The Samuel Shapiro Story

Part 1: Beginnings

In a previous post I looked at the relatively brief Milton sojourn of the Hankin brothers, Aaron and William, who ran a haberdashery from about 1913 to 1918 in the Chandler building on Union Street, now part of the Milton Library. The brothers were of interest to me because of their origin— they were born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the town of Nhizhin, Ukraine—and were the first Jews I know of who settled in Milton, albeit for only a few years. That post can be found at http://broadkillblogger.org/2019/05/russia-on-the-broadkill/

Today’s post is about another individual descended from the Jews of Ukraine, who left an indelible mark on the people of Milton: Samuel C. Shapiro (1915 – 1983). Fortunately for this narrative, long-time Milton residents have first-hand memories of Samuel Shapiro. From 1938 to 1983, he ran Samuel’s, a clothing store that began at 105 Federal Street and, after his return from World War II service, continued in the building now occupied by Irish Eyes. He served in the U. S. Army in World War II, was commander and chaplain of American Legion Post 20, a charter member and president of the Milton Lions Club, was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, coached the Milton Little League team, and participated actively in the civic life of his community. In 1957, he was named Milton’s Citizen of the Year.

All this information is of the type that can be found in an obituary, and in fact that is where these life milestones came from. But, as with any brief obituary, there are many facets to Samuel Shapiro’s life that are not immediately apparent. In this post, I will discuss Samuel’s story from his family’s arrival in the U. S. to his leaving for the U. S. Army as a draftee as the country began the buildup of its armed forces to fight the Axis powers in World War II. In the next post, I will look at Samuel’s life after his return to Milton, and in particular his remarkable series of letters to the editor of the Wilmington newspapers.

We should begin with the fact that Samuel Shapiro started life as Samuel Shafferenko (one of several spelling variants in the immigration records). Samuel was the son of immigrant Abraham Shafferenko (1891 – 1973), who arrived in Philadelphia on January 1906 with his mother Rose and his brothers Oscar and Arthur, and shortly after settled in Baltimore. In 1918, Abraham Shafferenko, having already declared his intent to become a naturalized U. S. citizen, petitioned to change his name to Shapiro, and thus three-year-old Samuel Shafferenko, his brothers Harry and Frank, and their mother Sophie all took the new surname.

The family portrait below, taken in Russia before the family began their multi-year emigration, shows the patriarch Schachna Labe Shafferenko at center, with long beard and cap, flanked on the right by wife Minnie and on the left by son Morris (Samuel’s grandfather) and his wife Rose. Abraham is standing at the extreme right beside his grandmother Minnie. An anecdote in one of the several family trees that document the Shapiro family states that Morris Shafferenko owned a hat factory in Nhizhin, and the portrait seems to indicate that the family were of comfortable means, if not wealthy.

The Shafferenko Family in Russia, ca. 1901; Samuel’s father Abraham is standing at far right.
Photograph courtesy of K. D. McKenney’s family tree in ancestry.com.

I have nothing to go on regarding Abraham Shapiro’s feelings about his adopted country, so I must indulge in some speculation. Abraham certainly wanted to gain something by changing his surname: perhaps to blend in more easily with Jewish Americans that were already established in the new country, or to disassociate himself with eastern European anarchists and socialists in the U. S. who were being harassed and deported in the early twentieth century. The most likely explanation, however, is precedent; among others in the family, Abraham’s Uncle Isaac had already adopted the surname by 1912, well before the time Abraham was in a position to petition for a change.[i]

Abraham Shapiro was literate, as was his wife Sophie, but neither was formally schooled. Their oldest son Harry also did not attend school, but like his parents was literate and worked as a clerk in an office. Beginning with second-oldest son Frank, all of the other Shapiro siblings would go on to complete high school. Abraham Shapiro took up the trade of tailoring and would continue in that for the rest of his life, in Baltimore. His sons Frank and Samuel, however, would find a different path, one that would eventually lead them to southern Delaware.

