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by Rabbi H.N. Ehrmann
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The first years of the 19th century were, for the whole of Europe and especially for the French who bordered Western Germany, a very tumultuous time... Gangs of robbers were organized who professed a belief in a sort of Kangaroo Court to eliminate unpopular officials, to plunder rich estates, and, by so doing, equalize the various classes. Because of this, the robbers became popular with the poor and they achieved a certain power and influence which could not have been possible before. The robbers could undertake the most daring raids and retreat into their hiding places without fear of being betrayed by peasant or craftsman. Gangs of robbers avenged every harshness or injustice committed against the people. The people brought their cases against their oppressors not to the powerless courts of justice but rather to the robbers who acted promptly by plundering their belongings and distributing them to the poor, and then burned the houses and barns of the accused... It was impossible for Sander Goldsticker to return to [his hometown] without passing through terrain which was known to be unsafe because of the presence of [the gangster] Schinderhannes and his bandits. The robbers especially had an eye for the merchants journeying to and from the Fairs. It goes without saying that especially Jewish travelers had reason to be apprehensive. For this reason, Aron Schotten had advised his friend Sander not to shy away from the little detour through [the town of] Michelstadt. He was sure that the [holy man known as the] Baal Shem could give him something which would help him to pass unharmed through all dangers... Next morning, before saying good-bye, Goldsticker told the Rabbi of his problem. For one moment, the Rabbi looked at Goldsticker's worried face with his clever, mild eyes and then said, with a soothing smile, "You may start your journey cheerfully; no harm from the Schinderhannes will befall any Jew." "Pardon me, Master and Teacher," replied Goldsticker. "I am not sure whether I understood the Rabbi. The Schinderhannes doesn't harm any Jew? Didn't the Rabbi hear of the robbings, pillagings, and even murders committed even on Jews by the Schinderhannes?"... The Rabbi stroked his long beard with his left hand, while with his right hand he made a few drumming noises on the table. Obviously struggling with his own thoughts, the Rabbi suddenly said with decisive firmness, "Reb Sander, I say it again, the Schinderhannes will not molest you at all. But there are many other robbers and waylayers of all kinds who could bother you on the road. For these, you have to be on your guard even more. In order that these others don't hurt you, I recommend that you change your itinerary and accept the one I am telling you now. "You shall not avoid the Schinderhannes at all. On the contrary, you shall search for him. Tell anyone who should ambush you that you are on the way to the Schinderhannes with a special mission. If anyone should dare to harm you, the Schinderhannes will seek bloody revenge. Every robber will respect this threat and will lead you personally to the hiding place of the robber chief, wherever he might reside at the moment. Understand?"... "Request a private talk with the robber chief. Never address him as anything but 'Chief.' When you are alone, tell him that you bring a special greeting from the man who once gave him rice in the big forest between Babenhausen and Seligenstadt. Remind him of the promise he gave the man at that time. Also, explain to him that I know that he has broken this promise several times. That is all you have to do. If you follow my instructions, no robber will harm you on the trip and, with God's help, you will reach your family safely. Now I have to leave, as now is the time which belongs to my students." * * *With the good rabbi's blessing, Schotten and Goldsticker took their departure. Each was occupied with his own thoughts, and they walked silently side by side for several minutes. Schotten broke the silence first. "I shall take the next post to Frankfurt where I shall arrive before night. What are you planning to do? Are you going to follow the Rabbi's advice?""There is nothing left for me to do," replied Goldsticker. "I would reproach myself forever if I wouldn't do it and if the slightest mishap occurred on the road. But I must admit, I regret having asked the Rabbi. Have you ever heard of such a thing? I, who should be glad if the robbers would leave me alone, should now look them up yet! If someone were to hear the Rabbi talking in this manner, he might suspect the Rabbi was in cahoots with them; but this is really unbelievable!"... "Certainly, I admit that it is as puzzling to me as it is to you. But what does it matter? Would you have qualms about your pharmacist filling your doctor's Latin prescription and your taking it in order to regain your health? Don't you have the same confidence in your Rabbi as you have in your doctor? Though mysterious to you, this is clear and obvious to the Rabbi. I am positive that on your trip you will find the solution to the riddle. I have only one request of you and that is to let me know what happens." With this and the promise to fulfill the Rabbi's request, the two friends bade their farewell. Goldsticker continued his trip to Koblenz in the same carriage... Suddenly, about an hour before reaching his destination, the carriage was stopped by an armed robber. "In the name of our Chief Johannes, I declare all the possessions of the Jew confiscated to become the property of the Chief. If you agree to this, I'll leave you the horses and carriage and you and your coachman may continue on your way. At the slightest resistance, I'll kill both of you. We are reluctant to shed blood any you must think likewise..." "I am traveling through the woods because I have a message for Chief Johannes which I have to give to him personally. You would be a big help if you would lead me to your master. To fulfill my obligation by seeing him is, at the moment, more important to me than all the gold and silver I carry with me. If you really come with your master's consent, then he shall dispose of all my valuables as he sees