Interviewee: Gretchen Thams
Interviewer: Dena Scher
Interview Date: November 01, 2017
Location: Auburn Hills, MI
Interview No.: 11.01.18-GT (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length: 1 hour 12 minutes)
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Conversion, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing
Summary: Gretchen Thams’ identity as a Jew has remained close to her heart but has been expressed differently across diverse eras and geography. From moving to Detroit, MI and attending services at Temple Beth El on Woodward to her family’s move to Rochester, MI and subsequent conversion to Christianity. Later, as Christian, Thams served in the State Department abroad and in D.C. Throughout the interview, Thams tells of navigating a range of Anti-Semitism, building up her own identity as a Jew and how she made Bat-Mitzvah at age 85.
Example of proper citation/attribution:
Scher, D. (Interviewer) & Thams, G. (Interviewee). (2017). Gretchen Thams: Jewish Journeys [Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah: https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive
00:47 Earliest memory of being Jewish - moved to Detroit when she was a year old. Lived on Pingree Street in walking distance to Temple Beth El on Woodward. Other early memories include growing vegetables in Rochester and decorating a sukkah with them. Moved to Rochester in 1934, father bought 120 acres north of Rochester.
04:12 Early memories of Rabbi Franklin and Rabbi Fram. Commuted to Sunday school from Rochester up until leaving the synagogue when she was age 12. Quite a commute at that time, no freeways, Rochester Road paved after they had moved.
6:06 Always felt Jewish, living in Jewish neighborhood and it was a way of life. Felt like foreigners upon moving to Rochester, did not feel well accepted and led to her parents conversion to Christianity. “All of a sudden we were Christians but however we were not accepted … once a Jew, always a Jew.” Withstood common epithets of ‘dirty Jew’ at school. Fond memories of Jewish neighborhood in Detroit, an integrated community, did not feel difference until moving to Rochester.
10:09 Father hails from Russian/Polish border area, Mother from Lotz in Poland.
11:11 Both sides of family came through Ellis Island and ended up in Lapeer, MI for work in dry goods. Family worked in Lapeer for some time and eventually moved to Detroit. Father and mother met through mutual acquaintances in Pittsburgh, were married at Beth El.
13:09 Lived five miles north of town and were the fifth or sixth house, “we were in the wilderness” as the only Jews in the area. Conversion felt like part of the plan, was very confusing to her in terms of her own identity but also anti-Semitism persisted despite conversion. Anti-Semitism continued upon transferring to Cranbrook-Kingswood.
17:34 Invited to Detroit Athletic Club and country clubs despite those organizations having no-Jew policies on grounds of her not looking Jewish. Contributed to an identity crisis.
21:10 Hid Jewish identity through four years in a sorority at University of Michigan. Asked if she had ever affiliated as a Jew during pledge ceremony and said no but then called the sorority and said she was going to de-pledge which upset her parents and led to her pledging again, appeasing her parent’s wishes for her to assimilate. Feels her blond hair and little nose helped her pass. 1940’s America, especially with rise of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, prompted continued admonition from family to hide Judaism. Mother was active at church but still faced anti-Jewish stigma.
29:10 “Fear number one was somebody would find out (I was Jewish)” Joined State Department, first assignment was in Nice, France. Majored in French at college, started as a secretary and continued in public affairs. Worked in Casablanca beginning in 1952, was told not to mention Jewish background there. Mother had her lookup Jewish acquaintance in Casablanca.
33:36 Sits with Jewish friends from American Joint Distribution Committee at dinner gala and is questioned about it by consulate staff. Movie Gentlemen’s Agreement changed her thinking in terms of hiding Jewish identity. Confronted anti-Semitic joke teller at a party back in Washington D.C. and was told that she should have announced that she was Jewish, asked whether she should bring back out a yellow star.
38:44 Anti-Semitism from English friend while in France was told that beyond hair and nose, a jew has different knees.
42:51 Enjoyed being in different churches specifically enjoyed the music. Had been married in Casablanca and had children; returned to Rochester and raised three sons as Christian. Told them of Jewish background when they were adults. Jewish identity was dormant at this time. Taught school for some time and then entered the restaurant business, owning a Big Boy with her husband. Went back to school and received Master’s and PhD. Retired as a consultant from Oakland Schools in 1990.
49:36 Return to Judaism - was going to church sporadically and always thought that if she returned to a formal religion that she would return to reform Judaism. Husband had Alzheimer's and wanted to honor him in a loving manner through Jewish ceremony so began to search out synagogues.
52:23 Looking around for appropriate synagogue’s to handle eventual burial rites for Husband and heard about Shir Tikvah in the newspaper lived nearby. Was impressed by Rabbi Arnie and found friends from work there as well, felt like a home. Took a Judaism class from Rabbi Arnie to help reattach herself to family roots and through further consultation decided to be reconfirmed in Judaism and go through the Mikvah at Temple Israel after “70 years of being the wandering Jew.”
1:01:34 Bat-Mitzvah at 85 - was taking Judaism and Hebrew classes and had been thinking about being Bat-Mitzvah’d and was inspired by a friend to pursue it. Family all participated in ceremony, used a tallit previously purchased while visiting Israel.
1:05:47 Told minister at Mother’s funeral at Congregational Church to downplay Jesus during ceremony for sake of Jewish relatives. Minister was shocked and added that her mother had converted for social reasons during eulogy, horrified Gretchen in its inappropriateness.
1:09:10 Clubhouse usually only decorates for Christmas, Gretchen is now in charge of Hanukah display. Puts out gelt (candy money gift) for other residents. Rochester a much more open place for Jews though still gets some comments from friends about not being saved. Appreciates the support her Jewish Community gives her but was a long journey to this.