A tall, light-haired boy and two dark-haired youths had gone to St. Paul, Minn. to visit the daughters of an Orthodox Jewish family.
“This is Mr. Greenburg,” the dark-haired ones said, introducing their companion to the girls’ father, with whom they were already acquainted.
The father, however, became suspicious. He took the light-haired youth into the kitchen and began to question him. Speaking in Yiddish, he asked the youth his name.
“Mr. Greenburg,” came the reply. Then he asked for the first name.
“Avrom Yitzcock Greenburg,” he was told.
But the old gentleman was still suspicious and asked many more questions in Yiddish, until finally the youth asked the reason for this cross-examination.
ACCEPTED AS A JEW
“I think you are a Gentile,” the old man said.
The youth replied that his father was Jewish and that his mother was a Gentile. After that everything was all right.
That light-haired youth is now the governor of Minnesota, Floyd B. Olson. He is of Swedish and Norwegian descent.
As a prank, several of the Jewish chums with whom he grew up in North Minneapolis had taken him to this St. Paul home. The governor likes to recount the story in telling how most of his boyhood friends were Jews and that because of these early years spent in their company he learned to speak Yiddish fluently.
He tells another incident when, as a lawyer, his mastery of the Jewish tongue surprised a client, for whom he was prosecuting a damage suit. The defendant offered to settle for #200 and, the governor says, “I went to him explaining that a third of the money would be my fee.”
The client turned to a Jewish friend and asked him, in Yiddish, what he thought. The friend, also speaking Yiddish, replied that he thought the attorney was concealing something, that the plaintiff should get only $200.
“The two argued for some time,” Governor Olson says, “and it became increasingly apparent that they though I was trying to put something over on them. Finally, speaking in Yiddish, I said: ‘What do you think I am, a crook?'”
HE HAD HIS WAY
“The two men looked completely flabbergasted. Finally one said, ‘Did you hear what I heard?’ After that I didn’t have any trouble with them.”
There are many other instances where the Minnesota governor’s ability to speak Yiddish has proven helpful.
It is merely another factor in making this son of a railway workman, this former newsboy, salesman, miner, longshoreman, fisherman and lawyer, the colorful and aggressive executive he is.
Paul Olson, his father, came from Norway to Minneapolis and in 1890 met and married Ida Nelson, who had come from Sweden. Their son, born in 1891, was named Floyd Bjornstjerne Olsonâ€”the Bjornstjerne for Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Norway’s greatest lyric poet and orator.
This boy, born on Friday the 13th, Nov. 13, 1891, was destined to become the first Farmer-Labor governor of Minnesota.
BEGAN AS NEWSBOY
At 14, when his father, taken ill, lost his job, the present governor became a newsboy and contributed to the support of his parents, at the same time attending high school. At 19 he entered the University of Minnesota law school as a special student but a short time later was forced to discontinue because of lack of funds. Then began four years of “adventuring” which carried him to many parts of the country and to many different occupations.
He returned to Minneapolis in 1914 and resumed his law studies, being admitted to the bar in 1915. Four years later he was made a special assistant county attorney. It was but a step of 16 months until he was county attorney, which office he occupied until he became governor in 1930.
As Hennepin county attorney he became widely known for his ability as a prosecutor. While in that office he prosecuted the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan on charges of criminal libel and secured the first such conviction in the United States.
Unassuming in manner, this governor who speaks Yiddish has come to be known both in his own state and throughout the nation as a standard bearer “of the masses of the people.”
During the recent economic crisis he used his executive powers to forbid foreclosures of mortgages on farms and homes. When this power was questioned he caused the Minnesota legislature to enact a law preventing foreclosures, except in special cases, for a two-year period.
As governor, he has also established minimum wage scales for highway labor and fixed a maximum eight-hour day, six-day week.
He is an admirer of the great Jewish leaders of the world. A convincing speaker, he has lifted his voice at public protest meetings held in Minnesota against Nazi treatment of German Jews.
As a speaker he likes repartee from the crowds he is addressing. “It gives me ideas,” is the way he puts it, adding a maxim of his own:
“All oratory is good for is to fool a jury, or in politics, to fool the voters.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.