Category Archives: History

Kindertransport Conversation Comes To Playhouse

Every day, the world loses Holocaust survivors.

In an age of rising anti-Semitism and distrust of “others,” hearing their first-hand stories is more important than ever.

Margie Treisman

Recently, Margie Treisman — a Westport Country Playhouse trustee and Anti-Defamation League national commissioner — was asked to help develop educational programming around an upcoming Playhouse production of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about the Kindertransport children’s rescue.

She called Margie Lipshez-Shapiro. An ADL of Connecticut official and noted Holocaust educator, she knows almost every living survivor in the state who is willing and able to tell their tale.

Lipshez-Shapiro suggested Ivan Backer, a Kindertransport survivor who has written about his journey, and his life afterward. Backer will be at the Playhouse next Wednesday (March 29, 7 p.m.), as part of conversation called “From Hate to Hope.”

The event — sponsored by the Playhouse, ADL and TEAM Westport — is funded by the Anita Schorr “Step in and Be a Hero” Fund. Schorr — a longtime Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands with her story of horror and hope — died last year. The event is free, but seats must be reserved by phone (203-227-4177). For more information, click here.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” follows a week later with a limited run at the Playhouse (April 5-9). The true story of a young musical prodigy, it intertwines the themes of family, hope and survival with piano selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — even a little Gershwin. Click here for more information.

Westport Links With America’s Oldest Synagogue

You wouldn’t think that a recent “06880” story on an antique New York City map would lead to a Westport connection with the oldest synagogue in North America.

Then again, you wouldn’t figure that Luis Gomez was Jewish.

The piece focused on Westporter Robert Augustyn, and a 1740 map his company acquired. It was the first to show that synagogue, on Manhattan’s Mill Street.

Benjamin Gomes, great-grandson of Luis Moses Gomez.

Robert Jacobs quickly responded. He and his cousin Joel Treisman — both Westporters — are direct descendants of Luis Moses Gomez. The Sephardic Jewish immigrant, whose parents escaped the Spanish Inquisition, led the drive to finance and construct Shearith Israel — that first-ever New York congregation, founded in the late 1680s — and served as its first parnas (president).

But Jacobs’ story goes much deeper.

He is not a religious person. Yet in 1973, his family got a call from the owner of a house in Marlboro, New York. He was selling his property, which originally belonged to a direct Jacobs ancestor: Gomez.

In 1714, he had purchased 1,000 acres near Newburgh, New York. Later, with his sons Jacob and Daniel, he bought 3,000 more.

Gomez built a fieldstone blockhouse to conduct trade and maintain provisions in the Mid-Hudson region.

“Everyone thinks of the early settlers in this region as Dutch and English,” Jacobs says. “But there were some very important Jewish settlers too.” Gomez arrived in New York City in 1703.

Jacobs adds, “Jewish immigrants were not just the Ashkenazis and Russians of the late 1800s. Sephardic Jews were here too.”

They were world traders. Gomez’ family was involved in chocolate, potash, furs and other commodities. They also quarried limestone, milled timber — and donated funds to rebuild New York’s Trinity Church steeple.

Jacobs was just 27 when the Gomez house went on the market. He called his cousin, Treisman.

Robert Jacobs and Joel Treisman.

As they researched its history, they learned that Gomez was not the only fascinating character. During its 300 years, “Gomez Mill House” served as home to Revolutionary patriot Wolfert Ecker; 19th-century gentleman farmer and conservationist William Henry Armstrong; artisan and historian Dard Hunter, and 20th-century suffragette Martha Gruening.

Six years after buying the property, Jacobs’ family created a non-profit. In 1984 the Gomez Foundation purchased the Mill House, and established it as a public museum.

The Gomez Mill House today.

The house is being preserved as as a significant national museum. The oldest standing Jewish dwelling in North America, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobs’ foundation also offers programs about the contributions of former Mill House owners to the multicultural history of the Hudson River Valley. Over 1,000 children tour the museum each year.

Today, Jacobs says, “Freedom, tolerance and opportunity is one of the missions of Gomez Mill House.” The foundation’s work seems particularly timely today.

