On the morning of May 9, 1997, a day I was scheduled to deliver an evening lecture to the British Academy entitled Looking at the Past in a Postliterate Age, or Is Oliver Stone a Historian?, I decided to visit the synagogue in which my maternal grandparents had been married ninety-five years before. My reasons for doing so were at once sentimental and instrumental. The manuscript of the work you now hold in your hands was almost complete, but I was searching for an introduction that would hold together this collection about my family. A visit to the synagogue held out a vague promise: I would touch the past, see what my grandparents had seen, perhaps feel what they felt, and the result would be one of those moments that leads to insight and creativity—and, I hoped, to an introduction.
The telephone directory did not list a Stepney Green synagogue. A helpful woman who answered the telephone at the social service agency, Jewish Meals on Wheels, explained why. A decade earlier it had closed because there were not enough Jews in the neighborhood to make a congregation, but the building was still standing and one could at least view it from the outside. Following her detailed directions, my wife and I left the Stepney Green tube station in the East End and were confronted with a sense both of historical continuity and irony: as in my grandparents' day, this was still a neighborhood of immigrants, only now the majority were obviously Muslim—dark-skinned men, some of them in djellabas, carrying worry beads; women with scarves over their heads, a few completely covered from head to toe in flowing chadors.
The synagogue was neither tiny, as I had imagined fitting for my impoverished forebears, nor empty. In front of us stood an imposing four-story structure surrounded by the temporary fence of a building site, its walls masked by scaffolding. Through the large, arched main door, workmen carried wallboard, wiring, paint buckets and brushes, loads of lumber, and copper pipes. The explanation came from a gray-haired man who introduced himself as The Builder. The synagogue was being renovated, cut into apartments. A shame, yes, but it was the only way of saving the structure from being vandalized. As a Registered Building, nothing major could be altered. The stained glass, the abstract mosaics, the biblical quotations in Hebrew and English in the main hallway and within the apartments—all this would remain. Taking a shower you might comfort yourself with words from Leviticus.
The hour I spent there snapping photos, stumbling over wires, slipping on wet spots, sticking my elbow into fresh paint, and ducking workers carrying tools and building materials did not add up to my imagined period of quiet contemplation. But we have to take our metaphors where we can find them. To save the synagogue, they had to alter the structure, change it, fragment it into spaces that had little or nothing to do with the original purposes of the building or the ceremonies that had taken place there during its century as a religious center. To save the synagogue, they had to hide away some things, subtract others, highlight still others. Gone was the carved wooden balcony from which the women had looked down on the services; gone was the altar and the niche for the sacred scrolls. The pillars that once stood free now rose through kitchens and living rooms; the circular stained glass just beneath the ceiling and the tablets with the Ten Commandments that may have been lost in the broad vistas of the original structure were now the focal point of the three-story open central hallway.
Stepney Green Synagogue was, in short, like any work of history. To save the past—as biographer, autobiographer, memoirist, or historian—we translate the remaining traces of it into language and forms of writing which necessarily alter and fragment things, highlight some moments and erase others. In writing history we describe and interpret moments and events which participants experienced and interpreted in far different ways. This is to say that, as with the synagogue, we are always altering the remains of the past for our own needs in the present. With words (or images, or sounds) we attempt to simulate a lost world, but the life we bestow upon the dead is not one they would recognize as their own.
The origins of this book lie in a single sentence that more than a decade ago entered my mind one morning when I was jogging on the beach: There is a man who comes swimming into history. That man, my father's father, had died thirty years before my own birth. All I knew about him was that single fact, presented in family lore as unique and heroic, a mark of the rare qualities of our lineage. My grandfather had swum the roaring and dangerous Prut River to get to Romania and escape the military draft in Russia. Only later did I learn that almost every grandfather of every Jewish Romanian claimed the same athletic feat.
When the sentence came to me, I was already a professor of history who was in that dangerous period called midlife. The two major books I had so far published and the third that I was then completing were works that stressed biography rather than the more impersonal forces of history such as social class, nationalism, economic development, or technological change—all of which never seem quite as real to me as people's lives. For two decades my research had focused on marginal characters, people torn between two cultures—American bohemians and radicals of the early twentieth century (Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed), Communists of the 1930s and 1940s (Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion and the Spanish Civil War), and American sojourners in late-nineteenth-century Japan (Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters with Meiji Japan). I had always believed these topics had arisen largely from personal experiences—college newspaper editor campaigning against racial discrimination in the 1950s, would-be novelist living in the Latin Quarter, graduate student supporting the Free Speech Movement, activist in the Mobilization against the Vietnam War, professor teaching American studies at Kyushu University in Japan. It never occurred to me that my choices might also connect to my heritage. That if you are born into an immigrant family with parents from two cultures as different and conflicting in values as those of Latvia and Romania (the German and the Latin), a family in which racketeers and Communists and extramarital love affairs were unremarkable, you might have a tendency to take an interest in characters torn between the values and beliefs of different worlds.
