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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
Interview with Albert Libow
Date of Interview:
Interviewer: Alec Jacobson
Tape 1, Side 1.
J: Tell me Al where and whn were you born?
L: I was born in the Russian Ukraine, near Odessa on July 16, 1903.
J: You say near Odessa, Was this a small village or town?
L: It was one of those Shtetlach,one of the hick towns that are normally called
J: In American history little villages eventually grew larger and became centers
of expansion. Did the same thing happen in the Shtetl?
L: No, it did not. Usually the Shtetl was "frozen", and that was it. In our
Shtetl for instance, we had about five hundred families living. This was
already considered not too large, not too small, but representative of what
a shtetl should be.
J: Did the Shtetl itself provide for the sustenance of making of a living for
all of these five hundred families?
L: No. Not by a long shot. But the way of making a living is also representa-
tive. Practically a whole week, very few people have anything to do.
Usually they are waiting for Thursday. Thursday was a market day. In
Yiddish it's called the "Yerid". That's the day when the people from the
villages, the non-jewish farmers that lived in the villages came to market.
The Shtetl or small town was occupied by Jews. Around the fringes there
may have been some non-Jews but not too many of them. Whereas the villages
were for the Gentiles, and a Jew here and there might have had a little
store there, and did a little business with them, the Shtetl was primarily
Jewish. Now Thursday was the day of the Yerid, (as I called it before),
and the villagers used to come, bring their grain, their cows, what ever
they had to sell and also buy their supplies or whatever they needed. Such
as clothes, groceries, which they didn't need too many of those, because
they lived on what they had. They killed their own cattle, or their own
pig, or whatever. They grew their own vegetables and so on. They had their
own fruit. So they didn't need much in those stores. But they need to look
out for horses to shoe them, to repair the wagon, they didn't have running
water in the Shtetl. The water was storage in barrels. Of course they
had to buy a barrel now and then. That was the kind of a trade. Wooden
pail as a rule, but that was a kind of a trade that went on there.
J: Then what you're suggesting is that there were Jews who were craftsmen, like
Blacksmith, Wagon Makers, tailors and carpenters who serviced the non-Jewish
resident of the peasant villages surrounding the small town.
J: So for our discussion the Shtetl will be a town, and the rest of the commun-
ities, the small ones will be villages. Who owned the land?
L: This is a very interesting story, and I don't know that I should start from
the beginning. What you now call Russian Ukraine was actually at one time,
roughly about a thousand years ago, it was Poland, and there was no Russian
Ukraine. As a matter of fact, and I want to stress this, that the Jews were
in that Russia before the Russians were there, When the Russians came to
annex the city of Kiev into their government, the Jews were already there.
What happened is this, I have to go a little into history prior history and
I hopw that it will be of falue to you. I think that all of us know of the
Jewish history since the time of the diaspora and then how they were
evacuated from Spain due to the Inquisition, and so on and so forth. You
might recall Don Abrabanel who took a group of Jews with him and they left
Spain to go to look for new ventures. Many of them settled in Turkey in
that time. Others travelled on. Some came to Poland. Now what is interest-
ing about those that came to Poland is this. Although they were the govern-
ment nonetheless were not educated. The owners of the land of Poland at
that time were Dukes, Each Duke had his territory. The villagers, the
land workers, did work for him. (By the way, this happened later in Russia
also. In Russia they were freed only about 250 or 300 years ago.) What
they did is. These men lived on the land that belonged to the Duke. The
Peasants who toiled the land had to work the Duke's land first, after they
completed working on his land, they had the privilege of working on land,
where whatever they grew there was theirs. That system was called
"Pahnschena" you know. Pahn means the Duke, You didn't have to be a Duke
to be a Pahn you only had to own land and not work himself. So he was
already a Pahn. Now these people who worked for him were called Pahnschena.
They were his slaves practically. Only about 300 years ago, or less, they
were freed from that slavery.
J: This reminds me very much, of what you are saying of the Feudel System.
L: That's correct, it was a Feudel System.
J: We're talking about a Feudel System that you mentioned a thousand years ago,
the Jews were there already, but if I recall correctly the Spanish Inquisition
was only in the late fifteenth century.
L: Yes, 1480, there about.
J: Were there Jews in the Ukraine before the Spanish Inquisition?
Lt Now wait a minute, I may be wrong in my calculations there. And let some-
body who knows- more correct me.
