Katie Kovitz is seventeen years old when her mother dies. Leaving London for New York Harbor during the bitter winter of 1932, the anxious and uncertain young girl relies on the kindness of strangers for refuge. Welcomed into the home of her Polish mother’s closest childhood friend, Katie is embraced by her new family in a country warm with hope and opportunity. There, on Hester Street in the Jewish ghetto of the city’s Lower East Side, Katie finally establishes the roots that will come to define her.
In New York, Katie also finds her future in three people who will change her life in ways she never anticipated: David, the man she marries, a ruthless achiever willing to abandon his heritage to secure power and prosperity under a new name; Mark, their resolute and devout son, and the embodiment of everything his father hates and rejects; and Maggie, a San Francisco beauty who helps to mold David into the man he’s always wanted to be, whatever the cost. As dreams and desires collide, and as Katie strives to reclaim her own lost identity, a series of events will forever affect the ambitions, promises, and legacies of an American family.
From the prewar ghettos of Manhattan to the glittering hills of postwar San Francisco, author Cynthia Freeman follows the destinies of three generations of a resilient family, their intimate struggles, and personal triumphs, and brings to vivid life the soul and spirit of the extraordinary Jewish immigrant experience in America.
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A World Full of Strangers
By Cynthia Freeman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Cynthia Freeman Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Soon there would be a simple marker placed here with the inscription that would read
Beloved Mother of Katie
the words that bore witness that once Hannah had walked upon the earth. Standing in the dense gray London fog that enveloped her slowly, Katie lifted her eyes toward the heavens. She listened, but there was no sound in the silence—no celestial chorus of angels singing, not even the song of the mournful dove. In time the grass would grow tall hiding the marker with no one to protect this sacred plot for posterity: the last time she would stand here was now. Who would know or care that beneath the freshly turned sod that had become home for Hannah was all that remained of a life born in poverty, lived in loneliness, ended in agony, whose passing went unnoticed as though she had never been?
Oh God, Katie whispered, is this all to mark the coming and the going of the genteel woman who had borne her life with dignity, who had buried two young sons and a beloved husband? Hannah, Katie remembered gratefully, had said it was she, the last surviving child, who had sustained her most of all. Hannah had prayed that she might live to see this child grow to womanhood, but even that was not fulfilled, for Katie was not quite a woman yet; tomorrow she would be seventeen. She called out softly, "Why, dear God, why? Please let there be meaning in my mother's death, more than there was in her life, I beg you, dear God." She picked up a handful of dirt, held the small, cold piece of earth close to her for a long moment, then threw it into the abyss. Giving in to blinding tears, she turned and walked away.
That evening she packed her belongings. The next day she took a train from Waterloo station, and at Southampton boarded a freighter that would take her to New York.
The crossing seemed like an eternity. For days on end the ship pitched violently, leaving Katie ill and confined to the cabin, windowless and foreboding. She would lie in her bunk with only the bleak, uncertain future to contemplate and suddenly living seemed more frightening than dying. Although during those last inevitable months, with Katie sitting at her bedside, Hannah had tried to prepare her for the eventuality that soon she would have to find a new life, hopefully better and happier than the one that she now had, Katie found little solace. But for Hannah, comforted with the thought that somehow out of all travail God did provide, there were compensations. In her absence there would be Malka Greenberg, her dearest and oldest friend, to whom she could vouchsafe her child and with whom Katie would find a haven.
However, when the time came Katie was not prepared. What would it be like, going to live as a stranger with Malka Greenberg and her family? She reached into her handbag and took out the faded photograph taken of Malka and Hannah so many years ago when they were small children in Poland, trying to read the face of her new benefactress. But nothing was revealed to indicate that she would really be wanted.
Malka Greenberg and Hannah Kovitz had developed a friendship that went back to a small village in Poland where both had been born. Their young lives were inseparable until Malka, at the age of fifteen, met and married Jacob Greenberg. Shortly after their marriage, Jacob decided to leave Poland, where life was unbearably hard, and go to America. Amidst promises of returning some day and a pledge of everlasting friendship, the two clung together, tears streaming down their cheeks, saying their goodbyes, each knowing secretly that they would never see each other again, as the Greenbergs departed, by cattle boat, for New York.
Ensuing years kept them in touch. They waited impatiently for a letter, a photograph. When Malka read that Hannah was dying, she wrote immediately that she was to put her mind at rest so far as Katie was concerned, that when the time came the child was to come to her as soon as possible. In spite of all her mother had told her about Malka, Katie realized that the two had not seen each other for many years, and that the years had a way of changing people. Katie thought perhaps Jacob Greenberg would object to her, even if Malka were willing. Maybe the two Greenberg children would not accept her. Maybe Birdie Greenberg, who was only a year older, would dislike having her around, and maybe Sammy, who was eleven years old, might resent having a stranger living in his house. Maybe she would be in the way. But the most important thing was that maybe Malka had merely made the promise as a gesture to a dying woman. And maybe she should have stayed in London; maybe she could have gotten a job and taken care of herself....
