Hitler in Central America by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview
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―I can guarantee that the plaintiff has done everything in her power to resuscitate the dead,‖
he said without intending sarcasm. The rest of the board could not help but laugh.
―Well, if you assure us that the defendant is dead, we can recommend a get, ‖ said the fourth member of the board, unable to withhold his laughter.
Anita, who was fed up with the board and their discussion of her husband's potz, offered a larger contribution to improve the conditions of the Chevra Kiddushe.
―If this woman is so sensitive to the dead to make such a generous offer, it must be that she lives with one of them,‖ the president of the board finally responded, seemingly tired of this lengthy session. The board decided to support Anita's plea and press her husband to file for divorce with the warning that, if he would not agree to do so, he would be ostracized from the community.
Her new husband was also a stranger. However, when she saw him under the chupah,37 she heard herself saying: ―This man is not bad looking, even if he was less tanned he would still be handsome.‖ He indeed had beautiful eyes, and a very sensual mouth, and she dreamed of their first kiss as she walked to the canopy. Anita could not help notice that David had wonderful buttocks, hard as a bagel. ―No one can criticize me for wanting to pinch them,‖
she told herself. The Torah did indeed recommend that a man's wife should be pretty, and there was no reason why a woman should not expect the same of her husband. This man was also educated, a scholar, and the Talmud offered special blessings for those who married brains and beauty.
What Anita had not experienced with her first husband she made up for with the second.
When she realized how a potz could change its personality with a little blood pumped in to provide such an exquisite pleasure, she was happy to have paid the shadchan38. ―Where in the world has this man learned to do what he does?‖ she thought to herself. Anita started to believe that the Talmud did indeed have a secret passage where men like her husband learned the art of lovemaking.
A few weeks later, Anita got pregnant and Elena was born. Four years after that, Anita gave birth to a boy, Samuel, and as a farewell present from her husband before his trip to America, she then had Sarita. This second husband was not a heavy drinker, but was a 37 Bridal canopy
studious man. If things had not got sour in economic terms, their marriage would have been a good one. However, there are no relationships that can withstand hunger, and Anita's -
despite her numerous orgasms - was no exception.
An inevitable hostility started to brew between the two lovers as the number of chickens decreased at the Sikora's table. Anita started to resent the fact that she had to support a scholarly husband who did not help her in the store. She became so hostile to the men's prerogatives and their control over the community's decisions that she blamed the Holocaust on men like her husband.
―These schmucks39 were so used to negotiating and to basing their thoughts on Talmudic labyrinths that the Germans knew how to take advantage of them. The Nazis started offering alternatives and awful choices, finally limiting them to whether the Jews should die standing up or sitting down. Genug iz genug!”40
40 Enough is Enough!
My Dear Wife:
As I wrote a few months ago, my health has deteriorated and the doctors have confirmed T.B.
This forces me to rest and to remain isolated for a few months. As I also mentioned, the economic future is very difficult and I have not saved enough to travel to the United States as we had originally planned. Given this predicament, I have borrowed some money to bring you and my children here on the assumption that you will look after me and that you will help with the business so as to afford the medical treatment that I need. This is why I wish you to come here immediately. The tickets for the transatlantic voyage were sent to the agent of the Hamburg-Amerika-Linie Company in Warsaw. You must travel from Hamburg. I hope the tax dues have not increased from what you mentioned the last time. Say hello to Elena, to Samuel and to our new daughter, Sarita.
Your husband, who thinks of you constantly,
"Your father wants us to be with him. But for me, he would still be discussing whether Rabbi Aquiba or Rabbi Potz was right concerning the circumcision of mice," Anita finally said to her daughter. "We will have to embark in Germany. Nowadays this is risky with Hitler in power."
Elena did not know who this man was and why her mother was afraid of him. She was only told that the German politician wanted to get rid of the Jews, but had come to power promising to fight the Jewish "cause."
"But mother, what power is this man talking about if we don't even have enough to eat?‖ Elena asked.
"Our only 'power' is making all these lunatics make scapegoats of us for their problems. The Nazis are blaming us for the world economic crisis and the fact that they lost the previous war.
Cousin Fanny writes that things are getting worse for our people at the time and that the Nazis carry out violent demonstrations against us. Our stay in Germany should be as short as possible."
If their plans to emigrate were known, the authorities would not allow them to go until the taxes they owed had been paid. To prevent this, Anita sold all her merchandise to her mother, who owned one of the stores, asking her to keep silent about their plans to leave. Years before she had managed to get the passports, and no one would foresee they were about to use them.
"Mother, why won't you pay the taxes?‖ asked Elena. "First of all, because we are bankrupt,"
her mother answered. "Why should I pay taxes,‖ she said, ―if the Poles keep all the zlotys and give none back to us?" Anita thought that when a Jewish-owned industry became prosperous, the State nationalized it, as in the case of tobacco. On the other hand, commerce, an activity mostly in the hands of Israelites, provided the State with most of its tax revenues. ―The new Polish state was built upon our backs,‖ Elena's mother concluded.
The young girl shared her teacher's distrust. Each pair of trousers or shmate or shirt sold had to be changed into German currency so as to escape police confiscation and to take some money for the road. She had been warned that, in case fiscal agents were to confront them, she must withdraw all the funds in the cashbox. They were not to find traces that any sale had taken place.
Anita never knew what to expect from the Polish government: "Sir, could you be so kind as to tell me what I should do to get an exit visa?‖- Anita once beggarly asked. "Just promise never to come back here, you piece of Jewish shit!‖ answered the civil servant, smiling broadly. On another occasion, she had gone to the Post Office with a letter for America.
"Please tell me the cost of a stamp to Central America?" She asked.
"Twice what a Pole pays," answered the female clerk.
"But why should I have to pay double?"
"Because your letter contains twice the trash," came the reply.
One day Elena went through a dreadful fear. Wearing long and hateful faces, two government officials suddenly "fell upon us like the Egyptian plague." "We are here to collect overdue taxes,‖ one of the officials said angrily. "Sales have been really bad, Sir. Give me one more month to pay them," begged her mother with a face like a death row inmate. The tax collectors laughed: "Oh, what a bunch of crooks you Jews are! If you don't have money then I will take this shirt," said one of them, helping himself to the garment. Shaking, Anita thought, "These drunkard Poles come here to rob us and then exchange the goods for vodka. Luckily they only want that old rag from the Great War.‖
Despite all this, Elena could not understand her fears since she didn't want to leave. For her, it was the same to stay or to move to an unknown country. Her father had not convinced them about the advantages of living in America. He had simply left seven years earlier. She couldn't even remember what he looked like, and now he wanted them to come to him. Her heard her mother's complaints: "Why did that good for nothing wretch leave, if seven years later he still can't afford a few cheap boat tickets? He himself laments the harshness of life in Costa Rica.
Surely, that miserable man is living with a kurveh and is making fools of us all!"
