A. J. Sherman

When War Came

[view as PDF / Issuu]

For my parents, as for many New Yorkers, the countryside was invested with almost magical healing and protective powers: it was the only safe place for young children to spend the summer months, especially in the years when polio threatened all of us and seemed to lurk with greatest menace in crowded urban areas. Those perennial enemies, city dirt and city crowds, were deemed especially dangerous in hot weather; and the wholesome features of country life, including fresh milk and eggs, obligatory exposure to sun, and brisk walks, were expected to extend their benign blessings throughout the bleak winter months of cold and snow. We were growing youngsters, after all, two five-year-old boys—twins—and our seven-year-old sister.

My father had opened his dental office only two years before, when we arrived in New York from Jerusalem, but those were hard times for any fledgling practice, and he was in addition burdened by heavy medical expenses for my mother, whose health was uncertain. By the spring of 1939, the economy was still fragile, and so were household finances, but my parents were determined that we children would not be confined to the city in July and August. As summer approached, my father’s search for suitable accommodations took him on long weekend drives, without the rest of us, through farming areas in New Jersey and northern New York. He found several cash-poor farmers eager to rent rooms to a city family for the summer months, but few who could meet his standards for hygiene, accessibility, and plausible cooking. His choice fell at last on the Grinbergs’ farm, a ramshackle place off a meandering dirt road in northern New Jersey, not far from a lake. The Grinbergs had immigrated after the first World War from the Ukraine, fleeing pogroms and revolution, assisted by one of Baron de Hirsch’s charities to settle on the land and become small farmers. Despite their grinding toil and the Baron’s grants, their farm, like so many others at the time, was sinking under the burdens of debt, unsalable livestock, and low prices for milk and produce. We city children had no idea, of course, that the Grinbergs were struggling: we saw green fields and rejoiced as if we’d arrived at some earthly Eden.

There was a large old wooden house with a sagging porch and white painted walls, peeling in places, shaded by a few trees. Beyond, there were broad grassy fields loud with summer insects, in which cows and two horses grazed, confined by barbed wire and shaky post fences. Nearer the house, chickens scratched and squawked underfoot, and two cats, plump with rodent meals, emerged from somewhere to give us a condescending feline inspection. Most alluring to me were the barns, one with a vast hayloft, dimly illuminated by shafts of sunlight slanting down through holes in the roof. In a smaller outbuilding, apparently not much used, I discovered dusty wagons and buggies, festooned with swaying cobwebs. I’d climb up to the cracked leather seats and lose myself in the fantasy of holding the reins, urging on the horses, clattering down the dusty roads. Those barns were to become a favorite destination and playground, their secret spaces and strong, sun-warmed scent of horses, hay, and old leather at once unfamiliar and irresistibly attractive.

Our family occupied several neat, sparsely furnished rooms at one end of the house, and there was at least one other family of summer tenants at the other. Mrs. Grinberg, an elderly large woman I never saw without an apron, wore her gray hair in a knot, spoke rudimentary Yiddish-accented English, and spent most of her days in the kitchen, cooking old-country kosher meals. Everything about her was faded, from her shapeless cotton dresses to the split old shoes she wore. Farmer Grinberg was out in the fields from first light till evening; we saw him at close hand only when he’d come to the barn to yoke his horses to farm machinery or wagons of hay. Sunburned and wrinkled, he wore clean but frayed overalls and would give us an occasional tired smile. With his white straggly beard, he seemed very old, very foreign, and yet, when bearing his pitchfork, oddly familiar from illustrations in our Beatrix Potter books. Mrs. Grinberg’s kitchen with its black iron stove and linoleum-covered floor was tidy if shabby, often fragrant with the smells of frying onions or baking bread. I was mesmerized less by the cooking than by the coils of sticky paper suspended from the ceiling, slowly rotating in the heat, with their freight of dead and dying flies. The kitchen was supposed to be off limits to the summer renters and their children. But after her first inspection of us, Mrs. Grinberg decided my twin brother and I needed extra nourishment, and invited us to visit her domain at any time and “just play a little.” My mother had other ideas.

