Place of Birth: Report on the State of the Union
(Excerpt of a Novel)
By Norman Manea
Translated from Romanian by Jean Harris
Headed by Chief Rabbi Dr. Niemirower of Bucharest, Rabbi Zirelsohn of Chishinău and Rabbi Dr. Burstein of Botoshani, eighteen of the most illustrious rabbis looked into the case.
THE REPORT from 1928 summarizes the “serious investigation” undertaken on December 31, 1928 by delegates I.M Wechsler and Suchăr Feller on the last day of the year 1928, and thus on the eve of the New Year’s celebration. A profane holiday, the New Year: so thought the ignorant, ready for merry-making and another joyful year. The day marked an anniversary, in fact: the anniversary of a bris, a circumcision, gentlemen!, delegates Wechsler and Feller were ready to shout. The circumcision of the Jewish boy, Joshua, a week after his birth: this is what your New Year commemorates. Before becoming the Savior, Jesus, the boy circumcised 1,928 years ago, had become the Rabbi Jehoshua. Jesus Christ was not Roman after all, or Romanian, or German, or Russian or Spanish, as the multitude would believe. The honorable delegates, who had come to Botoshani to bring peace and concord to the disturbances of their co-religionists from Burdujeni had no time for digressions, however. They would return to Botoshani for New Year’s Eve.
We summoned Mr. Zalic Gruenberg together with the four members that make up his committee. We have likewise called Mr. Herman Horowitz, with the four members of the rival committee. We have requested that they give us their registers and detailed minutes. We have likewise informed the serious people who desire the serenity and prosperity of the city of Burdujeni. So began THE INVESTIGATORS’ REPORT.
The Sound and the Fury of daily life! Beginning, naturally with moral and civic exigencies... The Jewish population of an average, small Eastern European town was really sufficient unto itself. It didn’t care about New Year’s Eve. It didn’t want to hear about delicious cooked pork; it defended itself against the pagan merry-making of the New Year that could turn against it at any time, which, as newcomers and aliens, the citizens well knew.
Mr. Zalic Gruenberg brought us all the record books and the register containing the minutes as well as receipts for monies paid out. Mr. Horowitz and his committee, however, do not have record books or minutes….We established…that the Jewish school is closed, submitted to ruin and subjected to public charity. We asked Mr. Horowitz about the goal of his committee. He answered: the removal of Rabbi B. Basches. For this reason his group has taken on a ritual kosher slaughterer named Haim Litener and has named him rabbi, without his having the certificate required for this rank. We further found that eighteen of the most prominent rabbis, headed by Chief Rabbi Dr. Niemivower of Bucharest, Rabbi Zirelsohn of Chishineau, and Rabbi B. Burstein of Botoshan, have looked into the conflict and punished the slaughterer, H. Litener.
They were in a hurry to return to their homes before the holiday, which hovered (as always) dubiously in the air. In spite of that, the honorable investigators did not limit themselves to a summary evaluation of the situation.
The purpose of their trip had been “to introduce peace and concord to the city of Burdujeni.” Thus, they proposed pacification measures to be instituted in the new calendar year which was just about to begin:
A new election, presided over by a committee composed of a communal adviser and a member of Israelite Community of Botoshan; after the election the penalties inflicted on the slaughterer Litener to be lifted, the said individual to be rehabilitated and returned to his position, strictly limited to kosher slaughter, while Rabbi B. Basches should go on functioning as Chief Rabbi, an office that he occupies with dignity as a learned author of an important book.
In an attempt at impartiality, Messrs. Wechsler and Feller wrote their report in an impersonal way, as was appropriate in the case of such a grave errand with such serious consequences.
Could it have been possible somehow that Mr. Senator Wechsler was a relative of the poet Fundoianu, born in Iashi under the name Benjamin Wechsler and destined to die in The Great War of Extermination at Auschwitz under the French pseudonym Benjamin Fondane? In the next decade of unabated local conflagrations related in Messrs. Wechsler and Feller’s REPORT, Fundoianu’s poetic lines–And there will come an evening/And I will leave this place–might have sent a warning and a summons that would be important—and not only in Romania—if it were read with attention.
The letter, dated February 28, 1929, sent by the representatives of the local Jewish community to The Worthy Union of Jewish Communities in the Old Kingdom1 reports on the misdeeds that continued at Burdujeni:
Mr. Horowitz’ group, composed of individuals with personal ambitions, did not want to hear of free and fair elections. We… had a sad experience when we convoked the population for just such an election, presided over by no less than the city’s mayor. The chief of the local garrison took part, as well!2 Mr. Horowitz, the innkeeper, first enlivened the group with drink before they arrived at the voting place. The Horowitz gallery then broke through the velvet ropes and, rushing into the voting hall, provoked so formidable a scandal that the authorities, in spite of all attempts to restore order, found themselves forced to leave in disgust.
