The Historical Cabaret of Professor Fabrikant
By Yirmi Pincus
Translated from Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman
Chapter One: A Death in Czernowitz
Although he was approaching his ninetieth year, Professor Markus Fabrikant did not, at first, assign any significance to the indisposition of his bowels: since when is an experienced Jew, he said to himself, afraid of a little intestinal gas? But as time wore on, the pains grew stronger, and after two weeks the professor was so weak he could not get out of bed. All manner of gurgles and spasms assaulted him with unfamiliar force, and the volcanic activity of his innards caused him terrible suffering. His face became pale, and his body dwindled so that it was difficult to recognize the distinguished professor of days gone by: he now understood that he had contracted his final illness.
His last weeks were spent in the largest room of the family apartment, with a view of the grand theatre of Czernowitz across the way. A fine fire burned in the hearth, dark rugs covered the splintery wooden floor, and the sickbed was made up each morning with fresh white starched sheets. Beside the bed stood a Biedermeier table with carved legs and round top, and upon it an array of dusky glass bottles containing ineffective concoctions prescribed by the doctor. Visitors could see only the professor’s tiny, weary head, sunk amid the stark plumpness of the quilts. Lest bright light tax his dimming eyes, the curtains were opened only in early morning, and in the remainder of the day the room was darkened and a crystal chandelier was lighted to disburse a gentle glow. By his own request an old-fashioned painting, purchased eighty years earlier by his father in Vienna, was hung on the wall beside the bed. The painting sat inside a heavy gilt frame, and during his childhood it had graced the offices of the Fabrikant Trading Company on the ground floor; whenever he was there, the young Markus would sit and gaze at it for hours, savoring the vague fear that it aroused in him. In the foreground of the picture was a meadow crisscrossed by a winding road. On the road walked a woman and a little girl, toward a distant cottage bathed in magical light with a palm tree towering alongside. A tangled, mysterious forest flourished behind the cottage, and the sky was almost black, either painted that way by the artist, or darkened with age. To his bewilderment, the elderly professor realized that nothing remained of the inexplicable fear the painting had caused him as a child, and the all the questions that had plagued his young soul, such as what the pair might discover when they reached the cottage, did not interest him in the least.
The veteran actresses, members of the Historical Cabaret of Professor Fabrikant, who lived not far away in their shared apartment in the Haltgasse, assiduously performed the mitzvah of visiting the sick, not leaving the dying man’s bedside till nightfall, when they would leave him to the supervision of Becky. This loyal servant, with graying hair cropped at her nape and a cross dangling from her neck, did not budge or recoil from him even when he lost control of his sphincter. She laid cold compresses upon his forehead, wiped the remnants of chicken soup from his shriveled chin, and quietly stroked his fragile, mottled hand. She was afflicted with muteness, and to the unfamiliar ear what emerged from her lips sounded like meaningless growls; but it was the noises that accompanied her actions, it seemed, which brought comfort to the dying man.
Only Zofia Fabrikant, the professor’s sister-in-law, looked askance at Becky. “I don’t like that shiksa sticking her nose in everything,” she said to Mimi Landau one morning when they happened to be waiting together outside the sickroom.
“And who will look after him, you?” retorted Mimi.
“If I were you, Landau, I wouldn’t be so hoity-toity,” sniffed Zofia. “But no matter, soon this will be over and my Avrum will be in charge, and then we’ll see how all of you will speak to me. You’ll be begging on all fours for us to throw you a bone.”
“He’s not shutting his eyes so fast, Madame Fabrikant.”
And what do you think, he’s going to jump up and dance a kazachok?” laughed Zofia. “Instead of wasting time and waiting for miracles, you’d be better off preparing me an orderly list of all the property and bank accounts.”
Mimi gave a sigh of protest and fell silent. She never liked this arrogant woman, a country bumpkin wholly unworthy of affiliation with the honorable merchant family of Fabrikant. It had to be admitted that in her prime Zofia had been a great beauty, by virtue of which she had managed to land a wealthy husband, the late Shlomo Fabrikant, an affable gentleman quite a bit her senior. No sooner had she married him than this supercilious woman had forgotten her father, the barber from the town of Zhadova, as well as her mother, the wife of the barber from the town of Zhadova. Overnight she adopted the airs of the urban rich, and with her natural cleverness and aristocratic gait became the very image of a proud and elegant matron, hair tightly coiled at the back of her neck. What was more, having produced two sons for her husband, the sole heirs of the house of Fabrikant in Czernowitz, she grew haughtier still, and began imposing her will on everyone around her. As often happens, her pretty face could not indefinitely conceal her inner qualities, and now that she was nearly fifty-five her wicked and scheming nature had become well apparent. Her nose grew sharper, her lips shriveled and became thin as thread. It was hard to find a physical resemblance between her and her two sons, who had inherited from their father the delicate bourgeois features of all Fabrikant men.
So long as Shlomo Fabrikant was among the living, Zofia made sure to act graciously toward her brother-in-law the professor; but from the moment she was widowed, at the age of forty-three, she did not bother to hide the disdain and revulsion she felt for her husband’s elder brother. She despised him for placing the life of the theatre above the family business, and fumed because he preferred parties at disreputable nightclubs over genteel dinners at her home, to which the crème de la crème of Czernowitz had been invited. She was embarrassed by his conduct -- flamboyant and clownish, in her opinion -- and feared that he might sire offspring who would usurp her sons’ inheritance. Out of such fears she enlisted her other brother-in-law, Josef, her husband’s younger brother, a weak-spirited confirmed bachelor, who lived in the family home and helped run the business; Josef gladly acceded and signed over to her, in the event that he should predecease her, his share of the Fabrikant family holdings.
* * *
On the Monday evening of the fourth week of his illness, the professor ordered Becky to summon to his bedside all the actresses of the cabaret, his brother Josef, his sister-in-law Zofia, and her two sons, Abraham and Herman. After these had all gathered and were standing in silence around his deathbed, Esther Licht, acclaimed star of the troupe, burst suddenly into the room, exhausted from anguish, her eyes red from weeping. “Tateh, tateh,” she wailed, don’t leave us, tateleh. What will I do without you, my nerves won’t be able to stand it, oy tateh, ich shtarb avek” – and plummeted listlessly onto the most comfortable sofa in the room. One of the actresses rushed to her side to revive her with snuff, while Zofia Fabrikant puckered her lips and glared at her balefully.
“Sha, Esther’leh, sha,” groaned Markus, “I’m the one who’s dying, not you.” To underscore his words he expelled a squeaky fart and fell silent. A knock on the door was heard and Attorney-at-Law Sando Czerny entered, resembling an undertaker in his black suit, his face gloomy, his bald head gleaming, his small eyes alert, couched in puffy bags of skin. Sando, Sando, why do you pretend death doesn’t affect you, you’re no youngster yourself, thought the professor with a mixture of pity and petulance, beckoning him with a finger to come closer. The lawyer officiously removed from his briefcase a sheaf of documents and handed them to the sick man. The latter browsed briefly for appearance’s sake, for he knew these papers well; and passed them to Mimi Landau, who quickly produced her eyeglasses from a leather case and studied them meticulously, to the clear consternation of Zofia Fabrikant. All the while, nobody dared utter a word, and the rustle of pages was the only sound in the room. When she completed her examination, Mimi Landau returned the papers to Advokat Czerny and turned to Markus Fabrikant: everything is in order, sir. Responding to an imperceptible sign, the servant hastened to plump the pillows and help the patient sit up. He placed a floppy hand on her shoulder, coughed weakly, and began:
“Soon the final curtain will go down on a long-running show, maybe too long for the tastes of some,” he said. “Since there won’t be any encores, the audience will permit me a few last words. My clear intention is that all rights of my heirs be contingent upon their seeing to the well-being and financial support of Becky. You won’t forget that, ketzeleh?” he asked, affectionately stroking the mute woman’s cheek. She nodded her assent and he went on:
“The will is very simple. I have decided to bequeath everything, apart from personal items, to my nephew Herman. This is my final decision, as dictated in sound mind to Attorney-at-Law Sando Czerny.”
