Thursday, July 5, 2007

Oscar Solomon Straus: Statesman and Humanitarian

Photo Courtesy

Answer to Wordless Wednesday: Oscar Solomon Straus

The students literally jump off the buses on 14th Street running between the memorial and into line to go through security. Their minds are on the choices on food coupons given to them for their lunches, although most of them will go to either Subway or pizza. (I like Gelatissimo) They are about to enter the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center to visit the food court downstairs.

After eating, socializing, and attending to other business, they dart back upstairs and loiter while awaiting the buses to take them on their afternoon tours. Perhaps some pause at the Adolph Alexander Weinman sculptures and fountain to snicker at the nude allegorical figures, but not one will inquire what it all represents ( ‘Justice’ to represent religious freedom and ‘Reason’ to symbolize capitalism and labor). In fact, most licensed tour guides neither know who Mr. Oscar Straus was (except for the explanation on the plaque), nor take the time to discuss the memorial.

In Washington, DC, these ‘smaller’ memorials are taken for granted and neglected.

If the students understood that besides being a great public servant, Mr. Straus was also the brother of Isidor Straus who perished with his wife aboard the Titanic and one of the two brothers who owned Macy’s, perhaps that might have piqued their interest.

The more I research the Straus family, the more fascinating they all become, even through the 21st century!

Yes, Elementary History Teacher guessed it correctly, but did not get the Georgia connection.

Here is the family background of Oscar Solomon Straus and the Georgia connection:

The progenitor, Lazarus Straus was the son of wealthy German Jewish landowners and politicians in the Palintinate in Bavaria (Otterberg). He was a political activist who supported Carl Shurz and democratic reforms during the ill-fated Revolution of 1848 in Germany.

As it became increasingly uncomfortable to stay in Germany with those sentiments and rumored to have become bankrupt, Lazarus Straus was one of over 80,000 German immigrants and political refugees (although he traveled on a French passport) to arrive in the United States in 1852.

Lazarus sailed initially to Philadelphia and met up with the Kaufman brothers and followed their suggestion to join with them to make his fortune in the South. He settled in Talbotton, Georgia and supervised a number of peddler carts throughout the area. True to the Kaufman’s predictions, Lazarus was to become a prosperous merchant. A slave schedule of 1860 lists Lazarus as having thirteen mulatto slaves working for him.

Within two years of immigrating, he was able to set up a store and send for his wife Sara and their four children, Nathan, Hermine, Isidor, and Oscar Solomon (born December 13, 1850)

The Straus children were being brought up in small town Georgia in an area where there were neither synagogues yeshivas, nor rabbis, for their religious education. Lazarus was a traditional Jew but enrolled his four children in two different Sunday schools, one Methodist, and one Baptist. Both of these pastors instructed the Straus children solely from the Old Testament. The Baptist pastor became an intimate friend of the Strauses and often visited to discuss religion, and philosophy.

Despite the fact that Carl Shurz, who was supported by Lazarus in Germany, moved to Wisconsin and eventually championed the cause of Union, becoming a General, Lazarus and his family were firmly supportive of the Confederate cause of states’ rights, free trade, and were even slave owners.

During the War Between the States, Nathan was in Europe speculating on Confederate Bonds, and was sent on secret missions throughout Europe. Naturally, he lost a great deal of money, but managed to hang onto $10,000. . Isidor was also in Europe and working for a company that engaged in blockade running (page 4, paragraph 11) for the Confederacy. Sister Hermine had married Lazarus Kohns and their first child a son, was born September 1, 1864 and named, Robert Lee, in honor of the General. Oscar remained with his father and family to run the business.

In 1862 or 1863, the Straus family moved to Columbus, GA, the bustling industrial capital of the Confederacy.

After Columbus, GA was burned by Union General James Wilson (considered the last great battle of the War Between the States), the Straus family decided to move first to Philadelphia, then New York City, where many of their clients and friends were. They proceeded to repay all their debts, much to the amazement of the creditors, and opened L. Straus & Sons, importers of crockery, china, and glassware. R.H. Macy was their largest customer, and the brothers eventually entered into a partnership with R.H. Macy. In fact, one of the brothers was on a buying trip in Europe with Mr. Macy, when the latter unexpectedly died. With the eventual ownership of Macy’s, the Straus family became quite wealthy. The Straus’ became known as great philanthropists, social activists, and friends with the titans of industry. They were also heavily involved in politics as Democrats.

The Straus family name was well respected by all.

