Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Katja's Lost Childhood

Katja, age 3

Dear George,
Katja says she remembers hardly anything about her childhood.  That can’t be entirely true because she’s told a lot of anecdotes over the years.  Last week we sat down and chatted about her recollections in more detail.  Here’s the picture that Katja provided.   

I always thought of Katja as a Southern belle, and it turns out there’s a kernel of truth to that. 
She was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in the late years of the Great Depression.  Her mom, Helen Werrin, was 25 years old and had graduated from Temple University with her degree in nutrition and diatetics.  Her dad, Milton Werrin (henceforth Buck), was 30 and had received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Penn.  His job for the U.S. Army took him around the state of Virginia, inspecting meat at military bases to make sure it wasn’t infected. 

Katja, 17 months, in Roanoke

The family lived in a beautiful white house in Roanoke.  They got together regularly with family friends, the Pressburgs, who had two small boys about Katja’s age.  The children played lots of  baseball, and one of the Pressburg boys smacked Katja in the forehead with a baseball bat.  She still has the scar above her left eye.

Buck’s and Helen’s families lived in Philadelphia, and, homesick, they decided to return in 1941.  Buck bought his brother Nate’s veterinary practice and house at 408 S. 20th Street in center city.  The animal clinic was on the first floor, and Buck, Helen, and Katja lived upstairs.  As a young girl, Katja loved the 20th Street neighborhood.  She was allowed to be out on the street by herself, and it was very exciting.  There were tons of kids, lots of different kinds of people, the streetcars ran right by, and something was always going on.  Her mother disliked 20th Street though – the city heat, the smells coming upstairs from the animals, the noise, the shabbiness of the neighborhood.

408 S. 20th Street (today)

When Katja was four, her parents enrolled her at the Settlement Music School, a famous community school and daycare center.  The children were introduced to music and the arts through lots of rhythm instruments.  Katja’s specialized in playing the triangle.  She went to school every day and completely enjoyed it.  In fact, until she got to high school, she always loved school -- the whole idea of going off to school and being part of a place.

In 1942 Katja started kindergarten at Spring Garden School, a couple of miles away at 12th and Parrish streets.  Getting to school required a trolley ride, and Katja began doing this on her own by first or second grade.  Occasionally Buck would take Katja and her friends – Joanne Soloff and Charlotte and Judy Kaplan – to school in the family Chevy.  The children loved riding in the rumble seat, even though Joanne had a propensity to get carsick.  Once there, Katja’s favorite subjects were English, History, and Music – just about everything as long as it didn’t involve arithmetic. 

Spring Garden Public School, 12th Street

Katja’s siblings, Ami and David, were born during her early years of grade school.  The family home was a few blocks away from Rittenhouse Square, and Helen would take the three children to the Square on outings.  Katja got to push Ami and David in their double-decker baby carriage, and Helen called her  “my little mother.”  There was a bronze statue of a goat with little horns at the center of Rittenhouse Square, and the children’s favorite activity was climbing on the goat.  As they got a little older, Katja would take the two kids on outings to Rittenhouse Square by herself.  David was a cutie-pie, though he often suffered from his eustachian tubes being inflamed.  Katja remembers Ami as being mysterious and very organized.  When they later shared a bedroom, they’d get into fights because Ami wanted Katja’s side of the room to be as clean and neat as her own.  Katja did have lots of responsibility as a child.  She took the bus, trolley car, and/or subway to school by herself, and at home she cleaned up the house, did the dishes, and helped with the laundry.

In their 20th Street neighborhood most of Katja’s playmates were young African-American girls.  The children’s favorite activity was double-dutch jump-roping.  While Katja participated regularly, she was awed by the abilities of her fellow rope-jumpers who did triples, somersaults, and all sorts of fancy moves.  She summed up, “They were great!”  At home Katja spent a lot of time curled up by the radio, listening to the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, Fibber McGee & Molly, the Green Hornet, and Superman.   

Around third grade, Katja started helping her dad in his vet practice after school.  She’d feed the boarding animals, play with them, and try to quiet the animals down while Buck was working on them.  Her most significant task was holding puppies or cats in a blanket while Buck was castrating them.  He’d explain, “It’s all over in just a minute.  Just hold them around the head in the blanket so they can’t move.”  The puppies and kittens were usually just a few days old, and they didn’t seem to mind it much.  Katja said about her vet assistant duties, “I loved it.”  Buck in turn helped Katja with her homework.  Everything except math, which was his worst subject too.  In general, Buck was the more lenient parent; Helen, more strict.

Buck and Helen (circa 1970)

Helen’s father, Samuel Brooks, owned a custom tailor and dry cleaning shop in Germantown, a Philadelphia suburb where he and Katja’s grandmother lived.  Helen’s biological mother had died when she was only three, and her father remarried Dora, who Katja knew as Grandmom Brooks.  Katja went regularly to her grandparents’ house for the weekend.  She was very close to her grandparents, and her love of opera traces back to her visits with them.  Mr. and Mrs. Brooks kept a kosher household, so the only thing that they did on the Sabbath was to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. When Grandmom and Grandpa Brooks came to visit at 20th Street, her grandfather would always pull a candy bar out of his pocket to give Katja.  She remembers him taking her to her first movie, The Dolly Sisters with Betty Grable and June Haver.  Grandpa Brooks liked to take Katja and her siblings places, but he was very poor and money was always in short supply.  He had excellent taste, but never any extra money for luxuries.  He was very proud when Helen completed college.     
These childhood years on 20th Street weren’t an easy time for the family.  Buck’s veterinary practice was a struggle, and there were always money woes.  Helen was working as a substitute home economics teacher in an inferior public school, and she was unhappy there.  Her salary was $5 a day – better than nothing, but very low pay.

