Firebrand - excerpt
Imagine living the first fourteen years of your life in a police state. Every word you and your parents say in public can be used against you. Because you never know who might be a spy — a neighbor, a so-called friend — you keep your opinions to yourself. If your father’s business gets a visit from a local official demanding a bribe, he pays it. If your mother hears someone insulting her people, she bites her tongue and says nothing. As for you: Do as you’re told, for everyone’s sake.
That was the world as fourteen-year-old August Anschl Bondi knew it. He was born in 1833 in the Jewish section of Vienna, Austria, to Martha and Herz Emmanuel Bondi. The country was ruled by Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, a tyrant who did not allow freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, or freedom of speech. In the United States, these liberties were written into the Bill of Rights forty years earlier. News traveled slow in those days, but not that slow. Metternich simply felt he could rule as princes had ruled for centuries, and he was not alone. Much of Europe was the domain of monarchs whose form of government looked ancient compared with American-style democracy.
In 1848, when Anschl was fourteen, a wave of protests swept across the continent. From Paris to Prague, Milan to Budapest, huge rallies were held as people demanded a say in how their societies were governed. Students led many of the demonstrations. Anschl was at the center of the rebellion in Vienna. The events of 1848 changed everything for the Bondi family. They would be forced to leave Europe for America, where August Bondi (as he began to call himself) returned to the fight for freedom in his new home of Kansas, joining forces with the notorious opponent of slavery, John Brown.
The following novel is fictionalized from real stories taken from the life of August Bondi. As you read it, think of other people you may have read about who were treated badly because of who they are or what they believe. August Bondi was not a superhuman figure. He was an ordinary teenager caught up in extraordinary times, and as people around him began taking sides, he was forced to make the decision of his life.
The boy with the long black hair pushed his way through the shouting, jostling mass of students.
His school cap was pulled down tight to keep the March wind from blowing it away. His cheeks were flushed, not with cold but with excitement. His thin body seemed to draw energy from the huge crowd, propelling him on toward the front. Finally he reached the steps of Vienna’s great stone council hall. He bounded up one step, turned, and looked around.
Where is he?
Suddenly there was a hand on his shoulder.
He turned around to see Heinrech Spitzer standing on the step with him. He had a huge grin on his face.
“Can you believe this is happening, Anschl?” Heinrech said.
“What is happening? I just got here.”
“Well, so far, nothing. But look around! Have you ever seen Council Square like this?”
In front of them were hundreds of students. They were squeezed in tight toward the front. The air buzzed with their chatter.
Solitary cries began to ring out across the square. “Give us an answer!”
“We demand a Constitution!”
“Metternich must go!”
The yelling startled Anschl. He looked around nervously.
“Don’t be frightened,” Heinrech said. “Every few minutes someone yells out a slogan, and it gives the others some courage. So then they start yelling, and when that’s out of their system, they stop.” He smirked. “I think they’re just doing it to keep warm.”
I could use some of that courage, Anschl thought. “But what about the spies?”
Heinrech made a sweeping gesture across the square with one arm.
“Look at all these people!” he said. “What’s a spy going to do — go back and tell Prince Metternich that a thousand people said bad things about him?”
He laughed. Anschl forced a smile.
They had grown up as constant companions in the Jewish section of Vienna. Heinrech, one year older, was a little shorter than his friend and about twice as wide. He was also the most good-natured person Anschl Bondi had ever met. When Anschl needed his spirits lifted, he knew where to turn. He almost didn’t come to the protest, but Heinrech talked him into it.
“Everyone is going. People want to say that they were at the first protest rally. Who knows? You might be able to tell your grandchildren about it someday. ‘Yes, my little ones, I was there at the very moment that the ancien regime collapsed.’
“Besides,” Heinrech added, “we’ll be making so much noise you won’t be able to study anyway.”
All that winter, a group of students at the academy had been meeting secretly to talk about revolution. Heinrech had been invited first. He vouched for Anschl. Mostly, the group got together to debate topics like which was better, a violent revolution or a nonviolent one. It was a debate club, really. Nobody in the group was plotting to overthrow the government. But everyone knew what they were doing was dangerous. Prince Metternich had declared all such meetings to be illegal. And Anschl had been taught from an early age to fear Metternich.
