The Germans had a word for days like this: herrlich.
Robin’s egg sky, uninterrupted by even the merest wisp of cloud. The buds on the maples fringing the playground behind the Bronx apartment building strained against tough winter scales, pondering the wisdom of popping out on the first real spring day of April.
But for the would-be Herrenvolk, several thousand miles away, the day was anything but lordly. After years of fighting, Hamburg and Dresden had been firebombed to cinders. In the rubble that had once been Cologne, only the 600-year-old cathedral still remained standing, its sooty spires defiant incisors in an otherwise toothless city.
A vengeful Russian army, four million strong, inexorably bore down on Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich from the east. Western Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy the previous summer, punching three prophetic holes in der Führer’s vaunted Atlantic Wall in less than a day. It was said that enough concrete and steel had been poured into that latter-day Maginot Line to repave the five boroughs. But as the old men who hung around Saperstein’s candy store on the corner of Barker and Allerton, waiting for the evening edition of the Post to be tossed out of the back of the delivery truck, would say, “Ihm gar nicht helfen!”
The Axis was doomed.
In barely a week, Benito Mussolini, bombastic duke of braggadocio, would be strung up ignominiously by the heels in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, alongside Clara Petacci, his notorious mistress. Their bodies pulled down, a local signora would lift her skirts to urinate on Il Duce’s face, and our Bronx neighborhood would cheer at the report. Hitler himself could count his remaining days on his fingers and toes.
But no one knew that yet.
Every family in the building had someone in the war. Mrs. D’Angelo, who lived next door, and who honest-to-God made the best spaghetti sauce in the hemisphere, had a husband in the Merchant Marine and a son in bell-bottomed trousers. She hadn’t heard from either in many months. Mrs. D. was unusual in one respect. Most of the building, indeed most of the neighborhood, happened to be Jewish.
And since at least 1943, everyone in the neighborhood had heard of what was happening to the Jews in Poland. Even the kids had heard, though adults tried to keep it from them by whispering in conspiratorial tones—a technique sure to perk up the elephant ears of any five-year-old worth his salt. So the kids knew, too.
But of course, their little brains could scarcely comprehend the whispered horror of people being thrown into ovens any more than most adult Americans could; the kids filled in the blanks with images of Hansel and Gretel.
Most kids played war with Sherman tanks imagined out of small, dovetail-jointed Paramount cream cheese boxes courtesy of Mr. Schwab, the dairyman who shared retail space with Mr. Curtis. Certainly, the people who lived upstairs in apartment 6B could comprehend. New to the block, with a delightful 15-year-old auburn-haired daughter, they’d sit around their oilcloth-covered kitchen table, weaving leather buttons for tweed jackets. Where they got the makings is anyone’s guess, but as one of them would reach into the bowl for more material, an indelible string of ugly blue numbers would snake out from under a deliberately long sleeve. Only their closest neighbors knew how the family had managed to escape from the camp, but there were stories of how they had been made to stare at a spot on the wall for interminable hours. Apparently, they’d been at one of a thousand milder camps. They were lucky in more ways than one. Except that their lovely daughter would be dead of sepsis within the year. The camp had left her with a mouth full of decayed teeth; her camp-acquired morbid fear of dentists would not allow them to be attended to.
Yes, we knew about the camps.
But on this sunny day, mothers and grandmothers sunned themselves on wooden vegetable boxes in front of the courtyard, while kids too young for school flew the sidewalk in makeshift P-51 Mustangs, formerly double-sectioned orange crates generously donated by Mr. Curtis, whose green grocery fronted the building. In a way, Mr. Curtis was fortunate. The fruit and vegetables he sold, unlike meat, butter, cream, and coffee, were not rationed for the provisioning of overseas troops. So he could afford to be generous. His crates and boxes doubled as outdoor furniture and playthings. Small boys would arm themselves with swords made from carefully disassembled grape-box planks. Pressing one end of a plank against the mortar cementing the bricks of the apartment house, and running it along for half a block, they’d grind one side into a peened-over point. Flipping the plank, and repeating the process, careful not to burn tender fingers on the friction-heated pine, they had the makings of a blade worthy of D’Artagnan. Thick planks from crate ends made sturdy crossguard hilts, fastened to the blades with unbent or re-bent one-inch wire brads carefully salvaged from the crate and banged in against the curbstone. The cry of “Ongaaahd!” began the dueling. (This was, after all, Allerton Avenue in the Bronx, not Gascony.)
