H. L. had immigrated to the United States from Knyszyn, a small town near Bialystok, in the region of Grodno, Russia (now Poland), around 1880. He settled first in Philadelphia where, according to family lore, he contracted tuberculosis or another respiratory condition that sent him fleeing to Aiken around 1888. At the time, the town was well known as a health resort, boasted several sanitoriums, and attracted tuberculin patients from across the country.
H. L. owned a department store and M. S. opened and operated a barber shop, both downtown. There is little information on the religious life of Aiken’s first Jewish families; however, I am told that the Poliers, while not particularly observant of Jewish law, were deeply proud of their Jewish heritage, helping to raise money for a Jewish cemetery (1913) and Adath Yeshurun Synagogue (1925). M. S. was learned in theology and Jewish history and loved to visit and have lengthy discussions and debates with Christian ministers in Aiken, whom he counted as his friends. I am fortunate to have inherited several of my great-grandfather’s books and treatises, including a multi-volume History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz.
Around 1886, H. L.’s sister, Sarah Anna Polier Surasky, and her husband, Benedict Morris (B. M.) Surasky, arrived in Aiken from Knyszyn. B. M. was the oldest of five brothers, one of whom, Solomon Surasky, was my paternal grandfather. One by one the brothers and one sister, Ida Surasky Efron, immigrated to Aiken. The brothers traveled the countryside as peddlers, selling their wares to rural folk who would normally have to travel long distances into town to shop for goods.
Eventually all brothers but one were able to open stores on Laurens Street. The tragic exception was Abraham Surasky, the youngest of the Surasky brothers. He was working his route about 15 miles from Aiken in July 1903 when a young man, Lee Green, arrived home to find Abraham helping Lee’s wife carry some goods from her wagon into the house. Abraham, who was a widower with two young children, was gruesomely murdered by gun and axe and his body left in his buggy in the woods. The primary witness as to motive was a teenage black girl, Mary Drayton, who was hired by Green and his wife to come to the scene and clean up the evidence while Green found someone to help hide Abraham’s body.
According to Mary’s sworn affidavit, Green held a long-standing grudge against Jewish peddlers and had admitted to her that he shot at another peddler, Levy, three weeks prior, “only to make him drop his bundle.” Green had told her that he intended to kill Surasky.1 He and his wife, Dora, disclosed to Mary the gruesome details: how Green shot Abraham with his shotgun, and as Abraham begged for his life, offering to give him “all I have got,” Green exclaimed, “Stand back, you son of a bitch, don’t come on me,” and shot him again. Abraham dropped to his elbows and knees and was then shot and axed twice in the head.2
Another witness testified that Green “was going to kill ever [sic] Jew peddler that came around and get shed of them.”3 According to Drayton, Green and Dora decided to tell authorities that Green had arrived home to find Surasky making a pass at his wife, and he was thus merely defending his wife’s honor, as any southern gentleman would do. Green was acquitted of the murder at trial. One must assume that in 1903 the testimony of a black teenager could not match Dora Green’s claim that her husband was merely protecting her virtue from the assault of a Jewish peddler.
Like many small towns—not only southern but elsewhere as well—by the 1920s downtown Aiken was populated by numerous Jewish-owned businesses, including H. L. Polier Dept. Store, B. M. Surasky’s Department Store, and Surasky Bros. Department Store. M. S.’s wife, Augusta Polier, my great-grandmother, owned a millinery shop next to her husband’s barber shop, and in 1922 Ida Surasky Efron’s oldest son, Jake, opened a combination dry goods and grocery store.
It is said that the arrival of B. M. and his wife, Sarah Anna, was instrumental in starting regular religious services in Aiken. For years people convened for Sabbath prayer and holidays in the local Masonic hall, which was at the time above one of the Laurens Street stores. B. M. acted as both rabbi and cantor and, until his death in the 1930s, was the lay leader of the Jewish community. His wife—Auntie B. M. as she was known—is said to have introduced kashrut to Aiken, traveling to Augusta, about 17 miles away, to bring back chickens and kosher beef.
I grew up in a synagogue populated by a substantial congregation; almost all the members were my cousins, descendants of the Poliers and Suraskys. Other prominent original Jewish families were the Wolfs, whose progenitor Jacob Wolf was one of our synagogue’s founders; the Efrons, who arrived in Aiken as a result of the marriage of the one Surasky sister, Ida, to an Efron; and the Rudnicks, who were active in the congregation and in Aiken’s business community.
In my youth, Adath Yeshurun was not affiliated but would have been considered Orthodox. The women sat on one side of the aisle and men on the other. No women were called to the Torah and none played a part in the services. Aiken did have, however, an active Hadassah/Sisterhood, and the ladies ran the Sunday school. Very few would have been considered especially religious or observant, but the older members were the children of Eastern European immigrants and continued to follow Old World traditions. Nathan Persky, son-in-law of one of the Surasky brothers, had inherited B. M. Surasky’s duties as the community’s religious leader and Hebrew teacher and occupied that unofficial post until his death in the 1960s. We held services in the synagogue only when a member had a yahrtzeit, at which time the men would receive calls that a minyan was needed and would go to the shul to say kaddish. Other than that, regular services were held only on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Purim, and Simhat Torah, with Mr. Persky leading the services.
