An excerpt from The Origin of Sorrow, a new novel
By Robert Mayer
Across the river from the Judengasse, not far from the Sachsenhauser Bridge and the Fahrtor Gate, which was the principal entrance to Frankfurt, a black carriage pulled by a snorting white horse rolled to a stop at a stable. The driver, who was the lone occupant, stepped down amid the smell of horses and manure. He handed the reigns to a stable boy and walked towards the office to settle his bill. He was a short, stout man with an ample belly packed into a tight-fitting blue coat and vest, gray knee-breeches and gray stockings. On his head was a black three-cornered hat, partially covering a stylish but unpowdered wig. His shoes had silver buckles, his white blouse was ruffled at the collar. The man was Wolf Schnapper - husband to Emmie, father to Guttle, Avra, Amelia, Rifka and Benjamin. He was a successful moneychanger, the trusted personal banker to the Prince of Sachsen-Meiningen. He handled the Prince's investments, changed money for him when he was going to travel, provided loans at low interest when the Prince needed a new stallion, a new carriage, a new mistress. The fact that the principality was a small one did not lessen Wolf Schnapper's pride in his position.
In the stable office, Wolf signed his name to a ledger. His credit was good here, he settled his account promptly at the end of the month. The stable manager put a mark beside the signature, indicating that horse and carriage had not been ill used.
As he stepped outside, Schnapper heard the pounding of a horse racing along the hard-packed dirt road. With a strong pull on the reins the rider tugged a stunning black stallion to a stop at the gate, and leaped off. He was a younger man, twenty-five, tall and lean, with a short brown beard, wearing a three-cornered hat much like Schnapper's, but no wig. He was dressed less formally than the Court Factor - brown knee-breeches, loose white blouse, leather vest, well-worn shoes. A small leather pouch hung from his waist.
"Meyer Amschel!" Schnapper called as he approached the younger man, a neighbor who lived a few houses away. "You were riding like a bandit. Look, you're out of breath."
"So's the horse," the young man said. He handed the reins to the stable boy and took several deep breaths. His smile suggested he was pleased with his ride, and also with his dismount. He wiped the sweat from his face, from the small trimmed beard on his chin.
"Is the public coach not dangerous enough for you?" Schnapper asked.
"Not fast enough. I wanted to be back for the funeral. I imagine that's why you're early as well."
"Exactly so. But there are cutthroats on the highway, it's not safe to ride alone."
"So they say."
Schnapper shook his head, disapproving of the young man's recklessness. He knew Meyer Amschel was an orphan, had been for many years, had no father to caution him. Then Schnapper realized that he himself had traveled alone today. But that was different, he felt protected by his closeness to the Prince.
"Will you walk across the bridge with me?"
Meyer Amschel replied that of course he would. First he went in to see the manager. He did not have the credit the Court Factor did, he had paid in coins for the rental of the horse; now he received back in coins the deposit he had left for its safe return.
"Will you be wanting Blacker again tomorrow?" the manager asked. "Not tomorrow." Tomorrow would be the Sabbath.
Schnapper was waiting when Meyer stepped outside. Together they walked toward the bridge. A light breeze was raising ripples in the river as it flowed east towards its confluence with the Rhine less than thirty kilometres downstream. The bridge had been built as a series of fourteen stone arches under which the water flowed. Small boats could slip under the arches with their sails intact. For larger ships coming up from the Rhine, the journey ended at Frankfurt. They couldn't fit under the bridge.
Meyer Amschel strode briskly, then slowed his pace to accommodate the older man's shorter legs. As they began to cross they could see commercial buildings with gabled roofs lining the waterfront that stretched away to the west. Almost directly ahead, just west of the bridge, were the towers of the church of St. Bartholomew, where each new Emperor was crowned. Just east of the bridge were the walls of the Judengasse.
"So," Schnapper asked as they walked, "how is the antique coin business?"
"I can't complain," the younger man said. "I know it's not as good as the factor business."
"There's nothing better, for us Jews," Schnapper said. "Since I was named Court Factor a year ago, my business has tripled. Just the title of Court Jew - the fact that I'm the court's official banker, that people know the Prince is borrowing from me - makes me more in demand."
"Before, merchants wouldn't take your money?"
"Now they're willing to pay higher interest. Borrowing where a Prince borrows makes them feel better. They stop complaining. They stop calling it usury. They start admitting that interest is a cost of doing business."
The men reached the midpoint of the bridge. Here, if one looked over the sides, there was a feeling almost of floating as the river stretched endlessly in both directions before it curved out of sight. Light clouds scudding by overhead, reflected on the surface of the water, could cause a fleeting rush of motion, as if the bridge were a magic carpet. Sometimes, when he was alone, Meyer would stand here for a long time, letting the current take his mind to distant places, carrying with it his distant dreams. But today the men were in a hurry, and did not pause. Schnapper did not care to look in any case, being prone to attacks of dizziness
"So, where did that fine-looking horse carry you today?" "Mainz," Meyer replied.
"Did you find any treasures in Mainz, if I may ask?"
"One in particular."
Meyer lifted the leather pouch from his belt, stopped walking and searched through it. He pulled out a small, dirty coin.
"This is a treasure?" Schnapper asked.
"It will be, after I clean it better. It's ancient. From Mesopotamia."
"The land of the Torah," Schnapper said, nodding. "If you don't mind my prying, how much will you sell this for?"
Meyer took the coin back from him and returned it to the pouch. "That depends," he said. "Whatever Crown Prince Wilhelm is willing to pay for it."
"You're doing business with the Crown Prince?"
They resumed walking along the bridge. The shorter man looked at the other's face with a doubting smile.
"I intend to begin," Meyer Amschel said. "With this coin."
