Hitler in Central America by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview
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Although her eldest daughter was her confidante, on that day Anita did not want Elena to come with her to the government offices.
―Stay at home,‖ she said, ―because I've got a lot to do and you'll be bored.‖
―I don't want to stay alone, Mommy,‖ Elena had cried. ―Why don't you take me?‖ Elena found it odd when her mother, before leaving on her errands, did her hair and surreptitiously put on some perfume.
Elena was left in an old house in the Warsaw ghetto that belonged to Aunt Fruncha, who used to rent rooms to her out-of-town relatives. That day, no one else was at home, because all the boarders were looking for a job in the Jewish shops. Not that the merchants were hiring; industrialization was wiping out small businesses and Jews had found only a niche in the consumer goods sector, which was the most fragile in economic downturns.
―It's better to at least look for work than to stay at home doing nothing,‖ said a cousin before setting off, down to her last few pennies, on another job hunt.
Fruncha, who charged for room and board, always wished them all luck, since, as she reminded her relatives, they owed her three months in back rent. ―A z och un vay16 No one pays! I have to beg for the rent, as if I were asking them for a favor! You'll be sorry when you find my putrefying corpse, a victim of starvation!‖
The notion of children's rights had not yet come to Poland. Minors were treated like little adults, who had to help with work and with household chores and who could be left to fend for themselves while grownups were busy elsewhere. But Elena had never been alone in another house, much less in a strange city. The premises were full of dark rooms and closed doors, behind which dwelt the ghosts of relatives who had died meshugeh, mad, orehman, in misery and abandonment, or by their own hand.
―Don't go in there. We haven't opened that door since my husband killed himself in there with a gun,‖ Aunt Fruncha had said. It made Elena wonder if the body, or at least the skeleton, was still in the room.
The only décor in the whole house was the menorah for the Sabbath and a mirror into which Elena now looked at her reflection, far steadier and clearer than that she would later see in the waters of the North Sea. Was she pretty? She would never know because, although she could look at mirrors, she was never able to see herself; it was always someone else, even then, who would stare into her eyes. Not that her beauty was a matter of taste. She was lovely. Her skin was clear, with just a tinge of olive. Her eyes, tender and intelligent, disconcerting sometimes, were loving and furious at the same time. Her mouth was sensual, 16 Tough Luck!
her nose long and symmetrical. The black hair was wavy and fine like silk. She would attract people's stares until the day of her death, but she was never aware of her own beauty.
―Mirrors don't tell the truth,‖ she would say. ―They fool us, show us things as they are not.
We cannot trust them.‖ Years later, a mirror would show her that she was wrong.
Elena's features were not common among Polish Jews. She had inherited them from her father, David. According to the family legends, the Sikoras came from Itil, capital of the Khazar Empire, a Jewish kingdom that disappeared from the map. According to some historians, due to landslides into the Caspian Sea, the remains of the city lie under the shifting waters. The Khazars descended, among others, from the Oguric Turks, who came from Central Asia. The kingdom enjoyed independence for 800 years, between the 5th and 13th centuries. The Khazar Empire established an important commercial route between Asia and Europe, although this was not recorded in the history books. What made it stand out was that its rulers, in the year 740, converted to Judaism. The Kagan, their king, apparently chose this course as a way of neutralizing the pressures of his neighbors, the Byzantine Empire, which was Christian and the Muslim Caliphate. He was then able to play the role of a neutral mediator between the creeds.
According to a legend her father told, the Khazars became Jews in a fittingly Solomonic way. In letters written to Jasdai Ibn Shaprut, physician and minister to Abderam III, Caliph of Cordoba, the Khazar monarch reported that an angel had come to King Boulan, ruler of the Togarmi, their ancestors and brought word from the One True God that if he abandoned idolatry and worshipped Him, he and his people would triumph and prosper. But which of the three major monotheistic creeds was he to choose? Since the king was wise and was courted by both Christians and Muslims, he decided to hold a learned debate about which religion was the better one. However, the representatives of each faith defended his own at the expense of the others. In the end, the king went to the Muslim delegates and asked,
―Which is a better religion, that of the Israelites or that of the Christians?‖
―That of the Israelites is preferable,‖ said the cadi. He then talked to the Christian faithful and asked, ―Which religion is better, that of the Muslims or that of the Israelites?‖
―That of the Israelites,‖ said the priest.
The king then said, ―You both admit that the religion of the Israelites is better and truer, so I choose the faith of Abraham.‖
Anita was not very sure of the veracity of this legend. According to her version, the Khazar rulers were tired of war and conquest and wanted a faith that would provide them with the greatest ease and tranquility. The wise king went to the Muslims and asked them, ―How do you treat your women?‖ ―We buy them by the dozen and we keep them in a harem,‖ said the Muslim cadi. Then the king went to the Christians with the same question.
―Women are temptresses sent by the Devil. We put chastity belts on them, so they do not put horns on us.‖
But the rabbi said: ―We send them down to the shop so they can work while we spend all day discussing grave religious matters.‖ The choice was clear.
―Khazaria converted to Judaism and ever since we poor women have had to work hard while those good-for-nothing Turks loaf to their heart's content,‖ said Anita.
The history teacher confirmed that many Khazars had converted to Judaism, although the kingdom was tolerant of all three religions. With the loss of independence at the hands of the Russians, Khazars had to convert again or migrate. Many fled to the West, particularly to Poland, where they blended with Western Jews and lost their language, identity and customs, but not their faith. Nor did they lose their beauty, which made their women,(and possibly their men), all the rage in the courts of Byzantium and Baghdad.
Not that Elena was thinking about any of this while she wandered timidly through her aunt's house. In room after room, the armchairs and sofas were old and dark, as if they were sponges that could somehow suck in shadows, never to release one. The odd item of furniture might have been in good condition, but the upholstery of most was full of patches, when not rent outright. Some of the rips in the fabric seemed long enough to be able to swallow not only a comb but also a person. In the village, they used to say that armchairs would swallow children if they misbehaved. Elena never put her toches17 on one; like many Jews, she never used the living-room furniture. Years later, she would think that suffering had reached such a point in Poland at that time that the furniture started swallowing families whole and, later, all her people. Maybe the Jews who had disappeared were still trapped in old sofas and chairs that are now decorating Christian living rooms. Rather than sit on an armchair, possibly hurting the children who had fallen in, she stood and looked at the pictures on the wall, mostly photographs of old relatives who frightened Elena with their long beards, dark clothes and sad eyes. Long afterward, a cousin would tell her that the faces of horror shown by the Polish Jews in those pictures were due to the novelty of the invention and its as-yet-unknown effects upon the captured soul. Perhaps, facing a blinding flash for the first time, they had a hunch of what would be their destiny.
The people in the photographs had adopted a solemn pose, if not downright rigid and brittle and the way they stared directly at the lens created in the viewer the impression of engaging in dialogue with them. One of the pictures was of her father and mother; they did not smile, nor did they hold hands nor touch in any other way.
Elena felt as if Anita were saying to her, ―What are you staring at, you silly girl? Are you shocked by how young I look? It is the fault of this man that my life has been so unhappy. I have done nothing but work and age, while he had idled away, reading the Talmud.‖
Her father defended himself. ―If I'd had a chance to examine this shrew more carefully before consenting to the shidduch, I would have moved to Siberia or starved to death instead.
Living with her has been as pleasant as getting a summons from the Holy Inquisition on a day when they were in a particularly bad mood.‖
Dizzied by this imaginary exchange, Elena chose to look at the other photographs in the hope that they might be less antagonistic. One portrayed Samuel, the uncle who had committed suicide. He was attractive, with fleshy lips that seemed to smack with an unfulfilled and yet irresistible desire. ―He killed himself when he realized that he could not get into the United States,‖ her aunt had told her.
―Why would he kill himself for a country?‖ Elena had asked.
― Meshugener kop,‖18 the aunt had muttered under her breath, before explaining that Samuel had a very dear friend who moved to Chicago. When he realized that he would not be able to rejoin his friend, he had shot himself. ―You should know that there are men who become too fond of other men and fortunately leave us women in peace,‖ she said. ―Those who kill themselves must be buried far away from their loved ones, as punishment, outside the cemetery wall. Their souls will never know rest.‖
The uncle now seemed to sneer at this version of events. ―Yes, I did kill myself. But there's one thing that damn fool of a wife didn't tell you. I did it because I was fed up with her and the whole family. My only hope was to get a visa and the Americans refused to give me one.
Now I wander this filthy house like a dybbuk19, hearing Fruncha complaining all the time.
Isn't that punishment enough for a thousand sins?‖
―What you're not saying is that you killed yourself for love,‖ said the photograph of a fat woman whose terrified face reminded Elena of her favorite painting, The Bulgars Fleeing from the Vaccine, of unknown author. ―You don't have to blame my sister Fruncha for your tragedy. It was your fault, for being a degenerate.‖
A shout came from the photograph of Samuel's parents. ― Oy Gevalt!‖20 How can a relative throw filth at a mother's finest blossom? Samuel was the most saintly and good son that I had. How dare you tell family indiscretions to a stranger?‖
19 Wondering Spirit
20 What a calamity!
The father had to intervene. ―Shmulke,‖ he said, addressing Samuel in Yiddish, ―Why don't you stop fighting with your sister-in-law. You know I never approved of your relationship, or your way of being. But now we are all dead, so why mortify each other?‖
―But Father,‖ said Samuel, ―you never gave a damn about my life. You always preferred my sisters. And now you come and tell me off? If I loved Lazarus, it was because he was everything to me that you were not.‖
― Oy! Now it turns out that it was your father's fault that you were the way you were,‖ said the sister-in-law. ―You should be ashamed of yourself. You should beg for forgiveness.‖
Samuel, in desperation, turned to Elena. ―Do you think I should repent of my love for Lazarus, when it was the most beautiful thing I ever had in my life?‖
―No, Samuel. If you loved him, I think you did the right thing,‖ the child said.
Elena fled the quarreling photographs and sought refuge in the kitchen, the least interesting room in the house for any wandering ghosts, since they no longer needed to eat. However, a scratching sound revealed that she was not alone and with chattering teeth she wondered if the dybbuk would try to steal her body. Wasn't she going to America, the place Samuel had dreamed of, the place where his lover lived? What would happen to her, if evicted from her body by a dead uncle? Would she be forced to remain in this gloomy house forever, wandering the halls, arguing with old photographs?
An enormous rat jumped from the cupboard and fell on her. Elena collapsed on the floor, unable to rise because her legs would not respond, feeling the rat crawling over her a few times in search of breadcrumbs.
Although the economy was in bad shape, as shown by the many occupants of the house who were out of work, people had not stopped multiplying and, with them, waste and rodents. In every home there were as many rats as humans, if not more. In Elena's town, some said that every Hebrew soul in this land of misery has a rat as companion; surely this was Samuel's, she thought.
Elena was able to see the impact of reproduction, something she had learned from her moreh21. The teacher had explained to her that since the end of the 19th century, European cities had experienced unparalleled demographic growth. Jews, who had become urbanized around that time, benefited from this development. The high birthrate could be seen from the fact that the Jewish population had grown fivefold in a single century.
The rats had also proliferated and she had become her latest victim. Their powers of adaptation were phenomenal. They did not care about the heat or the cold. When there was no bread in the pantry, they ate timber, books and paintings. Sometimes, like Herod, they devoured small children. In other times, they attacked in packs, in what came to be known as pogroms. When they were hungry, their ferocity exceeded Goliath's. However, the Jews had lost their Davids and had no way of defending themselves.
Although several doctors examined her over the next two years, no one was able to find out the cause of the paralysis.
―She must have had a great fright that prompted an attack of hysteria,‖ said one.
―If you have the money, take her to Warsaw to see Dr. Wallenstein; he cures using hypnosis,‖ another recommended.
Some tried to make her regain her sensations with massage, others with needles. She was finally cured when a physician experimented on her with a new method, developed in New York, involving electrical discharges. The girl did not know if what healed her was the new invention or the stories she heard from the doctor about life in America.
―The rats are under control in New York,‖ the physician said. ―Unlike in Europe, they live in the sewers and the subway tunnels. When they come out, the public is more aware of the need to exterminate them, for hygienic reasons.‖
Later, Elena would write in her diary:
My paralysis had to do with the coming trip. I knew that my mother was downtown, arranging the paperwork for us to leave. Perhaps my reaction was to show my apprehension by becoming immobilized. What I never imagined was that soon all our people would be similarly paralyzed.
Nacht falt tsu.22
22 Night fell
The paralysis was corrected just in time. Elena, like the rest of her generation, was caught between two worlds, unable to live fully in either one. Her Hebrew community was immersed in a series of millenary traditions, some of them opposed to the modern world.
Rabbinical thinking had not stopped going in circles since the Middle Ages, while Christian thinking had been updated since the Enlightenment. Science, industry and technology were of increasing importance, but most Jews did not practice any of them. Marriages were still being arranged, while romantic love conquered the souls of the Christians. Food was ruled by ancient dietary laws, some of them out of touch with the new awareness of hygiene and the role of microbes and bacteria. Social life was divided by gender, at a time when integration was growing in Europe. Jewish girls and boys, for instance, were treated as if they belonged to different races: the benefits went to the latter, domestic obligations to the former. In a country engaged in modernization, this arrangement became increasingly intolerable.
Hebrew women participated in all aspects of economic and social life and did not want to be left out when it came to education. Moreover, religion told the Israelites that they were the Chosen People, while reality showed them to be impoverished, marginalized and old-fashioned. They had been left behind, content with pre-Capitalist occupations on their way to extinction. Rabbis defended community union above everything, while capitalism placed the rich and the poor, regardless of race or religion, in opposite classes. Civilized Poland was also ferociously antidemocratic and anti-Semitic. The few crumbs of ―advanced‖ thinking flung at the Jews were contaminated with the deepest hate. The host country, like the evil stepmother in the Cinderella fairy tale, did not want them. No matter how European they tried to appear, even more nationalistic than natives, to the Poles they would always be enemies. The ―Enlightenment‖ in Poland came in wolf's clothing; it was not meant to benefit them. Elena's people did not know what step to take. Some were immobilized by fear, while others fled in time.
The girl attended two schools, and at each she learned a different reality. In the morning she attended cheder 23, run by the town's rabbi and a moreh of Jewish history. Girls were not welcome and they had not been for several millennia: Rabbis kept them ignorant. But Anita had decided to fight for Elena's admission.
At first, the rabbi rejected the notion outright.
―The Talmud says that a woman is exempt from education,‖ he said.
But Elena's mother was not one to give up easily. ―If you don't let her in, I'll tell everyone that you and my brother Samuel used to sleep together,‖ she said.
―I'll let her participate as an invited guest, not a full participant, but let's not make too much noise about it. Otherwise, other girls will want to participate and we'd have a revolution on our hands.‖
23 Jewish Elementary School
Her mother later told Elena, ―You have as much right to learn as anyone else. If any boy says something nasty to you, kick him in the baitsim. ‖
The school was only a dark room in the rabbi's house, with long benches and a soul that was harder than the soul of Pharaoh. Her moreh had a white beard and wore an invariably black Caftan. ―He was a very religious man, wise like no one and a scholar of the labyrinths of the Talmud,‖ she would write later in her journal. But she never liked him. ―He has a prohibition for everything and he never gives me a good reason.‖ She would often ask him where in the Torah it said that women should not be educated.
―Nowhere in particular,‖ the rabbi replied, ―but where have you read that Sarah or Rebecca went to school?‖
In the afternoons, Elena attended public school. Over more than 300 students attended the facilities. The building was wide and had twenty classrooms. Its chairs and chalkboards were much better than the ones in the cheder. Teaching was carried out in Polish. They studied everything, from history to grammar, not to mention mathematics, which she enjoyed.
Teachers were more modern, to the extent that they sought causes for any given effect, instead of going back to laws written several thousand years ago. But that did not preserve them from fanaticism. The history teacher accused the Jews of having assisted Germany in annexing Poland. ―When they invaded us, they came from Germany,‖ he said. ―They speak similar languages and their goal is to turn us into slaves.‖
At the cheder, the history teacher said it was not so. Most of the Hebrews, he claimed, had been invited into Poland. In the 16th century, the spiritual and demographic center of Judaism had shifted from Western to Eastern Europe, he said. In the 1930s, three million Jews turned Poland into the world's center for Jews. The teacher explained that the invitation came about in the 9th century when Prince Popiel, the sovereign of Poland, died. His subjects gathered in Krushvica, the old capital, to elect his successor. But the disputes were acrimonious and no consensus could be found. As a way of finishing the debate, the participants agreed to proclaim as king the first man to walk into the village. It turned out to be Abraham Projovnik, a Jew. Soon captured by the security forces, he was forcibly crowned as king of the Christians. He rejected the honor and told them that if they were going to choose a ruler, they should consider a wise Pole named Piast.‖ Nevertheless, he was let to stay and bring his fellow Jews.