“Do not so much as utter his name,” his mother had warned him. “He has spies everywhere.”
“Including the academy, Mother?” he asked.
“Of course he has spies in the academy. Your classmates go home and talk about their day with their parents. Do you think they don’t get asked what their Jewish friends are saying about the prince?”
So when Heinrech invited him to join the secret group at school, Anschl decided not to tell his mother. There was already one Bondi in jail. The thought of her Anschl going to illegal meetings would have her worrying day and night about him — if she wasn’t already.
Chants were now ringing nonstop throughout the square. Students kept filing in from the narrow streets. Anschl felt the crowd growing restless. The boys passed the time trying to guess the attendance.
“According to my calculations, the capacity of Council Square is two thousand persons,” Anschl said.
“Shaped like you or like me?” Heinrech said. “If they’re my size, fifteen hundred, tops.”
They looked out at the solid mass of humanity.
Amazing, Anschl thought. From our little group to a revolution, just like that.
It had all happened so quickly. One morning he walked into his mathematics class and found several boys talking excitedly.
“Anschl,” one called out, “what do you think about the news from Paris?”
“There’s news from Paris?”
“King Louis Phillippe abdicated his throne! And it was because of a student protest!”
The others filled in the details. The French king had sent his army to arrest the students. But the soldiers were stopped by ten-foot-high barricades the students had built out of cobblestones torn from the streets. The king was outraged. He ordered his troops to start shooting the protesters. They refused. And that was the end of Louis Phillippe.
Anschl was speechless — and not just at the news from Paris. Until that moment, no one in his math class had shown the slightest interest in world affairs.
By the end of the day it seemed the whole school knew what had happened to the French king. From there the student protest took on a life of its own. It seemed to organize itself. Word got around that every school in Vienna would be represented at Council Square.
And so they are, thought Anschl. Everyone is here! He began to count all the different school uniforms and caps in the crowd.
Suddenly, he heard the beating of drums in the distance.
“Sounds like they brought the band with them,” Heinrech said. He meant it as a joke, but Anschl noticed he wasn’t smiling anymore.
The drumbeat grew louder and louder until it became deafening. At that moment a battalion of soldiers appeared. They marched into the square and came to a stop not twenty feet from the boys. The students in front of them were forced back, squeezing in tightly around Anschl and Heinrech.
The soldiers stood at attention in a line. He studied the soldier’s bayonets, noticing how they glistened at the end of their muskets.
“They must spend all day polishing those things,” he whispered in Heinrech’s ear. Heinrech just nodded.
The crowd was silent. Then, far behind him, Anschl heard someone yell: “Constitution!”
Someone else followed that with, “We demand an answer!”
Just then, a ferocious-looking man in a plumed helmet marched in front of the battalion. Anschl felt a chill on the back of his neck. The commander drew his saber and brandished it at the students.
“Do you want your answer?” he shouted. “Here it is, you pack of dogs! Clear the square!”
Anschl scanned the eyes of the soldiers. Not Viennese, he thought. Probably mercenaries. Brought in just to deal with us.
The commander’s face was hot with anger, his eyes blazing with hate. Anschl had never seen a face like his before.
“I order you back!” he shouted. “Go back or we fire!” But nobody moved.
Can’t he see we’re squeezed in here? he thought. Nobody could move if they wanted to.
The commander turned his back to Anschl.
“Take aim!” he ordered his men, and stepped aside. Anschl heard the click of the flintlocks. He and the students in front were looking down the barrels of twenty muskets.
His brain screamed.
They — wouldn’t — DARE!
The commander raised his saber.
The crash of musketry nearly split Anschl’s ears. Heinrech fell. Another student dropped, then another. Anschl was dragged down with them.
Lying stunned on the cobblestones, he heard the commander’s crazed voice again.
“Fix bayonets! Charge!”
The drums beat wildly, the bugles blew the piercing notes of the attack. Anschl heard the heavy boots of the advancing soldiers. Desperately he tried to raise himself. Before he could move, he felt a bayonet rip into his back. Another soldier struck him on the head and shoulders with a musket butt.
Amid the clouds of smoke hanging over the square, the students struggled against the battalion. As he writhed on the ground, Anschl could hear the screams of the wounded above the rattle of musket fire.