All eyes turned with astonishment at the baffled, scrawny young man, who until that moment had gone totally unnoticed. Did you ever hear of such a thing – to take all the apartments, the cash, the securities, the bonds, the valuable coins, and who knows what else, and hand them over just like that, for no reason, maybe even oyftzulochis, to a pale-faced lad who looks like his mother’s milk is still wet on his lips – at a time when beside him stands his older brother, namely Avrum, for whom all foresee a brilliant future, Avrum, who has more than once demonstrated an obvious head for business? The voices of shock and surprise went silent all at once as a gurgling noise emanated from the sick man’s bed. The phlegm that had accumulated in his throat choked him for a moment, and Becky rushed to bring him the spittoon.
“You will carry on for me, yingeleh, he continued when his throat cleared, “and you, my loyal and talented Mimi, will be his right hand. Just as you were with me for many long years, so you will be with him, and together you will lead the troupe to new triumphs. Czerny, the diamonds!”
The lawyer took from his briefcase a small velvet bag and spread its contents on a ceramic dish. The eyes of Zofia Fabrikant, who was still in shock, opened wide at the sight of the gems that sparkled at her from the dish. All the murmurs that hovered in the room, all the soft noises people unwittingly make as they scratch their backs through their shirts, try to suck out a crumb trapped between their teeth, and so forth – all sounds fell still in the presence of the spectacular sight. Upon a signal from the professor the lawyer returned the diamonds to the bag, and handed it ceremoniously to Herman.
“You’re a good boy, Herman,” said the professor, “you always had soul, and I know you won’t abandon my actresses. I bought these diamonds before the Great War, when I was forced to liquidate all my holdings in Sadigura. God was good to me, and I never had to sell them. Take them, Herman, and guard them well. Who knows, maybe some day they will save you all.”
Upon which the poor professor again broke wind, which this time drained him completely. For a moment he stared ahead, surprised by the smell produced by his bowels, and then closed his eyes and turned over on his side. A holy panic erupted all around: Zofia Fabrikant burst into a wail of curses, ruing the day she married a Fabrikant, Mimi Landau approached the young heir and shook his hand (not before stealing a vengeful wink at his mother), Uncle Josef poured himself a glass of Slivovitz brandy and tossed it down in a single gulp, two actresses broke out crying and hugged each other, while another actress, the melancholy Yetti Hirsch, huddled in a corner and plucked at her hair, over and over. When the tumult died down it was suddenly noticed that Markus Fabrikant lay on his bed unconscious. He did not awaken again, and after three days, he died.
And here is the obituary published on the 12th of April 1937 in the Czernowitzer Allgemeine Zeitung:
Professor Markus Fabrikant, founding director since 1878 of the Farbrikant Cabaret, died last night at the age of eighty-eight. Fabrikant, known for the historical scenes presented in his cabaret, was considered one of the fathers of the Romanian theatre. The dramatic arts of our country owe him a great debt for the fame he brought them throughout Europe: from Galicia to Serbia, from Budapest to Bratislava, the tableaux vivants of this great Romanian artist gained wide popularity and critical success. Sources at the cabaret informed us that Professor Fabrikant died suddenly while making preparations for the troupe’s first performances in Paris. He was an artist in his soul until his final breath. May he rest in peace.
“Whoa, Hoisa! Whoa, beauty!”
The wagon-driver who lazily navigated the hay-filled cart, a burly easygoing Jew with lips like a carp, pulled the reins of his fat mare. When she stopped, he removed from his pocket a handkerchief to mop his sweat, fastening a curious gaze on the strange band that stood at the roadside: a heavyset man of about thirty, with three little girls in holiday clothes and bundles on their shoulders.
“Hello there, balagoleh, you by any chance heading toward Sadigura?”
“And maybe you have room in your wagon for Jewish orphans?”
Sure, why not. The wagon-driver stole a glance at the food basket the man held in his left hand, and told him he wouldn’t mind a little company. The guests climbed aboard the wagon and arranged comfortable seats for themselves among the fragrant bundles of hay. They had traveled no more than a kilometer or two when Markus Fabrikant, who sensed a familiar itch in the belly, began to remove provisions from the basket. He leisurely sliced the bread, spread a little butter on every slice, topped them off with parings of cheese and covered them with another piece of bread. The girls chewed the sandwiches hungrily – the littlest snatched a second helping – and the wagon-driver too was happy to get a extra share. Before long, the little passengers were sprawled on their backs with full tummies, their senses pleasantly dulled.
“Soon we will arrive in Sadigura,” announced Markus, and proceeded to tell the girls that he had a small house for them there, with enough beds for them all, so they would no longer have to double up as at the orphanage. Good Mother Rosenthal will take care of each of you as if you were her own flesh and blood, and the new friends – ah, what charming girls are waiting for them there! The professor’s mellow bass voice floated in the light summer breeze, the wagon-driver concluded his meal with song, insects chirped a musical accompagnato and the three girls fell asleep.
Four hours later, the first houses of Sadigura appeared before their eyes. Still not the town itself, but rather a variety of rural cottages, built of dark wood. The house of Mother Rosenthal stood in a broad fenced-in courtyard, its soil hard and barren. An assortment of rusty junk lay unmolested beyond the fence, whose missing pickets brought to mind the smile of a sickly octogenarian. The house itself was squat, with two wings and a peaked roof covered with black wooden shingles. By the door waited a tall woman, amply built, a commanding figure surrounded by four excited girls who swayed from side to side, rubbing their palms together nervously and staring at the visitors.
“Shalom aleichem, Jews!” boomed Professor Fabrikant in his resonant bass.
The girls broke into shouts of joy and ran to him: Professor, what did you bring me? Tateh, what did you buy me?
“Sha!” snapped the professor with affection, “what kind of behavior is this? What will your new friends think of you?” Three girls rushed back to the skirts of Mother Rosenthal, while the fourth, a round and dwarfish child with thick black eyebrows, limped slowly after them. Now the two factions faced one another, veterans versus newcomers, eyes agape with curiosity.
“Dear girls,” began Markus Fabrikant, clearing his throat, “your professor went on a long trip and now he has returned to you at last. Returned, but not alone. He brings with him three phenomenal talents in the fields of dance and drama, whom his sharp eye has discovered. And for you, dear girls, the time has come to be happy, for we are finally privileged to complete our ensemble.” Here Markus went silent and considered the impression his last words had made on the girls. “Yes, tomorrow we begin at last our rehearsals for our first play! Tomorrow morning begin your professional lives, girls, and from now on all our efforts and aspirations shall be focused on fame: Bucharest, Vienna, and, mirtzeshem  -- maybe even Paris . . . Tonight, maidelech, is the last night of your childhood, and the management of Fabrikant’s Historical Scenes urges you to enjoy it with your new colleagues – but without quarrels or mischief, please . . . Mother Rosenthal, tonight, as a special treat, I ask that you add a generous spoonful of apricot jam to each bowl of oatmeal.”
