Descendant – Carly Berlin

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‘But I exculpate, first and foremost, all Christians as innocent of the guilt in so execrable a killing; second, I accuse the Jews, enemies of the Christian name, as guilty in this matter, spillers of innocent blood; third, I shall come forward to prove my assertion on these matters at any time and place in any seat of judgment of Christian law. Let no one reckon me precipitate or unprepared in this matter, for if I were not utterly sure of the truth of it I would never have come forward thus far to offer the proof I have promised.’

 

[…] hence it was cried out also by the voices of all that all the Jews should be destroyed, root and branch, as the constant enemies of the Christian name and cult.

 

Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich, 1173

 

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                                             3 October 2016

 

Today is the first time I spend Rosh Hashanah in a church. I am in a city where, once, Jews were accused of the first blood libel in England, and on a continent where, not yet a lifetime ago, you had to recite the Shema in hiding. The Norwich Liberal Jewish Community convenes at the Old Meeting House. The Rabbi has an accent like mine. She wraps herself in tallit on the converted bima; I wonder if the tapestry with the Star of David covers a cross. The congregants wear jeans and some have long gray ponytails. A man with kind eyes encourages me to sit next to him and his wife, rather than in the row at the back I hover beside. He hands me a machzor. A middle-school me would have taken the novel out of her bag and placed its spine on top of the prayer book’s. But today, I find this text programmed into me: the shapes of the letters a comfort from years of practice, the timing of bows accessible without thought. I fumble with tunes that differ across the Atlantic.

Afterward, we eat apples and honey in the courtyard, and walk to the river Wensum. We toss fish food for tashlich. Do you remember? The symbolic throwing of sins into a moving body of water. Apparently the traditional use of bread wasn’t ecologically sound; it would expand too much in the belly of the fish. A swan eats our castaways.

 

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                                            22 October 2016

 

A decade ago they discovered eighteen bodies in a dry well when they were building a shopping mall here. Archeologists decided the medieval bones belonged to Jews. I went back to the Old Meeting House for Yom Kippur and now Sukkot, and after we shook the lulav and etrog and recited the shehechianu I asked the congregants about the history of Jews here. They gave me a book from their library, told me to talk to members of the Orthodox community who have been here for longer. One is around, his name is Barry, like dad. This Barry survived the war in Norwich. He tells me there’s a plaque at the mall at the site of the well, but I’ll have to crane my neck to see it; they put it up twenty feet high to avoid the reach of potential vandalism.

I walk to the mall after the service. The plaque is in a side-alley, cozied up to a Pizza Hut and a sign denoting a pedestrian zone. It says: “In memory of six adults and eleven children whose bodies were discovered in a well shaft in 2004 during the construction of the intu Chapelfield Shopping Centre. This plaque commemorates their burial by Jewish and Christian ministers together on March 19th, 2013, 8th Nissan 5775 in the Jewish Cemetery in Norwich. The burial was also an act of reconciliation for the persecution of the Jewish community in medieval Norwich. I stand there for a while, and shoppers return to the car park laden with H&M and Superdry bags and no one looks up.

 

I sent in my absentee ballot. Voting in my first presidential election from overseas. Who did you vote for in your first American election? You always had a thing for JFK.

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                 23 October 2016

 

This morning I went on a run to the cemetery to find the grave of the Jewish bodies discovered in the well. I looped around and around on a morbid scavenger hunt: it was gray and raining and there were crows and a sea of graves spanning both sides of a motorway. I didn’t find anything. I asked a couple of men if they knew where the Jewish section was, but they didn’t; said it’s a shame it’s a Sunday, or there would’ve been someone official around. I hadn’t thought of that.

 

It’s funny, being a Jew in Europe. Many people I’ve talked to at the university have never met a Jew. This week over dinner a peer asked me if I attend services at a mosque. I guess they got rid of us pretty thoroughly.

 

Four years ago Mom bought me a black skirt for your funeral. I’ve never worn it. There’s a scene of our family crowded around your simple wooden casket reciting the proper blessings in a cemetery somewhere, and it hasn’t happened yet. For now, it’s you in the nursing home with the dementia and the bed sore, as it has been. I worry the moment will come in the three months I’m away.

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                    26 October 2016

 

The Jews of medieval Norwich occupied the blocks between the market and the castle. These landmarks, warped by centuries, remain: one, a maze of brightly roofed stalls baring local vegetables and baked goods; the other, a looming nineteenth-century reconstruction of the medieval fortress. Between them lay old cobblestoned streets, built up with commercialization: Jarrold’s department store, a rolling crepe stand. Often, there are teenagers busking and old men pandering for donations to the Salvation Army.

Did you ever read The Merchant of Venice? The Jews here were money-lenders. They helped fund the building of the Norman castle and cathedral. This place had a booming economy, second only to London. Jews were some of the wealthiest members of the population—they were scorned for not partaking in hard labor. In the books they are mired in stereotypes: think, horns and grubby hands. William was an apprentice to a skinner and often interacted with Jews, but his uncle warned him to be cautious with them.

