The Golden Corset

By definition a girdle, or corset, is a close fitting undergarment worn by women to smooth and tighten their curves. Years ago every woman wore one. Some of us still wear a girdle, but in a modified, lightweight version. What a nuisance, and nonsense it was, to be at the mercy of this object of torture! Like other women of her era, my mother struggled into hers out of vanity. But later, her girdle assumed mythic proportions and a dramatic role in our family. It became a precious object we had to protect.

After the end of World War I, political events filled our lives with uncertainty and required rapid decisions and many changes. I was an only child, born in the same small town as my parents, in Bzeziny, Poland. Goods were in short supply after The Great War, yet my father Syne, the oldest of four sons, proved to be resourceful in providing the basic necessities for his, and later, our family. As he grew older, he married and went to work in his father’s winter clothing factory. My father and his well-known and overbearing father soon became involved in a financial dispute that created so much tension and conflict their relationship became unbearable. My father needed to escape the hostility and town gossip around him. He needed a change if he and his family were going to have a more free and secure future. His solution was to leave his hometown.

He and my mother agreed that he should go to Paris where a friend of his had secured a job for him. My father would send for us when he was financially stable and able to pay for us to join him. After many embraces and promises, my father left. He had no special skills or experience, and he was glad to get a job as a presser in a clothing factory where his friend was employed. The work was difficult and physically exhausting because of the hot steam and the long hours demanded. But after several years of hardship, he had saved enough to pay for train tickets for my mother and me.  I was very young, not quite three years old and very upset that I had to leave my loving and indulgent grandparents with whom we had lived until then. I was the first granddaughter on both sides of my family, and was doted upon, even spoiled.

Shortly after we arrived in Paris, my father secured a job for my mother as a seamstress, work she was already adept at doing. I, however, was sick and forlorn, and promptly came down with whooping cough. Even then, a kind neighbor helped care for me while my parents worked. We lived in a flat with one room and a kitchenette, sharing with others the public toilet on each floor.

Despite the hardships, I had the wonderful chance to get closer to my father whom I did not know until we joined him in Paris. Eventually I was sent to a nursery school where I learned to speak French and to defend myself, at least verbally. The highlight of these early years, before my mother’s corset turned to gold, was the day we moved to a larger apartment in which I had my own sofa bed in the dining room and was able to use the washroom on each landing. Life was good!

After a while, my parents’ jobs were upgraded, yet they still worked very hard. Sometimes when I woke up in the middle of the night, I could hear the noise of the sewing machine going, especially if it was a rush job.

We missed our families, but kept in touch with them. My father was so glad to be independent. Mother, at times, sewed clothes for the two of us from catalogue pictures. She was gifted in that way. Sundays when we walked on the boulevards and sat at cafes, we felt good about ourselves, because we looked pretty spiffy. We lived frugally, but we managed somehow.

Luxuries were few, but my father did allow himself one small indulgence each week. He bought a ticket to the national lottery. If your ticket had the correct last digit of the five winning numbers, you received a free ticket for the following week’s drawing. Time and time again, my father won a free ticket. He kept on playing, hoping that he would be even luckier in the future.

During this period in the early thirties, we began to read of Germany’s war machine and its encroachment on other territories. We worried to the point of obsession about the horrible reports we were hearing from central Europe. We were glued to the radio hoping to hear that the Nazi advances and occupations had stopped. Soon the political and historical forces impacted us personally. My mother’s youngest brother, Max, had settled in Berlin to avoid the Polish draft, but he soon felt endangered by staying in Germany. Jewish books were being burned, and synagogues and shops were being destroyed by unruly mobs.

Max was a maître d’ in the restaurant of an upscale hotel, and lived the comfortable and glamorous life of a handsome bachelor. Still, he feared for his life and wrote to us asking permission to come to Paris and stay with us. I took a great liking to him and his worldly and polished manners. He taught me how to dance, which I loved. We went to movies together, and he tried to teach me how to cook, along with introducing me to other fun activities. We soon became closer friends, and he found work in his profession.

When he heard from us about the lottery, Max asked to be partnered with my father in buying several tickets. They agreed. The morning that the results of this particular drawing were announced, my father read the numbers in the lottery column of the newspaper and exclaimed, “At least we won a free ticket!” He left happily for work, and when he returned for dinner, he picked up the paper again. Somehow his eyes wandered to the lottery results a second time; something puzzled him. He reviewed the numbers on his ticket again, and after a few seconds, he became agitated, leaped from his chair and yelled, “We won! We won!”

