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Interviewee: Ralph Romberg
Date: July 29, 2008
Location: Urban School of San Francisco
Interviewers: Jason Ferreria, Carol Sukoneck, Piya Kashyap, Craig Miller, Allegra Molineaux, with Howard Levin

Segment: Part 1 of 5
Transcribed by: Carol Sukoneck
Clean 1 by: Erin Wallace (2009) √ 5-7-09
Clean 2 by: TBD - NEEDED

Introduction of Interviewers

My name is Jason Ferreria, my name is Carol Sukoneck, my name is Piya Kashyap, my name is Craig Miller and my name is Allegra Molineaux. And we are here interviewing Ralph Romberg on July 29, 2008 in San Francisco, California.

Introduction of Ralph Romberg

My name is Ralph Romberg. I was born in Essen Germany in February 21, 1931. At age seven my brother and I left as refugees to go to Sweden. Nine months later we came back to Germany for one day and got on a boat with my parents and went to Cuba. We lived in Cuba for almost two years, where I went to school. In December of 1940 I immigrated to the United States to Chicago, Ill. I was in Chicago until I graduated from college. I went to the University of Chicago and got my undergraduate degree in 1949. I worked in the the fashion business for about a year and half and was then called into the armed services during the Korean War. I spent almost three years in the army—first in Korea and later on back in Germany—and I was discharged in 1952. I got married at that time. My company moved me to New York where I lived for the next 14 years and eventually was transferred back to Chicago. When I was in New York I also got my Masters degree at Columbia University. After living in Chicago for that period of time, I was eventually divorced. I have two children—a boy and a girl from that marriage—and remarried a year and a half later and moved to San Francisco where I was Vice President of I. Magnin. And after being with them for ten years I moved to Dallas Texas where I was a merchandise vice president for Neiman Marcus. I retired from Neiman Marcus in 1999, moved back to San Francisco where I currently live. I am an instructor and head of the management department for the Fashion Institute, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I am also on the Economic Development Commission for the City of San Francisco.

I think we are going to start. You told us about your new career as a teacher when were back in the conference room. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that's been like

When I moved back to San Francisco I knew about the school here. I was looking for something to do, so I went and interviewed with them and told them—they wanted me to start—and I told them I was going to teach one subject because I never taught before in my life. And that kept developing and developing and its now nine years later and its like a second career for me, and I love it. I love students, I like the mental activity. I like the structure of having a place, which is something that befalls a lot of old people—they have no place to go, you know. I have a place to go and it has been wonderful for me.

And can you tell us what classes you teach?

It is a long list because it is nine different classes, but four of them are management, two of them are retail. I also teach one in marketing, one in international business and one in entrepreneurship. It is a lot of classes. Not all at one time obviously.
Do you have a preference? Do you have a favorite?
Yes. I love entrepreneurship. It is more challenging to me in the world, Because it is such a challenge and you kind of try to get the students lit up by this thing, because it is something they can all aspire to, and that is what I am trying to do—get them to try and do that.
Can you tell us about the economic development commission?
This is an appointed job with the city government. And what we do is we get the block grants from HUD. And it is our job then to take this basket of money and dole it out to non profits, which, as you can imagine, for every dollar we have we have applications for 10 so it gets to be pretty challenging.
What got you interested in that?
I wasn't interested. It happened accidentally. I worked for the present mayor to get him elected. And about a month after I did that, I got a phone call, "Would you like to..." And they gave me this list and this sounded interesting. That's how that happened.

Can we go back to your graduate work in Chicago. What did you do your graduate work in?

I did my graduate work in New York. I did undergraduate in Chicago.
What did you do your graduate work in?
Business. It is an MBA.
What drew you to the retailing industry?
Strictly an accident. When I graduated from the University of Chicago I wanted to go onto law school and I didn't have the money. So I figured I could work for a year or two—which you could do in those days—and go back to school. I went to the placement office at school—like lots of students do—and they sent me to the fashion business. And it stuck.
And has it make you very fashionable?
My wife doesn't think so. I hope so.
So fashion was never really something you imagined yourself doing?
No, absolutely not. But I think that happens to a lot of people. Until they're really exposed to something, they don't think about it in those terms.

