by Tara Spencer
Where there are now some rather bland industrial and government-style buildings, there used to stand a stately structure that housed the Pacific School. Surrounded by tidy residential homes, this school was where Ella Fleishman was educated.
Unattributed newspaper article, circa 1905. Likely The Omaha Bee. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
Known for welcoming young students from all faiths and serving nearly every ethnicity, this school was where the future Jewish author of Russian descent* first expressed her desire to become a writer.
Ella demonstrated her talents early in life, if one can judge by her written intent at the age of 10 in 1905 to be an “authoress.” Her photo and the declaration appeared in a story on the Pacific School† that focused on how the children of immigrants learned together at this rather unique school. The author of the piece recognized Ella’s talent, using her as an example of one of the “noble minds” found at this “school of all nations.”
Likely from The Omaha Bee, circa 1905. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
The writer of the piece (which was not listed) described Ella as a slender dark-eyed girl with “a rare foresight almost unknown to children,” able to recognize how much more effective she would be in life with a good education.
Her father, Esau Fleishman, was a rabbi at the orthodox Jewish church. As the Omaha representative of the Industrial Removal Organization (responsible for the
removal and settlement of Jewish refugees), he met every train and found housing for those fleeing persecution, often in his own home until other arrangements could be made. Ella—who spoke several languages by the time she was 10, including English, German, Bohemian, Yiddish, Polish, some Asian languages (unlisted), and of course Russian—often served as an interpreter for the visitors.
Esau was also a mohel and a shohet‡ work which often called him to other Jewish communities in the surrounding area to perform the associated duties. According to Ella’s own book, Jewish Settlement in Nebraska, he was the first secretary of the Omaha Hebrew Club and the first Vice President of Wise Memorial Hospital.
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While it’s not certain, Ella’s Russian parents may have fled to the U.S. during what was considered the second wave of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire. Severe restrictions had been placed on Russian Jews by the czar during the 1880s. As a result of regulations that went into effect in May 1882, Jewish people in Russia were forbidden freedom of movement. They were unable to live outside of towns or own rural lands. Other laws prevented them from seeking higher education.
According to Carol Gendler’s thesis titled “The Jews of Omaha: The First Sixty Years,” which was published in the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, “The instigation of pogroms** in 1881-1882 further outraged Russian Jewry and left great numbers of Russian Jews with little choice but to emigrate. A total of 26,619 Jews came to America from Russia in these two years alone, and by the end of 1882 the Jewish population of the United States had reached 250,000.” After the initial exodus, they continued to emigrate to the U.S. until the early 1920s when the passage of restrictive laws in 1921 and 1924 limited new arrivals. Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe to the United States never again reached the levels that it did before 1920.
Fortunately, most of those who arrived as part of this influx continued to speak Yiddish and built strong networks of cultural, spiritual, voluntary, and social organizations.
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Ella became a noted journalist in her time. She worked as a city editor for the Omaha World-Herald and was head of the women’s news department for the Omaha Bee. She covered Omaha society and traveled around the world, often writing about how war was affecting the areas she visited. These stories included topics such as whether the U.S. should give aid to then-president of the Republic of China Chiang Kai-shek and the proliferation of propaganda in Russia.
As a reporter, however, her best-known story coverage was that of a Burlington train robbery for The World-Herald. The robbery happened in Council Bluffs and was later made into an NBC radio program in 1948 called The Big Story, in which Ella’s role in catching them was featured.
In 1927, Ella wrote Jewish Settlement in Nebraska, a 40,000-word typescript book that identified Jewish people from Omaha to “towns in which there are only one or two Jewish residents.” It was a prolific work and is a great resource for those who want to know about the history of Jewish people in Nebraska. She was later asked to write a book on the medical history of the state, simple titled History of Medicine in Nebraska. This task was directed by the managing editor of the official journal of the American College of Physical Therapy, Dr. Albert F. Tyler of Omaha.
Ella strove to work for her people, serving with the Jewish Welfare Board in France during World War I, where she ministered to the soldiers and people of the war-stricken area. While unattributed, some sources also indicate Ella may have served as a Red Cross volunteer nurse aide in WWII.
The Omaha Bee, 12 April 1919. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.
Growing up, Ella lived in a full house. Besides the many boarders from abroad, she had several brothers and sisters. They included her brother Max, who later became a doctor, perhaps sparking her interest in the medical field. She married prominent Omaha businessman Herman Harry Auerbach in 1922, becoming known as Ella Fleishman Auerbach from then on. Their travels are well-documented, and Herman sadly passed away from a heart attack after a trip to Buenos Aires in 1948. The two did not have children, and after Herman’s death, Ella continued to travel and write, sometimes giving talks about her experiences in the world abroad. She lived a full, exciting life and is now buried at Beth El Cemetery in Ralston.
While we may not know Ella’s full story, it would seem she accomplished the early dream she wrote about: “I intend to work for the good of others and to work hard, until I have made a name and place for myself in this world.”
Want to learn more about Ella Fleishman Auerbach? Next month on Oct. 16th, Nebraska Jewish Historical Society is having a 40th Anniversary Celebration and one of the co-founders of the organization Oliver Pollak will be the keynote speaker. He will deliver a speech titled “The Amazing Ella Fleishman Auerbach, Nebraska Journalist and Historian.” More here: https://nebraskajhs.com
*While several sources say Ella’s family was from Russia, technically her parents were from Lithuania. However, Lithuania was considered part of the Russian Empire from the 1880s to the early 1900s. They would have emigrated to the United States during this time, therefore they are referred to as Russian in this piece.
†The article was featured in a scrapbook made by Margaret McCarthy, then-principal of the Pacific School, and likely clipped from the Omaha Bee circa 1905.
‡A mohol is a Jewish person trained in the practice of brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision.” A shohet is a person officially licensed by rabbinic authority as slaughterer of animals for use as food in accordance with Jewish laws.
**A pogrom is an organized massacre or general violence against a particular ethnic group. In Russian, it means “to wreak havoc.”