A Flawless Hitchhiker

Written By: Lawrence Kelly


As a senior citizen, Nicole would hitchhike from Northwest Woods to volunteer at the Montauk Senior Citizen center while wearing a flawless 3 carat diamond ring. After the first World War, her father, a Ph. D in math, turned a mathematical analysis into a process for cutting the perfect diamond for the family’s Antwerp diamond business. Seventy years later, Kay Jewelers would cover the airwaves in America with advertisements for the store honoring her father’s genius in cutting a diamond to create the most beautiful use of light and reflection, known in the industry as the “ideal” cut diamond.

The ring she wore was a part of that proud family history. The hitchhiking reflected another darker chapter. The ability to travel freely , quickly, without fanfare , and, on occasion, out of the norm was to be prized. When she was eleven years old, Nicole Tolkowsky was in Bordeaux France. It was 1940. She was a refugee. She was trapped. The Consul General for Portugal in Bordeaux interviewed young Nicole Tolkowsky. Consul General Sousa Mendes was under the orders of the Portugese dictator Salazar, a leader straddling a pro-Nazi populace and the need to keep trade going for a “neutral” Portugese economy. Salazar ordered that no transit visas for refugees should be signed by Portugese diplomats for travel from or through any country to Portugal . Consul General Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, decided he would suffer the professional and personal consequences of disobeying Salazar and personally signed Nicole Tolkowsky’s transit visa. He also signed visas for others desperate for escape. When Sousa Mendes returned to Portugal, he was stripped of his diplomatic status, rendered unemployable in a Portugal ruled by a dictator, and died penniless in the Franciscan Hospital in Lisbon in 1954. In mentions of Sousa Mendes at Yad Vashem in Israel and the King Center in Atlanta, memorials discuss tens of thousands of refugees saved by his actions.

Decades later, Nicole began her hitchhiking from Northwest Woods and volunteering at the Montauk Senior Center. At the Adult Day Care Center created by the masterful town senior citizen director Edna Steck and supervised in Montauk by Linda Norris, Nicole would read aloud poetry she created which reflected the transitions of life she had experienced.

Later on, long past the time that she required a health care aide for any activity, Nicole would make the trek to the Senior Center with her aide to again read her poetry aloud. Linda Norris would carve out activity times in the daily program to ensure Nicole had a chance to embrace this interaction and once again have the command of an audience’s attention. Toward the end of her days, no longer able to serve as a volunteer aide, Nicole found comfort in being at the center as a senior citizen being served by the staff and other volunteers who had followed in her foot steps , if not her outward pointed thumb . For that portion of her life, she had found a home. A destination worthy of her remarkable journey.

An ideal hitchhiker is someone who takes the ride, provides a good story during the ride, and makes his or her thanks for the effort clear at the end of the ride. After first hearing Nicole’s story, the combination of a 3 carat flawless diamond ring and a senior citizen hitchhiker, I had some lingering questions.

After Nicole’s death, I interviewed her caregiver. I had researched the records at the Suffolk Surrogate Court in Riverhead, and there had been no mention of the flawless 3 carat diamond ring. What happened to it? The caregiver indicated that Nicole had called out one day, declaring that the ring had fallen down the toilet. They made efforts to get to the ring, even calling in a plumber to check out the toilet bowl, but the effort was not successful. I indicated that the ring was an extraordinary item, and asked whether anyone thought to use extra efforts to try to recover it in any other traps or lines to the cesspool. The caregiver looked directly at me and indicated that it was not an effort which continued beyond calling in the plumber to look in the bathroom. The inference was clear, Nicole had done something with the ring, and it was not down the toilet.

Golda Meier once said that old age is like being stuck in an airplane in a storm. There is a lot of discomfort and uncertainty, but there is really nothing you can do about it. Nicole did what she could to get out among others, and the drivers who picked up this very interesting hitchhiker made her activities possible.

Part of me will always believe that Nicole took that ring on one last hitchhiking jaunt, and was picked up by one of the people who made it a habit to pick up Nicole and bring her up to the “poetry reading up on the hill by the fire house”. Whenever I drive around town and see an unusual couple in a car, I glance at the driver’s left ring finger to check for a familiar flash of light. As to the “poetry readings up on the hill,” let Nicole have the last word.

In a bequest in a will filed in Surrogates Court in Riverhead after her death, Nicole Kopf left $450,000 to East Hampton Town for the Senior Citizen Adult Day Care program. The East Hampton Town Board has now created a separate account to use the monies left to the town to continue the program. One of the first purchases from the account was to purchase a new bus for the Adult Day Care program. A small portion of the parting gift from Montauk’s flawless local hitchhiker.