Two fires taught me lessons about my life, two fires separated by nearly six decades. The second fire was mine, but the first was my father's, and it happened in 1931, when he was fourteen years old.
My father, Abraham David Fishman, was a short boy with large dark eyes, a Buster Brown haircut, skinny arms, and bowlegs. He was the youngest of four children living in a dreary, two-room apartment on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Abie's father was long dead. Abie's mother was a walnut-faced woman with the shape of a fireplug, who pursued her small family's survival with brutal tenacity. It had taken Minnie Fishman -- an immigrant from Russia -- three decades in America to reach the pinnacle of all her hopes: her own dry goods shop stocked with everything from bolts of fabric to ladies' undergarments.
There had been other fires in Minnie Fishman's stores, but they were a dim and mostly forgotten part of young Abie's experience. The fire that changed his life, the one that became indelible, took place on Christmas Eve, a night of plummeting temperatures before a dusting snow.
As usual, Abie was helping his mother and sister in the store. Even though they were Jews (by birth, if not by practice), Christmas was an important season for the Fishmans, a time to sell to the Italian immigrants who had moved into the neighborhood. Because of the holiday they had been busy sorting and organizing merchandise until midnight. As they prepared to lock up, Minnie ordered Abie to bring in the empty cardboard boxes he had stacked in the alley that morning. Abie didn't understand why his sister, Fanny, older by five years, was pulling the paper stuffing from the boxes and spreading it across the floor. Or why Fanny and Minnie were whispering. Or why they ran out to hush him up when he whistled a John Philip Sousa march as he cranked up the awning.
At home, two short blocks away, Abie and Fanny were hurried into bed. Their mother pretended she had been sleeping when the police came pounding at the door. Terrible news: Her dry goods shop was blazing. The Fishmans ran back up the street they had just come down. Abie saw the yellow-orange flames flicking through the broken windows. The new snow touched his eyelids.
Minnie Fishman wailed in despair, holding her head between her hands and rocking it back and forth as if to deny the awful thing that was happening to her. The Irish policemen nodded in sympathy. The poor Widow Fishman. To think of such bad luck at Christmastime.
Minnie Fishman was an expert at self-induced fainting. She crumpled right on the spot, and the policemen shooed everyone away so they could minister to the fallen widow. Unnoticed, my father stepped back into the protective shadows of the night. He felt the heat, and when he smelled the oddly familiar stench of burning cotton, the scrim of childhood lifted. At fourteen, Abie Fishman was now old enough to see clearly. As the flames grew and destroyed all of Minnie Fishman's unsold and insured merchandise, the drama that formed my father's character, the story of his life, began.
My fire happened fifty-six years later. At that time I did not know about his fire. I'm sure that in a way he didn't really know about it either. My father had dedicated himself to leaving his past behind. He had been a poor boy, and now he was a wealthy man. Doggedly he had used his wits and his will, tackled life's adversities, and won. He had gained the trust and admiration of other wealthy men who turned their money over to him so he could double and triple its value in real estate investments. He protected their profits with clever foresight and a rigorous manipulation of the federal tax codes. He did not break laws, but he found the gray areas where interpretation could be argued. My father knew he was smart, and he relished his intelligence. Sometimes he would muse proudly about how we peripatetic Jews had developed our splendid brain pool by constantly having to pull up stakes and move on with nothing but the cargo between our ears. At other times, in a less sanguine mood, when a cranky antagonism overcame him, Abe Fishman would explain that the reason he had resolutely turned his back on his Jewish roots was because the words "Jew" and "poor" were synonymous to him.
The date of my fire was October 4, 1987. When I got the call, I was working in my eighth-story office, the back half of a converted loft in the Tribeca section of downtown New York. From that perch, where I had a sliver of a view of the Hudson River, I ran my own small documentary production company, which had won a respectable number of awards for programs that investigated injustices done to women and children. That was my niche.
I could never manage to eat much before the sun went down, so during the daylight hours caffeine kept me going. The phone call came at eleven-thirty in the morning, about the time I had finished my third cup of coffee. A neighbor who lived a quarter of a mile down the road from our country home, a small farmhouse in the town of Brookford, Connecticut, had spotted smoke pouring from our chimney. Maybe it was only something wrong with the furnace, but to be on the safe side she had summoned the fire department.
