There was this old man who used to stop by the Diner where I worked. Each morning at exactly ten-thirty on the dot he would come in; he would look me in the eyes and nod. I would then give him a cup of coffee with 1 sugar and milk. He wouldn’t say a word until he would be ready to speak. He would sit there in his usual booth, drink his coffee, look out the window and then, as if an internal alarm clock went off, he would call me over and we would speak until the lunch crowd came in. He would tell me his story and offer advice and always made me smile.
His name was Eugene, he called himself Gene but preferred Mr. Thomas. His actual name was David Cantor and on Friday evenings and all day Saturday, he would stay out of the Diner and away from Kings Highway, where the diner was, as well.
He was a man with a slight accent – a slight limp and gray hair. He wore a soft beard at times and other times he was clean shaved. At 5’9 he was average height, always wore a hat and had a lightning smile.
Mr. Thomas, as I will refer to him out of respect, was a professional clown and a cantor of his synagogue. The synagogue was located in a part of town where all the Jews used to live but have since moved away. Mr. Thomas had been presiding over there since 1940something when he arrived from Europe.
Mr. Thomas was a Concentration Camp survivor. In 1940 he was twenty three years old and married to a beautiful young lady who was nineteen years old. She had been pregnant when she was told to step into the shower at the Birkenau extermination camp. Only he and she had known about her pregnancy, no excitement about whether it would be a boy or girl – only a question of whether the baby would be tortured, killed or spared the curse of being born into a world so cruel.
“Miriam swore that she would not allow them to touch our child…and no one ever did.”
Before the Holocaust began, Mr. Thomas was an apprentice for his cousin, who was a plumber. His cousin had told him at a family function that there were a lot of bathrooms to be installed all throughout Europe. Going and soon to be gone were the outhouses; already arrived and multiplying faster then babies being born were the bathrooms which were located inside the house where everyone ate, slept and lived.
He was working for his cousin for a year, when the Nazis forbade them from continuing to do business.
“Even if you do belong with the shit.” One of the officers stated too loud and way too jovial for his cousin’s taste. His cousin went to throw a punch and was immediately hit with a club and then put into the street and shot in broad daylight. His body lay there as a “Reminder” for all the Jews to know “what happens when you talk back to an officer.”
Mr. Thomas, wearing his gold star on his sleeve – walked home to find his neighborhood strewn with dead bodies, broken glass and forever broken lives. He was quickly beat up and forced to walk alone among thousands towards…what? Death? The smoke rose up high in the distance and somehow his inner sense told him that worlds were ending.
The years passed as the ashes gathered in from a Holocaust which deprived the world of the beautiful minds of Six Million Jews and their infinite offspring.
“Imagine the loss in terms of the impact they could have had on this world. Base it on the historical contributions of the Jewish people – imagine the symphonies written which would then be performed, the medicinal breakthroughs which might have saved billions of people from suffering, the scientific discoveries which could have enhanced our world, saved our world…its impossible to calculate the impact six million souls might have made on this world, or the generations that would have followed had they not have been extinguished by the Holocaust.”
“It was sometime in the winter when we were told that the Germans were gone and that we would be taken to other camps in the area. We were free, they said. Free to do what? We had no homes, no family, no friends…our past was destroyed and as far as any proof of our lives before…there was none as I would soon find out.”
“They use the term, ‘liberated’ – I wasn’t ‘liberated’, I was told I could leave. But go where? I tried to go back to where my family lived before. But there were other people living there and when I told them it was my home they threatened me. They knew who I was, I went to school with them…they told me that I was the reason for the war and that they didn’t want dirty Jews in their town. Well they were correct on the two points, I was a Jew and I was filthy. So I ended up on a ship to America. When I arrived on Ellis Island a stranger vouched for me and said I was his cousin.”
When I was on the ship to America there were children who were alone, orphans. For some reason they seemed to want to be around me as if they knew me and felt comforted by my presence. So, I watched over them as if I were their guardian and I also began to do whatever it took to make them smile.”
Mr. Thomas took on the role as their guardian, when the ship disembarked he made sure that each of the six children would wind up in the right hands He worked with the Jewish Agencies to ensure they all went to a good family and insisted that all siblings be kept together. It took a long time and a lot of help from his “relative” to make sure that this would be the case. With the determination and “with God’s help – a family took them in.”
The “relative” who signed Mr. Thomas into the country was the manager of a synagogue on the Lower East Side. His name was Abraham and he had come from Poland before the war he found out soon enough that he lost almost everyone he had known from his old town.
Mr. Thomas had told Abraham that he was a cantor and a plumber back in Poland – turned out that the synagogue where Abraham worked was in need of a cantor and could always use a plumber.
