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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
JEWISH FEDERATION OF PALM BEACH COUNTY
INTERVIEWEE: Millie Fier
INTERVIEWER: Doris Singer
DATE: March 2, 1982
S: This is Doris Singer in the home of Millie Fier in the city of West Palm
Beach, Florida. Today is March 2, 1982. I want to thank you, Millie,
for agreeing to be interviewed for the Oral History Project at the
Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
To start our interview, would you please tell me when and how you first
came to West Palm Beach.
F: I came here as a teenager with my parents in 1942. My mother had an
aunt who had property here and lived here in the winter and we came to
spend the winters here because my dad was a sick man. He had tuburculosis.
He used to spend his winters in a warm climate. Since we came from up-
state New York, and our winters were very severe.
S: Where did you live when you first came down?
F: We stayed at my aunt's place one year which was on "M" Street in West
Palm Beach. In previous years we rented an apartment on Park Street,
not to far away from Penn Street.
S: What was your first impression, when you first came down as a teenager?
You came during the winter, and you only stayed for a little while.
What were your first impressions of Florida in 1942?
F: Of course, the climate was an unbelievable kind of thing after living
all those years up in Elmwood and being snowbound every January. I,
of course, was lonesome and wanted to meet some friends and fortunately,
a friend of mine from New York City had told me that when you go to
West Palm Beach, go to Temple Beth El and ask for Fanny Ritter, who
was the president, and introduce yourself and she will then introduce
you to any young, Jewish people that might be living in the area.
S: So, did she?
F: I did and she said that she would send someone to visit me whose name,
at that time was Lillian Metz, and one day Lillian Metz came up the
sidewalk and introduced herself to me and we became good friends and
we are still very good friends.
S: What did you and Lillian do together? It was war time, so, what did
you do for entertainment?
F: Well, there were two USO's that we would frequent and, actually, the
young people in those days didn't have too much to do. It was still
a very small town. I think there may have been one theater and, out-
side the USO and that one theater, the social activities depended on
your friends and having parties at each others homes. That was about
S: You once mentioned that you went to the USO and they took a group to
Opaloka on a bus.
F: That's right. We took buses to Opaloka, which was a naval station,
and it was the most confusing thing to me because we had to drive into
this very big complex. All the directions were to turn south, turn
north, turn west and we never used that terminology up north. We
always said turn right, turn left. It was a very confusing situation
but after about an hour and a half we finally did find the USO at
S: That sounds like a real tour of the wilderness. You mentioned also
that Palm Beach was very different during the war and that the
Biltmore, or what is now the Biltmore, was a hospital then.
F: Yes, it was. It was a convalescent center for wounded servicemen and
we did meet some of the people that were stationed there. I think
one of them is still living here. His name is Bernard Kravitz, he is
still a member of this community and he has settled here all these
years. Morrison Field was here at the time and there was an Officer's
Club there, as well as for the non-commissioned officers functions
which were interesting. The town was teaming with servicemen.
S: You mentioned your mother had to get her kosher meat from Miami, there
was none locally?
F: No, when we first came, it came from Miami by bus. Often it didn't
arrive in a usable state because of the lack of refrigeration. We
couldn't use it at all, and it was at that time that my parents decided
that I should buy non-kosher meat for myself. Because they felt I was
a young, growing girl and that I wasn't about to subsist on just dairy
food and fish.
S: When do you think the first kosher butcher came to the West Palm Beach
F: Well, I know that when I came back as a married person, it was in 1946.
They did get a kosher butcher, and when my son was born in '48, another
kosher butcher had arrived. His name was Wallace, and they said that
Mr. Wallace was also a mohel and they wanted this Mr. Wallace to
circumcize my son and I objected because I'didn't want my son to be
the first child in the Jewish community to be circumcized by this
strange man, and also the fact that he was a butcher. It turned me
off. It was very upsetting to the Jewish community that I wouldn't
allow Mr. Wallace to do the circumcision.
Dr. Manalan, who was here at the time, did the circumcision. We had a
ceremony afterwards in which we asked Mr. Wallace to officiate.
S: You came back permanently then in 1946, you were married then. Where
did Al work when you first came down?
F: His first job was for Shirts International which was on Clematis
Street, and I don't think they're in business anymore. But, the
following year he worked for Walton's on Clematis Street and except
for one year, he has always worked for them. He has been employed with
them for over 30 years.
S: When you first came here, you had to look for a place to live as a very
young, married woman. Where did you first live when you first came?
F: There were no problems about where we would live because you could rent,
but once I became pregnant, nobody would rent to me. My parents bought
a home on Florida Avenue, because we had no choice, and we lived with
them until we moved to our own home.
