Bearing Witness


Photo: Michele Stapleton

Bearing Witness

(Excerpted from a book-length work)

By Elaine Ford


This is Rose’s lonely time. Papa Joshel out at his pinochle game, the children asleep in bed, Irving working late at the candy store. Sunday nights the business closes early, but after he’s lowered the metal shutters and tidied the place so his brother won’t find a mess when he opens up at seven in the morning, Irving tallies the accounts for both stores. Her husband won’t be back until eleven at the earliest.
When they were courting, Irving presented Rose with a half-pound tin of chocolates from Schrafft’s for her birthday. Must have cost a fortune. Darling man, even if he isn’t very tall, even in shoes with lifts. A small man with a large, generous heart. A natty dresser, too, in his off-hours, especially in those days, in his three-piece suits and plate-gold watch chain and homburg, and always with a clean handkerchief in his breast pocket. Of course she saved the tin: a memento, a treasure. Now she keeps her collection of photos inside it. At loose ends, she sits with it on the sofa and opens the hinged lid.
On top is a small sepia likeness of her mother, Reyne, posed with an infant in a smocked dress: Rose’s oldest brother, Manny. The inscription on the worn cardboard frame reads The Scottish Photo Touring Company, 22 Argyle Street, Glasgow. Around 1899 it must have been, two years after her parents, new immigrants from Russia, got married, and six or seven years before Mama and her children left Scotland for America. In the photo Reyne’s dark hair is uncombed and her blouse wrinkled. Her lovely young face has a startled look, like a gentle animal surprised in its burrow. Rose supposes that a traveling photographer rapped on the door of their Glasgow tenement and persuaded her to have her picture taken for a few pennies. Maybe Bobeshi, Rose’s grandmother, paid for it. Rose doubts that her father did. A man whose burning ambition is to rescue the workers from the sins of capitalism, Sol Mendelson has little sentiment left over for his own family.
Rose’s mother is long dead, taken away in childbirth in 1914, not long after Rose’s ninth birthday. There are few photos in the tin candy box. Rose’s family couldn’t afford to buy a camera. Alevai. Memories are not fixed like photographs. They slip into fog and vanish.
Three years ago a neighbor took a snapshot of Rose standing on the sidewalk in front of the house on Wainwright Street, where they lived then. Is it only the sun in her eyes that gives her a worried expression?
Behind her in the background is their black Model A, which Irving bought after they moved from New York City to Newark. Five hundred dollars he paid. He was feeling flush, confident. “Candy’s big,” he said about the new business. “Who don’t eat candy and drink a milkshake? Who don’t read newspapers?”
In the photo Rose is wearing a dress she bought at Bamberger’s. It has two tiers of scalloped flounces, white but edged in the color of the dress, billowing out below the collar and covering her ample bosom—the same flounces sewn into the seams along the sleeves, right up to the elbows. For years it was her favorite outfit, the one she most often wore to shul and to social events. Studying it closely now, she realizes that the dress makes her look like a plump, nervous, big-beaked chicken. Only twenty-five years old in the photo, and already flesh padding her neck and chin, her mouth seeming to creep closer to her nose. A face depressingly like her father’s. Why couldn’t she have taken after her mother?
Anyway, her hair shows to good advantage in the photo, wavy and glossy black. The short bob, parted on the left side, suits her. Rose is a cheerful person, really, when the sun isn’t making her squint. So what if she put on some weight with her two babies? “I like a zaftik woman,” Irving’s always saying.
Rose sorts through the photos. Here’s one of John, her youngest brother, taken three or four years ago. His head’s cocked to one side and he’s smiling in a bashful way like he knows a secret. A nice secret, but a little sad, too. Rose wonders what he was thinking as the camera clicked. He’s the sibling who most resembles their mother. Born under unlucky stars, both he and her mother.
