By B.A. Van Sise
Paula Weissman takes a while to tell a story.
It starts like this: looking for work three days after arriving in America. After Auschwitz, and a Hamburg work camp, and liberation from Bergen-Belsen, she no longer had family, money or a home but, thanks to the other groups of teenagers she’d met from all over Europe while imprisoned, she did have six different languages taking up residence in her mind. She’d asked at her displaced persons camp for the authorities to arrange her passage to America, which took years for permits, permissions, and funding. She was placed into a hotel doubling as halfway house in postwar New York, and was desperate for work, any kind of work, willing to do anything in a country where she knew not one person and could not speak the language.
There were now six languages to her account. She met a Hungarian. She spoke to him in Hungarian. She asked him for work. “What can you do?” he replied, and even now she recites the conversation word for word from memory. “EVERYTHING I can do,” she told him, and less than a week into the new world, she had work.
Knocking on the door of a Brooklyn girdle factory months later, the Polish foreman asked her what she could do. “EVERYTHING I can do,” she told him in Polish, and less than a year into the new world, she was in a union.
At the local delicatessen, a year later, she asked the manager if they had anything that might pay better than her greasy job at the factory. He asked her, in Yiddish, what she can do. “EVERYTHING I can do,” she told him. He told her they had a guy out sick, he’d be out for a week, and she was welcome to fill in if she wanted.
“Fine and Schapiro said he was coming back in seven days,” Paula says in English. “He never came back. I was there thirty years.”
Last year, Fine and Schapiro finally shuttered after 93 years; Paula, just as old, is still there, in the apartment up the street where she’s lived for six decades.
“It’s a long story,” she says, in English. “But it’s a happy story. I could do everything.”