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Flatbush Flashback

Last Event Before the Apocalypse II: The Numbers on Their Arms

 

It's just the three of us here in our cozy, quiet apartment—me, my wife, our cat. Above the empty streets of Manhattan Island, one week melts into the next. 

 

We're in a perpetual state of waiting for supplies. When's the next food delivery? Did we order milk? Will the masks ever arrive?

 

Mary Lyn is strumming her guitar, working on a new plague-inspired song, "I Can't Touch You." I'm lost in a nostalgic reverie of pre-plague life, still looking through the video she shot February 1 at my Bobby in Naziland presentation at Books & Books, in Coral Gables. In my previous post, I described that reading, hyperbolically, as the "Last Event Before the Apocalypse."

 

The hyperbolic "Apocalypse" is planet Earth on lockdown during these early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Here then is another short video clip from the Q&A portion of that Books & Books event, in which I answer the question, "Was anybody in your family in a concentration camp during the war?"

 

The short answer is "No." But my more elaborate response, which should serve as a reminder that once upon a time, things were even more horrible than they are now, includes the following information:

 

·        My father liberated a concentration camp.

·        The first time I saw an Auschwitz number was on the forearm of a woman who worked in a bakery on Church Avenue in Flatbush.

·        Those tattoos were a common sight in the neighborhood.

·        I knew what Auschwitz was for as long as I understood language.

 

I provide even more detail on all the above throughout Bobby in Naziland, which I'd suggest is a book worth reading as we shelter in place. There are, after all, a lot of hours to fill, and reading books is a good way to distract yourself while waiting for armies of essential workers to deliver your food and other necessary supplies. At 7 P.M., the hour of the vuvuzela, we will salute them and all the others who are doing their best in impossible circumstance to keep us alive.

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Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you'll hopefully be able to buy it again someday soon.

 

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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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