You’d think I would have gotten over my love affair with cemeteries by now, given all that’s happened. But I haven’t. I still love these stony, silent refuges. I feel so safe in them. After all, how many places are there left in the world, apart from the wilderness, where we can escape the pressures of constant striving, constant change? Very few, if you ask me. And cemeteries were the only place I knew of, back then, where things were exactly what they seemed. Most things, anyway.
For as long as I could remember, my father would take me on Saturday walks to the cemetery near our home. It was just the two of us, our private time together; my brother, Daniel, would stay home with Mom. Sometimes we’d even go during the week, if there was enough light after Dad got home from work. “Our” cemetery, Rosemount, was in the next town, Montclair, but we lived near the border.
Rosemount wasn’t just any cemetery; it was one of those lavish Victorian ones, with long, sloping lawns, groves of mature trees, and villages of impressive headstones, many dating back to pre-Civil War days. A few were topped with angels, but there were far more granite obelisks than statues. A number of small stone buildings, which I later realized were family mausoleums, had been set at thoughtful intervals among the graves. Every May, we’d make a nickel bet on who would be the first to spot a hummingbird in the ancient lilac bushes near the crest of the hill. I’d win most of the time. I had good eyes then. I still do.
Later, when I got older, we used our dog, Millie, as an excuse to walk there. But we’d been regular visitors long before Millie came along. Our ritual never varied. From the street we’d pass through the high brownstone gate, then climb the hill on the gravel path that encircled the central area, the hilltop where the most impressive headstones stood. Rarely would we meet anyone; jogging was unknown in the ’fifties. After ten minutes or so, we’d come to our destination, the northernmost point on the main path, where the hill descended into a natural depression. It was a left-behind sort of place, one most people wouldn’t even notice—just a shadowy ravine, a few scraggly pines growing out of it. A lesser cemetery would have used it as a dump for all of those dried-up floral arrangements and holiday decorations that people are forever leaving on graves.
We’d pick our way down the slope into this ragged area, always stopping at the same place, on the edge of the swale. Dad would reach into his pocket and take out two pebbles. (I don’t know where he got them, but the supply never seemed to diminish.) Then he’d take my hand, and we’d bow our heads. I learned how by watching him. He’d murmur something under his breath for a few minutes. I could never make out what it was. It didn’t sound like English. When he was done, we’d descend to the spot in the middle, where a pile of pebbles testified to our earlier visits, and add our new stones. I’d been part of this ritual for so long that it never seemed odd to me. And without being told, I knew that all of this was our secret. I never mentioned it to Mom.
One autumn Sunday, when I was five or six, we brought as many daffodil bulbs with us as we could fit in our pockets and planted them along a small embankment on the northern edge of the depression, the place that got the most light. Dad looked around carefully first, to make sure the groundskeeper was nowhere in sight. Then he took a small trowel out of his pocket and dug holes; I dropped the bulbs in and patted the earth down over each one.
When we were done, he whispered, “Next spring, they’ll come up. You’ll see. It will be beautiful.”
By that time, I’d been reading the inscriptions on the stones for a couple of years, and the idea that cemeteries were for burial of the dead had percolated into my awareness.
“Who’s buried here, Dad? How come there are no gravestones?”
He looked at me as if trying to decide how to answer this. Such an innocent question. Neither of us had any idea how central it would become in my life.
“Well, Addie, every cemetery, even one as nice as this, has far more unmarked graves than graves with headstones. A lot of people die with no one left to buy a memorial. Poor people often get buried together, unlike those fortunate people up the hill.” He gestured with his head toward the avenue above us. “These people down here have no one left but us. We’re looking after them now. It’s the least we can do, don’t you think?”
I nodded silently. The least we can do. It sounded reasonable enough to me. After all, he was my father. If he didn’t know, who would?
I’ve never been able to identify the week or the month when I first realized there was something odd about my family, something more than just my father’s weird Viennese accent. After all, we were Americans, born here, bred here. Mom had grown up on New York’s Lower East Side, and God knows, she tried to run an all-American household. Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. White bread. The Roy Rogers show. Christmas trees every December, even if she had to tie the damn thing on top of the car and haul it home by herself. And her efforts might well have succeeded, had it not been for Dad.
Twelve years earlier, back in ’48, when she’d met Samuel Hirschmann, Miriam Roth had been a pretty, vivacious twenty-two-year-old clerk at Manhattan’s Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Samuel had been one of thousands of post-war refugees, lucky enough to get a visa after three years in a Displaced Persons camp. And he had enough native intelligence to court and marry Miriam Roth within months of setting foot in America.
We lived in a typical post-war subdivision in East Orange, New Jersey, considered to be a step up from Newark. Our neighbors lived in similar, if not identical houses. Clark Street was a tight, closed society; nearly everyone we knew was Jewish. Every morning, the mothers would get together for coffee and endless games of mah-jongg in one home or another, the hostess proudly serving Maxwell House from the regulation Pyrex glass percolator. On the surface, it all looked normal.
