The Tragedy of Little Mae Berger

The neighborhood of Ghent in Norfolk, Virginia takes its name from a city in Belgium, and is now a chic historic district where restaurant menus highlight gluten-free dishes next to the fried green tomatoes.

But 70 years ago, Ghent was a place where struggling Jewish immigrants, buoyed by a war-fueled economy, were able to buy a small house and let their children play in the streets, while maintaining the comfort of knowing that people like them lived next door and a synagogue was only a few blocks away.

Mae Berger lived in one of those tidy houses, at 1320 Stockley Gardens. On September 25, 1944, she went home from elementary school and then out to play with her older sister, Jane, and another girl about the same age. It was a Monday. The war in Europe had finally turned to the Allies’ favor. It had been a warm summer, so the crepe myrtles lining the narrow park across from her house were probably still in bloom.

I imagine the three girls walking down Stockley Gardens to Shirley Avenue, turning right onto Shirley across the street from the H.D. Oliver Funeral Home, and then right again after a short block onto Colonial Avenue, where they stopped at number 1314, a three-story apartment house with wrought iron balconies and a front door set in off the street.

Or the girls could have taken a shortcut from Stockley Gardens through an empty lot to the rear of the apartment building. There’s a house on that lot now, but back then, Ghent was not so intensely developed.

However they got there, the girls were playing when a friend who lived in one of the apartments called them inside. “You want to see something that I got for my birthday?” he asked them. It was a gun, a .38 caliber automatic pistol.

Mae, a curious child, went into the apartment kitchen while the older girls turned away.

And in a flash, she was gone.

My husband, Mark, the oldest of his siblings, is named for Mae. She was the youngest of my father-in-law’s three sisters; he was 17 when she died.

“The naming of a first-born son after a father or a father’s father is an honor waiting to be bestowed,” my father-in-law once wrote to me. “But on [Mark’s] arrival the need to memorialize Mae Kesser Berger was paramount.”

For all the many years I’ve known the Berger family, the story of Mae’s death mostly existed as a shadowy filament, a painful memory recalled but rarely discussed. About 25 years ago, when we were deliberating over what to name our third, and last, child, my husband became interested in the origins of his own name and was prescient enough to interview his oldest aunt and his father about what happened. We even visited Mae’s grave on a trip to Norfolk.

There the trail stopped, the ghost receded.

Until an unseasonably chilly and damp weekend in late April, when Mark and I accompanied his father, Kenneth, on a tour through the Norfolk of his childhood. At 88 years old, Ken is the only surviving sibling, a widower for nearly 15 years, and he is a wonder. His 6-foot-3 frame has shrunk a bit, his stride is a little unsteady. But he is sharp of mind and vigorous of body, still seeing his allergy patients twice a week, travelling the world with his lovely lady friend, hosting Seders, baking a mean kugel, basking in the glory of a great-grandson. He says he’s genuinely grateful for every day he’s alive, and he acts like he means it.

When I proposed that we return to Norfolk together to learn more about Mae, he did not hesitate. A few weeks later, he drove the four hours south from his home in northern Virginia — probably too fast at times — knowing, I suspect, that this may be his last chance to bequeath these memories to us in person. And the last chance for us to try and unravel the mystery of Mae, about whom we know so very little.

Even her age is in dispute. The newspaper story about her death said she was 9. Her gravestone says she was 10. No one in the family seems to know her birthday. Try as he might, my father-in-law cannot pick out her face in the one photograph we have of the three sisters.

A young girl can’t just vanish, can she?

And what of the boy who accidentally killed her?

Esther Miriam Kesser and Philip Berger, Mae’s parents, were among the waves of Lithuanian Jews who settled in Norfolk in the late 19th and early 20th century. They met cute, in night school, when she dropped her pencil and he retrieved it. Six months later, they were engaged.

