Last Sunday, a ninety-four-year-old man appeared outside my door. His name, he said in a deep German accent, was Werner Kleeman. He had come all the way up to Washington Heights from Queens to celebrate the birthday of his cousin down the hall. He was invited. He is certain of the date. But his cousin is not there.
Severely hard of hearing, with no cell phone nor ride home, Werner slumps in a folding chair a neighbor brought, marooned. When he rises, he sways woozily, perspiring in his dapper suit. My husband takes one look and gets the car. Once on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, Werner revives and tells the story of his life.
Born in Bavaria, he had been interned in a concentration camp. But he was able to produce a visa to the U.S., and, as was still possible then, at the start of the war, he was freed. He emigrated to New York, and then returned to fight the Nazis as an American soldier. Stateside, he made a modest living in a unique niche—hospital drapery. His wife passed away three decades ago. Since then, he’s lived alone. This trip is his first outing in weeks. “Now!” he chortles raucously as we near his street. “To my museum! You will not believe your eyes. I can show you things like you have never seen!”
Werner’s museum, it turns out, is a low-ceilinged, jumbled Flushing bungalow where he has resided for the last sixty-two years. He leads us through the cramped rooms, playing tour guide to a host of treasures: a dented spice box rescued from the desecrated synagogue in his native village; scenes by a famed sketch artist from the European front; a framed proclamation of honor for his self-published 2007 memoir, From Dachau to D-Day, signed by now-rival mayoral candidates John Liu and Christine Quinn.
As we try to say goodbye, Werner blocks our exit, brandishing a packaged coffee cake. “I have decided,” he announces, as if to himself. “Kind people, educated people. Yes. Why not?” He puts on water for tea, takes my hand, and draws me into a shaded back office from which he carefully withdraws a file. “You have heard,” he enquires, “of the writer J. D. Salinger? Letters from my friend Jerry.” We sit down. Read More