The attack passed over them. Barely aware of his own pain, he yelled for help. Another student came over and the two dragged Heinrech, who was unresponsive, away from the chaos.
They found a side street where they could rest their fallen comrade against a doorstep. Anschl ripped open Heinrech’s shirt and saw a gruesome entry wound. At￼that moment the insanity around him seemed to fall away. Everything was calm again.
A moment later Anschl heard a musket shot in the distance and came to his senses. The other boy had run off. He looked down. His clothes were torn. His face throbbed with pain. He put a hand to his cheek and it stung. When he looked at his hand, there was blood.
Still in shock, Anschl took off his overcoat and draped it over Heinrech’s body.
“I’ll come back for you,” he told the lifeless form. Then he staggered home.
He came through the front door. Martha Bondi gasped.
Anschl’s sister came running into the room. She screamed.
They helped him to his bed and removed his tattered clothes. Then they began to wash and bandage his wounds. He said nothing as they worked.
Then Chaia asked, “Where is Heinrech?”
He tried to say something, but he began to cry. Martha sat down and took him in her arms. Chaia brought him hot tea and medicine.
That night, Anschl dreamed he was running through the streets of Vienna ... running ... running ... looking for
Heinrech. He had left his body somewhere. But where? There were so many side streets off Council Square, more than he remembered there being.
Where are you, Heinrech?
He turned one corner and saw a group of students with clubs. They were being met by squadrons of Hapsburg cavalry. Sparks flew from the horses’ hoofs. The heavy sabers of their riders slashed at the boys on the ground. Anschl heard a musket explode, then saw a horse rear up and throw its rider. He kept running.
He spent hours looking.
When he finally awoke, it was mid-afternoon of the next day. There was shouting in the street. His head ached and he could barely move his arms. The noise outside grew louder. He pulled himself out of bed and went to the window. Below he could see students racing toward the university. A bell clanged in one of the towers.
He stood up, took a few minutes to steady himself, then dressed. He dashed out of his room and — before Martha could object — was out the door.
As he approached University Square, he started to pick up fragments of the news. “Metternich is gone!” said one. “The emperor agrees to our demands!” said another. He walked faster.
Was this it? The end of the monarchy?
But when he arrived at school, he found dozens of boys standing in line. They were being issued rifles and ammunition. A Catholic priest appeared before him. The priest’s eyes were serious, full of grim purpose.
“We meet here tomorrow morning for drills,” the priest said to Anschl.
When he returned home, his mother was waiting.
“Why did you run out? You should be in bed!” she cried.
Then she saw the gun in his hand. “What is this?”
“The students are forming their own militia,” he said. “We will be called the Academic Legion. Father Fuester will be our commandant.”
“Anschl!” she said. There was terror in her voice. “You will be killed! Then what will I do?”
Anschl’s shoulders slumped. His mother’s eyes were welling with tears. He looked away. He knew she would be upset at seeing the gun. So he had practiced a little speech he was going to give when he got home. Now, however, he could not find the words. He started to speak, then stopped. He could hear her crying softly.
He stared at the wall and thought of something to say.
Finally he asked her, “Mother, do you think Father would want me to join the fight for freedom?”
The question was a piercing dagger to heart of Martha Bondi. For they both knew the answer.
Two years ago, the authorities had come for Herz Emmanuel, Anschl’s father. He had been sitting in a debtor’s prison ever since. After the failure of his trading company, he was left with unpaid bills. In the eyes of the law that made him a common criminal. The judges serving Prince Metternich were corrupt to a man. They all accepted bribes — no, they insisted on bribes. Anschl had watched his mother take money from her purse and hand it to the judge overseeing Herz Emmanuel’s case. And yet, month after month, the proceedings did not move forward. Further bribes were accepted. Still his father languished in jail.
They bled her dry, Anschl thought. Wanted to see how much money they could get out of a Jewish family.
All their clothing, except what they wore on their backs, went to the pawnbroker. Then, piece by piece, the household goods started disappearing. Martha kept only two things of value, the silver wine cup and the menorah, for their religious ceremonies. Everything else was sold. Their nice dishes were replaced by cheap wooden plates and bowls. And every day the Bondis ate the same meals on them: a few cocoa beans boiled in water for breakfast, black bread and potatoes at night. Meanwhile, his father withered away in a prison cell.
