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Phil the Kosher Butcher Survived Auschwitz but Was Murdered in My Hometown

The strange way I learned the story of a man who died defending his trade, his honor, and working-class Jews

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Butcher holding slab of beef in a meat locker, 1949. (Stanley Kubrick/Library of Congress)
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San Francisco. November, 2010. My lawyer, Neumann, and I were getting stoned on the porch of an outdoor café overlooking Noe Valley. Neumann is a large man. Which is a fine quality for a lawyer. I however am not. Nevertheless, he is my oldest friend. In first grade I pretended to choke to death after he dropped a penny in my chocolate milk. A penny that he, for whatever reason, meant as a gift. I was very dramatic about the whole thing. Our friends proceeded to berate him for his cruelty, his thoughtlessness. Then they picked me up and carried me out to the playground, presumably to bury me beside the jungle gym. Eric Herscovitz was humming a dirge. For some reason, Neumann bought it. He thought it was legit. Or at least he acted like he did. He was weeping, he was moaning. He was practically sitting shiva.

The remainders of our childhoods were spent listening to Dr. Demento and the local radio trivia show. One night he called in with a question about Monopoly, a question he’d completely made up, along with the answer. It had something to do with the political significance of the pieces. Somehow the Soviet Union was involved. The shoe represented the Bolsheviks. The top hat the Trotskyites. It was complete bullshit, and it won Best Question of the Night.

In junior high Neumann saved me from the local toughs, one of whom tossed a penny in my direction and said, Well, what was I doing just sitting there? Wasn’t I going to pick it up? So, I got up and I shoved an ice cream sandwich in his face. It was the only logical next step. The tough came at me, and others joined in, and then Neumann came to my defense. For his troubles, he sustained a torn medial meniscus after falling into a chair. Neumann, that is, not the head with the cold, sticky face. To this day, Neumann walks with a cane. Occasionally the knee gives out on him altogether and he topples to the ground.

Then 30 years went by. We hardly spoke. He got married. I got married. He had two kids. I had two kids. Now, suddenly, due to a legal misunderstanding at a startup I co-founded, the details of which I am not at liberty to discuss here, we were back together. He had come to my defense yet again. He was officially my lawyer.

***

Neumann took a long draw from the medicinal marijuana cigarette we had procured from the local pharmacy and exhaled, engulfing himself in a haze of aromatic, government-sanctioned THC:

“Read the book of Jonah, you idiot,” he coughed. “Read the fucking story of the Talking Donkey.”

“What are you even talking about?” I said. “Why are you calling me an idiot?”

“Because you don’t know anything. You haven’t read anything. Anyway, the point is, that book is—whatever—that’s the bullshit, right? And now here comes the reality. The real deal like Evander Holyfield.”

“Hit me,” I said. Neumann passed me the joint.

“OK, so Talmud says this: Your mind is like a piece of parchment. And as you get older it gets more and more wrinkly and harder to write on.”

“You read the Talmud?” I asked. Neumann dismissed me with his hand.

“Phil told me that,” he said. “Phil! You know Phil. Phil the Butcher. That wasn’t his name, but whatever. Then he died a week later. It was very disturbing.”

“I don’t know Phil the Butcher.”

“My mom was like, ‘Phil the Butcher was killed!’ ”

“Why would I know Phil the Butcher?”

“‘He should’ve let the meat go!’ ”

“Who the hell is Phil the Butcher?” I asked again.

“Who do you think?” Neumann said. “He was our Butcher. Mom would pick up kosher meat and we would go see him. Phil the Butcher. You don’t remember Phil the Butcher?”

“I’m telling you I never”—

“Survived Auschwitz.”

—“met him.”

“Buried alive.”

“He talked to you about Auschwitz?”

“Oh, sure he did! Long time ago. Like 30 years ago.”

“Thirty years! What were you, 10?”

“So, he’s in Auschwitz, right? And the sun is going down and a deathly pall is descending on the camp. There’s the stench of bodies. The living and the dead. Phil is lying there in his bunk, just like you’ve seen in the pictures, the wall of bunks. It’s like a morgue, with the bodies in there. It might as well be a morgue. Nobody says a word. For a moment there’s a break in the endless hacking of coughs. Phil the butcher reflects upon his former life. His only solace lies in the past: He was caught-up with schoolwork; he was making good progress with that girl. But the moment passes, the hacking recommences, and now it’s six months later, he thinks, or perhaps a year. Phil is at this point for all intents and purposes a zombie, right? He does what he is told. Shits where they let him.

“He has no will. He has no desires. He has no hope. He is what he is. He is Jonah in the belly of the whale. Then one day five guards enter, maybe a little louder than normal, they’re shouting and scraping their boots and kicking at the bunks. They’re herding the Jews together, blindfolding them, marching them out. Out into the snow. Trudging through the deep snow in rag-bound feet.”

“Why the blindfolds? Was there some big secret?” I asked.

“And now they’re marching some more,” he continued. “Well, probably they could hardly walk. So, maybe some of them collapse on the way, and they just get shot in the head, right there where they drop. The lucky ones. So, now they’re deep in the woods somewhere. Phil can tell by the crunching of the leaves under his feet and the echoing of their breaths on the trees. And he knows this is it. I mean, it’s not looking good. This is the middle of nowhere. He can no longer feel his feet. And then it happens.”

Neumann paused for a drag. “There’s a big ditch all ready for them,” he said. “And they line them all up and the guns go up: BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM for however long that takes, and the thudding of the bodies, one and another and another and Phil the Butcher dives to the ground and then that’s it. It’s over.”

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Phil the Kosher Butcher Survived Auschwitz but Was Murdered in My Hometown

The strange way I learned the story of a man who died defending his trade, his honor, and working-class Jews