We walked into the store looking for something my grandmother needed to purchase. I don’t remember what she needed but, we had taken the Bi-state bus down Kingshighway Blvd. to the south side of St. Louis because grandmomma didn’t drive at the time and that was the closest store. It didn’t matter what she wanted, I loved riding the bus with her and I loved going shopping with her. A trip with grandmomma almost always meant some kind of treat and usually, if we went to a department store, the treat was a piece of chocolate from the candy counter or a chocolate bar. This trip to the store was no more important or significant at the onset and I had no idea that its memory would be forever etched into my mind and carry so much weight.
It’s funny, I don’t remember what department was in the basement of the store. I remember my grandmother in one of her traditionally worn a-line skirts that hit right above the ankle, her blouse tucked neatly (but grandmotherly) into the skirt, surely she had on pantyhose and casual walking shoes, her hair was in a bun and she walked with a confident stride and definite purpose.
At the counter, she greeted the cashier that she had come to know over the many years of shopping at Sears. They exchanged niceties and engaged in a brief conversation that I had no interest in. The cashier had a very strong accent that I could not place. I listened, trying to figure out where this old lady with the unusual accent had come from. As she rung up the purchase, moving peacefully and unrushed through the transaction, picking up the items and gingerly placing them in the bag, her shirt sleeve slipped and exposed her arm, just above the wrist.
I stared. I could not help it. Tatoos were for bikers…not petit old women. I could not have been more than ten years old, if that. I knew I shouldn’t stare and I quickly rushed my eyes to meet the cashier’s expression. I had seen this woman so many times before. My grandmother shopped there so often that this cashier had come to meet all of the grandchildren and all of the grandchildren had come know that, for some reason, my grandmother respected her beyond the norm for a stranger in a department store. I had seen her before, always in long sleeves and now I knew why.
My grandmother’s friend, the cashier, had survived the Holocaust. The numbers on her arm were put there by her captors. When the shirt sleeve slipped on her arm and exposed her history, she did not rush to cover it up. When she noticed my stare and my efforts to show respect and ignore what I had seen, she silently invited me to ask. I looked to my grandmother, worried that I had offended. The two of them, the cashier and my grandmother, answered my unasked question…the question I could not ask because a polite little girl doesn’t ask.
That day, I was touched by history. The Holocaust was no longer something that I could not imagine. It was not something that I had read about in a history book. I had touched a survivor and I would be forever touched by that moment.
Thirty years later and last night I came across a story on my ABC News app about a Hungarian politician that asked his government for a list of Jews who pose a national security threat. All over again, I am thrown back to the cashier in the basement department at the Sears and Roebuck‘s store on Kingshighway Blvd. Is this how it started for her…first a list…then what?
I am so angry. Angry for the way that the Hungarian jews must be feeling/fearing right now. We are not so far removed from history that history does not influence how we walk our path and it is moments like this, where ignorant/fascist/racist idealogues get ahold of the ignorant and run with their destructive agenda.
What the hell? How is it that we have come so far and yet we are only a stone’s throw from where we were?