In 1980s Baltimore, a family recalls an act of kindness—and finds a way to repay it.
I’ll have a piece,” I said to my mother, who was passing slices of apple cake around the table while my wife and sister-in-law brought cups of hot tea into the dining room. The children had already eaten their brownies and had run off into the den to play board games, leaving the adults to finish their desserts and tea in peace before the kids were called back in for the Birkat Hamazon.
“Mom, you’ll never guess who I ran into this week.”
My mother was in no mood to play my guessing game. She was tired. Shabbos dinner for her husband, her two sons, and their families was an enormous amount of work, and even though we were all but finished with the last course, she still had so much work to do. The table had to be cleared, and all the dishes had to be scraped, then racked in the dishwasher. The leftovers had to be put away so that she and my father could eat them Saturday afternoon after coming home from shul.
“Ronnie Salzberg,” I continued, matter-of-factly, despite her lack of interest in my earlier challenge.
“Ronnie Salzberg?” my mother repeated, at first without apparent comprehension. Then, abruptly, she dropped what she was doing. She moved around the table and sat down next to me.
“Ronnie Salzberg,” she repeated again. “Oy, es git nisht keyn yaysher.” There is no fairness in the world.
Ronnie Salzberg was an acquaintance from my youth whom my mother had hardly ever met, but she knew all about him. The mere mention of his name now brought back memories of a tragedy that happened before we came to America, even before Ronnie was born—a tragedy whose recall touched my mother that Friday night, more than 40 years later.
Ronnie was the son of Dr. Arnold Salzberg, a family physician who had a practice in our old Pimlico neighborhood in Baltimore, where we settled after we first arrived in America in 1947. My parents were poor then, and all their hopes were pinned on my father’s buying a nearby corner grocery store—but it took months for him to overcome his fears, to feel comfortable about the store’s prospects, to arrange for a loan, and to bring one of his landsleit, a fellow Holocaust survivor, down to Baltimore to be his partner. In the meantime, they had no income, only the small amount my father had managed to save after the war in Poland and Germany before coming to America.
My mother was a proud woman who preferred to do without rather than to ask for help. She washed our diapers in the tub with a washboard and a bar of soap, and hung clotheslines in the bathroom because she could not afford a diaper service. She tried not to borrow a cent more than she absolutely had to from her brother and sisters, who had moved before the war and sponsored us to come to Baltimore. Every dollar had to be invested into the new business. But when I was sick, the one thing she could not do without was providing me with medical care. She was always rushing me, or later my little brother, to the doctor or having him come to our home. She had already lost one child to disease after their town in Poland was liberated, so every minor fever, every unusual rash, every infirmity that struck us—no matter how trivial—brought back the horror of that time when she was powerless to protect her daughter. Dr. Salzberg must have thought my mother was hysterical with some of the imagined childhood illnesses she brought to his attention, but if he did, he kept it to himself. Nevertheless, it embarrassed my mother to have to tell Dr. Salzberg that she could not afford to pay him just yet for his medical services.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Tucker. Sorg sikh nisht. Everything will be all right,” Dr. Salzberg would say. He spoke just enough broken Yiddish to be able to communicate with my mother, who then knew no English. “You’ll pay me back when your husband starts working and earning a living.” But in the meantime, my mother had no choice but to accept the gemilas khesed, the act of kindness of Dr. Salzberg.
Dr. Salzberg was the physician of my mother’s relatives already in Baltimore. Undoubtedly, she heard of his terrible tragedy from them. A few years earlier, Dr. Salzberg’s wife was home taking care of their toddler. She had just changed his diaper on the sofa in their living room when the phone rang. She turned around and ran into the kitchen to answer the phone. Maybe she forgot about the baby for a half second, or maybe it was half an hour. I never really learned the exact details. But before she realized that there was any danger, the baby had climbed up to the top of the sofa. An accordion screen in the open window had caught his attention. The little boy pushed on the screen, it gave, and the Salzberg baby fell to his death.
Dr. Salzberg never spoke of this tragedy, at least not to patients like my mother, but she knew all about it. Maybe she had a particular empathy for the grief that he hid. After all, she too had lost a child.
My sister, Tziporah, was born in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland in 1940. When the Germans attacked their erstwhile Soviet allies in June 1941, my parents, like all the other Jewish residents of Brańsk, were confined in the ghetto. When the Germans liquidated the ghetto and began sending Jews by train to Treblinka in November 1942, my parents determined to go into hiding to avoid the gas chambers that they heard awaited the Jews there. But they could not take a baby into the forests. Instead they left her in the care of a Polish Catholic priest of a nearby village. He renamed her with a conspicuously Catholic name and hid the fact that this little girl was Jewish, even from his Polish housekeepers. He had the women care for several orphans in his rectory but did not tell them which if any might not be Catholic for fear that the secret might be revealed to the Germans, and then all would be killed, Jews and non-Jews alike. All the orphans were taught to speak Polish and to learn the Catholic prayers—the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary”—so that to the German army and its attached death machine, all the children would appear as ordinary Polish orphans.
