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Living history: Jewish immigrants prospered in Magna, aka Ragtown

Published December 30, 2012 6:59 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lately I've been thinking about stories, the kind told by people I've known over time — especially when a new year is about to begin, offering both hope and equity in the retelling. Such as those lived by the Matz siblings: Bere­nice, Ruth and Sidney.

"Magna used to be called Ragtown by old-timers maybe because the town was built up from the tailings from the mines," Sidney Matz said in interviews archived at University of Utah's Marriott Library shortly before dementia robbed him of recollection.

"My dad, Sam, owned the Fair Store," he said. "He added numbers in his head faster than an adding machine, spoke Russian, Greek and Italian, and won every arm-wrestling contest in town, saying it was a matter of leverage."

During the Depression, if Sam saw a "kid wearing raggedy shoes or going barefoot, he'd call him into the store and give him a new pair. He said when they grew up and worked at Kennecott, they'd know where to come and buy their shoes. He gave away hundreds."

Sam Matz was born in Russia at a time when Jews were restricted to living in designated areas, forbidden to own land and victimized by violent pogroms (riots against Jews) supported by the authorities.

Wanting more for his children, the elder Matz sent his oldest son, Aaron, to South Africa, where he opened a shipping business. When Sam turned 13, his father encouraged him to join his brother. Sam did and, after several years, became smitten with travel. He sailed on cargo ships bound for China, India and Egypt. He then went to Montreal, bought a wagon and horse and peddled his way westward to Vancouver and south into Idaho. There he met Annie Fogel.

"When my dad met my mom, he must have wanted to make an impression because he arrived at her parents' house by motorcycle," said their daughter, Ruth McCrimmon. "It was around 1914. He took her for a ride in the countryside and during their trip she fell off the motorcycle. He didn't know until he turned around to talk to her. She wasn't there! Backtracking, he found her sitting by the side of the road. She must have had a good sense of humor because they married soon after."

By 1922, the couple and their three children settled in Magna, a mining boomtown brimming with ethnic diversity.

"The Papanikolas kid and I played all the time. The shoemaker, Shorty Notarianni, watched over us," Sidney said. "Many Kennecott officials were Masons. They respected my dad. If people wanted jobs in the mines, they were told, 'Go see Matz, he'll get you on.' He'd call the hiring boss, they'd get on, and trade in his store."

"Our house was welcoming," Berenice Engleberg added. "Mother made the best rye bread you ever tasted. Dad regaled everyone with stories told in his South African accent. Sidney, too, had a way with words. We had great times putting on vaudeville shows in front of the store. But it was difficult being a minority child."

"I was 6 and Berenice was 8 when my father's friend, a bishop, [invited] us to Sunday school," Ruth said. "As soon as we entered the classroom, the teacher told everyone that Jesus was the Son of God — and accused us of killing him."

I whispered to Berenice, 'We didn't do it. Who did it?' She said, 'Well, Mama didn't do it. She's too nice. It must have been Dad.' I said, 'Why would Dad do a thing like that?' Berenice said, 'I don't know, but I think he did.' Out of all of us, we figured Dad was the only one who could have done it."

When Sam called the bishop, he was appalled. And when I last visited Berenice in 2008, the 92-year-old said the teacher's remark haunted her for years. "We were kids," she said. "What could a kid say to that?"

Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Additional sources: Stone's book, "A Homeland in the West: Utah Jews Remember."