When I first met Teddy I thought he was of German descent. This might have been an issue. The Holocaust had ended only sixteen years ago and in my neighborhood we still lived with it. Many neighbors were survivors, some had numbers tattooed on their wrists. Many more lost family members. No one ever spoke about what had happened. I was relieved to learn Teddy was one of us despite his blonde hair and blue eyes when on the third day of school he pulled his English textbook from his book bag and out fell the little book used to prepare for bar mitzvahs.
Teddy and I were bad at sports, but passionate fans of the New York Mets. They played near our homes in Queens, one of the five boroughs comprising New York City. We spent recess and lunch ruminating over every play in the latest game and how our favorite players were doing. We collected baseball cards and displayed our prize acquisitions to each other and sometimes traded. (We shared our Marvel and DC comics freely.) What I remember best is laughing together as we retold the jokes we heard on the most recent Ed Sullivan Show. Teddy was a natural comedian who could mimic the top acts of the day, and did the best imitation of Groucho Marx I have ever seen. When he performed his Groucho I could forget that Teddy looked like a Nazi, saw an older man with a bushy mustache and big cigar.
We were typical pre-adolescent boys except that Teddy was different in one conspicuous way.
Teddy’s mother walked him to school every morning, rain or shine, blazing heat or freezing cold. She remained standing on the southeast corner of the block, always that corner, for the entire six and a half hour school day. They walked home together, Teddy’s head downcast in shame. For the rest of us, mothers and school had separated sometime after kindergarten or first grade. Not for Teddy, for whom it remained, a leaden stone around his neck.
I can see his mother standing on that corner, short, and stocky, with piercing blue eye like Teddy’s, visible through coke bottle thick eyeglasses. She stood guard in silence, a grim look on her face, her arms crossed, or in winter, stuffed into the deep pockets of a bulky overcoat. Her gray hair was covered by kerchief or hat in all weather. I often wondered if she ever had to eat or attend to bodily functions while she stood guard on that corner.
If Teddy was asked to join the rest of us boys for a movie or a ballgame, his response was always the same.
“If my mother can come with us,” he replied softly, his eyes staring at his feet.
The answer was always the same. “No way.” The words always hit Teddy like a blast of hot hair from a furnace.
What it came down to was that Teddy could be seen only at school or at his house. None would dare risk being seen chaperoned by Teddy’s mother. If a boy earned that kind of reputation early on in junior high, it could haunt him through high school. It was the ultimate nonstarter for Teddy doing anything with his classmates.
I made the one-time mistake of succumbing to concerns about Teddy’s isolation. Teddy loved going to the movies and we often discussed the latest films in between baseball talk. He lamented the fact that he had to see films alone, not counting his mother. I felt so sorry for him that I volunteered to attend a Saturday matinee of the latest Three Stooges film with the two of them. Unfortunately, half the school was in attendance. For the following week, the abuse Teddy suffered daily was heaped upon me as well. Fortunately I was soon forgotten but not Teddy. Each new day provided more fuel for the fire of cruel taunts.
It hurt to see my friend suffer daily humiliations, mostly “momma’s boy”, “punk” and other epithets hurled by anyone who felt like it. Teddy bore these insults stoically, and whatever pain it caused him he kept inside.
I never laughed at Teddy no matter how ridiculous his situation. I defended our friendship unconditionally. Perhaps I felt this endowed me with a right to know. I asked Teddy many times why his mother escorted him everywhere, standing guard as silent as the Sphinx in Egypt. He refused to discuss it. The most I ever got out of him was “You would never understand”. His resistance only made me more curious and magnified the significance of his secret.
Every few months I attempted to pry from Teddy the reason for his mother’s behavior. I knew of other friends who had tried and failed to solve this mystery. All who knew Teddy agreed that she was crazy, but it was not against the law.
A half dozen of us concocted a plan where Teddy would sneak away and leave his mother a note saying he would be home at a certain time. He would of course keep his word. Perhaps that would alleviate whatever fears controlled her. Teddy was adamant that he would not do this, and rejected any discussion on the matter.
