Growing Up Feeling Lost

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Things at home were not going well. My father and mother would spend much time just shouting at each other; which rather disturbed my tranquility. My parents were second cousins who had been betrothed by their parents, as was a common custom in the old country. It soon became clear that Hell’s Kitchen would never qualify as a setting for marriages made in heaven. The poverty and hard work didn’t make things easier. My mother had lost two children through miscarriage before my sister and I were born. The anticipated birth of still another baby added to the tensions. When a new little sister joined us in the dank cellar I looked forward to playing with the cute new playmate. The frail newcomer soon fell seriously ill. To relieve the burdens on my mother, my older sister “Pearl” and I were sent away to join our uncle Leppold and his family on their small farm nearby. He had several children about our age and we all had fun together as we enjoyed the fresh country air of Port Jervis. It didn’t last long.

When I arrived back to my home in the basement, I rushed merrily to the dark room in the rear to rejoin my dear little sister. But there was no trace of her. My mother explained gently that the baby had gone to heaven and would never return. I cried and remembered the flickering candles. To console me, a concerned relative bought me a little red tricycle. I was rather excited to steer it around the basement, but I missed the baby, who had died of pneumonia. After a few days, my new bike also disappeared. It was the only bicycle I have ever owned in my life. I often wondered what kind of a person would steal a toy from a grieving child.

On weekends, the family would sometimes walk to Central Park to hear the Goldman Band playing on the mall. We occasionally went to the Yiddish theater on Avenue B to see a drama about the son who left his poor parents in Poland and then married a “Shiksa” in America. The whole audience bawled at the shame of such ungrateful sacrilege. I didn’t understand why it was so terrible to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish but I regretted the pain he caused his parents. I laughed at the comics singing funny songs in Yiddish. We even bought some of the records to play on our new gramophone at home. As the singer’s voice began to slow to a southern drawl it was my duty to start winding up the machine furiously to accelerate him back to a peppy Yiddish ending.

We also visited my mother’s father, who was the only grandparent I ever knew. He was a small man with a long beard and a longer pipe dangling from his lip. He lived in a lower east side tenement that had been improved to provide a flush toilet on each landing. For five cents cash, a public bath was also available about two blocks away on Rivington Street. I was entrusted to give my grandpa a gift of fifty-cents when we left and sometimes we even delighted him with some cigars that cost a nickel a pack. Since my grandpa had no visible means of support, I was entranced by a story he told of how he had earned some money. Apparently, one of his elderly neighbors, fearing that death was approaching, offered to buy some of my Grandpa’s “Mitvahs,” or good deeds. The theory was that good deeds would help the owner, or bearer, gain admittance to heaven. I didn’t quite grasp how the transfer was made and was somewhat skeptical about its validity. Nevertheless, in later years, when called upon for a favor, I kept a record in a “Mitzvah” file and was even tempted to ask for a receipt for every good deed. You never know what will lie in store on the final Day of Reckoning.

One of the regular boarders in our basement apartment who was especially kind to my sister and I was a Hungarian immigrant named Dave Schwartz. He had left Budapest when Jews were excluded from the universities, and instead had found work in New York as an iron worker. He was an intelligent and hardworking man whose English was intelligible—providing you understood Hungarian. On Sundays, he would take us for a ride on a Fifth Avenue bus with an open upper deck from which we could look down on the fancy shops and people. We were allowed to stay on the bus as long as we liked, without paying any extra fare. Mr. Schwartz would even buy us an ice-cream cone for the trip. We liked Mr. Schwartz. So did my mother.

I was about six-and a-half years old when my parents decided to divorce. My parents’ separation after ten years of unholy acrimony was long overdue. They were simply mismatched. It was a friendly parting of the ways. By amicable agreement, custody of the children was given to my mother. She got my sister and I, and that was all. There was no need for a property settlement, as there was no property to divide. The family had to move out of the cellar, new lodging had to be found, both parents had to figure out some way to keep themselves and the children from going hungry, and there had to be a new beginning. If there was such a thing as “Welfare,” my parents never heard of it. Public grants for child-support were nonexistent, and Social Security had not yet been invented. In times of trouble the prevailing guide was, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” In fact, there was not much choice.

Fortunately, my mother had an older sister who was married to a tailor and they lived in their own house in Brooklyn. “Tante Fani” and “Uncle Sam” Isaac had two older children of their own. Our Mom arranged for her sister to take in both me and Pearl temporarily. About half a year after filing for divorce, my father married a nice Transylvanian woman named Rose Fried, whose acquaintance he had made via an ad in the local Hungarian newspaper. A few weeks thereafter, my mother was wed to a Hungarian man called—you guessed it—Dave Schwartz. And they all lived happily ever after. They all got along fine with each other once the marital bonds were shifted. When the train is not going in the right direction, it is prudent to change course and take another train.

