BY RUI MIAO
Mathilde Freund embodies Old-World elegance: silky ginger hair combed behind her ears, where a pair of large hoop earrings dangle and shine. Meticulously polished beige nails match a ruby-encrusted golden dome ring on her right-hand ring finger. She wears a black long-sleeve blouse, topped by a black vest embroidered with white lines that pairs well with her white slacks. Her only sartorial concession are the sneakers, for ease of walking, on her feet. A true New Yorker.
Her classic looks echo her surroundings at the Grand Bazaar NYC market off Columbus Avenue, where she has been vending antiques and vintage wares since 1976.
“The antiques speak to me. Each item has a special story,” said Freund, who turns 100 next month.
She firmly believes the past can teach valuable lessons. She would know.
Born to a wealthy family in Vienna in 1916, Freund grew up steeped in arts, sports and travel.
“I went all over Europe and Asia,” she said, recalling how she also collected souvenirs along her globe-trotting. “I kept them, they accumulated and now I'm selling them.”
Following Hitler's invasion of Austria in 1938, Freund, now newly married, and her family fled to Paris and, when the French capital fell to the Germans, to Lyon, in east-central France.
The war years were dark. Her brother and her husband, both joined with the Allied forces and were eventually captured and killed. Her husband, Fritz, the love of her life, was captured and sent to Buchenwald. Her brother, Alfred, was shot at the Lyon Airport in 1944. Her father died of heart attack shortly after.
In a photo taken in Lyon the day it was liberated from the Germans, Freund is pictured with 10 men whom she risked her life to save. She had the men brought food and water while they hid from the German occupiers.
“It was August 24, 1944,” said Freund. “I was 24, full of hope that I was going to see my loved ones.” She wore a white suit and skirt, looking cheerful and full of hope. She did not yet know that she would never again see her husband or brother.
“I try not to think about the sad days anymore,” she said.
She moved to New York in 1952, with her mother and daughter, Chantal Freund. They perched for two weeks at the Alvin Hotel at Broadway and 52nd Street before settling in an apartment on West 76th Street. She still lives there.
She quickly fell in love with the city. “When I was a young girl in Vienna, I watched so many movies about New York, my dream was to come to 42nd Street one day,” she said. “I'm a New Yorker by heart.”
She was as a medical social worker at several hospitals for more than 20 years, and retired in 1976. She started selling at the market right away.
At her Grand Bazaar table these days, you can find antique jewels and articles, such as an exquisite Italian mosaic brooch or a delicate metal tea tin adorned by a Chinese-style portrait painting.
What's most precious, though, are the people who come through the market. “Luckily I speak many languages, so I'm able to communicate with people from all over the world,” said Freund. She speaks German, Viennese, French, Italian, Spanish, Yiddish and English. “They give me a great pleasure, the conversations.”
She's also thrilled that the market's profits go to public schools.
“Every Sunday when she sees me, she presses her rental fee into my hand, looks me in the eye and says 'for the children,'” said Juli Ra-Goodman, the market's executive director. “Never, 'here's the rent', or 'what I owe you' ... always, 'for the children.'”
She described Freund as “lively, sharp, caring, witty and loving.”
Phyllis Newman, who sells antique prints and rare maps at the venue, said Freund is an inspiration. Freund, she said, is much admired. “I feel like she's the mayor of Columbus Avenue,” Newman said.
Freund works every Sunday except when she is visiting with her grandson and his family, who live in North Carolina. She gets up at around 5 a.m., drinks a cup of coffee, catches up with world news on BBC, and reads.
She eats very little and works out a good amount. She's a fan of Brighton Beach and enjoys swimming in the ocean.
“Oh, I'm a fish in the water,” she said.