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FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN
by Randy Steinberg
Papa chose to settle in Whitefield because of the town’s motto: A Nice Little Town with a Friendly Point of View. There were many New Hampshire towns where Papa could have sunk his roots, but it was that simple slogan that convinced him Whitefield was superior to all others. The motto was the first thing any visitor saw upon arriving in the village square. The words were painted in a sloppy, white cursive on the ochre brick of a mill. Papa’s journey had been long and arduous, but when he saw those words he knew he had found a home.
Whitefield wasn’t a place to which a man would come to make a fortune. You wouldn’t find the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt or J.D. Rockefeller in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But for a man like Papa, who didn’t want an empire but peace of mind, Whitefield made perfect sense.
Whitefield offered Papa safety and anonymity. There he would be just a man—not a Jew. The granite mountains of New Hampshire guarded him against the pogroms of Russian Tsars. The lofty, nameless heights of America protected him from the assaults of European peasants who thought Jews baked the blood of Christian babies into their matzohs. Emblazoned on an invulnerable shield, ten words ensured Papa would be happy for the rest of his days: A Nice Little Town with a Friendly Point of View.
In 1903 Papa journeyed through Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland to East Prussia where he found passage to America. He entered the United States in Portland, Maine and eventually found his way into the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. The area was poor, a collection of logging and farming hamlets that could barely sustain its citizenry.
Whitefield’s townspeople were fierce and independent. They descended from French-Canadian trappers who’d come South during Colonial times and Boston Irishers who migrated North after the Civil War. They were leathery-faced, callous-handed people who always voted Republican. Teddy Roosevelt was their God and Calvin Coolidge was a man they could trust.
Papa was the first Jew to come to Whitefield, and in the beginning few of the townspeople trusted him. He had Semitic looks and a Yiddish accent. But Papa worked hard to assimilate. He adopted local garb and did his best to Americanize his voice. After some time, he made friends and was accepted. He was neighborly, ever-ready to lend a hand, and renowned for his stories of Old Europe.
Papa was a handsome man. He had a warm, broad smile and clean skin. The mountain air inflated his barrel chest and infused his cheeks with merry blood. He possessed traditional Mosaic features, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and a prominent nose. But if he stood shoulder to shoulder with a swarthy Scotsman, you’d just as soon think Papa was an old Highlander.
Papa was a jack-of-all trades and made money any way he could. He hauled timber, grew vegetables, and worked on the railroads that were penetrating every part of the country—the White Mountains included. After several years of toil, he earned enough money to bring his parents over from Eastern Russia.
His parents encouraged him to marry. Though Papa was mostly accepted by the townspeople, intermarriage was unthinkable. He remained the only Jew in the area, so he traveled to Boston to find a wife. In Boston, he met Mama and married her. He brought her to Whitefield, and with her dowry Papa was able to buy land and build a house on the highest point in Whitefield. That point was our mountain.
I was born in 1913, the third of five children. I never saw Whitefield the way Papa did. By the age of ten, I had grown to hate the town my father loved, but I had to wait eleven years before I could leave. When I was twenty-one I met Saul, a traveling salesman. After a whirlwind courtship, Saul asked me to marry him and move to Boston. I eagerly took his hand and maintain it was the best decision of my life.
To this day, I only partially understand Papa’s feelings on the matter, but I never knew my father... knew him really. After I left Whitefield, we communicated infrequently. I visited from time to time, but the town itself was always a barrier between us. Boston was flat and featureless, and I liked it that way. There were no mountains; there was no trouble. There was no fire, no flames dancing in the night. When I closed my eyes at night in a city like Boston I knew there was nothing to fear. The toot of a horn was reassuring. Two men arguing in the street over fruit was nothing compared to what lurked in the forests, the fields, and the mountains of Whitefield.
The trouble began in the summer of 1922. Whitefield had become a booming summer resort for wealthy visitors. Its motto had attracted more than poor immigrants from Eastern Europe. Grand hotels were built to accommodate those who came for relief from hay and scarlet fever. It was the Jazz Age and the flapper set flocked to the mountains to play golf and embark on second marriages.