If anyone should be praying for the collapse of this rotten government, it should be you, Mother.
When Herz Emmanuel Bondi was a young man, he had been in the medical corps during Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns. He greatly admired Napoleon. “That man did more to help the Jews than anyone since Maimonides,” he told Anschl. “He treated us as equals.”
You know what Father would want. He would want me fighting for freedom.
But Anschl kept his thoughts to himself, and waited on his mother.
After a while her quiet sobbing ceased. Anschl turned to face her. She was still dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. Then she collected herself and looked bravely into the eyes of her only son.
“May God keep you from harm,” Martha Bondi said.
Overnight Vienna turned into a city at war. Wherever Anschl went, he saw men and boys marching in formation and taking target practice. Two main militias had sprung up: the National Guard for the adults, and the Academic Legion for the students. Every afternoon Anschl and his comrades reported to University Square. After their drills they sat drinking beer and discussing the latest news and gossip. It was the highlight of his day. He and everyone else had lost interest in their studies. School officials moved up the date for final examinations, just to get them over with.
Two months after the first attack, Anschl heard alarm bells ringing from University Square. He seized his musket and hurried over. The square was already filled with students. He went up to an older cadet named Thomas. “What’s the news?”
“Metternich is sending in all he’s got,” Thomas replied, looking off in the distance.
“What does that mean?”
“At least twenty thousand men. The scouts say they’ve hauled in cannon as well.”
Anschl absorbed that number. Metternich must have gathered up every mercenary in Europe.
“So what are we doing?” he asked.
“Did you hear me?” Thomas cried. “Vienna does not even have ten thousand people prepared to defend it!”
Anschl looked at the others. They were all standing around talking, waiting nervously for orders.
“So ... we just let them advance on us? Like last time?”
The older cadet whipped his head around at Anschl. “Do you have any better ideas?” he barked.
I might, Anschl thought as he walked away.
He started thinking back to the day Heinrech was killed. The mercenaries didn’t care about us. They just shot their way through. How do we keep them from doing that again?
He walked along the cobblestones, pondering this question. Suddenly, he stopped. He looked down. At the cobblestones.
He ran over to the nearest group of students.
“Why can’t we build barricades?” he asked them. “Like the students in Paris did?”
“Barricades? With what?” someone said.
Anschl pointed straight down.
“Those?” another said in disbelief.
“Stay where you are,” said Anschl, and he hurried away. Coming to the first house at the edge of the square, he knocked on the door. An old lady appeared.
“Pardon, ma’am,” he said. “I’m in need of some tools.”
Moments later he appeared back at the center of the square holding a pick, a hammer, and a crowbar.
“Watch this,” Anschl said. He dropped to his knees and began pounding the pick between two cobblestones. Within a few moments he had the crowbar under one of the stones. He gave it a hard push and the stone came loose. Another push and a corner came up. He wedged it upward with both hands until it was completely free. “See?” he said. “Now if we can just ...”
He looked up. Everyone was gone.
Within minutes there were dozens of students prying up the cobblestones of University Square. As each stone was loosened, it was hauled to the entrance of the square. Others dragged in furniture, cabinets — anything heavy that could be stacked — and in less than an hour the first barricade was raised.
By now Anschl’s arms were aching, his hands torn by the rough paving blocks. He climbed atop the barricade to keep a lookout.
It was Moritz, seated atop the wall a few feet away. He pointed off in the distance. Anschl looked — and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Another barricade was going up a half mile away!
“Word spreads fast,” Moritz said.
An hour later, Anschl started to hear the rattle of artillery and the tramp of boots. Looking over the wall, he saw a detachment of grenadiers come into sight. Other students climbed up the barricade. They all leveled their muskets, ready for the attack.
The grenadiers approached the barricade. But before they got very close, they stopped.
“What are they doing?” someone below called out.
“Not a thing,” Anschl said, keeping his gaze on the grenadiers. “It seems a barricade of stone did not figure in their plans.”
A student fixed the banner of the Academic Legion to a pole and raised it over the barricade for the prince’s troops to see. But the grenadiers kept their distance. Not a single shot was fired during the night.
Toward daybreak, a messenger from the National Guard approached the barricade.
