Becoming a Jewish camper

A stirring recollection of a Jewish summer camp north of Atlanta in 1946, when a young boy’s identity is shaped.

By DAVID GEFFEN
July 23, 2010 15:33
PARTICIPANTS ENJOYING themselves at Camp Daniel Morgan

Camp Daniel Morgan 311. (photo credit: Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, Atlan)

‘How is it that we have only been in Atlanta for two months and I must leave, after school is over, to go to this Daniel Morgan Camp?” Then I got a little more hutzpadik. “From what I saw in Mississippi, at all the military camps where we lived, camps were for soldiers in training – not for little boys like me. I do not want to live in a tent which will probably leak when it rains. I just want to stay home with you, mom and dad.”

For almost two weeks I argued with my parents, with little or no success. They had not attended camp when they were young because neither in Atlanta, my father’s home, nor Norfolk, my mother’s home, did such a summer venue exist. Doing some investigation, I learned from friends at school, Ned Cohen, Viola Benshushan and JoAnne Idov, that the Jewish Alliance over on Capitol Avenue had started this Daniel Morgan Camp right before the war began.

The camp was successful because Jewish kids from Birmingham, Columbus, Macon and Montgomery enrolled as well as the Atlantans.

When classes ended at James L. Key school in June 1946, I had a promotion to third grade and I was waiting for camp to start. Those weeks were difficult for me since I realized that my mother was not well. I was too naive to fathom that she was pregnant. In fact, I learned many years later, though not from my mother, that she was carrying twins. Since rental apartments were hard to find, we were living with my grandparents in their large empty home on Washington Street.

During this period I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Bubbie and Zaydie Geffen.

Learning more about that summer of ’46 from various written sources, I recognize that the polio epidemic attacked many young people my age then. In July 1946, my great-uncle, Hirschel Geffen, a cantor in Savannah, had vacation reservations for a kosher hotel in Miami Beach. Daily, the newspaper noted that the number of polio cases there was mounting. Hirschel wrote his brother, my grandfather, and told him that they were staying home and going out to Tybee Beach, near Savannah.

My father and mother were fully aware of the polio epidemic, so evidently they wanted to protect me. I was unaware of the disease that summer, but in 1947 and 1948 I knew of this crippler.

Frequently, I would wake up in the morning, shivering and certain that I was a polio victim.

The paralysis of polio never struck me, but I had several close friends who were handicapped because of this affliction.

After waiting a few weeks, the departure day arrived – the Sunday after July 4 – the day I was to become a camper. With my luggage in tow in our Plymouth, we drove over to the Alliance where we were to board our bus. A yellow school bus had been ordered to transport us to our destination, north of Atlanta. Dad took out my trunk, one of his former army ones. I was carrying a small suitcase with toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and washcloths. My mom, an inveterate card player, had given me a deck along with postcards addressed to them, to Bubbie and Zaydie Geffen, Bubbie Birshtein, Uncle Easy and Uncle Ooshie.

I looked at my parents longingly. “Do you really want to send me away? Why punish me?” Mom turned unable to hold back her tears.

“David,” my dad said as he put his hands on my shoulders. “You will thank us for the gift of this experience. Do what your counselors say and write to tell us about your activities.”

He hugged and kissed me; my mother too.

Then, Mr. Talmadge, the camp director, called us to the bus. “Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters – these Daniel Morgan campers will have the time of their lives. See you all on visitors’ day.”

The doors on the bus closed; the driver started the motor; we waved to our folks; some of us were crying – what could we do? – we were on our way.

Recently, I have learned more about “Jewish camping” from some of the authorities in the field. One writes, “Organized Jewish camping provides a creative, recreational and educational opportunity in group living in the out of doors...

and contributes to each camper’s mental, physical, social and spiritual growth.” Originally, camps sponsored by the Jewish Alliances were established to take children of poor families out of the teeming city for a healthful fresh air experience.

THESE DEFINITIONS DO possess some truth, but from what I recall of that first camping season, they were not very applicable to us. Arrival at camp brought us to a large meadow carved up into ball fields and surrounded by magnificent Georgia long-leaf pine trees. We were directed by the counselors to our housing – US Army supply platform tents with four cots. Our trunks were brought over by a tractor. We only unloaded the blankets and sheets because there were no shelves. We had to live out of our trunks, so their contents had to be maintained in good order. No electric lights either – illumination came by flashlights. Since our parents knew of these spartan conditions and I assume agreed with them, they sent extra Ray-O-Vac batteries with us.

“David, Freddie, outside quickly.” My tentmate and I wondered what was going on. “Come and see the bathrooms while it is still light.” We assumed that these were counselors directing us. The latrines, clearly not bathrooms, were holes in the ground in a little building. “The two of you have to tell your tentmates about the facilities.

Everyone has to be careful – there is a bar to hold or else you might fall in. Always bring toilet paper with you from the tent. There is a nurse here at camp but try not to get sick.”

Next we were shown the shacks with running water and wooden sinks for brushing teeth, washing along with the outdoor showerheads.

As I suspected, the tents did leak. During the continual rainfall in the four weeks at camp, my bed was frequently wet from the constant dripping. We woke up every morning at seven with reveille played on the bugle. After making our beds, going to the bathroom and washing, our counselors had us in line.

Meyer Sloan and Ralph Saul, Ashkenazi Jews, were our counselors as well as being World War II veterans. Danny Maslia and one of the Benators, Sephardi Jews, were assistant counselors. These four had jurisdiction over five tents, 20 boys. Sloan and Saul had undergone American military training so they felt that we would be better American Jews if we had a taste of what they had undergone as soldiers.