About half of our neighbors were immigrants. Some sounded like Dad; others, still struggling with English, tended to lapse into Yiddish or other languages when things got difficult. All of them shared a desire to blend in with American society. Every house had a TV, a porch, a lawnmower. Those were decades of sameness, of conformity, a time when you expressed individuality through your choice of linoleum, if at all. And conformity, blending in, was a language my mother understood well. She was a first-generation American, a child of dirt-poor immigrants from Eastern Europe. She made sure that, in all parts of life that fell under her control, we didn’t stand out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all under her control.
Until I began school, until I had something to compare it to, I simply accepted our life at home, just as I accepted the hot dogs and beans we’d eaten every Saturday night since the dawn of time. And, no, they weren’t Hebrew National, in case you’re wondering. Good old Oscar Mayer wieners, pork and all, were good enough for us. We didn’t answer to a Higher Authority. Not as far as food was concerned.
I’d been named Aviva in honor of my father’s mother. Of course, none of us had ever met this woman or her husband, Daniel, my brother’s namesake. I liked to imagine them still living in Vienna, riding around the old city in a horse-drawn carriage, proud residents of Kaiser Franz Josef’s empire. I must have gotten this idea from one of my picture books, since it wasn’t until years later that I finally saw a horse-drawn carriage, in Central Park. At any rate, I had to imagine my father’s parents; we had no photos, no letters, certainly no words. Aviva and her husband dwelt in a disembodied realm of sacred silence. I knew as much about them as my Catholic friends at school knew about the Holy Ghost. It was rumored to exist, somewhere; it was thought to be good; and no one knew anything more than that.
So that was the first problem: Dad’s missing family. But I wasn’t the only one with this predicament; lots of kids I knew had only one set of grandparents. Some didn’t have any at all. We’d compare notes during recess and after school. Only my friend Carol knew what had happened to her father’s parents; she’d asked her American mother, who told her they’d died during the war. The rest of us had been given the brush-off on this question.
I’d brought it up with Mom after school one day in the first grade, while Dad was safely at work.
“Mom, how come you have parents and Dad doesn’t?”
“That’s up to Dad to tell you, when you’re older. Why don’t you try asking him a few years from now?”
Kids aren’t good at waiting for years. I asked him a week later. He just looked at me for a long moment, a pained expression on his face, then shook his head slowly and sighed. He never got angry at our questions, but every single time one of us brought up the past, he managed, without words, to convey an inner pain that took on an almost tangible reality in the room. You’d have to be pretty stupid not to get the message.
We weren’t stupid, but, like all kids, we were curious, and persistent. Daniel was even worse than I was, always bugging Mom or Dad about something. I remember one night when he piped up, out of the blue, on a new topic:
“Dad, did you ever have any brothers? Or sisters? Did they have red hair like Addie?”
Dad put down the paper—he could spend the whole evening reading newspapers; the personal ads in the back were his favorite section—and placed his cigarette, its long ash drooping dangerously, in the ashtray. He gazed at his son for a long thirty seconds or so. Then he called for back-up.
Mom was in the kitchen and didn’t rush in.
He raised his voice a bit. “Miriam?”
Mom appeared in the room’s doorway. “Come on, you two. Time to eat. Time to wash your hands.”
I guess you could say my father took a dim view of discussing the past. The dimmest possible view. For all we knew, he had sprung out of the earth, fully formed, somewhere on the Lower East Side, in the summer of 1948. But when you grow up with a foot-wide hole in the living-room floor, you learn to walk around it. Pretty soon, you don’t even notice it anymore.
Dad worked in the city, as a jeweler as far as we knew, in the diamond district on West 47th Street. Mom would drive him to the train station every morning at seven. Then she’d come back, hustle us off to school, and spend the rest of the day shopping, cooking, vacuuming—all the tasks required of a 1950s housewife trying to maintain a respectable place in the neighborhood. She knew that the neighbors had opinions about us. Opinions based on Dad’s three-season outdoor hobby.
If only he’d spent more time indoors. If only he’d spent his fall and winter weekends in the basement. Then we could have passed for normal. (Although I later discovered that the basements in our neighborhood saw some pretty strange goings-on.) Dad did have one indoor hobby: a darkroom in the basement, locked, strictly off-limits to everyone but him. He didn’t spend much time there, though, except in the summer. The rest of the year, weekends especially, he was out in the backyard. And the backyards in that 1947 subdivision were tiny, too small for most games. But not too small for Samuel Hirschmann, who was nothing if not adaptable to circumstance. He was a survivor, after all. He made do.
