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Authors: Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Hope

BOOK: Rachel's Hope
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Winter 1905

The contributions to the American fund for the relief of the sufferers from Russian massacres now exceeds one million dollars.

The New York Times,
February 28, 1905


linging her untidy, russet braid over her shoulder, Rachel twisted her neck to see what was making the rumbling noise. A horseless carriage came roaring toward her down the middle of Battery Street in the heart of San Francisco. A man with whiskers and round spectacles, sat high atop a shiny black contraption, his hands gripping a wheel in front of him. Four large white-rimmed wheels rolled along the pavement, thrusting the man forward. Rachel had never seen anything like it.

The man shouted at Rachel in English, but she didn't understand. Though her head told her to get out of the way, her legs wouldn't budge. A strange odor stung her nostrils, a mixture of smoke and oil. The horseless carriage drew closer, rumbling like thunder. Rachel's terrified eyes met the driver's. She could not turn away.

The carriage was so close now that she felt the reverberation in her bones. The man yelled at her again, louder. Suddenly, strong arms grabbed Rachel and plucked her from the street just before the horseless carriage sped past, inches from her face, spraying fumes that made her gag.

“What were you thinking?” asked Jacob in Yiddish. Her brother-in-law had pulled Rachel to safety.

“I don't know,” said Rachel, her gaze still fixed on the road. “I just couldn't—”

“That was an automobile.” Jacob tugged Rachel's gaunt shoulders toward the sidewalk where his wife, Nucia, Rachel's older sister, and Menahem, the nine-year-old orphan they'd brought with them from Russia, watched. Nucia's face had turned mushroom-gray, making her green eyes more pronounced.

“I've seen them in newspaper photographs,” Jacob continued.

“How does it move without horses?” wondered Menahem, his amber eyes glued to the automobile, now a good distance ahead of them. It secreted a trail of smoke as it propelled forward. Menahem coughed and scratched his dirty-blond hair that hung almost to his shoulders.

“There is an engine,” said Jacob with awe. The veins in his skinny neck stuck out as he strained to get a better view. “But I don't know how it works.”

“I wish Sergei could see it,” said Menahem.

“Me, too.” Rachel stared at the automobile and swallowed the lump in her throat.

She hadn't seen Sergei in almost two years, since she was fourteen and had fled from her home in Kishinev, Russia. Sergei had become close to Rachel in the months after the anti-Jewish riots that had destroyed their town. Their friendship was unusual, since Rachel was Jewish and Sergei was not. In Eastern Europe, both groups frowned upon relationships between Russians and Jews. It was Sergei who had rescued Menahem from the rubble of the pogrom. Then he had passed his young Jewish “ward” on to Rachel and her family as they were leaving Russia for good.

“I want to sit in an automobile,” said Menahem. “I want to see how fast it can go.”

“I don't think they are safe,” said Nucia. She pointed to a group of horse-drawn carriages standing in front of a row of shops. “See, there are more
s than automobiles.”

As the words left Nucia's lips, another automobile appeared. It moved in the opposite direction of the first. A smoky smell tainted the air as it drove past. Menahem coughed again, as the fumes entered his lungs.

Jacob's big ears wobbled as he shook his head. “Automobiles are new and fast. Soon, they will replace horses and carriages.”

“I think Jacob's right,” said Rachel, shrugging at her sister.

“After seeing you almost run over by an automobile, I hope you're wrong,” said Nucia. She shuddered and took Menahem's hand. “Come. We need to find Market Street before it rains again.”

Rachel glanced up at the sky, swollen with clouds, before following them downhill past streets lined with impressive theaters, hotels, shops, and banks. San Francisco seemed years ahead of Russia. It was even more modern than the bustling city of Shanghai, China, where they had sought refuge for more than a year before boarding the ship that had brought them here to America. Rachel and Nucia's father had been killed during the Kishinev pogrom, and their mother had died later of consumption in Shanghai. The family of four had arrived in San Francisco eight days ago and had been housed in quarantine until today.