The vacationers were the elite of Boston and New York – Brahmins and Knickerbockers to a man. Soon, Jews from these cities, particularly the hasidim, came too. These orthodox Jews wore long beards and hats, and they did not bathe. They spoke foreign, middling tongues. They sickened and frightened their Christian counterparts, and the hotel owners feared losing business by admitting these Hebrews. A very simple solution was derived: signs were hung at the entrances of each hotel stating “No Jews Allowed.”
On the first day of summer that year, Papa and I came down from our mountain, bound for the village center on business. In our horse-drawn surrey, we passed the hotels and the menacing signs. Papa told me not to look, but I did. He didn’t want me to hate Whitefield, but until that moment I hadn’t known what I was. I had been instructed in the fundamentals of our religion—its language, laws, and history— but I had no worldly idea what it meant to be a Jew. To me, Papa’s teachings were esoteric, in one sense nothing more than trifling tales. But on that first day of summer in 1922, because of Whitefield and its hotels, I knew for the first time in my life what I was, and I knew that some people didn’t like that. I was a Jew, the object of men’s hatred and fear. Papa clicked the reins sharply, and the horses went from trot to canter. The signs disappeared from view, quickly, but it was too late. I had seen them. Papa’s faith in Whitefield was undeterred, while in me something had awoken.
Summer ended and the leaves altered appearances. The foliage, for a moment quaint and colorful, soon fell to earth as winter gripped the White Mountains. Papa forbade me or my brothers and sisters to talk about the signs. We were good children and obeyed. The snows came and I forgot what I had seen. My faith in Whitefield gradually returned.
April was cold that year, and we were able to ice skate up to the end of the month. On one Saturday afternoon in late-April I went to the village center to join my schoolmates who had gathered to skate and make snowmen. It was a pleasantly chilly day. People had little fires going over which they warmed their hands or cooked sweet meats. Snowball fights were frequent but amicable.
I was screwing my skates into shoes made specially for ice blades when the meanest boy in Whitefield came toward me. His name was Bruno Clonnargh and no one liked him. He was ten years old but appeared fifteen. He was tall for ten, already five foot three. Puberty had set upon him early, whiskers sprouting at the corners of his mouth. His teeth were sharp, his face ugly and menacing. Bruno wasn’t strong but had meat on his bones; he was a snarling presence. The teachers slapped his knuckles with rulers and held him after school to clap erasers, but those punishments had done nothing to curb his waywardness. Bruno’s mother was dead and his father drank crude whiskey night and day. “Dirty Jew,” he hissed at me.
Signs were one thing but these were words… spoken… and directed specifically at me. “Dirty Jew,” the two words rang in my ears. Bruno hovered over me, waiting to discern the impact of his epithet. He leered and his breath was sadistically visible. I had attached only one skate, while the other was still slung to a piece of rope used to carry the blades. I rose, off balance and wobbling. Bruno laughed at my predicament. I was hurt and confused: rage filled me. The memory of the signs rushed back, but it was his words that overwhelmed me.
I swung the piece of rope and the free skate caught him atop the crown of his head. He stood stock still for a moment, as if I’d simply blown him a kiss. Then he howled and groped for his head. His skull spat blood, and he toppled backward onto the frozen pond. The snow and ice became red as he attempted to stanch the flow.
Some men rushed over and spirited Bruno away. He required stitches and a month of bed rest. The village constable brought me home. He had a talk with my Papa who asked me what happened. I told him what Bruno had said to me. Papa ordered me to my room: I was forbidden dinner but that was all and we didn’t speak of the matter again. If the signs had fleetingly opened my eyes, Bruno’s words ensured that never again would they close.
A month later, when Bruno was ready to return to school, the principal called me into his office. He didn’t want any more trouble and asked me to apologize. I refused. He threatened me with detention and suspension, but I was obstinate. The principal relented, telling me to avoid Bruno if I saw him. I complied easily, not wanting to see him again regardless of the principal’s orders.