The child's mother, as always, had a different version. Projovnik did not want to become king of the Christian Poles because the kingdom was in serious debt and its trade balance did not look good at the moment. ―I have enough tzores,‖24 he thought. Accordingly, he looked for the biggest fool of all to take over the job. ―Since all wise men, including your father, are more concerned with the afterlife than with the here and now, it turned out that he was the greatest fool of all, so he had to accept the position,‖ her mother told her.
Elena knew that not all Polish Jews had come from Germany, as attested by her own olive skin and dark hair, like those of the other Sikoras who claimed to be Khazars. However, it was equally plain that the ancestors of most of the Hebrews in Poland had migrated from Germanic territory. Her teacher of Jewish history attributed the resettlement to the growing anti-Semitism promoted from the Crusades onward, well into the 15th century. Another explanation was the need in Poland and other Eastern European nations for tradesmen and artisans to contribute to economic development. The incorporation of Poland into the Catholic Church,‖ explained the teacher, ―had increased trade with the West, attracting a great number of merchants, many of them Jewish.
The history teacher at the Christian school had another interpretation. Poland's poor economic development had forced the nobles to promote the immigration of a class ―that could help them exploit the serfs. This position of intermediaries had been one of the chief causes of anti-Semitism. The Jews allied themselves with the nobles to collect their taxes. So closely did they collaborate that in some Christian villages, the nobles handed over the keys to the church to the Jews, with the warning that the temple should not be reopened until all fiscal debts had been settled.‖
Elena was one of the first in her village to attend public school. It was kind of an achievement, considering that the educational system was so anti-Semitic that in 1841, out of half a million Jews, only 2,500 went to non-Jewish schools. After World War I, opportunities increased when Poland acknowledged the equal rights of minorities. However, not all Poles agreed. Years later, she wrote in her journal: It was a shock to me, a surprise, to learn that I was not equal to the other children, that I had absolutely no rights in that country, that I was “a stranger and a sojourner.” They often made us [Jewish students] feel that way. We were always afraid. When we were leaving school, for instance, someone might throw a rock at us. We did not know exactly who had thrown it, but we knew it was a Christian. They were always shouting at us to leave Poland, to move back to Palestine, where we belonged. It was very difficult to accept it. We felt hostile, even rebellious, but we could not show it. We were too small and too weak; we could not defend ourselves, only resist.
The girl, however, was aware that not all teachers were anti-Semites. The mathematics teacher was impressed both by her beauty and her skill with numbers. ―How many is 130
divided by 7?‖ he would ask and Elena would reply a few seconds later, ―18.57.‖ ―I don't know how you do it, Elena. If I were Jewish I would marry you, for your beauty and your intelligence.‖
―There's nothing special about it,‖ she would say. ―When you're poor, you need to know your arithmetic.‖
―What would you like to study when you're older?‖
―I'd like to be a historian, but I don't think I'll have the money to go beyond this classroom.‖
Nor did she hope to marry well, since the poor do not attract suitors.
In spite of her age, Elena was aware that hostility towards them had an economic basis. For Polish peasants, the administrator, the innkeeper, or the tax collector was the personification of exploitation and Jews played many of these roles. Anita, however, thought that Poland was more hospitable than other countries. She told Elena, for instance, that it was even worse in Ukraine. There, in 1569, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic peasants had become the serfs of the Polish nobility, who were Roman Catholics. The peasants hated the Poles as much as the Jews who sometimes acted as their intermediaries and in 1648 they rose up and carried out the worst massacre until World War II.
Her mother was convinced that both Poles and Jews suffered at the hands of the Ukrainians, sometimes fighting jointly against the common enemy. On other occasions, however, the Polish nobles saved their own skin by sacrificing their weaker allies. But Anita said it was common among all nations: when it came to choosing between the welfare of your own people and that of others, you would choose the former. In spite of the prevailing anti-Semitism, she thought that for many centuries Poland was a haven of tolerance for their people. The kingdom accepted immigrants during the Christian persecution in Western Europe and granted them rights no other country had been willing to contemplate. In spite of the efforts by the Catholic Church to impose ghettos, distinct ways of dressing and segregated working conditions, the Polish nobility had never agreed to those terms. Hence Jews were able to enjoy such spiritual and political autonomy that they even had their own parliament, the Council of the Four Nations.
Anita explained that when the economic situation was good, the various ethnic and religious groups coexisted without any problems. ―But when the economy deteriorated and the country was divided and conquered in the 18th century, the old allies ran into new difficulties. In some cases, the new masters treated the Hebrews better and thus obtained their support, which the Poles resented. In other cases, the Jews yearned for the return to Polish rule,‖ she sighed.
Elena was aware that the worst anti-Semites were those who obtained some economic benefit. She had gone with her mother one afternoon to visit a Polish woman.
―Mrs. Ursula,‖ said Anita, ―I need you to pay me the money you owe me from last year.
Things are very bad and I barely have enough to eat.‖
The peasant woman was not a bad person. She and Anita had helped each other in the past.
Like many in her social class, she did not know how to read or write and she believed in myths and superstitions. One of them, common among the Polish peasantry, was that Jews were a diabolical race, born blind that needed Christian blood in order to open their eyes.
Ursula did not believe such things anymore, but she was going through hard times and it was easier to turn on her Jewish friend than on her Polish creditors.