Like many children of immigrants of that era, I had (unconsciously) spent a good part of my life becoming an American. In the Fifties, when I went to high school and college, this meant adapting to a certain kind of speech and dress, and a certain set of values. For someone born in Canada, this was easy. My parents might sound and look as if their origins lay in some other continent, but not me. And yet at the same time, in school I was always plagued (unconsciously) by the need to prove something—something that must have had to do, though I would never consciously feel this, with being the child of Jewish immigrants. This meant believing and acting differently from those social leaders who belonged to clubs, fraternities, and sororities. It meant taking to heart the core ideals of America—freedom, equality, and justice for all—and attempting to make sure that people and political leaders lived up to them.
This desire to be the same and yet different seems to have emerged in many of my academic and personal choices. Undergraduate major: English, with a focus on American literature. Graduate major: American history. First wife: American lineage back to the seventeenth century. Topics for books: John Reed, the quintessential WASP radical, the Harvard man who becomes the golden boy of bohemia, then chronicles the Mexican and Bolshevik revolutions, founds the Communist Party, and ends up buried in the Kremlin wall; those nineteenth-century sojourners in Japan, mostly New Englanders who are intent upon carrying the values of Christianity and Western civilization to the natives, but who stay long enough to learn the natives are quite civilized already. Even my work on the International Brigades in Spain did not deal with the volunteers as Jews, which so many were, but focused (as did the Lincoln Brigaders themselves) on the struggle to defend the traditional values of Western civilization: democracy, republicanism, free speech, the secular state.
Midlife is a time of reckoning. My parents were rapidly aging, my father having the heart attacks and strokes that would lead eventually to an institution, my mother experiencing the first bouts of forgetfulness—not yet named Alzheimer's—that would make her unable to speak anything other than poetic gibberish. Part of the reckoning is a growing self-consciousness, one that for this professional historian raised the question: how do I fit into History, the history I live as opposed to the one I chronicle. The question obviously extends to include one's family, even if they don't wish to be included. Like so many immigrants of their generation, my mother and father never wanted to talk about the Old Country and I, self-centered young (naturalized) American, had never been interested enough to raise the issue. Now in my mid-forties, as their lives become more important to me, I began to press them to talk about their childhoods, their own parents, their memories of schools, journeys, occupations, other relatives, family events.
The shards of memory, the moments and tales shared by my parents and then by other family members over the next decade eventually grew into this book. (Some were already there, in my consciousness, long before I knew I was hearing them or interested in what they were.) The words with which I evoke the past are a mixture of their voices and other voices that began to speak in my head—sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the second, sometimes in the third. For years I attempted to turn them into one coherent, unified voice, to smooth the narrative, but when I tried to do so, they stopped speaking. The result is a story told from a variety of points of view and in a variety of styles, a book of tales, sequences, windows, moments, and fragments resurrected from the lives of three generations in my two parental families, set in five countries on two continents over the period of almost a century. Each segment of the work can, I think, stand on its own, though taken together they suggest a larger story.
Putting together these pieces, I felt it unnecessary to tell yet another complete immigrant family saga, because by now we know that story all too well: how poor foreigners, spat upon and reviled, overcame horrendous obstacles to become good Americans. The tale of my family—of every immigrant family—is a story that has already been written. My aim here is to do no more than to seize and render certain moments and experiences that can provide a different perspective on that larger familiar story. In its mixture of genres and styles, this work lies somewhere between history, memoir, and autobiography—the multivoiced story of a lineage that includes (as any such work must) the life of the teller of the tale. It begins with my grandparents and concludes with yours truly in college, at an age when the great family secrets—racketeers on one side, Communists on the other, love affairs on both—are at last revealed. Each section focuses on one or two characters, trying to locate and capture an event or an action or a relationship that defines a larger sense of life's possibilities and meanings. The same characters reappear in other sections, with the result that the work is perhaps closer in form to a collage or a mosaic than to a linear narrative. The narrator of the work tells his tale sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third: he is Rabin, the historian; he is yours truly; he is the all-seeing I.
Family stories are fashionable these days. A sign of the times, a signal that History may be returning to its roots in history, that we—historians and nonacademics alike—are interested in the world of large events only as they have had an impact upon our own small lives and helped to shape us. Once upon a time, family stories were tales of rags to riches. More recently they have become woeful accounts of abuse and victimization. The themes of any work, as any historian knows, depend less on the subject matter than on the way you tell the story, less upon the events than on your attitude toward them. Struggle, triumph, and victimization, rags and riches, are all part of my family, but what interests me are the moments of daily life, the memories and secrets by which we mark our days, the quirks, oddities, pains, and joys of simple survival; how people, whatever their circumstances, make choices that change their lives and then have to live with the consequences of those choices.
Any work like this is in part based on time spent in archives and libraries, in homes and garages, poring over diaries, letters, photos, newspaper clippings and other stuff pasted into family albums, and on lengthy interviews with sometimes recalcitrant and often forgetful relatives. To give the reader a taste of the kind of sources used and the ways in which I have attempted to use them, one document and one photo are included in each chapter. Such sources are necessary but not sufficient to evoke the past. Anyone who has done historical research knows that it takes more than access to documents to create a truthful or meaningful past. The reality of the past—national, familial, personal—does not lie in an assemblage of data but in a field of stories—a place where fact, truth, fiction, invention, forgetting, and myth are so entangled that they cannot be separated. Ultimately it is not the facts that make us what we are, but the stories we have been told and the stories we believe.
