Editor’s Note: On December 5, Martha Gold died at 101. As a tribute to her, we are re-publishing her interview with Laurie Gwen Shapiro about Martha’s uncle Max Rosenstock, who at one time was known as the strongest man in the world.
When you get word there’s a 101-year-old who’s a historic witness to a story you’re chasing, you don’t do a phone interview. That’s why I found myself traveling to a nursing home in Columbia, Maryland. I waited for a nurse to escort me down the hall to a room where a frail woman had been helped into her most comfortable chair. “Eighty is young here,” the nurse whispered. “But Martha is the oldest.”
In a soft but confident voice, Martha Gold began our interview by telling me she was born on January 21, 1915, and had graduated from Hunter College in 1936. She first voted for president in 1938, for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she voted in the 2016 election by mail.
“My daughter told me you have some other questions for me?” she said.
“Yes. I’m here to ask you about your uncle the strongman. Do you remember him?”
The question brightened up her face. In a burst of memory, she answered. “My Uncle Mendel. Max the Shtarker [strongman] in Jewish vaudeville, or Max the Strongman if hired by a circus. I was never allowed to see him in a show, but he gave us a big show when he visited. Such a show-off!” She raised her arm to make a muscle.
“Maybe some of his stories were a bit fishy. But how could I dislike Mendel? He gave chocolate to the kids in my family and made us laugh. He sent us postcards from the road! He would come to visit my family in New York; we lived on Houston Street. I had two brothers. Max was my father Henry’s brother. My father was not very nice to my mother, and Max showed her kindness and it was always good to see my mother smile.”
I had traveled south on a hot tip given to me by Gold’s grandnephew, 56-year-old Kenny Funk, a New York graphic designer. We met up in a Lower East Side coffee shop near our homes, and he told me about his great-granduncle. He’d grown up believing that outrageous stories of Uncle Max, the Strongest Man in the World, told to him by his grandfather, were either great exaggerations or flat-out bobe-mayses, old wives’ tales. Then, when the internet took off, Funk turned to Google, right away finding a few pictures of the jowly, ruddy man on the sawdust trail of circuses and vaudeville. Max the Strongman was real!
I showed Martha some of the photos Kenny found; she was wowed with each image as I scrolled: “Why is he holding airplanes?” she asked.
“Your uncle’s most famous stunt was called The Human Link,” I told her. “He was fastened to tails of two airplanes and held them tail to tail while pilots gave them the gun.”
Her uncle had also trained as a pilot for two years at California’s Culver City Airport, which opened in 1927. That tiny airstrip closed in 1950. Rosenstock’s publicity materials said he was one of the first American Jewish aviators.
“That I did not know!” Martha said. Did she know of his other stunts? That he’d had himself chained and put into a tightly closed box secured with huge nails, and could very easily open the lid and walk out of the box as if nothing had happened? Or that he’d bent an iron pipe into ornaments, and often placed a board on himself and let a horse jaunt across, and once lifted 40 policemen on his back?
“Oh, that one rings a bell,” Martha said. “We always talked about the 40 policemen he would pick up!”
Martha’s septuagenarian daughter, Linda Cangin Bennett, joined us and listened as she rifled through old photos in albums in the corner of the nursing home room. Bennett cried out that she had found two photos of Rosenstock she’d never seen. She brought them over to her mother’s chair so that she could look. He was bending iron in one photo, and in the other, he was flanked by two Tijuana flappers.
How did he get the “strongman” title? Did he give it to himself? Martha said she didn’t know. “All I know is that for the kids, being near him was magic. And he made our mother smile. too,” she said.
Bennett suggested we call Martha’s younger brother, Solly Rosenstock in New Jersey, to see what he remembered. So we did.
“Hello, Solly!” Martha said.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. Martha, I tried to get you a few times and I always get the message to leave a message.”
“My phone doesn’t work so well. Or maybe I don’t hear so well. How old are you now?”
“97! I’m catching up to you. You keep going and I’ll keep going. Let’s make a deal.”
“Okay, I’ll make that deal. So listen, Solly, a reporter from the Forverts is asking about Mendel.”