The mayor and the chief of the garrison are unable to quiet the combatants’ fervor! Poverty, suffering, humiliations, and danger seem less urgent than discord with its irresistible energy. Everyone is “someone” in the metropolis of Burdujeni…each a value and a principle in those (still peaceful) years before the time of wrath.
The conclusion comes on a note of high lamentation, both moving and rhetorical:
If this is the state, in point of fact, we respectfully ask you to allow us this question: are we able to hold free elections? In this state of spiritual hostility?
The wise heads of Burdujeni are not satisfied with the description of events. They add too—as did delegates Wechsler and Feller in THE REPORT delivered on the last day of the year 1928—proposals for a more peaceful dialog, a re-beginning:
The existing interim committee should continue to administer the affairs of the Community until riled spirits have calmed down.
On April 22, 1929, an important personage leaves Bucharest: Mr. Horia Carp, journalist.
I conveyed myself on April 2 of the Common Era to Burdujeni, and I asked the two parties to present themselves, each with a delegation, the new arbiter reports. The armies each send five representatives to the negotiations, but an initial incident disturbs the parity:
The delegates from the Horowitz group asked that Mr. Calman Rabinovici, a stranger to the place, be admitted to attend the discussions. This individual would be the group’s secretary. The Gruenberg group declared themselves opposed. For this reason, the delegates of the Horowitz group withdrew, so that only Mr. Horowitz remained at the discussions. The attached protocol, through which both groups oblige themselves to accept the decision of the undersigned, is signed by all the delegates of the Gruenberg group while only Mr. Horowitz signed on behalf of the other group.
The talks went on from 3:30 p.m. to late at night without the arbiter’s reporting the hour when they concluded—probably out of embarrassment.
Suddenly the Gruenberg battalion “feels weaker. It has only eighty partisans,” while the Horowitz division seems also to have “other” unspecified “reasons” for compromise which only the peculiar secretary “from outside” knows—maybe. Ready to get along, even if temporarily, each of the battling groups holds to the commitment it has made to its rabbi or dayan [which is to say judge, whose powers are limited to rabbinical court]. The Horowitz division accepts an agreement through its chief, present at the talks; the rabbi will maintain his function, as will the dayan/ritual slaughterer Litener as his subaltern. The conciliation seems reasonable while the merited sacrifice of ritual slaughterer Litener would be reason for eternal unrest and dissension, as it would imperil, too, the situation of Rabbi Basches, in danger of being fired after the elections by the Horowitz group, found to be in the majority.
My moral conscience rightfully keeps me from giving a prize to a person who, in my conviction, remains the only party guilty of divisiveness. However, to assure the situation of Rabbi Basches, and to bring peace and good understanding to the breast of the Burdujeni Community, after painful and intense reflection within myself, I have decided, and I ask you to bring this decision to the knowledge of both groups, declares the Arbiter of the Peace Conference.
The four provisions of his final decision are clear and indisputable:
1. The interim Gruenberg committee will close its books on April 30, the date when it will dissolve itself and cease activity. It is proposed to the Horowitz group that they introduce several persons from the Gruenberg group in the list of candidates for the new committee.
2. Rabbi Basches remains the only rabbi of the community “with all the rights that flow from this position of dignity,” with his current salary and with the mention that in the future his salary must always be greater than that of the ritual slaughterer. Rabbi Basches, a sage, a Talmid-Chacham, is asked to never mix in public organizational policy and to preach understanding among his congregation.
3. To avoid the susceptibilities of the Horowitz group and not to offend the self-respect of the old slaughterer Litener, seventy-four years of age, this gentleman shall maintain his title of dayan, but only as an honorific, without the right to exercise it.
There follows the foreseeable grave tonality of the conclusion which dramatically allies the Ancestral Law, individual ethical conscience, and the ideal of brotherhood:
In this decision is inscribed the teaching of my conscience, and I hope that the two groups will understand the fraternal thought that guides me and will accept this decision as they are obliged to do.
The envoy to the Worthy Union solemnly concludes his mission to the negotiations at the Jewish metropolis at Burdujeni in 1929. A “fair” decision: one, it might be said, that even the American Congress would not repeal.