Indeed one of our tickets had all five numbers correct. The prize was an astonishing 50,000 francs. The excitement in our flat was unbelievable. We kept embracing one another and laughing. We were rich! Now what would we do with so much loot? Oh, so many possibilities. First we must take a trip to Poland to visit the family—and maybe gloat a little. We did, and the visit was oh so satisfying! The prodigal son had come back to his homeland bearing gifts, and I had the pleasure of meeting my cousins, two girls and one boy. We had so much fun together. Tragically, only one of my cousins survived the concentration camps. She married and settled in Montreal, and the friendship we began because of the lottery winnings led to many visits with one another in our later years.

When my family and I returned from Poland, we still had to make up our minds about how we would safeguard our windfall. My parents and I received 25,000 francs, and so did my uncle Max. My parents did not trust the French currency at that time because of the unstable political situation in Europe. They wanted to invest our money in a way that would be financially advantageous. So they exchanged the francs for English pounds, hoping this currency would be safer. Meanwhile my uncle decided to leave France. He turned in his English pounds and eventually was given a visa and settled in Tel Aviv in the country that would become Israel. There he attended school, learned Hebrew and eventually established a partnership with a known chef. They invested his winnings in a restaurant, which did very well.

The winds of war were moving closer and closer to us, becoming more worrisome every month. England entered the war in 1939, creating further financial uncertainty, so my parents exchanged their English pounds for US dollars, because America was not yet involved in the fighting. After more deliberations they decided that America was too far from them. How could they get their money out if the war spread? And then, of course, it did.

Finally, after much thought and many consultations with friends, my parents decided that gold coins would be the best solution. But the coins were large in size and denominations, and therefore heavy. This created yet another dilemma!

Now we had to determine how to safeguard the coins, or take them along, in case we had to leave our home suddenly. This was a real and frightening possibility. So once more my parents exchanged one currency for another, the large gold coins for smaller French Louis gold pieces. But where to put them? My parents pondered the problem, proposed and dismissed solutions. Then my mother came up with an idea that would allow her to hold the coins close to her at all times. “What if….?” she asked herself.  An ingenious idea was forming in her head. She shared her scheme with my father. He was not convinced and kept pointing out the drawbacks: the weight, the physical and mental stress and the terror of discovery and reprisals.

My mother simply dismissed his well-founded objections and began to implement her plan. She intended to remove the stays of her corset, buy the proper material, and sew vertical gussets all around the bodice. The girdle would hold all the gold coins if she laid them flat, one above the other.

She followed through, one step at a time, creating the golden girdle. “Yes, yes! It worked!”

Oh, but how uncomfortable and painful it was for her to wear such armor. Whenever our family left the house, my father and I hooked her into this instrument of torture, he on one side and I on the other. She seldom went out alone these days during the war for fear of curfews and air raids. When we remained home, the corset remained in a safe (we hoped), an easily accessible hiding place in a seldom-used utility closet. Fearful days and restless nights followed. She often slept with the garment near at hand, ready to put on if need be. Still, she endured these problems stoically.

Somehow my mother’s golden girdle held together, although the gussets had to be replaced several times. She kept the corset on for many years.

Eventually my father, a French citizen, was drafted into the army and sent to the front where he was wounded, hospitalized and, before the year was out, discharged from military service. While he was gone, my mother stopped working, except for sewing for a few private clients at home. She was often very, very tired, and so it became my duty to shop for groceries after school. When the Nazis marched into France and occupied Paris in June of 1940, rumors spread throughout the city, and mother was afraid for us. We were alone and had no one to turn to. Many Parisians left the city by whatever means they could find — on foot or otherwise. We did the same. We just wanted to go as far away as we could. But German planes shot at us on the road, and we turned back to Paris, my mother still wearing her girdle. Luckily we were not harmed.

When we were reunited with my father, our lives became a bit more stable and secure, despite our constant fear of being deported. By stealthily moving from place to place, we managed to hide from the Gestapo for three years, my mother still encased in her golden girdle.

When the war finally ended and we were liberated, my parents were heartbroken about the loss of both their families in the camps. With so many bad memories, they just wanted to leave Europe altogether and come to America. We had a cousin in Chicago who could sponsor one of us, but only one at a time. My parents decided I should be the one to leave for America. After the proper time, I would bring them over under the quota system for new immigrants.

Time passed. I married and settled in Pittsburgh for a time before moving to California. By then I had become a citizen of the U.S. and had been an American resident for two years, which meant that I could sign an affidavit of support and bring my parents over to this country.

They made one last monetary exchange of their lottery winnings, trading in their gold Louis coins for U.S. dollars. My mother said she threw away her golden corset with mixed feelings. She was sentimental about her creative hiding place, but very grateful to be rid of it — and free!

My parents arrived in Los Angeles with no further complications. Once there, they explored various investment possibilities to safeguard their long-protected lottery winnings. They decided that real estate was their best bet. They bought an eight-unit apartment building in West Los Angeles and contentedly lived there and managed the site for the rest of their days.

At last they knew peace and success — all because of the golden corset!

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