The Jews, who are to be found in all Rumanian provinces and have big communities in Bessarabia and the Bukovina, have always been a persecuted and oppressed minority. The brand of anti-Semitism encouraged by almost all Rumanian governments resembles that of Tsarist Russia. Whenever something went wrong in politics or economics the Jews were blamed for it and pogroms were organized, sometimes surpassing in violence those of the Tsarist regime. This traditional anti-Semitism has its roots in the period when wealthy Rumanian absentee landlords let their estates to Jewish agents for management and tax-collection. This was a convenient means of laying the blame for exploitation at the door of the Jews, whilst the boiars pocketed the taxes and rents. Jewish influence in Rumanian finance and trade has been very great, as was their share in introducing modern industries into the country. Many Jewish families, especially in Moldavia and Wallachia, can trace their association with Rumania back to the early Phanariots. Others have lived for many years in the Bukovina, in Bessarabia in the Transylvania. The majority has, however, immigrated during the last century. Restrictions on their personal freedom, an almost complete denial of political rights, and organized and government-sponsored pogroms are familiar devices which have been used by most Rumanian regimes. These measures are supported by the ruling circles and certain intellectuals in order to divert the attention of the people from the real causes and the real culprits whenever the country passes through a crisis.
From Rumania by C. Kormos
There is a man who comes swimming into history. He first appears in the water of the Prut River during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The exact date is impossible to determine, but it is in the late Victorian period, though he knows nothing about that sort of label. Before he plunges headlong into the waters, or gingerly steps into the waters, there is little to know about him, little that can ever be discovered. He kept no diary and told no tales that his children would ever remember. The waters of the river cleansed him, washed away his past. Like some version of the Venus myth, he arises naked and full grown, innocent of history. His wisdom, if any, is water wisdom, the wisdom of currents and sea foam. He is not quite self-made, but he is more than the creation of some god's imagination.
For twenty-five, perhaps thirty years, the man-who-swims-into-history lives in Moldavia. His tongue, trained to the disparate sounds of Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew, can never quite adjust to the soft Latin vocal of the native language. The wife he acquires is fluent in Polish. Their children, the three boys and four girls who live to maturity, grow up speaking Romanian. If he must communicate with natives through a heavy accent and an impoverished vocabulary, it does not matter; even in the Yiddish shared with the family, he has little to say. There may be words in him, but they are not the kind spoken with the mouth. They are voiced with the language of the body, the bowels, the eyes.
His means of communication are the scissors and sewing machine, part of a language that also crossed the river. He is a skilled tailor, far different from most small-town practitioners who patch together the threadbare remnants of worried lives. His hands, capable of creating new suits, know the feel of fine cloth, woven in far-off British mills; they understand that the cut of a jacket, drape of a coat, turn of a lapel, and angled fall of trousers make even a poor man feel, on the day of a wedding, bar mitzvah, or other holiness, like a king. In any religious theory, a man should not take pride in the ephemera of outward appearance. But his hands know the wisdom of this world, the instinctive blessing that exists outside the pages of any sacred text.
Life in Romania all those years is quiet, regular, tuned to an unvarying pattern of seasons, holidays. Flights of birds, the sowing of corn, clouds rumbling into rain, the annual festival of grapes, the visit of Gypsies—year after year. The man who swims into history fits into the cycle. He is quiet too, perhaps timid. His only vice is gambling. Never is he known to question the customs and laws that circumscribe his days. He takes part in the ceremonies of the small Jewish community of his town, but never with much enthusiasm or faith. His children never see him as angry, upset, or authoritarian, but they do feel his emotional wires are somehow crossed. When it is time to discipline a youngster, he smiles sheepishly and disappears, leaving the task to the strong forearm of his wife. In moments of tragedy or death, he unaccountably grins, sometimes breaks into soft laughter. Then, as if ashamed at the response, he vanishes from the house.
After the swim, he never travels much. Business can take him to the regional center of Bacau, but there is no evidence he ever visits the former Moldavian capital, Iasi, or journeys to Bucharest, less than two hundred miles away. His decision at the turn of the century to leave for America is as much of a surprise to the family as to neighbors. He goes by boat, no doubt from the port of Constansa into the Black Sea. The view from steerage is not very good. A glimpse of domes and minarets, draped across Constantinople's seven hills, or of the massive rock that preserved the Mediterranean for the British sovereign. His voyage consists mainly of dark water, dark bulkheads, dark food, and the dark breath of fellow passengers. At Ellis Island he is turned away, either because he does not have enough money (the version told by his first son, Moishe) or because he is mistaken for an anarchist or some other radical with the same name (the version told by his second son, Lazar). A ship drops him in a French port, and for a year he lives and works in Paris. Rarely does he write letters home. Perhaps he doesn't know how to write.
