Have you ever had a random encounter or fleeting moment with a stranger that stuck with you?
I got my first “real” job (not counting countless hours babysitting) my senior year of high school. I was a “flyer” at the Jordan Marsh in the Palm Beach Mall. I was basically a fill in sales associate. I never knew which department I’d be working in that shift. Some days I’d be at the candy counter – other times, I’d be in Better Sportswear. I liked those days best!
One evening, I was working amongst the fabulous clothing in better sportswear – which also housed the swimwear collection. It was a particularly slow night. Only a few customers wandered in. So, I busied myself straightening the clothes. Then an older woman came in. She was looking for a new swimsuit. She was petite. Somewhere around five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Her pure white hair was cut in an adorable little pixie cut. Her tanned skin let me know she spent a lot of time in her community’s swimming pool. We chatted about her needs in a swimsuit, and I helped her pick out several styles to try. Then I ushered her into the fitting room.
After a bit, she emerged with not just one, but two swimsuits. A Gottex (for about $125) and a Roxanne (about $100). It was my best sale of the evening – probably for the whole week.
She came over to my register and I started ringing up her sale, chatting with her about random things.
As she rummaged in her purse for her wallet, the sleeve of her thin sweater rose up to her elbow – and I saw them. The numbers tattooed on the inside of her forearm. The numbers that tagged her as having been in a concentration camp. The numbers that proved her to be a survivor of the Holocaust.
Growing up in South Florida, I am sure I had encountered other survivors. Others that had endured the inexplicable horrors. But, this was the first where I had the proof literally in front of my eyes.
I couldn’t wrap my relatively sheltered 17-year-old brain around it.
I wanted to acknowledge it.
I wanted to say something. Anything.
I wanted to say, “I’m sorry.”
But nothing seemed right.
I didn’t want to embarrass her, and I didn’t want to dredge up memories for her.
So, I just finished our transaction and wished her a pleasant evening.
I have never forgotten her. As I visited the National Holocaust Museum, I thought about her, and what she must have lived through. This sweet little woman put a very personal face on the experience.
And for that, I am eternally grateful.