S: Which is here. You've been living here for 30 years?
F: Yes, for over 30 years.
S: Did you find that it was difficult to rent because you were Jewish in
F: We never ran into too much difficulties ourself, because there were very
few Jewish people coming into this area at this time. Miami Beach was
the popular place to go, but, when we decided that we need to buy a home,
we took a ride. We had become impressed with Hollywood and the way the
city was being played out for future expansion, but we quickly decided
that this was not for us, because we saw many signs that said 'restricted
to dogs and Jews'. So, we came back and settled in West Palm Beach.
S: There were no problems here?
F: We never had a problem.
S: When you were first here and you were young, married and you walked in
the streets, you had friends, there were lots of things that were
different than they were up north. I know you told me about the
Woolworths and the theater.
F: We did not have a segregation problem, I mean I wasn't aware living
where I lived., I wasn't aware of the policies in the south about
segregation, I wasn't aware they had to have separate drinking fountains,
or that they couldn't be seated in the front of the buses, and that means
they couldn't use bathroom facilities.
One incident that I remember, concerns Lillian Ganz, who was Lillian Metz
in those days. She and I were in a Five and Dime on Clematis Street and
a young black lady with a small child had to go to the bathroom and the
salesperson told her that she was sorry but there wasn't any facilities
available. And, Lillian picked up the child and took her to the bathroom
while I kept the mother company, so she wouldn't think we were running
off with her child.
S: Because you were allowed to go to the bathroom, but the black lady wasn't?
Not even children?
F: No way. Another incident that I remember vividly, occurred even before I
was married. A black man on a bicycle was struck by a car and he was
lying in the street and there were people standing nearby. An ambulance
came past, and it didn't stop. I commented to a man who was near me at
the time "Why didn't the ambulance stop?" and he said, "What's the matter
with you, don't you know, that's a white ambulance. They're for white
people only." That's when we realized, suddenly, what segregation was
S: How did you get around? Were there buses then? How did people get around
in the 50's or in '49 here if you wanted to go to town?
F: Well, there was a bus that ran, maybe once an hour, if you were going north
and south on Dixie highway, but there was nothing else. I remember one
year we rented a room in the home of a family named Rockfeld, who had a
small grocery store on Okeechobee Road, and the only way that we could get
back and forth was to hitch-hike. In fact, we hitch-hiked all the time.
When I needed to go to the bus station, or the train station, or if some-
body was coming, I hitch-hiked and I would hitch-hike a ride back with
suitcases and all. People in those days, were very friendly, and there was
nothing that you thought twice about. It was something you just did.
S: Did your parents hitch-hike also?
F: My father hitch-hiked to his daily pinochle game at the foot of Clematis
Street where in those days they had booths for senior citizens who liked
to play cards. Anyone could come and you played with strangers and you got
to know everybody. It was fun. That was my father's daily pastime.
S: Now, you've been very active in B'nai B'rith for many years, and you said
that in 1944 the first chapter was formed here of B'nai B'rith Girls.
F: Well, actually, my charter says "46. Isabelle Kapner was the person who
was our advisor and formed the chapter. At that time, they were a large
family living here with many sons and I believe one brother is left.
Mildred and Irving Kapner still reside. here in Palm Beach. I think you
may have taped Mildred.
S: That's possible, but she probably would tell. That's good that she would
have those remembrances. During the war years, what did the B'nai B'rith
F: Well, I think the ladies would meet trains, and they would try and have
donuts and cold drinks for the soldiers coming in and out. Of course, at
the USO's, they would help with whatever they could do there.
S: Your father was ill and had to enter the TB Sanitorium in Lantana. Could
you tell something about those times?
F: Well, we were fortunate that there was a facility like that here. It was
in Lantana and at that time, TB was on the rise and the hospital was
exclusively for patients who had tuburculosis. My father had had
tuburculosis for many, many years, and we had sold our hotel in '58 and
from then on we lived here year round. At that point, my father went
into the hospital, because going to the hotel in the summer used to revive
him somehow, and he would work. Once we sold the hotel, he lost his in-
terest in actually living, and the hospital was like a whole different
world. I found out through my father that there were patients who were
there six years, eight years, without ever having a visitor. Many of
them had wives who either left them, or divorced them legally, or that
was it. My father brought this to my attention and I would visit some
of the other patients. Then I would shop for them, I would write letters
for them, and do little things. Bring them stationery and things like
That was when I became involved in B'nai B'rith Women's Board. I used to
take my magazines to the hospital, and I suggested it as a project and it
became one of the first community projects that we did. From then on, we
would collect magazines and puzzles and clothes because there were many
patients who were allowed to walk on the grounds and didn't have anything
to wear. They were mostly men in this hospital and that started one of
our community service projects. It was at that hospital and of course we
branched out to other hospitals in the area.
