Our Happy, Happy Refugee
By Arlene WeissYears ago, lots of families "took in boarders". This was especially true for my family - we lived on Long Island's south shore during the Second World War, when all sorts of people from the 'city' desperately needed places to stay. As our home was close to several large military bases, getting boarders presented no problem. The problems developed after they moved in.
I'm sure that the first unlucky couple remembered 28 First Avenue, Bay Shore, New York as one of their worst wartime experiences. In the spirit of patriotism - and also with an eye toward making a tidy profit - my mother turned our upstairs spare room into a "guest" room. The first couple who rented the bedroom was an army lieutenant and his attractive young wife. Arriving Friday night, everything seemed to be going well until the next morning.-- when I was shocked to see the both of them tearing down the stairs; the wife screaming out at my mother, "I've never had such a miserable night in my life! That mattress was hard as a rock! I didn't sleep a wink!". Needless to say, the couple ran out the front door without bothering to pay for the great privilege of not being able to sleep.
Although my father had finally got a steady job at a war plant, my mother continued undaunted with her efforts to bring in extra money. She therefore threw out the bed's old mattress and invested in a brand new one. Then my mother rented out the room to what she considered to be the perfect boarder - a steady, non-nonsense, hard-working nurse. Newly arrived in town, Miss Kelly needed a room near the local teaching hospital, where she had found a good position. When Miss Kelly was shown the room we had to rent, she immediately gave my mother a deposit, saying that she would be back Saturday morning to move in.
Friday afternoon, however, when I got home from school I found Jacob Epstein, the tailor, pounding excitedly on our door. He had hired an assistant tailor, a Mr. Steinberg. To help him in his shop. Mr. Steinberg had just arrived from Poland and did not speak one word of English. Of course, he needed a place to stay. The first words out of my mother's mouth were that she had already rented out the room just two days ago. Jacob cleverly played on her emotions. "Rebecca, how can you turn your back on your own people - a man all alone in the world, a poor refugee who has lost his whole family." He was forcing my mother to make one of the hardest decisions of her life. Finally, Jacob's pleadings broke through and mother gave in. But she had no way of contacting the nurse!. This was serious.
The next day, Saturday, the doorbell rang precisely at nine o'clock. Miss Kelly! On the doorstep with valise in hand. "Good morning, Mrs. Schwartzberg." "Why, good morning, Miss Kelly, please come in." The moment Miss Reilly walked in the door my mother said that she was terribly, terribly sorry but she had rented the room out to a relative who was a "displaced person". As she handed Miss Kelly her deposit back. Miss Kelly exploded with rage. "How could you do this to me? What am I supposed to do - get a job without a place to live?" For once in her life my mother was at a complete loss for words. Refusing to budge, the nurse ran to the telephone. "Operator, please give me the telephone number of the Bay Shore Catholic Parish." She got the number, made the call and her conversation with the priest ran something like this:
"Father, I'm a nurse at the Southside Hospital and I took a room with Jewish lady last week, gave her a deposit, and now she says she gave the room to someone else. and that leaves me without a place to stay! Oh, yes, yes, thank you, thank you, Father.. The parish is on North Main Street near the Prudential movie house? Yes, thank you, thank you, Father, I'll be right over." Looking greatly relieved, Miss Kelly grabbed her valise and left our house, but not before banging our front door as hard as she possibly could. I was overcome with the drama of the whole incident, but what was vividly imprinted on my mind, and I think forever, was that, in time of trouble, the lady had called the parish priest and he had helped her. How nice I thought to myself, when you are Catholic, and you have a problem, you simply call the priest. Now that's nice.
Mr. Steinberg moved in later the same day. The moment I set eyes on him, I liked him. He had a warm and gracious personality. Once or twice a month he would bring us a box of chocolates, bought out of his meager wages. However, since my mother came from Riga in Latvia and Mr. Steinberg from Warsaw, they discovered it was difficult to communicate -- she spoke one dialect of Yiddish and he another. Nonetheless, all went well during the next few months as Mr. Steinberg slowly became Americanized. In fact, how we doubled up in laughter the afternoon he walked into our house humming the latest popular song, "Give Me Five Minutes More."
Indeed, he was so grateful to my family for providing him with lodging that he offered to make my mother a custom-made suit. She picked out a dark green fabric, and before you knew it that fabric was transformed -- perfect for her round, " zaftik" figure. Then Mr. Steinberg made a fatal error. He offered to make my sister a suit also. That was not smart. My sister was in her early 20's, and since she worked as the private secretary to one of the executives at Gimbel Brothers Department Store in New York, of course she had to chose the very latest fashions. She shopped and shopped until she found a bright cherry red wool fabric. Okay so far. But she also picked out a pattern of great complexity. It had a peplum - a little appendage on the back of the jacket put there strictly because it was currently "chic" as the French would put it. Mr. Steinberg spent many hours bent over his sewing machine struggling over that one darned peplum.
One day Mr. Steinberg showed my mother a snapshot of his wife whom he lost in the war. My mother immediately thought of a distant cousin, Dorothy from Boston. Mr. Steinberg's wife was, well, shall we say, a little on the 'zaftik'. And Dorothy.. Well, my mother had been trying to marry her off for years. Rather crudely she would refer to Dorothy as a "miniature Kate Smith". Not a flattering picture. On our Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, Dorothy came for a visit. She and Mr. Steinberg seemed to hit it off!. About four months later they were married in Boston.
One year later, after a difficult pregnancy, Dorothy gave birth to a lovely baby girl, Mary Sue, born on December 13.
Funny, December 13 was my birthday, too.
from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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