She and my father, in that heyday of eugenics and human engineering, had decided from the beginning that we, all children, required a consistent, goal-oriented routine designed to produce sturdy bodies, develop our several abilities, and equip us for life by teaching, among other useful lessons, punctuality and regular habits. Discipline was not harsh, but there was an emphasis on order and some measure of predictability. Structure itself was considered desirable, even therapeutic, especially after our difficult beginnings in Palestine, where the euphemistically dubbed “riots” or “disturbances”—actually guerilla warfare against British rule and Zionist immigration—had gone on for most of our early lives there. When we were older and beginning our lives over again in New York, we were told about random violence in the countryside and Jerusalem too, an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, and chronic water or power outages that made daily living uncertain and sometimes frightening. Having left Jerusalem three years earlier, we younger children—my brother and I—had no conscious recollection of the chronic insecurity that had surrounded us, but unavoidable parental absences, a polyglot confusion of sometimes negligent caregivers, and a traumatic and abusive stay in a Jerusalem Infants’ Home, had contributed their share of disquiet; the experience of sudden loss and a free-floating anxiety particularly afflicted our seven-year-old sister. Once the whole family was reunited in New York, a quiet, stable routine was seen as the remedy for any signs of fear or “nervousness” among us. Themselves reared by European parents struggling to get by in an alien and indifferent America, my parents didn’t believe in laissez-faire or put any faith in American child-rearing practices. Dr. Spock had not yet been heard of, but my parents would have been unlikely converts to his child-centered advice.

Accordingly, while we were allowed some unstructured play time, it was rationed, sometimes also supervised, and meant to be balanced by hours set aside for useful pursuits, such as learning. Both hard working, my parents took their responsibilities with great seriousness and believed that time, that most precious of gifts, was to be measured with parsimony, never wasted in mere idleness, characterized as “dreaming,” or in unproductive busyness. We were always aware that parental standards were high and their expectations anything but vague, so it was no surprise when later both parents were initially baffled, then appalled, by the culture of the sixties. But by then, we were independent adults, and they had other concerns.

Our days at the Grinbergs’ farm began early, shortly after six. After we twins washed ourselves and tidied our room, supervised by our maternal seven-year-old sister, all three of us were taken out by Father, hurried on by cheerful cries of Yalla, yalla!, for a fast-paced walk down the dusty roads, punctuated at some point by a halt in which we would try to imitate his calisthenics routine. We all knew that other parents and children at the Grinbergs’ farm seemed to be sleeping later than we did, and that nobody but our little family group was walking and performing exercises on the country roads; but complaint never occurred to me. I already knew that my parents were serenely unimpressed by arguments pointing out that other families did things differently. We had our ways, and they had theirs. The very occasional passing car must have found us exotic: drivers would invariably slow to a crawl and stare as they passed us. We’d give them a shy wave.

Breakfast, never a meal to linger over, was followed by lessons given by Mother, the perennial teacher: first some instruction in the Hebrew we’d managed largely to forget since leaving Jerusalem, and then in English reading and some arithmetic for my older sister, part of the curriculum from which we twins were excused. Mother had brought from New York a large box full of crayons, watercolors, paper of all kinds, brushes and pencils, even a tub of heavy gray clay. Hours would pass with each of us absorbed in artistic efforts, using all the materials available. Occasionally, some of the other farm children would wistfully ask if they might join us, and of course my resourceful mother would find room and materials for them too.

