THE KINDNESS OF THE HANGMAN
Many years ago, over forty years ago, on Christmas night, I gathered with my friends from Parkchester at our favorite bar, “The Golden Note.”
We drank and celebrated as we listened to Nat “King” Cole sing “The Christmas Song” for the hundredth time before his voice would fade away, once again, into the oncoming New Year. The Yule theme wouldn’t be heard again until the following year. Yes, back then in the stone ages, the Christmas season began on the day after Thanksgiving instead of Labor Day (or earlier) as it does now.
Jimmy was the bartender at the Golden Note that night. He was young. Before that night, I assumed that he was in his early twenties.
Exceptionally good-looking with straight blond hair parted on the side, Jimmy’s hair barely touched his shoulders and fell down slightly passed his ears. He was a soft-spoken, amiable guy and everyone liked him.
At times, I used to think how great it would be to be Jimmy, especially since I was such an ugly little teenager. How nice it would be to have girls look at you and say, “Wow! He’s a good-looking guy. I wonder if he has a girlfriend?”
The Golden Note, for all practical purposes was an old man’s bar. It was dark, with the stench of stale beer buried so deep inside the stainless wooden bar that it would take a nuclear explosion to rid the place of the smell.
Across from the bar, there were booths with torn, green leather cushions. At any giving time, you might find a regular patron comfortably asleep across the bottom cushion of one of the booths with his head resting on a folded jacket that was used as a pillow.
We were all teenagers at the time, and even though most of my friends were eighteen at the time, which was the legal drinking age back then, I was still a couple of years below the legal age, but that was of little consequence back then in the Bronx.
At about 3 in the morning, we decided it was time to go home. The group decided to leave Jimmy an extra big tip, which at that time was probably thirty-five dollars split among six of us. He was exceptionally grateful, and he bought us all one last drink.
We were the only ones left in the place, and Jimmy joined us at the end of the bar with a drink of his own.
Someone asked him, if he had done anything special on Christmas Eve. Jimmy replied, “No, I just stayed home and watched TV. I like it that way.”
“So, nothing at all?”
“Yeah, just stayed home, watched TV, and had a few beers. Ever since returning from Vietnam, I prefer the quiet and uneventful.”
The war in Vietnam had ended just a couple of years previously and none of my friends, who were all too young to be drafted, had gone to Vietnam. We got our news about the war from the newspapers and the TV coverage. Jimmy’s confession came as a shock to us. He didn’t look much older than most of us.
“No, I’m plenty old to have been drafted. Just turned twenty-seven.”
“And what was it like?”
“Scary,” he replied as his eyes drifted to another time.
He transformed his arms and hands into a makeshift automatic rifle, which he pointed toward the floor.
“During one firefight, I remember shooting a dead Vietcong soldier over and over again. It wasn’t until my sergeant pulled me away that I realized that I just shot like forty rounds into a corpse.”
Jimmy unwound his arms and hands, looked up, shook his head and smiled a haunted smile.
Ten years later, sitting at one of my favorite bars, Mirabelle, on the Sunset Strip, I drank a cold, refreshing beer. I occasionally looked up from the newspaper I was reading and glanced admiringly at Ava, the barmaid, a Czechoslovakian beauty who, at 41, made the young, aspiring starlets walking along the Strip and sitting at the tables at Mirabelle look positively plain.
The gentleman sitting next to me asked me if there was any “new news” he should know about. I simply shook my head and replied, “The same old shit.” He was in his mid-thirties, with long straight hair coming down past his shoulders and sported a bushy mustache.
The man was soft spoken and drinking a coffee, which I assumed he brought with him from the table where he probably ate dinner. Ava put a fresh beer in front of me, and I asked the gentleman if I could buy him a drink to go with the coffee.
“No,” He replied as Ava refilled his cup of coffee. “ I haven’t had a drink in nearly ten years, since I went on a five year binge after coming back from Vietnam. I was there for about a year and a half and saw virtually no action, even though I went on routine patrols throughout my whole time there.”
