Grand Dame:
A Tale Of Wartime Greed


"I met a real 'grand dame' today," said my father upon returning home on a summer afternoon in 1942. "A 'grand dame,' from real gentility," he said to my mother.

I looked up, my eyes diverted for the moment from the book that I was reading - since I could not go to school I devoured any book that I could get my hands on. I listened to my parents' conversation.

I wanted to know what a grand dame was, since my recent experience with people was quite different. For the last two years my father had not earned any money, although he worked every day. We supported ourselves by selling off our possessions, which became fewer and fewer. The Nazi soldiers would enter Jewish homes, taking away people to be killed, and grabbing their possessions. As a result there was less and less to be sold. Fortunately, my mother still had some jewelry left, and we suffered less than others.

I found out that the grand dame, a Mrs. O., was interested in buying fine jewelry. She was a wealthy non-Jewish woman with two teenage children. Due to some old family connections she held an important position in the salt-mine industry, and was able to divert a substantial amount of salt for sale on the black market. In those days, salt was a very valuable commodity, especially for the local farmers, so one could earn a healthy profit from such activities.

Within the next few months, my father paid many visits to Mrs. O. He sold her the rest of my mother's jewelry, including a ring that I had always admired, with my mother's initials inscribed in sapphires and diamonds.

Father also helped our neighbors and friends to dispose of their jewelry. Mrs. O was a willing buyer with excellent taste. The prices she offered were usually very low, as people were desperate and needed money to buy food and to bribe their persecutors. Father paid his visits in the evenings, in disguise, and entered through the back door of her house. After every trip, father remarked at how grand she was indeed, in both manners and her elegant dwelling.

Mrs. O. always offered him a glass of tea in fine china. She asked him to sit down in her living room and served him cake. To my father, who now lived in the shabbiest conditions, this was quite a treat.

Although she was a grand dame, Mrs. O. never inquired about our family. When I listened to my father's stories, I always imagined that one day Mrs. O. would send a candy or cookie for my sister and me. After all, I was only 11 years old and we were surviving on bread, potatoes, and water.

One day, while speaking with my father, Mrs. O inquired about our pre-war home. In 1938, my parents had built a custom-designed one-family house on a lot that my mother had inherited. It was a luxurious modern villa, and the architect who had designed and contracted it for us was now still alive in the ghetto.

A few evenings later, my father, the architect - who before the war had been a very reputable man in our town - and a lawyer, went together to Mrs. O.'s home. They presented her with some facts and figures on the villa, and a deal was made. My father had spent about $40,000 on the construction. The lawyer wrote a contract according to which my father sold the house to Mrs. O. for $500. After the war, if we were not to survive, the house would be hers for the $500. However, if we did survive, we could buy it back from her within six months for $5,000 in American currency.

This deal was, of course, no deal, since it was obvious that even if we survived the war, there was no chance that we could raise $5,000 within six months. And if we could not come up with this amount, our villa would remain hers for her initial $500.

This small amount did help us to survive for a short time. Soon afterward, father was sent to a concentration camp, and my mother, sister, and I went into hiding.

After the liberation in the summer of 1944, we three women emerge, starved, rising from the ashes, nearly dead physically and spiritually. There was no word from our father. We had no way of knowing if he was even alive. We were so frightened that we did not dare to go to our old house, which was now inhabited by the strangers who had rented it from Mrs. O.

After six months, Mrs. O paid a visit to our shabby one-room apartment. My mother worked odd jobs in order to support us. We were very poor. I remember vividly Mrs. O.'s arrival. It was the first time I had seen her. She made a striking entrance, dressed elegantly, just as a grand dame would. Without even sitting down she asked my mother if she was ready to pay the $5,000 to buy back the house. Mrs. O. did not inquire how we had survived, or even whether my father was alive. She walked out the happy owner of a house for $500.

In 1945, due to the terms of the Yalta Conference, we were all forced to leave our part of Poland and were relocated to another area. Mrs. O. left the town in a grand style, accompanied by servants and fancy luggage. Among her valuable papers was a worthless contract for a house for $500.

We were soon reunited with our father, who had miraculously survived. Being a skilled businessman, he was able to start all over, and in short time we were living a quite comfortable lifestyle and managing to save some money.

So one day a young man arrived at our house. He was the son of Mrs. O., a student at the university in the big city where Mrs. O.'s family had resettled. He brought a letter from his mother, who demanded $500 from us. She insisted that since political exigencies had forced her to abandon the villa she had bought from us, she was now entitled to the return of her initial $500. She made no mention of any relevant conditions or stipulations.

My father, an honorable and good-natured man, decided to repay her. He asked the son of Mrs. O. to stay with us for a few days while my father raised the necessary amount and converted it into American dollars. Back then, this was a small fortune. Father also noted that the young Mr. O. could use a new suit, so he bought one for him. Father also bought a beautiful gift for Mrs. O.

Many years have now passed. We moved to different parts of the world. My parents died long ago. I started a new life in the United States and, upon my retirement in 1989, I began to travel. Last summer, while I was on vacation with my husband in Czechoslovakia, I became obsessed with the idea of visiting the country of my birth. We rented a car and visited Cracow, one of the biggest Polish cities.

While unpacking in the hotel, I was overcome with emotion. Suddenly I remembered that this was the city where Mrs. O. had resettled and where her son had attended the university. Many memories rushed back and I realized for the first time that the grand dame was not a lady, but a phony opportunist who thrived on other people's misery.

I was tempted to see Mrs. O. Perhaps I wanted to reconnect with that part of my childhood. I also thought to try to buy back my mother's ring. I opened the telephone book and found the number of the young Mr. O.

His wife answered the phone, and after I introduced myself she told me that her husband had died two years earlier. Mrs. O. had passed away a few years before that. We met with the daughter-in-law of Mrs. O. and discovered that Mrs. O. had treated her own son shabbily too. She had been disappointed when he did not meet her grandiose expectations and instead married beneath him, the girl he loved, who was from much humbler circumstances. After he finished at the university, he operated a small business, publishing fine art books, and was never a great financial success.

Seeing that her son had failed to establish a brilliant career, Mrs. O. disinherited him and even cheated him out of an inheritance that was due to him from his father's estate. She favored instead her daughter, who had met her expectations by marrying a physician. On his deathbed, the son had sighed, "I'm not the only one that my mother took advantage of."

I was probably not meant to ever meet a really grand dame. I now hope that I will never meet one. I am better off with people of modest means and ideas.