March 19, 1940
Otto descended the stairs from their fourth story lower East side flat on the balls of his feet, determined to make as little noise as possible. The slightest creak on the stairwell, even a maybe-creak, was enough to rouse Mrs. Finkelman from whatever she was doing, open her front door just enough to protrude her long nose and sniff out who was descending or ascending, day or night, night or day, so she could find out where they were going, where they had been, why and why not. Otto couldn’t get used to this busy-bodiness masquerading as neighborliness. You would think that having to live in a cramped building with so many families eating, sleeping and pooping on top of one another would make everyone keep to themselves and respect the few inches of space they called their own. But it was just the opposite. The more people, the more gossip there was to collect, examine, and then spread about, like kernels of feed to hungry hens. And Mrs. Finkelman was the queen of the gossip department. Ptew, ptew, ptew — she would grimace and spit three times to ward off the bad luck of spreading lashon horah — unless the words were coming from her own mouth — and then it was news, not gossip.
And there was nothing Mrs. Finkelman liked more than to see her little seed of gossip grow into a thick clinging vine that came back to bang against her window frame. She would heave up the heavy window sash, lean her kerchief-covered head all the way out and yell to the street below, “What do you mean, Mr. Greenblatt — of course I know Mr. Pinkus got promoted to bookkeeper. Nu, who do you think told your wife in the first place!”
It was times like these that Otto thought about what Sofia would have said or done. Sofia, his eternal bride, who in her last month of pregnancy, boarded with him the domino of trains that took them out of Czechoslovakia, one small suitcase each filled with sterling wedding pieces hidden between woolen underthings and jewelry pushed down into jars of face cream. Together they boarded that scrap heap of rusting metal in the port of Bremen in 1934 to escape the river of Jewish blood spilling through ‘civilized’ European society. But when labour came on during the miserable voyage, in a moment too brief to measure, Sofia stopped wailing just as their daughter gasped her first breaths. As Sofia’s eyes closed forever Rachael’s opened. They had exchanged lives. God had heard only half his prayers. After Otto arrived at Ellis Island and completed the processing, none of which he could remember in his state of shock, he found his way to Eleventh Street, to his cousin Avrum and his grocery store, and to the small back room where he could put down his meagre things, including his new daughter.
“Ruchel-le,” the ladies of Eleventh Street had called his baby girl. The Jewish nursing ladies of the Eleventh Street tenements, practically pulling their breasts out of their aprons whenever he walked by. Keeping alive a motherless infant only few days old was their new survival mission, as important as putting food in their own children’s mouths.
Sofia would have rued the need to live among these Poles Litvaks Hungarians Russians — these immigrant Jews, forgetting that in America she would have been one of them. The tree-lined avenues and fine china tea shoppes of Prague had been left far behind. Yet Otto could easily picture Sofia putting on her delicate white cotton gloves one finger at a time and checking her purse to make sure she had a clean pressed linen handkerchief before going out to buy the can of tomato soup, tin of sardines, and two onion rolls that would be their supper. Otto sighed as he thought about how hard she would have found this life. Not just the drudgery, but the being in it without escape, the daily challenge to pay for food, coal and rent. Still, this life was nothing compared to the suffering going on back home.
As Otto turned to descend to the third floor landing, there was Mrs. Finkelman’s unmistakable nose pointed upward in his direction.
“You better get Ruchele registered for school. She’s five, isn’t she?” Mrs. Finkelman liked to start her conversations like they were already in the middle of one.
“Yes, Mrs. Finkelman, she turned five last November.” As Mrs. Finkelman knew perfectly well. After all, she was the one who had organized the birthday party for Rachael. All the children who lived on her floor in the apartment building, one floor down and one floor up, were invited to the party. Rachael would have liked to have all the kids in the building come, but Mrs. Finkelman was adamant.
“No Ruchele, only one floor up and one floor down. That’s twenty children. Five times more than I can fit in the apartment.”
“You can only fit four children in your apartment?” Rachael had asked her. “But you have six children yourself!”
Rachael was bright, and at five already had better arithmetic skills than Mrs. Finkelman. Which wasn’t surprising –after all, they both had exactly the same number of years of schooling. In other words, none. But Rachael’s smart words, however innocently delivered, were starting to get her in trouble. And today Mrs. Finkelman, who knew perfectly well that Rachael had turned five in November of 1939, had another agenda. Why couldn’t she just get to the point.
