History from the Civil War to World War II
The Civil War was a difficult time for the state’s Jewish population. Some
merchants lost wares at the hands of Texas forces under the command of General
Henry H. Sibley. While the number of Jews in the Territory grew, it still
represented a tiny percentage of the total population. Census figures show that in
1860 Jews represented 0.05 percent of the total New Mexico population.
In 1870 their percentage increased to 0.1 percent and in 1880, their percentage was
0.2 percent. A number of New Mexican Jews served in the Union army including:
Solomon Spiegelberg (a cousin) and Bernard Seligman. Both were commissioned
to captain. New Mexico’s best known Jewish Union soldier was Louis Felsenthal,
who recruited a company of volunteers and led his men into battle at Valverde. He
also protected caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. William Zeckendorf and Marcus
Brunswick became officers.
Two Civil War battles were fought in New Mexico, and the Union Army
succeeded in ending the Confederate’s attempt to expand to the Pacific. Jewish
pioneers served in the Union Army as soldiers and fought in both battles. Three
Jewish soldiers died at the Battle of Valverde: Private Emile Kahn, Corporal Jacob
Levy, and Corporal Simon Rothschild. Rothschild and Levy are buried in Santa
Fe’s National Cemetery. Other Jewish pioneers joining the Union Army include
Joseph Beuthner, captain, and his brother, Solomon, colonel.
With the arrival of the 1870s came the establishment of Jewish families. By 1880
one-half of the males had married German-Jewish women or Jewish women born
in the United States. In 1876 a bar mitzvah, or coming of age ceremony for a 13year-
old male, was held in Santa Fe. Alfred Gunsfeld, son of Albert Gunsfeld,
underwent the ceremony initiating him into adulthood. Congregation Albert in
Albuquerque is named after Albert Gunsfeld. Dr. Tobias states that the ceremony
was an indication that the Jewish community was expanding its services to its
younger members and was no longer a community of single males.
In the 1870s Las Vegas grew to be the territory’s second largest population center.
In 1870, twelve Jews resided in Las Vegas; by 1880, seventy Jews lived there.
During this decade Jewish firms expanded to multiple business locations.
The railroad came to New Mexico in the following decade. The coming of the
railroad to New Mexico introduced great economic change. Las Vegas and
Albuquerque grew rapidly as a result. Santa Fe, which was bypassed by the main
line, suffered an economic decline that lasted until the end of World War I. Las
Vegas became the largest center of Jewish population until surpassed by
Albuquerque which was transformed by the railroad from a rural community of
small ranches and farms into the commercial and population hub of New Mexico.
The goal of Jews wherever they settled was always to promote the common good.
Bertha Staab Nordhaus, the beautiful daughter of Abraham Staab and the wife of
Max Nordhaus, was decades ahead of her time when she omitted the word “obey”
from her wedding vows. In 1907 when she married successful merchant Max
Nordhaus, the couple moved with him from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. There she
became a leader in philanthropic work. She was also involved in child welfare,
served on the State Department of Public Welfare under three governors, and
found homes for unwanted or orphaned children. Everyone’s “uncle,” Sol
Floersheim, gave credit to all homesteaders at his small general store in Ocate until
Aside from their influence in the mercantile business, New Mexico Jews have
become prominent in other professions including wholesaling, banking, real
estate, mining, and ranching.
The fact that Jews were accepted into the highest strata of Santa Fe society was
apparent from the visit of President Rutherford B. Hayes to Santa Fe in 1880.
Jewish businessmen played visible roles in the preparation and festivities. Zadock
Staab met the Hayes party and Staab rode in the Hayes coach. The Spiegelbergs
rode in a second coach with Mrs. Hayes, and Bernard Seligman was introduced to
the presidential party. President and Mrs. Hayes ate and slept in Lehman
In 1883 Lodge No. 336 of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith’ (Sons of the
Covenant) was formed in Albuquerque. By 1896 there were 72 members. Though
this organization at its onset was secular, it allowed its members to begin
discussing the formation of a new congregation and finding grounds for a suitable
cemetery. In 1897 the Ilfelds, Grunsfelds, and Neustadts led other Jewish residents
in forming Congregation Albert in Albuquerque. They advertised for a rabbi and
hired William H. Greenburg of London. Rabbi Greenburg held Congregation
Albert’s first service on March 18, 1898. By 1899 Albuquerque’s Jews had laid the
cornerstone to Temple Albert at Seventh and Gold in downtown Albuquerque. Las
Vegas formed its congregation Congregation Montefiore earlier in 1884 and New
Mexico’s second B’nai B’rith chapter in 1902.
Changes to Jewish life came in the 1890s as Jews became active in politics.
Solomon Spiegelberg, Adolph Seligman, Abraham Staab and Bernard Seligman
were either elected or appointed to public office. Henry N. Jaffa, a German Jew
who came to the Southwest in pre-railroad days and served as the first president
of Temple Albert, became Albuquerque’s first mayor after the city’s incorporation
in 1885. Five years later, Mike Mandell, also Jewish, became the mayor of
Albuquerque. In 1907, Nathan Jaffa was appointed by Governor George Curry as
Secretary of the Territory. He served in that position until 1912 when statehood
came to New Mexico. Louis Freudenthal became well known in southern New
Mexico politics, and Samuel Klein served as mayor of Las Cruces. Alex
Goldenberg was the first county commissioner of Quay County. Arthur Seligman,
another German Jew, was elected governor of New Mexico in 1930. He was
reelected in 1932 and died in office the following year.