This snapshot is of Rose’s sister Jessie and an old boyfriend. Rose may not be trim, the way Jessie is, but at least she has a husband and two beloved children, a perfect family. Not long ago Jessie turned thirty-two. For any girl, but especially a Jewish girl, that’s an old maid. You can’t see the boyfriend very well because he’s half in the background, looking down at something. Maybe Jessie drove him away with the opinions she wasn’t smart enough to keep to herself until she had a wedding ring on her finger. Their father’s left-wing politics rubbed off on Jessie—not on Rose, Gott tsu danken.
Rose shuts the candy tin and tunes in to WOR to catch the ten o’clock news. The announcer’s talking about a Friends of the New Germany rally in Montgomery Hall, Irvington. Four hundred people gathered to hear the speakers—followers of the recently appointed chancellor, Adolph Hitler. Communist demonstrators outside the hall, threats hurled back and forth, as well as rocks. The police used tear gas and riot guns to quell the disturbance. Two Friends of the New Germany wounded. Two Communists arrested.
Montgomery Hall is that German-American meeting place surrounded by a big wooden fence, just across the town line from Newark, less than a mile from where Rose sits.
In newsreels she’s seen the strange man in a mustache screaming and waving his arms. A comical figure. How can anyone take Herr Hitler seriously? Yes, the newspapers have been printing stories about a Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and some Jewish children not being allowed to go to school, about the burning of books written by Jews. But Germany’s a long way away, and Rose doesn’t think much of Commies, either. The word Nazi means little to her. To leave the violence and craziness of the Old World is what her family emigrated for.
She turns off the radio and goes to bed.
One day in the middle of July, Irving brings in the mail on his way home from work and dumps it on the kitchen table. “A letter from your sister,” he says. “Alicia, Michigan on the postmark. What’s Jessie doing in Michigan?”
“God only knows.”
Rose dries her hands and picks up the envelope. With a paring knife she slits it open and removes two pieces of folded stationery. “She’s at a place called Sunrise Farm,” she tells Irving when she’s read the first paragraph. “Been there ten days.”
“A farmer she is now? What next?”
“It’s a cooperative farm, Jessie says. Founded on anarchist principles.”
“That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” Irving takes a cigar from his pocket and puts a match to the end. Lately he’s taken to smoking five-cent cigars from the store. Stinks up the house but Rose doesn’t make a fuss. A hardworking man deserves his pleasures.
He goes to the front room to await his dinner, and Rose sits at the table to read the rest of the letter. Nobody on the farm owns anything except clothing and a toothbrush, Jessie writes. All decisions are made collectively. Every person shares the work and will one day share equally in the profits. Ten thousand acres of rich muck soil planted in peppermint, sugar beets, wheat, barley, and various vegetables. Their first task is to weed the peppermint, the farm’s most valuable crop. The plants are young yet and weeds would choke them, kill them. You get down on your hands and knees and crawl along, weeding the rows on both sides of you. Each row is half a mile long and it takes all day to finish your two rows. The work’s hell on your back and the heat of the sun is fierce. Many nights they attend meetings, which last until everyone has had their say. Hours, sometimes.
But she loves the farm, Jessie writes. She loves the other members of the cooperative, the adventure, the feeling that they’re actually taking charge of their own fates rather than meekly waiting for capitalism to collapse.
What Jessie’s doing makes peeling eggs for salad, as Rose does for the store’s sandwiches, seem like no work at all. Rose wouldn’t trade places with her sister for anything. Still, maybe Jessie will find a man there. There must be lots of men, if they have any hope of making a go of a ten-thousand-acre farm.
But these men, Rose suspects, are ex-factory workers, out of jobs, with no place else to go. What do people in the garment trade know about farming? Probably never been out of the city in their lives, except for a day-trip to Coney Island on the BMT. And any man Jessie finds on this farm would be an anarchist. Another anarchist in the family they don’t need.
It wasn’t true, the way some people thought, that Rose married Irving Mirsky to escape her father’s rants and her stepmother’s whims, but she wouldn’t deny that the prospect of having her own home sweetened the courtship and hurried it along.
