Chapter 10          The Debate
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Chapter Ten

The Debate

Joy beyond joy filled the Pulichever household that Sukkoth, but it was a private joy. It was decided that Shloimele would continue to pose as Joachim Weiss, a Jewish merchant from Frankfurt who had been invited by Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin to spend Sukkoth with them. They had resisted the impulse to run into the streets and trumpet their good fortune to the people of Pulichev. There was much planning to do, and it was important that secrecy be maintained.

This arrangement was somewhat unsettling for Shloimele. He had become a composite of three personalities. Until after the debate he was still Gregor Tal, Bishop of Lubianewicz, masquerading as Joachim Weiss, the Jewish merchant from Frankfurt, but in reality Shloimele Pulichever, the son of Reb Mendel and the Rebbetzin. Moreover, since his real identity was still very new to him, he would have to learn who he was while pretending to be two other people.

But nothing could spoil the wonder of those days for Shloimele. It was a magical time, a time of discovery. Ever since he had been taken from his parents Shloimele had been alone. He had grown up without a family, and he had been groomed for the solitary life of the priesthood. Now he was suddenly discovering how it felt to be loved by a father and a mother, and how it felt to love them in return. For most of his life he had buried himself in the world of ideas. Now he discovered that there was also a world of emotions.

His thirst to know was unquenchable. He peppered Reb Mendel with questions, quickly digesting the answers and asking new questions. He was intoxicated by the mitzvoth, and he absolutely loved to study the Talmud.

The next two weeks were the fullest and happiest Shloimele had ever known. He would have liked nothing better than to remain in the warm embrace of his parents’ home surrounded by his own people, but Krakow beckoned. The debate was less than eight weeks off, shortly before Chanukah. There was so much to do and so little time. He and Reb Mendel would have to make their separate ways to Krakow. There they would meet again in secret together with Chaim Tomashov to review their plans for the debate.

Shloimele left Pulichev two days after Sukkoth. Once out of the city, Joachim Weiss ceased to exist, and he once again became Gregor Tal.

Along the way, he visited Bronislaw Kowalski, the Bishop of Fabiansk, Jan Bilutsa, the Bishop of Malonavka, and Stefan Provkin, the Archbishop of Krutsk. He consulted with them about the upcoming debate and invited them to attend. They assured him that they had every intention of attending, as did most of the church dignitaries of the region; this debate promised to be a major historic event. He was happy to hear that. It was important that there be a large attendance.

Reb Mendel left Pulichev one week after Shloimele. He traveled directly to Krakow and the home of Chaim Tomashov.

As the day of the debate approached Krakow was abuzz with excitement. The Cardinal’s residence was the scene of feverish activity. Workmen swarmed over the great hall where the debate was to be held.

A procession of elegant coaches discharged their elegant passengers coming to pay their respects to the Cardinal. There were visiting churchmen, members of the aristocracy and even two members of the royal family.

The old priest Zbigniew Mzlateslavski was everywhere, overseeing the preparations, welcoming the guests, answering their endless questions.

Was this Gregor Tal as brilliant as was being said?

Ah, considerably more, considerably more; no Jew could stand up to him.

Was it true that all the Jews would be expelled from Krakow at once?

Absolutely! Every single one of them, from the oldest man to the smallest infant. However, the Cardinal had graciously consented to permit them to stay for ten days after the debate.

But how would such a sudden, drastic change affect life in the city?

Ah, truly a troubling question. But we must do what is right and place our faith in heaven. We shall not be forsaken. And then Zbigniew Mzlateslavski would nod his head and smile ironically.

The day of the debate arrived bright and cold. Although the debate was not set to begin until noon, by midmorning the great hall was jammed with visitors and spectators. At the front of the great hall stood a long table covered with a burgundy velvet cloth. This table was for Maxmillian Cardinal Szmerka and the archbishops of the region. Directly in front of it were two bare oaken tables. These were for the debaters. There were also several rows of plush armchairs for the visiting dignitaries. The rest of the hall was filled with benches.