“Uncle Mendel. Max the Strongman! Sure I remember! Let me talk to the Forverts!”
So I said hello to Solly.
“Hello, Forverts! Uncle Max was the strongest man in the world! Did my sister tell you that? We never got to see him perform, but he would come to our house and make us laugh.”
Did Solly know that Max had also trained to fly in California?
“Boy, is that so?! Now that greatly interests me, because I was an Air Force ground officer in World War II, in the Air Force, first lieutenant. I was asked to stay, and if I did I might have been made captain. Mendel knew how to fly in 1927? A lot of mysteries with that man. We never knew when he would show up, and I’ll tell you the truth: No one knew where he ended up. Can you figure this all out? These are memories to be savored for the next generation.”
I promised to try, and turned to thank Martha, but she was asleep. So instead I thanked her daughter, who had packed those priceless photos of Max the Strongman in a shopping bag to give to Kenny for safekeeping. “He’s become our family historian. I know he’ll take good care of these.”
I was left with several nagging questions. Among them: Why did Max bill himself as the Strongest Man in the World? Did he just give himself that title? I spent the next days investigating, until I found what may be an answer.
Around the time Max Rosenstock became “Max The Strongman,” three men died, most importantly a man known in Europe as the Eisenkönig — the Iron King. Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart died in Berlin at 42 on October 12, 1925, but he died world famous. (Jouko Ahola portrayed him in the 2001 film “Invincible.”) This strongman, over 6 feet and weighing at least 200 pounds, was often dubbed the Polish Apollo. Son of a Stryków, Poland (then Prussia), village blacksmith, Breitbart wore glasses and was a proud Jew. Born in 1883, Breitbart attended Hebrew school until he was 8, and he became a committed Zionist who longed to travel to Palestine to demonstrate feats worthy of Samson.
While he apparently never made it to Jerusalem, he most certainly got to America; at Manhattan’s 5,300-seat Hippodrome, he drew a larger audience than even Harry Houdini: Eighty-five thousand spectators came to see him during his four-week run.
He performed his act in a cheesy leopard skin costume that brings to mind Fred Flintstone. His feats included pulling two dray horses, bending 7-inch iron bars that were 1.5 inches thick and pulling apart horseshoes, supporting a merry-go-round of six men while lying on his back, and lying under a plank while a horse walked across it.
During his 1923 American tour, Breitbart was billed as “the Superman of the Ages.” Pop culture scholar Mel Gordon has suggested that Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster likely created Superman after being inspired by hugely popular visits by Breitbart the Superman; (Siegel and Shuster were impressionable school-age boys in their respective hometowns, Cleveland and Toronto, when Breitbart arrived in both places.) In the end, a tiny scratch from a rusted nail got this superman. He succumbed to a tetanus infection, much to the shock of the world.
Right away, promoters likely wondered who would succeed Breitbart as their best draw.
But then, two days later, Eugen Sandow, an equally famous Jewish strongman, perished at the not-very-old age of 58. (I’m stubbornly counting Sandow as Jewish because he was born to Jewish parents, although by some accounts he was raised Lutheran and planned on becoming a minister.)
Blue-eyed and blond Sandow, as famous as Breitbart in his heyday, had first achieved notoriety in Amsterdam by dropping pennies into slot machines and then breaking open the machines. He first appeared in New York in 1893 at the age of 26, then gained true celebrity the same year by appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Sandow electrified late 19th-century crowds with such stunts as lifting a baby elephant, wrestling a lion and lifting a woman while she played a grand piano. He had been inspired to get into the strongman game during a childhood trip with his father to Rome — afterward he studied both Roman and Greek statues for athletic motivation. He took careful measurements of statues, and used the Grecian ideal for his own body: He reportedly built his body to the exact proportions of his Grecian ideal. He ended up immortalized on a greatly admired statue himself, posing for the figure of the mythological Greek Lapith on the Combat du Centaure (The Centaur Fight) by noted French sculptor Gustave Crauck, who worked on this artwork for 30 years. His grand creation was exhibited at the World’s Fair, held in Paris in 1900, and is now found in the city hall of Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Newspapers reported that Sandow died at his London home after a burst blood vessel in his brain, the delayed result of single-handedly lifting a ditched motorcar out of an English country road earlier in the year. Later biographers speculated that he more likely died of an aortic aneurysm that was related to syphillis.
