When I saw Bubi the umpteenth time I was looking for a Velvet Underground record — White Light, White Heat — and he kept trying to sell me some mid-career Serge Gainsbourg LP. I think it was the one with Jane Birkin, the one with “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus.” I was going through a rough time, my eema had been ill with the mastectomy and all that, lost my job, and a bunch of other saturnine shitheel you don’t need to hear about.
“C’mon” and “This is what you want, mon frere, this is the smooth,” Bubi said. “Best record in my store.”
Bubi was always trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want because it’s what he wanted.
Now you could say: “That’s what all record store guys are like.”
But then I could say: “But how many are eighty-five years old? And named Bubi? With that Franco-Prussian accent?”
Walking down Atlantic Avenue toward Boerum Hill with a record you didn’t want can feel much better than you might expect. Particularly when you’re going to listen to the Serge.
Plus it turns out — Bubi was right.
So I went back for more Serge the next week.
Bubi had jowls on top of his jowls. He had faint violet circles under his eyes. He had hair growing from the tip of his nose all the way up to his one eyebrow. His face was like a balled-up piece of paper pulled out of the trash and spread so you could only make out some of the words — but enough words so you knew what it said.
He tried to sell me this story.
“Serge Gainsbourg is on this most famous of French talk shows. Also on the show is a very young Whitney Houston. She is devoutly Christian. Aren’t they all Christian these days? Whitney’s barely twenty years old. She comes on and Serge is sitting down the couch from Whitney Houston. She begins to take questions from the host when Serge says, ‘I would like to fuck you.’ She turns. She says, ‘What?’”
“On air?” I said.
“On the air all this time. She says, ‘What?’ is where I left off. The host of this show, he says, ‘He said he wanted to offer you flowers.’ The camera turns to Serge and he says, ‘I am not Gorbachev and you are not Reagan. Don’t translate for me. I said I want to fuck her.’ Then the taping, it cuts off. You can see it all on the tape. Some is in French, but now you know what it says. Also there are subtitles. You want it, I’ll give it to you. That’ll make you forget about the bad and think about the new. You, just like velvet Serge. No cost and you bring it back to me.”
That’s what Bubi was like, too. Like you were his grandson, in need of advice, before he even knew you much.
So I say, “You got a real name, Bubi?”
“I do,” he says. “But there’s an histoire.”
“Okay,” I say.
“It’s a whole ball of yarn histoire,” he says.
He doesn’t say anything else. So I ask him how he’s seen all this French TV if he lives in Brooklyn.
“Only since the ‘50s in the U.S.,” he says.
I ask him, “And before that?”
“How long?” he says.
I tell him, “As long as he thinks he can think back.”
“Well, I started the Holocaust,” Bubi says.
I tell him, What?
“Just watch this tape,” he says.
He hands me the Serge Gainsbourg tape he’s been rifling around for.
“Come back to tell me what you think,” he says. “Then I’ll tell you something.”
Down Atlantic Avenue, near Bubi’s, there’re a couple of Muslim blocks. It’s been Muslim long as I can remember, since I was a kid — and I’ve lived in Boerum Hill all my life. At least since we left Williamsburg. There are shops and you can get a great falafel at a place called Bedouin Tent, at Bond Street. There are mosques on the corners. At Flatbush is the U-Haul where they rented the van that bombed the World Trade Centers the first time.
Nowadays you need to show ID at the U-Haul gate before you can even get through.
This afternoon before Shul — I still go, even though we’re not so religious since my abba left, and that’s a long time now — I’m walking back to Bubi’s. I stop at this market. Two tall tawny-skinned men are carrying a skinned frozen lamb through the door of this market, with the lamb’s legs out stiff like it’s refusing to go in. Now I’m in a shitsandwich way, and everything looks like a symbol to me — and some frozen lamb with its legs out stiff looks plenty like the cancer side of my mother’s battle with cancer.
So I bust out of there and make it down to Bubi’s Records where I go looking for this rare Ann Peebles LP. Bubi tells me it’s lost in the stacks.
Records are piled in sleeves to the low ceilings. They look ready to topple.
You can see Bubi feels bad. Likes to be the guy who you can find any rare record in his shop. He gets me to buy three Dylan records I don’t have on vinyl. One of them’s got “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”
“You know he was Jewish Bobby Zimmerman before all that born-again schlock,” Bubi says.
