I am excited to tell you that The Lowell Film Collaborative will be showing “Browsing Through Birke’s” a documentary film about my Holocaust surviving parents, Nathan and Sally Birke and their store on May 18, 2010 at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market Street, Lowell, MA. This is a free event and no registration is necessary. If you shopped at Birke’s and have stories to share, please come at 6:00 PM. The film will be shown at 7:00PM. Please contact me with any questions at Szifra@BirkeConsulting.com or at 978-446-9600.
P.S. FILM REVIEW, sort of…
Browsing Through Birke’s: A Jewish Holocaust-surviving family and their quirky 50 year-old clothing store and eccentric owner— in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Here’s a two minute preview/trailer of the film. It’ll give you a flavor of this unconventional store and how outrageous my father was. http://vimeo.com/11463335
Birke’s Department Store epitomizes the survivors’ story, and brings to life the complexity of these refugees and the customs they brought with them from Europe – hard work, devotion to family, a hunger for knowledge. Nathan Birke vowed to never forget, and anyone who had contact with him knows he didn’t. Every day, he testified of the Holocaust to all who came into Birke’s Department Store. Whether they wanted to listen or not, strangers and friends, Jews or Gentiles, Nathan told them. Even when paying for clothes, customers were confronted with articles about Nazis from pages of Jewish newspapers he stapled to the wall behind the cash register. Like the braids, tight knots and waves of human hair that still hang today in an Auschwitz barrack, Nathan shocked people into the reality of the Holocaust, forcing them to face human beings’ darkest side.
Although he was deft at buying wholesale, his approach to sales and customer relations would give most retailers nightmares. Woe be it to anyone who ignored the large “NO BROWSING” sign which “greeted” customers as they stepped into Birke’s.
“What do you want?” Nathan would interrogate the casual, unsuspecting shopper. The words, roared out with his Yiddish accent, sounded like this: “Vat do you vant?”
“Oh, I’m just looking,” was the usual unwary reply.
“No lookers. Ve vant buyers! You vant to browse, go to a library! At least there you vill loyn someting!” Nathan would declare, just before throwing the hapless shopper out.
Nathan threw about ten thousand potential customers out of the store over the years, for such offenses as browsing or conversely, being too picky. Coming in to buy a blue suit, one man was told, “You vant a blue zoot? Vy you no join da Navy dhen you get a blue zoot free!”
Nathan held court at a small metal TV tray in the center of the store. Seated there, he shocked listeners with brutal tales of the Holocaust. He made his scorn of politics and religion known through endless monologues punctuated with obscenities. And all the while, he kept an eye peeled for those hated browsers. Birke’s was not for the meek.
If Nathan’s self-assigned job was to harry and haggle, Sally’s was to feed and to comfort. She greeted customers with a kind word and trays of homemade goodies, coffee and tea. She had an uncanny ability to remember details from conversations with shoppers. In many ways, her customers became her extended family and her community.
Nathan and Sally saw to it that those in need were taken care of. Scores of customers today recall Sally’s gestures of generosity; despite his disposition, customers also recount stories of Nathan’s charity. He donated tons of clothing and often reduced prices for those in need.
If you survived Nathan’s test, you were treated to quality merchandise at reasonable prices and alterations and assistance from Filomena Espinola, an employee for over twenty years, as well as coffee and cookies from Sally.
“Browsing Through Birke’s” is a reminder of not only Nathan and Sally’s hard work, sorrows and legacies, but also a celebration of the immigrant experience—and a chance, finally, to see all those 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s clothes Nathan had hidden away!
Also please visit the Lowell Film Collaborative website for their link about the film.
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