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The Human Touch

April 8, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

IRWIN D. HOFFMAN, the etcher and painter, tells some interesting anecdotes of the Jewish ## he found in the heart of Mexico, during the exploratory trip he made some time ago in quest of material.

There was no community so remote, he says, but that there was a Jewish trader in its midst. One day he reached a village at which a fair was in progress, a small affair of a fair, in a community the existence of which, he believed, was unknown to any white man. But while the booths and stands of most of the traders was more or less deserted, the place of business of a Polish Jew was jammed. He entered into conversation with this Jew and found him bright and alert, knowing of the needs of the peasants whom he supplied and living by that knowledge. Their conversation was in Jewish. Hoffman had previously, while making the rounds of the booths, entered into conversation with a peasant woman, in the course of which he had asked her if she would pose for him, and then moved off in the direction of his Jewish acquaintance. After a while he was aware of a big ungainly peon gesticulating in his face and speaking in a not too friendly manner.

“What does he want?” asked Hoffman of the trader.

“He wants you should give him four pesos for insulting his wife.”

Protestations were in vain. Hoffman turned to the Polish Jew, asking him to clear him with the peon.

“It’s no use,” he replied in Yiddish. Go ‘way from here. Make yourself scarce. You’ll be ruining me if you stay around.”

Whereupon Hoffman, somewhat puzzled by the Mexican peon code of morals, made himself scarce.


Ernst Toller was born and brought up in a little German town near the Polish border. Germans and Jews formed a more or less united front against the Poles. The Poles were supposed to be dirty and have fleas. They were supposed to be the descendants of Cain. Although little Ernst had a Polish playmate, Stanislaus, the night watchman’s son, he nevertheless joined with the German boys in yelling derisively at the Polish boys, “Polack! Polack!” He is playing engineer with a toy train, allowing Stanislaus to be the engineman and whenever Ernst whistles Stanislaus has to whistle. But Stanislaus, provoked by Ernst’s queries, “Have you got fleas? Are you dirty?” wrecks the toy. On the street later some of the German boys yell at Ernst, “Yah to you, dirty Jew.” He notes that Stanislaus does not join in the abuse and the Jewish boy turns to the Pole for an explanation. “In Konitz the Jews killed a Christian baby and made Passion-cakes with its blood.” “That’s not true,” says Ernst. “Well, is it true that we are dirty and have fleas?” Which is a prime example of a Jewish boy not winning the argument.

Disturbed by the yowling of the other kids, Ernst asks his mother: “Why are we Jews?” “Go to sleep, you naughty boy,” she retorts, “and don’t ask silly questions.” Which is of course no answer, and to prove that he has no responsibility for the death of the Savior, he joins the “True Christians” sect, the preacher giving him a lump of sugar and the assurance that he’s on the right path They are to celebrate Christmas together and the preacher gives little Ernst a verse to recite.


“I am blissfully happy. I am not a Jew any more, and I have a Christmas verse to learn; nobody will ever be able to call “Dirty Jew!” after me again. I take up a trumpet and blow it when the preacher blows his trombone; and then in a clear, solemn voice I recite my Christian verse. But next day the preacher says he is very sorry, but the Savior would rather Franz recited the verse.”

It is always interesting, to say the least, if not fascinating, to learn the extent to which the child is father to the man, to discover, for example, in what way creative intelligence first manifests itself in childhood. In Ernst Toller, the imagination of the boy first played about the elderly family cook, Julie, who liked Ernst well enough to break the rules for him and cook him omelettes. As a joke, one of Father’s friends has invented a sweetheart for Julie, a tailor in the neighboring town, who knows nothing of the passion of which he is the object. Julie dwells on the tailor when everyone else has forgotten him, and Ernst feeds the silly flame by writing to Julie love letters supposed to have come from the tailor.


“Before long I am dissatisfied with this sweetheart for being an ordinary tailor, making suits for clerks and shopkeepers. I make him join the army and in a few weeks he is promoted to be Lieutenant; soon he becomes Major and then General. Julie believes it all; Julie who is the terror of butchers who try to pass off brisket for sirloin; Julie who watches over her fowls with an eagle eye.

… In due course the General is ennobled and finally he chooses a distant land, which I call Mariko, to rule over as King. An underground road reached by steps invisible to me and unknown to everybody else connects our house with the capital of Mariko. The King is a very good man. He conquers the heathen and baptizes them. But the wars never last very long; they last just as long as my appetite for Madeira cake. I go to Julie in the kitchen, and shut the door.

” ‘A telegram, your Majesty!’ “

” ‘Read it,’ ” says Julie, drying her hands in her apron.

” ‘Beloved Juliana,’ ” I read, ” ‘I have slain the heathen in bloody conflict, and weary of the heat of battle I long for a cake from your hand. Bake a good Madeira cake at once and give it to my minister, Ernst, to send to me.’ “

“Silently Julie goes to the store-cupboard and takes out eggs, sugar, and flour and silently mixes them.

“No reproaches from my mother can stop her.”


Little Ernst decides Julie must be knighted; he steals some paper cotillion favors from his sister and sews them on to a sofa cushion, then winds a handkerchief around his father’s walking stick for use as a sword, leads Julie to the Christmas tree, has Julie kneel, gives her a whacking accolade and when she has arisen, a Knight, presents her with orders from the Pope and the King. She scorns to sell one of her orders for a thousand marks. … And so a little story-telling boy who was to become a German poet and dramatist made joyous the life of a servant drudge.

Jacob Wasserman tells us that he first invented continued short stories for the edification of a younger brother, and that he would stop each installment at the most critical point in order to keep interest alive for the next day’s installment.

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