“I know,” I say.
“What’s this?” Bubi says.
It’s another guy from the neighborhood called Abu Nasser. He’s poking around in the Ravi Shankar LP’s. He keeps taking the discs out of the sleeves and holding them to the light like he’s looking at a cell under a slide.
Bubi’s looking at him awful close.
“His name’s Abu Nasser,” I say. “Went to Brooklyn Tech with him. Good guy.”
Abu Nasser looks up from the record he’s scrutinizing. I smile at him. Bubi just stares. Abu Nasser nods his head a little at me, looks at Bubi, and goes back into the Ravi Shankar.
“He’s been going through all this crazy shit, too,” I say. “His brother was detained by the INS and all. Give him a long leash. Everyone’s getting picked up. They even fuck with me sometimes.”
“The Islams?” Bubi says.
“The INS,” I say.
“Because of this?” Bubi says.
He reaches out and grabs me by the peyot.
“Sure,” I say. “And this.”
I touch my keepah.
“One day the same as the next, fifty years ago,” Bubi says. “What matters is your heart.”
Truth was I was hurting bad. My mother, she was gonna die. The thing, it metastasized. It was in her brain. Eema wasn’t gonna make it, and the treatment had done her malevolent damage — and left me in the lurch, rent for two all to myself. Living off what abba sent. That and the unemployment.
You know how it feels when there’s a cork right where you swallow? When you know how good it would be if the words all burbled out, and the pain, but that just makes it worse?
Well, neither of us said anything for a minute, if that helps. I couldn’t answer a question about myself — questions about myself felt like a geometry quiz. Best I could do was turn it back to him.
“So what of this Holocaust histoire and your name?” I said.
“Okay,” he says. “My real name is Herschel Grynszpan,” he says. “I started the Holocaust.
“I did it all as if I had been asleep,” he says. “Like out of a dream. I might have appeared calm because I was making great efforts to conceal my emotions, but through the whole thing I was acting as though I had been hypnotized.
“That’s what I told the police. But it was all bullshit. I knew what I was doing. Exactly.”
He settled back in his chair. He dropped his shoulders like saying, This is gonna take awhile.
“I was born in a small town in Poland. When I was ten my family moved to Hanover, Germany. My father was a milliner. Sendel. What a Jewish name, Sendel Grynszpan! He needed work. There was nothing for me in Hanover. I was seventeen. I had no friends. There were laws against my doing just about anything. Yeshiva wasn’t for me. So I convinced my Aunt Chawa and Uncle Abraham in Paris to take me. Adopt me. My parents said okay. I made it all the way down to the French border, but I couldn’t get across. My visa was revoked. I had a cousin down there. She didn’t want me any more than the Germans did. She snuck me across. I arrived at 18 Rue des Petites Ecrain with a bag and that is all.
“‘Hello Hermann,’ Uncle Abraham said when I arrived, and retired to his room with the paper. Aunt Chawa kissed my forehead and showed me to my room, the room next to theirs. There was a pallet on the floor and a blanket rough like her kiss.”
Now Bubi stopped for a minute. He blew his nose on a rag from his pocket.
“You’re sure this isn’t trouble?” Bubi said.
I thought he meant the story. But his focus was directed at Abu Nasser again. Abu Nasser was into the one-dollar Police records. He was still just pulling them out and staring at the rings.
“He’s good,” I said. “He doesn’t want trouble—why would you want to give it?”
Bubi looked at me like I’d just accused him of being a Nazi.
Which he kind of was. Being, that is.
“On with the story,” I said.
“Where is it?” Bubi said. “What was I telling?”
“You got to the aunt and uncle’s.”
“Right. I was only in Paris a couple months before things got bad. Bad! I couldn’t get work. I applied at the office of immigration for a visa. In two weeks the answer came back.
“No luck for young Hermann.
“In Paris I was illegal. I was illegal everywhere. I wasn’t allowed to exist. I had no nationality. Poland wouldn’t have me and I spoke no Polish anyway. Germany wouldn’t have me alive. France had denied me. So I lingered.
