|Publisher:||HarperCollins Publishers Australia|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.70(d)|
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Clouds scudded across a glowering sky and rustling leaves dropped off the chestnut trees that autumn day in 1890 when Daniel Baldinger trod the narrow alleys of Krakow's Jewish district, wondering how to break the news to his wife Reizel.
Lost in thought, he crossed Meiselsa Street, past prayer houses where bearded men in wide velour hats and long black coats walked brim to brim. Above narrow doorways, signs in Yiddish advertised Susser Brothers' wines, Pischinger's chocolate, Blawat's accessories and Rosenberg's tailoring. In the marketplace on Plac Estery, housewives in long skirts and silk wigs peered at cheeses, squeezed chickens and poked tomatoes on the stalls. Not far from barefoot peasant women in flowered kerchiefs holding up plump chickens, fishmongers pulled slippery carp out of wooden barrels as big as wells. Sharp eyed and sharp mannered, they pretended to curse the shoppers who bought fish from their rivals. "Your arm should drop off when you carry it home, God forbid! Onions should sprout from your navel!" they shouted.
A lad in a fraying jacket swung past Daniel with his basket heaped with crusty salt-spangled bagels. An apple-cheeked woman had to swerve to avoid dropping her tray of pears scented with cinnamon and cloves. "Spiced pears! Sweeter than your mother's love!" she called in a piping voice. A flustered matron, her silken wig awry, hurriedly selected carrots for the tzimmes and onion for the carp. "Are you late for this Sabbath or early for the next?" the stallholder laughed.
Normally Daniel would have stopped to breathe in the country smell of white farm cheeses and pats of glistening butter, but today he walked past them, hardly noticing. Soon the stallholders would fold up their stands, the storekeepers would pull down their wooden shutters, and peace would fall like a velvet mantle over the noisy streets of Kazimierz. Inside every home freshly scrubbed faces would sit expectantly around lighted candles and braided challahs, ready to share the Almighty's gift of the Sabbath. Daniel's face grew sombre. Inside every home except his.
Amid the bustle of the marketplace, he exuded an aura of dignity, a solitary figure in a well-cut overcoat and homburg hat, his neatly trimmed beard streaked with grey. Daniel had the penetrating gaze of those who see beyond appearances, and the commanding presence of a man who knows himself and seeks no man's favours.
On his way home to face the most distressing decision of his life, my grandfather Daniel Baldinger is unaware that a shadowy figure is pursuing him through the crowd, dogging his footsteps, craning to catch every nuance of his expression. I am the invisible stalker, weaving a bridge between my grandfather and myself, between past and present, to piece together fragments of lives that ended before mine began. All my life my father told me about this patriarch whom he venerated and admired. Just, tolerant, understanding and wise. All my life I've accepted this image without questioning, but now I'm embarking on a journey into the past to meet the grandfather I never knew.
Daniel turned into the narrow alley which sunlight rarely warmed and reverently touched the mezuzah affixed to the right hand side of his front door jamb where a tiny scroll of parchment was inscribed with the main tenets of Jewish faith. But he needed no mezuzah to remind him of the glory of God. God's commandments were inscribed in his heart.
As soon as she heard Daniel close the front door, Reizel's heart hammered beneath her high-necked blouse. She took a deep breath, smoothed down her long skirt and gripped the well-worn oak table where they had shared so many meals. One thousand times that day her mind had churned over what her fate would be, and now that the moment had arrived, her mouth felt as dry as if it were Yom Kippur. Outside, a pewter sky hung low over a grey, cold city, but her cheeks burned and her hands were clammy.
The compassionate gaze in her husband's deep-set eyes told her the answer before he spoke. She stiffened and looked away. "I'll provide well for you," he said, hoping that the gentleness of his voice would soften the blow. "You'll have a house and your own business, you'll want for nothing." But his words didn't comfort her because the only thing she wanted in all the world was to stay with him.
Daniel and his wife had been married for ten years. Or more exactly, one hundred and twenty months, because their life together had been measured out in her menstrual cycles. Daniel was thirty-five, and with every passing year he seemed to hear God reproaching him. "I can't live without children," he told her. "In return for the gift of life, a man must leave another generation to replace him. I want to have sons so that I can teach them to worship the Almighty and study the Torah. If I can't doven in shine beside my sons, I won't have fulfilled my duty to God," he explained.
