Kal Wagenheim


           “Kalman, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time…you have a sister.”

I was 24 in 1959, when my grandmother gave me the stunning news. From early childhood on, I was told that my Mom--her name was Rozlon-- had died of an illness, when she was 22, and I was just two years old.  My Dad, Harold, who suffered from severe depression, had separated from my Mom and lived with his parents; I was raised by my grandmother (I called her Nanny) and great-grandmother (I called her Grandma). 

When I asked Nanny where my sister was, all she could tell me was that a childless Jewish couple in Newark had adopted her.  A year later, both Grandma (age 92) and Nanny (age 67) were dead.  I was alone, with no memory of a mother or father.

Not long after their deaths, I moved to Puerto Rico and spent 10 years there, often wondering about her. During that time I met and married my wife Olga and we began a family; David was born in 1962, Maria in 1963  (my eldest son Jeff, born in 1958, is from a previous marriage).  In July 1969, at age 34, I—the little onceuponatime orphan boy—was sent on a business trip to the United States.  During that time, I flew to out to California, and finally met my father, who was then 65; he was in poor health, deeply depressed, and living in an old rooming house in downtown Hollywood. When I was a small child, he had sent me occasional small gifts, and when I was in my 20s and early 30s we had exchanged many good letters. When we met, he cried and expressed remorse for his inability to cope with life. I felt no resentment, only deep sorrow over his unhappy life. But, at last, we had connected!

When Olga and our children moved to New Jersey in 1971, I still thought about my missing sister, but didn't know where to start, and believed it would be an impossible task. 

            Finally in August 1973, after delivering a book to my publisher, I had some spare time. I asked Aunt Lucille, my late Mom's only sibling, where her older sister Rozlon had died. “In the city hospital in Newark,” she said.  I went to the Martland Hospital Unit on Tuesday, August 21, 1973, explained that my mother had died there many years earlier, but gave birth to a little girl who was adopted. They said they had no records, but to try the Adoption Bureau of the Essex County Hall of Records, a few blocks away. 

            I entered the building, was directed to Room 213, and told the lady I was trying to find a sister, born in 1937.  She said that normally a court order was required to obtain this information, but since so many years had passed, she pulled out a large ledger, written in ink, turned the pages, pointed, and said that a "Dolores Wagenheim" had been adopted, and her name changed to June Lydia Goldman.  Her adopted father, Louis Goldman, age 37 at the time, was a schoolteacher at Central High in Newark, and the mother, Frances, age 28 ,was a housewife.  They resided at 261 Clinton Place in Newark’s Weequahic section, perhaps two minutes away from Beth Israel Hospital, where I was born, and a 15-minute bus ride from 510 Belmont Avenue, where I was raised.

The written record made note of an “Essex County Orphans Court”, and a “Benjamin L. Winfield, Executive Director of the Jewish Children’s Home of Newark.”  My sister was born on May 30, 1937, and our mother died of a hemorrhage the following day. It is not clear whether the newborn girl remained in the hospital, or at the Children’s Home in Newark during the two weeks between her birth and when the Goldman’s took her home on June 13, 1937.   The formal adoption papers were signed April 13, 1938, when June was nearly a year old.

I was so excited to obtain this information that from a payphone in the lobby I called nearby Central High (733-6897). It was summer vacation, but a Mrs. Celiano answered. I asked about Louis Goldman.  Miraculously, she told me she remembered “Lou” fondly, that he had retired some years ago, and had a cute little adopted daughter. “I think she lives up in Massachusetts or Connecticut,” she said.   I rushed home and called the New Jersey Department of Education in Trenton to see if they had a record of Louis Goldman, who might be receiving a retirement pension. They told me to write a letter. I did, to a Mrs. Severino, Division of Pensions, PO Box 2058, Trenton NJ 08625, expecting it would take forever. 

In just one week, I was surprised to get a reply saying “Please be advised that Mr. Goldman died in February 1961, and our files are closed for him. G. Severino.” 

