As I have mentioned before, I didn't learn that my mother was Jewish until I was in my twenties. For reasons that remain her own, she spun a fantastic tale of Romanian Gypsy parentage that had all of her children fairly well convinced.
I can't attack her for her prevarication, anti semitism was huge when she was growing up and there was a major pressure on first generation Americans to assimilate, whether they be Jewish, German or Italian.
So we kids were baptized and brought up in Christian churches, my parents having divorced when I was very young and my father having no interest in religion whatsoever.
I never met my mother's parents. Her mother, Sobel Roberts (Sternberg) died of a cerebral aneurysm before I was born and her father Martin Roberts (Weinrober) killed himself after she died and his furrier business in Los Angeles had gone south, when I was one years old. Well, perhaps I met him but I have no recollection of doing so.
When I started doing genealogy work I quickly uncovered her actual history and she really flew into a rage. My dad, who knew the full scoop said, "Some Christians, the parents spoke yiddish and read The Forward in their home." Hey, we are all entitled to our fantasies.
Later she fessed up, to some degree, but was never really free and open regarding her family. In fact my searching really pissed her off.
I knew that the Weinrober's made it to Providence in the 1920's and her father had to sign a letter to the King of Romania that he would never return. The family was from a shtetl (a jewish town) named Yednitz or Edinet, depending on the spelling and pronunciation you choose.
Her father may have smuggled horses and wheat and also may have been a lawyer back in the old country too, the history is shrouded. Life was hard for my tribe in those days. My late uncle Norman wrote an autobiography and delves into the family history in some length. My mother would never have anything to do with her family, probably because they would have blown her gentile cover.
So in Providence Mardko Weinrober, now Martin Roberts, joined his two brothers and they all took the name Roberts and started the Roberts Paper Box Company, which was a concern in Rhode Island for many decades.
I am not quite sure why but my grandfather moved to New York. My uncle said that although he was short he was very strong and a tough guy and acted as a strong arm man for the furriers union. Obviously it is hard to separate fact and fiction in her family but it is certainly plausible.
So strange how things work.
I tried to google the 212 E. 20th address and it is now a condo. But here is a picture a block west in 1938.
It was called the "Gashouse" district.
It got the name from the four large Con Ed tanks which poisoned the air, by 1930 all but four had been removed.
Crime in the area was legendary.
The ruthless Gas House Gang was said to commit thirty holdups a night, on 18th st. alone.
You can see a gas tank in the above picture, towards First Avenue.
The Second Avenue El can be seen in the distance, it was built in 1877 and torn down in 1942.
In 1945, more than 3,000 families moved out of the 600 or so old tenement buildings (such as these at left) between East 14th and 23rd Streets to create Stuyvesant Town.
Everything, tenements, two schools, three churches, and two theaters—was razed. In 1947, the area from First Avenue to the East River Drive between East 20th and 23rd Streets was cleared for the construction of Peter Cooper Village. The block between First and Second Avenue became the site of Junior High School 104.
I can understand, especially after the death of my young uncle, why the family moved west.