December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
A writer’s poignant memoir of a people whom he had been taught to fear and learned to love in a time of trouble
My life among Jews began with a fiery furnace when I was a kid of ten in that pleasant city of Iowa, (ledar 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.
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).
Then I met the poet, out of a Jewish immigrant family from Vienna, son of a peddler of tin pots in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri who still drove over the tough hills (the “arcs") selling pans out of a buggy to the poor families clinging for their lives to those rocky slopes. His son’s name was that of an angel, Gabriel, and he could be a devil. As a kid he had spoken Yiddish and Osage and then learned English from Catholic sisters; his talk was full of Christian phrases and Ozark Mountain talk, invocations of the saints and earthy references to the fact that men and women were really made out of the humble body of the earth. I was writing poetry and so was he; mine was about the usual glories and horrors of adolescence, his about tough-minded, tough-muscled, and tough-talking Ozark farmers. I had long since given up carrying the torch as a Shabbas goy; he had long since given up actively running his department store after a massive heart attack. After hours at my drugstore job I would go to his apartment, where he lay on a couch in a robe, and intone my poems in what must have been a revolting and cracking voice. Gabe would listen with interest, and then say, “Now Paul, I’ve got a new one,” and he would read in a near-hillbilly accent a poem of violence and love and hate and hound dogs which would have shocked his Viennese ancestors.
The years rolled their brutal course down the hill of time. Still poor, my clothes still smelling of the horse barn, still writing those doubtful poems where too much emotion clashed with too many words.I went one evening to Gabe and told him that I had just been given a Rhodes Scholarship for three years at Oxford University. He looked at me with those strong and fiery eyes that lit up all of that weakened body. Silence while he handled the shock of my news. Then he said, quietly, “What clothes are you going to wear when you land in Oxford?”
I looked down at the cheap stuff I was wearing. “These.”
Gabe’s temper was like an owl—it was quick to take off and it could fly through darkness. With the shout of an Old Testament prophet accusing a sinner, his small hands making large circles in the air, each of his eyes a burning bush, he screamed at me, “No son of mine [by then I had become an honorary son] is going to go to England looking like that! Go down to the store tomorrow. I’ll leave orders. Start from scratch. Get an outfit that won’t make us ashamed. Jesus Christ, if you’ll excuse my using that expression, you look like a bum. And now you’re going to become a god damn gentleman, the first one in your family.” He paused for breath. Then he said with a great effort (he was not supposed to become excited because of his failing heart), lifting his hands toward me in a gesture of love such as I have seldom known in a life which has been lucky with those who have loved me for the person they thought I was, “Paul, I want you to start with a bare ass. Get everything.” Across the room, his shaking hands seemed to touch my forehead. I could not read a poem. I could not speak.
Next morning I went to every department of Gäbe’s store. Socks, underwear, shirt, neckties, suits, overcoat, raincoat, hat. Looking back, I can see that one suit must have been a horror; it had not only trousers and jacket, but also a revolting object called “golf knickers,” emphasizing my naturally bowed legs. When I walked through the ancient dark gate of Merton College, Oxford ( A.D. 1256), in a University which for centuries Jews had been forbidden to enter, I was wearing wholly Jewish clothes.
For my Oxford degree I had to translate French and German philosophy (as it turned out, Descartes and Kant) at sight without a dictionary. That meant Germany for my first summer vacation, to learn the thorny language on my own. With grammar, phrase book, and dictionary I lived up in the mountains of Bavaria. There I met Franz, the truest European I ever knew. He sang folk songs in French. He had taught at the school in Bishop’s Stortford which Cecil Rhodes, my benefactor, had attended. He had left England in July, 1914, for a month at home in Germany and never returned, caught in the division of students which was later slaughtered at Langemark. He had written a Ph.D. dissertation on “Die Philosophie von als ob,” the philosophy of “as if.” Nothing could have been more relevant to Nazi Germany of those years than the concept of reality not as existential being, but as if what you experienced in your blind emotions were actually actual.
