Mr. Thomas walked with his slight limp; he wore a black sports coat with a dark blue collared shirt. He was cleanly shaven and had decided against wearing a hat because it was kind of breezy and he didn’t want to go chasing his hat in the wind. The temperature was cool – “it was almost Thanksgiving, so what did you expect? An extended summer?”
As he walked through the fallen leaves on the sidewalks he moved to the sound of an old song he remembered from his days at the theater. It was from “My Fair Lady” and the beautiful Julie Andrews had sung the song, “I could have danced all Night”
I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night.
And still have begged for more.
I could have spread my wings,
And done a thousand things I’ve never done before.
I’ll never know What made it so exciting.
Why all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he
Began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced All night…
Not an hour would go by when he didn’t miss Rebecca. She would hold his hand whenever they would walk – often taking his arm and resting her head on his shoulder. When they would sit on a bench she would tilt her head and hum the songs that made up their life together. “I could have danced all night” was one of their favorites and often he would take her hand, stand her up and hold her close to him as they both swayed to their own silent rhythm.
Tonight, as he walked towards his home, he felt that too familiar pain of loss. He thought about her eyes, her lips…her neck and the way she would taste…
He took out the house key and walked up the stairs to the front door. Unlocked it and half-expected to smell the aroma of the Sabbath meal being warmed up and the sound of her in the kitchen. But tonight, there was no aroma, no sound and no Rebecca. All of his children were out in their homes or with their families. Tonight he was on his own. He kept his jacket on as he fell onto the recliner, lights still shut and the silence screaming out.
“The kid should be coming any minute now…” He said to aloud just to break the silence, or maybe as a reminder to himself.
He had begun to ease his observance of the Sabbath; he would turn on and off the lights and electronics. “Its too dark and lonely without them.” He would also answer the phone if the caller id was from someone he knew. “What if someone needs me?”
As he sat there he looked up at the pictures arranged so methodically on the walls. Their children’s wedding pictures; family celebrations throughout the years adorned the walls in Rebecca’s idea of chronological order. The last picture was the one that he put up after she had left. It was a picture of all of the children and grandchildren; with him and Rebecca seated in the middle of the circle. “What more could you ask for?” His wife asked him.
“Some more time with you, honey. Some more time with you.”
His eyes were closing when he heard a knock on the door and then a voice.
“Mr Thomas?” It was Ralph from the Diner and he was picking him up.
“I may not be the most religious but my family is orthodox in the house; so everything is Glatt kosher.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Together they walked the two blocks to Ralph’s parents home where the family had gathered for the Sabbath meal. When they walked in there was a beautiful table set for their family with him being the guest. Ralph will tell the story from here on.
When I walked in with Mr. Thomas I felt a feeling of pride that was laced with a lot of sadness. I felt sad for him and even worse when I introduced him to my Grandfather who was blessed to have survived the concentration camps and to even be reunited with his wife in a displaced persons camp.
“Mr. Thomas, um, sorry, Mr. David Cantor, this is my Grandfather Mr. Abraham Singer.” They looked at each other and for the first time I noticed there was a resemblance. Mr. Thomas stared at my Grandfather in silence and was met with the same look. They stared at each other for what seemed like eternity but in reality was maybe twenty or thirty seconds. My grandmother walked towards her husband and looked at Mr. Thomas as if seeing a ghost.
I will try and not be too dramatic here – I will leave that to the actual circumstances, no extra drama is needed here other than the actuality. My Grandfather and Mr. Thomas began to shake – quickly joined by my Grandmother.
They each fell into the couch and Mr. Thomas spoke, at first in english and then in what i believe to be Polish with some Yiddish mixed in.
“My God is that you Abe? Abe Chazan?”
It was then when my father walked in and was astonished and began to shake as well.
“Pop…is that your brother?”
“Cantor?” My Grandmother asked.
“Singer?” Mr. Thomas responded.
“Oh my God…have you lived here in Brooklyn all along?” My Grandfather asked.
“I came here in 1950something, lived in Manhattan I moved to Brooklyn when I married- Oh my…Abe…You…you are alive and you look…” He began to cry and lost all control right there in our living room. He was joined by every adult in the house with all the little kids totally confused or scared.
“Tzipora…you look just as beautiful as you did on your wedding day…” He hugged her in tears.
“Did, Miriam?” She trailed off.
“No, Miriam was murdered in Birkenau…I met a beautiful lady named Rebecca, but she departed two years ago; she is with God now. Rest her soul…but we had 5 children together and now we have 19 grandchildren! I named one of my sons Abraham, after you, my brother.”
“I named my son, David, after you, my brother. Did anyone else survive?” He asked my Uncle.
“Not that I am aware of – we missed out on spending our lives together…Singer?”
