Mickey Elsberg was born in 1939 in New York and is Jewish-American.
In his interview, Mickey speaks about the way the war affected family life including the food they ate, and the activities his mother engaged in. He also talks of receiving news at Temple services and movie theaters. His also discusses how his father’s position as the neighborhood pharmacist prevented him from being drafted.
Canned Spam and Pineapples from Hawaii
One of the special meals, instead of a baked ham, it was baked spam. You can get a large can of spam, and you open the can, slide it out, and then you would put “X”’s across in the top and a clove in the center of each of the little diamond shapes, and it was as though you were doing a baked ham. And it was good, I mean what did I know? I didn’t know any different, it tasted good to me.
But you really couldn’t get pineapple until after the war because it was coming from Hawaii and, you know, they weren’t going to waste time with that. Right after the war, all of the sudden we were getting pineapple in from Hawaii, and so my mother would cut it and dice it up. And each piece would have a little American flag stuck in it on a toothpick. The irony that I became aware of a little while later was that I found some of those little flags in a drawer some years later, and the border it had printed on it — “Made in Occupied Japan.”
Hearing About the Holocaust at Temple Services
Probably it was after the war when some of the war stories started coming back about concentration camps. I do have this vivid recollection because of my father’s working schedule, he wouldn’t go to High Holiday services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We didn’t go every week. So my mother would take me to temple, to services, and the Rabbi’s sermons. I distinctly remember those sermons describing what went on in the concentration camps and elsewhere, the pits that people were forced to dig, and they were all machine gunned and thrown into the pits. I was probably about seven or eight at that point, but I may have had some nightmares after that.
When you would go to the movies which we did, there was a local movie theater. And in those days, you bought a ticket, and you went into the movie theater, and you sat until essentially you started seeing again what you had seen when you first got there. And so you knew that it was time to leave because you had been there for the full cycle. It wasn’t like today where you go in at an appointed time. And kids, especially in the winter and all, all the kids would be shunted off to the movies on Saturday ’cause it gave parents some free time. And I remember MovieTone News, which was part of the newsreels that would come on, and seeing pictures of naval battles and other things as part of the news. So, we saw those. I guess they didn’t figure that it was X-rated, and the kids shouldn’t see violence so we saw it. It was interesting. I mean, at home we built forts out of spare lumber, and instead of cowboys and Indians, we played Americans and Japanese or Americans and Germans just because we’d heard.
Mother’s Bandage Wrapping Club
Coming home from kindergarten, if my mother wasn’t home, I knew I would go over to Timmy Russell’s house, the other side of the courtyard, and there were all the ladies, instead of playing mahjong, which was the other thing they did, were rolling bandages. That was something that people did. Women had clubs at home, get the supplies from the American Red Cross, they would roll bandages and then they’d pack ’em up and they would go back to the Red Cross for shipment overseas for use in the field (Interviewer:) Did you ever help them? (Mickey:)I mean, I might have helped move stuff around. But mostly I was going in to find out where the milk and cookies were. But the women would all be gathered around the table, and they all had kerchiefs on their heads to restrain their hair so they wouldn’t be dropping dandruff into the bandages, I guess. And today you would think, “How strange to see everybody dressed like that” because today you think of women with the kerchief in that style gathered around, you’d think it was Eastern Europe about twenty-five years ago, or some Eastern European county behind the Iron Curtain. That was the fashion of the day.
Getting a Car during the War
My parents bought a car during the war. It was not easy, but it was for delivery for the drugstore. My father got a priority. So he had a car, but the bumpers on the car were about two-inch thick oak boards bolted to the front and rear of the car. They didn’t want to use any more metal than they had to. I remember after the war, as an aside, my father got one of the first cars in the community that had metal bumpers, and everybody would gather around: “Oh look, real bumpers again! The war must be over.”
Father’s Pharmacy and Air Raid Drills
My father was a pharmacist and had the drugstore. Pharmacists who had drug stores were exempt from the draft because you had to have functioning pharmacies at home. So my father never was in uniform although I think he had an air raid warden’s helmet. He worked the “B” shift. When you have a store like that, it’s called — you “B” there in the morning when it opens, you “B” there all day, and you “B” there at night when it closes [laughs]. So he wasn’t available most of the time to be a warden because he was working 12-14 hour days. But if necessary within the cul-de-sac where we lived, if they needed an extra hand, he had the helmet which didn’t look like a soldier’s helmet. It looked kind of like a metal pith helmet.
That man he was also aware of the things he needed to have when there where air raids. And I have still—they’re not frightening, but I have vivid memories of waking up as a four or five-year-old and hearing air raid sirens going off. And there’d be search lights in the sky, and my father, if he was home, he would come into the room with a flashlight with a blue gel over it. Because supposedly blue gels were not visible from the air. I don’t know if that’s true or not. And he would stay in the room, we’d look out the window and make sure nothing was happening. Of course, nothing ever happened.