Opinion: Election Day 1936 – pride and achievement

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Election night crowds at State and Madison on Nov. 3, 1936. | Sun-Times Library

I have not thought of the Myerson family in decades. Perhaps it is this divisive and rancorous election campaign that makes me remember them now.

In the South Side Chicago neighborhood of my boyhood, they were our neighbors, living in a two-flat adjoining our three-flat building. Both our families had multiple children, my parents six and the Myerson’s five. One of their sons, Marvin, was about my age of 13. Our friendship began with an argument over a tricycle when I was six. By the mid-1930s, he had become my closest friend.

Our neighborhood was a polyglot of nationalities, mostly Greek, Italian, Danish and Swedish immigrants. There were also Sephardic Jews from Poland and Russia.

The citizens of each nationality tended to keep to themselves and for the most part lived amicably together. There were some vestiges of prejudice against the Jewish immigrants but the struggle for survival all of the families faced took precedence over the prejudice.

Just before the First World War began, with help from relatives already in America, the Myerson family fled the Russian city of Odessa to the United States to escape the brutal pogroms against the Jews. As they described to my parents the terrifying experience of the pogrom, families attacked and children torn to pieces by bloodthirsty mobs while the police did nothing.

The Myerson family came to the United States with three children. Two more, Marvin and his sister Selma, were born in this country. That about matched the history of my family with my parents bringing four offspring and then having two more, myself and a younger sister, born in the United States.

Abraham Myerson, Marvin’s father, was a burly-bodied man with muscled arms whose occupation was a butcher. Marvin told me once that a slap from his father’s big hand resonated in his head for hours.

On several occasions, I visited his father’s butcher shop, and when Marvin led me into the freezer, I was both fascinated and revolted by the slabs of dismembered cattle that hung on huge hooks from the ceiling. Marvin enjoyed my discomfort, gleefully calling me a “baby.” Because he was my best friend, I forgave him.

In contrast to his father’s size, Marvin’s mother, Hilda, was a small, sad-faced woman whose daily ritual was urging others to eat.

“You are all skin and bones, Harry,” she scolded me more than once. “You have to eat more or you’ll get sick. Now sit down and have one of these blintzes.”

Abraham and Hilda Myerson applied to become American citizens and in the early 1930s took their tests for that citizenship. Abraham, meeting daily with the public in his butcher shop, had become more fluent in English and could better phrase his answers, so he passed the test. Wife Hilda failed. I remember her crying and everyone trying to reassure her that she could study and be able to try again.

At that time, we were on the threshold of the 1936 presidential election, which pitted the incumbent, President Franklin Roosevelt, against Alfred Landon. Roosevelt had already served one term and brought in the New Deal that was immensely popular.

Abraham Myerson was unrestrained in his enthusiasm for Roosevelt.

“I want my first vote in these United States to be for this great man,” I heard him say more than once. “He is a man who cares for the people.” Abraham Myerson praised Roosevelt so fulsomely that both Marvin and I regretted our youth and inability to vote for that great man.

“You and Marvin will have your chance in a few years,” Abraham said. “Meanwhile, let us all thank God for what we have here. In Russia we had the brutality of the Cossacks. Here we have the miracle of being able to choose who we wish to lead us.”

On Election Day in 1936, Marvin told me that his entire family would be going to the polling place to accompany his father. In addition, their Uncle Jonah, Abraham’s brother, had come with his family from Cleveland to celebrate the occasion with them.

“Papa will be the first in our family to vote,” Marvin said. “He wants us all there.”

Later that morning when I emerged from our building, the Myerson family and their relatives from Cleveland were assembled on the sidewalk outside their building, about a dozen people in all. The early November weather was unseasonably balmy and no one needed a coat. Abraham and Hilda, their sons and daughters and visiting relatives looked resplendent, the girls and women wearing colorful dresses, the boys and men in shirt, jacket and ties.

Marvin, crammed into a suit he had outgrown looked pained and uncomfortable. I offered him my sympathy.

“I am suffering for Papa’s sake,” he said plaintively.

Soon afterward, the Myerson family began their procession to the polling place several blocks away. I still remember the grand spectacle they made parading proudly down the street.

Eighty years have passed since the election that President Roosevelt won in a landslide, carrying every single state. For months afterward, Abraham Myerson spoke of the gratitude and pride he felt casting his vote as an American citizen. His family had fled persecution to a country where a man was allowed to choose the leader he wished.

Now, remembering the Myerson family story, I am once again reminded of the miracle that is our nation’s diversity and the significance for each of us in being able to cast our vote.

Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.

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