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 https://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.
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.
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.