Spring finally came to the White Mountains, and it wasn’t until early June that snow on the highest peaks was finally eradicated. The mild month of June gave way to a sweltering July. It was the summer of dandelion in Whitefield. The conditions were just right for a profusion of the yellow weed. Everywhere one looked in the summer of ‘23… the hills, the woods, by the streams and in the fields… New Hampshire’s White Mountains were dappled yellow.
In early August, Papa went away for several weeks. He’d purchased some shares in a Vermont quarry and wished to oversee operations. My brothers and sisters found odd jobs about town, while Mama and my grandparents repaired our home and tended to Papa’s prize vegetables.
I also found a summer job— collecting eggs at Mr. Bellamy’s chicken farm. It was a morning job that paid twenty-five cents an hour, and by lunch-time I was free to go my own way. A girl my age also worked for Mr. Bellamy, and we became fast friends. She was a little Catholic girl named Mary Bazin, and each day after work we played tennis or went on hikes. Sometimes we picked wild berries and others went to the general store with our quarters to buy licorice.
Before we did anything, though, Mary always stopped at the Church to say a prayer. Whitefield had one Catholic Church, an imposing wooden structure with two spires topped by crosses. The Church frightened me, and I never went in. It only took Mary a few minutes to do her duty, and I was happy to wait outside and let the sun warm my face while Mary prayed.
On one particularly scorching day, Mary suggested I come into the church to escape the heat. She told me to sit in the back pew while she knelt at the altar. I complied and fell into a creaky pew to wait. The Church was musty and vacant. Several candles flickered weakly in corners and by stations of the cross. Sunlight poured through stained glass which depicted –in my mind— the horrible death of a bearded man.
While Mary prayed, the parish priest entered the Church. I turned my head as the main door shut. He stepped from the nave to the aisle and crossed himself. The priest was one of the most handsome men I’d ever see. I wasn’t yet a woman, and my feelings were not sexual. But they were romantic. His uniform was elegant and he was trim and strong. His hair was short and healthy, a golden-brown hue like the color of a champion horse. His features were Latin, chiseled yet forgiving. He had moist lips, a ski-slope nose, and an iron jaw. His face was smooth and his eyes infused with the glory of Heaven. I blushed.
He smiled as he watched Mary pray, but suddenly he turned to look at me. His smile remained, but it was a different sort of expression. He studied me. Maybe it was my curly-red hair or the slight bump in my nose. Maybe he’d heard about what happened between me and Bruno at the pond in April. I couldn’t say for sure how he knew but he did: there was a Jew in his Church, and though he continued to smile I knew he wished the fires of perdition to claim me come judgment.
The priest walked on and his footsteps echoed. A pale rush of dread supplanted my scarlet embarrassment. I gathered my skirts and fled the church. Ten minutes later, Mary emerged and found me across the street. She asked what was wrong, and I told her I’d suddenly felt unwell. “Could we play tennis another time?” I asked. She agreed and I went home.
When I returned home no one was about. Papa would not be back for a fortnight still, but I wished desperately for his presence. He was the only one who would understand, I thought, but by the time he did return I no longer wanted to discuss it. I remained friends with Mary but never again ventured near the Church for fear of seeing that man, that priest. He was a man of God, but to me he was evil.
The heat of July did not abate in August. The temperatures did not drop until September, and we were all grateful when they did. The leaves began to turn and the vacationers went home for the summer. The hotels closed and took down their signs.
I was born late in September, just a few days after the beginning of autumn and the equinox. Papa and Mama promised me a grand birthday party come my tenth year and invited all my friends to attend. There was to be cake and games and presents. They prepared a huge meal. My brothers and sisters helped to decorate the house with bunting and ribbons. My grandmother carefully hid all evidence of our religion.
On the day of the party, my grandfather—Tata we called him in Yiddish fashion—hitched the horses to the surrey and we made for town to pick up my friends. Most of them lived near the village’s center and in an hour’s time we’d all be back at my home enjoying a wonderful party.
Tata wore a hat in the old Jewish tradition, and his chest length beard of piety blew in the fall breeze. He didn’t come to town often, and it worried me a little that his appearance might scare some of my friends. He spoke a mixture of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. There was little about him that indicated the White Mountains and New Hampshire and everything that suggested Abraham and Mount Sinai. But Tata was a jovial man who told great jokes. Like Papa, he could win you over with a story and a laugh. He loved his new country and his neighbors, despite what they may have thought of him.