J: Lets go to the end of the nineteenth century or the era that we are talking
L: Although the Dukes were owners of such vast amounts of land, nevertheless
they had wars amongst themselves. They were all Polish, and they all belonged
to the same-government, but each one had his own land, and each one wanted
what the other one had. So they used to have wars among themselves.
As I said before, the Dukes themselves were illiterate. They needed the
Jewish people who were cultured, and who were learned, to help them in the
administration of their affairs. Because of these wars that they had amongst
themselves, it wa- important for them to store ammunition at strategic points,
on their own land. Now naturally if they're going to storage anything, they
need somebody to take care of it and, to watch over it. They actually
invited Jews to come there and they brought them into a strip of desert where
they already had ammunition, and invited them to build a little town there.
J: And that's how the Shtetl developed.
L: Yes. That became the Shtetl. There was no running water. There were no
paved streets. There was mud up to the knees, particularly after the snow
melted in the winter, and you've heard of the Russian winters! That's the
way the shtetlach originated.
J: Can you tell me what was your father's occupation, in this little town that
you grew up in?
L: My father would buy grain. Incidentally he was not alone. There was some-
thing like a corporation, loose, with no papers, and no agreements. But
they worked together, and they would buy grain from the peasants. Then one
of the Dukes, (as I mentioned before they didn't necessarily have to be
Dukes), one was a general of the army who owned the land where the Shtetl
was, of course he collected taxes. He owned the river that flowed there.
The Bulb? you may have heard of that. He owned villages. God knows how
many miles of them. There were miles and miles of land that belonged to
him, and the villagers lived on it and they paid taxes. He owned woods.
He owned orchards all around that little hick town I'm talking about. He
also owned the flour mills. My father with the other people that I mentioned
before, would buy the grain from the farmer, convert that into flour.
J: Was this grain that they grew on their own land?
L: The peasnats grew on their own lands. Also, the ones that didn't work, had
the land, but they didn't work it. Others work it for them. As a matter of
fact that they did was something that is unique, and it's not heard of in
these parts of the world. They loaned the peasants, and particularly the
richer ones, the money before even sowing of the land for the future crops
to belong to them. They bought the crop before the earth was plowed and sowed
Now they would take that grain, and work it into flour and sent it to various
parts of Russia where flour was more expensive than it was in the Russian
Ukraine. Of course they made their profit that way. They would also barter.
For instance, they might send the flour to Odessa, and Odessa salt was cheap,
so they traded the flour for salt. Then they send the salt another place,
they exchange it for leather, barter for leather, and then sell the leather,
and get their money.
J: Do you remember anything about your early school years, like the Heder?
L: I started when I was three years old, that was customary. Actually I couldn't
walk even at that time I was so little, So the Rabbi used to have a "Helfer".
"Helfer means a helper, and the helper would carry me on his shoulders to
school. There I played with other children. But I learned the alphabet,
and the next year I learned how to read. The next year I learned how to
translate the Pentatuch and so forth. That's how it was. Later on I went
to a school where I learned the Talmud.
J: Was it customary in the Shul for some men to devote all of their time to
studying Torah, and let the responsibility of making a living fall on their
L: Well I come from a little later era. In my time it wasn't customary.
J: When you spoke of the Herid which I will call a fair on Thursdays, were
there any women involved in the business of selling merchandise.
L: The man usually was responsible for making a living, there. The woman would
help out. For instance, many of the woman sold cloth. They sold it for
dresses, and for sheets, to help their husbands with the making of the living.
Incidentally when you talk about making a living, you must also understand
how poor it was. The saying was that the man made enough to buy garlic with,
but not bread. And that's the kind of a living they made. They were very,
J: Indicating that garlic was less expensive than bread?
L: Indicating that garlic was sufficient, they didn't need as much of it.
J: In the years that you grew up, do you recall what being exposed to talk of
Zionism in the Shtetl?
L/ Yes, That came later. But I want to finish on my education before that.
It might interest you, and I think that Sholom Aleichem has a story about
that. It might interest you that up to my time, Jews were involved in the
studying of the Torah and religious schooling primarily. Anybody who wanted
to learn a little bit of the secular, had to do it somehow on his own. He
had to have a private teacher, a private tutor and so forth. In my time Jews
became conscious that they want to give their children a worldly education.
Jews were allowed into the Gymnasium only 6%.
J: Is the "Gymnasium'' that you refer to like our high school?
