German and Jewish in DC

Jean Klieger: Oral History Excerpts

GETTING TO CHEVY CHASE AND FAMILY HISTORY

Where did you live when you were a child?

JK: Mount Pleasant. We moved there after my grandparents died. As an adult my mother lived in Mount Pleasant. There were only two children and my uncle was working in Boston with The Boston Herald. He told my mother that if she would take care of grandma, we could have the house. And that’s where I was raised. I attended Bancroft Elementary School—it is in the news these days—it’s where (First Lady) Michelle Obama has been making a vegetable garden. Then I went to Cal (?) Junior High at Hyatt and Irving Streets. After that I attended Central High School, which later became Cardozo High School.

What year did you graduate?

JK: June of 1937.

Were there other children in your family?

JK: I had two brothers. One lives in Alexandria, Edward Orler. And my kid-brother, Mark, who died about the same time my husband did, in 1985.

What did you do after graduating?

JK: Went to work. Looked for jobs. Secretarial.

Where did you work?

JK: I had part-time jobs. National Geographic for a little while. Those were hard times in the 1930s, so I could only work for short times wherever I could get a job. Then, when the war broke out in 1941, I took the Civil Service exam and I worked for the War Department—in the Signal Corps.

Walter was working. I became an at-home mom, because everybody was an at-home mom in those days. We decided that before the kids got older we would try to get a bigger house. And that’s how we came up to Chevy Chase. It cost us twenty thousand dollars—we had to borrow five thousand from my brother-in-law.

LAFAYETTE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

What year was that?

JK: 1956. Mark was two, Betsy was four. See, Betsy was getting ready for school. We wanted to get a good school. We knew Lafayette was good. Walter drove around the neighborhood and this is how we selected Oliver Street. He drove around to see if people had swing sets in the back yard or sand boxes—because there was nothing at Lafayette. It was a little school then, you know. It had a pre-school. But Walter drove around to see whether people had children in the neighborhood so our kids would have friends about their age. That’s it. We moved in ’56.

At that time was it a new house?

JK: Oh no, it was built in ’37.


You said Lafayette didn’t have a playground, so the grounds around there were just empty?

JK: They may have had a little playground but I don’t remember much, because they had a “play school.” A lot of this was volunteers from the at-home moms. If the kids were going to Lafayette, you were involved. We didn’t have librarians. I know I worked in the library. In pre-school, the mothers took turns to assist whatever teacher or recreation department furnished. But there weren’t swings; it was nothing like it is now. That wing was added later. Everybody was at home, an at-home mom. I don’t know of anyone in our neighborhood except Mrs. Leone, who worked at NIH—all of them were at at-home moms. We all did things. We all participated in one way or another.

Would you say you gave one day a week, or more than that to the school?

JK: I guess we did one day. I don’t remember going more than that.

GERMAN AND JEWISH IN CHEVY CHASE AND DC


At that time was Chevy Chase considered to be the best place to live in the District?

JK: I think so. At that time it was considered to be one of the best neighborhoods. There were covenants in Chevy Chase Maryland. Negroes or Jews could not live in Chevy Chase Maryland. But in DC obviously they did.

So that was also a factor.

JK: To some extent, yeah, since we wouldn’t be accepted at all. So that was it. But here it was very good, because, one, there were some Jewish neighbors—not that we were that friendly with them all, but you felt comfortable. We’re going to a memorial service—I remember the first Christmas we were here was also Hannakah—and they used to carol, every year they caroled and the lady whose memorial service we’re attending used to have us come back to the house and she would play the piano and they all came and sang us happy hannakah. We were so thrilled to be in a neighborhood that didn’t say “no Jews allowed.” In those days it was tough. There were no Negroes at all. I can’t remember when any of them moved in. We do have some Negroes in the neighborhood now.

People actually went up and down the street caroling?

JK: Everybody. I mean, all the groups came and did it. Yes. Mimi, the one that died (aged almost 100) came. And the ones that were Jewish sang Jewish songs. Happy hannakah instead of merry Christmas. But it was a great neighborhood.

I think that was still going in the late ‘60s when we moved here, but it tailed off.

MORE FAMILY HISTORY AND THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE

Could I return to your father? I missed something. When was he born?

JK: He was born in 1887. He was two years younger than my mother. I still keep in touch with his niece, who is my age.

What did your father do?

JK: My father worked for the government after World War I. He was never sent over because of his German heritage. They wouldn’t send him, so he was in the Wardens at Rock Island Arsenal. I remember when my mother took the train to visit she would say there were Indians on the train. This is 1916-1917. He worked for the government until he retired, Treasury Department, I believe.