What is it about fashion that in particular that interests you?

First of all it is something that is always changing. And it is tremendously challenging. Because you sit there I was always in the merchandise end of it—not the store end of it. You sit there and you try to guess will this sell, the size, the color the style, the price, won't it sell if not, why not. So it's a challenging business. Not easy.
You need a crystal ball?
Yes kind of.
And what's it been like working in the fashion world in different parts of the country?
Not very different. Because you guys are teachers, it's like being a teacher at another school. You still all speak the same language. You still all use the same techniques, so it really doesn't make that much of a difference.
Even in Dallas?
Even when you are in Dallas, Texas. Neiman Marcus is a—we have stores in every city, every major city in the United States. It just happened to be headquartered in Dallas. Thirty years it would have been a very question that you just asked. Because they were only in Dallas and it was a different time. But today, most of these major fashion retailers are coast to coast, so they have to think globally in terms of the United States at least.

And what about family. How many kids do you have, where do they live now?

I have a son and a daughter and my wife has a son. My wife's son is here in San Francisco. And he is in the real estate business. I have a daughter who lives in Hackettset, New Jersey, has a little boy, and is kind of a computer person. She has a business at home. She transcribes medical records for doctors. And my son lives in Miami, Florida and he is an architect. Which he didn't get from me, I assure you.
Does he have children?
No, he's single. Just the one grandson, the crown prince.
How old is he?
He is nine and he is a hockey player.
Do you get to see them often?
No, unfortunately not. A couple times a year.

Where was it that your children grew up? Was that here in San Francisco

My children grew up—most of their growing up was in New Jersey. When I lived in New York I lived in a suburb of New York—right across the George Washington bridge—called Tenafly. And they grew up there.
So you lived there for awhile?
Fourteen years.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that place and that house your kids grew up in the area.
In Tenafly?
This was a typical middle class/upper middle class neighborhood and it is only half an hour by car from New York. It's a real, what they call, a bedroom community. And very, very, very, almost conservative. And I remember when my son first went to college, he went to a school in Brooklyn, New York and in what is called Bedford/Stuyvesant—but it was a very good architecture school. And the first night he was there, someone was shot outside his dormitory. And he called me, "I want to go home." Because, you know, there was nothing that would prepare him for that.
A half hour from New York was a foreign concept?

Can you tell us what that house was like?

Sure. It was a ranch house—one floor, three bedrooms, living room, dining room, and it had a very, very large basement. And I remember when I bought that house, the people that owned it before I had it had this huge pool table in the basement. And the first thing the man said to me is "we got it down there, is no way we can get it upstairs, you can have it." Also it was kind of interesting because this guy was president of Breyers Ice Cream, which is now part of—it is not an independent company anymore. In the basement he had one of these old fashioned ice cream freezers. You know it was just a box with 3 compartments—best freezer I ever had. Worked like—was very old—worked like a charm.
Did you get a lot of free ice cream?
No. None at all. They retired and moved to Florida. No free ice cream.
What is your fondest memory of that home?
I think my kids, growing up and being with them. That's a wonderful memory for everybody.

I'm curious, when your son called from college and he wanted to come home because of the violence that he was just outside his door, how did you encourage him to ...

I said, "Number one, your tuition is paid, get off my back. And number two, welcome to the real world." You have to learn. You know you are not going to live in this cocoon—which the suburbs are, you know, and you have to learn to live with it.
And he coped after that?
Oh yeah, he was fine after that.

We would like to, since we are talking about a house, we would like to ask about the house where you were born and where you grew up in Germany.

