Monday, June 1, 2020

Camp Bonheur

Endpapers of Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French

There’s a book that my mother has kept since the summer of 1940 when she received it as a gift.

Parlez-vous Francais? A First Book in French is heavy and thick at 500 pages, and surely was a textbook.  It’s inscribed in the formal manner of parents born around the turn of the century: “With love to Gloria from Mother.”  My hunch is that it was packed in my mother’s suitcase when she went off to Camp Bonheur in Northville, N.Y., a town at the northern tip of the Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.

Sacandaga Lake, 1920s

Camp Bonheur had existed since the early 1920s.  Its director, Miss Rich, and all of the counselors were New York City high school teachers. The camp was for Jewish girls and had special classes in French and music.  One of Miss Rich’s assistants, Mrs. Drukker, performed as a soprano on various radio programs of the day.

1940 proved to be the happiest summer of my mother’s childhood.  That autumn her mother, Rose, became sick with tuberculosis and more or less disappeared into hospitals and sanitariums.  The cycle persisted until after World War II when antibiotics became widely available.

Tuberculosis was an epidemic and Rose’s story was not unusual.  But my mother never went to camp again.

Before she became sick Rose doted on her only child.  On Saturdays, they would take the trolley across the University Heights Bridge, from 207th Street in Inwood, the northernmost Manhattan neighborhood where they lived, to Fordham Road in The Bronx. 

University Heights Bridge with trolley tracks, 1938
(Municipal Archives, City of New York)
There they shopped at Alexander’s department store and saw movies at Loew’s Paradise, a palace-like theater typical of its time, and had a bite at Krum’s, which was a soda parlor, chocolatier, and candy store all rolled into one.

Tucked in along Fordham Road was a grocery store owned by Louis and Ethel Berenson. He had been a music teacher until the Depression when he was forced to switch his profession. The Berensons lived on Sedgwick Avenue, which ran north and south along the Harlem River near the Bronx campus of New York University.

Fordham Road stores, 1940

They told Rose about Camp Bonheur, where their daughter Cora went every summer.  

And so, in June the girls took a bus to Albany and then another bus to Northville, a picturesque town not far from the camp which could be reached by walking over a bridge. 

By 1940, going away to summer camp had long been part of the American experience.  Christian youth ministries and the YMCA founded camps in New England as early as the 1880s.  It was not until after World War I, however, that camps for Jewish children were established, largely in the Northeast.  Among the first was Camp Cejwin in Port Jervis, N.Y., founded in 1919 by the educators Albert and Bertha Schoolman, who were Zionists.

Indeed, Zionism was woven into the fabric of many Jewish camps where both the American flag and a Hebrew flag were raised and lowered each day.* 

The Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish aid society established in 1900, started Camp Kinderland, which emphasized Yiddish culture and taught socialist ideals, in 1923.

But most Jewish camps focused on the Americanization of the children of Eastern European immigrants while affirming their religious identity in the face of anti-Semitism. 

Postcard of Northville Bridge, 1940

Through camp activities like hiking and swimming, the children might also overcome the stereotype of Jews as weaklings with no stamina or tolerance for pain.   

That idea was promulgated by a well-respected University of Wisconsin sociologist, Edward A. Ross, whose book, The Old World in the New (1914), popularized the idea that Jews were the unfortunate opposite of the tough pioneers who led the Western Expansion in the United States.

Incidentally, Ross coined the term “race suicide,” which referred to the declining birthrate among white Americans, an issue of grave concern to anti-immigrants and eugenicists.    

My mother, who is 92 years old, did not grow up in a especially religious family.

No doubt, however, that Camp Bonheur was part of the scaffolding of her life as a young, first-generation American.

Gloria Stromberg, late 1930s


*A precursor of the Israeli flag was used between 1920 and 1948 during the British Mandate for Palestine.


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