Reizel rarely argued with her husband, but this time her future was at stake. "Perhaps Almighty God, blessed be His name, didn't intend us to have children," she replied, tightlipped. Daniel shook his head. A couple must have children.
Go forth and multiply, that's what the Almighty had instructed Adam and Eve. And the Gemara said that a man must have sons to say the Kaddish prayer for him after he dies so that his soul can find eternal peace.
Divorce among orthodox Jews was very rare in 1890. As couples didn't marry for love, they didn't separate when love was gone. Marriages were arranged, expectations were low, and eventually most husbands and wives came to appreciate each other's good qualities. Divorce, however, was permitted in certain circumstances and childlessness was one of them. Daniel's spiritual adviser, the Sanzer Rebbe, whom he consulted about the major dilemmas in his life, had told him that if a husband and wife have been married for ten years and have no offspring, they are permitted to separate so that both can remarry and have children. My grandfather must have been extraordinarily determined, because as well as Reizel and his parents-in-law, even his own parents opposed his decision.
"Divorce!" His mother-in-law had been aghast. "What has poor Reizel done to deserve this terrible fate? Who will marry a woman cast off by her husband after ten years? What's to become of her?"
Daniel looked troubled. "This is no reflection on Reizel," he pointed out. "Our holy books have said that there's no disgrace in divorce if a couple separate because they are childless."
Reizel's relatives stirred the pot. "What's the world coming to when a man can cast off a wife after ten years? Mark my words, he'll look for some young maidl somewhere," one aunt sneered. "You'll see, younger is better! So that's how our sages are applying their learning, encouraging men to forsake their wives when they become bored with them."
Their rancour was understandable. Although the rabbis permitted a childless couple to divorce, they didn't demand it. According to my father, his father's choice was all the more remarkable since he loved his first wife, but his yearning for children overshadowed everything else in his life.
Although Daniel was born in the village of Lukowice, his parents later moved to nearby Nowy Sacz, a pretty mountain town south of Krakow, where Jewish tailors, bakers, butchers, cobblers and merchants lived and worked in dim workshops around the town square. Behind the square flowed the Dunajec River, where on hot summer days boys splashed beneath the bridge and lazed in the shade of the willow trees.
Ever since the first partition of Poland in 1772, the south-eastern part of the country had been named Galicia and had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So many Jews had settled in Galicia that it was said that even the Vistula River murmured in Yiddish. German was the official language and Vienna was the centre of the world. After completing his training as a gasfitter in Vienna, Daniel had moved to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. A good tradesman with a sound business sense, he built up a successful business at a time when plumbing was in its infancy. At the age of thirty-five, he was financially secure and highly respected in the community. But without children to glorify the Almighty and ensure immortality, what was the point of such success?
The days hung heavily on Daniel and his wife until the time came to mount the well-worn stairs to the rabbi's house. Silently they sat side by side in a room where squeaking floorboards were piled with fraying books and dusty scrolls while the old scribe with a black skull cap on his head scraped on a piece of parchment with a goose quill.
When the bill of divorce was completed, the white-bearded rabbi placed it into Reizel's trembling hands and pronounced that as they were now divorced, they must never again live under the same roof and were both free to remarry after three months. I can imagine how slowly and heavily Reizel descended the stairs to begin her empty life.
After setting her up in a little dairy on Wawrzynska Street where she sold milk, eggs and butter in the front room and lived in the back, Daniel started looking for a second wife who would give him the sons he yearned for.
He didn't have long to wait. A man of exemplary character and good income who is in search of a wife rarely lacks offers, and the eager shadchens of Galicia soon started poring over their lists of marriageable girls. In the doorways and marketplaces, synagogues and shtibls, tongues wagged overtime. "Have you heard? Daniel Baldinger is looking for another wife. He's a good match even though he's divorced. They say he's doing very well, laying those gas pipes of his."
