You can think that you know your parents. And you can be wrong.
You know that you don’t know everything about them, of course, but at least you think you have the basic narrative. When they were born; if you’re not lucky enough to have them still alive, when they died, and where they are buried. Where they went to high school, and to college; how many siblings they had, how many children; their friends and relatives, their professions and hobbies, their memberships.
And also, of course, any significant honors.
Morris Abramowitz, Roberta Seltzer’s father, spent most of his career as a patrolman in the Bronx. Ms. Seltzer knows that. But until she pulled a large certificate out of a cardboard box as she packed up her mother’s apartment in Hackensack, she had no idea that he’d been inducted into the New York City police department’s Honor Legion.
Nor does she know why he never told her, her sister, or even their mother about the honor, or about what he did to earn it.
Ms. Seltzer, a Jewish educator who specializes in music education, lives in Fair Lawn — she and her husband, Fred, have lived there for decades — but she grew up in the Bronx. She knew, of course, that her father was a police officer, but he never talked about his work, she said.
To look at Mr. Abramowitz’s life is to be given a peek at a very specific slice of early- to mid-20th century New York Jewish life, as well as into the way those histories were passed down to children and grandchildren, with some stories told often and others left untold.
Mr. Abramowitz was born in Russia in 1905, the second of an eventual six children. His parents, Louis and Fannie, immigrated to the United States when Morris was six months old; the other four children were born in this country. His mother soon got sick and then, like so many others, she died of tuberculosis, when her oldest son was somewhere in his midteens. Her oldest child, Ida, took care of the three youngest children.
During their mother’s illness and through the period between her death and their father’s remarriage, however, Morris and the brother just below him in age, William, were sent to an orphanage.
That’s another part of American Jewish life in the early 20th century that we don’t know much about any more. Orphanages then were not only places for children with no parents. They also sheltered children whose parents could not take care of them — because they were too sick, because they were too poor, because they were too desperate, because they simply gave up. In northern New Jersey, such children often were sent to Daughters of Miriam — now in Clifton, then in Paterson — which was an orphanage as well as an old age home when it was founded.
There were many places in New York, funded by local Jewish communities, that took in Jewish children whose parents could not care for them, either temporarily or permanently. Most of them were grim. “It was a very difficult time for the Jewish people,” Ms. Seltzer said.
The Cottage School in Pleasantville, a pretty suburban town in northern Westchester County, was the first of a new model of orphanages, a model both for Jews and then for non-Jews as well. The school was funded by wealthy Jews, who sent money from around the world for this exciting social experiment. Children at the school lived in small groups, about 25 to a cottage, and each cottage had a pair of house parents. The students were taught both academics and practical skills. At least some of the time, the fact that children and teenagers are people, with real emotional needs, was not only acknowledged in the abstract but put into practice as well. Lessons that educators and social reformers learned at that school later influenced other institutions.
“They taught my father such practical things,” Ms. Seltzer said. “He was very domesticated. He would cook and clean and shop. He learned it there. And he had such beautiful handwriting!
“My father got such a wonderful background there,” she continued. “He was very happy. Every year, he’d take my sister and my mother and me there.” But his brother hated it, she added. “His mother was dying, and he didn’t have the same maturity, and he just hated it.” She knew a bit about the depth of her uncle’s loathing by the fact that he changed his name, going from Abramowitz to Adams. His experience at the Cottage School was enough to put him off Jewishness for life.
Although her father loved the Cottage School, he did not talk about his experiences there very much, Ms. Seltzer said. Most of what she knows about the school, other than what she could see on her family’s annual outings, comes from later research.
Morris Abramowitz left the Cottage School when his father married Sarah, who became his beloved stepmother. He was still in school; his high-school diploma, earned around 1923, came from the local public school, Evander Fields.
And then Mr. Abramowitz had to figure out what to do next. The Depression had not yet hit — it was on its way — but there were not many promising options for young men in the Bronx. He did some odd jobs. He banged around a bit. He did what he could. And then, his daughter said, “a friend told him that the police department was hiring.”
In 1930, Morris Abramowitz joined the New York City police department. He remained with the department until he retired in 1966.
