A Letter to Harvey Milk
for Harvey Milk 1930-1978
The teacher says we should write about our life, everything that happened today. So nu, what’s there to tell? Why should today be different than any other day? May 5, 1986. I get up. I have myself a coffee, a little cottage cheese, half an English muffin. I get dressed. I straighten up the house a little, nobody should drop by and see I’m such a slob. I go down to the Senior Center and see what’s doing. I play a little cards, I have some lunch, a bagel with cheese. I read a sign in the cafeteria. Writing Class 2:00. I think to myself, why not, something to pass the time. So at two o’clock I go in. The teacher says we should write about our life.
Listen, I want to say to this teacher, I.B. Singer I’m not. You think anybody cares what I did all day? Even my own children, may they live and be well, don’t call. You think the whole world is waiting to see what Harry Weinberg had for breakfast?
So, after the class I go to the store, I pick myself up a little orange juice, a few bagels, a nice piece of chicken, I shouldn’t starve to death. I go up, I put on my slippers, I eat the chicken. I watch a little TV, I write in this notebook, I get ready for bed. Nu, for this somebody should give me a Pulitzer Prize?
Today the teacher tells us something about herself. She’s a Jew, this we know from the Mogen David she wears around her neck. She tells us she wants to collect stories from old Jewish people, to preserve our history. Oy, such stories that I could tell her, shouldn’t be preserved by nobody. She tells us she’s learning Yiddish. For what, I wonder. I can’t figure this teacher out. She’s young, she’s pretty, she shouldn’t be with the old people so much. I wonder is she married. She doesn’t wear a ring. Her grandparents won’t tell her stories, she says, and she’s worried that the Jews her age won’t know nothing about the culture, about life in the shtetls. Believe me, life in the shtetl is nothing worth knowing about. Hunger and more hunger. Better off we’re here in America, the past is past.
Then she gives us our homework, the homework we write in the class, it’s a little meshugeh, but alright. She wants us to write a letter to somebody from our past, somebody who’s no longer with us.
I sit for a few minutes, thinking about Fannie, thinking about my sister Frieda, my mother, my father, may they all rest in peace. But it’s the strangest thing, the one I really want to write to is Harvey.
You had to go get yourself killed for being a faygeleh? You couldn’t let somebody else have such a great honor? Alright, alright, so you liked the boys, I wasn’t wild about the idea. But I got used to it. I never said you wasn’t welcome in my house, did I?
Nu, Harvey, you couldn’t leave well enough alone? You had your own camera store, your own business, what’s bad? You couldn’t keep still about the boys, you weren’t satisfied until the whole world knew? Harvey Milk, with the big ears and the big ideas, had to go make himself something, a big politician. I know I know, I said, “Harvey make something of yourself, don’t be an old shmegeggie like me, Harry the butcher.” So now I’m eating my words, and they stick like a chicken bone in my old throat.
It’s a rotten world, Harvey, and rottener still without you in it. You know what happened to that momzer, Dan White? They let him out of jail, and he goes and kills himself so nobody else should have the pleasure. Now you know me, Harvey, I’m not a violent man. But this was too much, even for me. In the old country, I saw things you shouldn’t know from, things you couldn’t imagine one person could do to another. But here in America, a man climbs through the window, kills the Mayor of San Francisco, kills Harvey Milk, and a couple years later he’s walking around on the street? This I never thought I’d see in my whole life. But from a country that kills the Rosenbergs, I should expect something different?
Harvey, you should be glad you weren’t around for the trial. I read about it in the papers. The lawyer, that son of a bitch, said Dan White ate too many Twinkies the night before he killed you, so his brain wasn’t working right. Twinkles, nu, I ask you. My kids ate Twinkles when they were little, did they grow up to be murderers, God forbid? And now, do they take the Twinkles down from the shelf, so somebody else shouldn’t go a little crazy, climb through a window, and shoot somebody? No, they leave them right there next to the cupcakes and the donuts, to torture me every time I go to the store to pick up a few things.
