Most New Yorkers have heard about the Jewish Borsht Belt in the Catskills on Route 17 during the 20th Century. But very few people know that there was a German enclave in the Catskills on Route 28, where German hotel owners catered to a mostly German Jewish refugee clientele from the 1930’s through the 1970’s.
Just as the German Jewish refugees found the parks and riverside cliffs of Washington Heights similar to back home; they found the mountains, German language and food of this side of the Catskills similar to Bavaria. In the winter there was skiing at Belleayre Mountain, and during the summer there were towns like Pine Hill, Fleischmanns, Big Indian, and Phoenicia complete with porches, pools and hotels serving Sauerbraten where almost everyone understood German.
My family went to the Pine Hill Arms where to this day, I have never had a better dinner than their steak, french fries and asparagus meal with a chocolate truffle for dessert. The Dammanns who owned the hotel would treat us like family and not like guests. They taught me how to bake butter cookies and would give me free sodas and potato chips in the afternoon without telling my parents. I would just say, “Charge it” and they would forget about billing us. It was better for me than any governmental problem dealing with the issue of being the son of two refugees.
I also went to a Jewish summer camp called Camp Tarigo in Fleischmanns. It was predominately non-German. But when we went to town for movies, you could hear German being spoken from the porch at the Meinstein Lodge. In the winter my family would ski together and live in a wonderland of Christmas lights and tall snow banks. Opa would insist that we light our Chanukah candles in our room before we could go downstairs and see the large Christmas tree in the lobby. To his dismay, some years they would let me decorate their tree. As a gay little boy, I loved being creative and lifted up to put on the colorful ornaments.
It seems funny now, but I remember being taken out of school during the Cuban Missile Crisis to go up to Pine Hill to survive the potential nuclear attack on NYC. Our hotel was already booked up because so many other refugees had the same idea. So we had to stay across the street at another hotel. These were definitely some of my best childhood memories.
Photo: Photo is of me at 7 years old wearing Lederhosen at Belleayre Mountain in the summer of 1959.