Eventually we gave up. I learned to work our friendship around this obstacle. Everyone else did not. By our last year in junior high, I was his only close friend. Part of the attraction must have been the mystery surrounding his strange relationship with his mother, and the more I came to know him, the greater my craving to know the reason.
Teddy and his parents lived in a nice private home several blocks from the cramped apartment where I lived and shared a bedroom with two brothers. I never knew what his father did for living but it paid well. Teddy was an only child with his own room, where we usually stayed when I visited.
Though I visited Teddy at his house several times I recall seeing his father only once. He was sitting alone at the kitchen table when Teddy and I passed by. I don’t know if he was aware of our presence.
In Teddy’s room we played Monopoly, watched his personal color television set or listened to the ball game or rock music on radio. His mother was a perpetual lurking presence, standing outside his bedroom door, occasionally peering in on us, never saying a word. I do not recall her ever speaking even one syllable to me. I always greeted her but not once did she acknowledge me. She was neither angry nor mean, simply oblivious to my existence. She appeared to be deep in concentration but about what, I could not say. Teddy knew, I was certain, but would not tell me.
Junior High School days were coming to an end. Within a month we would don caps and gowns and receive our diplomas. We would be off to real high school. Teddy and I lived within a long walk of each other, but were assigned to different high schools far apart. His was one of the best in the city, and mine was near the bottom. At my parents’ urging, really insistence, I took the test for a specialized high school in Manhattan that accepted one in twenty applicants. Surprisingly I was accepted and for the next several years would be traveling by subway into “The City”, as the rest of New York City called Manhattan, a glorious thought. Teddy had a short bus ride to his new school, and I assumed with you-know-who at his side, waiting for him at the end of each day. I prayed this would not be the case, though none of my prayers ever seemed to be answered.
Three weeks before graduation Teddy and I were in the schoolyard during lunch break. I pulled out my latest baseball card gem.
“Double of Yogi Berra,” I said, waving the crisp and glossy card. “You know they hardly put any in the packs because they want you to keep buying.”
“I know,” Teddy replied. He shook his head and his face wore a rare frown.
“Can’t tell you how many packs I bought just to get that card,” he continued. “Mom makes me toss the gum but I can keep the cards.”
Teddy thought for ten seconds then spoke again.
“Interested in a trade?” he asked.
There was nothing to trade. By early June I already had every card issued thus far. I may not have been an athlete but was outstanding in cutting deals and games of chance. I always got the card I needed.
There was something I wanted that Teddy could trade for the Yogi Berra and it wasn’t another card.
“Teddy, you tell me why your mother treats you like a baby and you get Yogi for free.”
Teddy’s face showed a look of wonder and joy that quickly turned blank.
“Sorry, that’s one trade I can’t do,” he said.
“I’ll throw in Ernie Banks,” I replied, knowing well that he was missing that card too. I had three.
Teddy was silent, this time for twenty seconds.
“If you throw in the Mets team card, ok. I know you have two. And most important of all, you have to swear on your mother’s life that you will never tell anyone. That’s the deal. I trust you because you are my best friend. Really my only friend.” I readily agreed and swore to secrecy on my mother’s life as requested. I handed him the Berra on the spot and the next day gave him the Banks and the Mets cards.
I thought I saw a look of relief on Teddy’s face, perhaps because finally he would release his secret, or maybe because he made a good trade. Teddy got the best of the deal. I gave up three valuable cards. Teddy was telling his secret to one guy only and still got to keep that secret. I had no intention of breaking my vow.
We moved over to the wall at the far end of the yard, more than fifty feet from anyone. His mother was planted on the schools southeast corner, diagonally opposite us and we were out of her line of sight. Teddy told me the secret.
“I’m not the first Teddy,” he explained. “My parents lived in Germany. They had a son named Teddy, born in 1933. That’s the year he came to power. My parents refused to leave Germany even when things got really bad,” Teddy continued. “They don’t say much, but from what I gather, they didn’t think the rest of the world would let things go too far.