In the 1940 Census, Frank Shapiro was living in the Hotel Rodney in Lewes, and Samuel was a boarder with the Messick family in Milton. The brothers had moved to Lewes sometime in the mid-1930s to manage the Fox store.  We can only guess at how Frank and Samuel got wind of the need for store managers. They were not the first Jews in Lewes, as Harry Hankin had owned a store and shares of other businesses there before his death in 1917, and had done pretty well by himself. The Hankins came from the same town, Nhizhin, in Ukraine, as Samuel’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Whether the families actually knew or spoke to each other is not known; most of the Hankins lived in Wilmington, while the Shapiro clan lived in Baltimore. Word-of-mouth remains an interesting possibility, however; it is possible that Frank and Samuel had heard about Lewes from the Hankins, as a latter-day “promised land” in mostly rural Sussex County.

Then there is the matter of breaking loose from close family and community ties. Abraham and Sophie maintained a household of ten in 1930, which included themselves, seven children and Sophie’s father. Perhaps the second and third sons were seeking some relief from a very confining home life, needing to strike out on their own rather than follow their father into the tailoring trade. No matter what the reason, the move to Lewes put the brothers at quite a distance from their family, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Although one or two Jewish families could be found in many Sussex and Kent County communities, they were hardly enough to form a community.

While in Lewes, Samuel found an opportunity to start his own business in Milton and took it. He opened Samuel’s at 105 Federal Street, a significant event in his life, but only the beginning.

Samuel with sons Robert and Michael, ca. 1958 (identification corrected from previous version); from K. D. McKenney family tree in ancestry.com
Agnes Bernabei, in her Temple University yearbook photo

Agnes Bernabei (1915 – 2004), a pretty Italian-American Catholic woman from Philadelphia, graduated from Temple University in that city in 1936, and had begun teaching art in the Lewes Public School in September of 1939. She was the daughter of a prosperous Philadelphia pharmacist, Ernesto Bernabei Sr., and performed in amateur theatrical and dance productions throughout her college years. In Lewes, she somehow caught Samuel’s eye, and in August of 1941 they were married in Philadelphia. The wedding announcement was terse, and did not mention whether the wedding had been performed in a church or synagogue, or what friends or family members, if any, might have attended. Having taken place in Philadelphia, it is likely that some of Agnes’s family members attended, but it was probably not held in a Catholic church given the couple’s religious differences. How did Samuel’s family react to the marriage? There is no indication that the Shapiro family were observant Jews, but the marriage of one of their sons to a non-Jewish woman—a shiksa, in Yiddish—would not likely have been a cause for celebration. At worst, marriage of a son to a non-Jew was the dark side of assimilation, an interruption in the male line of descent where the children of a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man would not have been considered Jews according to Judaism’s most orthodox tradition, even after conversion; in the extreme, the family would sit shivah (hold a wake) for the son, who was now “dead” to them.[ii]

With the best case being a whole-hearted embrace of the marriage by both families, the most likely scenario with Samuel and Agnes would have been something in between: initial dismay, gradual acceptance and the triumph of family ties over religious doctrine and cultural imperatives. What is unclear is what religion, if any, the couple followed. The uncertain place of religion in their lives is highlighted by the fact that when Agnes Shapiro died in 2004, her funeral was held in held in a Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, in Cape May, NJ, but her burial was with her husband at Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery, Reiserstown, MD.

From all of the stories related to me, Samuel tried very hard to integrate into the life of the town. People who remember him said he pronounced his name “Sha-PIE-row” rather than the more usual “Sha-PEE-row.” There is no agreement among people who knew him as to why his name was pronounced this way. Sussex County and Delaware have plenty of linguistic anomalies (for example “terkle” in place of “turtle,” “Broadkiln” instead of “Broadkill”). It would not be hard to imagine local people putting a Sussex County twist to his name. Did Samuel elect to go along with the mispronunciation as the path of least resistance, as a way to avoid being seen as a “foreigner”?

