Mayer Amschel Rothschild, born in 1744, started the famous banking house that, seven generations later, remains a major international player in venture capital and financial engineering. But Rothschild was born in a Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, a place that was subject to strict laws by the city restricting the behavior of its inhabitants.
Robert Mayer, author of The Origin of Sorrow, reports that while reading about the founding members of the Rothschild dynasty, he became interested in what the first Mrs. Rothschild must have been like. He couldn’t find out much about her, so he decided to write the book on her himself.
This book is set in the late 1700’s in the Judengasse, the notorious ghetto of Frankfurt. [Jewish communities were confined after being blamed in most of Europe for the Black Death, in spite of the fact that Jews were victims of the Plague like any other group.] Incredibly enough, this is the place where Mayer Rothschild got his start. All Jews were required to live within the walls of this ghetto, although men could go outside if they had approved business, but the gates were locked at 5 p.m. Visitors passed through one of three guarded gates; the main gate – erected by the city of Frankfurt – featured a famous “artistic” rendering called the Judensau, constructed sometime between 1475 and 1507. As Niall Ferguson describes it:
An obscene graffito on the wall, it depicted a group of Jews abasing themselves before–or rather beneath and behind–a fierce sow. While one of them suckled at her teats, another (in rabbinical garb) held up her tail for the third (also a rabbi) to drink her excrement. The “Jews’ devil” watched approvingly.”
In the picture, the Jews are being egged on by the devil himself, who is portrayed with the same facial traits as the Jews, implying similar origins. [The Judensau was revived by the Nazis, now using the double meaning that Jews are pigs. A drinking song of the early 1920s included the words: “Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau, Die gottverfluchte Judensau” (Shoot down that Walther Rathenau, The goddamned Judensau)]
The City of Frankfurt regulated much of the lives of the Jews in the ghetto. Men were not allowed to marry until the age of 25, to cut down on the rate of Jewish births. This was not such a bad idea considering that the ghetto consisted of a single lane only: a quarter of a mile long and from ten to twelve feet wide (with a sewage ditch the whole way down its length). But by the mid-1770’s there were already more than 3,000 people living on the lane in a space originally intended for 300. How did they all fit? Most houses were no more than eight to ten feet wide, and there were two rows of them. The Jews could build upward, but windows that looked out over the walls had to be boarded up by law. As a result of the tall, multifamily houses over a single lane, the Jews never could see the sun except for the few minutes it was directly over the lane in between the houses, and subsequently the Jews became known for their pale, pale complexions!
The confined quarters of the Judengasse plays a large role in the book, as it played a large role in the lives of those who lived within its walls.
The focus of the story, besides the Judengasse itself, is Guttle Schnapper, the young girl who won the heart of Meyer Amschel Rothschild. They married in 1770 when Guttle was seventeen. They had ten children who survived to adulthood (and at least seven more who didn’t). In this book, Meyer remains largely in the background. This is Guttle’s story, as imagined by the author. He envisions her as way ahead of her time in some ways, but stubbornly tied to the past in others.
Most of the narrative concerns Guttle as a young girl before and for a short time after her marriage to Meyer. A nice epilogue fills us in on what happened toward the end of Guttle’s life, long after Meyer had died. (She survived him by thirty-seven years, and refused to leave their house in the Judengasse.)
Things I liked:
The author does a great service in incorporating a very accurate portrayal of the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto into his novel, thus introducing this remarkable community and its environment to readers who eschew non-fiction. “What a setting for a novel,” he said in an interview, and on that I quite agree.
Furthermore, the Rothschilds are inherently interesting: how was it that a boy from “perhaps the most oppressive place for Jews in Western Europe” (as historian Amos Elon characterized it) came to be ranked 7th on the Forbes Magazine list of “The Twenty Most Influential Businessmen Of All Time” and a “founding father of international finance”?
Additionally, how and why women adjusted to the conditions for women in the 18th century Jewish community (and even today to some extent among Orthodox Jews) is also of interest to me, and I think the author does a good job of bringing this situation to the front and center of the book. (“good job” to me equals the extent to which it caused me to go off on rants about treatment of women by men using religion as a justification for their behavior.)
Things I didn’t like:
Generally, I prefer for historical fiction to evoke real times or events but not real people; I’ve always thought it muddies the waters too much. Certainly there could be an exception for historical figures about whom we know little. But I think that the author therefore has an obligation to attach notes or an appendix of some sort to indicate what is fiction and what is documented. Furthermore – and especially if there is no such author explanation – I prefer that the author not mess with known facts, because that only ruins his or her credibility for me with the rest of the story.
Some of the historical figures added to the mise-en-scène in the Judengasse were not actually there at the time of the story. For example, Mayer Rothschild had been dead for forty years before Isidor Kracauer, the famed historian of the ghetto, was even born. [Kracauer was born in 1852 in Silesia but came to Frankfurt in 1875 and there produced a two-volume work entitled “Geschichte der Frankfurter Juden.” He died in Frankfurt in 1923.] Yet Isidor is portrayed as a peer of Guttle’s.
In addition, there really was a youth named Hirsch Liebmann who stole money from Rothschild, but Mayer opted to add a rather unlikely and unsavory embellishment to the relationship. I couldn’t figure out what the rationale was for the author to tarnish Rothschild that way.
The Jews in the Frankfurt ghetto spoke Judendeutsch, which was a medieval German dialect mixed with Hebrew. This was not the same as the Yiddish of Polish and Russian Jews, but I don’t know enough about the differences to make specific comments on the appropriateness of the Yiddish used in the story. But I am not convinced the author does either. Nevertheless, the author has the characters occasionally using Yiddish words that modern Americans might know and use, but which seem unlikely to have been used in the 18th Century Judengasse. [Leon Wieseltier recently made a snarky, but apt, I think, comment in an essay on an analogous translation from Hebrew that kept some Hebrew words in the text: “This preservation of a few Hebrew words in English discourses on Jewish subjects is an American Jewish characteristic, the compromise of a community that is delinquent about its linguistic patrimony.”] At any rate, the insertion of those words seemed jarring enough to take me out of the story.
The possibly apocryphal story of what happened when Moses Mendelssohn entered the Berlin ghetto at age 14 (in 1743) is so well-known that I thought it absurd for the author to have changed the episode to make it occur in Frankfurt many years later. Clearly he wanted to have Mendelssohn be a part of the lives of the Rothschilds, perhaps in order to bruit the ideas of Mendelssohn. But he didn’t need to change the facts around so much to do so. Likewise, it takes “chutzpah” (as the author might say) to include fictional letters from, and conversations with the great philosopher.
The author often has Guttle sing arias, which she “invented as she sang,” to express her feelings. This didn’t seem realistic to me. Furthermore, Mayer makes much of the courtship of Rothschild and Guttle, but their marriage was an arranged one.
Evaluation: Mayer brings the Judengasse to life, and makes an interesting case through his imaginings for what the young girl must have been like who was the devoted wife of the man, and mother of the men who changed the Western world. He also shines a light onto the means by which at least some people who were so legally restricted in every aspect of their lives managed to circumvent the walls (both literal and figurative) around them and succeed beyond their wildest dreams.