An Immigrant in Wedgwood: Gerda’s Story

Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle. Map courtesy of HistoryLink.

Perry & Gerda Frumkin were among the young married couples who found a new home in northeast Seattle in the post-World-War-Two years of 1945 to 1965.  Northeast Seattle was at that time a region where developer Albert Balch had acquired enormous tracts of vacant land available for building “starter homes.”

In the early 1940s, Albert Balch built a plat of 200 houses called the Wedgwood Addition, located on the west side of 35th Ave NE between NE 80th to 85th Streets.  The Wedgwood name for the neighborhood grew gradually in the nearby business district with the Wedgwood Tavern (today’s Wedgwood Ale House) being the first to use it.

By the time of establishment of an elementary school for the neighborhood in 1954, the name “Wedgwood School” was chosen and the neighborhood gained its Wedgwood identity.

Wedgwood School opened in 1953 with all-portable classrooms while the permanent building was under construction.

After World War Two ended in 1945, soldiers returned from war, got married, began having children and looked for homes suitable for families.  Housing development in northeast Seattle then became so rapid that schools could not keep up with the population explosion.  The large numbers of children born from 1946 to 1964, called the Baby Boom generation, were at first crowded into existing schools like Bryant and Ravenna.  New schools like View Ridge and Wedgwood began with portable classrooms until permanent buildings could be constructed.

This blog article will tell the immigrant story of Gerda, and will tell how Jewish couples like Perry & Gerda Frumkin were part of the move of the young married population out into northeast Seattle in the 1940s and 1950s.

Perry & Gerda, who married in 1950, heard of the community of Wedgwood with affordable homes and a plan for a new school building, so they began looking for a place to live close by the school.  By the time they moved into their new house in 1958, Perry & Gerda also knew that the congregation they belonged to, Beth Am, was planning to find a Wedgwood location for its own new building.

Perry & Gerda in Wedgwood

The Frumkin’s new house in 1957 near Wedgwood School

In 1957 Perry & Gerda Frumkin started building their new home near Wedgwood School on NE 85th Street.  They became part of the community of young couples in houses on all sides of the school property.

The need of a new school had become so intense that the Seattle School District had appropriated some of Albert Balch’s Wedgwood #4 tract, where he had already started to build houses in the early 1950s.  Four houses had to be moved off of the proposed school site onto nearby streets, leaving the northwest corner of NE 85th & 30th Ave NE to become Wedgwood School in 1954.

The University Unitarian Church building is an example of award-winning modernist architecture.  It is located on 35th Ave NE at the corner of NE 68th Street.

Another reason why Perry & Gerda were interested in living in Wedgwood was that they belonged to a congregation of Jewish believers which had formed, and which had migrated out to northeast Seattle.

The group, called Beth Am, had first started meeting in 1956 at University Unitarian Church on NE 47th Street & 16th Ave NE in the University District.  Along with the Baby Boom in the 1940s and 1950s, churches experienced an increase in attendance, which caused University Unitarian Church to look out in northeast Seattle for a place to build a bigger building.  The Jewish congregation migrated together with the church when, in 1959, University Unitarian started meeting in its new building on 35th Ave NE at NE 68th Street.

The group of Jewish believers, named Beth Am (House of the People) met at University Unitarian Church until Beth Am was able to build their own building in 1965.  Perry & Gerda Frumkin were among the founders of Temple Beth Am and attended at the convenient location on NE 80th by the Picardo Farm and Dahl Field.

Temple Beth Am at 2632 NE 80th Street, in a building which was remodelled in the year 2008.

Perry & Gerda cherished the freedom to practice their faith in America, send their children to public schools and participate in the Wedgwood community of Seattle.  Gerda, an immigrant, did not talk of the harrowing journey she had made at age twelve in 1938, when her parents sent her out of Germany to safety in the United States.

Gerda in Germany

Gerda came from Munzenberg, Germany, a village steeped in the atmosphere of centuries past.  The remains of Munzenberg Castle, built about a thousand years ago, made the village site visible from miles away though the village itself was not large.  The village with its shops and market was surrounded by farms.  The Jewish community had been there in the village for centuries, but deeply-held prejudices confined persons of Jewish ancestry to certain occupations only.  For this reason, Gerda’s parents, one of six Jewish families in Munzenberg, were shopkeepers in town and were not landholders like the farmers.

