Rochl and the World of Ideas
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Sheindl Franzus-Garfinkle
Translated from Yiddish by Frieda Johles Forman
It was the end of summer, 1916. In the Ukranian town of B., far from the battlefields, people had grown as accustomed to war as dogs to iron chains; on some the mark of suffering lingered, others feasted on the fat bone and prospered.
A large crowd had gathered in Leah Frank’s parlour because word had gotten out that two prominent merchants would be visitors in her home. They were said to be timber merchants hoping to export a couple of wagonloads of grain. Manufacturers’ agents also wanted to be included. “It doesn’t hurt to have one’s ear to the ground – to hear what’s going on in the world. And Leah’s deals could succeed even with garbage. She’d buy anything, and with her good luck there was always a profit.”
Just as the gracious Leah (strings of pearls under her substantial chins) opened the door to the merchants, Chaya, her maid, entered from the kitchen. “Mistress, I won’t allow you any business deals now. As it is, the food will be tasteless, it’s been moved on and off the grate a hundred times. They’ve waited so long, they can chat a little longer, until you’ve eaten.”
The merchants laughed. “Leah, she’s almost more mistress than you are. How long has she been supervising you this way?” “So! What else would you expect?” another remarked. “After all, Leah’s Rochl was raised in her arms.”
Leah guessed immediately what had brought the merchants: they were itching for something. She, on the other hand, had her own headaches. But since they were asking, she was ready to make a killing.
When the talk of business was finished, no one wanted to leave. Somebody then mentioned that the town’s new gymnasium would be completed that year.
Rochl knew there would be only five grades, but the principal had said she was ready for the seventh. So she wanted to go to Odessa. Leah was opposed, and argued with her.
“Don’t forget, dear daughter, that – health permitting – you’ll turn seventeen this winter. It’s enough that the gymnasium stole Issar from his home and that Chayim graduated a mad man as a result of book learning. Other mothers keep their children by their side, and that’s that. Not me. No good tutors in the village? Then immediately the boys are sent to town. For Chayim, only God himself would do – for him only Motel, the great Hebraist. Money was no object. So he became – my troubles on my enemies’ heads – a vegetarian! Nothing helped, neither kindness nor harshness. So I set him up in a business, a well-stocked shop. Next he hankered after farming. He fled to Argentina, then Palestine, and returned weak-eyed and without his trousers. I opened yet another store for him, but he just stood there in the doorway like an outsider. The business could go up in flames but he remained lost in his Esperanto books. He thinks we’re not decent enough to the Gentiles, nothing will do but to share all we own with them. Usually you chase after customers but they came on their own to Chayim. They sniffed out his honest weights – and word got around.”
“Honesty is the best policy!” Rochl said triumphantly. “Education brings these results.”
Her mother grimaced. “Like a pea sticks to the wall – there’s absolutely no connection. This much I know for sure – if I hadn’t sent Issar off to study, he’d still be at home. A fifteen-year-old boy who convinced himself that he couldn’t study in Russia. Only America suited him. Now he’s there working like a dog. See what comes of your enlightenment! There are enough over-educated imbeciles without you.”
Rochl was as stubborn as her brothers. She wouldn’t listen and wanted to hear nothing more. She was going away to study with or without her mother’s permission.
“So then, go-o-o! And may you be among the wise ones. When we need a sack repaired, we’ll go from door to door and see how the response will be ‘Move along! A doctor lives here.’ Chayim believes the servants should also study. But how would he feel if Chaya were to study and there’d be no one to serve up a fluffy pancake the way he likes it? But go! Do as you wish! I no longer understand anything. I moved to the city because of you, but that didn’t help either. So go your way!”
Rochl stood with head bowed, weighing pity for her mother’s despair against her own passion for learning. To no avail. Her books, clothing and sundries already packed, she stood at an open window. The clear air seemed to meet her boldly and proudly, flowing right through her: “There, far away, after you’ve acquired culture and knowledge, you too will become as independent as I am, with the power to inspire and delight.”
Vifchik, the coachman, called in, “Well, Madam Frank, is your young lady ready yet? Hurry! She’ll miss the train!”
Leah’s head throbbed. How could she convince Rochl not to go? Nowadays one needed a course on speaking to one’s own children. In her parents’ home a shout of “I say no!” and ten children were left trembling, none daring to make a sound.
“Daughter, do you know what? Here, take three years’ tuition, spend it freely on the most expensive, most exquisite clothing. At least you’ll have done something practical. These are war years, and a suitable match won’t wait for you to complete your studies.”
Aunt Eni and other rich relatives, even the wise and learned merchant Reb Yisroel, took it upon themselves to warn that a young woman overly immersed in books wouldn’t easily find a suitable groom, and often remains an old maid.
Though they thought they were right, Rochl was tormented. Resentment gnawed at her. A woman’s place was so insignificant, so marginal; a woman was an appendage.
The evening darkness in Rochl’s room offers itself to her. The girl grows sadder, and searches for an answer in books. The more she snacks on thought, the greater her restlessness. Now, she thinks, she’s already been in Odessa for two months, she’s studied, read, attended lectures and the theatre, but she doesn’t know if all of these things, these experiences, matter.