In 1934, the family received from Costa Rica one pre-paid ticket with the Hamburg-Amerika-Linie. The two small clothing stores they owned in the heart of downtown were bankrupt and people had less and less zlotys to eat and practically nothing with which to buy clothes and house wares.
The Sikora stores would be the first to go down the drain and the family had no choice but to leave Poland. It was not easy saying good-bye to Długosiodło. The journey was an entirely new experience for the family, as they were not used to long distances by train. The entire journey normally took eighteen hours, with stops at several stations: Warsaw, Frankfurt Oder, Berlin Ost Banhnhoft, Berlin Zoo and Hamburg Altona. Now with the Nazis in power, border controls were reinforced and the trip took longer.
Back in April 1934, traveling to Germany was dangerous. After being scared witless at the border checkpoint, not knowing if her family would be let across to Germany, Anita felt relief once she had abandoned her fatherland. Soon they were passing clusters of towns, and according to Elenaś mother, most of them were Jewish. She mentioned one relative after the other in each of these villages, as if the entire family had spread like spilled wheat. "My sister, Rebecca, has been living in Sieldce for the last ten years. She married a very religious man, a good for nothing, and just like your father, useless at trading. The poor wretch has to sustain herself as a seamstress." "In Krakow, I have an aunt working in a jewelry shop. She thinks she is a Fiddlefortz41 because she lives in a sophisticated town. She has forgotten us ever since then." While her mother continued this rosary of complaints, Elena could not know that these relatives would soon disappear like smoke in air. Many years later, when she asked about her aunt Bruma who lived in Krakow, she was shocked by the answer: "Only smoke remains of her."
Cousin Motl, who immigrated to Argentina, had forewarned Anita that the German custom was to harass passengers using rival travel companies such as the British Cunard Line. These travelers were often robbed at the last minute, confronted by guards with impossible demands.
The slightest variation in a letter on the ticket was reason enough to force a passenger to return to Warsaw, or even to Moscow, or else to pay higher fares. "Here on the ticket it says that your name is Povlovich and not Povlowitz; we can't let you in," Elena heard as a German official rejected an entire family of Russian Jews. "You must return to Moscow to have it fixed."
According to cousin Motl, the Germans had built special barracks to fumigate the passengers.
―But only passengers of German travel companies were allowed to use them.‖ The border guards could quarantine anyone suspected of having a contagious disease. If a person was quarantined, he or she could only use the barracks of German rail companies, effectively losing the right to travel on tickets issued by non-German companies. Using such arguments,
―the Germans fleeced many passengers, selling them new tickets at extraordinarily high prices,‖ cousin Motl had reported. "They also clean our pockets, charging us for the soap and disinfectants," he wrote. In the disinfecting baths, where passenger's clothes were treated as 41 Fancy Fart
well, a simple procedure was used to take advantage of them. They were told to keep their money in their hands as they placed their garments into the fumigating chambers, on the pretext of preventing the heat from burning their bills, of course. ―In this way, the money that each passenger carried could be seen, and later confiscated using all the deception of practiced crooks.‖
When Anita and her children made it to the dressing rooms and were asked to take their clothes off, her youngest daughter refused to comply. ―No, mother, I do not want to strip in front of that ugly German official!‖ ―But sweetheart, listen, if you don't cooperate these people will punish us and things will get much worse,‖ she said removing her daughter's blouse. As she struggled with the child, Sarita felt dizzy, and could not help throwing up all the meatballs she had eaten earlier all over the official's neat white apron. ―You dammed full of lice little twerp,‖ shouted the woman as she ran for the bathroom. ―You will pay for this,‖ she screamed and slammed the door.
At the port of embarkation, a number of agencies approached the new emigrants with self-interested offers of help. The Evangelical mission promised to pay their ticket in exchange for undergoing Christian baptism. Anita would always remember this, as well as the resolution to
"save" their souls made by these judenmissionen, as they were known in Hamburg. Even little Elena advised her mother to accept the offer to convert in order to have more funds for their trip. "In any case," she said, "who is going to know what we did?"
Arriving in Germany had been akin to entering a fairy tale. The towns, cities, and above all, the houses were much prettier than those they had left behind in Poland. These had well kept gardens and spring flowers that livened up the landscape. Young Elena's interest was caught by the fact that she could see no outhouses. "Most toilets are inside," her mother pointed out,
"a luxury previously only seen in Warsaw." People were much better dressed here and seemed happier and kind. "During the Great War," her mother continued, "the Germans had been good to the Jews because they could understand each other; you know, Yiddish and German are much alike."
She recalled that one of her cousins lived near the German border and did business with Germans and never had problems collecting payments, something more common among her Polish customers. Perhaps Hitler had changed all that, but still she accepted that, even with him in power, the Germans treated them better. "It's a civilized country," Anita told her daughter, amazed at the passing towns. "The Germans have progressed a great deal, unlike Poland, which is poorer than a cockroach."
Located on the banks of the Elbe, Hamburg was, said Anita to her children, the most important port of Germany and the best way to travel to Costa Rica. In 1926, there were several thousand Jews of a total population of over one million people. Some were foreigners, like cousin Fanny, who worked as a shikseh at the home of a wealthy family of German Jewish bankers.
Anita and her children were taken care of and well treated. It was 1934, and Germans still considered Jews to be human beings. The border police and immigration officials had complimented her daughter: "What a beauty!‖ said the officer inspecting their passports. Anita was flattered at first by this attention, but was less happy with the rest of the compliment.
"This girl," he went on, pointing at Elena, "is not like you at all. She is beautiful!" For a woman who so greatly admired the Germans, Anita was unsure just what to do next. Should she smile and say, "thank you", or start to cry?
Once in the city, they went to the Jewish neighborhood and rented a place for the night. The dark hotel room close to the sea allowed them to look at the water, cold and indifferent--the same sea that would take them to the New World. This time, however, young Elena could not see her face reflected in the water. She did not know whether to be happy, or what to expect from the long journey ahead.
Later, the whole family got ready to eat at the restaurant of their small and dismal hotel for emigrant Jews, close to the ghetto, just two blocks away from the famous synagogue on the Born Platz. That night, they visited Fanny to say their goodbyes, going first to the famous synagogue to pray and ask for God's good luck on their Odyssey. "Don't let the mosquitoes devour us, help Sarita fight her asthma, help us keep our faith," Anita prayed.
Her cousin Fanny was a woman of about thirty years old, tall, and white with Ashkenazi42
features. Among the Jewish community of Hamburg, divided as they were between the Ashkenazi's and the Sephardim43, Fanny's traits placed her in a social order higher than the Sephardim but far below her patrons, the Stern family, who belonged to the upper crust of German Jewish society. These families owned large companies, whereas their social inferiors were mere peddlers and small merchants, like David Sikora and his other cousins in America, who were the poor descendants of religious but unskilled workers. The Stern family, for example, would have employed a German girl, but given the increasing Nazi opposition to let Germans do domestic duties for Jews, they took on Fanny instead. Although the laws prohibiting Germans working for Jews would not be in forced until some years later, this family preferred to see itself as being provident.