Events in the wider world soon overtook everyone in Milton as the United States entered World War II. By August 1942, Samuel had been drafted, and by September of that year he was on his way to boot camp.

End of Part 1


[i] We cannot ascribe much significance to the choice of Shapiro as a surname. In common use only among the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe, it is thought to be associated with the old German market town of Speyer, while others believe its roots go back to Syria, but this is mostly conjecture.

[ii] Paradoxically, even after the trauma of the Holocaust highlighted the need for keeping Jewish identity alive, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 58% of all Jews and 71% of non-orthodox Jews have married outside of their faith.

20 thoughts on “The Samuel Shapiro Story

  • Emory R West

    Sam was a well respected man with a lot of wisdom and knowledge.

    • Phil Martin

      That is my impression too. Much of that will come out in Part 2, when I talk about his letters to the editor and other aspects of his later life.

  • Dan Young

    I new Sam well. I was in highschool with his sons Robbie and Mike as I knew them. My mother worked for him off and on starting with full time then part time after she retired. She worked 20 hours a week. He allowed her to take clothing in exchange for payment in overtime hours to avoid paying taxes until she was 67. Much of my clothing for highschool came from there. I lost my father at age 12. It was his way of helping. His sons were great guys as well. I knew Robbie best though he was a year ahead of me in school. His brother and mine were in the same grade.

    • Phil Martin

      As with Howard Reed’s remarks on the white bucks for the high school band, this is a great anecdote that speaks volumes to Sam’s character. I will incorporate your comment in the next installment.

  • I just lived up the block from the Shapiros went to school with Mike and Rob a wonderful family Mr. Shapiro made sure that every member of our great High School band had a pair of white bucks for all the parades we marched in he was a wonderful individual !

    • Phil Martin

      Howard, this is one of those priceless anecdotes that help illuminate what kind of man Sam Shapiro was. I will incorporate your remarks in the next installment of his story.

  • Jill Showell

    Agnes Shapiro was my art teacher at Sussex Central High School (Class of 1980). I loved her. She had the patience of a saint.

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you so much for your comment, Jill. If you would like to share more memories of Agnes Shapiro, or a yearbook photo of her (I have no photo of her other than the one you saw in the post), I would be most receptive.

  • Mary Ann Warrington

    Remember Sam and the store very well from my childhood. My mom worked for Sam in Milton and for Frank in lewes. There are some friends of my mom that are living that worked there and may have some great stories to share. My parents always spoke highly of the Shapiros

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you for your interest in Sam Shapiro’s story. Would you be willing to put me in contact with your mom (assuming she is still living) and/or with your friends? You can respond to this message with contact info, and I will read it but not publish it, to keep it private.

  • Gayle Melvin

    I was blessed to work as a teenager for Mr. Shapiro. I remember long talks we would have when the store was quiet and he sat at his desk . He was wise and I always loved history , and people’s lives. I so wish I had asked him so much more. His store was a busy place, I feel his heart was definitely rooted in our town, his town. At Christmas you could go upstairs and there you found TOYS! Most anything you needed could be found there, a lot like Tom best,s store in the sense that they would both no matter what you needed , they would have it and know where to find IT! Milton was blessed he made it his home. Of course everyone knew the family was Jewish, and I knew ONE other Jewish family in Milton, the cunninhams. Tho surely they could have been those I did not know about. I do not remember any bad, or biased attitudes toward him and his family, tho certainly that would be a question for his boys. He was respected in my eyes, by myself and others. He was a GOOD man.

    • Phil Martin

      Thank you for this lovely remembrance of Samuel Shapiro. Your view of him as a GOOD man is shared by everyone how knew him, at least among those who have written to me or who I’ve spoken to. I’m in the process of trying to reach one of his sons, to see what insights he might be willing to offer. I will incorporate your remarks in the next post.

