Saturday, August 28, 2010

In Praise of Samuel I. Berek

It was a big old frame building along the Union Pacific tracks on East Factory Street in Fremont, Nebraska. That was before Fremont had the ZIP Code 68025.

The building was painted a dark forest green although a bit dilapidated. Just below the eaves in big white letters was painted "JAKE BEREK IRON AND METALS".

Sam was the son who had taken over the scrap metal business from his father Jacob who had died before I ever got to go there. The office was dingy and littered, but there was a coal burning stove that kept it toasty warm in cold weather.

And inside near the window to the street was a big old stuffed chair of a color that defied description. On the one armrest of that chair sat an old round woman with gray hair. Jake's widow. Sam's mother. She said little. And when she spoke, it was with a heavy foreign accent.

Sam and his mother were Jews. My family, Lutheran to their DNA, had inherited much of Luther's animosity toward Jews. I won't attempt to describe it here. It wasn't overt, but I could sense it in my Father's speech and manner. That's the subject for another time.

And in our vernacular, we never called the Berek business a scrap metal business. The term "recycling" hadn't been invented yet. No, the Bereks ran the "junk yard". The scrap metal we sold them, old iron from obsolete farm machines, the guts of old cars scrapped out for the running gears to make farm wagons, old radiators and plumbing, water tanks, etc., that was all junk to us.

I liked going there and unloading the junk from the Ford pickup. We'd first pull onto the scale to get weighed, then unload. It was such fun to toss everything off and hear the clang as it landed on the pile with other people's junk. Then we'd get weighed again and go into the office to get paid. The Bereks always gave my brother Robert and me a candy bar, often a Baby Ruth bar. We liked that, of course, and said a shy "Thank you". Sam and his Mom always fawned over us as kids, almost more than relatives did.

I'm sure my Dad thought it was their way of making the stingy (in his eyes) prices for scrap metal more acceptable. Ingratiate the kids, chisel the parents. That's how everyone I knew regarded the modus operandi of Jews, be they jewelers, clothiers, furniture sellers, car dealers or junk dealers.

Sam always wore a top hat with a narrow rim. It was a way of keeping his head covered as a Jew that would not offend his entirely Christian customers had he worn a yarmulke. I didn't know that then. I didn't know about the Holocaust of Jews, the Showa, back then either.

World War II wasn't a decade behind us then, and I didn't know. Maybe it was because we were ethnic Germans. For that very reason, we should have known, even as little kids.

Sam was a community fixture in Fremont, and he did a bit of public speaking whenever he got the chance. He loved to talk to high school students and recognize them for academic achievement. Independence Day was one of his favorite days of the year. For decades, he organized the Fourth of July parade and fireworks display at the Moeller Field ballpark where the annual Fremont 4-H Fair was also held.

Sam loved to praise America for her freedoms. Sam saluted and respected the flag more fervently than anyone else I had ever met. To say that Sam was patriotic would be a gross understatement. For years I regarded Sam as a bit of an eccentric, somewhat of an extremist in his loyalty to America. He was in awe of this country but not the fanatic kind of flag waver I've since come to know in America.


I wasn't astute enough or informed enough to observe whether Sam had a serial number tattooed onto his forearm. Or whether his mother did. But one was certainly tattooed onto Sam's heart. He knew his people's history, the horrors of what my German blood relatives had done to his people, what Stalin and his Russian Communists had done. Sam knew he lived in a different place, a promised land of sorts, where he and his family had freedom and could never be treated this way.

And he thanked God for the soil he lived on, free of persecution and protected by the Constitution of the United States of America and its First Amendment. He wasn't ever going to take that for granted, and he would do his best to prevent his fellow Americans from ever doing so as well.

I think Sam, God rest his soul, would be appalled at the timidity, flawed vision and fear that Americans seem to exude today. He would be aggrieved at our lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the things we take for granted, the trust we have in weapons and lack of trust in the strength of our own freedoms. He would be mortified at our cynical attitude about voting, our indifference to human and civil rights.

And if he'd heard someone say "they hate our freedoms" as a justification for war, he would instantly have countered, "Perhaps they do hate our freedoms. But do we actually love them?"

And Sam would not stand for America's rush to judgment of the Islamic Center planned for New York City. Sam would see that hysteria as the thing long visited on his people now taking root here.

He would not stand for it. And he would wave the Stars and Stripes, read the Constitution aloud on street corners, and send fireworks into the night sky until America awoke.

Thank you, Sam. Thank God for you. I'm proud to have met you and heard you speak. Thanks you for all you did there in Fremont, Nebraska. I will never forget. Never. Nie wieder (never again).



1 comment:

Frances said...

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