It developed that two of the orphans who arrived this day were named Gina. In order to distinguish between them Mother Rosenthal decided to call one Big Gina and the other Little Gina, and so as not to separate them, she housed the two in the same room, where one of the veteran girls already lived. The third newcomer, the beautiful little one, she assigned to the room of the tiny girl with the black eyebrows. After they had put their belongings into the small cupboards assigned them, Mother Rosenthal stood and lectured the three new arrivals on the principles and rules of the house, and then gave them brooms and rags and ordered them to sweep the floors and dust the furniture. The girls worked till they were called, as promised, to dinner, after which they all went to bed.
Big Gina turned over from side to side in her bed and slept poorly. Nagging anticipations and fears of all that would be expected of her gave her no respite, and since, in the end, she was forced to lie awake in the dark, she began to concentrate upon the chirping breaths of Little Gina. The third roommate, a girl of eight or nine with tight curls and inquisitive eyes, could not fall asleep either.
“Girl, are you asleep?”
“What’s your name?”
“Gina Zweig. And you, what’s your name?”
“I’m Mimi Landau, and I’ve been here since I was seven.”
A brief silence prevailed, and then Mimi asked: “Want some mirabelle plums?”
“No, but there’s a bowlful in the kitchen. It’s very easy. Come, I’ll show you where to find them.”
In general, Big Gina stayed clear of anything that smacked of crime, but because she did not want to be considered fearful by her colleague she agreed to sneak after her into the hallway, trying to compress her body as much as possible.
“And now listen to me, Gina, listen carefully. On the right is the dining room, and on the left is the kitchen. Mother Rosenthal and the professor are sitting now at the big table, so we shouldn’t have any problem. I’ll stand here on guard, and you go quietly into the kitchen, climb up on a chair, and take down the bowl. It’s on the middle shelf, you’ll see it. Take as many as you can, and hurry back here. But make sure not to make any noise, and don’t forget to put back the bowl, so they won’t notice.”
Mimi pressed her ear to the wall, peeked through the doorway and signaled to Gina that all was clear. The latter slipped with surprisingly agility into the kitchen, climbed onto the chair and brought down the bowl, stuck the hem of her nightgown into her mouth, pulled the waist of her underpants away from her body, and with her other hand dumped into them the contents of the bowl of ripe yellow plums. Then she replaced the bowl, and while still holding her underpants tight ran excitedly back to Mimi, who awaited her in the hall.
“Well done,” whispered Mimi, “now go to our room and wake up your friend. I’ll be right there.”
Big Gina rushed to do as she said, and Mimi lingered a few minutes more behind the wall, listening to the mysterious murmurs and mutterings on the other side: the rustle of papers, the ringing of coins, the monotonous, whining singsong of Markus Farbrikant as he counted the banknotes: finf un tvantzik, finf un dreisik, finf un fertzik – ot azoi! When Mimi returned a short while later to her room, she found the two Ginas waiting for her impatiently. The three pounced eagerly on the stolen plums and filled their bellies with them, whispering and struggling to stifle their laughter, and then, when they all went back to bed, Big Gina felt that now she would be able to fall asleep without difficulty. She fluffed the big pillow and pulled up the blanket, way up to her neck. Ah, how nice . . . before she closed her eyes she could hear Mimi humming a strange tune to herself: finf un tvantzik, finf un dreisik, finf un fertzik – ot azoi.
* * *
When she awoke the next morning, Big Gina felt a certain discomfort in her bowels, and suddenly recalled the adventures of the previous night. She yearned to stay in bed a while longer, but Little Gina, panting with excitement, insisted she get up and report for breakfast, and there was thus no time to make sense of her thoughts. When the two entered the dining room, all the others were already seated around the table, which was covered in a white cloth embroidered with flowers. In front of each girl stood a glass of milk and a plate with two slices of white bread, but none of them touched her portion.
“Girls, here we eat at fixed times, everyone together,” Professor Fabrikant addressed the two latecomers, and Big Gina felt her ears reddening with shame. “Sit down at the table, please. Bon appetit.” Thank God, she thought, he didn’t notice that plums were missing in the kitchen. On the table were two small ceramic dishes, one with jam and the other soft butter. The words had barely left the professor’s lips when the girls plunged into their meal, passing the dishes one to the other. Professor Fabrikant himself displayed exemplary table manners, holding his coffee cup with three fingers and chewing his bread with exaggerated moderation. When he finished his portion, he wiped his mouth with a cotton napkin, leaned his elbows on the table, folded his hands, and upon them propped his fleshy chin. “Girls,” said Mother Rosenthal, knocking on the table with her cup, “quiet please.”
“Thank you, Mother,” said the professor. “Dear girls – or may I say dear actresses – discipline is the iron rule of every artist, and therefore, before we turn to professional matters, I would like to introduce our new colleagues to our daily schedule. We rise each morning at seven, wash faces, and make beds. Then Mother Rosenthal serves breakfast. From eight until nine: a theoretical lecture on an historical topic. From nine till twelve: exercises and rehearsals. Lessons in musical instruments, solfeggio, and voice training from three to four, and after that, free time for games – outdoors when the weather is fine, or indoors when it rains. At six in the evening: cleaning the house. At seven, dinner: oatmeal and a glass of tea. Once every three days, bathing in pairs, then to bed. On Shabbat we shall all go to the synagogue in Sadigura, and on Sundays go back to work. Mother, permit me to thank you in the name of the actresses and the management for the excellent meal, and if you have no remarks, let us all now move into the rehearsal hall.”
They all went out into the courtyard, where stood a large wide shack that served as rehearsal hall. Its floor was made of polished wood planks, sparkling with fresh lacquer, the walls were plastered white and the doors painted green. The professor lighted a lamp and led the group through a side door into a dark storeroom, barely illuminated by a small window. Before the girls lay a wondrous treasure: fancy hats, fraying ostrich feathers, three crinoline hoopskirts, crowns of gilt cardboard, scenery backcloths rolled up tight, grandfather clocks against the wall, and a variety of other exotic accessories. Suspended from hooks on one wall were several antique chairs. Nearby stood two old tailors’ dummies, spotted with myriad fingerprints and numbered markings. On another wall were shelves stacked with suitcases, and scattered between these were balls for playing games, boxes covered in colored paper, a tasseled music box, a drum, three trumpets, and even a stuffed owl, which gazed with empty eyes at Little Gina. “Gevald!” Save me! shrieked the startled girl, to the giggling of her friends.
“Girls,” tapped Professor Fabrikant with a small baton that appeared from nowhere, “do not make noise. The management asks all of you to repair to the rehearsal hall.”
The girls suppressed the remnants of their laughter and followed him obediently into the main room, where the professor instructed them to line up in a row in front of the big window. After they did so, he began to walk past them in a measured gait, back and forth, back and forth, studying them as he went, stroking his double chin. All waited tensely for his next word, but he chose to tarry a while, sorting his thoughts. “The actresses whose names will now be announced,” he said finally, “are requested to step forward. Little Gina in the role of Mozart,” he continued in a formal tone, “Yetti Hirsch to play Marie Antoinette, Kreindel and Big Gina as dancing maidens of the court . . .”
“And what about me?” interrupted pretty Esther Licht.
The professor threw her a look, attempting to appear menacing, but Esther was unfazed: all the scowling eyebrows in the world could not hide the soft heart of the director. “When was the young lady appointed dramaturge of this theatre?” he thundered. “So far as I know, our chief dramaturge is Professor Fabrikant, and there will be no protesting his decisions.” To emphasize the point he pulled the lapel of his jacket, stroked his moustache, and then added with a nonchalant mumble: “Esther in the part of Maria Theresa; Perla and Mimi – in charge of props.”
