The Dreams of Count Wenzel von Geiz and the Jew Eisik, by Robert Wexelblatt.
From his childhood Eisik had been called a dreamer. His parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and his wife Brina all said it and smiled as they did so, yet it was no compliment. The smiles were rueful, as if being a dreamer were to be the most useless thing in the world. It was true that Eisik did dream often and vividly. In his youth he had felt compelled to tell everybody about these dreams. Over the years he had learned caution.
Eisik could dream anywhere. For example, just the day after the catastrophe fell on the village he had been out working in a buckwheat field, the one that belonged to Dov Hayyim. The summer sun was strong and Eisik had put down his hoe to take a drink. He was so depressed that he thought it best to be sitting while he drank and so sought shade near the little copse at the end of the field. The water was warm but it tasted good. Still, what with his worries and the heat he began to feel listless. He lay back and looked up at the puffy clouds gliding across the sky. In minutes he was asleep.
In his dream Eisik was lying not on a bank by the copse but on a high and fragrant haystack. About twenty feet over his head a little angel was perched on a cloud looking down on him. This angel appeared to Eisik altogether too smug. "So, you're an angel," he'd said in the dream, "big deal. Look, that's nothing to boast of. You don't have to eat or drink. You don't have any children to clothe. In short, you don't have to earn money which, no matter how hard you work for it or how cleverly you hide it, the Count's men will find anyway and they'll take it all away and then laugh at you into the bargain. You just come down here and then we'll see if you go on being an angel. If you can manage that, then so far as Eisik's concerned you can look as smug as you like." But the angel had merely gone on smiling at Eisik, as complacent as ever.
He had woken up with a start. "So that's how it is," he said to himself sheepishly. "I even whine in my sleep. And to angels!" Then he rubbed his eyes and added, "Everybody's complaining, but I even whine about my whining."
It was true that Eisik was not alone in complaining or worrying about money. Two years before came the bad news of Napoleon's defeat, then there was the story of Prince Metternich's big conference in Vienna where the high-and-mighty arranged the world to suit themselves, then, two months earlier, the old Count had died in his sleep. Count Geiz was a stern man and hardly a friend, but still one who was fair according to his own lights and whose extravagances were kept within limits by his decent wife. As the Rabbi said, "It's a fine thing the Count loves his beef and Hungarian wine. If he ate only bread he'd think we Jews could survive on grass." But now the old Count's nephew Wenzel von Geiz had taken over. This nobleman was a spoiled child of thirty-two years, self-indulgent as a sultan and cruel as Caesar.
It was open house at the castle. The old major domo shuffled into retirement and Grete, the von Geiz housekeeper from the time of the Flood, was pensioned off, replaced with a slattern thirty years her junior who brought with her a gaggle of maids with flaxen hair and turned-up noses. An Alsatian chef de cuisine was taken on and, like crows at harvest time, Geiz's drinking companions gathered by the dozens to do what they did best. The new count ordered up all kinds of entertainments. There were masques and pyrotechnic displays; he brought in traveling actors and even a magician who claimed to have studied with Mesmer. The forest's game was slaughtered wholesale and the old Count's pious and horrified widow was quietly restored to her people in Moravia. The contents of the castle coffers evaporated like a shallow pond in a dry July.
Instead of taking their leave when the pickings began to grow slim, Wenzel von Geiz's parasites and sycophants jokingly declared themselves his "vassals." At dinner it was one of this band who suggested that, as the Count found himself in need of cash, he take what was required from the good-for-nothing Jews.
"But they've already been taxed," the Count's agent had the temerity to remind him, though he did it nervously.
"Nonsense," boldly shouted the fresh-minted vassal. "Everybody knows the Jews have money concealed everywhere, even up their arses."
"A capital idea," declared Wenzel and so his new liegemen were given leave to descend on the Jews like magpies, calling downright robbery just taxation and beating anybody who got in their way. They took not only every kind of money but anything made of silver, copper, or brass, not excepting the holy salvers and menorahs from the synagogue and Brina's Pesach pot. The village was picked clean as a dead corporal at Austerlitz. This was the disaster that had occurred just the day before Eisik had his dream upbraiding the little angel.
