Songs Of Innocence – Part One- “They’ve done this before…”

“Youth of delight come hither

And see the opening morn,

Image of truth new-born.”

 – William Blake

Mr and Mrs Ochs’ parents left Germany separately, though for all too similar reasons. Like many liberal Jews they sought safety, away from the autocratic rulers of Germany and headed west. Perhaps their shared experiences drew them together when they met in Natchez, Mississippi. Two years later, in Nashville, Tennessee, they married and soon after headed north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they started a family, before heading south again, to Knoxville, Tennessee.

It was in Knoxville that their eldest son, at the age of only eleven, with dreams of becoming a journalist, began working as an office boy for the Knoxville Chronicle. At the age of 19 he borrowed $250 to buy a controlling stake in the Chattanooga Times. At the age of 36, again with borrowed money, he bought into the New York Times, giving it the motto, ‘All the News That’s Fit To Print’, transforming it from a struggling paper to a paper with a circulation of over 300,000. Adolph Ochs’ great grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher of the Times, ensures that the name Ochs remains synonymous with that great old newspaper.

Try as he might, Phil Ochs could never find any link between his family of Ochs’s and The New York Times Ochs’s.

Jewish demonstration against Russian oppression, Mlawa 1904

Phil’s father Jacob’s parents’ families left the same northern Polish town of Mława and settled in New York City’s Lower East Side.  The long Jewish history of Mława is riddled with persecution, documented beautifully in 1949 by Dr. Ze’ev Jonis in his work Jewish Mława; It’s History, Development, Destruction. He tells of a segregated existence between Jews and Gentiles, interspersed with periods of hostility. He tells of early Jewish communities having no say at all in the running of the town, before slowly gaining influence. The Russian rule from 1795 became ever more anti-Semitic, the anti-Semitism which must have been a major factor in Jacob Ochs’ parents migration to the USA.

Jewish life in Mława continued, problematically in the Ochs’s absence. Ironically, given the events that would follow, the entry of German troops into Mława in 1914, in pursuit of fleeing Russian troops, brought greater freedoms to the people of the town, with the Germans welcomed as liberators, especially by the one-third of the town who were Jewish. One consequence of these freedoms however was an upsurge in Polish (Gentile) run shops, resulting in a boycott of the once-thriving Jewish-run shops. This anti-Jewish prejudice would pale against the events later in the century.

The website, within its pages documenting the Jewish people of Mława, contains a photograph of the staff and editorial board of the Agudat Yisrael (the political party representing orthodox Jews) newspaper Undzer Tribune, undated but presumably from the early part of the Twentieth century. Each man on the photo is numbered 1-13, each identified by Moshe Peles, Chairman of the Mława Organisation in Israel in April 1999. Of the thirteen one man remains unidentified, one was living in Los Angeles, one died in the USA, three died in Israel and the other six perished in the Holocaust.  According to the Mława Remembrance Initiative over 7000 Jews from Mława were murdered during the Holocaust.


The relative safety of New York City however brought with it its own travails. Jacob’s father ran a grocery store, not dissimilar, one would imagine, to the one run by Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud’s terrific novel The Assistant. In Malamud’s book there is a conflict between the necessities of business and the Bober families struggle to maintain their Jewish identity. By the time Phil was growing up, as Marc Eliot notes in his book Death Of A Rebel, “being Jewish meant nothing to [the Ochs children], other than getting off school for the Jewish holidays”.  What the Ochs’s and the Bober’s lacked in prosperity, they made up for in a kind of stoic dignity borne of strong will and self-preservation.

In 1914, as German troops entered their home town, Fanny and Joe Ochs moved their young family away from New York City to Rockaway Beach in the borough of Queens, New York, having branched out from grocery store owner to building bungalows. Rockaway Beach retains an aura within pop-culture far separate from the very real place that two generations of Ochs’s called home. Thanks to The Ramones it is a place that symbolises escape, escape from the oppressive heat of a New York City summer, a place of sanctuary for the beach-loving Dee-Dee Ramone;

“It’s not hard not far to reach/

We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach”.

Gertrude Ochs, nee Phin

In the early part of the 1900’s Rockaway Beach changed from a rather up-market neighbourhood, to a more open area, a place for average New Yorkers to day-trip and summer, amongst the arcades and trestle boardwalks. By the time The Ramones wrote about it so evocatively it had fallen into disrepair, a shadow of its former self, a place where, according to Nancy Trejos of The Washington Post, “crime and drugs were almost as ubiquitous…as hot dogs and French fries”. Rockaway couldn’t compete with moneyed and modernised amusements at Coney Island and Jones Beach. Perhaps it is fitting that it was there, in his sister Sonny’s place, the year before The Ramones released their ode to Rockaway, that Phil Ochs took his life.

Whatever relative prosperity enabled the Ochs family to head out of the city to Far Rockaway was still something of a shock to Gertrude, Phil’s mother. The daughter of middle class comfort, she had grown accustomed to the comforts afforded by her father’s tobacco business in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to Michael Schumacher’s book There But For Fortune, she took some persuading that Jack Ochs, this excitable young American was husband material. Not so her parents. Handsome, Jewish, medical student…he fit the bill. And the stories he told of his family’s bungalow by the sea, the glamour of New York, the possibilities afforded by life in the U.S.A…

The site of Phil’s grandfather’s tobacco shop in 2011, now a charity shop

Jewish American medical students were hardly a rarity in Edinburgh in the 1930’s. In 1933 some 2052 American medical students were studying abroad, mostly in Scotland and Switzerland. Of these, 90% were Jewish; a direct consequence of the Jewish quota at work in American medical colleges, known as ‘Numerous Clausus’, for the sake of wrapping prejudice in fancy sounding language. According to Leon Sokoloff’s study the quota system, unofficial of course, derived from a “wide perception that the country had too many Jewish medical students and that the ‘racial imbalance’ should be controlled”. In 1934, for example, The Association of American Colleges reported that more than 60% of applicants to American medical colleges were Jewish. Between 1920 and 1940 at least half of medical students at New York University and the Long Island College of Medicine, the most likely places for Jack Ochs to have applied, were Jewish. Sokoloff states that “the administration of the city colleges literally discouraged prospective candidates from applying to medical school”.

Between 1902 and 1931, as the standards for the teaching of medicine in American universities were tightened, the numbers of medical school in the U.S. dropped from 162 to 76. Colleges were forced into limiting the number of successful applicants, regardless of ability. College application forms began asking for information regarding religion or ‘racial origin’ and when these proved controversial, ‘mother’s maiden name’. W.S Ladd, the dean of Cornell University Medical College admitted in April 1940 that “we limit the numbers of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state”.

According to Sokoloff, “Scottish [medical] schools had advantages beyond their historical religious tolerance: they did not require learning a new language. They were relatively inexpensive. The academic quality was high”. So it was, that to escape prejudice, Jacob Ochs went in the opposite direction to his grandparents, and headed east, to Edinburgh, Scotland.




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