Life in my aunt’s home was bearable because they had a dog, a German shepherd named “Lightening.” I could hitch him to a sled in the wintertime and he would drag me all over the neighborhood in the snow. My Uncle Sam was a pleasant man who was usually smiling and tipsy. My cousin Sidney would deliver lunch to his father at the tailor shop, and I could ride along on the handlebars of his bike. My uncle even allowed me to jump up and down on the pressing machine and watch the steam pour out. Great fun! Sam made a fair living as a tailor, but since his marriage had been prearranged by his parents, he found his happiness in a bottle. Fani had a boarder, who was a Greek named Albert who cleaned felt hats. I liked Albert. Fani did too.

On Sunday, Tante Fani might take me to nearby Coney Island. We would find a spot on the crowded beach, put down a blanket and dash into the pounding sea. As she pranced up and down in the waves with me in her arms, I was convinced that she was trying to drown me. I recall when she left me on the blanket, saying she would soon return. After a few minutes had passed, I concluded that she had abandoned me. I began to search the beach frantically until I was intercepted by a friendly cop who asked if I was lost. I replied, with my usual truthfulness, that it was my aunt who was lost. He took me to the station house and a loudspeaker began to boom, “Tante Fani. Tante Fani. Please come to the station house and pick up your boy.” When we were reunited, the first thing she did was to give me a slap in the face. Some people are really ungrateful.

I guess I spent a year with my gruff Tante Fani in Brooklyn. I never forgot that she took us in when we didn’t have a roof over our heads, and I treated her with respect as long as she lived. My father had tried to enroll me in a public school in Manhattan when I was six years old, but the principal, noting my unusually small size and the fact that I spoke only Yiddish, would not accept me. When I began school in Brooklyn, I still had problems speaking the language, and I couldn’t read. But if I heard a story once, I could repeat it verbatim. I was once apprehended by the teacher “reading” correctly from the wrong page.

As soon as my mother and Dave could save up enough money to rent a room, I could visit them. When they finally saved up enough to pay a month’s rent for an apartment in the Bronx, my sister and I went home to heaven.

My mother remained on good terms with her cousin, my father, and I would visit or live with him on irregular occasions, depending upon availability and convenience of the parties concerned. I got along fine with my stepmother who was a quiet and kindly lady who, in rapid succession, became the mother of two sons. My stepmother’s name was “Rose” and she was called “Itcha,” because it was easier to pronounce than her Hebrew name, “Rivka.” In summation: my mother had two children, my father’s wife had two children, my father had four children, and my mother’s husband had none. Who says life has to be simple?

There is a period of my life between the ages of about seven to about thirteen that are my lost years. I was growing up in the Bronx and shuttling between my father and my mother, and from apartment to apartment when our inability to pay the rent inspired us to move. In 1929, the crash came. The banks were closed. No one could find work. My Mom worked as a dressmaker or hatmaker, and Dave was employed as a toolmaker or a watchman or whatever he could get to make ends meet. My father became a housepainter when he could find such work. It was a time of deep depression in more ways than one. I hated to go to the U.S. Government “home relief” station where surplus food was given away in the form of two-pound loaves of bread and blocks of frozen butter or American cheese. Once they gave away surplus green woolen sweaters. I was too embarrassed to wear one because all the other kids had the same garment and could recognize the source. My mother assigned chores to keep us busy around the house. My domineering sister served as foreman on the job. Slavery would have been easier.

I attended various public schools in the Bronx, never staying long enough to make real friends. I loved to read and always had a public library card that was well used. My schooling was accelerated when teachers thought I could skip some of the lower classes. My size prevented my participation in popular sports such as basketball, football, or even baseball. Besides, my mother didn’t believe that such violent games were a way for a nice Jewish boy to behave. She objected to my joining the Boy Scouts because she thought it was a military organization. My only “buddy” was my stepmother’s nephew Lou Perlman, who was called “Mutchy,” short for “Mortimer,” which he was never called. [END NOTE 1] His mother and my stepmother were sisters and were very attached. The families always lived close to each other. We spent some happy summer weeks together in the Catskill Mountains where families could rent a room and share a kitchen at very modest cost. Air-conditioning was unheard of. People who couldn’t afford to go to the mountains slept on the roof or the fire-escapes to get some cool air. Vacations on the farm were spent entertaining ourselves and tossing horseshoes. There wasn’t much else to do besides killing hoards of mosquitoes. In short, I was, by inclination, as well as necessity, very much a loner. I don’t recall ever having been a normal adolescent.