One of the lovingly restored rooms in the Gomez Mill House.

Jacobs and Treisman serve on the board. They’re joined by fellow Westporter Andrée Aelion Brooks. The former New York Times writer — an expert on Jewish history — lectures frequently for the foundation.

Not many people — even Jews — know about Luis Moses Gomez.

But Robert Jacobs, Joel Treisman and their family have spent 40 years getting to know their ancestor. The story they share is fascinating.

And Gomez Mill House is just an hour and a half away.

(For more information on Gomez Mill House, click here.)

Friday Flashback #31

Protests are nothing new in Westport. As noted a few Friday Flashbacks ago, they date back to at least 1913, when women of the Equal Franchise League participated in Suffrage Week activities.

Perhaps none were bigger though than the rallies against the Vietnam War. There were several, culminating in a National Moratorium Day march on October 15, 1969.

Over 1200 Staples students — joined by some from the 3 junior highs — marched from the high school tennis courts, down North Avenue and Long Lots Road, all the way to the steps of the YMCA.

The long line of marchers headed downtown. The A&P is now the firehouse; the Esso gas station is a Phillips 66. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

They carried American flags and wore buttons saying “Peace Now” and “Hell No, We Won’t Go.” Along the way, pro-war students threw eggs at the marchers.

There were adults downtown too, to hear speeches (including one from Iowa Senator Harold Hughes).

More of the enormous downtown crowd. The former Max’s Art Supplies is on the extreme left; what is now Tiffany is on the far right. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

It took 4 more years. But in 1973 a peace treaty was signed. Two years later, the last Americans were evacuated from the US Embassy roof.

A portion of the crowd — primarily Staples students — protesting the Viet Nam war in 1969. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A Staples student states his case. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

A portion of the crowd in front of the Y. The Fine Arts Theater (now Restoration Hardware) was showing “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Medium Cool.” Police stood on the roof next door. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

The crowd was predominantly — though not entirely — made up of Staples students. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

Rabbi Byron Rubenstein of Temple Israel addresses the crowd from the steps of the Y. (Photo/Adrian Hlynka)

Selma’s Bloodroot Turns 40

In January, hundreds of local women protested the new president. Earlier this month, some skipped work to demonstrate the impact of “A Day Without a Woman.”

If they wanted a place to organize, strategize — and eat a delicious, healthful meal — they could have headed to Bloodroot.

For 40 years, the Bridgeport restaurant/bookstore has been a feminist hangout and outpost. It was there at the start of the women’s movement. It nurtured the hearts, minds and stomachs of generations of activists.

It’s still there. But how many people know of Bloodroot’s Westport roots?

In 1961, Selma Miriam was a self-described “mama with 2 kids.” A landscape designer working with the famed Eloise Ray, her one requirement for a house was that it have a garden.

She found a perfect spot on Hiawatha Lane. Nearly 60 years later, it’s still home.

During her first decade in Westport, Selma got involved in the burgeoning women’s movement. She was president of Westport’s NOW chapter. So was Noel Furie.

It was the 1970s. Women’s bookstores were opening around the country. Selma and Noel liked the idea.

They also liked to cook. The idea of a vegetarian restaurant/bookstore was born.

She and Noel looked at locations along the Post Road, and in Wilton. Everything was ugly.

Then they heard about a plot of land in Black Rock, right on Burr Creek. There was room for a garden. Birds flitted. The light was natural.

Bloodroot is tucked away, off a residential street in Black Rock.

Selma went to nearly every bank in Fairfield County. None would give a woman a mortgage — though they never said it quite that way.

Finally, Harvey Koizim — the founder of Westport’s County Federal Bank — agreed to a 10-year balloon mortgage.

Bloodroot opened in 1977, on the spring equinox.

Selma liked the idea of women working together, sharing common wisdom. She did not like the idea of women serving anyone. To this day, diners give their orders at a window by the kitchen, then pay. When meals are ready, their names are called. When they’re done, they bus their own dishes.

The menu, the kitchen, and Noel Furie.

It took a while for people — especially men — to understand Bloodroot. Salesmen would arrive, look at Selma, and ask for her husband.

