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Triumph Over Hardships

One of Jacksonville’s earliest ethnic migrations can be traced to pioneer Philip Dzialynski, who arrived in the city in 1850 at the age of 17 and was its first Jewish entrepreneur. This was the first step of Jewish families relocating and later being involved in city commerce and affecting the local community. In fact, before the 1930s, Jacksonville’s Jewish population was the largest in Florida.

Although initially a small community comprised of early settlers from areas of Germany and Eastern Europe, these immigrants usually traveled from a northern city to a southward destination hoping for a warmer climate and a place where there were business opportunities. Many arrived with few possessions and little money. William Schemer from Lithuania is an example of an immigrant who relocated to Jacksonville. He sold fish on the local streets in the early 1900s from his carriage.

There has been much focus on the Cohen Brothers and Furchgott’s department stores as businesses. Yet there were many other Jewish immigrants who established businesses through hard work and ingenuity. Frank Rosenblum is an example. He arrived in 1896 and had to borrow a buggy, horse, and other items to become a peddler. After saving enough through perseverance and tenacity, he established a clothing store, and by 1934 Rosenblum’s was well-known.

It is noted that these businesspeople were willing to accept risk as one’s reason for their success.  For instance, Ben Friedman and his wife poured their savings into a Vogue Shop on Edgewood Avenue. Their business successfully evolved into the most successfully privately-owned apparel company in Florida.

Another example is Lonnie Wurn, born in Lvov, Poland in 1911. In 1921 he arrived in Jacksonville with his parents, who had changed their name from Wurm. They opened a modest grocery store and lived in a wooden shack in Riverside. Mostly Black customers bought from their store and long hours were normal. For more than a decade, this family were unable to take a vacation. Yet they were able to purchase a horse and a wagon for deliveries. They said that deferring gratification was the secret to their success. For example, a piece of cloth could be divided into two pieces. With that money, you buy a larger piece. But luxury isn’t an option, you must buy more and more cloth. Their son, Lonnie, became salutatorian at Lee High School and graduated with a law degree from the University of Florida. He served as attorney for Ben Setzer, whose family were immigrants from Eastern Europe as well, with little in material possessions.  In fact, Setzer arrived in 1914 and started out in the ice business. Later he opened a grocery store in 1925 and over four decades expanded to 38 supermarkets, which made him a millionaire several times over. 

There are many other Jewish businesspeople with similar stories who have contributed to the commercial success of our city. These include Alexander Brest, Ben Stein, Roy Benjamin, Morris Wolfson, Arvin Rothschild, Bob Myers, Aaron Zacharias, Morton Hirschberg (patron of Cummer Museum). They reflected the way of the immigrant. They arrived with little more than packs on their backs, saved and turned their earnings into businesses, sent for their families after saving some money, and became merchants and businesspeople. Thus, Jacksonville has benefitted from the hard work of our early Jewish neighbors. A fitting tribute for Jewish American Heritage Month or for any time.

Source: Southern Jewish History from the 2009 issue of the Journal of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, v.12. In the collection of the JHS Library.

Georgia Pribanic
Jacksonville Historical Society Librarian

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