Mr. Ray Fits a Suit

by Michael Berglund

12/27/2012

When I walk into Ray’s Tailor Shop, I immediately notice the ordered disorder of the two-room store. Directly in front of me, too near the front door, sits a table stacked with files and mail and a small radio propped up on a box. Towards the back of the room, I see a fabric-draped Singer sewing machine, circa 1950–the first sewing machine, I later learn, that Sherman Ray purchased when he arrived in Oklahoma City from Germany.  Next to the changing room, a small step stool is positioned between three large mirrors. The last table I see is loaded with scraps of tweed, herring-bone, and different varieties of worsted wools.  And sitting on the table, in the middle of the material, is Ray, who when I enter is negotiating a thimble and needle to add a scrap of cashmere to a blazer.

He runs the thimbled hand over impeccably slicked back hair and looks me over through large-framed glasses that magnify his eyes, which knowingly search for details that often go unnoticed in casual conversation: Does one shoulder hang slightly lower than the other? Does my neck crane forward to make my spine curve? Does a 30-year habit of standing into my left hip make the left leg slightly shorter? All of this occurs instantaneously as I introduce myself. He’s not sizing me up for a mano a mano fistfight. He’s measuring me.

I tell him that I’d like to have a suit tailor-made, and that I was interested in gray tweed or a suit with a similar texture. He tells me that he stopped building suits because of the amount of energy it takes, but he’d be happy to alter a suit for me. He chuckles and riffles through a manila folder full of photos, newspaper articles, letters, and trinkets. Ray pulls out artifacts that show me the man he has become: champion weightlifter, avid rower, accomplished tailor.

“I’ll tailor the suit so good for you, it’ll fit you like a glove,” Ray says in a thick Polish accent.

I ask him what kind of suit I should get and he sets down his folder and takes his measuring tape from around his neck and guides me so that my back is facing him.

“Drop your arms,” he says. He measures me with lightning speed. “42 is too tight, and 43 they don’t make. You’ll have to go to a 44. 44 might be a little bit too large but it’ll have to be tailored.”

He grabs my hand and energetically guides me to the stepstool in front of the mirrors. He checks my inseam and then whips the tape around my waist. “You need about a 351⁄2 or 36 pant. Don’t get 34, 36 on the pants. Go to Woodland. Then tell them, ‘I will buy it but I will take to my tailor for approval.’ See, when you cut it up then you cannot take it back. Then just come over. I’m always open.”

Before I leave, Ray shows me one remaining photograph. It’s a picture of director Steven Spielberg with his arm draped affectionately over Ray’s shoulders.

“See,” says Ray, “I was in the concentration camps. Not just a tailor.”

A week later, I return to Ray’s Tailor Shop with a gray wool suit bought from a department store at Woodland, as he instructed, and I made sure to get a suit that met the size specifications he recommended.

Ray says, “Let me see it.”

I pull it out of the bag. Before he even looks at the tag he tells me he can’t work on it. He goes over and grabs a suit jacket he’s been tailoring.

“You think anybody in this town can do this?” he says, holding up the jacket front. “This is a hand-sewn buttonhole. See? Everything now is made by machine. From China.”

Ray takes the newly bought suit from my hands, looks at the tag, and laughs. “China.” He takes the jacket off the hanger and hands it to me to try on. We walk over in front of the mirror and shows me how it needs to be adjusted.

“The shoulders are too tight. I have to let out the shoulders but look—” He shows me the inside of the jacket. “Not enough material here. How’m I gonna let out the jacket with no material? Suits like this don’t give me anything to work with.”

He has me try on the pants. He points to the front pockets, and I see that the outside seams pucker out as I walk. The crotch sits too low. When I raise my arms, the jacket sleeves are too short. Suddenly, a suit that looked slick, modern, and slim-fitting on the rack looks dollar-store cheap. Ray works the material of the suit adroitly, sliding material through his fingers and stopping at all the imperfections: not enough material to let out the sleeve; frayed material on the pants leg; lapels that, because of mass manufacturing, sit unevenly on my chest. He’s the doctor and I’m the patient. I ask him how he learned to become a tailor.

“I was trained in Europe,” he says. “My grandfather was a tailor. My father was a tailor.”

In 1938, when Ray was 12, Russia occupied Poland. Ray lived in a small village near Bialystok, and because of the widespread poverty in Poland, his family survived through bartering rather than money. At 13, Ray began to apprentice under his father after showing that he had mastered a hand-sewn buttonhole. His skills ultimately saved his life.

“When I went to Auschwitz, what would I do?” he asks.

