An Atlantic “First”
I REMEMBER the spring of 1943 as the season of the hats. Actually, in the Nazi-conceived ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz, where we, the Jews, had been imprisoned for over three years now, season melted into season with gray monotony. I might have missed spring’s coming in that huge slum cage of brick and ragged cobblestones, where a budding tree was as rare as a meal and a flower a fable from the past. But as I waded through a slippery mess of melting snow one morning in March, I knew that spring had come.
Early spring in the ghetto was a time of slush, of thick, dirty mud that trickled into my worn shoes, sending up my spine a shiver of cold that was more penetrating than the northern bite of Polish winter. It was a season of wet feet and walls dripping with dampness, of sickness and further weakening. It was not a time of rebirth, either in 1943 or any other year of the war. We were a lot hungrier than the year before, a little shabbier, more worn out. And there were fewer of us. Many died; more had gone in the sporadic deportation drives to destinations one shuddered to guess at. Those who were left had less hope.
Thus, spring in the ghetto may hardly seem the time and place in which to nourish the desire for a new bonnet, and yet this was exactly what happened. The bright ribbons and feathers on multicolored felt that suddenly sprang up in the squalor that season seem as out of place to me now as a bunch of bright balloons bobbing over the heads of a funeral procession. But at the time, I, along with many others, dreamed of a new hat.
I was sixteen that year and working in a corsetry shop, one of the many plants that comprised, by virtue of our slave labor for the German industry, the raison d’être of the ghetto in Nazi eyes. My boss in the notions supply room of the shop was a young woman, Leah, who had been a milliner before the war. It was she who put the idea of a new hat in my mind when she came to work that first day of the thaw, sporting a jaunty green Tyrolean over her red hair.
“Leah,” I gasped when she walked in. “You look marvelous. You look almost pre-war!
Leah turned slowly in front of me, primping, tilting her head first to the right, then to the left, then facing me fully. I had never thought her a pretty girl. Three and a half years of the war had worked to emphasize the beaky sharpness of her nose and chin to witchlike proportions. Her coat was shapeless with age and wear, and her clumsy shoes gray with mud. But the green hat transformed her appearance to a vision of elegance.
“Do you like it?” she asked as she took the hat off and set it carefully on a shelf behind her desk, on top of a stack of salmon-colored hook-and-eye tape. The hat glimmered darkly in its pink surroundings like a young fir tree thriving in a sunbaked desert.
I didn’t answer right away. I stared at the hat with a sudden yearning to own one like it, accepting the desire without question, as I had learned to accept the illogic of the world around me since the outbreak of war. By 1943, life in the ghetto had assumed a macabre permanence for me, and the old cliché that one can get used to anything had almost become a truism. I say almost because one never quite gets used to hunger or torture or death. And yet, such as it was, the ghetto was my life, the here and now without conceivable future. After an initial period of stunned indifference, we had all begun to pick up, one by one, the severed threads of busy trivia that make up so much of living. At sixteen, I had never owned a real lady’s hat. Spring was here, and soon I would be able to peel off the layers of rags that hadn’t quite kept me warm in winter. My summer wardrobe, consisting of a couple of faded, badly fitting cotton dresses, was only more of the same. But a hat!
“Do you like it, Felicia?" There was a hint of impatience in Leah’s repetition of the question.
“Like it?” I sighed. “I love it. I, I. . . . May I try it on, Leah?”
“Sure. Go ahead.” Leah waved toward the hat expansively. “But don’t be long at it,” she added brusquely. “There is the inventory to finish, and Rosenberg isn’t here yet.”
OLD Mr. Rosenberg, who completed the staff of the supply room, strolled in with his heavyfooted gait just as I was admiring myself in a piece of mirror which I kept in my desk drawer.
“Good morning, Miss Kohn.” As usual he addressed himself only to Leah, using her last name, as befitted a mere employee addressing his boss. He took off his coat and hung it near his favorite table, then sat down. Being an Orthodox Jew, he never parted with his old black hat. He glanced at me and said, “Ah, a new hat, Miss Felicia. Rather becoming.” His voice was exceedingly polite, as if it took special effort to speak to me because there was nothing in it for him.
