Atlanta magazine :: December 2009 :: Eli Sotto
 
December 2009

Biltmore Barber

Reflections from Eli Sotto, Holocaust survivor and Atlanta institution

Eli Sotto, eighty-six, grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, and has operated the Trim Shop Barbershop—originally located on Peachtree Street in Midtown, now in the lower level of the Biltmore Hotel—since immigrating to the U.S. in 1952. As told to Van Jensen.

» My father was a barber. He got sick. So my brother and I had to run the shop so we could make some money. Greece was a poor country. We had no water in the house.

» It was bad when the Germans came. They announced in the paper we were going to Poland, to have the Jews united. When we got to Auschwitz, they selected the youngsters. The rest they took away. I said, “Where are the families?” A man said, “They’re dead. Those two buildings, that is gas chamber. That is crematorium.”

» I used to cut the Nazis’ hair at their barracks. Behind it was a dumpster, where I found food. That’s how I didn’t starve.

» I was giving a haircut to the commander, and I nicked his ear. He looked in a mirror and then wrote a little note and gave it to the guard. I thought I was dead. But the note was to take me to the kitchen and give me some food. The next day they transferred me to another camp.

» After we were liberated I went back to Greece, and there were three years of civil war. A friend said, “Go to Atlanta, because the climate is the same.” My visa was already to go to Los Angeles. So when I arrived in New York, I asked if I could come to Atlanta. The consulate took the paper from my hand and wrote it in. That’s how I’m here.

» It was bad then. A bus driver said to a black man to get up and give me the seat. Thank God things have changed.

» The Jewish Federation put us in an apartment, and I opened the barbershop on Peachtree. I was there fifty-three years. Then [in 2005, when the building was slated for demolition], they gave me thirty days’ notice to get out.

» A man came from the Novare Group. He said, “We have a place for you in the Biltmore.” God bless them.

» I’ve had the chairs sixty years. They’re in good shape.

» Before he was mayor, [Maynard] “Manny” Jackson asked if he could get a haircut on credit. Then he became a regular customer.

» In the 1970s, there were thousands of hippies with long hair. I’d come in the morning and they’d be sleeping in front. They don’t cut their hair, so most of the barbershops closed out.

» My wife was a Holocaust survivor. There were nine in her family, nine in mine. In each, only we survived.

» We were together for forty-nine years. One day she didn’t feel well. She had a heart attack and died inside the
ambulance.

» I come over here and see people and keep my mind occupied. That’s why I’m still alive.

Photograph by Christopher T. Martin