I just finished the day watch and planned to stop by the cabinet shop to see Leon. Leon’s Cabinet Shop was one of few business who elected to stay in the neighborhood after the riots. As an amateur woodworker, I had a few questions to ask Leon about building a table. I did not know too much about Leon Cohen, except, as a German Jew, he came from Europe as a refugee after the war. He stood about five foot four, his face showed more than his age of 50, a friendly guy always ready to go out of his way to help people.
“Leon, how’s business?” I hollered over the buzzing of the table saw.
“Business, Feh-feh.” he responded in Yiddish.“So how’s by you officer.” “Okay,” I said, “I want to build a table. I have a question to ask you about how tall a table should be.”
“A table!” he smiled. “My friend, that’s a very good question. I was asked that question many years ago and knowing the right answer, saved my life.” “Saved your life? This I have to hear. What do you mean saved your life?”
He locked the front door, turned off the light.
“Enough for today,” he said. “Come lets go in the back, I have a fresh pot of coffee on the burner, come I’ll tell you about it.”
He poured two mugs. “Here,” he said, handing me the mug. “Oh I forgot, you use milk, there’s evaporated over there on the self, I don’t use fresh milk, it sours to fast.”
“Black will do.” I said, “Remember, I’m an old Navy man. So what about the table Leon? It saved your life, really?
“It was a long time ago officer.” He sank back into a worn parlor chair with the stuffing coming out the sides.
“Longer than I want to remember. It happened in the summer nineteen forty two…I was just a young man. The Nazis took us from our home, my mother, father and sister--.”
“Just like that,” I interrupted. “Why?”
“Why, there’s no why. They just took you. They took all the people …Jewish people from my village and put us on trains.”
“Your family…I mean…what happened to them?”
“That’s the last I saw of them, at the train depot where we were separated. I don’t know where they went. Me, I was taken to Plasgow…a little town outside of Krakow…to a labor camp. You have to remember officer. They world was a much different place then. We were political prisoners.”
“Political prisoners and you never saw your family again.”
“After the war, I looked for them… never found them. I supposed their part of the eight million.
Then, I realized that Leon was a holocaust survivor.
“So Leon, what happened when the train reached Plas…the labor camp?
“The labor camp was run by the SS, a man named Amon Goeth. A very cruel man. I remember that October, cold weather had set in early. We were all rousted from are beds early in the morning. We had to line up outside. The snow covered the ground and the wind blew through the camp. I remember it well. We stood there for about twenty minutes shivering. A car drover into the camp flying the flag of a German officer…I think a Colonel. The car stopped and when the back door opened, a very tall man stepped out, Colonel, he wore those high black boots and he had a leather overcoat with…you know the fur collar. He looked very distinguished, and of course threatening.”
I remember as a kid they had the newsreels in the movie theaters of the concentration camps and the thousands of prisoners behind barb wire fences. I asked Leon why the prisoners didn’t rebel against the guards or put some type of resistance’s.
“Yes, I agree. But we are Europeans, not Americans. I know what you mean. The Americans value their freedom and the would of found a way to overthrow the guards. We are taught to summit to the enemy once we were defeated. I sure its hard for you to understand. Like I said, we were lined up outside. The Colonel stepped before us, in a loud voice he shouted, ‘Is there a cabinet maker among you?’
“At first I became hesitant and afraid to step out. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew if they found out later that I lied, I would be punished. However, I did step out.”
Hands on his hips, the Colonel approached me, “Are you a cabinet maker?” he said.
“Yes sir”, I replied.
“What is your name?” He demanded.
“Tell me Cohen, what would be the height of a kitchen table?” he asked,
staring down at me.
“I gave him the answer, not knowing what to expect.”
‘I am Colonel Siefried Hildebrandt,” he said. “I am taking you to my home. I need some special woodworking and joinery work to be done. He turned and addressed Amon Goeth.
“Has this man been cataloged?
Goeth clicked his heels in response.
The officer ordered me into his car.
“We traveled for many miles, crossing over into Germany and then north to a town in the mountains called Rostock. The Colonel had a large villa there that looked out over the Baltic Sea. I had my own room in the servant quarters and had my meals with the servants. I worked there for about three months building cabinets and doing odds jobs.”
“How were you treated” I said “Were you watched by guards?”
“No, life was much different from the camp of course. I still worried about my family. I didn’t know what to expect. In the early Spring, they brought in new workers. I noticed my friend Emil among them, a prisoner from Plasgow, raking in the garden. I asked him why he was here also about my people He took me aside, “Leon,” he whispered. After you left, the camp was evacuated. They took all the people and shipped them to Auschwitz in box cars. The old and sickly were sent to the gas chamber and burned. Remember that red building at the far end of the camp. Remember me telling you about what they were doing? But you didn’t believe me.”
