A midsummer rainstorm shot streaks of lightning over the tobacco fields. It had been tough to find a place to pull over to eat our lunch on the shoulderless state highway, so we idled in the parking lot behind a plantation house. I was driving with my family back to Raleigh, North Carolina, from the Outer Banks, and Mom wanted to visit her 91-year-old aunt, Bo (none of the North Carolina relatives goes by a Christian name — there is a Cousin Puddy, Cousin Tink and Cousin Pat-Pat, to name a few). So we wound through rural northeastern North Carolina toward the town of Weldon.
Along State Highway 158, tobacco grew tall; crushed-in cottages, shotgun houses and white-steepled churches dotted the roadside, and static swallowed the local NPR station. As we approached Weldon, an enormous billboard sprouting between the pines announced, “Chaining Your Dogs Is Now Illegal in Weldon.” We passed through the outskirts: the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church; First Baptist Church; a Deliverance Baptist Church; a rusty elevated railroad bridge glimpsed between abandoned brick buildings; Pocket ’n’ Budget Boutique and This ’n’ That Thrift. As we neared downtown, the ABC Liquor on West 3rd was the only open business on the block. Smooth-worn historic plaques outlined the story of the town’s founding (as Weldon’s Orchard in 1745) and the boom it encountered when the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad was completed, in a giant X, in the middle of town.
Downtown was very quiet, which may have had something to do with the storm that had just blown over, but even so, we came to one block of brick two-story businesses, most of the storefronts empty and with advertising space for rent. On the corner was a closed-looking store labeled above the awning with turquoise letters: FRIEDS. On one side of the store the R was missing, and the window display featured antiques (a grandfather clock, a mantle without a fireplace) against mango-colored paper. “Old Is New Again” was proclaimed in black paper letters. I stopped to snap a picture, as this was the store where Mom’s cousin Charles worked for years after school and on breaks from college.
In a suburblike cluster of houses a few minutes from downtown, we pulled up to Aunt Bo’s, a split-level with a huge yard full of North Carolina pines. Cousin Tessie was gardening out front, weeding a huge bed of flowers. Inside, she washed up and offered us sweet tea. It was then that I got the Kittner story confirmed, a story I had first heard from Cousin Charles months before. (Full disclosure: I later got it confirmed by a series of articles in the Roanoke News archives, and found it referenced in variously scholarly articles and books.) But until now I had no frame of reference, no picture of the place he was talking about. Now, at a table laden with Wonder Bread, baloney and fresh watermelon (as the Catholic side of my family is just as insistent on stuffing their visitors as the Jewish one is), in perhaps the most goyishe place I had ever visited, it was even more bizarre to think about Louis Kittner’s story.
Louis (born Elias) Kittner was a shoe repairman by trade, a skill he learned in his native Poland before he immigrated to the United States in 1912. After brief stints in Philadelphia and in Petersburg, Virginia, he settled in Weldon, a rather back-roads destination for an immigrant. He had chosen this specific town by going to the train depot in Petersburg with the coins in his pocket and asking how far they would get him. Once he arrived, he asked if the town needed a cobbler, and was told yes.
Kittner was a hard worker and an ambitious businessman, and within five years of moving to town, the shoe repair shop grew into a retail shoe store and eventually became Kittner’s Department Store, a Weldon mainstay and destination for shoppers from all over northeastern North Carolina, until 1998. But for our purposes, we are interested in the shoe store because it was inside that shop that Kittner, one of the few town Jews, was invited to join the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Kittner was at work when a small group of prominent local businessmen came in and said they had a personal matter to discuss: They wanted to invite him to join their club. What was the name of the club, Louis asked.
The Ku Klux Klan, they told him.
Now, Kittner knew this was an unkosher invitation. Although he was a well-respected businessman and popular with the citizens of Weldon, he was a bit of an outsider. And the KKK must have known that Kittner and his large family didn’t belong to any of Weldon’s dozen churches — First Baptist Church on West 3rd, Weldon Baptist Church down the street on Washington, Grace Church on West 5th, First Pentecostal on Old Farm Road, to name just a few. The Kittners weren’t even one of the peculiar families that drove into nearby Roanoke Rapids for Catholic Mass on Sunday. Kittner was one of very few people in Weldon with a foreign accent, and although he didn’t wear tallit or side curls, or even a yarmulke, he never hid the fact that he and his family were Jewish. What was the KKK thinking?