Rochl gave little thought to meeting new acquaintances. She sensed a vague tumult around her, a muted struggle; and in that atmosphere she searched for answers.
Several times, a blond young man had seated himself next to her in the library and taken notes from a variety of books.
One day, on their way home, their eyes met. They both smiled, and removing his hat, Gustav Feldman greeted her. “I believe books have already introduced us and that I may take the liberty of addressing you.”
He was somewhat above medium height, tanned, and with mild blue eyes that attested to a right-thinking nature. She was pleased with his greeting. “I think so, too,” she responded.
After that day they often walked together from the library to Rochl’s courtyard.
Several times he stopped by to call on her. One Saturday he suggested the cinema Urania, where a professor usually spoke about the films. Rochl accompanied him happily. He pleased her: a cultured, intelligent, and serious young man. But under no circumstance would she let him pay for her.
Gustav bore brutal scars from the days when Tsarist hooligans drove homeless Polish Jews from the war front. He ached and raged against the oppressors of his people. To Rochl he said: “The Jewish youth in Polish villages are more serious and more idealistic. Here in Odessa I collided with a vast emptiness. But eventually I did succeed in finding informed and sensible young men who needed only to be set on the right path.”
She always listened to his wise words with great interest. Would her Lilliputian soul ever achieve such heights?
One evening Rochl accompanied Gustav to the home of an acquaintance. At their entrance, noisy conversation resolved into a joyous “Gustav! Feldman! Gustav!”
Gustav introduced Rochl. Then, turning to a student, he said: “This is the person.”
Ziskind, the student, responded by offering Rochl both hands. “One to Miss Frank and one to Rochl.”
Rochl was confused: why should the usually tactful Gustav have introduced her so strangely? And this prankster with the pleasant face, was he having fun at her expense? Nevertheless her eyes softened and she too offered both hands.
From a corner of the room Gustav was heard. “Comrades, I’m very pleased to see new friends at our classes each time. We Bundists mustn’t be concerned because we’re few in number. We’re a party, not a club. Each group must strive to increase its awareness – that’s the greatest strength of our political struggle. One brief, well-written pamphlet can reach millions. We must send out our call to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”
The word “Bundist” was foreign to Rochl. What exactly was it? She listened further and laughed at her own ignorance. Of course! They were socialists! Gustav’s flowing speech evoked such beautiful ideals. All of his writing at the library was in preparation for these lectures. How masterfully he spoke about the French Revolution! What detail! What extraordinary powers of expression! “...Pyramids of injustice arising from generations’ long enslavement – at the hands of lords, aristocrats, tsars, and capitalists.” He could even draw on examples from before the world began.
A girl asked how to explain our constant turning back to ancient ideas.
“According to Bern,” said Gustav, “we feel spiritually close to the Greeks because they also had their early and middle periods. We must understand that every thinker has the right to consider his own period as the new age. That’s why their ideals and views are sometimes compared to our own.”
Nachman, a short young man of about twenty, with a gymnast’s hat pushed back and shabby clothes, said, in a voice full of conviction, “Oddly enough, primitive societies were often more spiritual than our own.”
Ziskind jumped up so impetuously Rochl could almost feel a breeze passing by. “Recently, when I had occasion to be in a village near Odessa, I asked a peasant if he was interested in what’s in the newspapers. He looked at me intensely and said, ‘I’ve heard their lies more than once. Our tsar reports on how far back we’ve pushed the enemy and of their losses; and our enemy reports the exact same thing.’ Shrugging indifferently, he continued: ‘From all the conscripts in our village, not one has returned. Come with me, I’ll take you to my neighbors. In the first house you’ll meet a middle-aged woman; suffering has turned her into an old grandmother. Her eyes have lost their light since receiving the box with the few things that her son asked be sent to his mother after his death. Not a person, not a thing remains alive for her. In the second house, the agitated voice of a younger woman will come at you. Just listen to how her voice struggles with sorrow – unless you’ve come with good news from her young man. Open another door: wretched children wrap themselves around you like worms. Papa, Papa! wails through the house. The mother has gone to find bread, who knows by what means.’”
A debate followed as to whether war could be prevented.
Rochl was stirred. What superior beings! How beautiful their reasoning! They criticize one another without bitterness. How dedicated they are: they’re prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of humanity.
It was past one o’clock when Gustav accompanied Rochl home. He was so deep in thought it seemed he’d forgotten all about her. Suddenly he said, “Rochl, do you want to attend our Tuesday lectures?”
“Oh yes! I wish it were Tuesday already. I’ve been completely removed from social issues, I’ve simply never given thought to questions of society. I’m less interested in anti-theological arguments – I’ve heard enough of these from my middle brother, he’s a vegetarian. Every one in your group has the gift of teaching the essence of an idea while standing on one foot. With your help I may yet become a bit of a scholar myself,” Rochl said, laughing.
Never before so spirited, Gustav grabbed the belt of her coat. “Let’s run to your courtyard.”
The road applauded under their feet. But, unexpected, Gustav stopped Rochl and whispered earnestly, “On the other side of the street, you see those two officers? Stare at them so they’ll turn their faces to you – it’s urgent.”
