Amid thick forests and deep swamps, on the slope of a hill level at the summit, lay the village of Frampol. Nobody knew who had founded it, or why just there. Goats grazed among the tombstones, which were already sunk in the ground of the cemetery. In the community house there was a parchment chronicle, but the first page was missing and the writing had faded. Legends were current among the people, tales of wicked intrigue concerning a mad nobleman, a lascivious lady, a Jewish scholar, and a wild dog. But the origin of these legends was lost in the past.
Peasants who tilled the fields round about were poor; the land was stubborn. In the village, the Jews were impoverished; their roofs were straw, their floors dirt. In summer many of them went barefoot, and in the cold of winter they wrapped their feet in rags, or wore sandals made of straw.
Rabbi Ozer, renowned for his erudition, received a salary of only eighteen groszy a week. The assistant rabbi, besides being the community slaughterer, was teacher, marriage broker, bath attendant, and poorhouse nurse too. Even those villagers who were considered wealthy knew little of luxury. They wore cotton gaberdines tied about the waist with string, and tasted meat only on the Sabbath. Gold coin was rarely seen.
But the inhabitants of Frampol had been blessed with fine children. The boys grew tall and strong, the girls handsome. It was a mixed blessing, however, For the young men left to marry girls from other towns, while their sisters, lacking dowries, remained unwed. Yet despite everything, inexplicably, the food scarce and the water foul, the children continued to thrive.
Then, one summer, there was a drought. Even the oldest peasants could not recall a calamity to equal this one. No rain fell. The corn was parched and stunted. There was scarcely anything worth harvesting. Not until the few sheaves of wheat had been cut and gathered did the rain come, and with it a hail that destroyed whatever grain the drought had spared. Locusts huge as birds came in the wake of the storm; human voices were said to issue from their throats, and they flew at the eyes of the peasants who tried to drive them away. That year there was no fair—there was nothing to sell. Neither the peasants nor the Jews of Frampol had food. There was grain in the large towns, but no one was able to buy it.
Just when all hope had been abandoned and the entire town was about to go begging, a miracle occurred. A carriage drawn by eight spirited horses came into Frampol. The villagers expected its occupant to be a Christian gentleman, but it was a Jew, a young man between the ages of twenty and thirty, who alighted. Tall and pale, with a round black beard and fiery dark eyes, he wore a sable hat, silver-buckled shoes, and a beaver-trimmed caftan. Around his waist was a green silk sash. Aroused, the entire town rushed to get a glimpse of the stranger. This is the story he told: he was a doctor, a widower from Cracow. His wife, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, had died with their baby in childbirth.
Overwhelmed, the villagers asked why he had come to Frampol. It was on the advice of a Wonder Rabbi, he told them. The melancholy he had known after his wife’s death would, the rabbi assured him, disappear in Frampol. From the poorhouse the beggars came, crowding about him as he distributed alms—three groszy, six groszy, half-gulden pieces. The stranger was clearly a gift from Heaven, Frampol was not destined to vanish! The beggars hurried to the baker for bread, and the baker sent to Zamosc for a sack of flour.
“One sack?” the young doctor asked. “Why, that won’t last a single day. I will order a wagonload of flour, and cornmeal, also.”
“But we have no money,” the village elders explained.
“God willing, you will repay me when times are good,” and saying this, the stranger produced a purse crammed with gold ducats.
The next day, wagons filled with flour, buckwheat, barley, millet, and beans drove into Frampol. News of the village’s good fortune reached the ears of the peasants, and they came to the Jews to buy goods, as the Egyptians had once come to Joseph. They had no money, but they paid in kind; as a result there was meat in town. Now the ovens burned once more; the pots were full. Smoke rose from the chimneys, sending the odors of roast chicken and goose, onion and garlic, fresh bread and pastry, into the evening air. The villagers returned to their occupations: shoemakers mended shoes; tailors picked up their rusted shears.
The evenings were warm and the sky clear, though the Feast of the Tabernacles had already passed. The stars seemed unusually large. Even the birds were awake, and they chirped and warbled as though in midsummer. The stranger from Cracow had taken the best room at the inn, and his dinner consisted of broiled duck, marzipan, and twist bread. Apricots and Hungarian wine were his dessert. Six candles adorned the table. One evening after dinner, the doctor entered the large public room and asked the townspeople gathered there,
“Would anyone care for a game of cards?”
