After a few months, our antiques business was in full swing. We were getting the hang of shopping the sales, pricing, displaying and actually selling a little. Our booth was actually filling in. From the sparse conditions on day one:
To a few months later:
One thing I did not know about antique stores (this was before the days of Pawn Stars) is that people walk in off the street every day and try to sell you things. The ratio of people wanting to sell versus buy is about 3 to 1. Some of these sellers are the “pickers”. They travel around in vans and try to buy what dealers want. Whenever I saw a picker walk in the door, I would hide in back room. Jeff, the store owner, had a good heart and really tried to find a dealer to buy every piece of junk that came in off the street. I also could not say no – so knew it was better not to look. Jeff would say, “Why don’t you just go see what they have?” The pickers would then lead me outside to their car and pop open the back to show me their treasures. Sometimes they did have amazing things, but mostly it was awful.
Other sellers were relatives of the recently deceased wanting to sell the “antiques’ they had just inherited – often large piece of ugly 1960′s furniture. The big stuff was easier to turn down, as I had limited space in the booth.
The book sellers always targeted me, as no on else was interested. People assumed that anything old was valuable. They lugged in Reader’s Digest books, book club editions, obscure titles, and beat up Modern Library editions. It was very rare for people to walk in with a valuable book. My shelves started to fill with worthless volumes.
I did meet a few interesting book buyers; people like me who loved rare books. One day a man walked into my booth with a 3-ring binder containing a giant handwritten checklist. He examined each book in my booth and compared it to his list. I noticed he was especially interested in my Edna Ferber books This was unusual. I love Edna Ferber, but most people don’t know her, or only know she wrote Showboat.
This man looked like he was probably in his 60′s and very thin. I tried not to bother him as he was giving the impression that he did not want to be disturbed.
When he finished shopping I asked him about his book collection. He showed me his notebook that contained a list of all the books he already owned, so that he would not buy duplicates. I asked him if he liked Edna Ferber.
“She was my aunt,” he said.
“Joe” went on to tell me the story of his life. His family was living in eastern Europe and he was placed in a Nazi labor camp as a boy. He told me that the Nazi’s were terrible to them and that they actually cut off his penis.
At this point I was horrified, and I tried really hard not to look down at his pants.
His mother, he explained, asked Edna to see if she could do something. Edna went to Europe and somehow used her connections to get him released. He then went on to work at the University of Chicago (as Edna did) in some sort of mental health role. He told us heartbreaking stories about some of the people he worked with in Chicago. I wasn’t sure exactly what he did. Something between orderly and doctor, but it was hazy.
Joe stopped in a few times over the next year and I heard him repeating this same story to Jeff. Then he disappeared.
I was very interested in his story, so I tried to research the possibility of him being who he said he was. According to various internet sources, Edna Ferber was the daughter of a Hungarian Jewish storekeeper.
Notable American Women says that she is the second daughter; so she did have a sister. The girls were born in the Midwest and went to high school in Wisconsin. Her sister, Fannie, married Jacob Fox. Fannie Ferber Fox apparently published a cookbook in 1923. Fannie had a daughter who was an actress. So I don’t see how her son could be in a European war camp in the 40′s. Perhaps Edna wasn’t Joe’s regular aunt, but a great aunt, or maybe even a cousin.
Edna took her first trip to Europe in 1914. She traveled quite a bit and was in Europe during World War II. I found this article written by Edna Ferber in Paris after the release of people from the camps. April 30, 1945.
So, she was in Paris and had witnessed the release of camp survivors. However, it sounds very impersonal. If she had a relative there I imagine she would have mentioned it.
In 1941 she wrote a broadcast drama called Cable from Lisbon funded by the Joint Distribution Committee. I was not able to listen to the broadcast, but it is described as a drama about refugees in a French town.
In this day of internet access I was frustrated to find no more information. I then remembered that we had a library in town with real books. I had them order Edna Ferber’s last autobiography, A Kind of Magic.
On page 83 I found something interesting. Around 1940 Ferber was in the US and that “Heartbreaking pleas poured in faster and more more frantically from doomed Jews of Germany, of all Europe.” Now I’m not sure how she saw these pleas. She says that she did bring 4 children and 3 adults out of Germany before they were sent to concentration camps. The 4 children were from a single family (Hollander) and they were the grandchildren of her mother’s cousin. Her English publisher helped with their rescue.
These children eventually came to Chicago. The oldest boy, Gunther, was a brilliant physics student and went to University of Chicago at age 15. Tragically he was killed by a bus in his first year at school. If you Google Gunther Hollander you will see he was a “war refugee” who appeared on Quiz Kids. In his obituary they mention that he has a brother recently discharged from the RCAF and had another brother in the US Navy.
So could Joe be one of the other brothers? It doesn’t really seem possible – these children were rescued before they were imprisoned (their parents were sent to camps). So, Joe’s claims about Eastern Europe and a labor camp don’t match. He also didn’t look quite old enough to be in this family. It seemed more likely that he was in another camp and rescued later – possibly a camp run by Soviets in an Eastern Bloc county.
The interesting part of that story is the name Hollander. There are known Holocaust survivors who moved around Europe and through Holland – changing their last name to Hollander.
Sadly, Ferber mentioned no additional refugees. In the book she described going to Buchenwald after its liberation. Then she stayed in Paris and met people searching for survivors and wanting her help. She then visited Nordhausen – a camp that built the V-2 bomb. She was deeply affected by these visits and was unable to write for years. She finally set out to write a play about refugees that was a flop. She then went on to write Giant which was a huge success and James Dean’s last movie.
I went about a year without seeing Joe again in the antique store. Then, one day, Joe came back without his notebook. He seemed confused and wandered around, but eventually stopped at my books. I asked him if he was looking for Edna Ferber books. He looked at me, clearly confused, and said, “No, why?” He offered none of his usual background info. Then, right before he left, he mentioned that he had a stroke and did not remember much about his life.
I will never know how much of his story is true. Edna Ferber did have a history of rescuing relatives from the Nazis. She was the type of woman who had the resources and determination to rescue someone like Joe, but it is odd that she did not mention it. Perhaps he read one of her dramas and internalized it. Perhaps he was suffering from memory loss and just had the details wrong. I wish I knew. Joe never came back.