Granny’s Tales

The fourth member of my quartet of great-grandfathers is the one I know least about. The family name was Mayer and they hailed from Jemnice, an old walled town in southern Moravia. There was a Jewish quarter nestled just inside the fortification. (According to a 1727 decree by the Emperor Charle VI, Jews were not allowed to live within sight of a church nor on the route of religious processions.)

But I have not yet been to Jemnice, nor have I had any of the lucky contacts that made it possible to reconstruct the lives of Alexander Wettendorfer in Baden, Leopold Guttmann in Vienna, and David Spitzer in Skotschau. However, the youngest daughter of the patriarch of the clan was my grandmother Emma (b. 1878) who married David Spitzer’s son Emanuel. She was my only living witness of that earlier generation.

During my childhood in Kew Gardens, Queens, Emma, widowed by then, lived near us in a “pension.” With the arrival of so many German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees, this was a European institution that had a brief life in the U.S. for a few years after the war. What it meant was that she rented a comfortable room in a big private house alongside a number of other elderly people who also spoke German. Meals, prepared by the owner, were taken together in the capacious dining room, but otherwise everyone led independent lives. She helped pay the rent by crocheting summer gloves for a Manhattan supplier of these accessories. They were still being worn by women on more formal occasions. Denizens of the outer boroughs, for instance, would wear them for trips to Manhattan, or, as we called it, “the city.”

I enjoyed stopping by to see her after school. She always kept chocolates and cookies for me in the drawer of her dresser and, if I was lucky, would tell me something about her Jemnice childhood. But since I was too young to ask concrete questions and what she chose to tell me was not part of a coherent narrative, their lack of connection to anything in my 1950’s American life made them all the more vivid. Two, in particular, remain with me still.

The first concerned her father’s trade. Before becoming a shopkeeper, she told me, he worked as a peddler, going from town to town the entire week selling basic necessities such as needles, thread, buttons and ribbons. It was a hard life and sometimes, making his way home in his open cart after dark, he was pursued by wolves. Till then I had believed that the crossing of that thin line between the security of civilization and the rapacity of the wild was only the stuff of fairy stories. What I heard were echoes of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs. It frightened me to realize the tales had their source in a real life, one only as distant as my grandmother’s youth.

The social world of fairy tales with their emphasis on the nobly born also seemed to come alive in another description of life in Jemnice. Members of the Pallavacini family—Italian aristocrats–inhabited a palatial home in the town amid a large park. They had arrived in 1842, established lumber mills, distilleries, and other enterprises, and taken over nearly 9000 acres of land. In my grandmother’s childhood, that is during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the nobility could still show off the privileges of their class to the general populace. She described to me the tradition known as “am Strecke.” When the Pallavacini and their guests returned from a successful hunting expedition, the kill would be put on display in the park and lit by torches for all the locals to admire.

That these exotic details, were characteristic of the life of many 19th-century Moravian country towns only became clear to me many years later when reading Helen Epstein’s “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story” (Penguin 1977). Epstein’s great-grandmother came from Brtnice, a town in the same part of Moravia, and her description of its demographic mix surely held for Jemnice too: ”The Italian aristocrats in the castle, the German-speaking administrators, the Czech peasants and the Jews. . . .The count and his entourage hunted and entertained. The administrators kept the books. The peasants slaved in the fields. . .” As for the Jews, Epstein confirms that most were “traders who left town on Sunday morning and walked from village to village . . . . “

Unlike the other three figures whose stories have been related here, great-grandfather Mayer did not sally forth to perform greater deeds when emancipation made it possible. Instead his daughter was to be his emissary all the way to the New World.

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