Stitching Together a New Life in Riverdale
Published in The New York Times
August 8, 2008
Surviving the Holocaust with needle and thread
AS Bernard Adler crouched down to plug in his sewing machine, his light blue pants split down the back.
“It’s O.K.; I’m a tailor,” said the jovial Mr. Adler, who is 87.
The sewing machine is down the hall from his room at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, an age-restricted community in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River. When Mr. Adler moved to the complex, which has nearly 900 residents, he asked if his sewing machine could make the journey with him.
The management consented. “We do our very best to accommodate individual requests of residents when they move in,” said Malka Margolies, a spokeswoman. Now Mr. Adler alters garments for other residents and Hebrew Home employees. He doesn’t charge a cent. “You don’t need money here,” he said, surveying the campus, which he describes as a “Gan Eden,” Hebrew for Garden of Eden.
His attachment to the sewing machine is understandable. Being a tailor saved his life during the Holocaust. The Nazis at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria kept him around so he could sew for them, he said.
Mr. Adler has a disarming manner and the energy of a much younger man. (He jumps up out of his chair to make a point.) But his eyes — beneath thick brows that are still jet black — well up with tears when he tells of his life between being rounded up in Nagydobos, his hometown in northeastern Hungary, in 1944, and being liberated at Ebensee 14 months later. Four of his eight siblings, and both his parents, perished.
“He overcame a lot,” said his wife of 60 years, Irene. “But you can’t overcome it all.”
The Adlers, who lived in an apartment in Riverdale for nearly half a century, arrived at the Hebrew Home separately. Mrs. Adler moved in after a long illness, in 2005. Her husband had trouble managing at home alone. He said, “I would wake up at night asking God, ‘Where am I?’ ” He followed his wife to the center in 2006.
They live on separate floors, which suits their situation. “We are not so young anymore,” said Mr. Adler, by way of explanation. Mrs. Adler already had her own room, and they didn’t want to shake things up. Then, too, they have different nursing needs, which would be difficult to manage in a single room.
Luckily, “I can be here in three minutes,” Mrs. Adler, 82, said of Mr. Adler’s quarters.
Each night, after dinner, Mrs. Adler joins her husband in his room, where they watch TV — their favorite shows are “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.”
“It’s not like the old days, when there were good shows, like Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny,” Mr. Adler said.
He and his wife met soon after the war was over, at a train station in Hungary, where he had returned to see if any of his family had survived. “I was 50 or 60 pounds,” Mr. Adler recalled. Irene, who was a stranger, gave him bread and butter. (She had survived the war in Hungary by pretending to be Christian.)
Mr. Adler moved to Palestine, illegally, in 1947. His future wife arrived in 1948, after Israel was declared independent. In 1958, the Adlers and their two sons emigrated to Riverdale. “It was my dream, from the time I was 7, to be living in America, you know,” Mr. Adler said. (He adds “you know” to every sentence, as a friendly way of checking that he has been understood. In fact, given that English is his fifth language, his pronunciation is just fine.)
In Riverdale, he worked as a tailor, and his wife as a nursery school teacher. Their sons, Arnon and Juda, have given them seven grandchildren, ages 2 to 26. “Each one is nicer than the next,” Mr. Adler said.
His room is decorated with paintings of Israel and family photos. There is a letter from former President Bill Clinton, sent on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, and a stash of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies.
Living in a room that is about 12 by 14, with institutional beige walls and a twin bed, isn’t everyone’s idea of paradise, but it is Mr. Adler’s. Pointing out his window, toward the Hudson, he said, “I never had it so good in my life.” (Mrs. Adler’s costs are covered by Medicaid, and Mr. Adler’s soon will be, now that the couple’s savings have run out, according to their son Arnon.)
The Adlers play Rummy-O and chess. She takes painting classes, and he helps make a minyan — the quorum required for Jewish religious services — twice each day. “Almost everybody is in wheelchairs,” he said. “Thank God I can stand and hold the Torah.”
At mealtimes, he repairs to a small dining area just a few feet from his room. The cooking isn’t his wife’s, which included Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage.
“If he misses it, he isn’t saying,“ said Mrs. Adler, who, like her husband, has arrived at this stage of life with remarkable optimism and tact.
Asked about her health, she said, “It’s getting better.” His answer is the same.
But lest anyone doubt the horrors of the Holocaust, Mr. Adler opened a scrapbook, which contains images of naked, emaciated corpses piled high.
There are also pictures of the United States Third Army tanks that liberated him at Ebensee in May 1945. In recent years he has connected with members of the Third Army, and he attended two of their reunions. They send him their newsletters, “because they know he’s looking forward to them,” Mrs. Adler said.
The other thing he’s looking forward to is sewing, which he tries to do every day. When it was pointed out that a reporter’s pocket had a rip, Mr. Adler said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The reporter promised to return with other items that need mending.
“If I weren’t a tailor,” he said, “I’d be long gone.”