Chapter 14

The Dying Rag

My father loved to describe the busy port of Genoa in detail, with cranes lifting cargo off of big boats and rugged longshoremen lugging crates onto ships bursting at the seams with goods and people. In April of 1887, Genoa was a huge center for shipping and Papa remembered seeing negotiations happening right out on the piers, the captains standing like statues while importers and exporters threw up their hands, begging for a better deal.

The port of Genoa circa 1887

While Papa and Charles headed to the main office of the port to see about booking passage to America, Mama took us kids to a nearby open-air market to kill time. She stopped by a big produce stand to marvel over the foreign fruits and vegetables and wound up eavesdropping on a couple of women complaining in Yiddish that the price of beets had gone up right before Passover.

Mama was shocked. She’d been traveling for so long with such focus on getting to New York that she’d nearly forgotten one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year. She struck up a conversation with the owner of the stand, a kind woman named Milly Palumbo who handed Phillip a little bunch of grapes and waved away Mama’s coins. When she found out we had no family in town, Milly scribbled her address on a piece of paper and offered to host us for Seder.

Mama smiled appreciatively, but she refused. She was sure we’d be setting sail for America in a matter of hours.

“I don’t think there are any ships leaving for the United States today,” Milly said, pressing the scrap of paper into Mama’s hand. “If you’re still here tonight, bring your little ones to our house and Philip can read the Four Questions.”

Back inside the main port office, Papa and Charles waited on a long line to ask about ships headed across the Atlantic. While Charles read his newspaper, Papa passed the time listening to couple of men sitting nearby, a captain and an exporter, working out the details for a business deal involving a large load of fruit. Eventually he tired of eavesdropping and noticed an illustration of a lady holding a torch on the front of Charles’s paper.

"What is this?" Papa asked, pointing to the drawing.

"That's who's going to greet you in America. They're calling it the Statue of Liberty,” said Charles.

After what seemed like forever, they made it up to the counter and found that Papa could book the family tickets for 75,000 lire on the next passenger ship. Unfortunately, that ship wouldn’t depart Genoa for five weeks. Charles tried to comfort Papa by telling him that we could stay at the Abuza villa until then, and even promised that they would play cards for toothpicks instead of his remaining lire.

As expected, Mama was livid when she found out she’d have to wait another month in Genoa. She was sick of horning in on strangers and feeling so fartoost that she’d forgotten about Passover. To calm her down, Charles took us to a nearby tavern for pizza. He was shocked my parents had never heard of it, but he forgot that we were from Russia, where the specialty was pestilence. Once Abuza convinced Mama that it was acceptable to pick up the pizza with her hands, she and my father ate and discussed with Charles the plan for heading back to Torre del Lago. Charles was afraid to travel by night on the outskirts of Genoa. In those days, thieves hid on the side of the road hoping to rob travelers with pockets full of cash from a big dockside deal. They agreed to find a place to stay in the city and head back in the morning.

Here is where the story changed depending on who I begged to tell it to me when I was a child. Both Papa and Mama agree that the tavern was full of soldiers and a few of them seemed to recognize Charles as a deserter. In Papa’s version, he snatched a gun from an officer and kept one soldier at bay while another got up close and personal with Mama’s fist. He insisted they fled the bar in a hail of gunfire.

Mama, on the other hand, would roll her eyes and explain that they simply snuck out of the tavern after paying the bill and set out to find the Palumbo household, taking the kind fruit lady up on her offer to host us at her Passover Seder. I know which version I’d rather see on the big screen, so I’d like to believe that Papa was telling the truth and Mama was being modest about her vicious uppercut.

The Palumbo house was all lit up when we arrived. Warmly welcoming smells floated out of the kitchen window. Mama believed that you could judge a person’s character by their brisket, so she had no qualms about knocking on the door once she got a whiff of that heavenly aroma. Milly was delighted to find us on her stoop and we were kindly ushered inside. When Papa and Charles shook hands with her husband, they instantly recognized him as one of the men at the port office who they overheard trying to set up the fruit deal. William, as he introduced himself, seated the men around the table and poured them all a glass of wine. Milly asked Mama to help her with the food in the kitchen.

Mama always said that, of all the kindnesses she received along the way from Russia to America, the one that touched her most was Milly inviting her to help with the Seder preparations. For a woman who’d rescued her husband from a prison camp, given birth on the road, and bumped and jostled in a horse cart halfway across Europe, feeling like she had a home for the holiday made her eyes well up.

While dicing vegetables and manning various bubbling pots and pans in the kitchen, Mama explained to Milly that the next boat wouldn’t leave for five weeks. Milly offered to let the family stay at her house at least for the night, since Mama reminded her so much of her own daughter who lived far away in Rome with her husband. It was nice to have some life in her house again.

Out at the table, Charles noticed a bowl of odd-looking fruit and picked one up to investigate it.

“It’s a citron,” explained William.

“I thought so!” exclaimed Papa. “We call that an etrog.”