In 1875 nineteen-year-old Columbus Moise was elected Las Vegas’ city attorney,
and in 1880 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court. He
chaired the San Miguel County Democratic Committee and in 1892 was selected as
a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He also wrote short stories and
poems that appeared in Harper’s Magazine and The Century Magazine.
In Columbus, New Mexico, Lithuanian immigrant and businessman Louis Ravel
also served as mayor. He and his brother survived a raid on the town by Mexican
General Pancho Villa’s soldiers who crossed the border from Mexico and led a
charge through the town that broke down the door of the Ravel brothers’ store.
Further north, R. W. Isaacs, owner of a hardware store in Clayton, served on the
Clayton City Council and represented the state’s Democratic Party at three
Over the first four decades of the 20th century, the Jewish presence in New Mexico
continued to grow. By 1910, as many native born New Mexican Jews existed as
foreign born Jews. The state’s first Jewish congregation in Las Vegas, Congregation
Montefiore, lost its last known rabbi in the early 1930s. In the 1940s an increasing
percentage of the Jewish population was listed as “professional” rather than
merchants or clerks. Jewish lawyers, accountants, and pharmacists were
establishing practices in the state.
By the time New Mexico became a state in 1912, the Jewish community had
become integrated into New Mexican society. They had constructed temples and
were participating in and supporting education, the arts, history, and even
volunteer fire departments and tree-planting campaigns. They had also become
leaders in the state’s social and political arenas.
In 1912 Emil and Johanna Uhlfelder opened the White House, a dry goods store
with ready-to-wear clothing, on the plaza in Santa Fe. They established their
reputation beyond Santa Fe almost immediately. Emil Uhlfelder, born in
Regensburg, Bavaria, had come to Santa Fe in 1879 to open his merchandise
business. After he died in 1916, his wife, Johanna, remarried and her new
husband, Morris Blatt, started a lucrative business empire. In 1924 Johanna Blatt’s
daughter, Pauline Uhlfelder married Barnett Petchesky, owner of a local shoe store
called the Guarantee Shoe Shop that became part of the family business. After the
Blatts died, the business continued, managed by the grandchildren in the same
Santa Fe location. After the original White House business had been sold, Jean
Petchesky and Marian Petchesky-Silver merged businesses to form the Guarantee
Jewish Population in New Mexico, 1880-1924
The Jewish population of New Mexico expanded proportionately with the general
population, from less than 200 people by 1880 to more than 400 at the turn of the
century. In 1860 New Mexico could count two Jewish women, both wives of
Spiegelberg men. As Las Vegas and Albuquerque grew, so did their Jewish
populations and overtook that of Santa Fe.
Though half of the original Jewish pioneers left New Mexico by 1880, the half of
the Jewish population remaining in the state doubled by the end of the century. In
1893 the last member of the Spiegelberg family left the state after 50 years of
business. Some moved back east or returned to Europe. Others continued west to
Arizona and California.
The new Jewish immigrants coming to the state after the 1880s reflected
immigration patterns nationwide and included Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and
Romanian Jews. In 1912 when New Mexico became the 47th state in the Union,
generations of New Mexican Jews began to identify themselves as American.
Albuquerque began to be the center of the state’s Jewish population.
In 1924 new immigration laws resulted in a drop both in national and New
Mexican immigration figures. The arrival of foreign-born Jewish settlers ended as
did the state’s days as a frontier attraction to young Jewish people seeking
religious and economic freedom and opportunity.
The Manhattan Project and Los Alamos
German scientists discovered nuclear fission, the process of splitting an atom of
uranium into two elements in 1934. They hypothesized that if fission became a
chain reaction, the energy of the nucleus of the uranium atom might be released,
and a large number of atoms split quickly might result in a massive explosion.
Five years later, Albert Einstein, a German-born Jewish scientist who left Europe
shortly before Adolf Hitler came to power, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt
describing the destructive potential of a nuclear bomb. Einstein both opposed the
use of nuclear weapons and feared the consequences if Germany built the bomb
before the United States did.
American military leaders determined they needed to build a laboratory to create
a nuclear weapon and searched for a location at least 200 miles from a coastline or
international border. The site needed to be sparsely populated in case an accident
occurred. They settled on a secluded school for boys in the desert near Los
Alamos, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer led a group of almost 6,000 scientists
in what became known as the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer was of Jewish
The scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project did so in complete secrecy.
Their drivers’ licenses listed only numbers, not names. Their relatives were not
told where the scientists were working. All their mail was screened to ensure that
nothing they wrote would give away their location, and photographs they sent
could not include anything that might identify the New Mexican landscape. An
attractive young woman was the gatekeeper to the secret community.
Many of the scientists working at Los Alamos were Jewish refugees from
Germany. Edward Teller left Germany for America in 1933. Otto Frisch and Felix
Bloch were also German Jews who worked on the Manhattan Project. Enrico Fermi
was married to a Jewish woman and had left Italy to escape anti-Semitism.
The scientists tested their work at sunrise on a summer morning in 1945 near
Alamogordo at the site which Oppenheimer named “Trinity,” an allusion to one of
poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The sky filled with light brighter than anything
seen before on earth. New Mexicans more than 150 miles away heard the bomb’s
blast. Oppenheimer later recalled that while witnessing the explosion he thought
of a verse from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a
thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor
of the mighty one…”
Years later he would explain that he also had the following thoughts at the time:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people
cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the
Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty
and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become
Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
Los Alamos became an open city in 1957 and has a current population of
approximately 12,000. Jews have their own synagogue, the Los Alamos Jewish