Abraham Naymark was 10 years old when his family escaped from Germany in 1934.
Germany to Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia to Hungary and finally Hungary to Yugoslavia…
In Zagreb there was no shortage of children trying to help their families make ends meet. Every restaurant, movie house and train station was rife with rag-dressed waifs fighting for a spot to beg for pennies.
But young Abe was already too proud to beg. He wanted to be a real businessman.
Young Abe was too proud to beg. He wanted to be a real businessman.
With this goal in mind, he took the small valise his mother had used to carry the family's toiletries across Europe and scavenged around the neighborhood searching for any items of potential worth. He found a fine winter collection of used brushes, soaps, small containers, shoelaces, picture frames and various other bits and pieces, cleaned them as best he could and put them all into the valise.
He told his parents he was going out to sell door to door so he could help ease his father's financial burden. While they were touched by his intentions, they couldn't hide their skepticism. They decided to indulge him and gave him their blessing.
Every morning he would polish his inventory, pack the case and make himself as presentable as possible. His clothes were too small and his shoes worn through. But with his hair carefully combed, face washed and valise in hand, he marched out the door each day full of enthusiasm.
He had no doubt at all he would succeed in selling his goods and give his father a lot of satisfaction.
Winter in Zagreb, 1934. The streets were frozen and no one was particularly keen to open their doors and let in the cold – or a cocky little 10-year-old.
Abe was not deterred.
For two months his efforts met with moderate success. Some people were amused by this young entrepreneur and bought what they could afford. Others simply laughed at him, ruffled his hair and wished him luck in his “business.”
He persevered, never doubting it was just a matter of time before he would hit the jackpot.
He could barely speak or understand Serbo-Croat but as he walked down yet another residential street, it occurred to him to search for large shops and businesses with Jewish names. He suspected a Jew might have more sympathy for a fellow Jewish immigrant and would more likely to purchase his wares.
He strode down the main street in Zagreb and an enormous department store towered high above him. Shivering uncontrollably under his threadbare winter coat, he stretched his neck to look up at the bright multicolored sign on the front of the store. It was definitely a Jewish name. And there was also a mezuzah on the door.
This was it. He shuddered from cold and fear.
Would the owner of such a huge store even consider taking a moment from his busy day to see a scruffy 10-year-old? Or would he be thrown out of the store for having the audacity to request a meeting with such an important man?
Young Abe Naymark shook off the doubts, took a deep breath, walked purposefully through the front door, and discovered the most elegant and attractive department store he had ever seen in his life. He had no idea places like this even existed.
He stood amazed at the extravagance, the décor, the luxuriousness. Then he looked at his valise…
Racks of men's suits running along one entire wall. A range of elegant women's clothing across another wall. Tables and shelves upon shelves of household goods decoratively displayed in the middle of the store.
He stood amazed at the extravagance, the décor, the luxuriousness.
He looked at his valise…
His comical appearance distinguished him from the rest of the clientele and immediately attracted the attention of one of the store assistants.
“What are you doing here, young man?” he asked, making no effort to hide his disdain.
Abe did his best to stand up straighter and appear more confident.
"I…I…want…want…to see the owner of this store please," he sputtered.
His fear was growing by the minute but he was determined to do what he had to do. He was going to show his goods to the owner of this glittering palace.
“The owner is a very busy man. He does not have time to meet with little children. Let me walk you to the door. Perhaps another time.”
Abe's heart sank but he didn't move.
“Come along young man, I've got a lot of work to do. I can't stand here chatting with you all morning.”
Abe couldn't think of anything to say that might persuade the man and he reluctantly began to shuffle towards the exit.
Suddenly, from nearly halfway across the store, he heard a man's deep voice.
“Just a moment there, my friend.”
Abe stopped dead in his tracks.
A very tall, thin man with a dark beard and small wire-rimmed glasses walked towards him.
Abe stopped dead in his tracks. “I am the owner of this store. What do you have in that case over there?”
The man was dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and a light blue tie. His shoes were brightly polished. Years later, Abe would relive this moment many times, seeing his reflection in the sparkling shine of the man's shoes.
“I am the owner of this store. What do you have in that case over there? I might be interested to see what you're carrying. That is, if the items are for sale of course,” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
With a defeated huff, the employee who had been trying to escort Abe out walked away.
Scared this friendly man might change his mind, Abe quickly opened his valise. The man held each item in his hand as if to examine it before asking its price and returning it to its place.
When he had finished checking Abe's entire stock, he looked him in the eye and said, “Wait right here young man.”
Moments later he returned with a check. “Please tell me how much you want for all your goods,” he said in very businesslike fashion.