Irene Backalenick wrote about Bloodroot for the New York Times. When an editor called to arrange a photogapher, Selma asked for a woman.

The paper sent a man. He used a fisheye lens, which Selma says “made all our heads look swollen.”

The other day — for a story on Bloodroot’s 40th anniversary — the Times sent another photographer. She was all over the place, taking hundreds of shots. Her husband — a Times opinion page editor — simultaneously served as her assistant, and held their 8-month-old baby.

“What a difference!” Selma says. “And it all seemed so natural.”

Selma Miriam, during a quiet moment at Bloodroot.

During its 40 years, Bloodroot has employed countless people: high school and college students, dropouts, middle-aged, part-time and full-time. All are women.

Several current employees come from Mercy Learning Center, Bridgeport’s literacy and life skills center for low-income women. They’re Haitian, Ethiopian and Congolese. “Such wonderful people,” Selma says. “They have great cooking knowledge. And an incredible work ethic.”

Bloodroot’s Ferris Avenue location — in the middle of a residential neighborhood — is not easy to find.

“We don’t get walk-in trade,” Selma says. “People have to find us.”

But find Bloodroot they did. They came for the food and/or the books. They stayed for the community.

One big change has been in the bookstore. In the beginning, Bloodroot played a huge role helping women find feminist books and magazines.

Over the years, two factors — Barnes & Noble, then Amazon — have destroyed women’s bookstores. (Including, ironically, the Amazon Cooperative in Minneapolis, the first feminist bookstore in the country.)

The bookstore section of Bloodroot.

Now, Selma says, she sells one book every couple of weeks. She took up the slack by publishing cookbooks. There have been 4 so far, plus a 2-volume “Best of Bloodroot.” There are calendars too, with 13 new recipes a year.

Of course, you don’t have to buy her recipes. Ask, and she’ll tell you. “The more we share with each other, the better we’ll all be,” she says.

At 82, Selma still loves Bloodroot. She is especially excited about the menu.

She continues to develop new dishes. She’s using more plant-based food, and has introduced vegan cheese, butter and whipped cream to diners.

The warm, welcoming interior of Bloodroot.

Three things keep Selma going. “The place is beautiful. I love to cook. And I love the diversity of people,” she says.

Her customers are loyal. (And — despite her initial belief that men would  not come — they include both genders.) The staff, in turn, feels a strong connection with their diners.

Selma has big plans for Bloodroot’s 40th year. She’s looking back by playing women’s music from the 1970s and ’80s.

And she’s looking ahead by inviting vegetarian restaurants from around the state to her place.

They bring their best dishes, to show Bloodroot customers the wide variety available. “I don’t cook Indian food or Jamaican food,” Selma says. “But that’s vegetarian too.”

She invites them for another reason too: to bring people together, in a warm, beautiful place.

That’s the community Selma Miriam created.

That’s Bloodroot.

(Click here for more information on — and directions to — Bloodroot.)

The British Were Coming! Jono Walker Was (Almost) There

Some Westport residents have been here a few years. Some grew up here. Some trace their local history back even longer.

Jonathan Walker is a 10th-generation Westporter. He traces his local ancestry to 1662. Three centuries later, Walker grew up in a house on the very same road — South Compo — where that pioneering Bennett family lived.

But that’s not even the most remarkable part of this story.

Walker — nicknamed Jono, as a member of Staples High School’s Class of 1970 — has just written his first book. “A Certain Cast of Light” is a tale of the Bennett and Walker families’ lives here in Westport during the Revolutionary War, and beyond.

Jessie "Gigi" Bennett -- Jonathan Walker's great-grandmother -- was born in 1862.

Jessie “Gigi” Bennett — Jonathan Walker’s great-grandmother — was born in 1862.

It’s fiction. But it’s based on a story Walker heard growing up, from his great-grandmother Jessie “Gigi” Bennett.

And it was told to her by her own great-grandfather. In other words, Walker spoke to someone with a living link to a time before the United States was even born.

Bennett’s great-grandfather claimed that — as a boy in 1777 — he climbed a tree and watched the British land at Compo Beach. He then saw them march past his South Compo house, on the way to burn an arsenal in Danbury. A few minutes later, Bennett witnesssed the skirmish near the Post Road.

