Interview: Sarah Haefitz Gass and Rae Gass Budnitz

This is the transcript of an interview with Sarah Haefitz Gass and her daughter Rae Gass Budnitz, conducted by Eleanor O’Bryon with Judy Shapiro in July 1990.


Sarah Haefitz Gass is the widow of Morris Gass, who was a younger brother of Samuel Gass (Paul Gass’s grandfather). At the time of the interview Sarah was 97-years-old and the only surviving member of her generation in the Gass family. Sarah had married Morris in 1910, when they were both recent immigrants. Her daughter, Rae Gass Budnitz, was a first cousin of Max Gass (Paul Gass’s father) and of Judy Shapiro’s mother, Ida Gass Ullian. Eleanor O’Bryon was the first researcher hired by Paul to write his family history. Sarah passed away in 1993, three years after the interview.

Rae read the following letter aloud:

A Letter Written Upon Hearing Of Morris Gass’s Death
by Mrs. J.B. Kelly

Dearest Rae,

I have learned of your father’s death and I feel deeply for you in your sorrow. I am glad I knew him, even if only briefly, and that I shared the joy of his golden wedding anniversary with his family. He was a wonderful man of whom you can be very proud. Words do not mean much at a time like this Rae, but I can’t help feeling that if the Lord said to Morris Gass when a young man, “What would you have from life?” he would have answered: “Good health, marriage to a fine woman who would love me until I die, a family of which I could be proud, to live long enough to see my grandchildren – to expect to see my great-grandchildren I would not ask – a measure of success in my lifetime, enough of this world’s goods to support my family and to secure me from want in my old age with a little beyond to do charitable works for those less fortunate. But none of this at the expense of any other man, nor by cheating or dishonest means, for I would want always to live in honor and be respected by my fellow man and in the community in which I live.”

It would appear your father’s life could have been the answer to a young man’s wish, for these are all the things and all the years he enjoyed. And as his years grew upon him and the Lord came to him once more and said to him, “Your life has been full. There is nothing more I could give you that could make you happier. With the infirmities of age you will have the ailments that correspond, and when these increase, those who love you will stand by, watch your pain and suffer with you and for you accordingly. What would you have me do?” And Morris Gass would say, “Life has been good to me. I have loved and been loved and I have known success, honor and respect. I have completed what I set out to do. I am ready.”

This may seem like a strange letter of sympathy, Rae, but ours is a warm friendship to me, and I know you will understand what I am trying to say with mere words to comfort you.



R:        She has gotten to the core of what my father was like.

S:         He wanted to see life and help people.


S:         How I met my husband… oh that was so long ago. I was a teenager, about fifty-fife years ago. We met in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, a little town of immigrants. My oldest brother lived there. And I just came over at that time I was about fourteen years old. I came from Latvia. My father stayed in Europe. I came with a sweetheart of my oldest brother. He was here and he sent for me and for her. When she came here my brother got married in a month. I lived with my brother. I went to school for a while. Because I was too old, I had a lot of private lessons. A couple years after I was here I got married. I was not anxious to marry right away, but circumstances… before I knew I was engaged to be married.

R:        My mother is 97. So she was born in 1894. Sixteen years later brings it to 1910 when she was married. Your mother had died in the old country, you told me this, when you were about twelve years old, and you were left to take care of the family.

S:         My mother died and left three children, and I was the youngest at home and I was about eleven years old. And I took care of them. My sick brothers, I didn’t know what to do with them. I made them eat. So I was already grown up when I was young.

My name was Sarah Haefitz. My brother was Max Haefitz. My husband was nine years older than I was. He was about twenty-four years old when we got married, born in 1885. I lived a beautiful wonderful life with my husband. We raised a wonderful family. I am content. Maybe I live to ninety-seven years old because of that.

We lived in Vermont the first eleven years. Morris was a very poor man. He had some sort of a business.

E:        Do you know why Morris was up in New Hampshire when all the other brothers were down here in Massachusetts?

R:        I think Pop started probably collecting junk from people to get into something to make a living. Paper supplies… I don’t know the real reason [he was up there]. I’m wondering, because my husband’s father and mother also settled in New Hampshire. There’s a small contingent of Jewish people who settled in these small towns: Newport, Bellows Falls, Vermont, which is where I was born. Brattleboro, Vermont, which is where her brother settled. And how come? You know what I think, and I don’t know if it’s a fact: there were these famous Zionists, who traveled all though New England. They used to go to the small towns and try to talk to the Jewish people there to get them together…

S:         Ben-Gurion…

R:        Not Ben-Gurion, it was way before his time.

