My grandfather did what?

My grandfather did what?

Discovering an ancestor’s exploits, including running guns to Israel, through luck and the internet

Paul Caine at the Yankees game where his curiosity was sparked by a policeman’s badge; inset, two shots of his grandfather, Wolf Silberstein.
Paul Caine at the Yankees game where his curiosity was sparked by a policeman’s badge; inset, two shots of his grandfather, Wolf Silberstein.

For many people, just being at the 2009 World Series would have been enough. Dayenu.

Make it be the sixth game of the series. Dayenu.

Say you’re a Yankees fan, and they’re playing at home in the Bronx, and you’re sitting way up front. Got it. Dayenu.

Um, the Yankees win the game, they win the series, and you are right there. Absolutely and entirely dayenu. It’s enough. What else could there be. (Be quiet, Mets fans! This part of the story just isn’t for you!)

Say that you’re Paul Caine of Tenafly. You pay close attention to detail. (And it shows; if you’re Paul, you’re a high-level entrepreneur who went from a top job at Bloomberg Media to exciting new high-tech ventures, and you devote a great deal of your time and energy to philanthropy.)

So if you’re Paul, you’re loving the game, but you’re paying attention to everything around you. And you notice the badge number on the police officer who is patrolling right in front of you.

It’s a familiar number. It’s just one digit off from the badge number of the money clip you carry every day. It’s a replica of your grandfather’s New York Police Department badge, and you know it well.

Patrolman Silberstein’s badge.

Okay, so you’re not Paul. But there is Paul, at the World Series eight years ago, staring at this cop and his badge.

Paul didn’t know very much about his grandfather, Wolf Herman Silberstein, badge number 17954. His mother, Pearl Silberstein Caine, was an only child, who adored her father — “he was my best friend, and he was my hero,” she said — but she was only 11 when he died, right in front of her, in 1948.

But Paul had the internet, curiosity, and energy — not a lot of time, but how long does it take to ask google a question? — so he started researching. “I was on a conference call, and I was bored, so I started playing with Google,” he said. And then he kept going.

He learned that his grandfather not only was a hero, who had been awarded a medal by the NYPD after a poolroom hold-up, but he was so well respected that he earned a hero’s blue funeral, and at that funeral the fact that he’d been involved in running guns to the nascent state of Israel leaked out, was covered up, and then has stayed pretty well hidden until now.

So what was Patrolman Wolf Herman Silberstein’s story?

Wolf Silberstein was born on the Lower East Side in 1906, somewhere in the middle of eight children, and grew up there and in Brooklyn. He was a fairly tall, athletic, rangy, and handsome man, conventionally Irish looking, which perhaps might have propelled his interest in the police force, which for generations was filled with Irishmen. As he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 1934, in a story that Paul found in JTA’s archives, “I realized a childhood ambition when I became a policeman. I never had another ambition.”

There were not many Jews on the police force, and it was not immediately welcoming. “His family had to chip in to buy his uniform and badge,” Paul said.

In 1933, according to the JTA story, Wolf had the adventure that earned him the police department’s medal of honor in 1934. The department handed out only two of those awards a year; it was its highest, for “extraordinary heroism at imminent risk of life,” the story tells us.

Patrolman Silberstein’s medal he was awarded for his off-duty heroism in a pool room.

Wolf was in a “licensed pool room, while I was off duty and in civilian clothes,” he said; note his emphasis on how legitimate both the place and his presence there were.

The story is worth quoting in detail.  JTA tells us that Patrolman Silberstein spoke “quietly and in genuine modesty.” In fact, he was “reluctant to discuss the incident at all.”

This is what he said: He was in the room when “In walked three men with revolvers in their hands. They ordered those who were in the room — about 35 altogether — to ‘move back against the wall and hold your hands up.’

“While I was moving back with the others, I drew my service revolver. One of the bandits had jumped onto a chair in the rear of the room and stood facing the crowd, brandishing his revolver.