Precisely at noon, the Cardinal made his entrance flanked by Jan Bilutsa, Bishop of Malonavka, and the old priest Zbigniew Mzlateslavski.

The great hall immediately fell silent. The Cardinal took his place at the center of the long table, Bilutsa and Mzlateslavski on either side of him.

The Cardinal was shriveled with age. His scarlet robes accentuated the deathly pallor of his face. He looked about the crowded hall and cackled gleefully, drool dribbling from his toothless gums down his bony chin.

“Heh heh! Quite a spectacle this is going to be,” he mumbled to himself.

“Welcome, welcome!” he announced at the top of his quavery voice. “We are honored to welcome Your Royal Highnesses,” a nod to the two princes, “and all the respected members of the aristocracy and the clergy. And a hearty greeting to all the worthy commonfolk who have come here today. We welcome you.

“Today is a glorious day. Today we shall see justice done. Although many of us are convinced—myself among them—that the Jews are responsible for the woes of the good people of Krakow and should be banished from the region, we shall give them a fair chance to defend themselves. They have been granted the right to participate in a debate and to try to convince me that they look upon all Polish people as brothers. I shall be open-minded and impartial. The representative of the church shall be bound by the same rules as the representative of the Jews. Could anything be more fair?”

There was a murmur of approval from around the great hall. The Cardinal smacked his gums in satisfaction. He was enjoying himself.

“Good, good. Very good. I will look to divine guidance for my decision. Our consciences will be clear. We will have done more than our duty requires.” He chuckled. “I must beg you, however, to indulge me. I am an old man, and it would be too strenuous for me to conduct the proceedings myself. I will listen carefully and weigh the arguments, but our good friend Father Zbigniew Mzlateslavski, who is not such a youngster himself, will preside. He will moderate the debate with fairness and impartiality.”

“Thank you, Your Eminence,” said Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. “I am honored.”

“The floor is yours,” wheezed the Cardinal. “You can begin any time you are ready. May Heaven bless your efforts on this day.”

The old priest took a deep breath. This was the high point of his life. Everything he had ever done before, all his scheming, the friendships cultivated, the favor curried, the sacrifices, the maneuvering and the planning, all would finally bear fruit together in this triumphant climax. And the wonderful irony of it, the irony that he alone could appreciate. The Jew would be beaten in this debate by his very own son, and the only one who would know about it would be the one responsible, he himself, Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. His nerves tingled with anticipation. He must savor every moment of this day. There would never be another like it.

“Greetings to all,” he said, clearing his throat. “We are gathered here to witness the manifestation of divine guidance, as His Eminence explained. The Jews of Krakow stand accused of treachery against the populace of Krakow. This is a very serious allegation. Before executing the decree of expulsion, the Jews will be given the opportunity to present their case. The matter is in the hands of heaven. The Cardinal will consider the arguments very carefully and rely on divine guidance to render his final decision.

“Father Gregor Tal, the honorable Bishop of Lubianewicz, will represent the church. I have known Father Gregor for almost all of his life. Ever since he was a child. I can not think of a more worthy advocate.

“Mendel of Pulichev will represent the Jews. As many of you know, my own parish is in Pulichev. I have been familiar with this Jew for many years. He is a respected scholar among his people, one of the best they have to offer. The Jews of Krakow were free to choose whomever they wished. They will certainly not be able to claim they were not given every chance.

“Will the two advocates please rise?

“Father Gregor, the church is delighted to have you as its representative,” he said, bowing slightly.

He turned to Reb Mendel.

“I had thought the representative of the Jews would be the rabbi of Krakow, not the rabbi of Pulichev,” he sneered.

“Unfortunately, Krakow does not have a rabbi at this time,” Reb Mendel replied.

