Jewish movements in greater Los Angeles.

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Now let us take a look at the life of the Japanese diplomat who came to the rescue. And also take a peek at a monument in downtown Los Angeles which honors the hero of this story.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial
(January 1, 1900- July 31, 1986)
Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles

The Talmud states: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.” This verse is written on the base of this monument to Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara – you will find it right next to a Starbucks off Central Avenue in Little Toyko, just over the river in downtown Los Angeles.

Chiune "Shempo" Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.

The statue was a gift of public art from the Neman Foundation and Levy Affiliated Holdings, LLC, honoring this hero.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park wrote a wonderful biography about this hero:

“Sempo Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania who issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees of the Holocaust. Though he did not have authority from the Japanese government to do so, Sugihara is said to have saved approximately 7,000 Jewish refugees though his efforts.

“Sugihara was posted in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939. At the time, the Japanese government required that transit visas only be granted to those who had sufficient funds, and who had also procured an exit visa from Japan.

“Seeing the desperate condition of the men and women who came to his office, Sugihara, a low-level bureaucrat, disobeyed orders dispatched from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and issued visas anyway.

[Including those given to the Lubavitch yeshiva bochurs who ended up in Shanghai.]

“From August to September, 1941, Sugihara worked 18-20 hours per day, creating the same volume of visas each day that would have ordinarily been issued over the course of a month. Even as his office was shut down and he was leaving Kaunas, he threw visas to refugees waiting on the train platform.

“After the war, Sugihara was asked to resign from his post by the Japanese Foreign Office. It is unclear whether this was a punitive action, but nonetheless Sugihara spent the rest of his life working menial jobs, and settled in the Soviet Union for many years. He was eventually recognized for his efforts in 1985, and named ‘Righteous Among the Nations‘ by Yad Vashem. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986, largely unknown in his native Japan.

“When asked why he risked his career to save other people, he cited an old samurai proverb: “Even the hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.”

This is some deep history here.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara faced great danger. He didn’t just follow orders when he saw Jews suffering, he did everything he could to save them. He came to the rescue of so many Jewish people whose lives hung in the balance, even though it endangered him and his family. And on account of his defiant act, he would lose his career in the end.

And though when he died he was virtually unknown in his own country, he became well honored posthumously by the Jewish people all around the world.

Every time I am in Little Tokyo I see people pass this statue. Even Jewish people I know, even those who are normally in the know historically, they often miss this one. So I regularly find myself point it out to friends.

And now each time you pass, I ask you to remember how a righteous act by this Japanese diplomat half a world away would help Jews fleeing the Nazi find shelter in Japanese territories. And consider how his act of salvation of just one of these fleeing yeshiva students would benefit chassidic orthodox Judaism in Los Angeles so much.

Imagine what stories might be told of the other thousands of people Sugihara rescued!

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An Anti-Fascist Chanukah, Los Angeles (1940)

Hollywood and Boyle Heights celebrating Chanukah together

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, lighing the menorah in Hollywood

Shmuel Gonzales the Barrio Boychik, saying the Hebrew blessings and lighting the Chanukah lights in Hollywood with the hosts of “Two Jews Talking” Podcast.

This year I had the great pleasure of joining my dear friends Josh Heller and Erika Brooks Adickman of the fantastic Two Jews Talkingpodcast to help them light-up the holiday of Chanukah. I’ve had the honor of being on their show a couple times previously, so I was totally thrilled to be asked to come back to celebrate the holidays with them.

We came together on the eighth and final night of Chunukah at Tabula Rasa Bar in East Hollywood to kindle the fullness of the Chanukah lights and spread light across city. This event was part of Infinite Light, a city-wide festival powered by Nu Roots – “a movement of young people building community across L.A.” which is funded by generous grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Now Josh knows what my interests are, so he asked for historical stories about Chanukah in the early 20th century which shed light on the history of Jews in Hollywood… and maybe even throw in some stories about labor movement or antifascist organizing. Something to inspire us in this dark time of political resistance.

Now this was a tall order… one that I thought might require a holiday miracle!

And just then I remembered reading an old newspaper article from the Bnei Brith Messenger from December 1940, about a very special Chanukah celebration which in that year would bring together the people of Hollywood and my neighborhood of Boyle Heights to address fascism.

I had a really great time! I’m really grateful to have spent the holiday with some dear friends, and to share the season’s joy with new friends as well.

For those of you who weren’t able to join us and hear the interview, you can listen to the live recording from the party on the latest episode “Two Jews Talking” podcast in the link below:

Two Jews Talking Logo

https://art19.com/shows/2-jews-talking/episodes/1937e0ea-1db7-4b97-a77b-2a9f8017a007/embed?theme=dark-blue

And below you will find a more detailed written history and some fascinating sources on this topic.

Chag urim sameach… happy festival of lights!


The history of Chanukah Balls and Banquets in the early-20th century.

