On an ordinary, run errands afternoon, I drove from place to place listening to Eli Wiesel’s recorded book “Night.” When Wiesel was fifteen the Nazi’s sent him and his family to Auschwitz. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.” Wiesel used the word incinerator, and its meaning awakened a childhood memory.
The eerie cellar in our 3-family house on W. Runyon Street in Newark also had furnaces that sent smoke to the sky. Chunks of coal were incinerated and transformed first into heat and then into smoke. At the end of the cycle ashes were saved and mixed into garden dirt as fertilizer. Some ashes were stored and sprinkled on winter’s icy sidewalks. All those ashes at Auschwitz — what happened to them? I don’t know, but the story my mother and Wiesel told made the furnace an instrument of death.
When I was probably about nine years old, my mother wanted me to know about a woman, her baby, and a furnace. As a newborn I lived with my parents in an apartment building on South 15th Street. Ralph Martinelli, a roughly cut, good-natured Italian, or wop, as my father might have said, worked part-time hours as the building superintendent. Mazie, his wife sold lingerie at Bamberger’s, a downtown department store. Already married five years, Ralph and Mazie wanted a child of their own, yet nothing ever came of their desire.
On an afternoon of her choice when my mother and I were alone, she began a story. Upon reflection, I did not need to know about the Martinelli’s or their son. His birth and adoption made no difference to me, especially at age nine. The two couples stayed friends for years, even after Ralph moved his family out of Newark. I suppose my mother wanted me to know that families are formed in more than one way.
“Ralphie, Jr. is adopted. He’s not the Martinelli’s real child,” my mother began as if telling a secret. “Ralphie’s mother wanted to throw her baby into a furnace. Big Ralph saved the boy’s life, and they raised him as their own.”
My mother said an unhappy and poor woman took her baby to the cellar. I imagined a cellar likes ours on W. Runyon Street — a dirty, dank place with shadows, coal bins, and storage cribs where feral mother cats gave birth to litter after litter. On winter nights I hated going to the cellar. Scary down there when I had to set the damper and adjust the flue. A winter fire needed to be banked just right.
Back to the story —the sound of someone in the cellar brought Ralph out of his workroom. As I listened to my mother, I imagined his shock. A woman stood in front of an open furnace fire with a baby in her arms.
“What are you doing, Anna?”
“I don’t want the baby,” she cried. “I’m going to throw him into the furnace.”
“Are you nuts, Anna? Gimme that kid!” Ralph grabbed the child from her arms.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she sobbed. ” He cries all the time. I’m going crazy. I don’t want him.”
The horror of what might have been had a happy ending. From the cellar to talks in the upstairs apartments, the Martinelli’s and the woman reached an agreement. My mother never explained the legal details, and those would not have matter to me. She said that after a few months and with great joy, Ralph and Mazie adopted the baby. The birth mother turned away, moved away, and never looked back.