Wolfe Kalmar was always fun.
My mother’s father, he was the only grandfather I knew. My father’s father died when Pop was a child, and by the time I was born, the closest thing I had to a paternal grandfather was David Rifkin, a kindly Russian immigrant who was my grandmother’s “friend” for many years.
But they never married, and I certainly shared no blood with him, so all I had was grandpa. William Kalmar, “Wolfe” in Hungarian, I remember him as a broad, sturdy man with a very thick Hungarian accent, kind eyes and a smile that always made me happy.
He was born in Hungary in 1905, and came to America before the holocaust. I believe he had 11 siblings, although I think most of them never made it through the holocaust.
Wolfe was an Olympic class swimmer. The story goes:
Wolfe came to America with his father at the end of World War I. The resulting political unrest after the Hungarian split from Austria, and the economic devastation that the post-war reparations had caused were charging up Anti-semitism all over Eastern Europe, so they were bound for the States.
However, Wolfe had received no permission to do so, and without the proper documentation, would have been held upon his arrival and sent back to Hungary.
So he jumped ship.
Several miles off of the coast of Ellis Island, Wolfe quietly slipped into the Atlantic Ocean and began swimming. An Olympic-class swimmer, navigating the open sea was admittedly the hardest physical endeavor he’d ever faced. But he conquered it, and several hours later, emerged dripping wet and physically exhausted onto the shores of New York City.
A few years later, Wolfe was reunited with Sadie Buchwald, who had been but a child when he’d last seen her in Budapest. No longer a child, she’d grown into a stunning young woman, and the two were wed soon after.
They had three children-Eleanor was first in 1936 and Lorraine was born a few years later. When Lorraine was 11 months old, she perished of pneumonia (this was before penicillin was invented). The child died during the height of the holocaust, and between that and all of the family Wolfe and Sadie lost during the war, it was some time before they were ready to have another child, and so my mother was born in 1947.
The rest of the story:
It was Mother’s Day, 1947. The paint store the Wolfe worked in was closed on Saturday for the Shabbos, so it was opened this day. Sadie was at home with little Eleanor when her water broke. As a neighbor rushed her to the hospital, another neighbor rushed into the paint store.
“Willie! Willie!” he shouted frantically. “I just heard that immigration is coming for you! They think you’re not a legal resident!”
“Calm down, Sol. Technically, I’m not,” my grandfather replied.
“You musn’t tell them that!” Sol shot back. “They’ll arrest you and deport you! Lie! Tell them they must have lost the paperwork!”
Just then, two men in dark suits walked in to the shop.
“William Kalmar?” one of them asked.
“Da,that’s me,” he said taking off his apron.
“We’re with the department of immigration. We’d like you to come with us and answer a few questions.”
Wolfe went with the two men, who took him to an office building in Manhattan where they interrogated him.
As they asked him if he was a legal citizen, Sol’s words haunted himÃ¢Â?Â¦ he could still hear him telling him to lie.
“Well?! Are you a legal citizen or not?” the men in the dark suits demanded.
Wolfe didn’t hesitate. “No. I am not.” Wolfe then recounted the tale of the strife in Hungary and his long swim. He was now married to a woman who was completely naturalized and even had a daughter (and another one on the way, unbeknownst to him) who was born here.
The men in dark suits talked in hushed voice amongst each other for several minutes.
“All right, Mr. Kalmar, here’s what we’re gonna do,” one of them said. “We’re gonna take you back to your car, and you’re gonna drive it to Canada. Then, you’re gonna turn around and enter the country legally. Then, you’re on a 1-year probation, after which time, we’ll make you a citizen.” Wolfe was overjoyed.
“And Mr. Kalmar,” the other one said, “thank you for telling us the truth.”
Wolfe died shortly before my Bar-mitzvah. Since they lived in Florida, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him, but every moment I can remember was happy. Like the time I stole his false teeth, or how he couldn’t wink at me so he’d smile a huge goofy grin and blink at me. Or how he’d roll the “r” whenever he said the word “rook” when we’d play chess, which was whenever he’d visit. I remember he used to dress well, always in slacks and a shirt-sleeved button-down Oxford. I remember how he would wake up early every morning to do “excercises” which consisted of lots of push-ups and sit-ups. I remember he never spoke harshly to anyone. I remember when they were coming for a visit and Nana had a heart attack on the airplane and how worried and drawn he looked when they carted her off the jetway in the airport. I remember how he looked at my mother and told her how Nana had collapsed into his lap as her eyes rolled back and the way he said, “I thought I’d lost her right then, Judy.” I remember how happy he was when she was one of the first successful triple-bypass surgeries in Denver.
And I remember visiting him in the hospital just before he died, and playing our last game of chess. He was on very strong pain-killers and I won far too easily. Although not before he took my queen, which I think was his small way of reminding me never to get too cockyÃ¢Â?Â¦
And he smiled and kissed me on my cheek and told me he loved me and to take care of my mother. So the story goes.