Munzenberg village in Germany

Gerda was born in 1925, the youngest by far in her family.  Gerda had a sister who was five years older, and two much older brothers.  By the time Gerda reached school age in the early 1930s, the Nazi Party had come to power in Germany and a campaign of persecution of Jews had begun.

Nazi propaganda newspapers in Germany put up displays like this one, with the headline that Jews were damaging the nations’ economy.

More than ten years after the end of the Great War (1914-1918), Germany had not recovered economically and so the Nazis scapegoated Jews as somehow hoarding riches for themselves, to the detriment of the nation.  Posters and radio messages of Nazi propaganda blamed Jews for Germany’s economic problems and urged people to restore national pride by “cleansing” Germany of the Jews.

In Munzenberg village, people starting “buying” goods from Jewish merchants with promises to pay later, but they never did, justifying it as “taking back” national riches from the Jews.  Nazi troops came to Gerda’s home and seized valuable items.  Gerda’s father and two brothers were picked up, put in detention and beaten.  At school, Gerda’s teacher began repeatedly hitting her.

In 1938 Gerda’s two brothers were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, located about 150 miles away.  Gerda’s eldest brother Adolf was never heard from again; Fritz was finally released.  When Fritz came home he began searching for a way for the family to get out of Germany, but by that time doors were closing all over the world, as no nations would accept Jewish refugees.

Finally Fritz learned of a sponsorship program now known as One Thousand Children, a consortium of Christian and Jewish groups in the USA.  On March 8, 1938, her family put twelve-year-old Gerda on a ship bound for America, in a group of ten German refugee children.  After arriving in New York City, Gerda traveled on alone by train, six days across the USA to her destination, Seattle.

Gerda in Seattle

The Flaks family home at 1137 32nd Ave as it looked in 1938. Photo from the Puget Sound Regional Archives, repository of the property records of King County.

Gerda’s new home in Seattle was in an inter-generational household of eight adults and only one other child, Jean, the five-year-old daughter of Gerda’s sponsors Lewis & Florence Flaks.  Florence was president of the Seattle chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, and Gerda was the first German refugee child in Seattle.  A Jewish immigrant aid organization sent Mrs. Flaks $48 per month to help support Gerda.

Other residents of the Flaks house were Florence’s mother and aunt, Lewis’s parents and two adult siblings.  The house was conveniently located in east/central Seattle at 1137 32nd Avenue, between Spring & Union Streets, and was across the street from Madrona Elementary School.  Gerda started school there though she could not speak any English.

Culture shock was Gerda’s daily diet, as she had never seen indoor plumbing, had never seen tall buildings like the Smith Tower of Seattle, and had never seen people of other races.  Her school and neighborhood in Seattle were racially diverse, and there were other Jewish children among the very large Madrona School population.

Temple De Hirsch at 15th & Union Streets as it looked when Gerda came to Seattle.

Gerda had cultural adjustments to make in the practice of her faith, as well, because the household where she had landed in Seattle practiced Reform Judaism, instead of the strict Orthodox traditions and food guidelines which Gerda had known in her Munzenberg, Germany, home.  The Flaks household attended Temple De Hirsch which at that time had its building at 15th & Union Streets.  Temple De Hirsch was founded in 1899 by a group of activists who wanted to practice their Jewish faith and be involved in civic issues for the betterment of Seattle.  Their rabbi led by example, as he was involved in social causes such as the formation of Childrens Hospital.

Gerda’s family:  from Germany to the Dominican Republic

In October 1941 Gerda received a letter from her brother Fritz with the return address of Sosua, Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic is on one-half of a Caribbean island, shared with Haiti.  In the 1940s the Dominican Republic was ruled by a brutal dictator who thought he would improve his image by taking in some Jewish refugees.

A group of refugees from Germany including Gerda’s parents, brother Fritz and sister were placed in the town of Sosua near the northern seacoast of the Dominican Republic.  They were given some land, some cows and a horse and were told to become farmers.  Fritz still expressed the hope that the family could join Gerda in the USA, but international events were to prevent this, due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which caused the USA to enter World War Two.