“Truce!” he cried. “The emperor declares a truce!”
Anschl scrambled down the wall. He could hardly wait to share the news with his commandant.
Running into the school building, he burst inside to find Father Fuester standing over a table covered with maps and papers. The candles on the table had nearly burned out. The priest’s face was pale and drawn. He showed no emotion as he listened to Anschl’s report.
“Good,” he finally said. “If we hadn’t been ready they’d have shot us down in the streets. Perhaps we’ll sleep in our beds tonight.”
Perhaps we’ll sleep tonight? This was not the response Anschl had expected. He wasn’t even feeling tired! The students had fought back. The whole city was barricaded by now. Metternich had lost. It was time to demand freedom for the people of Vienna. It was time to join with the people of Prague, and Paris, and Milan, and Budapest, and Dresden, in demanding freedom from tyrants. Now!
But the priest simply said, “You are dismissed,” and went back to staring at the papers on his table.
Disappointed, Anschl turned to leave. He was almost to the door when he heard Father Fuester ask, “Aren’t you the boy who started the first barricade last night?”
Anschl turned to face the priest, who had not taken his gaze off his papers.
“Yes,” Anschl said.
Father Fuester looked up at the boy. His eyes were still serious, but he had a sad smile on his face. Anschl thought he looked very tired.
“You must know how fitting it is for a Jew to raise the first barricade,” the priest said.
Anschl walked home thinking about what Father Fuester had said. He thought about all the times growing up when his father had regaled him with stories of the great Jewish warriors. Men like Judas Maccabeus and Simon Bar-Kokhba who had led popular revolts against the tyrants of their day. How inspired he had been by their lives.
To be linked to those great men filled Anschl’s heart with pride. But only for a moment. Then a thought came to mind, and sorrow overtook him.
If only Heinrech were here.
Just as Father Fuester had warned, Metternich’s armies began bombarding the barricades. The prince had decided on a siege. The priest glumly predicted what was to come: “Innocent civilians will be killed. Stores will close. The people will slowly starve until their resistance crumbles.”
If there was a bright side to all this, it was that the courts disbanded, and Herz Emmanuel was released from debtor’s prison. Anschl came home from the Academic Legion one night and there he was, eating beef stew. Martha had bought some meat for the occasion.
He stood up to embrace Anschl.
“You are so tall now,” he said, clasping the boy by the shoulders. “So much happens when you leave for two years.” Suddenly Herz Emmanuel’s face looked puzzled. “Your rifle — where is it?” he asked. “I know all about the Academic Legion.”
“I’m leaving it at Moritz’s house.”
“I told him I do not want it in here,” Martha added. She ladled out a bowl of stew for Anschl, and he joined them at the table.
“While I was in prison, I heard a great deal about Metternich’s strategy from my guards. They were moving their families out of Vienna. They said the prince is planning a major offensive this fall.”
“What kind of offensive?” Anschl asked. “They already have the city surrounded. They lack the strength to push past our barricades.”
“Metternich has been distracted,” his father said. “He has been putting down rebellions in Prague and Budapest. When those scores are settled, he will bring an army to Vienna that will make these twenty thousand seem like a small force.”
Anschl stopped eating. “What are you saying, Father?”
“I’m saying, dear Anschl, that as Jews we must think not only about the struggle, we must think about our survival.”
“Are you saying you think we will be crushed?” Anschl’s voice was rising.
“Anschl!” Martha said sternly. “Listen to your Father.”
“All I am saying is that the prospects for victory here are not so good,” Herz Emmanuel said. “We need to think about going somewhere else. I cannot do business in a city that is under siege. How do you expect us to survive as a family if we cannot afford food or rent?”
Anschl ate the rest of his meal in sulky silence.
That night, while everyone slept, he lay in bed with the covers thrown off. His whole body was on fire.
How could he ask this of me? I was defending freedom while he was gone! If Metternich was still in Vienna, he would still be in that jail cell. Does he not know this? He’s asking me to abandon the struggle. Where is your Simon Bar-Kokhba now, Father? Where is that inspiring story about Judas Maccabeus? Maybe I need to tell it to you, since your memory is slipping...
But it was no use. He could never speak that way to his parents.
