The story that I am about to tell you is true. I have changed the names of the characters, if only to protect the cowardly.
Some years ago my wife spotted a tiny ad in a major newspaper, requesting the respondents to be fluent in German. I arrived half an hour early for the interview, which took place in lower Manhattan. An elderly gentleman, Mr. L., peeked into the waiting room and asked me why I had come early, and when I answered that I usually arrived earlier than needed, he said he did as well. He asked me where I had traveled from and then he said that he also lived in New Jersey. The conversation turned briefly to Mr. L’s town and I told him that I had substitute taught there at a Hebrew School. It turned out that this was also Mr. L’s congregation, and that Mr. L and his son were the owners of the company.
He told me that my interview was coming up shortly and we parted company. A woman called me into an interview room, and began with an apology. “I am so sorry, but I don’t speak a word of German! The only German word I know is ‘Gesundheit’.” I told her not to worry, and I assured her that I was completely fluent in the language. Mr. L’s son came into the interview room and explained that the position involved guarding a lobby of a prestigious building on 5th Avenue. Further, the property manager would soon arrive to accompany me to the building itself for further interviews.
A trim gentleman with more white hair than black introduced himself as the property manager and asked me if I would not mind walking the distance from the “interview” office to the building where I would possibly be working. Let’s walk, I said. Keith W. and I walked and talked about the job. Three of the upper floors were to be occupied by a European bank. Other floors were to be occupied by German publishers, Manhattan law firms, Japanese companies and a variety of other security conscious corporations, eager to have no one enter the premises other than those permitted to do so. Keith asked me if I had any security background, and I told him of my military experience. I noticed a particular tattoo on his forearm, and recognizing the branch of the US military I asked if he had served in that unit. We were both mutually impressed.
Keith told me that if I got the job, pending the “good doctor’s approval”, I would be dressed in a tuxedo, guarding the access to the various offices in a beautifully ornate, marble lobby. I would be the “concierge” for the tenants, ushering their pre-announced guests into elevators that would carry them to their designated destinations. My shirts, the vests and the tuxedos would be regularly picked up to be dry cleaned, delivered fresh every week.
We arrived at the building and found it to be under construction, with much ado in the lobby; there was something not quite right with the marble. The issue with the marble, I found out later, would become a major factor in delaying the opening of this building.
An elevator took us both to the offices of the owner, Dr. A. Keith had told me on the way over, that Dr. A and his European partner owned several buildings in Manhattan. The European partner was listed as one of Europe’s wealthiest by Forbes. A firm handshake later I found myself conversing with “the good doctor” in German, when he switched to French. I switched right along with him, when he began speaking Hebrew. I continued the rest of our conversation in Hebrew, during which he told me that a relative of his was on the Board of Directors for Yad VaShem, in Jerusalem. “We may have, from time to time, visitors from Israel” he said.
Switching to English, Dr. A requested that I wait in the reception area of his offices. A short while later, Keith came out and asked me when I could start. Next, he introduced me to the building engineer, who was to become my direct supervisor. So began two years of some very interesting experiences in one of the most beautiful buildings in Manhattan.
Over the next year and a half the building began to fill up with tenants. I got to know some of the subcontractors who “punched out” the architects’ requirements of the floor plans. One such person was H., a man in his mid-forties who lived, like myself, in central New Jersey. During the course of our conversations, brief as they were, I had told him that I had lived in Israel prior to coming to the US, and he told me that he was Jewish.
Almost two years after working for Dr. A the owner, Keith W the property manager and the building engineer I was witness to a conversation that took place at my concierge station, not two feet from me. The building engineer and H. the subcontractor from New Jersey were involved in a heated discussion about something. Suddenly the building engineer said, “It’s just too bad that Hitler didn’t send more of you up the chimneys!” I turned to see H. blanch. Our eyes met, and his eyes pleaded with me to remain silent, to not say a word.
I left my concierge station and took the elevator to the property manager’s office. “We need to talk, Keith. I just overheard something that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed here and now.” After explaining what I had heard, Keith summoned the building engineer and H. the subcontractor. There we were, four men, about to learn an important lesson. The building engineer told Keith that he and H. were having a pleasant conversation, and that no mention whatsoever had been made of Hitler, nor of chimneys or anything at all having to do with wishes that more Jews had perished during the Holocaust. The subcontractor, unable to make eye contact with me, backed the building engineer fully. Nothing of the kind had been said. I excused myself, resumed my post, and that very evening began looking for new employment.