Everybody was terrified and despairing. "How are we supposed to survive?" "What's to become of us?" Women ran about, some tearing their hair; men yelled at their hungry children or simply sat down and wept. Moshe the tailor did not need his clarinet to wail pathetically. Only the Rabbi remained calm, telling various stories the moral of all of which was to submit to the will of God and accept that they must suffer for their sins.
"But the sinner's the new count, Rabbi, not us," Wolfsheim objected with exasperation.
"Very well then," said the Rabbi contentedly, "then we'll suffer for Wenzel von Geiz's sins."
That night Eisik said the prayer over a couple of duck's eggs he'd found and a crust of stale black bread. He saw his two children to bed and told them a story about how the beggar Shmuel, who had never harmed a soul and who froze to death in a snowdrift, was greeted in Heaven with a royal banquet. And, to Brina's dismay, Eisik concocted a sumptuous bill-of-fare for the deceased Shmuel, from rich broths and roasted chicken to borsht with cream, candied potatoes, a great golden challah, all topped off with jellied plums.
"It's foolish and it's cruel," Brina chided him, "cruel to tell them what they can't have and will never have."
Eisik, feeling he was something of an expert on dreams, defended himself. "They're going to dream of food anyway, so why not give them a few specifics?"
That night Eisik himself had a particularly vivid dream. He dreamed he was digging in the Christian graveyard, just behind the tomb in which the old Count was buried with his ancestors. The ground had been newly turned, barely covered with a few pine bows, and the digging was easy. Soon his spade struck metal. It was a huge strongbox. A bar of iron appeared in his hand and with it Eisik broke open the lock. Inside he found all the good things that had been taken from the Jews—the money, the menorahs, even his Brina's Pesach pot, a wedding gift from Eisik's father Yekel.
That same night, up at the castle, Wenzel von Geiz also had a dream. He saw his new servants stealing from his treasury, taking plate and caskets full of gold coins. Some of his so-called vassals were pocketing money hand over fist as well. He awoke perplexed, indignant yet uncertain whether or not to take the dream seriously. Just to be safe, he resolved to bury his treasure where no one would think of looking for it.
All day Eisik tried to forget about his dream, about the buried strongbox, nor did he tell anybody about it. "Ah, Eisik," they would say, "always dreaming. Isn't it obvious? The Count's men take our money so you dream of getting it back again. It's childish. Better you should cultivate Dov Hayyim's buckwheat. Better you should scare up another duck egg." Eisik saw nothing all day but anxious faces, hungry children, empty eyes, and everything reminded him of his dream which, after all, had been exceedingly specific. Moreover, Eisik had long ago accepted that he was indeed "a dreamer." How could he help believing in his dreams; that is to say, in their significance, even if he couldn't always tell what it was. Did these dreams come from inside him or outside? He didn't know that either but, in his opinion, either way his dreams were important, if only because they came only to him and so were like whispers and suggestions—intimations, in short.
Early in the morning, while his so-called vassals still snored and the servant-girls who were not still in bed with them yawned and gossiped, Wenzel von Geiz heaved his strongbox onto a cart to which he had himself hitched a pony. It was heavy work and he sweated. On the other hand, the ride to the cemetery, to his ancestral tomb, was extremely pleasant. It had been years since he had been up with the birds and he was amazed how overnight the dew seemed to have washed everything clean of dirt and sin. Though it was low work, he felt rather happy as he dug the shallow hole behind the crypt, unloaded the strongbox, slid it in, then covered it up with dirt and a few pine bows, which left his fingers sticky and pleasantly redolent of resin.
Around midnight Eisik slipped out of bed, careful not to wake his wife, even though Brina could sleep through five thunderstorms. In accord with the irresistible urge, which he prayed was not the Evil One, he took up his spade, borrowed Wolfsheim's wheel barrow and a length of iron he found in Levi's yard, almost the last piece of metal in the village. He pushed the barrow all the way, fearing dogs, up the hill to the Gentile cemetery where he quickly found the von Geiz mausoleum, by far the largest structure there. As he considered its fluted columns and carved vaults he recollected something he had once heard at a funeral, a saying of Rabbi Gamaliel, if he recalled correctly: "No tombstones are erected on the graves of the righteous; it is their words that are their monuments."