It was in a city called Essen, Germany. It was—I remember exactly because it was only 15 minutes or 10 minutes walking from the railroad station. Because I remember later on, when I came back later on as a soldier, and I wanted to see where the house was, that city was so bombed out I could see from the railroad station to where my house used to be. There wasn't anything left standing, including the house. It was a two floor house and very common in Europe in those days. The sleeping quarters and the family lived upstairs and the business was downstairs. And my father was a wool merchant. He imported wool, in those days knitting—home knitting—was a big business. He imported wool from Great Britain, from England, English wool. So the business was downstairs and I remember it had a long, long staircase going down with a straight railing that I used to love to slide. And I used to get yelled at every time I did it.
And who lived there?
My parents, my brother and I, and we had a sleep in lady who took care of us—because my mother was active in the business, so the five of us.
Your parents both worked in the business?
They both worked in the business.
Was it a shop?
No, it was mainly a store area where they stored merchandise and they would ship as they got orders, with an office.
Did you spend a lot of time in the business area?
All the time. And I usually got kicked out because I was fascinated by it. All the different colors. To a little boy that is a fascinating thing. Yes, a lot.

Can you describe that area for us?

There were long rows of racks on the walls. There were different qualities and colors of wool and they were all color-coded. That's where the colors came from. And what they would do, you know what a skein of wool is? And there would be five or six skeins in each package. So then they also had accessories you know like knitting needles and those hoops they use for embroidery, all that kind of stuff.
So did the knitting actually happen there?
No, no, no, no, it was sold to retailers. My dad was a wholesaler. It was, it was they had, we have a couple left in San Francisco what they used to call knitting shops. Where women would go to buy wool but also they gave instructions on how to knit. You know all that kind of stuff and those were his customers.
You had customers coming in and out of the shop all day?
Yes, well not all day.
Do you remember any of the conversations that you had with those customers?
Not allowed. In German they say Verboten. Not allowed, are you kidding, oh god, I would have gotten killed.

And as a young precocious child you know roaming around the store downstairs you know where you touching feeling..

Oh, you bet! And the most fascinating thing about that place that I remember is—in the corner of the building, it was an old building, they used to have these huge porcelain stoves. They were made of porcelain, they burned wood. And they had one of these huge things in the corner and it was very colorful. And one day I went down there with my crayons because I decided I was going to change the color scheme—that didn't work out too well.
Well what happened?
Can't tell you—take a guess.
Did they get it off?
Yes, but not easily.
And what about your brother. Did he play down there with you?
Yes, sure. He was three years older than I was, so he was a little bit beyond what I was doing. But he did from time to time.
Was he in charge of keeping you in check?
Yes. Didn't work. Never worked.

What was the name of the live-in help?

Her name was Maria Yagora and she was a—I will tell you a story about that later—she was a orphan who had grown up in a Catholic convent where the nuns had both a convent and an orphanage. And she was with us, I probably spent more time with her than my own mother, and I remember from the time I was two, until I started school—in Germany you started at 6 in those days, not at 5. And I went to mass every morning, Catholic mass. I knew every word of the Latin mass backwards and forwards. I knew when the bells were going to ring. You know kids get fascinated by that.
Do you like the cathedral?
Oh sure. Oh absolutely, sure.
Do you remember the name of the church?
St. Gertrude.
Was it nearby?
It was nearby. It was a few doors down.
How did your parents feel about her taking you to Mass?
Didn't know, no.
What did Maria look like? Do you remember?
Yeah she was dark, fairly tall. I saw her again after the war. She had been a nurse in an army hospital. But she was a nurse by training. And she was very, very kind to us. I remember very fondly.
Have you kept in touch with her?
She passed away. I kept in touch with her until she passed away. But as I said when I went back to Germany in 1952 as a GI I looked her up and spent some time with her. That was the last time I saw her.

So you took us on a tour of the business part of the house. Can you take us on a little tour of the upstairs?

