My uncle, Herman was a master tailor.
He could create a man’s and a woman’s suit from a bolt of cloth.
He dressed like an Italian count.
He wore clothes of the finest fabric and magnificent leather shoes.
He was always smiling.
He didn’t speak much.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that English was his fourth or fifth language.
He was born in Aknaslatina, Czechoslovakia.
I suppose he spoke Czech and of course, Yiddish and Hebrew. Hungarian, Romanian and German were probably heard in his town as well.
By the time he arrived in New York in 1947 with his new wife and baby, he must have been talked out!
Whatever he did say, he said with warmth and love.
We lived next door to him and his family at 112 McKibbin Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
My father would often be gone for days at a time, driving his truck to far off places like Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Soon, as his business grew, he would no longer drive and we would move away but to me, then aged 4, Uncle Herman was a paternal figure. He was jolly while my father was stern and reserved. Having a childlike nature himself, Uncle Herman could easily enter the world of children. I would encounter him on the stone steps (the “stoop”) of his tenement and he would always reach into the pocket of his coat or suit and offer me a butterscotch candy. The candy was always the same. He never had peppermints or lemon drops, just butterscotch.
I spoke Yiddish with him. I probably continued to speak Yiddish longer than I would have ordinarily done as my other relatives had begun to speak more English.
I realized early on that I knew nothing about him
He didn’t have a black number on his forearm like his wife, my mother’s sister. He would never become quiet and stare into the distance like my mother or become angry or raise his voice like one of my uncles.
He lived each day as if he were going on a picnic.
He asked for nothing, was always satisfied and grateful.
My mother dressed my sister and I in beautiful garments, probably costing more than our family could afford at the time. We were her “farmeig”, her “fortune”, she often said.
Once, upon entering the corner candy store, I pressed the front of my new winter coat against its freshly painted swinging door.
I looked down in horror.
My mother was beyond herself.
Uncle Herman came over. He gently, methodically, quietly rubbed the paint with a folded cloth soaked in a foul smelling liquid for what seemed to be hours, until all the evidence of my misdeed was no longer visible.
But I still knew nothing about Uncle Herman.
In years to come, my mother would drop hints about his prior life. She said he was married before the war. Another time she said he had had two sons. Then, she told me that when she was 16 and had finished her dressmaking apprenticeship she went to Aknaslatina to buy a sewing machine. She said that she met his children, 7 and 5.
“They had black hair and blue eyes. I bought them chocolate.”
“You knew him before the war?” I asked.
“He was my cousin. His mother was my father’s sister.”
“And then after the war he married your sister?”
“Yes. They were both alone.”
I looked at Uncle Herman with awe after she had told me.
I wondered how he could have gone on, how he was able to re-marry and raise another child and how he could be so joyful?
For the first time, I noticed that he had beautiful blue eyes.