Before the Shadows Flee
by Louis-Philippe Dalembert
Translated by William Rodarmor
Friday December 12, 1941 was one of those peaceful Caribbean mornings when the sun caresses your skin instead of scorching it. On that Friday, free, independent, and democratic Haiti declared war on the Third Reich and the Kingdom of Italy. The announcement took the citizens by surprise. They were looking forward to the Christmas festivities and had already forgotten that four days earlier, unable to stomach the attack on Pearl Harbor, their little island had bravely opened hostilities against Imperial Japan. The news had spread across the planet with the speed of a force 5 hurricane. Hundreds of millions of skeptics couldn’t believe their eyes or their ears, depending on whether they had read it in the paper or heard it on the radio. The crowned heads of Japan and their faithful subjects still hadn’t gotten over it.
It was now time to make Herr Hitler eat his words, and fly to the unfortunate Jews’ assistance. The very young state, being the first nation in modern history to have abolished slavery on its soil by force of arms, had decided to ditch the whole ridiculous notion of race. Human beings were all Negroes, for heaven’s sake! Per Article 14, a clause engraved in the Constitution with a bayonet point. Which is why the islanders’ vocabulary includes black Negroes, white Negroes, blue Negroes, cinnamon Negroes, red Negroes, under the skin or for short, and yellow Negroes, Chinese Negroes with déchiré eyes. In the process, these polychrome Negroes had declared that anybody persecuted because of their ethnicity or faith could find refuge on the nation’s sacred territory. They became ipso facto Haitian citizens – in other words were protected by the Vodou mystères. This was a promise that the following generations would take very seriously.
Since the enactment of the infamous Nuremberg race laws and Kristallnacht, proud Caribs dreamed of duking it out with that gesticulating puppet, Herr Hitler. We weren’t going to stand around with our arms folded and let those pork-eating Nazis exterminate the Jews. Besides, this would also help increase our influence in the world. As early as 1939, Haiti had passed a law granting immediate naturalization to any Jew who asked for it — and without any grate tèt delay, the sovereign people insisted. Clearly, that hadn’t been enough. It was time to shift to a higher gear if we wanted to help those unfortunate Israelites. Could we extend the Vodou mysteries to them? Their menorahs, mezuzahs, and tzitzit might not find favor in our saints’ eyes. Besides, our lwa spirits have never been too fond of water. Their forced passage across the vast Atlantic left them with a deep horror of the liquid element. Even Agwe and La Sirene, who live in water, rarely venture more than ten feet from shore. Besides, so as not to have to find lovers in Africa, the lwa had gotten it on with the Christian and Native American gods. So let’s have no talk of racial purity, identity authenticity, or any of that nonsense. We’re all bastards, period.
In his solemn address to the nation that Friday, newly elected President Antoine Louis Léocardie Élie Lescot, commander of Haiti’s land, sea, and air forces, informed his dear fellow citizens that as of the next day, “Our bombers will crisscross the blue sky of Berlin.” The speech had an explosive impact. To those who knew what was involved, Germany wasn’t Gallic rooster shit, but a symbol of absolute power. Take the mosquitoes in the town of Gonaive. The toughest bugs in all America, which no massive spraying of insecticide had ever eradicated and which buzz like attack helicopters, they were brought to Haiti in the nineteenth century aboard German freighters. And now little pappy Lescot was going to get us into a scrap with the Boches?
Far from feeling proud, the ungrateful citizens pointed to the delusions of grandeur of a president who made his proclamation in the first person singular: “I hereby declare war on Germany and Italy.” As if he were going to face the Nazi hordes alone, backed by an armada of invisible zombies. Nor did people fail to note his weakness in geography, which any buck private knows is useful when waging war. Can you imagine a blue sky in Berlin in the middle of December? Had Lescot even ever been off the island? By what miracle could the core of the country’s air force -- four WW I puddle jumpers that could barely make it over the Massacre River to thrash the Dominicans and avenge our brothers’ genocide – fly as far as Germany to force Herr Hitler out of his bunker?
For the better informed, it was merely a matter of logistics. If we were just a tad better armed, we’d show that miser what’s what. (In Haitian Creole, nazi also means “penny-pincher.”) We’d make Charlie Chaplin eat his ridiculous mustache, said a man who had seen The Great Dictator the evening before. We’d kick his ass so hard that even his mother couldn’t tell it from a baboon’s butt. Best of all, we’d make him toe the line, “marcher SS,” said one man to general applause, quickly adding the phrase to his vocabulary. Ever since their ancestors had whipped the veterans of Napoleon’s invincible armada, the Haitians imagined themselves taking down the mighty of the Earth the way you might casually squash a bug. To their way of thinking, an arm-waving Austrian buffoon and a strutting Corsican dwarf wore the same tricorn hat.
As the New Year festivities gave way to noisy quarrels across the island over the weekend, nobody mentioned Japan. It wasn’t worth getting your kimono in a twist. Haitians had known kings and emperors, those excrescences of the Earth, and had cut them down to size whenever necessary. And the Spaghettis’ Duce so feared Haitians’ legendary valor that he’d known only sleepless nights since the December 12 declaration. Between its boasting and its pranks, the Americas’ first egalitarian republic spent the weekend in a war to rescue the unfortunate Jews from the Nazi menace.
Doctor Ruben Schwartzberg was among the few people to appreciate the symbolic value of the island’s new strongman’s speech, while most of the natives would bet that little pappy Lescot would flee like a sewer rat at the sight of a single hair of Hitler’s mustache, even in a photograph. Schwartzberg had reached Port-au-Prince under circumstances both singular and tragic two years earlier, and still had much to learn about this mountainous scrap of land. Before he landed there as an adult, fate had placed a book with a premonitory title next to his cradle: On the Equality of Human Races, by the Haitian doctor and intellectual Anténor Firmin.
