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They Could Use Some Laughs Now

September 11, 1997|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIAMESHA LAKE, N.Y. — Soon after he was liberated by Allied soldiers in 1945, Raymond Drillings learned that his world had disappeared. He had survived five Nazi concentration camps, but his family and friends--his entire way of life as a Jew in prewar Poland--had vanished forever.

Two years later, the 21-year-old refugee stood at the gates of what seemed a new paradise in upstate New York, in the green Catskill Mountains, where the Concord Hotel had promised him a job as a waiter.

It was a chance to start over in the Borscht Belt, the land of milk and funny, where people ate fabulous amounts of food and laughed at stars like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Sophie Tucker.

The Jewish Alps. Hava Nagila Heights. The Sour Cream Sierras. Families have been coming here for decades, long before "Dirty Dancing" romanticized the region. But now this world too is dying. And Drillings--a proud man who has worked at the Concord for 50 years--is facing another Diaspora.

One by one, the famed mountain hotels 90 miles north of Manhattan are closing, victims of neglect, hard times and changing tastes. Historic resorts like Grossinger's, the Granit Hotel and Brown's Hotel are gone, either abandoned or turned into time-share spas. Once, there were more than more 400 hotels in the area. Today, six remain.

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As summer ends, there's a sense of melancholy throughout the Catskills, a belief that one of the world's most famous Jewish communities is about to disintegrate. And nothing symbolizes this better than the Concord, a Borscht Belt mecca fighting an uphill battle to survive.

Earlier this year, the 2,000-acre resort filed for Chapter 11, unable to pay $9 million in back taxes. Owners were counting on casino gambling to improve business, but the state nixed a plan to allow gaming tables. Now, as the hotel celebrates its 60th anniversary, the clock is ticking, winter is around the corner and people like Drillings are preparing themselves for what seemed unthinkable five years ago.

"Nothing lasts forever," says the 71-year-old survivor. "I learned that once before, and I'm learning that again."

When a world vanishes, memories are often the best defense. Yet there are some that Drillings has trouble discussing--like the death of his parents, his brother and sister on July 24, 1942, when Nazi storm troopers wiped out the small Polish town of Sendziszow.

Or the day in 1990 when he testified for German officials against Josef Schwammberger, a war criminal who murdered 5,000 Jews and is now serving a life sentence.

Drillings recounted his Holocaust experiences in a powerful videotape for Steven Spielberg's "Survivors of the Shoah" project. But he is reluctant to do so again, and there are times when the mere mention of that era can agitate him.

Better you should ask about his second life in the mountains, where he married and has raised two sons. For a man whose sad, unforgiving eyes have seen the worst, Drillings can be upbeat and unexpectedly funny when it comes to the Concord. He has a comedian's sense of timing and loves to tell a good joke.

In his jumble of pain and punch lines, he's a cross between Simon Wiesenthal and the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Some might find this bizarre, even off-putting, but for Drillings it's just another way of coping with a colorful way of life that can't help but poke fun at itself, even as it dies a slow death.

"Did you hear the one about the waiter who comes to a table, sets down the tray and scratches his rear end?" he asks in a thick accent. "A man asks him: 'Do you have hemorrhoids?' The waiter answers: 'Only what's on the menu.' "

Drillings immigrated to New York City after the war and was lured to the Concord. He didn't know borscht from a Buick but quickly mastered a unique and demanding task.

Imagine a raucous dining room where 1,200 people are shouting all at once for bread, soup, chicken, vegetables, drinks and 10 different desserts. Picture a job at which you schlep 60 pounds of plates back and forth on a tray to tables filled with hungry, impatient diners. You do this for three meals a day, nearly every day, for an entire summer season . . . for nearly 50 years.

The abuse is nonstop and you're not serving fast food: A Concord breakfast offers schmaltz herring, baked herring, fried herring, pickled herring with cream sauce, pickled herring with onion rings, brisling sardines and boneless sardines. People eat as much as they want--and these are just the appetizers.

To work off the calories, guests pick from activities like power walking with Gilda, scrambled words with Hilda, Leonardo "the Orchestra Man" at the pool, estate and retirement planning with Marv Shuman, aerobics with Darka, and mambo dancing with Al Altieri and the Taste of Brass Band.

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