And again the professor led the girls into the storeroom, to distribute their costumes of shiny colorful fabrics and white cotton wigs. They then dragged out a wooden cut-out of a piano and a few gilt-painted chairs, along with the music box, and began with great energy to rehearse. After two hours of intensive work the chief dramaturge sent Mimi Landau to fetch Mother Rosenthal. The latter appeared right away, clad in a large stained apron and smelling of fried onions, and sat down in a chair on the side. The professor arranged the girls in their places, waved his baton and declaimed: “The young Mozart in the palace of Maria Theresa – a dramatic production of the historical theatre of Fabrikant. Mother Rosenthal, for your consideration!”
“’In the palace of the great Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled over the entire Austrian Empire, from the Tyrol to Poland,’” he intoned in his bass voice, “yes, ladies and gentlemen, Maria Theresa! Vienna is flourishing, grand palaces are everywhere erected, all of them filled with treasures of gold and silk – but the Empress’s soul is not at peace. Then, one day, she hears about a wunderkind from the city of Salzburg, an incredible performer on the piano. The Empress urgently dispatches her puzzled emissaries, ordering them to bring this child to her palace.’ Pay attention, Little Gina, now you enter, stage left. And pick up your chin, please, and straighten your wig, quickly, it looks vi a tzevorfener kigel. No, Gina’leh, you may not take the owl with you. Mozart did not have an owl, and even if he had one, he would not have dared to come before Maria Theresa with it. Oy, gottenyu , I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me! Go, very slowly, to the piano, and sit down. Where was I? Ah, yes. ‘On the left may be seen little Wolfgang entering gaily. There is no fear in his heart, neither of the Empress nor of her courtiers. He goes to the piano, sits down, and begins to play: It is a short prelude -- “Nu, Perla, drey shoyn!”
Perla began at once to crank the music box vigorously, producing the sweet strains of “Longing for Spring.” Because she did not always manage to keep a uniform tempo, the melody was occasionally distorted, as if refracted through a thick glass vase. And since Little Gina waved her hands so expressively, the figure at the keyboard seemed not so much Mozart as the great Franz Liszt. Throughout, Esther nodded her head to and fro with the music, casting radiant imperial smiles in every direction. The two dancers waltzed in from stage right, attempting to follow the directions they had been given. On the floor sat Yetti Hirsch, in a billowy pink dress festooned with frilly ribbons, and at the conclusion of the musical number she burst into applause: Bravo, bravo! Little Gina stood and approached her, bowing chivalrously.
“’Yes, this is the beautiful princess Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of the Empress,’” explained the narrator-professor. “’Young Wolfgang falls in love with her immediately and proposes marriage – and what a shame she did not accept, perhaps things would have turned out better for her . . .’ Mimi – curtain! Ot azoi. Nu, Mother, what do you say? Do we have a number here, or not?”
Mother Rosenthal rose heavily to her feet and with a skeptical expression informed the breathless, sweating girls that after they changed their clothes and thoroughly organized the storeroom, lunch would be served. More than that she did not say, good or bad.
Following the seven days of mourning for his uncle, Herman Fabrikant realized he had been thrust into a situation such as he had never known. Though he was already twenty-six, the young man had not yet found his place in the world, and also had no clue how to spend his days and hours. Four years had passed since his admission to the department of medicine at the University of Prague, but he postponed his trip year after year, each time with a different excuse. Instead, he stayed in Czernowitz at his mother’s home, now and then writing poems which he found unsatisfactory, and spent a good deal of time at cafés, where he would sit alone, watching passersby through the windowpane and wondering how it was that they were all going about contentedly, as if they possessed an inner gyroscope that balanced their steps, whereas he could not even feel the ground beneath his feet, and had no ambition or purpose in life. Not surprisingly, Herman had acquired a reputation as an eccentric. Since he was not at all stupid, he quickly learned what a person should feel strongly about and for what one ought to strive, and he wondered to himself if indeed the day would come when he too would feel strongly about such and so, and strive for this or that.
After visiting the gravesite Herman enclosed himself in his room for three days and nights, and no one saw him except Becky the housekeeper, who brought him his meals. During those same days, the actresses sat idly in their shared flat in the Haltgasse, and soon their expectation was replaced by deep anxiety. There is no choice, said Mimi to herself, we must talk to the boy. And so it was that on the fourth day of his isolation, Herman was served his breakfast by none other than the bookkeeper, Mimi Landau. As she entered his room she observed at once that he had not shaved for several days, and the bleary eyes that peered through his glasses testified to sleepless nights. Nevertheless, his pleasant soft-spoken manner, typical of the Fabrikants, remained intact.
“I know I am supposed to call you Mr. Fabrikant,” Mimi began delicately, “but I simply cannot. For us, the girls, there was only one Mr. Fabrikant, and he was like a father to us in every way. Drink a little tea, Mr. Herman, it will make you stronger.”
Herman sipped the tea and stared unhappily into the cup.
“You don’t feel well, God forbid, Mr. Herman?”
“What? . . . No, no, everything is all right, thank you.”
Mimi pulled over a chair and sat beside him. “I was eight years old when your uncle decided to take me into his theatre, and I will be grateful to him until my dying day.” She rested a hand on his shoulder. “What would I have done without him? . . . So many orphans died in that period of disease and neglect, and if they were lucky, they earned their way through hard work that shortened their lives. And it’s not only I who owe him my life. We were seven orphan girls – eight, if you also count Becky – and he took us in, almost sixty years ago. We are no longer young, Mr. Herman, and our art is the only thing we have. For your uncle’s sake and ours, you have to get up and go with us. You can depend on us, yingeleh, and on our help. The actresses, after all, know the work very well, and as for me – I can handle the books with my eyes closed.”
He’s not answering, she thought, but he won’t be able to keep still when he hears the last bit of news. “And besides,” she said firmly, “your mother does not agree that we should stay here. Now that her favorite son has left Czernowitz . . .”
“He left a note this morning. He is already on his way to America.”
“How? In a car, by train, by ship – are there no ways to get to America?” muttered Mimi. “Listen to me, Herman. Everyone was sure that the inheritance from the professor would go to him, because he has a business sense. What do you think, your uncle didn’t know that the young man intended to dismantle the cabaret? He knew it very well. More than once, your mother tried to persuade the professor that when his days were over the estate should be invested in securities or whatever, and we would be placed in an old-age home in some shtetl. I can just imagine what kind of place she would have picked out for us. But the professor, thank God, was smarter than she was, and arranged everything the way he did. Your brother decided that there was nothing left for him in Romania, and who knows – maybe with that head of his, he really will manage to get rich over there. Chutz dem, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to get away from that mameh of yours.
At that very moment the door flew open and Zofia Fabrikant burst into the room, frothing and seething, her eyes alarmingly wide. “Aha! Here you are! Don’t you think I didn’t see you coming in here, you snake! And you, Herman,” she screeched, “don’t you let this scoundrel put ideas in your head! You monster, you’re trying to get your hands on the pieniezny? Avrimeleh! My Avrimeleh ran away to America! And because of who? Because of this witch! Get out of here, now! I’m still allowed to talk to my son without your supervision!”
Mimi Landau nodded her head and silently left the room.
