“Kasrilevke’s reaction to the Dreyfus Affair does not hinge on whether the townspeople were right or wrong on the facts but rather that the fictional town of Kavrilevke, balanced between reality and imagination, becomes a homeland where Jewish talking was Jewish power – for his part Sholem Aleichem was both skeptically ironic about, and idealistically enchanted with, this creation.”
I DOUBT IF the Dreyfus case made such a stir anywhere as it did in Kasrilevke.
Paris, they say, seethed like a boiling vat. The papers carried streamers, generals shot themselves, and small boys ran like mad in the streets, threw their caps in the air, and shouted wildly, “Long live Dreyfus!” or “Long live Esterhazy!” Meanwhile the Jews were insulted and beaten, as always. But the anguish and pain that Kasrilevke underwent, Paris will not experience till Judgment Day. How did Kasrilevke get wind of the Dreyfus case? Well, how did it find out about the war between the English and the Boers or what went on in China? What do they have to do with China? Tea they got from Wisotzky in Moscow. In Kasrilevke they do not wear the light summer material that comes from China and is called pongee. That is not for their purses. They are lucky if they have a pair of trousers and an undershirt, and they sweat just as well, especially if the summer is a hot one.
So how did Kasrilevke learn about the Dreyfus case? From Zeidel. Zeidel, Reb Shaye’s son, was the only person in town who subscribed to a newspaper, and all the news of the world they learned from him, or rather through him. He read and they interpreted. He spoke and they supplied the commentary. He told what he read in the paper, but they turned it around to suit themselves, because they understood better than he did.
One day Zeidel came to the synagogue and told how in Paris a certain Jewish captain named Dreyfus had been imprisoned for turning over certain government papers to the enemy. This went into one ear and out of the other. Someone remarked in passing, “What won’t a Jew do to make a living?”
And another added spitefully, “A Jew has no business climbing so high, interfering with kings and their affairs.” Later when Zeidel came to them and told them a fresh tale, that the whole thing was a plot, that the Jewish Captain Dreyfus was innocent and that it was an intrigue of certain officers who were themselves involved, then the town became interested in the case. At once Dreyfus became a Kasrilevkite. When two people came together, he was the third.
“Have you heard?”
“Sent away for good.”
“A life sentence.”
“For nothing at all.”
“A false accusation.”
Later when Zeidel came to them and told them that there was a possibility that the case might be tried again, that there were some good people who undertook to show the world that the whole thing had been a plot, Kasrilevke began to rock indeed. First of all, Dreyfus was one of ours. Secondly, how could such an ugly thing happen in Paris? It didn’t do any credit to the French. Arguments broke out everywhere; bets were made. Some said the case would be tried again, others said it would not. Once the decision had been made, it was final. All was lost.
As the case went on, they got tired of waiting for Zeidel to appear in the synagogue with the news; they began (o go to his house. Then they could not wait that long, and they began to go along with him to the post office for his paper. There they read, digested the news, discussed, shouted, gesticulated, all together and in their loudest voices. More than once the postmaster had to let them know in gentle terms that the post office was not the synagogue. “This is not your synagogue, you Jews. This is not your community hall.”
They heard him the way Haman hears the grager on Purim. He shouted, and they continued to read the paper and discuss Dreyfus. They talked not only of Dreyfus. New people were always coming into the case. First Esterhazy, then Picquart, then General Mercies, Pellieux Gonse ….
There were two people whom Kasrilevke came to love and revere. These were Emile Zola and Labori. For Zola each one would gladly have died. If Zola had come to Kasrilevke the whole town would have come out to greet him; they would have borne him aloft on their shoulders.
“What do you think of his letters?”
“Pearls. Diamonds. Rubies.”
They also thought highly of Labori. The crowd delighted in him, praised him to the skies, and, as we say, licked their fingers over his speeches. Although no one in Kasrilevke had ever heard him, they were sure he must know how to make a fine speech.
I doubt if Dreyfus’s relatives in Paris awaited his return from the Island as anxiously as the Jews of Kasrilevke. They traveled with him over the sea, felt themselves rocking on the waves.
A gale arose and tossed the ship up and down, up and down, like a stick of wood. “Lord of Eternity,” they prayed in their hearts, “be merciful and bring him safely to the place of the trial. Open the eyes of the judges, clear their brains, so they may find the guilty one and the whole world may know of our innocence. Amen. Selah.”
The day when the good news came that Dreyfus had arrived was celebrated like a holiday in Kasrilevke. If they had not been ashamed to do so, they would have closed their shops.
“Thank the Lord.”
“Ah, I would have liked to have been there when he met his wife.”
“And I would have liked to see the children when they were told, ‘Your father has arrived.”‘
And the women, when they heard the news, hid their faces in their aprons and pretended to blow their noses so no one could see they were crying. Poor as Kasrilevke was, there was not a person there who would not have given his very last penny to take one look at the arrival.
As the trial began, a great excitement took hold of the town. They tore not only the paper to pieces, but Zeidel himself. They choked on their food, they did not sleep nights. They waited for the next day, the next and the next.
Suddenly there arose a hubbub, a tumult. That was when the lawyer, Labori, was shot. All Kasrilevke was beside itself.
“Why? For what? Such an outrage! Without cause! Worse than in Sodom!”
That shot was fired at their heads. The bullet was lodged in their breasts, just as if the assassin had shot at Kasrilevke itself.
“God in heaven,” they prayed, “reveal thy wonders. Thou knowest how if thou wishest. Perform a miracle, that Labori might live.”
And God performed the miracle. Labori lived.
When the last day of the trial came, the Kasrilevkites shook as with a fever. They wished they could fall asleep for twenty-four hours and not wake up till Dreyfus was declared a free man.
But as if in spite, not a single one of them slept a wink that night. They rolled all night from side to side, waged war with the bedbugs, and waited for day to come.
At the first sign of dawn they rushed to the post office. The outer gates were still closed. Little by little a crowd gathered outside and the street was filled with people. Men walked up and down, yawning, stretching, pulling their earlocks and praying under their breath.
When Yadama the janitor opened the gates they poured in after him. Yadama grew furious. He would show them who was master here, and pushed and shoved till they were all out in the street again. There they waited for Zeidel to come. And at last he came.
When Zeidel opened the paper and read the news aloud, there arose such an outcry, such a clamor, such a roar that the heavens could have split open. Their outcry was not against the judges who gave the wrong verdict, not at the generals who swore falsely, not at the French who showed themselves up so badly. The outcry was against Zeidel.
“It cannot be!” Kasrilevke shouted with one voice. “Such a verdict is impossible! Heaven and earth swore that the truth must prevail. What kind of lies are you telling us!”
“Fools!” shouted Zeidel, and thrust the paper into their faces. “Look! See what the paper says!”
“Paper! Paper!” shouted Kasrilevke. “And if you stood with one foot in heaven and the other on earth, would we believe you?”
“Such a thing must not be. It must never be! Never! Never!”
And – who was right?
Translated by Julius and Frances Butwin