Father would return to New York for the week’s work, but when he’d reappear on weekends there were excursions by car, often to the neighboring lake where we had just begun swimming lessons. As the fields were mowed in turn, we’d watch Farmer Grinberg and a few hired hands pile up the sweet-smelling hay, and were allowed rides on top of the loaded wagon as the horses plodded back to the big storage barn. I was forever seething with discoveries, but above all questions. What was the difference between red ants and black? Why were garter snakes attracted to hot sun, and how did they shed their skins? If I watched very carefully, might I see them actually doing it? Which bees would sting you, and which were just working quietly at the flowers? All of us learned early what poison ivy looked like and how to avoid it: my father used to call it “poison Ivan, the terrible Russian.” He’d laugh, but I was too young to understand why that was funny. There were so many new things to do and observe. We rapidly lost our embarrassing city pallor, gained some weight, flicked aside or swatted without fuss the numerous insects that pursued us. My thin legs were covered with scrapes and cuts from running through fields and woods and occasional rough play with my brother and a thuggish little boy who lived with his family at the other end of the house. The days flew by.

••

Our placidly predictable routine came to an end when friends of my parents, Dr. and Mrs. Bronson, and their two sons came to visit for ten days or so, and decided to stay at another nearby farm. Always eager for fresh faces, those of older children if no new adults were available, I was enchanted by the Bronsons, who came to the Grinbergs’ little farm trailing urban sophistication and, we were somehow aware, unfamiliar affluence as well. Dr. Bronson was a cardiologist and lived with his family in a Long Island town, though his practice was in the city, from a Park Avenue office. He was a tall handsome man with a neat moustache who wore silk foulard ascots even in warm weather, and to the residents of the Grinbergs’ farm he was conspicuous for his smart clothes and distinguished air. Mrs. Bronson, a benign but shadowy presence in the family, had been stricken by polio some years before and was confined to a wheelchair. We were told in preparation for the Bronson visit that Mrs. Bronson’s condition was one of those grown-up subjects not to be referred to or discussed. Nor, of course, were we to stare at the wheelchair or Mrs. Bronson’s heavy steel leg braces and cane. Parental prohibitions on questioning or investigation only made me more curious, but I was well enough schooled to suppress the stream of questions I knew none of the grownups would answer. And hadn’t we all been told that the President himself had “overcome polio”? The Bronsons arrived with their two sons, David, a sturdy red-headed boy of about ten, and his younger brother, Joseph, perhaps seven, both wearing well-cut shorts and neat light cotton shirts with proper collars. Theirs were the first short-sleeved summer shirts I’d seen that had ironed collars. Joseph was of course nearer our age, but he was already going to school and reading real books. As mere five-year-olds, my brother and I understood we’d have been beneath notice if our parents and the Bronsons hadn’t been old friends. We were soon delighted to discover that the boys were willing to include us in their explorations of barns and fields, and seemed happy also to join the arts and crafts sessions that kept us busy each morning. David, as befitted the oldest among us, slipped easily into the mentoring role, and spent some time lecturing us about books and the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas he was just discovering, from which he could quote at length. Most of the clever patter went by me without comprehension, but I could understand rhythms, and the rapid English was amusing, definitely a notch above the simple nursery rhymes we’d learned from some of our caregivers.

The Bronson boys were definitely not part of my mother’s Hebrew language classes, and even at that age we somehow understood that the Bronson family were Jews, but not our sort. For a start, we were told, the boys had been born in New York, not Jerusalem, nor did their family keep any of the ritual observances or the holidays that defined our calendar. Despite our knowledge that Dr. Bronson had changed his original Jewish surname, he and his family seemed to us children somehow alien, quite unlike my parents’ other friends, or my mother’s colleagues and students. From the beginning too, there was something else: Dr. Bronson could make my mother blush, and seemed to take pleasure in teasing her. Of course we didn’t comprehend why or how, but in his company we observed that Mother wasn’t quite the self-assured and unruffled authority figure we knew. He would breeze into a room, give her a familiar hug, and ask “how’s your sex life, Anna?” The question, perhaps the embrace, would make her redden, and she’d pull away. I certainly didn’t know what “sex life” could mean but noticed the reaction: another of those many grown-up mysteries. Both our parents seemed uncomfortable sometimes around the Bronsons, whose talk was frequently of New York events and experiences, including restaurant meals and plays and concerts that my parents hadn’t been to and at that time could not have afforded. Much later, I was told what the original connection with the Bronsons was. Despite all their veneer of sophisticated New York, including the brittle punning repartee then in vogue, both Bronsons had shared my mother’s penurious immigrant childhood and a grim struggle for survival. Before my mother had left New York again for Jerusalem, they and their families had been neighbors down on the impoverished Lower East Side when their respective parents had just arrived in the early years of the twentieth century, my mother’s from Ottoman Palestine, and the Bronson (or Bernstein) parents from a province of the Russian Empire notorious for want, oppression, and bleak prospects. Though they never denied their origins, the Bronsons had left them far behind.

