By Stuart Soffer
Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of FlatbushUploaded: Jul 11, 2019
Bobby in Naziland: A Tale of Flatbush (Headpress, available September 1, 2019), is the third literary work from author Robert Rosen, a friend from Junior and Senior High Schools in the Old Country – Brooklyn. His first book was Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, followed by Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. (Unknown to Bobby, I was once retained by Playboy Magazine as an expert witness in a trademark matter to detail the relation between search terms and banner ads. My expert report could have received an x-rating due to the pictures.)
While Brooklyn – and its native accent – is often the butt of jokes, it has long served as the creative and inspirational crucible for many authors and filmmakers (ex. Woody Allen, Spike Lee. The movie Smoke, based on a story by Paul Auster, was set in a Park Slope cigar store. There is even a book entitled ‘Literary Brooklyn.’)
To make sense of the title requires localizing the bounds of time, place and experiences and mental pre-occupation. Bobby in Naziland recalls life in a Brooklyn neighborhood south of Prospect Park, from the end of WW II through the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963; the return of veterans from the Pacific (my father) and European theaters of WW II (Bobby’s father); as well as serving as a new home for many European refugees. Recall Sophie’s Choice, set in Bobby’s immediate neighborhood which tells the story of Sophie Zawistowska, a refugee who was interned at Auschwitz and forced to choose which one of her two children would live and which one would die. These are the types of experiences of the recovering denizens of this neighborhood.
Another autobiography is The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn – about the Dodgers and melds baseball with coming of age.
Yet another Brooklyn-born author, Joseph Heller served as bombadier in the army air corps at the Italian front, then wrote the dark comedy Catch-22 in 1961.
It was impossible to grow up without at least an indirect impact from W.W. II. For example, I was a reticent and picky eater, and my mother frequently reminded me to "think about the starving children in Europe" to encourage me to eat. Like Bobby, I, too, was transfixed by the capture, trial and hanging of Adolf Eichmann, reading every word in the newspaper accounts.
It was through Facebook that I learned of his latest autobiographical tome. On a recent trip to New York we met in Greenwich Village and took the train to Brooklyn to explore the setting of the book and refresh our memories of the people and places. We emerged at the Church Avenue Station on the Brighton Beach line – notable because Bobby’s father owned one of the two newsstands at the station; no one entered or left the station without passing by. The newsstand functioned as a community center, a nexus of newspapers, bookie operations, Playboy magazines, candy, baseball cards and, most importantly, chocolate egg creams, the indigenous New York, hand-crafted, on-demand, elixir, which contains neither eggs nor cream.
Church Avenue station was one stop from Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers before they emigrated to LA, so the neighborhood hosted the apartments used by the Dodgers. We recalled Tom’s barbershop, Chiapetta Brothers Shoe and Hat Repair, Charlie’s pizzeria by the slice, the Carvel custard corner, the duckpin bowling alley on the second floor above DealTown. My father took me to bowl there once where I saw the bowling pins manually reset by a black gentleman, who without being asked provided coffee to my father and a donut to me. I was impressed. We entered what used to be Lamston’s 5 and 10, where I instantly returned to the corner where parakeets were once sold as pets. Our dentist who lived around the corner on East 17th and had an office on Church Avenue, on the second floor of a walkup. His waiting room sported a coat-rack that perpetually held an NYPD uniform from the 70 (pronounced the seven-oh) Precinct. The coat, hat and baton were intended to convince would-be robbers that a cop was currently occupying the dentist's chair.
Our high school, Erasmus Hall, was founded in 1786, and its 200 year existence has produced many notable people in addition to us: Neil Diamond, Bobby Fischer, Moe Howard of the Three Stooges (I’m especially proud of the latter fact), Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for West Side Story, quarterback Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears; Don Most (Ralph Malph of Happy Days, who was in my chemistry class and impressed everyone with his quick thinking and ability to put out a fire with an old brass extinguisher); Marky Ramone (Marc Bell), gold medalist runner Cheryl Toussaint, Mae West, Roger Kahn, Barbra Streisand and Jon Cypher (Chief of Police Fletcher Daniels on Hill Street Blues).
The Haves and the Have-nots – it’s only relative
The area is known as Flatbush – the Anglicization of the colonial Dutch Vlackbos. The Brighton line runs through a trench that bisects East 17th and East 18th Streets – demarking the haves from the have-nots – not unlike our own Highway 101 on the San Francisco peninsula. Funny how that works out. Bobby grew up in a 4-story walk-up; I grew up in a 1-bedroom apartment in a 6-story building with elevators. A placard from the 1960's on the side of the building still directs people to the basement where emergency supplies were stored in case we were nuked. A footbridge connected my block (the relative have-nots) over the train tracks to the coveted Victorian Flatbush neighborhood and its impressive mansions (the haves). These blocks are now used as back lot exteriors for television and movie production. My father always parked his car on the haves side and used the bridge to walk back home. This footbridge existed until the haves decided such access by thehave-nots wouldn’t do and arranged for the removal of the bridge. Victorian Flatbush included the remnants of the manse owned by the Ex-Lax family, and another inhabited by a family of bachelor brothers and spinster sisters, who rattled around inside. Someone resembling Uncle Fester greeted visitors at the door.
Another artifact of the neighborhood was a private tennis club (near a street actually called Tennis Ct), nested between the subway trench and apartment buildings. In the 60’s club membership was ‘restricted’, but we were welcomed during our tour when we visited this once-forbidden territory. Bobby was unaware of the a secret back door to the club, across from my apartment building.
The walking tour – after 2 hours – required a pitstop at a bar on Cortelyou Road before heading back to the train.
Twenty years after W.W. II, the angst was finally turned into comedy, notably on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and Mel Brooks’ film The Producers with the show-stopping musical number Springtime for Hitler. At last it was safe to laugh at Nazis.
When Bobby provided me with a copy of Bobby in Naziland I retreated to my hotel and began the dive into his early life and mine. I couldn’t put the book down. When officially published, Bob should arrange for a signing and reading at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.
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