Nothing wrong with ideals, Rose thinks. The problem is that in her experience they don’t have much to do with reality. Sad the way her stepmother leads Papa around by the nose. It occurs to Rose now that maybe he actually likes it that way. Freedom and independence are only words he uses. Somewhere along the way he forgot what they mean.
Monday night, as usual, her brother-in-law Ben comes by to play poker with Irving and Papa Joshel. “This morning,” Ben says, “I went to see a guy about a job. In Kearny. Took me half the day to get there and the other half to get back.” He sits down at the card table.
“Kearny, huh? So what happened?” Irving asks, shuffling the cards.
“This shmuck Fishbein wants I should be a shipping clerk. Minimum wage. Twenty-five cents an hour.”
“What did you expect?” Irving asks. “Vice-president of the company he’s gonna make you? Cut, Papa.”
“I told him I can’t work for that, it wouldn’t hardly pay my carfare. I’m a journeyman carpenter. I have my pride.”
Nu, pride can cost you,” Irving says.
Across the room, on the sofa, Rose hears Irving slap cards down on the table. From the coffee table she picks up the Family Circle magazine the grocer gave her for free. She leafs through it and finds a cheery article featuring a dozen different recipes for meatloaf. Cups of filler in every one. Cracker crumbs. Bread crumbs. Quaker Oats. Cornflakes. Chopped carrots. So delicious and nourishing the family won’t even notice the stingy amount of meat. Alevai.
Yesterday at the shoemaker’s shop Rose ran into Ben’s wife Sophie, all excited that her daughter Ethel had found a job as a typist. Fresh out of high school, Ethel will be supporting the family. Poor Ben, Rose thinks. Being unemployed is bad enough without having your seventeen-year-old daughter putting the food on the table. Yet Ben was that same age when he arrived in this country and became the one every other Mirsky depended on.
“I’ll see you and raise you,” she hears him say.
One Sunday morning Rose notices a man walking past the house wearing a red armband with a swastika on it. He turns the corner onto Bragaw, toward the Evangelical Bethlehem Church. The sight gives her a jolt, the flash of blood-red, but it isn’t the last one. In the German-American neighborhoods along Springfield Avenue signs in German decorated with swastikas begin to appear on trees and lamp posts.
She hears on the radio that in Nuremburg two hundred Jewish merchants were arrested and paraded through the streets. Rose imagines toughs dragging Irving out of the store and marching him along Broad Street. Irving is a small man; he wouldn’t be able to stop them if such a thing ever happened, God forbid.
The newspapers run stories about Jewish men in one German town or another being rounded up by the police, rumors of whole families disappearing in the night, taken who knows where. Every day some new humiliation.
Rose has always been a little resentful of the German Jews in this country, so prosperous, so assimilated. Jews in Germany, the same. The Litvakes, Ostjuden—her people—they consider uneducated, backward, superstitious. But to Rose, a Jew is a Jew.
Every other Saturday night Papa Joshel looks after the kids and she and Irving go to the movies. In the newsreels Hitler begins to seem not so comical anymore. Mickey Mouse he isn’t. You can make fun of his ridiculous mustache, but hundreds of thousands of Germans are jamming into public squares to salute him and hear him rail against the Jews.
So the Germans are upset about the way things turned out for them after the war. They have grievances. Reparations they had to pay, wringing the country dry. A life’s savings can’t buy a loaf of bread. No jobs. They’re scared and angry. All that Rose understands and sympathizes with. But to think they can make things better for themselves by worshipping this lunatic Hitler, who informs them that all their troubles are the fault of the Jews? Alarmingly, these notions jump like fleas off a dog and land in Newark, where people are also out of work and scared.
When she frets, Irving tells her not to be silly. “This is America.” So she keeps her misgivings to herself.
