During this time of miracles. I would like to tell a story of a miracle that took place in Toronto.
LILLIAN SAX, a volunteer at a Toronto seniors’ centre, first noticed Sarah Perlstein the week she came in wearing an old, torn cloth coat. The left pocket seam was torn, the sleeves worn, and two ragged strips of the lining hung below the hem. The garment had obviously seen better days and, by its style, couldn’t have been very expensive when it was new. No amount of cajoling from people who knew her could persuade her either to fix it or replace it.
Sarah, a widow, was no more than five feet tall, and had a slight hunch to her back and a shuffling walk. No one knew exactly how old she was, but Lillian guessed at about seventy-five. After some inquiries, Lillian learned she was originally from Poland and had been in a concentration camp during those terrible years of the war, but she never talked about her experiences. In fact, Sarah wasn’t much of a talker
As the weeks passed and the weather became colder, her concern for Sarah Perlstein and her torn coat grew. Finally Lillian approached the old woman.
“Hello, Mrs. Perlstein,” she said when Sarah came into the cafeteria. “My name is Lillian Sax. I’m a volunteer.”
Sarah smiled. “I’ve seen you several times.”
“I was wondering if I could help you. Maybe I could have your coat repaired for you.”
Self-consciously Sarah pressed the torn pocket flap against the fabric so that it didn’t look for the moment as if it was torn, smiled and said, “It’ll be all right. It’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I understand you’re a Holocaust survivor from Poland?” Lillian said.
Sarah stopped smiling. “Yes.”
“Do you find it difficult to talk about what happened?”
Sarah’s lips trembled. “Sometimes,” she said.
“How old were you when the war started?”
Sarah stared at the ceiling before replying. “Fourteen.”
“Your coat, did you bring it to Canada
“There must be a story behind why you’ve kept it so long. Would you like to tell me about it?”
There was a pause before she answered, “I’m sorry. I’d rather not.”
“Maybe another time?”
A few weeks later Lillian knocked on Sarah’s apartment door. “Would you like some company?”
“Why thank you,” Sarah said as she opened the door. “That would be nice. This is unexpected. Are you just coming from the centre?” she asked.
“Yes, I haven’t seen you there this week and was concerned.
“Oh, I’m fine. Sometimes I just like to be alone.”
“I understand your husband died a few years ago. Do you have any children?”
“No. It wasn’t possible.”
The old woman had to stretch to reach the coat bar in the closet and Lillian helped, placing her coat on a hanger. Lillian pointed to the coat with the torn pocket hanging beside hers and shook her head.
“Do you know there was a time when I could have fixed it good as new myself?” Sarah said.
“You were a seamstress?”
“Yes. It was what saved my life. It was another time.”
“I’m sure you realize it might be more practical to buy a new one.”
Sarah became solemn. “I know,” she said. “I’ve had it since 1954. It was the first coat I owned since before the war.”
“Why won’t you fix it?”
Sarah suddenly gripped her left hand, which shook uncontrollably. She gave a low moan.
Lillian was frightened. “Are you all right, Sarah?”
“Yes. It will go away. Sometimes my hand takes on a life of its own. Anyway, at my age, I don’t need a new coat. If I buy a new coat, it will outlive me.” She laughed, but there was no joy in the sound.
“No, Sarah, it will keep you warm and extend your life.”
“To tell you the truth, I’ve lived long enough and seen too much. I have much to forget.”
“But Sarah, talking helps. I’m a good listener. Won’t you talk to me? I would like to know you better.”
“Why would you want to know me?”
Lillian smiled. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Sarah grinned. “My story is no different from others. I am from Lodz. When the bombs came, my younger brother was already at work. He never returned. Our house was near the factories and was destroyed. Somehow I lived. My parents did not.”
“You never heard from your brother again?”
“Nothing. I can’t even remember what he looks like. Too many years and too many bad memories have removed his face from my eyes. But I remember the last time I saw him. As he left for work, he was excited. The owner promised to show him how to use a sewing machine that day. He was only thirteen. I boiled him an egg and gave him a slice of black bread with homemade jam I made. I remember asking him what he thought of the jam.” Sarah paused and closed her eyes for a moment. “He said it was as sweet as his favourite sister. I laughed because I was his only sister. He put on his cap and went out the door – forever.”
