Friday, March 25, 2011

Jewish Orphan Asylum Part II


In the orphanage my mother was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, she was hungry. Sitting among the five hundred other orphans at long, wooden tables, there was never enough to eat, and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry, climbing over the eight-foot fence to steal food from nearby grocers or neighbors’ kitchens.
            At mealtimes, five hundred orphans sat at ten long tables in enforced silence. The food was boiled in huge vats. Breakfast was a kind of gruel the children called mush, weak coffee and a slice of stale bread thinly covered with margarine. Dinner was a stringy stew or green pea hash. Her twelve years in the Home must have left her so famished for so long that it didn’t feel like hunger, only a vast, incomprehensible inner vacuum that could have been confused with the absence of love.
Once a week the children were assembled in the Prayer Hall on the top floor of the schoolhouse for one of the director’s lectures on personal morality, integrity, uprightness, virtue, and the Ten Commandments. Determined to shape his charges’ minds and characters toward a moral, ethical and honorable life, he told them to be truthful and honest, obey laws and rules, honor the elderly, love and respect their parents, resist temptations, be good citizens and patriots, keep their promises, control their temper, love their neighbors, refrain from jealousy and envy, work hard, trust God and stay close to Him, be modest and humble, be grateful and appreciative, love the president of the country, be good and righteous, respect their teachers, plan for the future, help those in need, be kind and obedient, be happy and strive to make others happy, meet troubles and hardship with a strong mind, be faithful to the Jewish religion by observing its laws and history, love all children alike without showing favoritism, atone for their sins and be anxious to improve.
Taught religion, my mother became an agnostic; taught truthfulness, she lied; taught humility and gratitude for an orphan’s room and board; she developed a ferocious pride. Instructed on modesty in dress and behavior, she exchanged her scratchy uniform for the glittering dresses she loved and spent her widow years before the Crash as the quintessential flapper.
But she was also smart, every year in the orphanage performing academically at the top of her class. And at the age of fifteen on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, my mother graduated Valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home.
After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm where my mother was packing her few belongings. “You’re to go to the office,” she told her. Clutching her valedictorian medal, she ran downstairs. Mrs. Goldstein, the secretary, was standing in the administration office with a woman my mother had never seen before.
“This is Anna Smith,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “She is your mother.”
Anna Smith had never visited her daughters. Not once. Not once in 12 years.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Jewish Orphan Asylum

The little girl on the right is my mother. She was put into an orphanage with her sisters—Aunt Mabel in the middle, and Aunt Lilly on the left—when she was three years old.
            In my sentimental imagination I picture Anna, their mother, running after the man in the horse & wagon taking her children away, arms outstretched, tears streaming down her face, crying, My babies! My babies! Like in a silent movie. Like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid. But I know better. What I know of my grandmother is that she turned away to wait on a customer in her grocery store. Or simply stood watching them leave from her window.
            When the children arrived at the Jewish Orphan Asylum on Woodland Avenue and 55th street in Cleveland, Ohio, a small of rot rose from the earth. The sisters stared at the high iron-spiked fence that surrounded the large buildings, the barred windows and the ragged children watching them from the playground. Sobbing in fear, they eyed still another frightening stranger come toward them on this bewildering morning. Later they would learn that he was Dr. Sam Wolfenstein, the director, whom they would come to regard with fear and awe as a surrogate for God himself, with his heavy beard and bushy eyebrows, weekly sermons, strict discipline and constant admonitions about the moral life.
            “Now, now,” he said, lifting my mother, the youngest, out of the wagon. “You’ll have to stop that crying.”
            But she didn’t. She was three years old but she knew that something very bad was happening; the disappearance of her mother and her freedom all tangled together into a confusing sense of terrifying loss. She couldn’t stop crying. She could not.
            “Stop it! This minute!” he shouted, unused to being disobeyed by his orphans. He held her small dirty, screaming self at arms length like a bad=smelling, noisy, squirming chicken and handed her off to the woman standing at his side. As she took their screaming baby sister away, Mabel and Lilly watched wide-eyed, their terror and confusion striking them mute.
            The sisters were then separated into their respective age groups among the other 500 inmates (as they were called in their lives behind bars) enduring another loss—this time of each other.
            My mother was taken to a large damp room. (infested like the orphanage’s other nineteen-century buildings with huge rats, lice and bedbugs) Staring with alarm at the large pool of green water with two ladders leading down into it, she was stripped and examined for lice. The probing of her head and body by yet another stranger set her off again into a rejuvenated fit of wailing until she was dragged into the tub and shocked into silence by the scalding water. After being scrubbed by one of the older girls, her hair was cut off—starting a lifelong preoccupation with her hair. (Over the years, following the fashion of the day, she had it bobbed, upswept, permed, straightened, marcelled, streaked, layered.)
            Scrubbed, de-loused, and shorn, exhausted and subdued, she was now put into thick, gray undergarments with long legs that itched winter and summer. Black stockings went on next, then a red flannel under-skirt and finally a dress of wool that reached the ankles. Over that went a blue striped apron. Shoes were made of thick leather that laced up over the ankles. After being dressed she was assigned a number that was sewn on her uniform and by which she was henceforth known.