Tom Chapman’s Short Stories
The social historian was explaining some of the background which led up to the marriage of the great-great-grandparents of the young lady who was researching her family history.
"But how was it that they were married in a small Protestant chapel when she was from a strict Irish Catholic family and he was a Polish Jew?", the young lady asked him.
"Well, we cannot be sure about that, but ...."
Brian O'Rourke was working hard to support his family, a wife and one daughter, but it was always difficult, working the land on his minimal holding, and having to pay rent to the landowner, who was more concerned with his own fortunes than the welfare of any of his tenants. Of recent years the potato crop had been plentiful, and since Brian's family was small, he had been able to keep expenses down and put a few pounds aside for future needs. But this year the potato crop had been destroyed by some disease which rotted the potatoes in the ground.
There was no income, but the landlord still demanded his rent. Brian was able to meet these demands from his savings, but he had seen first hand the ruthless cruelty of the landlord when another farmer had been imprisoned for non-payment of rent, and his family evicted from their home and left to fend for themselves with no shelter in the Irish winter. Two of the children had died in those conditions and Brian had not heard of the mother and surviving child for some time.
The potato disease persisted, and the future was looking ominous for all of the croppers.
Brian decided that he would leave Ireland while he still had some money left. There were reports that America provided plenty of opportunity for those who were willing to throw their weight into building up the new society there.
Two months later the O'Rourke family arrived in New York, but they were not the only ones who had escaped from the death and hardship in Ireland caused by the potato famine. Already hundreds of Irish families were struggling to find work, and unscrupulous property owners were exploiting them and turning even the smallest space into substandard living quarters and charging exorbitant rents.
Brian was one of the lucky ones. Perhaps because he was still very fit and strong, or because he had tremendous determination, he managed to find work cleaning various buildings in the dock area. The work was hard and long, and paid poorly, but he had no thought of giving up.
Colleen, his teenage daughter, found some casual work running messages for an importing company, and she, being of the same mettle as her father, never complained about the pressure and urgency that her employer imposed on her. So her few pennies a day helped to bolster the family's meagre income.
Not all of the Irish were like the O'Rourkes. Many gave up trying to earn a legitimate living and resorted to petty crime to get the drink they craved to forget their worries. This, in turn, led to worse living conditions, and all too soon the Irish were considered to be a blight on society with their drunkenness, fighting, and being generally unwashed and unkempt. Some were tolerated as long as they could be exploited.
Brian strove to keep himself and his family above this degrading social stigma. His wife kept their tiny room clean, and Colleen always had a clean, if cheap and simple, dress every day as she ran her errands. In a world surrounded by poverty and degradation, Colleen stood apart with clean clothes, and long black hair, brushed and tidily tied back each morning, and from beneath the fringe, her blue eyes lit a face always ready with a smile.
Over the centuries Jews in Poland had been alternately welcomed or persecuted by the ruling authorities. By the mid 19th century, after many years of restriction and repression, a "Jewish Enlightenment" movement, known as the Haskalah, arose in Poland. This was a reaction against the restrictive measures put in place by Catherine II of Russia at the end of the 18th century. Those in favour of the Haskalah were of the opinion that if they assimilated with the Poles, and abandoned some of their Jewish orthodoxy they would be better treated.
This idea was mostly favoured by the wealthy merchants who thought they would prosper and not be persecuted.
However there was a large group who were not willing to throw away their Jewish orthodoxy to ensure their business success. Such a person was David Ben Eliezer, who was the third generation to run a very successful importing business. He was not willing to forsake the beliefs of his fathers for some commercial gain. As he thought about the history of his people in Poland he could see the possibility of further trouble perhaps in the not too distant future.
He had money, he had business acumen, he had contacts with merchants all through Europe. In short, he was a successful trader and merchant; perhaps there was opportunity in the new country of America for his business to grow and provide security for the future when His son, Jakob, would take over after him and carry on the family tradition.
With books full of names, and catalogues full of products the family migrated to New York, and within a couple of years David Ben Eliezer had built up a thriving trading company, Eliezer Imports, which found a ready and eager market for his goods.
Young Jakob was becoming a valuable part of the enterprise, and showed great ability to negotiate with agents and buyers from many of the major retailers and distributors. David was able to set up the home in an expensive part of town, and an office in the business sector of the city, a few blocks away from the dock area.
