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Jewish refugees helped this city grow, and the legacy lives on

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Maurice Maisel moved from peddling matches on the streets of New York at age 12 to selling squash blossom necklaces on Central Avenue.

Terry Maisel Haas looks through historical photos, many taken by her father Seymore "Buddy" Maisel, in her home on Monday, December 19, 2016.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Terry Maisel Haas looks through historical photos, many taken by her father Seymore “Buddy” Maisel, in her home on Monday, December 19, 2016.(Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

This after his family came to the U.S. from Austria and Russia, landing at Ellis Island in 1893 – escaping war and oppression, desperate for a better life. “His parents slept on rooftops,” said Maurice’s granddaughter, Terry Maisel Haas.

Maurice ended up in Albuquerque and, in 1923, founded the well-known Maisel’s Indian Trading Post, which at one point employed 300 people and is still open today.

Maurice Maisel is just one of a string of Jewish refugees who arrived in Albuquerque about a century ago and launched businesses here – transforming the city’s business and retail scene.

James Collister opened Kistler-Collister in 1909. Mannie Blaugrund opened American Furniture. Abe and Walter Cohen launched Pay-Less Drug. Harold Gardenswartz opened H. Cook Sporting Goods. Max Pollack started People’s Flowers.

By the mid-20th century, these merchants and their descendants created some of the city’s best-known specialty stores – from boots to jewelry to clothes. They also thrived at marketing, with the advent of clearance sales, which they started here.

The Jewish community created Albuquerque’s shopping incubator, and then moved into professions such as law and medicine – adding its rich cultural roots to the city along the way.

The community’s history, impact and cultural influence are now highlighted at the Albuquerque Museum in an exhibit called “Jews of Albuquerque in the 20th Century: Building Community Along the Rio Grande.”

Silver smiths work at Maisel's.

Silversmiths work at Maisel’s.

Courtesy Albuquerque Museum American Furniture located in 200 block of South Second Street, c. 1930.

American Furniture located in 200 block of South Second Street, c. 1930. (Courtesy Albuquerque Museum)

“They were into retail because they had experience in that before they came out here,” said Noel Pugach, emeritus history professor at the University of New Mexico. “They came from Europe, where they were excluded from agriculture. They couldn’t own property. The Greeks in Palestine taught them how to be merchants.”

The exhibit features the stories of many of those immigrants.

The young Maisel began as a Western Union messenger boy for $3.50 a week; the company deducted 58 cents for his uniform. In 1910, doctors diagnosed him with tuberculosis and gave him seven years to live. He transferred to Denver’s dry mountain air as a telegrapher in 1911. He was soon transferred to Albuquerque, where his health improved.

In 1922, Maurice left Western Union to become vice president of Citizens National Bank. In 1923, he bought a former music/curio shop at 117 S. First St., and turned it into Maisel’s Indian Trading Post. At one point, the shop employed as many as 300 people, mainly Native Americans, pounding out silver and setting turquoise.

Terry worked in the shop on weekends.

“I helped make jewelry,” Terry said. “As a girl, who didn’t like jewelry? I got to go to lunch with my father at the Petroleum Club.”

Terry’s father, Seymour, took over the store when Maurice retired in 1963. He stayed for “about 15 years” before opening a toy store at Coronado Mall as the downtown area emptied.

Seymour’s pocket-sized World War II prayer book now rests in an exhibition case. He earned a Purple Heart after being seriously wounded in 1944 during a joint operation with British forces attacking a key point on Germany’s Siegfried line.

Today, Terry’s cousin Skip runs Maisel’s, now located at 510 Central Ave.

The exhibition also features vintage photographs of both the Blaugrunds and their American Furniture stores.

Cliff Blaugrund’s father, Mannie, emigrated from Slovakia to join his older brothers in El Paso in 1921, where the siblings launched American Furniture. Mannie then brought the company to Albuquerque.

“Obviously, I worked at the store,” Cliff said. “I got a lot of experience, a lot of on-the-job education; what it was to be in business.”

He eventually ran the office furniture side of the store. Then he decided to go to the University of New Mexico law school.

“I graduated and got a license, but I never practiced,” he said. “It seemed to suit me better to be in the family business.”

Mannie Blaugrund sold the company to AFC Acquisitions who are dba American Home Furniture, sometime before 2007, according to museum curator of history Deborah Slaney.

Lack of quotas

Albuquerque later attracted Jews interested in entering the legal and medical professions due to its absence of “quotas.”

After World War II, Jews began moving into the health, legal and financial professions.

“The Albuquerque hospitals never restricted Jews in residency in medical school, which was common on the East Coast,” Pugach said. “The Atomic era changes everything; they start going into the professions in a big way. Even Harvard had a quota in the 1920s.”

The family of retired Albuquerque pediatrician Stanley Stark had been oppressed and conscripted near the Polish-Russian border. They moved from Ellis Island to Colorado, where they already had family, and started the Gardenswartz sporting goods chain.

Stark moved here in 1964 when he took over the practice of the first board-certified pediatrician in New Mexico. His mother had been diagnosed with rheumatic fever in the 1940s, and observing the trio of physicians who treated her inspired him.

“My mother got better without any residue of heart disease, which is unbelievable,” he said. “I think that’s the real reason I became a physician.”

An oral history of the Stark family plays on the gallery monitors.

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