Screen biography of retail giant looks at extraordinary record of giving

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

ulius Rosenwald is surrounded by students from a Rosenwald school. (Fisk University)
ulius Rosenwald is surrounded by students from a Rosenwald school. (Fisk University)

Aviva Kempner is a rare filmmaker, committed to making documentary films about Jewish subjects. Her earliest work was as producer of the 1986 “Partisans of Vilna,” directed by Josh Waletzky. It was a powerful study of underground Jewish resistance in the Vilna Ghetto and of the partisans in the woods who fought against the Nazis. Eight years later, she produced and directed “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” an uplifting film about the baseball great who came close to breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. Her next feature was “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” which looked at the career of Gertrude Berg, originator of the popular radio and television program “The Goldbergs.” Now she brings us “Rosenwald,” the story of Sears and Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald, a man whose philanthropy had a profound effect on the lives of underprivileged African-American youth. It is a powerful film and one worth seeing.

Julius Rosenwald’s story, at least at its beginning, is the story of an entire generation of Jews who came to this country. His father went to Baltimore from Germany to find a better life for his family. Like so many others of that generation, at first he made his living as a peddler. But the elder Rosenwald married into a family that had an expanding dry goods business, and he and his new wife, Augusta, settled in Springfield, Illinois, where Julius was born. Young Julius worked for his family and then was sent off to an apprenticeship at an uncle’s manufacturing plant in New York; that forced him to quit school, but the young Julius was quick to get a different kind of education in the competitive world of the “shamata” business.

Eventually, Julius set out on his own with his brother, later joined by a cousin, and a variety of fascinating circumstances brought him into business with his brother-in-law Aaron Nusbaum. Businessman Richard Sears was looking for a new business partner for his mail order business, Sears, Roebuck, and he approached Aaron to ask if he would be that partner.

Julius Rosenwald and Aaron Nusbaum said yes, and the business soared, making them very wealthy men. Julius Rosenwald became chairman and president of Sears, Roebuck.

What I found particularly interesting was how the changes affecting American life affected Rosenwald’s life, and how family and friends, including Henry Goldman and Paul Sachs (of the Goldman Sachs family), played into his eventual success as a businessman. But family and business do not always go well together, and they didn’t here. Partners Sears and Rosenwald eventually forced Aaron Nusbaum out, and Nusbaum never forgave his sister and her husband. The families never spoke again.

Friends Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington walked together on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in 1915. (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)
Friends Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington walked together on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in 1915. (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

The film provides a fair historical background and shows how Rosenwald always separated business from everything else he did. Though I wanted to know more about who Rosenwald the man really was, filmmaker Kempner had a different agenda. She was less interested in relaying the personal story of Julius Rosenwald and more fascinated by the story of Julius Rosenwald the philanthropist.

Indeed, there is much to tell about how Julius Rosenwald changed so many people’s lives. Why an extraordinarily wealthy Jewish businessman would devote so much of his wealth to improving the lives of poor and undereducated African Americans in the South is interesting. The president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, where Rosenwald headquartered the massive company, tries to put a tikkun olam spin on it, and points to the influence of Emil Hirsch, the rabbi of Sinai Temple, where Rosenwald worshipped. Others note Rosenwald’s interest in the writings of Booker T. Washington or the story of railroad executive William Henry Baldwin, Jr., who had a particular interest in the welfare of black Americans. Whatever the case, the filmmaker spends the second part of the film bringing in an extensive and impressive cast of characters to tell this part of the story.

Though we find out little about Rosenwald’s commitment to Jewish life, we do learn a great deal about the amazing work he did in building schools for black children in the South. With the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling on the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in public facilities, African American children often were relegated to a second-rate education in poor facilities, taught by inadequately trained teachers. Rosenwald tried to rectify that situation by helping to fund what came to be known as Rosenwald schools and by providing extensive support to Tuskegee Institute and other black colleges. By 1932, Rosenwald had helped fund construction of 5,000 schoolhouses in 15 states across the South. By the 1960s, more than one in three black children in the South were educated in one of those schools.

Not only Rosenwald’s accomplishments are impressive, so is the list of people the filmmaker interviewed. Civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week, is joined by others in telling how his father was able to get a good education because he went to a Rosenwald school. Poet Maya Angelou talks movingly about the conditions of life for young African Americans in the South. Rosenwald’s grandchildren and other relatives, joined by a host of historians, talk about the impact he made. Each person provides a loving portrait, which Kempner crafts into a film about how one man was able to make such a difference. At some points you do get the feeling that you are watching a promotional film made for the Rosenwald family, but still this is a film that must be seen, particularly in the African American community.

Aviva Kempner had a great deal to cover and does a fine job detailing the accomplishments of an extraordinary man, whose tzedakah made such a huge difference. But the story of Rosenwald as a Jew, beyond his philanthropy, and exactly what went on behind the closed doors of the Rosenwald mansion as the children were growing up is missing. That story clearly was not the one the filmmaker chose to tell.

The message of Aviva Kempner’s “Rosenwald” is the story of one person’s desire to share his bounty. It is an important lesson. “Rosenwald” is playing in New York City and in Maplewood and Montclair.

Eric Goldman writes and lectures on Jewish cinema. He teaches at Yeshiva University and is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish film.

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