It was spring of 1985 and President Reagan had stepped into a political minefield. On his way to celebrate the 40th. anniversary of V-E day he decided to stop off and deliver a speech at a German cemetery, the desire being to underscore U.S-German friendship. In this cemetery were U.S. servicemen who had been killed in action, which was the part of the cemetery in which Reagan was to speak. However, in another part of the cemetery there were the remains of some Waffen SS soldiers, from the units who ran the concentration camps. That these graves would be in the same cemetery in which Reagan spoke ignited what came to be known as the Bitburg Controversy. The demand that Reagan speak at another site was almost universal among Jewish leaders. In the longer sweep of history this was a minor kerfuffle but at the time it dominated the news cycle.
Against this backdrop, I was at the time a 22-year-old in need of a tailor. My father, nearing the end of his working career had handed down a couple of suits that were of good quality, yet too big. I settled upon Carl (Rosenberg) the Tailor, whose shop was not far from my home, mostly because I had driven by it many times. I always remembered this shop because it was housed in a former Lum’s restaurant location, for those of you fans of defunct restaurant chains.
I remember waiting for Carl and looking at his business card out front. It was very impressive. He had been trained in Warsaw at a prestigious sounding school and had clearly been in the business for a long time. He was obviously a tradesman in the classic sense of that word, and this was his profession not his job. Carl looked over the suits and agreed that they were made of good quality material and definitely worth saving. He went about taking the measurements and getting all the information he needed to make the alterations. I mistakenly thought we were just about done.
As Carl was finishing up, he asked me if I was political. Apparently, I have always given off that vibe! I remember glancing at my watch and not having any particular place to be I looked at Carl and responded, “yeah, I’m political”. What followed was about 5 minutes of an extraordinarily pained and angry denunciation of Reagan’s planned speech at the Bitburg cemetery. It was unacceptable Carl stated that he should do this, to give the stature of the U.S. presidency over to a location that housed some of history’s most vile criminals. It was a plea that this kind of thing could not and should not be allowed to be even contemplated and that it disgraced the memory of those victims of the holocaust.
Then he showed me. He held out his forearm and showed me the serial number that had been burned into his arm while he was in the camps. It takes a lot to stun a punk ass 22-year-old but stunned I was. I had no response to this; how could I have possibly responded? I simply acknowledged what he said and listened in amazement at the pain that poured out of this man. It struck me then and has continued to ever since that this man would never be free of the memory of what had been done to him. There was an indescribable pain that had been etched upon his soul that he would carry with him until the end of his life. I had never before, nor since been exposed to that amount of human pain. It is an astounding thing to come face to face with the human cost of history’s crimes. This exposure tends to mature one at least a little bit, right then and there. This wasn’t something out of a textbook or a newsreel or documentary. This was real, uncomfortably real at that. This is the kind of discomfort we should all feel at some time or other when thinking about history’s victims and the cost of mankind’s inhumanity.
However, what also struck me then and forever more is that Carl was a victor. He survived. I don’t mean just that he lived. He might very well tell you that his physical survival compared to those who did not make it was random or just luck. Or he might tell you it was God calling to him by way of his survival. It really all depends on what follows. What followed was total victory for this man. He made it to America (back when the lamp was raised a bit higher and the golden door not so tarnished). He built a successful business with his wife. He raised a family and became a respected part of the community. He even wrote a book about his experiences. Yes, his Holocaust experience would define him, but it would not defeat him. And while the pain that was inflicted upon him would remain with him always, he chose to use it to educate. Even taking the time to school a punk ass 22-year-old. This is a schooling for which I have always been grateful.
In this Lenten season this is the lesson I will remember from my extraordinary encounter with this man. That faithful perseverance exists in our world, even in the aftermath of some of the most awful moments of human history. That a Jewish man taught this lesson by the entire way he lived his life should remind us that God calls many to Himself in many different ways and that we should remember especially that the Jews, who were the first to hear God’s call absolutely have a continuing role in the consummation of God’s plan.
After a time, a voice called from the back of the shop (Carl’s wife) saying “now Carl you let that young man go”, and so my brush with history was over it seems almost as soon as it began. I no longer have those suits Carl repaired, I have something much more lasting; the lesson of a man who overcame all that history could throw at an individual and how he was able to rise above it to live a fully human life. So, keep a sharp eye out, you never know when God is going to send someone to school you.
Praise Be to God