“It does not matter,” said the priest with a casual wave of his hand. “As to finding a new rabbi for Krakow, perhaps they should hold off for a while. I don’t think it will be necessary.” He laughed maliciously. “Well, then. Let’s get on with it. Yes, Father Gregor, what is it?”

“I would like to address a few words to His Eminence, if I may.”

“By all means,” said the Cardinal. “What is on your mind, Father Gregor?”

“Your Eminence,” said the young man, “as you have so wisely explained, we all look to divine guidance on this momentous occasion. Therefore, I think that it is our obligation to make sure that these proceedings be conducted in proper fashion so that we may be worthy of divine guidance. I have no doubt that Your Eminence will agree with me on this point.”

“Certainly, certainly, my dear boy,” said the Cardinal. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“I move that Father Zbigniew Mzlateslavski be dismissed as moderator of this debate.”

Pandemonium broke loose in the great hall. The Cardinal coughed and spluttered. Zbigniew Mzlateslavski’s mouth fell open in shock.

“What is the meaning of this, young man?” demanded the Cardinal when the noise had subsided.

“Your Eminence, it is not suitable for the church to have him conduct these proceedings. He is an unscrupulous man who is guilty of grave sins.”

“That is a very shocking accusation. We cannot grant your request on the basis of your accusation alone. Are you prepared to prove it? Right now?”

“Yes, I am, Your Eminence,” he replied.

He turned to one of the guards. “Please bring in the witness,” he said.

The guard hurried off. In a few minutes, he returned with the witness, a massive old man with a wild, bushy white beard. An involuntary cry of alarm escaped the throat of Zbigniew Mzlateslavski at the sight of the witness.

“Your Eminence!” he cried out. “I sense a conspiracy against me. I don’t what I have ever done to Father Gregor to deserve this. I have been a good friend to him since he was a little orphan child in the monastery. Why has he become my enemy? You must protect me, Your Eminence!”

“Oh my, this is highly irregular. I can certainly vouch for you, Father Zbigniew. But the witness is here. He must be heard. However, if you feel that Father Gregor bears you malice he will not be permitted to interrogate the witness. The Bishop of Malonavka, Father Jan Bilutsa, will interrogate the witness. Have you any objection, Father Jan?”

“None at all,” replied Jan Bilutsa. “I would like to resolve this issue as quickly as possible so that we cant get on with the matter at hand.”

“My sentiments exactly,” said the Cardinal. “Proceed.”

“Please tell us your name and occupation,” Jan Bilutsa said to the witness.

“My name is Boris Gopurok. A long time ago I used to be a bandit.”

The great hall exploded. The guards rushed forward from their stations in the rear to restrain the crowds that pressed to look at the legendary bandit king. Even the royal princes leaned forward in fascination. The Cardinal rose from his seat, his face crimson with fury.

“We will have order here or I will have this chamber cleared,” he screamed.

The clamor slowly subsided.

“Continue, Father Jan.”

Jan Bilutsa appeared baffled.

“Well, sir,” he asked. “Why did the honorable Bishop of Lubianewicz bring you here? What do you know about Father Zbigniew that can be of interest to us?”

“The Bishop wanted me to tell of my meeting with the priest some twenty-eight years ago.”

“Then by all means tell us about it.”

“In those days I was younger and stronger. I was master of the roads of this region. The priest came to me and told me that he wanted a child abducted, a Jewish child. The child would be traveling to Krakow with his father and mother. The father was a rabbi in a distant city, I forget the name. I was to watch for an opportunity and spirit the child away. There was a large sum of money in it for me if I was successful, a very large sum of money indeed.”

“Did you do it?”

“No, I did not. I told the priest that I would not dirty my hands with abducting children. But he insisted. I told him that the best I could do for him was to act as an intermediary. He grudgingly accepted this arrangement. I contacted Wodan Malik and his band of scum. They were eager to accept. I told the priest they had accepted his offer, and he gave me the money to hold for them.”

