To Make a Dream Come True: Alfred Klein

To Make a Dream Come True: Alfred Klein

Stories of the Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Ellis Island.2

Alfred Klein: Civil Servant 

For Alfred Klein, America was the Goldene Medina.  It became so through his own efforts.  His career culminated with his job as Chief Law Officer of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

Perhaps being born and raised in the educational atmosphere of Volozhin has something to do with his success.  One of the most famous yeshiva towns in Russia, Volozhin’s rabbinic scholars produced by its Yeshiva are almost legendary throughout the Jewish world.

 Mr. Klein was adventurous.  He earned his first money in America by writing addresses in English for immigrant Jews who wanted to mail letters.  He gave English lessons. He translated Yiddish stories into English for a furniture store promotion effort.  He and a friend were co-founders of Washington’s first Yiddish newspaper, The Washington Life. He and his wife studied law at night; they both became practicing lawyers.  He encouraged his wife to become a lawyer which was unusual for the immigrant generation, even for a Socialist.

Mr. Klein’s law career took him into government service, and resulted in a series of national honors.  He was part of the major Jewish organizations, and major Jewish events of his day.

His life story is an almost idealized version of the immigrant’s dream in America.

Coming to America

I was born in a small town called Volozhin.

The town of Volozhin was known all over the Jewish world in Russia and also abroad as a famous Yeshiva town.  It had a famous Yeshiva to which boys of 14 and 15 would come from all over the ghetto towns, from all over where Jews were permitted to live.  Those children would come to Volozhin and they would study under a famous rabbi and eventually that study led to what we call the rabbinate.  They became rabbis.

We were a family of five and I was the youngest. My father went to America in 1889.  At the age of eleven in the year 1898 an older brother of mine and my older sister, the three of us decided to go to America.  We had the steamship tickets and enough cash to take care of our needs.

What prompted all the Jewish people to come to America?  This immigration to the United States was still going on and it was still a new country and it was still the country of promise and when you go to the small towns in the ghettos of Russia the rumor was there was gold on the street, all you have to do is go and pick it up. There were dreams about what fortunes you can make in the United States and the United States is a land of freedom.

We, of course, landed in Castle Garden or Ellis Island and were received, by my father and a couple of aunts of mine who were there to meet us.  I didn’t know my father. And on the spot, they decided and rather than live with my father and his new wife, my stepmother.  And that’s where I spent my first immigrant years in New York, on Monroe Street with an aunt. 

Life in New York City

In those days, every boy in the family had to make some financial contribution to the income of the family.  The usual thing that boys of that age, eleven and twelve did, was to sell newspapers.  The only problem with selling newspapers, and I tried it one night, was, first of all you had to get the newspapers from the newspaper platform and you had to compete with a lot of stronger boys than you are to get those papers and then you had to be able to run faster than they could to cover the neighborhood shouting “extra.”  You had to run with the papers through the streets and shout “extra” and you had to try to be ahead of the other boys.  So it was quite a strenuous piece of work.  I tried it the first night and I was a total failure.  All I want to do is bring into the family 15 cents or 20 cents a day.  That would be accepted as a proper contribution from me, but I couldn’t think of anything.

As I was writing a postal card in the post office a man with a beard comes over to me and says in Yiddish, “Little boy, will you write this address for me?”  I said, “Sure.” I wrote the address for him and was turning to my own work.  He opens up his purse and gives me a penny.  And that was my first income in the United States.  Why not stay here in the post office station and let people come over to me and ask me to write addresses for them?  If I write fifteen addresses, that’s fifteen cents if everybody gives me a penny.  Every afternoon after that except Saturday and Sunday I would go to the Grand Street station after school, stand at the counter pretending to be writing and people would come over to me and ask me to write this address or would you write a letter for me?  In the course of an afternoon I would come home with 15 cents and that was my contribution.

When I got to be about fifteen years old I was able to give lessons in English for 20 cents and hour.  I had a terrible accent but my English was good enough to be able to teach people who knew even less than I did.  So with that plus occasional post office work I was really getting rich and making as much sometimes as 30 cents or 40 cents a day.

