The story of Goudchaux’s department store is nothing less than a modern Thanksgiving story, and it’s just about as inspiring. Like the original, it tells of refugees fleeing their homes and building new lives in a new land. Like the first pilgrims, they encountered a range of challenges they could not have foreseen, allies they could not have expected, and success beyond their imagination. Here is just a taste of Mark Robichaux’s review of that story as it appears in the Wall Street Journal.
We Were Merchants, recounts the journey of Erich and Lea Sternberg, Jewish immigrants who escaped with their daughter and two sons from the Nazi terror in Germany in the 1930s and, speaking no English, went into the department-store business in the Deep South. “We Were Merchants” also describes how the Sternberg family– Erich and Lea would eventually be joined at work by their sons, Hans and Josef, and daughter, Insa–spent the next half-century building up what became the country’s largest family-owned department store.
The first quarter of “We Were Merchants” is devoted to the diaspora from Germany of the Sternbergs and their relatives. In 1936, as Nazi persecution of Jews escalated, Hans’s father, Erich, sailed to America to try to start a new life for his family. The decision had been spurred in part by an incident with their first-born child, Josef, at the private school he attended–one of the few still accepting Jews, who had already been banned from public schools. Lea went to pick up the kindergartner and “found him in the schoolyard, standing alone,” Mr. Sternberg writes. “The other children were pelting him with stones and calling him a Jew. The teacher stood by watching, making no attempt to interfere.”
In 1938, Erich bought Goudchaux’s, which he would turn into a true department store and run for the next quarter-century….Goudchaux’s was unusual for the Deep South in that the store employed black sales clerks and disdained the common policy of barring blacks from trying on clothes in stores. But Mr. Sternberg does not portray the store owner as a saint: “My father did bow to Louisiana law when it came to segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains.”
Sometimes, stories of Pilgrims and Natives American Indians feel like “other people’s” stories to so many of us. We Were Merchants reminds us that the story of Thanksgiving has occurred in so many of our lives, and that the struggle to make a better life is the most universal story of all.