I telephoned the house, hoping to talk with the firemen as soon as they arrived, but each time I dialed, the phone was busy. I called the operator. She put me on hold while she checked the line. I stared at the second hand on my watch as I waited for her return. In a minute and forty-two seconds she was back. Our phone line had shorted out. I might want to call the local fire department to have them go over and take a look. Just a precaution, she assured me. Better to feel secure.
Panicked, I called my husband, Josh. At eleven-thirty in the morning he'd be holed up in his cubby in a corner of the newsroom of The New York Times poring over the pile of photographs that were under consideration for the next edition of the newspaper. Josh's job was to select the pictures of the politicians, heroes, and criminals that illustrated The Times each morning. He would have preferred to be the one taking the photographs, but the truth was his temperament was more suited to coping with the frenetic pace of the newsroom than it was to being out on the streets of the city battling other newspaper photographers for the best shot.
"The house in the country might be on fire," I said quickly, getting in the crucial information before he could bark at me for calling.
"Annie, I've got to get into the front page meeting."
"Josh, did you hear me?"
My second line was ringing. I put Josh on hold while I picked it up. It was our neighbor, confirming that indeed there was a fire. At that very moment our beloved country house, the place that had depleted our small savings nine years back, the run-down Colonial we had joyfully restored to its original simplicity, the peaceful retreat where we had brought our children when they were newborn babies -- our home and refuge from New York City life -- was burning out of control.
Three hours later (an hour for Josh to meet his photo deadlines and two hours for us to drive northeast at a terrifying speed) Josh and I fell silent as we rode up the last hill to our house. I had been biting my cuticles raw for the last hour of the drive, and now I dropped my smarting hand over Josh's as he shifted into a lower gear. He did not look away from the road, but he opened his long fingers to enclose mine.
Pickup trucks lined the road in front of our house. They belonged to the local men who coped with town emergencies -- the men who manned the town ambulance, drove snowplows and salt trucks through frigid winter nights, put out fires. These men would come at any time of day or night to pull a neighbor's car out of a snowbank or to ferry a child with a broken arm thirty miles to the nearest hospital, accepting only a handshake for thanks. We always sent our donations to the volunteer fire department, the ambulance service, the town recreation committee. We enjoyed the contact we had with these men, all Brookford year-round residents, but we generally saw them only when we needed some help with electricity or plumbing, or when we went into town to do errands. Even though they had certainly fought for our house with the same ready courage they would have used to protect their own homes, we were not at all prepared for the sudden intimacy of having them move through our bedrooms with hoses.
From a hundred yards off, we still saw no signs of a fire, but as we closed in, the blackened and broken windows looked like hollow eyes. Exploded sofas, scorched chairs, soaked mattresses, burnt sheets and blankets, were strewn across the vibrant green lawn, and the white clapboard siding showed black plumes where the smoke had seeped from within.
The fire had been extinguished, but a handful of firemen had remained behind to be sure no hidden cinder reignited the flames. It had rained briefly, and the rising smoke, driven back down by the mist, became a film of soot that covered the lawn, the house, everything. We stepped across the moat of broken glass and up to a kitchen door that was no more. The town fire marshal, Norman Jukes, and a man who introduced himself as "Eddie Shank, the fellow the insurance company sent to help you out," dropped back to let us go on alone -- the bereaved making our first inspection of the ravaged corpse.
The house was a dark cave. Water dripped from the ceiling, down charred walls, forming obsidian pools on the floor. The smells were powerful -- acrid smoke, melted plastic, burned wool. As we stepped ahead I remembered once traveling down deep into a coal mine and the feeling of sinking into earth, falling farther and farther away from light and breathable air. That's what it felt like now as I stepped into my blackened home. My eyes were watery with shock, not tears. My throat constricted around a filament of breath. I started to shiver uncontrollably. Josh took my hand and held it hard.