You went up the stairs and, you know, again it has been awhile but you have memories of certain things, and there was a big hallway. And I remember in the hallway there was this huge carved wooden chest which was meant for somebody's trousseau, which I used to hide in. If I really wouldn't want my parents to find me that's where I went—until somebody figured out where I was. And then there were two entrances at each end of the hall. At one end was the entrance that led into kind of a reception hall and a living room. The other end of the hall was the door that led to the kitchen. And the end that went into the living room, it was a very large living room, and what I remember about it is, I don't remember any of the furniture except this huge piano. My mother played the piano and she had a grand piano at home and that was, it was a big black thing. I was fascinated. That is where I also got in trouble if I tried to play it. That didn't work to well either, you know. And my brother and I shared a bedroom kind of a large room and we had you know—for kids in those days the beds were very narrow, that I do remember. And my parent's bedroom was down the hall and the bathroom had one of these gas gadgets in it that heated the hot water. If you wanted to take a bath you went in there a half hour early and lit it and then it would heat the water and then you would go and take it, you know, take your bath. The kitchen I don't remember at all although I am sure I spent a lot of time in there but I don't remember it. And Maria's room was right off the kitchen.
Where did your family eat?
In the dining room, oh yes.

And what was Maria's job in the house?

She kind of did everything but her main job was to care for my brother and myself.
Just to care..more to be a nanny?
Yes. Because she knew..hey had someone come in once a week to do the cleaning. But her main job was to take care of us.
What type of personality did she have?
You know I don't remember that well in terms of personality, but I know she was very, very good to us and very, very calm. The only time I ever saw her excited was the night when the Nazis came to the door and she opened the door and they were going to destroy the house—the furnishings. And very calmly—and this must have taken a lot of guts—she said to them "these people are leaving the country. They are going to leave everything to me. I'm not Jewish"—they bought it and went away. And that took...that wasn't easy.
Because they thought it was hers.

So now we turn to about 5 or 6 and its time for you to go to school. Where did you go to school?

I started to go to school when I was six years old. And now I have to give you a small history lesson because the Germans had all these laws one after the other, from 1931 from 1933 to 1938, and every year the laws governing Jewish behavior got more restrictive. When I went to school all Jewish boys and girls had to go to one school. They were kicked out of all the other schools. I remember my brother went to a Montessori school and he had to leave the year before I started to go to school. So the school was called the Hercules school. It was very close to the railroad station in a very old decrepit building and, you know, this was typical if you understand the Nazis philosophy. Half the building was an insane asylum, and the other half was the Jewish school. And I remember two things about the school. I remember every Friday afternoon to have to run for my life because the storm troopers would be outside waiting to beat us up. And I remember the teacher I had. Because it was the same teacher—they had a system the teacher you started out with in the first grade you had in the 8th grade. He stayed with you, he or she, through your whole scholastic career—it was a different, a different education system. And I remember very, very well what he looked like—tall skinny guy now. Later on I will tell you another story about that which is interesting—unless you want to hear now.

Yes, tell us..

I was invited back to Essen by the government for a visit. It was two years ago. They invited me every year and I kept saying no, and, finally, I said yes because they said it was going to be the last one because the survivors were getting older. I got there and we had a dinner and I was sitting there with six other survivors, all from the same city. And there was a man who was from Argentina. He had been born there. As you say, "When did you leave? When did you...?" So he told me left in 1939. He left just after I did which meant he went to the same school. "How old are you?" "Born in 1931." I said, "You had to be in my class." I did not remember. This was like 70 years later. But I said, "You had to be in my class." And he said "Yeah, probably." And I said to him, "Who was your teacher?" Now I don't know if you wonderful folks are aware of this but students give you nicknames, just in case you didn't think you were one of them. And this man was very, very tall and had very long arms and legs. And we called him Der Spinner which means The Spider in English. And I said, "Was your teacher Der Spinner?" And he said, "Yes." He was in my class. So it was kind of, you know.

Do you remember any other students in your class?

No, I don't remember any of them.
How many students were in the school?
I don't know.
Was it boys and girls?
It was boys and girls, both. They all had to go to that one school. Yes.
How many years were you at that particular school?
A year and a half. All of the first grade, half of the second grade.
Your teacher, he was Jewish also?
Yes. It wasn't allowed any other way. Sure.
Did he use to teach in another school? you might not know.
I don't know.


Preliminary Release - page 1 of 5. More coming in the near future.