“Be a good boy and listen to mother,” said Zofia, suddenly sweetening her voice and sitting down beside her son, “it’s not too late. We can find him, he hasn’t gotten far from the city. We’ll bring him back here, and then we can go back to our plans. Look, this whole business in any case is not for you, my treasure. You will give us power of attorney and we will take care of everything, you’ll keep living with us at home, you love Marika’s cooking, and if not – no problem! We’ll get rid of her! We’ll set up a nice allowance for you, you won’t have to do anything, and with God’s help we’ll also find you the prettiest bride in Bukovina. You’ll be able to do whatever you like, Herman, even publish a book of your poems . . .”
At this point Herman turned away and closed his eyes. The gesture surprised Zofia and she stopped talking. When he turned his head back to her, a strange chill could be seen in his eyes.
“No, mother,” he said quietly. “No. What Uncle Markus wrote – that’s how it’s going to be, no other way.”
“Just like that!” she glared with astonishment.
“Just like that!” he repeated.
“Herman! Think logically, Herman! At least give us the diamonds, don’t risk everything,” begged Zofia, “ask yourself – is this how you treat family?” He treated us like dogs, your uncle! But you, Herman, you must think if us – of me and Avrimeleh! We will invest the money only for you!”
“Very soon I will hand the diamonds over to Mimi Landau, for safekeeping,” said Herman, his voice trembling. The nerve he had unintentionally displayed had frightened him so, that he could not look straight at his mother. “They were not intended for you, or for Avrum. Or for me.”
“Ach so! . . . I understand. Yes, I understand you. You were always a good-for-nothing, Herman, a piece of gurnisht, but I never really knew how sneaky you are. The blood of that crazy old man runs through your veins, that’s clear. I was naïve, yes, but now that’s over. You are no longer my son! . . . Get out of here, you and all your yerusheh, by tomorrow morning – you hear?!”
She drew close to Herman, burning with rage, and he imagined her lifting her hand to strike him. He froze in panic and did not move a muscle. But when his mother saw his stony expression a bitter cry burst from her throat, and she buried her face in her hands and retreated. “Avrumtzi . . . Avrumtzi . . .” she wailed as she left the room, you’ll be a big boss in America, Avrumtzi, and you’ll send your mother a ticket . . . I know, I know . . .”
Chapter Two: News from Bessarabia
Briczen, Bessarabia, May 1937.
Thanks for the funny letter. I really enjoyed reading about the fiasco in the cowshed, and I can’t wait to hear more. But from now on it would be better if you sent me letters care of Advokat Sando Czerny, Kant Street #14, Czernowitz, and he will forward them to me – our cabaret is now on the road, and at the moment it’s not clear when we will return to the apartment in the Haltgasse. Thank heaven I was able to convince Professor Fabrikant to register it in my name, you can just imagine what would have happened if it had stayed in the hands of the family! Zofia Fabrikant could make endless trouble for us, and believe me, she now has plenty of good reason to take revenge.
After the shloshim for Professor Fabrikant of blessed memory, we were all in shock and didn’t really know what to do, but then I remembered I had a good relationship with Dr. Gershonsohn, vice-chairman of the Jewish community in Briczen. I sent him a telegram, and he immediately agreed that we could do all our reorganizing of the cabaret over there. They have a big banquet hall at the Kultur-Lige building that we can use, and until we recover from the zets this is not a bad solution, so we can rehearse in peace and quiet. In the meanwhile we are staying with a family that has a small hotel, and they have also been very sympathetic and are giving us a good price.
The first morning of rehearsals did not go so well: every time we tried to start, we kept thinking of our Professor and started to cry. We couldn’t even move, we were so depressed. All of a sudden, at ten o’clock, the door opened, and Esther Licht walked in wearing the costume of Empress Josephine. She asked why were we wasting time, and if we were a professional theatre or a bunch of old crybabies. What a personality that girl has! There was so much authority in her voice, that we had no choice but to pick ourselves up. Right away we sent Little Gina to put on the uniform of Napoleon. As soon as we got on stage, we realized there was a serious problem, which nobody had thought of till that very moment: we didn’t have a presenter for the historical scenes! You have to understand, Giza’leh, that none of us had ever been in charge of the spectacle even once. This was always the job of the Professor. The actresses certainly never had to deal with it, and I have plenty of my own work as it is. You know me, my tuchis is all over the map.
Nu, so what do we do? Somebody suggested that Herman should try doing the narration. To tell you the truth, I didn’t have high hopes from that pisher, but I didn’t have any better ideas. I said to myself, Mimi, zoll zein. After sixty years of listening to poor Markus, I didn’t have any difficulty explaining to Herman what to do and how to give the intonations. He tried very hard, but after three hours and we had gotten absolutely nowhere, it was obvious that he has no dramatic talent. Also he has no self-confidence, if you ask me.
I have to say a few more words about the boy. When we heard the reading of the will, it was a big surprise for all of us, because who had even noticed him until that minute? Skin and bone, barely eats a few crumbs, with those big innocent eyes. Most of the time, he says nothing. I’m not saying he is not intelligent, but he has no practical experience. Big Gina already told me I have to take things into my own hands, and the truth is, Giza’leh, I think I won’t have any choice. By the time he learns the business, we’ll all be pushing up daisies. After all, I worked all those years with the Professor, and it won’t be hard for me to manage the cabaret. One good thing about Herman, he listens to me, and he really tries to learn.
For dinner our Becky made karnatzelech with sauerkraut, and we already felt better. We talked a bit about the new situation, and I suggested we ask Dr, Gershonshon – he knows many people in the area, and maybe he can find us someone to do the presenting. The next morning I took Herman and we went to see him. Not that he could be of any help, Herman, but I have to give him the feeling of being needed. The vice-chairman did not disappoint: he recommended a fellow named Leo Spektor, and I trust his instincts. This Spektor speaks fluent Yiddish, German, and Romanian, and this is of course a big advantage. We arranged to meet him tomorrow morning – pray for us that this gesheft will work out!
That’s it for now. I am so tired, we had a long day, and tomorrow I have to be alert. I hope we’ll have a little sunshine, the past week was all gray -- by you it’s not like that, I’m sure . . . How fate plays with us, my Giza: Do you remember that doll Mire’leh we had in Buczacz, and how we used to pretend we were princesses? And now there you are in Palestine, milking cows on a kibbutz with your Motl, and I became a entertainer. So it goes: everyone with the role that God gives them, and the least we can do is perform our parts the best we can. We’re not getting any younger, Giza: next year I’ll be sixty-nine. But despite that, I still have a lot of energy. Maybe this is my big chance! My dream is that we will be able to perform in Vienna, which the Professor wanted so very much. Halevei.
Warm regards to Motl and the children
And many kisses with love from Bessarabia
The delegation representing the cabaret of Professor Fabrikant arrived at the modest office of the vice-chairman of the community at nine in the morning. Apart from the new manager and the treasurer, the delegation also included Esther Licht, the acclaimed star of the troupe. “My Benjamin,” the Professor would affectionately call her: the youngest and best-loved of them all. Never could he refuse her a part that she craved, and she in return brought him the acclamation of the audience, which he so adored. Even as years went by there was never a empress prouder than she in the role of Maria Theresa, and no one was more mysterious and seductive as Mata Hari. Already as a child at the orphanage she was called “the Duchess” by dint of her naturally aristocratic demeanor, a sobriquet that endured into old age; and since, in her own view, as well as that of the public, she was entitled to special treatment, she had been chosen to represent the other actresses in the delegation.