As the Bronson visit went on, our usual routines were somewhat relaxed, and we younger children were confided for some part of each day to the supervision of the older boys. They took us and their pet turtle on walks and spent hours making up stories while pretending to drive the old farm vehicles that cluttered the oldest barn. David would tell us about Scotland, a lovely place with hills and castles and streams full of fish, where some men wore skirts called kilts and played the bagpipes—whatever those were—and where it rained frequently. He told us his family was planning to spend part of August there. Scotland was part of Great Britain, and the Bronsons were going to Europe, sailing in a big passenger liner across the Atlantic! Perhaps recalling some original memory of our own voyage to America, three years before, when we sailed on an Italian ship from Haifa to New York, I hopelessly envied David and his brother. Crossing the ocean on a big ship had always been both early experience and fantasy; my favorite adventure stories, even when I was being read to rather than reading, concerned stowaways, long sea voyages, and the life of ships.

But we began to be aware that the coming trip was causing some unease for both sets of parents. Dr. and Mrs. Bronson and our parents would spend time huddled whispering together, and occasionally we’d overhear the evocative name “Scotland.” Toward evening, after we had showered and changed, we could hear grown-up voices rising and falling in contention. Whenever any of us would come near, they’d stop talking and pretend they hadn’t been arguing, but we could feel the tension even when we hadn’t heard any words. There was something else going on, and it had to do with the news they were hearing from the radio. All the Grinberg guests would gather in the evening around the set, a big wooden box sitting on an embroidered cloth covering a small table in the living room. One of the adults would fiddle with the radio dials, trying through the hiss and crackle to get a clear signal and hear the latest bulletins. The others would crowd the little table, their faces intent, for once seeming oblivious that children were also in the room. We couldn’t make out much, but the stern expressions told us a lot and seemed to have some connection with the words “Hitler” and “war” that kept recurring from both the radio announcements and adult conversation.

One morning, David and Joseph told us they were leaving the next day for the city, and a few days after that would board the fabulous liner that would cross the Atlantic and bring them to Scotland. Their excitement was palpable and gave me my first real taste, even at that early age, of wanderlust. The Bronson boys had one parting request, and they appointed me, the youngest among us, to hear it: they were unable to bring their pet turtle, Alfred, on the trip and charged me with looking after him. Alfred was a little green turtle of no demonstrable beauty or charm, but the boys were devoted to him, and I solemnly undertook to make sure he would be safe and well fed in my care. We agreed that I’d hand him over as soon as the Bronsons returned to New York in early September. I was flattered by their confidence, and felt grown-up responsibility when they handed me the cotton-lined shoe box in which Alfred mostly lived, along with detailed instructions on what he customarily ate and his few simple habits. We saw the Bronsons off the next morning, and I again assured the boys that Alfred would be fine in my custody.