Thirty minutes later, they approached a wide avenue with a crowded cable car running down the center on an iron track. Market Street. Tall buildings lined the road and swiftly moving automobiles weaved along the pavement, passing the slow but steady horse-drawn carriages. Several boys ran after an automobile, latching on to the rear, laughing boisterously as they held tight. Men in fig-colored trousers and dark jackets and women in colorful dresses, puffy in the front and tied with sashes at the waists, stepped briskly across the street with confidence. It was a crowded, yet at the same time, orderly scene.

“Let's keep walking,” said Jacob. He nudged Nucia's elbow forward.

“Where will we sleep tonight?” asked Menahem.

“That's what we're trying to find out,” said Jacob, scrutinizing a hand-drawn map. A woman from the Eureka Benevolent Society had found a room for them, which was marked on the map with an X. He and Nucia crossed Market Street with Menahem and Rachel close behind.

The scene changed abruptly. On their right, a factory smokestack spewed gray-black fumes into the air. To the left stood a string of wooden buildings containing a dry goods store, a bakery, and a fruit market. Peddlers with bulging sacs slung over their shoulders wandered amongst the people.

“Ice!” called out one peddler in Russian. “Ice for sale!”

“Tea!” called out another. “Hot tea!”

Except for the mild winter temperature, this could have been any Russian village. Even some of the street and store signs were in Russian.

Menahem coughed again, a dry hacking sound.

“Are you all right?” Rachel asked him.

He nodded. “I'm thirsty.”

“Then let's keep going,” said Jacob. “We'll get a drink once we find the lodging house.”

Following Jacob, Rachel turned right onto Howard Street. Crude wood shacks appeared on both sides of the narrow road. Though they'd come just a few blocks south of Market Street, it seemed to Rachel as if they were in a different city altogether.

⚓ ⚓ ⚓

Rachel dropped her rag into the bucket of soapy water and watched it sink under the bubbles. Gritting her teeth, she reached into the scorching water and grabbed the cloth. She squeezed it with both hands to get rid of the excess liquid. Then she resumed washing the floor, moving her hand in a circular motion over the wood planks. It had been a month since they had found a place to live, and with the help of the Eureka Benevolent Society, Rachel and Nucia managed to get work as maids at the Haas home on Franklin Street. The Haas were Bavarian Jewish immigrants who had opened a dry goods store in San Francisco, which had grown into a prosperous business.

“I'm so tired I might fall asleep standing up,” announced Nucia in Yiddish, as she descended the grand staircase that led to the spacious entry hall. She held a broom, a duster, and Mrs. Haas' cloak, which needed mending. As the upstairs maid, Nucia not only cleaned the bedrooms and bathroom, she also sewed clothing and even washed and ironed dollar bills for the fastidious mistress of the house.

“Me, too.” Rachel stopped mopping the vestibule floor and glanced up at her sister, dressed in her white blouse, skirt, and apron. Because Nucia met with Mrs. Haas every day, she got to wear this attractive uniform, while Rachel and the other maids wore black from head to toe. Checking the tall grand-
father clock in the corner of the vestibule, Rachel saw that it was almost time to go. She picked up her pail of water and walked through the expansive hall to the narrow, curved staircase that led to the basement.

Nucia followed her sister downstairs. They stepped carefully over the ballroom floor, the location for many coveted parties given by the Haas family. The dark hardwood floor had an elevated platform at one end with a looking glass that reflected the spacious room. Two months earlier, this area had been decorated for Christmas, with Santa Claus ornaments dangling from gas light fixtures, a wreath hanging in the window above the platform, and small silver trees perched on the fireplace mantle. Many San Francisco Jews embraced holidays such as Christmas and Easter as American traditions, without religious significance. In fact, the Haas family was known throughout the city for holding one of the largest Easter egg hunts in San Francisco.

The sisters continued to the back of the room where they passed through a small door leading to a cramped corridor. The laundry room was on their right. Here, Wah, the diminutive Chinese servant, was hanging clothes to dry on a line that stretched between two walls. Dressed in white trousers and a white shirt, which set off his date-colored skin, Wah seemed unusually tidy and crisp for someone who spent his days amid steaming hot water and soiled clothing.

“Hello,” said Wah with a slight bow. This was the only English word he knew, limiting the conversation between the girls and himself. The Chinese people in San Francisco generally kept to themselves, just like in Shanghai, living and working together in one section of the city. In fact, here they were treated almost as poorly as the Jews in Russia. Forced to attend Chinese-only schools, it was even hard for the children to learn English and to mix with people from other cultures.