Mr. Thomas began to co-cantor at the synagogue and to maintain the plumbing in exchange for a room in Rabbi’s apartment which was left vacant when the Rabbi’s daughter married and moved to Israel.
He quickly began to learn the language and to integrate into the “American” way. He would also clown around for the children in the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays, as well as the children he would encounter on his long walks around the city.
“I was walking on 42nd street one day and I saw a line outside of a theater. I had never been inside a theater before – all I knew was there was a stage and people would sing or act out scenes. My Rabbi back in Poland said it was against the Torah to watch the shows. So, here I am walking on 42nd street, a million miles away from my past life and I walk in with just a sense of the words from my Rebbe. What was I expecting to see the devil himself? What I see is magical and although I could not understand the all the dialog, I was laughing whole show. It wasn’t actual people on stage; this was a movie and I fell in love with the whole idea right then and there.”
Mr. Thomas had sat through three showings of “Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops” and would have sat through another showing if not for the theater closing for the night.
In that year of 1955 he was able to get a job in a theater as a stagehand. He would help setup the stages throughout Broadway and became kind of a specialist in the lighting and the handling of the curtains. Whenever a curtain would get stuck and would not open or close – they called David. When the toilets backed up, they called David. He became the go to guy wearing multiple hats while getting paid for it. When he advised his boss that he could not work on Friday evenings or Saturdays until sundown – his boss at first told him to “Hit the street.” David said, “OK.” Dropped his toolbelt and put on his derby hat and walked out.
Two nights later, his boss, Mr. Alvin Robinson, literally went to David’s room in the Lower East Side and begged him to come back on his own terms. Plus he would get a raise and be able to set his schedule provided he alerted them in advance of any holidays.
One night, in October of 1955, right after the Jewish holiday season; he found himself sitting in the audience and watching a new play. As the show began he felt a sense of foreboding. There were two people on stage, a man and a woman and the man was reading from a book. Suddenly the mans voice trailed off and a young girls voice took over. When he heard these words – he stood up and walked out, shaking and in tears.
“My name is Anne Frank. I am thirteen years old. I was born in Germany the twelfth of June, nineteen twenty-nine. As my family is Jewish, we emigrated to Holland when Hitler came to power.”
He could not sit still and ended up running out of the theater. He was shaking and scenes from a life that had been stolen from him were being played in his head like a movie. He remembered his father and his mother, his brothers and sisters…and of course he remembered his Miriam and their unborn child.
Once his feelings were awakened and the reminders of the great destruction and all he had lost – he lost control of himself. He felt alone despite his friends and his community. He felt insecure about the world and whenever he heard a shout on the street he would turn towards the source of that shout expecting it to be an officer pointing a gun at him. Each man in uniform frightened him – he couldn’t even ride the subway for a while because it brought back the memory of traveling to the death camp. He had nightmares and cold sweat fear episodes during the day and in the middle of the night. He would wake up sweating and shivering – he would be working and begin to feel the sweat form on on his body…
He went to his Rabbi for some advice and the Rabbi told him he needed to mourn the losses he had sustained.
“How do I mourn the loss of everything – my past? Rabbi, whoever I was before the camps is dead now. My memory has been stolen in addition to any proof of an existence – lives, educations, friends, good times, bad times…its only when I see my reflection that some memories of who I once was evolves slowly and then quickly dissolves. Sometimes a memory will seem like I am looking at a photograph of someone or something and sometimes a memory will be so very painful that it will knock me down. Sometimes, Rabbi, I wonder why God couldn’t …”
“I wonder the same thing and I have voiced my anger towards him. But the same answer comes back to me whenever I am more collected and at ease…”
“You voiced your anger against God?” He asked.
The Rabbi responded, “I think that the omnipotent God can handle a bad excuse for a Rabbi’s rants and raves.”
“So what is the answer?”
“There is no answer that we can comprehend. How can we understand why you had to go through that hell and lose what you lost? How can any God explain that in a way we could understand?”
“I think I understand – but I am not ready to accept that yet. I think I have some tears to cry.”
He tore his shirt and he sat Shiva for the required seven days. He didn’t shave or cut his hair for 30 days and he mourned.
He thought about the children he had watched over on the ship and in New York…they were settled. All six of them lived in Brooklyn and he went to visit them often. When they would see him their faces would light up and they would run to embrace him.
A couple of evenings before his meeting with the Rabbi, he had seen the play “Marty” and that brought out some emotions in him as well. The story was about a middle-aged man who had lived with his overbearing mother and had given up on ever finding love. The movie reminded him that he was now an orphan with no mother to watch over him. He was alone and had no love around him.
After the fist two days of sitting Shiva, he had a dream where he re-enacted part of a scene from the movie Marty.
Marty: I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly!
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty –
Marty: (He rises, agitated) Ma, leave me alone. Ma, whaddaya want from me? Whaddaya want from me? I’m miserable enough as it is.
