Purchase of Goods of Dubious Origin
By Augusto Segre
Translated from Italian by Steve Siporin
Concerning work, the holy texts and educated people have said very beautiful, important, and edifying things, even if the hard reality of life doesn’t always coincide with their wise aphorisms. Thus, for example, there are the well-known words: “You shall eat your bread by the sweat of your brow.” But it’s not always so. Actually, as everyone knows quite well, there are those who drip sweat, and not only from the face, because of their hard, daily work—still they barely manage to earn a crust of bread. On the other hand, there are those who don’t sweat, because they make others sweat, and yet they always have a sumptuously laid table.
One must, however, be careful and not allow oneself to be misled by hasty, superficial interpretations like these. Certain gnomic statements project themselves into a distant future, to Messianic times, and thus we have to wait with faithful expectation and, in the meantime, do things of value in order to draw this wondrous era nearer. And this has to be done with unshakable faith, even if it has happened more than once that the ideals and hopes of those who labored diligently for their entire lives, whatever their work may have been, have collapsed disastrously, and with them, as in our case, all the expectations of an energetic family uprightly engaged in labor for generations.
In the large courtyard “of the geese”—which was called that because of the intense and remunerative work with these fowl that took place on the ground floor—to the right, just past the front gate, there was a big storeroom of scrap metal. A vast room, where the most varied kinds of scrap metal were piled up: stoves, locks, keys, iron construction rods, beds, safes, all styles of trunks, plows and other agricultural implements. Elia Levi had run the business, which he inherited from his parents, for longer than anyone could remember. It wasn’t necessarily a simple job because there was not only the matter of selling, but also of arranging for new acquisitions and thus maintaining a stock that could always meet the strangest requests. Elia was well known not only in the city, but even in the surrounding area, in the nearby countryside where he often went to track down something of interest to buy. This restocking would also take place right in the store itself when someone turned up who wanted to get rid of things that no longer served him or who had a pressing need to put together a few lire. Levi was well known in the Community too, particularly as the attendant to the Coén when he would bless the faithful with the traditional blessing.
The life of the Levi family was modest, like that of so many other families, but secure and dignified because it was perfectly balanced between faith, plainness, and honesty in business. Besides, Levi had come to understand the new times quite well. He certainly would not have changed his accustomed work, which he was very fond of—not for the world, not at his age. But his children, he was convinced, had to change their ways in order to take advantage of the new, better opportunities the great freedom of the Emancipation offered them. Thus, they would make a life for themselves at a higher level, in the midst of that varied and attractive world in which they had been learning to live for several decades. He had three children, two girls and one boy. The two girls had married fellow Jews who were shopkeepers, and Elia thanked the Lord again and again for this gift, given the unhappy way things were these days with the ever more overwhelming wave of mixed marriages. The two sons-in-law had opened a splendid fabric shop, on Via Roma no less, and the joy of the old father was indescribable when he went to visit his daughters in the shop or in their homes, modern and pleasant, in a new quarter of the city. It was a significant step up, economically speaking, in quality and space, which consoled him fully for the many sacrifices he had made and continued to make, all for the benefit of his children. What’s more, he had done it without ever having asked anything from anybody, habituated as he always was to standing on his own two feet.
Then there was his son, Giuseppe, who had been the special object of his dreams and plans. He was an intelligent, quick-witted boy. It had not been hard to get him to study, notwithstanding the onerous expenses that Elia had sustained, besides having to forego the help of the one who, according to the informal tradition, should have been his closest aide and heir in business. But the progress that his son regularly achieved in his studies, always shining, had driven the father to support him, to encourage him to go forward at all costs, even when the father realized that Giuseppe wanted to break off his studies, so as not to continue burdening the family’s expenses.
When the gates of the university opened before him, the economic problems reached substantial proportions. Elia did not lose courage; at that point a prestigious goal had appeared before not only the son, but also before the father himself, who in a little while would be able to pride himself on having a son with a degree. He redoubled and tripled his efforts at work; he enlarged his activities a great deal, and his business as much as possible, making new contacts in new milieus, always guided by his extreme prudence as a shrewd businessman. He felt confident in himself; he had the kind of experience—inherited for generations and consolidated by decades of work—that made him a true expert in dealing with ironmongery. This was demonstrated by the fact that he was often consulted by other shopkeepers to judge the quality of certain merchandise and the terms for selling or buying, which were no less important than the value of the merchandise itself.
When Giuseppe graduated in jurisprudence there was a celebration in the family and in the entire Community. At the reception, organized in grand style by Elia, sur murenu, the rabbi, and even the already multi-degreed president of the Community, spoke. The latter, to tell the truth, took part in the celebration mainly because he was driven by curiosity to see up close this strange type of graduate—the homo novus—who had sprouted miraculously amid the scrap metal of that store in the courtyard of the geese. Sur murenu, for his part, didn’t miss the opportunity, after the formalities, to point out how even this splendid result was the fruit of the Emancipation, which had freely and generously given the most complete freedom to the Jews, and that it was their express duty to demonstrate—always, on every occasion—their gratitude toward the House of Savoy, increasing their commitment as upright citizens and as Italians devoted to their sacred homeland.
