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“Those Damn Jews …”
A writer’s poignant memoir of a people whom he had been taught to fear and learned to love in a time of trouble
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Reba led me up some steps to the kitchen. At the stove, I turned on the gas and lit it with a match, then put on the burners pots of food prepared the evening before. Grandfather gestured toward the stairs and I followed him down to the basement, in panic but lusting for that fifteen cents, and confronted the furnace, just like the one we had at home. Reba said, “First you shake it.” I shook the grates until the night’s ashes fell down and only the coals remained. Then grandfather pointed to a dark room. I entered it, ready to fight or flee. He pointed to a pile of corncobs and a scoop shovel. Suddenly, great joy and peace came to me; I was back in my own element. The corncob was the central object of my life. My father was a horse handler, first trotting and pacing horses, then coach horses, then work horses, finally saddle horses. I grew up around, on, and under horses, fed them, shoveled their manure, emptied the mangers of corncobs. I was an expert on that symmetrical art form so honored in the folklore of American life before modern plumbing.
Corncobs are the greatest fire-making tinder. Grandfather opened the furnace door and showed me just where to put my scoop of cobs at the back of the grate. There was wood kindling in the dark room, and I added some to the fire. Then I added coal, banking it so that the fire would burn slowly and last all morning. I adjusted the draft to low, and my early-morning work was done. The black voice spoke to Reba, who told me, “You’ll be fine, he says. Come back at noon,” and she patted my shoulder with those long Jewish fingers; they felt like the velvet of my mother’s one good jacket.
I walked out into the glittering daylight from the dungeon of the cellar, a free man, an exuberant heart, a worker with a weekly income doing a useful job that had a vague religious shimmer over it. That morning I played with my friends in an exalted state, my Methodist soul rejoicing that now I would be celebrating two sabbaths. And getting paid!
At noon I was back, turning out the burners on the gas stove and stoking the furnace again. Grandfather’s hands danced as he dramatized in air how I was to shape the cobs, the wood (very little needed at noon), and the coal so that it would last until, with darkness, he could do it himself.
As I opened the back door to leave, the fifteen cents shining in my hand—for how could I hide the coins away in my pocket?—the old fear came back. Walking toward me from the alley where he had tied his horse to a telephone pole, was a man, a kosher chicken hanging from one hand, a few spots of blood. I had been warned about Jews by my gentile friends—they did terrible things with knives to boys. Without thinking, I clutched myself and ran down to the cellar. But that person in his long black coat and his strange hat followed me. I jumped into the coal room, now my salvation. The stranger went over and put the chicken in an icebox and then came up to me saying, “Are you Paul, the new Shabbas goy? It’s a good name, Paul.” And he went up the stairs.
Gradually my reputation as a loyal worker spread. Another Jewish family a block away hired me. Then the rabbi, and my fortune was up to forty-five cents a week. Once the rabbi took me to the synagogue across the Cedar River, and I entered even that mystery without fear.
My real grandfather’s name was Jacob Reinheimer. My Jewish grandfather’s name, I found, was something which sounded like “Yacov,” the same name. We began to talk to each other, he in Yiddish and I in English, so that soon each began to learn some phrases of the other’s language. The rabbi taught me a few Hebrew words. I was the linguist on my block. Once when our filling-station neighbor walked by, I yelled a Yiddish phrase at him. He stopped, stared at me with those cruel eyes, and said, “Paul, they’re getting power over you. They killed Christ. You’ll fry in hell.” And he strode off to repair more inner tubes. I considered my fate for a moment, then decided that if Reba and grandfather Yacov were with me in hell, it wouldn’t be so bad.
I tended my fires for years. Sometimes on cold autumn days I would be playing pickup football on the school playground when Reba would appear on the sideline waving to me. I understood. The gas fire on the stove had blown out. I would leave the game, often to howls from my team, “Come on, Paul, we got a first down, you can’t go. Wanna carry the ball?” But I always got on my bike, went and started the flame again, and came back in time to have my teeth rattled or my nose broken (it is still crooked from being kicked sideways—my neighbor who wrestled tires all day said it was proper punishment for my Jewish sins).