The ship reached New York harbor one day earlier than was scheduled and there was no one to meet her. Katie was desolate: she had no way of contacting Malka Greenberg because they had no phone. She had only their address, and Malka was expecting her the next day. After she had undergone customs, she sat on the shabby suitcase completely exhausted from the whole ordeal, unable to cry, and for a very long time watched the crowd disperse.
Finally, she realized what she must do. She picked up the suitcase, went out into the street, and experienced New York for the first time. And after she couldn't say how many inquiries and struggles through the impersonal crowds, she found herself standing in front of Malka Greenberg's door. Breathless by the time she reached the top of the five flights of stairs in the old tenement building, she leaned against the wall, felt the labored beating of her heart and waited for it to subside. All that she had anticipated was now here: the end of the journey had brought her to this moment.
She stood staring at the door and then timidly knocked, half hoping it would not be heard. When there was no answer she knocked again, this time with more vigor; still no answer. She took the letter out of her purse and looked again at the address; it had to be right, she had followed all the instructions for how to get here. This time, frantic, she pounded on the door. Suddenly it opened and there, framed in the doorway, was Malka, the front of her dress soaking from the washing she had just done. Awkwardly Katie said, "You're Mrs. Greenberg?"
Malka stood looking at the girl. What happened that she was standing here? She was to have met her tomorrow. She could not find her voice. The resemblance between Hannah and Katie was so unmistakable it was as though she were looking at Hannah, and for one moment she was abruptly taken back to her own childhood. Slowly she held out her large arms, drew the young girl to her and kissed her with such tenderness that Katie easily placed her head on Malka's bosom and the two held onto one another as though they would never let go. Katie knew that she had come home at last.
London seemed very far away now. Soon Katie became adjusted to the sights and the sounds of this strange land, and at times she had difficulty remembering she was the same confused and terrified girl who stood before Malka's door only a few short months before. How wonderful it is, she thought, that one can shut out all the unhappy memories when there is love. At night she would lie awake and think of what might have become of her were it not for the Greenbergs and the love they had given her. It was they who had held her hand and led her beyond the dark of her bereavement. They had given her back her life, and now there was again reality in living, and contentment she'd never thought possible. The Greenberg family shared all they had with her, even the three-room flat where five of them now lived, without even making her feel she had intruded.
Birdie had gotten her a job in the same dress factory where she worked and each day brought with it new experience. And new enthusiasm, especially when she brought home the paycheck, which each week she gave to Malka, and each week Malka went through the ritual of refusing. She would say, "So tell me, Katie darling, how much do you eat? So Birdie's got a bed, so how much room do you take up?"
"But Malka, dearest, let me share whatever I have with you, please." Katie realized the Greenbergs were not really poor, they just didn't have any money. She felt overwhelming gratitude for having a home to which she belonged, thinking what a beautiful word was belong. She now had a family, a job; she had reached the millennium.
Katie's bliss was not felt completely by Malka. A girl going on eighteen should begin to think seriously of love and marriage, and quite frankly she was concerned about the absence of romance in Katie's life. Wisely she reasoned that with Katie's great need to feel safe and secure she might find things too comfortable in their family embrace. This and Katie's shyness made Malka think that she might become an old maid. To Malka Greenberg this was unthinkable.
How wrong it was for Katie to be sitting around the kitchen table with Jacob and herself on a Saturday night, keeping Sammy amused while Birdie was at the movies with Solly Obromowitz seeing a Buddy Rogers picture. What was to become of Katie, wasting her entire girlhood, losing it in such a way? Youth disappeared fast enough. Something had to be done.
It was only ten o'clock when Birdie returned home. Malka looked up from her darning. "You're home early. The movie wasn't good?"
"It was good, I guess."
"You guess?" Malka said. "So how come you didn't stay?"
"Oh that lousy Solly," Birdie said. "We had a fight."
"This is how you talk about a nice boy like Solly? So what was the fight about?"
Birdie looked at her mother and smiled. How shocked her sweet mother would be if she told her that not only was it getting tougher all the time to keep Solly from going up to the roof, but to get him to keep his grubby paws off her was a whole battle. But damn it, she was going to fight him, and she didn't know how long she was going to be able to hold out if she continued to see Solly, which she secretly hoped she would.
"Listen to me, Birdie," Malka continued.
"So I'm listening."
"Not only have I got a problem with Katie but I've got a problem with you."
"So what's the problem you got with me, mama?"
"I want you should be nice with Solly, that's all." She thought, oy vay, all she needed was two old maids in the house, one wasn't enough.
"I mean you shouldn't always make out like you're so stuck up. You see, Birdala, your problem is you go out with a boy a few times
and right away you don't like him."
"So stop worrying, it's not so serious. I'm going to see Solly tomorrow. Where's Katie?"
"She went to bed early. You want a cup of tea?"
"You sit still, I'll fix it."
As Birdie put the kettle on the stove, she said to her father, "You want a cup, papa?" He mumbled something under his breath which meant no and kept on reading his paper.
"Take a piece of sponge cake, Birdie."
Malka held the cup with both hands to her lips and peered over the rim, thinking how best to bring up the subject of Katie. "Birdie, why is it you never take Katie with you when you go out?"