December 11th, 1960, one month after JFK was elected. I was ten, and my little brother, Daniel, was seven. He and I had been waiting for months for this day. Every year, for as long as I could remember, a package had arrived at our home on 142 Clark Street on the eleventh of December. Back then, the date held no other significance for me. All of us, Mom included, were forbidden to touch this package. Streng verboten. I can hear the words now, my father’s thick Viennese accent embarrassing us for the umpteenth time.
But that year—maybe it was the onset of puberty—I had had it up to here with the Great Unspoken. Weeks earlier I had come up with a secret plan and roped poor Daniel into it, swearing him to—what else?—silence. We both knew that on December 11th a box would arrive from Glaser’s Bakery in the city. I didn’t know then how famous Glaser’s was, but I recognized the name in the return address from earlier years. We didn’t get many packages, apart from this one. And this one was a Big Deal: Daniel and I knew it upset our parents, but we had no idea why.
The year before, my father had ignored it, as he always did, until after dinner. Then he got up from the kitchen table with a sigh, pushed up his shirt cuffs, and approached the thing with visible reluctance. He took out the gift card first; it always lay on top. Below it, every year, was the same cake, covered with powdered sugar. Many years later, in college, I saw one in a bakery window and finally discovered that it had a name—Stollen—a traditional German Christmas treat.
Have you ever seen anyone unwrap a package with a dead rat inside? Well, that was the expression on my father’s face, each year, as he opened it. It was like watching the East Orange Bomb Disposal Squad swing into action. Everyone had to stand at least ten feet away. He’d read the card, his face set in a grimace, then carefully strike a match, set the card alight, and burn it over a large glass ashtray. (We must have kept that particular ashtray solely for this sacrificial ritual, since I never saw Mom or Dad take it out the rest of the year.) As for the cake, which looked more delicious every year, sitting innocently in its colored cellophane wrapping…well, he’d carry it, holding it out at arm’s length, down to the cellar, where he’d throw it into the coal furnace. Consign it to the flames. Every single year, despite our pleas.
“Why?” we’d ask. “Why can’t we just eat it? Please?”
Every year he’d say the same thing. “If you knew who sent this, believe me, you would not want to eat it.”
Our cries of “Who? Who sent it?” would follow him down the cellar stairs, unanswered, like the cries of seabirds lost in a storm.
Of course, by 1960 we knew the drill. The only way we were ever going to get a piece of that cake was to open the package ourselves, after school, before Dad got home. Our plan was foolproof, or so we thought: take it out, cut an inch or so off the bottom, replace the rest in the wrapper, and reseal the package. Brilliant, right?
On the afternoon in question, the package waited ominously on the coffee table. We were in luck: Mom, in the midst of her annual Christmas-card-mailing extravaganza, had run out of stamps. Every year she mailed at least two hundred of these paeans to the American dream to everyone she could think of—neighbors, relatives, the grocer, the florist, the hairdresser, even the local funeral director. That year the photo on the card showed me and Daniel, posed with one arm each around Millie, on the fancy couch in the parlor, the one nobody ever sat on the rest of the year. Mom had chosen the shot from among a roll of twelve exposures. She said it was the only one where neither of us looked suicidal. Our living room, hallway, and staircase were already festooned with similar cards from everyone we knew, as well as a few from people we couldn’t identify.
More stamps were needed. Mom grabbed her coat, promising to be back in a few minutes. We watched out the window as she backed the blue and white Chevy out of the driveway and disappeared around the corner. Finally, our moment had arrived. It was now or never.
Fortunately, Glaser’s tied its boxes with string. We wouldn’t have been able to reseal tape convincingly, but string we could deal with. I’d been honing my knot-untying skills for the past week, using a tiny nail I’d found in the basement. The knot surrendered to my skill in twenty seconds. I untied the package and carefully put the string to one side. Then I looked at Daniel. He smiled at me nervously. I set the card to one side without reading it, then lifted the cellophane-wrapped cake out of the box and put it on a piece of newspaper I’d hidden under the couch. The cellophane made a lot of noise as I removed it from the cake, but eventually, there it was. Our forbidden fruit.
Streng verboten. That fruit-studded cake was the most delicious thing I’d tasted in a long time. It was so good, in fact, that after consuming the bottom half-inch, we just couldn’t stop; we cut off another slice. Twenty minutes later we put the remainder, noticeably shorter now, back in the box, and replaced the card on top of it. We’d just finished retying the string, shoving the newspaper back under the couch, and putting the package back on the coffee table, when we heard Mom’s car in the driveway. We managed, barely, to wipe the powdered sugar off the coffee table before she came in.
Mission accomplished? Well, not exactly. Our moment of glory lasted three hours. Dad got home at six and walked over to the coffee table as though he’d been thinking of nothing else all day (which was undoubtedly true). He didn’t need his trained jeweler’s eye to detect the anomalies in the outer packaging. In an alarming break with tradition, he tore it open before he’d even taken off his coat.