There’s an article out that calls Donald Trump our first Jewish presidential candidate because he’s a miser.

Whoever had the occasion to be an eye-witness during the slaughtering of animals or to see at least a truthful film on the slaughtering-will never forget this horrible experience. It is atrocious. And unwillingly, he is reminded of the crimes which the Jews have committed for centuries on men. He will be reminded of the ritual murder.

History points out hundreds of cases in which non-Jewish children were tortured to death. They also were given the same incision through the throat as is found on slaughtered animals. They also were slowly bled to death while fully conscious. 

They must be exterminated root and branch.

  • Der Stürmer, July 1938-9

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                  28 October 2016

 

The inside of the keep in the Norwich Castle Museum swarms with children. Paper pumpkins and fluffy spider webs hang from the balcony, and docents don witches’ hats. Kids run between a coloring station and a replica of the castle populated with figurines and a well topped with glass, where they can deposit a penny to benefit the Friends of Norwich Museums. Parents herald their children through the exhibits, with vignettes narrating the history of this place in language simple enough for the youngest: stories include Kings’ visits, mayor’s parades, prisoner’s testimonies. Kids can peek through the King’s windows, looking out at the heart of the old Norman town; can try on an inmate’s uniform in the dungeon.

“There might be something in the keep,” says the man behind the information desk. “I’m not sure, though. Norwich has a dark history with Jews. It would be good if we had something about how the Jews were accused of killing that kid.”

The medieval Jews took refuge in the castle when the townspeople threatened violence. The sheriff and the royalty protected them. The Jews came here when they were accused of killing William; decades later, those found in the dry well by the mall didn’t make it here fast enough, maybe. I think of your years in hiding: in a church, no less. I can’t remember what your false papers stated as your name.

The director of the FBI is calling for a reinvestigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and I am nervous.

Dear Buba,                                                                                                           1 November 2016

 

Tonight I went to Maureen and Barry’s. They are the type of old people that can use PowerPoint proficiently. Their home bares the essential elements of a grandparents,’ things yours used to have: bookshelves interspersed with knick knacks, beige carpeting, a tub in the corner filled with children’s toys. Menorahs; Kedem wine. Together, they relate the history of Norwich Jewry, filling in each others’ gaps. Maureen clicks through the slides of the presentation she gives to church and civic groups when they commission her to lecture on the history of Jews here. She explains: Jews arrived in England in 1066 upon invitation to practice finance. Barry pulls out a map: the medieval Jews lived on White Lion Street, their synagogue at the site of today’s Primark. The blood libel came in 1144; the expulsion, 1290. (By the way, I ask them about the cemetery and they say although the eighteen Jewish bodies got a proper burial, there’s still no gravestone). Barry asks: “Does Cromwell mean anything to you?” Jews were permitted access to England again in 1655. The next record of Jews in Norwich jumps a century, to 1754, with documentation of a public row between a rabbi and the laypeople that had to be brought to the magistrate to bring peace. The first synagogue of these Jews was at present-day Tesco’s. Shortly thereafter the community moved to what Barry and Maureen call the Victorian Era synagogue, which lasted until the air raids of the second World War. Barry recalls the smell of burnt buildings, the whine of firefighters’ hoses; the fact that he lost his favorite toy shop. His bedroom was a bomb shelter. An incendiary raid lit the roof of his home; in the frenzy, he escaped in his dressing gown and slippers. He went to watch fire consume the houses farther down the street. Leaning back in his rocking chair, he laughs: six-year-old Barry got a good beating for wandering around in the dead of night.

Dear Buba,                                                                                            9 November 2016

 

I wonder what you’d make of it. The nurses keep your TV turned to a channel that plays movie soundtracks, but you always used to have CNN on in the background—would never let us have the volume too high. Maybe you’d say: we got over it last time, so why not this time? Or: these are entirely different circumstances and drawing parallels belittles past turmoil. Or: you might be afraid.

I stayed up until the acceptance speech and when I called Mom she was already crying. Said she wants to take someone in if they start deporting. I guess this is how the American dream works: white immigrants moving upward enough to shift to the giving end. Maybe you would be proud.

No one will honor us for losing gracefully. No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die. This is a unique burden for the white man, that our fate is entirely in our hands. And it is appropriate because within us, within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun lies the potential for greatness.

That is the great struggle we are called to. We were not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to pollute the soil of this planet. We were meant to overcome—overcome all of it. Because that’s natural for us.

 Because for us, as Europeans, it’s only normal again, when we are great again. 

Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail victory.

 

  • Richard B. Spencer, speech read at the National Policy Institute’s Become Who We Are 2016 conference


Dear Buba,                                                                                         22 November 2016

 

It is two weeks after Donald Trump’s election, and I ask the guide at Norwich Cathedral if there is anything here concerning William of Norwich. “There isn’t much in the guidebook,” he admits. He leads me to the Chapel of Holy Innocents, dedicated as such in 1997. It is a small space enclosed under the organ, four white walls and several stools scattered around. It’s the site where William’s body was taken after being discovered in Thorpe Wood, now Mousehold Heath. The guide shows me what he has in his notes: “[…] a place of prayer for all victims of intolerance and persecution and is associated with the story of William of Norwich, of whose murder in 1144 the local Jewish population were falsely accused.” On the altar is a prayer found on a piece of paper from Ravensbruck concentration camp.