"Because she doesn't want to go."
"Did you ever ask her?"
"Yes, mama, I did and I do. Tell me, what brought this up?"
"What brought it up is, I'm worried."
"For you that's nothing new. I don't understand you, mama. What is she, an old maid?"
Malka was startled by the phrase. It was almost as if Birdie had read her thoughts. With pretended annoyance she said quietly, "Don't get fresh, Birdie. Maybe in America they talk like that to a mother, but not to me."
"O.K., mama, I'm not being fresh, but what's to worry about?"
"I shouldn't worry about a beautiful young girl who sits in a house every night and Sammy is her big companion?"
"Well what's wrong if I am her companion?" Sammy asked. They'd forgotten him sitting round-eyed, listening to everything.
Birdie looked at him. "Big shot, you go to bed. This is not your business."
"It's as much my business as yours."
"Don't get fresh, Sammy."
"That's enough, children. Sammala, darling, go to bed," Malka said. He objected but obeyed. On the way out he kissed first his mother, his father and then his sister, said good night, and went to bed in the hall between the kitchen and Birdie's room, pulling closed the floral, cretonne drapery which separated them.
"Now listen to me, mama. I know how much you love Katie and all you want is what's good for her, but you've got to realize she's different from the boys on Hester Street. She doesn't take to them and they don't take to her. But she'll meet hers, believe me."
"Not unless you introduce her to someone," Malka said adamantly. "I don't want her whole young life to be wasted only working. She's got to go out and have a little fun like other girls."
Jacob, a man of few words, folded his glasses, put them in his shirt pocket, laid the paper down on the table, got up, and in a voice louder than usual said, "That's enough already with the boys and the marriage and the marriage and the boys. When she's thirty you'll worry already. Come to bed; Malka." He walked to the back bedroom off the kitchen and Malka followed.
Walking up and down in front of the Bijou Theater where he had been waiting for Birdie for the last thirty minutes, Solly wondered why he even bothered. Cold, never gave an inch. Who the hell did she think she was anyway? True, he was no Adonis, but he'd already stopped counting the girls he'd screwed since he was twelve, so anybody with a track record like that couldn't be so bad. He should be furious with her for slapping his face—and hard—the night before, as they sat in the back row upstairs. In a gesture of pure love he'd thrust his right hand down inside her low-cut blouse, cupping her warm and round full breast in his sweating palm while, with his other hand under her dress, his fingers crept slowly up her thigh. But as he kissed her and tried forcing his tongue into her mouth, Birdie became so angry that she stood up and kicked him knowingly with her knee, slapped his face so hard he thought she'd broken his jaw, and through clenched teeth said, "You son-of-a-bitch Solly Obromowitz, don't you ever do that to me again!"
Birdie had run out of the theater and into the street for several blocks with Solly calling out after her, "Wait a minute, wait a minute!" Tired, angry, and perspiring, she sat down on a door stoop when she heard Solly saying, "O.K., O.K., what the hell did I do that was so terrible? Tell me, what?"
Instead of answering, she sat clutching her purse and staring ahead of her. Solly simply could not stand the coldness, the being shut out. "Damn it, fight with me. Scream, holler, but don't stop talking," he said.
She finally looked at him, bit back the tears, but still there were tiny crystals of glistening moisture in the corners of her eyes. She said, "O.K., Solly, you want me to tell you why I'm so mad? So O.K., I'll tell you. I'm no Hester Street tramp, the kind you can take to the movies for fifty cents and screw. I think I'm a little better than that. When I do get laid, it won't be in the back of the Bijou Theater. Oh no, it's going to be beautiful—you hear what I say—and with someone who loves me. So O.K., now you know."
Solly was surprised at feeling unexpected guilt instead of his usual hostility and pain at her tirade of rejection. "You mean to tell me that you never necked?"
"That's right, not the kind of necking you're talking about. The trouble with you, Solly, is you think the same as every other Hester Street bum, that everybody's alike, looking for a cheap, quick screw, button up your pants and go home. But you're wrong. Life's tough enough; it's even tougher if you want to live it like a decent human being and for that you've got to work a lot harder in this place." She started to cry.
Solly looked at her, then cautiously he put his arms around her, brushed away the tears with the back of his hand and kissed her softly on the mouth. He whispered in her ear. "I love you, Birdie. I'm sorry."
They walked home in silence. When they reached Birdie's house Solly said, "Can I take you to the Bijou tomorrow?" Birdie nodded yes and went up the stairs while Solly waited below until she disappeared, then he turned and walked home through the hot summer night.
Excerpted from A World Full of Strangers by Cynthia Freeman. Copyright © 1975 Cynthia Freeman Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I was and will always be a fan of Cynthia Freeman. I read all her books throughout the eighties. I purchased all hard copies and read each one twice. Here I go again with a nook and starting to read each one again. OMG! Just love this book. I even remember hating David and his evilness and arrogant attitude towards his own people. I love everything about this book. Well written! Bravo Ms. Cynthia Freeman and may God continue to bless you up in heaven and blessings to your family.
Read years ago. Man changes name and renounces jewish heritage.