Franz invited me to spend Christmas, 1934, with his family in Berlin-Friedenau, one of the suburbs absorbed by that great stony capital. I haunted the bookstores, especially around Von Kleist Platz. By then, I could translate the rhythmical, image-loaded poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, a German from Prague, secretary to Rodin, isolated, dressed like a girl until he went to military school, needing human companionship as a dog needs bones yet frightened of intimacy and commitment. There was one shop I returned to almost daily, for it had a shelf of Rilke books in half-leather, what the Germans called Schmuckausgeben , fine editions. I would take them down not to read but only to hold. It was like touching the skin of Rilke to feel that soft binding and the colored title pages. One day the old man who owned the store came up to me and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?” The store was long and one room wide; a corridor led along one wall, with small rooms off the left, all of them crammed with old books. We carried all the Rilke books with us. I assumed he was going to offer me a special discount if I bought all of them, but even that I could not afford. He showed me into a room with table and chairs. The Rilke books were placed on the table between us like sacred objects brought back from a long-sealed tomb. I could not touch them.
The old man called out to a closed door. Soon tea was brought in by an obviously very intelligent girl of sixteen, hair and eyes black as night, but glowing, glowing. She bowed to me and fled. Pouring tea, the old man said gently, as if he were blessing a child, “I see you like Rilke. Take them. Take all the books. They are too precious to sell.”
Suddenly, they were mine, those loved poems written by that poet always in flight, in Worpswede, Paris, Switzerland, in a castle above the Adriatic, the poet who always had women looking after him but could not live with his wife, the poet Germans called der weibliche Dichter , the feminine, or womanly, poet.
“Why?” I asked.
He stared at me the way an animal will look at a human being into whose hands he is entrusting his life. Total, no reservations, to the death. “I am a Jew.”
He waved his hands toward all the rooms of books. “ They will destroy all of this.” (He never used the words for which “Nazi” is an abbreviation; they were always they . But I knew, I knew, from the darkness in his voice.)
Then he turned and gestured toward the door the lovely girl had closed. “I am old. It does not matter. But my daughter, that girl.” He could not speak, his throat muttered wordless sounds which were the most moving language I had ever heard. Again, I weep inside to recall it.
He turned his eyes toward me. They burned my eyes.
“She must go. Out of Germany. We are the damned Jews.” (Old filling-station neighbor, you knew little of what you were saying. You would have looked at home in a Sturmabteilung , a brown-shirt uniform.)
“I know your name. It was on a traveler’s check you gave me for some books. You are Paul. You are American. You are the lucky one. My daughter, Rebekah, get her out. Take her out. Leave me to die. We Jews are very skilled at dying. If you are in trouble, come to Jews. They know so much about it.”
The room shrank to my body’s size. For a moment, I was in a trap, its teeth on my neck. Outside, I seemed to hear the Nazi boots marching, the shouts in marching cadence, “ Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil .” Victory, victory; over the helpless little man opposite me, his thin hands trembling, his head shaking, the tears of two thousand years falling down his cheeks.
“I will try,” I said stupidly. “I will try.”
Rebekah entered the room. Standing close to me, she said nothing, bowed with more dignity than I had ever seen in a human being, picked up the teapot as if it were a chalice on an altar, and backed out of the room, looking at me, looking at me, with trust, with trust, a flame which miraculously could walk across the floor and close a door. (Back home a month later, I found people who promised to help. I wrote the family. My letter was returned stamped Verschwunden —“disappeared.” Do not be patient with the frightfulness of the human race. Howl, howl. From your dark cave, howl.)
That evening it was Friday, and after dinner Franz said, “Now Paul, tonight someone will come. We will go into that room.” He pointed to a little odd room in the center of the apartment, the room without windows or outside walls. “Speak softly.” All week such bits of food as would not spoil had been saved. Now they were put on the table.
“Who is coming?” I asked.
Franz whispered, “ Die alte J’fcdische Witwe , ” the old Jewish widow. “She was my friend’s wife. He was not Jewish. But she must eat.”
It could be death for a German to do what Franz was doing.
There was a wide stairway up the front of the building, and there was a narrow iron stairway at the back. We heard small steps on the iron. The kitchen door had been left unlocked. It opened softly. A tiny lady in black carrying an empty string bag came in and sat down without speaking. Franz went over and took her hands. There in Berlin, with all hell about to break across what has laughingly been called civilized Europe, a brave German embraced a terrified Jew. I remember thinking in that moment, “Paul, you better go back to Iowa. You haven’t the strength to be a part of this appalling life. Go back to your safe and friendly Jews in the clothing store.”