S:            Weizmann…

R:        Chaim Weizmann is a name, that’s right. They may have influenced some of these people to get out of the big cities and get to the smaller towns where they could make a living better, make a home for themselves. I mean New York City was overcrowded and that kind of thing… these are the first immigrants coming in. My husband knows more about this. His family used to put these people up and they were all very well known, at the time when Israel was trying to become a country. Theodor Herzl, people like that.

J:         And Morris would have been strong enough to have separated from his two brothers then.

R:        Well, I don’t know for sure when they came over, whether it was at the same time. I think Samuel maybe came before my father.

Because of what my father was doing to make a living or something – he was in Hinsdale, New Hampshire – her brother fixed my mother up with him, I’m sure. They thought she should be getting married. They could have met at a holiday. Maybe there was one place where there was a synagogue and they would go to that town for the holidays and they might have met.

But why was he there? Her brother settled in Hinsdale right off the boat, he also didn’t stay in the city. So I think some of these people that I’m talking about, that’s where they went, out to the outskirts, to places where they called themselves new immigrants, to make a living for themselves better. And then he sent for his girlfriend, and the girlfriend came with her.

E:        What was Morris doing there when you lived in Bellows Falls?

R:            Actually, he was a junk dealer. I mean he collected paper supplies from homes, and from – not from homes, I think they came to him. There were people who traveled around and got all the steel, real big things, iron, steel and some of them became quite well to do.

S:         Then he came here and they opened the shoe factory in Lynn, he and his brothers. They did very well in the depression. But then they had strikes…and they had to give up [the business] because of the strikes. Then in the forties they closed the business.

My husband, when we came here, was a very poor man. He had nothing. But little by little, you can see, he came into business, opened the shoe factory, and he did very well. And then the strikes came and they had to give it up and sell. And then my husband went into business with a lawyer. And they did very well.


E:        Tell me what you remember of Samuel and Lena.

S:         Sam was a very smart man. He was in business, he did very well. They all died so young, his daughters. Except Uncle Max. Samuel, he died of smoking, a man who smoked so much. He had to have his way. He was very stubborn. I don’t know what happened to that family. Something. They died so young.

They had never been out for people to know more. They were all inside. They were stuck. For the Samuel Gass children, the home was the important thing.

R:        They didn’t have enough interest… the word isn’t interest, but she’s right. They were never outgoing or socialized with people. They were just content to lie back…

S:         This is the obstacle I think in life, that people just stay by themselves. You have to get out, you know.

R:        They had an attitude towards life: self-interest almost. My father was different, but I think that my mother’s influence had a lot to do with that. I think if he weren’t with my mother… she loves to travel, and they went everywhere. And I don’t think he ever would have done it if it weren’t for mother. And then he loved it, afterwards.

S:         This family was envious of my husband, because they knew that he went to travel. It’s true, I took him out from their life. He had someone to be talking to him. He would say to me, “Sarah, where else do you want to go?” in Jewish. “Wo wilst du?” We were the first ones I think that flew to Hawaii. After that plane, the Lindbergh, a group arranged it to go to Hawaii. And after we stayed there two weeks or so, he enjoyed it so much, that he said he hoped to go back there. He loved it.

R:        Sam and Nathan, they were the same, not the least bit interested in going anywhere. Nathan’s wife Sonya did things by herself, whereas my father would go along with mother and enjoy it. And Sam’s wife Lena was just a homebody and not interested in anything else all.

S:         It’s true, both wives they were different a little bit than I was. I had to help myself from the start.

R:        And it goes all the way through to the broken hip this winter.

J:         Sarah, there was another brother that you said: Gershon. Wasn’t he in New Hampshire?

S:         He was in New York, I think. There were four brothers [Sam, Nathan, Morris and Gershon]. And Louis Gass ran the restaurant in the factory. He was a cousin.

J:         Let’s talk about Menya and Canada.

S:         She was a young woman when she came over. She was next to Samuel in age, the second oldest. When Menya came over I went to meet them. They came in with eight children and I set them up. I got an apartment for them. I got a place for them to live. I put into school the children. I changed the names for everyone, from Yiddish to English. They lived in Montreal, but they come to visit here once in a while. I didn’t live at that time in this house.


R:        I’m seventy-seven now. I’m married fifty years. When I was eleven we moved here to Lynn from Vermont and I went to the high school and I went to Brown University. I was a major in Sociology. I never worked because I was married right out of college, that was the thing, the goal. But I knew my husband. Our families knew each other, because he came from Newport, New Hampshire, and we knew all the people in a surrounding area of maybe twenty-five miles. Especially holiday time, you would get together for holidays. My husband graduated from Yale and went to Harvard Medical School. His father wanted him to go to a city because he was afraid he would end up  marrying a non-Jewish girl.

The name Budnitz comes from Lithuania. His father’s name was Alexander and his mother Naomi. He has relatives from Mexico who are called Jinich. So the name was changed… I don’t know how they arrived at it. There are Chinitz’s too.