With his diploma in hand Giuseppe did not yet have a job, but there were plenty of possibilities; all he had to do was get on with it. Elia did not fail to contact all the authorities he knew. When his son, being free for the moment, dropped by the warehouse on his own, he wandered happily between those walls of his childhood and told his father that in the meantime he could lend him a hand. This elicited the sharpest protests from his father. Precisely now he wanted to ruin everything? Someone with a degree should not be in the middle of scrap metal, but in an office. Everyone in his place, doing his own work.
And Giuseppe found his place, in an office, and it was nothing less than the local law court. He was presented with the possibility of a career in the judiciary. It was a prestigious position of great responsibility, which would automatically rank him among the highest levels of local society. He would be able to become a judge, maybe even president of a law court, in one of those courtrooms that Elia Levi had sometimes visited out of curiosity when trials took place in which people he knew were involved.
A few years later, however, something happened that never should have happened, something that Elia Levi would never have been able to imagine could happen. One day, in fact, Elia Levi was to be found in one of those courtrooms not out of curiosity but as a defendant. Incredible!
In the warehouse in the courtyard of the geese, two persons had appeared whom Levi knew vaguely, having occasionally run into them at some market and, now he remembered, in the café that he frequented on Tuesdays and Fridays, the market days. They proposed to him the acquisition of rolled-iron sections, a very good deal, for both the quality and the price. The deal concerned a consignment of goods taken over because of a bankruptcy, and it seemed genuine. The only condition, somewhat burdensome, was the payment in cash upon the delivery of the merchandise. As was usual in all of his dealings, and in this case, too, more than a few doubts presented themselves to the mind of the old shopkeeper, who began asking questions endlessly. The answers, however, were always precise and thorough, and the official documents presented to him were exemplary. Still not completely convinced, however, Levi wanted to see the merchandise. He was accompanied by the two friends who led him to a warehouse at the edge of the city. What was there were rolled-iron sections of prime quality—of that there was no doubt—that had belonged to a firm that he did not know but whose name appeared clearly in the official papers that were produced and that had gone bankrupt a long time before. He reexamined these papers with the greatest care; they were authentic, according to him, in every detail. The deal was concluded, and the merchandise arrived at Levi’s warehouse toward evening, when the first shadows had already spread over the old courtyard of the ex-ghetto. Payment for the delivered merchandise was made, according to the agreement, in cash.
A few weeks went by, and then the bomb exploded. One morning when the store had just opened, a fellow—wearing dark colors, with a southern accent—presented himself and handed Elia a subpoena to appear before the examining magistrate.
“But what’s this about?” asked Elia in a trembling voice.
“This, my task it is not. To deliver I must the document, and you, sir, to sign here you sir must.” And he handed Elia a notebook, after having written “delivered to the same” on the document. Raising two fingers to the brim of his hat signifying an official goodby, the man left.
Levi felt faint. He seated himself in a chair and read and reread that strange document, which didn’t seem at all clear to him. “Purchase of goods of dubious origin”—what did that mean, what did it refer to? And—this part he did understand—he was summoned to the examining magistrate “for information” in three days.
When Giuseppe returned home—in the meantime, after several competitive examinations (passed with flying colors) he had reached the position of clerk of the court—his father, who was still distraught, had him look at the summons. The son was also astonished, and he subjected his father to many questions about his recent business activities. Elia responded with his usual precision; he kept a register in which all the activity of the storeroom was scrupulously recorded. Giuseppe, with the technical eye of the profession, set himself to study all of the documentation with a great deal of care. All of a sudden his attention was arrested by the acquisition of the rolled-iron sections, which still lay in the storeroom. He examined the merchandise and was surprised to see the disparity between the quantity of the goods and the price paid for them.
He turned to his father: “Whatever possessed you to make such a purchase? I get the feeling that deep underneath this there’s something that’s not so clean. How is it possible?”
“Listen, don’t talk nonsense. I’m not a novice,” responded his father, all but offended. “I certainly didn’t buy with my eyes closed. For me too, at first, the deal wasn’t convincing, but then I saw the papers and looked them over—several times—and they were in perfect order, without any doubt. It was a clearance sale due to bankruptcy.”
“But are you really sure?”
“How can you have any doubt? It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with business like this. I’ve always bought goods from bankruptcies—a lot.”
“But given the importance of the transaction, why didn’t you have me look over these papers?”
“What need was there? They were very clear and understandable even for me, who has no degree. Maybe you’ve forgotten that your father isn’t a simpleton and that he has long-standing experience? I’m not exactly the type who can be fooled so readily.”
But this time, unfortunately for him, Elia Levi had been fooled and in the most banal way. The documents were false, the merchandise was the fruit of receiving stolen goods, and so he was indicted for the purchase of goods of dubious origin and sentenced to several months, with a suspended sentence (being treated as a first offender) and the confiscation of the relevant merchandise. From which we learn, yet again, that in court honorable people may also be seated among the accused.
