Earlier this month was Holocaust Remembrance Day, which inspired Richard Press to pen this new column.
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Felix Samelson often remarked to me, “I survived the camps because I was lucky, and I was also lucky your grandfather was in New York, not in his New Haven store the day I came for a job asking to see the boss.”
Soon as he got off the elevator on the second-floor clothing emporium of the shop on Madison and 44th Street, my grandfather immediately spotted him, knowing he had before him a greenhorn off the boat. Felix didn’t speak a word of English. Right away began animated Yiddish dialogue. Felix rolled up his shirt sleeve showing Grandpa the B-1996 tattooed on his arm as my grandfather led him to the “marking table,” tossing a basted suit on the table telling him to take it apart and put it back together. Felix received the order as if it were one he regularly received from the SS at Auschwitz. He quickly ripped it apart pinning it back together as if a stopwatch was timing the procedure.
Soon as it was finished my grandfather hugged him, knowing he and his family would have been in the death pits had he stayed in the shtetl. Jacobi Press hired him the minute he hugged him, sending him straight to union headquarters to pick up the green membership book ensconced for years in a draw with pins, chalk and measuring tapes under his fitter’s table in the back room at J.Press. He showed it to decades of J.Press customers. The first page in faded blue ink and union stamp certifies: Felix Samelson, Tailor, October 17, 1947.
I met Felix a couple of months after my Bar Mitzvah, Spring, 1951. He accompanied J.Press New York manager Walter Napoleon, paying respects to my stricken grandfather confined to wheelchair and/or bed for the six months he survived a debilitating stroke until his death on June 13, 1951. Felix sported wafts of robust dark hair, contrasting the grey pallor I later figured out was a souvenir of his wartime incarceration. He was a tightly packed 37 Regular. Walter Napoleon, his companion, was a roustabout celebrity in the Mad Men Era of 1950s Madison Avenue, a double of the popular national TV comedian Milton Berle. Walter had no boundaries with either women or whiskey, but he opened a door for me with Felix that lasted until the day he died. “Show the kid your tattoo and tell him how you got it,” he egged Felix, engaging at age 13 my unrelenting Holocaust obsession, paired with a half-century’s devotion to Felix.
Intergenerational multitudes of J.Press customers were Felix aficionados. Stage and screen actor Walter Matthau was part of the coterie of Broadway/Hollywood hangers-on at J.Press. Felix was fitting Matthau prior to the opening ot The Odd Couple. “Felix, I’m leaving tickets for you and your wife at the box office at the opening. Got a special reason.” At the event Matthau brought Felix to Art Carney who played opposite Matthau with the role of Felix Ungar, the Matthau character’s mismatched roommate.
“Art,” Matthau said, “I want you to meet the Real Felix.”
Peter Rossetti, rotund panda bear who maintained his own coterie of fans at the J.Press haberdashery department for 40 years, manned counters at the front of the store. A master of extracting personal disclosures from his customers, he approached me in the late 1970s urging me to meet his newly established confidante with the historic monicker Count, General, West German or UN Ambassador (I don’t recall which) Von Stauffenberg. He was either the son or nephew of Claus Von Stauffenberg, principal in the July 20,1944 failed plot to kill Hitler. A picture of elegance and dignity, I introduced him to Felix, explaining circumstances of Felix’s Holocaust survival. Von Stauffenberg asked, “Mr. Press, would you mind if Felix and I had a chat in your office?”
Their summit lasted nearly an hour. “A fine gentleman,” Felix remarked. “I told him German Social Democrat Kapo prisoners in the camps treated me better than than the Ukrainians, Volkdeutschers, or even the Jewish Police.” Von Stauffenberg sent Felix a long note lost to history appreciating their time together.
It is a delicate balance to call an employee a friend. The responsibilities of commerce can so easily destroy a personal relationship, except Felix ennobled my time in the family business and as much as I valued his talent with tape measure, pins and needles. I will forever remember and celebrate the pleasure of his company and his gift for life. He died December 17, 2007, five years after his retirement from J.Press. — RICHARD PRESS