But before any of them had time to submit their candidates, a china merchant came to see Daniel. He was a stout man with dancing eyes and a tar-black beard that bristled with a life of its own. The purposeful gleam in his eye revealed that he hadn't come to sell cups and saucers. "I've come on an important errand, Mr. Baldinger. You're looking for a wife and, believe me, I know just the one. I do business with a merchant in Szczakowa called Abraham Spira who has a marriageable daughter," he said, stroking his wiry beard. "It's a good family, the father is rich, and the daughter is hardworking and modest. You'll get a handsome dowry and a good wife, God willing. And she's a sheine maidl, too, khanaynahora, may the evil eye not touch her." The merchant looked at Daniel and moistened his full lips.
Daniel liked a pretty face and admired modest, industrious women. He also admired learning, and what he found out about this family's antecedents aroused his interest. Abraham Spira was descended from Nathan Nata Spira, a famous seventeenth century Jewish philosopher whose commentaries on the mystical texts of the Kabbala had become classics. He believed that the secrets of the universe could be unravelled by mathematical calculations. Abraham Spira was also said to have been descended from the great sixteenth century rabbi Moses Isserles of Krakow.
Although this impressive lineage undoubtedly whetted Daniel's interest in the prospective bride, not much linked Abraham Spira spiritually with his ancestor. Abraham was a despot who disciplined his nine sons like a general. An aristocratic looking man whose fine face was framed by a neatly trimmed beard of soft grey hair, he was a progressive Jew. He chose well-cut suits made of the finest materials and didn't want his wife Ryfka to wear a wig like other orthodox Jewish matrons of the time.
Abraham had remarkable business acumen. Long before department stores were introduced into Poland, he founded an emporium in Szczakowa, a small railway junction north of Krakow where trains converged from Austria, Prussia and Russia. This store stocked everything under one roof, from curtains, tables and washing boards, to wheels of Swiss cheese and women's corsets.
Spira's store was the wonder of the region. People used to marvel that you could go in there naked, destitute and hungry, and come out clothed, fed and equipped for life. Abraham's persuasive staff made sure that many customers left with considerably more than they'd intended to buy. Soldiers were sometimes persuaded that brassieres were double purses, and simple country women were talked into buying dresses three sizes too big for them. `That dress makes you look like Queen Jadwiga, it fits you like a glove,' salesmen would gush, bunching folds of loose material behind the woman's back. "Wojtek won't be able to take his eyes off you at church on Sunday!"
All the twelve Spira children worked in the store while Ryfka sat placidly behind the counter, taking the money. The sons, who were confident and good-looking, flirted with the wives and daughters of the district officials over their ribbons and laces and, according to gossip, occasionally augmented their income by taking money out of the till.
Leonora, the oldest of the three Spira daughters, who came to be called Lieba, worked so hard in her parents' store that one customer thought she was a hired help. "Why are you killing yourself for your employers? I've watched you slaving here from morning till night," the woman remarked. "It's not right. Don't let them take advantage of you like that!"
The girl looked down, her fair complexion flushing with embarrassment. "I'm Lieba Spira. My father owns the store," she replied, and turned away from the woman's shocked expression.
At a time when there was no shortage of willing country girls to work in town in exchange for a few groschen, food and a corner to sleep, the Spiras' acquaintances muttered that it was preposterous that Lieba should be a drudge in her parents' store. But some people are destined for a life of unremitting toil and that turned out to be my grandmother Lieba's destiny.
When Abraham Spira made inquiries about the prospective bridegroom, he found out that although Daniel Baldinger wasn't educated, he was respected in Kazimierz as a devout and honest man. He was pleased to see that, like him, Daniel wore well-cut suits and trimmed his beard, unlike those Chassids, whom he regarded as fanatics. With his knack for sizing people up, Abraham saw that this was a decent man on whom you could depend. The betrothal contract was soon drawn up.
Tongues wagged when news got around that Lieba Spira was to marry a man who was neither young, handsome nor educated. And when they heard the scandal about his first wife, the neighbourhood gossips shook their heads in horror. Old Spira must have lost his mind. Fancy marrying a young maidl to a tradesman already advanced in years, and a divorced one at that. With all his money, why didn't Abraham Spira get his daughter a doctor or lawyer, or at least a scholar?