“I asked him again about my family. He said he didn’t know and that the camp is empty.”
“Some how I knew I would never see my family gain.”
“And you did try to contact them?” I said.
He bowed his head, “yes, many times. But that was a long time ago.”
“So what finally happened Leon, I mean how did you escape?”
“Escape, I did not escape, let me finish--”
A knock came from the front of the shop. Leon turned and looked and went to the front door spoke a few words than came back.
“Ach, its junior,” he said. “He doesn’t understand why the shop is closed. Junior was a local black kid that lived in the area and worked for Leon on and off. He was a good kid. Leon was teaching him the cabinet trade.
“I told Junior, enough for today, and it was my friend the policemen paying me a visit. You know junior likes you. He said. ‘Maybe some day he might become a policemen.”
“You never can tell Leon.” I grinned, they hired me, miracles do happen. So you did finally get out and here you are in America.”
I am a lucky man, you see Emil wanted me to help him smuggle cigarettes into the area. Cigarette’s were very hard to get. He told me he made a contact with a supplier.
I told Emil, “I didn’t want any part of what he was doing. You know what will happen if your caught,” I warned him.
“About a week later a van pulled up to the villa and two men got out. They were the Gestapo. They walked toward me, they knew me.
“‘Leon Cohen?’ they said. ‘Come with us, you’re under arrest.”
“I entered Gestapo headquarters and was put into a cell with other Jews. I recognized Emil. He had blood on his face. I was afraid, and didn’t know what to expect. Before I could speak with him, I was taken and put into an interrogation room. The lieutenant in charge told me to sit down in the chair. He asked me, “Where are you getting the cigarettes and who else is working with you?”
“‘I don’t know.” I said. “I don’t know anything about cigarettes,”
Then two other interrogators began hitting and kicking me. I fell to the floor and they again asked me the same question. Again, they began kicking me. Again, I pleaded, “Please I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I pleaded. They picked me up and sat me back in the chair. Just then they all snapped to attention, and when I looked up, Colonel Hildelbrandt stood there with his overcoat draped over his shoulders.
“He looked at me, then back at the interrogators, “So what goes on here,?” the Colonel said, looking back at me, then back at the lieutenant. The Colonel began spitting out the questions faster than the lieutenant could answer.”
“Do you know who this man is,” the Colonel said. “And can you tell me why he is here, and why he was taken from my home without my permission?”
“The lieutenant spoke up. ‘Begging your pardon, mien Colonel, but we have information that this man…he’s has been involved in smuggling.”
“Smuggling what?” The Colonel screamed.
“Cigarettes. Mien Colonel.” The Lieutenant nervously responded, clicking his heels.
“Leon,” the Colonel said. “Go outside and get in the car.”
“My ribs felt like they were busted. Limping, I slowly I walked out to the car.
The Colonel walked up to the lieutenant and grabbed him by his lapels. “You dumkoffs are spending your time worrying about cigarettes, while the Third Reich is going down the toilet.” He bellowed.
“He got into the car. ‘Leon,’ he screamed. “Why are you getting mixed up in this petty shit with cigarettes?’
“I tried to explain what had happened and that I only knew Emil from the camp. The Colonel just waved me off. “That’s not important now. I have to tell you something. Germany is losing the war. I’m ordered to the Russian front. Germany is falling apart. I’m having my family shipped to South America. I made arrangements for you to work in a factory run by a friend of mine. He’s an industrialist. His name is Osker Shendler. You’ll be alright there. Tomorrow a van will pick you up and take you there. Its just outside of Berlin, a town called Henningsdorf.”
“The next day I was taken to Henningdorf by the Colonels aide.” Leon continued.
“The factory in Henningdorf made munitions and was constantly bombed at least twice a week. Every day there were fewer guards. I remember it was cold and all the windows were blown out.”
“So Leon, why didn’t you just leave?”
“We were prisoner’s oficer,” he said, “you obey. I know it’s hard for you as an American to understand. Then the day came… I think it was a Sunday, the sun was shining and while I worked at my machine I saw tanks coming over the hill. When they came closer I could see they had white stars painted on them. My friend said to me, “Leon, they are Americans.”
“Americans,” I said to my friend, ‘Now what do we do? That’s when I found out that the war was over.
“So you see, Officer, knowing the correct height of a table saved me from being shipped to Auschwitz.”
“Leon” I said. “What about table?”
“The table, in America the table would be 30 inches, in Germany 0.7620 meters.” He smiled and said, “Officer, how about another coffee