In the Claremont of my youth, nearly everyone’s grandparents were immigrants. Some were from French-speaking Canada, some were from Scotland or Ireland or Italy, and others were from Eastern Europe. My grandparents, about whom I have previously written in these pages, were among that latter group, as was Mr. Gelfand, who had a tailor shop on Pleasant Street, one flight up. He was a small man, like most of that generation (at least the ones I knew), and he spoke with an accent. What I most remember is his unfailing kindness to me as a boy. I used to see him when I went downtown after school, since his shop was over the Pleasant Sweet, where we went for ice cream or a coke. He always greeted me with a robust “Hello,” asked me how I was doing, and made me feel like a special person.
I have a soft spot for Mr. Gelfand for another reason. Although my mother took care of me when I got sick, it was he who helped me in a real emergency, which was when I accidentally ripped my pants one day in the middle of town. Not just any rip, mind you, but a very serious and embarrassing event in my young life.
Around the time I tore my pants, my cousins Martin and Steven arrived. It was 1948, and they had survived the war, in Poland, hiding in the forest. It took them three years after the war ended, but they and their parents made it to this country, and to my grandparents’ home in Claremont. The parents went off to New York to prepare for a new life, while the boys, ages twelve and nine, remained behind. They entered first grade at the Bluff School and, by the end of the year were at grade level, learning to play sports (no time or opportunity for that in the forest) and feeling like Americans. They were known in town as “the refugees” – not a disparagement, simply an accurate description of their status.
That spring, they left New Hampshire for New York, where their father (“My Schindler,” Martin later called him) had opened a small neighborhood store. The boys continued in school and eventually obtained accounting degrees from City College, shedding their accents along the way.
My cousin Martin found a job in a firm that prospered greatly over the years, specializing in financial services for the music, motion picture, and television industries. They had offices in several cities, and clients whose names we all know, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand to name just two. Martin soon became a partner, and went to London for a few years to manage the firm’s newest office. And his name became part of the firm’s name, which began with “Gelfand,” the senior member of the firm. Yes, my cousin had joined the son of the Claremont tailor, Mr. Gelfand, who saved my you-know-what when I was a boy.
Today, Martin is retired, comfortable, and living in suburban New York City. When I go to Claremont, and run into people who were there in the ‘40s, they sometimes ask, “How are the refugees?”