Before tea was served, the treasurer and Dr. Gershonsohn engaged in mundane conversation about mutual acquaintances and the political situation, which had become worrisome of late. The small talk did not last for long, and the vice-chairman of the community soon invited the group to sit by his sculptured wooden desk. He lighted a cigarette, called for Leo Spektor to be brought into his office, and retreated to a corner of the room.
A tall, handsome young man entered, with thick lips and charcoal curls, and a wild look on his face; had his eyes not blazed blackly, he might have been mistaken for a gentile.
“How do you do,” Mr. Spektor, began Mimi. “To my left is Mr. Fabrikant, manager of our theatre, and to my right, the actress Madame Licht.”
“Esther Licht, perhaps you’ve heard the name,” said Esther with a subtle smile.
“Nice meeting you,” replied Spektor.
“Dr. Gershonsohn, whose opinion we very much value, recommended you warmly,” continued Mimi and smiled at the vice-chairman, who nodded his head in return. “And I would like to ask you whether you could join the cast of a traveling theatre, that is to say, do you have any other commitments?”
“Good,” said Mimi. “As it was surely explained to you, not long ago we suffered a tragedy. The late Professor Fabrikant was not only the founder, manager, and dramaturge of our cabaret, but also our master of ceremonies, and in our new situation, we must of course find a new narrator. He doesn’t necessarily need to be an actor, but he has to know how to stand before an audience. For this reason, actually, we have invited you: Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”
Leo Spektor was not the talkative type. In plain language he told the members of the delegation how he had been born twenty-eight years earlier in a nearby village, how he had left the yeshivah and cut off contact with his parents, and how he had worked as a porter at the railway station near Briczen, until he got into a fight with the boss; he was currently unemployed, after dismissal from his job as a worker in a sewing factory. As may well be imagined, Leo’s life story did not make a great impression upon the members of the delegation. Another godless scalawag, thought Mimi Landau, and yet she was drawn to the young man’s story. It was not what he said that attracted her, but the voice in which he said it: a natural, unspoiled baritone bursting forth from his broad chest, and his pronunciation was clear and pleasant as well.
Mimi was suddenly disconcerted to realize that the whole while that Leo spoke, he had as a matter of course directed his words at Herman Fabrikant, even though she had emphasized that it was she who was running the interview. This is how it goes, she said to herself, for fifty years you do all the work – and what happens in the end? In the end, they speak to the man, even if milk is still wet on his lips. Esther Licht, who could see Mimi’s mind wandering, took charge. She placed before the candidate the notebook of the late professor, and asked him to read aloud the opening lines of “Artemis and Adonis.” Spektor glanced at the text, took a sip of tea, and began to declaim – almost flawlessly – the famous German verse:
Goddesses immersed in feud,
Brimming both with spite,
Who shall avenge and who shall turn
The other’s day to night?
Nymphs of dim antiquity
‘Round Artemis dance
Why then does the goddess fair
Bear fire in her glance?
See Adonis, bow in hand
Spoil her sylvan rest
In the field he tarried --
And enflamed her breast!
The room fell silent. Mimi asked Leo to wait outside for a few minutes, so that the members of the group could conduct their deliberations. All present agreed unanimously that the recitation was positively brilliant. Clearly the young man had been blessed with a beautiful voice and natural dramatic talent, and was not lacking in self-confidence – what was more, he spoke several languages. Also Gershonsohn, yearning to rid his community of undesirables, was extravagant in his praise. The candidate’s resumé did raise doubts, from Mimi’s point of view, as to his capacity for perseverance, but the Duchess, who had, in her words, been moved to a rare degree by his recitation, argued that Leo’s life story indicated a personality singularly suited for the life of the theatre. It was therefore decided to invite Leo to join the Cabaret of Professor Fabrikant, for which he would be compensated with meals, lodging, and the weekly sum of eighty Romanian lei.
* * *
Less than two weeks later, the historic premiere performance of the Fabrikant Cabaret, under new management, was announced with great fanfare in Briczen. All the town’s luminaries made sure to attend the debut, which they deemed a resounding success, and after the curtain fell they escorted the actresses to a festive dinner at the hotel. Per Mimi’s instructions, the landlady spared no expense, for after their extended period of mourning the troupe members were ripe for a real celebration.
What wonders were set upon the table! The diners began with an aspic of chicken wings and gizzards that had been broiled for hours on a spit and basted lavishly with garlic, followed by whitish doughy dumplings stuffed with fried kasha and onions; they gorged on chopped liver served with sneeze-inducing red horseradish, licked clean every drop of fat dribbling from the three ducks that had been roasted with potatoes, savored a dish of sweet cabbage and prunes, and crowned the meal with an invigorating compote of cinnamon-seasoned apples, a true taste of paradise. Bottle after bottle of prime Polish vodka were opened, and the guests hoisted glass after glass in appreciative toasts to the continued success of the beloved artistes. As they grew tipsier, all were swept up in the gaiety and girlish enthusiasm that overcame the actresses upon their return to the stage. The hotel owner took out a garmoshka and began to play. Dr. Gershonshon, well in his cups, dragged a giggling Mimi to dance the polka, as the others stood round in a circle and cheered them on. Then they begged Big Gina to take out her balalaika, and as she sat and plucked a variety of folk melodies, the chubby landlady swished among the revelers, humming along and handing out cups of bitter coffee from a tray.
Only Esther Licht, the Duchess, sat shrunken in a corner, watching the goings-on. Beside her, as always, sat Perla Rabiner, her loyal friend and retainer. It was hard to imagine two creatures less physically alike than these two. One was tall, with vestiges of her marvelous beauty still apparent in her face; the other dwarfish, graceless, with thick black eyebrows and the mien of a shopkeeper, plus she limped with her left leg. From the beginning of the evening good Perla could see that something was awry with Esther, who had kept aloof from the meal and tasted hardly a bite of the delicacies, but then tossed down four shots of vodka in a row. The cheers of the audience after long deprivation were satisfaction enough, so she claimed, for one night, but who can say no to a drink? And Perla, who never challenged the conduct of the Duchess, kept mum. As the party drew to a close, with the last of the guests standing by the door belching a final belch and topping it with a joke, Esther slipped out and went up to her room on the second floor, undid her bun and again coiled her hair, straightened the décolletage of her deep purple gown, put makeup on her face and sprayed perfume on her wrists. By the time she finished her adornment the other actresses had repaired to their rooms. Only Perla lingered in the dining room, to help clear the tables, and after half an hour or so, she too limped upstairs. Upon entering their room she found Esther in full plumage, sitting in an armchair, cooling the inner flame ignited by the alcohol with the help of a fan decorated with blooming roses.
“Perla, Perla,” said the Duchess with a benevolent smile, “I noticed tonight that you stuffed yourself like a pig.”
Perla kept silent, grinning with shame.
“You know it’s no good for your stomach, Perliku, and you know what happens when you overdo it like that.”
Perla scrunched her black eyebrows in protest. She knew what her friend was getting at: that after such excess she snored like crazy. And thus she knew what was now in store: exile to another room. Tonight she would not sleep with Esther.
“I believe the two Ginas have an extra bed, I’m sure you can manage over there. Ah, another thing, if you could do me a little favor: Can you ask the new fellow to come in here for a moment? I want to give him some notes for tomorrow’s performance of ‘Mata Hari,’ and I’m not sure I’ll remember to do so in the morning.”
With a defeated look Perla left the room, returning a few minutes later. “Esther, he’s here,” she warbled through the half-closed doorway.
“He may come in. Good night to you, Perla,” replied the Duchess.