“Oh, I didn’t do nothing. Sometimes I met my friends at café and smoked cigarettes and drank le vin. Soon I was too afraid for that. I had no money. I was seventeen. Uncle Abraham put me up in the attic. I brought the pallet up there, and the coarse blanket like the kiss.”
Bubi put all five of his fingers to his lips and then spread them, like sign language for a kiss. His fingers were all bone. He was just so old. While he talked you could see it. He wouldn’t last long, either. Abu Nasser had put the Shankar records down now. He was browsing. He wasn’t near, but he was listening.
Bubi didn’t notice. He continued.
“Then a postcard came from my sister Bertha. I read it so many times I memorized it. You want to know what it said? The postcard said:
We are very poorly fed. We sleep on straw sacks. We have received blankets. But, believe me… we won’t be able to stand this much longer. Since we left Germany, we have not been able to undress. Aunt Sura stayed behind. She is considered ‘of undetermined nationality.’ Aunt Ida is here. Uncle Schlojma is in the hospital. He has had an eye operation and stayed there. We can’t go any further.
“What would you do?”
Bubi had looked up now. I’d had my eyes on the floor.
“What would I do?” I said.
“Yes, what would you do?” Bubi said. “Or you?”
He was pointing at Abu Nasser now. Abu Nasser was still in the stacks, but he could see he was being spoken to. He had a Police record like he might buy it, if Bubi would finish talking.
“What would you do if they take your parents?” Bubi says.
“They do take my parents,” Abu Nasser says.
Bubi paused. This wasn’t what he expected.
“To Poland?” Bubi says.
“No,” Abu Nasser says. “To Fourth Avenue, some FBI building.”
“They give them back?” Bubi says.
Abu Nasser nodded.
“Well, not mine!” Bubi said.
Abu Nasser put the LP back in its slip and made for the door.
“That’s enough badgering,” Abu Nasser said. “I’ll come back when you’re done with the war stories.”
Bubi only cared that he’d lost a sale.
“Not to worry — he’ll be back,” Bubi said.
“He said,” I said.
“Where were we?”
“Poland,” I said.
“Right. My parents and 12,000 other German Jews were taken from their homes and forced over the Polish border on trains. Old people died. They didn’t eat for a week.
“They were in a refugee camp for days. Like cattle. Worse.
“What would you do? Would you do what I did?”
Bubi stared at me. I said nothing.
“Would you do what I did? Not Uncle Abraham, with his straight-leg suit and his slicked back hair reading his paper.
“We sat down to dinner.
“I read to him the postcard.
“I said, ‘I’ll kill them like they were dogs. I’ll go to the embassy. Kill the ambassador.’
“Uncle Abraham ruffled the paper. He put it down flat on the table. He squeezed his beard between two fingers as if to wring it of water and said: ‘Dogs? What dogs have you ever killed? You’ll make us all dogs. You’ll sooner lick this floor with your tongue than kill anyone.’”
Abu Nasser wasn’t around to hear this part of Bubi’s story. It was just the two of us now.
“I got down on my hands and my knees just like this — and did it,” Bubi said. “I licked that very floor.”
And Bubi really did it. He got down on his hands and knees to the floor of that filthy record store of his. He gave the floor a lick. He was so old you could see his backbone like a mountain ridge through his thin rayon shirt. But he was so alive, too.
Bubi got back up on his stool.
I reached out to help him up.
He hit my hand away.
“This is nothing!” he said. “I do it again today, and I’ll do it again tomorrow.
“So I ran out of my uncle’s house. I wouldn’t go back. Aunt Chawa yelled from the doorway with her apron bunched in her hands but I said:
“‘I’d rather die like a dog than go back on my decision.’
“I walked straight to the tobacconist. I had a handful of money saved up meant to get me out of Paris when I got a visa.
“I bought a .22 and checked into Hôtel Idéal-Suez.
“I said, ‘I am Heinrich Halter from Hanover — a room, please!’
“That night I was restless. In my dreams I saw my parents beaten. Hitlerites grabbed me by the throat to strangle me. There were boycott demonstrations such as those I had experienced in Hanover. Germans spat when they went into a store owned by a Jew. Demonstrators screamed: ‘You are damned! You are selling the German people to the Jews!’ I asked myself, ‘What have we done to deserve such a fate?’ I woke three times during the night. Each time my heart was beating fast.”
