My barber Ben cut hair in Auschwitz. He spent three and a half years in a darkness in which it would seem impossible for anything to have grown, including hair. But somehow it did. With a pair of scissors, Ben found a means of surviving for longer than an eternity. He was one of the few people to earn a living among the moving parts of the death-machine, plying the trade of his pre-lager days. He was still engaged in this livelihood some fifty years after his liberation, when I wandered into his shop one day and asked for a haircut.
When you have been a barber in a concentration camp, you have learned better than anyone that the simple act of cutting hair may be an exercise in degradation–either because you have gently handled the heads of your most sadistic captors, or because you have removed from your fellow captives one of the final layers of their individuality: the color springing from a scalp, or the waviness that someone once had favored. But in the half-century since the war had ended, Ben had given hundreds of thousands of haircuts, and for decades now his profession had been a benign and profitable, if hardly lucrative, one.
When I discovered his shop in the mid-1990’s, it might have belonged to any barber almost anywhere, with two faded chairs–only one of which I ever saw used–a small TV, and a large mirror for customers to watch their unruly mops take shape. It was in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, just off the anywhere-intersection of Touhy and California, a corner whose Irish bar, currency exchange, and 7-Eleven gave no hint that the area teemed with Jewish life. There were religious Jews and secular ones, old immigrants like Ben and new ones in the form of the Russian refugees who were still coming to America as the Soviet Union sputtered out.
I taught English to those refugees just a couple of blocks from Ben’s shop, in a synagogue called Temple Menorah. I lived in West Rogers Park with my wife and two young daughters, and that’s how I found my barber, Ben. He was an old man when I met him, in his late 70s, an age when for most people employment is a distant memory, a time of too much leisure and illness and decline. But Ben worked more hours than I, a man forty-five years his junior, did. He opened his shop at 7:30 a.m., six days a week, quitting nine hours later (except for an early closing on Saturday). His memory was wholly intact, and he was happy to revisit it for my benefit in the thick accent of a Yiddish-speaker born in the Pale of Settlement.
“I come from Plonsk, the same town as David Ben-Gurion. And my wife and I, when we would visit my brother in Israel, we would always go to see Ben-Gurion. He was glad to meet with a lantzman.
“In those days in Plonsk, I made fifty cents a week cutting hair.”
He said Vee for We; and if it seemed unlikely that a prime minister would often entertain a barber from Plonsk – well, that was another age in Israel, when all sorts of Jews mingled, and even the famous mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, had his home number listed in the telephone book.
Work and its rhythms had determined Ben’s days for six decades. When he arrived in Chicago four years after the war had ended, he found a job in a busy barbershop over on Montrose and Clark. Later, Ben and another barber opened the little shop where I went on California Ave., but for many years now only Ben worked there–that second chair a remnant of a former partnership.
How many kinds of routine does a Jewish barber follow? One started with the calendar, when the High Holidays and Passover caused a spike in business, as the observant prepared to be pious in part by getting spruced up; and then the seasons meant more customers in the hot summer months. There was also the pattern of the month or two between the appointments of Ben’s many regulars; as well as the rhythm of the work week that ended for Ben on the Sabbath. (He sometimes got insults from Orthodox Jews walking past his shop on Saturdays, but he paid them no attention.)
Then there was the rhythm of the haircut itself. A customer would enter the shop and Ben would get up from the chair where he had been reading the newspaper or watching the Cubs on TV, and address his patron.
“How ya been?” he’d ask as he tied a smock around the patron. He worked quickly with his scissors. After he had shaved the back of the neck, he’d wet a tissue and wipe away any remaining foam. I always waited too long for a haircut, in part because money was so tight for our family in those days, but also because I rather vainly liked my auburn hair to be longer. When I finally showed up at Ben’s on a Saturday morning, my mane would be fairly wild, with thick fur growing on my nape. He’d clean it all up without any discussion of style, shake the clippings off the apron, and say, “There–now you weigh less.”
And I’d hand over twelve dollars, although once, to my embarrassment, I realized my wallet was empty, and he shrugged.
“I never worry about getting paid. You’ll give it to me when you have it.”
And so it went: every six or eight weeks for seven years I would receive, in twenty-minute segments, a few more brushstrokes in this portrait of a remarkable life. Ben Scheinkopf was not a man of extraordinary gifts, except perhaps the miracle of staying alive in the most unlikely of circumstances. But I was transfixed by the story of an Old World shtetl, the whirlwind of destruction, and the miracle of his survival and refuge in the New World, where even an uneducated immigrant could buy a house and a car, take vacations, and live in peace and security.
In those days, I struggled to support my wife and children with part-time ESL teaching jobs, and to make enough to sustain a young family’s most basic needs. My efforts seemed a fragile enterprise. So I marveled at the success of my barber, Ben, who had over many years and with steadfast devotion to his work achieved a solid middle-class existence. In the early years, he had put aside a little of his tip money every week, until he saved two thousand dollars. Then he asked a customer, a German man named Steinmetz who worked in a bank, if he could get a mortgage.
“You want to talk business?” The banker asked. “Come talk to me in my office, not here in a barber shop.”
So Ben went to the bank and secured a mortgage. He bought a house near Peterson and Central Park avenues for his family, and paid his mortgage off in twenty years.