“What happened to you?” Lillian asked.
“A ghetto was formed. I was put to work making uniforms. When they liquidated the ghetto, I was sent to a labour camp to make German winter coats, and later was sent to Buchenwald. I survived. I saw too much. My left hand didn’t start to shake until after the war. It was my left hand that guided the cloth through the machine. Maybe I’m being punished for surviving.” Sarah had tears in her eyes and her hand shook.
Lillian reached out and gently took her hand, then held it until it stopped shaking. “I don’t think you’re being punished. It’s your body reminding you of what it endured.”
Sarah gave a tired smile. “Thank you for caring.”
“Let me care some more. Let me buy you a new coat.”
“Buy me a coat? Does it mean that much to you?”
“Yes. A new coat from a new friend. Let me do this for you.”
Sarah laughed. “All right. I’ll get a new coat. But I’ll pay for it. I have the money. It was never the money.”
“I know,” Lillian said.
A few days later Lillian drove to a street off Spadina Avenue and parked. Then she and Sarah entered a building and climbed the narrow steps to the second floor where there were racks and racks of men’s suits and jackets and all types of cloth coats. The owner appeared and was told of their need.
“Come with me,” he said, and took them to a rack.
Sarah was very cooperative and smiled often when she tried on the different coats. Finally they came to a decision and she admired herself in the full-length mirror. The owner nodded his approval at their selection and left to get the tailor. He returned with an elderly man who had a thin tape measure hung around his neck, and lapels filled with pins. The tailor eyed the coat hanging on Sarah’s stooped body. His head bobbed a few times. He stuck a pin into the coat, pulled on the shoulders, then pinched the back where it hung loosely, tightened his grip on the cloth and stuck in another pin. A pin here, a pin there, his hands constantly gliding gently over Sarah’s back and slight frame.
The smile had left the old woman’s face. She seemed uncomfortable. Her eyes moved in the direction of the tailor’s hands as they passed over her shoulders. Lillian and the owner were in conversation and didn’t appear to be aware of Sarah’s discomfort. Sarah’s hand began to shake uncontrollably. She gave a moan and gripped her arm. The tailor stopped what he was doing and stepped back. Lillian and the owner stopped talking and stared at her.
“Lillian, I would like to leave,” she pleaded.
“He’s not finished.”
“I’m sorry,” she answered. “I can’t stay.” She removed the new coat, retrieved her own and before it was on her, was hurrying down the steps to the street.
Lillian apologized to the owner and hurried after her. On the street, she saw Sarah standing by the curb, tears in her eyes. “Are you all right, Sarah?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was foolish of me.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Yes. I’m sorry. We’ll go back another time.”
“What was the matter?”
“It was his hands. I had the strangest feeling when the tailor’s hands touched me. I don’t know how to explain it, but as his hands moved along my back and shoulders, I had this feeling that it was my brother’s hands on me. My brother was learning to be a tailor. He would practice on me as if I had a coat, and his hands were gentle, just like that man’s.”
“Are you all right now?” Lillian asked.
They walked to the car and Lillian opened the passenger door. Sarah didn’t get in. “I’ve kept this coat all these years because it reminded me of my brother. I would remember how he fussed at me as if I had on a coat and he was altering it. The coat became my only link to a good memory from my past.” She turned to look at the building.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Sarah continued to stare at the building. “I would like to go back,” she said. “I want to ask his name.”
“Maybe you should wait and sleep on it.”
Sarah placed her hand gently on Lillian’s arm and shook her head. Without waiting for an answer, Sarah returned to the building.
Sarah was out of breath when she reached the floor. Lillian stood behind her, a look of concern on her face. The owner and the tailor had been talking as Sarah approached. The owner stepped away from the tailor. Sarah stood before the tailor and stared at him for long moments not saying a word.
He looked back at her, smiling.
“What do you think of the jam I made?” Sarah hesitantly asked.
The tailor’s brow knitted in a frown, and a momentary look of confusion appeared on his face. He stared hard at Sarah Perlstein for what seemed an eternity, then the lines on his face softened and in a low whisper, he answered, “It’s as sweet as my favourite sister."