“The hat is not mine,” I answered, more abruptly than was necessary. “It’s Leah’s.” I took it off and regretfully put it back on its pink resting place. Rosenberg almost spoiled my pleasure in it.
“Oh.” Rosenberg ignored my abruptness. “I thought,”he continued in a bittersweet tone, “I thought that perhaps one of your influential friends. . . .”
The sentence remained unfinished. Rosenberg stooped over his table, counting buttons, arranging them in piles of a gross each, tilting back in his chair now and then to admire his accomplishment.
“What about that inventory, Leah?” I asked, pointedly ignoring the old duffer, and walked over to the supply-laden shelves that lined the room on all four sides.
Leah joined me, commanding tolerance with her eyes. We worked quietly, I counting the rolls and bundles, she checking them off in her ledger. But Rosenberg’s barb had struck home. He had resented my presence in the supply room from the day I was transferred there, after less than a week’s work as a machine operator’s apprentice, because my mother knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the Jewish manager of the plant. And I remained sensitive to his resentment. The way of connections was the natural order of things in the ghetto, and we both should have accepted it. It was an order of favors through acquaintances, an order of what the ghetto called “backs.” Only the Nazis’ backs were immeasurable. Immediately below them was the mad old man whom they had appointed the Eldest of the Jews. His was the broadest back of all, and his favor was considered a personal life line to surviving the war. Immediately below were his henchmen, heads of departments, plants, and the police, their backs still broad and strong, since they controlled all the goods and jobs in the ghetto, dispensing only those for which they had no use themselves. The size of the back of the rest of us was a function of how many life-giving favors we were able to procure. It was truly a man-eat-man society, and the broad backs grew broader under necks that grew thicker and redder with the sparse fat of the land, that never reached the backless mass at the bottom of the ghetto pyramid.
Rosenberg’s back was very narrow, and his neck thin and wrinkled. That was why he was the way he was, I knew. He was a harmless old fool, I tried to convince myself, a sometimes amusing bore. I looked at him more kindly.
He stopped counting buttons, leaned back in his chair, balancing it on two legs, and tucked both thumbs under his vest, slowly fanning his fingers back and forth, like a huge insect with tiny wings on the wrong side of the body. He cleared his throat, looking at Leah very seriously, until she stopped her bookkeeping. Then he turned his eyes on me. Mr. Rosenberg was about to speak.
“Miss Kohn,” he opened pompously. “Miss Kohn,” he repeated. “About that hat. In the spring of 1939, my daughter had a hat just like it, but what felt, what styling! It was imported from Paris — from Paris, mind you.” He stopped and looked from Leah to me, his fingers drumming on his vest, letting the import of his pronouncement sink in. “But, of course, I could afford it then. In my corsetry business in Nowomiejska Street I had ten people working for me, you know. . . .”
Oh, yes, we knew, we knew indeed. The corsetry business in Nowomiejska Street figured in every speech of Rosenberg’s.
He sighed, looking far across the room. “She looked beautiful in the hat, my daughter did. You should have seen her. . .”
His fingers stopped drumming in his contemplation of a vision from that bygone world on the other side of the ghetto wire fences, a world that was finished, gone as completely as if it had never existed. But he came back to it again and again, in story after banal story, picking up piece after piece of a structure that had fallen apart as irreparably as Humpty Dumpty. Only Rosenberg refused to see it broken.
“I can imagine,” Leah said, much more gently than I ever could, winking at me at the same time. Rosenberg’s daughter, who worked at a machine in our shop, was definitely no beauty. But that was old Rosenberg.
“Come on, Felicia,” Leah said. “Let’s go back to that tape.”
Rosenberg took the hint and faced the buttons with a slight sigh. Leah and I came to the shelf on which the green hat blossomed. I lifted it off the roll of tape tenderly and set it down on the next shelf.
Leah was watching me. She put her pencil behind her ear thoughtfully. “Say, doesn’t your mother have some old hat she doesn’t wear? I could make it over for you just like this one, or any way you like. That’s what I used for mine. Just an old hat that was all out of shape.”
