“From the family history that led me to museums and archives, to the research that sparked personal memories—these are the true stories that inspired me to write Orphan #8.”
— Kim van Alkemade
“From the family history that led me to museums and archives, to the research that sparked personal memories—these are the true stories that inspired me to write Orphan #8.”
— Kim van Alkemade
In July 2007, I was doing family research at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, sifting through some materials I’d requested from the American Jewish Historical Society archives. The idea of writing a historical novel was the furthest thing from my mind when I opened Box 54 of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum collection and began leafing through the meeting minutes of the Executive Committee.
The minutes gave intimate glimpses into the day-to-day operations of an orphanage that, in the 1920s, was one of the largest child care institutions in the country, housing over 1,200 children in its massive building on Amsterdam Avenue. On October 9, 1921, the Committee authorized $200 (over 2000 in today’s dollars) to costume children for the “Pageant on Americanization.” The question of band instruments demanded much of the Executive Committee’s attention: in October 1922, the decision to change from high to low-pitched instruments was deferred; in April 1923, $3500 was approved to equip the band with low-pitched instruments; in January 1926, the theft of the new band instruments was referred to the Board. Syphilis was a concern, too, with the Committee instructing the Superintendent in January 1923 to work with the physician regarding syphilitic cases; by October 1926, nineteen cases of syphilis were diagnosed in the orphanage, fourteen of them in girls.
But it was a motion made on May 16, 1920 that caught my eye and became the inspiration for Orphan #8. On that day, the Committee approved the purchase of wigs for eight children who had developed alopecia as a result of X-ray treatments given them at the Home for Hebrew Infants by Dr. Elsie Fox, a graduate of Cornell Medical School. Questions cascaded through my mind. Who was this woman administering X-rays? Why did the orphanage have an X-ray machine, and what were the children being treated for? What might have happened to one of these bald children after she had grown up in the orphanage? How would this have influenced the course of her life?
I remembered then a story my great-grandmother, Fannie Berger, used to tell about her time working as Reception House counselor in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. She’d been hired by the Superintendent in January 1918 when she went to the orphanage to commit her sons to the institution after her husband had absconded. One of Fannie’s jobs was to shave the heads of newly admitted children as a precaution against lice. It was a task she disliked, but refused only once.
We used to drive out to Brooklyn when I was little, my mom and dad and brother and me, to visit my Grandma Fannie. We’d often find her on a bench outside her building, chatting with other old ladies. Up in her tiny apartment we’d perch uncomfortably on the day bed while we visited—I can’t imagine, now, a child with the patience for such an afternoon. I remember Fannie telling a story about the time a girl with beautiful hair was committed to the orphanage. It may be my imagination rather than my memory that makes this particular head of hair so remarkably red. Fannie was so taken with this girl’s hair that she refused to shave it off, took her request all the way up to the Superintendent who finally gave permission. In my Grandma Fannie’s telling, it was a singular moment of bravery, her refusal to shave this one girl’s head of hair.
At the Center for Jewish History, reading about the children who had been given X-ray treatments, I wondered what if, at the same time these bald children were in my great-grandmother’s care, this other girl came into Reception, the girl with hair so magnificent Fannie would challenge authority to preserve it? I imagined the contrast between these two girls escalating into a rivalry, the hair itself becoming their battleground. That was the moment Rachel and Amelia were created, and with their inception the idea of a novel began to emerge.
There is some mystery to the disappearance of my great-grandfather, Harry Berger, a contractor in the shirtwaist industry who’d been born in Russia in 1884 and arrived in New York in 1890. On the admission form to the orphanage, it is remarked that “Father is tubercular and is at present in Colorado with his brother,” which gives the impression that illness and the inability to work were behind Harry’s decision to leave his wife and three young sons. But the story I remember hearing is that Harry had gotten a young Italian woman who worked for him pregnant; when her family threatened to kick her out, Harry asked his wife if the girl could live with them. Fannie refused, but she hadn’t been prepared for Harry to up and leave. Decades later, suffering from dementia, Fannie relived the day he left, pleading from her nursing home bed to the ghost of her husband: “Don’t leave, Harry. Think of the boys. Put back the suitcase, we’ll get through this.”
They didn't get through it. Harry ran off to Leadville, Colorado. Fannie couldn't go home to her parents because she’d defied her father in marrying Harry—unlike Fannie’s obedient sister, who’d been married off by their father to a rich uncle. After Harry left, Fannie sold her household effects for a total of $60. She might have turned, in desperation, to prostitution—many abandoned mothers occasionally did—or tried to eke out an existence on charity. Instead, she went to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, like thousands of parents before her, who, for reasons of death or desertion or illness, were unable to care for their children.
Like many inmates of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, my grandfather Victor and his brothers, Charles and Seymour, were not really orphans, and certainly not up for adoption. What was unusual was that their mother ended up living at the institution to which she had committed them. In 1918, the orphanage was experiencing a serious shortage of help. With so many men in the military, women had greater employment opportunities, making jobs at the orphanage—with its low wages, long hours and residence requirement—a hard sell. While Fannie always said it was a miracle that the Superintendent offered her a position on the very day her sons were admitted to the institution, it’s also true that her poverty and desperation to be near her children made her an ideal candidate.
