Interviewee: Ralph Romberg
Segment: Part 1 of 5
Introduction of Interviewers
My name is Jason Ferreria, my name is Carol Sukoneck, my name is Piya Kashyap, my name is Craig Miller and my name is Allegra Molineaux. And we are here interviewing Ralph Romberg on July 29, 2008 in San Francisco, California.
My name is Ralph Romberg. I was born in Essen Germany in February 21, 1931. At age seven my brother and I left as refugees to go to Sweden. Nine months later we came back to Germany for one day and got on a boat with my parents and went to Cuba. We lived in Cuba for almost two years, where I went to school. In December of 1940 I immigrated to the United States to Chicago, Ill. I was in Chicago until I graduated from college. I went to the University of Chicago and got my undergraduate degree in 1949. I worked in the the fashion business for about a year and half and was then called into the armed services during the Korean War. I spent almost three years in the army—first in Korea and later on back in Germany—and I was discharged in 1952. I got married at that time. My company moved me to New York where I lived for the next 14 years and eventually was transferred back to Chicago. When I was in New York I also got my Masters degree at Columbia University. After living in Chicago for that period of time, I was eventually divorced. I have two children—a boy and a girl from that marriage—and remarried a year and a half later and moved to San Francisco where I was Vice President of I. Magnin. And after being with them for ten years I moved to Dallas Texas where I was a merchandise vice president for Neiman Marcus. I retired from Neiman Marcus in 1999, moved back to San Francisco where I currently live. I am an instructor and head of the management department for the Fashion Institute, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I am also on the Economic Development Commission for the City of San Francisco.
I think we are going to start. You told us about your new career as a teacher when were back in the conference room. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that's been like
When I moved back to San Francisco I knew about the school here. I was looking for something to do, so I went and interviewed with them and told them—they wanted me to start—and I told them I was going to teach one subject because I never taught before in my life. And that kept developing and developing and its now nine years later and its like a second career for me, and I love it. I love students, I like the mental activity. I like the structure of having a place, which is something that befalls a lot of old people—they have no place to go, you know. I have a place to go and it has been wonderful for me.
And can you tell us what classes you teach?
It is a long list because it is nine different classes, but four of them are management, two of them are retail. I also teach one in marketing, one in international business and one in entrepreneurship. It is a lot of classes. Not all at one time obviously.
Can we go back to your graduate work in Chicago. What did you do your graduate work in?
I did my graduate work in New York. I did undergraduate in Chicago.
What is it about fashion that in particular that interests you?
First of all it is something that is always changing. And it is tremendously challenging. Because you sit there I was always in the merchandise end of it—not the store end of it. You sit there and you try to guess will this sell, the size, the color the style, the price, won't it sell if not, why not. So it's a challenging business. Not easy.
And what about family. How many kids do you have, where do they live now?
I have a son and a daughter and my wife has a son. My wife's son is here in San Francisco. And he is in the real estate business. I have a daughter who lives in Hackettset, New Jersey, has a little boy, and is kind of a computer person. She has a business at home. She transcribes medical records for doctors. And my son lives in Miami, Florida and he is an architect. Which he didn't get from me, I assure you.
Where was it that your children grew up? Was that here in San Francisco
My children grew up—most of their growing up was in New Jersey. When I lived in New York I lived in a suburb of New York—right across the George Washington bridge—called Tenafly. And they grew up there.
Can you tell us what that house was like?
Sure. It was a ranch house—one floor, three bedrooms, living room, dining room, and it had a very, very large basement. And I remember when I bought that house, the people that owned it before I had it had this huge pool table in the basement. And the first thing the man said to me is "we got it down there, is no way we can get it upstairs, you can have it." Also it was kind of interesting because this guy was president of Breyers Ice Cream, which is now part of—it is not an independent company anymore. In the basement he had one of these old fashioned ice cream freezers. You know it was just a box with 3 compartments—best freezer I ever had. Worked like—was very old—worked like a charm.
I'm curious, when your son called from college and he wanted to come home because of the violence that he was just outside his door, how did you encourage him to ...
I said, "Number one, your tuition is paid, get off my back. And number two, welcome to the real world." You have to learn. You know you are not going to live in this cocoon—which the suburbs are, you know, and you have to learn to live with it.
We would like to, since we are talking about a house, we would like to ask about the house where you were born and where you grew up in Germany.
It was in a city called Essen, Germany. It was—I remember exactly because it was only 15 minutes or 10 minutes walking from the railroad station. Because I remember later on, when I came back later on as a soldier, and I wanted to see where the house was, that city was so bombed out I could see from the railroad station to where my house used to be. There wasn't anything left standing, including the house. It was a two floor house and very common in Europe in those days. The sleeping quarters and the family lived upstairs and the business was downstairs. And my father was a wool merchant. He imported wool, in those days knitting—home knitting—was a big business. He imported wool from Great Britain, from England, English wool. So the business was downstairs and I remember it had a long, long staircase going down with a straight railing that I used to love to slide. And I used to get yelled at every time I did it.