“But it isn’t Chanukah yet,” they answered in surprise.
“Why wait for Chanukah? I’ll put up a gulden for every groszy.”
A few of the more frivolous men were willing to try their luck, and it turned out to be good. A groszy meant a gulden, and one gulden became thirty. Anyone who wished to do so played. Everybody won. But the stranger did not seem distressed. Banknotes and coins of silver and gold covered the table. Women and girls crowded into the room, the gleam of the gold before them appeared to be reflected in their eyes. They gasped with wonderment. Never before in Frampol had such things happened. Mothers cautioned their daughters to take pains with their hair, and allowed them to dress up in their holiday clothes. The girl who found favor in the eyes of the young doctor would be lucky; he was not one to require a dowry.
The next morning, the matchmakers called on him, each extolling the virtues of the maiden he represented. The doctor invited them to be seated, served them honey cake, macaroons, nuts, and mead, and announced:
Each of you has exactly the same story to tell: your client is beautiful and clever and possesses every possible distinction. But how do I know which of you is saying the truth? I want the very best one of the lot for my wife. Here is what I suggest: let there be a ball to which all the eligible young women are invited. I can then observe their appearance and behavior and make my choice from among them. Then the marriage contract will be drawn and the wedding arranged.
The matchmakers were astounded. Old Mendel was the first to find words. “A ball? Such a thing is all right for the rich Gentiles, but we Jews have not indulged in festivities of that kind since the destruction of the Temple—except when the Law prescribes it for certain holidays.”
“Isn’t every Jew obliged to marry off his daughters?” asked the doctor.
“But the girls have no appropriate clothes,” another matchmaker protested. “Because of the drought they would have to go in rags.”
“I will see that they all have clothes. I’ll order enough silk, wool, velvet, and linen from Zamosc to outfit every girl. Let the ball take place. Let it be one that Frampol will never forget.”
“But where can we hold it?” another matchmaker interjected. “The hall where we used to hold weddings has burned down, and our cottages are too small.”
“There’s the market place,” the gentleman from Cracow suggested.
“But it is already the month of Heshvan. Any day now, it will turn cold.”
“We’ll choose a warm night when the moon is out. Don’t worry about it.”
To all the numerous objections of the matchmakers the stranger had an answer ready. Finally they agreed to consult the elders. The doctor said he was in no hurry, he would await their decision. During the entire discussion, he had been carrying on a game of chess with one of the town’s cleverest young men, munching raisins all the while.
The elders were incredulous when they heard what had been proposed. But the young girls were excited. The young men approved also. The mothers pretended to hesitate, but finally gave their consent. When a delegation of the older men sought out Rabbi Ozer for his approval, he was outraged.
“What kind of charlatan is this?” he shouted. “Frampol is not Cracow. All we need is a ball! Heaven forbid that we bring down a plague and innocent infants be made to pay for our frivolity!”
But the more practical of the men reasoned with the Rabbi, saying, “Our daughters walk around barefoot and in tatters. He will provide them with shoes and clothing. If one of them should please him he will marry her and settle here. Certainly that is to our advantage. The synagogue needs a new roof. The windowpanes of the house of study are broken, the bathhouse is badly in need of repairs. In the poorhouse the sick lie on bundles of rotting straw.”
“All this is true. But suppose we sin?”
“Everything will be done according to the Law, Rabbi. You can trust us.”
Taking down the book of the Law, Rabbi Ozer leafed through it. Occasionally he stopped to study a page, and then, finally, after sighing and hesitating, he consented. Was there any choice? He himself had received no salary for six months.
As soon as the Rabbi had given his consent there was a great display of activity. The drygoods merchants straightway betook themselves to Zamosc and Yanev, returning with cloth and leather paid for by the gentleman from Cracow. The tailors and seamstresses worked day and night; the cobblers left their benches only to intone their prayers. The young women, all anticipation, were in a feverish state. Vaguely remembered dance steps were tried out. The women baked cakes and all sorts of pastries, using up the stores of jams and preserves which they had been keeping in readiness for illness. The Frampol musicians were busy too. Cymbals, fiddles, and bagpipes, long forgotten and neglected, had to be dusted off and tuned. Gaiety infected even the very old, for it was rumored that the elegant doctor planned a banquet for the poor where alms would be distributed.