So his parents came from Germany?

JK: Yes.

And he spoke German?

JK: Yes. My mother did, too. It was limited. Nothing much. Just so the kids wouldn’t understand.

Was it difficult for your parents because of their German heritage during WWI?

JK: I know they were not popular after World War One. They talked about atrocities involving the killing of Belgian children. A whole lot of stuff. There was a great deal of prejudice against the Germans. Even as a child I remember that..

The fact that you were Jewish wouldn’t have mattered?

JK: No. This was because of German heritage. That came in with Hitler. There was always anti-semitism there, anti-semitism in every country. In our country there was anti-semitism. I mean it’s subdued; it’s not like it was. And in Germany it became almost a fetish. But you can see some of the other countries. It’s not the only one.

Do you have any early memories about that.

JK: You didn’t push being Jewish. At home you were proud of it to some extent. If people were talking about something you wouldn’t say “well, I’m Jewish”…

Did you go to synagogue?

JK: We went to Washington Hebrew, which was very, very reform.

Did you go regularly?

JK: No. My grandmother did. She would take the bus downtown. She was in her 80s and 90s and she would go down to the old Washington Hebrew at 8th and H. She came home for lunch on the Mount Pleasant street car. My mother didn’t. My father never was interested. And we weren’t really raised very Jewish. We knew we were Jewish, but that’s about it.

Did you celebrate Passover and Hannakah?

JK: We ate ham. We did everything that everybody else did. All we knew is that we were Jewish. That’s it. But as far as observing, no. I don’t know whether that was just us, or whether reform Jews in the United States try to be part of the city, part of the world, and just didn’t push it. We never had Hebrew in synagogue at Washington Hebrew. They never spoke Hebrew. Girls didn’t learn it in Betsy’s days, but Mark learned a little bit. He’s better at it that I am. It was very different.

Did you personally ever experience a prejudice?

JK: Oh, yeah—I guess I remember kids saying “you’re a dirty Jew” or something like that. But this was par for the course in those days. You took it. That’s it. It wasn’t anything you flaunted.

Anything else you can think of about the prejudice against Germans and/or Jews?

JK: Because [the Washington Hebrew congregation] was so reform there was criticism that it was too Christian, that maybe we shouldn’t be so reform, maybe we should stick to the old ways. At Washington Hebrew today the prayer books are in Hebrew. The kids learn Hebrew. They reverted. No man would wear a skull cap in those days, except for very orthodox Jews. And beards, you know, now it’s fashionable, as you can see (looking at Carl Lankowski, who sports one).

This is interesting. It sounds like the Jewishness was accentuated as alternative to Germanness, which was not popular.

JK: [Increased attention to Jewish identity] came after Hitler. Israel had become a state. People began to feel that maybe we shouldn’t have rejected so much. They then bent over backwards to pick up the loose ends. Before they dropped all this because you wanted to be part of the world. Men shaved—only in certain areas of New York did they, parts that were quite orthodox. I don’t remember my father’s family. I somehow don’t think they were terribly orthodox.

How about your husband’s background. His name sounds German.

JK: His family came from Poland. It was Klüger. When they came to America at Immigration evidently they changed it to Klieger.

They were from Poland?

JK: Close to Poland. They considered themselves German. Probably Northeast Germany close to the Polish area.

THE LIBRARY AND BROAD BRANCH MARKET

What about the library? When did that appear?

JK: That was later. There was a library there, but it was not a big one like now. We probably would not have moved had there been no library of any kind, because we used it a lot. We still do. It’s great. It’s a good library. They’re very accommodating and they have a lot more than books. They have a lot of activities now, too.

Broad Branch Market?

JK: That was there. It was Bondareff’s at one time, named after the people that owned it. They built the little rambler at the corner of 33rd and Northampton. And right across was Bondareff’s Market. It was a little grocery store. Vicki Matteoli worked there for awhile. And then she went to work for Joan’s, the real estate firm on Connecticut Avenue. And then she worked for her husband, ordering things like paint.

Did you use Broad Branch Market?

JK: Sure. We’d walk up there. It had a butcher. It was very accommodating. They had a real butcher. I mean he would really cut pieces for you. It was a very little store. They always had candy and things like that for the kids. Some groceries. Some canned goods. Another thing that bothers me is they have “dry goods” listed. Dry goods is not groceries. Dry goods is … cloth. Every time I see them I think I should tell them about it.

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