He woke up crying for his mother, his father – his wife and their unborn child. For the first time since he arrived he began to cry and cry.
On the day he had his hair cut and his face shaved – he was walking by the farmers market when he saw a sign “Yes! We have Bananas!” He bought one for a nickle, stood aside and took a bite. It was bitter and he could not chew it. He made a face and there were a class of school children watching him. They were all laughing. He looked at them and asked in his broken English, “I think this is bad fruit.”
One of the girls took the banana from him, pealed it and gave it back to him. He took a bite and had a big smile on his face. The kids were all laughing. He was hooked on making the children laugh that day. It was that moment when he decided he wanted to be a comedian.
“One day as I was tripping, falling and walking into walls, one of the mother’s said, ‘what a clown.’ it was then that I said, ‘yes, I am a clown. Call me Mr. Thomas, Mr. Eugene C. Thomas.”
One day as he was taking the train to Brooklyn to see the kids – he spotted a program cover for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Mexico City. “It was in Spanish – but that didn’t matter I knew it was a sign. A sign for me to put on the make-up, wig with a hat way too big for my head and the shoes way too big for my feet.”
He learned how to apply the facial makeup from one of his girlfriends in the theater and was given old worn out costumes to use as his own. He began by working in his synagogue on special days and moved on to working with children in different parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Before he knew it he started doing bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and became a party fixture.
There were block parties, street fairs and eventually he needed help. He contacted the kids he had accompanied to Ellis Island and they joined him. It was on Coney Island in 1960 when his heartbeat picked up the pace for the first time in this life.
Since he had come to New York there had been other women he had been with – mostly actresses and chorus girls…but he never looked into their eyes…never felt his heartbeat quicken as it did with Miriam…
But Rebecca…once he looked into her eyes and she looked into his; he knew that she would become the love of his life – born in Brooklyn and a Sephardic Jew, she was the clean slate that he needed. Her dark skin, long dark hair and deep brown eyes enchanted him. His smile and his easy way with the children she was watching made her blush and smile. She knew he was giving the children with her the most attention because he was trying to impress her.
“Where is your husband, Mrs?”
“Silly man – these are my nephews and nieces.” She said to him with a soft smile that bit through his heart.
“Tonight there will be a clear sky, full moon and a soft breeze – please come with me to the boardwalk to dance?”
She smiled her beautiful smile and said. “Yes…”
They danced that evening, him in his clown makeup and clothes – her in her beach dress. The radio played, “Forever” and he whispered the words as he held her close…
Hold me, kiss me
That you love me
Forever began soon after that magical evening. They married in Bensonhurst Brooklyn where they would live for, well, forever.
Rebecca and David spent their lives together – never sleeping apart. She helped build his business into the success that his children have taken over – working alongside their own children.
After fifty years, her beauty never faded but her memory began to fail her. Although there was a nurse, he insisted he bathe her, dress her and feed her. When she died he recited the prayers along with their sons, Abraham, Joseph and Solomon.
Each year on the anniversary of her “departure” as he calls it, he goes where his clowning around is needed. Instead of visiting her grave he visits Orphanages and Children’s Hospitals and makes sure for the time he is there, that the sound he hears is the laughter of the children.
It was soon after her death when he began to make his daily trips to the diner. He had his schedule and he kept to it. He would go pray at the synagogue and then go help feed the elderly in the assisted living center on Kings Highway a block from the Diner.
“You know Ralph, this life is strange. Just when you think you’ve lost it all you always are given something else to lose. But I learned to embrace what I have been given and I worked hard to keep it all. My faith in God is the ground beneath my feet.”
“How do you still keep faith? Keep praying to Him after all the…the…”
“Death and pain? What choice do I have? If I give up my faith in God what else do I have left? Faith in people? Faith in myself? Both are fallible…with God; listen although I have my issues with Him, my love and trust in Him is unshakable. But I know that when I do see Him, I have a lot of questions…I think that’s why I may live forever – He doesn’t want to hear me Kvetch!”
“You know Mr. Thomas – I have to say that you are one of the most special people I have met; you remind me of my Grandfather.” I said this to him and he looked at me as if trying to look through me, or to unmask a riddle that has evaded him.
“What is your last name, Ralph?”
“My last name is Singer, Ralph Singer. My Grandfather is a survivor of the camps as well.”
“Where is he from?”
“I forget how he pronounces the city, but it was part of Warsaw.”
“Yes that’s it. Is that where you are from?”
“Yes that is where I was born…” His voice trailed off and I could see it hurt him to remember.
“My Grandfather is around 88 or so; maybe you can meet each other? Would you like to meet him?”
(To Be Continued)
*Performed by the Little Dippers “Forever”