When he finished medical school, those were the very, very bad times or he probably would have settled in Boston. But since things were real tough at that time in the early thirties, we went to Worcester. And he was already practicing two years when we were married. He was an internist, and he actually went into cardiology only quite a number of years after that. I don’t think they were separated then the way they are now.


S:         I have a younger sister who just died a couple or years ago. She came too [from Latvia], she was very young, and she didn’t know what to do with herself. So I told her to go into business. She opened a store and she had a terrific success.

R:        She has a dress shop here in Lynn. She started that shop, she owned it. Her husband died when she was quite young, and she lived here with Mother and carried on her business. And it became a very well-known shop with people coming in from Boston. Her name was Ida.

S:         She lived forty-five years with me. And she had a son. And the son is quite well-known in California. He’s with the Universal Pictures. He graduated Harvard. They were very close, mother and son. He never married. Harry Telman.

R:        I know that my parents were always involved in whatever was happening around them in the town they lived in, or the city. My father was an officer of a number of organizations. And my mother always worked on Israel bonds, and she worked on Federation, and for all these various things. In fact in Vermont, I remember her telling me she belonged to the Rebecca Lodge, the women’s part of the masons.

S:         I became a golfer. I was a pretty good golfer. I played golf until five years ago. Here I am two years ago [shows a picture]. They honored me with the first ball. They called me up, they want to honor me.

My husband died already forty-five years. And now I live alone here. I hate to give up my home. That was a life. I have a lot to think about, how things came true. My children they all went to very good colleges. That made me happy, because I didn’t get it [education]. But I married a very fine man and we both understood what life rally is about. Work hard, do well…

I have quite a bit I know about. I didn’t go to college, that’s true, but as my son says, it wouldn’t take me long to go through. Well, you know what it is, reading, I read. I learn myself English. I have private lessons. But I help myself a lot. I read whatever I can. Now my paper comes, first thing I do, I think a little about what’s going on, what’s happening in Israel.

Life is so exciting. Last night I stayed up already until almost after eleven. Channel Two, they have the opera, The Ring. It was so interesting. And I couldn’t see too good, but I got some of the lines, and I enjoyed it. That opera was on three nights now. See I’m interested, you understand. I love music; I belong to Boston Symphony for thirty years. And I would travel at night, drive the car, find a place to park. I did it with my sister and she began to like it too. It’s activity that makes up a person, this is what I think.

So you talked to Harrison, yes? Harrison, he insisted, since I can’t see too well, I can’t walk too well, so he insisted in case I am alone, I should have something to push a button and have somebody coming. So he kept saying he has it too and I should have it. Finally he talked me into it, and then I decided, I called him back, I decided that I didn’t want it. What do I have to do? So far I can help myself. I told him not to bring it, that I would not accept it.

R:        Three a.m. in the morning she called, changing her mind.

S:         I would never wear it, I said. I would put it away. Forget about it. He said he couldn’t get the men [to stop the delivery] unless it was in the morning. So I called him early. No, I didn’t call him three o’clock in the morning. But early.

You can see that I’m… first of all I always have a little but of help. Also I got a woman coming to live with me. So I didn’t think I really needed it.

J:         What are you busy doing these days?

S:         Well, now it’s hard. I don’t drive the car anymore. Don’t play golf any more. I used to be busy. Now it’s very alone for me, very. But what I do, I get into reading. Like last night, I listen to that opera. I look for things that I can enjoy.

When I broke my leg, I was away for three months. The first week I got to the hotel I fell and I broke. It was a big operation. They had to take me there to the hospital. They thought they were going to lose the rest of my leg, but I recovered. The operation was in Florida. And they were in California, Rae and her husband. See my son was in Florida there. He called and right away they thought that probably it would be that last. But I am fighting with my life.

J:         Good genes.

S:         I like to find out about genes exactly. They go and make a study about genes, I read in the paper, they do a study, they do research work on genes.

J:         Now you are still playing bridge.

S:         Oh, I’m a good bridge payer. Once a week. I do go to the country club. I don’t play golf, but I’m a social member. So you meet women for lunch and I play bridge, I play canasta. And they know how I play. Whatever I do, I do it good. I don’t want to praise myself. You’ll think that I praise my own self. I do, but no I don’t.

J:         And you’ll go back to Florida.

S:         I don’t know, I have to talk to my daughter about Florida. I don’t know what to do. What will I do here? Sit and count the snowy days, and I’m alone every day. I have a woman [who helps out], but I don’t know.

My oldest brother, he was starting to write a book in English of his own life. He died, you know. Of how they came over. It would be beautiful, a life story of a person. I think the Jewish people have a lot of histories to tell. They help themselves. They worked hard.