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1-Introductions & Childhood
My name is Leah and we are conducting an interview with Max Garcia and the date is May 9th, 2002, and the location is San Francisco, California, and the interviewers are the Oral History class, the teacher is Deborah Dent-Samake and the cameraman is Howard Levin.
We would like to get a sense of your childhood and the way you lived before the rise of Hitler, so can you describe how you lived as a child.
In Amsterdam where I was born, in Holland, we lived in a blue collar neighborhood. I'll begin by describing to you what our apartment looked like which was a walk-up apartment. It was three stories up - ground, first, second, and third. The only convenience for the people on the third floor was a dumbwaiter, whereby you could put your groceries on the dumbwaiter, go upstairs, and pull them up. My sister and I lived in one bedroom, because there was only two bedrooms in the place. It only had a water closet, a toilet. It had no showers, no hot water, none of the convenience that you are acquainted with here. We had a very kitchen, which was a sink, cold water, and a little top next to the sink. There was another little table where there were two gas burners where my mother did the cooking. That was it. There was no linen closet that I can recall, there were no built-in closets in the apartment. I think my mother and my father had one armoire, which is a vertical coat closet. We walked up the stairs everyday, down, and up and down. All our playing was done in the street in front of the house or around the corner.
When we had to go shower we went to the public bathroom which was a block away. We would go shower, men in one section, women in another section. When you were a small boy you went with your mother into the women's section. And we did that once a week. You wore the same clothes every day of the week until Saturday, when you went to the shower or to the bathhouse and then you got a new set of, or, clean set of clothes for the next week. So, basically, I had two sets of clothes, and that's the best recollection I have of my time growing up as a very youngster.
What sort of school did you attend?
We attended grammar school, which was a block and a half away from my apartment. There were two grammar schools adjacent to each other. The school that I went to was called the Graaf Floris School. Count Floris was a very important personage in Dutch history. It was located on a little, round, oval square, which was basically a garden concept, opposite the school. While I was going to school, they built old folks' housing which was one story houses with little garden plots in front. It was a sixth grade school, from first through sixth.
And the teacher, every class started with a teacher, and that teacher stayed with the class for all of the six years, and she or he taught us everything--grammar, Dutch, arithmetic, reading, writing, all of the things, history, that teacher was totally, it was a total teacher. She or he would know after about one year, what each of these students were capable of that were in his or her charge, and, in my case, the lady who was my teacher lived about four blocks away from the school, in a house that she and her husband had, a very, very small like, expanded cabin.
If you were sick or missed a week of school or two or three days of school, because of a cold or what have you, she would take you after school to her house, and would bring you up to date of all the classes that you had missed while you were sick, and she would give you milk and cookies, and this became like a second parent to you. And I dare say, this woman had a tremendous influence on my life that I still, in many ways, adhere to.
What chores did you have to do?
Well, I didn't have any chores at home because Mother didn't do anything but be a house frau. She, there were no maids, as I said, we had a living room, two bedrooms, a toilet, and a kitchen, and we ate in the kitchen. That was all. My mother had to clean that, that's about it. So, and then she did all the laundry, and the ironing. That was all done at home. My mother would have to take the laundry, boil it in water, boil the water first, and then she would scrub it with the scrub board, and she would hang it outside the kitchen window in the back garden, on a line, to dry. And if it required ironing, she would have to heat the iron on the gas top, you know in the kitchen where we would otherwise would do cooking, and that's what she did, and so chores for us, for the children, there were none.
Did you play any games, or do things for fun?
Yeah, the kids as I said a while ago, all the neighborhood kids were in the same condition, they all had the same size of apartments, their folks, and so everybody played in the street. Now, you must understand, when I grew up, in the late twenties, early thirties, those streets were practically empty of any motor vehicles. There were no autos to speak of, at the most you would find is a person on a bicycle. Sometimes a vendor would come through the blocks or to the streets, shouting that he had fresh fish, or he had some, lets say chestnuts, roasted chestnuts in the winter, in the fall, or a flower man would come out with fresh flowers, that's the kind of vehicle that you would see. Most of that was hand pushed. He would push the cart. So, children could easily play on the streets because there was no danger being overrun by a car. We played games out there like normal kids, they make them up.