The eligible girls were occupied in self-improvement. They scrubbed their skins and arranged their hair; a few even visited the ritual bath to bathe with the married women. In the evenings, faces flushed, eyes sparkling, they met at each other’s houses, to tell stories and ask riddles. It was difficult for them, and for their mothers, to sleep at night. As for the fathers, they sighed as they slept. And suddenly the young girls of Frampol seemed so attractive that the young men who had contemplated marrying out-of-towners fell in love with them. Although the young men still sat in the study-house poring over the Talmud, its wisdom no longer penetrated to them. It was the ball alone that they spoke of now, only the ball occupied their thoughts.
The doctor from Cracow also enjoyed himself. He changed his clothes several times daily. First it was a silk coat worn with pomponned slippers, then a woolen caftan with high boots. At one meal he wore a pelerine trimmed with beaver tails, and at the next a cape embroidered with flowers and leaves. He breakfasted on roast pigeon which he washed down with dry wine. For lunch he ordered egg noodles and blintzes, and he was audacious enough to eat Sabbath pudding on weekdays. He never attended prayer, but instead played all sorts of games: cards, goats and wolves, coin-pitching. Having finished lunch, he would drive through the neighborhood with his coachman. The peasants would lift their hats as he passed, and bow almost to the ground. One day he strolled through Frampol with a gold-headed cane. Women crowded to the windows to observe him, and boys, following after him, picked up the rock candy he tossed them. Rabbi Ozer constantly warned his flock that they walked a downhill path led by the Evil One, but they paid no attention to him. Their minds and hearts were completely possessed by the ball, which would be held at the market place in the middle of that month, at the time of the full moon.
At the edge of town, in a small valley close to a swamp, stood a hut no larger than a chicken coop. Its floor was dirt, its window was boarded; and the roof, because it was covered with green and yellow moss, made one think of a bird’s nest that had been forsaken. Heaps of garbage were strewn before the hut, and lime ditches furrowed the soggy earth. Amid the refuse there was an occasional chair without a seat, a jug missing an ear, a table without legs. Every type of broom, bone, and rag seemed to be rotting there. This was where Lipa the ragpicker lived with his daughter Hodle. While his first wife was alive, Lipa had been a respected merchant in Frampol where he occupied a pew by the east wall of the synagogue. But after his wife had drowned herself in the river, his condition declined rapidly. He took to drink, associated with the town’s worst element, and soon ended up bankrupt.
His second wife, a beggar woman from Yanev, bore him a daughter whom she left behind when she deserted him for non-support. Unconcerned about his wife’s departure, Lipa allowed the child to shift for herself. Each week he spent a few days collecting rags from the garbage. The rest of the time he was in the tavern. Although the innkeeper’s wife scolded him, she received only abusive answers in reply. Lipa had his success among the men as a tale-spinner. He attracted business to the place with his fantastic yarns about witches and windmills and devils and goblins. He could also recite Polish and Ukrainian rhymes and had a knack for telling jokes. The innkeeper allowed him to occupy a place near the stove, and from time to time he was given a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Old friends, remembering Lipa’s former affluence, occasionally presented him with a pair of pants, a threadbare coat, or a shirt. He accepted everything ungraciously. He even stuck out his tongue at his benefactors as they turned away from him.
As in the saying, “Like father, like son,” Hodle inherited the vices of both parents—her drunken father, her begging mother. By the time she was six, she had won a reputation as a glutton and thief. Barefoot and half naked, she roamed the town, entering houses and raiding the larders of those who were not home. She preyed on chickens and ducks, cut their throats with glass and ate them. Although the inhabitants of Frampol had often warned her father that he was rearing a wanton, the information did not seem to bother him. He seldom spoke to her and she did not even call him father. When she was twelve, her lasciviousness became a matter for discussion among the women. Gypsies visited her shack, and it was rumored that she devoured the meat of cats and dogs, in fact, every kind of carcass. Tall and lean, with red hair and green eyes, she went barefoot summer and winter, and her skirts were made up of colored scraps discarded by the seamstresses. She was feared by mothers, who said she wove spells that blighted the young. The village elders who admonished her received brazen answers. She had the shrewdness of a bastard, the quick tongue of an adder, and when attacked by street urchins did not hesitate to strike back. Particularly skilled in swearing, she had an unlimited repertoire. It was like her to call out, “Pox on your tongue and gangrene in your eyes,” or, possibly, “May you not till the skunks run from your smell.”
