A once-vibrant part of Seattle Jewish history has drawn to a close.
The Jewish Club of Washington, organized by Holocaust-era German Jewish refugees over 70 years ago, held its final meeting April 24 at The Summit at First Hill retirement community. At its high point, more than 400 members belonged to the immigrant-assistance and social organization. In recent years, numbers dropped to 25, according to club president Walter Oppenheimer, a refugee himself who arrived in Seattle with his family in 1940. The club’s final bulletin invited members to the last meeting because, as it said, “after 72 years the club will cease to exist.”
“Ten members voted to give the [remaining] funds to three organizations,” Oppenheimer, 88, told JTNews. The recipient organizations are Jewish Family Service’s Polack Food Bank, the Kline Galland Center Foundation and the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center.
Formed by German Jewish refugees and survivors of the Holocaust to aid one another, the Jewish Club of Washington served as an essential network for these new immigrants, easing the adjustment of adapting to their new lives.
“Immigrants are not very easily accepted in this country,” said Joshua Gortler, president of the Kline Galland Center Foundation and retired CEO of the Kline Galland Center, who arrived in the U.S. following World War II not knowing a word of English. “They needed connection to each other. The club served a great purpose in integrating them, in connecting them to new ways [of life].”
Club members Klaus and Paula Stern considered the club “an organization of newcomers.” Some “came from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia,” said Klaus Stern, one of the Jewish Club’s co-founders, “and some people who had to first go to South America to save their lives, but then ended up in Seattle. We had nice programs and helped each other out for jobs and apartments.”
Frieda and Gunther Sondland were German refugees who escaped through passage to South America. They eventually arrived in Seattle from Uruguay in 1943.
“It felt wonderful to be [at the Jewish Club] with people where we had something in common, something familiar, a similar background and culture. We spoke the same language,” Frieda Sondland said. “Now there are no more members left. What can I say?”
Over the years, the Jewish Club provided its members with a broad menu of social activities, educational programs and outings.
“We loved classical music programs, the Salvation Army Fashion Show, we did book reviews, Purim parties, dances, picnics,” recalled Klaus Stern.
“We organized trips to Deception Pass, Lake Sammamish and Discovery Park,” added Paula Stern, who organized programs for the group. “We were happy to be alive; at the time, we were the younger generation.”
And membership fees? “Small monthly dues were 75 cents with a collection for death benefit if someone died, for the family,” Paula Stern said.
Marion Kitz, the Jewish Club of Washington’s secretary/treasurer for the last six years — and the Sterns’ daughter — “grew up with the JCW — forever. It was part of my life and important to my parents. They gave it their all,” she said.
“The club met at different locations on Sunday afternoons. We used the old Herzl [on 20th and Spruce Place], Neighborhood House on 17th and Yesler, the Talmud Torah, the Workman’s Circle and the Jewish Federation, which was downtown on Union,” Klaus Stern said.
Oppenheimer recalls Rabbi Koch at Temple De Hirsch “letting us use the social hall.”
The Sterns arrived in Seattle in 1946. A survivor of several concentration camps, Klaus Stern later became a board member of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center and is an active member of its speakers bureau.
Dee Simon, executive director of the Holocaust Center, said many former club members later became supporters of her organization.
“The Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center is honoring the Jewish Club of Washington by dedicating an artifact case in memory of the club’s outstanding service to the Jewish community and to the many individuals who came to call Seattle their home,” she said.
The Kline Galland Center also built a close relationship with the club.
“The relationship between the Jewish Club and Kline Galland goes back 30-plus years,” noted Gortler, who knows many of the now-defunct club’s members.
“The club was a vibrant, active group of people. [But] their membership dwindled, and [the] needs changed. This is what happens. It’s the end of a generation,” Gortler said. “They did good work, they were involved in charitable giving and volunteering.”
But, he noted, its mission was complete.
With characteristic wit, Stern commented on the club’s closure, “There’s always a beginning and an end. Only a sausage has two ends.”