Tata and I rode down the mountain in silence. The horses snorted and birds chirped, but we humans didn’t say a word. When the village came into sight Tata began to hum an ancient Yiddish tune.
He repeated the lines again and again, and I feared the song might unnerve my friends or their parents. I had no choice but to speak to silence him, “Will we have enough room for everyone?” I asked. The singing stopped.
“Of course my child,” Tata said with a great smile. He did not resume his song, and I was grateful.
We arrived first at Nicole Chanette’s house. Instead of Nicole her mother emerged. The woman appeared nervous and guilt-ridden somehow, rubbing her hands in her apron. I could see the remorse on her face as she came closer. “Is there a problem?” Tata asked. But it didn’t sound like that to Mrs. Chanette. To her it was Eees der a pwoblem?
Mrs. Chanette’s expression changed. Moments before defined by guilt, it melted into conviction. Her words bore this certitude. “Nicole can’t come.” Mrs. Chanette’s hands dropped to her sides, and she spun away. She walked back to her house and calmly shut the front door.
Tata clicked the reins, and we went on to the next home. The next house appeared deserted. They knew what time we’d be coming, but there seemed to be no one there. What could we do but move on.
The process was repeated again and again. Some people at least offered excuses. “Jenny isn’t feeling well” or “Emily has to finish her chores.” Others simply weren’t there.
Mary Bazin herself came out. I was glad to see her, but I could tell she’d been crying. Her cheeks were wet and her eyes raw. “Rachel,” she sobbed “I can’t go. My parents won’t let me.”
“Why won’t they?” Tata asked. Vy von’t dey?
Mary took a step back in fright. “This is my Tata,” I blurted quickly. “He’s my grandfather.”
“Oh,” she said, wiping her nose. She relaxed slightly and came closer again. “I can’t come, Rachel. I’m sorry.” She burst into fresh tears and ran back to her house.
“Should we go to the next house?” Tata asked.
“No. Let’s go home,” I said.
“But the other children,” Tata insisted.
“Tata… no one’s coming.”
He nodded, his beard dipping. Tata’s face did not indicate what we both knew, but I would not cry. I would not let them infuriate me.
The horses’ steady breathing and the grind of the surrey’s wheels were all that could be heard on the way out of town. At the base of our mountain, I turned to Tata. “Sing your song,” I told him gently.
Tata cleared his throat and he repeated the verse over and over until we were safe at home.
A month passed. An early snow dusted the region and a fleet Indian summer chased off the accumulated flakes The days grew shorter and the nights colder. Deer and bear emerged from the deep woods as food became more scarce. The animals were desperate to eat and feared hunger more than they did man. We saw stags and does and black bears with their cubs. The skies were gray and bleak as temperatures continued to drop in late October.
Papa came home one night, a cold, clear evening, appearing quite worried. He walked quickly passed me and began to bolt all the windows. He whispered to my mother hurriedly, and she dashed off. I tried to ask Papa what was happening, but he brushed me aside.
Mama returned with Tata and my grandmother. She shooed them into the basement along with my brothers and sisters. Papa continued his work, shutting doors and windows. Mama grabbed me and tugged me towards the basement, but I broke free. “Papa… what’s happening?” I demanded an answer.
Papa stopped. He was angry, but it was an anger born of fear. “Some men are coming here, but I was told that if we stay in the house they won’t bother us.”
“Why are they coming?”
Papa didn’t answer and turned away. A moment later he froze. We both heard it, the sound of horse and cart coming up the mountain. “Papa… why?”
He was very sincere and calm in his reply. “To burn a cross.” I didn’t understand, and he sensed my desire for a better explanation. “It’s the highest point in Whitefield. They want everyone to see it.”
I let Mama take me to the basement. Minutes later, Papa joined us all. Outside we could hear the men working. It didn’t sound like many, perhaps three or four. They hammered on some wood and splashed liquid about. There was a long silence and then a great rush. I ran to the small basement window, which Papa and Mama had forgotten about.