Most kids also played war with Sherman tanks imagined out of small, dovetail-jointed Paramount cream cheese boxes courtesy of Mr. Schwab, the dairyman who shared retail space with Mr. Curtis. Six olive-drab lead soldiers comprised the average tank’s crew; every boy on the block owned dozens of midget G.I.’s.
So the women sat, soaking up the first warm rays of spring, and the kids romped happily in front of the apartment building facing what passed, in the Bronx, for a thoroughfare.
Suspended by a line between two fourth-floor windows, there suddenly appeared a flag. Guarding all she surveyed was Mrs. Markowitz, resident gargoyle. Her primary occupation was lookout, and Mrs. Markowitz was not one to shirk her duty. Dawn to dusk, there she’d be, ensconced at her second-story window, her elbows cushioned by a frayed yellow bathmat, imperturbably peering out from behind the rusted and painted-over wrought-iron window guard that had not been removed when her kids had grown up. Nothing in the immediate neighborhood escaped her notice. Not that she’d ever tell what she knew. Loose lips sink ships. But like all good gargoyles, Mrs. Markowitz had another, protective, function. For three seasons of the year, six-year-old scholars on their way to P.S. 96 would halt at the intersection of Barker and Allerton (which was not to get a stoplight for another decade) and chime, as solemnly instructed, “Mrs. Markowitz, will you please cross me?” The sculpture would snap out of her reverie, look both ways for effect, and officially supervise the crossing. For this important work, she received not one red—or even zinc-coated—cent.
Across the street from Mrs. Markowitz’s window, Mr. Curtis’s store, and the building’s courtyard was an empty lot, a block wide and only half as deep, littered and overgrown with last year’s tawny weeds. Behind it was a red-brick apartment building that fronted on the adjacent street. It must have been expected that one day the lot would be built on, so the side facing our building featured only four tiny, widely separated windows.
And on this idyllic morning, suspended by a line between two fourth-floor windows, there suddenly appeared a flag.
But not just any flag. This one was 18 feet across, dominating the facade. Twelve feet high, angry red, a big white circle in its center. Suspended in the orb, a spider-black swastika.
It’s impossible to forget the neighborhood’s reaction. Mr. Curtis, who’d been filling a paper bag with fresh snap beans, stopped, transfixed. The barber, Mr. Salerno, charged onto the sidewalk, straight razor in hand, a foamed, half-shaven customer in a striped, knee-length bib right behind him. Women, on their feet, freeze-framed. No one made a sound at first. Even the kids froze solid.
Then came a murderous howl of rage. Had this been a scene from a 1930s Frankenstein movie, the mob would have been armed with pitchforks, rakes, and hoes. As it was, hundreds of clenched fists pummeled the air, and makeshift wooden swords and Mr. Salerno’s eight-inch razor slashed. Throats shrieked blood lust. The mob began to avalanche.
Suddenly, police appeared. Sirens shrieking, a squad car infantry platoon invaded the building. The mob, abruptly silent, studiously focused on the flag.
It took a while before the eight flights to the fourth-floor walk-up were negotiated, the apartment breached, the occupant confronted, the halyard cut, and the flag hastily hauled in. Once again the mob roared its fury.
The police piled into their cars and drove off. But one cop remained behind to give us a report.
It seems a lady in the building across the way had a son in the army, from whom she’d received a parcel that morning. The intrepid young G.I. had scaled a Nazi administration building, liberating its gunpowder-stained flag, a trophy he’d triumphantly mailed home to his mom in the Bronx.
Like any good Jewish mother, she’d washed it, and hung it out to dry.
New York, New York
About Ready to Hang It Up
Three years into World War II, people thought they’d seen it all, including neighbors with concentration camp tattoos.
The Germans had a word for days like this: herrlich.