So, instead of a boring post about god know what, I decided to put up a chapter of a new story I am working on. I hope you enjoy it:
“Name?” The clerk spits out at me from behind a tiny desk and equally tiny glasses.
“Heim, Jakob Heim.”
“And how do you spell that, sir?”
“Germany.” Now he looks at me suspiciously. As if it were a quiz and I gave the worst possible answer. The war has left scars not only on Europe. For the first time, America had to save Europe from itself, and now this young nation has no one to look up to; there are no longer any responsible adults in the world.
“Do you have family here in America?”
“Yes, a cousin, Eliza Smith, in Ohio.”
“Do you speak good English?”
“Yes, I believe I do.”
“Okay, please proceed to the health inspection. Here you go.” He gives me a slip of paper with “Jacob Heim” written on it along with the date and the stamp of the Ellis Island immigration inspection.
The health inspection is by far more intrusive than the simple collection of data done at the desk. We are stripped in groups and washed in case we bring something from the old world to infect the new, and then we get inspected. The doctor looks me up and down, and when he reaches down he asks me if I am Jewish, I answer that I am and he gives me what can only be called a conspiratorial look. Of course that despite what many in my homeland now want to think, Jews conspire nothing, but it is a constant to see Jews exchanging conspiratorial looks for some reason. As if our continued existence is the conspiracy the gentiles accuse us of.
finally get my papers cleared, for which I am sure that I have the doctor to thank, and leave Ellis Island in the direction of Ohio. I get placed in the train and set off, hoping to never see a uniformed man again.
The journey is going to be a long one, several days, and it allows me time to think. I wonder about what I have come to call my “self-imposed exile.” It is the third exile in total, I suppose, that I was subjected to. The first was before I was born, before Germany was born. It was when the Jews were exiled from their homeland. Technically, there were two of those, once by the Babylonians, and once again by the romans a few hundred years later, but they are both ancient history, so I count that as one. The second exile was from about five years ago, when my father tossed me out of the house. He said I didn’t fight hard enough, and that if all true German soldier would have fought to the death, as they should have, Germany would have won the Great War. I just told him I was hungry. He gave me a loaf of bread and told me to leave and never come back.
The third exile seemed like the next logical step. It was not brought by life in poverty-stricken Hamburg that I couldn’t take, it was the people. Everyone agreed that losing the war was disastrous for Germany, and they were right. We lost our holding the east, we lost our Kaiser, and we lost our pride. Voices started sprouting up, vehement, loud noises who claimed that it was us, the Jews, who conspired to humiliate Germany by having it lose the war. They claim that is why Jews did not answer the Kaiser’s call to arms, even though we did, most promptly, or they claimed that if any Jew did join the ranks of the Imperial Army, he did so only to sabotage the war-effort, and deliver Germany to the enemy.
I told everyone I knew how ridiculous it all was. I asked why on Earth would I have joined, and fought, were wounded, captured, escaped, starved alongside my fellow Germans only to sabotage the war. They said they didn’t know.
Eventually, I decided that Germany can no longer be my home, so I came here to America with what amounted to three hundred dollars to my name and a small suitcase that contained everything I owned. And with those, on February twentieth, 1923, I rang the doorbell of the Smith family, in the aptly named city of Columbus, Ohio, hoping they have gotten all my letters.
I start feeling rather stupid for not having called ahead. Eliza is my Aunt Dagmar’s daughter. She is three years younger than me and we were very close as children, which is why I thought she could help me, but in all the time between my first letter eight months ago, no reply came.
Dagmar came to America right after the war. She was heartbroken when she found out my uncle Reinhardt had died in France just a month before the end of the war. Nothing could console her but the idea of starting fresh, away from the country that took away her precious Reinhardt. Of course she took her daughter and son to America with her, and the next we heard of her was a letter from Eliza telling us her mother and brother died in a train accident. We did not attend the funeral.
Finally, the door opens. It’s Eliza’s husband. He’s a good looking man of about my age, with blonde hair and harsh cheekbones. He looks like a Bavarian, or maybe Austrian. This is the first time in my life that I am seeing him. Eliza wrote that Smith is an assumed name, not the name he was born with. He assumed the name out of the assumption that a good, Christian name was good for business, even if its holder is a Jew, so the name Feuerwarth was abandoned.
He looks at me and smiles in this open, American way, and when he sees the suitcase his smile changes and becomes more artificial.
“Sorry, friend, I am not interested in buying anything right now. It’s my wife who buys everything for the household anyway, I just pay for it, you know who it is.” He smiles again, and starts to politely close the door.
I almost panic, but gather myself, and, politely as I can, I reach for the door to stop it from closing. The husband looks at me with a surprised gaze.
