Asbury Park, N.J., is widely known for the Jersey Shore and Bruce Springsteen. While these certainly make the city a noteworthy place, Asbury Park is also the setting of an extraordinary tale of humanitarianism that started with one couple simply doing what they thought was right, a story time has forgotten.
In August 1952, Rose Sneider read a story in the Asbury Park Press in which Lt. Edwin C. Doe, stationed in Korea during Korean War, issued a plea for clothing for the thousands of Korean orphans. Sneider, who ran The Yarn Shop with her husband, William, decided to launch Operation Kid Knit and use scrap yarn to knit sweaters, socks, hats, scarves, mittens and afghans for the orphans.
“My grandmother said she heard this plea, it really pulled at her heartstrings, and she wanted to do something about it,” said Mindy Dickler, a Baltimore resident and granddaughter of the Sneiders. The plea hit home with the Sneiders, whose son Bob was stationed in Korea at the time.
This effort, started by one couple with one shop, exploded. It was written up in newspapers and magazines, featured on radio and TV shows all over the world and would be recognized by Korean diplomats, New Jersey politicians and organizations and U.S. congressmen. According to The Congressional Record, approximately 20 million people in some way helped with the project the Sneiders started.
Through a recording of the CBS TV show, “Journey Through Life,” provided to the Baltimore Jewish Times, the inspiration for the project can be explained by Rose Sneider.
“This was the plea that seemed to touch my heart: ‘Let the people know. Let them know about the forlorn little bundles of rags, existing on scraps from the local garbage heap. About the haunted animal looks and death and disease…’” Sneider said. “… It was a Sunday morning. I woke Bill up and I said to him, ‘I have a wonderful idea.’ I said, ‘Why can’t women use their scraps of yarn and make garments for children?’”
Operation Kid Knit would lead to two other related projects, and it would become internationally recognized.
“I have trouble believing there was anyone from the 1950s that didn’t know about it,” said Shoshana
Dickler, a great-granddaughter.
Mindy Dickler is now on a mission to preserve and tell the story of her family’s impact. Her mother, Leonore “Lee” Sager, passed away in July.
“With my mother’s passing, it’s like the end of this legacy, and although there were tons and tons of articles that were written up in the 1950s, if you were to Google this project any place, it just doesn’t show up,” she said. “There’s nothing out there.”
The Sneiders passed away more than 20 years ago, Rose in 1988 at age 87 and William in 1990 at age 91.
The family wasn’t even aware of the sheer magnitude of the project until about three years ago, when Dickler and her brother, Andy Sager, were cleaning out their mother’s Florida home to move her to Baltimore. They found a goldmine of newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and other documents that shed light on just how big the project was.
According to The Congressional Record, 50,000 women were knitting garments for the project by September 1952, only a month after Rose Sneider first read that plea from a soldier. The Sneiders had to hire extra help in their store just to manage the volunteers. By October, 5,000 other shops were involved. Ladies’ Home Journal received 40,000 requests for knitting instructions, which were provided by the Sneiders and printed in the journal, as well as in Seventeen magazine. An Associated Press story ran in 1,700 publications. Girls Scouts of America adopted the project nationwide. Knitting groups sprung up in Alaska, Canada, England, Switzerland, Argentina and Belgium.
U.S. Congressman James Auchincloss shared a report about the project by Roy Sager, Mindy’s father, on the house floor. Col. Ben C. Limb, Korean ambassador to the United Nations, became a friend to the Sneiders, and Syngman Rhee, president of the Republic of Korea, issued the couple a presidential commendation.
“The unselfish devotion of their time, energy, abilities and special talents to a humanitarian cause since August 1952, despite absence of personal acquaintance, experience or knowledge and a 7,000-mile chasm separating them from the land of their interest, clearly, demonstrates that Mr. and Mrs. Sneider deserve our deepest appreciation,” Rhee wrote in March 1955.