The Given Name
The twentieth century was thirteen years old when the future Dr. Schwartzberg, the youngest of two children, was born in Lodz, a Polish town on the Lodka River under Russian administration. The growth of the textile industry had attracted waves of immigrants from central Europe and Germany. The Schwartzberg lineage was part of a wave that came in the previous century and whose German origins had been diluted by alliances over the generations, to the point of engendering in some families nationalists hostile to any foreign hegemony. But aside from the usual worker-boss tensions, coexistence between new arrivals and longtime settlers and original inhabitants unfolded without major conflicts. Far fewer than those in other of the country’s cities, anyway. When Ruben was born on Poludniowa Street, a stone’s throw from the little Reicher synagogue, the Jewish community represented nearly a third of the city’s population.
He owed his first name to the quick mind and powers of persuasion of his older sister, Salome. From the very first visible evidence of pregnancy, she displayed a mounting interest in the arrival of this new member. But it would be wrong to view it as premature maternal instinct or a child’s fly fascination with the origin of the world. At seven, Salome knew that kids were born of a disgusting joining of a willy and a foo-foo. Her burning curiosity was actually due to a clear sense of her own rights.
Ruben’s future older sister quickly began to cogitate, praying that the new arrival would not be a girl, who might risk stealing her starring role in her father and uncle Joshua’s eyes. Not to mention that girls were scaredy cats who burst into tears over nothing. Unless the baby could shield her from her mother’s mood swings, Salome saw more inconvenience than advantage in this new presence in their house, not to say the world. There were already so many mouths to feed! Facing ill fortune bravely, she decided to find the baby a name. As a fan of nameology, she felt that a person’s moniker determined their destiny. In case the newborn was a boy, as she hoped (it was a lesser evil than a girl), she first thought of Shmuel, then Badash, which meant “wise” in Polish. On reflection, however, she decided that both names sounded too harsh. At the mature age of seven, Salome felt that after three generations of furriers, her lineage had scraped enough animal hides.
Then she got the idea to turn to French, where she was sure to find the perfect name. A language so rich in marvels couldn’t disappoint her. And that’s how On the Equality of Human Races, in which Salome had learned her first rudiments of French, entered the future Dr. Schwartzberg’s life. Her mother Judith had unwittingly encouraged Salome by forever boasting of her ability to carry on a correct conversation in French.
For as long as Judith could remember, she’d always thought of her native Lodz as a kind of giant open-air sukkah hut. Not a place where she would haul her carcass around by candlelight when she was old, she would proclaim, or take her rest as a boneless phantom. This wasn’t alienation, but a kind of ancient insecurity, a sense of never feeling at home, that had passed through several generations of Jews to wind up in her woman’s body. The wish “Next year in Jerusalem!” spoken at the end of every Passover supper reinforced it. As if at any moment they might resume their ancestral wandering, nomads forever drawn to the far horizon. Judith thought herself a pious woman, so there was no question of blaming the curse by He who must not be named. From this came her early desire to learn a foreign language, so that while waiting to make her aliya – whether her miscreant of a husband liked it or not -- she would be able to easily settle elsewhere. So she had set her sights on Paris and French, which she studied by reading novels by Stendhal and Flaubert. She went about her chores loudly mangling words in “the most beautiful language in the world,” sure she had missed a career as a great actress by marrying that mule Nehemiah, who stubbornly resisted any improvements of the mind. Judith felt the family would be safe in Paris, which was inexplicable, since she had no particular connection to it. But Paris was the native city of Zola, who wrote J’Accuse, and the capital of a country where since 1791 the members of the community enjoyed the same rights as the natives. A Jew couldn’t help but be happy there. “Alzoy gluckor wi a yid in Paris.” Vive la France!
The one time Judith’s younger brother Joshua traveled to the City of Light, it was no vacation trip. Besides finding customers or business partners in the Sentier neighborhood, he was instructed to make useful contacts that the tribe could rely on when the time came. On the banks of the Seine and the shelves of a bouquiniste who was both grumpy and seductive, young Joshua found Anténor Firmin’s book and brought it home. The title intrigued him, and he was touched to find in the preface an answer to An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races by count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau. He didn’t have much trouble grasping Firmin’s arguments, as his French was better than his sister’s. He’d apparently learned it from the wife of the French consul in Lodz, a mistress exemplary in more than teaching language.
According to family legend, that’s how the book wound up in Salome’s hands, who first learned French there with her mother’s connivance, for once. Uncle Joshua was lavish with gifts and flattery, calling the girl “princess” and “the apple of my eye.” These compliments were all the more sincere because the lifelong bachelor and sensualist had no known children. Salome well knew how to repay him: by begging the inveterate storyteller to once again describe the lights of Paris, or by taking an interest in the book she saw him reading with so much attention. She never missed a chance to display her progress in order to win her uncle’s favor, while Judith accused him of spoiling her daughter and making her more of a pest than ever.
The final battle over Dr. Schwartzberg’s surname took place the day he was born. He was brought into the world by a fat, no-nonsense matron who carefully placed the birth under the protection of the Book of Books and Psalm 122, which she put on the night table next to the mother. She did this discreetly, to avoid being yelled at by the family patriarch, for whom a birth was a matter of skill, not miracle. A committed agnostic, Nehemiah was already annoyed that his wife had made him nail a mezuzah on every door jamb, a job she felt was man’s work. Without asking his opinion, she also applied all sorts of unwanted restrictions on their life together, including strict niddah rules. This left a perfectly healthy husband dreaming of a more accommodating conjugal regime.