Bennett told Walker’s great-grandmother that 3 wounded British soldiers were brought to his house. The reason: The Bennetts were Tories.

As Walker researched this fascinating tale, he discovered that the injured men were not “Redcoats,” as he’d always assumed. They were “Greencoats” — provincial loyalists who joined the British fight, with the promise they’d be granted land in Mississippi.

They were at the front of the column that day for 2 reasons. They knew the way to Danbury. And they knew which homes — including the Bennetts’ — belonged to Tories.

The story Walker heard included details like this: One of the injured men, Capt. David Lyman from New Haven, was operated on in the Bennetts’ house. Supposedly his leg was amputated, and the bone remained in the cellar.

Deliverance Bennett's house still stands on South Compo Road. It's where wounded British soldiers were taken, and "given succor."

Deliverance Bennett’s house still stands on South Compo Road. It’s where wounded British soldiers were taken, and “given succor.”

There was more to the lore. The owner of the Bennett house — the Tory named Deliverance — had 9 children. One was Gigi’s great-grandfather. But Deliverance’s brother, Joseph Bennett, lived up the street. He was a patriot — and a captain in the rebel American Home Guards.

How could one family be so divided? Walker always wondered. How did Joseph Bennett end up in Deliverance’s bigger house by the end of the war? Why was Deliverance — despite losing his standing in the community, and his property — allowed to remain here, and not flee to Nova Scotia like other Tories?

Those questions are at the heart of Walker’s new book.

In it, a fictional character — 13-year-old Haynes Bennett — climbs that tree and watches the British land. Defying his father, he joins the patriots. The book is written in Haynes’ voice, 50 years later, as the narrator tries to imagine why his Tory father acted as he had.

In writing “A Certain Cast of Light,” Walker says he drew on fights with his own father, Bill, over the Vietnam War.

Jonathan Walker

Jonathan Walker

The 1820 and ’30s — when Haynes “writes” the book — was a fraught time in Connecticut. Walker made his narrator an abolitionist. It was not an easy position to advocate. Like his father, he was tormented by neighbors.

Walker did his homework. He studied the privateers and “skinners” who roamed Long Island Sound, ensuring that New York City’s trade in tea, cotton, china — and slaves — could continue without interruption. In Fairfield County, emotions on both sides of the slave trade ran so high that neighbors poisoned each other’s wells. During the 1700s, Walker says, the Bennett family owned slaves.

Like the Bennetts’ history in Westport, Walker’s book spans many years. He started it during the 1970s, as a student at Union College. He’d heard stories, but that was the first time he actually thought about what it meant to be a Tory family during the Revolutionary War. Even then, he says now, he did not realize how dangerous that was.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this "poor man's farmhouse," across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this “poor man’s farmhouse,” across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

In pre-internet times, Walker did his research at the Westport and Pequot libraries, and in New York City.

He figured he’d take 2 years to write his novel. But he got an MBA, became a father, and real life took over.

Three years ago — after retiring from a career in business — he returned to his book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker's new book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker’s new book.

Historical accuracy was important. Walker researched sailmaking, and apple tree farming. A book of 18th-century slang provided expressions like “that tarnal idiot,” and enabled him to write dialogue for college-educated Bennetts, as well as those who were farmers.

But one thing always bothered Walker. Though his ancestors were as important to Westport as families like the Burrs, Sherwoods, Coleys and Stapleses — in fact, Narrow Rocks Road was once called “Bennetts’ Rocks” — nothing here remains named for them.

Delving into the past, and writing his book, he realizes one thing: “We were on the wrong side of history.”

(Next month, the Westport Historical Society celebrates the 240th anniversary of the British landing at Compo Beach, march to Danbury and subsequent Battle of Compo Hill. As part of its programming, on April 18 [7 p.m.], the WHS hosts a talk by Jonathan Walker, and a book-signing. “A Certain Cast of Light” is available on Amazon and Kindle.)

Disgraced President’s Desk For Sale In Westport

If I had a desk belonging to the only President of the United States to resign, I probably wouldn’t want to sell it.

