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Abraham Feinberg Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with 
Abraham Feinberg
   
Business executive and philanthropist. Active in the cause of immigration to Palestine and in the creation of the State of Israel, 1945-48. Friend of President Harry S. Truman.

New York, New York
August 23, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened February 1985
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
Abraham Feinberg

New York, New York
August 23, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie

[1]

MCKINZIE: Mr. Feinberg, historians are interested in the kinds of people who become close to national government and politics. Could you narrate what you consider to be the most important events in your personal development--your business career, your education, and the circumstances under which you entered business?

FEINBERG: Well, let's take them in order. I got into business for economic reasons, I came from a family which could not afford to send me to college, so I had to earn some money in order to sustain me during my college years. The educational system in New York provides, theoretically, for free

[2]

education right through the four years of college studies, but sustenance is also part of education. So, I went to work at an early age, first during the summers while I was attending Townsend Harris High School. Townsend Harris was our first ambassador to Japan, That school no longer exists. It was on the campus of the City College but was closed after the college grew to the point where it needed those facilities. It was a very intensive high school course. One could not enter the school without a straight A average from public school. It offered a four-year course in three years, and it was the old type classical course of college preparatory work, where you had intense mathematics, intense English, and intense languages, including obligatory courses in Latin or Greek. I wish we had those things today. I think that they are important for preparation.

MCKINZIE: Were you headed for anything in particular?

FEINBERG: I was headed for college. Because of the fact that I could do four years in three, this

[3]

particular school was attractive to me, and fortunately I qualified. In my last year at high school (this would be when I was fourteen, because I entered at twelve and got out at the age of fifteen), I took summer courses at night at the City College, which was on the same campus, in order to provide me with additional credits so that I could get finished with my college work earlier than four years. So, essentially I entered City College at the age of fourteen, though not as a matriculated student, because I was not yet qualified for that. From the point that I graduated high school onward, in terms of education, I always went to school at night. I entered City College at night when I graduated high school. In the course of my studies there, I decided I would try for law school, In those days you didn't need four years, you needed two years. Well, I had more than two years of credits. By this time, I was working for a company in the textile field, which has always been, up until eight or nine years ago, the area

[4]

in which my business career was pursued. I entered Fordham University for their afternoon-evening session. Some courses carried over from 2:30 to 6:30 or from 3:30 to 7:30. At that point my employer said that I couldn't leave early to take 2:30 classes or 3:30 classes, so I went to work for my father at a salary less than one-half of what I was getting with this company.

I pursued the study of law, although I had no intention of ever practicing law. I thought that it was a practical and necessary course of training for a businessman, not only in the knowledge of law, but in the knowledge of how to think, because a lawyer has to think on both sides of the question.

I graduated from Fordham in 1929 and was married that September. I pursued my job with my father, and eventually in 1933 we wound up as equal partners through investment. Each of us put up the same amount of money. Before going further with respect to business, I decided, in 1936, to take a master's in law at N.Y.U. The

[5]

Roosevelt years had begun, and there was a great field of new law, particularly in the administrative end of Government, which was never taught before. So I did that. I took my first examination for the master's degree on the night of the day that my second child was born. This was under Professor Arthur Vanderbilt. There's a Vanderbilt Hall at N.Y.U. now.

Now, my father and I started this partnership in 1933. I don't have to tell you that that was not "a good year for wine." But we managed to survive it and grow with it. He became ill in 1939, so the business was on my shoulders. He died in 1943. During that period our business had grown. We changed the nature of our business from being agents for hosiery mills to manufacturing.

The years leading up to World War II resulted in a very prosperous time for all manufacturers, even hosiery manufacturers. The Government's need for supplies, and the restrictions on silk and on nylon (these were all ladies' hose) meant that anyone who had production could sell anything

[6]

he made, whether it was cotton hosiery or rayon hosiery. The business prospered, and by the time my father died it was in reasonably good financial shape.

During the last year of his life, I was called for military duty, I actually had gone through the physical examination and had opted for the Army but had gotten a 30-day stay to wind up my business affairs. In the winding-up planning I came to an understanding with a friend of mine, who was also a customer, that he would oversee my business while I was gone, on a 50-50 basis. It was an easy thing for him to do, because, as I say, all you had to do is have the production facility. In any event, during that 30 days the rule for married men with two children was changed, so I was deferred. I was able to continue working. My friend no longer had to run my business, but our relationship developed into doing partnership deals, he out of his business, me out of mine. We were, in effect, partners in everything other than our own businesses. That eventually

[7]

developed into a merger of our interests, and we became partners.

I think I failed to mention that in the pursuit of the law, I had taken and passed the bar examinations here in New York, although I never practiced. Also, a third degree in law, which is an honorary degree, was given to me by Brandeis University. I was chairman of the trustees for seven years.

Anyway, we now became partners. That business prospered very well, to the point where we brought in a third partner who brought certain advantageous assets. My original partner died of cancer in 1952. That left me with one partner, and we together bought a company called Julius Kayser and Company which was a very old company in the hosiery, gloves, and lingerie business. It was a listed concern on the big board.

The second partner died in 1954, also of cancer, so I was left alone with a very large enterprise. I sought a merger with another

[8]

company to provide me with additional managerial talent and enlarge the company. That was the origin of a company called Kayser-Roth, which came into being in 1959. At that time, I made a condition that I would not stay for more than five years, and it was only a little over five years when I resigned. So, my stock remained close to the company but divorced from it and free to pursue whatever business career I wanted from then on, which principally has been in banking and in real estate. Through my prominence in the Israel field, when the Coca-Cola Company decided that it wanted somebody to have the franchise in Israel they came to me in 1967. The franchise began to produce in 1968, so this is the fifth full year of production and everybody--knock on wood--in Israel likes Coca-Cola. I also in that period have done a considerable amount of building and real estate in general.

