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When Granny Beat Back the Klan, Armed With an American Flag and a Frying Pan

With an American flag in her hand, my immigrant grandmother stood up to a gang of Texas roughnecks

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Marc Grossberg’s grandparents in their wedding photo. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; wedding photo courtesy of the author and flag photo Shutterstock)

My mother worshipped her mother, Yetta Wachstein Hochman, even more than she worshipped me. While that left me as a runner-up, I still liked my grandmother’s visits in the 1940s, when I was a boy in Houston. Even my little dog did. When my grandmother walked haltingly up the stairs, grasping the railing with both hands, the dog kept two steps behind her, as if poised to catch her if she fell.

Every year as July 4 approaches, I have an image in my mind of Granny defiantly holding the American flag high in a small Texas town one afternoon. I wasn’t there to see it, but she told me what happened. She was what John Lennon would call a “working-class hero” that day—and always—who knew her own mind and looked after her family in a country and world far different from the one into which she was born. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

I had always associated everything about my grandmother with her European origins. That was, of course, wrong. She was not one to dwell on how wonderful things were in the “old country.” In fact, when someone remarked that they were taking a trip to Europe, she would say out of the side of her mouth, “Big deal. I was born there and I couldn’t wait to leave.” And although she and my grandfather belonged to the Orthodox shul in Galveston, perhaps out of respect for her own father, she saw her Orthodoxy as baggage from Europe and sent her own children to a Reform congregation, which, in her view, offered an environment more in line with the America they had moved to.

When I knew her, my grandmother was in her 70s and looked very old. By then she was only 4 feet 8 inches tall, her body shriveled, her movements labored. At home she wore a housecoat that hung like a muumuu. Her yellowish-gray hair fell below her shoulders and was rarely combed; she put it in a bun when she went out. On those occasions, she wore black leather shoes with thick, wide heels that added perhaps an inch to her height and hose held up to just below her knees by a garter. The only dress I remember was black and fell just below the top of her hose. Although she bathed every day, she had a smell I thought particular to old people because my cousin’s other grandmother had it too. The skin on her face was much less wrinkled than the skin on her body. Her deep blue eyes were youthful—they sparkled when she was happy or joking. When she was angry, she suddenly seemed much taller than she was, and her eyes pierced.

It was hard to believe she was the same person who’d been the bride dressed in the high style of the 1890s in the photo displayed on the mantel in my home. There she wore a high-collared, cinch-waisted white dress with puffy sleeves. Her lovely face exuded the confidence of the young and beautiful.

My grandfather was a hardworking man beset by bad luck. He was killed in a hit-and-run accident on New Year’s Eve and died the next day, Jan. 1, 1929. His life-insurance policy was paid up only to Dec. 31, 1928, and even though the insurance company office received, on that same date, the payment he had mailed in just before he died, they refused to honor it.

My grandparents had met in Savannah. My grandmother had been married before, an arranged marriage. Her husband left her and their young child, my aunt. For two weeks she was too ashamed to leave the house. Finally her family prevailed on her to rejoin the living. She met my grandfather. They married; he adored her. They moved to New York, then Philadelphia. By this time my mother and three of her sisters had been born. In Philadelphia, two more came along.

But my grandfather had a dishonest business partner and lost nearly everything. Disheartened, he went to a steamship company and said, “I have this much money and this many people in my family. How the hell far can I get away from Philadelphia?” The answer: Galveston, Texas. My grandfather opened a jewelry store in Goose Creek, a small town a ferry ride away.

Years later, when I was around 8 years old, my grandmother and I took a Greyhound bus from Houston to what had been Goose Creek before it was merged into the city of Baytown. Granny still had some property there, virtually worthless. I went with her as she made her annual inspection. She bought me a bag of popcorn for the trip from Houston and another for the trip back.

We walked from the bus station. She held her head high, though she seemed to use her left foot to anchor every step she took with her right. The property was a two-story building with a weathered wooden exterior. It had space for three commercial establishments. Two were vacant, and the third was a domino parlor. I remember men sitting at tables on the porch playing dominoes, even though it was mid-afternoon on a work day. They were dressed almost identically—white T-shirts under blue denim overalls, cowboy hats, and well-worn work boots. They were drinking beer and playing dominoes. When one of them made a devastating play, he slammed the domino on the table and yelled. Until then I hadn’t known that grownups played dominoes or that it could be a violent game.

It was because of people like those men that my grandmother’s family moved from Goose Creek to Galveston, which was a gentler place and had Jewish houses of worship. Goose Creek had none. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, my grandmother told me, Goose Creek was an oil boom town. The Ku Klux Klan was present and largely uncontrolled. The catalyst for their move was the tarring and feathering of a black man just down the street from where they lived in Goose Creek.

Once in Galveston, my grandfather began commuting by ferry to Goose Creek, living over the store during the week and returning home on weekends. He did that until he died.