My parents remained in hiding from the fall of 1942 until the late summer of 1944, when the German army finally retreated. As the Red Army liberated the region and massed in eastern Poland to begin its final assault on Germany, my parents felt safe enough to reclaim their little girl. Although she’d become emaciated at the orphanage because the German army had robbed Poland of its produce, she was alive and apparently healthy at Rosh Hashanah. Yet by Yom Kippur, ten days later, she was gone—af tsu lokhes, as if purely to spite them. She had succumbed to an epidemic that spread through the town, carried by contaminated water. They had her for less than a month.
If only they had understood the health danger posed by an occupying army. If only they had realized that even the well might be contaminated. If only they had boiled the water. If only they had not housed a refugee doctor in their home who perhaps brought germs and disease with her. If only they themselves had died and the child had remained in the care of the priest, maybe their daughter would have survived. “If only” became the obsession that haunted my mother’s anxious days and sleepless nights throughout her last year in Poland, her six months in a refugee camp in American-occupied Germany, and her first years in America until she and my father finally refashioned a life for themselves here. The same “if only” must have burdened Mrs. Salzberg with the unbearable guilt my mother suffered, and she understood more than anyone how the Salzbergs felt.
Dr. and Mrs. Salzberg adopted a baby boy, Ronnie; he and I were born within two months of each other—he in the United States and I in postwar Poland. Shortly after the adoption, Mrs. Salzberg became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Judy, who was less than a year younger than their adopted son. Growing up, Judy was all the things Ronnie was not. She was pretty while Ronnie was, well, not so pretty. She was popular and stylish, the kind of girl who when I was in high school, I wished I had the self-confidence to ask out on a date. He, on the other hand, was withdrawn and sullen. She was graceful and athletic, took ballet lessons, and was a star tennis player in high school. Poor Ronnie was a klutz—he couldn’t run or catch a ball or do any of the other things that count for so much in boy society. And she was successful in school, while he seemed to have a harder time of it. Not that he was stupid. In fact, in high school he was tracked in the demanding special college preparatory program—the “enriched course,” they called it. But things did not work out for him. He maintained decent grades until high school, when he began to exhibit problems that everyone had a hard time explaining.
“His mother never really loved him,” was the consensus of the latter-day Freudians and self-proclaimed psychology experts in the neighborhood. “When Judy came along, his mother transferred all her affections to her beautiful daughter and did not have enough love for her less attractive adopted son,” people theorized. I had heard my mother talking to her friends and relatives about Ronnie when I was a boy, and I guess I bought into the theory as well. None of us had ever heard of a learning disability. If an otherwise bright child did not do well in school, then the only possible explanation was that the mother had withheld her love.
The conclusion that Mrs. Salzberg never really loved her adopted son seemed confirmed when I was about 14 or 15. One winter day, my mother told me that Mrs. Salzberg had died of cancer, and she wanted me and my friends to pay a shivah visit that afternoon. I balked at going, especially because Ronnie was not really a friend, just an acquaintance. But my mother insisted. It was the first time I had ever gone to the home of a mourner, and I felt uneasy. I did not know what to say or how to act. Somehow I expected that when I came into the Salzberg home, the family members would be crying in anguish. That’s what I imagined took place in a house of mourning. Nothing of the sort happened. Dr. Salzberg shook our hands and thanked us for coming to the shivah house. Judy was chatting and giggling with her close girlfriends and didn’t seem interested in talking to us, and we were too shy and uncomfortable to approach her. When my friends and I came into Ronnie’s room, he did not seem visibly upset at all. Instead of weeping, he asked us if we would like to join him in a game of Risk. To my inexperienced sensibility, that seemed inappropriate. I concluded that Ronnie must not have loved his mother—a just payback, I decided, for her lack of affection.
Ronnie had a hard time in school. In the 12th grade, Ronnie’s advanced chemistry class took place in an old science lecture hall with stadium-style seating. The class was taught by Mr. Buchanan, the science-department head. On the first day of class, Mr. Buchanan did not know anyone, but by the end of the period he had spotted Ronnie as the most awkward, least confident student in the class. Although he did not manage to learn anyone else’s name, he learned Ronnie’s and determined that he could court the favor of the class by poking fun at him. By picking on the weakest member of the pack, he figured he could ingratiate himself with the rest of the hyenas.
Near the end of the first week of school, just before chemistry, Ronnie realized he had left his chemistry book in his locker. After visiting the locker, he was not with the rest of the class going to the lab. Somehow he made a wrong turn or got off on the wrong floor and was briefly lost in the labyrinth of our gigantic public high school. By the time he arrived at the laboratory, class had already begun, and Mr. Buchanan was writing on the blackboard. With the teacher’s back to the class, Ronnie tried to slip in unobserved and make it up to his desk near the back. As he climbed the steps, some kids started to snicker. Mr. Buchanan turned around, and his eye fell on Ronnie.