When Fannie started working at the orphanage as a domestic in the Reception House, Charles was only three years old—too young for the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. He was sent to the Hebrew Infant Asylum, where he soon contracted measles. When Fannie went to visit him, she wasn’t allowed into the ward and could only stand in the hallway listening to his cries. When Charles recovered, Fannie threatened to quit unless her son was allowed to live with her in the Reception House. After Charles was old enough to join his brothers in the main building, Fannie was promoted to Counselor and her duties included helping to process new admissions. Every child committed to the orphanage spent weeks quarantined in Reception. Besides having their heads shaved, they were evaluated by a doctor for physical and mental condition, tested for diphtheria, vaccinated, and given an eye test and a dental exam and surgery to remove the tonsils and adenoids. My great-grandmother Fannie often let the traumatized children cry themselves to sleep at night in her arms.
Even before my discoveries at the Center for Jewish History, I’d wanted to learn all I could about the institution where my grandfather Victor had grown up—an institution so large it was its own census district. I’d read The Luckiest Orphans, the most complete history of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum ever written, and was so appreciative of the insight it gave me into my grandfather’s childhood that I wrote the author, Hyman Bogan, a letter of thanks. Apparently, he wasn’t used to getting fan mail. I was amazed when I answered my phone one evening in 2001 to hear a strange man’s voice say, “Is this Kim? You wrote to me about my buh-buh-buh-book.” Hy later told me his stutter had began after being slapped on his first day in the orphanage.
I asked if I might meet him in New York for an interview and he was delighted at the prospect. Together we toured Jacob Schiff Playground, the public park on Amsterdam Avenue where the massive orphanage once stood. Much of my fictional depiction of life in the Orphaned Hebrews Home was inspired by Hy’s words and memories. Thanks to him, I was able to imagine Rachel’s life in an orphanage, from clubs and dances to loneliness and bullying.
My research suggests that my grandfather Victor flourished at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. By the time he was a high school senior, he was a salaried captain—a position just below counselor—as well as vice-president of the Boys’ Council, a member of the Masquerade Committee, secretary of the Blue Serpent Society, and a member of the varsity basketball team. He was “the hustling young business manager” for The Rising Bell, the orphanage’s monthly magazine. Upon his graduation from DeWitt Clinton School, Vic was praised for his “stick-to-it-iveness” and “pleasant personality.” A “brilliant future in the outside world” was predicted for this “ever-efficient boy of the Home.” Though he rarely spoke of his childhood in the orphanage, he did express his gratitude for the institution in which he lived from age 6 to 17.
But I knew there was another side to Victor’s childhood memories. In 1987, my dad had gone missing; for two months, we’d had no inkling of his whereabouts. When Victor said, “I want to talk to you about your father,” I was expecting the same optimistic platitudes I’d been hearing for weeks: that everything would turn out fine, how brave I was, how strong. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. “Your father left you. You just forget about him from now on.” I knew Victor’s attitude was misplaced—if we were sure of anything, it was that my dad hadn’t run away to start a new life somewhere else—but my grandfather had gotten my attention. “My father left us, too, when me and my brothers, your uncles Seymour and Charles, were just little boys.’ I understood now. Victor was offering me advice, one orphan to another, on how a child gets through life without a father: just forget about him.
“We got a letter from my father once, did you know that?” This was news to me. I’d always assumed my great-grandfather had vanished, whereabouts unknown. Until I started researching my family history, I didn’t even know his name. “When your Grandma Fannie worked at the Reception House in the orphanage, we used to visit her on Sundays, me and my brothers. One time, she read us this letter she’d gotten, from California, that our father was sick and would we send money for his treatment. She asked us boys what should she do. We told her not to send him a dime. A few months later she got another letter saying that he died, and would we send money for a headstone. Me and my brothers, we said no. He left us, like your dad left you. We didn’t owe him a thing, and neither do you. Remember that.”
What amazed me more than the revelation of the letters was Victor’s anger. It radiated off him, like heat rising over asphalt. Seventy years had elapsed and still he was mad at his father for making him an orphan. In April, the melting snows would expose my father’s body, revealing that I was the daughter of a suicide, the outcome I’d suspected all along. Surely, that was different from the way Harry Berger had left his family? But however they left us, Victor and I were both children abandoned by their fathers.
Instead of following my grandfather’s advice to forget, however, I became intensely curious to know more. I began researching my family history, learning all I could about Harry Berger, the man who left his wife to commit their sons to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Eventually, that research led to the discoveries that inspired me to write Orphan #8.
The question that remained was about the woman who had conducted the X-ray treatments that left the children bald. Doctor Mildred Solomon is a completely imaginary character, unlike her counterpart in the novel, Dr. Hess. He was inspired by the real Dr. Alfred Fabian Hess, who was attending physician to the Hebrew Infant Asylum during the years in which my novel is set, and where he conducted research into childhood nutritional diseases, including rickets and scurvy. His infant isolation ward was lauded in a 1914 article in the New York Times which stated that “the great advantage of the glass walls” was that “neither nurse nor doctor need pay many visits to the children under their care.”