N.B.: In a community of two hundred and forty families, the reasonable group is “weaker,” naturally; it does not exceed eighty families. Immediately after a group constitutes itself as a committee, a unity, there appears a counter-group, the dissident interim committee. Coalitions, calumnies, conflicts—naturally, as in the rest of life! Instructive for the observer and posterity: only false “unanimity” is lacking.
Delegates from Botoshani or Bucharest, or even from Jerusalem, can not establish eternal peace—at most conflictual, negotiable “democracy.”
Subsequently, the documents, as well as the historic reality of Burdujeni, continue the never-concluded History.
In the year of grace 1936, in the month of July, under the sign of Cancer and the Crab, when the vulnerable newborns of the tricky summer constellations wrestle with the uncertainties of beginning, Burdujeni holds its electoral campaign, now regulated by the Jewish community’s tri-annual electoral calendar. The State of the Union has evidently improved.
On July 28th at 4 p.m., the leadership committee of the Israelite Community of Burdujeni would be confirmed for a three-year term. The elections had already taken place on May 24, 1936, and they’d been validated while the inevitable “contestation of results” had been rejected.
Contestation had not been lacking, thank God, but it had been analyzed and rejected this time, by the Worthy Minister of Religions, no less. The Prefecture of Suceava County had consequently given its approval by means of the Order of July 27th, as on the following day, at the location of the Israelite School, which was also the Community Seat; the committee was to meet so as to constitute itself an elected body.
The characters from 1928-1929 no longer appear. Only Mr. H. Halpern, one of the five “partisans” designated in 1929 by the Gruenberg group for negotiations with the fierce Horowitz, walks back on stage, pacified by the prestige and fatigue of age.
It is found that the number of elected members necessary for the constitution of a body legally in conformity with the community council is present. Mr. Herman Halpern, who is chosen unanimously the President by Right of Age, formally presides over the constitution of the group.
Unanimity, though! but only for a President by Right of Age, a temporary presider in an honorary position. For an hour or less, the old H.H. will only “formally” conduct the constitution process.
Mr. Herman Halpern, taking over the function of President by Right of Age, thanks the members for the honor they have done him. He brings to the attention of those present that a candidate from list N.1 has addressed a request that the constitution of the committee be delayed for the reason that Mr. Litman Landau, head of the N.1. candidates’ list, is missing from the locality.
The voting system seems to have evolved. There appear to be two lists, probably to keep the factions content. The absentee, head of list 1, seems to be a serious candidate for chiefdom.
As a result of the discussion that took place, it was decided that this question be put to the vote with secret balloting. The result was seven votes for constituting the body and three for delay.
The absence of the redoubtable L.L. would incline the balance in favor of the senior member, H.H., but there are at least two recalcitrants with knowledge of the past. They have not forgotten that the Sanhedrin of the ancient Hebrews would annul the death penalty (which it pronounced extremely rarely anyhow) only when the decision was taken…unanimously. If unanimity cancels even death, which not even The One Above can not annul, what about its power to cancel a poor temporary position made to the measure of earthly temporalities? Not for unanimity, it might be said, was the chosen people chosen! Unanimity is suspect… Mr. Herman Halpern might be unanimously chosen President by Right of Age, but when it comes down to being the President of the United Factions of Burdujeni, things won’t work out unanimously, not never, not no how! That would be an affront. It would mean we should consider the members of the Worthy Community dopes, or worse than that!
The Israelite senate of Burdujeni elects, then, “through acclamation,” two vice-presidents, a procedure probably motivated by the fact that there are two VPs, and there’s no danger of their being in agreement. The voting continues, however, with real seriousness when it comes the turn of the cashier and controller.
A close, really Jewish fight for the so very Jewish job of controller! To summarize the proceedings: although there had been three candidates registered, there was also, however, on the part of the voters, one very “non-Jewish” abstention (if only to make stereotyping impossible).
The chosen one, Mr. Shulim Braunshtein, seemed, however, to anyone who knew him, the least suited to that traditional post.
It shows even in the calligraphy of the minutes, where it is not hard to recognize the beautiful handwriting in Eminescu’s style,3 with the superb curves and variations of Shulim the bookseller, son of the bookseller Avram Braunshtein and brother of the “lady bookseller de lux,” Janeta, called Sheina [Sheina], which is to say Gorgeous, Mamma mia. After the war and after Transnistria, where his parents died, which is to say my grandparents, the temporary “controller” from Burdujeni, frightened of the popular democratic paradise installed in Romania, would carry on his profession as bookseller and newspaper warehouseman in Israel.
His sister, Janeta Braunshtein, had met, several years before the elections of 1936, also on a July day, in fair time, on the Fălticeni Suceava bus, the elegant and sober accountant from the sugar factory in Itscani, who would become her husband. Mother would bear her new name, adopted through marriage, ’till 1988, when she was buried in the place where she was born.