You might want to keep syphilis in mind when you learn that Sandow was buried in an unmarked grave in Putney Vale Cemetery at the request of his angry wife, who found out he’d been cheating on her.
If Sandow’s grave is unmarked, his name remains, and Sandow has entered some English dictionaries as a synonym for a man of great strength.
Not many months later, in 1925, another prominent not-very-old Jewish strongman died: Selig “Ajax the Strongman” Whitman, New York City’s beloved policeman of the bicycle squad on 125th Street. Gone at 59. Many New Yorkers who followed Whitman’s exploits as a strongman with a police job thought he was Irish, but he was married on Orchard Street by the then famous Reform rabbi Gustav Gottheil of Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El — Whitman had been born Wasserman. The police force privately dubbed Ajax and his undercover cop brother, Nate Whitman, the Yiddish Irishmen.
Whitman had once been a burlesque actor, and had joined the force with much fanfare in 1894. As an officer, he famously caught a fainting man who, working on the Queensboro Bridge, fell 385 feet. He also stopped runaway horses with his bare hands. He’d retired back in 1922 on a pension of $950 a year. His unexpected death was blamed on a stroke of paralysis while he was working as a part-time bank guard; Whitman had lifted a small bag of gold bullion in the Irving National Bank in the Woolworth Building and injured his knee.
This investigation of the strongmen who died just before Rosenstock’s rise led me to Katie Sandwina, who not only billed herself as the world’s strongest woman in the world, but was also a Jew. Catherine Kate Brumbach was born in 1884 to Johanna and Philippe Brumbach, and in her stockings she stood more than 6 feet. She was one of 15 children in a circus family. She was a friend of many of the strongmen, including Breitbart and Sandow. After she defeated Sandow by lifting 300-pound barbells over her head, she was given the name Sandwina — a variation on Sandow. The contest was extensively reported, akin to Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in their 1973 tennis match. Sandwina could also bend bars, juggle cannonballs and even lift up a horse, its rider and another half-dozen men on a plank. She toured with John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, serving as the circus’s vice president of suffrage. Sandwina later ran a restaurant called the Blue Terrace, in Queens, with her husband, and kept horseshoes and iron bars to demonstrate her strength if asked. She died at 52, of cancer.
Which brings us back to Martha Gold and Solly Rosenstock’s uncle, and Kenny Funk’s greatgranduncle, Mendel “Max” Rosenstock. Max the Shtarker’s exact moment in history is here.
With the deaths of the great Breitbart and Sandow, not to mention that of the bike cop Ajax Whitman, the popular venue Webster Hall, in Manhattan — a nightclub amazingly still in operation at the same spot — ran a contest on April 29, 1926, for the new strongest man in the world. It cost a buck to watch. A bunch of hairy-chested strongmen arrived to try their luck. Rosenstock had been performing for small audiences for about eight years, but this was his big break. He reportedly lifted everything in sight, broke chains, bent all the iron girders in the hall. The event was literally an all-night bender. How the judges finally determined the winner is unclear, but after Rosenstock’s victory at Webster Hall in 1926, he was all over the papers.
At the height of his fame, Rosenstock drove around the country in a Model T Ford though 43 states, Canada and Mexico, and even performed for sailors passing through the Panama Canal. He performed in Havana and in Puerto Rico, and in European countries.
One of my favorite headlines from this time is “The World’s Strongest Man Is Here, and Girls He’s Single.”
Rosenstock told reporters that he nibbled on spikes to sharpen his teeth so that he could eat steak, that he could snap any leg chains right off and that he could lift 30 policemen 4.5 feet in the air.