During the depression years, no one I knew earned enough money to pay for both food and rent. Many landlords offered “concessions” to new tenants who would move into an apartment that had been suddenly and quietly vacated by the prior occupant. The new residents were allowed to live rent free for a few months. That was an amount we could afford. The family, consisting of my mother, my stepfather, now called “Uncle Dave,” my 12-year old sister and I, moved into a nice brick building in a good neighborhood in the Bronx. Of course, there was no elevator in the five story walk-up. The higher the dwelling, the lower the rent. We were given a vacancy near the roof. My mother would have preferred one higher up—she was a strong believer in fresh air.

The parks around our new home on Bainbridge Avenue made a fine playground. When the hills of Van Cortlandt or Mosholu Park were covered with snow, their slopes were great for sledding—if you had a sled. One wintry day, I was having fun sliding down a long hill in my cardboard box. A boy went racing past on his new Flexible Flyer and careened straight into a big rock on which had been painted, in large white letters, “JESUS SAVES.” Well, his life was saved but they had to carry him off in an ambulance. His twisted sled was abandoned. I dragged it home for repairs. I don’t know who saved the injured boy but I do know that Uncle Dave, the ironworker, saved the sled.

I was never a strong believer in the trappings of religion. When, as a child, my father took me to the local “shule” and hired a non Jew to ignite the gas flame, I thought it was a waste of five cents since I could handle the job for less. My stepfather came from Budapest, which was considered an “enlightened” city, and he did not share the orthodoxy of Jews from the East. We couldn’t afford to send me to Hebrew school except for a few weeks to learn to read, but not understand, the prayers needed for my Bar Mitzvah. We never celebrated any birthdays and my coming of age at thirteen was no big deal. I was familiar with the usual accouterments of orthodoxy, such as the “yarmulke,” the prayer shawl, the phylacteries wrapped around arm and head, but they never impressed me as more than ornaments carried forward from some ancient and mystical traditions. Good deeds on earth seemed more important than unintelligible prayers to an invisible Deity. I dutifully composed a customary Bar Mitzvah speech in praise of my parents and teachers. My Hebrew instructor, understandably, was not satisfied with the paucity of the gift he received for his efforts. He made his dissatisfaction plain in the presence of my classmates. Of course, I was very embarrassed. If that was what being a religious Jew meant, I wanted no part of it.

In my early teens, to earn some pocket money, I held a large variety of positions. My usual title was Delivery Boy. I assembled and delivered the Sunday papers from the local candy store. As compensation, I received a cup of hot chocolate or a milkshake when I arrived at about 6 A.M. I was allowed to keep whatever tips I might get. It was a losing business. On cold winter mornings there might be heavy snow on the ground. I would pile the papers on my newly repaired sled and drag it from house to house. Occasionally, the papers might be scattered by a heavy gust of wind. I would desperately reassemble the wet pages and trudge them to apartments that might be five flights up. I always rang the bell, in hopes of receiving a five cents tip. Instead of a nickel, I usually received a gruff command through the locked door, “Leave it on the floor!” I soon looked for another career.

A more interesting opportunity soon presented itself. I became the Assistant Manager in a Chinese laundry store. The owner spoke practically no English, which matched equally my knowledge of Mandarin. He taught me how to use an abacus and how to curse in Chinese. I would inform customers when the laundry would be finished and how much it would cost. Mr. Lee, which might have been his name, scribbled something in Chinese on a small receipt that had two parts with the same number. I would explain to the customer that if he didn’t present his receipt, he would lose his laundry. If they wanted the clean shirts delivered, they had to pay in advance. I would render that important delivery service, and gratuities would be gratefully received. There weren’t too many occasions to be grateful.

To be perfectly frank, I stayed with Mr. Lee because I was sorry for him. He worked very hard for long hours and slept on a small cot in the back room that contained only a deep tub for washing clothes by hand. Several large sacks of rice seemed to be his only source of nourishment. Each Sunday, he would put on his black suit and take the elevated train to Chinatown to exchange news with friends from home. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China was at war. My friend was worried about the safety of his family and decided to go home. He asked me to accompany him to Woolworth’s “five-and-ten-cents store” to help him buy some gifts for his family in China. He could not resist the call of family and country. I never saw him again. I often thought of how unfortunate it was that such a hard working man could not live in peace and dignity because of conflicts in another part of the world.