In the novel, my character’s dialog is inspired by the real Dr. Hess’s own writing; in fact, the long passage Rachel reads in the medical library is a direct quote. And yes, he was married to the daughter of Isidor and Ida Strauss who went down on the Titanic.
The real Dr. Hess was often assisted by Miss Mildred Fish, coauthor on some of his nutrition studies and my inspiration, along with Dr. Elsie Fox, for Dr. Solomon. My research took me to the New York Academy of Medicine where I began to understand my character of Mildred Solomon more fully—the struggles she would have gone through, the pressures she was under, the goals to which she aspired. Dr. Solomon’s confrontation with Rachel gives the elderly woman a chance to defend her life’s work and her actions.
In the early twentieth century, the medical field was becoming more scientific and research became increasingly privileged. Amazing discoveries seemed to justify whatever methods were necessary to achieve the miraculous vaccinations and treatments that conquered disease and relegated conditions such as rickets and scurvy to the pages of American history. Today, the ethics of many such experiments have been condemned: the testing of polio vaccine on children in an orphanage; the study of untreated syphilis in prisoners; the sterilization of people who are impoverished or intellectually disabled. Sadly, disenfranchised people have often been “material” for medical experimentation.
It seems impossible now, however, to look back on experiments like those conducted by Dr. Fox and Dr. Hess and not see them through the distorting lens of the Holocaust. When telling people what Orphan #8 is about, I have learned that saying the words “Jewish children” and “medical experiments” in the same sentence is almost guaranteed to elicit a remark about Nazis. It seemed inevitable that Rachel herself, looking back on her childhood, would draw the same comparison, and only fair to allow Dr. Solomon to defend herself from these charges.
Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, came to Milwaukee, while I was in graduate school there, to give a lecture. She read to us from a letter given to the archives by a woman who had endured the humiliation and fear of a police raid on a lesbian club in the 1950s. When I imagined Rachel and Naomi’s relationship, at first I thought no further than their romantic reunion at the carousel. But as I developed the novel, I realized how important it would be to explore the ways in which the characters would have responded to the repressive era in which they lived. As a lesbian writing at the time explained, “Between you and other women friends is a wall which they cannot see, but which is terribly apparent to you. The inability to present an honest face to those you know eventually develops a certain deviousness which is injurious to whatever basic character you may possess. Always pretending to be something you are not, moral laws lose their significance.”
In the 1950s, psychiatry in America purported that homosexuality was a psychological disorder that could be cured through analysis and therapy. The prevailing scientific view, as expressed by Dr. Frank Caprio in Female Homosexuality: A Psychodynamic Study of Lesbianism (New York: Citadel Press, 1954) was that homosexuality resulted from “a deep-seated and unresolved neurosis.” Caprio explained, “Many lesbians claim that they are happy and experience no conflict about their homosexuality, simply because they have accepted the fact that they are lesbians and will continue to live a lesbian type of existence. But this is only a surface or pseudohappiness. Basically, they are lonely and unhappy and are afraid to admit it, deluding themselves into believing that they are free of all mental conflicts and are well adjusted to their homosexuality.”
As adults, Rachel and Naomi would have lived with the dual experience of their relationship being both invisible (as female spinster roommates) and dangerous. Lesbian teachers and nurses in particular were fearful of losing their jobs and reputations. Living in the Village would have helped to ease their sense of isolation. As Caprio helpfully notes, “The Greenwich Village section of New York City has for many years been known as a center where lesbians and male homosexuals tend to congregate, particularly those with artistic talent.” But when Naomi’s Uncle Jacob offers them his apartment rent-free, the move out to Coney Island exacerbates their sense of isolation.
The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society would have been one group where homosexuality was not condemned. Sigmund Freud’s 1909 visit to Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park led him to confide to his diary that the “lower classes on Coney Island are not as sexually repressed as the cultural classes.” Freud’s visit to Coney Island was the inspiration for the 1926 formation of the Amateur Psychoanalytic Society, which met monthly and hosted an annual Dream Film award night—home movies which dramatized significant dreams and presented the dreamer’s accompanying analysis. One of them, “My Dream of Dental Irritation” by Robert Troutman, openly explores a gay theme. According to Zoe Beloff, editor of The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle (New York: Christine Burgin, 2009), “Troutman says he was drawn to the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society as a teenager struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality.”
As adults, Rachel and Naomi would have lived and worked in a society that denigrated and maligned their sexuality. In the orphanage, however, the atmosphere may have been more permissive. One man, recalling his years at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in response to a survey, matter-of-factly observed, “As far as homosexuality was concerned, I think there was plenty of it going around. In my own case, I jerked off quite a few fellows, and they did likewise to me.” For girls, intense crushes—including love notes, jealous intrigues, and displays of affection—were common, though these relationships were widely understood as immature substitutes for the heterosexual attractions that were expected to eventually replace them. Unless, of course, the girls bravely chose to live “a lesbian type of existence.”