Point of View

Unexpected lessons from Hilda


In 1948, Sam and Edie — the couple who operated the local candy store — told my friends and I that they were moving away, and that the candy store would have new owners.

I was saddened by the news, as were my friends, as Sam and Edie were the only people we had ever known in the store, and seemed — at times — like family.

“Who’s the new owners?” We all asked. We were told they were a family just over from Germany. Sam was honest and said they didn’t speak much English, if any at all, and he hoped we would be patient with them and even help them along if we could.

Somehow that made us 10-year-olds feel even worse. But since this candy store was the only one in our neighborhood at the time, we grudgingly agreed to do what we could.

A few weeks later, they were there. A woman, maybe in her late 30s, a man about the same age (probably her husband), and an elderly man, one of their fathers maybe. The men always stayed somewhat in the rear of the store, sitting in a diner-style booth, talking and going over endless papers.

Surprisingly, it was the woman who worked the counter and collected the newspaper money from customers by the open window of the store. Apparently, she was well aware of the prices of all the different newspapers, and could make change, too, if need be.

She neatly arranged all the comic books and magazines on the shelves, swept the floor, and made sure the glass containers were filled with our favorite assorted candy bars and bubble gum.

We would pay her, and she knew if we needed change or not. If the amount we gave her was correct, she said — in very broken English — “iss right.” We heard that a lot, and wondered if she knew any other English words.

Ordering ice cream cones would be a bit more difficult, we were thinking. How do you say “chocolate,” “vanilla,” “strawberry” and “butter pecan” in German?

But this woman — Hilda was her name — already had a solution. She had color pictures of ice cream cones. All we had to do was point to the flavor/color we wanted, and she made the cone for us. She gestured to us as if to ask how she could say the flavor in English, and now my friends and I took a different attitude toward her. 

We actually wanted to help her and were anxious for her to learn the language of the candy store offerings. 

So we’d point to the color of the ice cream cone we wanted, and said it aloud. In almost no time, Hilda learned all the flavors in English. 

As she handed over delicious treats to us, she would ask, “iss right?” And we would smile and repeat, “iss right, Hilda!”

That would bring a smile to her otherwise very serious face.

One day I went to the store for my usual chocolate ice cream cone (with chocolate sprinkles of course), Hilda rolled up her sleeve as to scoop from the almost empty bottom of the frozen ice cream tub. There, on the inside of her left forearm, were tattooed numbers.

As quickly as she filled my cone, she also pulled her sleeve down and looked at me for a moment, wondering I supposed if I had seen her arm. I paid her for the ice cream and left the store.

Later that night, I asked my mother why a woman would have numbers tattooed on her arm. My mother explained all about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps. I was horrified — not only to think people could do such terrible things to other people, but here was one of the ex-prisoners, so to speak, right here on my block.

She and her husband and father or father-in-law had somehow gotten out of this hell and came here to the United States hoping to begin a new life. While never forgetting their pasts, they still tried to achieve some sort of happiness for their futures … some prosperity in their new land.

The next day when I went to the store for my Hershey bar, Hilda was outside straightening the newspapers on the stand. Looking at her, I was overcome with mixed emotions — pity, sorrow, compassion, admiration, respect, and even affection for her. She turned and saw me as I approached, and without even thinking about it, I impulsively opened my arms out to her and gave her a big hug.

She was taken aback for sure, and looked at me as if to ask “Why?” I said with all the meaning I could express to her: “iss right.”

As the years passed, I outgrew my desire for comic books, lots of candy and ice cream cones, and seldom went to the candy store anymore. When I did, it was Hilda’s husband who now handled the business, and she was nowhere in sight.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, although after moving away from the neighborhood in 1960, my thoughts would return to the old neighborhood from time to time. And I’d think of Hilda.

In 1967, I went back to where I used to live, just to see if any changes had occurred since I left. There were plenty. 

All the stores and shops I’d remembered were gone and replaced with others. Hilda’s candy store was now a beauty salon. 

Nothing remained of the German family at all. It was as though they had never been there. 

Why did they leave the store? Where did they go? What ever happened to them? Were they all right? Were they successful in looking for happiness and prosperity? If, in fact, they had achieved whatever their own American Dream had been.

I smiled on my way home, and thought to myself: “iss right.”