Some years later there is money for the whole family to go. Lazar will remember but a single incident from the trip. Passing on a train or in a streetcar, or stopped in station in either France or England, the family is assaulted with the violent, incomprehensible words of street urchins, who hurl clods of dung along with insults. The future becomes a lottery spun by some god of the shipping lines and lanes. Their money gone, the family decides to take the next ship out, whether it goes to Canada or to Argentina. They land in a city buried in white snowbanks higher than the tallest midteen child. By the time the sky melts into blue and bright flowers spring out all over the mountain that rises in the middle of the island of Montreal, home is a dim apartment off the Main. Mother is, as always, in the kitchen much of the time, but the children have no garden to tend, no chickens or goats to feed, no cow to milk. The boys scatter into the streets, and the sounds of English become familiar in their mouths. The girls feel a sweet tender swelling as they hang by the iron stairways that curve gracefully from second-story duplexes to the sidewalk. They look past their brothers to catch the eyes of other men.
The man-who-swims-into-history remains silent. He speaks neither of Russia, Romania, or the New World, says nothing about past or future, never discusses the Prut River, the Black Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Seine, or the St. Lawrence. In the garment factory where he works with many other men whose language he cannot understand, his hands seem less graceful, agile, expressive than before. It is tempting to believe that in this silence he is preparing a message for his children, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of all immigrants. Such words cannot come easily or quickly. First there is the matter of a lump on his head, an old companion that has made every journey with him. The operation is routine. Less than a year after arriving in Canada, he leaves his family for a single night in a huge, modern hospital of a kind none of them had seen in Romania. Once the lump has been removed and a bandage wrapped tightly around his head, he never seems quite well. At home and work he is dizzy, vague, tired. A few days after the surgery he returns from the shop, goes to bed, and never gets up again. With the family gathered around, his last words are simple: Take care of your mother. Then the man-who-swims-into-history floats out of history without leaving any message for his descendants. Perhaps we must look for any message back there in the waters of the Prut, in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, in the storms of the English Channel and the hurricanes that sweep the Atlantic seaboard, in breakers off the coast of California and typhoons that slam out of the South Pacific onto the islands of Japan. For a man who swims into it, history must exist in water or not at all.
His name was Chaim Baer and he was walking. The roads were dusty, the day hot. There were vineyards and cornfields. The towns were small, wooden, sagging, each with a church, implacable, arrogant, alien. This is what he would be leaving. He would be leaving nothing. Less than nothing. Family. Yes, family. But the family was not his, was not him. There was a tie, but there was not a tie, and there were no words to explain this. He did not belong to anyone. Maybe not even himself. The road felt good underfoot. Each step was taking him somewhere. Going somewhere, this is what he had wanted for a long time. Being on a road, going past blue vineyards, feeling the summer sun hot on the back of his neck, feeling the dust of travel, knowing there was somewhere else. He had a feeling that there was somewhere else. But when he tried to share it with friends, they could not understand. Looking down to the harbor, the gray bulk of ships from all over the world, most people turned their eyes to home. They did not want to see where the ships came from. They did not understand his itch to move. If he did not belong here, he did not belong anywhere. He did not belong anywhere. Right now he belonged to the road, to his legs beginning to ache and his dusty shoes, to the pain in his neck from the pack slung at an angle across his shoulder, to the sagging wooden villages, the crippled dogs hiding in the shade of drooping porches, the blank-eyed peasants staring through him, and the churches, always the churches, dark and ramshackle or sunny white, straight lines soaring toward heaven, topped with a golden onion dome.
Arrogant towers, arrogant gold. And always next to graveyards where we cannot be buried. Nor they in ours, and who would want them? These churches, this soil, the dust of the graveyard, the crumbling crosses. Not ours, never could be ours. Decrees stamped by the czar, his ministers, locked away in St. Petersburg's tomblike vaults. And if we could make it ours, it would be no use. It would be a game, a deception. Then we would be like them. The land is not to own. It is not ours. Not theirs. It's His. Yet He probably does not exist. Or does He look down and laugh when I think that? Let Him laugh. If He's such a big shot He'd let us know about Him, let us see sometimes. Why does He speak in books, why must we learn to read to understand His words? That's to keep jobs for the rabbis, smart types all their lives with eyes white on the pages of a book.
Chaim Baer put his hand to his face, touched the newly smooth cheeks, the one tuft of hair sprouting from the chin. It is like being a boy again, a bar mitzvah boy with this smoothness. His hair shows the joke of life. Red, a tiny red beard on the chin. Everyone will notice and comment on the contrast from my dark hair. Young ladies, won't they be interested? They'll think I am one of them, maybe, a red beard and these blue eyes. Strange eyes, my mother said, the eyes of my father. Such a strange story. In each generation, one male in the family with blue eyes. Is it a special sign? Or sometime in the past did a muzhik or a strange tribesman lie with a woman in the family? A horseback warrior would be better. On a horse you are always going somewhere. On foot I am going somewhere, only it takes longer.