Like so many of their landsmen, they settled in the Berkley neighborhood, eking out a living from a grocery store and living upstairs, as first Sarah and then Kenneth were born. When the store had to close during the Depression, Philip went back to his old trade as a paperhanger with his brothers.

“You worked hard in those days,” Mark said to his grandmother in an interview he recorded in 1978, three years before she died.

“No question about it,” she answered, her Yiddish inflection still strong. “Who didn’t work hard? Everybody worked hard.”

Eventually, they moved to a more central location at 621 Brambleton Avenue and then to a larger store on 439 Brambleton, living behind and above the shop, working six days a week, closing only for the Sabbath. Strictly observant Jews, they nonetheless sold pork chops and ham — whatever the locals would buy.

“You could buy a pound of bologna for a nickel,” Kenneth recalls. “Eggs were 10 cents a dozen. Cigarettes were one for a penny. Chicken was a luxury.”

He doesn’t remember his younger sisters’ births — only that his mother went to the hospital and came back first with Jane and then, some three years later, with Mae.

The Jewish population in all of Norfolk was growing, too. By the 1940s, there were an estimated 7,500 Jews there, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, and seven synagogues, five of which were Orthodox. The Orthodox synagogues were smaller and tended to move, merge and reformulate following their members’ migrations. B’nai Israel, where the Bergers belonged, was established around 1897, but moved and merged several times before settling in its current location on Spotswood Avenue in Ghent.

World War II accelerated these transitions, turning Norfolk into the largest naval base in the world, a humming port city that was gradually forced to confront some of its racial, religious and ethnic prejudices. But these habits died hard.

Irwin M. Berent, who compiled an exhaustive history of Norfolk’s Jews, wrote that as late as 1942, “the possibility of anti-Semitism as an explanation for the general scarcity of Jewish presence in city government lingered.”

Berent quoted an angry Jew, who wrote: “We have not even a policeman, or a street-sweeper! Why is there no consideration shown us by the powers and the politicians?”

By all accounts, Mae, who attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School, was a pretty girl. “A beautiful, beautiful child,” Aunt Sarah said in an interview taped in 1990, 16 years before she died. “She was the apple of my father’s eye. He loved her to death. She was very, very smart, very intelligent.”

That was my father-in-law’s recollection, as well. “She was quite a bright creature. Adept at school. Good grades. Had many friends — even a little boyfriend, so called. Alert, vigorous, bright, outgoing. A real pleasure to have around the household.”

“She was, at least potentially, the most successful of all of us. She had wit and personality.”

Kenneth remembers how Mae waved goodbye to him as he left Norfolk to attend the officers training program at Pennsylvania State University. It was June 1944. The family had moved to the house on Stockley Gardens a few years earlier, and Kenneth graduated from Maury High School, several blocks away. He had received a scholarship to a local college, but the war intervened. Many houses in the neighborhood had the five-pointed gold star indicating a fallen soldier. He was just 17, but now it was his turn to serve.

The war was not just the backdrop to Mae’s death; it might also have enabled the violence.

The boy who shot her was named Marcus Gabriel Gross. Born in Brooklyn, he lived with his parents, George and Sonia, and older brother Burton in the apartment on Colonial Avenue. Our family lore has it that his father had been discharged from the army and had brought a gun home with him from Europe, which he gave to his son for his 12th birthday.

“Only two days previously,” reads a story in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, “the boy’s aunt had found him playing with the pistol, had taken it away from him and removed the cartridge slip, she told police. She overlooked the cartridge in the chamber.”

The newspaper account continues: “The girls were playing together in a courtway adjoining the apartment… Young Marcus called them into the house, saying he had something to show them. As they entered the kitchen door he pointed the weapon at little Mae and fired. The .38 caliber ball passed through her heart and out of her back. She was pronounced dead by Dr. C.H. Rawls at Norfolk General Hospital.”

But that doesn’t begin to capture the confusion and terror relayed in our family narrative.

