Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who was Isidor Thornschein? (Part II)

Since my first post about Isidor Thorschein on January 30, 2010, I had the good fortune to be contacted by a couple of his distant relatives, Bobbi Stern and Phillip Walker. Based on their information, the story that emerges about Mr. Thornschein's life is bittersweet. He apparently moved to the United States with his family in the early 20th century. He then moved back to Europe, but returned to the States (with his older daughter Anna) by the late 1920s. He appeared to be man of means (in addition to being a painter) and was involved in various investments, as evidenced by the airplane patent noted in the previous post.

Phillip Walker sent me a fascinating clipping which describes the vagaries of another project with which Mr. Thornschein was associated. Appearing in the Los Angeles Times on December 25, 1929 and entitled "Secret Worth Million: Chemist Who Ca Make Fuel at a $1 a Ton Faces Bleak, Penniless Christmas," the article tells the story of Heinrich Weber, an Austrian chemist from Lemberg (perhaps the L.A.Times did not recognize Poland's claim to East Galica?) was brought over to the United States by Moses Rosenthal and Isidore Thornschein, who had saved Weber from having to serve in the military during World War I. Weber claimed to know a way of mixing water with coal dust that would generate fuel for $1 a ton. He apparently did a demonstration for a couple of coal companies, which told him that they would be interested if he patented his invention. Weber refused to do so, afraid that his idea would be stolen, but offered (generously, of course) to sell the formula outright for $1,000,000. The Times doesn't say why, but no one took Mr. Weber up on his offer. Rosenthal and Thornschein were able to obtain a court order preventing Weber from leaving the country or from divulging the secret to anyone but his erstwhile sponsors.

Mr.Thornschein's wife, Honora, and younger daughter, Dora, stayed in Europe. We don't know if they were separated, or if Mr. Thornschein traveled back and forth. In any event, according to a report submitted by Mrs. Thornschein's grandnephew, Yosef Rum, to Yad Vashem, his great aunt and her daughter were killed in Transnistria, an area of Ukraine that was held by the Romanian army, and which carried out mass murder against the Jews who were concentrated there. As I noted in my first posting about Mr. Thornschein, as his obituary in the New York Times notes, he was searching for his relatives in Europe when he died. He probably never learned what happened to them. Perhaps it was better that way.

The story does not stop there. Mr. Thornschein continued to take an active role in the Old Broadway Synagogue and published a congratulatory message in our 35th Anniversary Dinner Journal on June 19, 1946. By April 15, 1947, he was dead. I have not been able to find cause of death, but a broken heart was undoubtedly a contributing factor. At a memorial service given May 18, 1947, William Joachim, the then president of the shul, wrote that Mr. Thornschein was a "dynamic personality, a good man, a righteous soul, a noble Jew and a loyal American..." Mr. Joachim continued that Mr. Thornschein had revitalized the synagogue in many ways including installing a modern steam heating system (I heard that there had been a potbellied coal stove originally), that the pulpit be re-carpeted, that new menorah lights be installed on the podium, that the Torahs be dressed in new mantels and that a new parochet be hung, that the building be redecorated, that the facade be sandblasted (I guess they didn't follow the halakhos then of historic preservation), that a recreation lounge be constructed on the lower floor, and finally that the membership be raised from 38 to 70 (we are still working on that one!).

These are all tremendous accomplishments, and when one recalls the personal suffering that Mr. Thornschein was going through at this time, they are all the more impressive. I dare say that without Mr. Thornschein's efforts our shul and our community would not be functioning today. His effort should continue to inspire us, and in this way Isidor Thornschein's memory will continue to be for a blessing.

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