This week is the anniversary of your coming to America. Today, in Washington, neo-Nazis hailed our President-elect. And said Europeans must be great again. Aren’t—weren’t—we Europeans, too?

This is my first Thanksgiving away from home, and I cooked the whole shtick myself: sweet potato casserole, cornbread stuffing, turkey. It has been a long time since we spent this holiday together—the closest was the year in high school when we all gathered around the TV after dinner and watched your testimony for the Shoah Project. I reach you always through pixels.

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                            1 December 2016

 

This week I went up to Mousehold Heath. It’s the wooded area where William’s body was first found in 1144, and the site of St. William’s Chapel. All that’s left are some mounds and a plaque. The usual information: “Despite a complete lack of evidence, the local Jewish community was accused of William’s murder.” “Although the accusations were completely unfounded, the story of William is an important one.” “The first known example of the accusation that become known as ‘blood libel.’” A cautionary tale, but not cautionary enough. The signs never talk about the expulsion.

I go with a friend I’ve made here, who is curious about my project. He says he wasn’t surprised to learn I am Jewish. I press him. Why? Do I look Jewish? He says he just had a feeling. He’s got blond hair and blue eyes. I tell him I know plenty of Jews who look like him.

Mousehold Heath is the only elevated place around here, and from the top we watch the sun descend on Norwich. Makes me think of a poem by Meir ben Elijah—one of the first writers in this city of literature, and a Jewish one. He has a stanza that goes like this:

“Though you have placed me among my foes

rise up and plead my cause for me.

Establish now my Prince’s rule,

in your light may light be seen.

Majestic are you and luminous,

You irradiate our darkness with light.”

Dear Buba,                                                                                            6 December 2016

 

I checked out Sebald’s The Ring of Saturn for guidance on this project. He taught here at the university. I open up one of the many copies from the rolling stacks in the basement of the library, and inside is a small envelope that reads:

“PLEASE TAKE AN ENVELOPE.

COMMUNITY (VIRTUAL, LOCAL, TELEPATHIC)

PEOPLE

?

Please recycle this paper (or give it away), if content is not deemed relevant.”

On the inside there’s a scrap of paper, with seemingly random printed text from Wikipedia articles: one on depression, another on syncretism, one on Hindu prayers. On top, there’s a hand-drawn Star of David in highlighter pink, with a black X scrawled on top. Only later do I notice what’s written directly below it:

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore…”

Swastikas are cropping up in America. Jewish journalists have been told to “get in the oven.” There’s call for white Jews to stand in solidarity with Muslims and people of color, because we have not felt discrimination in America before; and then there’s backlash, stating that anti-Semitism in America is nothing new, that calling Jews “white” is wrong, offensive.

Who are we?

 

He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

 

And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.

 

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.

 

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

 

  • Genesis 28 12-15

                                                              

 

Dear Buba,                                                                                          10 December 2016

 

Norwich always smells the same: cigarette smoke and flaky pastry and wet pavement. Today the city swarms with Christmas shoppers. Friends, classmates keep asking what I will do for the holiday; I keep responding that I’ll be home for all eight nights of Hanukkah this year.

A building has been torn down across the street from the market—looks like it’s for an expansion of Primark, but there’s talk on Facebook that it’s to stage an archeological dig of the medieval synagogue there. I just see a construction site.

I go to The Old Meeting House for Shabbat, to return the book I borrowed from their library. The parsha is Vayeitze, the one where Jacob sees angels going up and down a ladder. Remember: your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth. Remember, I am with you.

I picked the right time to come back here: there’s a marriage blessing, and the couples’ families provide a full spread for Kiddush. Challahs, cakes. Everyone mingles while eating with their fingers off of plastic plates. (Last week I made a Jewish mother joke, telling a friend to eat a second helping of soup, he’s too skinny—he didn’t get it). The congregants wish me safe travels; say: “If you’re ever back in Norwich…” No one says “what a country you have to return to” or anything about the next four years, and for this I am grateful.

Before I catch the bus back to campus, I walk to Talbot Square, where I have read there is an old Jewish cemetery. I expect to find a Jewish star preserved in the brick wall surrounding the graves—I saw a picture online—but it appears recently rebuilt. The stones are too worn away for me to read their epigraphs, but I think I make out some Hebrew on one towards the back.

 

*

 

Carly Berlin is a junior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Her grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Poland who immigrated to the American South, where she grew up. These migration lines inform Carly’s work: she is fascinated by the ways the Holocaust is commemorated, by her family’s social mobility in the South during the Jim Crow era, by her own impulse to uproot to New England. She wrote Descendant on the most recent stint of her migration tale: while studying abroad at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK during the fall of 2016. Her previous work appears in The Bitter Southerner and The Bowdoin Orient.

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