It was my first month in the US and I was trying to jump-start my career in a new land. I had been to several interviews, but the moment the interviewers realized that I was a newcomer to the country and had no US experience, I was politely shown the door.
Esther was very correct but very different. She asked hard questions, followed up with harder ones, but they were all substantive ones, to check my professional timbre not my personal tint. I also felt, though I was not certain, a quiet geniality behind the cultivated impersonality, as if she didn’t want her kindness to show. I felt comfortable with her.
She called the following day. I had the assignment.
I found quickly it was a tough assignment. The reason was the work had been started before, on the wrong foot. Esther’s young assistant, Dana, had begun the work with a questionnaire that was poorly conceived and ineptly worded, and, since it was on the delicate subject of their compensation, it was likely to have created misgivings among senior executives. We had to overcome this initial handicap before we could proceed.
All through the exercise, I kept Esther informed, as she preferred, and she kept an eye on my progress. I felt we had build a rapport. More, I sensed an imperceptible thread of sympathy and support – a well-guarded inclination to help – and I was grateful.
Three weeks later Esther invited several of her staff for dinner. Next to me sat Wilhelm, Esther’s husband. He looked twenty years older than Esther, a lean, old, exhausted man who seemed lost in his chair. He spoke with such a heavy teutonic accent that I thought he was speaking another language. Then I realized that his English was very limited: after overcoming the barrier of his accent, you had to cross the bigger bar of his Kindargarten English. I have had the advantage, however, of listening and deciphering the English of non-English speakers in ten countries. I let my ears get accustomed to his tempo, and soon I could make out parts of his conversation and respond appropriately.
After the other guests had left, Esther asked me to stay back, poured me a brandy and sat next to me. She thanked me for talking patiently with Wilhelm and said that most people gave up after the first five minutes.
Then she told me how she had met Wilhelm. She was a senior army officer during the Second World War and at its conclusion posted in Berlin. Soviet troops had captured Wilhelm in the eastern sector, where he had gone for work, and, ignoring his plea that he was a qualified engineer, put him to work in a mine. His asthma turned acute, he worked frantically, but did not meet quotas. He was beaten, sometimes mercilessly, for his poor performance. Finally, realizing that he was useless for the purpose, the Russians handed him over to the US Army and he appeared before Esther.
She took pity on the withered, cowering man and arranged for his care in the American hospital. She visited him at first occasionally, then regularly, and eventually became attached to him. Nine months later, when the order came for her to return to the US base, she hesitated and then went through a brief ceremony with the army pastor that made Wilhelm her husband. She said she wasn’t sure at all that she was doing the right thing, but she could not abandon him and marrying him was the only way she could think of bringing him with her to the US.
Twenty years had gone by. I could still hear the trace of bitterness in Esther’s voice as she narrated how, week after week, Wilhelm persisted in looking up jobs in the newspapers but seldom got even a call for interviews. Any interview he went to, he felt nobody wanted to see his papers or hear his background. He was let go after a short, perfunctory chat. Esther sought the help of friends, but even they were less than enthusiastic. As Esther’s career soared in two decades, Wilhelm’s never even started. She went to work each day and returned to find Wilhelm dejected at home. Esther said with a melancholy smile that the caregiving role she had assumed in Berlin seemed to have lasted a lifetime.
I was sad for them both. But I also had an epiphany.
All these weeks, working for Esther, I had felt a nurturing superior’s subtle but steady backing. Now I knew why, facing an immigrant trying to find his feet in an alien land, she had felt instinctively she had to be supportive.