The Japanese of Seattle were ordered to report to detention camps, even those who were born in the USA.  For the most part German immigrants were not detained during World War Two.

The onset of World War Two brought new terrors to Gerda because, being from Germany, she was listed as an “enemy alien.”  In March 1942 Gerda saw her Japanese classmates pulled out of Garfield High School and sent to interment camps, even though they were American citizens.  Gerda thought that surely she would be next to be put into detention, because the USA was fighting both Germany and Japan in the war.

The end of the war brought some hope to Gerda when her host family, Lewis & Florence Flaks, applied to sponsor her brother Fritz to come to Seattle in 1946.  Fritz lived at the Flaks house while he looked for a job and started adapting to his new home.  Gerda, now 21 years old, took training as a practical nurse and worked at the King County Hospital (Harborview).  Gerda wanted to earn money to support herself and be able to send money to her parents, too, since they still were not able to join Fritz and Gerda in Seattle.

Perry & Gerda marry in 1950

When they moved from New York to Seattle in the early 1930s, the Frumkin family lived in this house at 913 27th Ave.

Perry Frumkin and Gerda Katz had some similarities of background in that each was by far the youngest child in their family.  Gerda, however, was deprived of family support for decades due to the upheavals of war, while Perry’s entire family moved to Seattle together and in young adulthood Perry was helped by his older brother and sisters.

Perry’s parents, Isador & Eva Frumkin, were Russian immigrants to Brooklyn, New York, in the 1890s, where their five children were born.  In the early 1930s the family came to Seattle seeking better economic opportunities.  They lived at 913 27th Avenue, between Marion & Spring Streets, just a few blocks from where Gerda lived with the Flaks family.

After their marriage in 1950, Perry & Gerda moved in with Perry’s parents.  Gerda continued working as a practical nurse while Perry worked with his sister’s husband at a furniture store in downtown Seattle, on Pine Street near the Bon Marche.

While waiting for their new house to be built, Perry & Gerda Frumkin lived in this Oneida Gardens (Wedgewood Estates) apartment at 7520 37th Ave NE.  Photo by Valarie.

Perry & Gerda looked toward the Wedgwood neighborhood as a place to build their home close to the new Wedgwood School and close to the new Jewish congregation that was forming, called Beth Am.  While their new house was being built, Perry & Gerda lived at the Oneida Gardens (Wedgewood Estates) apartment complex, conveniently located near the Safeway grocery and other stores at the intersection of NE 75th Street.

Finally in 1958 the new house on NE 85th Street was ready, and the Frumkins settled in with their growing family of three children.

Then the day came in 1959 when Gerda’s parents and sister travelled from the Dominican Republic to Seattle.  For decades an anti-Semitic government bureaucrat had refused to give them the necessary papers to leave the Dominican Republic, and it was not until he retired that the Katz family were reunited in Seattle.  Gerda was 34 years old and it had been more than twenty years since she had seen her parents.  Her brother Fritz, who by this time was married, too, took their sister to his home to live, while Gerda & Perry Frumkin took care of Gerda’s parents.  Her father died only four months after arrival in Seattle, and her mother lived about four more years.  Gerda was thankful that she had been able to host her parents and help them, even if only for a short time.

Gerda completes her immigration story

Gerda (top photo) and Edith were each twelve years old when they had these passport photos taken for the journey from Germany to the USA in 1938. Photos courtesy of Fern Schumer Chapman.

In the year 2011 when Gerda was 86 years old, she found completion of her immigration story in a reunion with Edith Westerfeld Schumer, another twelve-year-old German Jewish refugee who had traveled with Gerda on the ship to the United States.  Upon arrival in the USA in March 1938, Edith was sent to Chicago, Gerda to Seattle and the two girls lost touch.

Decades later, Edith’s daughter, Fern Schumer Chapman, wrote a book based upon her mother’s experiences which portrayed the turmoil of the Holocaust (persecution of Jews) and the journey of an immigrant, speaking no English and wanting to be accepted in the USA.  In the year 2011 a class of eighth-graders in Naperville, Illinois, read the book and wanted to solve the mystery of Edith’s lost friend of the transatlantic journey, Gerda.