Aunt Sarah recounted the scene in that 1990 interview and all these years later, playing the old cassette tape, I can still hear the pain and anger in her voice.

“He was in the process of showing them the gun, and soon as they saw the gun, my sister Jane and the friend went out the door, and Mae was right behind them, and she turned to say goodbye. She turned to say goodbye. He pulled the trigger and shot her.

“They called the police and Jane called my mother. She came home from the store very, very quickly with my father. And my mother went in the police car with her holding the child in her arms and the child died in her arms on the way to the hospital.”

An uncle was given the unenviable task of calling Kenneth at Penn State, gently breaking the news. He received permission to leave his military training immediately and spent the night on a train to Norfolk. “It was a bleak ride,” he said.

For devout Jews who lived their lives according to the religious calendar, as did the Berger family, the timing was doubly tragic. Mae died during the Days of Awe, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when prayer is heightened, and life and death are said to hang in the balance of God’s judgment.

I can only imagine the intensity of that time. Her funeral was held the next day in the Oliver Funeral Home down the street — it had to be early, since Yom Kippur began that evening. The beloved rabbi of their synagogue was not available, so the rabbi from the Conservative synagogue next door officiated.

“It was a horrible, horrible thing,” Sarah said. “My mother turned white overnight — her hair. She actually turned gray overnight. I remember my father the next morning, sitting on the foot of the stairs. It was a beautiful sunny day and all the kids were going to school and he said, ‘Oy my kinde. Instead of going to school…’”

Mae was buried not far away, in the Hebrew Cemetery on Princess Anne Road, along the periphery of the small graveyard. Kenneth said he saw his father cry for the first time. Sarah remembered Philip saying, “Most parents take their daughter to the chuppah and I’m taking you to the grave.”

According to the newspaper, Marc Gross was taken into police custody that day and charged with homicide, later released under a $500 bond. He went before a hearing of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, though I could find no record of what happened.

“He was a minor, only 12 years old,” Sarah recalled. “They had a court hearing a month later, and my father unfortunately had to go. And he sat there. They never even called him up. Probably just as well. There was nothing they could do.”

“They didn’t even reprimand the parents. Or the aunt, for giving him the gun. It’s just like it never happened.”

This was not an era when grief was made public as it is today, especially for striving immigrant Jews who were conscious of their status in the strict social hierarchy of a Southern town. There were no flowers and teddy bears laid in front of 1413 Colonial Avenue, no Facebook pages dripping with cyber-sentiment, no campaigns for gun control, no calls for justice, no sympathy for the victim or the shooter.

“There was no psychological therapy back then,” Kenneth said. “[Gross] needed it. We all needed it. Can you imagine the guilt he carried around for the rest of his life?”

So the Bergers grieved quietly. To this day, Kenneth believes that his sister Jane was most affected, as a witness to the shooting of the little sister she surely felt responsible for, but she, too, dealt with it in silence, eventually becoming estranged from the family until her death in 2004.

“My father’s attitude was that he had suffered enough. He didn’t have to sue anyone for damages. Vengeance was not his need,” Kenneth remembered.

But Kenneth also acknowledges that he moved away — to military camps and then, when the war was over, to college and medical school, never again living in the city of his birth. He was so removed that it never occurred to him, until I brought it up all these years later, that he had unconsciously given his son the same name as the boy who killed Mae. “I just didn’t have it in my mind,” he explained.

Sarah, however, stayed in Norfolk, marrying and having three children of her own, a witness to the unspoken consequences of this tragedy. In the 1990 interview, her anger was still palpable.

“Those people never came over to apologize. They never even called. Nothing. Never heard from them,” she spit out.

Many years later, when Sarah worked as a bank teller, Gross came into her branch to deposit a check. When she saw his name, she asked him if he had lived near Shirley Avenue and Stockley Gardens. He said yes.

“I said, ‘I want you to leave my window. Now.’ I told him, ‘You murdered my sister.’ And he stood there with his mouth open. ‘I want you to leave the branch now.’ Then he took his check and left.”