“Hello,” replied Rachel in English. She poured the dirty water from her bucket into the sink and washed out her mop.

Nucia set her cleaning supplies in a corner and rinsed her hands when Rachel was finished at the sink.

“Goodnight, Wah,” said Rachel.

“Hello.” He gave her a toothy smile as he hung a wet bedsheet to dry.

They waved at him as they left, returning through the ballroom and up the stairs.

“I ironed lace doilies for three hours today,” said Nucia, opening and closing her right hand. “Why does one family need so much lace?”

“Or so many rooms?” said Rachel. “By the time I finish cleaning all of them, the first one is dirty again.”

The sound of the front door opening interrupted their conversation. Mr. Haas stood in the doorway, his shoulders back, and his navy waistcoat freshly pressed. In his early fifties, Mr. Haas was slim, with a bald head and neatly trimmed gray whiskers. He glanced at his gold pocket watch and cleared his throat. Though Mr. Haas appeared to be quite formal and serious, Rachel saw kindness in his eyes, which made her feel comfortable with him. And seeing his tremendous success in America gave Rachel hope. He made her feel that anything was possible in this new world. If a Jewish man could run a lucrative business here, then surely she could become a writer.

“Good day,” he said in English.

“Good day,” echoed Rachel and Nucia in unison.

The grandfather clock chimed five times.

Rachel swallowed and opened her mouth: “Happy
” she said. She had started English classes and was anxious to practice what she'd learned.

Mr. Haas nodded and held the door open for them. “Happy shabes,” he answered.

Rachel walked briskly beside Nucia from the Haas home in the northern, upscale part of the city known as Pacific Heights, down the steep hill toward their home. As they walked south along Van Ness Avenue, a cable car rushed past, packed with people. The open-air trolley stopped at the corner, to let people off and take on new passengers. Rachel watched the women step down from the trolley with particular interest. She envied their billowy skirts and blouses, cinched in at the waist to show off their figures. She glanced down at her own drab skirt, the color of smoke, and pulled it in against her hips.

“I am going to buy American clothes with my earnings,” she announced to Nucia.

“We need your money for food and rent,” Nucia replied. “I will make your clothes, like always.”

Rachel sighed and kept her eyes on the ground as she walked. Lost in visions of herself in a pretty new skirt and blouse, she didn't see the gray-uniformed police officer walking in her direction. Rachel's left shoulder smacked against him, knocking them both off balance.

“What's the matter with you?” said the officer with reproach. He brushed his uniform as if Rachel had soiled it.

Rachel could not peel her eyes from the gold star pinned on the breast of his jacket. Terror stiffened her muscles. In Russia, the police who openly treated Jews with cruelty, frightened her. During the pogrom in Kishinev, police officers had even helped the rioters attack Jews. From the corner of her eye, Rachel saw Nucia standing a few steps ahead, slack-jawed.

“Can't you speak?” said the officer to Rachel.

What should I do? What if I say something that makes him angrier? Will he put me in jail or beat me?

The officer straightened his jacked and glared at Rachel. “Watch where you're going.” Arching his shoulders back, he strutted off, muttering about dizzy girls.

“We must go, Rachel,” said Nucia. She shook Rachel's shoulder.

Rachel jumped at her sister's touch, and followed her obediently. Her heart thumped and her hands were cold with fear. Though the police officer had not harmed or slurred her for being Jewish, her memory of the Russian police was too vivid and too raw for Rachel to readily trust anyone in uniform.

By the time they entered the kosher grocery store just south of Market Street, Rachel's heartbeat had returned to normal. The market, suffused with the smell of meat and apple cider, made Rachel's stomach screech with hunger. She licked her lips and gazed at the sliced kosher cold meat arranged neatly behind the glass. Barrels of pickles and herring gave off the sharp smell of pickling brine. Wooden boxes stuffed with eggplant, mushrooms, carrots, cucumbers, and cabbage were stacked against the walls of the long, narrow shop. Barrels of sunflower seeds and dried fruit stood on both sides of the wood counter. But what intrigued Rachel most were rows of shiny cans, stacked on shelves behind the counter.

BOOK: Rachel's Hope
5.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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