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July 29, 2012

An Encounter in New York in 1953

One Sunday I decided to visit Rockefeller Center. It was a gray winter day, so not many people took the tour. There might have been about nine or ten people in the large elevator when the tour guide suggested that we introduce ourselves to one another and share where we came from. Among the tourists were three young men from Germany. Since I originally come from Vienna, we immediately switched to German and we spent the rest of the tour more or less together.

    After visiting the rooftop with its magnificent views of Manhattan, the four of us decided to stop at the exclusive Rainbow Room on one of the upper floors. Our respective budgets did not permit us to dine in that pricey spot, so we limited ourselves to a drink. The conversation flowed freely. I learned that all three had been sent to the United States to learn about American-style banking and they worked as interns in two different banks. Since all three were in their late twenties, I assumed that they had served in the Wehrmacht—the German army—during World War II. I don’t recall the details of what I said, but it was probably limited to my recent arrival in the United States after the completion of my studies in France. They did not ask any questions and I did not volunteer additional information.

    It was early when we left the Rainbow Room. Having shared our interest in classical music, we decided to walk to Carnegie Hall and get tickets to a concert for the following Sunday matinee. After that, we ambled to a nearby restaurant on West 55th Street. I had been to Larre’s once before and I remembered it as an excellent French restaurant with affordable prices. Everyone was pleased with the choice and we spent a very pleasant time together.

    Since the evening was still young, we agreed that there was time for a movie. We ended up selecting a silly but charming movie, part of what became known as the “road pictures” with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. In the movie, the two men were explorers somewhere in the South Pacific. Both men naturally fell in love with the chief’s beautiful daughter who could not decide which one she should marry. The story was set in Tahiti where everyone, including the chief, wore grass skirts and lived in grass huts with thatched roofs.

    At one point Dorothy Lamour, the daughter, bursts into her father’s hut exclaiming, “Daddy, Daddy, I know which one I will marry,” to which the father replies “Mazel Tov!” It brought the house down. The incongruous setting juxtaposed with an expression familiar to New York audiences brought on massive laughter—for everyone except my German neighbors. They sat there, quiet and puzzled, and they asked me what that meant. At first I was reluctant to answer, fearful of what might follow. They asked me again. At that point I had to explain that it was a Yiddish word meaning congratulations.

    That’s when the sky fell down. You would think that I had suddenly been stricken by the plague. Upon leaving the theater two of the young men left immediately, barely saying goodbye. The third escorted me to the subway and left. The following Sunday, someone else showed up at Carnegie Hall to make use of the tickets. I never saw any of them again.

    I was deeply hurt. I had worked through the agony of the relentless persecution of the Nazi years, the horrible suffering and death of both my father and brother. I had made peace with mankind and with Germans. I was ready to view every human being as equal, created by the same life force. I had transcended hatred and I met these young men with good will, without any mental reservation, but it was to no avail. They were still brainwashed. Mentally they never left Nazi Germany. They probably forgot about this incident, but I feel the sting to this day.

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