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Charmed Life

Tough as Nails

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/4/2003

George Korzec's tiny hardware store in Pigtown is a strange place to discuss his survival of the Holocaust. One moment he's talking about how he had to cut off his own toe while laying railroad track for the Germans. The next, the cowbell on the door goes dong-dong, and in comes a surly teenager who mashes a cigarette out on the front counter, demanding a can of spray paint. One moment he's talking about the five years during which his mother, brother, and sister were all killed in concentration camps, and the next moment dong-dong! The door opens again, and in comes an old friend, stooped over in arthritic pain, looking for a part for his toilet.

This is how it's been for the 78-year-old Korzec since he set up shop in this area more than 40 years ago. Korzec immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1949 and stumbled through a series of jobs before he opened a little store in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood in 1958. That first store was a grocery. It evolved into a general store, which sold everything from appliances to toys before he turned it into a hardware shop. It was the predecessor to his current endeavor, Washington Village Hardware and Sales, which has been in the same Washington Boulevard location for 17 years now.

During Korzec's time in Baltimore, he has become a master of toggling between his past, so vivid that it might as well be pasted on the inside of his eyelids, and his present. Stories of the painful past come slow and hard--not necessarily due to trauma, but to a caginess that developed in him after his life as a son of a small textile manufacturer in Lodz, Poland, was abruptly turned upside down by World War II. His stories stop when customers come in: a man with missing teeth, who Korzec once caught burglarizing the store; a young woman looking for shellac (he somehow deduces that she is an artist and immediately shows off some brushes).

The little store looks like a Home Depot with the g'durim--as they would say in Yiddish--shaken out of it. Tiny tubs of spackle, copper fittings, and nozzles clog a corner of the store. Lock sets, hammers, big batteries, and smoke alarms are scattered about in the front glass case, and the proprietor can be seen at times leaning on the counter, pressing his fingers into his forehead.

"Shingles," he says, looking up. "I got shingles. Don't worry--it's not contagious."

As he details his ailment of six weeks and counting, I wonder how I can convince him to tell of his escape from a Nazi concentration camp, which he promises to be a dramatic tale. It has been a running challenge during my visits to Korzec's store, as I try to steer the interviews back to the moment of freedom.

"April the 3, 1945, I escape from the camp of Ordor," he says. "The rest of the story you can find in my book."

Korzec laughs and explains that he started to write a book about his experience, which started in the Polish ghetto in the spring of 1940. He later found himself a prisoner in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and other prison-labor camps before he finally escaped in 1945. He says that his manuscript was a little thin, so his daughter, a TV producer, urged him to put more schmaltz in it.

"Schmaltz--that's my word, not hers," he notes apologetically, chuckling at the absurdity of using fluff to spice up his story.

"Here you say 'streetwise,'" Korzec says in his thick, Polish accent as he returns to his tale. "I was becoming ghetto-wise and concentration camp-wise, and that's how I survived."

Korzec talks about the hunger in the ghetto and how he quickly realized the best possible job to have was that of a cook. ("Cooks never starve," he notes, as if administering advice for the future.) He talks about Auschwitz, where he watched his mother and younger brother being led away, never to be seen again, to the camp's notorious gas chambers.

"One way was to death," he recalls. "One way was to work, to slave labor."

But he never does reveal the details of his escape to freedom.

Despite difficult memories, Korzec exudes cheerfulness and a love of laughter--traits that have made him a popular neighborhood fixture in Pigtown. He's been in the neighborhood a long time, sticking with it when times got tough. He stayed during the race riots of the 1960s, which sent many white merchants running to the suburbs. As the neighborhood deteriorated, he remained, moving his store to Washington Boulevard and hoping for the best.

"I was very, very friendly with the neighborhood," he says. "I had some losses. But the neighborhood looked out for me."

Al Canty, 68, who has lived above Korzec's store for 10 years, calls Korzec "achselite." "That means brother in Yiddish," Canty says.

Though Canty's background is not Jewish (he's African-American), he delights in the endangered Eastern European language. He also marvels at Korzec's ability to befriend anyone who comes through the door. Korzec can speak Spanish with immigrants, for example, and has patience for teenagers.

"I love George," Canty says. "I'm telling you, he's my best friend."

Korzec's neighborhood ties keep him at the counter at Washington Village Hardware four days a week. He says he keeps the store going for the customers, many of whom cannot make it out to the big chain stores around the Beltway. He's also keeping the store open for himself, until he gets around to revisiting his book about the Holocaust and the escape to freedom he made many years ago.

"When I get myself together," he says. "It's traumatic to write."

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