“When I came into Ellis Island they asked me to describe my name so I sang a song. So he put on my identification ‘Singer.'”
Mr. Thomas, I mean, Uncle David laughed and said, “I did the same thing, but the man who signed me into the country told the man my name in English was cantor.” He looked at me. “Chazan in Yiddish means Cantor.”
Dinner was not served for another hour – we left them to be alone since some of what they wanted to speak about were memories which needed to be discussed and then discarded. They did just that and dinner was served at 8 – the three survivors kept their plates clean.
Mr. Thomas, as I will refer to him to avoid any confusion, stood up from his chair and walked to a armoire that stood against the stair wall. I knew what had drawn him there but I had forgotten about it until just then.
“Who is this in this photograph? Ralphie, please, I am sorry to bother you – please who are these two people in this picture?” He asked me.
I stood and slowly walked towards him, my Grandfather put his hand against me, “Sit down boychick, I got this.” He stood up and walked towards the armoire, put his left arm around his brother, used his right arm to open the windowed cabinet, pushed aside the glass onion and pulled out the old photograph.
“After I was freed, I went to our old home and that bastard Emil pushed me down and locked the door. Called me a ‘brudny Żyd’ (Dirty Jew) and said that it was his home now. He threatened to come after me with a gun, the piece of shit. I walked away, came back later that night and broke in the back shed where I found a box full of old photographs, books, siddurs, shabbat candle holders…they were all damaged, but they were there! Some proof that the life we had before had actually occurred. I put some pictures in my pocket and carried the box out. But in the darkness I tripped and the box fell. Emil, came racing outside in his pajamas with a stick in his hand. He swung at me but missed. I stood and ran as fast as I could. When I came back later on that night – I saw embers burning in the spot where I had fallen. A big box full of smoldering memories – all destroyed, all proof of my, of our existence, in ashes. I wept for days after that – I wept on the train to the ‘Displaced Persons Camp’ as they called it. As I lay on the floor in my tent, wanting to die yet wanting so much to live for no reason other then to give testimony about what had happened. I remembered the pictures that I had in my pocket – this picture here of Momma and Poppa. Proof that they were not just a dream that is forgotten once you open your eyes – proof that they were alive – we were alive. We did live a beautiful life that was taken from us…beautiful people who were turned to ashes were once alive. The world says the Germans killed ‘Six Million’ as if by putting a number on the dead there is a finality to it.” Grandpa looked at Tzipora and put his arm around her.
Mr. Thomas nodded and then spoke; “I have always said the amount of lives, ideas, cures and answers to questions destroyed are infinite. The world will never find those ideas, cures and answers again. The worlds destroyed are infinite and this one world that congregates us is less than it should be because of this destruction.”
“I don’t understand, Grandpa. Six million Jews were killed, why do you say infinite?” My little sister, Miriam, asked.
“Think of one person. The ideas they posses in their minds, the dreams they have that can become reality and change the world. Each idea, each dream, each thought produces its offspring which in turn multiply, etc. etc.”
“Each person in this world touches another – it could be as simple as a soft push on a crowded street that veers you off course for several seconds impacting your walking experience – you will see other faces, other events then you would have without the soft push. Contact can be physical, emotional…” Grandpa said looking at Tzipora and then Mr. Thomas.
“With each contact a new world is created for that person. Think of the first time you hear a song – you listen and it tells you something, either in the music or even in the lyrics. That ‘something’ that it is telling you is a doorway into a new world full of new emotions…” With that he stopped, realized his audience and sat down.
“What your Grandpa is saying is each person is given unlimited amount of worlds within themselves, it is their responsibility to take these worlds and spread them – ‘Tikum Olam’ – make this world a better place to live in. When you do not express those ‘worlds’ when you do not ‘connect’ with this world…you begin to die inside.”
“Tell Mr. Thomas about your reunion with Grandma.” My sister again.
“One night as I walked around the camp I ran into an American soldier who spoke some Yiddish and had befriended me. He told me that a lady was looking for someone with our last name. It was Tzipora.”
“Everyone I knew…” My grandmother speaking now. “Gone…when I saw my Abraham…I fainted and was taken to the infirmary. I woke up to see my Abe standing over me…but everyone else was gone.”
“The soldier, Ben Hoffman, lived in the Bronx. His family was from Russia but they had left after the first war. He picked up the Yiddish from his mother who told him it was important to keep that language alive – it was her proof that there once was a village outside of Poland where a Jewish community lived together – she had left with her sister right after the first war. I guess we all need some proof of our memories. He died several years ago – we kept in touch all these years…”
I jumped into the conversation – I knew that it was time to speak about the present and what each of these people had achieved – had brought to this world.