I lost count of the tape. “Would you? Would you really? Oh, Leah, that would be wonderful! But you must let me pay for it.”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Leah dismissed my offer with a shrug. “It won’t be necessary.”
But in the end she yielded to my insistence. As a matter of fact, I was making a rather empty gesture. A price I could afford would be of little use to Leah. Paradoxically, in that time of want money was plentiful. The Nazis paid us in special ghetto currency, and most of us had more cash than the food rations and noontime soups at the plant cost, but not nearly enough to buy extra food on the black market. My payment to Leah wouldn’t even buy an ounce of sugar or a slice of bread.
I didn’t waste much time speculating on the ironies of ghetto commerce. That was something one took for granted, whereas a new hat was grown-upness, and springtime, and style. I worked on, exhilarated, until Rosenberg broke the silence. “It’s very nice of you, Miss Kohn, to make that hat for Felicia,” he said. “You are such a busy person.”
Leah dismissed the remark with a wave of her hand. It wasn’t nice of Leah, I thought, but only natural. She had somehow managed to keep a characteristic that belonged on the outside of the ghetto wires as much as Rosenberg’s corsetry business. Leah was generous. I knew it, but it was Rosenberg who paid it a tribute. Rosenberg, the flatterer of bosses and would-be builder of a “back.” And I had thought that he hadn’t even heard our conversation, so absorbed had he seemed in the little mother-of-pearl disks that he poured slowly from hand to hand, like grains of sand in an hourglass, while his lips mouthed the figures soundlessly.
MY MOTHER found for me a shapeless brown felt hat which Leah decided would look best on me sailor-style. A few days and two fittings later, Leah came into the supply room one morning carrying a basket covered with a head scarf, from which she proudly took out my new sailor hat, trimmed with a maroon ribbon. The two ends of the ribbon hung loose at the back of the hat, tickling my neck when I tried it on. Wearing it, I felt as Rosenberg’s daughter must have felt in her Paris model, and the old man’s admiration, whether a tribute to Leah’s skill or my appearance, was as extravagant as it must have been on that proud occasion. Since I hadn’t enough money with me that day to pay Leah, we agreed that I should do so the following payday. The hat was put on a pile of bias tape next to her green Tyrolean, where I could steal a glance at it now and then as I filled the notions orders of the day.
On my way home, I hardly noticed the slush under my feet or the trickle of water into my shoes. I walked with my head turned toward the dirty windows of empty stores along the street, looking at my fuzzy reflection. Passers-by muttered in anger as I bumped them, walking along, but I didn’t even see them. All I saw was my head in the windows, crowned by the hat, its maroon ribbons bobbing at the nape of my neck, the head of a young lady, springlike and dressed up.
Minia, who also worked in the corsetry shop, caught up with me just as I was reaching home. “Sa-a-ay, where did you get that?” she asked, admiration in both her voice and her eyes.
I told her about Leah and her talents, and a day or two later Minia too found an old hat and Leah had another order. By payday, several remodeled hats brightened the shelves of the corsetry shop, while Leah’s purse bulged with bulky ghetto money. Even Rosenberg’s daughter sported a new hat, paid for from her father’s paycheck.
The day was lovely, the first really balmy spring day. Leah was in a good mood, and so was Rosenberg, the memories of other lovely days crowding his mind to be spilled over and shared with us at great length.
“Now, for Passover, Miss Kohn, for Passover Mrs. Rosenberg had all the employees and their families to the second Seder. What a table! What a meal! Gefüllte fish, a pike the size of this shelf, and the matzo balls. . . .” He swallowed audibly, droplets of moisture still gathering around his lips as he continued. “Mrs. Rosenberg’s matzo balls were famous — light as a feather, with just a touch of ginger and bitter almonds.” He stopped, swallowing again, and Leah and I swallowed simultaneously.
The sound of the buzzer for the noon soupbreak interrupted the reminiscence just as my hunger rose to an unbearable pitch, excited by the almost tangible taste in my mouth of plump matzo balls complemented by the golden delicacy of chicken broth. It was Rosenberg’s turn to fetch the soup for all of us, and as he left the supply room with our three canteens, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I don’t know why it is,” I confided to Leah. “We all talk about food, heaven knows, but I just can’t take it from Rosenberg. In fact, I can’t take Rosenberg at all. I don’t know why. I think maybe it is because he is so much like all of us, only more so.”
