Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Story of the "Candy Lady"

This article appeared in the June 22, 2012, issue of The Jewish Advocate, and is reprinted here with its permission.

Newton’s ‘Candy Lady’
The children of Oak Hill Park never knew of haunted past

By Jason M. Rubin
Special to the Advocate

We called her the Candy Lady.

By “we,” I mean the kids in my Newton neighborhood of Oak Hill Park in the late ’60s. It was a wordof mouth thing: Someone told you which house to go to and what to say. In return, she would give you a handful of (unwrapped) candy; my recollection is that the standard ration included mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips.

We didn’t know her name or her story, and we didn’t care. We just wanted free candy. And that’s what we got. All we had to do was ask. I think I may have gone only a few times, when I was 6 or 7. But the memory of the Candy Lady was always a sweet one to this now 49- year-old parent, and both my daughters have heard me reminisce about the mysterious woman who treated every day like Halloween.

In the naïveté of youth, I never questioned the Candy Lady’s methods or motives. If there was a Candy Lady in my neighborhood, I suppose I felt entitled to take advantage of the service. She didn’t seem scary. She seemed like a grandmother.

In fact, my own grandparents lived in the neighborhood, and every Halloween my friends and I would make sure to stop at their house. My grandmother, though, didn’t believe in giving candy to kids; instead, she handed out Red Delicious apples. A friend of mine told me that his mother wouldn’t let him eat his apple because it was unwrapped. I told him, “It’s from my grandmother; you think she put a razor blade in it? Just eat it now. It will give us energy for the rest of the night.”

To me, the connection was clear: My grandmother wouldn’t hurt a child; why would the Candy Lady?

In any case, no one ever raised a fuss about the Candy Lady. Maybe our parents didn’t even know about her; maybe there was an unspoken code that kids wouldn’t tell grownups about her. Or maybe in those days, people (my friend’s apple-fearing mom aside) just didn’t worry as much about life’s many lurking hazards. After all, seat belts were optional; the city would send out trucks in summer to fog our neighborhoods with insecticide; and we could go wherever we wanted as long as we were home for dinner.

Bertha Stern Sharton, the Candy Lady, in Vienna in 1932, and at her home in 1967.

A question on Facebook
Over the years, the Candy Lady faded from my memory. Though I didn’t live in Newton as an adult, I would return to the old neighborhood to see family. I remember taking my daughter to the playground once and glancing over at the Candy Lady’s house. Assuming that she had passed away, I didn’t attempt to knock on the door on my daughter’s behalf. She would have to be content with swinging on the same swings her father had swung on.

Years passed, and Facebook emerged, with a page dedicated to the neighborhood, Oak Hill Park Pride. It attracted people of all ages who had called the neighborhood home. For a reunion last summer, an Oak Hill Park Reunion page was posted. I wasn’t interested in attending the party, but I was intrigued by the photographs and memories that people posted. One in particular caught my eye: “Does anyone remember the Candy Lady?”

The question sparked considerable discussion and caught the attention of someone who once lived next door to the Candy Lady. At last, I learned the Candy Lady’s name: Bertha Sharton. And I learned that before she arrived in Oak Hill Park – about as idyllic a neighborhood as can be found in the Northeast – she fled the Nazis in Austria.

My interest was piqued, and I poked around to learn more about her. I spoke with her son, a retired doctor, and received information from his daughter-in-law and from various Internet sites (Google and are invaluable to the amateur genealogist). Questions I had never thought before to ask now had answers. Here is the Candy Lady’s story.

A neighbor named Adolf
Bertha Stern was born on March 16, 1898, in the Hungarian village of Vágáshuta, near the border of what is now Slovakia. When she was a child, her family moved to Vienna. Her father, a furrier, owned a store on Stumpergasse Street – the same street on which an 18-year-old aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler briefly shared a room with a musician friend. When Hitler was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts at Schillerplatz, he abruptly left.

