Assisted Living Residents Reflect On Economic Times

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Newsday September 21, 2008
Some remember former businessmen selling apples on street corners and people standing in long lines outside banks. For one, the recollection is the suicide of a friend’s father. Still others said that daily life didn’t change that much because their families already were living modest, frugal lives.

“If you didn’t have the money, you did without,” said Lottie Hollander, 93, one of several residents of the Gurwin Assisted Living Center in Commack who lived through the stock market crash of October 1929 and talked about those hard times in interviews Friday.

The crash and the Great Depression that followed changed the way many Americans looked at life going forward. Members of the generation that saw their parents stand in line at banks, desperate to withdraw their money, are the ones who, for the most part, eschewed credit cards and believed in sticking strictly to a budget.

Those may be lessons that today’s wage-earners and young families must take to heart, said several residents of the assisted living center.

“Money meant more when you were growing up,” said Helen Stemple, 95. Nowadays, she said, the motto seems to be, “You got it, spend it … I find that very disturbing.”

Stemple, who grew up in Brooklyn, said she had $25 in the Bank of the United States at the time of the crash, which caused the closing of most banks for a short period. It took her years to get it back, she said.

For William Kaufman, 93, the most vivid memory is the devastating blow the stock market crash had on his childhood best friend in Scranton, Pa.

“There was no effect on my family, because my father didn’t buy any stock, he owned a corner grocery store. But the father of my best friend committed suicide. He hung himself in the barn behind his house,” Kaufman said. “That disrupted the whole family’s future – his wife, son and daughter. In those days, suicide was sort of a shame.”

Abraham Kisch, 94, who grew up in Ozone Park and was 16 at the time of the crash, said that life didn’t change all that much for his family, but he sees from recent newspaper articles that members of the current generation have gotten themselves in trouble.

“The well-to-do middle class are sunk now,” he said. “The stock they have … their homes are in a mess.”

During the 1930s Depression, keeping the family’s collective heads above water sometimes meant help from the children.

Brooklyn-born George Schriro, 87, who lives at Somerset Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Plainview, remembered learning to ride a bicycle at age 11 so he could get a job as a Western Union messenger.

“We experienced financial difficulties. We managed to eat, barely, through continually working on jobs,” Schriro recalled. “I brought in income to the family to help meet its economic needs.”

During the interview, Kisch, Stemple and Hollander urged a more simple life for today’s families. When they were children, they remembered, there were no organized sports. Play consisted of making a pushcart out of old boxes and roller skates, or playing stickball in the street. Reading was a big pastime, and going to the movies, a real treat, cost a nickel. Family life was centered around the home. And they were happy.

“I would advise them to live frugally, and to watch what you spend,” said Stemple. “Be alert in what you’re doing so you don’t get yourself deeper into debt.”

Kisch’s advice to those weathering the economic storm?

“Breathe deeply,” he said.


A week in October 1929 caused historic havoc on Wall Street and was at least partially responsible for setting off the Great Depression of the 1930s. From 1925 until the stock market crash four years later, prices of shares more than doubled as people bought stocks on speculation and purchased items on installment plans. After the crash, those who bought goods on credit were unable to pay. Factories and stores failed, causing job losses and high unemployment. Panic set in and depositors pulled their cash out of savings institutions. Approximately 9,000 banks failed between January 1930 and March 1933, and Americans lost millions in savings.

The Dow Jones industrial average did not return to its pre-1929 levels until 1954.

Oct. 24, 1929: Black Thursday. A record number of shares – nearly 13 million – are traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and stock prices take a steep decline.

Oct. 28, 1929: Black Monday. Stock prices continue to fall as investors pull out of the market.

Oct. 29, 1929: Black Tuesday. Stockholders panic and 16,410,030 shares are sold, besting the record of five days earlier. Share prices fall an average of 80 percent of value.

Information from World Book Encyclopedia and The Annals of America Encyclopedia.

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