―You Jews from Hell,‖ said the woman. ―Wasn't it bad enough that you killed Christ? Now you want to crucify me too? Can't you see I have no zlotys25 to pay you?‖
―But Ursula, I saw you buying three cows yesterday; how can you say you don't have any money?‖
―Well, I don't and those cows weren't mine.‖
Two days later, Ursula's daughter threw a stone at Elena. ―Goddamned Jews, why don't you all go to Palestine and leave us in peace?‖
Elena knew, from her mother, that the world was not divided exclusively into rich Polish nobles, poor Jews and poorer Polish peasants. Some of her ―countrymen‖ had made money and they hired their co-religionists to exploit them. There was a sector of large merchants who lived off international trade in fields such as timber and imports. This group controlled the shtetls; religious leaders depended on their largesse. Many of these merchants bought off Polish officials for their own benefit, without thinking of the needs of their people. Such was the case of Lazarus Guasestein, who had made a fortune in usury. Dozens of Jews had lost their properties when they were unable to pay his high interest rates. When they begged him to forgive them their debts, or at least give them more time to pay, he said there was nothing he could do, because bankruptcy was ―a Divine decision.‖
Lazarus Guasestein provided the local Chassidic rabbi with a handsome living so that no one could question his morals or his actions. Years later he would do the same in Costa Rica, to which he would also immigrate. ―The man is a crook,‖ Anita would comment, ―but he sure knows how to run for his life.‖
Anita was neither fond of Lazarus nor of Capitalism. ―One day we'll take over and get right of all those exploiters of the working class,‖ she would say. Poland's poor Jews had a political voice in the Bund, the Socialist Workers' Party, which aimed to put an end to anti-Semitism by means of a proletarian revolution. Socialists thought that marginalized Poles and Jews faced a common enemy, the capitalist system, which was responsible even for their hostility towards each other.
This phenomenon allowed Anita to rationalize the theft of her neighbor's chicken as ―a redistribution of wealth.‖ The woman was convinced that rich Jews took as much advantage of her as the Poles did. She was furious when she learned that the Guasesteins were bribing 25 Polish currency
the Polish tax authorities in order to pay very little, while she was expected to pay all the taxes on her modest sales.
The much longed-for proletarian revolution, however, did not appear imminent. ―It is never darker than just before dawn,‖ Anita would say; ―we must be patient, like Job.‖
And patience they would need, because things were definitely getting worse. The Jewish history teacher would explain to Elena that Jews had linked their fortunes to pre-capitalist trade in Polish rural areas; when paying in cash was introduced into the rural economy, hundreds of thousands of Polish peasants were forced to move to the cities and the Jews with them.
He nevertheless pointed out that there was a downside to this story: as a highly urbanized group, Jews were among the first to be affected by capitalist recessions. In 1927, Polish Judaism had sunk into such poverty that four out of ten depended on social assistance and half were unemployed. ―What began as an internal mobilization ended up as an exodus from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. Between 1900 and 1914, two million Jews left Eastern Europe.
David Sikora, Elena's father and Anita's husband, was among those who left. By 1927, the family barely had enough to eat and discussions about Divine benevolence did not fill their stomachs. ―David,‖ Anita had said, ―we're going to starve if you don't do something. I can't even steal the neighbors' chickens anymore, because ours are so skinny that they are easily recognized.‖
For his daughter, the departure of the father meant instant maturity. She had to play the role of companion to her mother and of parent to her brother and sister. When her mother left home early, she had to prepare breakfast and lunch. She did not know a day of rest, not even the Sabbath. In the cheder26, the children mocked her for wanting to study in the public school. In the public school, the children threw stones at her for being Jewish. She did not expect a great deal from her people, or from Poland. Her uncle Herschel, conservative like her father, warned that as soon as Polish workers had overthrown the rich, they would toss the Jews into the ocean. Anita replied that the right wing and the rabbis had already drowned them in religious filth.
Although the situation was severe, nature had given her two gifts to help her survive: beauty and outstanding intelligence. Perhaps her role as surrogate parent and confidante helped to explain her wisdom of the heart. She was an innate, intuitive observer who could read the feelings of the most introverted individual. When her family got together, she could sense the turmoil in her relative's minds.
26 Jewish elementary school
―Aunt Gisela is depressed because her favorite son got married,‖ she would write in her journal. ―The rabbi is happy because he earned a lot of money by granting the baker a divorce.‖ ―My mother is worried because Golde suspects her of stealing her chickens.‖
She could also soothe people's feelings. ―Don't worry, Mrs. Mirtembaum,‖ she would say,
―your husband will write from New York. It must be that the Polish postmaster thought your husband was sending you money and stole his letters.‖ Some said that she was a natural healer who could lay balm on the soul, a virtue of the greatest rabbis. ―It is the Messianic touch; this girl must be a reincarnation of Sebatai Zevi, our last Messiah,‖ a Chassidic aunt would proclaim. Her more modern kin thought that Elena was as sharp-witted as the new Jewish scientist who was causing a revolution in psychiatry. In spite of the various interpretations, no one doubted that she had great powers. A Polish schoolmate summarized it thus: ―Wherever you are, Elena, Gan Aiden27 can be found.‖
27 Garden of Eden
David Sikora's prospects in the village were far from promising. In his studies, he had not gone beyond the yeshiva. In earlier, more prosperous years, the community had supported his efforts to become a religious scholar. Later, when whole families were forced to emigrate from the shtetls, his countrymen could not support him anymore and he never reached a higher level than that of baruchim. Even his wife used to mock his lack of schooling. Once, when David was telling the children the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, Anita interrupted him.
―If Pharaoh had come to me with that silly dream of his about the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows, instead of interpreting it,‖ she said, ―I would have asked him where he had spotted them, so I could go eat them.‖
He had never consented gladly to his wife's habit of stealing fowl to supplement the family diet; it made him feel, irrationally but no less poignantly, like the greatest sinner the world had ever known.