Bertha worked in the store with her father. On the fifth floor of the same building lived a blond-haired, blueeyed Jew named Felix (the family has asked that his original surname not be revealed). Felix was born just four days after Bertha. Through proximity and coincidence, they met and fell in love. On March 19, 1920, they married.

Intelligent and talented, Felix earned a doctorate in music and philosophy from the University of Vienna. He was a pianist, composer and vocal teacher, and he served as professor of music and pedagogy at his alma mater. He also taught at the Pedagogical Institute of Vienna, where for at least part of his tenure the faculty included psychologist Alfred Adler, who along with Sigmund Freud was a cofounder of the psychoanalysis movement. Felix also attended law school in Vienna, but left before graduating.

On March 27, 1925, Bertha gave birth to the couple’s only child, whom they named Eric. In 1938, two weeks before Eric turned 13 and became a bar mitzvah, Hitler annexed Austria. On Nov. 9 and 10 of that year, the Viennese Jewish community – like those elsewhere in Germany and the former Austria – was ransacked during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Jewish homes and businesses throughout Vienna were vandalized or destroyed, including 95 synagogues.

Felix happened to be walking through the center of the city in the midst of the carnage. Seeing his fair features, a Nazi soldier assumed he was not Jewish and urged him to go home. While his family apparently came through the pogrom unscathed, Felix could read the writing on the wall. He had already seen the darkness coming during his travels through Europe as a professor and had applied for a visa before the Nazis took over Austria. The following March, Felix, Bertha, and Eric boarded a train and left Austria for London.

“I remember the tension on the train when the border police boarded and checked everyone’s papers,” Eric recalled decades later. “Only when the train passed into Holland could people let out a breath and cheer.”

The maid and the gardener
Felix’s brother, Hermann, and his wife, Selma, lived in London, and helped them settle there. Eric spent his 14th birthday in this strange new city.

Felix, the musician and professor, could only find work as a gardener. Bertha took a job as a maid. Their positions required them to live in the homes of their employers; Eric stayed with Hermann and Selma. Only on Sundays could all three be together.

But they hardly felt safe from Hitler. By summer 1939, Britain was gearing up for war and staging evacuation drills. Bertha and Felix’s hopes to find a new haven were dashed in September, when the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II. But one charitable group was still helping a lucky few find transport out of England. Weekly, Felix visited the charity to check whether space was available on a ship. One day, he noticed a man who didn’t appear interested in emigrating, but rather in snooping into the lives of those who did. Becoming suspicious after seeing the man on other days, Felix alerted the authorities.

As a result, the man was arrested as a suspected Nazi spy. In gratitude for Felix’s help, the government guaranteed him and his family passage out of the country. Now the challenge was finding a nation that would accept them.

Once again, a relative came through: a cousin of Felix’s lived in New York City, where he was a dealer in animal skins. Felix, Bertha and Eric set sail on the SS President Harding from Southampton, England, on Nov. 15, 1939. They arrived in New York nine days later. They would be among the last passengers of the President Harding; it was bombed by German aircraft six months later and never sailed again.

In America, Felix conceived a new surname for the family: Sharton. He took part of his original last name and added the suffix “-ton” as a tribute to George Washington. The Shartons stayed with the cousin for two weeks, but decided that their opportunities were slim in the refugee-packed city. They moved to Chicago, where Felix joined the faculty of a conservatory. In 1944, he was named head of the Music Department at Whitworth College. That year, the Library of Congress recorded his sole surviving, compositional credit for a piece fittingly called, “Verlassen” (“Abandoned”). In December, the Shartons became US citizens.

Facing the Nazis
With the end of the war in 1945, the family learned the fate of their loved ones in Europe. The news that her parents and many of her siblings were killed in the Holocaust scarred Bertha for the rest of her life. Felix’s mother was believed to have died in a concentration camp (his father had died before the war). Felix was able to help bring some of the perpetrators to justice. Answering an ad for people fluent in German, he was sent to Nuremburg to interview witnesses and assist prosecutors at the war crime trials. He left in October 1945, and returned to the States the following June.

