I met two brothers last weekend at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show whose business is selling chunks of minerals and ancient petrified wood as art objects and home accessories.
I thought it might make an interesting column. But while talking with Stuart and Michael Goller of Cincinnati-based GeoRarities, they told me a much more interesting family business story, based in Lexington.
In many ways, it was a typical immigrant story of struggle and success. But in this time when so many Americans fear and resent immigrants whose cultures and religions are different from theirs, this story had an enlightening twist.
As the storm clouds of World War I were gathering, Russia’s Czar was persecuting Jews in Eastern Europe. So Harry Goller left Lithuania for the United States in search of a better life.
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Harry, who spoke only Yiddish, made his way to Atlanta, where a brother had immigrated and become a junk dealer.
“He would load up his pack with pots and pans and whatever he could carry, and, speaking no English, go out to sell in little towns that didn’t have a general store,” Michael said of his grandfather.
After two years, Harry had earned enough money to bring his wife, Sarah, and their children to America. In about 1917, they moved to Lexington, because other Jewish families from their village had settled here. They had three more children in Lexington. The youngest, Michael and Stuart’s father Abraham, was born in 1925.
The Gollers opened a Jewish deli at the corner of East Fourth and North Upper streets. The family lived upstairs, and in the basement they made corned beef, pickles and sacramental wine.
Harry was a rabbi, and he sold kosher food and wine to Central Kentucky’s small Jewish community. The neighborhood surrounding the deli was then predominantly black, and many of Harry’s loyal customers were Christian.
Harry’s corned beef and cold cuts attracted a wide clientele, including the owner of Calumet farm and the leadership of nearby Transylvania College. The business prospered until the stock market crash of October 1929 ushered in the Great Depression.
“My grandfather had extended credit to all of his small customers,” Michael said. “They couldn’t pay him, and he couldn’t pay the meat suppliers, so they forced him into bankruptcy.”
That is when one of Harry’s Christian customers came to the rescue. It may have been Transylvania’s president. But the brothers said their father, now 91, thinks it was the president of Transylvania’s College of the Bible, which later became Lexington Theological Seminary.
“He liked to come by and chat and maybe discuss religion,” Michael said. “He found out they were going bankrupt, so he arranged for the college to make a loan to save the business so he wouldn’t go under. And my grandfather paid it all back.”
Abraham went on to graduate from Henry Clay High School and, at the beginning of World War II, become an engineering student at the University of Kentucky as part of the Army Specialized Training Program. By 1943, the Army needed infantrymen more than engineers. Abraham was drafted, fought with the 100th Infantry Division in France and was wounded.
After the war, Abraham earned his engineering degree at UK on the GI Bill. He went on to a career with Pollock Steel in Cincinnati, designing steel reinforcement for bridges and power plants. Abraham and Ruth, his wife of 60 years, also have a third son, Jeffrey, a physician in Charleston, S.C.
The corner where the Gollers’ home and deli once stood is now a vacant lot. Stuart said the building was demolished three or four decades ago after a fire. Sarah died in 1945; Harry in 1978. He left his grandsons with many fond memories and inspiring stories, including several about how cultural and religious differences were bridged.
For example, when young Abraham injured himself while working with a knife, a prominent black doctor who lived nearby rushed to his aid. And then there was this funny story:
“At some point, the police came by and arrested Pops for selling sacramental wine on Sunday because of the blue laws,” Michael said, referring to laws that then banned the sale of alcohol on Sunday.
“So they hauled him before court and he explained in his accented English what was going on,” that the Jewish Sabbath was Saturday, Michael said. “So the judge said, ‘Release this man immediately. But you ever find him selling it on Saturday, I want him arrested and brought back to court!”