Interview: Samuel A. (Sam) Gass and Carole Diamond Gass

This is the transcript of an interview with Samuel Gass and his wife Carole conducted by Eleanor O’Bryon in July 1990.


Samuel A. Gass was the oldest son of Morris and Sarahh Gass, and the nephew of Samuel Gass, Paul Gass’s grandfather.

Sam:    His home [Samuel Gass’s] was a strictly Orthodox sort of place. And as children we were probably not exposed to Jewish speech and so forth as much as they [Max Gass and his sisters] were. That’s probably why we never got really close.

But I remember, when we were older we [Max Gass] were both in the factory and he was interested in writing. I think he’d gone to law school, and I think he had something printed at his own expense because I can remember, that’s where he belonged more than where he was.

E:        Could you tell me something about your father’s history, Morris Gass.

S:         My impression was that when Morris got to this country, his only relative here was Paul’s grandfather, Sam, his brother. And he came on the scene and Sam directed him up to New England. He said, “Why don’t you peddle…” I don’t know what he peddled, but he must have started with something. But how he possibly, without any understanding of the English language, could’ve gone up to Vermont and managed, I don’t know.

My father was a very mild-mannered man, a man of the highest ethical order, and very unusual. My father stood out head and heels above most people that you would meet. But you would never know it. He was quiet, reserved. There was nothing really that he wouldn’t understand about another person’s operations or doings. He would understand it, wouldn’t be critical.

When he came from Russia – as I understood it, he remained because one child had to do service in the Russian army in order for the others to come out. So he volunteered. And this is the kind of man he was.

So he came over, settled there, and met my mother. As there were probably very few Jewish families, one would introduce one to the other, and the marriage was the obvious way of life there. I was born one year to the date after they were married. We left Vermont when I was twelve-and-a-half-years old. He moved here [Lynn, Massachusetts] because my Uncle Nathan had been doing some work in the shoe business, and said there were some good opportunities. My father was very anxious to get his youngsters, who were being brought up in the woods, into a city atmosphere. He welcomed the chance to bring us into more of a community.

I think there were four brothers that started the business [Lion Shoe]. That’s how the family got together. Up to that point I don’t ever remember seeing my cousins, except on rare occasions. There wasn’t much traveling in those days, and we were settled there [Vermont]. By the time they all [the Gass brothers] got together each of them had his own family oriented to whatever he was doing, and that’s probably why there wasn’t much more closeness.

I worked in the [Lion Shoe] factory; I was there when Max was there. I don’t remember too much. It was a very large factory. They tried to find spots for us. I think we were marking time, if you want to know what the honest picture was. Somewhere along the line I started to go out and sell some shoes, and I think I left before the business closed. I went into business. My father was looking for an opportunity for me. I was looking for an opportunity. And I went into business.

Morris stayed with Lion Shoe until it closed. Then he went into some sort of finance business on his own, with somebody else. He kept busy in business one way or another right up to the time that he died.

There’s one person that should be mentioned. There was a cousin Jacob Guz. Shortly after the end of the war [World War II] my wife and I were going to Europe and one of our stops was going to be Paris. I remember my father saying to me, “Look, there’s a cousin that we’ve located who was in one of those concentration camps, who escaped from the camp. We know that he’s a cousin of ours.”  And somehow through some notice in a Jewish publication or something they found out that he settled in Paris. “It would be very nice if you would look him up when you get to Paris.” I said sure I would. And he said, “Also, if there’s anyway, if he needs any money, just give him some money on our account.”

And we went to Paris, my wife and I. Naturally, I’m not looking to meet cousins, I’m out there to see Paris. And so we got there and we put it off for two or three days and then I said to Carole, “I’ve got to call and try and get in touch with Jacob Gus.” And I was able to reach him, and for two days we were spellbound. This was an amazing, amazing man.

He lived in Paris. He had escaped from the Russians. He first escaped from a concentration camp. When the Russians took over the Polish area, he came into the picture because he was an expert in forestry, in trees, in the wood business. He’d been a very wealthy man at one time. And at one time he’d been in a Russian prison. The Russians used him to head up that area in the timber business. They kept him there and as a result he was really trapped. Finally I guess he decided that on one of his trips he just wouldn’t go back and he stayed in Paris.

