In 1952, my parents moved my grandparents from their Brooklyn apartment into the Hebrew Home for the Aged, disposing of most of their possessions and consolidating what little was left — photos, documents, some odds and ends from dresser drawers, anything that looked important — into a large tin box. I have a vivid memory of this box — broad and flat, unpainted, with a big metal latch — because it rested for decades on a shelf in a storage closet in my parents’ home.
At some point in the late 1960s, the box was taken out. A friend of my parents was going to visit the Soviet Union, and my father sifted through the old photos and letters in the hope that they could help her locate relatives of ours who might still be alive. My grandfather had lost touch with his brothers and their children during World War II — all of them, like my father and grandfather, classical musicians. My father knew that one had been a professor of music in St. Petersburg, another a cellist with the Bolshoi Ballet. Indeed, my parents’ friend returned to New York with gifts and vodka from long-lost relations, and my father was thrilled.
Among the documents that came out of the big tin box that day was a newspaper article, fragile and yellow with age, which someone had folded into a small square as though to hide it somewhere. I opened it gingerly, afraid that it would crumble in my hands. It was an article from the Forvertz, one of New York’s Yiddish daily newspapers, dated 1909. At the top was a photo of a handsome young woman with a high ruffled collar under an embroidered velvet jacket, a montage of smaller photos of young children below her — presumably studio photographs she’d brought with her from Russia.
My father, recognizing the woman as his mother, realized that the children must have been those who had died before he and his only known sibling, Sam, were born. In childhood, my father said, he had heard whispered references to these other children, but any questioning on his part was always met with a stern “besser fargessen” (better to forget), and by the time he was an adult, he had long since ceased to wonder. I, on the other hand, was captivated by the tangible evidence in my hand, but none of us knew Yiddish, and so the article went back into the box.
Ten or so years later, I was telling what little I knew about this story to my friend Trudi, who then told me that she could read Yiddish. I organized an evening with Trudi and my father, and we once again got out the tin box, carefully unfolding the yellowed news clipping.
For the first time, I looked closely at the photograph. This beautiful, proud-looking young woman is my grandmother, I thought, with both pleasure and astonishment. This is the same grey-haired woman who used to greet us at the door in Brooklyn when I was a child. I flashed back to the matronly figure of Grandma as I knew her, wearing one of her floppy flowered dresses, standing in her solid black oxford shoes, her thick beige stockings rolled at the knees. But who are these children?
We decoded the caption under the montage:
“Of eight children, seven have died. The last one has become ill. So Mrs. Schwartz attempts suicide.”
The story was devastating, and I was shocked as well to hear that my grandmother was brought before a judge, charged with the crime of attempted suicide. A crime? My father explained that, under the law, it was in fact a crime to commit suicide.
“But after Magistrate Green heard the tragic story, he freed her.”
The article ended there, and my father seemed satisfied. Throughout the reading, he had seemed strangely more interested in the challenge of the translation than in the story itself. I, though, was deeply moved by the discovery of this family tragedy. And I had so many questions.
What disease had killed the eight children? Was it something they caught while packed into steerage on the passage to America? Something contracted after they arrived? What were their names? Most of all, I wondered, how had this woman — my grandmother — found the courage to start a family all over again, giving birth to my father’s older brother just two years later, and my father not long after that?
My father didn’t want to pursue it. This had always been a forbidden subject in his family, he said, and he repeated what he’d told me a decade earlier. “No one argued when my mother said ‘Besser fargessen,’” he said. And so I dropped it.
Later I marveled at the power of these two small words, words so absolute that they shut the door on our past — even decades after my grandmother’s death. They still carried the message that opening that door was wrong, that wanting answers was dangerous. Besser fargessen, the words warned: Don’t tread here.
It took me 30 more years to realize that I wasn’t satisfied with “besser fargessen.” With my mother approaching 94, blind and almost deaf, it is my last chance. With much probing from me, my mother plumbs her failing memory.
“We knew there had been other children,” she says finally. “Every once in a while either Grandma or Grandpa would accidently mention something, but if anyone questioned them, they made it clear it was not for discussion. But when Grandma was in the nursing home, I finally found a way to make her talk. I went to her as one mother to another. I said, ‘Mom, I understand how you don’t want to talk about this. But I have children, too, and I want to protect the children they might someday have. I need to know if there’s a genetic illness in the family.’
“‘No, there was no genetic illness,’ Grandma told me. ‘Zorg dikh nisht — no need to worry for the next generation.’ She said there had been a measles epidemic on the boat coming to America — the last leg of the long journey from Russia — and one of the children had caught the disease. After they were reunited with Grandpa, who was waiting for them in the new country, the measles spread among the rest of the children — not all at once, but stretching over a period of six months.
