`Album' offers a treasury of memories

September 24, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

GILBERT SANDLER'S mind is our municipal attic. He holds on to the details everybody else misplaces. Remember that city councilman from South Baltimore after the war? How could Sandler forget? Remember that backup second baseman with the old International League Orioles? Sandler does. Remember the little stretch between Garrison Junior High and Forest Park Senior High? It's all there in the recesses of Sandler's psyche.

He remembers trolley car rides during the first D'Alesandro administration, extra-inning stickball games from 1936, counselors' names from Camp Airy, carriage rides through Druid Hill Park. He is the keeper of stories: of anxious turn-of-the-century immigrants arriving at Locust Point, of the Sanitary Russian Public Baths on Baltimore Street, of classrooms that became test tubes for the American melting pot. He is the repository of our senses: the taste of a sour pickle at Sussman and Lev's Deli, the smell of fresh-cut corned beef on Lombard Street, the sight of scruffy children in an East Baltimore alley.

For 25 years, Sandler's recollections filled "Baltimore Glimpses" in The Evening Sun, and for years more they graced this newspaper and the Baltimore Jewish Times. He's authored "The Neighborhood: The Story of Baltimore's Little Italy" and "Baltimore Glimpses Revisited."

Now he's written "Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album." It's a great title for a sweetheart of a book. The collection of memories and old photographs, some of them pulled from Sandler's old Jewish Times pieces and now published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, has exactly the feel of a family album: not only Jewish families, but how they climbed out of the darkness of steerage onto the old Locust Point piers, and scuffed and struggled and made themselves such a vital part of every community in Baltimore.

The book is a mix of history and heart. You're standing at the crowded rail of the S.S. Wilhelm as refugees first glimpse the American skyline - Locust Point, Fort McHenry - and follow them off the ship, "exhausted, seasick, emaciated, and frightened of being sent back to an inhospitable Europe.

"The immigrants disembarked onto Piers 8 and 9. After endless interrogations and ... medical checks, they were free to go. Some would take the B&O Railroad to distant cities, where anxious relatives awaited; others would remain and become part of Baltimore's growing and vibrant Jewish community."

The historians have covered such moments before this. But Sandler takes us into the crevices the historians never reach. He's got Tobias "Toby" Hymer's recollections of his family's Lombard Street Deli in the 1930s and "the first hot dog on a roll ever sold" there. It cost three cents.

"With sauerkraut," says Hymer, "four cents."

Or he finds the late Judge Solomon Liss' boyhood recollection of a trip to the public baths of East Baltimore, where a shower, a towel and soap all were included for the price of a nickel (and a nickel more for a comb).

"A spread of temperatures," remembered Liss, "ranged from the heat of Hades to the cold of the Arctic. Singing was permitted and all of us gave the popular harmonies of the day a good workout. Time was easily forgotten and most bathers had to be brought back to reality by the attendant's banging on the door to remind them that they had `one more minute.'

"At the end of his time, it was not unusual for a patron to be ushered briskly out of the shower room, rinsed off or not, clothes under his arm, into the dressing room nearby. The fresh, buoyant experience on my re-entry to the outside world is even today indescribable."

But the book is serious, too. There's the "German Jewish society creating a world of its own," keeping a distance from later Jewish arrivals; the mounting pressure felt here as Hitler began his annihilation of half the Jews of Europe; and the postwar treks to Northwest Baltimore, and then to suburban counties.

The names alone evoke several eras: The Crest, The Ambassador, The Forest and The Avalon theaters; the No. 5 streetcar line; the roller coaster at Gwynn Oak Park, and the beaches at Tolchester and Bay Shore, Fort Smallwood and Bay Ridge and Fairview; Nates & Leons, and the Pimlico Hotel and Jack Pollack's Trenton Democratic Club; and the Monument Street YMHA.

This morning, Sandler will speak and sign books at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St.

"Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album" reads like a long, loving chat around a kitchen table with a favorite uncle who knew everybody, and went everywhere, and never forgot a thing he ever learned. What's more, he's brought pictures along. And, between the telling and the showing, you learn an affectionate history: of the Jews, yes. But, also, how they reached out for Baltimore, and how Baltimore reached back.

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