She never saw him again.

We went to Norfolk in search of clues to Mae’s life and the impact of her death. We found precious little.

We had arranged to meet Rabbi Sender Haber, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel, just a few blocks away from the house on Stockley Gardens. The synagogue had been a mainstay of the Bergers’ lives — Philip served as a gabai, helping to run the synagogue for many years — but it was now in a newer, nicer building and had shed its Modern Orthodox past for a more ultra- form of Jewish practice. When we arrived on a Sunday morning, men were dispersing from Torah study, women were readying a jewelry sale, and everybody looked like they would fit easily into a Haredi neighborhood in Brooklyn. There’s a girls-only high school in the building, a mikveh across the street, and a yeshiva down the block. The only pictures on the wall of the rabbi’s office were of men with beards.

Rabbi Haber could not have been more welcoming to us. He eagerly listened to my father-in-law’s recollection of events that had taken place at his B’nai Israel — bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals — and proudly showed us around the refurbished synagogue, with its simple arches, wooden benches, and a stained glass window with a Jewish star dedicated in memory of a relative Kenneth recognized.

We saw memorial plaques for Esther and Philip and Jane, for cousins, aunts, uncles and classmates, but nothing for Mae. No records of her death, either.

I had asked Rabbi Haber to query older congregants on Shabbat, to see if any of them remembered what happened to Mae. She would have been about 81 years old had she lived, and I thought it possible that a classmate might still be in Norfolk.

“No one knew of it,” he told us.

I heard the same disappointing answer from another rabbi in the neighborhood.

Marc Gross, who owned bars and a couple of restaurants in the Norfolk area, married, had three children, and divorced; he died in 1997 at the age of 65. I was able to track down the rabbi who officiated at his funeral. He, too, knew nothing about Gross’s past.

I also spoke with one of his sons. At his request, I promised him anonymity. Our phone conversation was brief because after his initial shock, he had nothing to say. His father had never revealed this episode to his family nor had his grandparents spoken of it.

“You know more than I do,” was all he could tell me.

Then, a week after we returned, I finally reached Gross’s former wife. “I think I’m the only one who ever knew,” she told me by telephone.

Why, she cannot remember, but sometime in the early years of her marriage to Marc Gross, he told her that he shot a little girl by accident. “I thought it was terrible,” she recalled, “but it was something I didn’t want to get into.” So she asked nothing more. And the incident was never, ever brought up again in the family.

Even after they divorced and Gross was beset with health and emotional problems at the end of his life, she never told her children about his past: “It doesn’t serve a purpose. If it did, I would have told them.”

Does this research and retelling now, seven decades later, serve a purpose? I believe so.

I can’t impose a 21st-century sensibility on this tragedy, but it does stand as one in a very long, continually updated list of heartbreaking losses caused by the careless ownership of guns in this country. This is a story shaped by wartime but not unique to it — today in America, children unintentionally shoot and kill other children at an alarming rate. In a 2014 report, the advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety estimated that two children die almost every week in unintentional shootings. “More than two-thirds of these tragedies could be avoided if gun owners stored their guns responsibly and prevented children from accessing them,” the report noted.

Mae’s parents were in no position to turn this senseless accident into something positive and redemptive for their community. But their endless sadness serves as a warning that the tragic consequences flow through a family’s veins for generations.

“I think my parents were pretty much devastated,” Kenneth recalled. “I don’t think my father and mother ever really had the kind of openness and hope and outgoing attitude that they had expressed before. My father worked hard, my mother worked hard with him, always toward a goal, but this sort of knocked a chunk out of that goal. They did their thing, but it was never with the kind of joy and pleasure they had beforehand.”

Or as Mae’s mother Esther so honestly told my husband all those years ago: “If I’m alive today, it’s a wonder.”

Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the Forward. Contact her at eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner

Author

Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner

Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.

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