It's a little above. The Gymnasium would already cover a good portion of
college as well. We had for instance, four languages, by the time you are
through with the Gymnasium you had already German, French and Latin and
Greek. You had ancient mythology, mythological history. You had really a
lot more than what you learn here in high school. All of the subjects were
compulsory. It wasn't as though I could choose my own subjects. I had to
take what was given. Well anyway, in order to get into the Gymnasium the
fathers had to buy a beautiful graft for the principal, or assistant prin-
cipal, or whatever. Now I don't know- if my father paid a graft ornot. If
he did, he never told me about it. But somehow I did go to Gymnasium.
J: At what age did you start.
L: I must have started at age 13, 13, but as I said before you had to prepare
yourself outside of the Gymnasium and then take exams, and you either made
it, or you didn't. So for that reason we had private tutors. I for instance,
started with the second class. I was tutored before, I took my exam and I
J: And how many years did you stay in Gymnasium?
L: Until after the fourth class,
J: Did you have two years or three years?
L: No, there were three years.
J: So that was about 1919?
L: Yes, correct. I want to tell you one more thing. The Gymnasium were not as
readily available in every town or every village or whatever. The villagers
practically had no schools at all, not even elementary schools. The popula-
tion were really illiterate. They didn't know an A from a B. But Gymnasiums
were. in certain spots, and, Jewish people, particularly from the surround-
ing Shtetlach would go to that school to the Gymnasium that I mentioned
J: What percentage of the Jewish pupils were there?
L: Six percent. I mentioned that before. That's what they permitted. Peasants
were also permitted 6%, but they didn't attend. The rest of them were the
richer children. Now as I said before, I was in the Gymnasium. I remember
the first pogrom. I think it was in 1917, where a group of us left the
shtetl where the Gymnasium was and we ran home to see who was killed
and what the program was all about.
J: Was this the Bolshovik uprising your talking about?
L: No, No. The Bolshovik's when they first came in all fairness, I must admit,
were not bad to the Jews. I'm talking about actually the Bolshoviks. When
they made the revolution,
J: The followers of Lenin?
L; When they made the revolution in the beginning, they were not bad to the
Jews at all. As a matter of fact what they did, the White Guardians were
the ones that made the programs. was one of them, you
may have heard of. _was another one you may of heard of.
J: And these people were loyal to the Czar?
L: They were loyal to the Czar. White Guards, they were loyal to the Czar.
Swas not, wanted to make a Ukranian govern-
ment away from the Russians, away from the Czars, and away from the Russians.
J: Wanted to secede from Russia?
L: That's what ___aim was. There was another one
called him the father _, I don't know why they called him father
but _was the nickname," And they came with the sole purpose
of robbing as much as they could, of making trouble in the land as much as
they could. They wanted to give the Bolshoviks trouble by causing all of
this turmoil. And they had smaller ones. was the name of the
leader of the band that I'm talking about now. Well anyway we didn't know
what it was all about. We were naive, kids and we knew that we had to go
back to see our parents. We were the first ones back to the town. Eighteen
people were lying in the streets. Dogs were eating their flesh. Well, other
people started to come back, practically within hours, after we came there.
We helped as much as we could to bury the dead and to see what happened.
Glass, windows were shattered wherever you went. Houses emptied of whatever
they could find. If you can visualize feathers from pillows, (they didn't
have foam rubber I'll tell you that) like snow on the streets. That's what
the program looked like.
J: Was your family safe?
L: Thank God. My family was safe. What I told you was about the first one
that I have lived through. After that we were hardened to it. They took
place more often. They would come at night. They would knock on the door,
and no questions asked, if you came to the door to answer it, they killed
you. They went on to the next, to the next house, or the next door.
The one other tragic and miraculous thing that I remember is where they
came to the door and everybody that was in the house was driven, (and they
had their people see to it), so that you go just where they drove you. And
the people were driven. In the center of the city was a Synagogue. They
were driven to the Synagogue with the intention of putting the Synagogue
with all the people on fire. But a miracle happened. For some reason or
another, they themselves got scared and ran away, and left everything in the
middle nad just took off. And that was a miraculous thing.
J: Is that when you started thinking about coming to America?
L: No, I didn't think about coming to America at all. But I was young, and I
was the kind of a kid (indicentally I was the only son to my parents and I
also have a sister, an only sister) who couldn't stay away from trouble.
Wherever there was something going on' I had to be in the midst of it.
J: Was there any movement in the town of Halutzim going to Palestine.
