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Sylvia’s World, Part II

April 7, 2022

Sylvia’s World was, especially by today’s quick and far moving standards, contained to a fairly small area- mostly her neighborhood and her workplace, peppered in with some trips to the downtown commercial center of Indianapolis. There was no talk of vacations, aside from a quick excursion on the train that would take her overnight to Pittsburgh to see Izzy for the day and back overnight to Indianapolis so she could be back to work in the afternoon. However, in the summers of 1933 and 1934, Sylvia was able to escape the city for the idyllic surrounds of Big Eagle Camp, located at the northern boundary of Marion County near Zionsville.

Flag raising at Big Eagle Camp. Isadore and Sylvia Dichner Weiss Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

As a child, Sylvia and her brother Benny attended Camp Ida Wineman, which was a summer camp run by the Jewish Federation for Jewish children, most of whom, like the Dichner siblings, were children of recent immigrants and were recommended to attend due to their risk for tuberculosis. The camp was so effective and popular with families that it outgrew its two-acre home in Broad Ripple (where the Indianapolis Art Center is now located).

The grounds of Big Eagle Camp. Indianapolis Star, 22 June 1930.

Thus, the Jewish Federation purchased 52 acres for Big Eagle Camp near Zionsville in order to continue with the mission of allowing Jewish children to escape the city in the summer. Aside from assuring the campers a healthy diet and access to fresh air, Big Eagle offered games, crafts, watersports, dramatic stunts, bonfires… and pranks.

In a letter to Izzy on 20 August 1933, Sylvia describes the prank she and her fellow counselor played on the boys cabin. “Bess and I decided to start early to pay the boys back for all we’ve suffered this year, namely baths in our clothes, swimming in the river with all our clothes on, pillow fights, mud packs, burrs in beds, etc., etc.” Isadore and Sylvia Dichner Weiss Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Campers enjoying their summer at Big Eagle; Max Einstandig and Bois Silverman (both of whom Sylvia mentions in her letters!) pouring chocolate milk for campers. At camp, the diet was kosher and two rounds of milk lunches were served to campers every day, and children’s weight and vitals were monitored upon entering and leaving the camp. The Indianapolis News, 20 July 1934.

Sylvia thrived in summer camp life. During her first summer in 1933, she wrote to Izzy, “Camp-life has become routine now, but I still love it. You’d be surprised if you could see me now. In the short two weeks that I’ve been here I have become so rugged that I don’t know myself…My movements, I feel, have become freed. In the city, somehow my movements were bound. I never wear high heels anymore and I feel astonishingly light on my feet.” In 1934, Izzy was also able to find a train excursion from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis in order to visit Sylvia at her summer job, enjoy a beautiful day with his beloved at such a special place, and meet all her camp friends.

Big Eagle Camp was sold by the Jewish Community Center in 1958 to what is now the Goldman Union Camp Institute, and Jewish campers still arrive every summer for fun and community building.

Missed the first part of Sylvia’s story? Check it out here, and stay tuned for Part III, where we learn more about Sylvia’s beloved Izzy and his past as a refugee from Ukraine.

Maire Gurevitz is an archivist at IHS. In her free time, she can be found at the yoga studio or working on her Hoosier-themed romance novel.

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