“Did you take any of the money for yourself?”

“Only a very small amount. Just to compensate me for my time.”

“I am glad to see you are a man of integrity, my good Gopurok,” sneered Bilutsa.

“Thank you,” said Boris Gopurok, the sarcasm lost on him. “I sent Wodan Malik a message that the money had been entrusted with me. As soon as the mission was accomplished he would be paid. He wanted to know how he would recognize the rabbi and the child. He didn’t want to go to all that bother and end up with some worthless Jewish child. A good question. I asked the priest. He told me he would arrange for the rabbi to be carrying a distinctive red packet with him. Several weeks later, the deed was done, and I turned over the money.”

“Why have you come here today to tell us of this? Are you not concerned that you will be punished?”

“I am an old man. I may have spent most of my life as a criminal, but in my own way, I am a religious man of sorts. I am more concerned with the fate of my soul. My conscience has always bothered me about my part in the affair. I want to die with a clear conscience.”

“Then why have you waited all these years to come forward? Why have you never spoken of this before?”

“The priest threatened me. He told me he would pour curses upon me if I ever talked.”

“And now you no longer fear his curses?” asked Jan Bilutsa sardonically.

Boris Gopurok fidgeted. “The Bishop of Lubianewicz came to me and commanded me to speak. He said he would curse me even more severely if I didn’t tell the truth. I had no choice. I could not risk a bishop’s curses.”

“Your Eminence,” burst out Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. “This is all a pack of lies. Whatever dirty business this scoundrel was involved in has nothing to do with me. It is his word against mine. Would you accept the word of a common thief against the word of a man of the cloth?”

The Cardinal nodded. “Quite so. Father Gregor, do you expect us to take this man’s word?”

“Your Eminence, the proof lies in the red packet that was sent along for identification. According to my sources, it was delivered to you.”

Recollection flashed across the Cardinal’s face. He looked confused, as if there were a conflict going on inside him and he was grappling with a difficult choice. But it was a choice he did not have to make. Before he had a chance to speak. Stefan Provkin, the Archbishop of Krutsk, interrupted.

“Your Eminence, I remember that red packet. You were puzzled by it and showed it to me. We couldn’t figure out the meaning of it. Then, some time later, you received a letter explaining that it was sent in error. If I am not mistaken that letter was from Father Zbigniew. Was that not so?”

“Ahem, yes, now I remember,” admitted the Cardinal reluctantly. “Indeed it was Father Zbigniew who sent it. Very well, Father Gregor. You have proved your point. Apparently, Father Zbigniew once arranged to have a Jewish child abducted. He certainly deserves to be reprimanded for it. But is that such a serious offense that he has to be humiliated in public? We are supposed to be deciding the fate of the Jews of Krakow here today. Father Zbigniew is not on trial. Does a minor offense committed many years ago disqualify him from moderating this debate? This whole demonstration is highly improper, Father Gregor, especially from the advocate for the church. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Your Eminence, I beg your indulgence. I do not bring up this matter lightly. Since it has been established that it was indeed Father Zbigniew who ordered the abduction of the Jewish child he must be held responsible for the actions of Wodan Malik and his thugs while they were in his employ. In effect, these thugs were acting as Father Zbigniew’s agents. Besides abducting the child, they also murdered the Polish driver, a man called Wladislaw. This man was a good Christian, a man with a wife and seven children, a devout man who went to church regularly. The blood of this man is on the hands of Father Zbigniew. He is responsible for the sorrow of the widow and the seven orphans. Such a man is not a fitting moderator of such a historic debate before such an illustrious company.”

A rumble of approval from the rows of dignitaries greeted these words. Their honor was being protected by the Bishop of Lubianewicz. They were flattered. The Cardinal bowed to the pressure.