The dock area was a part of the town that David avoided. It was dingy, dirty, and in many of the alleys and empty buildings the Irish unemployed gathered in unsavoury groups. Jakob, his son, often went there to check the latest import orders against the shipping manifests. And sometimes David would get his office manager to send the errand girl with letters or papers to a shipping agent in the docks area. David did not know who the errand girl was, his manager had arranged all of that. All he knew that she was Irish, and that was a good enough reason not to have direct contact with her, but she was reliable—unusual, he thought, for someone he considered to be so far beneath them.
Jakob had seen Colleen from time to time delivering papers to the same shipping agents that his father's importing company dealt with, not realising that she was employed by Eliezer Imports.
David as a matter of course kept rather remote from his inferiors, be they employees, or those of a lower social standing, and was at pains to instill those same values into young Jakob. He was a tough businessman—not dishonest, but uncompromising—and had no time for emotional or social factors to influence his business decisions. There were strict rules as to how things were run, and this was a part of his nature for he had been brought up, as an orthodox Jew to observe strict religious rules, without question.
But sometimes there are influences which even the strictest rules cannot withstand.
On yet another visit to the docks, Jakob once again passed the Irish messenger girl. Her bright manner and open face commanded his attention as they passed each other, and in a sign of familiar recognition, Colleen smiled, and with her Irish brogue greeted him with, "Good morning". Jakob nodded in reply, and hurried on.
He knew not to become too friendly with the 'peasants', his father's training was beginning to harden him for the tough business leadership that lay ahead; but there was something about that Irish girl. She was open, clean, industrious, and had a much more lighthearted air about her than did any of the other Irish 'peasants' that he had seen.
A week or so later Jakob called in to the office of a shipping agent to discuss details of an expected shipment, and there standing at the counter was Colleen.
"What are you doing here?" asked Jakob.
"Waiting for some urgent papers for Eliezer Imports," she replied, and if I don't have them back in ten minutes there will be trouble."
A clerk gave Colleen an envelope and she almost ran out of the building in her hurry to deliver it as soon as possible.
"Eliezer Imports?" Jakob thought to himself, "and what is so urgent? There's nothing very pressing at the moment that I know of."
When he returned to the office Jakob spoke to John Mason, the manager, "John, what has happened here? Is there some problem?"
"What do you mean Jakob, everything is under control."
"Well," said Jakob, "I just saw a message girl almost running to get some papers back here in a real hurry, and I thought that there must have been some problem with a customer or shipment."
"Oh that," said John with a bit of a chuckle, "that message girl is one of the lazy Irish mob, and I often tell her that it is urgent to make her hurry. It's a bit of fun watching her get flustered and she gets more done in the day with that sort of pressure. So, we get more for our money out of her."
"Be careful John, she seems to be a good worker and if she is pushed too hard she might leave."
"That's not all that important, work is hard to find, and there are plenty more who are needing a job." Jakob thought John's reply was uncaring and somewhat heartless.
Jakob didn't know her name, but he determined to find out a little more about her. From what he had seen, she certainly wasn't one of the 'lazy Irish', and in spite of the pressure and treatment she always had a ready smile. He didn't like John's attitude of making sport of the way he treated her. Somehow he must find a way to help her situation without becoming too involved. After all, he was going to be the next owner of the business and she was at the very bottom. Jakob was far, far above her, according to his father.
David Eliezer, in spite of his strictness, was a very fair businessman and employer, and Jakob was sure that he wouldn't condone the methods that John was using. And he didn't want to take over a business that was built on exploitation of any kind. He spoke to his father about it.
"I'm not happy about that son, just keep watching the situation and have a word to John when you have the opportunity. But don't become involved directly with the girl, John must put this right himself. Things can happen, and she is not one of us socially or religiously. I would not like you to get any further ideas about her personally."
The opportunity came sooner than Jakob expected, but it was such that he could not avoid being involved personally with Colleen.
Jakob was on his way towards the docks and had just left his offices when he heard the unmistakable warning shout of, "A bolt! A bolt!".
Somewhere nearby a horse had taken fright and had bolted. Suddenly it came into view around a corner, with the driver of the delivery cart struggling to regain control.
