Bath Beach Brooklyn 1903

Hertha is 14 years old and spends most of her days lying in bed in a narrow room with blinds drawn against the steadily increasing rays of the spring sun. Light hurts her eyes and the pain in her joints exhausts her as she quietly hopes this fever, which the doctor calls rheumatic, will soon subside. As the days and the weeks pass, she imagines for herself a life much different than the one chosen by the rest of her large family who surround her in her illness. These plans, nourished by the hours spent in bed and the constant visits of her aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, are so full of dreams that her older sisters tease her for being infected with “Romantic Fever”. Well, maybe that’s true too.

Hertha’s mother Rosa moved her family of seven children here to quiet Bath Beach from downtown Brooklyn only months ago. The newly completed transport system, with its modern terminal on a nearby street corner, makes it easy for the cousins and aunts to visit, her sisters to get to their classes, and her brothers to go to work. On the weekends, these same trains bring crowds of visitors to Lunar Park on Coney Island a few stations farther down the line. On clear nights, from the beach at the other end of their block, the modern lights of this entertainment marvel, accompanied by the thundering waves of the ocean, appear otherworldly against the dark sky. But Hertha hasn’t seen those lights herself, she only hears about them from her relatives when they visit her quiet, darkened, room.

Hertha’s mother has no brothers and sisters. . .her parents who were immigrants also had no relations in America. So it is Hertha’s father’s family that continues to keep a close eye on this new family home at Bath Beach nine years after Hertha’s father, Fritz, had died. Fritz, who was born in Germany, was the oldest boy of nine children. Soon after his mother’s death, and against his father’s wishes, Fritz came to America to live with his uncle who was already settled here. One by one, almost all of his siblings followed.

Hertha’s oldest sister Elsa is studying to be a teacher. Cousin Emilie, who is the oldest of the cousins, and the first member of her generation to be born in America, has been teaching in Brooklyn for thirty years now. She and her half-sisters Wilhelmina and Dora share a household in Brooklyn just a short train trip away. Years ago, it was Emilie who welcomed her young cousin Fritz on his arrival at Castle Garden. Since then, Emilie has been showing Fritz and the other relatives, who quickly surrounded him, the best way to get along in America. Elsa’s career choice, teaching, was a sure sign that Emilie’s influence was reaching a new generation.

Elsa and Cousin Dora are very close in age. Ever since they were young, they shared a love of words, of stories and of writing. At family gatherings, they could always be found together huddled over a notebook, writing down their own stories, often making up their own words, and working to perfect their penmanship. Before they were teenagers, they became the official family chroniclers and were put in charge of writing long letters home to the few relatives who remained in Germany. Now, Elsa’s classes and Dora’s work as a stenographer kept them apart all week long. So, quite naturally, these cousins who act more like sisters, developed the habit of sending postals and letters to each other. This practice continued for the next fifty years.

Hertha, the youngest of all the sisters and cousins, was enticed by the possibilities that Dora’s profession offered. Hertha love to hear Dora talk about her travels to work each day in Manhattan and the intrigues of her office there. Dora, who has no younger sisters of her own, enjoyed the attention of this young cousin. In the same way that her sister Emilie encouraged Elsa to be a teacher, Dora now encouraged Hertha into this new profession of for women, stenography, that Dora so enjoyed.

A few years ago, cousin Wilhelmina introduced Hertha and her sisters to the adventures of Nellie Bly. The stories of Nellie Bly were all over the newspapers when Hertha was just a baby. Ever since then, whenever the family gathered, Wilhelmina would regale her impressionable cousins with the stories of this world traveling woman journalist. Dora and Elsa were raised on these stories also, but their imaginations weren’t set ablaze by Wilhelmina’s tales as Hertha’s was. Now, during these long days in bed, Hertha imagines the skills of a stenographer as being more useful than those of a teacher as she plans her own trip around the world in the footsteps of Nellie Bly.

To Hertha, cousins Emilie, Wilhelmina, and Dora, and her mother Rosa are all adventurous in their own ways. Hertha has only to look at the ease in which authority falls into her brothers’ hands to realize what a struggle it must have been for these women to gather their own power in this man’s world. But their adventures are not what Hertha imagines for herself. All four of these women, who had had so much influence on her own life, have never left Brooklyn. They were all born here and here they have stayed.

It is Hertha’s father’s sisters, who all traveled west, across the ocean to live in a strange land, whose lives she finds most intriguing. Her father’s youngest sister Philippina, Aunt Benna that is, lives only blocks away. Aunt Benna’s daughter Johanna comes every day to visit Hertha in her narrow, darkened room. Here they share their dreams. Like Elsa and Dora, the two cousins so close in age, are as comfortable as sisters in the large German-American family. Together, just like the sisters a generation before them who dreamed about following their brother Fritz to America, these girls dream of going west.

In whispers, Hertha and Johanna deciphered the event that led their parent’s generation to be stuck, as the girls imagined they were, here in Brooklyn. How Hertha’s father had met a Brooklyn-born woman and married her. How Johanna’s mother had met a German-born man and stayed. Both of their mothers became young widows. Both of their mothers had remained fiercely independent. 

Hertha and Johanna imagined themselves differently. They saw themselves as never getting stuck. Just as, a generation earlier, the sisters dreamed about and eventually followed their brother Fritz, these young girls referred often to Fritz’s youngest brother Philip who was also a renegade. He was the one they would follow west.

Philip was the last of Fritz’s siblings to come to America. Philip was hardly walking when his older brother left, so he had no memory of him at all. But the trail of conspiracy and adventure that Fritz left behind enticed Philip to follow as soon as he was able. In New York, Philip chose not to live in Brooklyn. He stayed for a short while in Manhattan. Then, he continued west.

Hertha and Johanna are much too young to remember their Uncle Philip. What they do remember and what they talk about often is the disdain in the voices of their elders whenever Philip’s name was mentioned. “How could he leave? He should have stayed.” There is something about this disdain for these American girls. They are so smitten with the flame of adventure, a flame that their parents’ long journey across the ocean did not quench. They are allured by Philip’s decision to go west. . .and to do so against the opinions of others in the family. Philip must had attempted something very bold indeed. He had kept going west. This is what made him different. It is this boldness and this difference that has attracted and held the attention of these girls. Encouraged by the possibilities that the shadows of the sick room allowed, Johanna and Hertha talk in half-German, half-English voices expressing to one another a secret and shared need to carry on with a similar boldness.

Hertha’s mother Rosa did not encourage her youngest daughter’s dream of travel and adventure. Having never had any of these dreams herself, and born here in Brooklyn, Rosa only saw the complications that such dreams caused. When she was young, the energy and intrigue of these foreigners did beguile Rosa. But, as she looked more deeply into their experiences, she realized that none of those closest to her—her own parents, her husband, her husband’s family—enjoyed an ease of living in their homeland. Indeed, Rosa so often found it necessary to reach out and share with them snatches of her own comfort. A comfort that came easily to her in this land she knew so well. Rosa was glad now, as her children grew, that there is little talk of travel in their lives. She feels that keeping her children close to her is a comfort she can give them, a gift.

Johanna’s mother saw the complications of travel from a different angle. Aunt Benna had once been a young, adventurous girl, with dreams much like Hertha’s and Johanna’s. Now immersed in the back-breaking work of cooking and cleaning that running a boarding house demands, Aunt Benna has no time to remember those dreams. Sometimes during the day, she may pause in her work and think of her daughter. Aunt Benna is always comforted imagining her Johanna safe, visiting her nearby cousin Hertha. . .and not far away in a distant land.

–Gretchen Elsner-Sommer

September 2000