We went up to see him. He was living in an apartment, a man of about four feet, ten or eleven inches, short of stature, sort of rotund, and very pleasant. It was very difficult to communicate, because I speak very little Jewish. I can understand, but I never spoke it. My wife spoke French fairly well and he spoke French. And we had a little German, and so we managed. My wife and I were so taken with this man that we kicked ourselves. We spent all our remaining time with him. When I talk about him I get emotional he was the center of all the people, the refugees that came into the area. They all came to him for advice. He kept their spirits up. He was the Solomon. And you could see.

He told us the story of how he escaped from the railroad going to the concentration camp. He escaped from the train with his wife. They lived in the woods for five or six months. She died there. How he managed… it was just impossible.

And a real gentleman. We went to a restaurant, he kept us there. We went to leave, he brought flowers to the train for my wife. And when I tried to give him some money, he was insulted.

I said to my father when we came back, “If this man could come here, anything that he asks for, do.” And he came to Canada. He had a nephew, a son of a sister of his, who was a prisoner of war in Spain. His whole life was devoted to trying to bring him over. So he came to Canada. He was in Montreal, in the timber business, very successful. He was a cousin of the Naimarks, and Albert Shapiro was his nephew. Sam must have met him when he came to visit in Boston. And Max might have met him.

This man was a saint. I can still see that picture in Paris with these refugees all adrift, not knowing where to turn, and they would turn to him and he would guide them. He had that kind of strength and resolution.

He’s a key member of the family. We were very fortunate to have that meeting.

E:        What about Max [Gass]?

S:         He was of a philosophical bent. And he didn’t belong in the shoe factory. When you tell me he was writing, this would be something that he would have wanted to do. How profound he was I don’t know. We weren’t that close because we were a segment of the family that wasn’t close physically, and communication wasn’t easy in those days. As a result when we finally got on the scene, we were out on our own. And then I think the religious emphasis also was a hurdle, because they were very Orthodox and we’re anything but. Particularly myself, and my brother is just as I am.

E:        Do you remember your uncles Nathan and Sam?

S:         Sam I picture as an extremely conservative, very able, very bright, and quite settled and rigid in his ways. Nathan, I was exposed to more, because I went out to sell shoes and Nathan had been doing the selling, and so I was more involved with him. Very competent. I sensed a bitterness in Nathan. It may have been because of his family life. It was a little different, a little more erratic than the others. I think his wife had been married before.

E:        Tell me more about your father.

S:         He was a very ethical man, but not forceful. He wasn’t ministerial or admonishing. He did the right thing just doing it naturally. And that’s not easy. Everything he did he did in moderation. But he didn’t force himself to do it. This was the way he was. My mother probably prodded him to do some of the things he did, but he benefited from doing them. He was a rare guy.

I would say that the reason that business [Lion Shoe] stayed together right up to the end was because of my father. I don’t know this, but I would guess. He was the kind of person that kept things cohesive. Because I don’t think Nathan and Sam by themselves would have gotten along that well. Nothing that I saw, that was apparent, but they would pull different directions. And my father would step in, just instinctively made the move, or said what ever had to be said, and it would be done.

I [left Lion Shoe and] went into business. My father was friendly with somebody who had a son-in-law who’d been working in a shoe factory somewhere, and they were looking to go into business. So it was a matchmaking deal, and we stayed in business for fifty years. We formed a company. We called it Klev-Bro Shoe Company. The two boys who were brothers, their name was Klevin. They had an uncle who had had a factory called Klevin Shoes, and the name had some prestige value. So we thought it wouldn’t hurt us to carry some of that on.

We started in 1938 and the business folded last year [1989]. I had semi-retired about eight or ten years ago, but they kept me on as a consultant just because we’d been together and it had been a very harmonious relationship. We were located in New Hampshire, tight in the northeast corner near Massachusetts. My wife was working in Boston and we had to have some location in between.

We got married and she went to work. She isn’t the kind who could sit at home. Isn’t a homebody, never was, and even when she had the babies it was very difficult for her. She would take a train into Boston, I commuted to New Hampshire.