He declared in several papers that his father, who was 93 at the time, still lived in Romania. He added, “My grandpa lived to 118, and my great-grandpa to 132.” He told reporters that back in World War I he served in the 77th Division and was captured four times. “Germans fastened me with chains, but I broke them,” he said.
Census and military records indicate that Mendel Rosenstock was born September 10, 1888 or 1887, in Romania. (He gave conflicting years on different forms.)
He said he was 5 feet 4 inches tall, but even that seems to have been embellished: A WWII draft card lists him as a 5-foot-2-inch man with brown eyes and black hair.
In the blackest stretch of the Depression, the still eligible “modern Samson,” like so many Americans, had to hunt for work, and performed for a dime or even a nickel. His humiliations were outweighed by real pay in hard times. Even then, though, he maintained Borden milk as his sponsor, and always mentioned that he kept in shape by drinking the company’s condensed milk.
Sometimes, his act could prove dangerous. In Cleveland, in 1935, he was performing at the Roxy. To demonstrate how sharp his teeth were, he grabbed a rope and bit it in half, but the rope held some scenery, and a curtain fell on his head, leaving a big bump.
In 1937, long after the old-time strongmen pulled people into tents, a snarky journalist taking heavy notes from unnamed sources revealed some of the secrets behind the once uncanny feats. Fakers annoyed him, and he was out to prove that those feats of strength were total bunkum like any boardwalk’s House of Illusion.
That long-dead party pooper explained how several strongman tricks were done. Tearing up the Manhattan phonebook was apparently done by making a triangular crimp in the leaves and breaking the pages by using leverage, with pressure from both sides forcing the tear. As for lifting police officers or horses, it was all about planks. He even doubted that Rosenstock’s signature airplane trick, The Human Link, was possible, suggesting that it was done by an arrangement with the pilots to refrain from operating at full speed.
Fake or not, The Human Link stunt has been updated and reinterpreted over the years. More recently it was performed as a timed event: “Longest time restraining two aircraft — 1 minute 0.6 seconds set in Superior, Wisconsin, on July 7, 2007, a feat later accepted as an official Guinness World Record.
By the 1940s, Max the Strongman’s mentions dwindle. However, he seemed to be staying in one place: Syracuse, New York.
His 1942 draft registration card lists Max “Mendel” Rosenstock of Romania as living on Monroe Street in Syracuse. For his occupation he filled in “unemployed.”
A 1945 edition of The Syracuse Post-Standard says Max Rosenstock of Harrison Street was recouping at St. Joseph’s Hospital from a foot injury. It also mentioned that Rosenstock once toured the country as “the world’s strongest man” and has the scrapbook to prove it.
I called Bennett in Maryland to ask if her mother, Martha, knew where the scrapbook was. She reported back: No idea. Rosenstock did not know either. Funk didn’t but said he would love to find it one day, if it has not been destroyed. Solly Rosenstock said he didn’t know either.
But I had more to tell Funk and his family: A man named Max Rosenstock died in Syracuse in 1945. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery under the auspices of the Zedeck Va’emes Society — one of the old cemeteries that the Temple Beth-El Cemetery collectively comprises, and located very close to my former dorm at Syracuse University. I remember poking around that specific cemetery, wondering about the stories behind the old Jewish headstones.
I believe that there on a steep hill lies Max Rosenstock, a man who had lost touch with his family. He may have died penniless. My best guess, helped by a date on a tombstone, is that he died a single man at roughly 50 years of age, on December 28, 1945, in Syracuse — from that foot injury he was being treated for at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
All this is theory, of course. There are no obituaries, and although St. Joseph’s Hospital still exists, when contacted it would not release medical records, even of a man who had been treated in 1945. Yet, I’m convinced that, like the other extraordinary Jewish strongmen before him, Mendel “Max” Rosenstock probably succumbed to a most ordinary death.
I made one more call to Martha and told her what I learned. She seemed pleased to have closure. “It is nice that his death is finally covered in the Forverts,” she said.
This story was written as part of the Forward’s new column ‘Shapiro’s Heroes,’ in which author Laurie Gwen Shapiro writes about under-the-radar Jewish people past and present, from all over the world.