Chapter III • All This And World War II
Sweet Success • The Albert Sweet Story
Chapter III • All This And World War II
By the spring of 1937, it looked as if the economy would actually start to rebound. Was the Great Depression finally coming to an end? Many were hopeful. Production, profits, and wages had returned to their pre-1929 levels. And although the unemployment numbers remained elevated, they had dropped almost 10% from their 1933 highs. Things were beginning to look a bit brighter when suddenly, the U.S. was hit with a massive recession. The already weary public could only helplessly watch as employment and manufacturing levels headed south all over again.
To make matters worse, there were rumblings of war going on in Europe. Hitler’s Germany had already annexed the Rhineland and had begun testing their army’s weaponry on an expanded scale. The Nazi’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in early 1939 managed to exasperate an already tense situation. As the Sweet family struggled to makes ends meet amidst overwhelming economic challenges in New York, their concerns for the safety of Sam’s family back in Poland continued to escalate…
We use to save our money. And with whatever little money we had, once a month, we’d send a package of food, maybe some clothes, whatever they needed, to my father’s family back in Poland. We would have done the same with my mother’s family, but there was no one to send anything to in Russia. This went on until about 1939 when Hitler made a pact with the Russians to split Poland in half, and things got real tough.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazis, working together with the Russians, ruthlessly invaded Poland and divided it up. Britain, which had remained neutral in the conflict for nearly three years, could do so no longer, and declared war on Germany two days later. France, Australia, and New Zealand quickly followed suit. World War II had officially begun – although it would be another two years before the United States would get pulled into it.
The United States’ participation in the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, allowed millions to return to the workforce after a decade of crippling economic depression. Vast quantities of food and supplies had to be sent to the American forces and their Allies overseas. Overnight, tens of millions of workers moved from low-productivity occupations to high-efficiency jobs, while students, retired people, housewives, and the unemployed, all became active members of the labor force.
Before the war, my father had a lot of different jobs. I don’t remember what they were. I do remember that when he would leave the house, he’d usually find some kind of work. He would go downtown where most of the people were, get on the subway, and pick up work – whatever he could do to make some money. He was tenacious, he didn’t give up. I don’t think he was ever depressed about it. He just had a real good attitude.
But once World War II broke out, my father was working steady. He had a pretty good job. He went to work at a place that made bullet dyes. And so he learned a lot about tool and dye making. He became very skilled at this and made a good living during the war. Even my sister Helen was able to get a good job after graduating from high school, working for the Diamond Dealers Club in Manhattan, which happened to be right across the street from where my father worked.
Prior to the discovery of the true extent of the Nazis’ atrocities toward Jews and others during the war, Hitler was frequently a target of ridicule by comedians and others in the entertainment industry. Who could forget, for example, Moe Howard’s goofy portrayal of the German leader in a couple of Three Stooges shorts, or Charlie Chaplin’s uncanny spoof of the Fuehrer in the 1940 film The Great Dictator? This irreverence was not lost on Al’s father Sam, who loved to shock those attending various family get-togethers…
His favorite joke when we were at a family gathering was to propose a toast to Adolph Hitler. Now remember, this was a Jewish family! People would be shocked and say, “Adolph Hitler, are you crazy?” He would then say, “Yeah, well until we had the war here, I was unemployed.” That was his shtick.
Besides figuring out various ways to make money, young Al was passionate about reading. Keeping up with the ever evolving aspects of the war was something he actively pursued, since it directly affected his father’s family back in Poland.
During World War II, Von Ribbentrop was Hitler’s Foreign Minister and Molotov was the Foreign Minister for Russia. How many ten year old kids would remember such things? I learned to read early, so I would always read the newspaper. They’d show the battle lines where the Germans and Russians were.
I knew all about the battle of Stalingrad and the battle of Leningrad. Not too many people know what happened in Leningrad. It was in the northern part of the country and very cold. Millions of people froze to death. And you’d read about it and see pictures of people pulling dead bodies through the streets in order to bury them.
So I knew about Russia. I knew about Germany. I knew about Poland. The reason why I was so interested was because half of my father’s family was over there. He had his mother, brothers, sisters, and cousins, and it was a terrible, terrible place.
Tragically, once Hitler’s invasion of Poland had taken place, the Sweet family never again heard from those members of Sam’s family who had remained behind. It was eventually assumed that all had perished in Nazi concentration camps.
To this day, I still remember a lot of what I read about the war. It’s history now, but back then, it was current events. My sister and I resolved that we would start working with our parents and prepare them for the U.S. citizenship examination. I think my parents were afraid that they might get deported. From the beginning, they always wanted to become American citizens. In fact, everyone in our family who came over here eventually became citizens.
According to Al’s Zaydeh (Zaydeh is the Yiddish word for grandfather), reading the newspaper and helping parents study for an exam was all very well and good. But what about reading the Torah? Zaydeh was an imposing figure who insisted that his grandson re-direct his attention and begin to focus on religion. Therefore, the pressure to study the scriptures and avoid associating with non-Jewish kids was always front and center. Al enjoyed his friendships with the various multi-cultural friends in the neighborhood and simply couldn’t relate to his grandfather’s prejudice against them.
My grandfather wanted me to go to Hebrew school, which I put off for a long time. He used to say he loved me, and we were pretty tight. And I loved him. But when I’d be playing ball with the other kids on the street, I’d have to look out for him. He’d be wearing his long black coat and cane. And when I’d see him coming, I would have to hide. This was because he assumed every kid I played with wasn’t Jewish. And as a result, he’d say I was going to grow up to be a bum.
At some point, my grandfather moved out of our house. I think it was sometime during the war. For some reason after that, we never went to go visit him. But I loved my grandfather and wanted to see him. So I got a hold of his address.
Now, there was no way my parents would allow me to have a bike because the streets of New York were really scary. But another friend of mine had an uncle who had a bike store downtown. And so I went down and got a bike and brought it back in pieces: handle bars, front and rear wheels, seat, etc. And I put it together, locked it up with a chain, and hid it in the basement of our house.
Now one of the reasons I got the bike was so I could go visit my grandfather. And what would happen was my grandfather would teach Bible stories to me in Yiddish. But by this time, he was too old to bend over and cut his own toenails. So he gave me the scissors and I’d trim them for him. And this really made an impression on some of his friends where he lived, that somebody cared enough for him to come to his home and cut his nails. He was really proud of it. To me it was great and made me feel like I was giving back.
And soon thereafter, the grandfather’s prayers of seeing his grandson get into Hebrew School were answered…
I finally did end up getting accepted into Hebrew School. We had these little schools, storefront synagogues. When the people couldn’t afford to build a temple or synagogue, they rented a store and the rabbi would come and teach there. And I did get bar mitzvah’d. I did a good job and everybody was proud of me.
At the time, I was smaller than everybody else. I didn’t mature physically until about the age of 14. At my bar mitzvah, I said that my ambition in life was to be five feet tall. And guess what? I gained a foot right after my bar mitzvah. In fact, you could almost see me growing.