S: Your children were in the public schools here. Did you ever do any projects
for the schools?
F: Well, integration had become a law and we were all concerned about how the
community would react to the schools being integrated. The B'nai B'rith
Anti-Defamation League had a program called 'Dolls for Democracy' in
which you had dolls and replicas of people and you would speak about these
people in a language that school children would understand. We had white
dolls, and black dolls, Jewish dolls, and Catholic dolls. Our first set
of dolls was St. Francis of Assisi, George Washington Carver who was black,
Abraham Lincoln, and, it's hard to remember, I think Ann Frank may have
been the Jewish doll. I think we now have the largest collection of dolls
in the state, maybe in the nation. We have an unusual collection and these
particular collections are not being made anymore. They now make cardboard
dolls. They're quite valuable. We have Martin Luther King, we have John F.
Kennedy, we have the Pope.
S: You have some interesting dolls in an interesting way.
F: True. I started a program, I became the Anti-Defamation League Chairman
for our chapter, and I wanted to go out into the non-Jewish community and
in order to do this I had a program at a bank and I invited the PTA's and
whatever organizations were in the area at the time, to come to this pro-
gram. In this program we did the 'Dolls for Democracy' demonstration.
We did a rumor clinic, and we did one of our films, a discussion film, on
the 'Right to Read', freedom to read what you would like to read. From
that, and there was a very small group in attendance, we became invited to
the PTA meetings and into some of the churches and that started the whole
incident of us getting into the area.
We also appeared on television when we first started. I came home one
day and got a phone call. The lady said, "Were you the lady that was
just on television"? I said, "Yes". She said, "Would you come to Hobe
Sound and do your program"? I said, "Of course". Hobe Sound wasn't even
in Palm Beach County, but it was in an area where there were no Jewish
people living. The only black people that were there, were there because
they were domestics. I went, I think Sylvia Lewis went with me at that
time. I remember it was quite an experience.
S: I bet.
F: We were a little frightened of going, of wandering out of our territory,
but it was very rewarding.
We did a program for the Methodist Church that still exists in West Palm
Beach, that adopted the democracy program. The children liked our program
so much that they donated enough money to buy us a Helen Keller doll.
S: That's great.
F: We tried very hard to get into the Girl Scout Program, and for many years.
It was unbelievable, but the Jewish people couldn't get into it. Well,
lo and behold, Ruth Manalan, who was very active, became a board member.
S: She became a member of the Girl Scouts?
F: Yes. She invited us to come do a program at the meeting. Evelyn Blum and
I went out and did the program, rather nervously, and we were delighted to
hear that, not only did they endorse our program, they bought us the Juliet
Lowe doll, which was the founder of the Girl Scouts, which is still in our
S: That's wonderful. But, you were actually, a goodwill group at that time.
How many Jewish groups were in the area in the 50's? Hadassah was here?
F: Right, that was it. B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, and whatever Sisterhoods. In
fact, I have a piece of publicity that I found, where everybody in town was
in the program and it was people from all the' temples and B'nai B'rith and
Hadassah. All their names were listed.
S: How many people were there?
F: There were about 30 people. That was it. I'm going to turn it over to
somebody because it's very interesting.
S: That's incredible, it really is.
F: I had another experience that I would like to share with you. When I first
started doing 'Dolls for Democracy' in the community, we were invited to
the Sailfish Club, I'm sorry, not the Sailfish Club, the Friar's Club.
These ladies are still in existence, I believe they sponsor a nurse, that's
what their program centers on. It was an organization of women, professional
women, and they sponsored nurses careers. They invited us to their meeting
and we did our program. After the meeting they had a discussion and they
said, "Gee, we have card games every now and then, would you ladies come to
our card game"? And I said, "We would love to". So, then she said to me,
"It so happens we're having one at the Sailfish Club and it's $10 a person
and we would like you to come and invite your members". That's when I
started to hem and haw and finally I said, "This is ridiculous" to myself,
so, finally I said, "Look ladies, I'm going to tell you, the Sailfish Club
discriminates against people of the Jewish faith. I would be very uncom-
fortable going to anything at that function. I'm really very sorry, but if
you would have your fund raising at any other place, I would come and so
would the others". So there was a big discussion which was very interesting
because some of the members were not aware of the policies of the Sailfish
Club. Other members said, "Well, we're going there because they're provid-
ing the food for us and anything that we make will be sheer profit". And I
said, "I can understand why" they would accept this place, I mean, you know,
I don't blame them, I would too, under the circumstances. However it pleases
few of us at this time. At any other time that we could participate, call us.
