Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Harold Baker, May 3, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Family history

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Partial Transcript: It's, uh, May 3rd, 2016, and my name is Arwen Donahue. I'm part of the interviewing team for the Jewish Fund for Historical Excellence Oral History Project, and I'm very pleased to welcome Harold Baker today to, uh, be interviewed for our oral history project. Thank you so much for coming.

Segment Synopsis: Baker's father and mother immigrated from Poland and Lithuania, respectively, in the early 1900s and settled with family in the Lexington area. His father sold his business in Winchester and established Baker Metal in an old hemp factory in 1921. Although he did not have much experience with the scrap metal business as a child, Baker attended the College of Commerce at the University of Kentucky in preparation to take over the family business. He signed up with the United States Army in 1943, and eventually took over the business after the war in 1945.

Keywords: Baker's Scrap Metal; Building businesses; Business obstacles; Centralia (Ill.); Chain immigration; Childhood; Colleges; Commerce; Cyclical business; Danville (Ky.); East European immigrants; Education; Evelyn Baker; Family businesses; Gloria Baker; History; Ida Wides; Jake Green; Joe Green; Military service; Morris Baker; Scrap metal; Small businesses; Stores; Sylvia Green; United States Army; Universities; University of Kentucky; Winchester (Ky.)

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Entrepreneurship; Family histories.; Jewish businesspeople; Jewish families.; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership; World War, 1939-1945--Veterans.

00:06:08 - United States military service during World War II

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Partial Transcript: Tell me about your experience in the army. Did you, did you enlist?

Segment Synopsis: Before taking over the family business, Baker enlisted in the United States Army in 1943 and was stationed at the U.S. military base in Natal, Brazil. He returned to Kansas City, Missouri in 1945 and eventually married his childhood sweetheart, Anita Roos. When his father fell ill, he returned home to Lexington and took over the family business.

Keywords: Anita Roos; Baker Iron & Metal; Courting; Family businesses; History; Jewish businesses; Jewish marriage; Kansas City (Mo.); Marriage; Military bases; Military service; Music; Natal (Brazil); New York (N.Y.); Scrap metal; United States Army; World War II

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership; World War, 1939-1945--Veterans.

GPS: Location of Natal, Brazil.
Map Coordinates: 5.779, 35.200
00:12:16 - Jewish life in Lexington in the 1920s and 1930s

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Partial Transcript: How important was Judaism in your family growing up, and how did you, how did you practice Judaism?

Segment Synopsis: Although his parents grew up Orthodox, he and his family began attending services at Ohavay Zion Synagogue and Baker attended Sunday school at Temple Adath Israel. Baker eventually became a member of the Temple Adath Israel congregation with his wife, and the congregation became a centerpiece of their social life. He also talks about his extracurricular activities while attending University High and later Henry Clay High School, which included a role on the yearbook, newspaper, and student council. He was not as active in extracurricular activities while at the University of Kentucky, which he attributes to not being part of a fraternity.

Keywords: Anita Roos; Bar mitzvahs; Civic clubs; Civic involvement; Henry Clay High School (Lexington); High schools; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish networks; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; Jews in civic/social scene; Judaism; Kheyder (see also Hebrew school, Sunday school); Orthodox Judaism; Prejudice; Reform Judaism; Religious life; Religious practices; Religious services; School clubs and organizations; Sunday school

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Childhood; Discrimination.; Jewish children; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; University of Kentucky; Worship (Judaism)

00:19:47 - Running the scrap metal business in the 1950s and 1960s

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Partial Transcript: Well, tell me more about the business, then.

Segment Synopsis: Baker was originally supposed to take over his family's gasoline distribution business, but when his father died in 1945 they sold it and Baker took over the scrap metal business instead. Baker describes the cyclical nature of the scrap metal industry, which would boom around every four or five years. The business grew after IBM (International Business Machines) opened in Lexington in 1956. Baker also discusses the importance of building connections with other scrap business owners and of attending industry conventions in addressing business obstacles. Although nearly 90% of scrap metal businesses were Jewish-owned, Judaism did not play a large role in the industry or at conventions.

Keywords: Baker Iron & Metal; Blue family; Building businesses; Charlie Schwartz; Cohen family; Competitors; Conventions; Cyclical business; Dave Bollatin; Family businesses; Gasoline business; Gordon family; International Business Machines Corporation (IBM); Jay Bollatin; Jewish businesses; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish networks; Jewish population; Junk business; Klempner family; Mansbach family; Marvin Bing; Munich family; Rod Ratliff; Scrap metal; Small businesses; Stan Rose; Steel mills

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Jewish families.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.); Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

00:33:57 - The role of Judaism growing up in 1920s and 1930s Lexington

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Partial Transcript: Um, can you give me a sense of what your Jud--what your Jewishness meant to you?

