Volume 30, Number 3

She Couldn’t Say I Told You So

Jeff Jacobs

Her dreams sounded like this:

click click click click-click-click click click

Beneath her blanket, her fingers moved involuntarily like Mexican jumping beans.

And for this she blamed her father.

As a young girl in the 1920s she had demonstrated a natural talent for the piano, with hopes of one day becoming a famous musician. But, her teen years coincided with the Great Depression, and her father, desperate to put food on the table, envisioned a more utilitarian use for Ella’s nimble fingers. And so he ran an ad in the Princeton Daily newspaper:


Sixty cents per thousand words

Quality work

Soon Ella was at school during the day and at a typewriter at night, and the piano was a distant memory. From a small corner room above her parent’s business on Spring Street, Ella mastered every kind of document—from business invoices, wills and divorce papers to eviction notices and research papers for Princeton University students. It was through the latter that she met James Sawyer, a freshman who hailed from Boston, who, whether he had a typing job for Ella or not, was seen climbing up the creaky stairs to her office almost daily. And it was James who became the closest thing to a witness to a traumatic event that happened to Ella in August of 1934.

It was late morning on a sunny Saturday when Ella turned from Spring Street and made her way up the hill toward Nassau Street to meet James for a chocolate malt at The Balt luncheonette.  She looked ahead, and the sidewalk was clear, except for a few young men in the distance dressed alike in navy shorts, brown shirts and black ties. The sun was right in her eyes so she kept her head down as she headed up the road.  As she neared Urkin’s Hardware store, their green awning blocked the sun and revealed that the three identical figures were just feet in front of her. Ella stopped short as she saw that they were now walking stridently toward her, lockstep with no space between them, creating a wall across the sidewalk with no room for her to pass. She caught the eyes of the one in the middle, and the look burned permanently into her memory. The only way she could describe it was that he knew that she was in the way, but he kept walking as if she did not exist.

It was too late when she realized that they were not going to stop for her, and not only that, they were walking quicker. She lunged out of the way but the shoulder of the closest teenager crashed into her, and it seemed as if he gave an extra push as she went flying into a barrel of penny nails for sale outside of the hardware store. As she hit the ground, the nails spilled out of the barrel onto her.

As the sound of the barrel rolling away stopped, she could hear one of them mutter ‘Dirty Jew,’ followed by raucous laughter that only faded as they disappeared into the distance.

Two men rushed out of the store, helped her to her feet and earnestly asked what had happened, but she was trembling too much to speak and ran back to her office on Spring Street.  She found one of her father’s handkerchiefs in a desk drawer and used it to little avail as she sobbed uncontrollably, hunched over her desk. It was nearly half an hour before a door opened, and she heard someone approaching.

“Did you forget about our…” James was saying, before he entered the room and saw her condition.

After he had comforted her, she told him what had happened. “These teenagers. They just ran right over me. I saw the look in their eyes and it was...emotionless. If there was anything in there, it was just fury. And the uniforms. I think they must have been from the Bund Camp up at Griggstown.”      

James looked perplexed. “What is that?”

He had no idea what the Bund Camp was. Ella explained that she had read about “Camp Will and Might” in the newspapers and that it was just a few miles outside of Princeton. It was a prototype American Hitler Youth summer camp, and its mission was to teach and indoctrinate German-American youth about the “new” Germany and praise their new leader, Adolf Hitler. The swastika was mixed in with the American flag to try and equate the two of them. The anti-Semitism spilling out from Nazi Germany was hidden by the Bund leaders only through the misinformation of clever spokesmen.

“Why haven’t I heard about this?” James asked.

“I don’t know,” Ella chided, “maybe you don’t pay attention to the news.”

He looked up sheepishly and then replied, “Look, I’m sorry. It’s tough to follow all the strange things going on, but try not to get too upset. This is just a small group of nasty people. It will all just go away after a while.”

“Just like these bruises?” she pointed to her shin, where a noticeable lump was already turning black and blue.

He looked embarrassed.

“They called me a dirty Jew!”

He still couldn’t find a reply, and he could tell she was getting upset again. “Look,” he started but was interrupted.

“Jimmy, they hate Jews. This is why my parents left Russia. Jews were being blamed for everything that went wrong and were being burned out of their homes.” She was shaking again and he could see tears brewing.

He pulled up a chair next to her and put his arms around her, trying to calm her down. “Look, I will not let anyone hurt you.  I am going to go down to the police station and make sure they do something about this.”

Ella patted him on the hand, thankful that he cared. “I appreciate that, but you can’t protect me from every one of them, and what about all the other people that they do this stuff to?”

He tried again to reassure her, “We’re in a modern age. Their sort of hatred will not last. Their backward views are a minority opinion, and when good people find out what they’re about, it will be stopped. Look, I didn’t know about them at all, and now that I do, I will make sure that whatever it takes, I will help put an end to what they’re doing.”

“Jimmy, I think you are being way too optimistic.“

“Ella, I am so positive that I am right that I will bet you one extra large chocolate malt at The Balt that ten years from now, let’s say noon August 1, 1944, okay, no one will even remember these groups, or if they do, it will just be a sorry footnote in our history.”

She wished that what he said would be true, and the idea that they would still be getting chocolate malts together in ten years made her soften a bit.

“What do you say, is it a bet?” he smiled and reached his hand out to shake hers to confirm their bet.

“It’s a bet I hope you win!” she said as she shook his hand.


And it started to look like James would win the bet almost before it started. Within a couple of weeks, news reports about the Nazi camp hit a wider audience, and the camp closed down. James made some subtle comments about the end of the threat, just to try and be reassuring but Ella stopped him and reminded him that there were nine years and eleven months before he could win the bet.


And those 119 months went by faster than Ella could have thought. On August 1, 1944 she arrived at The Balt at 11:55 a.m.  She was five minutes early, but she took their usual table for two in the back corner of the luncheonette. As she thought about the bet, she couldn’t help thinking about the fact that another bigger Nazi camp had opened up in Andover, New Jersey in 1935, and others followed all across the country. And then 20,000 followers showed up at Madison Square Garden for a Nazi rally in 1939. And then Germany invaded Poland. And then…the war. And she wanted to say I told you so, but she couldn’t. Because the world let the Nazis happen, because the hate was not stopped when it reared it’s ugly head, and millions had died and James was one of them.

She had come to the Balt anyway. She ordered the chocolate malts but left them untouched. She just stared at the other customers in the shop, thinking that they all must have similar stories, must have lost someone in the war, and she ended up wondering if they were like Jimmy, good people who were unaware of what was happening and finding out when it was too late. She wished she could go up to each table and just start to talk to them so when this war was over maybe enough people would be ready to prevent another one.

But, she finally thought, there is another way. She could write about it and send it out into the world and try and make a difference.


And so late at night, every night, through the thin walls of her office on Spring Street you could hear the same sound through the night, punctuated by determination: