Celebrating Jewish Literature: Reconstructing a life

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How wonderful to read a memoir by someone who loves his mother. That love comes through clearly in Wayne Hoffman’s “The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder” (Heliotrope Books). Except for a short time when he was coming to terms with his sexuality (Hoffman is gay), he and his mother, Susan, had a wonderful relationship. That’s why when Susan begins to suffer from dementia, he tries to solve a family murder in order to give them a common interest. The murder? His mother’s grandmother, Sarah, had been shot and killed in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1913 and no one was ever arrested. But Hoffman’s excellent work is more than a memoir and a murder mystery: it also offers insight into Canadian Jewish history. 

Hoffman, who grew up in Maryland as the youngest of three siblings, claims to have been his mother’s favorite, something his brother and sister do not dispute. His parents adjusted to his announcement of his sexuality fairly quickly and were completely accepting of his partner. As an adult, Hoffman spoke to his mother almost every morning, something that made her dementia even harder to accept. He was losing his daily confidant, the person with similar interests and with whom he could discuss his life. 

It was after they learned of his mother’s cognitive difficulties that Hoffman decided to research who had killed his mother’s grandmother. He had heard the story of the murder often – his mother was such a great storyteller, no one minded her repeating a tale. In fact, Hoffman envied her talent: “I inherited many things from my mother: her sweet tooth, a (probably not unrelated) lifelong struggle with my weight, the webbed toes that she’d gotten from her father. But most importantly, from a young age, I wanted to be a storyteller just like her. I loved the way she could hold people’s interest, create memorable characters, and above all, make people laugh. My father called her ‘the funniest broad I ever met.’” But he realized the story she told made no sense and finally said so to his mother. According to family lore, his great-grandmother, Sarah, was breast feeding her latest baby on the porch outside her house in the winter and was killed by a drive-by shooter in broad daylight. When his mother asked Hoffman what he thinks happened if that story is not true, Hoffman realizes he never thought to explore what really occurred.

That put Hoffman, who has worked as a journalist, on the trail of the real story. It was not hard to find newspaper articles about the murder: the story was covered not only in the Jewish press, but the secular one. Hoffman was correct in believing that the events were different from the story his mother told. Sarah was shot while asleep in her bed with her youngest child lying beside her and her next oldest in a crib in the same room. However, the newspaper accounts were sometimes contradictory: many of the people that reporters and the police interviewed were Yiddish speakers whose English was not always accurate. Hoffman manages to learn a great deal before stopping his research when he is unable to pinpoint the murderer. However, he makes another attempt years later and reveals the person he believes committed the crime. Unfortunately, it’s too late to share his thoughts with this mother.

For those interested in Canadian Jewish history, Hoffman writes about the waves of Jewish immigrants who came to the country. He notes that, in the decades after the 1880s, “the Jewish population of Canada would climb from thirteen hundred to more than seventy-five thousand; the majority of those newcomers were from towns and cities in Russia – Marxist-leaning, Yiddish-speaking workers who fled growing anti-Semitic attacks following political unrest and the abortive revolution of 1905. Ten thousand of these Russian Jews would eventually settle in Manitoba, nearly all of them in Winnipeg. Newcomers initially lived in immigrant sheds, crowded wooden barracks housing hundreds of people along the Red River in the part of town known as ‘The Forts,’ or in shanties in ‘the flats’ nearby. Nearly all the Russian Jews eventually settled in Winnipeg’s North End, giving it the nickname ‘New Jerusalem’ or, to those less fond of the newcomers, ‘Jew Town.’” He also writes of how his great-grandparents met and what happened to the family after his great-grandmother was murdered. One advantage of his research was connecting with family members with whom his family had long lost touch. Fortunately, he also includes numerous family trees that help make these connections clear.

“The End of Her” is one of those rare books where the different sections are not only equally interesting, but which come together as an extended portrait of a family. Its emphasis on the relationship between Hoffman and his mother shows how painful it was for him to watch her decline and how much he appreciated the woman she once was. Whether the author actually uncovered the true murderer will matter less to readers than that loving portrait.