Everything was just as in his dream. The freshly turned earth under the loose pine branches was easy to move and soon his spade struck metal. Reciting a short prayer, Eisik used the bar to break open the lock, and there it all was. It took every bit of his strength to wrangle the huge box into the barrow but he managed it. "Only what is imagined is really true," reflected Eisik chiefly to comfort himself, because now he was afraid. Still, it was the biggest thought he had ever had. With great difficulty he wheeled the strongbox to the copse at the edge of Dov Hayyim's buckwheat field, where he placed it under three good-sized logs. Looking up at the stars, he said, "You see, little angel, what it means to be human?"
A nasty butcher and an insolent tailor were threatening legal action, to send bailiffs, and, in general, doing what was in their power to annihilate his credit. Count von Geiz required some silver and promptly. In the afternoon, giving the excuse that he would be paying his respects at his deceased uncle's tomb, he told his friends, quite superfluously, to amuse themselves while he was gone. "Your sainted uncle's grave?" laughed one of his comrades, who had known Wenzel from university days. "A nice euphemism for an afternoon of cocksmanship." Wenzel was content to let himself be teased in this fashion, for it suited both his vanity and his purpose. Anything so that he could get away for an hour.
The perplexity the Count had experienced over his dream was nothing compared to what he felt on discovering that his strongbox had been stolen. Could he accuse his friends? The servants? Surely someone must have followed him that morning, but who? It was too monstrous. His mind began to race. He imagined a terrible scene, one in which he would have to make accusations. He foresaw indignant denials, curses; there might even be points of honor to settle and, in the end, he would be left alone, which, having been deprived of a doting mother in childhood, he secretly feared. Well, he thought, damn them all anyway. Maybe they were all in on it, the whole lot, eating him out of house and home, both the freeloaders and the sluts. And as for skinning the Jews, hadn't that been at their suggestion? If he did accuse his friends they'd only blame the Jews, even though no Jew would dare such an act. But what if he anticipated them and charged the Jews himself? That way he could inform the household of the theft without accusing them. Then there would be no need to tell them about his dream or how he had suspected them and hid the money. He could send the men back to that wretched village where they would, of course, find nothing. Who knows? Maybe then shame and guilt would lead to the return of his strongbox. And, if not, as seemed more likely, he could—sadly, of course, with infinite regret at the unfortunate necessity—propose that the castle be searched from top to bottom.
Eisik too found himself in considerable perplexity. Now that he had it what should he do with the treasure? Was he, in fact, a thief? Had he succumbed to the Evil Urge that had infiltrated his dream to destroy him? He hardly minded that there was no food as he had lost his appetite. All day he fretted and finally resolved that he would have to lay the matter, in confidence, before the Rabbi who was, after all, a wise man and was always quoting the sages.
He was fortunate to find the Rabbi alone, reading from one of his big, black-bound books.
"Rabbi," he said, turning his cap in his hands, "I need to speak with you."
"Yes, Eisik. Take a seat. Now, what is it?"
Eisik told the Rabbi all that had happened, from the night of his dream, the borrowing of the wheel barrow and the iron rod, the midnight trip to the Gentile cemetery, the strongbox, three logs in the copse, not excluding even Brina's copper Pesach pot.
To all this the Rabbi listened without interrupting. When Eisik had finished he said, "I've just been reading about your case."
Eisik was astonished. "You have?"
"It's a story called 'The Second Thief.' Here, I'll tell it to you. A man whose most prized possession is a watch given him by his father is on his way to Lublin. He stops in the town of Kalisz to take some refreshment. Ignorant of the place, he goes into a low tavern, a place favored by the local riff-raff. While he is eating and drinking a pickpocket steals his watch and slips out into the lane behind the tavern. The thief is very pleased because the watch is made of gold. Putting the watch into his own pocket, the thief peers in the window to see if the traveler has gone then returns and boldly orders a glass of schnapps. While he is drinking the schnapps a second pickpocket, who has observed everything, steals the watch from him. No sooner has this second thief slipped the gold watch into his pocket than the traveler bursts in accompanied by the police. Everyone is searched and the second pickpocket is discovered to have the watch, which the traveler readily identifies. So, the watch is returned to its owner and the second pickpocket is arrested, protesting loudly that he never took the watch from the stranger. Yet it is he who is sent to jail while the first pickpocket goes free."
