Friday, June 08, 2012

Short story for the weekend: Shtetl Days

Last week I posted a delightful science fiction story with a Jewish theme.

This week, quite by accident, I stumbled onto another - really, a dystopian alternate history - called Shtetl Days, by Harry Turtledove.

It is too long to post the entire story - 34 pages printed - but here is part of it:

Jakub Shlayfer opened the door and walked outside to go to work. Before he could shut it again, his wife called after him: “Alevai it should be a good day! We really need the gelt!”

“Alevai, Bertha. Omayn,” Jakub agreed. The door was already shut by then, but what difference did that make? It wasn’t as if he didn’t know they were poor. His lean frame, the rough edge on the brim of his broad, black hat, his threadbare long, black coat, and the many patches on his boot soles all told the same story.

But then, how many Jews in Wawolnice weren’t poor? The only one Jakub could think of was Shmuel Grynszpan, the undertaker. His business was as solid and certain as the laws of God. Everybody else’s? Groszy and zlotych always came in too slowly and went out too fast.

He stumped down the unpaved street, skirting puddles. Not all the boot patches were everything they might have been. He didn’t want to get his feet wet. He could have complained to Mottel Cohen, but what was the use? Mottel did what Mottel could do. And it wasn’t as if Wawolnice had—or needed—two cobblers. It you listened to Mottel’s kvetching, the village didn’t need one cobbler often enough.

The watery spring morning promised more than the day was likely to deliver. The sun was out, but clouds to the west warned it was liable to rain some more. Well, it wouldn’t snow again till fall. That was something. Jakub skidded on mud and almost fell. It might be something, but it wasn’t enough.

Two-story houses with steep, wood-shingled roofs crowded the street from both sides and caused it to twist here and turn there. They made it hard for the sun to get down to the street and dry up the mud. More Jews came out of the houses to go to their jobs. The men dressed pretty much like Jakub. Some of the younger ones wore cloth caps instead of broad-brimmed hats. Chasidim, by contrast, had fancy shtreimels, with the brims made from mink.


He closed up and locked the door. He’d done some tinkering with the lock. He didn’t think anybody not a locksmith could quietly pick it. Enough brute force, on the other hand . . . Jews in Poland understood all they needed to about brute force, and about who had enough of it. Jakub Shlayfer’s mobile mouth twisted. Polish Jews didn’t, never had, and never would.

He walked home through the gathering gloom. “Stinking Yid!” The shrei in Polish pursued him. His shoulders wanted to sag under its weight, and the weight of a million more like it. He didn’t, he wouldn’t, let them. If the mamzrim saw they’d hurt you, they won. As long as a rock didn’t follow, he was all right. And if one did, he could duck or dodge. He hoped.

No rocks tonight. Candles and kerosene lamps sent dim but warm glows out into the darkness. If you looked at the papers, electricity would come to the village soon. Then again, if you looked at the papers and believed everything you read in them, you were too dumb to live.

Bertha met him at the door. Sheitel, head scarf over it, long black dress . . . She still looked good to him. She greeted him with, “So what were you and Reb Eliezer going on about today?”

“Serpents,” Jakub answered.

“Pilpul.” His wife’s sigh said she’d hoped for better, even if she hadn’t expected it. “I don’t suppose he had any paying business.”

“He didn’t, no,” the grinder admitted.


Jakub walked over to the closet door. That the cramped space had room for a closet seemed something not far from miraculous. He wasn’t inclined to complain, though. Oh, no—on the contrary. Neither was Bertha, who came up smiling to stand beside him as he opened the door.

Then they walked into the closet. They could do that now. The day was over. Jakub shoved coats and dresses out of the way. They smelled of wool and old sweat. Bertha flicked a switch as she closed the closet door. A ceiling light came on.

“Thanks, sweetie,” Jakub said. “That helps.”

In back of the clothes stood another door, this one painted battleship gray. In German, large, neatly stenciled black letters on the hidden doorway warned AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Being an authorized person, Jakub hit the numbers that opened that door. It showed a concrete stairway leading down. The walls to the descending corridor were also pale gray. Blue-tinged light from fluorescent tubes in ceiling fixtures streamed into the closet.

Jakub started down the stairs. Bertha was an authorized person, too. She followed him, pausing only to close the hidden door behind them. A click announced it had locked automatically, as it was designed to do. The grinder and his wife left Wawolnice behind.

Men and women in grimy Jewish costumes and about an equal number dressed as Poles from the time between the War of Humiliation and the triumphant War of Retribution ambled along an underground hallway. They chatted and chattered and laughed, as people who’ve worked together for a long time will at the end of a day.

Arrows on the walls guided them toward their next destination. Explaining the arrows were large words beside them: TO THE SHOWERS. The explanation was about as necessary as a second head, but Germans had a habit of overdesigning things.

Veit Harlan shook himself like a dog that had just scrambled out of a muddy creek. That was how he felt, too. Like any actor worth his salt, he immersed himself in the roles he played. When the curtain came down on another day, he always needed a little while to remember he wasn’t Jakub Shlayfer, a hungry Jew in a Polish village that had vanished from the map more than a hundred years ago.

He wasn’t the only one, either. He would have been amazed if he had been. People heading for the showers to clean up after their latest shift in Wawolnice went right on throwing around the front vowels and extra-harsh gutturals of Yiddish. Only little by little did they start using honest German again.

When they did, the fellow who played Reb Eliezer—his real name was Ferdinand Marian—and a pimply yeshiva-bukher (well, the pimply performer impersonating a young yeshiva-bukher) went right on with whatever disputation Eliezer had found after leaving Jakub’s shop. They went right on throwing Hebrew and Aramaic around, too. And the reb and the kid with zits both kept up a virtuoso display of finger-wagging.

“They’d better watch that,” Veit murmured to the woman who had been Bertha a moment before.