Abe was stunned. He was rather unfamiliar with the Yugoslavian currency but came up with some outrageous amount.
He was almost embarrassed to say it aloud but the man wrote out a check for the full amount! The owner of this commercial empire had bought his entire business.
Thanking him profusely and trembling with excitement, he turned to the exit with check in hand. He couldn't wait to show his father what a great salesman he was.
But as he reached the door, Abe heard the deep voice calling him again.
“Young man! Wait! You forgot something.”
He turned around to see the man coming to him carrying his valise with all the merchandise still inside.
“I believe this is yours,” he said gently.
Abe didn't understand.
“But it's yours now, Sir. You paid for it all,” he replied, refusing to take it.
The man changed the subject. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
“I'm the youngest of eight,” Abe answered, hoping that was what he wanted to hear.
The man in the shiny shoes smiled broadly.
“Listen carefully my boy. Take your goods back home. All I want is that you tell your father to come here first thing tomorrow morning. Do you understand? This is very important. Now hurry home. I will be waiting for your father when I open the store at nine tomorrow.”
Still shocked and not really understanding what interest this man could have in his father, Abe left for home with his valise in one hand and a check in the other.
He raced through the icy streets tightly holding the folded check in his hand. The feel of the paper was the only thing that stopped him thinking he had imagined the morning's events.
The cold and the wind could not chill the warm feeling now burning through his bones.
A Surprise Offer
When he reached their apartment, Abe burst through the front door shouting, “Father! Father! Where are you? You won't believe what happened to me today!”
Wolf Naymark had to force him to calm down as he excitedly related his adventures.
“But why do you think he wants to meet with me? Did you tell him anything about me?”
“No Father. He just asked how many siblings I have.”
The Naymarks spent the rest of the evening guessing what this mysterious department store owner might want with their father.
“Perhaps he wants to give you a job, Wolf,” suggested his mother. "This stranger must have realized that if a 10-year-old boy is trying to earn money for his family, his father must be in dire need of employment."
They spent a restless night tossing and turning in their beds. The next day, Wolf and Abe both awoke with the sun. Wolf, dressed in his finest – which wasn't really fine by any standard – followed his son's directions to the store while Abe and his mother stayed home, trying to pass the time. It felt like an eternity.
Two hours later the door opened...
“Don't keep us in suspense! Tell us what happened!” Abe's mother pleaded, with all the children echoing her impatience.
Wolf Naymark smiled mysteriously. It was a smile they had never seen before. The smile of a man who had just been told his life's dream was about to come true.
Hundreds of thousands were seeking refuge but no more than 15,000 Jews were allowed to enter the country.
The owner of the department store was an officer of the Jewish Federation. The Jewish Federation was the single agency responsible for issuing Palestine immigration certificates to a limited amount of Jewish families. Each certificate was allocated to one family and no more than 15,000 Jews were allowed to enter the country at that time. Since hundreds of thousands – if not more – were seeking refuge, these certificates were nearly impossible to come by.
When the department store owner asked Abe how many siblings he had, he had been delighted to hear he was the youngest of eight with the five youngest still living with their parents.
As far as the Jewish Federation was concerned, the Naymark family was the perfect candidate for the certificate. They could not have agreed more.
The man knew – as they did – that once their Yugoslavian visas expired they would be sent back to Germany. They would have been doomed, sent to Jewish labor camps… or worse.
Two days later, a messenger knocked at the door carrying a large manila envelope. The Naymark family gathered round their father as he opened the treasure. The coveted emigration certificate, six freight train tickets to Salonika and six tickets for a passenger boat from Salonika to Palestine.
Not only had the shiny-shoed angel secured the certificate and all the necessary papers, he had paid for their train and boat fare as well. This was no small expense.
Abe smiled as he saw tears of gratitude running down his parents' cheeks. Even at his young age, he understood the magnitude of this stranger's generosity and made himself a vow.
When he grew up he would do whatever it took to be in a position to offer help to someone in need.
Now 88 and a full time philanthropist, Abe Naymark has certainly kept his vow.
Despite a life full of excitement, adventure and remarkable achievement in his professional career, his greatest pleasure and satisfaction is helping other people, whether through donations to hospitals, universities, synagogues or other worthy causes.
As he says, "I can proudly say that helping others in a meaningful way has been the most important thing I have ever done."
And the angel smiles.
Adapted from "From Travail to Triumph: The Remarkable Life of Abraham Naymark", soon to be published by Ventures Press. To reserve your copy of "From Travail to Triumph" please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: If anyone knows the name of the store in Zagreb and/or the name of the owner, please contact the author at email@example.com.