November 1936. By bus the Schwart family arrived in this small town in upstate New York. Out of nowhere they seemed to have come, with bulging suitcases, valises, bags. Their eyes were haggard in their faces. Their clothes were disheveled, their hair uncombed. Obviously, they were foreigners. “Immigrants.” It would be said of the Schwarts that they looked like they’d been on the run from the F"uhrer (in 1936, in such places as Milburn, New York, it was possible to think of Adolf Hitler with his mustache and military posture and stark staring eyes as comical, not unlike Charlie Chaplin) without stopping to eat, breathe, wash.
The smell that came off ‘em!-the bus driver would so comment, rolling his eyes.
It seemed appropriate that Jacob Schwart, the head of the family, would find work as caretaker of the Milburn Township Cemetery, a nondenominational cemetery at the ragged edge of town. He and his family-wife, two sons, infant daughter-would live in the weathered stone cottage just inside the cemetery gates. This “cottage” was rent-free, which made the job attractive to a man desperate for a place to live.
Mr. Schwart was profusely grateful to the township officials who hired him though he’d had no experience as a cemetery caretaker, nor even as a gravedigger.
He was a good worker, he insisted. With his hands, and with his head.
“You will not regret, sirs. I will assure you.”
At the time they’d moved into the cobwebby stone cottage in the cemetery, that had been only casually cleared after the departure of the previous tenants, and smelled strongly of something like liquid lye, the Schwarts’ youngest child Rebecca was a sickly five-month-old infant tightly wrapped in her mother’s filthy shawl. For much of the bus ride from downstate New York, this shawl had functioned as a sort of secondary diaper for the fretting infant.
So little she was, her brother Herschel would afterward recall, she looked like some hairless thing like a baby pig, and smelled like one, too. “Pa wouldna look at you hardly, he was thinkin you would die I guess.”
Had she been Rebecca Esther Schwart then? She’d had no name and no identity, so young. Of those early days and weeks, months, and finally years in Milburn she would recall so little. For there was little memory in the Schwart family.
There was Ma, who nursed her. Ma who sometimes pushed her away with a grunt, as if her touch was painful.
There was Pa. “Jacob Schwart” he was. You could not predict Pa. Like the sky Pa was always changing. Like the ugly coal-burning stove in the kitchen Pa was smoldering sometimes, flaring-up sometimes. You would not wish to press your fingers experimentally against the stove when the fire was up inside.
Other times, the stove was empty of fire. Cold, dead.
Jacob Schwart was profusely grateful to be hired by strangers in this small country town. Yet Pa, brooding in the stone cottage, expressed a different sentiment.
“Like a dog they wish to treat me, eh! ”Jay-cob‘ I am, eh! Because I am foreign, I am not-rich, I am not one of them! One day they will see, who is a dog and who is a man.“
Already as an infant she would begin to acquire an instinctive sense that her father, this powerful presence that leaned over her crib, sometimes poked her with wondering fingers, and even lifted her in his arms, had been grievously wounded in his soul; and would bear the disfigurement of this wound, like a twisted spine, through his life. She seemed to know, even as she shrank from such terrible knowledge, that she, the last-born of the family, the little one, had not been wanted by Jacob Schwart and was an outward sign of his wound.
She would not know why, a child does not ask why.
She would remember her panicked mother stumbling to her crib, clamping a moist hand over her mouth to muffle her crying. That Pa not be wakened from his exhausted sleep in the next room.
“No! Please no! He will murder us both.”