Neither Lieba nor her mother had any say in the matter. By now Ryfka Spira had become resigned to the fact that her autocratic husband always got his way. She was an energetic woman with deepset eyes in a bony face. Daniel was pleased that his prospective bride had a softer, prettier face than her mother, and a rounded figure that looked promisingly fertile.
Lieba, on the other hand, was bitterly disappointed with her father's choice. At thirty-five, Daniel was almost twice her age. He was too old, too stern-looking and too serious. She had dreamed of falling in love with someone young and handsome, but instead of a glass slipper she was getting a second-hand shoe. Pouring out her heart to her younger sister Berta, she sobbed, "It's awful to have to marry an old man who's been married before. I don't love Mr. Baldinger and never will. I don't want to marry him, but what can I do? Father will never change his mind." In their family, Abraham's word was law. Lieba wasn't rebellious enough to defy him, and besides, she had no money of her own and nowhere to go.
When Daniel arrived in Szczakowa for his wedding, his father-in-law, who was only fifteen years his senior, strolled beside him along Jagiellonska Street, the dusty main street of this country town, where artisans plied their trade in poky rooms. There was the tailor, the shoe maker and the apothecary whose wooden drawers smelled of cloves, powder and mushrooms. As in most little towns in Poland, over one third of Szczakowa's residents were Jews, and most of them were merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen, millers, innkeepers and retailers.
The Spiras lived on Parkowa Street, a wide tree-lined street facing the sand dunes. Unlike Daniel, who lived modestly, his future inlaws lived in fine style in their large onestorey house. Their table always overflowed with food and the ornately carved Biedemeier sideboard displayed Sevres porcelain.
On the Saturday morning before the wedding, when he was about to leave for synagogue to read from the Torah, Daniel was astonished to find that his future father-in-law had left home without him. An impatient man who waited for noone, Abraham had donned his black patent leather shoes and silk top hat, and strode to synagogue alone. The synagogue was around the corner from the Spiras' house, in Kilinskiego Street, where the boughs of old chestnut trees formed a dense canopy overhead. Next door to the synagogue was the mikveh, the ritual bathhouse where women. immersed themselves in a pool of natural water after menstruating or before their wedding, to cleanse and purify their bodies.
The following day Lieba wore a long lace veil fastened with a garland of flowers when she stood beneath the chuppah beside her bridegroom. "Behold thou art consecrated unto me, according to the laws of Abraham and Moses," Daniel repeated after the rabbi, while Ryfka pulled back her daughter's veil and placed the goblet of wine against her trembling lips.
After the rabbi had blessed the newly-weds and read out the marriage contract, Daniel stamped on the glass goblet to crush it, in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Ryfka dabbed her eyes as she looked at her comely, fresh-faced daughter. Mr. Baldinger certainly did look old, but he seemed kind and gentle. She sighed and hoped that she'd done the right thing, giving in to Abraham on this, as in everything else in their life.
After the wedding festivities were over, Lieba bade a tearful farewell to her large family to whom she was devoted. She had spent very little time with her bridegroom before the wedding and dreaded having to live with this solemn stranger. She felt that her dreams had been shattered just like the glass her new husband had crushed under the chuppah with his patent leather shoe.
After the friendly forests and big skies of Szczakowa, Lieba felt miserable in the big city with its hard-eyed strangers and supercilious buildings. Entombed in her silent flat at 19 Miodowa Street, she missed the resinous smell of pine needles, the undulating stretches of biscuit-coloured sand and the hubbub of her large family.
Her new home, which Daniel had bought with her oldest brother Judah and his wife Hania, was a handsome stone-faced comer house which stands there to this day. It faced the carved, colonnaded facade of the newly built progressive temple whose walls jutted out so that the rumbling horse wagons had to swing out sharply when they turned the comer.
Miodowa Street was one of the boundaries of the Jewish district of Kazimierz. The Jews had been confined to this district after being expelled from Krakow in 1497 after a succession of pogroms. Although some had gravitated back to the city, it wasn't until the new Austro-Hungarian constitution of 1867 that they were officially permitted to live wherever they chose. Wags used to joke that the only successful campaign in the revolution of 1848 was the march of the Jews from Kazimierz to Krakow. Like many others, Daniel took advantage of the liberal decree and moved to the outer edge of Kazimierz, closer to the city.
