Diary of a Mystery Man
By Tom Hunter
His identity was a mystery. I first began to glance at his life by reading his diary, which came to OHA from Rochester as the diary of an unidentified Syracuse bank employee. He recorded his activities from 1922-26 in A Line A Day, a small maroon book used for chronicling one’s thoughts and actions. As I read the pages I learned that most likely he was Jewish. Besides working at a Syracuse bank, he moonlighted as a hosiery and petticoat salesman. He had many Jewish friends: Max and Regina Stolz, Henry Kutz, Thelma Kopelwich, Ann Rabinowitz, and Jewel Lieberman, just to name a few.
As I began to unravel the mystery of his identity by perusing the diary entries, I learned more about this unknown Syracusan. He was single and lived with his Uncle Sydney, whose sister was Mrs. Belle Nister of Nurnberg (Nuremberg), Germany. The mystery man worked at Syracuse Trust Co. He frequented the local movie theaters – the Eckel, Keith’s, Empire, Strand, and Regent – where he enjoyed watching such silent films as Miss Juliet, Rent Free, The Million Dollar Handicap, and Lady Windermere’s Fan. He played the piano, as well as pinochle and bridge with his friends. He attended dinners and dances at the Philo Lodge of the Masonic Temple. He went to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. He attended services at Temple Society of Concord where he listened to his own Rabbi, Benjamin Friedman, as well as guest speakers from Rochester, Chicago, and Cambridge, England. He traveled around CNY selling women’s hosiery and petticoats in East Syracuse, Cortland, Canton, Ithaca, Sherburne, and Lowville. On February 28, 1922, this unnamed Syracusan purchased a new Durant automobile. The auto dealer gave him $455 for his 1921 Ford sedan. In August 1923, he enrolled in a correspondence course for Business Administration through the LaSalle Extension University in Chicago. For the next three years, he completed 48 correspondence lessons and concluded the course work in June 1926.
His identity remained a secret until I utilized additional research tools at OHA’s Research Center. Continuing to probe, I noticed a diary entry for 1925 that mentioned his upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Meyer (Mary) Rosenthal. The Syracuse City Directory for that year listed her address as 1417 E. Genesee St. The other resident at that address was Sydney Benda (Uncle Sydney!). Searching for more information on Sydney Benda, I found his cemetery card. On the reverse was the name of a sister, Mrs. Belle Nister, and a stepson, Samson B. Zenner. The Syracuse City Directory listed Samson Zenner as living at 1417 E. Genesee St. and as a bookkeeper at Syracuse Trust Co. Finally, I knew his name!
Samson Zenner was a lifelong resident of Syracuse. After completing his coursework through LaSalle Extension University, Zenner became an accountant. He married after 1930, and he and his wife, Blanche, had two children. He was a member of Temple Society of Concord.
Samson Zenner’s diary offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young Jewish man living in Syracuse in the early to mid 1920s. His diary entries are succinct, and depict a well-read, ambitious man who worked hard at the bank, loved to socialize with his friends, visit the surrounding scenic areas, and participate in various Jewish religious and community activities. It also provides some information pertinent to the Syracuse Jewish community in the 1920s. Many similar stories remain to be found in OHA’s research center.