Occasionally her curses were effective, and the town grew wary of incurring her anger. But as she matured she tended to avoid the town proper, and the time came when she was almost forgotten. Then on the day that the Frampol merchants, in preparation for the ball, distributed cloth and leather among the town’s young women, Hodle reappeared. She was about seventeen, fully grown, though still in short skirts; her face was freckled, and her hair disheveled. Beads, such as those worn by Gypsies, encircled her throat, and on her wrists were bracelets made from wolves “teeth. Pushing her way through the crowd, she demanded her share. There was nothing left but a few odds and ends, and they were given to her. She was furious, but hastened home with her allotment. Those who had seen this happen laughed: “Look who’s going to the ball! A pretty picture she’ll make!”
At last, the shoemakers and tailors had finished; every dress was right, every shoe fitted. The days were miraculously warm, the nights as luminous as the evenings of Pentecost. It was the morning star that, on the day of the ball, woke the entire town. Tables and benches lined one side of the market. The cooks had already roasted calves, sheep, goats, geese, ducks, and chicken, and had baked sponge and raisin cakes, twist bread and rolls, onion biscuits and gingerbread. There were mead and beer and a barrel of Hungarian wine that had been brought by the wine dealer. When the children arrived they brought the bows and arrows with which they were accustomed to play at the Omer feast, their Purim rattles and Torah flags. The doctor’s horses were bedecked too, with willow branches and autumn flowers, and the coachman paraded them through the town. Apprentices left their work, and yeshiva students their books of the Talmud. And despite Rabbi Ozer’s injunction against it, the young matrons, too, came to the ball, dressed in their white wedding gowns, arriving with the young girls, who also came in white, each bearing a candle in her hand as though she were a bridesmaid. The band had already begun to play, and the music was lively. Only Rabbi Ozer was not present; he had locked himself in his study. His maidservant had left for the ball with the others, and the Rabbi was alone. He was helpless to stop anyone, though he knew no good could come of it.
By late afternoon all the girls had gathered in the market place, surrounded by the townspeople. The drums beat. The jesters performed. The girls danced; first a quadrille, then a scissors dance. Next it was Kozatskeh, and finally the Dance of Anger. Now the moon appeared, although the sun had not yet set. It was time for the gentleman from Cracow. He entered on a white mare, flanked by bodyguards and his best man. He wore a large plumed hat, silver buttons flashed on his green coat. A sword hung at his side, and his shiny boots rested in the stirrups. He resembled a gentleman off to war with his entourage. He sat, silent, in his saddle, watching the girls as they danced. How graceful they were, how charmingly they moved! But one who did not dance was the daughter of Lipa the ragpicker. She stood to one side, ignored by all.
The setting sun, remarkably large, stared down angrily, like a heavenly eye, upon the Frampol market place. Never before had Frampol seen such a sunset. Like rivers of burning sulphur, fiery clouds streamed across the heavens, assuming the shapes of elephants, lions, snakes, and monsters. They seemed to be waging a battle in the sky, devouring one another, splitting apart, breathing fire. It almost seemed to be the River of Fire they watched, Where demons tortured the evildoers amid glowing coals and heaps of ashes. The moon swelled, became vast, blood-red, spotted, scarred, and gave off little light. The evening grew very dark, dissolving even the stars. The young men fetched torches, and a barrel of burning pitch was prepared. Shadows danced back and forth as though attending a ball of their own. Around the market place the houses seemed to vibrate; roofs quivered, chimneys shook. Such gaiety and intoxication had never before been known in Frampol. Everyone, for the first time in months, had eaten and drunk to the full. Even the animals participated in the merrymaking. Horses neighed, cows mooed, and the few roosters that had survived the general slaughter crowed. Flocks of strange birds flew in to pick at the leavings. Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed on the horizon. But there was no thunder. A weird circular light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly plummeted toward the horizon, trailing a crimson tail. Then, as everyone stared in wonder at the sky, the gentleman from Cracow spoke:
“Listen to me. I have wonderful things to tell you, but let no one be overcome by joy. Men, take hold of your wives. Young men, look to your girls. You see in me the wealthiest man in the entire world. Money is sand to me, and diamonds are pebbles. I come from the Land of Ophir, where King Solomon found the gold for his Temple. I dwell in the palace of the Queen of Sheba. My coach is solid gold, its wheels inlaid with sapphires, with axles of ivory, its lamps studded with rubies and emeralds, opals and amethysts. The Ruler of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel knows of your miseries, and he has sent me to be your benefactor. But there is one condition. Tonight, every virgin must marry. I will provide a dowry of ten thousand ducats for each maiden, as well as a string of pearls down to her knees. But make haste. Every girl must have a husband before the clocks strike twelve.”