The two cousins were happy to see one another. They had been childhood friends and had thought that they would never see each other again. Fanny had to cook, clean, and act as Governess to the three small children of the Stern family so she had little time on her hands.
They treated her well, but no different to any other maid. "The German Jews," she said, "think they are better than us Polish ones. They believe us to be uncultivated and primitive, while they spend their time listening to Wagner and discussing their problems with psychiatrists."
Soon they would need to visit these doctors with alarming frequency, since the Nazis came to power, their rights and freedoms had been running from them like water slipping through the open fingers.
42 Western Jewish
43 Middle East or Spanish Jews
Fanny was allowed to receive the visitors in her small bedroom facing the canal. "Generally they don't let me have Polish folks in the house so as not to irritate the German neighbors."
She was convinced that things would get worse in Germany and that Anita was lucky to be leaving. "The patroness says that Germans ―project‖ their fears on the Jews and blame us for all their woes. This is what her Psychiatrist explained to her. Still, she was not convinced: I think these explanations from her Psychiatrist are designed to get more her money. My patrons believe nothing wrong can come to them because the man fought in World War I and he received all sorts of medals for bravery."
Anita did not believe it: "I have a foreboding of impending evil,‖ she said. Both women knew that the rich would be the first to be saved, at least those that were not numbed by unfounded optimism. "The truth is that they have money and they will be able to get away from this mess at any time," Fanny assured her cousin. "But we, the poor, where are we to go?"
"But cousin, even us, penniless as we are, we are leaving." "But you have a husband,‖ cried Fanny. ―The man might be a good for nothing Sikora from Ostrołęka, whose own grandfather, Aviezer, and his father, Jacob, were bums who only studied the Torah - but at least he has sent for you. Who cares about a poor maid like me?" "I do!‖ replied Anita. ―I do," and as the two women hugged, "I promise that I will send the tickets as soon as possible, so that you too can get away from here. You won't ever see another German for miles around."
Fanny was not at all convinced. "These people carry with them the seeds of doom, cousin, don't be so sure they won't conquer the world and that you won't have them even in the last corner of the Earth."
The departure was emotional. "Take good care, Anita! May God give you all the happiness of the world," sobbed the other. "Let life treat you well and may you find a good husband."
The following day, mother and all three children boarded the ocean liner for America. "Those traveling in third class go through the other door," shouted a German officer, unable to disguise the loathing dwelling in his soul.
Three months at sea allowed Elena to think as she had never thought before. She imagined what other passengers just like herself might be feeling and thinking as they floated on the ocean towards the unknown. She had read about Christopher Columbus, while investigating the place her family was about to move to. Contrary to what was happening to her, Columbus got lost and all his calculations about the date of arrival in India were wrong. This must have sent the poor Admiral dizzy, she thought, searching for an elusive land that was not showing up across the horizon. Again, and contrary to their own experience, at least Columbus was used to the swaying of ships.
For her family, the first three days aboard the dirty third class cabin had been hell. There were no windows and they had to endure the stifling heat of a cabin next to the rattle of immense steam boilers. Used to the vast Polish landscape, the tightness of the liner was torture. Two people could barely walk side by side along their section's corridor, and the constant comings and goings of numerous voyagers made walking through the tight space an Odyssey in itself.
Things were no better in the cabins. The small rooms had but one tiny round skylight from which you could barely see a piece of sky. Bunk beds were placed at both ends of the cabin, making it more like a cell in a prison than the temporary home of paying passengers.
Elena missed the sun. Down in the depths of the third class section, she could barely catch a glimpse of it. Two electrical lamps that made all things appear faded lighted the rest of the place. In the midst of such heat and over-crowding, Anita and her three children threw up everything they ate. Since they had to share the toilet with the passengers of six more cabins, they spent all their time in the queues waiting to get in. Once they had relieved themselves from what little food they still kept in their bodies, they started again at the end of the queuing lines to prevent any sudden mishaps. This they did so often that throughout their floor they were nicknamed "the emetics."
On the third day aboard the dank and noisy vessel, young Elena decided to get a breath of fresh air. The sea breeze she felt would do her well, helping to stop the chaloshes.44 She went via the second-class section, one floor above, and saw two men who looked like rabbis discussing the Talmud. "Where are they going? What will their lives be like?" she wondered.
Once on deck she felt a little better. She was looking at the sky, the few seagulls, the imposing blue ocean, and the well-to-do passengers of first class. She distrusted these hundreds of dressed up women, happily decked out and enjoying themselves, far distant from her kind of worries. If they felt dizzy, the waiting boys would immediately bring smelling salts. If the heat bothered them, they were offered natural fruit juices, a cup of cold wine, or mint tea. "Waiter, bring me a lemonade, I'm hot,‖ a woman from New York was shouting. Beyond her, a lady from the height of Parisian high society was wearing light cotton dress, diaphanous like the ocean breeze. "How thrilling it is traveling to the New World!" she was saying while searching 44 Nausea
for Central America on a map. "See how far away it is, darling," she pointed out to her husband.
Hearing about 'that place' reminded Elena of the day when, together with her sister, she visited the town library looking for information about Costa Rica. "Costa what?" demanded the librarian, believing the two young girls were trying to trick her. "Is that a place or a cake?" she added sarcastically. It was obvious that this woman hated serving Jews, who to her misfortune, had taken to using the small library at Długosiodło more frequently than any others. "Surely because theirs is a wandering race, they are always looking for places to go," she commented to her colleague. "I will help them as long as they only request geography books."
"Look, young lady, here we only have books about the history of Poland and other important countries. Where is Costa Rica anyway?" she asked. "My dad moved over there. It's in Central America," Elena answered. "Well then, tell him to stay there and never come back here."
Nonetheless, she eventually found an old copy of A History of America, which included some maps and a few chapters on the voyages of Christopher Columbus. "Here you are girl, don't be taking it away with you now," she told Elena, slapping the book on the table. Elena took it enthusiastically and sat down to read. Her younger sister, Sarita, only wished to know if in that new land where they were bound, she could get all the free chocolate she could ever want. "Don't be such an idiot, Sarita, the only place where they give you all you need is the United States!"
Reading, the young girl learned that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to America, arrived at a place called Cariari, nearby to what today is the Port of Limon on the Atlantic coast of Central America. His goals had been similar those of their mother; he too was looking for a fortune, "although the explorer had other designs in mind as well. Accordingly, while in Cariari, Columbus received reports from "two Indians" about the fabulous gold mines to be found and he turned greedy. The natives took him to Carambaru "where the people go about naked, wearing gold mirrors around their necks." They swore that there were large mines near the coast, where they dug the metal for the golden mirrors they wore. The "discoverer" of America did not find any mines.