The road goes on through nights and days. Blanket roll in a cornfield, beneath a moon asking questions that are not answered by the stars. Moving toward a horizon, one step at a time through dust of hot afternoons. Gulp cold water at a stream, sneak from the road to pick grapes, snatch unripe corn and gobble it uncooked, raw white. At twilight, frogs sing in ditches; at night, crickets; in the pale hours before dawn, birds whose names he did not know. Sometimes the thought: this has been done before. I am doing it, me walking, but it is someone else with blue eyes and a red goatee. It is a strange feeling, standing by the side of a road in a dust cloud raised by an ox-pulled cart, choking a little, tickling in the nose, to know it is someone else standing there, holding a finger to the nose to keep from sneezing. At night in a bedroll in a vineyard, crickets cheering the moon higher into the sky, you feel you are not alone. He knew this had been done before. He knew it would be done again. On foot, on horseback, on a riverboat. Some other way that was no different, always the same. In each generation there was one son with blue eyes. In each generation there was one son with an itch. It had to be someone on horseback, from Central Asia or the lands beyond. One pair of blue eyes, one horse, and one itch. That was the thought he held on to every night when the moon sang him to sleep.
It is a little-noted fact of history that the rivers of Eastern Europe were jammed with swimmers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Not one grandfather but a whole generation of grandfathers sidling, walking, waddling, hurrying, moseying, lurching, striding, flinging, leaping, jumping, tiptoeing, plunging, screaming themselves into previously empty waters. They were not yet grandfathers, but somehow the image is of aged men, dressed fully in black, yarmulkes affixed firmly to their scalps, long white beards floating miraculously and gently on the surface as they flash toward far-off shores. Are they not praying as they swim, shawls around their shoulders, voices raised to the Lord to drown the fearful beating of their hearts. In later years, none of these grandfathers were ever known to go near the water. None ever could teach his sons how to swim, any more than they could teach them how to play baseball, steal a bagel, or make love to a woman, all skills apparently more necessary in the New World than in the Old. Decades later they were full of foolish tales, babbled in languages that grandsons neither understood nor cared much about. But each grandfather had this one moment of undisputed triumph that would quietly resonate through future generations.
Romania, Rumania, Roumania—but what is Romania? Modern historians of the late, unlamented People's Republic of Romania seemed unclear about the nature of their country. When leading scholars in 1970 issued a multiauthored work as part of a national History Series, they entitled it Istoria Popurului Roman, which translates as History of the Romanian People and suggests that the nation itself may be a figment of somebody's imagination. Numerous peoples are mentioned in the more than six hundred pages of the book—Scythians, Avars, Ionians, Dorians, Dacians, Geto-Dacians, Cimmerians, Thracians, Celts, Bastarnians, Samatians, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Bulgars, Huns, and Pechenegs. Jews (Hebrews) receive but a few passing nods. Nowhere does this work mention that close to a million descendants of the children of Israel once lived within the borders of modern Romania or that they constituted 5 percent of the population and a social problem that turned the head of more than a single statesman gray.
Romania in the late nineteenth century was a new name for an old idea, one linked to three provinces, but Transylvania, with its tales of vampires and population of Hungarians, did not count for much. The two other regions, Moldavia and Walachia, had for four hundred years been part of that geographic sprawl known as the Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople the sultans had come to prefer opium, sweets, and belly dancers to running a government, and who could blame them? Rather than bother with the insoluble problems assailing infidel peasants, they in the late eighteenth century began to subcontract the governing of these dreary provinces to clever Greek merchants who lived in the Phanar district of Constantinople. Greeks were infidels too, but infidels capable of coming up with large sums of gold, which proved useful in satisfying the rulers' unceasing appetite for young girls, sought all over the sultan's domains, which stretched from the Atlantic Coast of Africa to the eastern boundary of the Anatolian Plateau.
Greek merchants cared little about opium, sweets, or belly dancers. Their aesthetic sense responded to the sight of the painted hulls and clean, white sails of vessels from the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and far-off Indian Ocean ports, bobbing in the murky waters of the Golden Horn, and their religious impulse was fulfilled by the satisfying clatter of coins across a polished counter. Moldavia and Walachia might contain endless, dismal collections of hovels, swimming in seas of mud, and be found somewhere at the far end of the universe, but there was no shortage of volunteers to govern them. Each ruler—they called themselves Phanariot Princes, but everyone knew they were only Greeks—arrived at his new post burdened by two problems: one was the vast debt incurred in buying the throne; the other, the knowledge that a more affluent merchant might quickly buy it out from under him.
Greeks seeking gifts proved more than equal to the task. As they liked to point out, their ancestors had, after all, invented democratic government more than two thousand years before. This, apparently, is what allowed them to use the public treasury to pay nonexistent workers to build mythical public works. Or to forbid certain imports, then put smugglers on the payroll and open stores to fence their goods. Or to sell administrative, judicial, and ecclesiastical offices to the highest bidder, and to appropriate church revenues for themselves, perhaps to keep temptation from being placed before the eyes of those who serve the Lord. When peasants began to burn their own houses and slaughter their sheep and cattle to avoid the property and the livestock taxes, the princes seized the furniture and livestock. Actions like this are bound to leave scar tissue on a national psyche. Historians agree that Phanariot rule had an effect on future Romanian social, political, and cultural institutions. But historians are a cautious, unimaginative lot, unwilling to specify exactly what such effects were. So here is one suggestion: in the 1940s in Montreal the first joke that any Romanian man told his eldest son was the following:
Do you know how to make a Romanian omelette?
