Philip Greenberg

Philip Greenberg

March 6, 1898- October 7, 1965 (story combined with his wife, Ida)

Family: Married to Ida Werner, they had 3 children: Abe, Leon and Ned

When Philip Greenberg was 10 years old, he was whisked out of Minsk, Russia, where he had grown up because he would soon be conscripted. He had a sister living in the United States, but there was nobody to travel with him, so they got him out of Russia and he walked to Bremen, Germany, where he took a boat alone.

He had a little money in his pocket and something around his neck with his name on it and instructions that he was supposed to go to his sister in Georgia – he spoke no English. He went through Ellis Island, and someone sent a telegram to the sister in Georgia and put him on a train.

He was put off the train in Augusta, Ga., but nobody was there to meet him. He waited and waited as trains came and went, and at the end of the day when the stationmaster was ready to lock up, he gave Philip some food and locked him inside the train station. This went on for three days until the sister came to get him – apparently the telegram had taken several days to arrive.

When he was about 20, a mutual acquaintance from his home area of Russia – a landsman – told him there were some girls in New York he should meet, and he was introduced to Ida, who had come to New York with a sibling.

They married and moved to Norway, South Carolina, where they owned a store. Ida, who didn’t speak three words of English, found herself in a town of 500 people who likely had never met a Jew before. After having three children, Philip and Ida decided the kids needed a formal Jewish education. They sold the store and returned to New York.

People were touting land in Florida, and the couple decided to buy and car and drive to Florida to see about buying land there. On the trip, they drove down U.S. 1, looking for the turnoff to Raleigh, but went to Durham instead.

Even though it was 1932, the height of the Depression, the tobacco factories were running full steam, people were smoking cigarettes like crazy. They stayed in the Washington Duke hotel, which was an elegant downtown hotel at that time.

They decided to walk around, and saw a number of stores with Jewish names on them. They met some people, and someone directed them to the rabbi’s house, and by the end of the day, they’d decided to stay in Durham – and in fact had rented an apartment across from the synagogue.

Between 1936 and 1940, Philip sold used furniture, and when Camp Butner opened, he was able to supply the soldiers setting up their households with furniture and goods such as refrigerators, which were hard to come by at that time.

His business was called the Durham Auction House, and he’d travel to New York and buy used furniture during the week, then return to Durham and sell it on weekends. After World War II, their son Abe joined the business, which then was Town and Country Furniture.

Philip and Ida were involved members of Beth El.

“Anything they needed they could call on my faither-in-law for the money and on my mother-in-law to do the work,” said Blue Greenberg, their daughter-in-law.

Ida was a member of the chevra kadisha; that was her gift. She frequently would respond to calls in the middle of the night.

“This was the thing that she gave willingly to her community,” Blue said. “My mother-in-law worked so hard for the synagogue.”

She also loved to cook big meals and she and other women would cook up a kosher meal for 100 people at the drop of a hat.

“She wasn’t a terribly good cook, but she made huge quantities of food for lots of people,” Blue said.

Ida kept a kosher home and Blue (who grew up Reform in Richmond, Va.) said there was some pressure for her to keep kosher as well when she married Abe Greenberg in 1947, but they were able to resolve the issue -- they would eat in Blue’s home as they would in restaurants.

Blue and Abe lived in Durham for 40 years, and had two daughters and a son, who was bar mitzvahed at Beth El.

“The Greenberg family was really a Beth El family,” Blue said.