Using Internet search, the students found an article about Gerda which had been written for the Wedgwood neighborhood newsletter in Seattle.  Because of this article and the students’ efforts, Edith in Chicago and Gerda in Seattle talked on the phone and then had an in-person reunion.  The students in Illinois received a visit from the two women with their thanks for making this life milestone possible.  Edith & Gerda were able to talk over their experiences and receive affirmation from one another, each from the only other person who really understood the journey they had been through.

From persecution to compassion

One of the values of Reform Judaism which Perry & Gerda Frumkin practiced is Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” a commitment to take action for social justice.  Gerda practiced this value by being an active member of her Wedgwood community as a PTA mom at the school, participating in benevolent organizational work at Temple Beth Am, and in being a neighborhood ambassador of kindness.  Gerda was well-known by her neighbors as one who would check on anyone who needed help, offering to bring groceries.  In the evenings, weather permitting, Perry & Gerda would go on walks around the neighborhood, greeting everyone and making the neighbors feel like family.

Even Wedgwoodians who did not know Gerda’s name, recognized her as the Bicycle Lady.  While Perry drove to work each day at the West Seattle furniture store that he owned, Gerda did her shopping and errands by bicycle in Wedgwood.

In the 1950s Gerda would ride her pink bicycle past Wedgwood School, waving to the children who looked out of their classroom windows in amazement to see an adult riding a bike.  In my growing-up years in Seattle in the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot remember ever seeing an adult riding a bike, as it was considered only a “kid” thing to do.  The only exception was a recreational activity at Green Lake, where teens and young adults out on a date could rent bikes to ride around the lake’s pathways.

Perry & Gerda Frumkin on their sixtieth wedding anniversary in 2010.

Gerda continued riding her bike to the Tradewell grocery store (now QFC) at Wedgwood’s NE 85th Street business intersection until she was well into her 80s.  Her reputation as the Bicycle Lady was one of the things that gave Katie, editor of the Wedgwood community newsletter, the idea to write an article to tell about Gerda’s mission as a neighborhood friendliness ambassador.  That article of the year 2010 was accessed on-line by the eighth-grade students in Naperville, Illinois, which led to the reunion of Gerda and Edith.

In their growing up years Gerda and Edith experienced persecution as Jews in Germany and bullying from Americans who did not understand the immigrant experience.  Gerda and Edith resolved to help “repair the world” by showing compassion to others, supporting refugee work and teaching the next generation of children that immigrants are the life-blood of America.  Edith’s daughter, Fern Schumer Chapman, continues that work with her books about the history of the Holocaust, her mother and other immigrants.

Source list:

Many, many thanks to Gerda’s daughter Ann and to Edith’s daughter Fern for their work to tell the stories of their immigrant moms.  The books of Fern Schumer Chapman can be found at her website.  In reading these books I was disappointed to learn that the Seattle Public Library does not have these in the collection.  I have sent in my request that the library purchase copies.

The Flaks house, where Gerda lived, as it looks today. It was built in 1908 and has been well maintained.

Census, City Directory listings and Washington Digital Archives:  dates of birth, death, marriage; addresses of houses.

Looking up addresses on the King County Parcel Viewer shows the build date and old/new photos of the house.

HistoryLink Essays: Madrona Elementary School, Essay #10551; Madrona Memories, Essay #3030; Temple De Hirsch, Essay #89.

Legacy.com, obituaries for Fritz Katz 1912-1990; Joseph Perry Frumkin 1924-2014; Gerda Katz Frumkin 1925-2017.

Like Finding My Twin:  How an Eighth-Grade Class Reunited Two Holocaust Refugees, by Fern Schumer Chapman, 2015.  See book list at her website.

“Meet Your Neighbors:  Perry and Gerda Frumkin: 52 Years and Counting in Wedgwood,” Wedgwood Community Newsletter, July 2010.

Oprah Network:  the reunion of Gerda and Edith received national news attention and they also appeared on the Oprah show.  Here is a five-minute YouTube segment of Gerda and Edith preparing for their reunion.

A Study of the Jewish Community in the Greater Seattle Area, by James McCann, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, 1979.  Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library R305.6296 M126S

Three Stars in the Night Sky:  A Refugee Family’s Odyssey of Separation and Reunion, by Fern Schumer Chapman, 2018.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
This entry was posted in Immigrant heritage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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