Clara Gottfried Jaffe (1912-2006)

This week’s Trading Deadline Extravaganza Hit List is up at Baseball Prospectus. Rather than delve into its baseball content — it’s all free there, if you care to read it — I’ll skip to the dedication at the bottom:

This week’s column is dedicated to the loving memory of Clara Gottfried Jaffe (11/2/1912-8/1/2006), wife, mother, grandmother and so much more to three generations of baseball fans

My paternal grandmother — the last of my surviving grandparents — passed away in the early hours of Monday morning in Walla Walla, Washington. She was 93, and her death wasn’t a surprise; my family had been bracing me for this inevitability for about a month. She’d been moved to the “maximum security” portion of her assisted living facility, had stopped taking her medication, and “wasn’t really there.” So it goes.

My grandmother led a remarkable life, and I spent a good deal of time on Monday revisiting that via a taped interview I did with her from 2003. She was born in 1912 in Buchach, Ukranian Galicia, a region that was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but at the end of World War I became part of Poland. At that point, her family — she was the only child — took her to Vienna, where she grew up and got her education. She graduated from the University of Vienna School of Medicine in 1937, a year ahead of my grandfather, Bernard Jaffe.

Bernard, a graduate of the University of Maryland, had saved up money working as a pharmacist and hustling pool in Baltimore to attend medical school, a remarkable story in and of itself. Unable to afford the exorbitant cost of attending med school stateside and stymied by the quota system which limited the number of Jews, he managed to start his studies in — of all places — Hitler’s Germany, at the University of Göttering. He didn’t know German when he came over, but he learned the language by reading newspapers and walking the streets. He somehow managed to wrangle a ticket to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he saw Jesse Owens show up Hitler by winning four gold medals.

After a year at Göttering, he was advised to leave, and he transferred to the University of Vienna. The story goes that he met Clara (who was a year ahead of him) one Saturday night while she was studying for an exam in a coffee house; he was playing pool, saw and recognized her, and offered to walk her home. They married in Vienna on March 29, 1938, and with the situation there worsening vis-à-vis the Nazis, began planning their exit. When he finished his studies, Bernard didn’t even wait around to receive his diploma; a classmate named Dr. Samuel Schoenberg picked it up along with his own, and escaped by walking over the Alps into Switzerland.

A cousin of Clara’s father named Marcus Helitzer had come over to Austria to help her obtain a visa to travel to the U.S.; the visa was granted when he opened an American bank account in her name with $1,000. They booked passage on a ship and arrived in the U.S. on July 15, 1938. But Clara never saw her parents again. Her father, Lazar Gottfried, who worked in the wheat industry, was stuck in Romania when the Russians occupied it. Clara recalls that the last time she saw her dad, it was when he’d come home to spend Passover: “It was my intuition. I ran to the window, called his name, waved to him. He turned back and waved, and that was the last time we saw each other.”

Declared an enemy alien, Lazar went into hiding, but was pinched when he got fed up with his confinement and went out for a pack of cigarettes. He is believed to have died in a labor camp. They managed to obtain a visa for her mother, Josephine Fenster Gottfried, and bought her a ticket on an Italian ship, but when Mussolini and Hitler strengthened their ties the ship’s voyage was cancelled, and alternate plans fell through as well. She was still in Vienna during Kristalnacht, and was eventually sent to a concentration camp. She perished in the Holocaust, as did nearly all of my grandmother’s relatives.

Stateside, my grandparents settled in New York City. Bernard got an internship at Brooklyn Lutheran Hospital (and continued his affair with the Dodgers, which had begun, so the story goes, when he saw Babe Herman get hit on the head with a fly ball). He lived on hospital grounds while Clara lived out on Long Island with the Helitzers, and they saw each other on weekends. She got a job working as the physician for a girls’ camp in Liberty, NY, and soon earned enough money to get an apartment of her own on 86th street. He entered the Army Reserves in 1939, and she took over his internship, having passed her medical boards in April. She credits this to her partially photographic memory which allowed her to visualize and remember her texts.

When Clara completed her internship, Bernard asked her to join him down in Asheville, North Caroina, where he was the physician at a Civil Conservation Corps base. In those uncertain times, he wanted her to settle down. “I enjoyed medicine,” she recalled. “I was good at it, I had a potential, I was pretty smart, and I had a good memory. But I was an old-fashioned girl in those days. Marriage came first, and when he could make a living, I decided I should follow him.”

