Connecting to the Collections

Posted on June 21, 2019 by

Blog post by JMM intern Elana Neher. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

In these first few weeks of my internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I have learned about the JMM’s collection in a variety of ways. I have researched parts of the collections, inventoried others, and spent time in collections storage. Through this, I have started to become familiar with Jewish community of Maryland through the objects, documents, and photographs that have found their way to the JMM. For my first blog post, I would like to share the story of two of the people I have gotten to know through my research here.

Some of the sweetest people that I have come across in the JMM’s collection are Aaron and Lillie Straus, a married couple who lived during the late 19th century and the early 20th century and became beloved philanthropists in Baltimore. (Image: Lilie and Aaron Straus, Cohen Family Camp Airy Collection, JMM 1993.59.40.)

Aaron was a German Jew who was born in Baltimore and Lillie was born in St. Louis, MI. After Aaron graduated Baltimore City College, he ran a furniture store that grew into a chain of nearly one hundred large furniture stores throughout the country, primarily on the East Coast and in the mid-West. On one of his business trips, Aaron met Lillie and they moved to Baltimore after they married on June 9, 1889. Throughout their time in Baltimore, they lived in hotels; they lived at the Rannert Hotel then moved to the Belvedere Hotel. The couple was married for sixty-four years until Lillie passed away.

Lillie and Aaron had no biological children but became “Aunt Lillie” and “Uncle Airy” to hundreds of children. They created Camp Louise and Camp Airy, two Jewish summer camps for under-privileged children. Camp Louise, the camp for girls, was founded at Cascade in 1922 and Camp Airy, the boys’ camp, was founded at Thurmont in 1924. These two camps were located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland. Aaron and Lillie frequently visited the camps and knew every camper by name. Aaron led services at the camps until he became blind and the library at Camp Louise was dedicated to Lillie after her death. Each and every camper had fond memories of the couple as evidenced by the letters they wrote to their Uncle Airy after Lillie’s death. The letters were filled with stories of Lillie’s kindness and care for each and every camper and showed what an immense impact that Aaron and Lillie had on the childhoods of so many people in the community.

Aaron & Lillie with campers at Camp Louise. JMM 2018.7.106.14c.

The couple were not just known for their summer camps, but for their philanthropic endeavors as well. They set up the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation in 1926 to facilitate their philanthropic work and continue it after their deaths. They were active members of and large benefactors to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The auditorium at the synagogue was even named the “Straus Auditorium” in their honor. In addition, they donated $100,000 to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Campaign to memorialize an operating floor. They also donated to the Associated Jewish charities and the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House Association, and they took interest in the YMHA and YWHA, now the JCC. In Aaron’s will, he left large amounts of money to many Baltimore-based charities.

Through the letters, newspaper clippings, and anniversary albums about the Strauses that are in the JMM collection, I began to feel connected to Aaron and Lillie. I found myself wondering what it would be like to wave at them at summer camp, to meet them at the hotel they were living in, or to hear them tell the story of how they first met in St. Louis. Through the stories of people like Aaron and Lillie Straus, I have come to feel connected to the Jewish community in Baltimore and it is only because of the time I get to spend with the collection at the JMM that I was able to learn about such amazing people.


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  1. Debbie Neher says:

    What wonderful people and what a touching story! How interesting that someone saved the letters to “Uncle Airy”.

  2. Tim Winkle says:

    Though Lillie and Aaron Straus lived in hotels when in Baltimore, they were inveterate collectors, especially when they traveled. In 1957, Aaron Straus donated their glass paperweight collection to the Smithsonian Institution, which accepted it to build up the holdings of the forthcoming museum dedicated to American history and technology (today’s National Museum of American History). Later, the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation donated more objects from their collections. Today, a portion of the 170+ paperweights are on display in the children’s activity space at NMAH, Wegmans Wonderplace. I’m sure they would be thrilled to know that they are still sharing something of themselves with children, even today.

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