“Oh, leave him alone,” Leah said. “He is old, he is hungry. It is harder on him than on us.”
Rosenberg rushed in carrying the canteens half filled with a gray liquid in which a few pieces of potato hugged the bottom. He handed Leah’s canteen to her, set mine on my worktable, glancing inside before he put it down, and rushed to his favorite chair, stirring the soup with a tin spoon.
“I think it’s thick today,” he remarked with satisfaction. “I managed to wait till the bottom of the kettle.” He began to eat, slowly yet greedily, slurping the liquid, carefully avoiding the potatoes till the end.
“You know what we should do?” Leah asked eagerly between spoonfuls. “I’ll buy some sugar with the hat money, and if we each bring a potato, we could bake a grated potato cake in the stove in here, and we could have a party. Remember, you bring a potato each, and I’ll take care of the rest. How about that?” She looked from one of us to the other for agreement, smiling.
Before I had time to protest that the hat profits were hers alone, Rosenberg shook his head, shocked. “I am sorry, Miss Leah, not I. I couldn’t bring a potato. It’s very nice of you, of course, but a potato! I can’t do that. All I have is my ration.” He glanced at me, the person with connections, pointedly. “But I’ll tell you what: I could manage a rutabaga, and I know a new recipe —”
“Forget it,” Leah interrupted with an abruptness that startled him. “Forget the whole thing.”
Her spirits sank visibly, although to me Rosenberg’s reaction was as natural as that of any creature of the ghetto, where food was as private a matter as sex life in a monogamous society. It was she who was out of character. She sighed as she scraped the last bits of potato from the bottom of her canteen. She pushed the canteen away from her angrily and said, “Come on, Felicia. Let’s go outside for a few minutes, It really smells like spring today, even in this dump.”
WE WALKED out into the pebbled courtyard outside the shop and sat down on the stoop, sunning ourselves. Leah was fidgety and got up after a few moments. “Say,” she said, “let’s go and see if Rosenberg is through eating. I want to ask him to come out too. I really shouldn’t have jumped at him like that.”
I got up and walked with her to the supply room window, where she lifted herself onto a ledge. She looked in. In the next moment she was back on the ground, her face white. She tried to pull me away from the window, but I forced her hand off my waist and climbed onto the ledge. I had to see what had shaken her. I looked inside. With trembling hands, Rosenberg was snapping shut Leah’s purse, clutching something in his right hand at the same time. He slid the purse back into the desk drawer, looked around cautiously, and tiptoed back to his worktable, stuffing a wad of bills into his vest pocket. It was obvious that he hadn’t seen me. I sprang back to life after my shocked contemplation of the silent scene and raised my arm with the intention of knocking on the window when Leah, who had been tugging at me all the time I was watching, firmly pulled me to the ground and held me.
Her paleness was gone and she looked quite composed. “Not a word to anybody,” she whispered.
I exploded. “But, Leah,” I shouted, “you can’t let him get away with it! He is a thief, a dirty, rotten thief. ‘How nice of you, Miss Kohn,’ ”
I mimicked. “You must do something, Leah, or — or I will!”
Leah retained her composure. She opened her palms in a resigned gesture. “He is an old man, Felicia. And what good is the money to me anyway? And what can I do about this? What good is a quarter pound of sugar in the long run? It can’t give me what I want, what you want, what he wants.” She swept the air with a wide motion of her arm as if reaching out beyond the barbedwire fences surrounding the ghetto. “And if he thinks a smidgen of sugar will get him closer to it, well. . . .” She paused. “What is there to do?” she reiterated sadly. She turned toward the supply room and I followed her meekly.
