Orphan Number 8
by Kim van Alkemade
William Morrow, 2015
Reviewed by Barbara
Free and Jenna Wiley
This book is not an
adoption story, in that the characters never even had the chance to get adopted, but grew up
in a huge orphanage in New York City. Although the orphanages are called the Hebrew Infant Home
and the Orphaned Hebrews Home, they are modeled on the actual Hebrew Home for Infants and the
Hebrew Orphan Asylum, both in Manhattan.
The story begins in 1918, a time when orphanages and orphan trains
were not only common, but the only places for children to go if a parent died or could not afford
to care for them. There were no foster-care systems, no adoption agencies as we know them, no
group homes, and no assistance for single parents. Some childrens homes did exist that
gave loving, excellent care, and some did not adopt out the children in their care, but many
did, and many were unnecessarily regimented and even abusive. Some orphanages had 1,000 or more
children, and many children grew up there for years. The institutions in the story, and the real
places they are based upon, were among such huge establishments.
Some of the characters in this book are real people who existed or
are based upon actual individuals, while others are fictional but based on composites of actual
persons. The author, who has written non-fiction before this, learned much of this history from
her grandfather and great-grandmother, both of whom are characters in the story. She did a great
deal of research to ascertain the actual facts and based the story on things that did happen and
other things that might have happened.
In 1918, orphans or children of single parents had little chance
for good lives unless they were taken in by family or foster parents, which was rare. In this
story, the main character, Rachel Rabinowitz, and her brother, Sam, were little children whose
parents were Jewish refugees from Russia, and they were living in a tenement in New York City.
Their parents got into fight and the father killed the mother, then ran away out of fear. A kind
neighbor took them to the Jewish Childrens Agency, the only thing she knew to do.
From there, they went to the orphanages mentioned above, where some
doctors were conducting research on the effects of medications, diets, and X-rays. These experiments
did actually take place, as the author was able to confirm. They are harrowing to read about, but an
important part of what was happening in those years. One particular doctor, a woman, experimented on
the children, including Rachel, with huge amounts of radiation in the belief that tonsils could be
destroyed with X-rays instead of surgery. It was common practice, clear up through the 1950s, even
in normal, middle-class families, for all the children to have tonsils and adenoids removed, even
though healthy, as a matter of course.
As a result of this radiation, Rachel loses all her hair, forever.
She and her brother grow up in this place, where the kindest person they meet is a Mrs. Berger,
who works there so she can see her own three children, placed there because her husband ran off
and left them. She and her son are the authors actual great-grandmother and -grandfather.
The story is fictional, but more than believable.
The story is told in chapters alternating between Rachels
childhood, told in third person, and Rachels adult life in the early 1950s, when she is a
nurse, told in first person. Most of the book is set in New York City, with some trips to Leadville
and Denver, Colorado, and Chicago. Later developments in her adult life connect to her childhood
in ways that the reader does not see until the last pages of the book.
This is an excellent, well-written book that tells a compelling story,
such that the reader may not want to put it down, even though it is a haunting story. One might be
advised not to read it at night, lest it give one nightmares.
Excerpted from the January 2016
edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2016 Operation Identity