May 1, 2013
A suit and a story
It had been a tough week. The more news I read about the Boston bombing, the less I understood. Who were these young men, full of grievance, using a fresh start in America to maim and kill innocents?
In the midst of the mess, I decided to finally buy myself a new suit. I have just one, which I bought 10 years ago from an elderly Jewish man downtown.
I had a vivid memory of him, but I didn’t know his name. So I called Roger Stuart Clothes on Los Angeles Street and asked if the elderly man with the accent still worked there.
“Max?” the man on the phone said. “No, I’m sorry.”
“I guess I waited too long,” I said. Charming little old men don’t live forever, I thought.
“Just come tomorrow,” the man went on. “Max only works Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.”
Before the man hung up, I just had to ask him: How old was my salesman? Where was the accent from? What’s his story?
“Max? He’s 94. A Holocaust survivor. From the camps.”
I told him I’d be in that week — for a suit and a story.
“Should we talk, or do you want to first look at suits?” Max Leigh was just like I remembered him: maybe 5-foot-4, sturdy, with a good head of graying hair, a crisp blue dress shirt, gray slacks and a flowered tie. His face was kindly, bespectacled — like a doctor who makes house calls. A Yiddish accent.
Max looked at me: “42 long. What color? Every man should have a navy blue, a black and a gray.”
He handed me a black suit; I tried it on. Perfect. I had him pick me out a shirt, a tie — and I was good for another 10 years. I paid, then Max took me to the back, to a couple of chairs near a dressing room.
I pulled out my notebook and digital recorder.
“Oh, my story,” Max sighed. “I told it to Steven Spielberg. Can you get it from him?”
He was talking, I assumed, about testimony he must have given to the USC Shoah Foundation, which the film director established. I couldn’t understand Max without listening to those testimonial tapes — which I later did — but the tapes, and their sad, brutal memories, only tell part of his story.
Max was born Max Leschgold in Dresden, Germany. When Max was a child, his parents moved with him and his two younger sisters back to their native Warsaw to be with relatives.
Max was 19 when the Nazis came to Warsaw. He was taken to a series of camps, including Auschwitz. After the war, he learned that his parents had starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. One sister died fighting in the ghetto. Another was shot dead in the arms of her boyfriend after their hiding place was discovered.
Max’s Shoah testimony is a recitation of horrors — starvation, mock executions, beatings. On the tapes, he tells the story with distant matter-of-factness. The only time he chokes up is when the interviewer asks whether he ever had children.
“My wife had a child killed by the Nazis,” he finally said. “We have the picture in the other room.”
With the help of Jewish organizations, Max came to Los Angeles after the war as a penniless refugee who spoke four languages, but not English.
They put him in a hotel in Boyle Heights. He didn’t want to be on welfare, so he took the first job he could, at a fishing line factory. His hopes of a professional education destroyed by the war, he became a machinist, working in the aerospace and computer industries. When he was downsized at the age of 52, he and a friend opened a suit store downtown.
“I didn’t even know what size suit I wore,” he said. “But I went into business, and I started a company, and I was successful, and here I am.”
Max travelled around the world, including five visits to Israel. He said he has paid back in donations “a thousand times over” whatever money the Jewish organizations donated to help him get on his feet.
After he sold his company, he began working at Roger Stuart, in 1981 — that’s 32 years.
“I don’t need the money,” Max said. “If I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t work. I like people.”
Max was married to his first wife, Rosaline, for 54 years — they met just after the war, and she died not long after he made his video testimony in 1997. His second wife, Inna, is 66. Inna’s son and grandchildren are like his own, he said.
“I have family now, I didn’t have any before. I lost my whole family.”
I asked Max how he managed to deal with such terrible memories. Did faith help, I asked, a belief in God?
Max shook his head.
“I saw too much to believe in all that bulls---,” he said. “I had these discussions with rabbis, and they couldn’t give me an answer. You explain to me why 1 1/2 million children got killed without sins. I lost whatever faith I had, and I didn’t have much to start with.”
Yet, Max moved forward. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t stay bitter at having his family and his dreams destroyed. He was 19 when his life fell apart — the same age as one of those Boston bombers — and he rebuilt his life; he stitched it back together like a suit.
“Am I bitter?” Max said. “Yes, however, you can’t live that way all your life. If you’re going to live with it all your life, then you don’t have a life at all.”
There are a million stories in the naked city — and in the fully clothed city, too.