Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saving the Firstborn Son

I must share this story from Bruce Chatwin's book, Songlines. It seems to me that within its brevity it exposes the very worst and the best of our human behavior. You might even notice some parallels to the Christmas Story. This is from Chatwin's notebook:

On the train, Frankfurt-Vienna

He was on his way to see his old father, who was a rabbi in Vienna. He was short and fat. He had pallid white skin and ginger ringlets, and wore a long serge greatcoat and beaver hat. He was very shy. He was so shy he found it impossible to undress with anyone else in the compartment. The sleeping-car attendant had assured him he would be alone.

I offered to go into the corridor. The train was passing through a forest. I opened the window and breathed in the smell of pines. When I came back, ten minutes later, he was lying on the upper bunk, relaxed and eager to talk.

For sixteen years he had been studying at a Talmudic Academy in Brooklyn: he had not seen his father since. The morning would reunite them.

Before the war his family had lived at Sibiu in Romania and, when the war came, they hoped they were safe. Then, in 1942, Nazis painted a star on their house.

The rabbi shaved his beard and cut his ringlets. His Gentile servant fetched him a peasant costume: a felt hat, a belted tunic, a sheepskin jacket and boots. He embraced his wife, his two daughters and the baby boy: all four of them would die in Birkenau. He took his first-born son in his arms, and dashed for the woods.

The rabbi walked through the Carpathian beech forests with his son. Shepherds sheltered them and gave them meat: the way the shepherds slaughtered sheep did not offend his principles. Eventually, they crossed the Turkish frontier and made their way to America.

The rabbi never felt at ease in America. He could sympathise with Zionism, but never bring himself to join. Israel was an idea, not a country. Wherever was the Torah, there was the Kingdom also. He had left, in despair, for Europe.

Now father and son were returnng to Romania, since, only a few weeks earlier, the rabbi had received a sign. Late one night, in his apartment in Vienna, he reluctantly answered the doorbell. On the landing stood an old woman with a shopping basket. She had bluish lips and wispy white hair. Dimly, he recognised his Gentile servant.

"I have found you," she said. "Your house is safe. Your books are safe, your clothes even. For years I pretended it was now a Gentile house. I am dying. Here is the key."

1 comment:

Sylvia K said...

I guess we all complain so much about the world we find ourselves living in today, we forget to look back to that darkest of all times and realize that things could be so much worse. It is up to us to prevent that from happening and it can't be done by just sitting around whining and moaning. As bad as things are now, they're not even a flicker in comparison. Thanks for such a thoughtful post.