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“Unpacking the memories of a family store” – A Jewish Advocate Feature Story, published June 29

July 15, 2012

With documentary, daughter delves into her parents’ past

By Tana Goldberg, Special to the Jewish Advocate  |  Published June 29, 2012 

Imagine walking into a department store and being greeted by a large “NO BROWSING” sign. Then, when you ask if a jacket comes in another color or size, the owner kicks you out and tells you to shop elsewhere.

That was the experience of generations who shopped at Birke’s Department Store in downtown Lowell, often described as the T.J. Maxx or Marshalls of its day with regard to quality and pricing. However, shopping at Birke’s was not for the timid or faint-hearted – that is, if owner Nathan Birke was around.

But behind the gruff exterior was a man who could crack you up with a joke and break your heart with his story.

That story has been turned into a documentary film, “Browsing Through Birke’s,” by his oldest daughter, Szifra Birke. “It was a funny title for the film, because you couldn’t browse through Birke’s if my father was there,” Szifra said. Fortunately for the success of the store, Nathan was not in Birke’s much of the time, as he was out meeting with vendors and wholesalers.

But “Browsing Through Birke’s” is more about a marriage than it is about merchandise.

The tale begins on the streets of Lodz, Poland, in late 1939, after the city had fallen under Nazi occupation.

One day, Nathan Birke, a prosperous entrepreneur in his 30s, happened to offer a ride to an itinerant carpenter named Lazer. When they arrived at Lazer’s home, he invited Nathan inside because it was close to curfew. There, Nathan met Lazer’s beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Sally. As she would later tell the story, Nathan took one look at her and “he never left.”

Click here to read the complete story (in PDF document)

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