“Salzberg!” he yelled. The fear in Ronnie's eyes was like in a war movie, when the American soldier tries to escape from the German POW camp, and in the darkness the searchlight catches him snagged on the barbed-wire fence.
As Ronnie turned to face Mr. Buchanan’s wrath, one of the books slipped from his grasp. Ronnie bent over to pick it up, and the others fell. The class laughed at his clumsiness. Mr. Buchanan looked away from Ronnie and turned to the rest of the class.
“No wonder he can’t learn any chemistry. He can’t even pick up his books.” The class howled. I can almost see the smug look Buchanan had on his face as he played to the mob.
Tears welled up in Ronnie’s eyes.
Then he abandoned his books and ran out. I don’t know if Ronnie dropped chemistry completely or if his father managed to have him transferred to another teacher.
A few years later I heard that Ronnie had dropped out of college. Shortly after, I learned that Dr. Salzberg had died and left Ronnie a fair sum of money. Someone told my mother that Ronnie had mismanaged his inheritance and was left with nothing. Whatever happened to Ronnie I knew nothing about, indeed did not even think about, until that week when we were having Shabbos dinner at my parents’ home.
“You’re certainly right about Ronnie,” I replied to my mother. “There is no yaysher. Some people never have any mazel in life.”
“Where did you see him?” she asked.
“Believe it or not, he showed up at my office. I was coming out of the conference room when I noticed my secretary talking to two very odd-looking people, a man and a woman. Both were terribly dressed. He was unshaven and she was—well, just weird looking.”
“Pretty?” she asked.
“I don’t know, just weird. You know, long denim dress with patches. Long stringy hair. Anyway, at first I didn’t pay much attention to them. They came into the office to ask for directions to Westview Shopping Center. Then I noticed that it was Ronnie Salzberg standing there in my waiting room. So I went out and introduced myself. He recognized me but didn’t seem in any mood to chat. When they asked for more directions, I said, ‘Never mind, Ronnie. Let’s go to my car, and I’ll drive you there.’”
I stopped to have a sip of tea and take a bite of apple cake, but my mother became impatient. “Is that your whole story? What did you learn about him?”
“Well, that’s the thing. As I drove them to Westview, I tried to ask him what he was doing, but he kept looking at his girlfriend and evaded giving me a straight answer. When I asked where he lived, he just said, ‘Near here.’ I asked what he was doing, and he said, ‘A little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ Finally, as we pulled up to the shopping center, he stared at his girlfriend for a moment and confessed, ‘I guess I should tell you. We live at Spring Grove.’”
My brother overheard “Spring Grove” and became interested in our conversation. It was the state mental hospital complex about a mile from my office. “How long has he been a patient there?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Once he said Spring Grove, I thought it would be prying to ask any more questions.”
“Do you suppose he has been there all these years?” my mother asked. “Has he been involved with drugs?”
“I have no idea,” I shrugged. “I didn’t have the chutzpah to ask what got him committed.” He had told me about Spring Grove as he was about to get out of the car, but then he hesitated, looked at me, and asked if he could borrow $100. He caught me by surprise. I asked what he needed it for, but he didn’t say. So I gave it to him—$100. “I don’t know if I did the right thing or not,” I told my family. “He probably used the money just to buy liquor or dope.”
My mother reached over and gave me a hug. “You did the right thing,” she said.
She told me to wait one minute while she ran to her bedroom. She opened up the drawer where my father put away his wallet before Shabbos, removed a hundred-dollar bill, and brought it to me. I was dumbfounded. It was not that my mother was so frum that she observed the Sabbath precisely the way her parents had in Poland before the war. She would boil water for tea on Friday night, turn off the oven after serving the chicken and kugel, and would occasionally run the dishwasher after the meal. She would answer the phone on Saturday, and now that my father could no longer walk great distances, she even drove him to the synagogue. But touching money on Shabbat? Never—at least not since my father had sold his last store that was open on Saturday.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “I don’t need your money.”
“Take it,” she ordered.
“It could wait until Sunday morning or some other time that I come back here. Your credit is good.”
“I guess I could wait,” she said. “But I would not have been able to sleep until I had given you the money. Don’t you see? The money had to come from me and not from you. All these years, I always felt that I never adequately thanked Ronnie’s father for his gemilas khesed when you boys were small. It meant so much to me at the time. Then he died before I ever had the chance. And maybe at the time, I would have been embarrassed to tell him because there are some things you just cannot put into words. But now, Got tsu danken, I finally found a way.”
Since selling his family's nursing home in 1995, Jack Tucker has been waiting, reading, and consulting. His Sept–Oct/08 piece "Spare Me" bowled readers over with his account of sending false alumni news, over several years, to the Magazine.