The crowd was hushed. It was as quiet as New Year’s Day before the blowing of the ram’s horn. One could hear a fly buzz.
Then one old man called out, “But that’s impossible. The girls are not even betrothed!”
“Let them become betrothed.”
“We can draw lots,” the gentleman from Cracow replied. “Whoever is to be married will have his or her name written on a card. Mine also. And then we shall draw to see who is meant for whom.”
“But a girl must wait seven days. She must have the prescribed ablutions.”
“Let the sin be on me. She needn’t wait.”
Despite the protests of the older men and their wives, a sheet of paper was torn into bits, and on each piece the name of a young man or young woman was written by a scribe. The town’s beadle, now in the service of the gentleman from Cracow, drew from one skullcap the names of the young men, and from the other those of the young women, chanting their names in the same tune as when he called up members of the congregation for the reading of the Torah.
“Nahum, son of Katriel, betrothed to Yenel, daughter of Nathan. Solomon, son of Dov Baer, betrothed to Trina, daughter of Jonah Lieb.” The assortment was a strange one, but in the night all cats are gray, and the matches seemed not too absurd. After each drawing, the newly engaged couple, hand in hand, approached the doctor to collect the dowry and wedding gift. As he had promised, the gentleman from Cracow gave each the stipulated sum of ducats, and on the neck of each bride he hung a strand of pearls. Now the mothers, unable to restrain their joy, began to dance and shout. The fathers stood by, bewildered. When the girls lifted their dresses to catch the gold coins given by the doctor, they showed their legs and underclothing, which sent the men into paroxysms of lust. Fiddles screeched, drums pounded, trumpets blared. The uproar was deafening. Twelve-year-old boys were mated with “spinsters” of nineteen. The sons of substantial citizens received the daughters of paupers as brides; midgets were coupled with giants, beauties with cripples. On the last two slips appeared the name of the gentleman from Cracow and that of Hodle, the daughter of Lipa the ragpicker.
The same old man who had called out previously cried out, “Woe unto us, the girl is a harlot!”
“Come to me, Hodle, come to your bridegroom,” the doctor bade.
Hodle, her hair in two long braids, dressed in a calico skirt, and with sandals on her feet, did not wait to be asked twice. As soon as she had been called she walked to where the gentleman from Cracow sat on his mare, and fell to her knees. She prostrated herself seven times before him.
“Is it true, what that old fool says?” her prospective husband asked her.
“Yes, my lord, it is so.”
“Have you sinned only with Jews or with Gentiles as well?”
“Was it for bread?”
“No. For the sheer pleasure.”
“How old were you when you started?”
“Not quite ten.”
“Are you sorry for what you have done?”
“Why should I be?” she answered shamelessly.
“You don’t fear the tortures of hell?”
“I fear nothing—not even God. There is no God.”
Once more the old man began to scream, “Woe to us, woe to us, Jews! A fire is upon us, burning, Jews, Satan’s fire. Save your souls, Jews. Flee, before it is too late!”
“Grag him,” the gentleman from Cracow commanded.
The guards seized the old man and gagged him. The doctor, leading Hodle by the hand, began to dance. Now, as though the Powers of Darkness had been summoned, the rain and hail began to fall; flashes of lightning were accompanied by mighty thunderclaps. But heedless of the storm, pious men and women embraced without shame, dancing and shouting as though possessed. Even the old were affected. In the furor, dresses were ripped, shoes dropped off, hats, wigs, and skullcaps trampled in the mud. Sashes, slipping to the ground, twisted there like snakes. Suddenly there was a terrific crash. A huge bolt of lightning had with one blast struck the synagogue, the study house, and the ritual bath. The whole town was on fire.