Nowadays, when Rose delivers her lunch salads to the store, there seem to be fewer customers inside. Off on holidays, she tells herself, the lucky ones who can afford to rent a beach house on the south Jersey shore or stay in a hotel in the Catskills. After Irving figures the accounts Sunday nights he’s a little distracted for a day or two. To Rose he says, “Everything’s terrific. Hunky dory.” She does her best to believe him.
Jessie writes every couple of weeks. They’ve harvested the peppermint, mowed the crop by hand and dried it, loaded the mint hay onto wagons and taken it to the still to be turned into peppermint oil. Thirty pounds of oil from each acre, a good yield. She’s proud of their work, their success. She mentions returning to New York for a visit in October, after most crops are in. If she does, she promises, she’ll come to Newark to see Rose. “I guess you heard about John,” she writes at the end of her last letter. “I’ll see him, too, if they’ll let me.”
No, nobody in New York has said anything to Rose about their youngest brother. Except for Jessie, the Mendelson family chooses not to talk about him. Like the way nobody ever mentioned his clubfoot, pretending it didn’t exist, as if it was a stain on the family. Rose is nervously relieved that her own children came out perfect. A few years ago John got himself into trouble, petty theft, but Rose thought that was all over and done with. What now? She doesn’t dare write to ask.
September 1st, they give Roy a little party for his birthday. In one breath he blows out the eight candles on the cake Rose made for him. The day after Labor Day he goes back to school, third grade now, learning to write cursive with pen and ink already. A smart boy. And Sissie starts kindergarten. Every morning Rose stands at the front room window and watches them leave, dressed in their new clothes from Bamberger’s, swinging their lunchboxes. What if Sissie falls and scrapes her knee? What if Roy is set upon by bullies? But none of the other mothers walk their kids to school, and Rose forces herself not to go running after her darlings. “They gotta learn to stand on their own two feet,” Irving says. “Besides, the school, it’s what—three blocks away?” With the radio for company she busies herself mopping floors, feather-dusting, beating rugs. Rose likes to keep a clean home, a welcoming home. Flowers she picked herself on the table in the breakfast nook, candy in a dish on the coffee table, doilies she crocheted herself on the chair arms. When she’s done with her housework she makes salads for the store. Knishes too, now.
On Rosh Hashana she accompanies her father-in-law to shul, though of course she sits up in the balcony with the other women. For Yom Kippur the store shuts, and Irving goes to shul, too. Evening services and twice the next day. He wears his tallis and yarmulke. Rose fasts for twenty-five hours, like all the other Mirskys, except the children. If you’re a Jew it’s good to take part in the rituals, Rose thinks, whether or not you believe in every detail. What could it hurt?
The story’s in all the papers the next day. Yom Kippur night, the Friends of the New Germany gathered at Schwabenhalle, the German-American meeting hall on Springfield Avenue, supposedly in celebration of President Hindenburg’s birthday. Anti-Nazis broke up the meeting, and a few Nazi heads got bashed. The papers repeat the rumor that the gangster Longie Zwillman’s henchmen were among the bashers.A Star Eagle reporter asked the leader of the local Friends why the injured young men were wearing Nazi uniforms with swastikas. “Sports costumes,” the fellow replied. He claimed the purpose of the Friends was to “promote friendly relations between the U.S. and Germany.” The Nazi salute was nothing but a “gesture.”
When Irving comes home from work she hands him the Star Eagle, folded to the story. “They pick Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, to have this so-called friendly celebration.”
“I heard about it.” He plops into his easy chair, kicks off his shoes. “Can they help it Yom Kippur and Hindenburg’s birthday fall on the same day?”
“Hindenburg’s birthday is the second of October. Tomorrow.”
Nu, so they like to have their party on the weekend. Let the clowns wear their costumes. This is gonna blow over, Rose, I guarantee. To occupy their tiny minds they’ll find some new foilishtik.”
But Rose is not so sure.