Later I met Mr. Bogen.  He must have been a man of about forty at that time and I was a boy of sixteen. Well, we got along fine and one day he tells me he got a call from A. Neelen and Co., and they were looking for a young man who could translate English stories into Yiddish, and he thought I could do that and I told him, yes, I think I can do that.

Neelen and Co. was a business in Cincinnati and their business was selling furniture.  To interest people to buy the furniture they used to promise as a bonus to the furniture to give them a serial story which they will be given every week (when they paid their installment payment).  The offered me immediately $15 a week and if I felt like working overtime to be a little bit ahead in my work and could produce more in one week then they would pay me extra.  Well, I worked for them until 1907 and translated stories by English writers into Yiddish.  We’re now up to the end of 1907 and I had $1500 saved up and somehow I got the feeling that I want to go to Europe.  I came back to New York and I told my brothers I’d like to take a trip to Europe.  With $1000 I went to Paris.

I stayed there for about a year and a quarter. I had come there with a little less than $1000 and little by little my funds were getting low but that didn’t scare me.  Just as I had given lessons English in New York for 20 cents and hour to people who knew less English than I did, I began to give lessons in French to Jewish immigrants in Paris and gave them lessons in French at 20 cents an hour and that was a little help in making my ends meet.  When my money began to be quite low I simply decided to come back home.

Washington, DC

I began to think of my future and I decided that I want to make the government my career. So early in 1910 (I was then in my twenty-third year) I came to Washington where I had an aunt and an uncle who lived on “K” Street and 3rd Northwest, and they had a half a house.  Washington then wasn’t Washington today.  First of all, there were no automobiles on the street.  The automobile was just coming in, but it hadn’t reached Washington streets yet.  Every street was jammed with trucks driven by horses making deliveries and doing errands of various kinds, and some very fine ladies of the richer group would drive electric automobiles.  There were streetcars all over Washington. There was one line running up Connecticut Avenue way into Chevy Chase Lake.  We used to take the trolley car downtown and go up Connecticut Avenue and it looked like we were going into the wilde4rness until we got to Chevy Chase Lake. There was a big lake and people would walk around the lake. Glen Echo and Chevy Chase Lake were two of the places people went for pastime. There was a merry-go-round and there was dancing.  Seventh Street was the Jewish street, Seventh and “M” where the Jews centered.  Seventh Street between “M” and “N” were Jewish stores.  At the corner of Seventh and “M” there was a Jewish delicatessen store.  There was another Jewish neighborhood in Four and a Half Street, Southwest.  It’s not in existence now. And then there was another Jewish section, in Georgetown around 30th and “M” Street. And in all of those three sections you would find Jewish butcher shops, grocery stores and particularly on Seventh Street between “M” and “N” there were quite a number of Jewish stores and one of them was Phillips Book Store. Phillips Book Store plays a part in my years in Washington.

Mr. Phillips, the bookstore owner, told me that a young man had been trying to meet me.  This young man’s name is Reuben Finkelstein and he is working with the Census Bureau in connection with the assembling of information from the 1910 census and he would like to meet me.

So we met one evening in Phillips Book Store, Mr. Reuben Finkelstein and myself, and we remained friends until he died a few years ago.  He was working in the Census Bureau and he was completing his college course in George Washington University in the evening.  Both of us decided instead of my giving private lessons in English, let us establish a school to teach people who are foreigners, young people and middle-aged people, teach them whatever they want to learn.  So we announced the opening of a school over Phillips Book Store.

When I came to Washington, I leaned towards Socialist groups and there was a branch of the Workmen’s Circle in Washington—that was Branch 92, a Yiddish speaking branch of the Workmen’s Circle.  We used to have meetings every two weeks.  And then there was a Socialist Party here. I joined that.

But that wasn’t enough activity for a young man. So Mr. Finkelstein and I decided we ought to publish a Yiddish weekly in Washington.  The name of the weekly was “The Washington Life.”  “Das Washington a Leben (sic).”  It was registered with the Library of Congress.  We had to send the material to New York to be printed.  Mr. Finkelstein and I wrote all of the articles.  We ran that for seven months.  We dealt with Washington Jewish matters; we dealt with Jewish matters generally to explain political events from the Jewish standpoint.

