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By Copyright © 2000 Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D
One day I was with my mother in front of her building when an older man came by. He was carrying a
shopping bag full of groceries, and appeared to have difficulty walking. When he saw my mother he
changed course, tipped his well-worn cap, and headed straight towards us. He was smiling broadly
and about to greet her when she abruptly turned her back, and stiffened her face until it looked
ashen. The gentleman waved his hand and went on his way, seemingly unperturbed. I guessed,
correctly, that he was her neighbor, Mr. Dutke, a man about her age who was born in Germany.
She seemed aggrieved that Mr. Dutke approached her in a friendly manner, and said she wasn’t fooled;
she “knew” he was a Nazi. When I asked if she had ever discussed his past with him, she said she
hadn’t, but it didn’t matter because she “knew” what he was.
My mother clings to opinions like a life raft, as if all would be lost if she were to let go. She
doesn’t make any changes easily. Fortunately, she once made a change that altered her fate: She
left Poland, where she was born, shortly before it went under Hitler’s boot and Jews were marked for
extinction. That auspicious move, however, was not her doing. An older sister, who was already in
America, saved money she earned by laboring in sweatshops and sent for her and a younger sister.
Later, this sister learned how to make costumes and traveled to Paris with a theater company. My
mother took a different route.
After passing through an immigration center in Brooklyn (not everyone landed on Ellis Island), she
settled in the Bronx. There she met and married my father. She never seemed to want anything
beyond a simple life, yet she found fault with everything. When I was a child she would send me to
the store for bagels and then say the deli man cheated me because the holes in the bagels were too
large. She felt nobody could be trusted, especially non-Jews.
I understood where she was coming from. In a rare moment of intimacy, she confided that as a small
child she was in a pogrom. She told me how she and her sisters were spared the thrusting pitchfork
of rampaging Poles, who were massacring Jews, because her mother placed them beneath layers of hay
in a horse-drawn wagon and drove the wagon out of harms way. Meanwhile, her father ran off and
never looked back.
Loss and sadness were her constant companions. I can remember coming home from school and finding
her sitting very still in a darkened room, like a small bird in an abandoned nest.
My parents stayed in the Bronx long after their extended families left for the suburbs. But after
my father died, my mother moved to Flushing, Queens because she wanted to live near me. She never
commented on her good luck in securing a rent-controlled apartment in a well-run -- albeit, walk-up
-- building. Instead, she immediately started complaining.
She especially griped about Mr. Dutke, and took each chance encounter as a reason to launch into a
tirade when she next spoke to me. She would bellow: “Why doesn’t the Nazi leave me alone? I won’t
have anything to do with him!” Then she would go on and on, blurting out small variations on the
same theme until her face seemed to burn with rage. I tried to tune her out -- sometimes more
successfully than others -- anything else only fueled her wrath.
She ran into Mr. Dutke often as she made her rounds in the neighborhood and was ever-prepared to
shun him when they met in the crowded aisles of the supermarket, or while browsing among mounds of
fruits and vegetables at the greengrocer. Their paths were most likely to cross at the post-office
a red-brick Federal-style building that was roomy enough for people to congregate, and mingle. Mr.
Dutke, a retired letter-carrier, apparently spent a lot of time there. My mother, on the other
hand, made frequent visits because she only bought two or three stamps at a time. She seemed to
sense when he was around, and stormed out of the building with indignation the instant she spotted
For more than twenty years Mr. Dutke seemed eager to greet her amicably whenever they met, but to no
avail; she repeatedly snubbed him the moment he came into view. I don’t think she ever vented her
fury directly at him, but she sounded off to me so often that tuning her out became tedious.
As my mother got older, she found it difficult to walk up and down three flights of stairs. Still,
she liked to shop every day, even in inclement weather, so she could be sure her food was fresh.
One winter, to my surprise, she said that when Mr. Dutke went about his daily chores, he was likely
to pick up some things for her, too.
As she explained it, their shopping routine was brief and to the point. Mr. Dutke stood at the door
and my mother handed him a short list of items. Health concerns may have cropped up during their
exchange, but there was little or no talk of grandchildren, or the nuisances and delights of
everyday life; no neighborly gossip, or chat about worldly, or local events. My mother gave him the
amount of money he would need for the purchase, and he left. In my mind’s eye I saw Mr. Dutke not
letting rain, snow, or sleet keep him from securing the fresh produce -- a small piece of fish, or
few eggs -- my mother found so necessary for her well-being.
It took me a while to realize that something important had changed; she never complained about his
shopping skills, no mention of bruised fruit, purchasing the wrong items, or most telling of all,
being short-changed. I began hearing about Mr. Dutke in softer tones. When she told me he had
problems with his circulation, or that his stomach was bothering him, her voice sounded less shrill
I moved to Manhattan and could have gotten her an apartment in nearby subsidized housing, but she
refused the offer. While the mean streets of the Bronx never seemed to trouble her, she saw danger
lurking behind every building in Manhattan. When I asked for the telephone number of a neighbor in
case of emergency, she didn’t hesitate and gave me Mr. Dutke’s.
I grew accustomed to hearing about him in softer tones when my mother casually mentioned Mr. Dutke
told her he would spend the rest of his life making up for what he did during the war. Though she
seemed unfazed -- this only confirmed what she already “knew” -- I was taken aback. So Mr. Dutke’
hands were not clean, after all. It was not altruism or a long-held stoicism that had him shopping
for her. Still, I felt it was to his credit that he tried to redeem himself by his own hand, and
didn’t forsake my mother’s needs even after his own health started to fail.
Even so, I was troubled. What had he done during the war? And was one lifetime long enough to mak
amends? I’ll never know. What I do know is after that my mother stopped referring to him as “the
Nazi.” Had she come to recognize his humanity, or simply put the issue to rest? And Mr. Dutke?
Did helping my mother ease his mind, or did he have a longer road to hoe?
As my mother became frail, Mr. Dutke’s physical state deteriorated, too. When she was no longer
able to take her garbage downstairs, she left it outside her door. Each morning for as long as he
could, Mr. Dutke collected it and carried his ailing body down to the basement where he deposited
the trash. In all the years they were neighbors, I don’t think he ever set foot inside her
Mr. Dutke went into a small nursing home in the neighborhood. Soon it became clear my mother could
no longer live alone, even with help. At first she resisted the idea of a nursing home, but agreed
to enter the local facility after she learned Mr. Dutke was a resident. When he heard my mother wa
there he was eager to visit her but was too weak, and died shortly thereafter.
As time passed my mother’s memory faltered and she became confused, but she didn’t forget her
neighbor: She called the man who sat next to her in the dinning room, Mr. Dutke.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PHYLLIS B. GRODSKY received a Ph.D. in Social/ Personality psychology from the City University of
New York. She has researched a variety of social issues including compulsive gambling. Dr. Grodsky
served as chairperson of a Task Force on Gambling in the Jewish Community sponsored by the
Commission on Synagogue Relations, New York UJA-Federation, and lectured on topics such as aging and
the Jewish community at the Herzl Institute in New York City.
Dr. Grodsky has numerous professional and media publications including a piece in NEW YORK magazine.
Her award winning Web site, “PLAY IT AGAIN” (http://members.aol.com/PBGrodsky/), shows grandparents
how to engage their grandchildren in imaginative play.
As a volunteer, Dr. Grodsky is director of the Visiting Neighbors Midtown East, a not-for-profit
agency that provides friendly visitors to elderly clients residing in the Midtown East area of
from the May 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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