Segment Synopsis: Judaism was an influential part of Baker's life, as a cultural, social, and religious force. He attended Temple Adath Israel on Friday nights where his wife sang in the choir. Although he maintained a Jewish identity while attending the University of Kentucky, the Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) had not been formed yet. Baker also remembers an instance of anti-Semitism as a child when someone called him a name and they got into a fight, but otherwise he describes Lexington as a relatively accepting town.

Keywords: A. B. Grossman's Store; Baker family; Culture; Fraternity; Greek life (fraternities, sororities); Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish holidays; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish practices; Kashrut (see also Kosher food); Prejudice; Religious practices; Religious services; Ruth Gordon Baker; Temple; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); University of Kentucky; Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT)

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Holidays.; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.); Worship (Judaism)

00:37:25 - Learning about the Holocaust in the 1930s

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Partial Transcript: Well I'm, I'm, I'm wondering what it was like for you being in college, like, I assume you were at UK [University of Kentucky] when World War II started in 1939, and how much did you know about what was going on in Europe, the Holocaust, and how did, how did that translate into Jewish life in Lexington?

Segment Synopsis: When World War II broke out in 1939, Baker learned about the persecution of the European Jewish community from his father, who read the Jewish Daily Forward and spoke with family members in Europe. Most English newspapers did not carry information regarding the Holocaust and most school courses did not cover it. Before there was an established Synagogue or Temple to practice at, the Jewish community would practice at local Jewish stores, including A. B. Grossman's store located on Water Street.

Keywords: A. B. Grossman; Cultural acceptance; German Jews; Holocaust; International relations; Jewish Daily Forward; Jewish persecution; Jewish practices; Kashrut (see also Kosher food); Morris Baker; News; Newspapers; Ohavay Zion Synagogue (Lexington); Religious practices; Religious services; Services; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); World War II

Subjects: Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945); Holocaust.; Religion; World War, 1939-1945; Worship (Judaism)

00:43:46 - Selling the family scrap metal business in 2003

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Partial Transcript: I just came across a quote from The Forward that I wanted to read to you and see what you have, have to say about it. Um, "Scrap metal is one of the oldest Jewish businesses in America. As it goes the way of globalization, a particularly Jewish, if mostly unnoticed way of life disappears with it." Do you have any reaction or thoughts about that?

Segment Synopsis: Several scrap metal businesses merged in the 1990s due to economic pressures, and Baker talks about the decision to sell his business to the Cohens in 2003. He also describes his role as a temple leader in the '50s and as temple president from 1961 to 1963, including the challenge of expanding the building due to a growing congregation.

Keywords: Baker Iron & Metal; Building businesses; Business obstacles; Consolidation; Family businesses; Globalization; Jewish businesses; Mergers; Scrap metal

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

00:48:28 - Leadership positions with Temple Adath Israel in the 1950s and 1960s

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Partial Transcript: What are your children's names, and when they were--when were they born?

Segment Synopsis: Baker raised his children with a strong Jewish identity, even though he believes that their practice differs from his. Baker describes his involvement with Temple Adath Israel which included administrative roles, fundraising, and contributing to Temple expansion and the hiring and firing of rabbis. He was also the president of the board from 1961 to 1963. The major challenge that he faced as president was the decision to move the Temple on Tabor Road, but they eventually sold that property and expanded the current building. Many families were members of both the Temple and Ohavay Zion Synagogue, which Baker believes contributed to a healthy relationship between both congregations. Baker also discusses his involvement with B'nai Brith.

Keywords: B'nai Brith; Bar mitzvahs; Ben Baker; Bobby Baker; Child-rearing; Cohen family; Generational changes; Gloria Baker; Jewish education; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish population; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; Michael Baker; Modern life; News; Population growth; Religious life; Religious practices; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); Temple expansion

Subjects: Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Worship (Judaism)

00:58:22 - Changing landscape of Lexington's Jewish identity

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned your grandchildren. Would you tell me their names?

Segment Synopsis: Baker discusses the changes in the Jewish community in Lexington that he has witnessed, including the declining membership at Temple Adath Israel in recent years. He highlights the role that Israel has had in the formation of Jewish identity in the Lexington Jewish community, especially before Israeli independence. Finally, he discusses his role as a temple leader in the expansion of Temple Adath Israel.

Keywords: B'nai Brith; Child-rearing; Civic clubs; Civic involvement; Family values; Generational changes; Generations; History; Holidays; International relations; Jewish communities; Jewish holidays; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish networks; Jewish organizations; Jewish population; Jewish tradition; Jews in civic/social scene; Kheyder (see also Hebrew school, Sunday school); Membership; Moving; News; Sunday school; Temple; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); Temple Expansion; Zionism

Subjects: Israel.; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.)