Harvey, I think I’m losing my mind. You know what I do every week? Every week I go to the store, I buy a bag of jelly beans for you, you should have something to nosh on. I remember what a sweet tooth you have. I put them in a jar on the table, in case you should come in with another crazy petition for me to sign. Sometimes I think you’re gonna just walk through my door and tell me it was another meshugeh publicity stunt.
Harvey, now I’m gonna tell you something. The night you died the whole city of San Francisco cried for you. Thirty thousand people marched in the street, I saw it on TV. Me, I didn’t go down. I’m an old man, I don’t walk so good, they said there might be riots. But no, there were no riots. Just people walking in the street, quiet, each one with a candle, until the street looked like the sky all lit up with a million stars. Old people, young people. Black people, white people, Chinese people. You name it, they were there. I remember thinking, Harvey must be so proud, and then I remembered you were dead and such a lump rose in my throat, like a grapefruit it was, and then the tears ran down my face like rain. Can you imagine, Harvey, an old man like me, sitting alone in his apartment, crying and carrying on like a baby? But it’s the God’s truth. Never did I carry on so.
And then all of a sudden I got mad. I yelled at the people on TV; for getting shot you made him into such a hero? You couldn’t march for him when he was alive, he couldn’t shep a little naches? But nu, what good does getting mad do, it only makes my pressure go up. So I took myself a pill, calmed myself down.
Then they made speeches for you, Harvey. The same people who called you a shmuck when you were alive, now you were dead, they were calling you a mensh. You were a mensh, Harvey a mensh with a heart of gold. You were too good for this rotten world. They just weren’t ready for you.
Oy Harveleh, alav ha-sholom, Harry
Today the teacher asks me to stay for a minute after class. Oy, what did I do wrong now, I wonder. Maybe she didn’t like my letter to Harvey? Who knows?
After the class she comes and sits down next to me. She’s wearing purple pants and a white T-shirt. “Feh” I can just hear Fannie say, “God forbid she should wear a skirt? Show off her figure a little? The girls today dressing like boys and the boys dressing like girls — this I don’t understand.”
“Mr. Weinberg,” the teacher says.
“Call me Harry,” I says.
“O.K., Harry,” she says. “I really liked the letter you wrote to Harvey Milk. It was terrific, really. It meant a lot to me. It even made me cry.”
I can’t even believe my own ears. My letter to Harvey Milk made the teacher cry?
“You see, Harry,” she says, “I’m gay, too. And there aren’t many Jewish people your age that are so open-minded. At least that I know. Then she says, “Tell me about Harvey Milk. How did you meet him? What was he like?” Nu, Harvey, you were a pain in the ass when you were alive, you’re still a pain in the ass now that you’re dead. Everybody wants to hear about Harvey.
So I tell her how I came into the camera shop one day with a roll of film from when I went to visit the grandchildren. How we started talking, and I said, “Milk, that’s not such a common name. Are you related to the Milks in Woodmere?” And so we found out we were practically neighbors forty years ago, when the children were young, before we moved out here.
I tell her more about Harvey, how he didn’t believe there was a good kosher butcher in San Francisco, how he came to my store just to see. But all the time I’m talking I’m thinking to myself, no, it can’t be true. Such a gorgeous girl like this goes with the girls, not with the boys? Such a shanda. Didn’t God in His wisdom make a girl a girl and a boy a boy — boom they should meet, boom they should get married, boom they should have babies, and that’s the way it is? Harvey I loved like my own son, but this I never could understand. And nu, why was the teacher telling me this, it’s my business who she sleeps with? She has some sadness in her eyes, this teacher. Believe me I’ve known such sadness in my life, I can recognize it a hundred miles away. Maybe she’s lonely Maybe after class one day I’ll take her out for a coffee, we’ll talk a little bit, I’ll find out.
After the class I waited till everybody left, they shouldn’t get the wrong idea, and I asked the teacher would she like to go get a coffee. “Nu, it’s enough writing already,” I said. “Come, let’s have a little treat.”
