Story, overheard conversation #1

There once was an East European Jewish woman who had survived the concentration camps and immigrated to the US. She married, had three sons, lost her husband. The last 10 years of her life she suffers from skin cancer, and eventually hires live-in help, a (non-Jewish) immigrant from Eastern Europe. The woman with cancer grows close to this woman, who reminds her of her sister who died in the Holocaust. She tells her sons she wants to leave her house to this woman. When she dies, the sons are in agreement. They tell the caretaker: Our mother wanted you to take the house. It's yours.

She refuses. All she wants is to get her pay and move on to the next client.


What is the explanation?

That the caretaker could not imagine herself as anything beyond a caretaker, could not disrupt her life by inheriting a half-million-dollar house?

That she was afraid that the surviving family would fight her for the house, after all?

That she wanted to keep doing her honest work, and nothing more?

That she felt she didn't deserve it?

We don't know.

There is I.L. Peretz's (1852-1915) famous story of Bontsche Schvayg (Bontsche the Silent), a poor, miserable, oppressed Jew in the shtetl who never complains. He comes to Heaven and is offered anything he wants. What he chooses: a warm roll every morning, with butter.

This is a tragedy--he could have wished for world peace, for the end of suffering, the reader thinks--but he was so beaten down that all he could imagine was the hot roll. He is not a martyr to be admired--he's a beaten-down soul to be pitied.

The story has been widely translated. You can read different versions of the high points here.

The poor are always with us. Jewish beggar, Lower East Side, 1933, by Lightman... Painting above by Valadon