"What if his royal honor doesn't want it?"
"He's a collector. Any collector would want it."
"And if he won't meet your price?"
"Then I'll meet his."
"What if he offers you less than you paid for it? You'll take a loss?"
"I won't look at it as a loss. I'll consider it an investment."
He looked off into the distance, seeing things that only he could see. A gull crossed his line of sight carrying a fish in its mouth. "It will be an investment in future business with the Crown Prince. At which time, I'll have such treasures that he'll meet my price."
Schnapper peered at him, trying to conceal any expression. This was an unorthodox approach to finance. They walked in silence. A small boat with its sail unfurled passed beneath the bridge. They could feel the river's current in their feet as it lapped against the arches.
"You know something, Meyer Amschel," Schnapper said. "I'm becoming a rich man. Not rich by Gentile standards, of course, but rich in the lane. My children, Dank Gott, will never go hungry. I can even give a bit to charity. I venture to guess I'm one of the twenty richest men in the Judengasse. But approaching the Crown Prince? Suddenly I have a feeling you may surpass me one day, if you're not careful."
"Then I must try not to be careful," Meyer said.
"You must also continue to have good luck. As you did in finding that coin."
Meyer paused to tighten his purse, which was hanging too low and banging against his thigh. "With all respect, sir, I don't believe in luck."
"In what, then? Fate? Were you fated to find that coin from Mesopotamia? Perhaps Abraham himself blessed it and said, One day Meyer Amschel in the Judengasse of Frankfurt shall have this coin."
"That would be nice to believe. The more modest explanation is this: I received word yesterday that a certain coin dealer in Mainz had obtained such a coin. Taking passage on the public coach today would have gotten me home too late for the funeral, as we have discussed. Tomorrow is the Sabbath, so I could not travel to Mainz. Sunday the gates of the lane remain locked. Monday would be the earliest I could go to see it. Possibly some Gentile dealer would have bought it by then. That's why I rented the fastest horse in the stable, and rode him to weariness. So I would have the best chance to buy the coin. Luck was not involved. Those who trust to luck get second best."
"Ah," the court factor said. "But you happened to learn about the coin right away. Was that not luck?"
"I have made friends in various towns. They keep me informed by post of what is available. Luck, in my view, is three-fourths information."
"And these friends of yours in various towns. They are loyal to you, they keep you informed, because... ?"
"Because in the past I have sold them coins."
"Let me guess," Schnapper interrupted. "In the past you have sold them coins at whatever price they were willing to pay."
The younger man did not respond. The conversation ended suddenly. It was always thus as Jews approached the Fahrtor, the main gate to the city, which stood at the end of the bridge. The Fahrtor was a stone tower six stories high. The first two stories were pierced by a pointed archway through which foot and carriage traffic moved in and out of the city. On the face of the Fahrtor, travelers entering the city saw a large painted stone engraving. It was famous - or notorious - far and wide as the Judensau - the Jews' Sow. The engraving was dominated by a large female pig. Beneath the pig several human figures were seated, sucking at its teats. At the rear of the pig, one man was holding up its tail while another, with his tongue protruding, was preparing to eat the pig's emerging excrement. To the rear, two men with hats and long beards, clearly representing Jewish elders, were watching. All the figures were wearing the pointed yellow hats that until recently had been mandatory for Frankfurt's Jews. Lettering under and through the image said: "Drink it, Jew, drink its milk/ Rabbi, eat its excrement."
The engraving was not the work of an odd or obscene individual. It had been put there, and was maintained in good repair, by the City of Frankfurt. The two men tried not to look at the image as they passed beneath it.
Each could not help flicking his eyes to it for an instant. Each could not help noticing the other do the same. By now, seeing the Judensau should have no effect on them, they believed. It was only a drawing; the confinement of the Judengasse was life. But the engraving always seemed to fill the air they were breathing with a heaviness that precluded speech, and sometimes induced nausea. Rage flared in their chests that had no place to go but deep within them. Such bitterness could not be expressed. Such bitterness could not be discussed. It could only be absorbed as pain beside the heart, as helplessness behind the eyes. It could only be battled by each man alone.
From the Fahrtor arch they could see and hear and smell the busy port at work. The wharves were piled high with logs, with barrels of wine and cheeses and spices, with bales of cloth imported for the women of Frankfurt to turn into clothing. Seamen, coach drivers, food hawkers, money changers shouted, one voice above another, in a salty cacophony. Horses, donkeys, mules, oxen harmonized with their smells. Invisible by daylight but present nonetheless were thousands of brown rats that lived in the docks, sleeping by day in walls and under floors and burrowed into piles of garbage, crawling out at night to feast on spilled cheeses, meats, grains, rinds, whatever they deigned to eat. For the Judengasse, the nearness of the docks was a blessing - it kept the lane mostly free of rodents. That, and canisters of ratbane, and the diligence of the women in keeping their homes clean.
Passing under the tower, the men reached into their purses to pay the toll required of everyone entering or leaving the city. The toll for Christians was four kreuzer. The toll for Jews was eight. In a city ledger the men were required to sign their names. The older man signed first: Wolf Salomon Schnapper. The younger man followed, with his barely legible signature: Meyer Amschel Rothschild.
The stone steps from the bridge led to a narrow riverside beach. A path alongside the sloping sewage sluice climbed to the ghetto wall. The two men followed the wall and entered the Judengasse at the north gate, which was closest to their homes. Wolf Schnapper was delighted to find his daughter Guttle, in Sabbath finery, waiting for him inside the gate. He hugged her and put his arm around her shoulder and together they walked to the Owl. Meyer Amschel hurried off toward the Hinterpfann, his own house across the lane.
"The Origin of Sorrow," is a historical novel, set in a Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt in the 1770s. It is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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