First you steal two eggs . . .
By the time Chaim Baer drags soggily onto the Moldavian shore of the Prut, Phanariot princes have long vanished and the Turkish sultan himself no longer exercises authority over the region. Since the early nineteenth century the Balkans had been boiling with independence movements and bloody uprisings. Troops of czars named Nicholas and Alexander had fought victorious battles against the Ottomans, an entire Russian army had taken a six-year vacation in Bucharest, six hundred nearsighted British cavalrymen had swept to a glorious death at Balaklava, and statesmen in frock coats and whiskers had conferred in Paris, signed treaties in Berlin. There were two major results of all this. One was an independent Romania. The other was the necessity for Chaim Baer's grandson, Rabin, as a fourth-grade student in Montreal, to learn by heart a poem beginning Half a league, half a league, half a league onward.
Romania was not only an independent nation, it was also a kingdom. But the king was not Romanian. No Romanian was qualified for such a job. In truth, the king did not even speak Romanian, but his German was excellent and his French not bad. His name was Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (the locals called him King Carol), and he was selected in a plebiscite by an official margin of 685,969 to 224. Because Carol was a Prussian, the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary were not much impressed with his credentials and more than a little suspicious over the lopsided results of the election. Someone in the entourage of Emperor Franz Joseph spread rumors in European court circles that the new ruler would be arrested by Austrian police on the way to his coronation. Carol was undeterred; he was a Hohenzollern after all. He traveled through Austria-Hungary carrying the heavy bags of a traveling salesman and wearing bright blue goggles, took a second-class cabin on a Danube steamer out of Vienna, and arrived safely in his new hometown. A slight hernia was a small price to pay to become king of the Dacians.
The king might never learn to speak the native tongue, but the citizens of his land were touchy about their prerogatives and, as people who claimed descent from Roman legions, inordinately proud of their heritage. Scratch a Romanian and he was sure to point how his unique ancestry, so different from his rude Slav, Bulgar, and Magyar neighbors, made him fit to run an empire. How appalling it was to learn that at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which guaranteed Rumanian independence, the Great Powers insisted on a treaty article requiring Roumania to return to her Jewish residents the civil rights that had been denied them in the 1866 constitution. Manfully, eloquently, passionately, the leaders of the new nation fought the proposal. It was a crime, they said, to deny the sovereign right of a nation with such a glorious heritage to persecute, disfranchise, and otherwise abuse some (or, for that matter, all) of its residents. Such arguments fell on deaf ears. The solemn will of Prussia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain prevailed. At least on paper.
Between the southern bank of the Prut and the Moldavian village of Tetscani there is a blank, more of time than space. Chaim Baer acquires a wife, a business, a house, a vegetable garden, a cow, then a second cow. Seven children arrive, bracketed by the considerable number of stillbirths and miscarriages that were normal for that era, that region of the world. Life might be as routine as in any peasant community, but for the diversion thoughtfully provided by the government. It is the mayor who comes to the house to explain. Chaim Baer offers him a cup of tea, listens quietly, patiently, nodding his head. The mayor is a fellow card-player. He has no desire to perform his official duty, but it is not his fault that the time has come for Chaim Baer's family to leave Tetscani. When the teacups are empty, the two men stand up, shake hands, part. There are no harsh words, no regrets, no deep sadness. Each understands that life is what life is.
The family loads its possessions in a cart and leaves Tetscani for Moinesti, some kilometers away. A few months, or a year or two later, they make the same journey in the opposite direction. These periodic moves partake of a mystery. Official government policy prevents Jews from becoming citizens and from owning land. But nothing is said in historical studies, constitutions, available decrees and statutes to indicate that there is a time limit on Jews residing in small towns or rural areas. Was it officially unofficial, carefully concealed from European statesmen, not even committed to paper so that foreign politicians with special constituencies or certain banking houses that might be persuaded to invest in Romanian development would not know? Was it local custom in Moldavia, sanctioned by decades or centuries of repetition? To Chaim Baer, his wife, and their children, reasons would have made little difference. The upset and confusion of packing, hauling, setting up in Moinesti were an unsought diversion. There is evidence enough that Chaim Baer was the sort of man who understood the spiritual benefits of an occasional change of scenery.
For Chaim Baer's children, Romania would always be Tetscani. Moinesti is a dim memory, fragments of cobblestones, tall two- and three-story buildings, crowds in paved streets, butcher shops where the boys worked briefly. Tetscani was where life became real, but only the occasional event or fragment of daily life would remain in the minds of Chaim Baer's children half a century later. These moments throw an unusual light over Tetscani. We imagine the color of Eastern Europe to be brown, the sepia tones of picture books on suburban coffee tables in the last third of the twentieth century. Tetscani is saturated with raw color: green of corn glowing in the summer sun, hillsides speckled with bright wildflowers, the purple feet of children and adults after a dance on the grapes, white bodies in ice-green streams where youngsters learn how to swim. The shtetl is dun faces full of suffering, acceptance, pain, wonder; invisible bodies clad in coats, hats, dresses long and weighty, dark and confining, personal prisons that reinforce a mentality, a way of life. Tetscani has no rabbis in black; no pale, stooped yeshiva students; no bulky synagogue brooding over the community. Weekly services for the six Jewish families take place in a room behind a store. Religion is quiet, humble, personal, a time for talking directly to Him or meditating softly on His absence.