He paused as he took a sip of his coffee and looked straight up and into the mirror behind the bar.
“Just before I was going to leave Nam, we were out on just another routine patrol and we were suddenly ambushed by the Vietcong. For what was probably no more than five minutes, we were in a firefight.
All I remember was shooting wildly into the jungle straight ahead of me during the entire time. When it was all over, there were dead and wounded soldiers from my company spread out all around me.
“I didn’t have so much as a scratch… just the smell of gunpowder, sweat, and the cries of my wounded comrades,” he continued.
He took another sip of his coffee and repeated, “And that was all the action I saw over there.”
Ten years later, sitting at table #27 at the Palm Restaurant in West Hollywood I listened to Hal Goodman tell me some fabulous stories about the entertainment business.
Hal was short, maybe 5 feet, 5 inches tall with broad shoulders and short, gray hair. He had worked in the industry close to fifty years and, for most of that time, Hal worked as a comedy writer for Johnny Carlson.
Like me, Hal was also from the Bronx. He told me when he was about eleven-years-old, his mother forced him to take violin lessons. He said he never felt so embarrassed as when he had to walk through the neighborhood holding that stupid violin case. But his mother meant well, he said, and he still loved her.
Hal was soft-spoken, extremely gracious, and I don’t know if there was a mean bone in his body.
After a few minutes, we got off the subject of the entertainment business and discussed the upcoming Presidential election between President Clinton and Senator Bob Dole. We both agreed that it would be very difficult to beat President Clinton, especially with the economy so strong.
I felt that the only advantage I saw Senator Dole had was his war record. Hal reminded me that it didn’t matter much when Clinton beat President Bush, a war hero, and that most people of voting age today were not even born when World War II ended.
Hal, to my surprise, told me he served in the army during World War II. The army and Hal just didn’t seem to go together.
Hal was so easygoing and kind that it was hard for me to picture him holding a rifle, nevertheless aiming and shooting at another human being. He told me that during one fierce battle with the Germans everything suddenly went dark and he was knocked unconscious.
When he woke up, the dismembered bodies of his friends were scattered all around him. The Germans had dropped a bomb on them and he had no idea how he survived. He was wounded, and airlifted to an army hospital, which would become famous in the following days when General Patton visited wounded soldiers. The mercurial general went on his famous tirade against a soldier suffering from post trauma stress.
Hal reiterated that he did not see Senator Dole getting any boost in the polls for his military service, and he went on to tell me a very funny story about Red Skelton.
A few years later, while sitting in a chair in the backyard of a friend’s parents’ home in Beverly Hills, Lisa’s stepfather, Henry, picked up a copy of one of Goethe’s books and started reading it in very fluent German. He remarked, “When you read it in its original German it sounds so much better.”
Having Goethe read to you in German during a yard sale is a rather surreal. And to answer your next question…yes, they do have yard sales in Beverly Hills. But I cannot imagine you getting the best deals.
Henry was an optometrist and, on a few occasions, I accompanied my wife to see him for her annual checkups. He was quite enthusiastic about his profession, and there was never a time I went in which I didn’t learn some fascinating facts and stories about the eye. For instance, he had recently seen a patient suffering from an eye infection and, after a number of failed attempts to get rid of the infection, he did further tests and discovered the patient’s infection was actually syphilis. Syphilis of the eye…now that is something I never even knew existed.
I tried not to imagine where that individual’s eyes had been, or more likely where his hands had been when he unknowingly spread the virus from his hands and into his eyes. Thankfully, he was cured and hopefully learned not trek too deeply into dirty places.
Henry was thin, with gray, bushy hair and was occasionally frazzled from too many patients. He wore glasses and without knowing anything about him, you would assume that he was a doctor, a researcher, a scholar, or a professor.