So we take a walk, it’s a nice day. We find a diner, nothing fancy, but clean and quiet. I try to buy her a piece of cake, a sandwich maybe, but no, all she wants is coffee.
I took a swallow of my coffee, to calm down my nerves. I was getting a little too excited.
“Harry, listen to me,” the teacher says. “I’m thirty years old and no one in my family will talk to me because I’m gay.
It’s all Harvey Milk’s fault. He made such an impression on me. You know, when he died, what he said, ‘If a bullet enters my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door!’ So when he died, I came out to everyone — the people at work, my parents. I felt it was my duty, so the Dan Whites of the world wouldn’t be able to get away with it. I mean, if every single gay person came out — just think of it! — everyone would see they had a gay friend or a gay brother or a gay cousin or a gay teacher Then they couldn’t say things like ‘Those gays should be shot.’ Because they’d be saying you should shoot my neighbor or my sister or my daughter’s best friend.”
I never saw the teacher get so excited before. Maybe a politician she should be. She reminded me a little bit of Harvey.
“So nu, what’s the problem?” I ask.
“The problem is my parents,” she says with a sigh, and such a sigh I never heard from a young person before. “My parents haven’t spoken to me since I told them I was gay. ‘How could you do this to us?’ they said. I wasn’t doing anything to them. I tried to explain I couldn’t help being gay, like I couldn’t help being a Jew, but that they didn’t want to hear. So I haven’t spoken to them in eight years.”
So what can I do, I ask. Does she want me to talk to them, a letter maybe I could write. Does she want I should adopt her, the hell with them, I make a little joke. She smiles. “Just talking to you makes me feel better,” she says. So nu, now I’m Harry the social worker. She says that’s why she wants the old people’s stories so much, she doesn’t know nothing from her own family history. She wants to know about her own people, maybe write a book. But it’s hard to get the people to talk to her, she says, she doesn’t understand.
“Listen, Teacher,” I tell her “These old people have stories you shouldn’t know from. What’s there to tell? Hunger and more hunger. Suffering and more suffering. I buried my sister over twenty years ago, my mother, my father — all dead. You think I could just start talking about them like I just saw them yesterday? You think I don’t think about them every day? Right here I keep them,” I say, pointing to my heart. “I try to forget them, I should live in peace, the dead are gone. Talking about them won’t bring them back. You want stories, go talk to somebody else. I ain’t got no stories.”
Oy, and now the teacher was crying. “I’m sorry,” I says to her. “You want another coffee?”
“No thanks, Harry,” she says, “I’m sorry, too.”
“Forget it. We can just pretend it never happened,” I say and then we go.
Today after the writing class, the teacher tells us she’s going away for two days. Everyone makes a big fuss, the class they like so much already. She tells us she’s sorry, something came up she has to do. She says we can come have class without her, the room will be open, we can read to each other what we write in our notebooks. Someone asks her what we should write about.
“Write me a letter,” she says. “Write a story called ‘What I Never Told Anyone.'”
So, after everyone leaves, I ask her does she want to go out, have a coffee, but she says no, she has to go home and pack.
I tell her wherever she’s going she should have a good time.
“Thanks, Harry,” she says. “You’ll be here when I get back?”
“Sure,” I tell her. “I like this crazy writing. It passes the time.”
She swings a big black book bag onto her shoulder, a regular Hercules this teacher is, and she smiles at me. “I gotta run, Harry. Have a good week.” She turns and walks away and something on her book bag catches my eye. A big shiny pin that spells out her name all fancy-shmancy in rhinestones: Barbara. And under that, right away I see sewn onto her book bag an upside-down pink triangle.
I stop in my tracks, stunned. No, it can’t be, I says to myself. Maybe it’s just a design? Maybe she doesn’t know from this? My heart is beating fast now, I know I should go home, take myself a pill, my pressure, I can feel it going up.