Bertha, in the meantime, had leveraged her experience as a furrier’s daughter to work as a “fur finisher” – the person who puts the lining in the fur coat and does repairs to the finished product. Though living alone, she was busy and earning an income.

Over the following 15 years, Felix took various teaching jobs, including ones in Canada and England, while Bertha remained in Chicago. In 1963, just a year or so after retiring, he died at the age of 65 following a stroke.

The Candy Lady arrives
Now widowed, Bertha was alone in Chicago. Son Eric had moved to Boston in the ’50s to do his medical residency. By the time of his father’s death, he was a physician and with his wife, Joy, raising a family in Newton’s Oak Hill Park. When they purchased their home around 1960, the neighborhood was just a decade old. It had been built for returning veterans on an undeveloped tract next to Brook Farm, the 19th century Transcendentalist community.

Eric bought his mother a ranch house in the neighborhood, at 16 Chinian Path. Not long after, her third grandson was born, as was her reputation as the Candy Lady.

Next-door neighbor, Peter Boisvert, claims to have started the phenomenon. “She was living there widowed when we moved next door in 1964,” Boisvert said. “She taught me to play chess when I was about 7. She was fairly lonely; that’s why she liked being the Candy Lady.”

He said that he, his sister and a friend would bring Bertha gifts of dandelions, daisies, and buttercups. In return, she gave them candy. No doubt, they told others of their successful transaction. As word spread, more kids would ring Bertha’s doorbell and ask for candy. Delighting in the young visitors, she never turned anyone down.

Her grandson, Rick, who was born in 1956, recalled that he and his brothers felt a bit jealous of the competition for Bertha’s attention.

“We always disliked the neighborhood kids because they disrupted our time with her when they rang her bell,” he said. “As we got older, we began to realize how much joy she got out of it and how much the kids looked forward to receiving treats from her.”

A sweet legacy
It’s not clear whether Bertha first called herself the Candy Lady or the sobriquet was bestowed by her sweet-toothed young friends, but without doubt more people knew her as the Candy Lady than as Bertha Sharton. And yet her reign as the Candy Lady probably only lasted a few years. By the 1970s, parents were more permissive, and kids were able to get candy for themselves.

Bertha continued living in Oak Hill Park into her early 90s. She spent her final years in a nearby nursing home, where she died on Aug. 16, 1999, at the age of 101. She is buried in West Roxbury, just about a mile from where she dispensed delight. Dr. Eric F. Sharton retired in 2000 after serving as chief of medical staff at Faulkner Hospital and later as medical director of the Massachusetts Peer Review Organization.

At age 87, the son of the Candy Lady still lives in Newton with his wife, Joy – though now in an apartment building where only a few children ring the bell on Halloween.


Bill McGowan said...

That was a great story to read. Thanks for taking the considerable effort to research this woman's background and add another facinating chapter to the storybook neighborhood known as Oak Hill Park.

- Bill McGowan, sponsor of last year's OHP reunion.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. I love all the connections you made, and the recollections of a more innocent age. -- katie goodfellow

Anonymous said...

Nice Story. I grew up 2 houses down from the Sharton family and was a classmate of Rick (grandson). I do recollect their grandma present at their house often but was clueless about her past. The Shartons were a wonderful family and I have many great memories hanging out at their house with our other "buddies" from Memorial, so it does not surprise me that Bertha would be so kind with the candy handouts.
Bill Siegel

Leslie Shubin said...

Thank you, Jason, for a wonderful story. I never knew the Candy Lady as we moved away from 163 Wiswall Road in 1965. You were our adorable fair haired next door neighbor. I remember all your family very well and had a nice visit with your dad at the Oak Hill Park Reunion. I asked about you and Amy. Only your younger sister was there.

Thank you also for posting the obituary of my Uncle, Maurice Skoler. We were very close until 1981, when I moved to California. Your writing is excellent and I would like to read more.