Lt Not yet. Now I had to be in the midst of it, and so when they heard that
a Band (they used to call them "Bands") and bandits were coming, I had to
be there in the midst of it, and so my parents felt that the best thing to
do is to get me out of here, to get me out of Russia, to get me out of the
Russian Ukraine. They helped me with whatever money they had at the time,
or whatever means they had at the time to cross the border into Berrarabia
which was then Roumania. There was no knowledge of where I might end up.
I had an uncle in Palestine, and I had cousins in America, and it was hoped
that I'11 end up in either one of these countries, Palestine or America.
I did join Hehalutz in Roumania and the Jewish Agency (those were the
Zionists) helped us get into Palestine. I was there two years pioneering.
J: How long were you in Roumania?
L: I was from 1920 and 1921. Then in 1921 to 1923 I was in Palestine. I was
in Palestine two years. Therefore I was in Roumania a little over a year.
About a year and half or there about, I want to tell you one more tragic
incident that I reminded myself as I talk with you. When the bandits started
to come like that, I mentioned before that the Bolshoviks were all right in
as far as the Jews were concerned. In which way were they all right? They
would, for instance, come in a town like ours and make us a proposition. If
you give us so many and so many cows, so many and so many pairs of pants, we
in turn will give you so many, and so many rifles with which to protect
yourselves from the bandits. And they kept their word. They helped us in
that respect. One tragic incident that is in my mind unforgettably is that
a group of Jews were in one of the Synagogues where the rifles were stored
aid they were watching over the town. We used to have a different group of
people each night, watch in case something would happen. They would make
an alarm and wake the people to run to hide. Well anyway I don't know how
they got wind of where that all was, but they came there, and they killed
every one of the Jews that was in that Synagogue.
Side 2, Tape 1.
J: You came to Palestine in 1921. When you got there did you go to the Kibbutz
or dtd you go to live in the city.
L: My uncle whom I mentioned before, met me and he took me with him to where he
lived, that was Nes Tziona. It's very near Tel Aviv. Incidentally, Tel Aviv
was just about started to be built about that time. It was beautiful.
Everything was white, white bricks. Well anyway, he took me there to the
colony where he lived and I got a job there in the Rothschild orchards, and
there I worked around the oranges and the surrounding little colonies. I
worked in almonds, grapes, picking fruits, and attending to the orchards.
We watched. We were a group of three of us, We were watchmen. We had
between the three of us one horse and one donkey. So one would be on the
donkey and one would be on the horse, and the third one would sleep. Natur-
ally we changed around, and that's the way we lived. But then people from the
surrounding towns of Russia where I came from formed a Kvwtzah, a group of
people we would take on projects, building projects together. And whatever
it was, we would work it, primarily we were building houses.
In those days the Histadrut had just organized, The Histadrut would take on
the building of the house, or of the building or whatever, from whoever
wanted it, They would give it to us sub-contracting so much, and so much
per square yard, They didn't have the money to pay for it either, by the
way, it was interesting, They paid us with coupons, With those coupons
we would go to a rest room that they owned, when I say "they", I actually
mean "we", because we were the Histadrut that we owned. We ate there, what-
ever was prepared, whatever the menu of the day was. Once a month they
would give us- a little money, so that in case we needed some shorts, (you
know the pants- at that time), maybe a little underwear, maybe a haircut.
They would also give us cigarettes, That's where I worked and that's where we
all worked, I was small, and 1 couldn't carry those heavy bricks, or the
cement, or the mixing of the cement. It was all done by hand, no machinery
at that time, So they found a specialty for me. My specialty was to take
the lime and mix it with the water, We processed it that way in order to
make the mortar, I also did one more interesting thing, also because I was
small. In jerusalem for instance, our Kvutzah. started to build the (now I
think it"s a nice town) called Talpiot. We were the first ones to arrive their
and to start building there, We lived in tents and again the same old story,
no running water, or anything like that We had to bombard the stones. We
had to dynamite the boulder there at that time. The stronger men would chop
a hole,,(Call by hand by the way) about a foot deep with an iron, a special
heavy tron, They would lift it and drop it, lift it and drop it until they
made that hole, It was about a foot deep or so. Then I took over, they
went about their business somewhere else, I filled the hole with dynamite
and earth, I made a wick and started to holler "barut". "Barut" in Arabian
means to shoot, So that everybody that would come that way would know that
they had to stop, I ran away and I ignited the wick until the explosion
took place. After that we gathered the stones which we used for building
J: How long did you stay in Palestine?
L: I stayed there until I took sick with malaria and also some stomach disorders.