I got out of the service in 1935, we’ve been here ever since. Been married fifty years, in business fifty years, in this house fifty years. I do things in fifties.

They [the Gass brothers] brought the whole family [Naimarks] over. This was their only sister [Menya Goos Naimark], and she was a lovely woman. Six or seven children, and her husband refused to put himself out at all. He said, “You brought me, you take care of me.” That was his attitude. I met Menya a few times. When they were first settling my mother and father used to go up there to see how they were, and we’d go up there. We must have made three or four trips. She was a very kind, gentle person.

I knew Harrison [Nathan Gass’s son] as well as any of my cousins in the Gass family. He’s full of bounce, and we lived one street away for many years. So whatever transpired these two parts of the family were close. He was nearer my age and my brother’s age, and he had a brother Ben who was a prince of a guy. Ben was a jewel, very able, very competent, very gifted. That was a sad loss. Ben’s death did an awful job on his father. I don’t think he ever bounced back really. But we’ve always been close, Harrison and myself. I still speak to him on the phone. I don’t see him very much. He’s a loner today. When his wife died we were pretty close.

E:        Tell me about Harvey, your brother in Michigan.

S:         He’s four or five years younger than I am. He took off in a different direction altogether. He went to MIT for a couple of years with the idea that he was going to be a doctor, and mid-term at MIT he said. “You know I’m getting an awful lot of science, and I need to get a different kind of background if I’m going to be a doctor. I’d like to have a little balance in my education.” I had somebody visiting me from Dartmouth at that time and they started kicking it around. He said “Why don’ you transfer?” Someone said “Why don’t you transfer?” Someone said, “Michigan’s a good school.” And so my brother got on the phone and sent his credentials out and that’s how he ended up at Michigan. And that took care of the rest of his life. He’s still there. He met a gal there, went to U. of Michigan Medical School, went into the Navy all through the war, came out as a captain in the Medical Corp, and when he got out he finished up his training to specialize in neurosurgery. So he’s a neurosurgeon and he’s very able. He’s done very well in the field.

Carole:     I have been singularly unimpressed with most of the Gasses that I have met over the years. But this man, when I met him, really got to me. He is probably one of the most…  As far as Sam’s father is concerned, I think he was a rare man. Self-effacing, highly principled, generous in a sensible, sans ego kind of way. When he died…

One of the reasons I’m not overly impressed by the Gass family is that religion doesn’t have much meaning for me. I’m delighted other people believe it and like it, but to have it be the end-all and be-all, cut me out. I see too much evil in the world as a result of it.

Morris was in a sense a religious man. I don’t know if he really believed in God or not. I have an idea he had his reservations. But he certainly believed in the Jewish heritage. Humility, self-effacing and modesty, and a highly principled person. Very sensitive and very wise.

I remember one day I was sitting down with him, my field is psychotherapy. I’d learned about his background and I saw his brothers and his sister and I wondered where this man emerged from. I asked him about it. And he laughed. He told me that when he left Russia, like many of the young Jewish men, that he waited until he did his whole army service, and then escaped. He wanted to have his parents not to have the burden of paying the money they were fined if their son escaped military service. He was really a mature human being, interested in the world around him rather than self-centered. I still don’t know where this man got it from.

He obviously was very devoted to his parents. But he never spoke of them, to me at least. Now Sam married a young woman who had never been in a Temple. My family was very Jewish, but they just weren’t religious. I think Sam was a little defensive about it. I had gone to social work school and taken a course in Yiddish, since I would probably be dealing at that time with immigrants. And I learned how to read it, but I didn’t understand the damn thing. Sam used to proudly give me a paper so I could read to his father to show his father that I belonged. But I always felt that didn’t matter to Morris. He was the one person in the family I really had tremendous respect for.

I remember my mother telling me once they went down to Florida with Sam’s parents for a holiday. They were down south and some man was coming over and telling Morris about his son who was a this, and that son who was a that, and this daughter who made this kind of marriage, and there was Morris saying, “Isn’t that wonderful. Isn’t that lovely.” Not one word about his own children. And here he had a son who was this and another son who was a that, but he just never discussed it.