Kittner told his visitors he didn’t think he was allowed to join this particular club, as he was Jewish. The visitors looked puzzled. They told Kittner that maybe he had a point — they would have to check and see if they were allowed to invite a Jew. Kittner said that, regardless, he would have to politely decline. The visitors apologized for the misunderstanding, and Kittner and his family never got any trouble from the KKK. They continued to be received well by their neighbors and the well-to-do of Weldon, and business never suffered.
Shortly after his KKK invitation, Kittner was staying late in the shop. This was not unusual — he liked to work at night when all was quiet, and a few of his children were there to help with the simpler tasks. Washington Street was dark and silent outside. That’s why it caught Kittner by surprise when a commotion began, the sounds of footsteps and voices. A faint glow grew brighter and brighter; the voices rose. He and the little Kittners went to the window, where they watched men dressed in white hoods and carrying flaming torches make a circle in the town square. Kittner pointed to each man and told his children who was who.
One of the children asked how his father could tell, since the men’s faces were covered.
Because, he said, pointing down to their feet, brown and black smudges visible below the hem of their robes, I never forget a single pair of shoes I make.
The KKK was both virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic, so that should have been two counts against Kittner. Plus, as the KKK historian Nancy MacLean notes in her 1994 book, “Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan,” the KKK took advantage of the uptick in anti-Semitism after World War I, the precise time period that Kittner’s business began picking up in Weldon. And although Kittner was not a visibly religious man, that should not have mattered to the KKK, as the group’s principal problem with the Jews was with their adroitness in business, not their religiousness. One of the KKK’s main aims was to “drive out Catholic, Jewish, and African-American entrepreneurs,” because they believed that these businessmen took away opportunity and business from Protestant whites. The kicker here is that the KKK had a special hatred toward the Jewish entrepreneur, or the “cosmopolitan” or “International Jew,” as they dubbed him, an influential businessman with vague worldly ties. Wasn’t Kittner a Weldon version of just that image?
The KKK members who had sidled into Kittner’s store and invited him to sign up looked past all these pillars of their organization’s very existence and thought that Kittner was a nice guy despite his Jewishness. Or maybe they had no idea that Kittner was a Jew; they had likely never met one, although by the late 1910s Weldon had several Jewish families, and several businesses in town bore their names: Kittner, Freid, Zaba, Farber & Josephson, Samet. They had even established a small congregation in Weldon by then, Temple Emanu-El — of which Kittner was a founder.
Whether the KKK couldn’t identify a Jew or they could and didn’t know they were supposed to hate one, it is a peculiar proposal. What fascinates me so much about this whole story is the unique space that Kittner occupied in the South, and in the United States, as a Jew, a kind of in-between identity that still exists generations later. Of course some Jews faced discrimination, such as Philip Leinwald, a storekeeper in rural Rowland who received a threatening letter from the KKK in 1921, an instance that Leonard Rogoff detailed in 2010 in his book, “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina.” There were countless other instances, including the famous lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, but there were also many cases like Kittner’s, the case of being treated as one and the same as white gentiles but knowing that treatment could change at any moment.
I have spent a lot of time in the South, not just because my mother’s family is from Raleigh, but because the Jewish side, my father’s, has Southern ties, too. My paternal grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. She survived the Lodz ghetto, three concentration camps, the Dresden bombing (as a munitions factory slave laborer) and a Death March before she was liberated by the Russians. After falling for a dashing American soldier from Brooklyn — Grandpa Herb — in postwar Germany, she joined him in New York. But he longed to get out of the city, and she was just so glad to be in the States at all that she didn’t argue, and so the two of them went south. After spending time in Charlotte, North Carolina; Amarillo and Pampa, Texas; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; they settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In a few of these towns they were the only Jews. In others they joined small but strong Jewish communities. Grandma stressed to me that she faced little discrimination for being Jewish. She and Grandpa were Reform (and she still is), but they fasted on Yom Kippur, held a Passover Seder and lit yarzheit candles. They never hid the fact that they were Jews. Sure, in Pampa they were the only ones, but no one set fire to a cross in their yard. However, I remember visiting the two of them in Tulsa when I was little, a trip we made often because it was only a four-hour drive from Kansas City, Missouri, where I grew up. My sister Phoebe and I woke up to find Dad and Grandpa Herb out on the front porch, surveying the damage: it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and in honor of the occasion, some redneck around the corner smashed the glass around the lamp at the foot of Grandma and Grandpa’s driveway.