fit." The robbers looked at each other in surprise. The calmness and matter-of-factness with which their prisoner suddenly changed into their superior impressed them greatly. But they did not give in readily."Anybody could make these statements," one of them began, "and could pose as the Chief's confidant. Do you think we are so dumb as to give away the Chief's abode? Maybe you are just a low-down spy who wants to find out the master's hiding place and then betray him. You think we are not as smart as you, you Jew? If you really are looking for our Chief, you must know where to find him and then you wouldn't need our guidance. Now, what is your name? Where do you come from and where are you going? No, the deal is off!" The robber gave his cohort a sign to take the boxes and the luggage out of the carriage. Goldsticker stepped between the carriage and the robbers, and he said to them, "You serve your master badly. If you had been smart, you would have killed me and the coach man on the spot. You cooked your own goose! Sooner or later, I shall find your Chief anyhow and will be able to tell him what scoundrels he has working for him. How can you babble such nonsense? I, a spy?... Nobody had ever talked to the robbers this way. They were bewildered and didn't know what to do. They stepped aside and went into a huddle for a few minutes. When they had finished their discussion, their spokesman stepped in front of Goldsticker and said, "We don't know how to negotiate with you! We don't know who you are, your name, or where you live!" These words were spoken in a much different tone, however. This indicated to Goldsticker that he was the master of the situation."Don't talk such nonsense," he replied. "It doesn't hurt our conversation that you don't know me. I don't know you either and still I deal with you. What's more, I don't have the slightest desire to make your acquaintance. What I have seen so far, doesn't make me very anxious to know much more about you. But if you think differently and you do want more information about me, you shall get it from your Chief, not from me. If he wishes to satisfy your curiosity, I have nothing against it. But don't detain me unnecessarily; lead me instantly to the Chief. "There is room for two of you in my carriage and the third one can sit with the coachman on the box. Take a swallow from the canteen of whiskey and then we will start." The whiskey squelched the last doubts they had, and in few moments the strange party went on its way... They traveled almost five hours, crisscrossed thick forests and finally reached a clearing in the woods where he noticed a large campfire. About twenty robbers with black painted faces were sitting around the campfire. Here the carriage stopped. The robbers left the carriage and exchanged a few words with some of the fellows encamped around the fire. Then one of them returned with the information that the Chief was spending the night in a cave a half hour from there. The road to the cave was inaccessible; so they would go there by foot and Goldsticker was to leave his horse and carriage by the encampment... When they arrived at the entrance to the Chief's cave, Goldsticker stopped for a moment and said half aloud to himself in Hebrew, "Our scholars say that one should make a vow in times of danger. If You, Heavenly Father, will rescue me and my possessions from this moment of danger, I shall donate half of it to the poor and to charitable institutions..." With these words, the robber retreated, and Goldsticker stepped before the Schinderhannes who, judging by his red face and inflamed eyes, must have had quite a bit to drink. The messages which he normally received were, as a rule, notifications concerning estates or farmhouses to be burned down. Often he was warned of planned raids against him, organizes by public officials. The Schinderhannes may have expected something similar. After an appraising look at Goldsticker, he said with well-played indifference and calmness, "From whom do you have a message?" "From the man," replied Goldsticker, "who gave the Chief rice to eat between Seligenstadt and Babenhausen." Hearing this, the Chief jumped up suddenly..."The gentleman who sent me," said Goldsticker, "wishes to remind the Chief, through me, of the promise made to spare the Jews. He has heard that this promise has been broken over and over again." These few words made an impression on the robber which defied all expectations. For a few moments he stood silently with downcast eyes, like a scolded school boy. Then he looked pleadingly at Goldsticker and said, "Where does the man live? What is his name? And, what is his profession?" Goldsticker was taken aback at this. It was obviously not the fact of his being an emissary of the Baal Shem which lent such great weight to his mission. If the Baal Shem had cause not to identify himself to the Chief, then he, Goldsticker, had reason to exercise the same caution. "Therefore," he replied curtly, "I am not at liberty to answer those questions." "Not at liberty?" repeated the Schinderhannes, threateningly. "If I herewith order you to tell me, would you still refuse to answer?""Even then I would not answer, until I got permission from the only person who could give it to me," replied Goldsticker, fearlessly. "Good for you!" cried the robber. "You are a brave and fearless man. Did he tell you the story of the rice?""No, I don't know anything about it. I don't know more than I have told the Chief already." "It was nice of your master not to tell you the story. But I shall tell it to you so that you will know why I respect your master so greatly -- whether or not I know who he is..."