“I don’t think that there were many Jews on the police force,” Ms. Seltzer said. Most of the cops were Irish. “He used to say that on Ash Wednesday, the Irish cops would say, ‘Bend down, Abramowitz. I’ll put ash on your forehead.’”
Her father looked more Irish than stereotypically Jewish, whatever that might mean, she said, and his pictures show it. “He was in very good physical shape,” Ms. Seltzer said. “He loved sports; he was on the police department’s basketball team.”
He wasn’t particularly tall — about 5’7” — but people were shorter then, she said. “And he was slender, but very muscular.”
The Shomrim Society, the organization for Jewish police officers and later for their families as well — shomrim are people who watch, and who by extension stand guard — was founded in the early 1920s. Morris Abramowitz was an enthusiastic member, and his daughter still is.
Morris Abramowitz and Julia Newman got married in 1934. They met cute. Julia was born on the Lower East Side, but later the family moved up to the Bronx, where Morris was walking his beat. “He must have looked at her and thought she looked Jewish,” Roberta said. And that, more or less, was that.
Morris and Julia Abramowitz lived in the Bronx, close to his father and stepmother, Louis and Sarah. Louis was a tailor. “He used to fix my little spring coats for Passover,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I think he was a good tailor. We wore spring coats back then, and I remember that they always were pretty.”
Ms. Abramowitz worked transcribing Dictaphone recordings, but what she really loved was music. “She sang in Abraham Binder’s chorus at the Y in New York,” Ms. Seltzer said. “She would get on the subway every Wednesday to go there. And she sang in Carnegie Hall with the chorus.” (Abraham Wolf Binder was a composer who taught at the Hebrew Union College in downtown Manhattan; he also was the founding musical director of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.)
When she was young and her mother sang opera, or even listened to opera on the radio, “I would cover my ears,” Ms. Seltzer said ruefully. She is, after all, a music teacher now. “I wasn’t crazy about opera then,” she admitted. “And my mother had a wonderful natural voice.”
The Abramowitz’s marriage was happy, and it lasted until 1977, when Morris died.
Her father was a uniformed patrolman in the 46th precinct for most of his career, Ms. Seltzer said. Once he was too old and too tired for that job, he transferred to the Bronx County Courthouse, on the Grand Concourse. Later, in a career highlight, he was one of the phalanx of cops guarding Pope Paul VI as he presided over a mass in Yankee Stadium. It was the first time any pope had gone anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and the first time any pope had left Italy since 1809. It was a big deal for the city, and a major big deal for the Jewish cop guarding him.
In general, though — with the pope’s trip a major exception — Mr. Abramowitz never talked about work, Ms. Seltzer said, and her husband confirmed.
Of course, he carried a gun. He’d take target practice at the Kingsbridge Armory, he’d always have the gun in its holster when he was walking his beat, and when he was at home it would be up on a shelf in the closet. Today, gun safety experts would be very — and appropriately! — horrified. “No one ever used to lock anything up,” Ms. Seltzer said. “We just knew never to touch it.” And they never did. “We were good girls,” she said. “We were told not to touch it, so we didn’t.” And no, she doesn’t shoot. Never has. “I had no interest,” she said.
“He wouldn’t show me the gun either,” Mr. Seltzer said. “He just didn’t want to take it out.”
The dangers were implied. Mr. Abramowitz never talked about it.
The risk of carrying a gun, the responsibility that came along with it, weighed heavily on Morris, both Seltzers said. “But after he retired and had grandchildren, he mellowed.” He smiled more. He unbent more. Still, he never talked about his work, neither while it was ongoing nor after he retired from it. That was an unbreakable rule.
The only other clear sign she remembers of her father’s job, other than the uniform and the gun, was the small notebook that he always kept by the door. “He wrote everything in it, in beautiful penmanship,” she said. But he never talked about the stories those beautiful cursive letters told.
Ms. Seltzer remembers her father as a very brave man. “Once, when I was a little girl, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom. He was ready to go along the ledge outside the building — we were on the fifth floor — to get me out,” she said.
Morris also was sensitive. He took his daughters — Roberta and her older sister, Joan — to the movies. “We saw Bambi,” Ms. Seltzer said. “My father cried.”