“That’s right, the Jews use them for religious purposes, but the rest of the world uses them for medicine. Go ahead and keep that one. I’ve got a hundred thousand extra on my hands that are going to rot in a warehouse down by the port,” explained William glumly.

A citron.

William’s business partner had been killed a few days earlier in a crane accident down by the docks. The partner was the one putting up the money to export the fruit, leaving William with an angry unpaid sea captain and a warehouse of fruit he couldn’t afford to ship to New York.

“At least we are all here, safe and together,” shouted Milly from the kitchen. “God may have taken our friend, but he delivered us the fastest onion chopper in Europe!”

We conducted our Seder and then ate until we were so full that Phillip fell asleep at the table with half of a roasted potato on the end of his fork. William, Charles, and Papa, who was rocking me in his arms, sat around the table rubbing their bloated bellies and trying to come up with something to do with the massive load of citrons. Papa suggested they convince Genoa’s finest ladies that diamonds were out of fashion and citron earrings were all the rage.

“Speaking of diamonds,” said Mama seriously, taking a seat with the men at the table. “I have an offer for you. Could these pay to get your etrogs across the ocean?” Mama produced a small bag from her apron pocket and emptied several large diamonds onto the table. Papa looked up at her, shocked.

“My grandfather gave each of his grandchildren a gift like this when they were born. I think he would appreciate me investing mine instead of making a necklace out of them,” she explained.

William was astounded. “Of course, yes, these would more than pay for the shipping costs. But why would you go out of your way for us?”

“We’ll do it for a five percent return on our investment,” said Mama, relishing her role as the family dealmaker.

“It’s a Passover miracle!” shouted William, overwhelmed. “All you want is five percent?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “You also have to get our family on the boat with the shipment to New York City.”

“But it’s not a boat for passengers, Jennie,” stammered Papa, still taken aback by Mama’s chutzpah. “The captain might not let us on board.”

“My friends, with these in my hand, we can buy a captain who will,” said William, grinning like a fool.

A couple of days later, Charles and the Palumbos stood with my family on the dock near the cargo ship that was, indeed, about to depart for New York with a heavy load of citrons, four Kalishes, and all of our possessions stuffed into one big trunk. Milly had loaded us up with a package of leftovers to get us by for at least a few days on board, after which we’d be at the mercy of the ship’s galley for food.

“Now remember,” said William for the hundredth time, “when you get off the boat in New York, look for a man holding a sign that says ‘Pfizer.’ He works for the medicine company buying all the fruit. He’ll take care of everything and help get you on your way to Boston.”

“And then in a month when you get paid, you’ll wire the money to the Bank of Boston,” parroted Papa. “The Pfizer man will give me the bank address and who to see. And you’ll send a letter to Jennie’s cousin Boris in Boston to let us know when the money is on the way.”

"I'm going to miss teaching you Italian," Charles said as he shook Papa's hand.

"Grazie," smiled my father. "You should get out of here before one of these soldiers recognizes you again."

"Don't worry so much! They won’t come near me if I’m standing next to your wife," Charles joked.

Our boat sounded its whistle and the captain gestured gruffly that it was time for us to get on board. Mama and Papa gave one last round of hugs and handshakes to our friends, climbed up the gangplank and took a spot on the top deck so Phillip could wave and watch us sail away from the port.

As the boat started to pull away from the pier, Papa and Mama saw a group of soldiers walking toward Charles. He didn’t notice them coming because he was waving at us instead. They tried to gesture for him to run, but Charles just waved goodbye all the more enthusiastically. Before they could warn him, one of the soldiers tapped him on the shoulder and, realizing he’d been recognized again, he took off running down the pier toward the sea.

This time neither Mama’s ingenuity nor one of Papa’s tall tales could save our friend Charles Abuza. The soldiers took aim at his back, shot twice, and our Italian friend fell forward onto the dock. The last thing Mama and Papa saw as they pulled Phillip away from the gruesome site was Charles lifting his hand one more time to wave goodbye.

 

Al and I had been touring all over Europe for a month by the time we found ourselves in Berlin for the Passover of 1931. True to form, Al had managed to land us smack dab in the middle of Deutschland for this sacred Jewish holiday—perhaps the worst of Al’s bad ideas.

I had managed to eat so many pastries, chocolates, and plates of schnitzel that I could no longer button my dresses, so I found a small seamstress shop in Berlin to have my whole wardrobe let out a few inches. Al, tickled pink that I’d eaten myself right out of my clothes, accused me of trying to smuggle all of Germany’s Black Forest cake back to the United States before that new Adolf fellow cut off our supply.

Hilda, my seamstress, giggled nervously. By 1931, it was just starting to get tense for Jews in Germany and even in the company of two Americans, it could mean trouble making fun of Hitler.

“Are you married, Hilda? Would your husband ever talk to you like this?” I asked, changing the subject with a wink.

“My Jerome is housebroken,” she with a laugh. “Besides, he’s too serious to joke around. He’s a physicist.”