Now Bubi stopped. He put his head down toward his chest. His eyes seemed to sink back to the back of his head.
I reached out to touch his shoulder.
It snapped back.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Why?” Bubi said. “I wasn’t! I was ready. The next morning I went down to the German Embassy.
“‘I will see the Ambassador,’ I said.
“‘Do you have an appointment?’ she said. She was a fair German of my age. I might have seduced her in a different world.
“‘The Chargé d’Affaire, the ambassador. I will see him about a visa.’
“‘Do you have an appointment?’
“‘The Chargé d’Affaire!’ I said. ‘My visa.’”
Bubi slammed his fist down on his computer. Some records slid down in a stack. One hit the floor.
He went on.
“Finally she took me up to see this Von Rath. He was young, maybe thirty. I went to his office and he said:
“I said, ‘You’ll die like a dog!’ and three times I shot him in the chest. Like that! Bang, bang, boom, in his chest.”
Records lay against each other all around Bubi’s computer. He didn’t speak for a minute, only let me take in what he’d just said: he’d killed Von Rath. His lips were cracked and flaking like aged parchment.
“Now this was no more dream,” Bubi said. “It was real. I’d come to the German consulate in Paris with my gun, and I’d done it. And like I say: bang, bang, boom, right in his chest! I’d killed Von Rath.”
Bubi thought it was a gasp.
“Oh, it was no shock,” Bubi said. “It was the hero’s move! The French police came. They did not yell and I did not run. I gave them my hands and they cuffed them loosely. They took me to the Fresne Prison.
“They gave me a famous Corsican lawyer called Moro-Giafferi. Oh, he was merde. Merde! He had every idea, every fucking idea for me to be a fool.
“‘We will say that you were crazed,’ Moro said. He walked in with his collar high up to his ears and this white scar over his lip that lifted when he had an idea. His hands on his hips like he might jump up with an idea any moment.
“‘We will say you were fighting oppression!’
“What did Moro know? ’But you are not even a Jew!’ I said. ‘What are your ideas but goyische ideas!’
“I waited for days, weeks, months. Moro found his man, a French lawyer Maitre Weill-Goudchaux, a Jew, who I would speak with. He came with the papers.
“‘You’re famous,’ Weill-Goudchaux said.
“He showed me where across Germany they burned shuls, smashed windows, pulled old Jews out of shuls with their phylacteries and tallit and bashed their faces. And they said it was all because I had killed this Von Rath, this dog who they never thought a thing of before. They said the Jews were dangerous because there were boys like me. Assassins.
“Hah! What Jew was an assassin but me? My parents and 12,000 were already in Poland. I sat. Sat and sat and sat. Roots grew from my toes.”
Bubi lifted his foot up. He wore sandals. He wiggled his toes. His toenails were yellow, striated and thick with headlong death. No sign of roots at all.
“Finally one day Moro came in and said:
“‘We can’t say that you were fighting the Germans. They’ll bomb France, it will be the end of us all. You will say that you were Von Rath’s lover. He picked you up in Montmartre and you went home with him. He was wearing a blue coat, and you were a prostitute.’
“As if I would ever say such a thing! I was the international Jewish hero, not a homosexual. I told Moro to fuck himself again.
“That little scar on his lip curled up.
“Finally they came to take us out. From prison to prison to prison, all along the French countryside. It was the first I’d been outside in two years. Sun tore open my eyes. I rode, first to Angers, then further south to Oreléans, to Bourges, until finally to Toulouse.
“Outside of Toulouse there was a sound overhead of a thousand mechanical locusts. The planes fired on our bus and all the prisoners jumped out. Luftwaffe planes swooped down until they were just above us, bullets kicking up the ground.
“‘Hermann, run for it!’ the other prisoners said. ‘This is your chance to be free!’”
“But where would I go? Aunt Chawa and Uncle Abraham had been put in prison too and I hadn’t heard from my parents or sister in years.
“The planes ceased and I found my way to the guards. They were standing over the driver. He lay face down in the ground. There were holes from his back like rips in a screen door.
“‘Hermann Grynszpan, come back to his captors!’ they said. ‘Why didn’t you run?’ they said.
“ ‘Where would I run?’ I said.
“‘So you are a coward and an assassin!’ they said.