He was wrongly convinced of having found large amounts of wealth and that this place must be near the Ganges River in India. "The man must have been totally misguided," she explained to her younger sister. He believed in the theories of Florentine Toscallini, that traveling westward was the shortest way to get to India. "Columbus took the same route and had the same purpose as our father", who knows, she told Sarita, eventually luck would completely change for both of them. "I hope that in trying to reach America, we don't end up in India, and sold as slaves to a harem in Bombay."
"The Admiral, you know, he arrived in Central America", she told her little sister, "and not in India as he first suspected. Just like our father, he didn't know any geography when he ended up in a different place, far away from the borders of United States. Columbus should have marched straight away to North America. Instead he discovered America much later than he expected, and the end of it all, he was left as poor as the mice in a synagogue. He should not 53
have let himself be taken by the first things he saw. The Indians indeed wore trinkets made with golden metal, but that was about as much as they had. The natives did not realize their mistake in talking about the riches to be found in these fabulous gold mines. So the Spaniards got hungry, and, like the Poles and Jews we know today, the explorers became greedy and searched everywhere for these mines of pure gold. Oblivious to the exuberant flora and the rare fauna that covered the newfound land, these conquerors, and others that would follow, were bewitched by the stories of vast mines "rich" with gold, and would call this new land Costa Rica. It is there that we will go in a few more weeks," she told her sister.
Elena returned to her reality. After all, Columbus died without ever learning where he had really arrived at and maybe he had not suffered as much as it was believed. "He used to be around kings," she told herself, "and surely a few good parties he must have had." When they were discussing how to reach India to bring back lots of clove, they drank bottles of wine and ate dozens of partridges and boars. Surely, these parties were paid for with the spoils the Spaniards got when they ejected half a million Jews that same year. Elena imagined the two greedy Catholic Majesties getting ready to receive the treasures the Jews would later leave behind. The ejection decree of 1492 stated that the Jews could not take with them neither gold nor silver and that they were expelled for "attempting to judaize the converts," for "subverting the Catholic faith," and, "for killing Christian children" according to the famous inquisitor Torquemada.
Elena imagined the Catholic queen asking her husband,
“Please, Ferdinand, pour Columbus more wine, I love his tales of how he is going to reach India. I am dying to try this salty hog spiced with a bit of cinnamon. If we have run out of wine, ask the servants to bring bottles from the Jew. He gave them to me so that I would let him stay in Spain three more months. Beware of that Torquemada finding out about it though; otherwise, he would want some more pesos, as he did with the 300 converts that he burned in 1481. Back then, he concocted fake stories against the Jews, accusing them of ritual murders and other witchcraft, asking me to give him half the fortune of those burnt at the stake. Do not forget the promises he made to the converts: first he would let them go free if they confessed their Jewish practices, but later he would force them under torture to accuse even their own grandmothers. We did not even see one single royal peso. Instead, go get me some partridge eggs among the goods we took from the merchant Ester Iwasrobbed, who I allowed to convert in exchange for a donation to the Crown.”
The Queen must have felt generous and magnanimous despoiling the poor Spanish Jews and Moors. She had taken advantage of the situation created by her own decree, buying for peanuts the haciendas of those ejected, and suddenly forced to sell all they owned. "And about Columbus, why should we worry about him? After all he is just another treacherous Jew who converted only to ingratiate himself with the Christians." After all, thought the young girl, he had sold his soul to the Devil. He was just another one in the long list of traitors, including her mother's idol, Karl Marx.
Still, Columbus would not have wanted to know that the cost of converting was worthless, even if, as in her own case, he obtained the transatlantic voyage free. If, as the legend had it, the Catholic Queen gave him her jewels to pay for the expenses necessary for his first voyage,
―he would have been an ass not to keep a ring or an embroidered cloak, to be used in case of unforeseen circumstances.‖
"Elena fancied the Admiral saying to the Queen: "My Lady Isabel, what do you know! They gave me less pesos for your jewelry than we expected." The Royal Treasurer, willing to sow discord between them, retorted that he believed those jewels to be a fake. "Surely you were deceived by those Jews from whom you bought them."
The Queen would get so mad that the poor goldsmith would be beheaded at her request, because in this way nobody would know that Columbus kept for himself many zloty s, or their equivalency in royal pesos. However, young Elena had learned the real truth from her history teacher. Instead, Jews like Gabriel Sanchez and Luis de Santángel were the real financial backers of Columbus. Still, Isabel's legend was more romantic and Elena had a passion for chivalrous tales.
Her Majesty would eventually get what she deserved. Elena daydreamed about the face she made when Columbus presented her with a few Indians wearing loincloths and some cockatoos as the spoils of his discoveries. "Are you telling me that I sold my wedding rings and bracelets and for them I now get a pair of tiny beasts that are shitting all over the place and increasing my headache? Do you think that I am stupid, or what?" Isabel shouted in a fit of ire.
"I would have done better keeping the Jews and the Moors than dealing with this imbecile Columbus. The only good thing from this voyage is that he has become infected with syphilis and there does not exist a doctor that may cure it."
While the young girl remembered Columbus and his dealings with the great Isabel the First of Castile, the sun was at its best. First class passengers (many of whom were descendants of the Admiral but rather more successful at taking money from poor Indians besides putting them out to work), sat to drink cups of tea on the open lounge by the stern. From there, she would have been able watch all the happening on decks built of precious woods, but had to be contented looking on from afar since such an exclusive spot was banned to third class passengers.
This spot was a social center for the wealthy and famous. Elena thought that it must be a safe place, for if the ship were to go down, these people would be the first to reach the lifeboats.
She felt a bit calmer thinking this, at least, the liner was carrying a cargo barge and in case of an emergency, some third class passengers could surely find safety on it. There were women and men from all nationalities. The well-dressed gentlemen wearing top hats and the ladies pointed hats made of fine jipijapa straws, or Andalusian hats with upturned brims.
In front of them, a few German sailors were having a good time with some ladies. Elena watched amazed at how common and wild they looked, apparently incapable of harming a fly, and free of all the perversity that Fanny attributed to them. The men could model for the illustrations of a novel about knights: arrogant, virile, their large white teeth contrasting perfectly with blond hair that waved in the breeze like the little flags on the mast. They were, apparently, wooing the ladies who watched them, enticed by impeccably tight uniforms outlining the shapes and bulges of manly bodies. Facing them, the aristocracy carried on a delightful gossip around small porcelain cups filled with English tea. The bustle of their conversations reminded Elena of the multiplicity of nationalities present: British, French, German, North American, Italian and even Portuguese. It was a beautiful afternoon, full of colors, and the smell of the fine pastries, which the richer passengers eagerly consumed.