―Anita,‖ he would say, ―how can you expect me to hold my head up high in the village when everyone for miles around knows that you regularly steal the butcher's chickens?‖
―I do it out of necessity, like Noah,‖ she would reply. ―Do you think he owned every pair of animals that he shoved into the Ark? Giraffes and rhinoceroses and panthers and anteaters? He must have done the same as I. You know, a little redistribution of wealth….‖
The former yeshiva student attempted to get a United States visa. However, as with Samuel, whose failure had brought the shame of suicide on the family, it was already too late. The land of liberty and equality – the nation that greeted the arrival of hard-working immigrants with a poem by Emma Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew – no longer welcomed Europe's tired, poor and wretched refuse yearning to be free, at least not if the refuse in question was Jewish.
Nevertheless, life was getting so hard that Anita had started eyeing the chickens of the rabbi. David realized that drastic measures were required.
―I'll try my luck in some country close to the United States, so later I can cross the border,‖
he said. His wife did not reply, thinking that the bum would never get as far as the corner shop.
Bad economic conditions had forced the descendants of Aviezer Sikora to migrate to smaller shtetls near Ostrołęka, each forming a new branch of the family farther from the original tree. In each of the small towns, they continued the tradition of Talmudic learning and family fighting, another of their pastimes. Neighbors would argue that the Sikoras searched in the Talmud for an answer to their conflictive lives since most of them could not stand one another. Their strong character and mood swings were known to friends and to 37
foes and David's father, Jacob Sikora was so terrifying that when he walked the dirty streets of Wonzyszubi, his hometown, people ran for their lives. ―Sikora.‖ Anita would argue, ―is the name of a typical lively Polish bird, but the only calm and quiet bird I know is your father's.‖
For the Sikoras, their real love was their devotion to the Talmud and it led them to marry women who could finance their studies. They expected their wives to attend the shops while they spent their precious time reading the sacred books. For this reason they ended up with the wrong women. In their pursuit of money they chose materialistic families, whose main concern was their love of gelt 28 . Anita would be one of those who was interested in the material and in the here and now, oblivious of spiritual and religious matters. She was such a strong believer in modernity and such devotion would lead her later in life to embrace Socialism and Bundism. ―Money talks,‖ she would respond when asked about her spiritual life.
Both Anita and David tried to lead Elena to what they consider ―life's most important values,‖ which by a strange twist of faith happened to be exactly their own. Every time one of them lectured their daughter on them, the other would jump into the conversation, creating chaos and terrible fights. David thought his wife was leading Elena to Communism and Atheism, modern curses that would end in disaster. Anita, on the other hand, would believe her husband's religious instruction was the origin of Jewish backwardness: ―We Jews - because of the religious fanatics - have learned only to subtract, since we haven't added up to anything in the last thousand years.‖
David would defend the Talmud from Anita's criticisms. She would criticize the book as more a children's puzzle than a religion. ―Who on earth would write a book with different readings in one single page and make such a mess of it that it turns out to look more like noodles?‖ she would say with scorn and cynicism. She disliked even more that the book was full of prohibitions against women's choices. ―On the basis of this book, your father wants to make a shikseh29 of me,‖ she would complain to her daughter. ―According to such a book, women should not get an education and must remain as ignorant as possible,‖ Anita would add, to convince Elena. The fact that Talmudic rabbis had interpreted women's periods as unclean and in need of ritual cleansing infuriated her even more. ―Listen to me Elena, if we are going to be fair we would have to conclude that the rabbi's toches30 is the one that stinks the most from rotten gefilte fish, but no one is saying he should clean it.
Who gave the right to the men who wrote the Talmud to describe our menstruation as dirty?‖
David would accuse his wife of acting like those who used to criticize the Talmud without having ever read it. David explained to Elena that Christians described the never-ending 28 Money
30 Rear end
book – a work in progress if ever there was one, for it had been amended, collated, cross-referenced and commented on for as long as anyone could remember – as a confusing hodge-podge of perverted logic, absurd sophistries and foolish fables. For them, it was a book obviously authored by the Devil, full of impiety, superstition, even obscenity.
Elena's mother, on the other hand, considered that the Talmud was as straightforward as the spaghetti she was making for dinner and that it lacked the historical wisdom that Marxism was offering to the Jews. She considered the Talmud an ―impossible book that shifted abruptly from the spiritual to the trivial, from epigrams full of intimations of immortality to the most pedestrian instructions about everyday dietary and hygienic issues. Some theological disputes appear to be of only theoretical interest, mere displays of dialectical juggling.‖ The woman considered that this book was responsible for keeping her nation poor and exploited. ―If you expect to find out how to fight oppression, Elena,‖ she would advise her daughter, ―don't waste time in Talmud dialectics.‖
David was furious over his wife's ―absurd‖ commentaries. He strongly believed that the study and rabbinical discussions of this book had kept Jewish minds agile for more than a millennium. He told Elena that during the Middle Ages, while most Christians lived in ignorance, Jews kept their minds agile with such endeavors. ―Whereas Christians were burning witches and books, we learned how to read and write and were trying to figure out how to live in peace and with social justice,‖ he added.
But Anita was not convinced. She thought that the Enlightenment had changed everything.
―Christianity roused itself from its stupor. Modernity imposed the need to understand science and Aristotelian logic. The Jews, forced to live in ghettos, incapable of connecting with the main forces of modernization, lagged behind. We need to learn science and technology now, not religion,‖ she concluded. Elena's mother had been a strong supporter of the Enlightenment. She had fallen for a new movement that tried to incorporate the values of European enlightenment into Judaism: the Haskallah, whose most prominent pioneer was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. He believed in providing a secular education for Jewish children, so that they could learn science and technology instead of solely attending the eminently religious, quaint but impractical, cheder and yeshiva.
