Exploring St. Pete’s Jewish History: Part 1
When Old Northeast resident Jay Miller told his parents that he was buying a house in the neighborhood 22 years ago, his mother Sonya gave a wry laugh. When he asked why, she had to remind him that when she was growing up in St. Petersburg, the Old Northeast was off limits to their family – in its early years, the neighborhood, like much of the city, was not welcoming to Jews.
Jay’s aunt, his mother’s sister, Marilyn Benjamin, recalled a similar story over a recent lunch at the Helm Restaurant in St. Pete Beach. “I remember when the Vinoy Hotel had its grand re-opening in 1992, after being closed for many years. My husband and I were invited to attend. The general manager reached out to us, and I remember him saying ‘Isn’t it exciting? Aren’t you looking forward to seeing the hotel again after all these years?’ And I had to respond to him that I had never actually been inside the Vinoy Hotel before. And he was shocked, and said, ‘Well, why not?’ And I replied that they didn’t allow Jewish people there when I was growing up. And I remember, he was just shocked. Stunned. He never knew that.”
It’s a part of St. Petersburg’s history that many people don’t know: the blatant antisemitism practiced by many of the city’s most esteemed establishments. It reached its zenith in the 1920s but continued in many establishments well into the 1970s. But the history of St. Petersburg’s Jewish community is much richer than these ugly stories of antisemitism belie.
It’s not as if Sonya and Marilyn, the Haliczer sisters, were sitting around waiting for invitations to the Vinoy Hotel or the Old Northeast. Growing up in St. Petersburg in the 1930s and 40s as the daughters of two of St. Petersburg’s first Jewish residents, Leon and Lillie Haliczer, the sisters were part of a small, but tight-knit group of Jewish families that lived, worked, and socialized together. Their parents, and those of their friends, were vital parts of the St. Pete community, most of them merchants of one type or another in the city’s developing years. Tracing their early history provides a fascinating peek into the foundations, not just of St. Petersburg, but of a country developed by immigrants.
Almost all of St. Petersburg’s early Jewish residents emigrated from Eastern Europe, most likely fleeing the pogroms that swept that part of the world between the 1880s and 1920s. Many of them came through Ellis Island, settling first in New York City or elsewhere, and then migrating to Florida in search of opportunity. Several traveled to St. Petersburg via Key West, following friends or family that had arrived before them.
The first Jewish person to move to St. Petersburg was a single man named Henry Schutz. Emigrating from Germany in 1883, he originally settled in Savannah. Upon hearing of a business opportunity in St. Petersburg, he moved here in 1901 and began selling ladies hats and notions. Schutz quickly became a valued member of the community. In 1910 the St. Petersburg Times described him as “one of our popular merchants” in a congratulatory note about his marriage to Emma Fleischman of Baltimore. In those early years, St. Petersburg was still little more than a village; Schutz’s store didn’t even have a cash register. When a customer needed change, he would put the money in a basket and send it up to the second floor of his store via a pulley system, where change would be made and sent back down. Schutz’s grew into one of the finest ladies clothing stores in the city, located on the 500 block of Central Avenue.
Sometime around 1911, another Jewish couple moved to St. Petersburg. Leon and Olga Manket probably followed Olga’s young, ambitious brother, Abraham Tarapani, who had moved to St. Petersburg from New York City several years after the family emigrated from Russia (today’s Lithuania) in 1895. Abe didn’t stay long in St. Petersburg, moving within two years to Tarpon Springs where he became a pillar of the community. But his sister Olga stayed in St. Pete. After years of working as a pharmacist on New York City’s Lower East Side, Olga had recently married a Polish immigrant named Leon Manket. When the Mankets arrived in St. Petersburg they rented a small bungalow just a few blocks off Mirror Lake. While living there, Olga and Leon had a daughter, Anne, the first Jewish child born in Pinellas County.
The Mankets went into business with Olga’s brother Abe, and brother-in-law Sam Lovitz in the New York Supply Company, a dry goods store on 9th Street, and Leon Manket later became a real estate agent. Their daughter Anne grew into a popular and active student at St. Petersburg High School, where she performed in school plays and joined many clubs. She married in 1934 and moved to Asheville, North Carolina with her new husband; her parents joined her there in their later years.
While there are no direct descendants of the Schutzs or the Mankets still living in St. Petersburg, many of the next Jewish settlers left permanent roots in the form of children and grandchildren who are still active in the community today. Like Jay Miller’s maternal grandparents (and Marilyn Benjamin’s parents), Leon and Lillie Haliczer. Leon hailed from the town of Kopychintsy, in today’s Ukraine. His father was a successful blacksmith, who built wagons from scratch and was known to shod as many as 150 horses in a 12-hour period. During his high school years Leon took a three-year apprenticeship in watch repair, and later had to leave his hometown for treatment of a lung ailment. While he was away, World War I started, and Leon was drafted into the army in 1916 and sent to the Italian front. Meanwhile, his brothers, Sol and Ben, had emigrated to Tampa and St. Petersburg; they sent money for Leon to join them around 1920. He arrived at Ellis Island, where he was forced to linger while doctors examined his lungs. Eventually Leon Haliczer made his way to St. Petersburg, opening a watch repair and jewelry store in 1921, just a few months after his arrival in the US. He remained in the jewelry business until 1963, and his legacy lives on in the city through his many descendants.
One of those, Leon’s daughter Marilyn Benjamin, recalls her father as “the nicest guy you ever met. He was just very happy with life. It was hard work for him to set up his business, you know; he didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone. But he and my mother worked side by side in their little store, a jewelry store with some gifts and other things.” She laughs as a happy thought occurs to her: “I remember we had these pillowcases that said something like ‘Welcome to St. Pete’ on them. During the war years, the soldiers loved them! They all bought those! I remember, if a soldier came in, we would all talk to him and my mother would invite them in, and, especially if they were Jewish, she would invite them into the back of the store and feed them. We would kibbutz with them…chat, you know.”
St. Petersburg’s Jewish community had grown significantly by the time World War II soldiers were visiting Haliczer’s Jewelers. The earliest families had been joined throughout the teens and ‘20s by the Sierkese family (who owned a fabric store on the 800 block of Central Avenue from 1914 until 1985), the Solomon and the Davis families (successive owners of a clothing store on Central Avenue), the Hankins (grocers on 9th Street North), the Hellers, the Jacobs, and Louis “Boston” Cohen. Louis Boston owned one of the largest bakeries in town, located in its early years along Beach Drive, but later relocated to the historically African American neighborhood of Methodist Town.
This reveals a larger trend – that of Jewish merchants opening grocery stores and other shops in parts of town that had been designated, by tradition and, in the 1930s by city charter, as neighborhoods for Black residents. As St. Petersburg grew into a resort city in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, city leaders made a concerted effort to relocate African American residents from neighborhoods near downtown (the Gas Plant and Methodist Town) into a designated “Negro Segregation Zone” between 5th and 15th Avenues South, along 22nd Street, an area that became known as the Deuces. While efforts to segregate Jewish residents was never as pronounced or virulent as the segregation of Black citizens, custom – and in many cases, deed restrictions – prevented Jewish people from purchasing homes or businesses in certain areas. Hence, the many Jewish businesses that sprung up in African American neighborhoods during those years. Louis Boston owned stores in Methodist Town; David Rothblatt, who arrived in St. Pete in 1922, owned Southern Grocery in the Deuces; and the Katz family were much-loved grocers in the Gas Plant neighborhood.
In the next issue of the Northeast Journal, part two of the history of Jewish settlers in St. Petersburg will delve deeper into the antisemitism these families experienced, even as they helped to grow the economy and culture of the city.