The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Reading Time: 2 minutes

by Joyce Carol Oates

Jacob and Anna Schwart escaped Nazi Germany with their two young sons and made the arduous trip across the Atlantic in the foulest conditions. Their daughter Rebecca was born on the ship in New York harbor before the family disembarked.

Jacob had been a school teacher in Germany, but in America the only job he could find was gravedigger. He was demeaned by the work. It was shameful to him. He was angry and dissatisfied. The small salary that he received barely sustained the family, and they lived in poverty. Some of the boys from the town tormented Jacob. Other people shunned the family or simply ignored them. Jacob trusted no one and taught his family to do the same. He forbade his wife to speak any German, and since she couldn’t seem to learn much English, she rarely spoke at all. The isolation and hopelessness in his present coupled with a haunting guilt from some act of cowardice and treachery in his past caused Jacob to descend into rage and violence.

The main character in the story is Rebecca who finally escaped the horror, at least phys