Thursday, December 20, 2007

Deep Thoughts: A Knickerbocker Village Mother Lode

This is a great story and an example of the deepest of thoughts suggested by the last post. I make occasional trips back to nytimes archive and use differing search queries. I had started with "Knickerbocker Village", but I've exhausted that "vein." Now I try the names of surrounding streets. Now "Market Street" could lead me to Philadelphia or "Madison Street" could lead me to an old story on "Madison Street" in Bed Stuy. It's tedious, but I got the above on a "Henry Street" search. I then wondered, "Whatever happened to the Alexandra Kliatscho of 1910?" A new google search led me to the story below which was written in the Times about Alexandra Werner (Kliatscho) in 1998
The Neediest Cases; A Life of Thrift and a Generous Heart
Fourscore and eight years ago, when Alexandra Kliatscho won The New York Times's Lincoln Essay Competition at the age of 9, she spent her winnings on a tricycle. Had the contest been held four years later, after The Times established its Neediest Cases Fund, she would probably have shared her prize with the poor and the hungry she read about in the newspaper.

Alexandra, a Russian girl whose essay praised Lincoln as ''kind, unselfish and thoughtful,'' grew up to become Alex Werner, a complicated, compassionate New Yorker who lived to give.

Mrs. Werner, a tiny woman with a quick wit, never wanted presents on her birthday. Instead, she asked friends and family members to give to the Neediest Cases Fund, which supports seven of the largest charities in New York City.

The amounts varied, but for more than 50 years, Mrs. Werner contributed faithfully to the fund. In 1993, she gave twice, explaining in a letter that she had seen ''more suffering and more destitution'' than usual. In 1994, her check arrived with a note that read, ''I am grateful just to be able to write a check, sign it and mail it in the box on my corner.'' Mrs. Werner was 94 years old.

This year, for the first time in half a century, the fund will not receive a check from Alex Werner. She died on Aug. 19, after weeks in a coma that followed a stroke.

But many of the people who knew her have rallied to contribute to the fund in her memory. Since late November, when this year's appeal began, 14 donors have sent gifts they said were inspired by Mrs. Werner.

Several expressed surprise that she had supported the Neediest Cases Fund. Doris Kaye, a distant relative who sent $100, said that Mrs. Werner had never considered herself an underdog.

''Her father was a doctor in the Czar's army,'' Mrs. Kaye said. ''I guess she gave because, after surviving pogroms in Russia and chaos in New York, she just felt fortunate.''

Mrs. Werner was 6 years old and spoke only Russian in 1906 when she, her four siblings and her mother left their hometown of Vladimir to join their father on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

She had spoken English for just three years when she wrote her essay celebrating the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Her competitors were older students, many of whom were more familiar with the legend of Lincoln. Yet out of 10,000 submissions, hers was deemed one of the 10 best, and a contest judge wrote, ''Her achievement seems worthy of respectful attention by persons who have views on either side of the immigrant question.''

The Times praised the ''little alien's wisdom,'' gave her a medal and a $5 gold piece, and published a copy of her handwritten essay on the front page of The New York Times Magazine on Feb. 28, 1909. It began, ''I am a little foreign girl, and I have been here only a short time, but when I read about Lincoln, I thought I might grow up a great woman as Lincoln was a great man.''

Writing came easily to Mrs. Werner, who graduated from Teachers' College in 1922. But she never mastered arithmetic, the gentle art of handling appliances or ''the ability to assemble even a Fisher-Price children's puzzle,'' said her daughter, Julie Stern of Newtown, Conn. ''She had trouble thinking logically, and she never thought she was bright, but she knew so much,'' she said.

It was one of many contradictions in Mrs. Werner's life. While she gave money freely, she never squandered a dime. During the 42 years she taught art at Jane Addams Vocational School in the Bronx, she walked a mile and a half to work each day. On snowy mornings, she eschewed taxis and stuffed hot hardboiled eggs in her pockets to keep her hands warm. When the lunch bell rang, she peeled the eggs and ate them.

Mrs. Werner traveled to Russia, Asia and the capitals of Europe, yet lived 40 years with her husband, Dr. Abraham Werner, and two children in a South Bronx apartment that cost $125 a month. She loved classical music and Impressionist paintings, but her favorite artist may have been Alfred Hitchcock. She wrote serious poetry, but also enjoyed composing limericks. Just before her death, she dictated this ditty about her doctors:

Iraci and Bornstein went up to heaven

And knocked at the pearly gates,

They said to St. Peter,

Just look at the meter:

We never reduce our rates.

Mrs. Werner was passionate about books, tackling histories by Sir Martin Gilbert and novels by Trollope. But she never amassed a large library. She taught her grandson Joe Stern that ''the second half of reading a book is finding the next person to read it.''

When her grandchildren grew too old for storybooks, Mrs. Werner bought them for the children of her neighbors, maintenance men and superintendents.

This network of family and friends sustained Mrs. Werner. Twenty-five years after she visited a foreign country, she continued to correspond with people she had met there.

One companion, Lottye Johnson, became a constant presence during the second half of Mrs. Werner's life. They met in 1941, when Dr. Werner was stationed in New Orleans as a physician for the Veterans Administration. Lottye, a teen-ager from Florida, was hired to help raise Julie. Even after Julie was grown, Mrs. Johnson stayed on, and she and Mrs. Werner became ''like lichen and moss,'' said her grandson.

In 1974, Dr. Werner died, and Mrs. Werner's children grew concerned about leaving their mother in the old neighborhood, where she loved to walk alone at night. They found an apartment for her on East 86th Street. There, she threw a birthday party each December for herself and three of her four grandchildren. This would have been the 25th year in which she brought together distant branches of her family for a celebration of life.

The menu never changed. Mrs. Johnson baked a sweet potato pie. Mrs. Werner did not learn to cook until she was 70, but she took pride in her efforts and would earnestly ask everyone if the franks and beans were as good as last year's.

At one of the first parties, Mrs. Stern found herself in the kitchen with her mother. Mrs. Werner had recently opened a bank account to obtain two free gifts: a blender and an electric can opener. Mrs. Stern rifled through every cabinet and drawer, but she could not find either item. She confronted her mother.

''Well, I broke the blender,'' Mrs. Werner confessed. ''And I couldn't figure out the can opener, so I gave it away.''

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