Before I can respond, before I can ask, he tells me to take off the suit and take it back. He helps me out of the jacket, but when he hands it to me, doesn’t let go. He looks at the cuff of the sleeve and begins to finger it, turning the sleeve inside out to reveal what seems to me now poorly sewn stitching. The stitches tack back and forth sloppily, string ends hang haphazardly, exposing precariousness where one thread, pulled the wrong way, leads to disintegration and ripped seams. Not the arrow-straight line that suggests good workmanship.

“You see?” he speaks softly, hanging onto the arm. “Before Hitler came we were under the Russians for 18 months. Russia took over half of Poland and Germany took the other half. The Russians told my father he had to do hard labor and I said, ‘Dad, you stay home because you got to provide and make a living. I will go.’ I used to come home with my hand bleeding. I was not used to the work they made us do: shovel mountains to make a road. During wintertime we would go to the forest to cut wood they sent to Russia. But that was not so bad. When the Germans came—that was impossible. They hardly gave you anything to eat. I never dreamed I would come out alive.”

That, according to Ray, was in 1939, and was the beginning of the end. Hitler and Stalin agreed to share Poland but, without warning, Hitler forced the Russians out in three days. It happened with lightning speed.

Ray manipulates the jacket sleeve as he talks, exposing its inferior construction. He lets loose the sleeve.

“Well, you take this suit back and get a new suit. A Hickey-Freeman. Or Jos. A. Bank,” he says.

I return the following week with a gray pin-striped suit from Joseph A. Banks: A Signature 2-Button Wool Pinstripe suit with plain front trousers. When I remove the garment bag, Ray’s eyes light up. He shows me the strength and intricacy of the stitching. He sets it down on his material table and shows me the extra material, left for the express purpose of tailoring.

“This I can work with,” he says.

I go into the changing room and put on the suit. It swallows me. The jacket fits more like a cloak, and I feel like a young boy playing dress-up with his father’s clothes. The pant legs puddle at my feet and if I don’t cinch the waist, the pants fall straight to the floor. Ray has his work cut out for him. He has me stand in front of the mirror on the stepstool and sizes me up.

He braces himself to bend down—a wide stance, then bending at the knee while resting both hands on the other knee. He lowers himself slowly until the first bent knee rests on the floor, will-you-marry-me style. He works at the cuff using pins and chalk, marking at the material. I ask him how he was taken to Auschwitz and he stops.

Ray’s shop is in the center of a strip mall, and when nobody’s talking and the radio’s not on, it’s pin-drop silent. He looks at the ground without really looking at it. He drops his hands to his side and he’s thinking, thinking. It’s him and me and the crackly buzz of fluorescent lights that burn color away into dull monochrome. Under this stark whiteness, he schools me in history.

Ray had lived under the forced labor of the Russians, but the Germans were not so accommodating.

“The Germans put me and my family on a train to Auschwitz,” he says. “I was 15 or 16 so that was ‘41 or ‘42.” Ray had heard rumors that Auschwitz was a death camp, but his family refused to believe him. He begged his family to jump with him from the train.

“They said no,” he tells me. “All the time I begged them. They thought they were going to the resort. Every time I think about it I wanna kill myself.”

Ray stops talking. He raises his arm. He moves to the other leg and the chalk draws a trail of slash marks on the material to be eliminated. He pauses, hanging onto a piece of loose pant leg.

The Germans, Ray says, left the boxcar unattended because most Poles thought the train led to an internment camp where they would be kept for the duration of the war. They accepted their fate as prisoners of war. No one imagined the human capacity needed to carry out Hitler’s die Endlösung: the Final Solution.

Ray and four other boys on his boxcar suspected the worst, and they wanted off.

“There was a little window on top of the boxcar of the train,” Ray recalls. He had tried to squeeze through it, but his heavy fur jacket wouldn’t allow it. He crawled back down, then tried again, this time making it out. A friend threw his coat out after him. Ray and four other boys escaped the boxcar and ran into the wilderness. He didn’t realize then that it would be his home for the next year.

“You know, in Poland it gets cold like it’s Canada,” he says.

He takes pins and begins stabbing at the chalk marks. Purely. Precisely. He pulls the material close to his face. Stab. Instinct kicks in while his mind traces outlines of the past he’d rather not recall. Stab. He tells me it’s a lot to talk about: the farmer who saved his life by providing a single spade but refused any other assistance for fear of retribution. Stab. I resist the instinct to flinch as he pulls needles from the pincushion. Stab. I trust in his experience as he sticks the pins and tells me more about the year in the forest.

“We took the spade and dug into the ground—about two feet down and then two feet horizontal into the ground,” he says. “We make a little place in the earth where we can lay down but we can’t sit up. At night, you know, we could get out. But in daytime it was us, staying underground. When the snow comes, we thought it was bad. But then later the rain came and we wish we could have the snow.”