In fact, Anschl barely spoke to his father for weeks. He would come home from the Academic Legion and see Herz Emmanuel hunched over the family table with an ink quill and paper, writing letters. He walked by, pretending to be not the slightest bit curious.
Coming home from his drills one evening, Anschl found his father waiting for him.
“We are going to America,” Herz Emmanuel said. Anschl was stunned.
“I have tried everything, my son. But there is no work for me here or anywhere else in Austria.”
He had guessed correctly. His father had been writing friends and relatives for help. What he hadn’t guessed was that he was sending letters halfway around the world.
“When?” he asked.
“The next boat leaves Bremen on the twenty-third,” Herz Emmanuel said.
Anschl was leaning forward on the rail of the Rebecca. He was leaning about as far forward as a passenger dared to lean. It was the position you might assume if you were seasick. But Anschl wasn’t seasick. He was, however, sick of the sea. Sick of looking at it. Sick of being on it.
The fact that he could see land somehow only made things worse. The Rebecca had spent three weeks sailing across the Atlantic. Three weeks of endless ocean, endless sky, endless boredom. Then one morning, Anschl woke up early, went out on deck, and saw shoreline. He rushed into the berth where his father was still sleeping.
“I see land!” he cried.
Herz Emmanuel turned over and slowly opened his eyes to look at Anschl.
“Land, Father, land!”
His father regarded him wearily.
“If you see land, it means we have two more weeks at sea.”
“Two more weeks?!?”
“Yes, my son. You saw Nova Scotia.”
At breakfast, the captain offered to bring Anschl into the great cabin to look at his map. The captain pointed to Nova Scotia, right in the center. Anschl’s heart sank.
We’re closer to Ireland than New Orleans!
Since then, he had watched gloomily as the Rebecca bumped along the Eastern seaboard, tormenting him with the occasional glimpse of the mainland. One afternoon he spent hours hatching an elaborate plot in his head. While no one was looking, he would lower himself in one of the Rebecca’s small boats and paddle for shore.
If I did it at night, I could reach land before anyone noticed I was missing. Of course, they’d probably miss the boat before they missed me.
It wasn’t a very serious plan. But just thinking about it somehow made the day go by faster.
Besides, even if my plan worked flawlessly, I would still be in America.
Anschl had been in a deep funk ever since the train had pulled out of the station in Vienna. Bitter tears had flowed as the last familiar sight — the cross atop St. Stephen’s church — disappeared from view. He had left his whole life behind: his friends, the Academic Legion, and the cause of freedom they had pledged their lives to.
The night before his departure, he had stayed out with his closest friends, boys he had grown up with in the Jewish quarter. They had all told him the same thing: Go. Obey your parents. It may not end well here. Providence is throwing you a lifeline. Take it.
Father had done his best to make the long trip enjoyable. With money given to him by relatives, he reserved a cabin on the upper deck of the boat. The family shared a small sitting room during the day, then retired to separate sleeping berths. They ate meals prepared by the crew. It was hardly the lap of luxury, but their relatives didn’t want the Bondis to ride in steerage.
He had also brought reading material for himself and Anschl: newspapers, journals, books. “I thought this would especially interest you,” Herz Emmanuel said. He handed Anschl a thin volume in German. “Straight from the printer in London.”
The Communist Manifesto. Anschl knew all about it. Word about Karl Marx’s controversial book had traveled across Europe faster than the book itself.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll read it.”
“And then maybe we can discuss Marx’s theory.” Anschl nodded. He had heard enough about it to know that Marx had divided the world into two groups of people: the working class and the upper class.
And did you notice, Father, that we are staying in the upper deck cabins?
Anschl knew his father was trying to connect with him. But Marxist theory didn’t do anyone a whole lot of good on a sailing ship. And he failed to see how it was going to do him much good in America, either.
If anyone in America even reads books in German.
A thought occurred to him.
Wait — does this mean I have to learn English?
As it was hurricane season, the Rebecca ran into its share of blustery winds and drenching rain. Anschl welcomed the stormy weather, for two reasons: it broke the grinding monotony of a typical day, and it made his father seasick. He felt a little guilty knowing he was enjoying his father’s misery ... but just a little.
When the seas were calm, Anschl went down to the main deck to see if any passengers had come up from steerage for fresh air. He met a rabbi from Poland who was fleeing violence at home. He traded war stories with young radicals who had been wanted by police in Hungary and Germany. Mostly, though, he met a lot of men who reminded him of his father.
