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
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”—
“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.”
“That’s it? It’s over?”
Neumann nodded his head.
“Now it’s later that night,” he said. “Or maybe it’s the next night. Anyway, Phil the Butcher wakes up. That’s it, he thinks, I’m dead. So, this is death.”
“Wait. He wasn’t a butcher yet. Wasn’t he just a kid?”
“ ‘I’m dead,’ Phil the Butcher thinks. He can’t move. ‘I’m dead.’ Then some time goes by, he floats in and out of consciousness until finally he feels a pressure, he can feel this pressure of the weight. All this weight on top of him. Maybe he’s having breathing trouble. Anyway, it’s at about this point that he realizes he’s still alive. He doesn’t want to be alive—he has no interest in going on living—but there it is. He is inevitably alive. And now he’s gasping for air, he’s so tightly packed-in. He can’t expand his chest to get a full breath. He’s worried if he moves even one muscle he might suffocate altogether. But of course he has to move. We all have to move. There’s a stench. He has to move. And so he somehow navigates his way upward, burrowing up through the pile of bodies he’d been buried under, hacking away at limbs and whatnot until he makes it to the surface. There’s blood everywhere. Phil the Butcher is dripping in blood. Is it his blood? Everybody else’s blood? Who knows?”
“It’s the middle of the night. Nobody’s around. And so Phil the Butcher wraps himself up in whatever clothes he can pilfer from the dead that lay around him, and starts walking. And by the light of the full moon Phil the Butcher makes his escape.”
“My hand to God.”
“And so ends Act I. Intermission. Hit the lobby, use the men’s room, get a coffee, and now it’s 50 years later. Phil the Butcher is finally a fully licensed butcher. A real shochet with a kosher shop in Dorchester. He is a member of the congregation. A pillar of the community. He does not ever think of those days. He no longer thinks of those days. He tries not to think of those days. He is married. He has children. He may have had grandchildren, I’m not sure, I don’t remember all that well. But one thing I do know is he had a truck. It was a big square refrigerator truck with a giant star of David on the side and it said, PHIL’S MEATS, and on the driver’s side, in the frame of the window it said in a white script, The Butcher. In all fairness it was a beautiful truck. I mean, I’m assuming he had insurance—or, maybe he didn’t, who knows—but what with all the custom paintwork, it was more than a truck. It was a work of art.”
“Got it. Nice truck,” I said.
“The thing was all tuned-up for the High Holidays. Passover was tomorrow. He had to really make sure the shit was working, the freezer thing. That there was no chance it was going to quit out on him, the freon or whatever. Don’t forget, the thing was literally a tank. It had a clutch you wouldn’t believe. I think I was about 6 when I saw it. It was this labyrinth of steel and gears and poles with the balls on top. It was one motherfucker of a truck.”
“OK, OK. I get it.”
“Right. Now. Picture this. It’s the day before Passover, like I said, like 1990, or ’91. For Phil the Butcher, it’s like the Superbowl of kosher meat delivery. The entire Dorchester Mattapan area is demanding kosher meat. Phil the Butcher has been all day butchering. As quick as his shechita knife could muster. So, now it’s sundown. The truck is packed full. His blade has grown dull. The rabbi is hoarse. He takes the truck through one last car wash, more out of necessity than vanity. It’s never good form to show up with guts hanging off your vehicle. An eye, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe that sounds ridiculous. Does that sound ridiculous? Maybe it was just some blood. You know there’s going to be blood all over it, that much seems pretty obvious. Blood and—what’s that other word—bile.”
“That doesn’t sound very kosher.”
“Look, what do I know about what the truck looked like before he washed it? I never saw it like that. To me it was just this glistening Jew machine coming down the street. It was big. It was metal. It was the future. As soon as you heard it you could taste it in your mouth. Like the ice cream man only with kosher chicken. It’s a Pavlovian thing. And you could hear it coming from blocks away, a loping squeaky beast. So, it could be an hour before it got to you, especially what with all the stops he had to make. It was the sound of enormous rust-encrusted springs bouncing heavily under the weight of so much sundries. It was the suspension. And Phil the Butcher, he was a tough motherfucker himself, that guy. To me, back then, a giant. A Jew giant. A Jewant. So, now he’s finally parked his truck in front of our house and he’s sitting in our kitchen, mopping his brow with a shmatah. He’s got a white button-down on with the sleeves rolled-up and the shirt unbuttoned all the way because it doesn’t breathe and he can’t take it anymore. Under that he has on the white tank top—and that’s soaked, too—and then he’s got the barrel chest with all the hair and the gold chains. And of course the Star of David. One on the truck, one on the body.”
“So, now it’s 20 years after that and the racial makeup of Dorchester has changed considerably. I don’t have to tell you, but for one reason or another, a lot of the Jews have left Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and moved inward … to Brookline … to wherever. Sharon, Billerica. Everybody except for this one bunch of old ladies. They weren’t going anywhere. These old Jewish ladies, their husbands died like 25 years ago from heat exhaustion or whatever. But they stuck around. Too old to leave, too healthy to go into Hebrew Homes. Maybe they all came over on the boat together, what do I know?”
“Even though his shop was in Brookline now,” Neumann said, “he would still make the trip out. Same truck and everything, because what else could he do? They had no one else. Without him, they would starve. He was it! Phil the Butcher was their only salvation. His was an unhappy monopoly. I mean, any butcher worth his kosher salt could’ve waltzed into town and set up shop and made a killing. These old ladies, they gave him a lot of business.