“At this time I stepped away from the crowd and fired a shot at the bandit on the chair. He doubled up, stepped off the chair, and I fired another shot. He then ran along the wall opposite me, endeavoring to escape. I followed. When he was near the door I had to fire a third time, after which I apprehended the bandit and took his revolver.”

As the police citation noted, Wolf left out a number of facts. All three men kept firing. When he was asked, he said, “Well, they fired a number of shots at me. None, however, took effect.”

He killed the man on the chair; the other two escaped.

Many years later, his widow, Pearl’s mother, Ruth Ginder Silberstein, told her grandson, Paul Caine, that she had been at the pool hall that night. (She never told her daughter that story; Pearl heard it only from her son, and it is an astonishment to her. She doesn’t know what to make of it.)

Wolf Silberstein in uniform.

Ruth told Paul that when the robbers told everyone to line up against the wall, “she was scared to death,” but he whispered to her to wait until he went for his gun — he was left-handed, and it was on his right side — and then to run. She did, and was able to get out of there.

The Silbersteins lived in Crown Heights, and Wolf, who spent his whole career as a patrolman, worked in Canarsie. “He used to work nights, so I’d hardly see him,” Pearl said. “He would always sleep with his gun under his pillow.” It wasn’t loaded, she added, and she remembers that at least once he’d shown it to her, to demystify it.

“I always remember how handsome my father was in his uniform,” she said. “I would be playing in the street when he’d come home, and I would run to him and jump into his arms. He took me rowing in Central Park. He was a wonderful father.”

Wolf Silberstein sits proudly at the wheel.

Crown Heights was a Jewish neighborhood then, as it is now, although the Lubavitch presence was not as strong then as now. “We were not religious,” Pearl said. “We never belonged to a synagogue, but I remember that he used to tell me that he was going to shul. But he never brought me or my mom.”

If her parents were Zionists, Pearl didn’t know it. They did not talk about Israel.

And that wasn’t all they didn’t talk about.

As she grew up, Pearl had no idea that her father had fought a gun battle in a pool hall, or that he’d won a medal of honor for it. She did not know anything about that until years later, when she discovered the certificate in a drawer and asked her mother about it. She also eventually saw a photograph of New York City’s mayor Fiorello LaGuardia pinning the medal on Wolf, who towers over him.

As strong as Patrolman Wolf Silberstein appeared to be, his heart was not. He had a minor heart attack in the summer of 1948, and then in November he had the major heart attack that killed him, at home, with his traumatized daughter looking on.

He died on Thanksgiving 1948.

Because Wolf had won the medal of honor, and because he was both respected and loved, and because all evidence points to his having been charismatic, he was given what is called a blue funeral.

Wolf Silberstein stands with a man his grandson thinks might be Leon Katz.

Police officers who are killed doing their jobs were offered blue funerals, and so too were a few other officers, whose heroism and stature seemed to demand it. Blue funerals were so called because of the sea of blue uniforms that pack the pews and the graveside; they draw not only at-attention police officers and high officials but also politicians and reporters. They were a major big deal.

Wolf Herman Silberstein’s blue funeral was in late November 1948, just days after Thanksgiving. He was buried in Queens, in the Shomrim Society’s cemetery, surrounded by the graves of other Jewish cops.

It was at his funeral that another part of his story was briefly uncovered and then quickly buried again. It’s only resurfacing now, in bits, as Paul works to unearth it.

As he researched his grandfather online — and dug up stories not only from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an agency that has streamlined its name to its initials, JTA, and still provides us with national and international Jewish news that we publish today, but also from such papers as the Brooklyn Eagle, which covered his grandfather’s adventures in some detail — he came across his name in a 1995 Jerusalem Post story about Leon Katz. Mr. Katz, another former New York City policeman and a onetime inspector general of the city’s prisons, who made aliyah in 1981, talked about how he put together a group of other city cops who had, not to put too fine a point on it, smuggled guns to mandatory Palestine as it fought for freedom from the British.

Wolf Silberstein was one of those cops.

