Swallow your pride like phlegm Jay-cob.
In this American place mysterious and ever-shifting to him as a dream not his own: Milburn, New York.
On the banks of that so strangely named canal: Erie.
It was musical in its way-“Ear-ee”-both syllables equally stressed.
And there was the Chautauqua River a quarter-mile north of the cemetery, beyond the town limits: an Indian name, “Cha-taa-kwa.” No matter how many times he pronounced this word he could not master it, his tongue was thick and clumsy in his mouth.
This region in which he and his family dwelt, this place in which they had taken temporary refuge, was the Chautauqua Valley. In the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains.
A beautiful landscape, farmland, forests, open fields. If with a broken back and eyes smudged with dirt and your meanly beating troll-heart you wished to perceive it that way.
And there was the U.S.: the “Yoo Ess.” You did not mumble or swallow such words but spoke them outright with an air of pride. You would not say “America”-“Ameri-ka”-for that was a word only immigrants used. Yoo Ess was the word.
As he would one day learn to say “Ale-lied”: Allied. The Allied Forces. The Allied Forces that would one day “liberate” Europe from the Axis Powers.
“Fascists.” That ugly word, Jacob Schwart had no difficulty saying though in public he would never say it.
Nor “Nazi”-“Nazis.” These words too he knew well though he would not utter them.
Swallow pride. Grateful is happy. You are a happy man.
He was. For here in Milburn he was known: the caretaker of the cemetery, the gravedigger. The cemetery was several acres of hilly, rocky soil. By the standards of North America it was an old cemetery, the earliest markers dating from 1791.
These were the most peaceful dead. Almost, you could envy them.
A prudent man, Jacob Schwart did not inquire into the fate of his predecessor nor did anyone volunteer information about “Liam McEnnis.” (An Irish name? Miscellaneous pieces of mail had continued to arrive for McEnnis months after the Schwarts had moved in. Worthless items like advertising flyers but Jacob took care to print NOT HERE on each and place them in the mailbox by the road for the mailman to take away again.) He was not an inquisitive man, not one to pry into another’s business. He would do his work, he would earn the respect and the wages paid to him by the Milburn officials who’d hired him and persisted in calling him, in their awkward, genial, American way, “Jay-cob.”
Like a dog they’d hired. Or one of their Negro ex-slaves.
In turn, Jacob Schwart was careful to address them with the utmost respect. He’d been a schoolteacher and knew how important it was to assuage the pettiness of such officials. “Sirs”-“gentlemen”-he called them always. Speaking his slow, awkward English, very polite, at that time clean-shaven, in reasonably clean clothes. He had gripped his cloth cap in both hands and took care in lifting his eyes, that were not timid but fierce, brimming with resentment, hesitantly to theirs.
Thanking them for their kindness. Hiring him, and providing him with a “cottage” in which to live on the cemetery grounds.
So grateful. Thank you sirs!
(Cottage! A strange word for that dank stone hovel. Four cramped rooms with plank floorboards, crude stone walls and a single coal-burning stove whose fumes pervaded the space drying their nostrils so they bled. There was his baby girl, his daughter Rebecca, it tore at his heart to see her coughing and spitting up her food, wiping blood from her nose.)
This time of madness in Europe. I thank you in the name of my wife and my children also.
He was a broken man. He was a man whose guts had been eaten out by rats. Yet he was a stubborn man, too. Devious.
Seeing how these others smiled at him in pity, some slight revulsion. They would not wish to shake his hand of course. Yet he believed they were sympathetic with him. He would insist to Anna, these people are sympathetic with us, they are not scornful. They can see that we are good decent hardworking people not what is called “traz”-“trass”-in this country.
For once they determined you were trass, they would not hesitate to fire you.
Out on your ass-a colorful American expression.
His papers were in order. The visa issued to him, after much delay, anguish, and the payment of bribes to key individuals, by the American consul in Marseilles. The documents stamped by U.S. Immigration at Ellis Island.
What he would not tell those others: how in Munich he’d been a math instructor in a boys’ school as well as a popular soccer coach and when he’d been dismissed from the faculty he had been an assistant pressman for a printer specializing in scientific texts. His proofreading skills were extolled. His patience, his exactitude. He had not been paid so much as he might have been paid in other circumstances but it had been a decent wage and he and his family had owned their house, with their own furniture, including a piano for his wife, at a good address close by her parents and relatives. He did not tell those others whom he perceived to be his adversaries as early as 1936 that he was an educated man, for he understood that none of them was educated beyond what was called high school; he understood that his university degree, like his intelligence, would make of him even more of a freak in their eyes, and in addition make them suspicious.
In any case Jacob Schwart wasn’t so educated as he wished and it became his plan that his sons would be better educated than he had been. It was not his plan for them to remain the sons of the Milburn gravedigger for long, his sojourn here would be temporary.
A year, possibly two. He would humble himself, he would save money. His boys would learn English and speak it like true Americans-quickly, even carelessly, not needing to be precise. There was public education in this country, they would study to be-engineers? doctors? businessmen? Maybe, one day Schwart & Sons Printers. Very fine printers. The most difficult scientific and mathematical texts. Not in Milburn of course but in a large, prosperous American city: Chicago? San Francisco?
He smiled, it was rare that Jacob Schwart allowed himself the luxury of a smile, thinking such thoughts. Of Rebecca Esther, the little one, he wished to think less clearly. She would grow up, she would marry one of those others. In time, he would lose her. But not Herschel and August, his sons.
In the night, in their lumpy bed. Amid the smells. Saying to Anna, “It is a matter of one day to follow another, yes? Do your duty. Never weaken. Never before the children, weaken. We must all. I will save pennies, dollars. I will move us from this terrible place within the year, I vow.”
Beside him, turned toward the wall in whose stony crevices spiders nested, the woman who was Jacob Schwart’s wife made no reply.