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Garment Exhibit Looks Down Rags-to-Riches Road of Baltimore Jews

May 21, 1991

BALTIMORE (AP) _ America was good to Moses Wiesenfeld. And then bad. And then good again.

He landed in Baltimore in 1838, poor, unskilled and unable to speak English, and went from a peddler to a pioneer in ready-made clothes. In between, he spent two years in prison accused of being a Civil War spy.

Wiesenfeld shared the rags-to-riches tale of German-Jewish immigrants in Baltimore’s garment industry, whose famous products ranged from B.V.D. underwear to London Fog raincoats to Panama hats.

They are the subject of an exhibit running until January by the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland entitled ″Threads of Life: Jewish Involvement in Baltimore’s Garment Industry.″

Without the garment industry to give Jewish immigrants an outlet for entrepreneurship, allowing them to employ other Jews and raise capital for charitable organizations, they might never have become a cohesive community, said Bernard Fishman, the society’s director.

Wiesenfeld saved money and started tailoring in a city ideal for rail links and cheap labor. When he died in 1871, Moses Wiesenfeld & Co. was worth at least half a million dollars.

During the Civil War, he was accused of selling goods to aid the rebellious states and went to prison in 1865. His heirs insist that disgruntled workers framed him by smuggling Confederate buttons into the factory.

When he got out of prison, though, Uncle Sam unwittingly made him rich.

Wiesenthal copied the Army’s innovative sizing system, enabling him to make pre-cut instead of custom-made suits. He got a loan from merchant and railroad financier Johns Hopkins and reaped his fortune.

Fishman said it was racism that drove German Jews abroad - at home, they were barred from joining trade guilds.

A racist strain also marred their relations with the next wave of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, he said. German-Jewish bosses exploited their Russian-Jewish workers, and as soon as Russians moved into a neighborhood, Germans moved out.

A 1938 aerial photo of Baltimore’s ″loft district″ shows how extensive the Jewish garment trade was at its zenith: 16 buildings containing dozens of Jewish-owned factories.

The military was one of their best customers.

Fishman pointed to a World War I Army coat on display, then to a 1918 photo of Lester S. Levy, third-generation co-owner of M.S. Levy & Sons, dressed in the uniform. It was made by a rival clothier, Henry Sonneborn & Co., which also turned out thousands of civilian men’s suits daily.

In World War II, Israel Meyers had a government contract to make rain gear. He used his expertise to create the country’s best known raincoat: London Fog.

The exhibit includes many photos of the infamous sweatshops, where the ″task system″ meant workers got piece rates, not dependable salaries.

Labor strife turned Jew against Jew. When some of Rabbi Abraham Nachman Schwartz’s congregants were fired from Henry Sonneborn & Co. in 1915 for refusing to work on the Sabbath, Schwartz asked Sonneborn, who was president of another temple, to rehire them. He did.

The German-Russian rift began healing in 1921, when the two communities’ charities merged. The new agency, now commonly called The Associated, still oversees Jewish fund raising in Baltimore.

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