February 2010 - Los Angeles International Airport. 89-year old Gary Matzdorff wears his sailor’s cap this Friday morning, as he stands in the sun, looking excitedly across the Arrivals terminal, and waits for his elementary school classmate, Leo Gerechter.
“By some accident I found his name in a German magazine, Aktuell. So I wrote to him,” Gary explains.
Both Gary and Leo were born Jewish in Berlin in 1921. Gary was born in a large apartment on Motzstrasse in the district of Berlin called Schoeneberg. The name of his elementary school, where he was a classmate of Leo Gerechter, was called the Hohenstaufenstrasse School. Gary was apprenticed to be a leather worker in Berlin, but when Hitler came to power, his life took a dramatic shift.
Story continues after the jump…
“My parents and I, we immigrated to Shanghai in 1939, and left everything behind,” Gary says.
He has been back to Berlin for a visit, but it seemed unlikely he would ever reconnect with someone he knew during that time.
“And just recently he told me he was going to be in Los Angeles, for a bar-mitzvah,” says Gary, “so I said, ‘I’m going to meet you at the airport.’ That’s why I’m here now waiting for him to arrive.”
When I ask Gary why he is so excited to meet Leo again, Gary says energetically, “Well, it’s been 80 years,” but then his runny eyes reveal the true reason he is excited. His voice cracks as he continues, “I don’t have too many friends from that time.”
It does not matter to Gary that he barely spoke to what he remembers as the “scrawny” little Leo back in the 1920s - what matters is that Leo was there with him, and they can reminisce together.
“I already spotted him,” says Nancy, Gary’s wife, as they scurry toward the baggage claim.
Gary points both his arms at Leo as he approaches and the baggage claim sirens buzz. Leo has macular degeneration, and looks in Gary’s direction, and then Gary envelops Leo in his arms.
“You’re still a little guy,” Gary jokes.
“You’ve grown a lot,” Leo smiles.
They immediately pull out the old class photo. Gary points to a stern, 9-year old Leo in a dark suit in the second row, and then to himself - a 9-year old smirking in his sailor suit as he stands toward the back of the classroom.
The two men stand at the baggage claim long past the time the baggage has been collected. They compare notes about their old neighborhoods in Berlin, and then their stories of how they each escaped.
“My family was all killed - every one,” says Leo.
“They all stayed? You went by yourself?” Gary asks.
“Well, they couldn’t get out,” Leo shrugs.
They talk about where life had taken them after Berlin. Gary lived in Shanghai until Mao took over in 1948, and then worked in the leather industry in Minneapolis, Ohio, and eventually Los Angeles. Leo, on the other hand, came directly to the United States alone, worked his way up in the garment industry, and is now living in Boston.
But later when they sit down to lunch by the airport, I have to ask why they really cared to connect after their lives had gone down such divergent paths.
“Leo, why did you want to meet Gary?” I ask.
“Well, when you’re a certain age, you like to think back and see what happened to people. What happened to us, how did we go, where did we go, when did we go, what did we do…”
And although their paths diverged and they lived in different countries, it seems that these two classmates may be able to relate to each other’s stories after all.
Gary in Shanghai…
“I went downtown, and I got a job… as a private secretary… and one day my boss was sitting across the desk from me. The telephone rang and I picked up the phone and answered in Chinese, ‘Wei wei wei, nung sani-ka.’ The next morning…he fired me. And I was very disappointed. The only reason I could imagine: he didn’t want me to learn to speak Chinese so I wouldn’t know his business -”
“Which was very nefarious -” Nancy, Gary’s wife interjects.
“And it turned out,” Gary nods, “A few weeks later the police came to my house and asked me if I knew anything about Mr. Cranks’ business.”
Leo in New York…
Leo was working as a salesman in the garment industry.
“One day the boss said, ‘Would you do me a favor and drive to Pennsylvania - Strasburg, Pennsylvania, there’s a factory there…’”
When Leo got to the factory in Pennsylvania, the manager there asked him to lunch.
“When we sit down in his office, he takes off his coat, and there was a gun [under his coat].”
Leo didn’t say anything at the lunch, but later he asked one of the shipping clerks, “To make dresses you need guns?”
The shipping clerk replied, “Don’t you know who you’re working for? Haven’t you ever heard of ‘Murder Incorporated’?”
So began a reunion of these two 89-year-old men, who both escaped Berlin and shared stories of where there lives had gone on since.
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