Arnold Schwarzbart: History is the things we must never forget

Betty BeanOur Town Stories

I abandoned my plan to write about how crazy the housing industry’s getting when I came across a 2016 Facebook post by Mary Linda Schwarzbart about the work she’s doing to preserve the legacy of her late husband, Arnold, and his family. Arnold, who died in 2015, was an architect and acclaimed artist specializing in Judaica.

Her post: “I have spent much of the afternoon scanning documents to use for a history of my father-in-law. Will share more about that later, but here is one photo – this photo was in the News Sentinel. The family is in Salzburg, Austria, en route to the U.S., sponsored by Max Friedman, a cousin of Arnold’s grandfather.”

The post included a 1951 News Sentinel photo of a family looking at a map of the United States with this caption:

“DESTINATION KNOXVILLE, USA – At Salzburg, Austria, a Polish refugee family, Mr. and Mrs. Isak Schwarzbart, and Arnold, 9, looks at the map to find their future home, Knoxville. Their resettlement sponsor is Councilman Max Friedman, Knoxville businessman, who has found the father a tailoring job here, the International Refugee Organization says. IRO is paying the Schwarzbarts’ transportation. They are scheduled to sail from Bremerhaven, Germany, and reach New Orleans April 1.”

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m not ashamed to admit that this picture and the brief summation of its meaning put a lump in my throat and made me want to know more. Although I was not personally acquainted with Arnold Schwarzbart or his parents, Isadore and Frieda, I have long been an admirer of his art and now, of his family’s talent and fortitude, now that I know something of their classic American success story.

I didn’t know Max Friedman, either. He died before I got interested in local politics, but I remembered that he’d been on the city council and owned a big jewelry story on Gay Street back in the days when my grandmother used to take me downtown on the city bus. There’s the bridge named for him down where Cumberland Avenue meets Kingston Pike, too, but I had no real idea of what he was about, or that he was an immigrant, too.

Reading further down Mary Linda’s post helped to start filling in some gaps, as she talked about artifacts she inherited from her in-laws: “I have the tags they wore in the DP camp; found the ship they came on; Arnold’s class photos and workbooks from his 1st and 2nd grades in Vienna, where they went after the war, until coming to the U.S.”

The Schwarzbarts didn’t leave Austria voluntarily. The Austrian government forced non-native-born Jews to leave that year, and the Schwarzbarts were very fortunate to have a powerful, generous relative on this side of the Atlantic to sponsor them. It helped that Arnold’s father, Isadore, was a skilled tailor who went to work for clothier John H. Daniel and built a 25-year career there. When I reached out to Mary Linda, she generously summarized the family’s experiences:

“Arnold’s family was from Tarnopol, Ukraine, but he was born in Russia where his mother with her father got to during the war. After the war, the family moved to Vienna, where they lived from about 1946 until leaving for Knoxville in 1951. Arnold was nine when they arrived here. I have photos of him on the ship coming over and found the ship online. It had been a troop carrier and was converted to bringing refugees to the U.S. They came in through New Orleans. He practiced architecture from 1969 until 1981, but never gave up his license, finally retiring it.”

She also said she was searching the internet one day and found the name of Arnold’s grandmother – Blima Schwarzbart – on a list of those who died during the Holocaust, most likely at Auschwitz. This means he lost three of his four grandparents that way, plus his father’s siblings and other relatives.

Arnold spoke no English when the family arrived in Knoxville, but he picked it up very quickly. He and Mary Linda met at the Jewish Community Center, which was then on the Broadway end of Vine Street, next door to Temple Beth El. They became sweet on each other right away and started “dating” when they were 12. She was 20 when they married, and they spent 51 years together.

But for Max Friedman, this love story couldn’t have happened. He is a fascinating story all on his own, and deserves better than the short shrift he’ll get in this column.

In a town dominated by Baptist Republicans, Friedman was a Jew, a Democrat and an immigrant who arrived here early in the 20th Century. A man of substance and heart, he was a progressive – not in today’s Democratic Socialist sense of the word, but in an old-school, forward-thinking way that led him to do battle with Cas Walker over everything from fluoridated water to liquor by the drink, frequently teaming up with another Walker nemesis, George Dempster.

Friedman was a close friend of Estes Kefauver and a trusted acquaintance of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, according to family history, included him in a group of advisers enlisted to come up with a campaign slogan for his first presidential campaign. Friedman’s family says he was the one who suggested the slogan “A New Deal for the American People.”

He served nearly 20 years on Knoxville City Council, and his spacious, gleaming jewelry store was a point of hometown pride. But his most significant impact on his city and his country may well be impact of the survivors he was able to bring to the USA. What could be more American than that?

Kiddush cup by Arnold Schwarzbart (from Dean Rice collection)

Mary Linda said she anticipates turning her research over to Steve Cotham, manager of the McClung Historical Collection, so it will be available to future historians. There is a permanent collection of Arnold Schwarzbart’s work at the Schwarzbart Gallery at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center, 6800 Deane Hill Drive. This collection includes Arnold’s only Holocaust-related sculpture, a pit-fired clay piece he named The Shtender, depicting a human form in a prayer shawl standing before a lectern (or shtender, in Yiddish). When you look closely at the sculpture, you’ll see that it’s an apparition. No one’s there. Arnold explained the man under the shawl is gone. “He is ashes. This is what the Holocaust did.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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