If I did want to sell it, I probably would use a high-end auction house. I probably would not put it on Craigslist.

And if I did put it on Craigslist, I’d probably put “NIXON’S DESK!!!!!” in the headline — all in CAPS, with plenty of exclamation points!!!!!

I’m just sayin’.

But right there on the New York Craigslist is this:

Gorgeous mahogany desk — $1450 (Westport)

And the photo:

But not until you read the text do you find (verbatim):

Mahogany desk. Spectacular.

This desk was president Nixons. I do not have a certificate of authenticity. But if you are interested and come see the desk I would be more than happy to tell you the story.

It’s 72″ x 36″ x 30″. The condition is “like new.”

And here’s the Craigslist map, showing where it’s located:

If an “06880” reader ends up with Nixon’s desk, please let us know.

And if you spot any Spiro Agnew furniture for sale on Craigslist, tell us too.

Robert Augustyn, Henry Hudson, And America’s First Synagogue

Today’s New York Times reports on a fascinating 1740 map. It’s the first to honor Henry Hudson for navigating “his” river — and also the first to show the first synagogue consecrated in North America, on Manhattan’s Mill Street.

The rare map is on display in New York for the first time. And — equally fascinating for Westporters — one of our neighbors played a key role in its acquisition.

Robert Augustyn

Robert Augustyn is a dealer in fine antique maps. He owns Martayan Lan Fine Antiques Maps, Atlases and Globes, the wonderfully named Manhattan firm that’s offering one of only 3 engravings of the John Carwitham map known to exist. It was discovered recently in a private collection in Italy.

In Manhattan in Maps 1527-2014, Augustyn explains that before 1740, calling the waterway “Hudson’s River” would have lent support to Dutch territorial claims. Hudson was English by birth, but had been hired by Netherlands businessmen.

Augustyn — who has lived here with his wife Katie since 1996 — has lent his map expertise to the Westport Historical Society, most notably in a 2011 exhibition. He’s involved in more contemporary activities too, including the library, Little League and A Better Chance of Westport.

The “Carwitham Plan” map can be seen through Sunday, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair (Park Avenue Armory). If you’d like it for your wall, the minimum price is $125,000.

(Click here for the full New York Times story.)

Details from the 1740 Carwitham Plan map. “Hudson’s (or North) River” can be seen on the left. Click on or hover over to enlarge.

Paying It Forward For Refugees

Last week, “06880” told the story of Josh Kangere, a refugee from the Republic of Congo who has found work at Sugar & Olives — and the beginnings of a new life in America.

Today there’s another hopeful tale, of another Congolese immigrant here.

Three years ago, a man named David was granted refugee status. He came to Bridgeport, found work in Milford, and established himself. Last week — thanks to the International Institute of Connecticut — he was reunited with his wife Anathalie.

He also got to hold his son Christian for the first time. When David left Africa, the boy had not yet been born.

The Nestor family of Weston heard David’s story from Sue Ingall, a fellow Westonite who sets up refugee houses with volunteers from 4 area churches: Christ & Holy Trinity and the Unitarian Church, both in Westport; Norfield Congregational in Weston, and Greenfield Hill Congregational in Fairfield.

They were touched, and wanted to do something special. So Samantha, Mike, Finn and Gavin gathered furniture and children’s toys, and headed to Bridgeport on Saturday morning to meet the family.

David and Anathalie with the Nestor family.

It was a special day for everyone. Saturday was the birthday of Samantha’s grandmother Fay, after whom their son Finn is named. A refugee herself, she escaped the Russian pogroms nearly 100 years ago, with her mother and sisters.

Fay, like Christian, was separated from her father for years. She and the rest of her family journeyed to New York, where eventually they were all reunited.

They were the only members of their family to escape from Russia. Their cousins, uncles and extended family were all murdered by the Nazis.

Despite the mass executions, abductions, mutilations and rapes that are almost daily occurrences in Congo, David’s and Anathalie’s faces are filled with gratitude and hope.

And the Nestors were happy to connect their own family’s story with David’s.

