Shoemaker from Auschwitz
By Joseph Baran
“She’s running late,” I say, leaning against the window frame, watching the sun go down.
“Doctors are always on standby, you know,” Jakub, says, walking into the room with plates in his hands. “I told Naomi you’d be here.”
“I appreciate your initiative, Jakub,” I smile. “But I don’t think a New York City doctor wants to spend her Friday evening with a New Jersey plumber. There are plenty of plumbers in the City for your daughter to go out with.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jakub says, setting the table. “When I lived in Brooklyn, after the war, there was this plumber. He had fourteen vans and twenty men. He and his wife lived with two cats and a dog in the penthouse of a large brownstone, which he owned.”
“Well, my portfolio is rather transparent. I rent, own one van, and do everything myself.”
“My wife, Ruth, was a dentist. And I’m a shoemaker.” Jakub shrugs, looking up.
“Those were different times.” I gesture with my hand. “It was war, when you two met. People thought differently. Had different priorities.”
“And what are the priorities now?” He pauses, locking eyes.
“To be successful.” I nod. “Today people drive fast. And want to live fast.”
“You forget your greatest asset.”
“My pipe wrench?” I smile.
Jakub looks up again and doesn’t appreciate my joke. “Your character.” He points at me with a spoon. “You’re a good-hearted man. And that, you just cannot buy.”
“Trust me,” I say. “That doesn’t get you much these days.”
“Come,” Jakub says. “It’s time.”
I turn and see Jakub prepare the candles. I pause, remembering that my grandma used to light only two, and Jakub has—two, four, five—five candles.
“You want to know about the candle stands?” Jakub smiles after dinner, as my eyes dart from candle to candle, each in a dissimilar stand—all of different height, design and tarnish growth.
“Did I ever tell you how I survived the war?”
“No.” I turn to Jakub.
“I was a shoemaker,” he says.
“You made boots for the Germans,” I cut in, eagerly.
“Not exactly.” He shakes his head, leaning back in his chair. “In Auschwitz, I was put to sorting shoes. Others sorted clothes, suitcases, and so on. We were told to look for concealed gold, jewelry, whatever.” He waves his hand. “Everything we sorted and collected was shipped to Germany.”
I lean back in my chair and listen. Jakub never talks about his past, so I have the impression this is important to him. Also, somehow, to me.
“One day a German officer runs in, shouting. The kapo asks us if anyone is a shoemaker and can fix women’s shoes. As the others look at each other, I take the cap off my head and step forward, looking at the ground. His wife broke the strap on one of her shoes and was terrified at not having another pair to wear to a party to celebrate the progress of the Final Solution. I fixed it the best I could and prayed it wouldn’t break.
Two days later the German is back. Shouting. This time he wants to know if I can make a new pair of shoes. I tell the kapo I can. And so that’s how I became the shoemaker from Auschwitz, making shoes, and repairing old ones, for the officers’ wives. Not to offend the wives’ delicate nature with the smells and daily horrors of Auschwitz, they put me up at a nearby estate. Conditions were horrendous just the same. If the new shoes proved not a good fit, I’d get a beating. And if the shoes caused a blister, all hell broke loose. I, and the other men who worked at the estate, slept in bunks in a garden shed with no running water, toilet or heat.”
I watch Jakub and don’t interrupt anymore. Speaking slowly, Jakub has long since lost his smile and his eyes glisten as pain contorts his face.
“After about a year, they moved me to Mauthausen where I was still a shoemaker. One day they put me, ten men, and guards in the back of a truck, loaded with steamer trunks and suitcases. Squashed like sardines, we drove for a few hours. With no warning, the truck swerved violently. We and the luggage became weightless, tumbling inside. When we hit the water, everything splattered on the surface and I realized the truck had plunged off the bridge. I can’t swim, so I tried to grab hold of something. When I saw a large red valise, I threw myself onto it and floated down the river. In the shallows I came ashore, into the hands of an American patrol. After interrogation, they gave me the suitcase back, not asking if it was mine. When I opened it, it was empty, except for the five candle holders you see here.”
“Maybe the Americans stole the valuables? I mean, why would the Germans want an empty suitcase?” I ask.
“The only thing the Nazis didn’t steal was the people’s souls. Apart from that, they robbed people naked—even shaving their heads to steal the hair. Then they marched them to be gassed and afterwards burned their bodies to ashes. It made no difference to the Germans that countless shoes shipped to Germany were worn out with holes or that people arriving in Auschwitz arrived in shmatas.
“I held on to the suitcase, knowing I’d need something for coming to America. And I saved the five candle holders.”
“Incredible story,” I say, taken aback, realizing that the five candles became beacons of life to Jakub, since the circumstances behind the reason why the candle holders were in a suitcase, that took him to his freedom, will always be a mystery.
Six months later, Naomi shows up at a local hospital when Jakub is hospitalized for a heart condition he kept to himself. She’s as lovely as always, beautifully dressed and with impeccable manners. I know it’s her upbringing to shine like a star. But when her friend, a tall man wearing a silk suit and silk tie, shows up, making excuses for running late, I politely excuse myself. I’m out of my league, wearing jeans, a tee-shirt, and work boots.
A few days later, I awaken tired and queasy. Sitting on the edge of bed, I wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand, I remember the dream I had. It was Jakub in a meadow. I didn’t see his face, but I knew it was him by the way he walked. I called and waved to him, but he was too far away to notice.
I grab a piece of challah and black coffee in a paper cup, and drive straight to the hospital. At the nurses station, they tell me that Jakub passed away sometime after midnight. On the way out, I remember what he said the day before:“Our days are counted. We just don’t know the number.”
A week later, upon returning home, I stop by the shoe shop that Jakub ran on the ground floor of our apartment building, which he and his wife owned. It’s gutted out. A man in white overalls, stained with different paints, is busy painting the ceiling. I can smell the wet paint through the glass of the storefront window as I tap on it. When he looks, I ask what’s going on. “The place was sold,” he shouts, and resumes painting without offering any details. I’m shocked by how quickly Naomi has handled the sale.
The next day, coming home, I stop by the stoop before going up, noticing a large pile of junk at the curb. Bent over, a man picks up a couple of books and, seeing me watch him, rushes away, limping, books in hand. I walk over, examining the sheer breadth and height of the pile. People, in a treasure hunt of sorts, rip the boxes open, spilling the contents onto the sidewalk. I stand still, taking it all in. There it is, it dawns on me: a haphazardly erected monument of tattered boxes and used household goods dedicated to the legacy of a man who survived the Holocaust and war, who became successful in America with the love of his life at his side, after having arrived in New York with only a few dollars, and no family here to help them. Is that all that there is to his life, and ours? I wonder. Holding back tears, I sigh at the summation of Jakub’s lifelong trials—a pile of no-longer-wanted things—waiting to be hauled away with all the other trash.
I pick up a book off the sidewalk. It smells of age and previous life—one foreign and unknown to me. Though it is in Yiddish, its pictures of engravings are enough for me to want to hold on to it. I walk around and seeing just about everything that Jakub owned, I wonder what Naomi kept, considering her tiny New York apartment. On the curb side, at the bottom, next to the TV and headboard, sits, bruised and aged, and practically crushed under the weight above it, the red valise.
Today I live in a smaller apartment, having moved across town soon thereafter. Across the road I lease a fenced-in lot where I park my three vans and keep an old shipping container. Having a business place and secure storage is handy, as I now do mostly new-construction work, employing another plumber and three helpers.
It is Friday again. I sit at the kitchen table, flipping a book of matches between my fingers, waiting for the sun to go down, to light my candles. All five of them.