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Far From Flatbush

Homage to My Great-Uncle Robert, Who Died in Catalonia

 

No, not "supposedly," not anymore. I was named after my mother's uncle Robert Weber, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. And he's no longer "presumed dead." He's been dead for 81 years.

 

As I was writing Bobby in Naziland, I still classified the above facts about my great-uncle as rumors, part of the multitude of vague and incomplete family stories that had been swirling around for as long as I could remember, but that I could never pin down—because like so many things having to do with my family's history, especially death, nobody wanted to talk about them.

 

I'd never even seen a picture of the person I was named after, because, my mother told me when I asked her about it the other week, there weren't any. She barely remembers her uncle Robert. He disappeared when she was 11. Though she does remember that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman.

 

But my mother liked the name Robert, and in the Jewish tradition babies are named after a dead person. Her uncle was, in short, a convenient and presumably dead person whose name was available when I was born.

 

I also didn't know that my grandfather had changed the family name to "Webber," adding an additional "b" because he thought "Weber" sounded too German. Because I was spelling my mother's maiden name with two "b"s, I couldn't find anything on the Internet about her uncle, who hadn't changed his name.

 

It was only recently that I found a site called Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, or ¡ALBA! A posting on the site confirmed that my great-uncle was, indeed, killed in action—KIA—in the Spanish Civil War.

 

Here's everything that's posted on ¡ALBA! about Robert R. Weber:

 

b. September 12, 1903, Russia, Russian American, Jewish, received passport# 491405 on January 5, 1938 which listed his address as 442 West 23rd Street, NYC. Sailed January 12, 1938 aboard the Aquitania. Served with the XV BDE, Lincoln-Washington BN, rank Soldado, reported MIA March 1938 near Gandesa; later determined KIA between March 30 and April 3, 1938 during the Retreats.

 

A few months ago, in New York, not long after I'd found the information on ¡ALBA!, my wife and I were having dinner with Susana Aikin, a historical novelist whom we'd met in Madrid last year. She told us that she was in the midst of researching a book about the Spanish Civil War.

 

"I was named after somebody who was killed in the Spanish Civil War," I said. "He'd joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade."

 

"What's his name?"

 

I told her.

 

She said she recognized it. "Very few New Yorkers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Do you know where he was killed?"

 

"I don't remember. I think it starts with a 'G.'"

 

"Gandesa?"

 

"Yeah, I think that's it."

 

"Have you been there?"

 

"No, it's never occurred to me to go there."

 

"You should go there."

 

It is an intriguing idea, and maybe I will. In the meantime, I did go to 442 West 23rd Street, my great-uncle Robert R. Weber's last known address. That's where the above picture was taken. The building, 119 years old, is now an attractive five-story row house with apartments selling for an average of $1,754,000. In 1938, it was probably a rooming house. I'd have liked to see Robert's room, too, but that just wasn't possible.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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The Gin Mills of Church Avenue

 

I never heard anybody call it the "Maple Court Cafe," but that's its official name, at least according to the above postcard. Everybody called it the "Maple Court Tavern," because that's what it was—a tavern, a bar, or as my father called every low-rent dive on Church Avenue, a "gin mill."

 

And though the postcard makes it look like a classy joint—it was once the conveniently located bar of choice for the wealthy denizens of Prospect Park South—by the time I came to know it, it was a dim, dank, dingy place. There were no potted plants or souvenir postcards or palm trees painted on the walls. According to my parents, it was where the "goyim" did their drinking. In my mind's eye, the bar was horseshoe shaped. But it was, in fact, a rectangle with curved corners. Because I sat at the far end, I can see how I misremembered that.

 

The Stingo I refer to in the quote under the postcard is the narrator of William Styron's Holocaust novel, Sophie's Choice. It's one of the many places in Flatbush that appear in his book as well as mine, and in Bobby in Naziland, I spend a couple of pages contrasting my own impressions of the neighborhood with Stingo's.