“Good, because I’m gonna need some heavy duty physics to get the zipper on this dress to close,” I joked. “Where does your husband work?”

Al and Sophie in Germany.

“Nowhere,” said Hilda. “They let him go two months ago. He says it’s just politics and things will get back to normal after the next election but…” she trailed off.

“Those bastards,” muttered Al.

“Hilda, listen to me. Jerome could get a great position in the States. I know people, I promise. If you want to get out, let me know. I may seem like just a fat lady in a too small dress, but I’ve got connections,” I said, seriously.

“Oh, I know who you are Frau Tucker. My yiddishe momme loves ‘My Yiddishe Momme,’ even if we can’t play it loud enough for the neighbors to hear anymore,” she said with a smile.

"Well, hear this loud and clear, Hilda: you need to get the hell out of here, and soon."

"Frau Tucker, does your husband ever listen to your advice?" she asked. “Jerome will never leave his country, and I’ll never leave him. So that’s that. But if you don’t have plans yet for tonight’s Seder, I know my mother would be thrilled if you’d come and join us.”

I accepted her offer without a moment’s thought, which is how we ended up in Hilda’s house later that night. We were surrounded by twenty of her closest relatives, three of whom managed to tie me into one of Hilda’s tiny little aprons to help out in the kitchen. Thankfully, all my years at Abuza’s Family Restaurant came back to me. Before I knew it, I’d made a pound of chopped liver and tried to set up my teenage niece with Hilda’s youngest son in a transatlantic arranged marriage.

My brilliant husband, over at the table, was trying to figure out why a doctor of physics couldn’t prescribe something for his high blood pressure. Jerome just laughed. Al took his good mood as an opportunity to try to talk up life in the States, but he would not be moved. He was surrounded by his family, all of whom would also have to be promised safe passage to America before he would even consider leaving. I was well-connected, but bringing over twenty people would be a tall order even for me. Still, I would find a way if only Jerome would relent. But I could tell by his face, as he looked around the table at everyone he loved, this proud man would never leave his homeland.

Al Lackey.

 Good chopped liver will glue together more than just crackers. By the time Hilda and I had cooked together, said the blessings together, served our families together, and spent an evening eating until Hilda needed to reinforce everyone’s seams, I knew she was firmly lodged in my heart.

“Jerome, there’s no way I’ll be able to get by without Hilda,” I said. “She’s a miracle worker. She can feed me until I’m ready to burst and magically, my dresses still fit. I’d love to bring her over to the States and have her help me out in the theater.”

Jerome was quiet for a moment, and then chose his words carefully. “This will all blow over, like the zeppelins. Those big balloons are frightening when they’re overhead but then they float away,” he said, sighing and leaning back in his chair. “This is our home.”

“I have friends who can help you out. There’s an organization that can bring over your whole family and help you get settled. I’m sure you’ll be able to come back some day, but from what I’ve heard from people in high places in the U.S., this country’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You’ve got to protect this precious bunch and get out of here as soon as possible. Please, just don’t wait too long,” I begged.

The last time I ever saw Hilda and her family was a week later, when they saw us off at the train station with a basket of leftovers, just like Milly and William Palumbo had given Mama and Papa. And, while the sight of Charles Abuza bleeding on the dock may have been more gruesome for Mama and Papa, the last thing Al and I saw as we pulled out of Berlin were a group of young boys in brown uniforms with Nazi armbands playing in a field. Thinking about that scene still chills me right down to my bones more than thirty years later.

German youth with Nazi flags.

Hilda and her family never made it out of Germany. They all died at Auschwitz with the exception of her youngest son, Noah, who somehow managed to get to Israel where he married a nice girl and has a few kids of his own. I send him a little something each year when Passover rolls around because, as Milly and Hilda proved, once you celebrate a Seder together, you’re family.

Extras

Around 1934, Sophie started experimenting with schmaltzy songs. Themes include brotherhood, charity, and general joy about being alive, though there was often a suggestive punchline to keep a song from getting too sweet. A good example is the song “That’s Something to Be Thankful For,” written by Joe Young and Carmen Lombardo.

Eventually Tucker would go all the way with her schmaltz. In the last two decades of her career, as she was feeling more grandmotherly, Sophie would instruct her writers to drop the jokes and go full-on sentimental, even though these songs were performed side-by-side with her usual raunchy numbers

"Conversational Man" (1928), written by Ted Shapiro and Ralph Lermer, seems as if it was written with Sophie’s third husband, Al Lackey, in mind. There is no doubt that the man could talk. From our research and interviews, all evidence suggests Al had a doctorate in B.S. Sophie financed dozens of Lackey’s schemes over their twenty year relationship, but his true talent seems to have been cashing her checks. She mentioned him in her acceptance speech after she was honored at the Friar’s club in 1953: “Lackey was quite a talker but I’ll say this for the man. After I got him to shut up, he earned every dollar I ever gave him.”