The fire had been halted just short of the kitchen that formed the south end of our house. Cooking was one of our favorite family activities each weekend. Josh made pie crusts and fresh pasta with our two children; I made soups and stews, since I was only good at cooking things in which the careful measurement of ingredients didn't matter. Now the kitchen looked like the inside of an abandoned backwoods shack that had been left neglected for years. The pine cabinets were blistered and cracked. Threads of soot hung from the ceiling. The floor was piled with sodden bedclothes that had been pulled off the mattresses as they were carried out to the lawn.
The children's playroom was directly above the kitchen. It was the only other room the flames had spared. Josh and I stopped at the top of the stairs to stare at the strange scene that looked like a fairy tale in which toys had been granted a few minutes of life and then frozen in midaction. The intense heat had stretched Barbie's plastic arms, which seemed to reach out for love. He-Man's bulbous muscles had bubbled up and then collapsed to flab. The Fisher-Price tape recorder had cracked open and disgorged a spaghetti of brown tape.
Then I saw the wall covered with our children's drawings. At the center were the self-portraits they had drawn the previous Saturday afternoon. Eli and Hannah had stretched out on the playroom floor on long sheets of white butcher paper while Josh and I traced around their small bodies with red markers. Kneeling above their outlines, they industriously crayoned in the details of their imagined selves. Seven-year-old Eli, who was lanky like Josh and had his unruly black hair, had turned himself into an astronaut. Nine-year-old Hannah had made herself into an Olympic gymnast, complete with a red-white-and-blue leotard and a gold medal hanging around her neck. Hannah took after me in looks and temperament. We were wiry, small-boned, with frizzy, straw-colored hair, and we were both edgy by nature.
Josh and I walked up to these two life-sized portraits. Ragged black tributaries ran through them where the built-up heat within the walls had seared the paper. It was a terrifying vision of what could have happened to our children had we been sleeping in the house when the fire broke out. I pressed my hand across my mouth to keep myself from moaning.
"You were lucky, Mrs. Waldmas." The insurance man came up behind me and slid his arm around my shaking shoulders. "I've gone into houses where the children were lying dead in their beds." I quickly pulled away from him. I had never met Eddie Shank or seen his pockmarked face before.
Beyond the playroom, the section of the house that had contained our bedrooms was a gaping hole. The remaining, singed ends of the thick eighteenth-century beams were like amputated stumps. We lifted our eyes to the wide opening in the roof above. Soft rain drifted in and wet our faces. We peered down three stories to the mounds of burned debris collected in the basement. The fire marshal, joining our slogging inspection, pointed his flashlight into the darkness below. "There was a short in your basement wiring. Should always have the wiring checked in an old house. That's the thing, isn't it? Electricity's a force of nature."
"The trouble is, people don't like to think they're sleeping in a tinderbox," Eddie Shank chimed in. He was wearing a blue satin baseball cap, which he pushed back. One of his front teeth had a gold cap, and he ran the tip of his tongue over it.
Norman Jukes went on, "City folks buy themselves a nice place to escape to in the country and never imagine it can bring them troubles. By the time I'm on the scene, sorry to say, it's too late to take the necessary precautions."
I folded my arms and pulled them in tight against my ribs. My muscles ached from cold and lack of breath. The gray afternoon was still wet, both inside and outside our blackened house, and I had not stopped shivering. I would have liked to lean into Josh, to find comfort against his long body, but Josh was standing at a calculated distance. I suppose he knew instinctively that this wasn't a moment to reveal too much of ourselves.
"Was that what caused Shelly's fire? Was his fire electrical, too?" Josh asked. Shelly Weiss owned a small sandwich shop and bakery, the Brookford Café, one of the few businesses our small town could support. Just over two weeks back, in a fire that raged before dawn, Shelly's place had burned to its cement foundation.
"Still lookin' into that," Jukes said. "That one's still under investigation." It was clear he deemed it professionally inappropriate to offer anything more.
ar"I see," Josh said. "Shelly had a fire, we had a fire."
I studied my husband. Shelly Weiss was the only Jewish merchant in Brookford, and as far as we knew, we were one of the only Jewish families. Was Josh looking for a connection?
