People say we baby boomers are the luckiest generation in history. Luckier than any before us and, sad to say, luckier than those that follow. Manhattan executive and essayist Bob Brody knows that firsthand when he thinks about his grandfather Harry. Bob, author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age, wrote a column about Harry for The Wall Street Journal, and has given BoomerCafé permission to re-run it here.
Harry Brody grew up during the early 1900s in an Austrian village that denied Jewish children like him admission to school. His father, a tavern owner, had no choice but to hire a tutor. Even so, the boy could barely read and write.
When the Russians took over the town around 1910, they would have conscripted Harry into the army. Instead, the 16-year-old fled the village, alone and virtually penniless, never to return. He headed for the United States. He landed on Ellis Island.
Harry went to Newark, New Jersey, and moved in with an uncle and aunt, Louis and Gussie, whom he had never met. He neither had skills nor spoke much English, but he worked at any job he could get. Harry lost a finger in an accident at a paper-box factory. But he saved almost every penny he earned.
Within ten years, Harry had scraped together enough to bring over 14 members of his family: his father and mother, his six brothers and sisters, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, and four young children. He rented and furnished an apartment where they all lived. He supported the adults until they found jobs.
That enterprising young man became my father’s father and, once I was born, my grandfather.
During Prohibition, Harry took a job tending bar in a tavern in Newark, catering to workers from nearby factories. He put in 18 hours a day to support his wife and three children, coming home only to sleep. By 1920, he was able to put down $200 to buy a saloon of his own.
Soon my Poppa, as we grandchildren called Harry, saw an opportunity to invest in property. He and a wealthy friend went 50-50 on a residential apartment building in Newark, which he managed until he worked off the borrowed half and eventually owned it outright.
Then Harry bought another building with a brother of his. He borrowed still more money, picking up houses cheap and selling them at a profit, only to buy others. So went the pattern: Borrow, buy and sell, then, with the capital accrued, borrow, buy and sell some more.
By 1941, still a bar owner, Harry had brought other partners into his real estate ventures. As a minor investor, he managed and maintained the properties, collecting the rents and paying taxes.
Within the span of a generation, my Poppa graduated from factory worker to bartender to saloonkeeper to landlord. In later years, he sent his three children to college, lived in a luxury high-rise, drove a Cadillac, joined a country club, traveled to Europe and Asia, and retired to Florida. He lived to see seven grandchildren, including me. Ultimately he referred to all of his offspring as his “dividends.”
My Poppa is every immigrant who ever came to America to get down to business. He started with nothing and created everything.