Yorkville 1963


NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Mrs. Demeter brought her knitting when she came to babysit, and her angora-wrapped needles clicked softly against each other as she recounted narrow escapes from Nazi soldiers.

She was from Hungary, seemed not quite old, had a plump wrinkled face and wore her grey hair in a bun. She had a pleasant, rich accent and her stories, a quarter century old by then, always ended on an upbeat note.

“We laughed and we laughed,” she often said, chuckling, as she told us how she and her sisters hid from German soldiers who were searching car-to-car on a train.

As cheerful as she seemed, and as comforting as her bravado, her stories were depressing, and my big sister, eight years old, found the retelling obsessive.

Made nervous by the incongruity of the terror that train- searching Nazis must have occassioned with the hilarity that Mrs. Demeter now described and hobbled by a very limited grasp of recent history, I half agreed with my sister.

Then one day when I was six we woke from our naps to find our mother gone, and Mrs. Demeter unexpectedly there instead, her knitting needles mutedly clicking in the living room.

Our mother had to go to court to get our father because he had been arrested for fighting with the Nazis, Mrs. Demeter explained.

The Nazis had come to speak and other people had come to stop them, and then the police had come and arrested my father, she elaborated, to our exasperation. I think we both wondered why our mother continued to leave us in the care of someone so clearly delusional.

My father was Jewish, and while almost the entirety of what I knew about the Nazi era then was that Germans had persecuted Jews, I also knew that had ended before I was born and had never happened in New York. We even lived in a German neighborhood, and one of my father’s favorite stops was the Berlin Bar where he bought us hot dogs and grape drinks while he drank tall glasses of beer and chatted with the barman. Mrs. Demeter’s story was all the more unlikely because my father was a civilized man who waxed his moustache and wore three-piece suits to his job selling advertising space at a men’s magazine. He didn’t take risks.

But what Mrs. Demeter had told us was true.

A Nazi rally had been planned and permitted and protesters came with tomatoes to throw at the speakers. My father came that day with a can of tomatoes, he told us later, without explaining his choice.

When one of the Nazis began shouting that about “Jewish domination” my father, one of a dozen or so protesters to storm the stage, grabbed the speaker by the lapel with one hand and shouted back: “I’m a Jew.”

My father was holding the tomato can in his other hand, aimed at the Nazi’s face, my father told us later, when the would-be fuhrer follower crumpled to the ground in a faint, and a policeman’s heavy hand fell on my father’s shoulder.

My father didn’t tell us that he kicked the policeman, but I read that later in one of the several newspaper accounts that he saved. My father was one of nine protesters arrested that day.

Sympathy for the protesters ran high.

A judge sent them all home but raised bail for the Neo-Nazi organizer of the rally to $10,000, remarking, after he did, according to a New York Times account: “Now we will get back to the more decent type of criminal.”

It mostly worked out well for our family.

My father said later he never had to serve jury duty again, because his arrest experience would be seen as having tainted his view of justice.

The officer who arrested my father was among the sympathetic and they became friends, with the result that my father eventually received a NYPD Retired Detective badge, which he carried pinned in his wallet for the rest of his life. The officer also later helped my mother get a job at the Police Academy.

But through my childhood, I had recurring nightmares of having to hide from Nazis storming through Yorkville.

Those aftermaths of my father’s arrest long outlasted Mrs. Demeter in our lives.

Young women who were nursing students at New York Hospital started babysitting for us instead.

Then one day a nursing student must not have been available because Mrs. Demeter returned. Sometime that night one of us divulged that we had had other babysitters in the interim. We did not see Mrs. Demeter again.

And what I learned about meeting horror with laughter became a distant memory.



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