Sarah is a very charming lady, but is a child. She’s on her own now pretty much, she’s very lucky to have wonderful kids who look after her. Morris treated her like a child in a way. He did everything. She was a good wife. She cooked and she ran a nice home, and she would arrange the friends and going away on trips. She was the outgoing one. But there were parts of Sarah we never saw until after Morris died, because he in his own quiet way, handled her. He was really a very unusual man.

Nathan and Samuel – I guess I was very prejudiced. I love animals, that’s my thing. And I had a gorgeous animal at the time, an Irish setter, Aaron. I went to S.S. Pierces, which was a very fine store, and I happened to see a fifty-pound bag of dog-food so I ordered it. So they charged it to the wrong Sam Gass. I thought they guy would go nuts. “Pierces, for dog food?”

Morris was a generous man, in contrast to both of his brothers. And that’s why I couldn’t understand Morris. Because his brothers were so mean-spirited. They weren’t malicious men, but they were so up – tight and rigid and depressed. They lived very depressed lives.

E:        I think that Sam came over at a very young age, about fourteen, alone, and had to work under difficult circumstances to survive.

C:        I think his religion played a very… orthodoxy is very stultifying in one’s life. And I gather he was very orthodox.

S:         And he moved into a religious community… where my father may have modified what he did because he moved into a community up in Vermont where there weren’t many orthodox.

S:         And Sarah – I think Sarah by nature is a social climber, in a charming way. So she opened up vistas. She would not settle for the life that a Sam Gass would. Nathan’s wife didn’t settle either, but she lived her own life. She would leave him in the winter and go down south. Now Sarah used to imply to me… when I say a loose woman I don’t mean she was a prostitute or anything, but that she would flirt. I just couldn’t visualize Nathan getting with her, because that was the last kind of a role you would expect. He must have been a handsome man. But he is dour. Maybe his wife married him for what she could get, for a comfortable berth, and really never loved him. She loved her boys.

S:         When she married Nathan she had two children, and she wanted them to have a home of some kind. And he fought this. He did not accept her children. That was part of the problem in their marriage.

C:        He is not a generous man. This is what I’m saying. I’ll tell you one thing, Harrison has been very good to Dora, his half-sister, very caring and very responsible. Harrison had a delightful wife. She was full of it, personality plus and very bright, and she led him a merry chase. Because he was sort of like his father in many ways. He has the same kind of concerns his father would have had, but Blanche… he married a woman similar to his mother in a sense. She was an actress a dancer.

E:        Tell me about Jacob Guz.

C:        We went to Paris. I guess Sam told you his father saw this ad and asked us to go. Matter of fact, the two of us, we didn’t expect we’d bump into anything very interesting. So we kind of postponed it to the very end of our visit. It was at the end of our first stay in Paris that we got in touch with him. If ever you saw an unprepossessing man, one who you would least expect to be heroic – and I can only describe this man as a heroic man. I don’t think he was four feet tall. He was so little. And he had this big bunch of flowers – it seemed to me the flowers were bigger than he was – that he brought to the hotel. We spoke in French. When he met us, he just couldn’t get over it, that we would bother to look him up. He insisted we go out to dinner that night. He took us to a Russian restaurant in Paris. We walked in, he looked at me, he said, [in French] “Everybody thinks you are English, because you are so tall and slim and grande.

Then he told us the story of his days under Hitler. I don’t know if you read “The Wall” by Don Hershey, about the Polish ghetto [Warsaw Ghetto] and the fight they [the Jewish resistance] put up. This was his experience, right in the Polish ghetto. Morris told me later he had come from a very wealthy family. Morris remembered them as the wealthy branch of the family in Poland. Morris lived in Russia where they were poorer by comparison. They had I guess acres of land, and he had been in the timber business, extremely successful.

When Hitler came into Poland, I guess all the Jews, their land was immediately taken over, and all the Jews went into the ghetto. There this little bit of a pipsqueak obviously became one of the real leaders of the whole community. To quell the panic, to give reassurance, to find ways of resistance that were effective. Sam and I saw this as we met people where he lived. They would come up to him as if this were the president of the little community in which they all lived in Paris.