This entire sad affair devastated not only the old shopkeeper, but especially, and it could be said more directly, his son, the clerk of the court. How would he be able to continue his work in that building where his father, his own father, had been convicted? He opened his heart to several colleagues, who took pains to tell him that for one thing he was blameless, and in the end so was his old father, a shopkeeper of flawless honesty, a fact openly acknowledged by everyone in the city, including even the president of the tribunal, who at the conclusion of the trial said to the convicted man:
“I am enormously displeased that you, sir, having reached your age after an irreproachable life, would have fallen into this trap. What does it mean? That when you work, you never stop learning, whatever your age, even when you are old. On the other hand, the law is the law, equal for everyone.”
All fine words, mulled over in Giuseppe’s mind, even at night when he couldn’t sleep and tossed and turned from one side to the other. His career, he thought, was ruined forever. There was no doubt, especially considering his completely unique situation: Giuseppe was not just any magistrate’s clerk; he was a Jew, the first to occupy such an important position in that small city. It might seem strange that there could be anyone who would want to link what had happened with a magistrate’s clerk who was Jewish, but it’s not that hard to imagine it, at least in certain circles. Something vague, barely whispered, had been reported about him, something said completely in confidence by someone who, in instances like this, was careful to declare himself a friend of the Jews (“and I always have been”):
“It’s well known”—it was supposedly said—“that the Jews, inside or outside the ghetto, look after their own interests, just as they always have, and they’re not too particular when it comes to making money. They haven’t changed, and they never will . . . even if they get degrees.”
One afternoon Giuseppe was at his work table when an office boy came in and put some files on the table. He examined them one at a time, then stopped and stared at a folder opened before his eyes, thunderstruck. It dealt with the sentence pronounced against his father, which he would have to register. Was it simply a coincidence or was it instead the special gift of some colleague, for some personal reason of his own? Giuseppe’s head swirled and he felt faint. He closed the file slowly and left the office to wander aimlessly here and there throughout the city. He walked along the bank of the Po, staring persistently at the flowing water and the dizzying whirlpools of the current. The river was in spate. But he quickly turned away from that view and tried to push away certain thoughts that had suddenly appeared in his mind. He returned home.
It wasn’t the first time since this family disaster that Giuseppe had tried to comfort his old father through the compassionate devotion he felt for him, even though it cost him great effort because by then he considered himself a failure in life, facing the same dead end as his father. Entering the store, he saw his father seated behind his table. It was heartbreaking to see once again how much he had aged in such a short time. Deep wrinkles marked his face, and his eyes, staring sadly into space, signaled the measure of his despair. The father, who had finally become aware of Giuseppe’s presence, made as if to get up. But the son, solicitous, was near him and affectionately put a hand on his shoulder and repeated words of comfort and resignation for the umpteenth time—as usual, without results.
“Listen, Papà,” he said, looking at the gold watch his father had given him on the occasion of his graduation. “It’s almost time for ’arvith (evening prayers); why don’t you go to the scola (synagogue)?”
“Yes, you’re right,” sighed Elia.
He got up with great effort, took off his kipà, picked up his black hat, gently waved goodby to his son, and went out, walking slowly. Giuseppe’s father, to whom Giuseppe had always been lovingly close, had grown even more tender to him now.
As soon as he was left alone, Giuseppe was overtaken by his tortured thoughts in a nearly obsessive way. Finding himself in that storeroom which, one could say, had made a magistrate’s clerk of him, but had then also destroyed his career, gave him a sense of despair without end that brought him down, down to his heart, to the deepest part of his soul. He walked slowly in the midst of all that merchandise, and he noticed that toward the right side there was a big empty space, occupied up until a few weeks earlier by those cursed rolled-iron sections. He stopped at length in that corner, so empty and so full of appalling memories, and he felt something like a knot in his throat suffocating him. All that iron, in the midst of which he had spent so many carefree hours in childhood and adolescence, now seemed to him as if it had been transformed into so many bars in a prison in which he found himself enclosed, without probation. He wandered around, here and there until, guided almost by instinct, he stopped in front of a display case filled with iron that was not for sale. It contained weapons that were precisely catalogued and duly registered and that had been used in the various wars of the Risorgimento, in which so many Jews had distinguished themselves with heroic deeds, even giving their lives for the beloved homeland. Rifles, pistols, swords, bayonets, and bullets of different caliber were lined-up perfectly and scrupulously maintained without a grain of dust; polished and well-oiled, they shined, as if they had to be ready for use. Authentic pieces, undoubtedly, awaiting lovers of antique weapons. Giuseppe studied those arms for a while, flooded by a hundred uncertainties, by ever more oppressive thoughts.
Almost reflexively he stretched out his hand and took a pistol. His movements, at first uncertain, now became sure. He looked for and found bullets of the right caliber. He loaded the pistol, closed the display case, and set off with uncertain steps toward the rear of the storeroom, which was slowly dissolving into the first shadows of the evening. Suddenly a shot was heard.
The glorious, alluring Emancipation had offered a new sacrifice on the altar of Liberty and of the Country of Laws.