Suddenly, two of her countrymen approached from the second-class section, wearing caftans and black hats, they walked steadily towards the sailors. Unforeseen by the Talmud, the men were arguing about who knows what dilemma, perhaps about the dangers of impiety in the New World where their co-religionists had already forgotten their Jewish traditions. The conversation must have been captivating because these men of God were distracted, oblivious of all other passengers. In a sudden movement, a German sailor came nearby, bowed before the two Jewish men, took the hat from the head of one and tossed it into the sea. The other sailors did the same thing to the second Jew. The two men were astonished, and stood deadly still. The young girls who had been chatting with the sailors burst into laughter. The more they laughed, the more the boys were encouraged. " Juden, juden," they shouted. In the heat of the bustle, the taller sailor began to kick at the men's rear end, and ordered them to leave the deck.
"We don't want swine Jews on this ship! Go keep company with the rats!"
Elena was unsure what to do. She felt like jumping into a lifeboat, swimming out to sea, or start crying. Did they know she was a Jewess? ―Would they take away her small sky blue hat, the only one she owned and that her friend, Shosha, had given to her as a parting present?‖ As she tried to appear as small as possible, she felt as if she had shrunk so much that it would be hard for others to see her. But she was able to see the faces of the distinguished first class passengers, eyewitness to the event. Some pretended to look the other way and kept drinking their delicious tea. "Wonderful biscuits!" they said. Others shook their heads disapprovingly, while some others approved the action and laughed along with the sailors, lifting their cups as if toasting them. Still some other passengers looked around hatefully but said nothing.
Everything was suddenly caught by a deathly silence: The porcelain tinkling in the tearoom stopped, no one said a word and the different languages and accents were stumped by the roam of the sea. All were relieved when the two Jews ran towards the stairs and disappeared below.
The young girl was sure she would be next. Her vivid imagination made her believe that this time the sailors and the guests in the tearoom would join forces to throw her hat away and kick her harder than they had kicked the men of God. These two men, her fellow compatriots, had rented a "second class" cabin after all, and were more powerful and wealthy than she. It was common knowledge that the larger the fortune, the larger the invisible bubble protecting the 56
individual. The poor barely possessed clothes and their bodies were easy to hit. If the "second class" passengers were kicked in their rear ends, then those in "third class" would be even less respected and accorded the morality of a transatlantic liner divided into classes. Passengers from this last section would surely receive the harder kicks.
While figuring out just how to hide her hat so as not to lose it, a woman's shrill shouts brought her from her thinking. She noticed an attractive high society woman rushing onto the deck.
She was about forty years old and in good shape, wearing a white dress that reached her knees and was crowned by a hat of the same color from which a veil fell across half her face. The woman was coming from the tearoom and had left a few passengers around her table that now looked at her as astonished as Elena did. "Hey, you band of savages and cowards!‖ she shouted in perfect German. "Why don't you throw away your savage mother's top hat?" The woman in white got closer to the sailors, and as she did so she removed her white hat. She looked just like any one of them: All white, all blond, all blue eyed, all Germans.
She threw her coiffure at one of the sailors. "Toss it into the sea, you big coward, I dare you.
Throw it to the waters and then tell me how manly you are!" The sailors and the girls they wooed, the entire tearoom, Elena, and even the gulls, remained silent. In the midst of this eerie void, Elena could hear only the sea and the ship's gigantic motors, but it seemed as if the Tower of Babel had split in two before her very eyes. It had fallen and sunk into the blue of the bluest ocean and nobody spoke another word.
The Captain of the ship, quiet until then, broke the deadly silence. "Baroness Gerffin, what's going on? Are these gentlemen giving you any trouble?" The woman turned her head towards authority, barely opening her lips, and as if thousands of years of aristocracy had reduced the spaces needed to talk, she said: "This grimy Nazi trio have mocked some passengers and I am tired of how they drag Germany's name by the cowsheds' floors." The Captain did not need to ask to whom she was referring, "Gentlemen", he said, "this is my ship and here we shall not tolerate political harassment of any kind." The "first class" passengers, some of whom had been previously celebrating the sailors' actions, now stood up and applauded both the Captain and this exquisite woman, whom they now recognized to be more noble, and surely, wealthier than themselves.
Baroness Gerffin did not return to her friends seated at the table. She stayed to look at the sea, as if hoping to find the lost hats. Elena watched her delicate movements, her poise and her piercing eyes, and she felt as paralyzed as the day she saw the rat. The German woman moved closer to the young Jewish girl. "What a beautiful creature!" she said to Elena, and smiled. "In my entire life, I have never seen such an expressive face." But the looks of her own face were the last thing on Elena's mind. She made a quick assessment of her own clothes: the old gray dress checked in red and sky blue, discolored now after too many washings, the sky blue hat given to her by a friend, the brown shoes that could barely withstand a few more walks, thinning short white socks, and a ridiculous red and sky blue bow, which her mother had insisted on tying around her waist. "I must look like your maid's maid," she thought to herself.
"Thank you for what you did for my countrymen," she daringly responded in Yiddish eventually. "Do not thank me at all, my dear, I did it because the riffraff's that now hold power in Germany make me angry. They are a bunch of gangsters wanting to enjoy themselves on the backs of the likes of those of us who have worked for centuries." "And who are the likes of you?" Elena politely asked. "We are..." Baroness Gerffin continued, but the young girl could hear nothing more above the sudden swell of noise from the ship's roaring motors.
Under the hat, the one that the sailors did not dare to toss into the sea, there was a beautiful and spirited face. The Baroness was the type of person Elena had always liked: a woman of action, a beautiful Amazon, an independent Greek goddess, capable of forging alliances and waging wars, ready to confront men, quite indifferent to the "delicate" feminine version of womanhood imposed upon the century by Victorian Puritanism and movies of the day. "Do you know something, doll? Why don't you come to my cabin so that I can paint your face? I would love to talk about your voyage and paint that very special face of yours. Come tomorrow, at teatime, and look for me in first class. I am Baroness Claudia Gerffin, at your service."
The girl was unable to react, could not say yes or no. She had never been near a noble woman before, a lady sparkling with class, respect, money and something that made her even more attractive than the others: Power. The Baroness possessed something the girl wanted and that bonded both of them beyond race, religion, country, or age. This capacity to command was something women had once enjoyed; it had been taken away from them over time, and was now in need of rescue. This woman, thought Elena, need not ask permission to attend a hovel of a school, nor like Anita, be forced to put her property in the name of her husband, besides serving the useless man on hands and knees like many of the women she knew. "How would you feel about slapping some sailors and knowing they can do nothing about it?" she asked the Baroness. "Marvelous!" she replied.
"At the beginning, in the Bible,‖ explained the Baroness; ―we females decided where our people were to live. Abraham left for his woman's lands." However, in a mythical historical moment, these heroines lost their home. "You must be aware that times of exile are key moments for us women." Such times may mean either freedom or slavery. It was the latter in the case of the exile in Babylon. "Biblical women were not weak creatures. They actively participated in the rural society before the exile. Not only did they weave and prepare foods, but they also shepherded and harvested. Women attended public worship and were present at the assembly where Moses issued his laws. They therefore had a relevant role to play."