On the bus ride back, I asked my grandmother what it was like living in Goose Creek.

She smiled. “Did I ever tell you about the time I was arrested?”

“No.” My eyes widened.

“When we lived in Goose Creek, it was full of roughnecks.”

“What’s a roughneck?” It was a word that conjured up confusing images, and while I had an approximate idea of what it meant I wanted very much to understand this important family story.

“A roughneck was a rowdy, uneducated man who worked in the oil fields and drank up his paycheck,” she said.

Rowdy, uneducated people who drank, I thought. Bad guys.

“All the roughnecks were members of the Klan,” she said. “Your grandfather was a very respected man in Goose Creek. When he died, the whole town closed. He was a poor man, but very respected.” She meant not only that my grandfather was poor but respected, but also that the whole of Goose Creek was greater than the sum of its roughnecks. The respectable people of the town had the collective decency to recognize with dignity the passing of a hardworking, contributing member of the community.

“Anyway,” she continued, “when the family lived there, the Klan was very powerful. They didn’t like Jews. One day, when your grandfather was away on a buying trip, a group of them started milling around the house and the crowd got bigger and louder. They were drunk. Your mother and her sisters and your uncle, the youngest, were in the house. I didn’t know what would happen if it just went on.

“I’ll tell you what I did. With my left hand, I grabbed the American flag that we kept in the house and grabbed a heavy, cast-iron skillet in my right. Then, I stepped outside. One of the roughnecks was standing on the steps not a foot away. His name was Barbour. He was over 6 feet tall and even standing on one of the lower steps, he was taller than I was. I took that skillet and I hit him on the head as hard as I could, and I knocked him out. I held the flag up as high as I could and I said, ‘I am an American and you are Americans. I have just as many rights as you have. You have the right to say who can be on your property, and I have right to say who can be on my property. Now get the hell off my property or I’ll go inside and get the shotgun.’ ”

I was agog. “Granny, did you have a shotgun?”

“Papa had one. He fired it once a year.”

“Did you know how to use it?”

“No.” Her blue eyes twinkled as she smiled the smile of a triumphantly mischievous young girl. Even to that day, she was enormously proud of her bravado.

“Did they leave?”

“Yes, very quickly and very quietly.”

I wondered what would have happened if they’d called her bluff, but I didn’t mention it.

“Then Barbour filed criminal charges against me. Battery. The trial was in Houston. At the end the judge said, ‘Mrs. Hochman, I am sorry that in these proceedings I only have the power to find you not guilty. I wish I had the authority to give you a medal. You not only defended yourself and your family, as you had every right to do, but you taught us all an important lesson.’ ”

But the story doesn’t end here. I remember that Granny frequently referred to herself as a “brave soldier,” but it wasn’t my impression then or now, some 60 years later, that she called herself that because of her moment against the Klan.

After my grandfather died in 1928, the jewelry store was liquidated, leaving only a few souvenirs for each child to keep. After the traditional period of mourning had passed, no further sadness was allowed in the house. My grandmother went about the business of life for her children and herself. She took in washing. She kept a milk cow in the back yard. One of my mother’s chores was to walk the milk in pails to sell to the dairy, which she did, less her reward, the cost of a pickle, which she ate on the way back.

The people I respect the most are the ones who plow ahead in the face of hardship and accept the responsibilities they have chosen or that have been thrust upon them, rather than the ones who have distinct moments of glory. Society depends upon people like that.

Not one of my grandmother’s children felt herself or himself to have been deprived or short-changed of anything but the loving presence of their father. The only son, the youngest, got a college education and a law degree. All the children grew up to be hardworking, honest, responsible, and socially conscious members of their communities, helping to provide the children of the next generation with the opportunity to reach their aspirations.

I am so proud of that moment in Goose Creek when my grandmother, flag in hand, cold-cocked the roughneck bigot. But I’m even prouder of the years she spent keeping a family together, being a brave soldier.

***

This article was originally published on July 2, 2010.

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What a pistol. I am afraid at times, that the strength of will of that generation has been lost in this country. Time we found it agains and made them proud.

What a lovely story for the Fourth of July. God bless the momeory of Yetta Wachstein Hochman.

Ed Karesky says:

The bravery and willingness to stand up for the rights of themselves and others personified most of the Jewish immigrants and their children all the way through the immigrant era to the civil rights period in American history. I wonder whether that remains true of most the Jewish children born during the post WWII era and their children. I see several generations of self indulging and privileged children who, as a group, feel they “deserved it all” with little understanding of what it took to get them to where they are today.

