Excerpt from “Mindele’s Journey ~ Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust” – an autobiography by Mariette Bermowitz.
As the days grew shorter and Poppa suddenly started paying attention to my whereabouts, saying he wanted me home earlier, I was afraid the news of my explorations in Brussels had gotten back to him. On my last walk in the Parc Royal with Jean we held hands and meandered through the patchwork of fallen leaves. Then we ran, kicking up a delicious smell of earth and musk. Jean laughed, and as I looked at him laughing, for some reason I felt like crying. I didn’t know why. It was just such a perfect moment, that day in the Parc Royal, and yet it felt like the end of something. It was dark when we returned to the Rue Ste. Anne. The streetlamp lighter was turning on the flame in the gaslights with his big stick. To me it looked like lights going up on a stage and at any moment the actors might appear. I took a bow in the haze of honey light and grabbed Jean’s hand as we skipped down the street singing, Nous sommes au théatre! Nous sommes au théatre! “We’re in the theater!”
Our merriment quickly died as soon as we came into the house. Poppa was sitting at his sewing machine, making a thunderous clattering sound as his foot worked the treadle. The air, as always, was stale with cigarette smoke. I looked at his back hunched over the table and thought how thin he was, emaciated really. His face reminded me of the pictures he kept in a drawer. The horrible pictures of people who were no more than skeletons, their eyes so deeply recessed they looked almost hollow. I watched him now, gripping a seam so tightly I was afraid the bones in his hand might crack.
Frail though he appeared, Poppa was still one of the finest tailors. His friend Jakobowicz said that my father’s work was much in demand on the Rue Haute, which was hardly surprising as he approached the making of a suit as an artist would a painting. First there were the sketches, then swatches of material, canvas lining, padding, fillings, and finally paper patterns that hung on the wall. Sometimes the patterns got wet from the humidity and he had to cut new ones. When he held them up they made me think of a human being in the making. He placed the material on the table and carefully traced a line around the pattern with a piece of chalk. Next came the canvas that was to fit between the cloth and the lining. “That’s what makes the difference between a man and a mensch,” he would say. When I asked him what it meant, he said, “Well, a man will buy a suit that looks good on him, but a mensch wants to tell the world that it was his tailor who made him look so good.”
Sometimes, this attitude created problems for my father. He was such a perfectionist that before he could complete a suit, the customer had to have at least three or four fittings. Poppa would mold a little canvas here, a little canvas there, “To give a lift where nature forgot,” he said, laughing at the innuendo I was too young to understand. I will never forget the day I came home during one of those fittings when the conversation between Poppa and a customer had reached cataclysmic proportions.
“It’s not necessary,” said the customer, a rather large man whose body didn’t seem to have any definition except for a billowing midsection. He had no neck, and his head sat on his shoulders like an ostrich egg. My father wanted to readjust what nature had left out, and was trying to convince him that padding the shoulders would proportion the fit.
“No, I don’t want any stuffing!” the man shouted.
His voice was so loud I could hear him clear out on the street. I came inside the house just as my father shouted, “You putz, you! I’m trying to make you look like a mensch!”
All hell broke loose. I felt sure that if my father hadn’t been so small and frail, he would surely have landed through the window along with the stuffing. Instead, all the frustrated customer said was, “Use it on yourself, you midget putz!” and almost knocked me down as he stormed out the door.
Poppa collapsed in a chair and lit one of his Boule d’Or cigarettes. Gai kaken ahfen yam! “Go take a crap in the sea,” he muttered. It was one of his favorite expressions. Jean giggled and twisted his hands together. Poppa looked at him through the haze of cigarette smoke and shouted, Golem vu du bist. Schveig Shtill! “Idiot that you are, keep still!”
Stung by the unfairness of attacking Jean, I shouted, Paskudnyak! “You’re a mean person!” Poppa looked at me with hurt in his eyes. “That’s how one talks to a father?” he said, and Mme. Goldman started to cry. I cried with her.