But I just stand there. And then I get mad. What, she thinks maybe I’m blind as well as old, I can’t see what’s right in front of my nose? Or maybe we don’t remember such things? What right does she have to walk in here with that, that thing on her bag, to remind us of what we been through? Haven’t we seen enough?
Stories she wants. She wants we should cut our hearts open and give her stories so she could write a book. Well, alright, now I’ll tell her a story. This is what I never told anyone. One day, maybe seven, eight years ago — no, maybe longer, I think Harvey was still alive — one day Izzie comes knocking on my door. I open the door and there’s Izzie, standing there, his face white as a sheet. I bring him inside, I make him a coffee. “Izzie, what is it,” I says to him. “Something happened to the children, to the grandchildren, God forbid?”
He sits down, he doesn’t drink his coffee. He looks through me like I’m not even there. Then he says, “Harry, I’m walking down the street, you know I had a little lunch at the Center, and then I come outside, I see a young man, maybe twenty-five, a good-looking guy, walking toward me. He’s wearing black pants, a white shirt, and on his shirt he’s got a pink triangle.”
“So,” I says, “A pink triangle, a purple triangle, they wear all kinds of crazy things these days.”
“Heshel” he tells me, “don’t you understand? The gays are wearing pink triangles just like the war, just like in the camps.”
No, this I can’t believe. Why would they do a thing like that? But if Izzie says it, it must be true. Who would make up such a thing?
“Listen, Heshel, I got to tell you something, something I never told nobody in my whole life. I was young in the camps, nineteen, maybe twenty when they took us away.” The words poured from his mouth like a flood. ‘Yussl was my best friend in the camps. Already I saw my mother, my father, my Hannah marched off to the ovens. Yussl was the only one I had to hold on to.
“One morning, during the selection, they pointed me to the right, Yussl to the left. I went a little crazy, I ran after him. ‘No, he stays with me, they made a mistake,’ I said, and I grabbed him by the hand and dragged him back in line. Why the guard didn’t kill us right then, I couldn’t tell you. Nothing made sense in that place.
“Yussl and I slept together on a wooden bench. That night I couldn’t sleep. It happened pretty often in that place. I would close my eyes and see such things that would make me scream in the night, and for that I could get shot. I don’t know what was worse, asleep or awake. All I saw was suffering.
“On this night, Yussl was awake, too. He didn’t move a muscle, but I could tell. Finally he said my name, just a whisper, but something broke in me and I began to cry. He put his arms around me and we cried together, such a close call we’d had.
“And then he began to kiss me. ‘You saved my life,’ he whispered, and he kissed my eyes, my cheeks, my lips. And Harry I kissed him back. Harry, I never told nobody this before, I, we… we, you know, that was such a place that hell, I couldn’t help it. The warmth of his body was just too much for me and Hannah was dead already and we would soon be dead too, probably, so what did it matter?”
He looked up at me then, the tears streaming from his eyes. “It’s O.K., Izzie,” I said. “Maybe I would have done the same.”
“There’s more, Harry,” he says, and I got him a tissue, he should blow his nose. What more could there be?
“This went on for a couple of months maybe, just every once in a while when we couldn’t sleep. He’d whisper my name and I’d answer with his, and then we’d, you know, we’d touch each other. We were very, very quiet, but who knows, maybe some other boys in the barracks were doing the same.
“To this day I don’t know how it happened, but somehow someone found out. One day Yussl didn’t come back to the barracks at night. I went almost crazy you can imagine, all the things that went through my mind, the things they might have done to him, those lousy Nazis. I looked everywhere, I asked everyone, three days he was gone. And then on the third day, they lined us up after supper and there they had Yussl. I almost collapsed on the ground when I saw him. They had him on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. His face was swollen so, you couldn’t even see his eyes. His clothes were stained with blood. And on his uniform they had sewn a pink triangle, big, twice the size of our yellow stars.