“Very well, Father Gregor,” he said. “We will look into this matter further. Mind you, all we have is the accusation of the Bishop of Lubianewicz against Father Zbigniew Mzlateslavski. The matter must be considered carefully but at a different time and place. Meanwhile, Father Zbigniew will step down as moderator. The Archbishop of Krutsk will moderate. Have you any objection, Father Stefan?”

The Archbishop did not have a chance to reply. The old priest had bolted from his seat. He ran straight at Shloimele bellowing insanely as he ran. He grabbed at Shloimele’s throat, jerking his collar off completely. He scratched at his face and kicked at him.

“You filthy Jew!” he screamed in pain and rage, as he was restrained by the guards. “I make you a bishop, and this is how you repay me? By destroying the greatest moment of my life? You might as well have killed me. Curse you! Curse you, you filthy Jew!”

The crowd recoiled in shock.

“Remove him!” commanded the Cardinal. Zbigniew Mzlateslavski ran wild-eyed into the crowd, raving and frothing at the mouth as he darted in an out among the benches. It took four burly guards to catch him and drag him screaming from the chamber.

“Father Gregor, what is the meaning of this?” the Cardinal demanded when order had returned to the great hall. “Why did Mzlateslavski call you a Jew?”

“Your Eminence, the old priest was right. Just several weeks ago, on my way to the debate, I discovered that I am the child that was abducted from the rabbi twenty-eight years ago. Reb Mendel of Pulichev, who was supposed to be my opponent in this debate, is that rabbi whose child was taken from him. Yes, I am a Jew, and he is my father.”

Shloimele paused. No one spoke. A stunned silence gripped everyone in the great hall. The day had brought surprise after surprise. The crowd was titillated by the excitement. And now this! They were spellbound.

“Your Eminence,” he continued. “I beg your indulgence for just a short while. I believe that when I have told my story everything will become clear.”

He took the Cardinal’s silence as consent and began. He spoke for a very long time. He spoke of the childless couple who had journeyed to Krakow to Reb Zalman, of the promise and the three conditions, of the birth of the child and the joy it had brought. He spoke of the second journey to Krakow to fulfill one of the conditions and the tragedy of the abduction. He spoke of the midnight visit of Reb Mendel and Chaim Tomashov to Boris Gopurok’s cave. He spoke of the years of emptiness and anguish his parents had suffered. He spoke of the memories that had been awakened in him when he heard his father saying the Kol Nidre, another of the conditions. He spoke of the last condition that had proven his identity and brought father and son back together again.

“Your Eminence, Your Royal Highnesses, honored sirs,” he said. “If it is divine guidance we are seeking today have we not found it? Is it mere coincidence that all these events and the suffering of the last thirty years have led to this climax today? Is it mere coincidence that the two advocates who were to oppose each other have discovered at the eleventh hour that they are actually father and son? Is it mere coincidence that the one responsible for all these terrible accusations against the innocent Jews of Krakow stands himself accused and condemned before you on this day?”

Shloimele looked about. Reb Mendel was weeping openly. Many people in the audience had tears in their eyes. His narrative and impassioned plea had had a visible effect on the assemblage.

“Your Eminence, I think divine guidance has indeed manifested itself here today. I think the innocence of my people has been proven.

“My people suffer along with the rest of the Polish people. When there is no food they are also hungry. They also shiver in the freezing winter nights. It was only the venom and malice of one man who schemed and plotted to bring calamity upon the Jews of Krakow.

“But Your Eminence was wiser. You knew that this was too serious a decree to issue without divine guidance. You made clear to this illustrious assemblage that you were calling upon divine guidance to decide this grave matter. The Jewish people of Krakow proclaim their innocence and their loyalty. They beg for your kindness and compassion.”

The Cardinal’s gaze swept the vast chamber, trying to gauge the sentiments of the crowd. He looked closely at the faces of the dignitaries. He glanced at the anxious faces of the commonfolk. Everyone seemed awestruck by the almost supernatural quality of what had just taken place before their eyes. He didn’t seem to have much choice.