“Grandpa – Uncle David is a professional clown. He was friends with Art Carney, Zero Mostel…He even met Groucho Marx.” I said.
“Groucho gave me a cigar and told me to not tell him our home address because he would come over and take Rebecca away. She blushed…and then she asked for a cigar!” We all laughed.
“You are not Mr. Eugene C. Thomas, are you?” My father asked him.
“Yes, well, I was. I put the makeup and the outfit away. Only on the yartzeit of my wife I take them out and I make sure to make people laugh in her memory.”
“I do a lot of business with Abe Cantor, we call him ‘ABC’, I sell him merchandise for his stores. My God, that’s my first cousin!” My father was amazed at how small this world was.
“Uncle David, my grandfather went to night school when he first came to New York. He also worked during the days, even on Shabbas, to make sure that he and Grandma had a place to live and food on the table. He got his GED and was promoted from salesman to head salesman in the store he worked at on 57th Street in Manhattan.”
“It was a clip joint, I worked as many hours as I could – seven days a week, unless it was a holiday…but there was something gnawing inside of me. I knew what I needed to do.”
“Share your world.” Mr. Thomas said.
“Yes. I needed to write an account of what had happened during the war, our expulsion from our lives and then our expulsion from humanity. I began to write a journal. When I showed it to the Rabbi in my Shul, he showed it to another congregant who worked for a book publisher. He published it thinking that he would concentrate on selling it to schools to make sure the children are aware of what had happened. It began in one school and later became required reading in order to be given a regents degree in New York. In it – I write about you, our brothers and sisters, poppa and mamma – they are all there…”
“Grandpa then began visiting schools to talk to the students. After a while he became so confident about speaking in English that he took up on a university’s offer for him to give lectures on the Holocaust.”
“Obviously he needed to go through the process of remembering again.” My Grandmother added. “There was a part of me that didn’t want him to revisit all of that hell, excuse me, again. He began to shake again, cry at random times…”
“That was the hardest part,” my father said, “He would wake up screaming every night…We didn’t know what to do.”
“After a while I began to realize that the talking about it, the lecturing about it, at first the pain was intense – after a while as I began to visit different cities, different universities, congregations, churches; it had a positive effect on me. Although it was akin to to walking on burning coals it was also soothing that gnawing feeling inside of me. This was the reason I wanted to survive. I could have stayed working at that clip joint, I could have opened my own place – but there was an aching feeling inside of me that I was not living up to my end of the bargain. God had spared me and I had promised to tell the world what had happened – I was going to. I ended up reaching over thousands of people over the years and made a living out of it.” He laughed.
“We have come a long way, brother.” Mr. Thomas said; his eyes welled up but a look of pride on his face. “We have made this world a better world by simply surviving.”
Mr. Thomas was emotionally and physically exhausted – he felt a cocktail of emotions – he felt a strange sense of revitalization, sadness, madness – the world was spinning out of control – but this time it was spinning because of life. Somehow death had reverted to life; his brother and his sister in law were alive! Sure he could focus on the lost time – but who had the time to focus on the negative side?
“I am 84 years old…I don’t have the time or the energy to cry anymore.” He told me as we walked him home, my father and myself.
“We need to get together as soon as possible Uncle David…we need to get our children and grandchildren together…” My father was crying.
I put my arm around him and whispered that it would all be O.K.
“Of course it will be – do you realize what has happened? We have gained an Uncle and his offspring. We are a larger family now – we have been given the gift of life and love.”
We said goodbye to Mr. Thomas – we each embraced and cried. I cried because this man whom I had always admired, whom I brought into my parents home had miraculously turned out to be my Grandfather’s brother. How can that happen? How could they have not ever met or have known anyone who knew them both? Especially living in the same city and with each of them kind of a celebrity in their on ways.
My mother was waiting for us by the front window when we came back home. She was overwhelmed and you could tell she had been crying. She hugged me when I walked in.
“By you bringing that man, a complete stranger to all of us, into our home…you have changed all of our worlds.”
“I knew him from the diner – he had been my friend for a while.” I said.
“Do not underestimate the good deed you have done – that good deed has led us to have an extended family – another 25 people! Can you imagine? I am overwhelmed.”
I am not sure if anyone slept that night – I know I didn’t. I kept thinking about my Uncle; Mr. Thomas. I kept thinking about my Grandfather and my uncle David – how they had mourned for each other and had lived a lifetime criminally apart – time stolen can never be repaid or forgiven. But acceptance of the crime committed against them was the only way they could move forward and hold on to the time they had left.
I lay awake with anticipation for the next day – I would not go to work – I would go to temple and I would pray. A miracle had occurred within my world. I had been touched and my world would never be the same again. Just to think it all began with my meeting a professional clown at a diner in Brooklyn.