The widow suddenly saw me and put her hands over her eyes in fright. “Is he one of them ?” she asked Franz.
He shook his head. “He is our American friend.”
“America.” She spoke the word as if it were the magical incantation which could open sealed doors and deliver you into heaven, which was, quite simply, a farming state called Iowa which had no Nazi party. “America, America.” She rolled the word on her tongue as a child treasures a piece of candy, wanting it to last. She left with her scraps. At the door, as she stepped out into the dark pit of Berlin, she looked at me in disbelief and spoke to no one, only to her own anguished mind, “America.”
Next morning I left Berlin. Lying in the gutter outside the apartment building was a dead man, hands bound behind with adhesive tape, ankles bound with adhesive tape, a wide strip of tape across his mouth, one over his eyes. The Nazis had come again in the night. And dear Jewish widow, did you make it home with the remnants of our humble food?
On the way to the railroad station, the old Potsdamer Bahnhof, we passed a little store with its windows smashed. Hung on the door was a sign, Deutschland wird Judenfrei —“Germany will be Jew-free.” Franz took my hand, then shook his head in the ancient gesture meaning no. He dared not talk in the presence of the taxi driver. He knew it all. He was mourning the dead to come.
The night before leaving, Franz and I had gone into the one room in his apartment that had no outside wall. As he closed the door he looked at me and muttered, “In this tragic country, walls listen, walls talk, then people disappear.” I asked why he hated Hitler.
“Because he is anti-German,” Franz replied.
“But he shouts about Germany all the time,” I said.
“Yes, he howls, but he is against all things beautiful and great in our culture. He is like an animal barking in the deep woods the Romans found when they came north.”
When I arrived in New York from my Oxford-European years (ironically, on a German ship, the Bremen ), I was waiting down in third class while a tug pulled us into the harbor. The purser came through, holding his nose at the degredation of slumming in that area so deep in the ship, so crammed with people obviously poor and obviously not too well bathed. He held up a letter in his right hand and called a name. Finally I realized that it was mine. He held it out to me carefully, so that his pure Aryan hand would not touch mine. He did not know that I was pure Aryan, too.
The letter was from Gabe: “If you have come back from Europe without having spent every cent you had, you are no son of mine. Here are a few dollars. Don’t spend them on anything sensible. Love.” I had in fact arrived without money to take a cab with my luggage away from the dock. I wrote Gabe my address in New York. Next week a telegram arrived with money for the fare to Florida and a message buried in his usual way of expressing affection: “Come on down and stew in your own Jews.” I went.
By then I had discovered that Jews were indeed damned, but in ways my hard-eyed neighbor could not have imagined. I had found his kind, those who marched east to die in the snows west of Moscow (he gladly would have joined them) in honor of that pig with the little row of pig bristles on his upper lip. I knew about pigs, that noble animal so abundant in Iowa, and I apologize to them for the comparison.
In Kraków the night before I went to visit Auschwitz so many years and so many deaths later, a German-speaking Polish person had held out his hand toward me, asking, “Do you know what that is?” No, what is it? “That’s a dead Jew.”
Innocent, I asked, “But how do I know it is a dead Jew?”
“Because,” he said, “if it was a live Jew it would be doing this.” He rubbed his thumb back and forth across the palm of his hand as if he were counting money.
Human life is too difficult for people.
At Auschwitz I stood on the caved-in gas chamber by the vent through which the canisters of “Zyklon” gas had been dropped into the room crowded with naked men, women, and children. I felt my Jewish grandfather who had fled Poland, the Cedar Rapids rabbi pointing at things and speaking their Hebrew names, old Gabe battling pain like a boxer, Reba who hired me for a Shabbas goy , the old man in Berlin who loved Rilke’s books, his daughter Rebekah, whose eyes are on me as I write these inadequate words, I felt them walking toward me with their devoted but accusing eyes.
I was back with my own Jews. I was home. The railroad tracks that had carried those suffering people were just beyond the place where I stood. A thin whistle of a train on its way to Krakow. The dead crying.
The white birches trembled their leaves in the white sunlight (the Nazis had called the place Birkenau , “the place of birches”). My feet sank into the concrete. I was too moved to move.