He told us about his wife. They had no children. His wife was a very frail woman, and they were finally all deported on a train to one of the concentration camps. From the train he escaped with her and he carried her all he way. They found some people who helped them along the way, but she died. She could not make it. And he survived. This man had such inner resources people related to him and we did too. I almost fell in love with this man. He was like a character out of a novel.

Sam’s father had suggested that we leave him some money. Well, what had happened, when the Russians came in, immediately this little guy comes to the fore again, they used him as an interpreter. He became part of the bureaucracy. And he would travel around the various countries in he business of timber. Buy, sell, whatever, for the government. And one year finally when he was in Paris he remained there. He never returned.

I’ll never forget when we left, he brought me again flowers, and a box of candy, nothing small, everything was mammoth. And I hated to take it from him – well I took it of course, but inwardly I didn’t want this man to take his few resources and spend them on us. We tried to offer him something in as diplomatic a way as we could, some money. Simply saying we knew it was tough, and the family was very comfortable, they would be very unhappy if he didn’t let them at least share something to make life a little easier for him or for friends of his. He was insulted. We just couldn’t give him anything. And that was the end of that visit. When we left he was almost tearful.

We came back to Paris to see him again.

S:         I couldn’t talk about him. I wasn’t aware myself of my emotional involvement.

C:        Then later on when he came over, he had a nephew who just idolized this man because he recognized what he was like. His nephew came to Canada, and it was Jacob Guz who really handled everything for him, directed where he was going, what he was doing. Then he died. He had a heart attack. We saw him once in Lynn. He brought me a beautiful scarf.

S:         He came to this house. I can remember him sitting on the couch.

C:        His feet would not reach the floor. He was made of the same ilk as Morris. Morris would not take an overtly leadership role, but they had the same insides. And my husband takes after his father.

C:            Adele’s brother [Adele was the wife  Max Gass], Baruch Korff, was the advisor to [President] Nixon. His father was very different. His father [Grand Rabbi Jacob Korff] was totally religious. He was God, a nut from my vantage point. I really feel that for a person like Sam Gass, the other Sam Gass, I think religion destroyed his life. The fact that he was so rigidified. I don’t think Morris or Nathan ever were as Orthodox as Sam.

Menya was a sweet lady, but she married a schmoe. They had some, lovely kids. And they’re nice people.

S:         The Naimark family, they’re intact as a solid family.

C:        When you think about it, Sam is the only male in the family that did not marry a spouse who was his opposite in a sense, who would spice things up. Now Nathan, even though I said they led separate lives, she adored those boys. She adored all the children. Sonya. She loved those boys and she had real spark. She was a real fancy lady. I got a kick out of her. I liked Sonya. She was fun. Whereas Sam married a woman… I just saw her once in that barren… I remember this house, it was so barren when I walked into it. It looked like cold wooden floors. You once took me there for about an hour. And I was just overwhelmed by the barrenness of the physical layout. And then Sam told me he was the wealthiest of all the brothers.

I feel very bitterly toward Sam Gass because of what happened to his daughters. Really tragic. They were terrible parents. You’re speaking to somebody who worked for twenty-five years at Judge Baker Child Guidance Clinic. And when I saw what happened to that youngest girl Patty, and to Ida and the others. The only kid who got anything from them was Max. Girls in Orthodox families count for nothing.

E:        In his business relations, outside the family, he [Sam Gass] helped a great many people.

C:        This may have been a religious precept. How was Sam in the business with Morris and Nathan? Was he warm towards them?

S:         Oh, well Sam would be in a certain niche, very quiet, and more of an observer as far as running the business than an active participant in doing the things that had to be done. I mean, my father ran the office. That requires some operation handling. Nathan met the customers. Sam just watched everything. He was watching where the pennies went and this was his role.

E:        It was his money that brought Morris over, that brought Nathan over, that brought Minnie’s family over. And he started out as a fourteen-year-old boy in the streets working for pennies. He worked his way from absolutely nothing up to where he had a fortune, and then he spent a large amount of his fortune not only bringing family members, but other people over from Russia, and setting them up in business.

