Saturday, 21 February 2015

VII. Pride in prejudice

Warning! As it turns out, Thiébault was as much of a prejudiced bastard as most of his contemporaries. He could have just talked about the Jewish community in Berlin, but no, he had to add a good dose of anti-Semitism (along with the first of a series of particularly nasty remarks about Black people).
Also, I apologise for the bad wordplay, but our dear narrator doesn't sound particularly guilty of being so prejudiced.

My first impressions gave me an insurmountable antipathy for the Jews, and my education compounded this with an aversion for actors; to complete these confessions, I must add that I loathe Negroes. I know everything there is to be said in that respect and I repeated these arguments to myself a hundred times; but in spite of my dislike for prejudices, these ones, if they must be called as such, have overcome everything that should have seemed fit to extinguish them1.
Anyway, this antipathy for the Jews led me to declare war on all the young Jews of my age whom I happened to meet; they soon formed a troop, while I found auxiliaries. We had two battles, during which some unexplainable instinct led me to execute a flanking movement while they faced the main body, and with the help of a few determined lads, this manoeuvre secured my victory.
However, one of my most beautiful memories is the way the Berlinese Jews celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. The Tabernacles I speak of are very different from those described in the Gospels; they serve to commemorate the days spent by the Hebrews in the desert. During this feast, one of the three major solemnities of the Jewish calendar, the Jews gather in the synagogues and outside. I will only speak of the exterior ceremonies, and in that respect, the celebration consisted in spending eight days in grass cabins, built in the open, wherein they ate, among other things, unleavened bread, which I found quite good.
The wealthiest Jews built very nice cabins in their gardens; the others gathered in vast enclosures, which looked all the more like one of Moses’ encampments. The head of each family had his tabernacle, which he adorned, depending on his means, with chosen branches or trees, with flowers and garlands that were sometimes arranged with both care and good taste, and were renewed every day. A description can hardly do justice to the sight of these tabernacles, which we only visited at night, when illuminations that were sometimes dazzling completed this delightful spectacle.
The family that most distinguished itself in such occasions, especially in Berlin, through the size and beauty of their tabernacles, was the Hitzich family. Their immense wealth made lavishness easy, and the number of children and grandchildren of the old head of this Isreaelite family gave this reunion a very patriarchal character.
The eldest Hitzich had sixteen sons and daughters, all of them married with children. I was told several times that he had given or promised two millions to each child. Although this rumour might have been exaggerated, which is impossible to verify, it is nonetheless true that they were all very wealthy. He owned and lived in a beautiful mansion located on the right bank of the Spree, facing the Dome.
To make sure that the children he married away were not left to themselves, he wanted them to stay at his house during the six months following their marriage; after that, having grown accustomed to each other, they took their own house. Every Saturday, his children and grandchildren had dinner with him, and when he entered the room, where ninety-two or ninety-five children, sons- and daughters-in-law and grandchildren were gathered, they all came to kiss in hand, calling him Father.
Two of his daughters became relatively famous, one because of her poor health, the other because of her beauty, or rather, its consequences; for all of his daughters were quite good-looking. The former, when I saw her in 1783 or 1784 in her handsome manor near Berlin, had been living on one sherbet and one cup of watered-down coffee a day for the past six years. She was extremely thin and pale; her body was so weak that she only left her bed to be carried to her sofa, yet she still had a charming and remarkably graceful figure. The other daughter, splendid in her beauty worthy of Antiquity, had settled in Vienna. Soon after she arrived in this capital, Joseph II gave a masquerade; she came, magnificently dressed and covered in diamonds, and all eyes were trained on her. The Emperor danced with her and ended up unmasking her. It was said that her beauty and her wits charmed him even more than his figure and dress had. I will pass on what was then said about this encounter and the interview that followed it; but a historical fact is that her husband, M. Arnstœdt, was made a Baron, and, despite Baron Rothschild’s claims, he was the first Jew who was thus ennobled and titled. This beautiful woman, but whose race never inspired me anything, grew attached to me. She had an album, the first I saw, which we called a “stammbuch” in German, already filled with many respectable and noteworthy memories. I do not know what made her want to have something from me; but I remember that thanks to the skill of one of my art teachers, I painted a rather good Cupid, and my father helped me compose the four verses I wrote below, which were no doubt very chivalrous, but I cannot remember anything of them.
1Thus I never had any meaningful relationship with any comedian, and this might have been my loss; I have known beautiful Jewish women, but an insuperable repugnance always kept me away from them; as for negresses, I will not even mention them: to me, they are only talking animals. I wonder what someone would feel if a pig started to speak. Well! This about sums up what I feel when a Negro talks to me.

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