Since my dad was in high school, Grandma has told her story of surviving the Shoah, speaking at school and church and to interfaith groups. At Tulsa’s Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, where until recently she served as a visitors’ guide, the Holocaust exhibit does not open with a swastika or a photograph of Hitler. Instead, a KKK robe hangs in the entrance. Many of the visitors, often students, don’t know what a Jew is or have never met one, but they recognize the white-hooded robe.
“Hate is hate,” Grandma says.
Back in Weldon, the cousins spoke to us very highly of the Kittners. They also revered the other few local Jewish families they knew. The Jewish stores always sold to blacks, they said, a practice that historically was not kept by all whites. The cousins told us that the KKK still operates in the area, mostly in nearby Roanoke Rapids, and its people are not ones they want anything to do with.
But the cousins were also weirdly fascinated by Judaism, reiterating to my father, my sister and me how much appreciation they had for our “people.”
This is an opinion I have heard unsolicited not just from white Southerners, but also from whites in general: a former employer who asked for definitions of hideously mispronounced Yiddish phrases and begged me for information on “the Hebrew people”; classmates and acquaintances who would confess to me that they had always been fascinated by Jews or that they had always had a “thing” for them, for us. This exoticizing could also have a much darker turn. Going back to Kittner’s realm, Rogoff writes — in “Down Home” — about a Jewish businessman in Hendersonville, North Carolina, who found a man standing outside his shop not wanting to buy anything; he wanted to see if the shopkeeper really had horns.
The weirdest instance I’ve experienced in terms of a non-Jew being fascinated by my Jewish status was not from a white person but from a black one, an ex-boyfriend who told me he felt like he could relate to me better because I was Jewish instead of “just white.” He could talk to me about certain things and that I would “get” them in a way that white people wouldn’t, he said. I reminded him that I am still white.
“It’s different,” he replied.
In a way, he was right — Jews in America still occupy the in-between space that Kittner found himself stuck in 100 years ago. Some historians argue that Southerners welcomed Jews, that Jews were respected for their dedication to religion and family (code for having a lot of kids) and for their work ethic. Harry Golden, a Southern Jew who wrote about this identity in his 1974 book “Our Southern Landsman,” claimed that Southern Jews were treated the same as other whites: “Race consciousness in Dixie resulted in benefit to the Jew as a white man. Differences between whites were submerged in a society that was preoccupied with maintaining the subordinate status of blacks.” So maybe within the white hierarchy they were not at the top but in the South, where white supremacists wanted to keep the blacks down, the supremacists sometimes let what they saw as divisions between whites fade into the background.
But Rogoff, in his 1997 essay “Is the Jew White?” claims that perceptions were more varied, calling Jews a “racial tabula rasa upon which anything could be written,” and posing a question, “What was the place of the Jew in the Southern racial hierarchy?” without ever giving us a definite answer.
But it’s an oddly safe in-between space, a space we have historically been able to close if need be, through assimilation — a name change, conversion, passing in ways that other discriminated-against populations haven’t been able to get away with as easily.
Kittner benefited from white privilege back in the 1920s in rural North Carolina, and white American Jews benefit from the same privilege today. Acknowledging this privilege does not mean forgetting about or voiding the discrimination we once faced or the atrocities of the Holocaust (and the privilege that was revoked back then). Instead, it is an acknowledgment that we can use those experiences from our collective memory that are such a huge part of who we are as a people, to help us empathize with and reach out to blacks, who today still face an onslaught of discrimination, racism and violence. I haven’t yet learned if Kittner ever used his unique position to help out his black neighbors and friends, but I like to think that he did.
Sophia Marie Unterman’s most recent story for the Forward was “My Search for the Male Shiksa.”