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The Master Watchmaker
Alfred Blum, a Chicago Jewish watchmaker, fled Germany with his wife just before World War II broke out. This profile pays tribute to Blum, who passed away on Sunday, April 10, at the age of 95. This article first ran in JUF News in September of 2000.
Alfred and Reni Blum remember dates like the numbers on a clock. Sitting at the kitchen table in their spacious Northbrook apartment, they throw dates back and forth at each other, sometimes in German, usually in English. "I started my apprenticeship in 1924," Alfred begins. "Trade school in 1934," Reni replies. "That's right, Mrs. Blum," jokes Alfred.
And they have many dates to remember. Alfred is a sharp 90 years old, while Reni is 86, but looks and acts like a 60-year-old. Here's another big number. They'll be married 64 years in October, meaning they have many dates to remember together.
The Blums have been referring to Alfred's career, starting as a boy of 14, as a superb watchmaker. They are proud that he sat at the top of his craft for so many years and of his prominence here in Chicago. "He went down for lunch every day," Reni said. "He sits at the counter. The man at the counter would say, 'Hi Joe, what are you going to have today? Phil, what are you going to have today? Mr. Blum, what would you like today?' Always Mr. Blum."
But Alfred didn't care for formality. He preferred to be treated just like a regular guy. Everybody likes Alfred Blum because he is a gentle man. His friends, his customers, everybody likes him.
"When Alfred entered the watch business in Germany, he was not treated nearly as royally. After finishing technical school in 1934 in Frankfurt, the pre-war instability forced him to escape to Dusseldorf. There, he applied to the commissioner for acceptance into the master's program. He waited for months and months, but because he was Jewish, "on account of my being non-Aryan," he was refused.
Alfred's mother encouraged him to flee to Africa, where he wouldn't need a visa. His bags were packed but, before he could leave, he met his future wife, Reni. They dated for two years in Dusseldorf and married on the Halloween of 1937.
As the picture grew bleaker in Germany, Reni's friends were arrested for telling anti-government stories. Two-and-a-half months after Alfred and Reni's wedding, they got out of Germany, and just in time. A relative in Africa, a Member of Parliament, provided them with affidavits to leave for America.
"Because Reni's brother and sister lived in Chicago, the Blums immigrated here. "I want to show you how much money I had when I arrived in the United States," Alfred laughed and pointed to a crinkled German travel document with the sum of $4 scribbled on the page. But that would soon change.
After Alfred had repaired watches in his apartment for only a few days, Reni's brother found him work with his own employer--Sears. Alfred got the job right away.
Many of the Blums' friends immigrated around the same time, some becoming successful doctors and lawyers. "They made $8 a week, $10 a week," Alfred said. Yet he made more, a whopping $31 per week.
He was flawlessly trained, according to Reni. "He was a special watchmaker," she said. "We were very well known in Chicago. He was the German watchmaker from Germany. That's the way it was."
Soon after working for Sears, Alfred took a job at the Clinton Watch Company in Chicago. Hyman Wein, the head of the company, began a watch repair school for immigrants through the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Who better to teach these classes than Alfred? He volunteered for two years, first working his regular job at Clinton until 5 p.m. Alfred would follow his workday with a rushed dinner of prime rib in a basement restaurant on Wabash Avenue. From 6 to 9 at night, Alfred taught both the disabled and war veterans at JVS.
It was finally time for the Blums to start their own jewelry business. In 1940, they opened up shop in the Pittsfield Building. Reni sold the merchandise and Alfred fixed watches. They ran their business for 50 years to the day.
Back in Dusseldorf, Alfred's parents and sister were sent to a concentration camp. His mother and sister were killed in the camp, but his father escaped and fled to England. Alfred could now afford to send $700, his complete savings, to his father so that he could immigrate to the United States.
The Blums visited Alfred's hometown of Gedern, Germany, in the 1970s. During their visit, they spotted a doll collectibles store, where Reni hoped to buy a pretty doll to bring back to their granddaughter. When they entered the shop, Alfred and the storeowner immediately recognized one another. "Do you remember me?" Alfred barked at the owner. "If I would have known that you'd be here I would not have come in here. You were the first one who said Jews are not welcome here." The couple then walked out of the store.
In contrast to their experiences in Germany, they live happy lives here in Chicago. They have a wide circle of friends, mainly German immigrants whom they met after immigrating to Chicago.
Alfred and Reni have raised a close-knit family: two children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren all living in close proximity. Their secret to their happy marriage is "give and take."
Here in their Northbrook home, I admire Reni's unusual watch. It has a red leather band and a painter's palette for the face. She takes off the watch and hands it to me. "You take it. I have another one." I refuse, but they insist. "When someone offers you a gift," says Alfred, translating warmly from Yiddish to English, "you take it."
I do just that. When Alfred talks, people listen.