The next day I went to the Newark Public Library, and searched for February 1961 obituaries in old editions of the Newark Evening News. One brief death notice said:

            “Goldman, Louis, of 366 Leslie St. Newark, on Feb. 2, 1961. Husband of Frances, father of Mrs. June Stern, brother of Mrs. Sadie Davis, Mrs. Anna Suskind, Mrs. Louis Krasner, and Charles Goldman.  Services at Bernheim Funeral Home, 357 Chancellor Ave.  Burial at McLellan St. Cemetery, Newark.”

            A longer obituary said he had been an English teacher at Central High School, died of a heart attack at home, age 59.  Born in Austria, he came to the U.S. in 1906, graduated from Central High, and CCNY, and did graduate work at NYU.  He taught Hebrew at Temple Bnai Jeshrun for many years, was a member of the Tri-Lumina Lodge, F&AM Israel Verein of Newark, and the Newark Education Association.  Surviving him were his wife, Mrs. Frances Sandler Goldman, a daughter June Stern of Cambridge, Mass., a brother, Charles of Melbourne, Fla., sisters Sadie Davis of South Orange NJ, Mrs. Anna Suskind of Hillside, NJ and Mrs. Louis Krasner of Newark NJ. He had been active in community affairs, as well as teaching.  It said he had a daughter, June Stern (her married name) living in Mass.  He also had 2 sisters living in nearby New Jersey towns.

            Although it was 12 years after Mr. Goldman’s death, I decided to try my luck, contacting one of his relatives in New Jersey.  In the phone directory I found a Milton Suskind, residing at 611 Buchanan St. in Hillside NJ.  Tel: 688-8962. I dialed and the call was answered by Mrs. Anna Suskind, Mr. Goldman’s sister.

When I explained the reason for my call, she surprised me when she said she knew who I was.  I told her I was anxious to contact my sister, who, according to the obituary of 1961, was residing up in Massachusetts.  “You don’t have to go that far,” she said, explaining that a few years ago June had moved to Metuchen NJ, just 30 minutes from my home in Maplewood, and gave me the number (201-548-3732).  

On Monday, Sept. 10, 1973, after some hesitation, I picked up the phone and called her. Twenty-three years later, while vacationing together with my sister and her family in Cape May NJ, I tape recorded the following recollection of that momentous day.

Kal: “You said ‘hello.’”

June: “I had just come from school. You said ‘hi, this is Kal Wagenheim.’ You sounded very nice.  You asked ‘does the name Wagenheim mean anything to you?’ And it did! I had heard the name like in whispered conversations over the years, not to my face.  So I said ‘go on.’ I thought you were going to tell me you were a long-lost relative.”

Kal: “Then what did I say?”

June: “You started very gradually, to tell me, well…the whole story. I remember I started out in the kitchen and ended up, with the phone, in the dining room. When you said ‘I’m your brother,’ I was really shocked. Complete shock.”

Kal: “I had the advantage over you. I had known for years that…”

June: “Then you asked ‘when can I see you?’ It was a Monday, and I said Thursday.  I had to digest it.  I had to call my mother.  I went through the next few days in a daze.  I went to work.  I called and said ‘Mom, I got this phone call from a Kal Wagenheim.’  ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘We always knew, and we meant to…’”

Kal: “Did they say when they were planning to someday tell you?”

June: “Before they died. (Laughter) When you first called, I felt a little distance. I thought, ‘he lives in Maplewood.’ I thought you were like another Jewish relative from the suburbs.  You know what I mean…”

Kal: “I was a little worried, too…”

June: “A Jewish princess from the Weequahic section…”

Kal: “I said to Olga, ‘Some brothers and sisters don’t get along…”

June: “But the minute I saw…it all dissolved.”

Four days later, on the afternoon of Thurs., Sept. 13, I drove to June’s apartment at 265 Newman St. in Metuchen, and met her and her son Lowell (then nine), and daughter Rebecca (then five). 

Kal: “The night I came over, I brought a family photo album, which included a photo of our maternal grandmother, Lillian (Nanny), as a young woman.  I recall how your eyes widened with astonishment as you stared at that photo.”

June:  “There was an amazing resemblance between us... We sat for a long, long time.  And when I said to Becky and Lowell ‘this is Uncle Kal’ they acted like nothing had happened!”

Kal: (laughs). “The same with my kids!”

I had grown up on Belmont Avenue in Newark, and attended South Side High. June grew up about a 10-minute auto ride south-westward, and attended  Weequahic High, our arch-rival in sports.  I later spent two years studying at Newark-Rutgers; she attended Douglas College, a branch of Rutgers in New Brunswick.  During college years, I had worked part-time at the Newark Star-Ledger morning daily, and she had worked a few blocks away at the Newark Evening News afternoon daily. 

It seems I arrived at an opportune time. June's husband Larry, a college philosophy professor, six months earlier had separated from the family. June was now on her own, beginning a teaching career, and raising two young children.  

“Why was my sister’s birth name Dolores?” I asked my Aunt Lucille. She explained that in the late 1930s, when my Mom gave birth to June, the movie actress Dolores Del Rio was at the height of her stardom. Lucille also recalled that my Mom had won a tango dancing contest.  As a tiny child, I must have heard her playing, and dancing to, tango music, which perhaps explains why, in later years, I developed such a love for tango.

For months after we first met, June and I talked constantly on the phone, and almost every Sunday we visited at each other’s home, connecting with relatives and friends.

June: “My God, the first time I walked in to your home, people said ‘she looks just like Lillian.’ It was so amazing that a granddaughter could resemble the grandmother.”

Another memorable moment was a Sunday when June came to our house in Maplewood with her children, and a few minutes later her step-mother, Frances, arrived.  From my taped reminiscence:

Kal: “She walks into the living room, pulls out a photo from her purse, and shows me a picture of this handsome young man with dark hair, and asks me ‘do you know who this is?’  I didn’t have a clue. ‘It’s your father, Harold. I used to go out with your father.’”

June: “I heard that she was very much in love with Harold. But his mother paid a visit to Frances’ mother and said ‘my son has a lot of problems; he cannot see your daughter any more.’ So they broke it off.”

Kal: “So a few years later Frances winds up adopting her former boyfriend’s little daughter!”

And then, there was the memorable trip to the Spiritualist church in Hoboken NJ, in May 1974, a few months after June and I first met.  My wife Olga, through one of her students, had learned of a fascinating Spiritualist church run by a Puerto Rican man, Reverend Sepulveda.  We had attended a few sessions, and enjoyed the wholesome, loving environment.  We wanted to include June in all aspects of our life, and invited her to come with us one evening.  From our tape recorded reminiscence:

Kal: “Do you remember the time we went to see the Spiritualists on Willow Street, in Hoboken? It was shortly before Mother’s Day.”

June: “Yes. We went up the stairs of a brownstone building and sat in the living room. With all the chairs around.  Everyone was Hispanic. There was the older man, the Reverend.  And the younger one, he came right over to me and said ‘I see two mothers around you, in your aura.’  Can you believe that?”

Kal: “Then I recall they invited you to return, because they were going to bring in an English-speaking medium…a guy from the Caribbean.  From what you told us later, this guy sat with you in a darkened room upstairs, with other people there. And he asked you, ‘do you ever smell flowers in your bedroom when you’re going to sleep, and you feel very sad?’ And you said ‘yes’…”

June: “I remember now….”

Kal: “And he said not to worry, or feel frightened, ‘it’s just your mother’s spirit; she feels regret that she was never able to hold you in her arms.’  I recall we were in the car driving away from Hoboken and you remarked, ‘I feel like a big burden has been lifted from my shoulders.’”

