By Tonia R. Blair, a member of Get Your Wordsworth
I was standing in Altman’s Department store, in the corner, next to the shelves of beautiful knit merchandise, intensely studying the belt in my hand under the spotlight. I was trying to decipher the pattern: was it knitted, was it crocheted, was it macramé? It was a beautiful belt with a ribbon of contrasting colors woven through it. I wanted this belt desperately but the price was forbidding.
Shopping was not something I enjoyed but I did love clothes. So I went to stores when I absolutely had to; once there I would spend hours trying to find just the right thing. My husband who almost never bought anything for himself would buy me occasionally a dress and even coats. When he was in Paris in the 1960’s shooting a film with Alain Delon in it, he brought me the first leather boots that just came into style. They were knee-high with fur trimming. Much to my regret through they were too small. Reluctantly I gave them away. A year later on another assignment in Paris, my husband brought me a chic winter coat that I wore for years and still wear occasionally.
Even in the slave labor camp after we were locked for the night, sitting on the hard wooden bunk, barely being able to see by the one, naked light bulb that illuminated a city block size area, I sat up part of the night cutting off a piece from the bottom of the only dress I possessed and wore till liberation, more than seven months, to make myself a kind of bra. Although we had no underwear of any kind I had to have a bra.
In mid-December, still in the slave labor camp when the biting cold became unbearable, we received our second piece of clothing. Mine was a knitted, beige, sleeveless vest. Again from the bottom of the vest, I unraveled a few inches of wool to crochet earmuffs for my ‘boy friend” with whom I never exchanged a word, maybe an occasional clandestine glance. He was the tall Dutch “free prisoner” who rolled me an apple in the dark vast space where my master used to send me to get water from the spigot that was located there. The water was used to soak the rivets for the airplane wing that I was working on.
Since I worked with aluminum, I improvised a kind of needle with a hook on one end to pull the threads through that I first removed from the thin, threadbare, gray army blanket that we received to be our bedding. I also made myself a little comb. Although my hair stood up like porcupine’s and was too short for combing. Instead I combed my eyebrows imitating my friend, Lusia, whom I saw doing this in the Lodz Ghetto.
In the Ghetto where I was from 1940 to 1944, when the black market was still possible, I sold almost a year’s worth of sugar ration coupons to have a pair of leather boots made that was the fashion at the time.
Faintly, I heard the ring announcing the store’s closing but was still too engrossed in studying the design. When finally I did look up trying to keep the image of the intricate pattern, I placed the belt back on the shelf, grabbed my raincoat that I tucked into one of the shelves, glanced at my watch and hurriedly took off for home to feed the cat and to walk the dog and to be there when my two boys came back from school. That is when I realized I was being watched by four security guards. Simultaneously they walked towards me announcing, “The store is now closed,” with one of the guards taking my elbow and escorting me to the nearest exit.