―I fought for education, Elena,‖ admitted her mother, ―and did my best for you to learn your Jewish background as much as the new science. Had it been up to your father and the religious Agadah, you would not have attended school. You owe your education to my modernist and Socialist principles that come from Mendelssohn and Marx,‖ argued Anita as if this discussion had to have a winner. He and Anita were ideological opponents and disagreed to the last day of their lives on whether Marx or God would free the Jews from such a dire predicament. But the two of them also knew how to stretch philosophical issues to fit their needs and support each other in darker times. On the dreaded day that his neighbor finally confronted him with Anita's chicken thefts, the man would turn to the Talmud to defend his wife's socialist ―redistribution.‖
―Mrs. Golde, how can you accuse me of eating your chickens? Don't you know that we all make mistakes and you might have made one when you counted your chickens, just as our Lord did when He created the world and was unsure of how many days it took to finish it?‖
―Don't use the Scriptures to defend that woman! The only mistake I made was assuming you had any baitsim. If you don't warn your wife, I will find another man who will.‖
―Perhaps one day we will find out that He wanted you and me to fight over these chickens for some unknown reason,‖ said David, suddenly turning metaphysical.
―I hope our Lord forgot he created men like you, because He would repent of His creation!‖
cried Golde, as she stormed out, unwilling to continue this Talmudic discussion that had somehow strayed so very far from the fundamental issue of her birds and who got to chop their heads off and stick them in a big pot.
David and Anita, had they belonged to different species, could not have been more dissimilar. She came from a secular family and divorced her first husband. Although Judaism grants only men the right to separate from their spouses, she managed to convince the council in charge of gets31 to threaten him with excommunication if he did not agree to the breakup. She had decided to leave him for reasons that could hardly be considered eccentric: he was a drunkard, smelled bad and was impotent.
Divorce depreciated her in the marriage market. No beauty to begin with, her pale skin, dirty-blond hair and long lips and nose did not mix into a pleasant pattern. Certain rigidity in her face made her look older than she was. She almost never wore makeup or attractive clothes; she hardly ever laughed and when she did, it was with twisted features that seemed to betray scorn more than the display of joy. Many women, aware of her unprecedented divorce, did not want her anywhere near their husbands, in case her lack of conventionality extended to polygamy or other abominations.
―Husbands aren't meant to be picked; they're meant to be put up with,‖ one of the neighborhood gossips would mutter.
―I wish mine was impotent, so we wouldn't have to do it anymore,‖ said another housewife.
What's so great about having a potz32 shoved inside you?‖
―I bet she paid them off, the members of the tribunal and the rabbi, to get her divorce,‖ said another member of the habitual tea party.
When it came time to look for a new husband, Anita did not have much to choose from.
―I've got a rabbinical student who's without a job and is looking for a woman who can keep him,‖ said Aida, the village matchmaker. ―I can't introduce him to you because he doesn't live in this town. I'll bring him on the day of the wedding, to save unnecessary expenses.
You won't dislike him: he's got Moorish eyes.‖
Anita was not at ease with her immediate matrimonial prospects. In her previous marriage, it had been her father who had picked the groom. She did not meet her intended life partner until the ceremony, under the chupah, the wedding canopy. Nor did she know anything about the pre-matrimonial contract her father and the groom had signed or the sum the father had promised as mohar33 in the wedding contract, the ketubah. She did not even dare look at her imminent husband until he gave her the ring and solemnly groaned his wedding vow, Hare aht mekudeshet li be-tabaat zo ke-dat Moshe ve-Yisrael 34.
According to tradition, the husband not only acquired a wife and a good dowry; he also became the administrator of all her worldly goods, including (in the case of Anita) the shop.
Judaic law states that all a woman owns at the time of marriage and any inheritance or personal gift, is the woman's personal property. However, the husband is expected to administer these assets. But Anita's first spouse, whose binges were monumental week-long explorations of every possible way in which alcohol and the dubious ability of engaging in incoherent dialogue with perfect strangers can be abused, would have misspent all of her scarce fortune if she had not concealed some of her earnings from him.
Marriage, in the Jewish tradition, is meant for procreation. Anita's first husband was useless in that department. She was only 17 when she married and had not known a man in the biblical sense; accordingly, she was blindly unaware of the mechanics of sex. Her husband – a hypochondriac on top of everything else – was afraid of intercourse since he dreaded that in the middle of an orgasm he might die of a heart attack. The Jewish faith, however, demanded that he fulfill his marital obligations. So as not to put his heart at risk, he pretended to make love to Anita without penetrating her, a task he would not have achieved, even if he had the desire.
On their wedding night, he climbed on top of her, but lacking an erection, he growled like a lusty male whose potz35 did not show any signs of life. Anita assumed that everything had been done according to the book. She moaned once or twice, heeding her mother's advice that, when her husband started panting she should ―imitate the sounds chickens make when we chop off their heads,‖ in order to please him.
Anita was aware that Judaism is not opposed to sexual pleasure. On the contrary, rabbis maintain that men should marry at the age of 18 in order to perpetuate the species and their enjoyment is a fundamental way of encouraging frequent intercourse. If a man has not married by the age of 20, he calls upon him the wrath of the Lord of Hosts. The Talmud recommends that an ordinary, healthy man have sexual relations every day. There are some exceptions: sailors, for instance, only have to have sex every six months, presumably so as to discourage them from frequenting gentile brothels while in foreign ports. Therefore, the woman came to the conclusion that her husband, given his lack of ardor in the bedroom, was a sailor.
―My husband works in the Navy,‖ she would tell her mother.