Now at last the deluded people realized that all these seeming occurrences of nature were unnatural in origin. Though the rain kept falling, and even increased, the fire was not extinguished. An eerie light glowed in the market place. Those few prudent individuals who tried to disengage themselves from the demented crowd were crushed to earth and trampled.
And then the gentleman from Cracow revealed his true identity. He was no longer the young man the villagers had welcomed, he was a creature covered with scales, with an eye in his chest, and on his forehead a horn that rotated at great speed. His arms were covered with hair, thorns, and elflocks, and his tail was a mass of live serpents; for he was none other than Ketev Mriri, Chief of the Devils.
Witches, werewolves, imps, demons, and hobgoblins plummeted from the sky, some on brooms, others on hoops, still others on spiders. Osnath, the daughter of Machlath, her fiery hair loosened in the wind, her breasts bare and thighs exposed, leaped from chimney to chimney, and skated along the eaves. Namah, Hurmizah the daughter of Aff, and many other she-devils did all sorts of somersaults. Satan himself gave away the bridegroom, while four evil spirits held the poles of the canopy, which had turned into writhing pythons. Four dogs escorted the groom. Hodle’s dress fell from her and she stood naked. Her breasts hung down to her navel and her feet were webbed. Her hair was a wilderness of worms and caterpillars. The groom held out a triangular ring and, instead of saying,” With this ring be thou consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel,” he said, “With this ring be thou desecrated to me according to the blasphemy of Korah and Ishmael.” The evil spirits called out, “Bad luck,” and they began to chant,
“The curse of Eve, the mark of Cain,
The cunning of the snake, unite the twain.”
Screaming for the last time, the old man clutched at his head and died. Ketev Mriri began his eulogy,
“Devil’s dung and Satan’s spell
Bring his ghost to roast in hell.”
In the middle of the night, old Rabbi Ozer awoke. Since he was a holy man, the fire which was consuming the town had no power over his house. Sitting up in bed he looked about, wondering if dawn were already breaking. But outside it was neither day nor night. The sky was a fiery red, and from the distance came a clamor of shouts and songs that resembled the howling of wild beasts. At first, recalling nothing, the old man wondered what was going on. “Has the world come to an end? Or have I failed to hear the ram’s horn heralding the Messiah? Has he arrived?” Washing his hands, he put on his slippers and coat and went out.
The town was unrecognizable. Where houses had been, only chimneys stood. Mounds of coal smoldered here and there. He called the beadle, but there was no answer. With his cane, the Rabbi went searching for his flock.
“Where are you, Jews, where are you?” he called piteously.
The earth scorched his feet, but he did not slacken his pace. Mad dogs and strange beings attacked him, but he wielded his cane against them. His sorrow was so great that he felt no fear. Where the market place had been, a terrible sight met him. There was nothing but one great swamp, full of mud, slime, and ashes. Floundering in mud up to their waists, a crowd of naked people went through the movements of a dance. At first, the Rabbi mistook the weirdly moving figures for devils, and was about to recite the chapter, “Let there be contentment,” and other passages dealing with exorcism, when he recognized the people of his town. Only then did he remember the Cracow doctor, and the Rabbi cried out bitterly, “Jews, for the sake of God, save your souls! Jews, you are in the hands of Satan!”
But the townspeople, unheeding, continued their frenzied movements, jumping like frogs, shaking as with fever. With hair uncovered, breasts bare, the women laughed, cried, and swayed. Catching a yeshiva boy by his earlocks, a girl pulled him to her lap. A woman tugged at the beard of a strange man. Old men and women were immersed in slime up to their loins. They scarcely looked alive.
Relentlessly, the Rabbi urged the people to resist evil. Reciting the Torah and other books, incantations and the names of God, he succeeded in rousing some of them. Soon others responded. The Rabbi had helped the first man from the mire, then that one helped the next, and so on. Most of them had recovered by the time the morning star appeared. Perhaps the spirits of their forebears had interceded; for although many had sinned, only one man had died this night in the market place square.
Now the people were appalled, realizing that the devil had bewitched them, had dragged them through muck; and they wept.