Leo Spektor entered, shutting the door behind him. “Perla told me you have a couple of corrections on the reading of ‘Mata Hari,’ he said.
“Yes, yes, but it can wait. Please, sit, make yourself comfortable.”
As there was no additional chair in the room, Esther patted the bed, twice. Leo sat down not far from her, leaned slightly forward, and rested his arms on his lap. “Nu, Leo,” said Esther, stroking the back of her neck, “you like our cabaret?”
Leo nodded indifferently.
“And what did you think of my performance tonight?”
He paid her a compliment. The drunken Duchess carelessly waved her hand, allowing her fingers, as if by chance, to brush his arm. “We don’t need to be so formal, you know. May I pour you a little schnapps?”
“No thanks, Madame.”
“Leo, Leo, I want us to be friends. Call me Esther, just Esther.”
She reached toward the nightstand to the left of the bed, opened its door, produced a bottle of apple brandy, and poured herself a glass. All the while Leo stared at her with glassy eyes. His gaze, revealing nothing of his thoughts, confused her, and amid this confusion Esther suddenly felt the churning of unconquerable urges.
“We can’t! We mustn’t . . .! ” she suddenly cried out, throwing open her arms to him, “but who cares! Do with me as you will, Leo!”
Leo remained seated, strangely frozen, which only heightened Esther’s desire. She leapt from her chair and landed on the bed beside him, draping herself upon his shoulders. “Here we are,” she smiled at him sweetly. But Leo gently took her arms and removed them from his person.
“You are a very beautiful woman, Madame . . .”
“And I’m all yours!” declared the Duchess, grasping his head in her hands.
“You are a very beautiful woman, but there are all kinds of things . . .” mumbled Leo.
“Things!” she cried bitterly, “spare me the palaver, young man. I do not need to be told twice, I understand such matters very well: Yes, I am too old for you! Yes, Leo, it’s true, so just don’t try to be nice! I can endure anything, except pity! And now, get out of here! Go! And if you are a gentleman, you will say nothing to anyone about what happened here tonight!”
At which point Esther broke out into dolorous wailing, giving the bewildered Leo no choice but to take his leave.
Esther’s lamentations were clearly audible in the adjacent rooms, but none of her colleagues dared come in. Little by little the weeping subsided, till not a murmur could be heard. Throughout, the loyal Perla sat in bed in the next room, her whole body trembling. Her heart told her something was wrong, and the silence from Esther’s room struck her as unnatural.
Finally she summoned her courage and burst into the room, finding her adored Esther lying unconscious on the floor. A terrified cry erupted from her throat, waking all guests at the pension. “Help!” she cried. “Help! . . . Mimi! Kreindel! Somebody help me, for God’s sake!” At the sound of her shouts, pandemonium broke out. Frightened guests in nightshirts and pajamas appeared from every corner, the actresses ran to and fro, all the chaos converging at Esther’s door. Little Gina grabbed a vase and ran to the kitchen to fill it with water, but on her way back to the second floor it fell from her hands and shattered loudly, the water making puddles on the corridor floor. Anguished cries of “gevald!” and “oy gottenyu!” and “oy mameh!” ripped through the air.
Naturally, the first to come to her senses was Mimi. “Run down and tell the owner to get a doctor right away,” she told Leo, who had tried in vain to escape the premises. By the time the doctor arrived, things had calmed down. He found Esther on the floor, awake but utterly drained, her head cradled upon Perla’s bosom. It developed that in her despair the Duchess had attempted to end her life by swallowing a fair quantity of face powder mixed with shiny radium, used by the troupe for its rendition of “Madame Curie Discovers Radium.” The doctor prescribed rest and drinking milk, and after a few days of glittering excretions the patient regained her strength. She never told a soul what had driven her to so extreme an action, and for lack of a better explanation, everyone assumed it was just another of her famous caprices.
Chapter Three: Satmar
One summer day in 1876, a rickety mail coach rolled into the town of Sadigura, driven by a red-headed, potbellied Hungarian clad in an imperial uniform too tight for his girth. The coach, which that morning had departed Czernowitz for Krakow, proceeded slowly amidst well-stocked peddler’s stalls, continued north to the Street of the Blacksmiths, and came finally to a halt in the square in front of the Mustaca Palace, where it was rapidly surrounded by a noisy and curious crowd: Is there a package for Feldmann? A letter for Friedmann?
This ceremony was repeated weekly, though all were familiar with the coachman’s annoying routine: First he would distribute mail to the prominent attorneys who had sent their clerks from the nearby courthouse, next he would call the names of the Romanian farmers, then he would invite the Jewish lawyers, and only at the end would he deign to deal with the Jewish underclass. He particularly loathed the obstreperous Hasidim with their straggly beards, and only after lengthy pleading that amused the audience did these receive their items of mail.
The Hungarian got down from the carriage, shushing the crowd with an impatient growl and wave of his hands. He tied his team of horses to a post and wiped his sweaty chin with a filthy handkerchief. Then, in a fruitless effort to appear more official, he hoisted his trousers, fastened a stray button on his vest, and opened the door of the coach for his weary passengers. First to alight were two young city gentlemen in fine traveling clothes, followed by an elderly merchant propped by a walking stick. “Come on, get moving,” called out the driver in bad German, “we have arrived, your majesty.”
Two little legs, too short to reach the ground, emerged from the coach, and after a moment – hop! – out jumped the last passenger, pulling behind her a tattered satchel, overstuffed near to bursting. This was a ragamuffin of seven, a girl with wise brown eyes and chestnut curls that bounced gaily about her head. She cast inquisitive glances all around, apparently not finding whoever she was looking for.
“Mimi Landau! Mimi Landau!” A shout was heard from afar, and a tall, ungainly woman maneuvered her way through the crowd, flapping her arms. “Let me through, damn it!” she grumbled as she elbowed her way to the girl. “Sholem alecihem, meide’leh, it’s me, Aunt Netty. Look how you’ve grown, kenahora! How’s your mother? This is all you brought? No problem, we’ll manage. She sent something with you? A letter, maybe?”
“Lady, take your treasure and get lost,” snapped the driver. Netty Rosenthal grabbed the girl’s hand and pulled her along. With broad strides the two wended their way through narrow and dusty streets and alleys, arriving at a modest house just beyond the town limits. The house had two wings and was surrounded by a large, desolate yard with a broken-down picket fence. Aunt Netty removed a rattling bunch of keys from her purse and unlocked the door. A puff of cool wind greeted them, carrying a pleasant scent of soap. She led the little guest to a spartan bedroom with a white window shade, took the satchel from her hand, placed it by the bed, and gestured for the girl to sit on a chair of woven straw that stood alongside.
“My poor little orphan, the trip from Buczacz must have been so hard on you. Right away I’ll fix you something yummy to eat, then we’ll get you cleaned up, and then you’ll be able to rest and tell me a little about yourself. You know, ziseleh, that if your poor father hadn’t died, your mother would never have sent you here. She loves you so much, but unfortunately she isn’t able to support you. But don’t worry, ziseleh, it’ll be good for you here. First of all, you should rest up for a few days, and then we’ll take you to Hirschenberg’s bakery and put you to work. He’s a real mentsh, you don’t have to worry, and he promised me he would give you a loaf of bread every day, in addition to your wages.”
