Marguerite Dorian Taussig came to our town, taught a class in botany, composed and contributed a fine and witty essay about how the names of perfumes change to reflect the mood of the times, and stayed here.
She had brought along her father’s medical journal, a wartime diary, which she translated and published, among other works, including children’s books.
And she wrote an account of the birthplace she and her mother had left behind.
Taussig, a gracious hostess and an elegant and eloquent woman, highlighted excerpts from her memoir, which was published in its entirety in the Jewish Spectator, for me to read to my RISD class titled “The Jewish Narrative.” She summons up the aura of her girlhood with these recalled episodes about her quest for a Jewish identity.
I offer these paragraphs as an homage to Taussig and her fellow travelers in their pursuit of happiness and the American dream:
I learned that we were Jews from the grocer’s little boy. There was a church on our street in Bucharest. I saw flickering candle lights through a half-open door. I heard the sound of chanting and the echo of steps on the stone floor. I saw a priest crossing the street. The wind parted his beard ... .
The freckled son of our grocer said I was not to go inside his church. I took my doubts to my father. My father explained that we were Jews. But did we also have a church? Could I forbid the grocer’s boy to enter it?
“We have a church but we are not religious,” my father said. “We do not practice this nonsense.”
While we talked, the white curtains of our living room made two little squares on his glasses, hid his eyes, their reassuring brown glow.
“It does not matter what you are,” he added.
The subject seemed suddenly solemn and oppressive. “But why – why do people have different religions? How do you know what you should be?”
My father leaned back in his chair and thought again. “You are what your parents and their parents have been.”
Ancestry presented itself like the nest of wooden toys I kept in the drawer of my night table: four small figures each coming out of the previous one. My forebears were Jews, and so was I.
What was happening involved us on the side of the loser. An anti-Semitic street demonstration passed under our windows. We lived near the university. Students started the academic year with a routine performance. A few Jewish students were beaten, several pairs of glasses smashed, and, if the enthusiasm lasted, one or two shops in the poor Jewish section of town would get their windows broken. That day, a group of young men carrying flags marched down our street singing: “Thieves and Jews are sucking our blood.”
When, in my first year of school, I stood in front of the class valiantly quoting my father’s words in my high-pitched voice, Miss Polonu, our teacher, became scarlet as her blouse. With a display of “tolerance” practiced by anti-Semites, she asked me to “describe your church” and the class could sense the little distance you keep when you visit a friend with the flu.
I explained that I hadn’t been inside our church because we “don’t practice this nonsense.”
She looked at me thunderstruck and accused me of being a pagan.
At noon, Sabina, my friend and schoolmate, did not wait for me outside. She denied our friendship and did not have the courage to side with the “pagan.”
I walked home alone.
Wrapped in a frowning silence preceding a storm, my father walked me to school next morning to talk to Miss Polonu, who later emerged from the teachers’ room flushed and puffed up like an indignant hen. Both camps were left tense and suspicious. The kind of education my parents had had in mind needed an amendment. I was taken to visit a synagogue. The event alarmed and saddened me.
Maybe my mother chose the synagogue in the poor Jewish neighborhood because it was closer to what her parents had been part of: simple, strictly orthodox – or perhaps because it stood among the best delicatessens. We went there to purchase the king of carps, in a knight’s armor of silver scales, wrapped in a coat of newspaper.
If I missed a particular movie after it was shown at the big boulevard theatres, I would be sent to see it in the old movie houses of the Jewish section, where the sound track stuttered and the picture shivered and froze at the most exciting moment and could be called back to life only by stomping your feet and asking for your money back.
Beyond the necessities, the little luxuries of life included a photographer’s studio with pictures of brides in the window and the autographed portrait of a Jewish philanthropist ... plus barber shops, newspaper and tobacco stands, and stores that sold exercise books for the Hebrew alphabet, that were to be opened backwards.
One summer a Yiddish theater group came to Bucharest from abroad. They played in the garden of the theater, a small enclosure with gravel and brightened by petunias, surrounded by the echo of trolleys and taxicabs. I sat between my parents, intimidated by the language I did not understand, yet knew that it concerned me in some curious way, that I belonged to it even if it didn’t belong to me.
The dark alleys smelled of pee and of pumpkins baked in the public ovens. From small yards the pallor of a lilac bush might come suddenly to meet you.
The mezzotints of memory have fused now in my mind with the dark grays of later events I witnessed on the synagogue street. The terror of later years has spread and permeated with dread something I had sensed in the air, though I couldn’t guess what it was. A thing dormant but ever ready to sprout.
Some years later, I sat on the fence of the Jewish high school among sobbing women. A morgue had been improvised and people went in and out to claim their dead. For three days and nights we had locked ourselves in the apartment, surrounded by cries and shooting. The Jews had been “subjected to severe oppressive measures,” as history has recorded. “But this looks like civil war,” my father said while feverishly fingering the buttons of the radio choked between two pillows, vainly seeking a sign of hope across the world.
“When political parties argue, the Jewish issue is postponed ... it cannot be a pogrom!”
The third day at dawn the shooting stopped. When the telephones worked again and trolleys started running, we learned that most of the Jewish homes had been ransacked, people scooped out of their beds or hiding places, carted in trucks to the town outskirts to be shot.
The Jewish neighborhood had been destroyed.
I went with my father to look for his friend who had a printing shop behind the shul. In frozen, ashen groups of three or four, soldiers guarded the disarray. They paced the sidewalk to mask their uneasiness at the wailing and moaning.
The grocery store had been emptied, windows smashed.
“They rolled a gasoline tank, the murderers, and set fire,” a woman told us through the corner of a black shawl she held to her mouth.
We rushed along a side alley to the printer’s and a black hole confronted us in its place. “That’s where it exploded.”
At dawn, the corpses were collected and brought inside the high school. I sat on the fence and waited for my father, who went in. The sidewalk was swarming with women in black shawls. With soot around the paneless windows, the synagogue had acquired a human face, demented, with empty eye sockets. The door had been torn from its hinges. A blue velvet Torah cover lay on the steps.
My father came out of the morgue dumb, his muffler undone, looking green under his fur hat. When he nodded his head, the look of dread in his eyes wavered, and a rivulet rolled down his frozen cheek.
The prayer room was bare. Nothing from the paraphernalia of faith that can make ancestry desirable. No silver cups, no gilded incense box, no stone-studded pointer.
I was going to pursue with passion years later, through museums, just such treasures, entreating them to grant me a glimpse of our bygone glory.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.