Recap: Ruchama is starting classes at Queens College. Her journalism professor tells everyone to choose an idea for a research paper and she suggests writing about a landmark. Ruchama finds herself drawn to the bell tower.
In class the next day, I told Professor Lewis about my idea for my research paper.
“Ah, the bell tower is definitely worth researching. It was named after three young men murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. You should go to the archives room of the library and you should also call my friend, Mrs. Schwerner.” She scribbled a number on a paper and handed it to me. “This is Mrs. Schwerner’s number. One of the people it is named after was her husband.”
As I strolled home, I was debating if I would really call Mrs. Schwerner. It was strange just calling a perfect stranger and asking her about such a personal thing.
That night I picked up the phone, took a deep breath, I reassured myself that I can do this. Then I dialed Mrs. Schwerner’s number.
She answered on the second ring. “Hello, can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Ruchama Bennett. My teacher at Queens College, Professor Lewis, suggested I call you.”
“Well, I want to write about the bell tower and––”
“The bell tower is such an important memorial. Do you know anything about it?”
“Well, I just know that it’s in memory of three people who were civil rights––”
“Yes, and one of them was my husband Mickey. Listen, Ruchama is it?”
“I happen to be flying into New York tomorrow. My flight leaves from the Kansas airport around six in the morning. I can swing by Queens College. It’s not that far from the airport. I’d like to meet you and give you something that will help you with your research.”
What hashgachah that she was coming to New York now!
We made up a time to meet by the fountain. I told her that I was tall and skinny with reddish-brown hair, so she would be able to find me.
I was curious to meet her and to find out about the bell tower.
At 3:30 on the dot, I was sitting by the fountain, enjoying the clear view of Manhattan, when a lady with short-cropped dark hair, wearing sunglasses, pants, and a white button-down shirt, approached me.”
“Are you Ruchama?” she asked.
I stood up. “Mrs. Schwerner?”
“I am. Rita Schwerner Bender.”
“Thank you for coming to meet me,” I said.
She sat down, and I sat beside her. “So, you are interested in the bell tower?” She gazed up at the bell tower. “It is a beautiful memorial.”
“I want to give this to you to read. It’s something that will really clarify that time period for you.”
She handed me a brown bound journal with its cover partially worn away.
“What is this?”
“It’s a journal from someone named Yonah Hartstein. He was there in Mississippi when Mickey,” she paused, “…when my husband went missing. Yonah Hartstein was in a very interesting position. You’ll see as you read his account of what happened. His neighbors were the jailors who held my husband.”
When she spoke about her husband, I could see the sadness in her eyes. She was holding her emotions in check. I guessed it was pain that she was keeping private.
“Yonah wrote about the events then, and you will get a feeling of what the South was like in Mississippi in the 1960s – a cruel place of hatred for blacks, for civil rights workers, and for Jews.” She spoke matter-of-factly, yet her eyes spoke of the pain and horror that she had endured in that time. The killer of my husband, as well as of Andy Goodman and James Chaney, was never convicted. It’s still a case I am pursuing.”
I was shocked that the killer was never prosecuted and was still not being punished. “How can that be?”
“You’ll see as you read about the South during that time, and how there is still a judge there who is blind to change or integration. He’s blocked all our attempts so far.”
This was disturbing, but it also made me want to work very hard on the research paper and in some way at least in my journalism class bring this injustice to everyone’s attention. I thought of something we had just discussed in the seminary class: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue).”
“Thank you so much.” Hashem was leading me and helping me to write about something important.
“Call me if you have any questions. I look forward to reading your paper.”
She was planning on reading my paper, so I thought I had better do a good job.
Impulsively, I reached over and hugged her. “Thank you for sharing with me something that is so personal. I am so honored to read this journal.” I placed the journal carefully in my knapsack. I was excited to read it. Just like the bell tower, there was something about the journal that was pulling at me.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams (a novel, Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time – historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes for the community column for the Queens Jewish Link and she writes the Queens page for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivos and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.