Katja’s Grandpa Werrin (Michael) and Grandmom Werrin (Anna) were Russian immigrants who had met and married in America after their arrival around the turn of the century.  Grandpa Werrin had an egg candling business on Water Street.  He imported eggs from Vineland, New Jersey, then distributed them to local grocery stores, making daily decisions about how much to pay and how much to charge for the eggs.  He loved to play cards and won a seashore hotel in Wildwood, NJ, in a card game.  He and Anna operated the hotel in the summer for many years.  Grandma Werrin cooked and ran the hotel.  Customers would come for a week, month, or the entire summer, and their room price included three meals a day.  Buck met Helen there when she applied for a waitress job.  Years later he sent Helen and the three kids to Wildwood each summer to protect against polio in the city.  Usually they would stay in Wildwood with Grandpa Brooks, but Katja also stayed in the Werrin’s hotel on occasion.

“The Vampy Scamp” (Katja, age 8, at Wildwood)

Grandmom Werrin had a reputation as an excellent cook, and the entire family would gather at their West Philadelphia home on Friday nights.  Because Anna wasn’t allowed to cook after sundown on Friday evening, a live-in maid did the cooking on Friday and Saturday nights.  They’d have bagels, cream cheese, and lox; smoked whitefish; smoked sable; bialys; Manischewitz wine, and some hard liquor as well.  Katja remembers those meals as much like scenes out of The Godfather, Part 1.  Michael and Anna had five children: Doris (who later married a wealthy chicken king from Chicago), Beatrice (married to Joe), Nate (married to Sophie), Milton (with Helen), and Miriam (married to Moe).  Grandpa Werrin had an explosive temper.  He could be loving and warm at one moment, then yelling and throwing things seconds later.  Buck and Nate had inherited some of that volatile temper themselves, so Katja describes extended family gatherings as very noisy.  There’d be lots of fighting and uproar; then everybody would get over it and get back together.  Helen often felt caught in the middle.  After the meal was over everyone would gather around the tiny TV and watch boxing.

Katja  was always told by her dad that she had inherited “bad blood” from his side of the family.  Once when a friend came over for a tea party, the little girl broke one of Katja’s toys, and Katja pushed her down the stairs.  Another time she got in a fight with one of her little boyfriends, and she went to his house and hit him over the head with a sock full of potatoes.  The boy’s mother called Helen and said Katja was forbidden to ever play with her son again.  These incidents seemed to confirm the bad blood hypothesis.  

Ami (left), unknown friend, and Katja, age 8, on the Jersey shore

One year Helen took a summer job as the dietician at Girl Scout camp, and Katja got to go along for free.  She wasn’t enthusiastic about sleeping in a tent, and, because Helen was on the camp staff, Katja had to dig latrines to avoid being labeled a “teacher’s pet”.  She had a much more enjoyable time during the summers of 1947 and 1948 at Camp Galil, a Zionist youth camp in Buck’s County.  Katja loved Camp Galil and acquired her first boyfriend there, a good-looking boy named Jules Cohen.  It was the time of the War of Independence, and weapons were hidden on the camp’s grounds for shipment to Israel.  Buck and Helen also took the three kids on a big trip one summer to Maine, Montreal, and Toronto.  The kids spent the whole time in the back seat reading comic book tales about Emma and the Cement Mixer.                       

Katja’s family always had dogs.  Buck gave Katja her first dog, a little dachsund which was to be her own.  Katja loved the dachsund.  A week later her dad said he had to take it back because the previous owner’s daughter who had polio missed it so much.  Katja was heartbroken.  The family also had a beagle that was completely untrainable.  Their beloved boxer, Tammy, who was really Ami’s dog, died of cancer, and everyone felt very sad.  

Katja, age 10, and David on a hayride at Farm School
Starting at age 12, Katja took piano lessons after school once a week.  Her teacher was Miss Theresa, a heavyset woman who had been blind from birth.  Katja’s not sure whether Miss Theresa lived alone, but there was never anybody else at her house.  She lived in Little Italy in South Philadelphia, and Katja travelled there by herself on the hour-long trolley car and subway trip.  Miss Theresa was very nice, but the piano lessons themselves were boring.  At home Helen played the upright piano in their living room.  Katja did too, though she didn’t like to practice.

One of Buck’s veterinary clinic clients, Mrs. Scott, took an interest in Katja and gave her books and a subscription to the London Illustrated News which was full of articles about royalty.  Katja became very interested in British royalty.  Mrs. Scott also talked a lot about going to France, and that became one of Katja’s major goals.  Katja says she always wanted to go away and have adventures from the time she was a little girl.

So those are some of the highlights of Katja’s girlhood.  Her Philadelphia world and family life were pretty different from growing up in Menominee in the U.P.  That’s what makes for the spice of life. 

G-mail Comments
-Ami G (5-22): This version of Katja's life proves that everyone grows up in a different family, even sibs!  Very nice tale!  Our Boxer's name was Jennie (actually Sad Sack Jennifer) and her very coveted puppies payed for the family's dining room set! 

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