However, things would change in the days of the Second Temple with the return to Palestine.
In order to reinforce nationalism, the powerful priests that compiled the new laws treated women as inferiors. Women were blamed for the exile because they had contravened the principles of the Pentateuch by praying during menstruation. In order to reinforce the family, women were placed under the absolute domination of men and were excluded from the educational and religious systems. Their function would become reproductive and child rearing.
At the same time, the rabbis reinterpreted the very Torah. For example, given that the Book of Genesis, had insinuated that Eve was endowed with an intelligence greater than that of Adam, these rabbis concluded that even if the archetypical woman may have more bina45, the fact that Adam answered directly to God, while Eve answered only to Adam, made it impossible for her to have a full and complete sense of the implications of their disobedience. "The Rabbinic Talmudist tradition that strengthened during the exile took power away from us and imposed submission," added the woman. "You are going to a New Babylon. Be careful that they don't take away the power from you again," the Baroness warned.
Elena descended the stairs to third class, and swore to herself that these were the last stairs she would descend as a 'typical' woman, although as a Jewess she could not be sure if it would mean the same. On arriving at the cabin shared by her family, her mother asked where she had been all this time. "I met a Baroness who wants to paint my portrait tomorrow," she explained.
"And I am the Queen of Sheba," came Anita's reply. However, the next day, Elena would be on time for her appointment in the beautiful cabin of Baroness Claudia Gerffin. As she knocked on the door, she thought, "Today is something the poor cannot waste."
The floor maid had assumed the girl came to clean the windows or the magnificent toilet room that included the most luxurious devices of the day--hot water and a marble bathtub. But no,
"the young woman is here to pose," the Baroness announced and received her with a broad open smile that clearly suggested friendship. "Come in, Elena, welcome to my cabin!"
The Baroness was an excellent painter; the finished pictures and those still underway were exhibited on the walls and in the corners of the sumptuous room. The young girl was moved by vivid colors of landscapes, by the geometric faces of characters and by the dreamy atmosphere of it all. The Baroness was painting a blue star above a crow placed inside a square; over a dark grass and under a sky of the deepest sky blue she had ever seen. In the next painting, a lonely ballerina with a body made of three balloons danced in a tropical forest filled with waving pineapple, banana and watermelon figures.
While the artist sketched on canvas the feelings aroused by this beautiful girl, she had plenty of time to talk. The Baroness wished to know everything. "This is not a portrait of your face, Elena; what I want to capture is a feeling, an idea, an absence. I am not sure yet just exactly what I am going after, not even if I will find it." The woman made a sketch and then later threw it away, sketched again, then sent it flying towards the waste-bin. The next attempt did not make her happy either and ended up on the sofa. "With the paper you have thrown away, my family could eat for an entire week, Baroness," said the girl. "Do not call me Baroness any more, my name is Claudia." "Well, Claudia, you are wasting a whole forest."
"Silly, silly, girl", replied the painter mockingly, "if you think that I am wasting forests of paper simply trying to sketch you, then you have no idea of your worth." "How much am I worth then, Baroness? How much is a poor Jewess on her way to the jungle worth?" The 45 Intelligence
Baroness snatched the fifth sketch and crumpled it into a lump. She turned her head to rivet on Elena's beautiful blue eyes and threw the paper ball at the face of her young guest, smiling:
"A girl with the soul of an old woman is worth her weight in gold. It's that simple." Elena felt they had talked enough about her.
"So why is a noble and rich woman on her way to the tropics?" she asked.
"I am going to see my son, a handsome young man by now, I am sure. He left with his father after our divorce. They took him away from me. Nobles also have problems with exiles and separations. The only difference is that pain is easier to endure traveling first class. If you are sad, a glass of whisky will remedy it; if you want to cry, there are wonderfully handy white linen handkerchiefs to soak up your tears; if you are bored a good match of tennis comforts.
But the misery, Elena, it is the same misery everywhere."
A silence descended like a small cloud from the ornate ceiling lamp above, filled with the tears kept inside both women. "Speak, your ladyship, tell me the story of your son. I want to listen to your accent, your language, your peculiar way of talking, since one cannot know if it is really a Baroness before me, or the Biblical Sarah before making the mistake of joining Abraham."
Claudia started to laugh. She was surprised that such a young girl could compare her to a biblical female figure and felt that both she and her model had something in common: Feminist consciousness. "You are saucy, woman," said the painter. "I also have to admit that I never liked the biblical heroines but I recognize that things got worse in the New Testament.
In my religious high school (because I was sent to one), each time they talked about Mary, I wanted to read about Judith again. At least, the woman had guts." Elena could not believe that a German Baroness could have thoughts so similar to her own. "Don't you think that Judith's is the best story in the Bible?" "Completely," the Baroness replied. "Surely that is why she was removed from the Torah and left as an apocryphal text," the Baroness insisted.
In the Book of Judith, she continued, the traditional role of women is challenged the most.
"Contrary to Eve, whose sexuality is regarded as the reason for the fall, she represents the salvation of the nation." The Assyrian forces under the command of Nebuchadnezzar are about to take Bethulia on their way to Jerusalem. The Jewish people, overwhelmed by hunger, beg their leaders to surrender, unless God ordered otherwise. Judith – a beautiful widow -
questions why they dare set time limits to the divine intervention. She promises to save the town.
She goes to the enemy's camp, and makes them believe that she will reveal how to take the city. She has an interview with general Holophernes, the Assyrian king, whom she beheads while he was inattentive. Judith appears to the Israelites, carrying her bloody trophy and encourages them to launch a surprise attack. They come out victorious and Judith is regarded as the great heroine and savior of independence. Although she is given a royal treatment in Jerusalem, the warrior woman returns to her town to reject numerous offers of marriage until 60
her death. "The story is touching because it is inserted in the midst of the most patriarchal Judeo Christian book, like a dagger on manly pride."
"I believe, as Judith did," continued Claudia, "that those women seeking to be historical leaders, do better without male company. The same occurs between Christians and Jews; we may not love each other until the oppression and discrimination are over. No one respects the weaker person, Elena. It is the simplest of mathematics."
The Baroness seemed to have Judith's power. She had shown it to the sailors. "But who may tell you what you should or should not do?" she continued. The painter lit a cigarette, looked at the girl, and started to talk. She had married a General of the German Army, a considerate man at first, "like all men before the passion is spent. According to the story of Tristan and Isolde," she said, 'passionate' love lasts three days. In my case, it was three years. Our love ended, and the only good thing I had left was a son called Max. His father accused me of infidelity and of living with another woman, which was true, and he took me to court. They took away my son, whom I have not seen since. I know he left for Costa Rica and works at the Legation. I am going to him with my soul in my mouth, so that he will not reject me."