The Cardinal sighed.

“The pending decree of expulsion against the Jews of Krakow is hereby declared null and void,” the Cardinal proclaimed amid a rumble of approval. “We are thankful for the divine guidance in resolving this issue.”

Reb Mendel and Shloimele embraced.

“Come, Shloimele, my son,” said Reb Mendel. “Let us go home.”

Arm in arm they walked slowly out of the great hall. Outside, the day was fading quickly, the sun a glowing red ball half swallowed by the horizon.

The news that the evil decree had been nullified was greeted with rejoicing in all the Jewish communities of Poland. In Krakow the Jews were gripped by a spiritual fervor. Jubilant singing and dancing engulfed the streets of Kasimierz.

After the excitement of Krakow, the blissful peace of winter in Pulichev was very welcome. Reb Mendel taught Shloimele the basics of traditional Torah study. Although Shloimele had been one of the Talmudists of the Polish Church, in fact, that was a hindrance rather than a help. He had to unlearn all his errors and learn a completely new approach to the Talmud. But Shloimele worked hard and learned quickly, amazing his father and even himself with his rapid progress.

Whenever Reb Mendel was unable to spend time with him Shloimele would either study on his own in the main synagogue or circulate among the townspeople of Pulichev. He began to develop a profound affection for his people. At first he had wondered what it would feel like to belong to a persecuted minority, but the answer surprised him. These Jewish people did not feel excluded from gentile society. They had absolutely no interest in entering it; they lived in a world of their own. The persecution of the gentiles was no different from the persecution of nature and the elements. It was something to be borne as best as one could, one of the unpleasant realities of life.

Shloimele discovered that the world of these Jews existed wherever Jews existed. It was unbound by natural boundaries; its only boundaries were the holy words of the Torah. But these were more formidable than any natural ones could ever be. And Shloimele was amazed at the depth of feeling that each Jew harbored for all his fellow Jews. Many times he saw very real anguish on the faces of even ordinary Pulichev Jews when they heard of the plight of an unknown Jewish widow and orphans even in a distant land. Would a Pole or a German feel this way about all his countrymen even in the same town? This inside view of the phenomenon of Jewish solidarity would take getting used to, but it was a very pleasant surprise.

In the evening Shloimele would return home tired but happy. While he would eat the Rebbetzin would sit across from him drinking endless cups of dark, bitter tea. She would tell him about the practical side of Jewish life, the many small customs that gave their life its special richness and color, and she would tell him stories about her own life and about his illustrious ancestors and his relatives.

Often, he would speak to her of his friend, Krzystoff Papka. He had tried to find Krzystoff, using all the means available to a bishop, but to no avail. He had discovered nothing at all. Krzystoff seemed to have disappeared completely as soon as he had passed through the gates of the monastery. The Rebbetzin suggested that Krzystoff might have been an angel sent from heaven to stop her son from growing to hate the Jews and to steer him towards his fateful reunion with him family and his people. Shloimele would laugh. Krzystoff Papka was a real person, and a owed him a debt of gratitude. Perhaps they would someday meet again.

Shloimele spent many nights in his father’s study, the discussions often ending only with the gray dawn light. When the weather grew warmer and Reb Mendel’s schedule permitted it father and son would go for long afternoon strolls alongside the bubbling streams that crisscrossed the wooded valley. It was a private time their only company being an occasional pair of fearless storks and the small forest animals that scampered away at the sounds of their footsteps. Sometimes they would sit in the dappled shade of a lime tree, completely engrossed in a discussion of the purpose of life. It was almost as if time had suspended itself to make up for the lost years as father and son grew closer and closer.

It was an altogether wonderful time for Shloimele, a time filled with the thrill of spiritual and emotional discovery, a time of emergence from darkness into light. One chapter in his life had come to a close. It was time to begin a new one.

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