“‘I am not afraid!’ I said.
“‘If you’re not afraid, what has made your lap so wet?’ they said.
“They fell into laughing together.
“I went off with them to the prison. In Toulouse I sat for days. Often the door was not locked. But what was I to do? The guards said:
“‘Herschel, you should get on to the road to Chateauroux. There you could live your life.’
“What would I do in Chateauroux? Well, finally, after three weeks, I thought:
“’Well, what would I do in Chateauroux? Could it be worse than this prison in Toulouse?’ I picked up my clothes and I was on the way out the door when this small German man in his brown SS uniform was at the entrance.
“‘Hermann Grynszpan!’ he said.
“‘Here,’ the guard said.
“He pointed to me.
“This brownshirt was called Herr Knochen. He was no bigger than me. Grey hairs sprouted from his ears. He did not speak the whole way to Berlin. I rode in the back of a bus. The Nazis, they spoke to me, but Herr Knochen never said a word.
“The Nazis said, ‘Herschel Grynszpan, who did start Krystallnacht, in the back of our car. Do you know what they will do with you in the Reich, Grynszpan? What they will do with you, just a boy, just a little bubi?’”
He looked at me.
“So that’s where I got the name,” Bubi said.
“And?” I said.
“And what?” Bubi said.
He knew I meant, And the rest of the story?
“And what next?” I said.
“Well, I pretended I couldn’t understand their German, but they only laughed. Everyone thought they could laugh at me. But what did they have to laugh about?” Bubi said. “I was Herschel Grynszpan, the boy who at seventeen had started the Holocaust, the most wanted Jew in a continent full of unwanted Jews. I was a war hero, and who were they!
“After two days in Berlin they took me to Sachsenhausen.
“‘Here he is for you, Bubi Grynszpan,’ those Nazis said.
“They put me in the Prominente. I was treated well. Goebbels himself came to see me one night with his gaunt face. He looked at me without saying a thing. Just looked me over and whispered to the men flanking him. He had very low ears, Goebbels. Like a primate. He sent in his doctors, they asked me questions and I would have made Moro proud:
“‘I did it all as if it were a dream,’ I told them.
“I told them all about Von Rath, how everyone in Paris knew how he loved the young boys, his blue jacket. How he took me back to Aunt Chawa’s on Rue des Petites Ecuries and picked me up there tous les matins.
“They didn’t believe me. But then I found out that they did, they looked into it, and coincidence of coincidences, it turns out Von Rath’s brother had actually been kicked out of the Wermacht for having the sex with his fellow officers. And there were rumors about Von Rath — he was called ‘the ambassadress’ and ‘Notre Dame de Paris.’ What luck that Moro thought of a crazy scheme so crazy it was true!
“What could the Nazis do now?
“How could they have a trial in Nazi Germany in 1943 with the boy who had been fucking the German consul? How embarrassing for the Nazis to have it all over the world that the man they martyred as the one who died to start the Holocaust was fucking young Jewish prostitutes?
“Goebbels wouldn’t have it, so I sat and listened as the British bombs thundered all over the city and brought down those great German buildings. One night a guard came by and he opened the door. He looked at me and he said:
“‘Bubi Grynszpan. No more Bubi Grynszpan in Germany.’
“On the way out the door I found a passport and an ID with a picture on it. There was my face, and next to my face, the name: Otto Schneider.
“‘I do not want this!’ I said.
“This guard had been my friend. But he did not know any Otto Schneider, he said. He pointed the Luger with its little sight like an upturned nose in my face and he said: ‘You will take this ID and go.’”
“The train ticket was for Grenoble. It was quiet at the train station in France twenty hours later. The air of the Alps was clean and thin. I had all the papers you should want to have, visas and identification and money, more money than I’d ever seen. I rode first class. I set up in a small room over a flower shop in a small town nearby, Bourg d’Oisans.
“In the mornings, dust motes came in my windows with rays of sun in a slow stream like a line of angels marching.”
Here I had to stop him.
“But Bubi,” I said. “How could a young Jew move through Europe during the war?”
His face crumpled all in on itself.
“How could he not? I was no Jew to them anymore. I had a German passport, and a new name, and money. They could not have any homosexual Jew on trial for this killing. The Germans would not have me around.”