(This Sunday [March 12, 3 p.m., Bessemer Center, Bridgeport] IICONN will hold a Rally for Unity and Resilience to Stand with Refugees and Immigrants. Speakers include Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy. Click here for information on the Facebook page.)

Read This Story. Buy This House.

“06880” has written often — and admiringly — of a handsome old Cross Highway home.

Built in 1728 by Samuel Meeker, it was already half a century old when the British marched past, on their way to Danbury. They took Meeker’s 2 sons prisoners — but not without a fight. A musket ball lodged in the door offered vivid evidence that this house had history.

Today, it’s known as the Schilthuis-Meeker house. (More history: Sally Schilthuis was influential in preventing construction of Merritt Parkway Exit 43 in the area, resulting in the current “No Man’s Land” between Exits 42 and 44).

The saltbox incorporates 3 vernaculars of American architectural history. It almost met the wrecking ball, but owners Mark Yurkiw and Wendy Van Wie spent several years (and a ton of money) restoring it, and ensuring its legal preservation in perpetuity.

The front view of 180 Cross Highway. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

The front view of 188 Cross Highway. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

Next Wednesday, the house will be listed for sale. But Mark and Wendy are offering a unique opportunity to “06880” readers:

You can buy it before it hits the market.

No, I’m not pimping real estate on the side. But I love this house. I’d buy it myself if I had a few hundred thousand dollars floating around.

And because the owners want to find someone as special as the place they’ve worked hard to protect and preserve — someone who appreciates the home’s connection to Westport, US and architectural history — I’m happy to help.

The rear view. (Photo/Amy Dolego)

The rear view.

The listing price is $1,499,000. But if you contact Mark and Wendy before Tuesday afternoon (February 28), they’re willing to work with you. “We can be creative in how it’s sold to the best buyer,” they add.

Timing is everything. If you’re interested, email mark.think3d@gmail.com before next Wednesday.

Just tell ’em your real estate advisor — “06880” — sent you.

The sitting and dining room.

The sitting and dining room.

The living room.

The living room.

Friday Flashback #26

Last month’s Women’s March on Washington was quite an event. It drew dozens of Westporters — some of whom had never participated in anything like it before. They returned home excited, energized and empowered.

Just imagine how the women of the Westport Equal Franchise League felt, when they participated in Suffrage Week activities right here in 1913.

Kathie Motes Bennewitz — the town art curator and amateur historian who unearthed all this information — provides a clipping from the Bridgeport Evening Farmer of November 13 of that year. It says:

A meeting of the Westport Equal Franchise League was held at the home of Mrs. Rose Barrell on Myrtle avenue yesterday afternoon. The final arrangements for the Suffrage Week which will be held next week was made. The first gun of the week will be fired on Sunday evening when the Rev. K. McKenzie will address the gathering at Holy Trinity church at 7:30 o’clock. On Monday a rally and parade will be held which will be followed by addresses.

The parade will form at the corner of Myrtle avenue and Main street and will march to the Square. A brass band has been secured and it is expected that a large number of women will be in line. After the parade a rally will be held at which the following will give addresses: The Wage Earning Women, Mrs. E. Gregory of South Norwalk; The Necessary of Mother’s Vote, Mrs. Robert Fuller; Probation Work by Mrs. D. O. Parker of Greenwich, who at present is probation officer of that town; Taxation Without Representation, Mrs. Rose Barrell. The other speakers of the evening will be Mrs. G. C. Brown, Mrs. Rufus Putney and others.

How did the parade and rally go?

We don’t know. There was no follow-up report.

However, Kathie did find out that the Westport Equal Franchise League — to support women’s right to vote — had been formed a year earlier, in March 1912.

And Kathie learned that the 1913 Suffrage Week events in Westport were part of a national movement, kicked off by a parade in Washington, DC.

The women's suffrage parade marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913. The National Park Service did not offer a crowd estimate.

The women’s suffrage parade marches down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913. The National Park Service did not offer a crowd estimate.

The Westport Equal Franchise League kept going. The participated in the Hartford Suffrage Parade on May 2, 1914.

Six years later, the 19th Amendment — giving women the vote — became the law of the land.

A poster for the Hartford suffrage event. Westport women participated.

A poster for a Hartford suffrage event.