Part I. Gratiot County’s Jewish Roots: Pioneers, Entrepreneurs, and Citizens
They lived here from Gratiot County’s beginnings – pioneer business people and entrepreneurs who were among the earliest settlers in Alma and Ithaca. Over time, these individuals profoundly impacted and contributed to our county’s history. They assimilated into Gratiot’s society, lived as honorable people, and worked hard to succeed. They had well-known businesses in the county, places people knew about, depended upon, visited, and admired. This group of hard-working people in Gratiot County happened to be Jewish.
About ten years ago, a box of photographs that was found near Traverse City, Michigan, arrived at the Gratiot County Historical Society. A dozen images were found inside an old trunk belonging to an Ithaca family, and they appeared to be taken around 1900. The family’s name was Netzorg, and it turned out that someone took a few of the pictures in front of what is now the Gratiot County Historical and Genealogical Society’s library in Ithaca. I was asked to find out what I could about the pictures, identify them, and help get the collection into the library’s holdings. The photographs belonged to the family of Wolf Netzorg, one of Ithaca’s earliest businessmen, who was Jewish.
I had to ask, “Who were the Netzorgs, and just how many Jewish residents did Gratiot County have in its early history?”
They Came as Businessmen and Entrepreneurs
Born in Lipnitz, Hungary-Austria, in 1833, Michael Pollasky was probably the first of Gratiot County’s Jewish settlers. After arriving in Newark, New Jersey, he lived briefly in Detroit, worked in the dairy business, apprenticed as a shoemaker, and then traveled through upper Michigan as a trader. He came to Alma when it consisted of only a few log cabins and Ralph Ely’s sawmill. After attempting different businesses in Alma, he eventually tried buying and shipping hides, tallows, and fur pelts. Pollasky’s store in Alma quickly became known as the finest of its kind between Saginaw and Grand Rapids. Unfortunately, the store eventually burned down in a fire. Still, Michael Pollasky continued to work hard and he later built a brick block on the corner of Superior and State streets. It became known as the Pollasky Block and remains a part of the city’s center today. Pollasky was more than a successful businessman. He served as village president between 1880-1882, became active in many private and public affairs in Alma, and was a Mason for fifty years.
There were more Jewish business people in Gratiot County’s early history. Over in Ithaca, Wolf Netzorg made a name for himself by opening and maintaining a general merchandise store starting in 1877. Born in Russia, Netzorg came to the United States at age 20, joined his uncles in St. Charles, Michigan, and worked as a peddler for almost three years. He then entered into business in Ithaca with a partner, Nyman Yesner, and became the store’s sole owner in 1883. Netzorg’s became one of the more well-known stores in the village of Ithaca, and it remained in business until after Wolf Netzorg died in 1909. After his death, Wolf Netzorg’s body was brought home from Texas, and he received a short funeral service at his home. Also a Mason, he had six Ithaca businessmen serve as pallbearers at his internment in a Saginaw cemetery.
In February 1908, the Cohen Brothers came to Alma and purchased the Messinger and Company clothing store. Arriving from Pennsylvania, they tried their hand at clothing for seven years until they sold their business for lack of a suitable store building. The Cohens then moved their business to Woodward Avenue in Detroit. During their time in Alma, the Cohen Brothers regularly advertised their business and wares in county newspapers.
These were only some of the names of the earliest Jewish business people in Gratiot County. Others would live and work here in the twentieth century, including names like Berman, Werbelow, Simon, Klein, and Bransdorfer.
Still, we can ask why people in Gratiot County do not know about these early families. Part of the reason could be that they faded from county history because many family patriarchs passed away by the advent of World War I. In some cases, a business was sold or closed, or surviving family members married and moved away after their parent’s deaths.
Advertising and announcements in newspapers are the only evidence today that Gratiot County had Jewish residents during its early history. The Pollasky, Messinger, or Cohen businesses closed on Yom Kippur, and they sometimes announced the news of a Jewish christening or marriage in the community.
In April 1931, a turning point occurred when one of the last Jewish pioneer businesspeople passed away. Simon Messinger came to Alma in 1869 and soon became affiliated with the Pollasky store. Born in 1849 in Austria, Messinger came to America at age 17 and arrived in New York, where he worked with his brother for two years before moving to Alma. Simon Messinger became well known for his clothing store, married Anna Pollasky, and had four daughters. When he died, a Masonic service took place at his home with Alma Lodge Number 244forming a fraternal guard at the home’s entrance. His body was then transferred to Detroit, where he was laid to rest in Woodmere Cemetery. Looking back on his life, the Alma Record later stated that Messinger had attained a reputation as one who wanted Alma’s future to be progressive and moving forward.
Gratiot County after the Pioneers
After World War I, Gratiot County was confronted with the plight of Jewish refugees in
Europe. The Jewish War Relief campaign, also known as Jewish War Sufferers Relief, took place in Michigan. In December 1921, the goal was to raise $500,000 to help those in Russia and Central Europe who faced starvation. To enlist Gratiot County’s help, Rabbi Franklin of Detroit came to Alma High School on December 14 to raise funds, and the Alma Chamber of Commerce endorsed the meetings. Members of the Berman, Soule, Messinger, Pollasky, Rockstein, and Anspaugh families served on the Gratiot County committee to raise funds. They hoped that the people of Gratiot County would support the campaign.
As the Great Depression started, European turmoil appeared on the horizon as totalitarian governments in Italy and Germany planted the seeds leading to the next world war. One of these groups would become known as the Nazis. Their leader, Adolf Hitler, wanted the destruction of the Jews of Germany and, ultimately, those within his reach on the European continent.
The next question would be, “What would Gratiot County do in response to the impending crisis known as the Holocaust?”
Watch Ken Burns’ “The U.S. and the Holocaust” on PBS.
Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed