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Oscar Sommer

Oscar Sommer (1889-1971) was a prominent citizen both in Brownsville and Matamoros. Oscar founded and ran a furniture store in downtown  Brownsville and lived with his wife Laura on the second floor where they raised their children. When politicians like Lyndon Johnson wanted votes in the Rio Grande Valley, they posed in newspaper photos with Oscar Sommer. Upon Sommer’s death, the mayor of Matamoros wrote a eulogy about him entitled, “Un Hombre Extraordinario” and gave the long eulogy at the Hebrew Cemetery when Oscar was buried much to the surprise of the congregants and guest who were not used to extended and dramatic eulogies at the cemetery.

A native of Romania, Sommer fought in the Philippine Insurrection before moving to Brownsville, where he became widely known and well-trusted on both sides of the border. He reclaimed hostages for both sides during t he Mexican Revolution and transported the wounded from areas of attack  to the Brownsville hospital. Many Mexicans mistook Sommer for a northern Mexican himself because he rode horseback wrapped in a serape. Sommer’s wife, Laura, founded the local Hadassah chapter in 1954.

One popular story about Oscar Sommer was that one night, when a drunken young man with an unusually old gun boasted of his intention to kill someone, Oscar convinced him to try out the pistol in target practice on the outskirts of town. Once there, Sommer set up the target and let the young man shoot until the pistol was empty. Knowing that the bullet shells could not be replaced, he confidently told the young man, “Now go kill the son of a —-.” Thus a tragedy was averted.

Laura Sommer (1896-1989) was born in Budapest and immigrated to the United States as a teenager and lived in New York City. Oscar Sommer was born in Bralia, Romania, came to the US, moved to Brownsville and started selling furniture. He had a reputation as a very good dancer and while visiting New York attended a dance where he met Laura, was attracted to her,
and asked her to dance. She refused; but eventually relented. He courted her for 2 weeks and then returned to the Valley. Upon his return, he sent a one-way train ticket to Laura asking her to come to Brownsville and marry him. This teenaged girl traveled from NY to a Texas frontier town to marry a man she hardly knew with the instructions from her father not to leave the train until she reached Brownsville. Oscar decided to surprise her at Corpus Christi, where there was a Rabbi that could marry them. He was not allowed on the train and Laura refused to get off. She proceeded to Brownsville and the train got there before Oscar got back in his buggy. Another Jewish family, the Bronstein’s, greeted her. Oscar arranged a civil wedding and then they traveled to Corpus for a Jewish wedding.

The marriage was solid and amorous. Laura and Oscar had 7 children in 11 years, Ray, Mildred, Sylvia, David, Sidney, Marcel (Buddy) and Shirley. They all lived in the 2-bedroom house above the store. There was one bathroom for 9 people and the water for the bathtub was heated on the stove. They hated the winters because they had to go outside to the outhouse. The chickens in back of the store provided them with eggs. During the Depression, there was little money and people would barter in shrimp, chicken, fish, fruit and vegetable. When people couldn’t pay, Oscar would tell them to pay when they could. After Hurricane Beulah in 1967 battered Brownsville and Matamoros, Oscar forgave many debts from families that had lost everything. Oscar made mattresses for his own store and for the Edelstein store.

Sunday’s were enjoyed with an occasional family trip by buggy to Point Isabel and then by ferry to South Padre Island.
Oscar and Laura were instrumental in establishing the first synagogue building for Temple Beth-El in 1933 in West Brownsville. Before that, they attended the Jewish services
held in the Bollack store building or in the Masonic Lodge. It is said that if the Edelstein and the Sommer children could not make it to  Sunday School, that school would be cancelled. The Sommer and Rubinsky family bought the ornaments for the first Torah in honor of the new Temple building.

Laura was very involved with Temple Beth-El. She was short in stature, strong and
vivacious. She helped cook for all Temple events, was an active member of the Sisterhood and founded the local Hadassah chapter in 1954. Bringing up 7 children was a job itself and a job done well as evidenced by their eventual successes. They were a close family, the sons helped in the business and 3 of their daughters convinced their husbands to relocate to Brownsville or Harlingen and start businesses, often with start-up loans from Oscar.

Oscar Sommer educated himself by reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and endless issues of National Geographic. He was a very wise man and people, including
politicians, would come to him for advice. In addition to English, he spoke or understood Hungarian, Romanian, Turkish, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Italian and French. When a ship from the Balkans would arrive at the Port of Brownsville, Oscar was often called upon to help translate.

Passover in the apartment above the store was a logistic miracle with Oscar at the head of the main table conducting the service. The tables were set in the master bedroom, living room and another bedroom. Sons, daughters, daughters and sons-in-laws, grandchildren, Oscar’s brother Meer with his wife Matilda and invited guests were all at the Passover tables. The daughters and daughters-in-law helped Laura with the serving.

Oscar and Laura Sommer are buried at the Hebrew Cemetery. Also buried there is Meer and Matilda Sommer, Oscar’s brother and his wife. Also buried at the cemetery are daughters and sons-in-law, Sylvia and Alex Gershowitz, Mildred and Bernard Whitman and Ray and Leonard Leonard, sons David and Sydney and nephew Lazar Buck Sommer.

Thanks for help with this article go out to Oscar’s son and daughter-in-law, Buddy and Sonnie Sommer, and grandchildren, Richard and Alan Whitman and Arlene Gershowitz Sonnen.

From Arlene and Marcy (Grandchildren):
Grandma Laura was famous for her strudel. I don't remember any Jewish celebration (Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, namings, etc.) where she wasn’t asked to bring her strudel. In fact, she was an amazing cook and always had many family members dropping in for lunch. Besides feeding her husband and three sons (who worked in Grandpa’s furniture store) grandkids and in-laws would routinely drop in. There was always a crowd around Grandma’s table. Somehow, she always had enough food!

They were both active in the community. Grandpa Oscar was a Mason and Grandmother was an Eastern Star and they were very generous in helping support the Temple.

Grandpa was dearly loved and respected in the Brownsville and Matamoros communities. In fact, many people would come to his store and ask his opinion on their family issues. If there was an argument between friends (or family), they would come for his advice. Most often, his was the last word and they would adhere to his decision. It was as if he was a “Godfather” in our community. These people would bring fish and other foods to thank Grandpa for his wisdom. They did this so often that I remember Grandma rolling her eyes and saying, “Oy vei, another fish to scale!”

Oscar and Laura Sommer and other family members are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery.