Joan Durham’s Story
I was five when I first met Ruth Herzog. It was at Rumplemeyer’s in New York City, a popular after theater restaurant known for its pastries and thick hot chocolate. With its stained glass windows and ice cream sundaes, it was a magical place for children.
Ruth was a hostess there and knew my father. That was the moment when I ran to her, squealing, “Daddy, Daddy, look, a relative!” Yet I didn’t remember any of that incident for forty years, until I was reminded of it by Ruth herself – more on that later.
Meanwhile during the following forty years I knew nothing about any relatives other than my nuclear family….and a cousin of my father.
As a child I knew my parents came from Germany. My father was Felix O. Durham (originally Duhrenheimer.) In 1898 he was born in Mannheim, where he was raised. As an only child, he did very well in school, learning eight or nine languages including Latin and Greek.
He later studied to be a psychiatrist at Heidelberg University. After earning his doctorate, he went into private practice in Weisbaden before coming to the US in late 1938.
My mother was Else Henschke, born in Danzig in 1907 and raised in Berlin. She had a twin brother, Erich. Their mother died when they were four and, for the next seven or so years they were separated.
My mother lived with her mother’s older sisters, in Torun, while Erich lived with his uncles in the same west Prussian town. They were reunited in Berlin after their father remarried. They were twelve at the time. Her stepmother was very mean which made her teen years very difficult.
As a child all I knew about Uncle Erich was that he lived in Europe and we would occasionally send him a card, usually around the Christmas holidays.
My mother began studying with Elsa Gindler in Berlin around 1926. Gindler was considered a pioneer in the field of somatic bodywork and sensory awareness. While my mother was intrigued by the developments in psychoanalysis, she only pursued the therapeutic side of human behavior, as taught by Gindler, and never went into the psychoanalytic field. Two years later she began working with both children and adults, while still under Gindler’s tutelage.
By 1933, after the intervention of the Nazis, she no longer felt she belonged in Germany. In 1934, with Gindler’s encouragement, she immigrated to America, opening her own studio on West 57th St in New York City.
By 1940 my mother’s business was thriving. That was also the year she met my father, at a meeting of Psychoanalysts in Manhattan. They married the following year and I was born the year after on June 12, 1942. My brother, Roy, was born two years later on April 27, 1944.
While growing up religion was rarely discussed in our family (except for somewhat derisive references by my father to individuals who he believed had Jewish surnames).
However, when I was about eight I asked my parents if I could attend Sunday school after learning that many of my friends did. I loved the social aspect of school and wanted to join them. Happily my parents agreed and for the next six or seven years I attended Sunday school at the Presbyterian Church around the corner.
I was aware that all four of my grandparents were dead. I also knew that my father had a cousin because we sometimes spent afternoons with him, his wife, and two sons.
On the other hand when my mother spoke of her family it was usually negative. This made me aware of how much pain she must have felt during all those years, after her mother’s passing and her separation from Erich, her twin brother. Once her father remarried, she lost almost all contact with her mother’s family. I came to realize why she felt abandoned and developed the attitude, “who needs them!” The loss and the trauma of losing her mother at such a young age, as well as much of her extended family, also contributed to the tremendous mistrust she felt toward her entire family in later years – themes that seemed to plague her for the rest of her life.
When I was a child my mother and I were extremely close. I have fond memories of coming home from school, or other activities, and sitting with her as I relayed my adventures. But this changed when I was around fourteen. That was a time when I began to deal with my own issues.
From then on, whenever we had a disagreement or something happened that she didn’t like, my mother would refer back to my teen years and tell me how awful I was, especially to her.
My father had a phobia about his health and took all kinds of drugs, depending on what he thought the problem was at the time. He could fly into a rage on the spur of the moment, which kept my parents’ relationship and our household in continual turmoil. As a result my parents slept in separate rooms.
Most mornings mother herded my brother and me into the kitchen, the room farthest away from father’s bedroom. We hoped we wouldn’t disturb his drug induced sleep. Otherwise we would invariably become the targets of his rage.
Because he was often volatile and could quickly lose his temper, mother worked to keep the two of us away from him as much as possible.
My parents did indeed have a stormy relationship. Over the years, mother attempted to leave at least three times, only to return after many promises that things would be different. She often spoke of her resentment that friends and associates couldn’t be counted on to help and/or support her.
The second time my mother tried to leave my father was quite a traumatic event for all of us, and led to a separation that lasted for a few months. I was five at the time.
The third time she left was in 1957 when I was 15. Mother and I stayed in a small hotel in midtown Manhattan. It was a dark and dreary place during an unpleasant time for me. I had been involved in an intense relationship with a boyfriend and had managed to get pregnant. But mother somehow arranged an abortion and I recovered from it there.
Then in 1958 I was sent away to finish high school in Massachusetts – an obvious attempt to keep me separated from my boyfriend until I finished high school. It worked! We broke up that fall, and I didn’t live at home again until after graduating from college in 1963. In 1964 I married someone else.
That marriage was in the chapel of the same Presbyterian church where I’d gone to Sunday school fourteen years earlier. The following year we (my husband & I) moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma for his new job. We soon learned that we were expecting our first child. By the end of 1970 we had three sons. But in 1975 we divorced.
Remaining in Tulsa, I remarried in 1977. But that marriage also ended in divorce in 1982.
By then, single again, I was feeling “claustrophobic” still living in Tulsa, and wanted to relocate. But my dilemma was whether to move to California or back to New York. I decided that moving to New York where I spent my childhood might help me find the pieces I was missing about my background and family.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the problems in their marriage, my parents remained together for almost 36 years. They had come to live in Tulsa in 1973. But by 1976 they agreed it wasn’t a good fit.
At that time my brother was living in LA and encouraged them to move to La Jolla, California, which they did in the fall of 1976. However, less than 5 months later, on February 7, 1977 my father passed away.
Then, probably because of my father’s passing, a significant event occurred. Later that summer my Uncle Erich, and his wife, came to the US to visit my mother, Else, his twin sister. I wanted to meet them for the first time and flew to La Jolla.
It was a wonderful introduction and I was actually able to spend a few minutes alone with Uncle Erich. But it seemed to make mother very uncomfortable. I attributed her anxiety to the still recent loss of my father.
Yet most of that conversation didn’t register until years later when I realized that Erich was a Communist living in East Berlin, and wrote for a Communist newspaper.
Later I reconnected with Uncle Erich in East Berlin, when we corresponded several times over the next few years. I was hoping to learn more about my family and felt that he was the best resource I had at the time.
In one of his responses, he acknowledged that his sister was certainly a complicated person. But then I got the distinct impression that he really wasn’t interested in my quest and would have preferred to stick with more intellectual and political topics.
Nevertheless, he did reveal some important information when he wrote about two of his (and my mother’s) cousins: a brother and sister named Ruth and Gerhard, both born Henschkes. Ruth was living in Manhattan and Gerhard in LA. Ruth had been an actress and dancer in Berlin before the war and married Kurt Herzog when they later met in NYC.
Yes, this is the same Ruth I met at Rumpelmeyer’s so many years earlier…and then forgot about!
That information from Uncle Erich came in 1985 – a time when I was dealing with the effects of my move to NYC and its fallout on my teen-age sons.
My youngest in particular was experiencing a level of adolescent anxiety and depression that had us both in therapy. The situation led me to a therapist who was instrumental in my continuing the search for my family by encouraging me to find the answers I needed through genealogy.
She also reminded me of the discovery of my cousins, Ruth and Gerhard. That’s what led to my phone call to Ruth Herzog in April, 1988.
But it had taken three years and the encouragement of a therapist to call Ruth – a phone call that was a turning point for me, because during that call I suddenly asked her if I was Jewish. Her response was quite matter of fact.
“Of course you are!” It was as if the whole world knew, but me.
I was never consciously aware that both my parents were Jewish. As a child, I was too young to make the connection. Nevertheless, in the two to three years following “my discovery” I did quite a bit of reading, and started attending Friday night services at a local synagogue.
Hearing Hebrew and learning about Jewish traditions, some memories came back to me. There were definite hints during my childhood, i.e. my father lighting candles, which I’m convinced were in memory of his parents’ Yahrzeit. In addition, listening to prayers at services I realized Hebrew sounded familiar.
I also remember a time when I was about seven my brother and I were playing by our father’s large desk in our living room. We had opened drawers and found lots of papers, which made our parents so angry we never went near that desk again.
My guess is that those papers probably contained revealing information about their identity, including naturalization information and/or their change of name documents.
With much encouragement from others I began to trace my family history, only to realize how much I avoided asking questions throughout my life. And, indeed my mother continued to resist answering questions I asked even in the late 80’s and 90’s.
But during a phone conversation in 1995, my mother made a revealing and terribly sad comment. She said, “I don’t know why you ‘want’ to be Jewish! It could harm your brother and your son(s)…!”
Why in 1995 my mother felt so threatened still haunts me – it remained the case until her death at 102 in August, 2009.
I continued to work with my therapist who also motivated me to learn about Judaism and my Jewish ancestry. It’s a slow process but it continues to draw me back to the memory that changed my life, that April day in 1988 when I got the nerve to call Ruth Herzog.
I had a relationship with Ruth and Gerhard who were able to give me invaluable insight about my mother. I came to realize her behavior, which I believed I caused, actually existed before I was born.
That April day was truly a gift when Ruth answered my question: “Am I Jewish?”
But it took me until after Ruth’s death in 2005 to actually hear and relate to that little five year old girl happily calling out, “Daddy, Daddy, look a relative!!”