“Where I am from, no work,” a man named Peter told him one day. Peter was from Russia. His wife and five children were below. He just stared off into the distance, puffing on a cigar, even when talking with Anschl. He looked sad.
“I work like Siberian sled-dog if only someone gives me chance,” Peter said.
One day a boy Anschl’s age came up on deck. He introduced himself as Stephen, from Hungary. His clothes were tattered and dirty, and he looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. But as soon as he found out where Anschl was from, he perked up.
“Your revolution started our revolution!” Stephen said. “I was in Buda when we learned about the uprising in Vienna. That made the radicals very happy. And it made the officials very nervous. Things started to change quickly after that.”
Anschl had never been down to the steerage section, so he asked his new friend to take him there.
They climbed down into the darkness. Anschl stood at the bottom of the ladder for a few moments, squinting blindly. When his eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, he was amazed at what he saw. Two hundred immigrants were living side by side. For five weeks they had been shoehorned into little more than a crawl space between the main deck and the cargo hold. There were hard wooden bunks everywhere.
Anschl saw several families eating together. Is that soup? How do they even cook down here?
He found Stephen sitting on a trunk with hand lettering on it. The lettering said ISTVAN POKORNY. Two girls were sitting on the bed knitting.
“These are my sisters,” he said, “and that’s my mother, helping Katazina with her baby.” Anschl looked behind him and saw a young woman was changing the diaper on a tiny baby. Two older women were making faces at the baby to keep it amused.
“That baby looks like it was just born,” Anschl said.
“He was just born,” Stephen said. “About a week ago they delivered him. And we have another woman expecting over there. If we don’t reach New Orleans soon, we’re going to have another delivery at sea.”
“How do you know Katazina?”
“We met on the ship. She’s from Poland. Her husband and my dad are off somewhere smoking and arguing. Probably about philosophy.”
Anschl pointed at the chest. “Is that your father’s name, Istvan?”
“This is my trunk,” he said. “Istvan is Hungarian for Stephen. My father said if you don’t make your name easy for Americans to spell, they’ll spell it however they feel like spelling it. So when we boarded the ship, he wrote down my name as Stephen.”
That night, Anschl lay awake in his berth, unable to sleep. He listened to the night winds howling and the sails flapping. He kept thinking about what he had seen that day in steerage.
These humble immigrants, too poor to afford a cabin, had formed into a little community. Just like that. They had probably spent their whole lives in one place. They had known the same people, gone to the same schools, and buried their elders in the same churchyards for centuries. Then, suddenly, they had been driven out by the king’s army or an anti-Jewish mob. Or maybe they were just tired of being poor and hungry. Whatever happened, they were here now, sharing their food, their sleeping quarters, their stories, with complete strangers.
And then they were going to arrive in America. They would scatter to the four corners of the continent. They would find someplace to live. Their neighbors would be complete strangers, probably other hard-working immigrants like themselves. And they would build another community from scratch.
Just like I’ll have to do.
One day, Herz Emmanuel and his son were out on the main deck, talking about their new home.
“In America,” his father said, “no one fears the prince or the army. The army serves the people. The people decide who will lead them. The elections are free and fair. And another thing. There will be no more insults of our people or our faith. The Constitution has separated the church and the government. We have the freedom to practice our religion as we please. America is the land of liberty.”
Anschl just stared off at sea. Nothing his father said
was new to him. He and his comrades in the Academic Legion had discussed and debated all of the major nations of the world — France, America, England, Russia — and he knew none of them was a perfect place to live.
“Father,” said Anschl. He turned and tried to look as innocent as possible. “I have heard that the United States Constitution allows slavery. Is that true?”
Herz Emmanuel frowned. “Of course it does, Anschl. You know that.”
“But you say it is the land of liberty. How can that be, when a man is able to make another man his slave?”
Now it was the father’s turn to be irritated.
“Perhaps we should wait until we are there before passing judgment on our new country,” he said sharply, then walked off.
Anschl was toying with his father, and that was a cruel thing to do. He knew that. He knew he should feel bad for doing it. But he didn’t. For once on this trip, he felt fully alive.
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