“Why do you ask, Mrs. Finkelman?”
“Well, because in order to register your child with the school, you have to present her birth certificate. You know, so they could see exactly how old she is.”
So that was it. Proof of age. A birth certificate. The Kaplanskys who lived on the fifth floor had tried to sneak their youngest into school at the age of four, just to get her out of the apartment. Better the school should look after her during the day, so I can work and bring home a few more kopeks, Mrs Kaplansky had said. This was a common problem. So many children, and not enough women to mind them. The older girls would be pulled out of school to look after their baby sisters and brothers so their mothers could work extra hours in the shmata factories on Seventh Avenue. And when the older sisters turned fourteen they would go to work in the factories too. Sometimes even younger, but only if there was no baby at home to mind. This wasn‘t a problem for the boys, though. They started cheder at the age of three. There was never any question about boys needing to be educated. But the girls? Not so much.
A birth certificate. Mrs. Finkelman probably guessed that Rachael didn’t have one, seeing as how she was born on a boat somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. A German boat no less. And although she was a nudnik and a yenta, Otto knew that Mrs. Finkelman meant well. A birth certificate. A detail he couldn’t put off any longer. Americans liked their forms; they had forms for everything: renting a flat, driving a car, selling a rocking chair. He knew he had to get around to making Rachael’s birth official by getting the right form, but what was the rush, he thought. Better he should wait until she was old enough to speak just like an American, then she could go down to the municipal office herself and show them just how American she really was. How could they deny her then?
Otto was procrastinating. It was the small matter of the boat. He could prove she was born on the boat. The Captain had handed him a letter attesting to her birth, along with the letter he had given him attesting to Sofia’s death. But the letter was in German, with the name of the ship in the masthead. Otto was afraid of how the authorities would interpret this. All he wanted for his daughter was to have an official United States of America birth certificate stating that she was an official United States of America American. But what would it cost him. The next morning he trimmed his beard into neatness, put on his hat and went to the bank where he withdrew all the money he had saved in the last year. Barely a hundred dollars. He folded ten ten dollar bills, pushed them into the inside breast pocket of his coat and headed off to City Hall.
The sign hanging over the wide corridor read:
OFFICIAL CERTIFICATES HERE
Otto sighed at the sight of it. So that’s it. All of a person’s life can be summed up in the act of being born, getting married and dying. With a piece of paper to show for each. Nothing in between mattered enough to be official. Maybe it’s good, he thought. Maybe the authorities shouldn’t know so much about what happens in between. What they don’t know can’t hurt me, Otto chuckled to himself at his use of this distinctly American idiom while he pulled a small pink paper tab with the number forty-seven on it from a red dispenser at the entrance to the waiting hall. He sat down against the back wall of the large room and looked around at the other people waiting to receive their official form.
Feigning joviality to stave off panic, Otto leaned over to the gentleman sitting next to him holding number thirty-three and said lightly pointing at the sign, “So how do you suppose one goes about applying for their death certificate?” The man responded by getting up and moving two seats over.
The wait was interminable. It was two hours before number thirty-three was served and then the office closed for their hour long lunch break. After lunch another hour passed before Otto’s number was finally called. He rubbed his chin with his hand, alarmed to feel the scruff that had already grown back. He stood up. His clothes were wrinkled from sitting and he was perspiring heavily under his overcoat. As he walked up to the counter he felt the wad of bills pressing against his damp shirt, making him eye with suspicion every person in his perimeter.
The man at the counter looked at Otto, waiting for him to speak.
“I….” Otto suddenly forgot how to speak English. “I….”
The clerk grew impatient. “How can I help you today, Sir?”
“Birth certificate. I need a birth certificate for my daughter.”
It had begun.
“What was her date of birth?”
“November thirtieth, nineteen thirty-four.”
“Nineteen thirty-four? That was five years ago. There is a one dollar fee for replacing lost birth certificates. What hospital was she born in?”
“No, no hospital. We immigrated here in 1934.” It was starting to go bad.
“Well, I can’t help you sir, if your daughter wasn’t born in one of the New York boroughs. You have to apply to the municipal clerk’s office in whatever city she was born in.”