Days, months, years vanish quickly behind the wispy membrane of consciousness we call the universe. Chaim Baer works at the sewing machine; the children milk the cows and tend the garden; his wife, Sarah, bakes fresh bread in a wood-burning oven and covers her eyes when she lights candles every Friday night at sundown. Saturday, after the Sabbath ends, is the time for indulgence. Chaim Baer loves the noisy camaraderie of the gaming table, where religion and faith ride heavily on the size of a bet, the chance turn of a card. Summer days may find him spending afternoons with his youngsters, seven of them tumbling along cornfield rows, climbing into hilly vineyards surrounding the gray-walled estates of local nobles. In the autumn everyone—peasants, townspeople, relatives from far off, even Jews—are welcome in the fields and courtyards of the stone chateau owned by the Rossetti family. Everyone helps to haul grapes, lift them into barrels, stomp them with clean feet, then gather amidst pigs and chickens at long trestle tables in the courtyard to sing songs, drink the fresh juice and sample last year's vintage, then roar home, men, women, and children, and before the dry throats and sharp headaches of the morrow, try a quick moment of love where the nimble ankles and firm calves of peasant girls mingle with the slow movements of a heavy body you know too well.
Once a year Gypsies arrive to camp, barter, gamble, entertain, tell fortunes. Like all the children of Tetscani, Chaim Baer's kids hang around the high-wheeled caravans, regarding the visitors with expressions that seem to equate dark skin, cracked teeth, and golden earrings with worlds of wonder. Adults are more cynical. Each year when the nomads depart, villagers complain to each other about all the items, large and small, that have mysteriously vanished from their households. Chaim Baer does not join in such talk. This is no identification of underdogs, no equation of Jew and Gypsy as outsiders. It is temperament. He is not a critical sort, not even of men with rings in their ears who begin by losing and invariably end up winning at any evening of cards they are invited to enter.
There is a good story about Chaim Baer and a Gypsy. The man came to the house one year and wheedled the tailor into letting him try on a half-finished suit. Perhaps he had played cards with Chaim Baer and found him an easy mark. Once clad in the garment, his own clothing lying in a damp heap on the floor of the front room that doubled as a workshop, the Gypsy smiled, announced he would take the suit, and began to walk toward the door without offering to pay. We can imagine Chaim Baer's reaction—if not anger, at least consternation. He must have tried to block the door, so the Gypsy stood there and began to expose the hairy recesses of his body and to pluck, for the tailor's inspection, a few of the tenacious, hardy creatures who resided in them. Politely his visitor explained that of course the suit could not be sold now, for he was prepared to let everyone know that he had worn it. While he talked, the Gypsy cracked lice between his teeth and spat them on the floor like grape seeds. When Chaim Baer absorbed the logic and force of his argument, he stepped away from the door while the Gypsy covered his head with a battered hat, touched his fingers to the brim and vanished.
There is no way of knowing if this incident affected Chaim Baer's behavior, viewpoint, or attitudes toward Gypsies. Every image of him is that of a tolerant, accepting man. Except for the hints of dislike for his wife's sister, but who knows what is lost or gained in the distorting effect of a half-century's events? She lived in Bucharest and regularly arrived in Tetscani to grace the family with her presence. Rich by marriage to a businessman, her clothing, accent, manners, air, and interests reeked with the scent of city life—with contempt for peasants, land, countryside, cows, and people evidently too dumb or unambitious to live in Bucharest. Chaim Baer's children loved her. The visits were like holidays, a time of excitement, food treats, presents. Ever after they would remember her smell of good soap and perfume, her clothing, the silken dresses that the girls liked to touch; and on her feet, beneath her gowns, thin-soled, immaculate high-heeled shoes unlike anything ever seen before in the muddy roads of Tetscani.
Her arrival meant that Chaim Baer and his wife were forced out of their bedroom. During the days of her visit the sound of female voices jabbering in Polish rode through the hum of the sewing machine. The tailor left the house for solitary walks. Was it only his imagination that his normally docile wife became distracted and testy during such visits, and that this mood hung on for days after her sister's departure? In front of the children his demeanor did not change, but decades later the second son, Lazar, recalled how often Chaim Baer would speak to them with an uncharacteristic mixture of pride and joy of the misfortune that befell their aunt. Her husband had made his money as a building contractor. This was Romania, where every contract was sealed with a payoff that led to another contract. At last he was awarded a huge job that would secure his fortune, one that involved paving the streets of a substantial section of Bucharest. The night before work was to begin, all was ready and in place—piles of sand, rocks, shovels, picks, heaps of necessary tools and equipment. A freak windstorm—hurricane, typhoon, tornado—roared through the city that night, tearing roofs off houses, demolishing shacks, scattering sand, rocks, tools. Chaim Baer's brother-in-law was ruined. His wife never again came to Tetscani. Perhaps they moved to another country. For the children their aunt simply vanished, to be recalled only at certain seasons by scents and memories of the past.