Well, several days later, my phone rang and one of the ladies who was at that
meeting told me that they had a meeting after I had left and they cancelled
the card party at the Sailfish Club, and they were instead going to have it
at the Bank Building on Southern Blvd., and would we come? Well, I nearly
cried. It was so touched and I went to all the Sisterhood meetings and
wherever I could and raised about $50 and I got five tables of women to come
and participate. They had given up a $10 luncheon, all profit to them, to
have a card party for $1 a person.
S: It was a way of bringing your use to the community and they certainly paid
attention, that was really nice.
The Council on Human Relations probably did a lot to help cement relations
between churches and the Jewish people here.
F: Well, the Council on Human Relations did a fantastic job in our community.
We are one of the few areas in the South that did not have any incidents
or real violence arriving from integration. 'It was all done because this
group met before integration became a law that had to be followed, and
they sat down and they worked things out.
S: Who was on the Board?
F: Harriet Glasner, I believe, was the first president of the organization and
I believe Sylvia Lewis was also president, I think Ed Rogers who is now a
judge was also one of the presidents, I don't remember in which order.
Because of this organization, we had peaceful integration, and I was, I feel
honored, to participate at the first time that the coffee counter in Burdines
S: How did that come about?
F: Well, I was at a meeting and Sylvia Lewis said, "Millie, we're integrat-
ing Burdine's coffee counter today, would you like to participate"? I
said, "Yes, I would", so, I went with a group of two or three black ladies
to have coffee. Now, of course, this was all done with the knowledge of
Burdines. Everything was done very well, I think. Very well planned
ahead, sq, the employees knew we were coming and that was that. It went
off rather smoothly except that a black lady decided that she would join
us. She was very eccentric in her appearance. She wore an orange-red
cotton wig, and weird clothing. Everyone was so busy staring at her that
I don't think they even realized that black people were sitting there
S: Black people were allowed to shop in the store but they couldn't have
coffee, or at that time, couldn't use the facilities?
F: Right. One of the ladies, I remember, told me that she was a good charge
customer at Burdines, that her charges were for $500 or more a month,
which was a lot of money in those days, but that she could not have a cup
of coffee. It just did not make sense of course. I do remember though,
that Connie Ganz, may he rest in peace, and Sam Brenner were having coffee
when I came in with these ladies, and I never did find out what they said
when they finally realized what was going on. After that there was no
color line. After that there was no problem.
So, it was actually through the Council of Human Relations that I think we
had a smooth transition in this community, and there weren't other commun-
ities that were that farsighted.
S: It's true. The schools never had a problem? No problems with busing?
F: Not really,, I mean, I don't remember any incidents that were out of hand,
picketing, or violence.
S: Do you think the Jewish families that are moving into the community today
have the same kind of problems that you did and your friends did when you
first came here?
F: I think it's sort of a reverse situation. We really didn't have problems
if you're speaking about our relationship with the non-Jewish community.
There weren't any at that time. But, I think the large influx of Jewish
people in recent years has created a problem which we never had before.
S: You mean people were coming slowly and the community had a chance to get used
F: Yes, we never had a problem. We shared a cemetery, there was never any real
problems, there was no vandalism. We never really had an anti-Semitic
incidents that were out of hand. They were very minor ones if there were
any, probably just childish pranks. I think people coming now, or the ones
before them, may have created a situation, but I feel that it's being
handled very well by the Federation.
I think that through education, I think people will learn that there's
room for everybody and people have different backgrounds and cultures..
S: Aight. Actually, did you find that there were a lot of restrictions for
minoritygroups such,as Jewish people and blacks? Well, you told us about
the blacks, but aside from the restrictions at the Sailfish Club, were
there any others?
F: Yes, the Everglades Club in Palm Beach which only recently and through the
efforts of the Anti-Defamation League which was kept very quiet. Every
Wednesday, at the Everglades Club, there was a luncheon called "Tombolla"
and it was put on basically by the clothing designers who were mostly
Jewish. .It was restricted to members of the Everglades Club. It was a
very,weird kind of a situation, and this went on for years and no one
was allowed to attend this luncheon except the designers.
S: Do they still have them now?
F: No. Also, there were balls held at the Everglades Club for the Red Cross
and I think that Rabbi Irving Cohen was responsible for calling that to
the attention of the Red Cross that that was restricted and that people
of the Jewish faith would be uncomfortable, and that was stopped.