The nascent state of Israel badly needed guns; representatives of the Irgun — and Teddy Kollek, who later became Jerusalem’s amazingly longtime mayor, was involved as well — quietly asked American Jewish representatives for help. Some of the weapons came from Jews who happened to have them and were willing to donate them. But that wasn’t enough. So Mr. Katz and his group came up with a plan.

Veterans returning from World War II (a war that Wolf was too old to fight) often brought back guns, both their own and weapons that they took from the enemy as souvenirs. That was illegal, but they were promised that they would not get into any trouble, that no questions would be asked, should they turn them in as they disembarked in New York from the boats taking them back home.

Those guns were to go back to the army, or to be disposed of in other legal ways.

Paul Caine is flanked by his parents, Don and Pearl, in his Tenafly home.

Instead, many of them were siphoned off into a warehouse on the Lower East Side and then shipped off to Israel. The warehouse was in the basement of the Stanley Friedman Association, “a brownstone named after a friend who had died in the war,” Pearl said. “They did charity work there.”

The police brass knew about it, Paul said, but they chose to look the other way. They felt sympathy for the Jewish fighters trying against towering odds to make their own state in the aftermath of the war.

A shipment of guns was set to go to Israel, and “one day a box that was going onboard a banana boat fell, and guns fell all over the dock.

“A foreman called the police, and said ‘We thought we were shipping bananas, but they’re guns.’ And the policeman he called said ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

That should have been the end of the problem. But no. “The shipping company reported it to the FBI,” Paul said. “The police said to the FBI, we have this. It’s our jurisdiction, but the FBI said no no no, we’ll investigate it. They went to the pier to check it out.

“And then my grandfather got tipped off,” Paul said. According to the stories online, there is a long and tangled web of possible betrayals and saves and cover-ups and turnarounds, all hard to parse, but the upshot of it is that indeed Wolf Silberstein and his friends heard about what was happening.

“The FBI agents were two Irish guys, and when my grandfather heard about it, he and his friends went and intercepted those two agents, and they went to a bar with them, and they drank together, and they bonded on their mutual hatred of Britain.

“And in the end” — most likely many drinks later — “the Irish gents decided to drop the case.”

Soon afterward the operation ended; in May 1948, the state of Israel was born. And just months later, Wolf Silberstein died. He never got to Israel.

“I remember his funeral vividly,” Pearl said. “It was overwhelming, because there were thousands of policemen there. The streets were lined. And I was out of it.”

She and her mother soon moved from the Brooklyn apartment where she had seen her father die to Forest Hills, in Queens. And although her parents had spoken to each other in Yiddish — a language she never learned —  “once my father died, my mother never spoke Yiddish again,” Pearl said. Ruth, who died in 1990, at 79, didn’t get to Israel until she was in her 60s; when she was there, she was greatly moved by it, her daughter reports.

Meanwhile, back at the Shomrim Society cemetery in Queens, the rabbi who spoke at Wolf’s graveside funeral, Mitchell Eskolsky, talked about the gun-running. It was not wise. “The police brass was there,” Paul said. “The mayor was there. And the rabbi tells the story about my grandfather’s bravery.

“The crazy part is that this was a story that no one knew. And there were many reporters there, because it was a blue funeral. They wanted to write the story, but the police brass and the mayor used a lot of political capital to make sure that it was never written.

“So the story was buried with my grandfather.”

Pearl Silberstein went on to marry Don Caine; the Caines brought up their family — Paul and his two sisters, Wendy Kastan and Dana Caine-Sheinbaum — in Woodcliff Lake and now live in Wanaque. Don is a dentist who did some volunteer work at the one-time Sidney Friedman building, which by then had become the Oscar Ginder building, after her mother’s family. The clinic was named after Wolf Herman Silberstein; in all the time he worked there, Don said, he never went into the basement, which he did not know until much later had housed the guns en route to Israel.

As astonished as Paul was to learn about his grandfather’s exploits, Pearl was even more so. She has remained close to her father’s memory throughout her life. She has a keepsake in her bag, a flattened penny in a small silver-colored horseshoe-shaped frame that her father gave her. “I have carried this around since 1947,” she said. “I was so excited when he gave it to me.

“I have never lost it, and I never will.”

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