“Those Damn Jews …”

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My life among Jews began with a fiery furnace when I was a kid of ten in that pleasant city of Iowa, (Cedar Rapids, and continued at the fireless furnaces of Auschwitz.

 

My life among Jews began with a fiery furnace when I was a kid of ten in that pleasant city of Iowa, (Cedar Rapids, and continued at the fireless furnaces of Auschwitz.

It all began one day when our neighbor, who worked at a filling station and walked with a gait which my horse-handling father called “gimpy,” stopped at our house; one morning and said bitterly, pointing down the street, “Those damn Jews have moved in.” I had never known a Jew and assumed those people would have a different color or shape from us; in any case, avoid them. Our neighbor, thin, nervous, huge hands dangling from his wrists like untamed animals (his harsh eyes hinted that he used them to beat his wife and children) moved on to his day of gas and tires, leaving me in fear.

 

A week later I met a daughter of the Jewish family in our neighborhood drugstore. To my amazement, she looked like my aunt Effie, the quick-moving, who always shook her long black hair when she talked. The daughter seemed quite old to me, although looking back she was surely in her twenties. She spoke kindly to me, with an accent I had never heard, so different from our solid Midwestern pronunciation; we believed that God had put the letter r in the English alphabet so that it could be given an honest, haarrd sound. I moved away from her, still scared.

A few days later she stopped me on the street saying, “My name is Reba Goldstein. Do you want to earn money?” I could not speak. I looked for the quickest way to run home. She went on, “You come to our house Saturday morning. Light fires. Fifteen cents.”

It was a tough decision. I was frightened of that house. I needed fifteen cents. Reba was no beauty, but when she smiled, the very bones of her face seemed to soften. She was so eager to have me say yes that she leaned toward me and held out her hands. I leaned back, afraid she would touch me with those Jewish fingers, those damn fingers. Then Reba said gently, “Paul, we need you. In our religion, we cannot make fire on Saturdays, because it is our holy day.”

I knew about holiness, never having missed a Sunday-school class since I started at four years. But if Jews were also religious, how could our neighbor with the grease-grimy shirt use the word “damn” about them? And my Methodist church admitted that Christ was a Jew. On that sidewalk, the late autumn sun shimmering through a maple tree whose leaves had turned red, I trembled in the first moral dilemma of my life.

Reba spoke again, “Paul, we need you.” I had been staring down at my scruffy shoes as if they could of their own will walk me away from that moment of fear, embarrassment, and shame. I looked up at Reba. The smile on her plain face caressed my face. What came from her eyes seemed not damn Jewishness but sunlight. More than Iowa maple leaves hovered in that tense air.

“Okay,” I told her.

“Come at six-thirty Saturday morning. And thank you.” Reba floated off toward her mysterious house. I ran home, without the nerve to tell my mother.

So I got my first job. I became a Shabbas goy, a non-Jew who did on the Jewish sabbath, our Saturday, the work which Exodus 35, verse 3, ordered its people not to do: “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.” That ancient Hebraic law put fifteen cents in the pocket of a boy of “pure” German descent. How strange that my Black Forest shoemaking ancestors should have come to the United States and allowed me to lead a life of gas and fire among Jews.

On the first Saturday morning, in Cedar Rapids, that decent, tree-filled city, I knocked softly on the back door of the Goldstein house, ready to run from the horrors inside. Reba opened the door. Behind her was the grandfather, tall, heavily bearded, dressed in black, a black hat on his head, speaking to Reba in words that did not sound to me like a language, but like blackness talking. My filling-station neighbor was right. I came there at the risk of my life.