Feeling sorry for the young girl he'd placed in a city cage, Daniel told her stories every night to cheer her up. He told long complicated stories about rabbis with magical powers who could see into people's hearts, and sages who could see into the future. Although Daniel wasn't talkative, he was a compelling storyteller who kept his new wife enthralled with his inexhaustible tales.
`In the village of Lizhensk there lived a poor tailor called Moishe-Yudl,' one story began. "Moishe-Yudl had eleven children, a wife and a mother-in-law, and they all lived together in one tiny room with all their chickens. The children screamed, the women fought, and the hens squawked. Moishe-Yudl was a patient and pious man, but he couldn't stand this commotion, so one day he set off to see his rebbe for advice."
While he talked, Lieba noticed that her husband's neat ears lay flat against his finely shaped head and that, beneath his jutting brow, his intense dark eyes looked kindly into hers. Like a child listening to a fairy tale, she moved closer not to miss a single word. "After hearing the poor tailor's story, the sage said, 'Moishe-Yudl, buy a goat and keep it inside your home. Come back to see me in one week's time.' The tailor was horrified but you can't argue with the rebbe. So he trudged home and got a goat as the rebbe advised."
Lieba's eyes were round with astonishment. How could a wise man suggest such a thing? Surely he'd misunderstood the poor man's predicament? Eleven children in one room with chickens, and now a goat! But Daniel just smiled and continued his story.
`When Moishe-Yudl added the goat to his tiny hut, life became unbearable because now the goat was running riot as well. It was chewing up his cloth, unravelling the thread, upsetting his wife's saucepans and eating their food.
"Moishe-Yudl could hardly wait for the week to pass. When he came back to see the rebbe a week later, his hair was wild, his face was wrinkled, and his body sagged. 'Oy vey iz mir! My life is not worth living,' he lamented. 'I can't work, my wife cries all day, my mother-in-law doesn't stop cursing me, and the house, may heaven forgive me, is like a pigsty. Rebbe, what shall I do?' "
Lieba's brown eyes were glued to Daniel's face. "Moishe-Yudl, get rid of that goat and come back in a week's time," the rebbe ordered. This time when the tailor came back he had a big smile on his face and two plump chickens for the rebbe. "Rebbe, may the Almighty bless your wisdom, I got rid of the goat, and for the past week, life has been wonderful. Now all I have at home is just my wife, my mother-in-law, the chickens and the eleven children!"
Lieba laughed and clapped her hands with delight, but in years to come, there must have been times when she thought that only by getting a goat would her own household seem more tolerable.
Gradually she came to like the serious stranger she had married. Although she would have preferred a livelier companion, Daniel was gentle and never broke his word. As he was more devout than her father, she had to observe more religious and dietary rules; but, accustomed to doing whatever was expected of her, she ran the household exactly as he wished.
Daniel also realised that his wife was a treasure. Lieba was energetic, efficient and frugal, had good business sense and did her best to please him. The furniture gleamed, the silver sparkled, and every Friday night when he sat down to a dinner of rich chicken broth with flat white beans that melted in his mouth, succulent beef brisket and apple strudl with the finest pastry he'd ever tasted, he thanked the Almighty not only for the gift of the Sabbath but also for sending him such a devoted, competent wife.
In fact, their life together would have been very pleasant were it not for one major problem. Children, the main goal of this union, failed to arrive. Month after long month, the tension between them grew. Doubts which neither dared articulate began to gnaw at them both. Each time Lieba discovered the relentless red stain, the spectre of Daniel's first wife haunted her. He had divorced Reizel because she'd been unable to bear children. Was that also to be her fate? Initially she hadn't wanted to marry him, but now she couldn't bear to be abandoned.
One day Lieba climbed the stairs, shoulders slumped, to confide in Hania, her brother Judah's wife. "If I can't have children, I hope a carriage runs me down in the street," she blurted. "Daniel divorced his first wife because she was barren. I couldn't bear it if he divorced me," she sobbed.
Her sister-in-law clucked her tongue. "It isn't right to divorce a woman because she's barren," she commented. "Maybe Daniel is the one who can't have children. After all, he didn't have children with his first wife either."