C:        What about his wife? She seemed so…

S:         I see her cowering in the corner. And this is what it is, he set the tone.

E:        She was very loving with her grandchildren, out of range of her husband. Paul remembers her. Paul grew up in Chelsea as a young boy, and he remembers his grandmother when he was sick coming over and buying him ice cream bars. He remembers her as a loving presence. But in that house with her own daughters, that’s not the picture I get.

S:         Max was scared stiff of his father. There’s no way that he could speak up to his father on anything. And that’s why I see Max as a very timid min.

C:        But he was a bright guy. All of these kids could really have been something.

S:         That’s why when you tell me about his writing and so forth…

C:        Is there anything of any value in it? I wouldn’t expect there would be.

E:        Most of his writing in English, although it’s full of deeply felt and deeply thought concepts, is bad writing. What he wanted to do was publish sayings. And he was not successful at that, because he wanted to publish English sayings in English, and sayings are not really an English tradition. They’re very much a Yiddish tradition, and what I found is that he wrote Yiddish sayings that are just little gems. Wonderful, witty, delightful. And that’s what’s good in all the body of work that he left, probably two hundred Yiddish sayings.

C:        They aren’t his.

E:        It’s very possible that many of them are not, that they are things that were heard and repeated on down.

C:        I think he had all creativeness knocked out of him. This is my point. I don’t think this is a man who could…

S:         I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as cowed as he was in his exposure to his father. Now Paul may never have seen this or been aware. Adele might have been aware of it.

E:        Adele has lots of four-letter words to say about her father-in-law. They battled it out.

C:        This is why I’m sure Adele’s kid turned out the way he did.

E:        Paul is an unusual man. He’s honest, a very sharp businessman. As you describe Jacob and Morris, that is what Paul is like. He’s one of these very quiet philanthropists who does a lot but doesn’t talk about it.

C:        Oh yea. Adele lost a child. That’s right… I’ve wondered about mental illness. I’ve wondered about the heredity of it in the family. Sam was almost paranoid about money. I mean his ways of handling things. Patty was certainly…I’ve never said anything about it, but from my vantage point, psychiatrically, I’ve just wondered.

It was one tragedy after another.

S:         Max’s life was tragic.

C:        He was castrated from the word go.

S:         He never was his own person, never.

C:        But he was wise to marry a strong lady.

E:        Well she fought his father off in a lot of ways. She went in there and said, “He’s mine now.”

C:        Which doesn’t mean he’s his own man, but at least he was not subjected to the tyranny of this man as much.

E:        Her story is very interesting. She was married very young, sixteen, and that was an arranged marriage, arranged before they even met. But fortunately, right after they married… she had put her foot down. She was only sixteen and she didn’t want to get married, and Max was ten years older. She was a high-spirited girl, and it was clear to her that she was going to lose this one. So she said, “OK, but I’m only going to do it if you will take me to see my mother’s grave.” Now her mother was shot when Adele was two years old during the revolution in Russia. So they spent six months traveling in Europe and Russia, away from all the family influences. And according to everyone I’ve talked to, when they came back they were very much in love. I think their marriage had a chance because they had that time alone to discover each other. And she made that happen.

C:        So she’s a strong lady.

C:        Sarah was a year younger than my mother. It was a family joke; Sarah would never tell you how old she was.

S:         Up to the time that she was ninety, or eighty-five to ninety, she was able to pass as a much younger woman. And she insisted – she was playing golf – and she was insisting that she was only whatever she thought she wanted to be. And then when she got to be about ninety-two or ninety-three, then she started telling the truth.

C:        She certainly was looking older. So what she wanted to do now was get the attention for being a hundred and fifty. She’s probably ninety-eight. Morris was probably five years older.

S:         He was born in 1885. He would have been a hundred and five years old now.

C:        I was very close with Ida [Sarah’s sister]. She was a lovely lady. She left me a little inheritance. Now she knows we don’t need it. The thoughtfulness. The caring. It was really very touching. Ida was ninety-three when she died. She told me there was a child between her and Sarah, who died.

E:        So Harrison knew that Guz was the family name.

S:         How Sam made it Gass we don’t know.

E:         Somebody at Ellis Island may have simply told him to.