He stops stabbing and examines the material closely, running his fingers along the metal dashes that force the pant leg to conform. The pinpoints that poke and scratch stay safely concealed just beneath the surface of the material.

“One of the boys couldn’t walk because his leg was frozen,” he says. Ray begged him to walk to find food, but the boy’s leg had turned gangrenous. Ray and the others eventually took the boy to the ghetto at Bialystok, where the boy’s leg was amputated.

“There was no medication. No penicillin. Nothing. Not even aspirin. For Jews, they say let ’em die.”

Ray stands back up. First the hands braced on the knee, then the push that shoots the upper body up. He’s righted himself and he concentrates his chalk and pins on my shoulders.

“They shot him.”

According to Ray, all of this occurred around the beginning of 1943. The Bialystok ghetto was close to his uncle’s hometown, and when he and Ray found each other in the ghetto, he convinced Ray to remain there rather than attempting to escape back into the forest. Ray had lost his immediate family and his uncle’s presence comforted him, briefly.

The Bialystok ghetto housed around 50,000 Polish Jews laboring under the Germans. In Bialystok, Ray began to realize the extent of the Nazi cruelty. Even physically challenged Germans wound up in the camps and then, not long thereafter, disappeared.

“The trains, the boxcars, was carrying the people to the gas chambers day and night,” he says. “Women, young girls—they shaved off their hair and they was wearing wooden shoes. They put potato sacks on them to wear. They looked like monkeys. Killed them all.”

It was during this time that Ray was separated from his uncle and shipped to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. It was 1943, when Ray was just 17.

Ray maneuvers himself behind me and I feel the weight of his hands on my shoulders. He pinches the shoulder material and lifts up. He holds the material from each shoulder between his thumbs and forefingers.

“Too much space, you see?”

I see my reflection in the mirror. He’s lifted the shoulders of the jacket so that my head sinks.

The second train to Auschwitz was a different story. “Before, I was from a smaller town so it was easy to escape from the train. This time the Germans was starting to lose the war, so it was worse. You couldn’t jump because on every boxcar was the SS with a machine gun.

“At Auschwitz they brought you in … to vanish,” he says. At 15 square miles, Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp, and the Nazis divided it into three sub-camps: Auschwitz I acted as the base camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the main extermination camp, and Auschwitz-Monowitz enforced hard labor. In all, Auschwitz housed a total of 1.1 million Jews, 960,000 of whom were killed. Ray was one of the few who survived the second camp, Auschwitz Birkenau.

“OK. Now you can step down.”

I step off the chair. Ray grabs the back of the jacket at my lower spine and pulls the jacket tight against me. I fall back because I’m not ready for the force of the pull, the firmness with which he holds the coat. In the mirror I see him hunched over, marking the coat with his chalk. Lines and Xs, from the base of my neck to the small of my back.

“When I got there, in Auschwitz, they asked for tailors, shoemakers, bricklayers,” Ray says. “I was making uniforms for the SS—you know, the riding breeches. Everything had to be tailor-made. Everything had to be done perfect. You had to do it right or boy, watch out. And when we got through with the uniforms we were making civilian clothes. I was 16 or 17 by then. If I wouldn’t have been a tailor they would’ve killed me, too.”

The lump in my throat prevents me from swallowing. I look at him in the mirror, bent over, measuring, marking barbed-wire Xs down my back with the hands the Germans forced him to use 67 years ago on the back of an SS officer. One who killed the elderly, who gassed the women and children and gypsies. His meticulous hands make the same Xs on me now as they did back then and I wonder at the weight of his hands, at how much they endured, and I wonder if the SS officer really believed in the solution to the Judenfrage—Hitler’s “Jewish question”—or if he defied the illogic and appreciated the precision of the hands making Xs on his back, and I imagine each X marks another day of life for Ray in a place where a wasted day is another day of gained breath.

“Auschwitz was big,” he recalls. “It was an old Polish cavalry camp. And the barracks they changed for the prisoners. Put some beds in that we lived in. Three-story beds. Everybody engraved their names and their town in the wood of the bed. On every bed you saw it. Everybody would take a little knife and engrave or they’d do it with little pencils. And every time I get up in the morning I wake up praying, and when I go to bed, too, if I’m still alive. I never dreamed I would make it 90 years.”

It’s the carved name that recalls his identity, and the commitment to prayer to a God against whom he can measure himself, that kept Ray going. His main drive, his mantra even today is, “Never give up.” When others succumbed to their despair, Ray encouraged them to reject the anguish that paved the way for death. Hunger propelled the despair, and Ray never gave up finding various sources for food. In the middle of the night he’d risk certain execution and creep out of his bunk and sidle alongside the barracks until he reached the kitchen, hoping to see the window cracked with food on the sill or nearby counter. Numerous times, he’d filch a potato or two and make his way back to his barracks. Hunger pervaded each breath, and Ray says during the day and all night everyone dreamed about food, which meant that food was the goal, that hunger trumped risk, that life without food couldn’t be living.