He just looked at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Now go on.”
“So in Bourg the people in the neighborhood would say: ‘Otto, why do you spend so much time alone!’ Sometimes I had dinner with them so they would stop asking. I didn’t dare say I was Herschel Grynszpan then, though I longed to tell. Sometimes I asked:
“‘Have you heard of Herschel Grynszpan, the international Jewish hero?’
“‘No,’ they said.
“‘No!’ I said.”
Bubi pounded the counter with his fist. More LPs slid to the floor.
“Never heard of the boy who started the Holocaust! No one! I was expunged from the record, I was taken out of an histoire so they could tell a simpler story — an histoire of aggression without provocation. But I had provocation! They had provocation!”
Bubi hit the counter again. Again: the LPs, the floor.
“But then the war was still fresh, people angry, so I had no choice. I stayed quiet. I took a job at the flower shop, preening and stemming and cursing the thorn pricks in my hands.
“In ‘51 I’d saved up all the money the flowers could bleed from my pricked hands. I went through Paris up to Brussels and there I bought a plane ticket. At the airport they said, ‘You are a German! You need a different paper.’
“I went to the U.S. consulate. Now the war was long over. I could tell them now. I told them:
“‘I am Herschel Grynszpan! I started the Holocaust.’
“They laughed and laughed. Always, they laughed at Bubi Grynszpan. So long people did laugh that I stopped always telling them of my fame. I stayed there for weeks and begged for them to let me out. There was a lawyer there and he said: ‘I will talk to them and tell them to be rid of you.’ That’s how he said it:
“‘Rid of you.’
“Finally I got passage to the States, to Brooklyn. There were so many Jews, so many who didn’t speak English either.
“I’ve lived in this apartment, above Bubi’s Records, since the day I arrived.
“In Brooklyn I met a German called Heiner. He said: ‘Otto, you will come to make money at the docks.’
“We became friends, and now I tried again. I said: ‘My name is not Otto. I am Herschel Grynszpan, Bubi Grynszpan, and I started the Holocaust!’
“Heiner said, ‘Of course you did, Bubi, of course.’
“I worked in the Navy Yard for years. Later I found a job on a dock under the Manhattan Bridge. I hauled and huffed until the city fell apart at the seams in the ‘70s, the American president told us to do it ourselves. So when this space came open here on Atlantic Avenue, I had saved and saved for twenty years, I bought it.
“This is the oldest record shop in all of Brooklyn, Bubi’s Records. Do you know this? I sell what I want to sell. I turn a young man like you on to Serge Gainsbourg. And you know about Serge Gainsbourg now, yes?
“You know the real name of Serge Gainsbourg?”
I shook my head and then said, “No, no Bubi, what was the name?”
“Lucien Ginzburg! That’s his real name. His parents were Russian Jews not so different from my Polish parents.
“His parents left after the Bolshevik Uprising and took him to Paris. He survived the war and now people can say, ‘This is the Serge!’ When I first listened to him I thought: ‘This could well be me!’
“Do you know that feeling, that feeling when the music is just so perfect that you think to yourself: ‘This could be me! I could do this, hand me a guitar, take my picture, let’s get famous!’ That is genius, I think: An art so perfect it makes you think you could do it yourself.
“That’s the love.
“This is just how I feel when I listen to Serge. Serge Gainsbourg could have been me, mon frère — from Jew in Ukraine to Jew in Paris.
“I could make this music!
“I could have been Serge Gainsbourg! Couldn’t I? Couldn’t I have been that famous for the voice I had, for the women I’d bedded, like Serge Gainsbourg? Not the boy who got his six million brothers killed, but this most famous French singer, with the voice and the women and parents? I could have been, mon ami.”
Then, finally, Bubi stopped. He was waiting for me to speak now.
What could I say? I told him that I loved the Serge, too, loved him good enough.
“Great records, Bubi,” I said. “‘The smooth,’ just like you said.”
Bubi’s face was white and puffy like inside an etrog.
I had a sick eema at home with two jaundiced eyes and cancer metastasized to the brain, and now I just wanted to give him back his Serge Gainsbourg video.
“Je t’aime, moi non plus,” Bubi said.
He was singing it. His voice — it was so terrible.
But he sang it on and on and on, until I left that record store for good.