  • Anne Pratt

    Fascinating story about the Shapiro family. Thank you for all your research on the topic.

    I moved to Milton from Cape May five years ago— just wanted to mention that the Catholic Church in Cape May is OUR LADY STAR OF THE SEA.
    There must be many more connections between Cape May and Milton/Lewes area. I have found a few
    regarding boat-building, shipping, fishing, piloting, etc. Stories about families, especially Underground
    Railroad stories would make compelling history, especially as the two coasts are less than 20 miles apart.

    • Phil Martin

      Anne, thanks for your interest in the Shapiro story. I only came to this area 7 years ago, and the people who have lived here fascinate me. I will make the correction to the name of the church; apparently the newspaper in which Agnes’s death notice appeared did not fact-check everything.

  • Martha Jane Donovan-Collins

    Dear Phil,
    I grew up on Lake Drive two doors up from the Shapiro. I knew their family quite well, and have a treasure trove of memories from time spent with them, as well as pictures of Sam and Agnes in later years.

    When Samuel’s Department was on the market for sale, my brother David Donovan and I purchased the business, and renamed the store, “The Red Bridge Shop.” After the acquisition of the store, one of our first actions was to hold an auction of items stored on the second floor of the property. That was a history lesson of the family and the town of Milton.
    community.
    The Shapiro’s were wonderful neighbors, and an integral part of the Milton

    The Shapiro’s were

    • Phil Martin

      Martha Jane, I would like to use one or two pictures of Sam and Agnes, and if you have one of the storefront (or inside the store) that would be great too. I don’t like using anyone’s real email address or phone number in the blog (for privacy and security reasons), but if the Milton Historical Society has your contact info, I can use that to get in touch with you, probably after Christmas.

      • Martha Jane Donovan-Collins

        Hello Phil,

        Thank you for your message. I will be more than happy to share photos, memories, and information I have. I am still in touch with Michael, their oldest son. He may be interested in communicating with you also. I will wait for your response.

        My husband and I will be leaving for Florida in Jan. We don’t have a specific date yet. I will leave photos at the Milton Historical Society if you and I don’t have a compatible schedule.

        Thanks for your continuing interest and writing about our town and it’s citizens. The Shapiros’ were a true asset to Milton and so many who lived here.

        • Phil Martin

          Martha Jane, I am available any time tomorrow between 9 and 5, and I can meet you at your home, in the library, or in the Suburban Farmhouse (the museum is closed tomorrow). I will send you an email with my contact information.

  • Lucy Darby Krieg

    My name is Lucy Darby Krieg and I graduated from Milton High School in 1951. In my senior year I worked for Sam in his department school on weekends. His store was 2 stores up from my Dad’s hardware store on the main street. And he lived about 4 homes from mine on Lake Drive. When Sam was away during World War II, Agnes ran the store. In fact I met her before him. As I recall Agnes was a Roman Catholic and they always had a Christmas tree in their front window as Christmas time. When Sam returned from the war he told us many of his stories I believe he was part of the Army that liberated some of the death camps in Germany and it affected him very much. I have some photographs of both of them since they socialized with my parents, but I don’t know how to get them to you since I live in St Louis.

    • Phil Martin

      Lucy, thank you so much for contacting me and for your interest in Sam Shapiro’s story. You have brought up something I’ve suspected: his military service had a profound effect on his life, and shaped his view of the world in very visible ways. We have his many letters to the editor of the Wilmington newspapers that tell us of his fervent support of Israel, his strong stance on arms control and his distrust of the Soviet Union. If he indeed was a member of one of the Army units that liberated the death camps, that would explain a lot. It is this postwar aspect of his life I want to explore next.
      I am going to send you an email with my contact information directly to your email address rather than in this reply for the sake of privacy or both of us, and I will explain how to get your photos to me easily without their leaving your house.
      I hope we’ll be speaking very soon!

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