“Of course, they were wrong.
“My parents owned a tailor shop in Berlin and by 1941 they could only serve Jews and most had either left or were rounded up. My parents still thought things would be okay. Even when people started disappearing. They thought they were safe because they looked like everyone else.”
Teddy paused, closed his eyes, and took a breath.
“Teddy couldn’t go to school any more so when my parents went to the shop he stayed at their apartment with a young Jewish lady who watched him.
“One day my parents came home and Teddy and the sitter were gone. So was nearly everyone else in the building, which was all Jewish. A neighbor who hid on high closet shelf said the Gestapo came and took everyone. My parents were in shock and said they would look for Teddy, even contact the police. He was only a child, they said. Their neighbor shook his head.
“Don’t even try,” he told my parents. “You’ll just get yourself arrested. No one who gets taken away ever comes back. Not ever.”
I was feeling uncomfortable. I was expecting something funny, where Teddy could use his humor. This was not humorous. People I knew did not speak of these things. I looked around the yard, filled with young men and women joking, horsing around, ruminating over many subjects, but assuredly the Holocaust not among them.
Teddy continued his story.
“My parents of course didn’t listen. They went to Gestapo Headquarters to ask about Teddy. Just made it easier for the Nazis. They were in a cattle car to Auschwitz by that evening.
“Somehow, they survived,” Teddy said in a tone that spoke both in awe and wonder that these two survived when he knew so many of the strongest did not. “They were moved from camp to camp but always survived.
“They escaped when the last camp was bombed. By then the German army had been smashed and my parents stumbled on the American Army. They worked as translators and told investigators everything they saw. I think that’s how they came to America.”
I stood transfixed. I had not known what to expect but it was definitely not this. Teddy had never mentioned that his parents came from Germany. He went on speaking.
“My parents told me all of this when I was really young. My mother said she made a vow to God that if she ever had another child she should not let them out of her sight, not ever.
Then Teddy smiled for the first time since he started telling this story,
“I would be much better off if my mother was an atheist. Then she could just break this promise.”
“Are your parents religious?” I asked.
“Not very, “ Teddy replied. I’m surprised they still believe in God. But on this on my mother is religious.”
Before any of this could percolate through my brain, the yard whistle blew; telling us lunch break was over. Teddy and I walked and fell into our class line. We said nothing more that day. The subject never came up again.
After graduation, I rode my bike to Teddy’s house a few times. We heard stories about friendships that did not survive different highs schools and we both knew ours could become such a casualty. Sadly, once high school began, we never had any further contact. Relationships of all sorts mysteriously end without the parties knowing it until much later. I learned this to be a fact of life. It happened to me many times, but none mattered as much as Teddy. Perhaps his story frightened me, causing pity for the poor woman but also fear of how crazy she might be, and the fear may have caused guilt. It would be easier if it was just different high schools, but not everything can be blamed on bad school districting.
As the decades passed, Teddy’s story would occasionally rise from the void deep inside and haunt me. I was never personally told any other individual’s account of the Holocaust. Hearing one story was more horrifying than hearing the number six million or hearing of massacres and mass exterminations. I would not only imagine the terror his mother must felt that day her son was taken by the Gestapo; I would actually feel the terror. Many times just thinking about it brought tears. Terror never left her, fear walked with her every day of her life, just as she walked with Teddy. Fear and terror defined who she was. Irrational thoughts might seem rational when cast against her experience.
I anguished before writing these words, as my vow of silence still meant something. I was convinced that the story needed to be told. Not my story, but what Teddy told me, unadorned. After much contemplation I decided that my vow upon my mother’s life extinguished with her passing many years ago. I am also certain that by now Teddy’s mother is long gone.
I keep the Yogi Berra, Ernie Banks and the Mets Team cards in laminated holders on my work desk. I see them every day.
On many occasions I have thought of trying to contact Teddy. I never took any steps. Neither has he, far as I know. What became of them remains another mystery.