“Anyhow, now it’s the day before Passover. The old ladies are blowing the dust off their Haggadahs. Plagues are about to befall Egypt. The Israelites are about to be finally once again freed from slavery. And Phil the Butcher is once again packing up the truck and delivering kosher meat to the worst section of Dorchester so that the old Jews don’t wither up and die.
“I still remember my mom running around the house, screaming, ‘He should’ve let the meat go!’ But I think I understand. It’s the morning before Passover. He’s getting started on making his rounds. He’s racking up the mitzvahs. I’m thinking it’s maybe early in the day that it happened, his truck is still pretty full. Maybe if it had happened later things would have been different, he wouldn’t have given a shit. He would have taken the insurance. But since it’s so early, he’s still got a lot to lose. He’s thinking about all that meat going to waste. All those poor animals dying in vain, never getting seasoned by the old ladies, never getting chewed up and integrated into those old ladies’ muscle tissue. And by virtue of this mystical transmogrification, the cows are converted, becoming literally Jewish themselves.”
“There you go,” I said.
“So, now the sun is coming up, and Phil the Butcher is making his rounds. He’s sitting in Mrs. Bronstein’s kitchen, and she’s looking over his meat, just like countless dubious yentas before her. Happy to have him, but not about to take any chances. And Phil’s sitting in there, the A/C ruffling his open shirt. His last few hairs matted-down with sweat. And meanwhile, the truck is outside, itself sweating, water dripping from the exhaust. He has to leave the engine running, of course, to keep the meat from spoiling. Then suddenly a grandchild storms in, ‘Bubbe, bubbe, the men are outside! The men are taking the meat!’ Phil the Butcher runs to the window and sure enough some locals are messing with his truck. They’re in the cab, trying to figure out the clutch. The freezer door is open. The steam is billowing out. The meat is going bad.
“Phil the Butcher throws on his cap and runs outside. Even at his age, which is about 60-something now, the guy’s not taking shit from anybody.
“ ‘What do you think you’re doing!’ he demands.
“ ‘What does it look like we’re doing? We’re taking your truck, old timer.’
“In truth, Phil the Butcher was not all that concerned. He saw the trouble they were having with the antique transmission. He knew what it took to get that beast moving. These were young kids. They’re not getting anywhere. He goes around back and he gets the freezer door closed and now he can relax a little knowing the meat is safe. But he’s still got these monkeys to deal with, right? So now he’s on his way back around to the front of the truck, psyching himself up, getting ready to kick some ass.
“ ‘You boys might want to think’—
“And that’s when it happened. One of the guys jumped out of the truck and pushed him back before he had time to even think. And just at that moment, the gears engaged and the truck lurched—in reverse—and Phil the Butcher was caught under the wheel of his own beloved truck. He started screaming for his life and the kids saw him pinned under there and took off running and that’s it. A couple minutes more and he was dead.”
“That’s it? That’s the whole story?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“So, you’re saying he was kind of a schmuck? Is that the lesson you’re trying to get across, here?”
“No!” Neumann said. “He was a great man! A mensch! I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he just didn’t think bad shit would ever happen to him again. Anyway, that’s how he was killed. On the day before Passover by his own truck, serving kosher meat to Jews too stubborn or too old to get out of that town. I’m guessing it was early in the day when it happened, one of his first stops, maybe. His truck full of meat, you know? Save that kosher meat! If it was the end of the day he probably would have let it go.”
“Were they after the truck or the meat, you think?” I asked.
The sun was going down. The joint would no longer light.
“Doesn’t matter,” Neumann said. “Of course someone’s going to take it. Here’s a truck, running. And here’s Phil inside: ‘Happy Passover! Here’s your chicken, Mrs. Adelman. Here’s your beef!’ And the old ladies running up to him, embracing him. They know the story. Some have stories of their own. He’s all day door-to-door, breaking-up bridge games, mah-jong games, all these ladies gathering around him, doting on him, admiring his meat, making him feel like a real celebrity. And why not? Why shouldn’t he feel like a celebrity, for once in his life? With the old ladies licking their lips and going, “Mmm! Manna. Manna from heaven you’re bringing us. And as he’s portioning out the brisket, he can’t help but start telling them a joke:
“ ‘So these two old ladies are sitting on a park bench,’ he’d start in. ‘And one of them turns to the other and she says, “Murial!” and Murial says, “What?” and the woman says, “Murial!” and Murial says, “What??” and the woman looks at her square in the face and she says, “Murial. You. You and your husband … you have mutual orgasm?” And Murial looks back at her friend and thinks a moment and says, “No, I think we got State Farm.” ’
“And the women laugh like there’s no tomorrow. They can hardly catch their breath. They’re collapsed in paroxysms. They literally have to hold on to him for dear life.
“ ‘Ahh,’ Phil the Butcher thinks, and he gets it. He looks in their wrinkled, jaundiced complexions, and he breathes in their Chanel No. 5, and he suddenly understands what life is all about. He realizes why he was allowed to survive. He is proud to be alive. He feels these are the very best times in his life.”
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I felt guilty finding spiritual fulfillment outside my faith, until I realized that Judaism and yoga don’t have to be mutually exclusive