―But daughter, the only Navy we have in Długosiodło are the ducks on the lake! What makes you think he's a sailor?‖
Rivke Malke, Anita's mother, was shocked by her daughter's naiveté. Although sex is a religious duty – as well as a pagan, or at least non-denominational pleasure – Jews had been influenced by Christian asceticism, exposed to it over many centuries of forced coexistence.
Anita's mother – like the majority of Yiddishe mothers - had not taught their daughters anything about sex and she was not to break with this tradition. To spare herself the embarrassment, she preferred to go along with her daughter's story that her son-in-law had 34Look, you are consecrated to me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and of Israel.
become a sailor. However, since Anita had yet to become pregnant after so many months of marriage, she turned to her friends for advice.
―Am I doing something wrong?‖ she said.
―If the man rides you, he's doing it right,‖ a friend said. They did not talk about pleasure, because none of them had experienced it.
―Well, he does ride, I guess,‖ said Anita.
One day, Ursula, the Polish peasant she had befriended, visited her shop, wanting to buy several colored panties. ―Why do you need so many?‖ Anita inquired. With some embarrassment, the peasant woman admitted that sexual relations with her husband usually hurt and made her bleed. Anita was totally perplexed.
―How is it possible that you bleed if the man only rubs you?‖ she asked Ursula, who was not sure whether Anita was pulling her leg.
That afternoon, the Polish woman took her new apprentice through a 101 course on sex and reproduction at her farm. Ursula's bitch was in heat and was able to demonstrate to the visitor how animals knew how to do things better than her own husband.
―The scoundrel has fooled me!‖ screamed Anita as she saw how the dogs were performing their sexual act. Ursula felt relieved and proud that this poor woman had finally learned the truth and after having served her a hot cup of tea to calm her down, took her back into town. Anita was walking in a dreary silence and, without it having been her intention, shocked the peasant one more time:
―For how long do I have to stay connected to the man?‖ she inquired.
As she became aware that she had the same chances of being impregnated as the Virgin Mary, Anita ran desperate to the town's rabbi. The man was not fond of divorces since he thought these contradicted Heaven's designs. However, he shared in the profits from the sale of many aphrodisiacs in Długosiodło's market, so the first he recommended was wine.
―Make sure your husband drinks two glasses of wine before bedtime,‖ he recommended.
―But the man is a drunkard. Why should I give him more alcohol?‖ she asked, questioning the soundness of this logic.
―Vodka is one thing, which is what your husband drinks, but the wisdom of wine is quite another,‖ answered the rabbi, as he reflected on the percentage of sales he got from the liquor store.
Anita was so desperate that she followed his advice. When her husband arrived late at night, she served him two full glasses of wine.
―How did it go?‖ asked the rabbi the following day, hoping amongst hope that the remedy had worked.
―Bad, bad,‖ responded the woman with sadness; ―the man ran to the tavern and I have not seen him since.‖
The rabbi was not going to give up easily. ―Fatty meat, lentils and beans rekindle the sex drive,‖ he now intoned, happy that he also got a commission from the grocery store.
The woman went to the market and searched for each ingredient with care. She bought the best meat she could find and the largest lentils and beans in the market. Once at home, she made the most concentrated soup she could cook and that night gave it to her husband.
―Eat, eat,‖ she insisted of the man, who already felt that he was going to explode from too much food.
―Did it work?‖ asked the rabbi the following morning. ―How did he react?‖
―He had such flatulence that I thought the Russians had invaded Poland again and I had to send him off to sleep in the guest room,‖ responded Anita, disillusioned.
―My best potion is mandrake,‖ recommended the rabbi, whose wife sold it in the market.
―The tea made of this plant is so strong that even Christian witches use it as a remedy for male and female sterility. Look here, Anita,‖ he said, pointing to a page in the Torah; ―it says that Rachel, who was infertile, obtained from Leah these roots ( duddaim in Hebrew) found by Reuben and after many years of failures, she became pregnant with her first child, Joseph.‖
The religious man had not finished closing the book when Anita was already in search of the miraculous roots. She did not care that the rabbi's wife had increased its price ―only this morning‖ and bought several large roots to make the strongest tea she could think of.
―Was he able or not?‖ inquired a less patient rabbi the next time he saw the woman at his door, with a terrible expression.
―Would I have returned to you if he had been able?‖ she replied.
When the rabbi ran out of elixirs, he and Anita were convinced that there was nothing they or her husband could do to get her pregnant. He explained to the woman that the law did not allow the wife to file for divorce. ―It is a man's prerogative,‖ he indicated.
―He will never do it!‖ responded Anita, who was convinced her husband was happy with the status quo and would not divorce her of his own will. ―Then, you have to get to persuade the kallah 36 to put pressure on him to do it,‖ he recommended.
Anita was aware of how important it was to get the community's approval. She decided to donate some money to help repair the synagogue's roof that was leaking since the Great War and to donate some clothes to the orphanage. She also would send birthday presents to each member of the board. She wanted not only to get a divorce but also to recover her dowry, a right to which she was entitled by Jewish Law. But the men on the board were not very supportive and were less optimistic about her chances. At first they did not even want to exert pressure on her husband.
―It is not acceptable in our community for a woman to request a get,‖ replied the board secretary.
36 Jewish Community Board
―Neither is it tolerable that our Jewish people should disappear for lack of heirs,‖ came Anita's response, since she knew that she had Genesis on her side.
―We have no proof of your husband's sterility other than your word,‖ said the president of the board, who did not like this woman's independence.
―What do you want me to do, bring the corpus delicti here? Do you think I would be here if this man was able?‖
The rabbi finally broke the impasse. He had made so much profit out of the woman's despair that he was feeling guilty.