"That seems unjust," said Eisik, "or at least not quite just."
"And yet," said the Rabbi with a characteristic shrug, "the story is about justice."
"Look, Rabbi, I'm confused. You said this story fits my case—the strongbox, the Count?"
"Yes, so I did. It seems to me the question you have to decide is which of the men in the story is you. Are you the traveler, the first thief, or the second? Go and think it over, Eisik. When you decide then you'll know what to do."
Eisik did think it over. In fact, thinking was almost all he did that day, even when the ruffians from the castle came with their curses, their horses and whips, and tore the village apart. Through all this he sat on his porch, chin in his hand, pondering the story. So lost was he in thought that he scarcely noticed the men from the castle demanding to know where the Count's strongbox had been hidden. "Come on," said one, "the wretch must be simple or deaf." Was he, Eisik wondered, one of the thieves or was he the traveler? Who deserved to be punished? Should he keep the treasure for himself and his family or return it to the Count, take whatever punishment was given to him, so that his men would go away? Eisik thought how much better it was to be a little angel on a cloud than Eisik on a porch.
By dusk, which happened to be the beginning of the Sabbath, the men had left and Eisik had reached the limit of his thinking. Just as the Rabbi had said, he knew what he had to do. After lighting a stump of candle with his family and saying the prayers, he went to Wolfsheim to ask for the loan of his wheel barrow. "Take it! What's left to put in it but misery." Eisik did take it and set off for the copse. In better times the whole village would be eating the Sabbath meal but that night there was no dinner, for in their frustration, the lords had taken away every scrap of food they could find.
Up at the castle, after receiving the report that nothing of value had been found among the Jews, Count Wenzel reluctantly made his suspicions known and it fell out just as he had feared. His friends all left in high dudgeon and the pretty maids went with them. Only the housekeeper remained to help him with his futile search.
That night every house in the village received a visit from the dreamer Eisik. All took what was theirs from the strongbox. Eisik got back his pittance and Brina was reunited with her precious Pesach pot. The Rabbi too had his money returned to him but he said nothing to Eisik. As for the strongbox, that the dreamer prudently threw into the deepest part of the river.
Eisik's dreaming was not over, nor his entanglement with buried treasure. Ten years later, after he and his family moved to Cracow where they fared no better than in the village on von Geiz's estate, he had another dream that has since become famous; for he is that same Eisik of whom the great Rabbi Bunam told in his celebrated "Story of the Treasure" which can be found in the first volume of Martin Buber's compendium, Tales of the Hasidim. Here is the story, which, curiously, also concerns a double dream.
Eisik, son of Yekel, lived in Cracow. After years of great poverty which had never shaken his faith in God, he dreamed someone bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge which leads to the king's palace. When the dream recurred a third time, Eisik prepared for the journey and set out for Prague. But the bridge was guarded day and night and he did not dare to start digging. Nevertheless, he went to the bridge every morning and kept walking around it until evening.
Finally the captain of the guards, who had been watching him, asked in a kindly way whether he was looking for something or waiting for somebody. Impetuously, Eisik told him of the dream which had brought him from a faraway country. The captain laughed: "And so to please the dream, you, poor fellow, wore out your shoes to come here! As for having faith in dreams, if I had had it, I should have had to get going when a dream once told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew—Eisik, son of Yekel, that was the name! Eisik, son of Yekel! I can just imagine what it would be like, how I should have to try every house over there, where one half of the Jews are named Eisik, and the other Yekel!" And he laughed again. Eisik bowed to the captain, traveled home, dug up the treasure from under the stove, and built the House of Prayer which is still called "Reb Eisik's Shul."
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women (KenArnoldBooks, 2008), which was awarded first place in General Fiction/Novel and also the First Grand Prize for Fiction by the Indie Book Awards.
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