Lisa McGlaun, who is the author of the inspirational blog,"LifePrints" has inspired me to write this post. After reading her article "New York Wedding Ring -Do It Yourself", I recalled what a bittersweet experience it was buying my wife her engagement ring so many years ago. In this week of Thanksgiving, I have a special story to tell. Ever since this happened to me, I've been inspired to be a better person.
In July of 1989 I was a raw recruit in the New York City Police Academy. It was then that I decided to propose to my girlfriend. New officers in the police department do not make a lot of money, especially back in the late 1980’s, so finding a decent engagement ring proved to be a bit of a challenge. The meager savings I had up to then went to paying upwards of $250 a month in train fare to commute back and forth every day from Long Island to Manhattan where the academy is located. By chance, I had a conversation with my brother in law Mark’s step-father at my sister’s home. We were seated at the dining room table for dessert.
“So, you are getting engaged?” he asked in a heavy, Polish accent. Ziggy was in his early seventies, and in ill health. I’d known him for many years up to that point, and he was a gentle, affectionate man who enjoyed family. My parents and my siblings all loved Ziggy and we were are close to Mark’s family, sharing our Catholic and Jewish heritages from one holiday season to the next.
“Yes, I’m excited. I’m shopping for a ring.” I said.
“Where did you go? You didn’t go to the mall, did you?” I noticed a look of alarm on his face.
“Uh, I was going to?” I said, almost as a question. Also, I think I gulped.
“No, no, Michael. You go see my friend. He’ll show you what to do, how to buy a diamond. Don’t even buy from him if you don’t want to. He’ll just make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.” He took a piece of paper and produced a pen from his shirt pocket.
In moments, I had a lead for a jeweler in Flushing, Queens who was described by Ziggy as “a man I play cards with every Tuesday.” After thanking him, I put the paper in my pocket.
The meeting with the jeweler took place that Saturday. I couldn’t wait to see what my options were, and though I had a modest amount of money to work with, I was still a bit cautious as I didn’t know how much of a favor this was going to be, and I did not want Ziggy to feel beholden to this man on my account.
“So, you know Ziggy? I better treat you right, then.” The man said as soon as I walked in. “Ziggy told me to look for a cop, a strong, young man with a crew cut. You must be Michael.” He shook my hand vigorously and welcomed me into his shop. We spoke for a minute or two about Ziggy and it was apparent that the jeweler had immense respect for him and that they did more than just play cards together. He repeated what Ziggy said about not having to buy from him, and that he just wanted to teach me about buying gems, diamonds in particular.
“You never buy a ring that’s already made. You buy the diamond first, and then have the ring made from the stone.” His voice was authoritative, and I listened to him because Ziggy trusted this man. I was given a lengthy tutorial on choosing the perfect stone, then I was told that I didn’t have to make a decision that day. So, I left his store, grateful for the knowledge I picked up from his lesson and returned to what was left of my brief weekend and another grueling week at the academy.
The next Saturday, I arrived early at the jeweler, cash in hand, to buy a stone. After at least two hours examining diamonds with a loop, and comparing them to the ones I already picked out, I found the perfect, one carat, white diamond, nearly flawless; and then I chose the setting and the smaller diamonds for the setting. The ring, which was made within the week, is gorgeous. To this day, my wife is complimented on the quality of the stone and other jewelers have said that I got “one hell of a deal” on the diamond.
I remember thanking Ziggy profusely and he waved me off as if he did nothing. But I also recall one scene which played out at my sister’s home, shortly before Ziggy passed away. It was Thanksgiving. The conversation was about family and what we should be thankful for, and I mentioned to Ziggy that I was grateful for the help he gave me in finding a reputable jeweler. His intervention was important in making our experience perfect. The ring, flawless and more valuable than what I paid for, is a cornerstone of our marriage in both symbolism and value.
Ziggy listened to me and challenged my assertion that anything he contributed was such a big deal. After a few more protests on his part, I saw him become soft in his composure, resting his arms on the table.
“That is why I tell people that whatever they do they have an effect on somebody. Who would have thought that this small thing, this little phone call I made to a friend would have this lasting effect and would have brought this much happiness? You’re welcome Mike, It was my pleasure.” It was then that he turned to the rest of the family and began to speak.
“I need to tell all of you this, because it is important. I have seen horrors, lost everything. And we all need to learn that just a little kindness…” he paused just to wipe his eyes.
You see, Ziggy survived the Holocaust. His family lived in Poland before WWII and he was a young man forced into hiding in the countryside with his family to escape the Nazis. His younger sister, who was sixteen years old at the time, was taken in by a Catholic family who hid her in their home. The townspeople informed on the family to the local authorities. When Ziggy learned of the betrayal, he watched helplessly from the woods as the family, his sister, and the family’s two year old daughter were executed in front of their home. When he, his parents and his brother were later cornered and arrested after a search by the locals looking to root out the “Jews” who were hiding in the forest, they were all deported to Auschwitz. Immediately, Ziggy was separated from his family and put to work only because he was a baker, and he was used as slave labor in the camps. The rest of his family all were murdered.
At Ziggy’s funeral many years later, a Rabbi told us all of the many acts of kindness and generosity Ziggy performed throughout his life. After immigrating to the United States after the war, he moved to the Bronx and worked for a baker and saved enough money to eventually open his own shop. If, as the Rabbi explained in his eulogy, Ziggy learned of someone who needed glasses and could not afford them, somehow they found the money for glasses through Ziggy. The same was for folks who could not afford heat, food, medicine, and even life saving surgery. He was a man who lived through Hell and still had the faith in mankind to help all those in need. We were told by the Rabbi that in the camps, Ziggy risked his own life to smuggle crusts of bread to the dying for sustenance. In the Bronx, with his own bakery, he continued to provide for those who needed help, giving from his own plate, if you will, to make sure others did not suffer or live in need. The man was a model of kindness which was born not of misery, but in spite of it.
I learned something after Ziggy told us his story that day, and I had my faith in humanity re-affirmed upon hearing the Rabbi offer his tribute to such a wonderful man. During this week of Thanksgiving here in the United States where Ziggy made his home, we all need to take a lesson from an unselfish man; a person who saw his small acts of kindness as inconsequential, but recognized that even a crust of bread can save a life.
Thanksgiving Holocaust jeweler diamonds Bronx WWII Rabbi Catholic Jewish family blog police department Police Academy engagement ring