Celebrating the History of Contra Costa County’s Jewish Community

Celebrating the History of Contra Costa County’s Jewish Community

‘Pioneers to the Present’ exhibition shares unique stories and hosts special events.

The page proffered by Melinda McCrary, executive director of the Richmond Museum of History, recounts an amazing story. In 1939, Polish Jew Fred Hendeles escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and made his way thousands of miles through Eastern Europe, before finally voyaging to San Francisco. According to the page from the March 26, 1943, issue of Fore ‘n’ Aft, Kaiser Shipyards weekly magazine, he “immediately came to work in Yard One as a steamfitter’s helper on the outfitting dock.”

Hendeles volunteered for the draft, went to school four nights a week to study English, and one to study pipefitting. The article quotes him saying, “Suppose there were no America—what would happen to the rest of the world?” According to McCrary, Hendeles went on to become a very successful businessman in Los Angeles, where several institutions are named for him.

This story is part of the new exhibition, Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa County, opening at the museum on Jan. 13 and running through June 30. The presentation includes articles, photographs, artifacts, and anecdotes gathered during months of painstaking research by McCrary and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Jenkins.

The inspiration for the exhibit dates back years. “When I was young, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and it stayed with me,” said McCrary. Much later, in 2016, she visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to see the History Unfolded exhibition. She was struck by the contributions from “citizen historians,” and realized something similar could be put together at the Richmond Museum. “It would be a new way to look at our community. We could cultivate a unique perspective,” she said.

In looking through archives, she and Jenkins discovered the stories of people such as Simon Blum. Born in 1934 in Strasbourg, France, Blum arrived in San Francisco at age 16. Settling in Martinez, he was joined by his two brothers, and together they founded S. Blum & Brothers Dry Goods, a highly successful business. He became a director of the Bank of Martinez, and before his death in 1913, offered tracts of land for free for the new Contra Costa County Hospital.

Another early entrepreneur was Austrian immigrant Frances Blumenfeld, who with then-husband Sol opened Blumenfeld’s, “the working people’s department store,” on Macdonald Avenue in Richmond. The store survived for 56 years and flourished during World War II, when it featured union-made clothing and S&H Green Stamps. McCrary noted that during the heyday of Macdonald Avenue, many of its shops were Jewish-owned. “One of the only ones left is Palace Furniture, at Macdonald and 25th Street,” she said.

Frances Blumenfeld was a member of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond and gave the synagogue its first Torah. The temple has been important in the lives of many, including that of Rebecca Rust, who, with her husband, Friedrich Edelmann, will be coming from Germany in February to give a memorial concert for her late father, beloved El Cerrito High School teacher Ben Rust.

“My parents moved to Richmond, where they also helped the war effort by work-ing in the shipyards,” Rust said via email. “While I was growing up in Richmond, Temple Beth Hillel played an important part of our lives. My father was very devoted to the moral ideals of the Jewish religion and went to the services on Friday nights, often taking me with him, first at the old Richmond Temple, later at the Hilltop Temple. [He told me], ‘I am hard at work studying the prophets, so that I will have something to offer.’ He wrote a lot about the Jewish prophets of the Bible; he loved their poetry and their message.

Ben Rust was a devoted teacher. Rebecca Rust remembers him saying, “Civilization is a very thin veneer which we have put on ourselves in the last 5,000 years. The purpose of our schools is to transmit that culture to the coming generation.” Her father’s love of music and financial support enabled her to study cello and become a professional musician. The Boccherini sonata she and Edelmann will perform at the museum is one he especially loved.

Richmond lawyer and businessman Joshua Genser’s family also has a long history of community involvement in Richmond. His mother, Clara-Rae Genser, is one of the people saluted in the exhibition for her contributions, alongside those of her husband, Joseph. Clara-Rae Genser served as a WAC during World War II, and in 1946, the Gensers moved to Richmond. They were instrumental in organizing the Richmond Jewish Community Center, then later, Temple Beth Hillel. Clara-Rae was politically active on behalf of Richmond public schools.

“My parents lived in public housing when they first moved here, because of the housing shortage,” said Joshua Genser. “My dad was a lawyer, and he eventually became very active in fundraising for the temple. He went to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to ask Ben Swig to donate and become the honorary chair of the fundraising effort—and Swig agreed.” The Genser family has contributed artifacts and stories used in Pioneers to the Present.

“What I hope people take away from the exhibit is how important the Jewish community was to the area in the post-World War II years. It was truly an example of the American experience,” Genser said.

McCrary agrees. She has been delighted to uncover stories such as that of Maurice Curtis, the founding owner/manager of the Richmond Opera House in Point Richmond, and memories of the late, lamented Moo’s Ice Cream and its famous neon cow sign. But she’s been even more engaged by finding the connections from the Jewish community to the founding of the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program and its Souper Center, as well as the NIAD Art Center.

She believes people will be surprised at the extent of the local Jewish community’s contributions to the area. “They will get a whole new view on how Richmond developed, for example,” she said. She also hopes that many visitors will learn more about Judaism, dispelling some of the misconceptions. “Part of the exhibit will teach people about Jewish holidays and traditions,” she said.

And with a sense of things coming full circle, representatives from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will come to Richmond to celebrate the exhibit’s opening. The beautiful museum building, built in 1910 as a Carnegie Library in what is now Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, will again illuminate the present by preserving the past.

Pioneers to the Present: Jews of Richmond and Contra Costa County, Jan. 13-June 30, admission $5, Richmond Museum of History, 400 Nevin Ave., Richmond, 510-235-7387, www.RichmondMuseum.org.

Pioneers to the Present Special Events

Jan. 13:
 Opening reception with local dignitaries and staff from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Jan. 27: International Holocaust Remembrance Day; guest Sam Genirberg, Richmond resident, Holocaust survivor, and author of Among the Enemy: Hiding in Plain Sight in Nazi Germany.

Feb. 10: Memorial concert for Ben Rust with Rebecca Rust and Friedrich Edelmann.

Feb. 24: Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivors Cafe, on intergenerational trauma.

March 10: Jewish Genealogy: “Finding Your Jewish Roots” with Steve Harris.

May 5:
 Richard Schwartz, author of The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M.B. Curtis.

June 23: 
Jewish Food and Wine with Perfusion Winery.

Most events will take place 2-4 p.m., but call in advance to confirm times.

Faces of the East Bay