A Normal Jewish Death:
A Yom Ha Shoah Remembrance
© 2010 By Annette Keen*
For $5 roundtrip the resettlement agency occasionally hired landlord Jake Levine to drive over to Idlewild Airport and pick up arriving Jewish refugees from Europe and bring them back to live in his apartment house in the Bronx.
Air arrivals were rare. The set that came by plane was haughty to Jake’s mind. Unlike those that the Atlantic had tossed about for a week, these Jews arrived fit and in good color, and they were less dazzled with New York City. Like their demeanor, their Yiddish had a self possession and elegance lacked by the other refugee tenants that his building housed.
Speaking with these Jews unnerved Jake whose command of the Yiddish he’d spoken as a child was poor. He felt quite superior to his “greenhorn” tenants but with these elegant Jews he stumbled over his words, embarrassing himself. With these Jews, who looked calmly into his eyes as he struggled to express himself, Jake blushed in his discomfiture. Even more than the others, these educated and cultured greenhorns, wrapped in frayed and faded prewar fashions, annoyed him.
They learned English too quickly, although they favored reticence. When Jake ran into them in the halls or in the street, he’d get a perfunctory nod. If they had anything to say to him, it was delivered in sparse, impersonal words, at first in Yiddish, and soon in heavily guttural but grammatically correct English.
One unseasonably warm November night in 1949, Jake was hired to pick up a Mr. and Mrs. Turner at Idlewild Airport. A dark haired couple of medium height, the Turners arrived dressed in pin-striped woolen suits with thick shoulder pads. The man stepped forward, nodding briskly at the landlord. He introduced himself. “Ich bin Zigmund Turner.” Turning stiffly to the woman at his side, he introduced his wife. “Und, doss iz mein vab, Esta Turner.” They each carried a small battered valise.
The Turners, exuding a faint odor of sweat and cologne, sat silently in Jake’s car during the ride to the Bronx. In silence, they followed as Jake led them into their apartment on the first floor. The only comment Turner made was to alert Jake about delivery of two large trunks, which were en route by ship.
The next morning the landlord noticed Turner leave his apartment and cross the street to the newsstand, where he bought the Yiddish Forward and the New York Times. This became a daily ritual. He would tuck the newspapers under his arm and go off for the rest of the day, to where or for what, the landlord never learned.
For the short time that the Turners lived in his building, they kept to themselves. As far as Jake knew, they spoke to no one. The other refugee tenants treated them with great deference, making way for the Turners in the hallways, averting their eyes and holding their tongues. Women chattering on a landing would lower their voices when Mrs. Turner approached.
Three months later, Jake witnessed a puzzling incident. He was perched on a ladder in a dark corner of the first floor landing, preparing to replace a burnt out light bulb. In the far corner he saw Mrs. Turner leaving her apartment just as the door opened to the apartment next to hers. The Breitbarts emerged, leading their two-year old daughter.
The Breitbarts had each lost a spouse and family to the Holocaust. They met and married in the displaced persons camp in Berlin. Soon after they had this child. Breitbart was a jovial little man. His irrepressible good humor had won over even the irascible landlord. “You light up the place,” Jake would tell Breitbart, who always had a good joke to share.
But even Breitbart had not ventured to exchange a word with the Turners, who never deigned to more than a nod in anyone’s direction. Standing at his door, watching Mrs. Turner closing hers, Breitbart gave his wife an uncertain glance, shrugged his shoulders and stepped forward. “A good day to you,” he said.
The voice ringing out in the darkened hall startled Mrs. Turner. The door knob slipped out of her grip as she jumped aside, pressing her back to the wall. Her door swung open, and peering into the front room, Breitbart saw a “Yahr Zeit” memorial candle flickering in its glass on the dining table.
“Please forgive me,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. We are neighbors.”
Recovered from her fright, Mrs. Turner nodded, fumbling with her keys. She glanced furtively back into her apartment. At her side, Breitbart continued. “Please accept my condolences at your Yahr Zeit. Whose memory do you honor?”
“My father,” she answered.
“May his memory be for a blessing,” Breibart said. “And for all our martyrs.”
“My father is not a martyr,” she said curtly. Raising her eyes and looking directly at Breitbart, she said, “He died before the war. A normal death. He died from cancer.”
Jake watch the Breitbarts walk away in silence. He with his little wife and daughter. And Mrs. Turner, a head taller, with her nose in the air, ten steps behind.
*Annette Keen is a freelance writer in upstate New York.
from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine