Sarah Unobskey with sons Arthur, William, and Charles, Calais, ca. 1930
Item 102730 info
Maine Historical Society
Maine was home to a handful of Jews during colonial times. Jews arrived in far greater numbers beginning in the 1870s, although Maine attracted only a tiny fraction of the two million Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe from 1881–1924. The Unobskey family came from Snovsk, Russia (now Ukraine) and settled in downeast Maine.
Sarah Unobskey (1878-1935) persuaded her husband, Joseph, to leave Russia in 1903, rather than have him drafted into the Russo-Japanese war. He left Sarah and their two sons, arrived at Ellis Island, and began working in the fur industry in Boston. His sales region was Washington County, Maine, and like other Jewish immigrants before him, Joseph started his career as a peddler, traveling from farm to farm, and selling goods.
Joseph sent money back to Russia for two years, facilitating immigration for multiple family members. In 1905, Sarah and their sons, Arthur and William, joined Joseph, and the family settled in Eastport. They had another son, Charles. Sarah’s grandson, Sidney noted, “Sarah liked Eastport. Its climate and look reminded her of home. Even better…they could buy land here, something not allowed Jews in Russia.”
Lillian, Arthur, and Charles Unobskey aboard a ship, ca. 1938
Item 102729 info
Maine Historical Society
In 1911, Russian immigrants Joseph, Sarah, Arthur, and William Unobskey became U.S. citizens (son Charles was born in the United States) and moved to Calais, opening a clothing store called “Unobskey’s Store.” Joseph died in 1922, leaving Sarah and her sons to run the growing business.
Sarah was renowned for her “unusually strong personality and far sighted business acumen.” Over time, the Unobskey family expanded their retail holdings, building a commercial block that included a movie theater and professional office buildings.
Business success allowed Sarah Unobskey’s, children to attend college, travel, and participate in Maine’s civic and political arenas. Two of her sons, Arthur and Charles Unobskey, traveled extensively for work in their clothing store, and pleasure. Lillian Unobskey married to Arthur.
In 1924, Sarah Unobskey funded the building of a synagogue in Calais, and hired a rabbi. In an unconventional move, she named it, The Congregation of Chaim Yosef, in honor of her dead husband. It was the first and only synagogue in Washington County, active until 1974.
Most Jews who came to the United States from Europe settled in large cities such as New York and Boston, where they found a vibrant religious community. Being Jewish in Maine was challenging—the Unobskey family experienced anti-Semitism in Eastport, had difficulties finding kosher foods, and found limited opportunities to worship since the closest synagogue was in Bangor.
Certain Jewish prayers require the presence of 10 people, a minyan or prayer quorum. Demonstrating the difficulties of Jewish worship in remote areas of Maine, Sidney Unobskey said that his businessman father, Arthur, “would never sign contracts in New York or Boston. He would tell the salesmen they had to come back to Calais to sign; that way he was able to have minyan.”
The Unobskeys were in business from 1911 to the late 1970s. By 1958, they were the largest taxpayer and employer in Calais, and are credited with reviving the economy of the town.
The scrapbook, made from a repurposed clothing sample book, details the Unobskey’s retail, recreational, political, and civic accomplishments. It also documents their commitment to Jewish heritage in their adopted home of Calais. Arthur Unobskey’s work with the Passamaquoddy Tidal power project, and bringing President Franklin Roosevelt to Calais for the “President’s Birthday Ball” in 1941, occupy much of the scrapbook.
Some of the remembrances include reports of events leading up to, and during, World War II. The Holocaust and freedom to practice Judaism as Americans was never far from the Unobskey’s psyche. In 2009, Sidney Unobskey recalled,
“When I was three and a half, the Nazis arrived in Snovsk, the home of my grandparents. In January of 1942, they took out ‘a few dozen’ Jewish children and shot them. Some were probably my age. Some were probably my cousins.”
Jews sought to participate as equals in Maine's civic, cultural, social, and recreational life. For much of the 20th century, however, they were often unable to do so fully because of anti-Semitism. Nearly two-thirds of Maine's resorts refused to accept Jewish guests in the 1950s, the highest percentage of any state in the union. Discrimination of this nature persisted into the 1970s.
The Unobskey family owned a clothing store in Calais and helped to support Camp Lown, which opened in 1945 in Oakland, to provide camp opportunities to Jewish families. The camp held daily prayer services, along with Friday night services every week for Shabbat. Camp Lown sought to give its campers an authentic American camp experience each summer while delivering a healthy dose of Jewish culture and religious observance.
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