“No city. No hospital and no city. She was born in transit. On the boat over here.”
“Well, I really don’t think I can help you…”
“No wait, I have papers, I have papers!” Otto’s English was starting to unravel again. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the attestation of Rachael’s birth. He unfolded the page and thrust it at the clerk.
The clerk studied the letter. After a minute or so Otto began to reach for his cash wad. He wasn’t quite sure how to bribe an American official. Back in Prague it was easy – the clerks informed you of the “special fee” and then held out their hands. Once they were satisfied that the fee had been adequately paid, they pulled out a rubber stamp, inked it, and stamped “APPROVED” on whatever official document you happened to be buying that day. But Americans were different. You had to be a wizard to sense when they wanted a bribe and when they didn’t, when they wanted more money or when they were about to call the police to have you arrested. Otto didn’t know what to do.
“The Europa,” the clerk stated.
“The name of the boat, right here – what does it say, The Europa, right?”
“You read German?” Otto was amazed.
“Mr. Kohn,” the clerk began, “in the eighteen years I have been working here, almost all the people who apply for birth certificates, usually Hebrews, have come here from somewheres else. Usually Germany, Poland or Russia. Every so often someone gets born on a boat. You’d be surprised how often it happens.”
“Really?” Otto dared a weak grin. A glimmer of hope.
“Must be the waves or something. Puts women into labour!” the clerk laughed. “November thirtieth, nineteen thirty-four. The Europa. Give me a moment.” And with that the clerk disappeared into a back room.
Otto took a deep silent breath. He ran his fingers through his hair. What next.
After about ten minutes the clerk returned with a large register. He flipped back until he found the year, month, and day. “Yes, here it is. The Europa docked in the Port of New York on December second, nineteen-thirty-four. And your daughter was born on November thirtieth? Only two days before the boat docked.” The clerk looked up at Otto, as if expecting him to provide the answer to a riddle.
“Only two days,” the clerk repeated. “So the boat was in American waters, off the shores of Manhattan, in the state of New York.” The clerk opened his lower drawer, pulled out a fresh form, sat down at the typewriter behind him, typed a few words of text, affixed a large red seal on the bottom of the form, pulled out a rubber stamp, an ink pad, and stamped the name and signature of the New York State Attorney General to his daughter’s brand new New York State birth certificate.
He handed the crisp certificate to Otto, “It’s a good think your daughter wasn’t born a few days sooner. Then you’d have had to go to Berlin to get this form!” and let out a loud guffaw.
“Rachael, come here, princess, I want to show you something.”
Rachael crawled onto her father’s lap and made her daily visual inspection of his beard and moustache.
“Look, sweetheart.” Otto pulled out the birth certificate and gently unfolded it in front of her, holding it just close enough for her to see but not to grab.
“What is it, Daddy?”
‘This is a very important document, Rachael. This is your birth certificate. See what it says here: ‘Born on November thirtieth, nineteen thirty-four, Borough of Manhattan, City of New York, State of New York.”
“But Daddy, I thought you told me I was born on a boat, with you and Mommy.”
“Yes, sweetheart. You were born on a boat. But the boat was just outside of Manhattan when you were born. In American waters. So that means you’re an American.”
“Of course I’m an American, Daddy. What else would I be? Is that it?”
Otto took some comfort in his daughter’s lack of enthusiasm. “Yes, Rachael, that’s it. Now it’s time for your bath.”
Otto put his daughter down and went to the stove to heat a large pot of water. Rachael watched him perform the weekly ritual of heating four potfuls of boiling water, mixed with one cold one, to fill the large tin basin they used for washing clothes and bodies.
After the last pot was poured, Rachael peeled off her clothes and stepped in. “Okay Daddy, I’m ready for my bath.” And then added as she crouched down, “In American waters.”
Wendy Joan Ungar is a female Jewish emerging writer, having completed the University of Toronto Continuing Studies Creative Writing program in 2017. Her non-fiction has appeared in Adirondac Magazine and the Appalachia Journal. Her non-fiction story, “Where the Trail Ends” was selected for inclusion in the 2017 anthology, New Wilderness Voices. Ungar’s short story “The Invitation” was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Literary Manhattan Geo-Lit Contest.