I was not the last person to see Ilse Hiss alive; but I would like to think that I was the last one she had wanted to see. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Tante Ilse had been hospitalized with pneumonia. I knew then that she would not come out of that room alive. She knew it, too. During the last few years of her life, I had gotten very close to my great-aunt. I have no other relatives in America, and none elsewhere that would speak to me. Call me a black sheep, if you like. I’m sure my family calls me many other things besides. Anyway, this isn’t about me. This isn’t even about Tante Ilse; but I had no idea what is was all about when the nurse handed me that small parcel. My inheritance, I thought.
Tante Ilse had already left me plenty. Memories, mostly. Hours of impressions and recollections I had preserved on tape. Her ‘recording angel’ she once called me in what I assumed to be a rare moment of sentimentality. Then she winked at me, chuckled, and, in that year-round Octoberfest of an accent she had kept after nearly six decades of life in America, she added: “Aindshell? I brobaply don’t know der haff of it.”
Tante Ilse, as I said before, had been a baby crier; she had a talent for bawling that was very much in demand during the days before television, when radio was the nation’s home theater. “Vrom me, dey wanted only babies,” Tante Ilse summed up her unlikely—and largely undocumented—history in show business. “Alleright, babies I gave dem. Och, how dey endjoyed to hear me gurkle and coo. Only during Christmas I vas still. Den, de holy invent dook over; and he was not allowed to make much noiss.” So, when the nurse handed me that audiotape, I expected it to contain a sampling of her cries.
To my disappointment, there wasn’t as much as a whimper on it. Just talk and music, and a rather dismal poetry recital: an old radio program from one of New York’s small, independent stations. As tuned-in as I was to old-time radio back then, having made it the subject of my Master’s thesis, I did not recognize any of the voices. Why had my aunt given me this recording? And why had she not shared it with me before? I could not help thinking that Tante Ilse, prim and Protestant in spite of herself, was sending me a message she could only deliver from the grave.
Aside from Walt Whitman, whose poetry was haltingly recited, the only name mentioned on the program was that of the announcer, one frightfully British sounding Cecil Bridgewater, whom I had never heard of. I was none the wiser after my aunt’s funeral. The friends she made during her radio days had long passed on, and no one present could recall much of her early life, her leaving Germany after the Nazis had come into power, her struggle to earn a living in New York City, and her unlikely foray into broadcasting after she was overheard imitating a toddler at her neighborhood market. “You call this grying?” she had scoffed; and when she screamed back, a radio executive in line took note.
I had her account of all that on tape. I never got to ask, though, never dared to ask, just what had prompted her to leave her home town, accompanied by her brother, Heini, a miserable failure of a man about whom I knew nothing other than that he had deserted his wife and unborn child for a new life in New York. My father never spoke of Opa Heini, who died in apparent shame and obscurity before reaching the age of sixty, other than referring to him as the “Deserteur.”
Anyway, I followed Tante Ilse’s example more than half a century later, for very personal reasons of my own; and as thorough as I was in my research of her odd career as a baby crier, I never insisted on getting her life story, assuming that, like an infant, she would speak when she was ready. What a lousy excuse for a historian I had been; and how I regretted not to have asked while I still had the chance.
But, back to the tape. This was a few years before we all got on the Internet, mind; and, having checked every book on the subject of broadcasting available to me, all I could think of was to consult the Manhattan telephone directory. Would you believe, there was a listing for C. Bridgewater.
So, shortly before Christmas Eve, I found myself in the Upper East Side apartment of one Cecil V. Bridgewater, aged 94. A dapper chap he was, with a keen memory, for the gift of which I very much envied him. I played the recording. Not only did he recognize his voice, he recalled the program, Poetry for Everyone, which he announced during the early 1940s. He had never heard of my aunt, though; and, as we listened, he kept eyeing me, as if wondering what I had really come to find out.
I was about to leave when he turned to me and said: “You know, about that fellow who read Whitman.” “Yes?” I asked, encouragingly.
“He was not much of an orator, was he?”
“No,” I agreed.
“He wasn’t a professional, either, just a college kid from Columbia who had volunteered to recite. The station had little money for voice talent. He was never asked back.”
“I’m not surprised,” I retorted, flippantly.
“The thing was, he wasn’t really reading for Everyone,” at which point the old man performed a little dance with his finger to put the last word in quotation marks.
“No?” I urged on.
“I think I can tell you,” he responded, confidentially. “He was reading it to someone in particular. Like a code, you know.”
Tante Ilse, I thought.
“And he got hold of the transcription, as well. You know, a recording of the broadcast. I can think of only one person, besides him, who could have kept it all those years.”
I sensed he was not referring to my aunt.
“When I walked out of the studio that night, I saw him again,” Mr. Bridgewater continued. “He was in the company of another young fellow and, well, they looked very much . . . absorbed in each other’s company.”
He looked at me, and gave me a knowing smile. “I remember it well because I was very suspicious.”
“Because they were both men?” I asked.
“No,” he said, rather irritated by the question, “because the other one was German.”
At that moment, for the first time, I felt a kinship with that other black sheep beyond the fold, for mine was a story that my grandfather had lived. And I was grateful to his sister for giving me a chance to find him out at last by sharing what she could be sure would stir me to research. How brave of Tante Ilse to leave behind all she knew for the sake and safety of the likes of me, sheltering him in a cloak of silence, even as she cried like a newborn child:
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death. . . It is form and union and plan. . . . it is eternal life. . . . it is happiness.