Hello again, Perham!
It was a trip worth waiting 65 years for.
Siblings Chernie, Arthur, Betty and Larry, the children of one of Perham’s last pioneering Jewish families, the Braufmans, returned to town recently to revisit their birthplace, a place they still consider home in their hearts.
It was the first time the four of them had all been together in Perham since 1949, when they moved with their mother to the Twin Cities to receive a Jewish education. Their father stayed behind to continue running the family business, Braufman’s Department Store, and would take the train to see them on weekends.
They were just kids then. Chernie, the oldest, was a junior in high school; Larry, the youngest, was only four years old.
Yet, all these years later, every one of them still has clear memories of Perham. And to hear them tell it, every memory is a good one.
Arthur, for example, fondly recalls selling red poppies at the Memorial Day parades as a boy. And he still laughs at how the central telephone operator, Olga, always seemed to know exactly where everybody in town was at any time.
There were no paved streets in Perham then, he said, and no traffic lights. There were about 1,800 people who lived in town – about half the current population – and because their father owned the department store, they knew just about every one of them.
In separate telephone interviews with the siblings last week, they each described Perham as a tight-knit community full of friendly people.
“We were really pretty young, but we remember it well,” Arthur said. “We all have warm feelings about town.”
Arthur was 11 years old when he moved out of Perham. Today, he’s 76. Of the four siblings, he lives the furthest away now, in Berkeley, Calif. The other three live in the Twin Cities area.
They’re a close bunch, and all of them have been back to Perham in the decades since ‘49, but never all at once. Never all together. When that finally happened a couple of weeks ago, according to Larry, their hearts were collectively racing.
Driving in on Highway 10, “as soon as we saw the skyline of Perham...that was just so meaningful to us,” Larry said. “It’s so wonderful to see that place where you were born. It’s a place in your heart. It’s your roots.”
“We still feel we belong here,” said Chernie (Levinson, after marriage). “You ask any one of us and we’ll tell you, we’re happy to have come from Perham.”
While here, the Braufmans visited their old family store on Main Street (now Photo Magic), and the house they grew up in. They drove through the city, exploring it from end to end, and roamed around downtown, laughing, reminiscing and taking photographs along the way.
“We absolutely loved it,” said Betty (Greenstein). “We went up and down the streets while we were there. We all got emotional. It was wonderful.”
It was a short trip, only a one-day visit, but they took in a lot, making note of the many things that have changed over the years, plus some things that have stayed the same.
“We were so thrilled to see how prosperous the town looked when we came back,” said Arthur. “It really looks wonderful. It’s nice to see that this little town is thriving.”
“You can just tell it’s a healthy town,” said Larry. “The thing that impressed all of us more than anything is how well kept everything is.”
They remarked on the new hospital, the street lights, the schools and the water tower. They noted the obvious growth of the town, and how their old store and house have changed.
Still, there was a familiar feeling to it all.
As Betty said, “It was like being back home. It didn’t seem too different.”
Coming to Perham
The Braufman family’s history in Perham dates back to 1930, when newlyweds Philip and Pauline bought a store on Main Street and, despite the beginnings of the Great Depression, bravely opened for business.
Philip, born in Iasi, Romania, had been living in America since he was 22 years old, working for his uncle at a general store in North Dakota. Pauline was a Minnesota native who helped her parents run a grocery store in St. Paul.
According to Missy Hermes of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, Philip and Pauline fit right into Perham, where Jewish settlers were accepted and welcomed. Perham was home to the first Jewish settlers in Otter Tail County, and a handful of Jewish families had lived and worked in the town ever since.
Philip and Pauline found success with their store, Braufman’s Department Store. They also began raising a family: their four children, Chernie, Arthur, Betty and Larry.
Philip got involved in the community in ways outside the business, joining the Perham Masonic Lodge and Chamber of Commerce. His children say he was well respected in town.
According to later accounts by the kids, the whole family felt comfortable in Perham, and thoroughly enjoyed living here.
Nevertheless, Philip and Pauline wanted to ensure that their children received a Jewish education, and that meant moving somewhere with a larger Jewish population. Larry recalled that the family was one of about five Jewish families living in Perham at the time.
They decided that Pauline would move with the four children to the Twin Cities area. Philip, not wanting to close the department store, stayed in an apartment above the store during the week, and traveled by train to the cities on weekends to see his family.
That went on for 14 years, Larry said: “Dad was dedicated to his family and his business.”
“Our parents really sacrificed so we could get a Jewish education, but every one of us just loved Perham,” said Betty.
Eventually, in 1962, Philip sold the store, and the family’s physical ties to Perham ended.
The memories, though, never left their hearts and minds.
(Coincidentally, Hermes noted, Philip’s hometown of Iasi, Romania, was also the hometown of Perham’s first Jewish settlers, Samuel and Maurice Cohen, who preceded Philip’s arrival by 35 years. Had the men stayed in Romania, Hermes said, they would have likely been killed. The Jewish community in Iasi “was obliterated in a horrible pogrom [massacre] perpetrated by fascist Romanians in June 1941, a well-known incident of the Holocaust,” she said.
Hermes wasn’t sure, but she thought the Braufmans might have been the last Jewish family to own a business in Perham. New York Mills also had a Jewish-owned store at the time, run by Louis and Anna Winogradof, and there were several more in Fergus Falls.)