Read an Excerpt
Toward evening of a spring Saturday in the year 1835, a traveling berlin made a sudden appearance at the crest of a rise above the village of Gruenwald—midway between the Bavarian Alps and the city of Wurzburg in the province of Franconia. Its varnished yellow wheels were grayed with dust and the four massive horses who drew it were weary. It had evidently come a long way. Peasants, ending their day in the fields, straightened their rounded backs and gaped in dull wonderment, for visitors seldom came to the village and those who did traveled either on foot or in some lumbering farm wagon to trade. For a moment the berlin stood in bulky outline against the windy pink-streaked sky, halted on the brink of the descent as though someone within had wanted, before descending, to get a bird’s-eye view of the village below. Then, swaying and creaking on its leather straps, it disappeared from view beneath a cover of budding linden leafage. A minute or two later it emerged at the bottom of the hill, traveled down the short length of the single street, and turned into Jews’ Alley.
The watching peasants shook their heads. “Well, now, what do you make of that?”
Inside the berlin the single occupant was also shaking his head in wonder. He was a sturdy young man, still in his thirties. His rich dark hair encircled a good-humored face with inquisitive bright eyes and a soft loose mouth.
“Judengasse,” he murmured to himself almost in disbelief. “It hasn’t changed”—although why it should have changed or how it could have changed materially in the eight years since he had seen it last, he could not have said.
The same cramped, narrow houses which had been new three centuries before still stood on either side of the alley, tilting over it as old men quarreling lean toward one another. The last weak evening light winked on little window-eyes under the brows of a medieval second-story overhang and glossed the crisscrossed beams that seamed the ancient faces.
Between the butcher’s and the Inn of the Golden Bear, halfway down the alley—there, there in another moment the house would loom! And a wave of sickness swelled up in the young man’s throat. Again that dark doorway, the terrible cries, the vicious laughter—yes, there had been laughter—the running feet, and the blood of his young wife spilled on the steps—With a violent effort he steadied himself.
“America,” he said aloud, not knowing that he said it.
The Sabbath had come to a close, and the double doors of the old wooden synagogue were shut, the high steps deserted. When the berlin jolted to a halt in the yard of the Golden Bear, the last worshipers were just straggling home in their Sabbath finery. So a little crowd of them gathered quickly. What the young man saw as he leaned forward, readying himself to step down, was a pale blur of faces, collectively startled and hopeful of some novelty. They were like people coming to the circus or a play. Nothing, after all—not counting intermittent disasters—ever really happened in this place. Aware of himself as the focus of attention and having no wish at the moment to be recognized, for he was in a hurry, he lowered his head.
What they saw, then, was, first, a pair of leather boots extending from the vehicle’s open door; next, a walking stick with a silver knob; and finally, a velvet-collared broadcloth coat and a top hat of the same fawn color. A stranger sight, though, which diverted their attention, was the pair of coal-black human beings, who, descending from the box where they had been almost hidden by the coachman’s flounced cape, now revealed themselves as half-grown boys in bright blue breeches and waistcoats with gold lace cuffs.
The traveler, with his back to the onlookers, instructed the coachman, “Get a room for me for the night. And see that these two are well taken care of. They don’t speak the language.” He clapped the two black boys on the shoulders.
“Maxim! Chanute!” There followed some words in French to which the pair responded with cheerful nods. Then, looking neither right nor left, the traveler strode out of the yard and down the street to the home of Reuben Nathansohn. There he rapped on the door. When it was opened, he disappeared inside.
Astonished eyes rested on that door. “Now, who the devil would he be, coming to see old Nathansohn, do you suppose?”
“A foreigner, a Frenchman. You heard him.”
“Dignitary! Not in a hired coach!”
“A banker. A foreign banker, or a merchant maybe—”
“A Jew. Couldn’t you see? He was a Jew.”
“How could I see? A rich foreigner looks like a rich foreigner. You think he wears a sign. ‘I am a Jew’? or ‘I am not a Jew’? Foreigners don’t have to wear our badges.”
An old woman cried out with shrill scorn. Her gold earrings swung in her excitement. “You don’t know who that is? You didn’t recognize him? It’s Ferdinand Raphael.”
“Ferdinand the Frenchy!”
Voices crossed in midair, interrupting each other.
“He wasn’t French, he was Alsatian! He’d just come from Alsace when he married Hannah Nathansohn.”
“I remember when—”
“It can’t be! He went to America after the troubles.”
“Yes, and what’s to prevent him from coming back? He’s here to fetch his children.”
“Well, anyone might figure that out.”
“You think so? But high time if it’s true. The girl’s already eight.”
“Nine. Miriam is nine.”
The woman who had spoken first moved to the front. “Miriam is eight,” she said decidedly. “I was there when she was born. Didn’t I see her mother give birth and die all in a minute’s time?” Her voice rose, chanting. “Oh, a miracle it was! A miracle that the child could live at all—”
There came an instant’s respectful, grieving silence. Then a young woman spoke. “Wasn’t she killed when the students—”
“That was before your time here, Hilda. Oh, yes, when the fine young gentlemen went mad, tearing through the village on their great horses straight to the Judengasse .…” Now the voice became a dreamy monotone, as if the speaker were unwilling, and yet compelled, to repeat the horror. “Windows smashed, doors broken in, all of us running, running … The stones they had! So big, hurled in two hands. Oh, God! I was with Hannah, two steps ahead when they hit—”
“She was struck on the head, Nathansohn’s Hannah, young Raphael’s wife, right at the front door, at that door over there. We carried her inside.”
“The baby took her first breath as the mother took her last.”
Once more silence fell, the hideous recollection making a single entity of the little group.
Then someone said, “He left right after that. Left for America.”
“A man would want to get as far away as he could, wouldn’t he?”
“Well, now, it seems he must have made his American fortune and he’s come back for his children.”
“He’ll have his hands full with the boy, that’s sure.”
“Why so? He’s a fine, bright boy as far as I can see.”
“Oh, smart, yes, but stubborn as an ox. And not such a boy, either. He must be fifteen.”
So they waited in the alley, reluctant to miss any of this extraordinary happening. Full darkness came. The crowd began to dwindle. A few fetched lanterns and waited. But there was really nothing to be seen other than the rump of the cow feeding in the byre next to the Nathansohn house. After a while the last lingerers went home.