Did I mention that Dad had a sixth sense, that he always knew instantly when something was wrong? It never failed. Whenever anything started to go south, he’d be the first to detect the trend, usually days or weeks before anyone else did. Of course, not all of his dire predictions came true. That’s the price you pay for hyper-vigilance. But a lot of them did.
The first thing he did after ripping open the box was to take the cake out and turn it over. He skipped reading the card, which he put into his coat pocket. Then he looked up at the two of us. And he began to weep, silently.
We’d been prepared for yelling, screaming, anger. But weeping? We were not prepared for weeping. My mother, alarmed, watched him for a minute, then ushered the two of us into the kitchen. She took a casserole—macaroni and cheese—out of the oven, and the three of us made a feeble attempt to pretend we were eating dinner. We didn’t talk. We listened. We heard the cellar door open, my father’s footsteps on the stairs, the metallic clank of the furnace door slamming shut. He spent the rest of that December evening in the backyard, working on his project long after Daniel and I had fallen asleep.
I didn’t sleep well that night. But it wasn’t indigestion or guilt over upsetting Dad. I needed to read that card, to see what it said before he got rid of it. I could feel it down there in the hall closet, emitting a radioactive glow of mystery in the darkness.
At six a.m., when Mom and Dad were in the kitchen and Daniel was still in bed, I snuck into the closet and reached into the deep pocket of Dad’s second-hand tweed coat. Amazingly, the card was still there. I took it out. The envelope, unsealed, was of fancy, heavy stock.
I was completely unprepared for what I found inside. When I opened the card, a small snapshot fell out into my hand. It was a color photo of two kids playing, a house in the background. At least five seconds passed before I recognized the house. It was ours. The kids in the photo were me and Daniel. It might have been an ironic echo of the photo on our Christmas card, except that, far from being a posed shot, it appeared to have been taken casually by someone across the street, or perhaps from a passing car, slowed down for a few seconds.
I couldn’t read the message. Later, I realized it must have been in German; there were a lot of long words. I was able to memorize one short one—Freund—because it looked like “friend.”
Quickly I replaced the card and photo before I could be discovered again, in flagrante delicto. Then I ran upstairs to tell Daniel about it, and we puzzled over this new mystery for the rest of the day. Why would anyone send Dad a photo of his own kids? At ten, I was still too young, too innocent, to see the obvious reason behind it—that Dad’s “friend” wanted to let him know he was keeping an eye on his domestic situation, and to show him that he knew what we looked like.
The Ice-Maker’s Daughter is my second novel. The idea for it arrived out of the blue during a class at the GrubStreet Writing Center in Boston in July 2015. I had become intrigued by the idea of writing a novel about a girl growing up in a household where many things went unspoken, with a father who was being blackmailed or controlled by sinister figures, but I hadn’t put it all together until that July day.
The book, like all of my writing, takes place against the background of the Second World War and its aftermath. (I can’t seem to stop writing about this era!) When I began it, I’d gotten to the end of the second page before I noticed that I was writing in the first person, something I’d never tried or even thought of doing before. The main character, Addie Hirschmann, has a powerful personality, and she wanted to come through that way, so I let her get away with it. She’s like me in some ways: she can be sarcastic, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But she’s also a lot braver than I am, and she’s willing to take on some terrifying adversaries.
Having grown up with a father who is a Holocaust survivor and who does not talk about his life, Addie decides to become a historian. Along the way she investigates the mystery of her father’s life, and in doing so she meets Michael, a young man pursuing a similar quest. In 1979, Addie is hired by the brand-new Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in Washington, the U.S. “Nazi-hunting” office. She is assigned to do background investigation on an SS officer who turns out to be the same man who has been terrorizing her father for the past three decades in the U.S.
The subject of her work, Martin Engel, is a war criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews in Russia. He has also been running a large operation on the East Coast, since the 1950s, that abducts children and sells them into the sex trade overseas. Addie and Michael know about this because Engel killed Michael’s mother in 1974, when she discovered what he was doing.
Addie’s father dies six months after she is hired. She finds his wartime diary in his safe deposit box and learns that his connection with Engel dates back to 1938. Her hope that OSI will bring Engel to justice (i.e. deport him) is thwarted when his immigration file mysteriously vanishes. Around the same time, Addie finds some evidence that her father had buried in their backyard decades earlier and realizes that she needs to return to Vienna and Hungary to find out what happened during the war. In Vienna she meets an aunt she never knew about, her father’s sister, and the two of them confront Engel in a final scene at an abandoned estate in the Hungarian countryside.
Judith Haran is a psychiatrist from central Massachusetts who began writing later in life. She has written two novels and several short stories. Her website/blog is http://judithharan.com. She is currently working on a sequel to The Ice-Maker’s Daughter.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017