Norman Jukes must have realized what Josh was thinking. "Come on down to the basement, Mr. Waldmas," Jukes suggested. "I'll show you where the copper wires fused from the electrical short. It's pretty straightforward once you see it."
I followed behind the three of them as they set out on their mission. They climbed over rubble that had fallen when the floors above collapsed, then bent their necks to get a view of what remained of the basement ceiling, where the scorched electrical wires were still tacked in place.
There it was, the evidence of our neglect. Two frayed ends hung down from the spot where the copper wires had melted through the insulation. Norman Jukes showed Josh how they had fused into small, hard lumps. The only thing that could cause that sort of copper fusion, he explained, was the extreme heat of a short circuit -- the same powerful heat that would ignite a fire.
"See how the short burned the basement ceiling right above it?" Jukes pointed to where the basement stairs had been. "Stairwell makes a natural draw, like a chimney. Sucks the fire right up through the house, where there's plenty of fuel to keep it going. Once the heat blows out the windows, the oxygen comes in and the fire builds fast. Bad luck the short wasn't down there further." He tipped his head back toward the garage door. "Wouldn't have had such a natural draw the way it did with the stairs right here. That's the way it is with fires. Luck always has its part, good or bad."
I watched as the three men shook their heads, commiserating for a moment over the powerful combination of nature and bad luck. As the afternoon waned and grew colder, our future felt colder, too. I could see ahead to an exhausting project of insurance negotiations, cleaning, reconstruction. For a moment we were all silent in the dripping cold of the basement. The only sound I registered was my own teeth chattering, like a relentless windup toy.
In spite of our shock and disorientation, we were obliged to discuss the insurance claim procedures with Eddie Shank. "I'm the adjuster assigned to your calamity," he told us now. "From here on in, you work with me." He instructed us on how we were to "secure" our house before leaving "the premises." Any vandalism or further damage that occurred because we failed to take the correct precautions could invalidate our policy. Once he received the fire marshal's written report, he would contact us and inform us of our next steps.
"That's it?" I asked. "We just wait?"
"You don't give us some sort of check here to get us started?" Josh asked.
Eddie Shank smiled. "You watch too much TV."
It was dark and well into the evening by the time, with the help of a couple of the volunteer firemen, we had boarded over the broken windows and doors with plywood we purchased from the local lumberyard. Our fingers were numb and our faces black when we finally climbed back into our car and set out for New York. I thought about Hannah and Eli, who would be getting ready for bed about then. That morning I had hastily arranged to have the college student who picked them up from school most afternoons stay with them until we got back. I had instructed her to say nothing about the fire. Now I wondered how I would tell them what had happened to our house, to their bedrooms, their toys, their drawings.
pardWe drove on into the cheerless night without even a crescent moon to light our way. Cold and fear had stiffened every muscle in my body, and I pulled the children's blankets from the backseat and wrapped up in them, drawing myself into a tight ball, my knees to my chest. I was still in a state of shock, and for many miles I couldn't think or talk. Josh was silent, too.
Eventually, as the heat in the car warmed me, I settled into the mental work of trying to put the day's events into some kind of perspective. I tried to make myself focus on the thought that however horrible it was, we had seen the worst of it. We had already begun to make things better -- boarded up the house, begun our dealings with the insurance adjuster. I reasoned that was the best way to see it, a thousand small steps we would have to take to get back to where we started. In time the frightening images would fade from mind. Though the fire had caused enormous damage to our home, we were all safe. That was the truly important thing. But with that thought fear came back -- what if we'd been there when the flames broke out? And then another fear -- what if we hadn't seen the worst of it? What if there was more to this fire than we knew at this point? Finally I couldn't keep silent anymore about the question that was sitting like a bear between us.
"Do you believe it could really be possible?"
"Arson. That somebody actually set that fire."
Josh scowled. Even the question made him angry.
I pressed on. "Not just arson -- anti-Semitic arson. That's why you were questioning Jukes, wasn't it?"
"Two fires in two weeks, both Jewish property -- the coincidence is pretty hard to miss."
"But here in Connecticut? It's unthinkable."