He got his first position in Hot Springs, NC, outside of Asheville. When the Reserves called him up for active duty, he failed his physical. The story goes that he’d been playing tennis (he was a hell of an athlete, and was said to have been offered a pro baseball contract by the Washington Senators) and not having a car, had to run several miles to the offices. When he arrived, he was sweating profusely. The doctor asked if this happened often, and when he said yes, the doctor feared he had a cyst. He was turned down for active duty and sent to Augusta to train for the Veterans Adminstration hospital. There, my father was born in 1941.

They bounced around — the life of an Army doctor — and finally settled in the farming town of Walla Walla, Washington in 1944; they had another son, Bob, in 1946. While my grandmother adapted to life as a homemaker, m grandfather made his practice as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor), and practiced at the VA hospital there until his retirement in 1973. Upon leaving the VA grounds, they bought a house at 1966 Scarpelli, and lived out the rest of his life there; he passed away in November 2000.

I spent many a wonderful summer day with my grandparents, who came to be known as Nan and Pop. They would come down to Salt Lake City, and after a visit of about a week, they’d drive us back to Walla Walla; he’d do the whole thing in one 12-hour day, and we’d stop for dinner at Sizzler about an hour or so outside of town. We’d stay in Walla Walla, sometimes for as long as three weeks, then my parents would meet us there or we’d rendezvous at a family reunion on the Oregon coast or at the Black Butte Ranch near Sisters, Oregon.

While at my grandparents’ house, my brother and I were in baseball immersion camp. Pop found time to play with us every day, pitching from behind home plate as we’d smack balls, five a turn, into a backstop where one rung meant a single, two a double, three a triple, and over the backstop a home run. We’d also play catch in his endless backyard; he’d throw long balls and we’d chase after them, laying out for “spectacular catches,” the name we gave that particular drill. We’d play in his huge garden; while he would spend endless hours picking enormous raspberries (which Nan would turn into delicious jams), we’d throw the various fallen fruits and vegetables into an oversized barrel of dirt and compost which we called “elephant stew.” In the evening we’d watch baseball on his new-fangled cable TV system, which included the fledgling ESPN station. Nan was just as much a part of those endless summer days, feeding us, taking us to the swimming pool or to rendezvous with her friends’ grandchildren, indulging us with shopping trips for toys and baseball cards, joining us on the golf course (though when I grew frustrated with the game, I usurped her cart-driving duties), and making sure we spent time reading. Both of my grandparents were avid readers and firm believers in intellectual pursuits.

In retrospect, I realize how lucky my brother and I were to share so much time with my grandparents; my cousins, who are five and seven years younger and lived much closer in Seattle, didn’t get the same mass quantity of quality time, didn’t know them in the same way. I’ve written before about Pop’s impact on my love of baseball and the Dodgers, but Nan figures into the story as well. I inherited her near-photographic memory, and it’s served me well in my baseball fandom when it comes to remembering stats or recalling where I read something.

Pop’s hearing seriously declined in the last decade of his life and he never really adjusted to wearing a hearing aid, often turning the damn thing off and missing out on a lot of conversation. The same thing eventually happened to Nan, I think, but she retained her mental acuity well into her nineties, and up until a couple years ago, we could still carry on a lengthy conversation. She was a sharp, funny woman, with a strong sense of what was right and wrong in the world.

Pop had always discouraged Nan from talking much about her life before coming to the U.S. because it would upset her so, and it wasn’t until his passing that we finally got the full story of their escape from Vienna and the fate of her parents. She had come down to Salt Lake over Labor Day weekend when I was there, and at some point, said she wanted to “tell it all.” I didn’t give her much chance to reconsider, running out to buy a microcassette recorder even when I had two sitting in my desk drawer back in New York City. I interviewed her for about an hour, and while we occasionally had to pause for some chronological corrections from my dad, we got her amazing story in about as much detail as we ever would. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and extremely proud that she was able to pass it on — even moreso as I prepare to say goodbye to her.

So long, Nan, and thank you for all of the wonderful years you gave us. We love you and will miss you, and we’ll always remember you.

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