Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 4, Fall 2008, pp. 293-320.
For young Walter Katz, Wichita, Kansas, was a world away from his hometown of Jesberg, Germany. As the Third Reich consolidated power, the Katz family-mother, father, and three sons-decided to escape to the United States of America to make a new life among relatives near Stillwater, Oklahoma. With them came the Torah scroll from Jesberg's synagogue that Walter's brother had rescued from destruction. Although he had limited English skills and was unfamiliar with local customs, Walter found himself enrolled in school and on the local football team within weeks of his arrival. A few years later, Walter's cousin, Aaron Youngheim, invited him to come to Wichita to learn the business of operating a menswear store. By the early 1940s, he was hard at work at the store, living with his relatives in the Lassen Hotel.
Katz found himself in a city and a local Jewish community that was still adjusting to four decades of changes and was now poised for an even greater transformation. Elders from ~stablished families were aging and new generations were coming into prominence. For Wichita as a whole, this meant the arrival of a new economy based on oil, aviation, and consumer goods. These industries brought in waves of new residents both native-born and immigrant, both Jew and Gentile. Jews coming of age in the 1920s and 1930s had to negotiate their identities to find a balance that was Jewish, Wichitan, Kansan, and American. Many had arrived in Wichita as adults or teenagers or were their children, mostly a community of newcomers.