By Ruth Hein
Introduction by Mark Schmitt: Ruth Hein, my mother, moved to Binghamton with her family in 1940 when she was 12 years old. She, her parents and her two brothers were German refugees who were fortunate to be able to get past the many barriers to immigration to the United States after three years in Italy, and then came to Binghamton after a year in New York City. Her father, my grandfather Siegfried Hein, was a doctor who opened a practice on Main Street, where he and my grandmother lived until the late 1960s.
Ruth left Binghamton for college at Barnard at 16 (just four years after arriving in New York speaking only German and Italian) so her time in Binghamton was limited to high school. While she made her career as an editor and translator of books from German to English, her own writing consisted of a few dozen short pieces of memoir – such as the one below – about the social and dating life of a group of Jewish teens in Binghamton, in what feels like – and evidently felt to her, in retrospect – a very different time, interrupted and ended by World War II.
Ruth lived in New York until 1964 and the rest of her life in New Haven, CT, until her death just a few weeks before what would have been her 95th birthday in 2022. She was married to Wayland Schmitt, who was also from Binghamton, from 1960 until his death in 1975, and to Joan Channick, her partner of 30 years, from 2010 until her death.
Ruth Tanenhaus decided that we needed boyfriends, and she organized a dinner at her house. This was in the spring of our junior year. I was surprised, and grateful, to be included in the party. We did not, after all, know each other well, unlike the others, who had been close all their lives. It seemed to me that she had noticed my somewhat isolated state and was taking pity on me – what a kind girl she was, lively and pretty, too. My more cynical self of today thinks that her plan required a certain number of girls and I would do to make up the numbers. In the event, there were 10 of us, five girls and five boys.
I remember very little of that dinner. I have a vague idea that her mother cooked and served the meal, but then she disappeared and Ruth was definitely the hostess. Of the girls I remember only Evvie Melamed, Ruth’s best friend, but I have no idea what she looked like. Light-haired? Small? I have a better memory of some of the men. There was Bernie Klionsky, dark and serious; he planned to be a doctor. And Norm Paris, the shortish, stoutish, already-balding funny guy everybody liked; he would be good for me. The prize was Ruth’s brother Joe – already a college sophomore while the rest of us were still in high school – tall, not terrible looking, an intellectual.
When we had finished eating (I so wish I remembered the menu; hamburgers? pasta? what did people eat that year after Pearl Harbor?), we put our coats back on and wandered downtown in a group to go to the first-run (as opposed to casual – cheap – neighborhood houses) film running that week. The 15-minute walk was intended to sort us into couples, and it succeeded. As we moved along, Ruth darted among us, somewhat like a sheepdog, herding one over here, nudging that one over there; she had strong ideas about suitable coupling. It became clear that she intended her brother to go with Evvie, her best friend, and in this plan she was frustrated: Joe picked me and was deliberately unaware of any efforts to place him elsewhere.
And so, for the next year and a half, we formed a solid social group. Since Joe was for the most part away at college, our courtship was mainly conducted by mail – long, earnest letters discussing the deeper meaning of short stories and novels. But it was not far from university to home, and he made frequent weekend appearances. Then we might go out as a couple, just the two of us, usually to the movies and then a long walk back to my house during which I was careful to keep some distance between us, then a final handshake before I disappeared into the building. Though I wore Joe’s ROTC pin – he was too studious to belong to a fraternity, if there even was a Jewish one on campus – on my lapel, my devotion to him was far, far less than his love for me, and between my lack of physical attraction and his timidity, our chastity was unbreached.
Other times, the group went out in a herd. Most of the time we would also go to the movies, but to round off the evening, we descended on the Community Coffee Shop, a genteel cocktail lounge. We would each have one drink (as I recall, I would usually have a daiquiri – I was just 15), and thus fortified, we would break up into couples again, and the long walk home began.
The summer offered some variety. The weekend remained our time to explore our options. We bicycled out to Lily Lake, a swarm of no-gears cycles, different for girls and boys, with our towels and lunches in the baskets. There were rowboats, there was a beach, the sun was hot and the water cool – these days were magic. To improve on this life, I tried my best to make time with Bernie Klionsky, who clearly returned my passion, but was resolutely loyal to Joe, his cousin. What I learned that summer is that women were parceled out according to men’s agreements: they were not free to exercise a choice.
On Saturday nights, we would go, as a group, to the George F. Pavilion, one of those dance halls where the back of your hand was stamped with an invisible sign – visible under ultraviolet light – to let you back in if you had gone out for a smoke or a sip from a flask, though the latter was not part of our group ethic; we all smoked, though, we were sophisticates. Then we went back in and shuffled around the floor some more, moving to the premier big bands of the day – Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey – though now that I think about it, only the white ones, never Cab Calloway, never Count Basie.
Our clique was shockproof; we lasted through our whole senior year. On prom night, Norm Paris made all the arrangements so that we had a grown-up dinner in a private room at the local hotel before the dance. Afterward, we gathered in someone’s apartment and dutifully stayed awake until sunup. That was how it was done, I’m sure there were similar groups dotted all through the town.
After that night we broke apart. The boys disappeared into the army, all of them promptly conscripted. I did not see any of them again for many years.
Joe died a few months after my husband; he was a professor of political science. The New York Times carried a small obituary, allowing me my bitter joke that if I had married him, I’d now be a widow.
Bernie Klionsky did go to medical school and retired as a pathologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. In his 2011 Facebook picture, he is still lean and handsome.
There is also a picture of Norman Paris on Facebook, still chubby, still cheerful and now completely bald, seated amid five beaming women, presumably wife and daughters. There is no other information available on him. I am itching to get in touch with both, just to see what they remember; so far I have resisted such a foolish idea.
Final thought: As I call up the events of that long-ago year, I am struck by how typical we were; urban and Jewish, we deviated so little from the pastoral childhood lyrically recounted in second-rate fiction and movies. But we had little self-awareness then.