In the great fratricidal and factional struggle of the agitated 1928-1936 period, when to the rising East and to the setting West of Burdujeni the future planetary fire storms smoldered, the elections of July 1936 attest, in writing, to the presence in those places for an age or more—who can tell?—of the numerous Braunshtein family.
They had spread out over the whole country, these people named Barid, Riemer, Leibovi, Kotter, Braunshtein, Segal, Pisani: members and descendants of the clan. Janeta, Rebeca, and Shulim, and Abram Braunshtein, their father, were located there, in the self-same place, consumed by a feverish normalcy that would soon shatter under the wrath of which Wechsler-Fundoianu-Fondane had felt a presentment along with so many others. In 1936, the year of my birth, they had sent their candidate to public office. Uncle Shulim, with his neurotic kindness and his desire to appease everyone, did not seem at all suitable for the so much-disputed function of controller. A conscientious man, however—that, yes. Shulim Braunshtein, the bookseller, had presented himself at that meeting, despite the fact that his sister, then convalescent, still found herself in danger of death. She had just given birth to a boy, about a week ago, on July 19th: a difficult birth in which mother and child had stood under the sign of death.
On the date of the meeting, July 28, 1936, the covenant of mutilation had been committed already, though. The bris, the circumcision, had been carried out. The deep, irrevocable sign through which old Abraham, whose name my grandfather bore with modesty and pride, had been dug into Grandfather’s own body; the covenant with God had been imposed on me without my being able to protest other than through inarticulate roars. The ugly mite had decided with difficulty to abandon the placenta. When he left it, the reason for his hesitation was plain to be seen: he hadn’t much chance of survival. So he had to be kept for days and nights in an incubator to catch his breath if he had any. The family no longer hoped for anything beyond saving the mother. Yes, the mother had escaped with her life. Like him, she had not recovered either, though; the danger had not in fact, disappeared. Only old Avram can not contain himself for happiness. Grandfather again—and precisely through Sheina, his favorite daughter. And beautiful: everyone knows Sheina derives from schön, Schein, scheinen, Schönheit. Grandfather was the only one who believed in the new citizen’s survival. Convinced that a new Noah would live, he wanted him to be named after his brother, Noah, dead not long ago. “If he’s got nails, he’ll live,” Grandfather Avram remarked calmly and in his low, soft voice.
Surprisingly, the starveling in the incubator had nails yet. Little, bitsy, minuscule, invisible…the nails, though, of survival.
1. In Bucharest, that is, the capital of the Kingdom of Romania, which united Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859 (Translator’s note)
2. The garrison chief’s participation was shocking in its day. Ordinarily, the garrison was assigned to protect the Jewish population from anti-Semites. On this occasion, Jews needed to be protected from themselves.
3. Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889), a writer in several genres, generally considered Romania’s most important Romantic poet.
Copyright © Norman Manea 2011
This excerpt was published in 2002 in Romanian, in the magazine Familia (No. 9) under the title "Raport despre Starea Uniunii."
Norman Manea was born in Bukovina, Romania. Deported as a child to the concentration camp in Transnistria and persecuted by the Communist dictatorship in Romania. Left Romania in 1986, lived one year in West Berlin and moved to the US in 1988. Author of prose and essays translated in more than 20 languages, laureate of several international literary prizes, (among them the Mc Arthur and Guggenheim Fellowship Awards, the Italian international Nonino Prize for literature, the Prix Medicis Etrangere and the German Nelly Sachs Prize), member of the Berlin Academy of Art, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain, decorated as Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Letters by the French government. Professor of European Culture and writer in residence at Bard College.
Jean Harris, PhD (the translator), is a novelist and translator who lives in Bucharest, Romania. She has been director of the critically acclaimed The Observer Translation Project (http://translations.observatorcultural.ro). She has guest-edited an anthology of contemporary Romanian writing for Absinthe 13: Spotlight on Romania. Her translations have appeared in various periodicals including The Guardian, Words Without Borders, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Exquisite Corpse. Her recent translations include: “Beyond the Mountains (Preliminary Ascent into Posterity: Celan-Fondane) for The Fifth Impossibility, a collection of Norman Manea’s essays (Yale University Press, due out in early 2012) as well as Manea’s “Words by Moonlight” for Habitus: A Diaspora Journal (December, 2012). Her translation of Manea’s “Sentimental Education” appears in Salmagundi (Fall 2011-Winter-2012). She writes about literature and psychoanalysis.