Elena had never before met a lesbian, but neither had she met a Baroness, an artist and an independent woman. She was therefore unsure exactly which aspect surprised her most.
Maybe the most familiar was also the most striking, since she knew that her Uncle Samuel,
"the suicide", also loved someone of the same sex. Without thinking about it, she hugged and kissed Claudia on the forehead. "Not any son could reject such a wonderful mother, Claudia, no one." The older woman could not control her crying. "Come see me at the Hotel Costa Rica, please," she said. Do not leave me alone in that country."
David Sikora had a rough start in America. He was one of the two Jews that arrived at the Costa Rican port of Limon in 1927. He spoke no words of Spanish, but employing terrible English, he managed to learn of a "German" merchant who owned a large business in San Jose, the capital city. To his surprise, the owner was Enrique Yanquelemi, a fellow Jew.
Not knowing any trade, he decided to look for work in Yanquelemi's department store, One Hundred Flowers. As he walked towards Central Avenue, the two men met by coincidence in front of the cathedral. His first conversation with Yanquelemi was fast and fruitful.
"How wonderful it is to find a fellow Jew here so far away from Poland!" said David.
"To me it is a surprise to find another Polish Jew in Costa Rica. What can you do?" Enrique asked.
"I need help. I only studied at a yeshiva. I only have $25. I must work doing whatever is available," said the new immigrant looking towards the church.
"Without speaking Spanish it's going to be hard to find anything. I can give you a job as a peddler at my department store, One Hundred Flowers. You'll get a commission from your sales and you need to seek your customers away from downtown. One thing, though, leave your passport with me as a warranty."
It was not long before David Sikora found out that the few Jews who had arrived before him also worked for this department store. He had to work, as a klapper, a word from the Yiddish "klap-klap," meaning to knock at a door, like the English "knock-knock" or the Spanish "tac-tac." His trade would be to sell clothes and fabrics in the marginal urban and rural areas. By 1930, the records of this department store included 99 Jews working as peddlers (around 90 per cent of those entering the country). Accordingly, this department store helped many people pull away from poverty, while others claim they were exploited and their passports removed in order to keep them controlled.
David's work was to include selling merchandise in the rural towns. Next day he took off on horseback to Alajuela, the second largest town in the country, and its surrounding villages. Since he could speak no Spanish, he was to peddle using signs and numbers. It would be a major challenge to explain the virtues of the rags he was selling, and once in the town, he sat alone with his suitcase in the central park. Later, waving his arms about, he called to passerby. Some stopped because they were attracted to this man with the deep black eyes and eyebrows, gesticulating so strangely that they considered him a magician.
The peasants expected a rabbit from his hat or some other kind of magic, and in the usually quiet park shadowed by large mango trees and bordered by stone benches, a small crowd gathered.
Don Paco, a fat peasant from the town of Naranjo, said to his friend, a government clerk,
"Look, Abdulio, I don't understand this gentleman at all. I've been waiting for him to perform a magic trick for several minutes now and the only thing he does is to show fabrics and clothes. I don't see anything extraordinary in opening a suitcase and pulling a rag from it. Besides, he uses quite a lot of them. He puts them over that girl over there, as if wanting to play a trick on her. He doesn't speak Spanish and says words that I can't understand.
What's going on?"
"Oh, it's an old thing I saw when the circus came to San Jose three years ago. In a few minutes he will pull a rabbit from the fabrics and surely will cut the woman in half. Let's wait a little while," answered Abdulio.
David had no idea what bewilderment he was creating. He tried to explain that the fabric would make a nice dress. The peasants applauded by mere courtesy, since his juggling could not have impressed them. "He must be very good because he has come with his show from far away,‖ said Malaquias, a barman from downtown. "But I see no magic," another one answered. "Don't worry. The rabbit is going to pop up when you least expect it." After looking at the magician from different angles, Malaquias the barman took out twenty-five cents from his pocket and gave it to David appreciatively. ―Excellent! Excellent!‖ said Abdulio, smiling. "It's the best show I've ever seen. It deserves rewarding." The rest did likewise, so as not to be less than Abdulio. They gave him coins, applauding with gusto.
David made five colones that first day and was able to keep all the merchandise. Such a large fortune was enough to pay for that day's meal.
"How generous and strange these people are!‖ he thought. "They gave me money and didn't take the goods." David believed he was being paid just for showing his fabrics and clothes.
In Poland, no one ever received such kind gestures. While they walked away, Malaquías said to a fellow, "What an excellent show! Did you notice how I got well over thirty colones from the ladies' purses while they were paying attention to that madman?" The bartender had taken the opportunity to fleece some onlookers, who could not feel his sharp fingers opening their purses.
Unknowingly, David had started the klapper occupation or Polish Credit that was to become the main activity of all the Jews who came after the 1930s (a common and forced experience for them all). Many peddler-friends of Anita's husband, added to this claim while chatting after dinner at Hotel Central, the first hotel to open in the city of Alajuela.
For example, Rogelio admitted having had no other option: "I did just like the other 99% of the community in those days, worked as a peddler. It was the only real alternative we had."
Those that didn't want this type of work had to leave the country.
Since they could not speak Spanish, it was impossible to figure out the addresses of the places where they peddled. Ingenuity came to their rescue. They wrote descriptions of the houses as an aide de memoir. José made his first sale at a pink house in the Kent neighborhood of San José. In order to remember it later, he wrote it down, "pink house with two windows, 100 yards from the railroad." In order to avoid getting lost in unknown territories without a good command of Spanish, some, the majority, sold exclusively in their own neighborhoods. Others set up a " tienda" (store) in the street, generally in a place with heavy transit like Central Park or nearby Saint John the Divine Hospital. For the more ambitious or aggressive, like David himself, the place to work was the "virgin" rural areas, where this kind of trade had not yet arrived. Each peddler had to go out to the countryside for several days in a row be it traveling on foot or horseback, they also had to carry the merchandise or pay a peon to carry the suitcases sometimes.
Life was hard for all of them. Moisés Flinstein, another tenant at the hotel, used to leave for the countryside on his horse on Monday morning and returned to San José, if he was lucky, late in the evening on Thursday. Herman Ropoport, a veteran of nine years in these tasks, told of journeys to the towns of Tres Ríos, San Pedro and Coronado that lasted an entire week and where his only help was the horse, since he was not "one of the 'rich' who could afford to hire a hand for one colón a day."
Jacobo Putowski had a schedule as hard as that of David's guests and companions: "We got credit from the department stores and both my brother and I began peddling by the rural towns. We sold in cash and in installments. I, for example, on Sundays sold in the village of Desamparados, on the slopes of the mountains at the South of the valley, then in Santa Bárbara on Monday, on the Barva volcano, Northwest of the capital. On Tuesdays, I went to the lowlands at the West side of the valley, in San Antonio de Belén, Ojo de Agua and Río Segundo; on Wednesdays, in Barva of Heredia, San Pablo, San Pedro and Barrio Jesús, again on the slopes of the Barva volcano; then traveled north of San Jose to Santo Domingo and Tibás on Thursdays; then Santa Ana and Villa Colón on Fridays, located on the distant southwest of the valley. I even peddled in Sabanilla de Montes de Oca, from La Paulina to Mata de Plátano on Saturday morning, on the east side of the valley, already on the slopes of the Irazú volcano. I did all that walking for about a year and a half or maybe two years."