In October Jessie takes the Hudson River Tubes from lower Manhattan to Hoboken to Newark, and Rose meets her sister downtown at the railroad station. Jessie has browned from her work in the fields and filled out some. Her hair—black and curly, like Rose’s—has grown long and uncontrolled. To Rose she looks like a gypsy.
Proudly Rose escorts Jessie to the Model A, parked near the station, and opens the passenger-side door for her sister. “You learned to drive, Rosie? Well, if you did, I can too. Driving a tractor would be more fun than pulling beets out of the muck.”
Rose stows Jessie’s suitcase on the rear seat and gets behind the wheel. “The men will let you drive a tractor?”
If it suits their own convenience, Rose thinks. Irving taught her to drive this car so she could deliver her salads to the store and take Papa Joshel to the doctor. “I want to know,” she says, maneuvering the car away from the curb and into Market Street traffic, “is farm life still as wonderful as you thought?”
“I love Sunrise.” Jessie looks out the side window at all the city commotion. “Except for one thing. Between you and me, the men spend as much time arguing politics as working.”
“I thought you liked arguing politics.”
“Me? I never argue about anything.”
Rose smiles. “I don’t suppose you’ve thought of hooking one of those men for yourself?”
She expects an ironic retort. Instead, “A man is not a fish to be hooked,” Jessie says soberly.
Rose knows enough to let the subject drop. Driving along Springfield Avenue, she inquires after the health of the family in New York.
“Oh, you know, same as always. Bobeshi and Aunt Libby with their aches and pains, Uncle Tzodik muttering about being dragged uptown to live with the Goldbergs. You can’t get a decent bagel in the Bronx, he says.”
Inching her way forward, her left arm stuck straight out the window, fingers splayed, Rose begins to navigate the tricky left turn onto Bergen Street. Streetcars going every which way, beeping autos, unemployed beggars looking for a handout, hawkers, shoppers scurrying right in front of her car.
“What about John?” she ventures when safely around the corner. “Have you seen him?”
“I tried. The cops keep giving me the runaround.”
“The cops?”
“I thought Papa told you. He’s on Hart’s Island. Locked up.”
“Gottenyu!” Rose brakes to avoid hitting a dog running loose across Bergen Street.
“What did he do?”
“All Papa will say is that Hart’s Island is where John is and where he deserves to be.”
“Isn’t Hart’s Island where the city buries paupers?”
“Guess who digs their graves.”
The prisoners. Sickened, Rose pictures John with a shovel, all day long digging trenches, the final homes of the poor and abandoned. The convicts might as well be preparing their own graves, many of them. Their fate will be one prison or another for the rest of their lives.
“Even if I get permission,” Jessie says, “visiting him won’t be a cinch. Hart’s Island is way out in Long Island Sound, no bridge. But I’m not giving up.”
Rose can hardly believe that her sweet teddy bear of a baby brother has turned into a criminal. So many strikes against him. Still, not everybody with disadvantages, or who’s poor and unemployed, commits crimes and gets thrown in prison. That’s what Irving would say.
“Please don’t mention this to Irving, okay?”
Rose is ashamed. Mortified. Bad enough her anarchist father with his crackpot friends, some of them deported to Russia or blown up by their own bombs. Now, thanks to her, Irving has a jailbird for a brother-in-law.
It’s true that Irving takes envelopes of cash from Longie Zwillman. To Irving, and maybe to everyone in Newark, including the cops who get their cut, dealing with Zwillman is nothing more than good business sense. A completely different matter from armed robbery or selling narcoticsor whatever it was John did. The Mirskys have had their problems, but not one of them has been anywhere near a jail.
The Monday night after Jessie’s arrival, Irving has the card table set up, and Rose is ready with plates of snacks. But Ben is late. When he comes in, he doesn’t take off his jacket. Like all the Mirskys Ben barely reaches five feet tall. Unlike the rest of them, he’s sturdily built. Rose has the impression that in his younger days he’s more than once needed to defend himself physically. He just stands inside the front door, a troubled look on his face.
“Come on, let’s get started,” Irving says. “It’s after nine. Where you been?”