Leah was right, I thought. There was little one could do. It was the Germans who had made thieves of us all, and thieves we were. This was something I knew well, a basic tenet for me, a girl who was growing up in the ghetto, whose ethics were being shaped and twisted by the amorality rampant in that cage in which I lived. I was a knowledgeable cynic with the best of them. I was quite aware that the Germans were stealing from us — our property, our work, our food, our very lives. And so on down the line it went: the broad-backed big shots stole from both the Germans and other Jews; those with connections were thieving the due of those who knew nobody. Some husbands stole from wives, and children from parents. And those who had stolen nothing so far would do so without thinking at the first opportunity. Hence Rosenberg, bluntly and directly applying the working philosophy of a denizen of the ghetto, in the manner of a common pickpocket. Hence Leah, accepting his deed without a whisper of protest. How shocking, both. A concept stale with lack of use crept into my mind, pushing to the forefront, forcing expression. Justice! Justice had to be done.
The afternoon dragged endlessly, heavy with the evasive maneuvers of each of us to weave the thin threads of our separate purposes, unbroken through the hours, until the end of the working day.
Rosenberg’s voice buzzed unabated. Stories of business coups in Nowomiejska Street chased one another, as if suddenly it had become essential to him to remember how great life had been, as if suddenly he had caught a glimpse of that life waiting for him just around the corner. Once in a while I would see him glancing down to where his waistcoat pocket bulged, touching the bulge surreptitiously, hardly able to wait till his loot was safe. Then the stories continued.
Leah nodded to him absent-mindedly, workingin a fever of energy, as if letting up would somehow disrupt her purpose of condonation. She stopped working only long enough to thwart, by gesture or command to another unnecessary job, my every attempt to burst out my knowledge of Rosenberg’s deed. She succeeded. All that longafternoon, I sought justice in vain.
At last closing time came.
“So you see, Miss Kohn —” Rosenberg’s voice broke off the moment the sound of the five-o’clock buzzer joined it. He cocked his head toward the buzz, half up from his chair already. Leah grabbed her hat and set it on her head carelessly, then put on her coat, fussing with the buttons.
I walked toward the shelf on which I kept my hat. At the same time, Rosenberg shuffled in the opposite direction to put away his inevitable box of buttons. I brushed against him — purposely or not, I couldn’t tell. The open box tipped and the buttons showered onto the floor with a delicate rustle. Instinctively, I crouched down to pick them up. Next to me, Rosenberg bent down laboriously, and as he did the packet of money slipped out of his vest pocket and fell between us.
I was younger, and my movements quicker. I covered the bills with my hand, staring into Rosenberg’s eyes. Clutching the money, I rose slowly, brushing against Leah, immobile right behind me. I hadn’t been aware of her approach. I thrust the bills into her hand, pressing her fingers around the packet. Leah stared at the bills, then slipped them into her coat pocket mechanically, her face unhappy, as if hypnotized by the pantomime in which she was made to take her assigned part. I reached for my hat. As I turned toward the door, I could see Rosenberg straightening up slowly, his fingers grabbing a shelf for support. I fled the supply room, ran along the hall, and stumbled down the front steps, out into the sunshine.
I wore my sailor hat with little pleasure that day, in spite of the glorious weather. Walking along a border street between the ghetto and the rest of the city, I, the instrument of justice in the supply room, could congratulate myself. I had seen dishonesty punished and virtue rewarded. But where was the satisfaction of seeing it happen? Dishonesty, justice. Virtue and justice. Beautiful words, but discordant, like a solemn hymn sung at the Bacchanalia. I looked through the barbedwire fence between me and the world on the other side of the street, me and the outside.
I might have raised my head too abruptly, or a sudden breeze might have started up, or I might have forgotten to fasten the hatpin. Whatever the reason, I suddenly saw my hat wafted between the strands of barbed wire and across the road, gathering mud as it moved, until it settled on the opposite sidewalk. I started after it, then stopped short, because, of course, I had nowhere to go. The German guard who had been pacing in the middle of the street noticed the hat, made a motion toward it, then shrugged. I took a step, turned, walked on. The hat was lying in the mud where it fell. I too shrugged, hoping that somebody would rescue it on the outside. I had no more use for it. The ghetto was the ghetto, and the outside was the world, and hats, like justice, belonged in one but not the other. I walked on home, my hatless head bent low, idly noticing the splotchy patterns the mud traced on my boots.