But it was Ben’s existence in Auschwitz that more than anything affected me. If a place where great suffering has occurred is sacred ground, as I believe, then Auschwitz is a piece of land as holy in its way as the Western Wall. When Ben cut my hair, I felt something akin to what a newly ordained priest must feel at the laying on of hands. Perhaps Ben was a most unwilling bearer of such sacredness, but in my mind persecution had anointed him as no official ceremony ever could. To sit underneath his agile hands was, well, a blessing.
Ben lost most of his family in the Holocaust; only a single brother of his, also a barber, survived. In Auschwitz, he had a skill the Nazis found valuable: he could cut hair. Because of this, they gave him that most precious of commodities, an extra bowl of soup a day.
“In Auschwitz you could not stay alive one week,” he said. “I could not believe they would ever let one Jew out of there.”
But he had survived there for almost three years, until, in January, 1945, with the Allies closing in on them, the Nazis emptied Auschwitz, marching Ben and his fellow inmates out of the camp, and eventually putting them on a train to Mauthausen, where he spent the last few months of the war before he was found by the Americans. He weighed sixty pounds.
“They fed us porridge every day for weeks, and that was hard because we had to get used to eating food again.”
When the war ended, he didn’t go back to Poland but ended up displaced in Germany, where one day he wandered over to an American Army base, and got work cutting the soldiers’ hair. However, he refused to cut the hair of any German person. Even in poverty, his degradation had come to an end.
* * *
In the summer of 2003, my family and I moved away from West Rogers Park. We sold our condo on Fargo Avenue, and bought a white frame bungalow in Chicago’s Norwood Park, some seven or eight miles from our old neighborhood, and I found a salon nearby that offered an eight-dollar haircut. It was a rather large shop named Bana’s, with lots of hair stylists and gleaming equipment, a place of some mystery to me, where customers were ushered into other rooms for various treatments on their hair and nails. Manicures and pedicures, coloring, frosting, perms, waxed eyebrows – the attractive immigrant women offered the whole range of styling services.
I often thought about Ben. I had found a new place to get a haircut when I moved to a new neighborhood, but was seven or eight miles really so far to travel for a service I liked very much? Even less to my credit was that I had not let Ben know I was moving away. Why would he care, I told myself, about losing one regular among the many thousands of customers he had known over the decades? I had never even told him my name, and assumed that he might wonder what had become of the tall redhead, but surely it was no great loss for him. Yet I wished I had done more than simply fail to turn up for my next haircut. Sometimes I would pass his shop after-hours when it was dark inside, and while it appeared that it was still a barbershop, I could hardly imagine that Ben still worked there–he was well into his 80s when I left his neighborhood.
Recently, I happened to be on my bicycle just before nine in the morning, and found myself approaching Touhy and California. I pedaled up to Ben’s old storefront, and saw that the light inside was on, and there in his chair sat my old barber, reading a newspaper. I went in.
“Do you remember me?” I asked, half in shame.
“Sure I remember you. How ya been?”
I’ve never been so pleased to have a scruffy neck. I was late for work, but I sat down anyway. During the fifteen minutes it took Ben to make me lose a lot of weight, I felt a unique kind of happiness–joy, really–sitting in that chair.
Ben was now ninety-four years old. He still came to work every day at 7:30 a.m.
“What am I going to do sitting at home?” he asked. “Go shopping and buy schmattes? Here I can pay the bills at least.”
I was the only person in the place, even though it was two days before Rosh Hashanah, once his busiest time of the year. But he still had customers.
“I got a man who comes in, he’s a hundred and two years old. He says, ‘Benny, I need you to cut my hair for at least ten more years.’”
We talked a little about Plonsk, and about his wife who had a bad hip and therefore they couldn’t travel anymore to Arizona where their son lived. Ben was following the White Sox, the only Chicago team still in playoff contention. He was in good health, he told me, and every evening before dinner he had this much–his thumb and forefinger were less than an inch apart –whisky.
“I like to have a gin and tonic when I get home from work,” I said.
“Ya, that’s a good drink. At weddings I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
We also talked about the Holocaust, a topic that he never tired of speaking about, remembering precise details even at 94. He told me again the story of his march from Auschwitz at the end of the war, fleeing the Nazis.
“At Mauthausen, they didn’t gas you. Instead they let you starve.”
This surprised me, for as a young man traveling around Europe, I had visited Mauthausen, walking through the camp and feeling utter disgust when, passing through what I recall as a gas chamber, I saw a young couple photographing each other in that place of death.
When he was done, he took off my apron. “There, you look a lot better.”
I had exactly twelve dollars in my wallet, and I handed them over, still not knowing what he charged for a cut, and he took the money and thanked me. I saw for the first time the number he had been stamped with in Auschwitz, the blue ink running up his left forearm.
My bike helmet went over my fresh cut, and my barber Ben swept up my clippings. “Good to see you. Be well.”
Years into this new millennium, when a black man was the president in America and global communication was in every person’s pocket, or, more likely, at their fingertips; when no one could hear the word ‘immigrant’ in the U.S. and not think of people born south of the border or in the Middle East; when the nation of Germany was led by a woman and belonged to a mostly peaceful European union, there was a Jew from Plonsk who had been cutting hair for three-quarters of a century (even before the Nazis had invaded Poland in September, 1939), who descended into hell and survived. He outlived every last Nazi tormentor. He used a pair of scissors to make of the refuge that America had given him a life for himself and his wife and children: a good, long life, peaceful and mild. That man gave me a haircut on a late-summer day just before Rosh Hashanah began.
“Be well,” I said back to him, and then cycled off to work.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Hobvias Sudoneighm; Ben the Barber photo provided by the author.