“The Nazis are at it again,” Ben replies. “Meeting at Schwabenhalle.”
“So what else is new? They haven’t been keeping this rally a secret, exactly.”
“There’s a lot more of them than last time, on Yom Kippur. They’re crowding into the hall, close to a thousand of them, standing room only. I heard it on the radio. The main speaker will be this jackass Spanknoebel, leader of the Friends in America. The Führer, he calls himself. The junior jackasses salute him just like they do Hitler.”
“He can call himself anything he wants. What’s it to me?”
“Use your head, Irving. Don’t you know what Spanknoebel and his ilk are preaching? Jews, all Jews, everywhere, are enemies to be shunned, hunted down, put in prison, shot. You’re a Jew, aren’t you? It’s time somebody stood up to them and their ‘Friends’.”
“Can’t we hev nice game poker?” asks Papa Joshel at the card table. He fingers the worn old deck, hoping for peace between his two sons, the bossy leader of the pack and the wayward pup.
“Somebody is standing up to them,” Irving says. “The Commies. And Longie Zwillman’s boys. Sit, Ben. Papa, shuffle the cards. I gotta be up at six tomorrow morning.”
Ben doesn’t move from the doorway. Quietly Jessie says, “Ben means ordinary people have to protest. Like us.”
“It’s our moral duty,” Ben says, “to bear witness in front of these bastards. I’m asking you to come with me, Irving.”
“Go there and demonstrate? Nah.” Irving plucks a sourball from the cut-glass dish on the coffee table and begins to unwrap the cellophane. “Not me.”
“I’ll go with you.”
Everyone looks at Jessie. Three days in Newark and already it’s to the barricades.
“How will you get there?” Rose asks in a reasonable tone of voice. “Ben doesn’t have a car. It’s a mile and a half walk to Schwabenhalle, at least.”
“Sit, Binyamin,” Papa says. “Read about it in the papers in the morning.”
“We could take your car,” Jessie says to Rose, springing up from the ottoman.
“What are you talking about?” Irving growls, the sourball in his jaw. “You ain’t going nowhere, not in my car.” He tosses the wrapper toward the coffee table. It lands on the rug.
“It’s our car,” Rose replies calmly. “Just like it’s our store I’m making knishes for and tuna fish salad, and our house I’m cleaning, and our children I’m raising.”
Irving gazes at her in disbelief. “You planning on driving the car yourself?”
“Yes, darling, I am.” 
Into the stunned silence that follows Papa murmurs, “Mebbe dey not so crazy as you tink, mine Itzko.”
“Fine,” Irving shouts. “Go!”
Rose has backed herself into a corner, God help her. She has no desire whatever to join the protest at Schwabenhalle, let alone drive there. In the dark. Amidst crowds of people milling around in the street. What if she hits somebody? Or some other car crashes into her? If only Ben owned a car and knew how to drive. But no, he refuses to pay that Jew-hating Henry Ford a single penny for one of his vehicles, even if he could afford to. Streetcar’s good enough for Ben. Surprise: no streetcars running tonight from Hobson Street to Schwabenhalle.
The next thing Rose knows she has her hat and coat on and is behind the steering wheel, turning the key and pushing in the choke, praying the car won’t start. Ben sits beside her, Jessie in the back with her nose two inches behind Rose’s neck. God ignores Rose’s entreaty, and the engine is its usual cooperative self. She makes a three-point turn, backing up onto the neighbor’s curb just a little, and heads north, toward Springfield Avenue. At first they see no traffic in the street, not a soul on the sidewalk. But after about a mile they encounter a few pedestrians headed in their direction and then a few more. Before long there are so many marchers they’ve spilled over the sidewalk and are clogging the street.
“Leave the car here,” Ben says. “The rest of the way we’ll go on foot.”