June: “Yes…they were wonderful, caring people.  It was a very searching time in a person’s life…that age…35!”

In the ensuing years June and I were amazed at the power of genes. For example, during one of our first visits to a seaside restaurant in Cape May NJ, we both scanned the menu, looked up at each other, and decided on: “crab cakes”!  June is an accomplished poet; we learned that my Mom also wrote poetry.  June worked for years as a Special Education Teacher in Metuchen.  Our Dad was also a teacher.  I, too, taught for more than three decades at Columbia University. Following in my Dad’s footsteps, I also wrote plays and screenplays.

Six years after we reconnected, on Dec. 22, 1979, June married a wonderful guy, Ed Logue, a music teacher in Metuchen NJ.  The joyous wedding reception was held at our house in Maplewood, and they have been together ever since.  Ed’s three children from a previous marriage (sons Eddie and Jesse, and daughter Effin) have also become part of our family.  .Since 1973, June and I and our families have had a close, loving relationship.   For years after we met, each August, we would spend time together in Cape May NJ, where the children bonded and became good friends.   The family now includes several grandchildren.

Thinking back to my early childhood, I recall how at least once a year --it could have been some anniversary—Nanny and Grandma would take me on the bus to visit my mother's grave in the Jewish cemetery off South Orange Ave., in Newark. As a man recited prayers in Hebrew, I would stare at the modest gravestone which had Hebrew lettering and then, in English, read: “Wife and Dear Mother, Rozlon Wagenheim. Died May 31, 1937. Age 22 Years.”  I was so young when she died, I didn’t remember her. Nanny and Grandma would stand there and cry, and cry, and cry.    Now, in retrospect, I believe they were weeping not only over the loss of my mother, but over their remorse, having been unable to raise the little girl born at the time.  If there is a Heaven (and I suspect there is), those two wonderful ladies--and our parents--must now be looking down, smiling, over this happy ending to a tragic beginning.



Shortly after we met, June wrote this poem, which she gave to me, hand-written:

Upon Discovery of a Brother

The game is up,

the time has come

Now we know

where I am from

and my real name.

I liked not knowing who I was,

I could be from anyplace.

I could be anyone.Who needs the “Identity Crisis”

now, full-blown

long past the time of leaving home.

The story, of course

was pure tragedy;

orphaned you, foundling me;

death, betrayal; an agony

I, the foundling, found a father,

and a husband; had a son,

even an analyst.

Learned to name, one by one,

my own dark  sides.

Now comes a brother,

sprung, full-grown,

tall, heroic,

You were there all along.

What to make of this?

My Platonic missing half,

At last, a mirrored self?

I never was a sister

I do not know myself

in this role.

If I could throw

away like a ball,

the childhood I spent alone,

I would; and begin again,

whole, not rent;



And I, without knowing that June was writing a poem, also wrote one…



Sister, (a thrilling sound

for unpracticed lips to savor):

would it be so sweet now,

would you be sister-mother-child

to me had not our sun been quenched

so long ago, leaving us in darkness?

No. But nevertheless,

I miss

the time of

rough-and-tumble frolic

that veils young sibling love.

Sharing the sun

as we skip and run beneath

Rozlon’s radiant eyes.

The milestones, yours and

mine: flickering birthday lights,

beribboned parchments,

wedding bands, solemn vows

to write or call.

I miss

not having missed you then.

I miss

not being when Lowell

and Rebecca came to be.

Three wars, famines, storms,

a billion people dead and born.

One-third a century’s laughter,

tears, murmurs, tranquil

shared silences.

Thirty-six voyages around

this earth, solitary voyagers we,

two specks on a vast uncaring globe,

shared blood coursing on

separate uncrossed paths. Now

I look,

throat aching,

into those gentle

eyes—so familiar—and

glance away for fear

I’ll cry aloud just how much

I miss. I miss.


                                                The End

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