Two Strangers In A Tiny Coffee Shop

Marsha - Iron Mountain, Michigan
Entered on January 16, 2006
Age Group: 65+
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I believe that “no man is an island.” We are all brothers and sisters in this world and no matter how diverse in age, sex, color, religion, or family history, we are connected by a tiny thin but enormously strong thread. What happens to one of us happens to all of us and if we tell our story we can make a difference.

It was an unusual October morning in Southern California, unusual because it was raining. Not the thunder-boomer type rain storms I was accustomed to in the Midwest but a fine warm mist barely wetting the sidewalks. I had escaped my autumn chores and was visiting our eldest son in Los Angeles and on the days when he had to work I was left alone to amuse myself.

It quickly became a routine to take my book and stroll down to Santa Monica Boulevard to a tiny coffee shop where I could choose a tasty pastry from the case and leisurely wile away and hour drinking coffee and pretending to read. The constant parade of customers was as varied as a movie script and my imagination took flight creating elaborate stories I thought might fit the various players. Little did I know I was about to experience a real drama.

On this particular morning I was rereading the same page in my book for the third time when an elderly woman, donut and coffee cup in hand, came to sit at the tiny blue table next to mine. As she set her coffee cup down she spilled a little of it, and in an unfamiliar accent she apologized for her little misstep. I smiled, handed her a napkin, and pretended to go back to my reading, all the time casting her in one of my imaginary scripts. She was in her late 70s, well tanned, wearing nice jewelry including a Christian cross on a chain around her neck. Would she fit into an Agatha Christie mystery? Not the main character of Miss Marple for she must always be British, but perhaps a supporting role?

Looking back, I am not sure just how we began our conversation but I live in a small Midwest town and am accustomed to speaking to everyone whether they are strangers or not; we don’t need that protective wall of anonymity that residents in big cities do, and so I asked her what kind of accent I detected in her speech.

“I am Polish,” she said.

Not realizing I would open a floodgate, I innocently asked the obvious question, “What brought you to America?”

She turned to face me for a moment and her brief appraisal must have given her the green light. “It is a very long story,” she half whispered.

I gave no indication that I was too busy to listen and so her story unfolded. She was born and raised in Poland, married at an early age to a handsome Polish Army officer, and began raising a family. The happy and secure life of wife and mother came to a halt with the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. Her husband was quickly arrested and soon they came for her too. “People think they just took the Jews,” she said, “But that wasn’t true. They took all kinds of us.”

At this point in her story she rolled her arm over and stretched it toward me. In a trip to Paris I had stood in awe in the stark grey concrete memorial to the holocaust victims, born at the beginning of the Second World War, I knew of the horrors from books, movies, television shows, stories told by uncles and friends of my parents, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sitting in a little coffee shop in L.A. drinking coffee with a survivor of Auschwitz! And yet, here I was! On her forearm in a blurred but distinguishable tattoo were the numbers assigned to her at her internment in that infamous camp.

She told me of days of starvation, torture, forced labor, fierce winter cold, humiliation and a strong need to survive. “I lost everyone,” she wept and I assumed she meant her husband and children. She told me of promises made to condemned friends, promises to try and keep their children alive, and how years later in America she was honored by those now grown children she did manage to help. As the war ended, the camp was liberated by the Allies and they brought clothes, food, and the promise of a new day. One of the American soldiers spoke Polish and took pity on her and found her a place to stay in a nearby village. “My Savior,” she called him. Eventually she remarried and she and her husband emigrated to the United States where they began a new life and raised a proud family.

Her purging story at an end, she rose, wiped tears from her wrinkled cheeks and prepared to leave. I, too, wiped tears away and as I faced her we embraced, two strangers in a tiny coffee shop with the California mist streaking the windows and running down to collect in Technicolor pools on the grey concrete.