* * *"My gang was busy with a job in Aschaffenburg; so I stationed myself at a crossroad in the forest between Seligenstadt and Babenhausen. Having to work on my own, I ambushed the passersby from behind a thick tree. After lying in ambush for about half an hour, a carriage came... "I knocked the coachman from his seat to the ground and proceeded to tie him with ropes, hoping that the two men inside -- one young and the other old -- would be easy prey later. I didn't anticipate any resistance from the two men inside. "While I was occupied with tying the coachman, the young man calmly left the carriage, grabbed me from behind, and threw me down with such great force that I ended up on my face on the ground. I groaned in rage and tried with all my might to at least turn my face upwards, but in vain. The young fellow had his knee in my back and pressed it against me with such force that I felt as if I were pinned in a vise. I cursed, swore, stormed, and worked with all my might to throw off the vicious attacker, but it was to no avail... "My opponent, in the meantime, without any visible effort, produced from his pocket a knife which he used to cut the ropes and then bound both of my hands behind my back. He carried me by the neck, suspended in air, about ten paces toward a huge tree against which my rifle was leaning. He asked for another rope from the carriage and with it tied me to the tree in such a manner that I couldn't move a limb. "He returned to the carriage and talked to the old man in the Jewish-German language, which I understand as well as my own dialect because of its similarity to the dialect of the Dukedom of Nassau. The conversation was about whether I should get my brains bashed in or whether to hand me over to the police. At that moment I wouldn't have given a pfenning for my life. I also overheard that they were on the way to Count Dahlberg with 400 guilders to ransom two arrested but innocent Jews. "When I heard this, I realized for the first time my own baseness compared to these two honorable men. They had exposed themselves to a dangerous trip in order to free innocent prisoners, and monster that I was, I had planned to rob them of this money! This thought worried me more at this moment than my endangered life. I called to them, 'If I had any inkling of what good people I would find here in the woods and for what purpose you carried that money, on my honor, I would not have stopped you, although I don't have a pfenning in my pocket and I haven't eaten a thing today.' "The men must have noticed a tone of sincerity and honesty in my words. The giant approached me and said with a warmness and kindness in his voice which I'll never forget, 'What, you haven't eaten today? You may eat with us now when we prepare our lunch. In the meantime, we have to decide what we are going to do with you.' "I realized then and there that such goodhearted people who intended to feed a robber who had just attacked them in the woods, would not be able to kill him, although I may have well deserved such a fate."They took a box from the wagon which contained pots and pans and various other eating utensils. The coachman collected thin fire wood and used steel and tinder to kindle leaves and dry branches into a fire to warm the already cooked food. After this, the giant brought before me a plate filled with rice, and, since my arms were still tied, spoon-fed me as one would a little baby... "[He told me:] 'We have decided to let you go free, but under some conditions. First, you must promise us that, presuming you want to stick to the robber trade, just as you have never killed anyone in the past, you will never kill anyone in the future. Second, never attack or rob a Jew but faithfully assist him in every way through every type of nuisance and persecution... If the most horrible fate were awaiting you, you should end this robber life... Come with us and join humankind again as an honest man!' "'Join humankind?' I retorted. 'I hate them because they expelled me, and it is on them that I want to take revenge as long as I have warm blood in my veins. Sooner or later they will catch me -- it can't be too long. Of your humankind, whom you rate so highly, I could sing a song. They cheat, deceive, defraud, and betray each other so well that they don't take a back seat to any robber of rank. Only the fear of the gallows prevents them from being a robber as I am. "'But, I promise you that I will not harm Jews anymore, and I realize the magnitude of my promise. The Jews achieve a certain affluence by being frugal, sober, and industrious; but because of their religion and their appearance, they have always been the whipping boy and scapegoat of the ignorant masses. Because of this situation, an outlaw could harm the Jews and go unpunished. But here is my hand now. This will not happen anymore in my territory. Also, my men will be notified that this is my decree, and woe to them if any one of them should act contrary to my order.' "At this point, the young man took my hand in his, holding it a few seconds, and said to me forever unforgettable words while fixing his kind and clever eyes on mine, 'My friend, I accept your promise. However, there is one last thing. Our dear Lord keeps a complicated ledger and will surely ask you to account for your many misdeeds on the day of judgment. But He certainly will reward you for every good deed you have fulfilled and bring you into the world to come. Every kindness and mercy you show my oppressed brothers and sisters will be counted, and for these may God bestow on you His blessings! But keep to your promise because God's curse will befall you if you break it. Remember this well!'" Here ended the Chief's narrative. Goldsticker had listened to the words of the robber without interrupting. Now he could not contain himself any longer, and he admonished, "It was reported to your benefactor that you did break your promise, Chief! That is why he sent me to you to remind you again. I don't like to have any part in the curse which a man of the magnitude of your benefactor predicted if you made light of your handshake..." "Enough said, my friend," interrupted the Chief. "You are right, of course, and I will remember in the future. I haven't thought about all of this. Tell this to the gentleman who sent you and ask him not to think badly of me. I shall know to honor his confidence in the future and how to show myself worthy of him. On this, he can rely for all times." Rising, the robber gave a sign that he wished the audience to be terminated. He shook hands with his guest and thanked him for taking the time to seek the hideout to deliver the message. He ordered six mounted robbers to accompany Goldsticker and to protect him on his way home.
Excerpted with permission from "THE BAAL SHEM OF MICHELSTADT."
Published by Feldheim Publishers - http://www.feldheim.com.
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