What does Ben understand about the risk of abandoning a car in a strange neighborhood that might be German or Jewish—who knows which? Reluctantly Rose pulls over to the side of the road and stops the engine, making sure to engage the emergency brake. The word emergency reverberates in her mind. If only she could put a brake on this whole expedition. They get out and join the crowd moving toward Schwabenhalle, Ben in the lead with Jessie right behind him. Rose has a hard time keeping up in her pumps, the heels of which catch in cracks in the sidewalk. Damp fallen leaves make the going slippery.
Ahead of them is a roar, voices raised in fury. A huge number of people must be converging on Schwabenhalle. A police car, its siren blaring, briefly parts the crowd. And then another, and another. The rotten-egg smell of stench bombs assaults her nose.
“Ben,” she shouts. She grabs onto his jacket sleeve. “This is too dangerous. We should go home.”
But Ben shouts back, “With my own eyes I have to see this Führer, this putz Spanknoebel. I have to raise my fist.”
They reach Springfield Avenue, which is choked with cars and hundreds of protesters, police, curious onlookers. People hold handkerchiefs over their noses against the stink. Rose hears glass breaking somewhere. Right before them is Schwabenhalle, dozens of policemen rushing into the building. Almost at the same time a large man in a Nazi uniform emerges, escorted by toughs, briskly heading toward a car waiting at the sidewalk. “That’s him!” the crowd screams. They surge forward, and one of the protesters charges Spanknoebel. Before the man can reach his target, a bodyguard punches him in the jaw and he falls to the pavement. A phalanx of policemen block Rose’s view. Almost immediately, what must be the escape car barges through the throng, heedless of any bodily injuries it might cause, speeding away. Rose gasps in dismay.
Now the Nazi audience begins to pour out of the building, engaging the demonstrators in battle. Some people rush toward the fray, others try to flee in the opposite direction. Rose feels elbows in her back, rough shoulders jamming into hers. Her hat flies from her head. Struggling to retrieve it, and then to keep herself upright, she loses sight of Ben and Jessie. Her best hat, the one that matches her coat, trampled underfoot. Jostled and terrified, the wind knocked out of her, she begins to cry.
And then, by some miracle, Ben finds her. He puts his arms around the sisters. “Okay, I saw him. I raised my fist. Now we’ll go home.”
“He got away,” Jessie wails. “I know he did.”
“This time.”
In the car, out of breath and exhausted, nobody says much. When they’ve dropped Ben off at his house, Rose drives west along Hawthorne. In contrast to the chaos on Springfield Avenue, Weequahic seems quiet and peaceful. Yet something about the darkened windows, the deep shadows between streetlamps, makes her uneasy. Sadness in those buildings. Every Jew has his or her own sorrows.
After a while Jessie says, “Before I go back to Sunrise I’m going downtown to the federal courthouse. I’m going to become a U.S. citizen.”
The car chugs by a mom-and-pop grocery, a deli, a barber, a radio repair store. All of them shuttered.
“Don’t you have to wait seven years?”
“I took out papers already. When I was living with Aunt Basha she talked me into making the application. Basha’s a big believer in documents.”
Rose is searching for the left turn onto Hobson. The landmark is a beauty parlor, but she’s not used to driving at night, and everything’s strange in the dark. But if she slows down too much the car may stall.
“But,” Jessie continues, “for a long time I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it.”
Rose doesn’t have to ask why not. Her whole life she’s heard the anarchist dogma from her father. The State is how the top dogs exploit the workers. To be loyal to the State is to be loyal to an elite that cares nothing about you but sucks you dry. Russia, Scotland, the United States, what’s the difference? Of all his children, Jessie was the only one who listened to Papa and took him seriously. “So now you’re sure?”
“Now I’m sure.”
Good, there’s the junkyard. In the dim glow of the streetlamp Rose can see weird shapes poking out of heaps of discards, like the arms and legs of huddled prisoners. After the junkyard, she knows, there are three blocks before the turn. “I hear you have to swear you aren’t an anarchist.”
“I don’t throw bombs. That’s all the judge cares about.”