There was another part of Mr. Abramowitz’s life, a part that was as important to him as his identity as a policeman, a husband, and a father. He was deeply, profoundly Jewish.
“We lived across the street from an Orthodox shul, and my grandpa Louie was a very Orthodox man,” Ms. Seltzer said. He would go to minyan every day. Morris Abramowitz would go as often as he could. Like many Orthodox men of his generation, he often worked on Shabbat. It was painful, but it was the cost of holding a job back then.
Or at least Ms. Seltzer thinks that’s what her father must have felt. He never talked about it. Once he retired, though, he started going to minyan every day, as his father had done.
“He cared for his stepmother after his father died, and he visited his cousin in the Veteran’s Home,” Ms. Seltzer said. “He did mitzvot.” He worked on being as good a Jew, and as good a person, as he could.
The family’s shul was the Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center. It was a very well-known synagogue, and its rabbi, Israel Miller, also was famous. He was a vice president at Yeshiva University and the president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, among many other things. But to Ms. Seltzer, “he was my rabbi,” she said; she was inspired by him, and she loved him.
So the Abramowitzes were an interesting family, partly prototypical, partly idiosyncratic. But what about the certificate?
In the 1970s, the Abramowitzes moved to Hackensack, where they became active members of Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in easy walking distance of their new home. Morris, who had retired in 1966, died in 1977; decades later, in 2011, Julia died.
Meanwhile, the Seltzers flourished. They have been married for 50 years now, and they have two children and two grandchildren. Fred, who has retired, was successful as a marketer, and Roberta has developed relationships with synagogues across most of the Jewish world, from Chabad to Reform, as she has taught music to their students. “If you add up all the years I have worked at all these places, I have worked more than 100 years,” she said. Although Ms. Seltzer is reluctant to identify herself as belonging to any one Jewish stream — “I say I am Jewish,” she said. “I can’t put myself in a category” — the family is a longtime member of a Conservative shul, the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.
In 2004, Ms. Seltzer convinced her mother to move to the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. “The night before I took here there, I was in my mother’s apartment, going through things, and I just happened to look in a drawer,” she said. “I found a copy of a letter from the Bronx district attorney.” The letter detailed, in a striking combination of formal, slightly pedantic language and vivid, unexpected images, an act of heroism Morris Abramowitz had performed.
It was written in 1934; the copy she found in Hackensack had been sent in 1977, most likely triggered by news of her father’s death. Most likely, her mother, overcome with grief and details, saw that it wasn’t a bill and never even had taken it out of the envelope. Certainly she never focused on it.
“It was such a surprise!” Ms. Seltzer said. “Who knew?”
Later, she found a handwritten document hidden in a cardboard box, along with her father’s other job souvenirs. “He lived very modestly,” she shrugged. It was the proclamation of his induction into the Honor Legion.
The story the typewritten letter told was that the defendant walked into a restaurant, “ordered something to eat, and after satisfying himself that there was no one else in the store except two workers, to wit, Peter Zydes and George Russell, he immediately directed them to go into the back of the store and put their hands up.” He “brandished a very large carving knife,” and he also “had his other hand in his pocket pointing forward as if there was a revolver therein.” When he passed by, Patrolman Abramowitz noticed the two men with their hands up, so “he immediately drew his service revolver and plunged into the store and subdued the defendant.” True, there was no gun, but until he had the bad guy, Robert Coyle, under control, he had no way of knowing that.
Mr. Abramowitz also recovered the money Coyle had stolen from the cash register — $10.75, according to the letter.
Later he learned that Coyle “had recently been released from Elmira Reformatory.” He was dangerous.
Why had her father never mentioned any of this? “I don’t know why,” Ms. Seltzer said. Her parents were engaged when it happened, but not yet married. “I think he didn’t want my mother to worry,” she added. But really, she said, she has no idea why he never talked about it, either then or later. “It was such a surprise,” she said. The document had been in its cardboard box “for 81 years, unrecognized.
“We are told that if you save one life, it is as if you save the universe,” Ms. Seltzer said. “My father saved two universes.
“And he never told us.
“Finding out something like this about your father after so many years is heartwarming and very emotional,” she said. And sort of surprising, and sort of not surprising at all.