City Beat: At ‘kindergarten coffees,’ families of Holocaust survivors hold on
After Mona Shafer Edwards’ mother died five years ago, nearly a decade after her father, she yearned for their accents, the rhythms of the Polish they spoke, the tastes and smells of the world she’d grown up in.
It was a world that straddled Los Angeles and Europe, peopled by those with a shared history. Her parents had survived the Holocaust, as had their closest friends.
“We clung to each other,” one of them, Mila Page, says. “Most of us didn’t have families, and so our friends became our family.”
And so it is family Page welcomes into her Beverly Hills apartment. It is family for whom she has set her table with china and silver, and laid out fancy cookies, chocolates and cherry pie.
She is hosting what she calls a “kindergarten coffee” for the children of the friends she’s outlived — children who today are in their 60s. She is 95.
Thanks to her prodigious memory for names, dates, the smallest details, Page has held on to much of their collective past — and parts of her own that she might wish to forget.
She remembers her wartime job repairing German army uniforms, often covered in lice and blood. She remembers traveling in a cattle car to Auschwitz. She remembers the wonderful scent of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved her life, when he would stride, tall and elegantly dressed, across his factory floor.
She also remembers Edwards, who is 64, as a baby “sitting like a Buddha in the playpen.”
Edwards, her husband, Barry, and her brother, Martin Shafer, 61, arrive at the kindergarten coffee bearing boxes of chocolate.
Come sit, Page urges them. Come eat and eat some more.
Her own daughter, Marie Knecht, circles the table, pouring coffee.
It is just after 2 p.m. on a weekday, a time when this younger generation ordinarily would be occupied.
Knecht, 59, teaches senior fitness classes and plays tuba and euphonium in three bands. Edwards is a courtroom artist. Shafer is chairman and chief executive of Castle Rock Entertainment. Only one of the invited children, Joan Isaacs, 66, hasn’t made it, and that’s only because she is traveling in China.
“I’m busy too, very busy,” says Page, smiling. “Doctors and doctors and doctors.”
Kindergarten coffees, however, are a timeout. No phone calls, no texting.
At Page’s table, time is taken to admire the pie with its crisp, buttery crust. And to travel from the present to taste memories of L.A. bakeries, sweet shops and restaurants.
How about those Saturday nights, says Edwards, when “half of Beverly Hills” could be found at Wil Wright’s ice cream parlor, with its cheerful red-and-white awnings.
“Beverly Hills was a lot different then. It was a small town,” Shafer says.
Food memories lead to talk of the important moments they’ve shared.
Before long they are back at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Page’s son, Freddy, now 65, was bar mitzvahed. He would have loved to have been here and seen everyone, Page says. He’s a teacher, though, and couldn’t make it.
Because this is kindergarten coffee, Fred is Freddy here, just as Joan is Joanie. The childhood names, like the memories, have stuck.
Mention of the Beverly Wilshire jogs other memories, of the years when Edwards’ and Shafer’s father was the hotel doctor, often called on to treat big-name guests. The two of them start laughing about when he asked, “Do you know Mike Jagger?
“One time he said, ‘You know Steven Katz?’ And I said, ‘You mean Cat Stevens?’” Shafer says.
Soon they’re all picturing Joseph Shafer, the sun worshiper, lying by his Coldwater Canyon pool, and joking about how he should have been a cruise doctor.
“I never saw my father without a tan,” Martin Shafer says.
How did the Shafers first meet the Pages?
Page, when Edwards asks her, recalls it perfectly.
When Shafer learned his patient was from Poland, he called his wife, who came to the office. That night, the Pages had the Shafers over for coffee. The Pages also were among a small group of Polish Holocaust survivors who, around the same time, started the 1939 Club — now called the 1939 Society — to take care of one another and their families.
People talk about the Holocaust much more since “Schindler’s List,” Page says. She and her husband appear as characters in the movie and in person at Schindler’s grave at the end.
It was Leopold Page (born Pfefferberg) who would first tell the story that eventually led to “Schindler’s List” — when the writer Thomas Keneally wandered into the Pages’ Beverly Hills leather goods shop in search of a briefcase.
“He was always trying to tell the story, trying to get anybody to write the story about his survival. He would try to get anybody to listen,” Knecht says.
Some parents, says Page, kept silent about their Holocaust experiences. “My mother didn’t want to talk about it at all,” Edwards says.
Nor is it a subject they dwell on here, as the talk glides on to new movies and to more recollections of old L.A.
The pony rides at Beverly Park, on the site where the Beverly Center is now. Ontra Cafeteria, where the Shafer kids — to their parents’ horror — used to love to get Jell-O.
“They would say: ‘You’re eating this crep?’” Shafer says, imitating their accents.
“Whenever my parents would travel,” Edwards says, “I would always call Mila to hear that accent.”
“To hear my voice, yes,” Page says. “And you were already a grown-up then!”
“True, but I would always do that, and it was very nice,” Edwards says, reaching for Page’s hand. “It still is.”
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