But Lieba shook her head. "I'm sure it's my fault," she sighed.
Every evening, after Daniel had finished his bookkeeping, Lieba watched the precise way he placed a sheet of carbon paper on top of his metal paper press to produce copies of accounts and receipts. As he worked he spoke little, but he felt increasingly uneasy. Perhaps God had intended him to be childless after all.
In 1894, four years after they had stood under the chuppah, Daniel couldn't wait any longer. Like Moishe-Yudl in his story, he went on pilgrimage to see his rebbe. Unlike rabbis, who were scholars trained to interpret Jewish laws, the rebbes were sages whom Chassidic Jews consulted whenever they had serious problems. Even though my grandfather didn't belong to this ultraorthodox sect, throughout his life he consulted the Sanzer Rebbe just as his own father had done.
With his devoutness on one hand, and his assimilated appearance on the other, Daniel stood at the crossroads of the traditional and progressive world. Unlike the Chassids who left their beards uncut, wore big black hats and long black coats, and displayed their prayer fringes outside their clothes, my grandfther trimmed his beard, wore European clothes and kept the prayer fringes out of sight.
Unlike most other Chassidic rebbes who lived in luxury, the Sanzer Rebbe was modest and unassuming, and that's probably what appealed to my grandfather. It was to Nowy Sacz that Daniel came on pilgrimage over the Tatra mountains at the age of forty to ask the Sanzer Rebbe's advice about the problem which had now obsessed him for fourteen years. There was an aura of piety in the austere book-filled room where Aron Halberstamm, the Sanzer Rebbe, held his court. After praying with the other worshippers, Daniel asked the Rebbe for his blessing so that he would have a son. Aron Halberstamm had piercing pale blue eyes and a grey beard that hung over his chest in two V's like a Biblical prophet. When he looked at someone he seemed to be able to see inside their soul. "You will have a son," the sage told Daniel. "Call him Avner, after the son of King David."
Soon after this visit, Lieba realised with mounting excitement that the crimson stain which she dreaded so much had not appeared that month. She said nothing until she was absolutely certain. Telling good news too soon was a sure way of alerting malicious spirits which might, God forbid, cause a miscarriage. But when there was no longer any doubt, Lieba told Daniel the news he'd waited so long to hear. Looking at her flushed, smooth face and shining brown eyes, Daniel was filled with joy. "The Almighty has answered my prayers," he said.
He knew that the child would be a son.
Reading Group Guide
1. It has been said that there is no history, only biography. Does Mosaic bear this out?
2. One of the themes of Mosaic is survival. What conclusion did you come to about this?
3.Choose one of the survivors, and assess what part chance, instinct, or resourcefulness played in their survival.
4. Family relationships and the `dance of the generations' are other themes throughout the story. How are the patterns of the past repeated in later generations? How does the relationship between the author and her father mirror her father's relationship with his own father? Does your own life experience reflect this recurring pattern?
5. Do you think Wanda's statement (p. 443-444) that "Life isn't fair. The pleasures that parents give children are brushed away like crumbs, but the pains are absorbed into the psyche like inkblots" is true? Is it true for some of the characters in the book? How so?
6. What role does tradition and heritage play in the lives of the Baldinger children? In the author's life?
7. How does the author prepare us in Part I for what is to follow in Part II?
8. What do you consider to be the climax of the story? How does the author build up to it?
9. In Chapter 40, the author and her daughter visit Poland and the Ukraine in order to trace their roots and visit people and places of importance to their family's history. Do you think they found what they were looking for? Why or why not?
10. How did you feel about some of the modern opinions expressed about the treatment of Jews in Poland during WWII? For example, their guide Jacek's comment that, "They say people living around the ghetto walls didn't help. How could they help whenthe walls were so high? Anyway, helping Jews was dangerous." (p. 518)
11. What motivated Father Soszynski to help save the author's family? The townspeople of Piszczac? Is there a difference between the two? If yes, is this difference important?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This family history of Polish Jews is fascinating reading for this Irish Catholic woman. These are real people, not just figures on a chessboard. Could not put it down.
Well written chronicle of 5 generations. Hard to put down, amazing what her family endured during the war years.