The time was bad, the food was not enough, and the best thing to have done,
is as long as I had the opportunity to come to America, was to grab that
opportunity. Of course I'm grateful that I did.
J: You had some relatives here?
L: I had some cousins who sent me some necessary affidavits, and they paid for
my transportation. Which I later repaid them of course. But they.brought
me over here,
J: Did you find work immediately on coming to America?
L: No problem. No problem to find a beautiful, beautiful life.
JS What work did you do?
L: Well I did my job, That would fill a book, Finally I learned to become
an instrument maker, and finally I learned how to become a tool and die
maker, Eventually I had my own business. My own machine shop.
J: Lets take. one step at a time. Did you go get any training or did you take
a job and learn on the job?
L: No, no. I had some training in optics. I had went to the New York School
of Optics, and I also had at least one of the professors who took me on as
his protege. He taught me an awful lot about optics, and that's what I
wound up in, doing primarily optical instrumentation. In the 27 years that
I was in business for myself, for 23 years of it I did work for the Navy and
I'm proud to say that I never had a reject.
J3 Are you talking about optical instruments for military purposes, range finders
and other instruments that are used by military?
J: Tell me how did it come that an immigrant who came to America probably
penniless, wound up with a going business, doing that important kind of work.
L: Well, that would bring me into an area of a little bragging that I'd rather
J: If it's factual, it's factual.
L: All right. I had an inventive head. I designed something and made it and
a wealthy man got interested in it. He had the machine shop, and he had a
nice large factory. He took me in to manufacture that item for him.
J: Did you get a patent?
L: Yes? I did get a patent.
3: Was this an optical item?
L: It was an optical instrument, and we manufactured it. The man was, as I
said before, a really wealthy man. He owned a lot of real estate in New
York, and he wasn't a youngster any more. One day he called me in and says,
"Al, I have something to talk over with you. My family are after me to
retire. How-long am I going to work? I don't need the money. I have more
than I could ever use, So therefore my wife and I are taking a trip around
the world." That was-right after World War II. He says, "I am taking a
trip around the world. I want you to lay everybody off. You can stay in
the factory, finish everything that we have on hadn and picket the money.
See what machines you like and when I11 come back we'll talk, We'll see if
you like to be in your own business', And so it was. When he came back,
"How would you like to be in your own business Al,", I said I'll love it.
He said, "Fine. Which machines do you want? And I told him. After all is
said and done I cannot go into that business. I didn't have the money. He
says weld talk about money separately, And he let me choose the machinery
that I knew-was good, and that I bought for him while I was foreman there.
To make a long story short I gave him head checks a year in advance or
something like that. I moved out from his place, this place was a block
J: You gave him what?
L: Head checks. Checks dated a week apart. He would deposit one every week.
Occasionally, more often than not, I couldn't meet a payment on time. In-
stead of him putting the check into the bank, I came to borrow more money
from him, to pay the rent,
J: He was very cooperative in getting you settled.
tM He was a prince, a man if there ever was one. Not only to me, but in the
way of charities, generally.
J1 How many years did you stay in that business?
L: 27 years. 23 years of which I dealt, not primarily but 23 years of age I
dealt with the Navy. I might brag. CBS is a very, very good customer of
mine, and photography tricks that you might see on the television, I might
brag that all of it is mine. I was the one that designed it and made in my
place. For instance, you'd see the same person on the screen up to 128
times. Jackie Gleason had a show where he had to take the part of a
wrestler, Nattrally, as such he had to make comersaults. Well he never
left the ground, but on the screen you saw him make a somersault with my
gimmicks, because of my instruments.
J: When did you decide to retire and come to Florida?
L: Well I was- 6, and it was time to retire,
JO Why did you pick Palm Beach County?
L: We dtdn t know what we wanted. I knew that I wanted warmer climate. I came
to Miami Beach and I looked for a house there, and I heard there about
~--~ll"" l"~L~nsmrmll~-- -__ __ _i
condominiums, I heard about Century Village, and I ended up here.
J: When you came to the Palm Beach area did you find it to your liking in the
community and in the Synagogue?
L; My wife did, I had not much to say in the matter,
J1 But it hasn't been too bad for you has it?
L: No, no. I'm very happy that I made the move. Incidentally, since I moved
here, about a year later, my daughter and her family came to visit with us
and they-too liked it, and they too moved to Florida. They settled in
Orlando, and they are very, very happy here,
J: I'V sure Wts a little more comfortable having them a little closer.
L; Of course.,
J: Well Al, I Want to thank you very much for this very interesting afternoon.