"Unthinkable? You thought it. I thought it. Clearly Jukes thought about it, too. He was awfully eager to show me that short."
"But there was a short."
"Yes, that's what it looked like."
"That wasn't enough for you."
"Annie, I don't know anything about electricity and fire. All I know is that it's a pretty weird coincidence."
"But I love it in Brookford. Nothing like this could happen there."
Josh kept his eyes fixed on the dark highway ahead. He was tense, irritable. "We'll take things one step at a time."
"But it's our home. I don't want to leave it," I protested against what Josh was choosing to leave unsaid.
Nine years ago we had come upon our beloved, quiet town, set among dairy farms and apple and peach orchards, completely by accident. Our Volkswagen Bug broke down on Route 84, and we had to be towed off the highway by a wrecker. We ended up spending the night at a local bed-and-breakfast while we waited for a part to be trucked in the next day. In the morning, wandering around the village green, we noticed a bulletin board with a small card offering a "fixer-upper" on the outskirts of town for an unbelievably low price. With nothing else to do while we waited for our car, we phoned the broker and were driven out to see the place. The house had been abandoned for several years, and the owner was willing to accept almost any offer we could manage. We called our bank in New York, asked them to transfer our savings into our checking account, and wrote out a check on the spot. It was an impulsive move, but I was pregnant with Hannah, and impulsivity fit our frame of mind. Later we learned that a small group of wealthy Boston Brahmin families owned land on the eastern end of town, but they kept to themselves around their large private lake down a long dirt road, and we never met any of them. Eventually we did meet a few other young New York couples who, like us, had stumbled onto adjacent towns and fallen in love with the isolation of this distant corner of northeastern Connecticut. As the years went by and our lives in New York got ever more harried making a living and taking care of our growing children, the house in Brookford became our treasured escape.
The night closed in around us. I studied Josh's grim, soot-smudged face, and decided not to point out that he was driving too fast. I was sure he was still thinking about the possibility of an arson motivated by anti-Semitism. Though Josh was resolutely secular, he was deeply convinced of the vulnerability of all Jews, a worldview inherited from his father, Józef Isaiah Waldmaski of Lódz, Poland.
Józef had been a photojournalist in Poland during the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power and encouraged Polish Catholics to give free rein
to their long-standing anti-Semitism. The Catholics were particularly resentful because Jews were leaving their shtetls and crowding the Polish cities. Józef's passion was taking portraits of these forward-thinking Jews, who were willing to tackle the twentieth century and were making important contributions in the arts, academia, medicine, and music. His photographs appeared weekly in the Lódz newspaper Lodzher togblat, until one night an angry mob of Catholics who hated the Jewish advances that Józef's photographs celebrated broke into his shop, stole his treasured photographs, and made them into a bonfire in the street. Six months later, depressed and bitter, Józef booked passage to America, where he became Joseph Waldmas and made an adequate living taking wedding photographs. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the sister and mother Józef had left behind were rounded up and eventually joined the three million Polish Jews annihilated by the Nazis. Józef's message to his own children reflected his personal experience: There would have been no Hitler if there had been no willing accomplices; Jews must never let down their guard in a Gentile world.
"Josh, can I tell you something? The weekend when I drove into town and saw Shelly's café burned to the ground, the first thing that popped into my head was the fact that Shelly's Jewish, and that we're Jewish, too. I didn't tell you because I figured it was silly paranoia. It's not like I've ever felt the slightest bit of prejudice against us in Brookford. I'm sure people know we're Jewish, but I doubt it really matters to them."
"Of course it matters to them."
"But no one here is going to set fire to a house because the owners are Jewish."
"Josh, sometimes you're such a New York Jew, seeing anti-Semitism lurking behind every bush."
"Weren't you the one who brought it up?"
"Then what if we find out it's true?"
Josh glanced over at me, and then turned back to the road. I knew he was sparing me the full force of his pessimism. We had already been through enough for one day.
"We'd have to leave."
"I don't want to leave."
"You'd stay there knowing someone tried to burn your house down because you're Jewish?"
"Then I don't want to find out it's true," I answered petulantly. "I really don't want to know."
Copyright © 2000 by Kate Wenner