I saw the men –there were only three— standing back from the flaming cross. It dripped kerosene. Brilliant fire and black smoke rose into the dimming sky. The men didn’t move or say anything. They were transfixed, like me, by the flames. Papa pulled me back from the window and quietly covered it with burlap.
Mama urged us to play a game of cards. She and Papa sat calmly on some crates. Tata and my grandmother chatted to one another softly in Yiddish. None of it seemed to bother them.
An hour later, we heard the men leave. Papa went up first and told us all it was safe. I followed Papa outside. The cross was still erect, charred and smoking. He ordered me back inside, and from a window I watched him pull down the wood. He smashed up the remnants of the cross and dispersed them into the woods.
We left the windows bolted and the doors shut tight. Papa sent us to bed early. I didn’t want to go and did not sleep for hours. But when I did it was a deep, restful slumber. I woke at dawn and rose before anyone else. In my nightgown, I slipped outside. The only evidence the men had come was the blackened patch of grass where they’d burned the cross. There was a mist on the mountain and the day promised to be a warm one. I could just make out the village center through the fog, but I thought it must have been a spectacular site for everyone in town the previous night. A fiery cross on the highest point in Whitefield. How they must have gathered and cheered when the cross flamed to life. But now it was quiet and cool on the mountain, and everyone except me was in bed dreaming.
There’s something about the White Mountains that causes people to forget. Perhaps it’s the peaks’ doggedness, their unimpressive heights. After all, the White Mountains are not the Rockies or the Himilayas. Their better days are passed; they are bumps now, worn by time and wind. They are rolling old men and all conquerable. The White Mountains are not dangerous or treacherous; instead they are dour and they don’t intimidate with their size but by expression. Upon their collective mien is eternity and defiance. These qualities induce forgetfulness.
As the mountains forgot, so too did men. After that night, no one ever returned to harass us. Winter set in soon, and there were few bigots strong enough in their convictions to bother with me and my family. They forgot about us and our mountain because there was wood to chop and corn to plant.
The following year the signs, “No Jews Allowed,” disappeared from the hotels. Mary Bazin and her family moved away, and I never ventured near the Catholic Church again nor saw its menacing pastor. Bruno’s father, in a blind drunk fit, murdered his son and went to prison for life. Each September, when my birthday came round, I made my parents promise to keep it a small affair.
When I was twenty-one I married Saul and moved to Boston. Tata died before seeing his first great-grandchild, and my grandmother soon followed.
I visited Papa and Mama every few summers but always begged Saul to take me back to Boston earlier than we’d planned.
Papa and Mama died in turn and we children inherited the farm and the mountain. None of us lived there any longer and could not support it. After the Second World War we sold our land and house to an enterprising couple, and they transformed it into a bed and breakfast. These types of accommodations were becoming popular as the grand hotels died out, and we insisted, before signing over the deed, that their lodging would welcome all types of people.
To his dying day Papa loved Whitefield. He didn’t see it like I did. I think he believed its troubles small compared to those of his childhood. The Tsar’s riders of the night or superstitious peasants might burn and pillage—even murder—all without reason. So what was a flaming cross or a bigoted sign. And what of the millions of Jews who remained in Europe? Had Papa stayed behind he would surely have perished.
Papa was grateful for America and New Hampshire and Whitefield. He was grateful for the mountain on which he’d built a home and raised a family. Atop his mountain, one could see for miles around… Whitefield, Littleton—even into Laconia Notch. Papa was grateful for his view and his safety. He was grateful for the nice little town with a friendly point of view and glad to be far from the smoldering heap that was Europe.
Papa ignored what I couldn’t. I saw bitterness where he saw progress. My protest was his wisdom. Whitefield was the town where I grew and came of age, but it’s not a place I recall fondly. I have my own family now—three generations to be exact. I doubt any of them have seen a sign that reads “No Jews Allowed” or have encountered a priest who gazes on them with flames of hate. I doubt any of my children or grandchildren have seen a burning cross or been called “Dirty Jew.”
They have not seen fear and superstition.
But I have.
I have seen fire on the mountain.