In 1950s and ’60s Aiken’s downtown remained crowded with Jewish businesses: Surasky Bros. Liquor Stores, owned by my father, Harry, and his brother, Ben, who was also an attorney with offices above the store; Nathan and Esther Persky’s Department Store; Efron’s Red & White Supermarket, owned and operated by Jake Efron and his wife, Helen; Sam and Minnie Shanker ran another grocery store, Sam’s Supermarket; Efron’s Garage and Taxi Co., operated by Isadore Efron. Ida Wolf owned and operated Aiken’s finest women’s store, Julia’s Dress Shop, and Mandle Surasky and his partner, Manning Owen, operated Owen-Surasky, Aiken finest men’s shop; Abe Wolf’s Famous Brand Shoes was just down the street, and only a few blocks away was Laurel’s Hardware owned by Lazar Laurel, and its next door neighbor, Franzblau’s Hardware, owned and operated by Nathan and Nettie Franzblau. Harold Rudnick sold furniture out of Rudnick’s Barn, which doubled as his wife Irene’s law office and campaign headquarters. On the Columbia highway was Marvin’s Drive-In, owned by Marvin Rifkin and his wife, Mollie Efron Rifkin, a favorite hangout of Aiken’s teens. Aiken’s only movie theaters, the Patricia and the Rosemary, were named after owner Bert Ram’s daughters.
Not only were Aiken’s Jews leaders in the city’s business community, they were also actively involved in Aiken’s political and civic life. M. S. Polier was Grand Master of the Masonic lodge, B. M. Surasky, and later, his son Mandle, served on the city council and as mayor pro tem. Mr. Nathan Persky was instrumental in bringing the Boy Scouts to Aiken and was voted as Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. Irene Krugman Rudnick, past president of our synagogue and now president emeritus, served in the South Carolina legislature for many years.
I am the last Surasky in Aiken and, from the Polier family, only one other remains a member of our Jewish community—Nelson Danish, great-grandson of H. L. Polier. Julie Wolf Ellis and her kin are the last remaining descendants of the Wolf family in Aiken. Among the Rudnicks only Irene and her son, Morris, are congregants. The rest of the original families are now gone, most buried in Aiken’s Sons of Israel Cemetery, and their children and grandchildren scattered worldwide. There remains not one Jewish-owned retail business in Aiken, although we are well represented in the legal, medical, and other professions. The University of South Carolina at Aiken, as well as the Savannah River nuclear facility, have attracted new Jewish families, and our synagogue continues to thrive as the center of Jewish life in Aiken, now populated mostly by newcomers from the North who have retired to the area to enjoy the weather, golf, and equestrian events.
Growing up as the only Jewish boy in my schools and among my peer group did not seem at all odd to me. I knew that in the realm of religion I was “different,” but I never perceived any antagonism or anti-Semitism, at least among my friends and acquaintances. I believe you would hear the same sentiments from other Jews who have made Aiken their home. My family, although intensely proud of its heritage, was fully integrated into the majority southern culture. I might attend a Purim service one day and attend a “Young Life” meeting at the Presbyterian Church with my girlfriend the next. I thought there was nothing unusual about my saying ha-motzi and kiddush on Friday night and on Monday morning reciting the Lord’s Prayer in homeroom. I thought it was the official school prayer, not a Christian rite.
While we did not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and would never have had a tree in our home, my parents, not wanting, I suppose, for my sisters and me to feel deprived, always invited Santa to visit us on Christmas morning. My friends were envious that I would receive gifts for the eight nights of Hanukkah and rack up again on their holiday. I believe the following true story illustrates the point. One of my father’s favorite traditions during the Christmas holidays was to call the homes of his gentile friends and, as Santa, speak to their children. One year he called our own home and asked for my little sister, Anne, then about six. “HO, HO, HO,” Santa bellowed. “What’s your name, little girl?” “Anne Surasky.” “Have you been a good girl this year?” “Oh, yes, Sir!” “Good. What would you like Santa to bring you tomorrow morning?” Anne then ran off a long list. “Do have any brothers or sisters?” “Yes. I have an older brother, Stephen, and an older sister, Brenna.” “What do you think they might want Santa to bring them?” “Oh, you don’t have to worry about them—they’re Jewish.”
Some 20 years ago while researching the case I learned that Lee Green had been convicted of killing another person some years later. I called one of his grandchildren, then an elderly woman, to see if she would meet with me and provide information on Green’s life. She refused to discuss the case or her grandfather except to tell me that he lived out his life as a good Christian man and was now with the Lord. I declined to ask her where she thought my great-uncle was. Around that same time, I also located Abraham’s unmarked grave at the Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta, GA. It is a mystery as to why there was no gravestone. Abraham’s two young daughters, Dorothy and Mildred, were raised by their uncle Sam Surasky and his wife, Mary. Sam moved the family to North Carolina and Dorothy’s son, Mel Cohen, is the long-serving mayor of Morganton. Mel’s daughter, Stacy, then a high school student, was also researching the history of her great-grandfather’s murder and in 1993 organized a reunion in Aiken of Abraham’s living descendants. On the Saturday morning of the reunion we gathered at Abraham’s gravesite for an unveiling of his tombstone, 90 years after his death. Better late than never.