One of the most important decisions in this life is knowing when to flee and when to fight.
When the Nazis began rounding up Jews, Sonia Paine knew she had to flee.
But when a career criminal came to her Brookline antiques shop with a gun, 73-year-old Sonia Paine knew she had to fight. So she grabbed a baseball bat.
She was Sonia Listic when, at 17, as the Nazis put the final solution into play, she and her parents boarded the last ship out of Poland. Her father was a barber, had owned a restaurant, and was the president of his temple in Poland. But she and her parents fled with only two straw suitcases and a Persian lamb coat her mother hoped to pawn in America.
Sonia had a small black and white dog named Lalka. But they wouldn’t let Lalka on the ship. Sonia cried as the ship moved away from the pier and Lalka faded from sight.
“To this very day, whenever she talked about the dog she had to leave behind, she teared up,” her son Stanley said.
Her father had relatives in Worcester, so they came to Massachusetts, settling in Dorchester. Back then, Dorchester had a large, vibrant Jewish community. Her father opened a barber shop and Sonia got a job with a furrier downtown.
She married Sidney Paine and they settled in Brookline. She opened her first antiques store in 1968, in Chestnut Hill. Sidney had a good job as a typesetter, but Sonia wanted to earn more money so their three sons could go to college. Sidney did all her marketing and PR.
In 1990, six years after Sidney died, Stanley joined his mom in the business. He got his auctioneer’s license and was out of the shop when Nick George “Little Nick” Montos walked in.
To call Little Nick Montos a career criminal is actually an understatement. He had spent at least 64 of his 78 years immersed in crime, all across the country. His first arrest, for stealing a saxophone, occurred when he was 14. He graduated to robbing banks and jewelry stores and at some point worked as a hit man for Sam Giancana’s Mafia crew in Chicago. He did time in eight states, including a stay at Alcatraz, escaped from another prison, and landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List not once but twice.
Little Nick was a fugitive from justice when, 22 years ago, on a quiet Tuesday morning in July, he placed a .22-caliber pistol on the counter of Sonia Paine’s antiques shop.
“I’m not familiar with guns,” Sonia told him. “I can’t appraise that.”
He hadn’t come for an appraisal. He had come for jewels. He slapped Sonia around then bound her with zip ties. He smashed display cases and was furious there were no jewels on the premises. He dismissed Sonia’s wares as junk. Little Nick was trying to crack her safe when a phone began ringing. He had already cut the store’s phone.
“You have another phone?” Little Nick demanded.
It was Stanley’s line, for his auctioneering business. Sonia was already ticked off that Little Nick had called her stuff junk. But when Little Nick went to cut Stanley’s phone line, maternal anger manifested itself in some superhuman strength and dexterity. Sonia got herself free from the zip ties, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat she kept behind the counter and took to Little Nick’s head like it was a mid-thigh fastball right down the middle.
Sonia got three good licks in before Little Nick grabbed the bat and smacked her back, opening a gash in her head. She kicked him in the groin.
She also managed to push a silent alarm, and in what seemed like just seconds, Brookline police Officer Patrick Kearns was at the door. Little Nick, woozy and bloodied, pointed his gun at Kearns, who quickly and deftly disarmed him.
As the paramedics wheeled Little Nick out on a stretcher, Sonia raised her arm and asked them to wait a second.
She went over and reached into Little Nick’s pockets, retrieving the checks he had stolen from her.
Stanley Paine rushed to Beth Israel Hospital as soon as he heard his elderly mother had been injured in a robbery attempt. She was sitting up in bed, 10 stitches in her head.
“Nobody’s taking what I worked so hard to earn,” she told him.
Little Nick was too dizzy to stand at his arraignment, during which a prosecutor whose last name was Yaz explained to a judge how 73-year-old Sonia Paine took down 78-year-old Little Nick Montos with three mighty swings. She made “three strikes and you’re out” a reality.
Sonia became something of a celebrity. She went on national television. She never volunteered the story, but neither did she shrink from telling it when asked.
“She was proud of what she did,” her son said. “And we were proud of her.”
Sonia Paine was a tough lady, but she spent a considerable amount of time giving back. As a refugee, she had a special compassion for the homeless, donating proceeds from antique shows to the Pine Street Inn and other charities. She said that in the event of her death, she didn’t want flowers; she wanted people to send money to Rosie’s Place, the South End shelter for women.
Sonia outlasted the Nazis. She outlasted Little Nick, who, when he died in 2008 at age 92, was still serving time for attacking Sonia. He was the oldest inmate in the country. Sonia said she wouldn’t miss him, and if he ever came into her store again she would hit him again.
Sonia’s revenge against Little Nick was to outlive him.
Sonia’s revenge against the Nazis was her three sons, her seven grandchildren, her three great-grandchildren. When she died on Sunday, at the age of 95, they were all around her.
On Tuesday, she’ll be buried next her husband, her Sidney, the only man she ever wanted to be with, in this life and the next.
One day, perhaps, the bat will be sent to Cooperstown.