When I start to think of Hertha

When I think of Hertha’s childhood, I always get it confused with my own. Imagining her long ago life, I find myself revisiting my own girlhood. It can’t be helped. Our beginnings are so similar, like indistinguishable threads weaving the same cord. My imagining of Hertha and my own memories gain strength from each other as they make their separate way around their identical center.

Like me, Hertha was the youngest daughter and the third of three sisters. In a family with two older sisters and three older brothers, her family was larger than mine but our positions were similar, we were left mainly on our own, disrespected and mostly disavowed by our older siblings. When Hertha was four her one place of distinction as the youngest child was taken. With the birth of Herbert, she was no longer the family baby, simply the third in the order of daughters.

Hertha was beautiful and quiet. She could smile quickly when encouraged, either by her own thoughts or the whimsy of others. Left quietly behind by her busy siblings, she lived most often in a world of her own imaginings.

Beauty and the easiness which its charms insured was cultivated and enjoyed by Hertha’s older sisters, Elsa and Helene. But outward demeanors never interested their youngest sister. She preferred instead the charm and quiet company of her Oma who shared a room with her in the tall brick row house on Hart Street in Brooklyn. Hertha’s Oma had come to live with the family around the time that Hertha was born. Their sharing a room was a blessing for each of them. They were so much alike, just the presence of one with the other could still an old woman’s loneliness or quiet a young baby’s fears.

Hertha was five and a half when her father died. It was more a silent time than a mournful one. In mid-April, at the very beginning of spring, he had sailed from Brooklyn to his home country of Germany. The warmth of the coming summer was in the air as Hertha’s father said good-bye. His littlest daughter concentrated that day on his promised return before the summer was over. In August the family would travel together to the cool of Catskills mountains just north of Manhattan. This yearly adventure which included always cousins, aunts and uncles was the highpoint of the family’s summer. There was just a trace in the air that April day of August’s coming heat. Hertha held onto that hardly discernable hint as she said good-bye to her father.

Two weeks later, the family expecting a telegram saying he had arrived safely in Hamburg received instead news of his shipboard death. Stunned, no one spoke of the tragedy. The conversations instead were involved with moving forward and making plans. Previous summer plans were all quietly cancelled.

Because he had died of Cholera, it wasn’t until late November that the body of Hertha’s father could be retrieved from Europe and buried in a new family burial plot in Brooklyn. This time lag make his death seem to his youngest daughter like it didn’t really happen. There was no immediate funeral, no immediate mourning.

That November, half a year after her father’s death, his body was finally cleared for burial and Hertha turned 6 years old. She had never turned 6 before but she had watched all her siblings take this step. To Hertha it was a milestone as every birthday is to a child, but her family nearly ignored her birthday moving ahead as quickly as they were with necessary plans. Her birthday table was set up and cards and presents placed there. But this year, it all seemed as part of a routine to be moved through as quickly as possible.
Hertha understood why of course. Still, she was only 6 years old.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1895, seven months after his death Hertha’s father was laid to rest. He was not buried along side his uncle, his sister and several nieces and nephews. His body was not even placed in the same cemetery as these other family members. The prestigious Green-Wood Cemetery was chosen instead. This cemetery so close to Manhattan was a source of national pride. It had an international reputation as the largest landscaped cemetery in the world. In his youth and strength, Hertha’s father had meant to start a new family tradition in America. Cut down in his prime, his initial endeavors were at least in part honored by laying him to rest in a place that signaled success.

On her father’s burial day in late November, the daylight was getting shorter, the winds of winter were picking up and the chill in the air set a very different tone than the April day that Hertha said her final good-bye to her father. The day after the funeral was Thanksgiving. The juxtaposition of her father’s lost and the celebration of Thanksgiving seemed awkward to Hertha’s industrious mind. This awkwardness on the edge of her sixth birthday led her to imagine connections far beyond the reach of her older less observant siblings.

Hertha was the only one of her siblings who took into deep consideration the margins of what was happening that Thanksgiving. The others were busy with the power of the holiday. Although she was only six, Hertha had learned not to speak about edges and margins and what she imagined there.

Sitting together in the quiet space of their shared bedroom Hertha and her Oma, the youngest and the oldest girls in this busy family, imagined and explored other possibilities. They had much to share.

Hertha’s grandmother knew of world never experience by her daughter or any of her grandchildren. Born in a part of the world that was now called Germany, she remembered a past that was quickly being forgotten. No one seemed interested in that past but her littlest granddaughter. When they were together, time for each of them pasted quickly.

They didn’t have much more time together after Hertha’s father’s death. A little more than a year later, Caroline passed away on February 19. She had been sick for 8 days with a terrible pneumonia. She was /// years old when she died and had lived almost 10 years without her husband. Hertha slept alone now in the little room they once share but not for long.

Almost immediately, it was decided that a lodger would be found to supplement the family income. Hertha was moved into a room with her older sisters, an add was place in the Brooklyn Eagle and soon a new lodger arrived at the family home.

Jacob Hyman

June 30, 2000

For a few days now I’ve been thinking about writing about that picture of Elsa and Hertha reading the letter on the boardwalk.

I know so much about that picture now. The picture was probably taken in 1907 or 1908 before Rosa’s marriage to David Kling while the family still lived at Bath Beach not far from Coney Island.

Elsa is probably reading a letter from her cousin Dora – who she was extremely close to and always on correspondence with.

Dora had married against her family’s wishes and moved to upstate New York. The aunts Emily and Wilhelmina, Dora’s half-sisters, disowned her. They had caringly taken their youngest sister Dora under their wing and let her live with them in their own house on Decatur Avenue. 

Dora was a stenographer. But then she had fallen . . .in love and married against their will.

But Dora, who was actually a cousin to Elsa’s father but was much closer in age to Elsa herself, kept up her correspondence with her cousin.

That was what was going on in the picture, and Hertha, who was younger than them both, watched closely. 

Dora had always been Hertha’s idol, having a job, living with her sisters (who were more the age of parents).

But Dora’s marriage had changed Hertha’s image of Dora. Hertha didn’t want to marry. She once thought Dora would travel but now it was impossible to do so married and with children.