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In Slovakia during World War II, Tono Brtko, a simple, good-natured carpenter, is nagged by his wife, Evelina, who wants him to improve their social standing, and also by his Fascist brother-in-law, Kolkotsky, who wants him to join the occupying regime. In the hope of satisfying both, Tono agrees to become "Aryan comptroller" of a Jewish button shop on Main Street. His dreams of attaining prestige and wealth are shattered, however, when he discovers that all the button boxes are empty and that the shop is bankrupt. Furthermore, its owner, Mrs. Lautmann, is so old and deaf that communication with her is virtually impossible. Unaware of the war, Mrs. Lautmann is being supported by the local Jews, who persuade Tono to accept a generous salary in return for pretending to be Mrs. Lautmann's new assistant. As time passes, a deep affection develops between them. This happy situation ends, however, when an order is given for the deportation of all Jews. By an accident, Mrs. Lautmann's name is omitted from the list, and Tono is torn between his wish to protect the old woman and his fear that he may be accused of harboring a Jew. As the deportation victims are herded together in front of the shop, Tono suddenly panics and tries to force Mrs. Lautmann into the street, but she slowly realizes the truth and attempts to run away. Tono pushes her into a cupboard, locks the door, and waits for the deportation to end. When it is over, he unlocks the cupboard only to find Mrs. Lautmann dead inside. Overcome by guilt and remorse, he hangs himself.