In 1933, coincidentally with the election of Roosevelt, came the emergence of Hitler on the scene as head of Germany. This began to stimulate

[9]

me first in the area of commitment. I realized very quickly that Hitler was a great threat, not only to the world, but particularly to my people because of his announced policies. So, I began to be active organizationally in Jewish affairs. In those days, the only area for activity on the part of a young man in a struggling business was try to help through philanthropic endeavors, to get the hosiery industry organized for what was then the United Palestine Appeal. The objective was to help people in Europe either get out of Europe or to support them in their economic travails. So, I became interested in the hosiery division of the United Palestine Appeal. I realized that you could not be active in such an enterprise without indicating your own participation in terms of finance. We didn't have very much money, but the amount of money which I was able to commit was so out of proportion to what other people in the industry were committing that I came to the attention of the leaders of the industry as this crazy young man who is obviously giving more than he or his

[10]

father could afford. So, I quickly rose to a leadership position through this freak of, maybe, overcommitment at that time. From the hosiery industry, I began to be sought out by the National Committee of the United Palestine Appeal.

I had the capacity to articulate. I was a prime example for them of a young man, 25 or 26, who was doing more than he could obviously do in terms of finances. Therefore, I probably could convince other people to give more money. So, that area of my formal connection with Jewish matters began to grow.

MCKINZIE: Could you briefly describe the program?

FEINBERG: Well, the United Palestine Appeal later became the United Jewish Appeal, which is today an extremely important arm of aid to Israel and to Jews all over the world, not only in Europe, but in Africa, Asia, etc. Their program was to raise as much money as they could and then siphon that money to organizations which were helping to provide food, clothing, or even

[11]

transportation for people who were in trouble. Now, at that time the immigration laws in the United States didn't provide for much chance for immigration to this country, so the Jews in Europe really went on the run. Those who felt that they were in danger came to France or England. They politically were not welcome, although the doors were much more freely opened than they were in the United States. Some went into what was then Palestine, though not many. The real quest for immigration to Palestine didn't come until after the Holocaust. It was those who were left who decided that that's where they ought to go rather than any other place in the world.

Well, inevitably, the interest in the philanthropic end of my people led to the realization that there had to be political action if the problem was ultimately to be resolved. So, it was then that I sought some entrance into the higher halls of politics. I had decided that it would be fruitless in terms of the time element to start the routine of political advancement or political

[12]

recognition. You join a local Democratic club and through participation you get to be known. You get to know your Congressman or your Senator. That's a long process, and often a fruitless one regardless of the objectives. Many young men unfortunately, and particularly at that time, became disheartened with the normal political process, because of the compromises they had to make and the sometimes (to them) demeaning work they had to do. The ringing of doorbells, the addressing of envelopes was not attractive to people of ambition and intellectual capacity. So, if you want to get into the higher political areas, where do you start? You start with the President, if you can. Through close business associations, I had become friendly with man who was then a very powerful political figure nationally. His name was Robert Hannegan. He was a close friend of a friend of mine in St. Louis, and I brashly said to my friend, "I want to meet Mr. Hannegan and for the purpose of finding a way to talk to Mr. Roosevelt."

[13]

Now, I had met Roosevelt at mass Democratic dinners or other affairs, but I had no connection with him in the sense that I could say, "May I see you?"

Hannegan was extremely cooperative. When I got to the point of meeting with him, he suggested that maybe I ought to first meet with. the Vice President. In those days you had to look in the phone book to find out who he was.

MCKINZIE: Do you happen to recall now the subject you wished to discuss at that first meeting?

FEINBERG: I told Hannegan that I was dissatisfied with the routes that the Jewish organized community was using, through the Zionist organization, in presenting its case to the President or the Secretary of State. I felt that the use of threatened pressure was not going to be productive.

MCKINZIE: You felt that many of the organizations were using this tactic?

FEINBERG: Yes. They were, largely because the leader

[14]

of the Zionist movement at that time in America was a Republican by the name of Dr. Abba [Hillel] Silver, who was a Rabbi, a very arrogant, brilliant speaker, and a despotic type of leader. He was a very close friend of Senator [Robert] Taft. And so his innate feelings toward Roosevelt were inimical. I felt that he was directing the whole movement in the wrong way and if one could establish a man for man relationship with the President and then subsequently the Secretary of State, you could reason things out without threatening. Any President worth his salt will not respond to political blackmail. And I explored all of this with Bob Hannegan. He understood it and made the suggestion about meeting the Vice President first. I wasn't, frankly, too happy about that, but I thought it was one step further up the rung. The occasion came when Truman came to New York to speak at a fundraising dinner for the National Jewish hospital in Denver. Hannegan suggested that I come to a small cocktail party which he was running for Truman at the Savoy Plaza. There were only

[15]

going to be fifteen or twenty men there, so I would get a chance to get to know him and subsequently pursue that. This was the end of 1944. When we gathered, awaiting for the Vice President, I noticed four Secret Service men coming into the room. Then came the Vice President. In those days the Vice President had no Secret Service detail. It immediately struck me that something was going on and that perhaps Hannegan was smarter than I thought when he said to meet the V