July 21, 2017

Essay: Life Goes On

 

This essay is based on the lives of my former in-laws who escaped Nazi Europe.

We’re at the four-bedroom, four-bath apartment in Bogota, Colombia’s residential district. It’s 8:30 a.m. and Mrs. Stein’s three-inch handmade Italian heels can be heard

clickety-clacking down the building’s marble stairs.

She and her husband are on their way to their custom cloak-and-suit business that serves Bogota’s Jewish and Christian communities. Though the two societies don’t mix socially—there’s anti-Semitism here—in commerce everyone wants quality goods. The Stein’s ace is Mrs. Stein whose exacting taste is renowned.

Their clients pick from an array of styles off the rack, from fashion magazines or designs of their own. They choose from swatches of Latin American and European materials and are fitted to size. The women and a few male workers cut and sew the garments in a studio off the showroom where metallic smells of irons steaming wool permeate the air.

These Polish Holocaust survivors were furriers in Belgium. In their final brush with death—there were many—the Steins, their five-year-old son and their friend and business partner, Saul Janklow, walk over the Pyrenees to Spain carrying Dutch passports. The French underground furnished the forged documents because they knew the Spanish army would separate the Eastern Europeans from the Dutch.

General Franco had an agreement with Hitler to return any Eastern Europeans home who’d then be sent to the camps. The Netherlanders, however, were allowed to enter Spain. To avoid doubt, Jacob and Saul pretended to be drunk and kept shouting the few Dutch words they knew.

It’s 17 years since the Steins and Saul arrived first in Venezuela and then Colombia. They rarely think about the fur business they left behind in Belgium where they emigrated from their native Poland. What pervades their souls are the losses of Jacob’s extended family, Rose’s entire family to a Nazi firing squad, their on-the-run confrontations with death and the burdens they carry as survivors.

This morning the Steins’ two live-in maids prepare the midday meal. When their employers talk about the war, they use Polish, Yiddish or French, which the housekeepers don’t understand. Lupe and Maria will kill, pluck and clean the live chicken they bought yesterday at the market that’s been sitting underneath the kitchen sink since last night.

Lupe will make the thick chicken noodle soup Mrs. Stein’s mother used to make. Hearty soups are the perfect meal for this cold, damp and rainy-seasoned Bogota climate. Rose has taught Lupe how to cook other Jewish dishes and she concedes they’re as good as her mother’s. Though the Stein’s aren’t religious, they sent their son and now their 11-year-old daughter to Hebrew school to learn their people’s history and language. Tonight their daughter will join them for a light supper and disappear to do homework.

Rose and Jacob’s friends will come to play cards. Many of their evenings are spent bent over hands of gin rummy, smoking smuggled American filtered cigarettes like Marlboros or Kents. When their son and daughter-in-law visit from New York City, their request is always for whiskey and American cigarettes because many foreign products are unavailable in dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s Colombia.

Jacob, who has a second business in lingerie with Saul, relies on foreign supplies like hooks and eyes for girdles and brassieres. At times they’re forced to lower production because the ports are closed to American imports. This topic often dominates Mr. and Mrs. Stein’s midday meal. A shot of schnapps, though, can turn Jacob’s pessimism for his adopted backwards country into a fatalistic sigh. Sometimes, though, the gods of Hooks and Eyes intervene and the small assembly line can run full throttle.

Anna Cortez is a friend who shows up off and on at their noon meal. She’s the only Jew in their community who’s married a Catholic. As a marital convenience she converted but to the Jewish community—mainly emigres from Nazi Europe—Anna has betrayed them. Except for the open-minded Steins, she is shunned.

At lunch, though, Jacob and Anna often perpetuate the argument about marrying out of the faith while she criticizes the narrow-minded Jews. Eventually Anna stops arguing her point. The Steins are good people and who cares about the rest?

Ten years ago the Steins considered relocating to America. If Jacob wants to see his brothers, they have to fly there because their American wives believe Latin America is a jungle. (One sister-in-law has asked if people there live in trees.) The Steins sent their teenage son to an American boarding school having intended to move the following year but, when Rose and Jacob investigated business opportunities, they decided otherwise.

Though it’s the1950s and American business is soaring, they found many people did what they do and on a larger scale. And how would they get along in their rudimentary English? In the end, they didn’t want to give up their good life so they abandoned the plan. But their son, who married an American, probably will remain in the U.S. which makes the Steins happy and sad; happy because their son’s happy but sad because they see them infrequently. Once they have a baby they might see how much easier it is to raise a family where you can have two in help.

These are Rose’s unspoken wishes, to have grandchildren and have them nearby. She knows how much her son adores America, but it doesn’t hurt to put her wishes out there.

Meanwhile, Rose gets the tables ready for a gin rummy evening. She puts out score pads, pencils, her best decks of cards, and lots and lots of ashtrays.

Life, thank god, goes on.