“No, sorry, it’s me, Eliza’s cousin from Germany. Jakob. I wrote you that I am coming, I did, asking if I could stay a while. I know this is a terrible imposition, but I have no other choice.” I always considered my English to be very good. I learned English in school for four years, I have read English novels, I learned English from the British guards when I was captured, but when I hear how easy, smooth, and melodic this man’s English is, I become ashamed of every syllable that leaves my mouth.
He looks at me for a moment, rather surprised, but not at all bitter, and slides aside to allow me entry to the house.
“Oh, of course! You never wrote when you will be coming, so we didn’t expect you today. Come in, make yourself at home.” He leads me to a nice living room, where I sit down on a nice sofa and he sits in front of me on a fine-looking settee. There is a long silence that follows as neither of us know how to start this interaction. I only got as far as the introduction in my head. I assumed Eliza would be here to drive any conversation, and remove any awkwardness with stories of our antics as children.
“Oh, that’s rude of me, would you like something to drink? Something cold, perhaps?” I simply nod and he leaves the room, giving me an opportunity to better look at it.
It is quite large, around thirty square meters, I suppose I will need to start learning what that is in feet. The center of the room is occupied by a very cozy sitting arrangement comprised of the sofa, on which I am sitting, the settee the husband just left, and two small chairs. In the center of that arrangement is a large table on which books, magazines, and glasses are arranged. Behind the two small chairs in a large radio set, atop which sits a gramophone. All the walls, besides the one blocked by the sofa, are hidden by large, oak bookshelves, which are in turn filled with books in both English and German, a few are in French.
Mr. Smith comes back with a bottle of black, bubbly liquid, which I think is Schwarzbier, and am eager to taste. My disappointment must be readable on my face, since Mr. Smith grimaces at my expression. The liquid is sweet beyond belief and is definitely not any kind of beer.
“So how was the journey? From Germany, I mean.”
“Oh, alright. Long. I left Hamburg about two months ago, you know, stops and such.” Our conversation is in danger of becoming more polite than cordial.
“And from New York? You must have come from New York, everyone does.”
“Yes, I did. The men on Ellis Island were nice enough, but I think the clerk might have been illiterate, spelled my name wrong.” I show him my provisional papers, where the German K in Jakob was replaced by a C.
“Well, that’s how it’s spelled in English.” I knew that, I was trying to make a joke, but telling him that might be too pathetic.
“And what do you plan on doing here?” He asks.
“Oh, well, I was told America is the Land of Opportunities, I suppose I will look for mine.” I smile, hopefully cordially.
“Good, yes, in what? Do you have a profession?”
“I fought in the war.” I tell him, like it explains everything there is to say. I fought in the war, so I couldn’t really find work later because I couldn’t really do anything but fight. I fought in the war, so the only way I could survive was by hoping an employer would take pity on me and hire me on the back of my service to the Fatherland. I fought in the war so I can’t make sense of my life.
“And besides that?”
“Well, I thought about opening a business.” I say.
“Good! That is a wonderful idea, that’s what I did. Keep the wheels of industry turning, America loves that.” America is said to love lots of things. Freedom, immigrants, money, itself.
“I was thinking less of industry, more of something else.”
“Food, a restaurant. I read that many immigrants open restaurants.” Mr. Smith looks doubtful.
“Yes, Italians, Spaniards, the French have their bistros… Even the Polaks have their bakeries… but… Is German food really that enticing? As delicious as Bockwurst and Schweinebraten are, would they sell here?” It was a good question and I don’t know how to answer it. America is the Land of Opportunities, but not necessarily the land of successes.
“I suppose.” I said, and I probably look a bit dejected because I can see some guilt on his face for so quickly stomping out my idea.
“Where is Eliza?” Mr. Smith perks up as his wife’s name is mentioned. Finally, common ground for us.
“She’s with our oldest daughter, gone looking for a new dress. She’s four, and growing very fast. If she plays or moves too wildly, she rips her old dresses.” He smiles as he thinks of his precious daughter, which endears him greatly to me.
“It must be wonderful seeing your child grow up before you. You have another child, a son, am I right?” Eliza wrote me when her children were born. She never sent pictures, claiming that by the time they would reach me the children would be so far grown that I would not be able recognize them anyway, so I must come and look for myself.
“Yes, want to meet him? He’s asleep, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind.” We get up silently and move to a corridor, at the end of which there is a door painted in a bright green with a train painted in red and grey. Mr. Smith opens the door and we peer inside onto a small toddler of about three years sleeping soundly in the knowledge that he is safe and loved by his parents. He is the most beautiful child I have ever seen. He is perfect. He is here, in America, and he can be anything.