Before going to the mess hall for flag raising, we were commanded to “hit the ground” for 15 push-ups. Then back on our feet, we had to touch our toes 20 times. Now it was off by quick march – “Hup two, hup two – left, right, left.” Outside the mess hall, the whole camp assembled for raising the American flag. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance with our hands over our hearts.

One of the years at this camp, possibly after Israel became a state – we did raise a Jewish flag as well.

Hot oatmeal, which I hated, was served every morning.

Then came the powdered eggs, surplus milk and loaves of white bread. All of these items carried government subsidies so the financial stability of the camp could be maintained. For lunch we had peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches along with carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. There were a lot of fresh peaches as well. At night I remember streams of hot dogs and hamburgers – sometimes another meat. At night we feasted on watermelon and cantaloupe melons. Of course there was the canteen where you could buy candy once a day, other snacks and comic books. When your account got low, your parents were notified.

At each meal we had a chance to express our American patriotism and also to learn some Hebrew songs. The US spirit was expressed in the military fight songs – “Over There,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Marine Corps Hymn,” “Air Force Anthem.” Being a southern Jewish camp, we sang “Dixie,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and others.

A Jewish guy from New York, Yankeeland, bequeathed to us kids a few Hebrew songs – “Zum Gali Gali,” “Mayim,” “Dayenu,” “Artza Alinu,” “Hava Nagila.” Were my parents happy that I learned these songs.

WHAT DID WE do during the day? We played softball, football, kick ball, with a little coaching. “Counselor Sloan, my finger hurts. One of the boys pushed it back the other way as far as it would go.” “David, don’t be a sissy. When he gets close to you next time, run away as fast as you can.” “Counselor Saul, can you show me how to hit the ball? All I do is strike out.” “David, keep your eye on the ball – keep swinging – one of these days – pow – you will really smack it.”

To be honest, athletics that summer was not my love, but I did acquire a skill which I was able to use for a long time. “David,” the arts and crafts counselor asked me during the first week of camp, “would you like to learn how to make lanyards and bracelets out of plastic?”I was excited because my artistic talents were nil, as they still are. Now I would be able to make these items both for myself and for others. Following the counselor’s advice very closely, I was soon producing round and square bracelets and lanyards of all colors and lengths. In two weeks I had completed about 15 of each. I started to give them away, and I think that the recipients appreciated them.

At night, in our tents, we had total freedom since our counselors slept in staff cabins, a considerable distance from us. My other three tentmates had brought an assortment of toys with them. Appropriate for that postwar era, they had battle games, plastic and metal soldiers, dominoes and war souvenirs. All I had was a deck of cards. Once the war was officially over in August 1945, army-navy supply stores and pawnshops were soon filled with government-issue items. In addition pawnshops had objects which men and women had picked up overseas and sold on returning.

Henry, one guy in my tent, seemed to have an unusual array of items for a kid his age. “Henry, where did you get that glass eye?” “My father bought it for me in Tokyo.” Proudly he related that it belonged to a Japanese general. Another tentmate had prizes from Cracker Jack boxes: “Big Dollars and the like.” He had a Japanese miniature compass which worked. All I had was my dad’s insignia showing that he had been a lawyer in the army.

I did have cards so many times we played gin rummy, poker, blackjack, fish, war. We sat on tent floor with our flashlights and played away. One Jewish note, I do recall that on a few occasions I did recite Shema before going to sleep. Bubbie Birshtein had drummed it into my head.

Another evening activity was the campfires. Having lived my meager seven and a half years around military camps where my father was stationed and in my Bubbie Birshtein’s house in Norfolk, I had never experienced any outdoor, pioneering-like, activities. Twice a week at Camp Daniel Morgan, we had a short hike in the dark, and then a campfire at a site which the counselors had selected. We sang songs with gusto, and we had treats too. Potatoes roasted in the fire and their taste, if you did not burn your tongue, was early gourmet. A few more songs; something to drink and marshmallows.

I did not know what the white puffs were. We were handed pointed sticks, told to insert them in the marshmallows and carefully put these treats in the fire to let them roast. Initially, I burned several to a crisp. I did not give up and finally my roasted marshmallows were so wonderful that they became my favorite candy. To this day, I can still feel the wind and smell the smoke as we sat at those memorable campfires.

Was the camp actually Jewish in any way aside from some Hebrew songs and the Alliance sponsorship? We did not have a Color War with Jewish teams; we did not observe the yahrzeit of Theodor Herzl; we did not collect money for the refugees still suffering overseas. I can only recall one Shabbat meal with a Jewish flavor. Our parents had been asked to provide us with a white shirt and white pants, but our counselors never asked us to wear them. For our third Friday night, we were given orders a few days before by our counselors that our whites had to be clean because we would wear them on Shabbat.

“David, you are the good Jew here – what are these whites for?” “Have to be honest, Freddie, I do not know since I have only worn whites once in my life. What I do remember is at the Passover Seder, my Zaydie wears a white kittel. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he does the same.”

“David you are not answering my question.”

“You know what – my Zaydie is a real holy man. If he wears white, it must get him closer to God. When we wear white – God will be there with us.”

THAT SHABBAT WE were all in white. The dining room looked so pretty. A Kiddush was said and a Motzi too. The words of “Shalom Aleichem” were reflected on high by our white garments.


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