In fact, he was all of the above. He was born in Cologne, Germany, and at five-years-old, he witnessed the rise to power in 1933 of Adolf Hitler (Talk about a deranged and syphilitic mind).
Henry unfortunately was born Jewish, and he and his family were uprooted from their home in the lovely city of Cologne and relocated to a ghetto at Lodz, Poland. Shortly after the forced relocation, he received a one-way, fourth-class train ticket to Auschwitz where he was separated from his family and would never see them again…
Amazingly, Henry found the strength to survive while almost everyone around him succumbed to the gas chambers, starvation, experiments, hangings, a bullet to the head, and disease. Henry was one of only 19 German-speaking Jewish boys to survive the concentration camps.
Henry Oster died two weeks ago. He lived to 90-years-old, and most people would agree that is a nice long life.
I can’t help thinking how many years is “just” compensation for the torturous childhood he was forced to live: The stench of death and disease that surrounded and engulfed his youth.
Ignorance will argue that at least he made it, whereas six million others died.
Henry made the most of that time. He donated his time to the Thalians, a charity to help people with mental problems. He spoke at conferences around the world about the Holocaust at many venues ranging from local Los Angeles schools to the Holocaust museum to events in Europe.
This man, who had arrived in the United States with no money, no education, and unable to speak English, let nothing hold him back.
After all, he survived the Nazis. Every day of his life was a victory…a slap in the face to the brutality and inhumane culture that this syphilitic ideology produced.
In 2014, Henry Oster published a book titled, “The Kindness of the Hangman” that was a harrowing retelling of his very early childhood in Germany, his re-location in Poland, and finally his long-term internment in the hotel Auschwitz where many checked in and only a few rare cases were allowed to checkout.
After reading the book, I had the pleasure to carry on a lively correspondence with Henry about the book. We talked about his torturous experiences as a child and as a young teenager.
He was a treasure trove of information and insights. There have been many books written on the Holocaust by survivors and historians. By 2014, however, very few living survivors of the Holocaust remained.
Henry answered all my questions truthfully; even though with each answer, I could still feel the pain and isolation he felt some 70 years after. The suffering, torture, and pain went to bed with him each night and woke up with him each morning. I suspect that it gave him no relief during his sleep, either.
In our last correspondence, Henry emailed me to congratulate me on a book I just had published. We talked about the current world situation, and I asked if he saw any parallels between the current world situation and what he went through some 70 years ago.
He said he was disgusted by what was going on in Syria and Yemen, but what was most troubling for him was what was going on in the United States.
The anger, bigotry, and racism right here in his adopted and beloved country was more like what he heard back in Germany as Hitler consolidated power. It saddened him greatly, and he wondered what would become of this moment in time in ten or twenty years from now.
A few nights ago, I was asleep when my son, Bogie, a handsome, debonair feline decided to jump on me and use me as a trampoline. I woke up, desperately trying to catch my breath as the big fur-child feigned his innocence.
I patted his head and looked across at the TV, which my wife had left on. A young girl, maybe 4 or 5, came toward me from the screen. She was dirty, her clothes torn, and her hands pressed against her tiny ears.
She was screaming as the Syrian army bombarded a village of innocent civilians. I had seen images similar to this over the last decade and I thought to myself, “Well, maybe if she is lucky enough to survive, she might not remember any of this.”
Then, I thought about Jimmy, the stranger at Mirabelle, my friend Hal, and my friend Henry.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the stupidity of my hope that the little girl could escape the terror of her life.
If she is lucky enough to survive, that moment in time always will be with her, buried deep inside her soul. One day, it finally will emerge, screaming and shrieking, before it goes quiet and voiceless…if she lives that long.
The terror will haunt her for the rest of her life, whether she lives to be 90 or only for another day.
Yet, somehow, I’m sure that Henry Oster is watching over her, telling her that she is not alone.
REST IN PEACE, my dear friend, Dr. Henry Oster. Your courage, your generosity and your kindness have left the world a better place.