Was religion a big part of your life when you were a child?
My father and mother were both Jewish, as am I. My father was very inattentive about his religion; my mother was a little bit more religious but basically only for the high holidays and for Passover. My father didn't believe in religion because his philosophy was being a social democrat politically. He was a diamond polisher, and he believed that most of that stuff didn't have any meaning to him. My grandfather, my father's father, was also an old diamond polisher, and later, when he retired, he became a shammaz. I don't know if any of you kids knows what a shammaz means, but that is a person in a synagogue, who lights the candles, sweeps the floor, keeps the books all organized, and that's what he did.
And, my grandfather was quite devout, and my father would have nothing of it. At Passover, we would have matzos, and my mother would clean the house, or the apartment I should say, and she would get what is known as the chomitz, which is the bread and all the other flour items, and they would go through the place and clean it all up, put it in a paper bag or something, and they would take it to the fire in the ghetto and they would give the guy who managed the fire, a guilder, and he would burn the chomitz and everybody was happy.
Did you go to a synagogue regularly?
Was your family close, did you get along?
My mother and her sisters and brothers were very close. My father was reasonably close to his sister, and very unclose to his brother. Unclose is probably not the proper word, but he was not very close to him. But to his sister, he was reasonably close.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism?
Yeah. As kids, you know we had Gentiles on the block, but basically in the neighborhood I lived, I would say it was about sixty or seventy-thirty or sixty-forty percent Jewish versus Gentiles. So, when, when your friend got pissed off at you, and to put it bluntly, he would say, 'You dirty Jew,' and the next day we would play again with each other. So, if that is anti-Semitism, so be it, but I don't consider that anti-Semitism.
Were you close to your parents?
Yes. Mother and father of mine, we were very close. We were a small family, I had a younger sister by a year and a half, and as I said, I lived in the same bedroom with her. We were a close, a closely knit family, and especially on my mother's side, who was very close to her sisters, she was the youngest of her family. And, yeah, I'd say we were ... I won't say intimate, but you know, because it has a different connotation today, but we were very much together. Father and mother were very much together, so were the children. We were a foursome.
What were your fondest memories as a child?
When the river froze over, and because we lived a block away, and I would be able to go ice skating on it, and I had my first ice skates, I think I was eight or nine years old. That's one. When I got my first bicycle is a very fond memory. Of course I had to schlep it upstairs on my shoulder because you couldn't leave it on the street. Getting a nickel to go to the store and get some licorice. It's the little things that you today would not consider of major importance I think in your lives, but to us, they meant everything.
You said that your teacher had a big impact, or a big influence on you. What sorts of things did she teach you that you still carry on today?
Self-reliance. That's one thing she taught. As did my father, and I'll go into that later. She taught us self-reliance, be able to stand on your own two feet, make a decision for yourself, don't be afraid to make a mistake, that's the kind of teaching she taught, you know, don't be afraid. And I think that's pretty good advice for today too.
Do you remember the first job that you had?
I was nine. And this was the Depression. I was born in 1924, this was 1933. The Depression was full bore in Holland, as it was here. And, one of my mother's brothers had a poultry store in the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam. My father talked to my mother that he wanted to open up a poultry store in the neighborhood where we lived to augment his income as a diamond polisher. Which was far in between, they would have a week's work, and then a week off, a week on, that sort of thing. So they went to see my uncle, and he was very enthusiastic, and my father found a little garage space and put a counter in, and bought a refrigerator, or had somebody buy a refrigerator, actually, it was an ice box in those days, there was no electric refrigerator, you had to have a box and you would buy ice.
And, in Holland, when I grew up, you had a two hour's lunch break from school, you worked from 9 till 12 and from 2 to 4. So, from school to the garage was like three quarters of a block. And I would run home, my mother would have a sandwich waiting for me, and I would put on an apron and I would cut open the chickens and clean chickens and get them ready for the customers and then I would get on my bike and deliver them. That was my first job, working at lunch time. And I didn't get paid for that, this was part of, hey, you're part of the family.
And you said your father was a diamond polisher