By Elaine Freilich Culbertson (Philadelphia, PA)
My father’s hands were what saved him. He became a shoemaker because his father was one, because his desire to be an engineer would not have helped him stay alive in the concentration camps. Nobody saved theorists, it was manual labor that was valued. It was only that he could watch and quickly imitate what others were doing, his quick mind absorbing and his talented hands obeying. He learned to value the leather and to shape it with reverence. He put aside the pencil and the slide rule for the sake of his life and became expert with a knife and an awl and a needle and thread. Later, after the war, these tools and materials would feed his family in the new land of America. The engineer in his head had to become the shoeman.
For many years his hands were stained with the dye that he used to color the shoes ladies bought to match their fancy dresses. His eye for color was amazing, and the potions that he mixed made his store a mecca during those years that everyone had to have shoes dyed to match. He taught himself to embellish the shoes with designs of rhinestones, pearls and lace. Everyone in the city knew where to find the closest match to their outfits. He customized the shoes, cutting the heels, modifying the fit so that even the woman with the biggest bunions and the most foot trouble could feel glamorous when she wore the shoes bought in his store. His hands were steady as he picked up the tiny gems one by one and placed them on the heel or toe of the shoe, not only devising the design but executing it perfectly.
He could tie your shoes so tight that your feet would throb for hours until the laces loosened a bit. He could bend an iron rod with his bare hands, as he did the time some mischievous boys ran away with the wand that raised and lowered the awning in front of the store window and he had to improvise a new one so that customers could see the shoes for sale. He could sketch, he could devise, and he could create almost anything. His grandson still talks about the pair of dice he carved out of blocks of wood, when the original dice were lost that day he was babysitting and the boy was heartbroken that his game was ruined without them. What he couldn’t do with finesse he did with sheer force, willing whatever tools and material he held to do his bidding; to disobey was useless. I remember the time he made wallpaper stick to the wall even after he had run out of glue! Sheer force!
When he shook your hand, he squeezed with intensity. Hugs were bearlike and delicious. Even in his later years, even in his dementia, he retained the strength in his hands. Those fat fingers that we used to laugh at, those huge paws so different from my own elongated fingers (my piano hands, he called them) are so vivid in my mind that I can still see them. He had a strangely misshapen index finger that I wondered about even as a child. The nail did not grow properly on that finger and I was never sure whether it was something he was born with or from an injury he sustained in the camps. If we meet again someday, I will know him not only by his blue eyes, his hair which did not turn gray even into his 80’s, his big nose that I used to tease him about, but by his hands as he grabs mine and pulls me toward him for that hug that I miss so much.
Elaine Culbertson is the chair of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, a statewide organization of teachers, survivors, and liberators who volunteer to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive in the schools of the state. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Act 70 Committee and a convener of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators in the Philadelphia region. Elaine represented the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Museum Fellow and a Regional Educational Consultant in the Mid-Atlantic. She presently provides professional development for teachers using Echoes and Reflections, a curriculum resource developed by the Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem and the Anti-Defamation League.
Elaine retired as the director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, ending a 36-year career in public education. She is the executive director of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. For the past 18 years she has served as program director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers’ Program, a seminar based in Poland and Germany, that has provided professional development to more than 1100 teachers in its 36-year existence. She works with teachers and students to connect the events of the past with the genocides of the present day. Elaine has written chapters in five different books on Holocaust teaching methods and lectured across the United States, using the story of her own parents’ survival as the basis for her presentations on developmentally appropriate and morally responsible pedagogy. She is working on a memoir that incorporates her mother’s writing with her own reflections on being the daughter of survivors.