“You have no idea what hunger means,” he says. “The biggest punishment if you want to punish somebody: Don’t feed ’em.”

He grabs the pants at either side of my waist and tugs. More chalk stitch marks moving down my hips. More pinning.

“Auschwitz was nothing but killing. When people went in, the music was playing because people was screaming. You know, in the barracks the walls was thin and you could hear the screaming. So the music was playing so you couldn’t hear the voices. You saw in the chimneys not smoke, but flame—like they were shooting fire. And a lot of times they was making—from the flesh of humans—soap. The called it reden Juden fat: RJF. From human flesh. When you went to take a shower they gave you something that looked like a rock. But it was made from humans. They’d shave off the hair to make mattresses.”

The pincushion he wears around his wrist has moved its way up his arm. As he moves to take another pin out to stick into the suit, I see, perched on the elastic band that inches up, on the soft inside of his forearm, a bird that looks like Tweety crossed with a macaw.

“Everybody used to ask me about the numbers,” he says. “I got sick and tired of it, so I covered it. It didn’t matter what in the hell it was because it wasn’t doing me any good.”

When he tells me B2526, he lets me look close to try to see it, but the tattoo artist executed his job perfectly. No trace of the number. When the Germans began losing ground in Poland because of the advancing Russian troops, the SS implemented a plan to move healthy prisoners to Dachau, a concentration camp located in Bavaria, Germany. In order to keep the prisoners from escaping during the transportation, the Germans told the Jewish prisoners they were exchanging them for German prisoners held by the Russians. It was a lie, of course. The ruse worked.

Some of the railroads to Dachau had been bombed into disrepair, which forced the Germans to take longer routes.

“It was three or four days on those goddamn boxcars,” Ray recalls. “You have a bucket if you want to take a leak. You cannot describe it. Ninety, a hundred in a boxcar like sardines. It was packed. Had to stand you know? You cannot forget. Never. Never. You talk about punishment. In an American jail it’s a pleasure. They got a television, they got a bed. They’re treated like a human. But over there? They didn’t give a damn. They wanted you to die.”

Eventually, Ray made it to Dachau, where he was assigned a new number: 19465. They put him to work making parts for the Luftwaffe. He was assigned an impossible work shift of heavy manual labor: 12 hours for the day shift, and 12 hours for the night shift.

“In case you run away they looked right away on your arm,” he says. “But we didn’t have civilian clothes. Everybody was in blue and white stripes so that nobody could run. They had electric wires, and outside the wire was ditches with water. Nobody could escape. If you would escape they would catch you.”

In Dachau, the slightest physical ailment meant certain death. On a regular basis, the SS inspected the prisoners’ bodies by calling them out of bed in the morning and forcing them to assemble, naked, and stand motionless for 30 minutes. The winters proved most detrimental because those who exhibited any symptoms of a cold or flu were dealt with severely. After the liberation of Dachau, Ray asked his doctor how he survived, and the only explanation the doctor could provide was, “You was young.”

In the mirror, I’m all white-dashed stitches held together with pins. The tailor gives me one more going-over, carefully examining how he’s refigured and put the suit together. He steps back, satisfied with his work.

“I never dreamed I would come out alive,” he says. “I weighed 75 pounds. Skin and bones.”

May 2, 1945 changed everything for Ray.

“That’s when there were white flags in the villages, hanging from the rooftops,” Ray recalls. “It was snowing in Bavaria in the forest. They was marching us through the forest. They were trying to get rid of us. Russians and Jews in the thousands. And all of a sudden we look, and nobody’s there. The SS is gone. The Russians were running to the dead horses along side of the road and cutting the meat and eating it. You have no idea what hunger means.”

I take the jacket off. First one arm, then the other, carefully slipping the material off my body to avoid the potential pinpricks while at the same time maintaining the newer, more formfitting shape of the jacket crafted by Ray. He takes the coat and carefully hangs it, then the pants.

“You know, when the war started, I had a family. They went to Treblinka in the beginning. But young and old, they got killed. When it was over, I was all alone. I was hoping maybe I will find somebody. After the war I went in the German museum and looked at the booth for Poland. The walls in the room were covered with lists of who was left alive and who is gone. I never could see anybody from my family. All of them gone.”

He takes the hung suit and places it on a rack next to a row of similarly pinned and white-dashed clothing, all standing at attention and waiting for Ray to reshape them permanently. He tells me to come back next week for the finished suit.

When I thank him, he replies, “Who shall ask, shall receive. Whatever you need, I will give it to you.”