by Frank Manning
I do not want the memory of a special man to fade into oblivion. We all called him Abie. His name was Leo Abraham. He was a German Jew, a native of Essen, in Germany’s Ruhr industrial region. Starting in the 1950s he owned a store, Leo Abraham Quality Dry Goods, at 1925 Avenue Z, in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. There was a fiery passion in him, a way of speaking—in a thick German [not Yiddish] accent—that was a little scary to a five year old boy living in a tight-knit waterfront community just across Coney Island Creek from the fabled beach and amusement area itself.
I first met Abie around 1955. Many of his customers, like my mother and two aunts in the neighborhood, were stay-at-home housewives who rarely had the time to take a bus and a subway to his store. So he came to them. And he offered simple credit, usually paid off at $5 a week. So every Thursday Abie drove to our little community, visited my mother and aunts and the other women, and collected what was owed him. His deliveries were always accompanied by a bit of boisterous germanic fanfare, and when he had new fabrics and patterns to show my mother he always put on quite a show. She always offered him a cup of coffee and a piece of cake, and they would sit and chat for a bit. It was when they talked at the kitchen table that I first noticed Abie’s eyes. They were dark brown but looked more like a doll’s eyes than a person’s. At times they pointed askew. I had never seen eyes like that before.
Abie was very fond of all us kids. We were eight cousins in the neighborhood, and when Abie came calling at least a couple of us were there. He knew us all by name and gave us suffocating bear hugs. That was when I first noticed how terribly he trembled. And then came Abie’s trademark treat, usually bestowed after some teasing and cajoling: half a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum.
When I was in first grade I remember Abie talking with my mother and becoming emotionally agitated—yelling, crying, wailing. She did her best to comfort him, and gave him another cup of coffee. I was scared, and ran upstairs to watch TV. After Abie left I went back downstairs to the kitchen and asked my mother, “Is Abie crazy?” “No,” she reassured me. “Bad people did terrible things to him and his family. It makes him very sad when he talks about it.” She left it at that. I felt sorry for him. The next week I gave him a big hug back.
As I grew I learned about the Holocaust, and my mother told me that Abie and his family had been victims. When Abie deemed me old enough and educated enough, he started telling me his story. That was in 7th grade. He had a wife and two daughters, and owned a dry goods store in Essen, a gritty coke-and-steel city in Germany’s Ruhr industrial region. He had a happy, productive life and dearly loved his family. Then, as he put it, “Germany descended into hell.” The Nazis destroyed his store, and sent him and his family to separate concentration camps. His wife and daughters perished in the gas chambers. Abie was subjected to unspeakable tortures. His tormentors performed gruesome medical experiments on him, inflicting severe nerve damage. That accounted for his tremor and those terrible tortured eyes.
Somehow Abie survived, and came to New York to start over. He met his second wife, who was also a Holocaust survivor. I think her name was Yetta. I only met her a couple of times, when my mother took me along to the store on Avenue Z. She made such a fuss over me each time, piling me with chocolates and behaving very much like a loving grandmother.
The last time I saw Abie was soon after I had graduated high school, in 1967. I was about to start NYU in a few weeks. Abie congratulated me and told me how proud he was of me. Then he pulled up his sleeve to reveal his concentration camp tattoo and grabbed my arm with his other hand. His grip was like a steel vice. “Frankie!”, he bellowed at me in his thick German accent, the guttural “r” rolling out of his throat. “Do you know what this is?” “Yes, Abie, I know what that is.” “You young people, you have to make sure this never happens again. Promise me, Frankie, you won’t let it happen again!” And so I gave Abie my solemn promise.
Abie retired soon afterward, closing his store and moving with his wife to Florida. I have no idea how they lived out their lives. I hope they had a comfortable and happy retirement, and that their nightmares did not ruin too many sleeps. What strikes me so about Leo Abraham, our dear Abie, is that with all the horrors and heartbreaks he had to endure, with all the evil torments inflicted upon him by the most degenerate scum that ever walked this earth, he never lost his humanity. They did not, they could not, destroy his soul, his ability to love, his compassion for others. In the end, he surely did triumph over evil.
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