Trying to cheer us all up and make amends for his horrible mood, Poppa suggested an outing to the terrace of the Métropole Hotel for ice cream. The hotel on the Place de Brouckère with its terrace that went all the way around the corner was one of my favorite places in Brussels. I loved the comfortable straw chairs, the heating ventilator under the canopy, the chance to watch the passersby. As soon as we arrived I excused myself and headed straight for the bathroom. Whether I needed to go there or not was immaterial. It was the walk down the hall with its plush rugs past the huge potted plants fanning the red sofas lining the walls. The bathroom itself was something out of my wildest dreams. A polished marble floor, porcelain sinks with swan shaped faucets and gilded mirrors decorated with angels. At the Métropole I could almost forget the Rue Ste. Anne with its putrid odor of backed up sewers. I ordered grenadine, the ruby syrup and mineral water drink I had loved when I visited my friend Louise at her family’s café in Fraiture. Now, watching the people go by on the Place de Brouckère as I sipped the luxurious concoction through a straw, it was almost heaven. Poppa watched as I twirled my glass, creating a storm of bubbles, and looked as if he was going to cry. But instead he said brusquely, “Let’s order some food. It’s getting cold here.”
The following week Poppa seemed to be feeling better. He tried his best to kibitz with Mme. Goldman, but she would have none of it. I don’t think she had forgiven him for having called her son a golem. The atmosphere in the apartment was tense, and I was glad when he decided to take me with him when he went to visit his friend Jakobowicz, the actor. They had known each other in Poland, and always joked and told stories. Jakobowicz performed in the Yiddish Theater and everything about him was theatrical, from his booming voice and peeling laughter, to the way he held his imitation tortoise shell cigarette holder. I was very impressed by his shiny gold tooth and the silk ascot he wore instead of a tie.
Poppa relished getting dressed up for these visits. Being somewhat of a dandy, he had made himself several suits that he wore for going out. Today he had chosen the blue pinstripe and his perfectly sized tan felt hat. The silk handkerchief so carefully poised in his lapel pocket matched his tie. Before we left he went into his secret hiding place, a cupboard only he had access to where he hid his stash of Boule d’Or cigarettes, and took out a small bottle of Chanel No. 5. I watched him remove the crystal stopper and put his nose to the scent, then dab it under each ear. I thought Poppa smelled like a movie star. I was so proud of him as we walked down the sunlit streets. It was a glorious fall afternoon, unexpectedly warm. Usually by now the cold winds had begun to sweep through the city, bringing rain and unhinging the few remaining leaves off the trees, but today the breeze was soft and mellow. Jakobowicz lived quite a distance away and we had to take a trolley. Since the weather was so fine, instead of catching the trolley at the far end of the Place du Grand Sablon, Poppa and I walked to the next stop, past all the beautiful shops. As we walked Poppa gave me instructions on what to say and not to say, because Jakobowicz had also invited a very special lady friend. Not wanting to speak Yiddish in public, I didn’t answer. Poppa stopped to ask what was wrong because it wasn’t like me to be so silent. But I just shook my head, and we continued on to the trolley stop.
The beautiful yellow trolley opened in the back so you could stand and look out at the city. Though Poppa knew I loved standing at the back, he led me inside the car with the other passengers. We sat down in a waft of Chanel No. 5, and Poppa started talking louder and louder. I cringed, still refusing to say a word in Yiddish. Then he leaned in closer to me and held out his finger. Nem, he said, “Squeeze my finger.” I innocently took his finger and squeezed it. It was like a trigger. My father, the perfumed dandy, let out the biggest fart I had ever heard. I couldn’t believe my ears. The sound reverberated through the entire trolley car and heads turned, aghast. People got up and changed their seats. My father was quietly laughing to himself.
It was the last time I didn’t answer him in Yiddish. But when we got to our destination there was to be an even bigger embarrassment, for the “lady friend” of Jakobowicz was really a set up for my father. His buddy wanted him to meet someone better than Mme. Goldman. And there was no chance of my saying the wrong thing, for I couldn’t speak at all. Though I hardly liked Mme. Goldman, it was inconceivable that this other woman, this perfect stranger, might take her place. Though nothing came of the meeting, something had changed. Some fragment of security, of wellbeing, had slipped away and I knew nothing would be quite the same again.
EDITORS NOTE: “Mindele’s Journey: Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust” has been accepted at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research as part and to be included in their Holocaust Collections. Congratulations and well done Mariette from all your friends at Inspirational Storytellers!