“Also, you can’t be a bigamist.”
Jessie barks a laugh.
The wind has picked up. A swirl of leaves smacks against the windshield. Rose leans forward, her hands tight on the steering wheel. Please God, let her get them home in one piece—herself, her sister, and the car. Especially the car.
“Rosie, I hope you won’t get into trouble with Irving. And I’m sorry you lost your hat.”
Nisht naytik. Never mind about Irving, never mind about the hat.”
The truth is, Rose realizes, she feels good about tonight. Very good. She was there—like Ben said, bearing witness.
The next day Irving says not a word about the Schwabenhalle event or Rose’s insubordination. She backed herself into a corner in going; maybe he did the same thing in not going. He tends the store, plays cards, and smokes his cigars, the same as usual. Thursday morning she drives Jessie to the station to catch the Tubes back to New York. On the platform Rose says, “See John if you can. Tell him… whatever he did, he’s still our brother. And I love him.”
“I promise.”
Friday evening, as always, Rose prepares a shabbes meal. A nice brisket from her favorite Bergen Street butcher, and her special horseradish sauce.
Sunday night, Irving comes into the bedroom and sits on the edge of the bed, waking her. “Rose, I got to talk to you.”
Sleepily she pulls herself up against the headboard and turns on the bedside lamp. She sees pouches under her husband’s eyes, notes the sag of his shoulders. “What is it?”
“I ain’t gonna beat around the bush. The stores are losing money. By the bucketful. Every month it’s all I can do to scrape together the rents, the mortgage on the house. There’s nothing left for new inventory.”
Rose remembers the brisket and regrets it. Nearly a whole dollar she spent on the meal, thoughtlessly, needlessly. “You didn’t tell me. I could have been more careful—”
“It’s no big thing, Rose. Saving a few cents here or there wouldn’t matter. We just don’t get enough customers. I figured even in hard times, candy, newspapers, tobacco would sell. They don’t.”
“Your brothers, what do they say?”
“They know what’s going on. One thing we can do is give up the store on West Market Street. It wasn’t ever worth the trouble, it spread us too thin.”
“Maybe that would solve the problem.”
He sighs. “It ain’t only the stores, Rose. Newark don’t feel like home to me anymore.”
Because of Schwabenhalle, she thinks. And maybe other things, too—incidents in the store, things he didn’t tell her. He’s been more distressed lately than he let on.
“What will you do?”
“Go back to the Bronx, be a baker again. Bread they’ll buy.”
“Would Papa Joshel go with us?”
“Sure, if he wants.”
Irving gets up from the bed, takes off his trousers and shirt. Such skimpy shoulders to have been bearing these heavy burdens all by himself. Undersized. Frail. And yet he’s managed to survive, and be a good husband and father, and protect his family.
“Irving, I have something to tell you, too.”
His drawers half-unbuttoned, he turns. In the harsh yellow lamplight he looks tired, old for his years.
“My little brother John is on Hart’s Island. He committed some crime, I don’t know what.” Her eyes now blurry with tears, she gropes for a hankie on the bedside table. “But he’s not a bad person, I’m sure he isn’t.”


Nu, so he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. Even me, would you believe it?” Irving laughs at his own feeble joke. “Don’t worry, Rose. John’ll learn his lesson, get outta there, make a better life after. Everything’s gonna be okay.”


Copyright © Elaine Ford 2019

Elaine Ford's five novels include Missed Connections (1983) and Life Designs (1997). Her story collection, The American Wife, won the 2007 Michigan Literary Fiction Award. A second collection, This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine, was published posthumously in 2018. “Bearing Witness” is excerpted from Bread and Freedom: Stories of an Immigrant Family’s Journey. Portions of Bread and Freedom have appeared in Water-Stone Review, Crazyhorse, Westchester Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. Ford’s fiction chapbook The Marriage Bed is online at Find chapters of her historical novel-in-manuscript God’s Red Clay at, and Author website:

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