By Cynthia Balderman
I learned the mysterious ways of the beauty parlor at a young age. Each Saturday morning, after my mother had seen my father and brothers off to synagogue, she took me along to the hairdresser. The object of the weekly visit was to have her hair washed, set and sprayed with a shellac-like substance that held it glued in place for seven whole days. Although, depending on the whims of her hairdresser or his wife, she would occasionally get it cut, that was the real purpose – to turn soft curls into a hardened, straight shell. No windstorm, restless night or comb could disturb the carefully arranged hair. Only water was a menace to my mother’s helmet, and this she carefully avoided, donning shower caps in the tub and swim caps in the pool – her head held high and straight on her swan neck to avoid the errant curl that would appear if moisture struck.
I anticipated these sojourns to Chippewa Street each week with great enthusiasm. I relished being one of the ladies, even if my mother’s hairdresser was, in fact, a man thirty years her senior. His assistant was his wife, a stoic, pillowy woman with a nest of hair affixed to the top of her head. There were always customers in the shop, mostly native German speakers, like my mother and Paul and his wife.
As she waited her turn on one of the frayed vinyl chairs, my mother and the other customers would chat in German. Sometimes, Paul would hear something particularly interesting and stop chopping at a client’s hair, gripping the scissors in mid-air, to expound on some point or other.
I never spoke other than to murmur a polite “dankeschoen” if a patron dug a chocolate kiss out of the depths of her purse for me. I would, however, listen avidly. Their talk was about places and people distant from my experience – people who lived in their memories but had died in a place and in circumstances that a girl born in America could not truly understand.
Other than Paul and his wife, the denizens of this particular salon were nearly all German Jewish refugees. Their anger at the country and people they had fled was palpable, as was their grief – no longer fresh but real nonetheless. Siblings, parents and friends were remembered each Saturday, and discussed at length. Could they have survived and been transported magically to some safe space, perhaps on the other side of the globe? If a new customer happened in, those already there would pounce, “Where are you from? Did you know my cousin who also lived there before the war?” The negative answer was always met with fresh disappointment before the talk turned to what shade of hair dye the patron wanted or whether America was a safe place for the adults to raise their offspring.
Other than in that shop, I never heard my mother speak German to someone to whom she was not related. Her English is excellent and unencumbered by a regional accent. Although she never kept secrets, as some Holocaust survivors did, she made it clear that no credit should accrue to her native land for her many accomplishments in this country. And so, she would not speak the language or admit her origins, except at that salon and to that hairdresser.
I never thought to ask the reason but stumbled upon the answer as I was listening to the chatter one Saturday morning, shortly before deteriorating health forced Paul to retire. He and his wife, childless Catholics, had rescued a Jewish boy and raised him as their own. Did they see him to adulthood or return him to his people at the war’s end? I never learned. Their hairdressing skills were questionable, but their courage and ethics were remarkable. And their thanks was the clientele, who showed up every Saturday, to have their hair glued in place.
Cynthia Balderman recalls German refugees and the courage of their hairdressers.