Oscar Straus

Oscar, the youngest of the Lazarus Straus’ children had inherited his father’s ideological passions and although still recruited to help with the Straus family business, eventually entered Columbia University Law School to get away from merchandising and moneymaking enterprises!

After earning his law degree, Oscar was to embark on a long, fruitful, and adventurous life of public service, and charity.

A New York Times article of 1893 stated:

As a member of a leading house of importers with business interests of sufficient magnitude to absorb the time and exhaust the energy of an ordinary man, Mr. Straus finds leisure for study which blooms into literary work of various types…he has become influential in undertakings designed for the public welfare alike in the fields of charity, benevolence, and of good government.

Accomplishments and Interests:

His accomplishments as a lawyer, diplomat, statesman, politician, and philanthropist are staggering and are discussed in context in the excellent article form the Straus Family Historical Society. (August 2003 Volume 5 Number 1 Pages and 7.)

In a time when there was rampant anti-semitism, Oscar was appointed the first Jewish emissary/Minister to Islamic Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) where he became a favorite of the Sultan and had to deal with such pressing problems as Palestine and the Armenians. He was also the first Jew to serve in a Presidential Cabinet (Theodore Roosevelt – Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor 1906-1909)

Gave his personal bond so that all Armenian refugees who came to the United States would be allowed to enter

He was a trusted advisor to every President from Grover Cleveland to Calvin Coolidge

Advocated morality in politics and election reform

Staunch advocate of Women's Suffrage

He was instrumental in the development of the modern Diplomatic Corps

He was a proponent of the League of Nations and was a trusted advisor for President Wilson.

Served on the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague from 1902 until his death.

He was in the forefront of the Reform Jewish movement and was a member of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. He lectured extensively on freedom of religion.

Worked tirelessly on behalf of Jewish causes.

He helped raise money for the legal defense of Leo Frank in 1913, and was one of the organizers of the Anti-Defamation League after Frank’s lynching in Marietta, GA in 1915.)

As an author he wrote several books and articles:

Under Four Administrations: From Cleveland to Taft (1922)

The Origin of a Republican Form of Government in the United States (1885)

Roger Williams, The Pioneer of Religious Liberty (1894)

The Development of Religious Liberty in the United States

The American Spirit (Speeches 1913)

He died in 1926.

During the recent Straus family pilgrimage to discover their roots in Otterberg, Germany, a plaque had been commissioned by the town and placed opposite their city hall. The family was surprised at the unveiling that it was not the progenitor Lazarus or the entire family being honored, but Oscar S. Straus!

It was reaffirmation that he came out from the shadow of the other members of his illustrious and successful family.

Oscar Straus Quotes:

One half of the misery of the world results from ignorance and the remainder results from passion. I am sure that a large share of the trouble between capital and labor are traceable to these two disturbing factors.

The New York Times reported that, at a dinner of the Baptist Union on November 13, 1911, Oscar S. Strauss stated that he had changed his mind “as to the advisability to the settlement of all international disputes by conclusive arbitration, and has come at last to agree with Col. Theodore Roosevelt that the surest means to preserving peace is the strongest possible Navy”. He said, “Many of our wise pacifists have developed into belligerent pacifists. I confess that I belong to that school myself. Before the war began, the proposition presented itself in the glaring phrase, ‘Utopia or hell!’ Cam you blame us for choosing Utopia? We did not realize that we had to wade through the jaws of hell to reach Utopia.”

Had diplomacy been a career nothing would have pleased me more than to continue in such service of my country.

There is a higher form of patriotism than nationalism, and that higher form is not limited by the boundaries of one's country; but by a duty to mankind to safeguard the trust of civilization.

I look upon the Russian persecution (of the Jews under the Czars) as another of those disguised lessing to our race that will force them out from their degraded conditions into more civilized lands, where there is some hope and every chance for their rising up to the standard of our Western Civilization.


Previous Tour Marm Posting on the Straus Family

For Further Study:

Straus Historical Society

A Duel Heritage: The Public Career of Oscar S. Strauss

Record of the Oscar Strauss Memorial Association

Straus Family Tour of Talbotton and Columbus

Rededication of the memorial


EHT said...

Well, kiss my grits you taught me something. I did not know that connection. Very interesting!

I'll make a note to link to this soon at Georgia On My Mind.

Thanks for the Georgia history lesson!

The Tour Marm said...

Well, you've taught me a lot, too!

But I would think that you might investigate him further for the American Presidents blog. His service for four Presidents, especially Theodore Roosevelt seems extraordinary. There are so many letters and journal entries that give a personal glimpse into those administrations.