Can you describe that area for us?
There were long rows of racks on the walls. There were different qualities and colors of wool and they were all color-coded. That's where the colors came from. And what they would do, you know what a skein of wool is? And there would be five or six skeins in each package. So then they also had accessories you know like knitting needles and those hoops they use for embroidery, all that kind of stuff.
And as a young precocious child you know roaming around the store downstairs you know where you touching feeling..
Oh, you bet! And the most fascinating thing about that place that I remember is—in the corner of the building, it was an old building, they used to have these huge porcelain stoves. They were made of porcelain, they burned wood. And they had one of these huge things in the corner and it was very colorful. And one day I went down there with my crayons because I decided I was going to change the color scheme—that didn't work out too well.
What was the name of the live-in help?
Her name was Maria Yagora and she was a—I will tell you a story about that later—she was a orphan who had grown up in a Catholic convent where the nuns had both a convent and an orphanage. And she was with us, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother, and I remember from the time I was two, until I started school—in Germany you started at 6 in those days, not at 5. And I went to mass every morning, Catholic mass. I knew every word of the Latin mass backwards and forwards. I knew when the bells were going to ring. You know kids get fascinated by that.
So you took us on a tour of the business part of the house. Can you take us on a little tour of the upstairs?
You went up the stairs and, you know, again it has been awhile but you have memories of certain things, and there was a big hallway. And I remember in the hallway there was this huge carved wooden chest which was meant for somebody's trousseau, which I used to hide in. If I really wouldn't want my parents to find me that's where I went—until somebody figured out where I was. And then there were two entrances at each end of the hall. At one end was the entrance that led into kind of a reception hall and a living room. The other end of the hall was the door that led to the kitchen. And the end that went into the living room, it was a very large living room, and what I remember about it is, I don't remember any of the furniture except this huge piano. My mother played the piano and she had a grand piano at home and that was, it was a big black thing. I was fascinated. That is where I also got in trouble if I tried to play it. That didn't work to well either, you know. And my brother and I shared a bedroom kind of a large room and we had you know—for kids in those days the beds were very narrow, that I do remember. And my parent's bedroom was down the hall and the bathroom had one of these gas gadgets in it that heated the hot water. If you wanted to take a bath you went in there a half hour early and lit it and then it would heat the water and then you would go and take it, you know, take your bath. The kitchen I don't remember at all although I am sure I spent a lot of time in there but I don't remember it. And Maria's room was right off the kitchen.
And what was Maria's job in the house?
She kind of did everything but her main job was to care for my brother and myself.
So now we turn to about 5 or 6 and its time for you to go to school. Where did you go to school?
I started to go to school when I was six years old. And now I have to give you a small history lesson because the Germans had all these laws one after the other, from 1931 from 1933 to 1938, and every year the laws governing Jewish behavior got more restrictive. When I went to school all Jewish boys and girls had to go to one school. They were kicked out of all the other schools. I remember my brother went to a Montessori school and he had to leave the year before I started to go to school. So the school was called the Hercules school. It was very close to the railroad station in a very old decrepit building and, you know, this was typical if you understand the Nazis philosophy. Half the building was an insane asylum, and the other half was the Jewish school. And I remember two things about the school. I remember every Friday afternoon to have to run for my life because the storm troopers would be outside waiting to beat us up. And I remember the teacher I had. Because it was the same teacher—they had a system the teacher you started out with in the first grade you had in the 8th grade. He stayed with you, he or she, through your whole scholastic career—it was a different, a different education system. And I remember very, very well what he looked like—tall skinny guy now. Later on I will tell you another story about that which is interesting—unless you want to hear now.
Yes, tell us..
I was invited back to Essen by the government for a visit. It was two years ago. They invited me every year and I kept saying no, and, finally, I said yes because they said it was going to be the last one because the survivors were getting older. I got there and we had a dinner and I was sitting there with six other survivors, all from the same city. And there was a man who was from Argentina. He had been born there. As you say, "When did you leave? When did you...?" So he told me left in 1939. He left just after I did which meant he went to the same school. "How old are you?" "Born in 1931." I said, "You had to be in my class." I did not remember. This was like 70 years later. But I said, "You had to be in my class." And he said "Yeah, probably." And I said to him, "Who was your teacher?" Now I don't know if you wonderful folks are aware of this but students give you nicknames, just in case you didn't think you were one of them. And this man was very, very tall and had very long arms and legs. And we called him Der Spinner which means The Spider in English. And I said, "Was your teacher Der Spinner?" And he said, "Yes." He was in my class. So it was kind of, you know.
Do you remember any other students in your class?
No, I don't remember any of them.