 

Every store, bar, and restaurant on Church Avenue's commercial strip has since been replaced by some other kind of store or restaurant (though no bars). A laundry has become a health food store. Two candy stores, including my father's, have become part of a subway station.

 

And the Maple Court Tavern (or cafe) is a pharmacy. Choose your poison, though now you need a prescription.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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King of the Jews

 

When the Dodgers played their last game in Brooklyn, on September 24, 1957, I was five years old and had just begun kindergarten. As I explain in Bobby in Naziland, I am among the last generation to have a living memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Had I been born just a few months later, I would not have been old enough to remember them.

 

So yes, I remember seeing them play on the tiny screen of our black-and-white TV, while my mother, a true-blue Dodgers fan, and her friends sat around the living room cheering "them Bums" on. Even more clearly, I remember people talking about the Dodgers because people talked about them for years after they left Brooklyn. And they never stopped talking about Bobby Thomson's soul-destroying "shot heard 'round the world" in the 1951 playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants.

 

Yet long after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the spirit of Brooklyn-born Jew and strikeout artist Sandy Koufax—the rare local boy who'd played for his hometown team—continued to hover over the baseball diamonds of the Parade Grounds, where he'd learned his craft. Koufax—his rookie card from 1955 is shown above—was an inspiration to any Jewish kid who'd ever picked up a baseball and harbored, even for a minute, the slightest inklings of a major league dream.

 

Yet Koufax had his greatest moment as a Jew in Baseball nearly a decade after the Dodgers (like so many other Brooklynites) had split for the Coast. Game one of the 1965 World Series, between the Dodgers and Minnesota Twins, was scheduled for October 6—which was also Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish Year. Koufax, the Dodger ace, was supposed to pitch that day. But in his entire career he'd never pitched on Yom Kipper, and he declined to pitch even this crucial game.

 

That was the day he was crowned King of the Jews—because he demonstrated to the world at large and every goyim boss who'd ever demanded otherwise that no Jew, no matter how important his or her job, had to work on Yom Kipper.

 

The other Dodger ace, Don Drysdale, pitched on Yom Kipper, and LA lost. Koufax then pitched game two, but the Dodgers lost again—before going on to take four out of the next five games, with Koufax winning games five and seven, thereby giving LA (and the Jews) the world championship.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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The Pink Palace

 

In Bobby in Naziland, I describe the experience of reading William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, in 1979, and my astonishment at discovering that its main setting was a ramshackle rooming house on the corner of Caton Avenue and Marlborough Road, two blocks from where I once lived. I used to pass that house every day, walking to and from my grade school, which was across the street.

 

Styron called the house the "Pink Palace." His alter ego, Stingo, and Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor, both lived there. As I was reading the book, I thought that Sophie could have been the fictional incarnation of any number of my neighbors—like the woman who worked in a nearby bakery on whose arm I first saw, in 1956, the blue Auschwitz number tattooed. I later found out that Styron and the woman upon whom he had based Sophie really did live in that house.

 

In Bobby in Naziland I wrote: "That a novel dealing with the Holocaust would one day be set in Flatbush was probably inevitable. But who could have predicted that it would be written not by a Jew or even a native Flatbushian, but by a goy from Newport News, Virginia, who had lived in the neighborhood for only a few months"?

 

Sophie's Choice allowed me to see Flatbush, a place I knew better than any patch of real estate on the planet, with fresh eyes. Styron, I wrote, expressed in his book "a simple truth that I'd never before heard anyone say: Flatbush was more Jewish than Tel Aviv."

 

The Pink Palace was torn down many years ago, replaced by a tan brick building housing a doctor's office. New York's tax photo archive, shot in 1940, supposedly includes every building in the city. But the Pink Palace, either overlooked or misfiled, is not there, and I can't find any pictures of it.

 

The house in the above photo is the house that played the Pink Palace in the 1982 film Sophie's Choice, starring Meryl Streep as Sophie, and Peter MacNicol (shown approaching the house) as Stingo. That house is located in Prospect Park South, on Rugby Road, a few blocks from where the real house once stood.

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Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.

 

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