Two offshoots — Operation Can’t Knit and Operation Socks — also grew out of the original project. William Sneider launched Operation Can’t Knit in 1954 after receiving letters from widows in Korea and women in the U.S. who couldn’t knit but wanted to help. This project sent knitting and sewing materials to Korean widows so they could make clothing for family members, as well as materials for the widows to sell for food money. The Girl Scouts also adopted this project.
Operation Socks launched in 1954 with the help of Ellis O. Briggs, wife of the U.S. ambassador to Korea at the time. This project called for wool socks to be sent to Korean orphans, and it was written about in many of the publications that publicized the other projects.
The Sneiders also donated about 6,000 garments themselves between August 1952 and November 1953 — and presumably more garments in the following years — taking on all the costs themselves. There was also no official sponsorship or affiliation with any group, and all the garments were sent to military chaplains to ensure they’d get in the hands of orphans and widows.
Although this story was internationally publicized, it wasn’t something the Sneiders bragged about. Lee Sager, Mindy’s mother who helped out by answering letters, also only talked about the project in passing.
“When you’re involved in it, you don’t think too much about it,” said Lois Tarshes, Lee’s sister who did PR work and taught knitting for the project. “… At the time it was just so natural to me to do this type of thing.”
The presidential commendation hung in the Sneiders’ living room wherever they lived, but Andy Sager said it was like a family picture, “you don’t discuss it every time you see it.” “They didn’t do these things for notoriety, they did these things because that’s what good human beings do,” Sager said.
Still, inklings of Operation Kid Knit and its offshoots were prevalent in Andy and Mindy’s lives, as well as the lives of their children. For Andy, he grew up with a teddy bear that Korean President Syngman Rhee gave his parents when he was born.
“It’s always been my special teddy bear.” He said. “Even when my daughter was born, my ex-wife said, ‘Let her play with it,’ and I said, ‘No, she can’t play with it.’ My daughter grew up knowing her daddy had a teddy bear.”
The teddy is wrapped up safely in a plastic bag in Andy’s closet.
And the crocheting skills span at least four generations. Shira and Shoshana Dickler, Mindy’s daughters who live in Israel, both have knitting tools their grandmother gave them and have distinct memories of learning the craft. Shoshana has made kippahs, baby hats and scarves, and Shira has made afghans for herself and her sister and is currently working on afghans for friends who just got married. Even Andy grew up knowing how to crochet.
“Whenever I crochet I feel as though I’m carrying on the legacy of my grandparents,” Mindy said.
But as far as charity work goes, it wasn’t just knitting projects the Sneiders were involved in. Rose Sneider, who was named Woman of the Year in 1953 by B’nai B’rith of Monmouth County (N.J.), was involved in Hadassah. William Sneider, who was chairman of the Housing Authority of the City of Asbury Park from 1954 to 1960, was honored by the organization for expanding federally aided public housing in the spirit of social betterment.
“That’s something that was instilled in all of us and in our families — that you took care of the people that were less fortunate than we were,” said Tarshes, who was a volunteer in the maximum-security unit at the Indiana Girls School.
Even through the generations, the apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. One of many things Andy recalls is his parents, Roy and Lee Sager, opening their doors regularly to servicemen, who were away from home, when they lived near Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. Five years ago, he took in an old friend who was on the verge of homelessness and has been helping her get back on her feet.
When Elie, Mindy’s son and youngest child, recently told the family he’s gay, she started working to create a support system, seeing that there wasn’t much formal support for families with gay children or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals. She is a retired special education teacher.
“My heart, my attention, my intention always goes out to the ones who are needy,” she said. “That’s just how I’m wired.”
Shoshana is a speech therapist at a special needs school in Jerusalem, and Shira is working on her master’s degree in geography and environmental development, and specializing in the sustainability of food systems.
“Committing yourself to a career where you know you’re probably not making a lot of money is something I’ve embraced for a very long time now, and I’m perfectly OK with living a low-consumption lifestyle [in order to] to do what I feel is important,” Shira said. “And to see that this started three generations back, that warms my heart so much. It’s like a legacy of a family.”