“‘One after the other they died,’ Grandma said. ‘One would die, and the next one would get sick and die, until the last one.’ I asked Grandma if it had been the measles that caused the children’s deaths. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it was lingen–ontsindung’ — pneumonia — which was a common complication of measles.
“After her suicide attempt, they sold everything they owned,” my mother tells me, “and moved from the Lower East Side to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, to ‘get a fresh start’. Then Grandma went on to bear two more children, Uncle Sam and Daddy.”
I question my mother for more clues about how these devastating losses affected my grandmother’s relationship with my father and Uncle Sam, and I am able to extract a little more.
“On Friday nights before you kids were born,” she says, “Daddy and I used to go to their house for Shabbos dinner. One Friday morning, Daddy woke up with a terrible cold so I called and told them we weren’t coming. An hour later, without warning, Grandpa rang our doorbell. Grandma was so worried, she had sent him to make the trip by subway from Brooklyn — over an hour’s trip — to make sure with his own eyes that Daddy was okay.”
I wait for more.
“I remember Daddy saying that, as a child, if he wanted to get his way, he would refuse to eat. That frightened Grandma and Grandpa, and he would always win.
“When Uncle Sam was three he became very sick,” she suddenly remembers. “Grandma was terrified and she sent Grandpa to the synagogue to have his name changed, to trick the malach ha’mahves, the angel of death, so the angel couldn’t find him. That’s how he became Sam.”
Their childhood was emotionally starved, my mother continues.
“Grandma was afraid that if she showed affection, it might attract the malach ha’mahves’s attention and he’d come to take the children away. I saw this when Daddy and I were married — his mother never kissed him. The first time he ever had that experience was when my mother kissed him.”
My mother sits quietly, and I think about how emotionally withholding my father was — towards all of us, my mother and also my brother and me. There was rarely hugging or kissing.
“If one of you kids got sick he’d get angry,” my mother says. “I ‘didn’t call the doctor soon enough.’ If I got sick, he’d be angry with me, which made no sense at all, except it must have been his way of expressing fear.” My mother is understanding.
“What kind of person was Grandma?” I ask, thinking about her as a real person for the first time.
“She was a typical Jewish housewife, she kept a kosher home,” my mother says. “She made wonderful knishes filled with potatoes or kasha, and she used to stretch her own strudel dough on the big kitchen table.”
She made homemade gefilte fish, I remember, which I loved as a child, though I hated her chicken, which she boiled until it was falling apart and served along with the broth.
“The things that made her happy were you, her grandchildren,” my mother says. “She’d sing Yiddish songs to you and watch your faces, shepping naches.”
I remember the terrible years at the end, visiting her on occasional weekends in the disinfectant-reeking nursing home, feeling guilty and selfish as I recoiled at the sight of her sitting motionless in her chair, thin and pale, hairs growing out of her chin.
It is far too late to tell her how proud I am of her courage.
Ellen Azorin, an advertising writer and creative director for over 20 years, runs Cantaloupe Music Productions, booking Brazilian (and other Latin) music and jazz. She’s working on a collection of essays about family and relationships.
New York Wednesday July 1909 A Mother’s Tragedy
Of 8 children, 7 have died. The last one has become ill. So Mrs. Schwartz attempts suicide.
An unfortunate mother, grief-stricken over the death of her 7 children, who died one after another in the last 6 months, yesterday tried to commit suicide by inhaling gas.
The unfortunate woman is Anna Schwartz of 270 Monroe Street. With rare iron fortitude, she bore her troubles of the last 6 months, which were enough to break a giant. Her only remaining child is now also critically ill, and yesterday she thought he was in danger of his life.
When Harry Schwartz, her husband, went last night to Beth Israel Hospital to the deathbed of 3-year-old Jacob, Mrs. Schwartz was in the depths of despair. The unfortunate woman was weeping and tearing her hair. She wouldn’t let anyone console her.
Her husband asked a friend, Benjamin Shapiro to keep an eye on his wife until he came back from the hospital. This foresight saved her. No sooner had he left, than she closed all the windows, sat down in a rocking chair, and took a gas hose in her mouth. Shapiro smelled gas, ran into the room, and pulled the hose out of her mouth. He called a policeman and by the time they brought an ambulance from Gouvenor Hospital, she had recovered consciousness.
They took Mrs. Schwartz to Essex Market Court, charged with attempted suicide. But after Magistrate Green heard the tragic story, he freed her.
“Our children have died one after the other,” the woman related through tears and sighs. “We barely had time to bury one before the next one was dying. Only one child is left to me and we had to send him to the hospital yesterday. When I realized that I would be left without my last remaining child, I preferred to die with them than to live without them.”