Jewish Chanukah 8-Day Feast Begins. “The holidays are welcomed especially by the children, for Chanukah has become largely a children’s festival.”
From the Los Angeles Herald, December 16, 1919

In the first half of the 20th century in Los Angeles, Chanukah was seen as mostly a child’s holiday. The synagogue Hebrew schools would host all day celebrations for the small children. And for the the older youth, the ladies of society would host balls in the grand ballrooms to encourage the mingling of Jewish young people.

Then around 1915 these events would become more and more cause-related, and often tendered to in some way be focused on the national matters, matters which were important to Jewish people and the American nation at large. In this spirit they would begin to hold charity events for causes, such as war relief amidst the First World War.

And in the zealous national theme of the holiday of Chanukah – and in the spirit of the times in regard to the aspirations of many people for the establishment of a haven for Jews in Palestine – for those so inclined to the almost Maccabean sentiments of the time, the holiday events would also at times begin to take focus around Zionism. Though it must be noted that this would most certainly become a secondary cause for many Jews, in the face of more pressing domestic and international issues.

Then taking the lead in organizing Chanukah functions starting in the 1920s was the AZAAleph Zadik Aleph – a fraternal group dedicated to patriotism, Judaism, love for one’s familial elders, and charity; today they are a junior auxiliary of BBYO – the Bnei Brith Youth Organization.

And that was what celebrations for Chanukah were like in the early 20th century; something between a mixer for Jewish young people and a charity ball.

It is out of this mold that would emerge a tradition of Chanukah celebrations being held by junior auxiliaries and charitable societies, in order to rally people around a cause.

Also worth noting is that over the years children’s Chanukah celebrations in Los Angeles would also be enriched by the magic of Hollywood; with local theaters being booked to show, “Motion pictures of a religious and historic nature will be shown, through the courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios. Parents also are invited.”

Chanukah parties were sponsored and held in theaters which showed motions pictures of “a religious and historic nature,” shown through the courtesy of Warner. Bros. Studios.
Bnei Brith Messenger, Dec 4. 1940 Chanukah

In the backdrop of Hollywood, Chanukah in Los Angeles would flourish as a holiday.

The year Hollywood and Boyle Heights Celebrated Chanukah as a Resistance to Fascism

Now tonight we are going to talk about one Chanukah celebration that would bring the Jewish community of Hollywood out to Boyle Heights in the year of 1940 for a matter that was very important to the Jewish people, the American nation, and all the nations of the world. To address the threat of fascism which was ravaging Europe, and causing discord domestically in American.

This Chanukah luncheon would attract some of the finest people of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the banquet hall of the Jewish Home for the Aged, then located in Boyle Heights.

ida-and-mary-pickford-holding-hands-watermark

Ida Mayer Cummings (oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM) and actress Mary Pickford would fund-raise for charities together for over two decades. Photographs provided courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

Among them would be the famous silent film actress Mary Pickford. For over 20 years the Hollywood actress would involve herself in philanthropy and charity fund-raising. It is important to note that among the most notable stories in Boyle Heights history are those of her charity events she co-hosted along with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged. The actress was often the celebrity draw for charity banquets such as these.

Though the most important and interesting person behind the success these events would be Ida Mayer Cummings, the older sister of Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios. She was a notable socialite and charity fund-raiser who was connected to all the important people of business, industry, as well as the religious, civic and philanthropic leadership. And by all accounts, an amazing organizer and larger than-life character who touched many with her gripping appeals.

In the researching of this story I have been in contact with Ida’s great-grand-daughter Alicia Mayer, who has been help in opening up the family photo albums and scrap book. And sharing some interesting details about the Mayer family and their charity work. She relates that Bob Hope said of Ida that “she was the only woman he knew who could grab a man by the lapels over the phone.”

And she knew more than a few things about how to bring a crowd of influential people together as well.

This one holiday event for Chanukah in the year of 1940 drew out a record crowd of the big movers and shakers of the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood itself – over 500 guests. This luncheon attracted an amazingly diverse group of studio heads, actors, politicians, a bishop, a rabbi, members of the most wealthy families of the city, as well as thrilled young socialites.

They had all eagerly come out that day to hear a most special keynote speaker to address the current crisis threating the Jewish people and the world.

Ida + Mrs William Gibbs McAdoo daughter of Woodrow Wilson watermark

Ida Mayer Cummings with Eleanor Wilson McAdoo at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Boyle Heights in December 18th 1940. Picture courtesy of the Alicia Mayer Collection.

The greatly anticipated speaker was Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, the youngest daughter of former President Woodrow Wilson. She would address the Nazi threat in Europe and the sad spirit of isolationism which had gripped the American public, and the anti-refugee rhetoric which was prohibiting Jewish refugees from immigrating to America.

Keep in mind that it was already two years after Kristallnacht erupted in Germany and the invasion of Austria, and a whole year after the invasion of Poland… yet, it was still a year prior the attack on Pearl Harbor which would eventually draw the United States into the war.

Mrs. McAdoo contended that “democracy and humanity are at stake.” And charged that the United States “seemed to be indifferent to the present war.”