“Where is our money?” the girls wailed. “And our gold and our jewelry? Where is our clothing? What happened to the wine, the mead, the wedding gifts?”
But everything had turned to mud; the town of Frampol, stripped and ruined, had become a swamp. Its inhabitants were mud-splashed, denuded, monstrous. For a moment, forgetting their grief, they laughed at each other. The hair of the girls had turned into elflocks, entangled with bats. The young men had grown gray and wrinkled; the old were yellow as corpses. In their midst lay the old man who had died. Crimson with shame, the sun rose.
“Let us rend our clothes in mourning,” one man called, but his words evoked laughter, for all were naked.
“We are doomed, my sisters,” lamented a woman.
“Let us drown ourselves in the river,” a girl shrieked. “Why go on living?”
One of the yeshiva boys said, “Let us strangle ourselves with our sashes.”
“Brothers, we are lost. Let us blaspheme God,” said a horse dealer.
“Have you lost your minds, Jews?” cried Rabbi Ozer. “Repent, before it is too late. You have fallen into Satan’s snare, but it is my fault, I take the sin upon myself. I am. the guilty one. I will be your scapegoat, and you shall remain clean.”
“This is madness!” one of the scholars protested. “God forbid that there be so many sins on your holy head!”
“Do not worry about that. My shoulders are broad. I should have had more foresight. I was blind not to realize that the Cracow doctor was the Evil One. And when the shepherd is blind, the flock goes astray. It is I who deserve the punishment, the curses.”
“Rabbi, what shall we do? We have no homes, no bedclothes, nothing. Woe to us, to our bodies and to our souls.”
“Our babies!” cried the young matrons. “Let us hurry to them!”
But it was the infants who had been the real victims of the passion for gold that had caused the inhabitants of Frampol to transgress. The infants “cribs were burned, their little bones were charred. The mothers stooped to pick up little hands, feet, skulls. The wailing and crying lasted long, but how long can a whole town weep? The gravedigger gathered the bones and carried them to the cemetery. Half the town began the prescribed seven days of mourning. And all fasted, for there was no food anywhere.
But the compassion of the Jews is known, and when the neighboring town of Yanev learned what had happened, clothing, bed linen, bread, cheese, and dishes were collected and sent to Frampol. Timber merchants brought logs for building. A rich man offered credit. The next day the reconstruction of the town was begun. Although work is forbidden to those in mourning, Rabbi Ozer issued a verdict that this was an exceptional case, the lives of the people were in danger. Miraculously, the weather remained mild; no snow fell. Never before had there been such diligence in Frampol. The inhabitants built and prayed, mixed lime with sand, and recited psalms. The women worked with the men, while girls, forgetting their squeamishness, helped also. Scholars and men of high position assisted. Peasants from the surrounding villages, hearing of the catastrophe, took the old and infirm into their homes. They also brought wood, potatoes, cabbages, onions, and other foods. Priests and bishops from Lublin, hearing about events that suggested witchcraft, came to examine witnesses. As the scribe recorded the names of those living in Frampol, Hodle, the daughter of Lipa the ragpicker, was suddenly remembered. But when the townspeople went to where her hut had been, they found the hill covered with weeds and bramble, silent save for the cries of crows and cats; there was not a sign that humans had ever lived there.
Then it was understood that Hodle was really Lilith, and that the host of the netherworld had come to Frampol because of her. After their investigations, the clergymen from Lublin, greatly astonished at what they had seen and heard, returned home. A few days later, the day before the Sabbath, Rabbi Ozer died. The entire town attended his funeral, and the town preacher said a eulogy for him.
In time, a new rabbi came to the community, and a new town arose. The old people died, the mounds in the cemetery sifted down, the monuments slowly sank. But the story, signed by trustworthy witnesses, can still be read in the parchment chronicle.
And the events in the story brought their epilogue: the lust for gold had been stifled in Frampol, never to be rekindled. From generation to generation the people remained paupers. A gold coin became an abomination in Frampol, and even silver was looked at askance. Whenever a shoemaker or tailor asked too high a price for his work he was told, “Go to the gentleman from Cracow and he will give you buckets of gold.”
And on the grave of Rabbi Ozer, in the memorial chapel, there burns an eternal light. A white pigeon is often seen on the roof; the sainted spirit of Rabbi Ozer.