The remaining summer days seemed to accelerate, and before long the nights grew chilly, the last hay had been harvested, and we realized our country holiday was coming to an end. By the end of August, we twins and our sister had all celebrated our respective birthdays, in the low-key way to which we’d become accustomed. I do not recall there was ever much fuss about these recurrent childhood events, and our parents’ birthdays were scarcely mentioned, let alone marked by any celebration. It was only much later that we learned Mother was some five or six years older than Father, a circumstance then deemed faintly odd, almost louche, and we surmised there were secrets behind that revelation. With the older generation, there always were.

Well before our departure date, travel arrangements had been made, and we were instructed how to pack our belongings, including books, toys, and many of our summer creations in paint and clay. I felt curiosity and some eagerness about our next step, nursery school in the neighborhood for us twins, a real school for our sister.

There was one dark cloud on my horizon, my own shaming personal secret, and a source of much distress. One early sunny morning I’d decided to take Alfred for a walk, and when I released him from his box saw him scuttle with sudden speed, to lose himself instantly amidst the high grasses by the roadside. Despite my anxious searches then, and on several subsequent walks, I never saw the little green-backed creature again. I felt responsible, blameworthy, and miserable. I’d failed the Bronson brothers, betrayed their trust. When I finally blurted out my dereliction to my parents, I was surprised by their assurances that little Alfred doubtless had brothers and sisters, perhaps turtle cousins, and one of them might be chosen to succeed him in the Bronson household. Their efforts to comfort me were useless: I knew there was only one irreplaceable Alfred, he had been confided to my personal care, and I’d lost him. The Bronson boys would be angry with me, and rightly so. Despite my five years, I already had a well-developed sense of what constituted wrongdoing, and felt correspondingly hangdog and apprehensive about the looming New York reunion with the Bronson family.

We were still on the Grinbergs’ farm on the fateful first days of September 1939, when even the children were aware that something momentous was happening in that far-off place called Europe. On Friday, September 1, after an increasing crescendo of Nazi threats, the Wehrmacht marched into Poland, and Warsaw and other cities were bombarded by the Luftwaffe. That evening, I saw some of the grownups crying around the radio. I had never seen adults cry before and wanted to hide from the frightening sight and especially the sound, but curiosity won over fear, and I gazed around the room with what my parents mistakenly interpreted as stoic calm. Mrs. Grinberg stood near the door, moaning “gottenyu, gottenyu” and dabbing at her eyes with a corner of her apron. I couldn’t understand what she was saying but stared at her face and knew she was in great distress. I didn’t learn until much later that she had family left behind in the war zone, who were now trapped by advancing German troops. My parents were worried in particular about the Bronsons, booked to sail back aboard a British passenger liner, the Athenia, scheduled to leave Glasgow for Montreal on September 1. More bad news came flooding in: within the next two days there were air raid alarms in London and other British cities, children were evacuated hastily from London and places near the coast, and an Anglo–French ultimatum was delivered to Germany demanding the withdrawal of its advancing troops. I knew only that my parents were very anxious to return to New York, and to hear something, anything, from the Bronsons.

On September 3, Great Britain and France, honoring their commitments to Poland, declared themselves at war with Germany. By that time, our usual routine at the farm had dissolved: walks and lessons seemed to be forgotten, meals were sketchy, and most of the adult guests crowded into the living room, listening to radio news throughout the day. Each bulletin of broadcast information, which only the older children vaguely comprehended, seemed to spread dismay among the listeners. Attempting to reassure himself and the family as well, Father told us that the Bronsons were safe and would doubtless have embarked on time despite the declaration of war and several air raid alerts. The Athenia was a ship manned by an experienced British captain and crew and would land as scheduled in Montreal, from which they’d take the fast train down to New York. They would surely telephone us upon arrival. I heard his report wondering how I’d ever explain the absence of the boys’ pet turtle.