She did as he asked, and for a minute felt numb. Both officers turned their heads toward her, as if on order, and smiled with their drunken, pucker-gorged faces.
Gustav, unnoticed, took the opportunity to fix the lines of their faces in his memory, then quickly pulled Rochl away with him.
She was astounded. “What is it, a hallucination or a prank?” she asked.
“I don’t know myself!” Gustav shrugged his left shoulder and a thought seemed to spring from under his forehead. “Ay, your eyes really have a compelling power.”
She turned her face toward him with her singular signature, but Gustav pulled down the brim of her hat, and said, “It’s not smart to put your nose into everything.”
Rochl burst into laughter. “You frightened me. I thought you’d seen my class chaperone and concealed me from her. When I first heard that she’s been stalking about like a cat for twenty years, I gave a hoot, and our class continued without disruption. Then, ten times more devout, I put my gymnasium hat to bed at nine o’clock and didn’t return to my courtyard before day break – the guard-boy will be a witness.”
Gustav merrily placed his hand on his heart: “I swear by the ‘friend of Reason’ not to tell.”
Gustav’s Tuesday lectures, and the discussions they generated, greatly excited Rochl. The contrast to her psychology teacher reading his entire lecture from a book angered her. He concluded with: “However absurd one’s speech may be, it’s nevertheless true that each word is related to the next.”
One student added: “In my babbling there’s no connection between one word and the next.” Their teacher smiled easily, forgetting that it was a student who spoke. Rochl pushed her chair back so loudly that everyone turned around. He alone heard nothing, saw nothing. No wonder the gymnasium left her dissatisfied. They weren’t taught to live productive lives, and certainly not to understand human suffering.
She felt cheated because of the fraud the teacher had committed against his students. His high forehead and delicate hands spoke of his four degrees. Yet he didn’t deem it necessary to provide his own interpretation for such an important paragraph. He, who had been an elected deputy! Was his mind consumed with higher things? Higher enough to neglect his teaching responsibility? Well hardly!
She was determined to read philosophy, and borrowed a volume of Kant from the library. Impatiently she hurried home, glad that everyone would be out because the weather was so pleasant.
From the very first page, profound ideas captured her curiosity. She read every paragraph two and three times. Her blood rushed feverishly, whip driven. Here human reason was above everything else, here man was no more than a speck of dust in nature’s mystery. She closed her book with a heavy heart: she couldn’t comprehend it. She would ask Gustav when he came.
“Yes, I used to study philosophy with my colleagues in Poland. Why do you ask? Why do you want to clutter your head with philosophy?”
She felt belittled by his question and her courage drained. Gustav must have understood that such lofty ideas were not meant for her limited intelligence.
Gustav noticed her sudden sadness. His eyes burned with self-reproach. “See how destructive the accepted attitudes towards women are. That’s the poison we must eradicate, and the sooner the better. My question to you implied that I doubted women’s competence. Not so. I’ve long been convinced that she’s the equal of man and must occupy an equal place in society.”
But Rochl was grieved and deeply disappointed. His attempt to sweeten bitter truth was in vain. She presented her interpretation of certain memorable passages to him. “You see,” she said, “because of Kant’s profundity I feel even more insignificant. I’m in a total fog.”
Gustav smiled, and she was certain he was laughing at her. Adding to her pain, she continued: “It seemed to me just now that he’d already solved the problem – hit the bull’s eye! Then, suddenly, he jumped back again. Or perhaps he jumped forward. Man and world go up and down with him like a see-saw. First, man is high above the world, he becomes the receiver and the creator, everything dependent on his pure reason! Then, suddenly, the world springs aside and man is deposed with a crash. To the point of confusion. Then the world becomes a side issue, man’s logical reason barely, barely understanding it.”
Rochl drew a deep breath, as though she’d just moved a boulder. But the pressure and the pain lingered. Gustav took her head in both hands.
“Ay, Rochl, Rochl, you don’t know what a modest girl you are, what a beautiful and honest thinker you are. I’ll come by every Saturday evening and we’ll read philosophy together.”
His offer was very dear to her. Perhaps with his help she’d begin to understand. But no! He had hugged her as he would a young child. That meant: Don’t stick your nose where you shouldn’t.
Translation copyright © Frieda Johles Forman 2012
“Rochl and the World of Ideas” is excerpted from Sheindl Franzus-Garfinkle’s novel, Rochl.
This excerpt will be part of the forthcoming anthology, The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Johles Forman, due to be published in April 2013.
Sheindl Franzus-Garfinkle (1899-1957) was born in Bershad, Ukraine. She studied medicine at the University of Odessa and lived in Belz, Romania, before settling in Montreal in 1922. The most important of her books is Rochl, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, published in 1942 in Montreal.
Frieda Johles Forman (the translator)’s most recent book is Jewish Refugees in Switzerland During the Holocaust: A Memoir of Childhood and History (2009). An editor of the groundbreaking anthology Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (1994), she is also the editor of the forthcoming collection of Yiddish translations, The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers, to be published by Exile Editions in April 2013.