Arnold Kragen says:

As a Texan, as my Grandfather landed in Galveston, I always relish the stories of the Jews in Texas. Now living in the east, many have a hard time believing that there were actually Jews in Texas in the early 20th century. My Grandfather, Yankele, and speaking of “roughnecks,” even worked part time in the oil patch in Duncan, Oklahoma. I still recall the many stories of both my Grandparents as they made a life in the Southwest in the most difficult, unsusal circumstances. Also, I recall growing up in Fort Worth, Texas as part of the Jewish community that represented less than 1% of the city population. Finally, I will say, we were well aware of Judaism and went to Hebrew School and were Bar Mitzvad and continued on as observant Jews whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. We were proud of being Jewish and never hid it in what was the”buckle of the bible belt.”

Julia Wolf Mazow says:

What a beautiful essay, and what a wonderful tribute to your grandmother, whom I would love to have known. And how proud she would be of you.

What a great brave American Mrs Hochman was! Makes me proud to know that there were those out there that would pick up the flag and a fry pan and stand up for their rights. What’s happened since? I am a Jewish woman who has lived most of her life in South Dakota, Montana and Utah (and other global locations), and grew up in a home (US Air Force) that actively worked to protect our country. What I don’t understand today is where that stand tall attitude has gone. Mrs Hochman would be ashamed of what she sees now. Now we just write stories of the Mrs Hockman’s. I don’t see many out there following her footsteps of self reliance. I thank G-d everyday that I live in Utah.

Amazing story!! My grandparents came to the United States many years after your grandmother but I like to think that they are all pioneers and “brave soldiers” in one way or another.

Thank you SO much for sharing this story!

Jerry Goldman says:

Marc, after all these years after San Jacinto, I learn interesting antidotes of my old class mates.

The story about your grandmother was one of determination that seems to be missing in todays world.

Marc Grossberg says:

Julia and Jerry, so nice to read your comments. Julia, you would have liked her a lot and she, you. Jerry, I am more hopeful than you but share your concern. I hope we see each other soon.
And, thanks, Tablet.

Michael Miller says:

Beautiful memory piece. Thanks for sharing.

nan abrams says:

I so enjoyed reading this story. Well told and inspiring.

Bruce Gelber says:

Bravo.

Carolynn Sparks says:

Marc, What a wonderful tribute to your grandmother. I know that she would be very proud of you, Marc, her grandson.

Cathy Carter says:

Marc, I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, but I certainly wish I’d met that marvelous woman and the entire family.
Thank you for sharing the marvelous memories.

roberta bremson says:

Marc, I really enjoyed your family’s story. You are very fortunate to know them.
I just found out my eldest uncle Jack Bender, of blessed memory, died a hero in WWII, when I was 2 months old. You see, our family never shared stories and now time has just about run out.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Everything that could have been said, has already been said about your wonderful grandmother.

Unfortunately, this year I am pessimistic about the backbone of Americans as was once taken for granted in this country. There was a time we assumed that each generation would climb up another notch in the ladder.

Our children are doing well but we worry about our grandchildren who must go to private schools to learn what a great country they live in.

Thank you, Marc for sharing this wonderful story with the readers of Tablet and thank you tablet for printing it.

Jeannine Bond McGowan says:

What a wonderful story about your Grandmother. You are so fortunate to be able to remember her & tell about her bravery in the face of a very scary situation.

Having grown up in TN & TX, I know what discrimination was even when I was a little girl. I never thought it was a good thing. & when I grew up & was married & my husband was in the Army, I learned people are the same, even tho they may be a different color, race or religion. The most horrible thing I have ever seen was the prison camp in Poland. What a waste of so many people. What a terrible thing to happen to so many families. Your Grandmother may not have known those times, but she knew she & her family were worthwhile citizens & those KKK’s were not.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Bob says:

Lovely, lovely story!

roger says:

Marc – you go cuz!

rog

Emily says:

A lovely story, Marc, and well told. Perfect for the 4th of July!

Joyce Gilbert says:

Marc:

I really loved the story of your grandmother. She was truly a woman of valor and you told her story beautifully. Yasher Koach!

Joyce

neal says:

I share the views of everyone else- a wonderful and inspiring story of courage. thank you for sharing this marvelous tale.

Ellen says:

marc, I enjoyed the article immensely. Thanks for sharing your birthday story with the rest of the world.
Ellen

Don Teter says:

Mark Grossberg, do you know what year your grandmother did her crime?

gretchen bohnert says:

This is inspiring, Marc. Please keep writing!

Gretchen

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WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..extra wait .. …

I am a convert to Judaism. Interestingly enough, it could have been one of my relatives she cold-cocked. Good for her!

JamesGarbarzewich says:

Tablet magazine goes to extraordinary heights with articles like this.

God bless Marc’s grand mother, God bless Marc.

God bless America the beautiful, the free.

mimsy18 says:

I loved this story. So much courage in such a little package.

this is a very inspiring story about fighting for a right. a right for everybdy regardless of color, creed or religion!

thank you so much

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tom metzger says:

Such a Deal!

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When Granny Beat Back the Klan, Armed With an American Flag and a Frying Pan

With an American flag in her hand, my immigrant grandmother stood up to a gang of Texas roughnecks

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