Many peddlers complained about the state of the roads. "This was a very hard job because the roads were in very bad shape and during the ' invierno'46 I endured more than one
' sentada' (falling down). On the route from Mercedes of Heredia to San Roque, you had to walk with the mud up to your knees. For his part, Salomon Schifter complained of other dangers: "Not everybody paid on time and once a customer came out threatening me with a machete, simply because I was trying to collect a debt.‖
After those long night conversations at the hotel, the next day David returned to the same park in Alajuela to continue "selling." Again he went through his repertoire of grimaces and the onlookers expected that at any time a rabbit or a chicken would jump out of his suitcase.
Still, although they applauded at each piece of fabric displayed by him, they were not impressed by this circus. David had never seen people receiving each rag with such thrill and couldn't understand why he wasn't selling anything. While he pulled out a shmate and returned another one to the suitcase, a girl he later found to be a floozy, called Emilia, talked with her companion who was also engrossed in the business at hand.
"Laura, I don't think the magician is any good but can't you see how lovely the fabrics are?
I could sew myself a beautiful dress with any one of them for next week's party. I'll ask him if he would sell some."
"Ask him also if he would sell the handkerchief he uses to pull out the rabbits" answered the other woman.
Emilia wrote "two colones" on a piece of paper, passed it to David and pointed to the fabric. David understood perfectly well that this was an offer. He wrote "3" on it and gave it back to the woman who, in turn, wrote once more, "2,50," and smiled as she showed it to him. David assented and just like that, he had completed his first sale. The second one would be the handkerchief, sold for 1,25 colones.
46 Rainy season
"Did you see, Laura, what a good bargain we got?"
"I think you are greedy, buying from the magician his circus tools. The poor man is going to end up unable to play his tricks."
"The truth is that as a magician he is rather poor and it'll be better if he were to sell those things instead of wasting his time."
The next day in Alajuela, the circulating rumors claimed the magician was retiring and was auctioning all his materials. The women heard that Emilia had bought one and a half meters of good quality fabric at a bargain price and that the handkerchiefs were cheap too. Thus, on the third day, people were queuing to acquire the rest of the merchandise. More and more meters of fabric were sold by means of small pieces of paper with numbers written on them being passed back and forth. "Mr. magician, Mr. magician, pick up this piece of paper. I want the fabric you use to pull out the spotted cavy," shouted a peasant woman.
"Don't be daft," her friend corrected her. "The magician only pulls out rabbits."
David was happy with his initial success. He had finally made the peasants understand they could take the shmates. "The people in Costa Rica,‖ he thought, ―are very generous. They pay me just for displaying the fabrics, something no one would do in Poland. Probably they don't have enough money to buy them." It occurred to him that introducing credit sales would make things easier for them.
One of his first permanent customers would be Emilia and her companion, who invited him to sell at their house. Three months later, when David had learned enough Spanish, he visited them. The place was a discreet bordello, patronized by the young gentlemen of Alajuela. There he would meet the elite " manuda", as the dwellers of Alajuela were known.
David gained more customers there and learned the secrets of the Costa Rican sexual life.
"Come to sell at my house," an attractive man of about thirty told him, "but don't you dare tell my wife where you met me."
Some men uninterested in the girls visited the bordello. One of them asked him to sit at his table and show him the fabrics. "Oh, how divine it is!" said the young man. "Your wife will look beautiful dressed in it," answered David, reading the phrase on a piece of paper. "What wife?"- asked the young man. "With this fabric I will have a dress made for me." A few minutes later, David watched as this youth chatted intimately with a man from San José: "I have a special fabric that I want to use at the party in the Casa del Terrón," he was saying.
The boy wanted to be called Chepa from now on and promised David he would introduce him to his friends, most of them from San José. "Let me introduce you to my couturier, recently arrived from Poland," he would say. "You may buy using credit and, besides, be honest with him because he knows all about me."
The homosexual underworld would provide David with many customers. Not everybody dared to step into one of their " bares de mala muerte", or shady bars, as they were known in San José. Some were located close to the Central Market while others remained on the outskirts of town. Most of them didn't have names, just a sign on the door: "Private Party."
The police were not deceived, however, since these signs were usually falling down with 65
age. David himself would learn this trick from the homosexual bars. When he opened his first store in the Market, he would hang another permanent sign: "Final Sale, This Week Only."
Many famous men attended these bars, and as salesman, David would be invited to the homes of high society where elegant women bought his goods. "Don't dare sell Mario's wife the same fabric that I bought for my dress," said the banker's male lover. "Moreover, I'll pay you double if you convince her to buy that horrible brown rag that has become a
' hueso' for you‖47.
These underground bars were packed with customers wanting to buy secretly. Were they to buy at the stores, everybody would find out about their secret lives. They were natural customers to discreet klappers like David. "How would this red dress look on me?" a homosexual called Susanita would ask. "You'll look like Salome in the Dance of the Seven Veils," answered David. "I hope so, because my lover, Max, enjoys making love using Biblical themes."
The homosexuals were surprised that such a "decent" man like David would mingle with them. To their even bigger surprise, the police that extorted them did not impress David at all. He was used to such procedures: "In my homeland, if you are Jewish, you get arrested all the time for a trifle, and then they pressure you to pay bribes," he told them. Once, the police raided a bar and everybody was lined up. When it was his turn to be searched, a policeman said to a fellow officer: "It's the only thing we were missing: a queer Pole."
The salesman could identify with these people. He knew what it meant to have to conceal one's identity, experience rejection and suffer the persecution of the Christian church. "We Jews are in Poland what the homosexuals are in Costa Rica," he would tell them. Anni, a homosexual who liked to dress as a girl from time to time, would ask him, "And do you know, over there, someone like us?" "Well yes, a relative of my wife who blew away his brains."
The homosexuals offered him their friendship and something else besides, a profound knowledge of female vanity. Susanita usually reprimanded the peddler: "Why man! Stop bringing those Spanish fabrics covered with fiery flowers. Perhaps you think we all are Gypsy girls in this country?" "She" taught David about the styles and tastes of Costa Rican women: "We are attracted by feminine things, embroidered and laced clothes, but we don't like gaudy or large things. Some small daisies against a green background are all right, but not those pumpkin flowers on a red taffeta." David never again bought a shmate without prior advice from Susanita. "How do you like these foulards from the United States?" he would ask. "They're as uncouth as the people from Cartago," he would answer.