Vibrant Jewish Life
Detroit's Chene Street comes alive through a tragic love story,
photos and audio interviews.
Special to the Jewish News
he sometimes was called the
"Mayor of Chene Street," an inde-
pendent Jewish woman who ran
a wallpaper and paint store on the once-
bustling Detroit commercial corridor from
the 1930s to the 1980s. She was single and
ran her business longer than most other
store owners. She knew everyone. What
many never knew, however, was in the years
leading up to World War II, Jennie Levenson
went to Poland, married the love of her life
and returned to the States, never to see her
Jennie Levenson was my aunt. My favor-
ite aunt. I always wondered why she never
married, never imagining the secret she
held. When she died in 1993, I discovered
bits of her past through the hundreds of
beautiful love letters exchanged between
Jennie and her love. And that's how I came
in contact with Marian Krzyzowski and the
Chene Street History Project in Ann Arbor.
He was instrumental in getting the letters
translated. My aunt's amazing story is just
one of the many riveting tales that are part
of his presentation, "The Jewish Presence on
Chene Street," at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 4, at
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
The event is sponsored by the Jewish
Historical Society of Michigan.
After Jennie's death, inside of a carefully
preserved Winkelman's box, my sister, Cindy
Daitch, and I found 105 letters written to
her by Joseph Perla, the man she fell in love
with and married in Poland.
Jennie was in Poland in 1939, but, with
war fast approaching, the American was
instructed to leave the country immediately.
The couple made plans for Joseph to follow
his wife soon after.
Over the course of the next two years, he
penned more than 100 letters to his love,
letters Jennie carefully — and secretly —
preserved. When we found them though,
we were stumped because they were all in
Yiddish, Polish or German.
A Jewish News story published in 2003
put me in touch with Marian and his Chene
Street History Project. He took an imme-
diate interest in Jennie's story and, using
his own expertise and calling upon the
resources of Yiddish-speaking students from
the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the
University of Michigan, we were able to get
the letters translated. The story emerged,
and I learned this tale of my aunt's life that I
never knew before.
Jennie spent all those years working on
20 May 30 • 2013
ZG697 11 COLLECT=CD N
These collaged photos represent research done on Jennie Levenson, her life on Chene Street and her Polish husband, Joseph
Perla, whose letters revealed a tragic love story.
Chene Street, once one
preserving the material and the
of Detroit's most vibrant
spiritual world that was Chene
In 1951, Marian Krzyzowski
and the heart of fam-
ily, work and social life
came to Detroit from a dis-
for hundreds of Eastern
placed persons camp in Munich
European Jews. Although
as a young boy and settled with
his family on Chene Street.
virtually no sign of that
He grew up in this working-
today, Marian, a U-M
class neighborhood, anchored
researcher and director of
by the Chene-Ferry Municipal
the Institute for Research
Market, spending his days play-
on Labor Employment
ing with a myriad of kids from
Jennie Levenson in
and the Economy, created
a variety of cultures — mostly
Polish and African-American.
the Chene Street History
Project more than 10 years
Businesses, owned by first-
ago. Since then, he has devoted hundreds of and second-generation Polish and Jewish
hours recreating and researching that once-
immigrants, lined the street. It was the kind
lively area. In the process, he has uncovered
of place where no one locked their doors;
a vivid picture of the active Jewish life that
everyone was family.
Marian, now 64, never imagined that
That bustling life comes alive when
those youthful days were the end of an era.
Marian gives his presentation replete
By the time his family left the area in 1972,
with live audio interviews culled from an
Chene Street was fast becoming one of the
archive of nearly 30 recorded oral histories
most blighted areas of the city.
of neighborhood Jewish families, precious
In 2002, Marian decided to capture and
photographs, historical records and, of
share the stories of those families who made
course, Jennie's letters. He first presented his their home on Chene Street. It was, he says,
remarkable findings at the Frankel Center
"The neighborhood where I 'learned' to be
in Ann Arbor. Recognizing the value of his
an American, and I wanted to give voice to
research, the Jewish Historical Society of
the people who helped make that happen
Michigan invited him to the Detroit area.
for me and for so many others:'
You Can Help
The Jewish Historical Society of
Michigan continues to help Marian
Krzyzowski in his work regard-
ing Detroit's Chene Street. If you
remember the area, had family there
or other memories, come to the lec-
ture or contact Krzyzowski at mjsk@
umich.edu or call (734) 998-6236.
He is trying to connect with these
• Max and Sam Rosenbaum fam-
ily: The owners of Max's Jewelry
stores on Chene, in Hamtramck and
other locations. The manager of the
Chene Street location was Charles
Ross. There was also an Oscar
• Jacob and Emil Loewenberg:
Bustling Chene Street
Doors open for the lecture at 6:45 p.m. at
Owners of the Loewenberg Brothers
Furniture store at 6137 Mount
Elliott, which opened in 1916. There
may have been a daughter named
June Loewenberg, who attended
Northeastern High School.
• Samuel Schwartz: Schwartz
Department Store at 6329 Chene,
an upscale store in the northern end
of the neighborhood. Samuel had at
least one son, Julius.
• H. & Jack Bookstein: Bookstein
Furniture Store at 6207 Chene.
• Dr. Abraham Bloch: Obstetrician at
3023 and 2935 E. Grand Blvd.
The project team includes several U-M
Jewish students interested in social history,
some of whom I've met and worked with.
They have devoted hundreds of hours to
Shaarey Zedek. Coffee and cookies follow.
• Drs. David and Irving Bittker:
Admission is $5. RSVP to (248) 432-5517 or
Dr. David Bittker was a dentist; Dr.
Irving Bittker was a physician. They
had offices at 6484 Chene.
www.michjewishhistory.org. Linda Ashley has a
public relations firm in Ferndale.