All this spoken correctly at a time when the war was going from bad to worse. Little did the people attending this banquet know that on this very day Hitler would order the execution of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasions of Russia.

Rabbi Solomon M. Neches of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, the Palestinian-born Jewish leader who was considered the orthodox Chief Rabbi of Los Angeles at the time, also addressed the crowd with a dvar torah/sermon, as reported in the Los Angeles Herald:

“The first words of the Lord recorded in the Bible are, ‘Let There be Light’. No one can live in darkness. Every year the Jew rededicates himself to the spreading of the light through the world.

“We shall continue to do so despite Adolph – we do not mention the rest of his name. Adolphs or no Adolphs, Israel will still go on. What we suffer is only temporary.

“Surely, in the final reckoning, light will triumph over darkness.”

As President of the Junior Auxiliary for the Home for the Aged, Ida Mayer Cummings addressed the crowd. That year Chanukah just happened to coincided with Christmas that year, which doesn’t always happen. It is likely with this in mind that she made the following statements and reflections for the holidays:

“Our Chanukah lights are set on a background of darkness, the gloom of a world at war, with bigotry rampant. Against this blackness our Chanukah lights gleam the brighter, with promise of a future of peace and goodwill, that same peace and goodwill stressed in the Christian Christmas.”

This was followed with the saying of the national anthem and singing of songs, and many rounds of thunderous applause.

This was an amazing display of resistance to fascism. They were resisting the normalization of the Nazi darkness that had descended upon and was spreading across Europe. They were boldly standing up to the isolationism which had a firm grip on the American public at the time.

However, what is largely unknown this side of history is that this assembly was also resisting Nazism and fascism here in the city of Los Angeles as well. Just a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, the American manifestation of the Nazi party was actively recruiting and advocating for Nazi Germany at the headquarters of the German American Bund.

Despite the strong Jewish presence in Hollywood… or I should say, in spite of the Jews in Hollywood… Nazi-sympathizing and antisemitism had made much inroads into Los Angeles society, and through out the country. In an age in which nationalism was still fashionable and in a time when people attended controversial political meetings was common, national socialism could be founded in the mix. As well as various assortments of fascist sympathizers as well.

Indeed, early on Mary Pickford herself – this most famous actress of the silent film era, known simple as “America’s Sweetheart” – early on she was know for being vocally pro-fascist, praising Mussolini when he came to power. Pickford even praised Hitler as late as 1937. Like many people she thought these men were strong leaders who were out to make their nation strong for their own people, and sympathized with their aims and rhetoric. However, in the next few years she appears to have shifted in her views when their genocidal intent became clear and evident. Pickford would feel so repentant that she would even write a whole chapter confessing this in her memoirs titled, “Sunshine and Shadow” printed in 1955.

What is important to note is that Mary Pickford would make amends for years to come through charity work starting around 1940, especially focusing on advocating on behalf of the elderly. And so she quickly become very active in helping Ida Mayer Cummings with the Junior Auxiliary for the Jewish Home for the Aged, and would remain actively involved with them for the next two decades. Pickford would actually raise enough money to build an entire new wing for the Jewish home, which was dedicated and named in her honor.

It is also important and right to point out that Pickford was as a conservative – she was far from being a Hollywood liberal and radical – yet she unabashedly threw her support behind the Jewish people and the antifascist cause at this Chanukah luncheon in 1940.

The turn out of Los Angeles and Hollywood society to the Jewish Home for the Ages in Boyle Heights on this special holiday was certainly impressive… and also really bold.

Actually, it was more bold that you might imagine.

NaziFlagDowntownLosAngelesBroadwayHeadquartersThere is one shocking fact that was kept secret from the public until it was recently revealed by scholars, how from the Nazis headquarter in downtown Los Angeles there where American fascists who were even planning terrorist attacks on the Jewish public. They were plotting to kidnap 20 Jewish Hollywood studio heads and their allies, and execute them in order to kick off an American pogrom. While also planning on going on a terrorist rampage with machine guns, to kill as many people as possible in the densely populated Jewish community of Boyle Heights.

This plot and its foiling detailed in a pair of excellent books recently published. “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America” by Steven J. Ross, and “Hollywood’s Spies: The Undercover Surveillance of Nazis in Los Angeles” by Laura Rosenzweig.

These types of threats were being thwarted by Jewish anti-fascists and their supporters in Hollywood, and yet somehow remained a closely guarded secret by these leaders, many of them sitting in that very room.

And that is what really strikes me. That what these people were doing was not just politically bold to take this position regarding American’s disgraceful foreign policy of isolationism in the pre-war years… they were actually resisting fascism… fascism which was not just a threat to Jews in Europe, for indeed they were also showing resistance to the normalization of fascism that could be seen on the streets of Los Angeles.

It amazes and inspires me that against this backdrop, they boldly choose to come out and face the darkness with light!

Special thanks to Alicia Mayer, great-grand-daughter of Ida Mayer Cummings who was the oldest sister of Louis B. Mayer’s family; for opening up the family photo albums and scrapbook archives, and sharing this information to help me make this storytelling possible. 

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