“Oy, did they beat him but good. ‘Who’s your friend?’ they yelled at him. ‘Tell us and we’ll let you live! But no, he wouldn’t tell. He knew they were lying, he knew they’d kill us both. They asked him again and again, ‘Who’s your friend? Tell us which one he is.’ And every time he said no, they’d crack him with a whip until the blood ran from him like a river. Such a sight he was, like I’ve never seen. How he remained conscious I’ll never know.
“Everything inside me was broken after that. I wanted to run to his side, but I didn’t dare, so afraid I was. At one point he looked at me, right in the eye, as though he was saying, Izzie, save yourself. Me, I’m finished, but you, you got a chance to live through this and tell the world our story.
“Right after he looked at me, he collapsed, and they shot him, Harry, right there in front of us. Even after he was dead they kicked him in the head a little bit. They left his body out there for two days, as a warning to us. They whipped us all that night, and from then on we had to sleep with all the lights on and with our hands on top of the blankets. Anyone caught with their hands under the blankets would be shot.
“He died for me, Harry, they killed him for that, was it such a terrible thing? Oy, I haven’t thought about Yussl for twenty-five years maybe, but when I saw that kid on the street today it was too much.” And then he started crying again, and he clung to me like a child.
So what could I do? I was afraid he shouldn’t have a heart attack, maybe he was having a nervous breakdown, maybe I should get the doctor. Vay iss mir, I never saw anybody so upset in my whole life. And such a story, Gottenyu.
“Izzie, come lie down,” I says, and I took him by the hand to the bed. I laid him down, I took off his shoes, and still he was crying. So what could I do? I lay down with him, I held him tight. I told him he was safe, he was in America. I don’t know what else I said, I don’t think he heard me, still he kept crying.
I stroked his head, I held him tight. “Izzie, it’s alright,” I said. ‘Izzie, Izzie, Izzaleh‘ I said his name over and over, like a lullaby, until his crying got quiet. He said my name once softly Heshel, or maybe he said Yussl, I don’t remember, but thank God he finally fell asleep. I tried to get up from the bed, but Izzie held onto me tight. So what could I do? Izzie was my friend for thirty years, for him I would do anything. So I held him all night long, and he slept like a baby.
And this is what I never told nobody, not even Harvey. That there in that bed, where Fannie and I slept together for forty-two years, me and Izzie spent the night. Me, I didn’t sleep a wink, such a lump in my throat I had, like the night Harvey died.
Izzie passed on a couple months after that. I saw him a few more times, and he seemed different somehow. How, I couldn’t say. We never talked about that night. But now that he had told someone his deepest secret, he was ready to go, he could die in peace. Maybe now that I told, I can die in peace, too?
You said write what you never told nobody, and write you a letter. I always did all my homework, such a student I was. So nu, I got to tell you something. I can’t write in this notebook no more. I can’t come no more to the class. I don’t want you should take offense, you’re a good teacher and a nice girl. But me, I’m an old man. I don’t sleep so good at night, these stories are like a knife in my heart. Harvey, Fannie, Izzie, Yussl, my father, my mother, let them all rest in peace. The dead are gone. Better to live for today. What good does remembering do, it doesn’t bring back the dead. Let them rest in peace.
But Teacher, I want you should have my notebook. It doesn’t have nice stories in it, no love letters, no happy endings for a nice girl like you. A bestseller it ain’t, I guarantee. Maybe you’ll put it in a book someday, the world shouldn’t forget.
Meanwhile, good luck to you. Teacher. May you live and be well and not get shot in the head like poor Harvey, may he rest in peace. Maybe someday we’ll go out, have a coffee again, who knows? But me, I’m too old for this crazy writing. I remember too much, the pen is like a knife twisting in my heart.
One more thing, Teacher. Between parents and children, it’s not so easy. Believe me, I know. Don’t give up on them. One father, one mother, it’s all you got. If you were my tochter, I’d be proud of you.
Leslea Newman, 1988. Excerpted with permission from A Letter to Harvey Milk (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988). In addition to teaching women’s writing workshops called “Write From the Heart” Leslea Newman teaches writing workshops for Jewish women called “Generating Memories/Remembering Generations!’