Truth to tell, Netty Rosenthal could have supported Mimi on her own, but because she believed wholeheartedly in the educational value of labor, she insisted on sending the child to work for Hirschenberg. Every day, at five a.m. sharp, the curly-headed girl reported for work, looking after the ovens and taking care of sundry chores, and in recognition of her diligence and outstanding sense of responsibility, Hirschenberg would sometimes allow her to shape the rolls by herself. In the afternoons, Mimi liked to stay at home, read books or solve problems from an old arithmetic text she had brought with her. Mother Rosenthal would pester her to go out and play with other children, but deep down, she was actually very proud of the little scholar, and would brag about her studiousness when the girl was out of earshot. She herself made a living supervising the assets of the Fabrikant family in Sadigura. Since she was an efficient chef, she was hired now and then to cook at parties for well-to-do families, on which occasions the two would get to eat roast chicken or a plate of gizzards. In the evenings they would play cards, not for money, heaven forbid, but for lentils, and by the end of every evening the clever Mimi would amass an impressive mound, to the envy of her gaming partner. If Mother Rosenthal could get her hands on a German newspaper they would skip the cards and instead Mimi would read to her about news of the wider world. Little by little, the child became accustomed to her new life, and the townspeople of Sadigura grew very fond of her.
And then, one evening after her bath, Mother Rosenthal instructed Mimi to put on her white Sabbath dress, and expunge from her room any trace of the card games. At seven o’clock precisely a small carriage, drawn by two horses, entered the courtyard, and a portly, good-looking man got out, about thirty years old, his clothes expensive and mustaches carefully groomed in the manner of the elegant aristocrats whose pictures adorned the magazines that would arrive now and then from Vienna. The visitor knocked twice on the door with his walking-stick, then entered without waiting for a reply. Mother Rosenthal, having smartened her look with a colorful shawl, greeted the stranger with an awkward curtsy. “Enough, enough, Netty,” he objected. “No need. Let’s sit down.”
She brought him a cup of fragrant tea, a fresh loaf of crusty bread, and a saucer of apricot preserves, and finally sat down at the heavy wooden table.
“This is the Mimi Landau I wrote you about,” said Mother Rosenthal. “Mimi, say hello nicely to the landlord, Mr. Markus Fabrikant.”
“Hello, Monsieur,” curtsied Mimi.
“How are your mother and father?” asked Netty Rosenthal.
“Thank God,” answered Markus. “And I see that things are fine with you too.”
“Can’t complain . Not much happens in Sadigura, as you know. Nahman Schulman from the haberdashery passed away not long ago.”
“Reb Nahman? The one with the four fingers?”
“The same. At such a young age, what a tragedy!” sighed Netty.
“Baruch dayan ha-emet.” Listen, Netty. I came to talk business. Don’t be scared, it’s not bad news. As you surely know, I recently finished my course of study at the University of Bucharest . . .”
“Professor!” she exclaimed, interrupting.
A modest smile crossed his lips. “That’s not the point, dear Netty, not the point. May I be brief, with your permission. Upon the conclusion of my studies, and after considerable deliberation, I have decided to devote myself to the dramatic arts, and to found a theatre of my own: not something vulgar, God forbid, but an institution of educational value, which will spread throughout the Empire the message of enlightenment and civilization, and offer our Jews a bounty of learning and culture. An institution of this sort naturally needs a home, a place where members of the ensemble can live while they prepare themselves for the stage. My beloved parents approve of my proposal, yes, and have therefore agreed to sign over to me the income of our holdings in Sadigura. From now on, Netty dear, I am your landlord!”
“Mazel tov,” Mr. Fabrikant, mazel tov! Mimi, go, bring a bottle of sweet wine from the pantry, so we can drink a l’chaim!”
“Many thanks, Netty dear. But I feel I should first spell out my program in detail. Fabrikant’s Theatre of Historical Scenes – this will be the name of our institution – will be built upon young talent, whom I will now assiduously assemble from all over Bukovina. To wit, orphaned Jewish girls with a flair for drama, whom I will rescue from their lives of woe.”
“Congratulations, my landlord, congratulations!”
“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I now wish to ask you to accept the noble calling of raising these wonderful talented girls – here, in your home. You will be as a mother to them, and attend to all their needs. It goes without saying that we will arrive at an appropriate financial arrangement to compensate your efforts.”
Mother Rosenthal needed no more than a moment’s thought to agree to the offer. From the corner of her eye she saw Mimi returning from the pantry, bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Not only do I accept with pleasure, Mr. Fabrikant, but I can surprise you and present a promising talent already living in my home – my little Mimi. She is a hard-working girl, clever, studious – a real little yeshiva bocher, and I have no doubt she will succeed at any challenge put before her.”
“Why not. Gladly, gladly. I will test her soon. But be so kind, Netty dear, first l I want to finalize the details of our gesheft, because there’s another orphan waiting in Czernowitz, Yetti Hirsch by name, whom I saved with my own hands from the clutches of a hopelessly drunken father. Ahem. . .”
Upon hearing the ahem Mother Rosenthal quickly dispatched Mimi from the room, and left by themselves, the two sat and discussed the new business in excruciating detail until nearly ten at night. All the while, Mimi lay in bed, thinking about the ups and downs she had experienced in recent months. Floating into her mind was the memory of a trio of itinerant payatzen who passed through her village: they were the closest thing to theatre that she had ever seen, and she now tried to speculate whether from now on she would have to roam the world with red circles painted on her cheeks. Before long, those images were replaced by a poster she had lately seen on a wall near the church, with an engraving of an actress in a mask and purple robe against the backdrop of a ruined castle. Suddenly the nameless woman removed the mask, revealing her face, Mimi’s face. Row upon row of bakery rolls, sprinkled with poppy seeds, appeared from nowhere, flying above the ruins, flooding Mimi with delight under the sweet soft blanket of the last night of her old life.
 Oy, daddy, I’m dying (Yiddish).
 Kitten (Yiddish, term of great affection).
 Out of spite (Yiddish, from the Hebrew l’hach’is, to anger).
 Young fella (Yiddish).
 Wagon-master (Yiddish, from the Hebrew ba’al agalah).
 Yes, sure (Yiddish).
 God willing (Yiddish).
 Twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five – that’s it! (Yiddish).
 A crumbling noodle pudding (Yiddish).
 Oh, God (Yiddish).
 Turn it already! (Yiddish).
 Besides which (Yiddish).
 Money (Polish).
 Ah, so! (German).
 Nothing, zero (Yiddish).
 Inheritance (Yiddish).
 Thirty days of mourning (Hebrew).
 Yiddish culture league.
 Blow (Yiddish).
 Backside (Yiddish).
 Young, inexperienced person (Yiddish).
 Let it be (Yiddish).
 Romanian-style meatballs (Yiddish).
 Business (Yiddish).
 If only it could be so (Yiddish and Hebrew.)
 Russian-style accordion.
 Tfu-tfu-tfu; lit. “without the evil eye” (Yiddish).
 Sweetie (Yiddish).
 Blessed be the Just Judge (Hebrew).
 Clowns (Yiddish).
Excerpted from Professor Fabrikant’s Historical Cabaret, Copyright © Yirmi Pincus 2010, Translation copyright © Stuart Schoffman 2010
Yirmi Pinkus was born in Tel Aviv in 1966. After graduating from Bezalel, Israel's most prestigious Academy of Arts, he began working as an illustrator and an opera critic. He co-founded the Actus Comics Group with whom he published several books. Professor Fabrikant’s Historical Cabaret, published by Am Oved, Israel, is his first novel, for which he received the distinguished Sapir Prize for First Novel. It will be published in Italy and Germany in 2011, but has not yet been published in English. In 2010 Pinkus received the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew Writers.