••

On the evening of September 3, as some of the Athenia passengers were still at dinner and others after the early sitting were strolling on deck or seated in the lounges, the ship was being tracked by a German submarine that had been shadowing her for several hours, while the U-boat captain was trying to decide whether what he had in his sights was a troop transport, an armed merchant cruiser, or a civilian passenger liner. He was puzzled by the ship’s unusual location off the Irish coast, her zigzag course and dimly descried hull; but eventually, without consulting Berlin, he ordered two torpedoes fired. The first exploded in the Athenia’s engine room, while the other went astray. The ship’s lights went out; many crew members and passengers were injured by the initial blast, and as the ship began to list heavily and settle by the stern, others were unable to reach their cabins, especially those on lower decks, and they began to secure their lifebelts and assemble at boat stations. We on the farm knew the first day that the Bronsons’ ship had been attacked and rapidly sank but did not hear about the fate of the Bronson family until a week or more later. Despite efforts to shield us, I could imagine the horror of a ship sinking and vividly saw the Bronson family amidst the rapidly cascading events, the cries and the fear.

Dr. Bronson was on deck when the torpedo hit, walking with Joseph, his younger boy. A member of the crew ran up and urged Dr. Bronson to seat Joseph immediately in one of the lifeboats being filled with women and children. There were supposed to be some thirty or so passengers in each boat, but in the chaos, several lifeboats proved difficult or impossible to launch, and some passengers had to climb down rope ladders to escape the ship. Dr. Bronson saw Joseph into a boat, promised the boy that he would rejoin him with the rest of the family, but then was unable to get below to find his wife and other son. He never saw Joseph again. It was later learned that some of the boats capsized on hitting the water, while others had accidents trying to avoid the sinking Athenia, or in collisions with one or another of the rescue vessels that raced to the scene. Some passengers died in mishaps when being transferred to larger ships, others from jumping overboard from the Athenia, or from prolonged exposure in boats or the icy North Atlantic water. David and his mother were in their cabin when the ship was hit and began to list; with the lights still out, Mrs. Bronson insisted he leave her there and run for his life, and somehow David managed to scramble up steep slanting stairs to the deck and was hurled by a sailor into one of the remaining lifeboats. Meanwhile, Dr. Bronson was himself one of the last to jump from the Athenia before her final plunge, and fortunate to be spotted in the water by one of the smaller rescue craft. Some survivors were landed at Galway, others taken on to other ports or across the Atlantic to Halifax. There were confused attempts to reunite families and trace the missing from incomplete passenger manifests. Frantic efforts to find Joseph failed, and several weeks later it was presumed he drowned, either when his lifeboat capsized on launching or through some later accident. Mrs. Bronson, trapped in her wheelchair, was unable to leave her cabin and went down with the ship. The bitterness of the Bronson family’s loss was compounded when the final reckoning revealed that all but twenty-eight of the more than three hundred Americans aboard the Athenia had survived. Of the 1,418 aboard, ninety-eight passengers and nineteen crew members were killed in all. My parents, their worst Cassandra forebodings realized, were stunned by the tragedy.

The sinking of the Athenia, coming just hours after the British declaration of war, was told and retold, not least by David Bronson throughout his life, and I always vividly pictured every aspect of its terror, so different from the sanitized, somehow remote sinkings I’d later read about or see in films. Soon enough the awful day arrived when we children were to meet David Bronson and his bereaved father. They came to visit us one afternoon in our New York apartment, a difficult reunion for all. I was gripped by a powerful sense of guilt and dread. There was none of the old nonchalant cheekiness in Dr. Bronson’s greeting, no efforts at charm, and of course no talk of the family holiday in Scotland. David too was subdued and shy. He took me into the bedroom I shared with my brother and looked around expectantly.

“Where’s Alfred?” he asked with sickening inevitability, and I had to confess I’d lost him. All possible excuses withered before I could summon up the courage to explain. I stood mute. “Lost him?” he repeated, a heavier blow than any possible angry rebuke. He turned aside. I knew there was no point suggesting he could acquire another turtle. I might as well have proposed he find a substitute brother. The second World War that dominated my childhood began early, and for me, as for so many others, has never really ended.



Comments are closed.