He was a master tailor whose character had been shredded into combustible filaments that could never arc back to any semblance of the person he once was. He was, indeed, a veteran of note; Birkenau, Sobibor, Auschwitz, the Death March, Josef Mengele, and the kapos.
Golga made it through when so many others had not and he often wondered why. He could not forgive himself for surviving the living hells. If a man has no shadow of the past, then upon what can he base the present? And for him there cannot be a future. Golga’s past was only a small mound of ash.
Six years of convalescence in the Alps set him back onto his tottering feet. He was tall—more than 6 feet tall and he weighed less than 45 pounds when he staggered into the dispensary. For all their neutrality, Golga was accepted as a Swiss natural because his father was born there. Twenty years old; that wasn’t even a kilo for every year, but every millimeter of him was a fighter, a battler and a warrior against the yesterdays and the losses of his life.
He never spoke about it. To speak was to remember. To remember was to relive. “Once is not enough?” he raged when someone dared to ask him. So no one asked him anything. Ever.
No one knows where he learned his craft, but when he came to the land of the free and the home of the brave—he was neither free, nor brave; a survivor and a tailor and nothing more. He would never be free from his yesterdays, and as to being brave; he was alive because this was his fate and destiny. That was all. In another place they called such people “muselman”; the living dead.
He married and begot 10 children. A certain amount of emotion must accompany the begetting of children—even one, much less 10, but neither his wife nor his children knew of anything but a towering burning fire constantly stoked by his tortured past. He set one child against another and consequently, all of them against himself. They all cowered in constant, fearful foreboding, dreading the ripping buckle of his heavy strap that left great bloody welts across their small but growing bodies. But no amount of fury would erase his yesterdays. Nothing could exorcise the specter of the concentration camps, the stench of burning bodies, and the black abyss of despair—all of which had become the warp and woof of the very soul of the man.
Nevertheless, the man was a master tailor.
Golga was a brooding man who worked in the back of Hartstein’s shop. He was safe there, away from prying eyes and questioning voices. The whisper of classical music that constantly seeped from the dusty radio gave forth a nearly silent comfort, and the overhead florescent lights shielded the rest of the world from him.
Day in and day out for almost 42 years, Golga stitched, fitted, smoothed, padded, shaped, curved and gave new meaning to a fine piece of wool, a superb cut of herringbone, or a length of an unusual hounds-tooth check. But he was at the apex of his glory in the perfection of his bound buttonholes and pocket flaps, barely discerned regardless of the fabric. Hartstein’s reputation rested on Golga’s bound buttonholes. And when the customer came in after a week’s waiting, the garment he donned literally sang. There is nothing like a garment that is perfectly fitted to clothe the man and Golga could do it, without peer.
But he could not live with his past, and every day he died anew. He did everything the living did, but he did not stop dying no matter how much he distanced himself from the past.
Then, one day a man came into Hartstein’s and ordered a coat of heavy black Melton wool, winter weight. He chose the material, picked the lining and then stood to be measured. You could not say that the man looked young and you could not say he looked old. He seemed to be inordinately ordinary—and yet he was not.
“Now,” said Angelo, the Italian who did the measurements, “Now, for the length.” A myriad of numbers had been noted in a small book and the small, spindly man was getting ready to wrap things up. He bent down with his tape measure.
“I want a greatcoat.” said the man. “A floor-length coat.”
Angelo stood up, and looked at the man. Franco’s men in Italy wore greatcoats more than 50 years ago. He shuddered. Who wore a greatcoat in America?
“Yes, yes,” the man said, nodding vigorously. “A greatcoat. Down to the tops of my shoes.
“Down….to your shoes?”
“Yes, down to the tops of my shoes.”
Angelo stood before the man, at a loss for words.
“Please measure the length of the coat,” said the man quietly.
It took a few moments for the words to penetrate Angelo’s consciousness. A greatcoat? Well, who was he to argue? And he measured the coat to brush tops of the man’s polished shoes.
When he was through, Angelo silently stepped back.
“Now, mark places for twenty seven pockets,” said the man standing ramrod straight in front of the mirror.
Angelo looked at the man who was obviously deranged. A greatcoat was crazy enough, but twenty seven pockets? No. There was obviously a mistake.
“So,” said the man, “please—mark places for twenty seven pockets.”
Angelo stood at attention before the customer. “Sir,” he said slowly and with great care, “there is no place on this coat for twenty seven pockets….”
“Twenty seven pockets,” said the customer implacably.
“Twenty seven pockets,” repeated the man wearily. “Please mark them, so.” and he began to indicate generally the placement of the pockets as he wanted them, one as a breast pocket, and the rest marching at regular intervals down the front and back of both sides of the coat.
Angelo almost angrily slashed marks across the back of the coat. However, he was enough of an artisan and a perfectionist to know that Golga would notice if the pocket placements were not exact, vertically or horizontally, so even in his fury, he was careful.
Then the man placed an envelope in Angelo’s hand and said, “Take this. I will come back when the work is done.” He stood silently for a moment and then, repeated, “Yes, when it is done, I will come back.”
The next day, Golga found the magnificent piece of Melton strewn carelessly across the length of the cutting table. His experienced eye took in the cut, the style and the shape of things to come. A greatcoat; it made him stop and consider. He took down the pattern slopers and looked at Angelo’s scrawls. It was then that he noted the slashes across the length of the garment-to-be.
“Angelo!” It was not a call, not a shout, not a bellow. It was a cross between a roar and a scream. Angelo came running; he knew this would happen.
With a shaking ruler, Golga pointed to the lines slashed across the rich blackness of the Melton. His incomprehension angered him. What was this stupidity?
“That’s what he wants. That’s what he wants—twenty seven pockets.” Angelo babbled, “He’s crazy, I know, but that’s what he wants.”
Golga stared at Angelo. The man was demented—but who was the man who was demented?
Angelo? The customer? Golga, himself?
The shaking ruler slowly came to rest on the cutting table, and silently, Golga went to work, measuring, brushing, caressing, turning, cutting and feeling the material come to life under his able hands. Golga did not have to think of what he was doing when he worked; his hands had minds of their own—and sometimes he watched them in silence, amazed after all these years that they had survived the fires of hell, untouched.
As the work progressed, a greatcoat arose from this rambling roll of rich Melton wool. One by one, meticulously, carefully and accurately, the twenty seven pockets took their place on the coat, and in each one, separately, Golga placed another nightmare; a searing loss, a crippling disability—black holes of bereavement. As he buttonholed each pocket closed, the intense cries of his pain were comforted and sobbed themselves into submission unto the ages, thereby freeing Golga from the weights in his heart.
The ageless man has not come yet and the coat waits. But no matter, because the work is done.
Go into Hartsteins. In the back, you will find the coat, still hanging, covered in plastic. Look at the workmanship of the buttonholes and especially the pocket flaps. Run your hands over the coat. No, you will feel nothing at all because Golga’s work is perfection, incarnate. But please, do not open the pocket flaps. Let those nightmares sleep, at last.