Everyone remembers Chaim Baer as a kind father; some people thought him indulgent to the point of foolishness. The arrival of the first automobile is a good example. News had come through in advance: Danger! Clear the streets! Children were packed into houses, doors were locked, faces peered through curtains as if awaiting a glimpse of doomsday. And there were Chaim Baer and the seven children, crowded together on the tiny front step behind the sagging wooden fence that separated the front yard from the dirt of the main street. No doubt the tailor was more nervous than he admitted. He pulled the children close, held the two babies in his arms. Worries about the wisdom of his actions were underscored by the angry whispers of his wife through the closed front door, demanding he bring at least the infants back inside. Bravado triumphed over common sense. Noise, dust, and a metal contraption with two pale figures blew past. Later they all walked down to the main square. The machine was parked in front of Tetscani's single inn. Adults spoke in hushed tones while the children reached hands out to the shiny, black metal, eyes full of more wonder than Gypsy carts could evoke.
In all stories the children emerge as far more important to Chaim Baer than his wife. This is more than selective memory—it is heritage. The man could not only swim broad rivers and brave speeding machines, he could defy tradition in more fundamental ways. Such as when sickness struck the two eldest boys, a frightening palsy, a nervous disease, a terrible twitching and shaking. They could not sleep or keep food down, and two small bodies were beginning to waste away. The doctor from Moinesti could make no diagnosis. A rabbi promised prayers. Chaim Baer found a peasant woman who practiced either folk medicine or witchcraft. Perhaps he was the first Jew ever to request her services. The remedy was simple: dig into the earth under the bed where the boys slept until you found some coal-like rocks. Grind them into powder, mix with cow's milk and have the boys drink the mixture. Chaim Baer dug. The rocks were there. The mixture was prepared. It looked awful. It tasted awful. The twitching and shaking ended quickly. When sometime later Lazar came down with a very high fever and his mind wandered into delirium, there were no calls for doctors or rabbis. The tailor went directly to the old woman and followed her advice to wrap the youngster in the skin of a pig. For three days the boy sweated and moaned and rolled on his bed and yelled aloud, and on the fourth day he arose, cool and healthy once again.
More than seventy years later, when childhood was far clearer than his morning's breakfast, Lazar would tell his own son this story more than once, wondrously, disbelievingly, incapable of understanding how such a cure had worked, perhaps hoping that another such cure would be brought to him again. After months in modern hospitals, his mind was so blitzed by medical technology that he could no longer understand the truth of his own experience—memory was a legend he could neither accept nor disbelieve.
Sitting and smelling the ripeness of damp earth and winds blowing before rainstorms. Was there time on afternoons while clouds piled up over the Carpathian Mountains, over the irregular quilt of wheatfields crumpled into foothills, over the limp, brown tassels of cornstalks, the twisted vines where pregnant grapes swelled beneath tight purple skins—was there time to wonder in those hours locked between past and future? Behind pale blue eyes, speaking through them, was a heritage of more than books, the bright impatience of the nomad, a gleam of some tribe that had boiled out of Asia a millennia before. Thoughts came in nouns, without verbs. Restlessness, some unspoken question amidst the noise of swiftly growing children. With surprise, the same surprise that would fill the innocent eyes of his second son almost eighty years later when death still eluded him after strokes, massive heart attacks and pleurisy. Lazar would tell about the brass band parade, led by the pope, that had crashed through the parking lot of Cedars-Sinai Hospital the night before. And the pope, with his golden robes and silver crown, had called up through the sealed window on the sixth floor, called in a powerful voice amplified by no megaphone or loudspeaker, called in fluent Yiddish, It's time, it's time. Come along, it's time. Because Chaim Baer's son was tied to the bed—poseyed in the language of hospitals—he was unable to rise, to follow the parade, to follow the pope, and he had to call back, Next time, maybe next time. Pain and quick tears scarred the innocence of his eyes as he told the story, then asked, Do you think they'll return?
It was the same with Chaim Baer's eyes, waiting for the storms from beyond the mountains, accepting the darkness dropping on Moldavia. Innocent blue eyes had seen it before, fields and churches and rivers, home and friends and parents alter, change, disappear. Sometimes when clouds blew over the mountains, driving down on Tetscani with darkness and wind and the violent slosh of rain, Chaim Baer felt again that strange itch that could not be scratched. There is no reason to believe he had much imagination. In his mind, no images of tropic islands with dusky maidens, of deserts to track, or of empty mountains to climb. No hunger for the delights of bright boulevards, cafés, concert halls, glittering city scenes he could not even picture. Just the noise of rainstorms, that was enough. Trees swaying in gray winds, mud oozing to the ankles, soiling trousers, and a longing in the soles of the feet. Two decades, maybe more—for who could number the years?—since he had swum the Prut. Now one century was ending or another beginning. The difference was the same. It was time to be moving.