Developing A Challenging Career

As soon as I came to Washington I applied for the final naturalization papers and became an American citizen sometime in the summer of 1910.  As soon as I was naturalized, I began to file applications for Civil Service examinations.

The first call I had was to work as a Post Office clerk during the Christmas period.  Then the Post Office Department itself had a job of three months weighing mail.  The next two years I was working for the government in temporary assignments and financially, as a young married man, I was doing quite well.

In 1913, I got a permanent appointment with the Navy Department as an accountant in the Accounting Department of the Norfolk Navy Yard.  During those two years in Norfolk, I went to a meeting of the Socialist Party and at the meeting a young girl was the chairman.  Her name was Pearl Bellman, an attractive girl.  She must have been 24 or 23 at the time.  She made quite an impression on me when I met her for the first time.  During the meeting we had some cross words between us, a sort of friendly argument.  Well, we became friends and she became Mrs. Alfred Klein.  She was the operator of a hairdressing salon.  I call it “salon” because it was a hairdressing place in an office building for the very fine ladies of Norfolk.

In 1915, I took up my duties in the Treasury Department, Income Tax Division.  The Income Tax was something new and my work consisted of almost everything, of auditing and doing all the work incidental to claims for refunds or claims for rebate, all those things that are now accepted parts of the Income Tax Law.  So I was really at the beginning of the income tax administration in the Treasury Department, and I worked in the Treasury Department from 1916 until 1919.  When I came back to Washington in 1916 to work for the Treasury Department, about a week later I got a letter from a Yiddish newspaper, a daily newspaper in New York.  The name of the paper was the “Wahrheit,” the truth.  The editor asked “Would I be his Washington correspondent and would I write three columns a week and send him whatever news I had of interest to Jewish readers?”  The pay I think was very small, probably no more than $75 a month, but remember, I had a full-time job with the government and this newspaper was part-time.  Well, I worked that way, full-time job with the government and correspondent for this paper, the “Wahrheit,” and among other things I wrote about how to get passports; I wrote who to bring relatives over from Europe, the kind of things that people would want to know.  Well, readers began to write to me asking for help—help for bringing the families, helping getting the passports, helping various government matters, and I undertook to do it and I would charge them a fee for that and my editor knew I was doing it.

So I gave up in 1919 my full-time government job in the Treasury Department and devoted myself to this newspaper work I was doing and the work I was doing, which was almost of a legal nature, helping people with immigration and naturalization and passport problems, and I was doing very well.

Some of my friends knew that I was doing semi-legal work and said to me, “Why don’t you study law?  What you’re doing has a legal aspect. You might as well do it as a lawyer.”  I graduated law school and had five years law practice, thought I’d better go back to the government and be on a sound basis and not have to worry whether my next year’s legal work will be sufficient to enable me to make a living.

I got a position with the Civil Service Commission and I remained with the Civil Service commission until I retired at the end of 1951.  I served as General Counsel at the end of my career.

As a Washington correspondent (for the Yiddish newspaper) I was a member of the press galleries in the House and Senate and had full entry to the press galleries and used the press galleries’ to attend sessions, and I had received invitations to the White House. I still have a couple of invitations which I keep as a souvenir. I attended at least a dozen receptions in the White House and met the President and his wife.  I got a very high tribute when I retired from the Civil Service Commission.  I have a wonderful letter from the three commissioners and one commissioner was retired and was later president of Ohio Western University.  He sent me a special letter telling me how much he appreciated the help I gave him when he was a Civil Service Commissioner.  I have been in the Who’s Who in Government Service.  I was in Who’s Who in America in the year 1951, the year I retired.  So in connection with my career, I’ve had recognition and I’ve had honors of some sort and that gives me great satisfaction.  In other words, I didn’t leave a bad mark behind me.

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Alfred Klein in 1973, when he was a resident of the Hebrew Home.

  

 

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