Going to the Jewelry Exchange on 47th Street is like walking into a living anthology of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud. Most of the stall owners have histories - either their own or their parents’ incredible tales of survival and relocation. Most of the jewelers speak several languages and are adept at adaptation to whatever life has thrown their way.
I accompanied a friend who needed new batteries and bands for watches she had inherited from dead relatives. The jeweler knew her and kibitzed with her about picking a band for her husband who wanted brown, the one color he didn’t have in stock.
In an effort to convince her to buy a black band, he used a Yiddish expression that he translated as “he’ll learn to live with it.” My multi-lingual friend was curious about the literal meaning of this idiom which was offered by another customer at the counter. She was a blonde woman with perfect posture, athletic legs and a face that resembled Ellen Barkin, twenty years down the road.
My friend recognized her Polish accent and in an intuitive way that survivors can sense one another, asked what town she was from, soon establishing that they had lived in neighboring villages before World War II. “Where were you during the war,” my friend asked tentatively. “In hiding,” the woman replied, pausing before she began to tell her story.
She was a child of nine when her father decided to disobey the orders for all Jews to appear for round-up and deportation to the ghetto. Instead, he arranged for the family of nine to go underground and live in the barn of a Polish peasant whose husband had been drafted. He paid the woman in advance to buy provisions and farm animals that would be moved into the barn as cover for the nine people who would be hidden there.
They lived this way for over a year until an inspector arrived at the peasant’s house to check her inventory. After examining the woman’s own modest house, the inspector asked to see the barn and the peasant threw open the massive doors to reveal three family members who hadn’t managed to disappear quickly enough. As quickly, the doors were slammed shut. At this point, the blonde woman at the counter gasped and said that she relived this moment almost every day of her life, and each time was clutched by the pulverizing fear she had felt as a child. She quickly regained her composure and recounted how the peasant had insisted that the family had to leave because they had been discovered.
Somehow, the father was able to persuade the woman to visit the inspector, whom she apparently knew, and ask about the report .
The peasant consented and when she approached the inspector, he said that he had seen only cows, pigs and sheep living in her barn.
For another year, until liberation, the peasant and her son cared for the family of nine all of whom survived. Here the blonde woman looked at us and said, “I’m not sure that I could have done what they did. Even though we supported them for the rest of their lives, there was no way to repay them.” As for whether the inspector was another righteous gentile who knew the truth or was merely blinded by the intensity of the sun outside and the darkness of the barn’s interior, there was no definitive answer.
The jeweler peered over his glasses and said, “Nu, Gitty, are you buying the bracelet or not?” I looked at his numbered forearm and wondered how many different stories could be summoned at any of the jewelry counters on 47th Street…….
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