But then there was another cry from around that corner, "Quick, she's been hit!"
Jakob ran to see what had happened and there was Colleen on the ground surrounded by papers strewn about her. She sat up, bruised and muddy, but otherwise unhurt, the horse had just brushed against her. Jakob immediately gathered up all the papers and began to sort them out. They had come from three different clients, and from the content Jakob could fairly easily see where they belonged.
"Mr. Mason is going to be angry about this," Colleen said through sobs, "I don't know what to do about it."
"I know where you are going with them, I'll go back with you. I'm interested to see what Mr. Mason says to you about it. Whatever it is, it wasn't your fault."
"How do you know where I was going?" Colleen asked.
"You said that you were delivering papers for Eliezer Imports when I saw you a few weeks ago. I'm often there myself, and I know Mr. Mason pretty well."
When they arrived Jakob said, "You go in and try to explain to Mr. Mason what happened. I'll stay here at first, but I will be able to hear what he says."
Colleen was nervous, but she went into the front office where John Mason was waiting.
"Where have you been, and look at you, you grubby little Irish wench? And look at these papers!"
"But I couldn't..."
"I'm not interested in your excuses, all I can see is that you could not do what I asked you to."
Jakob had heard enough. He strode in.
"That's enough, John. I'm going to tell you what happened this morning, whether you are interested or not."
After he had related the story of the accident, he added, "and I think we might have to have a talk about your position here. What I have witnessed is not the way this company treats its workers, even if they are on the bottom rung of the ladder."
He left John with the bundle of papers and escorted Colleen outside.
"You do look a bit of a mess, with mud on your clothes and hands and legs. Go home and clean up. Have the rest of the day off. I will see that you will not lose any of today's pay. You will be upset after all that has happened, and you could have been killed."
As he said those words, Jakob suddenly felt a strange feeling in his stomach. What if she had have been killed? He didn't want to think about it.
Colleen was overcome, and the shock was getting to her. She began to sob again.
"Thank you for all that, but who are you? You obviously work here."
"I am Jakob Eliezer, my father owns this company, and I will be taking over in a few years' time. And now that you know who I am, what is your name?"
"Come back tomorrow, Colleen, after you have had a good night's sleep." "Goodbye," said Colleen, "and thank you for saving my job. I was sure that Mr. Mason was going to tell me not to come back again."
"That's all right, and don't worry about Mr. Mason any more."
Colleen arrived home just after ten o'clock that morning, much to her mother's surprise.
"Oh Colleen, what ever has happened to you?"
Colleen related the events of the day so far, concluding with, "...and that young man who is so thoughtful and caring is the son of the man who owns the company."
"Well that's very nice dear, but don't get any ideas about him. That family is rich and far above us, and also, they are Jewish; they don't believe what we do."
Colleen agreed, but she couldn't help thinking how nice it had felt to have a rescuer like that standing beside her—it gave her confidence and security somehow.
Jakob discussed the happenings with his father. David was not impressed with the way John Mason had treated Colleen, but he was concerned that Jakob had become involved personally, even if inadvertently. To make sure it didn't go any further, he decided to meet with the girl himself tomorrow and thank her for her diligence and ensure she knew that her job was safe. And he would make arrangements to replace John Mason.
Some weeks went by and Jakob had not seen Colleen around any of the usual places. Then one afternoon, as he was returning to the office, he met Colleen in the street. She had a small bag of groceries. Jakob asked what she was doing with groceries in the middle of the afternoon and she explained that old Mr. Eliezer had given her afternoons off so she could help her mother whose health was deteriorating. But he still paid her the same daily wage.
Jakob then realised that his father had arranged his client meetings in afternoons, when Colleen would not be possibly visiting those places at the same time.
"The old schemer," Jakob thought.
"There is a coffee shop just near the grocery store," Jakob said, "and it is a few streets away from the docks and warehouses. Not many of our business people go that way. On Tuesday afternoons when you do your shopping walk past there and see if I am sitting in the far corner. If I am, come in. I would like to talk to you some more."
"Thank you," replied Colleen, "but I am not sure that it would be wise, my parents don't agree with your religion, and there are too many other differences between us."
"I understand," said Jakob, "and now I had better keep going with my business matters. It has been good to see you again."
"Yes," said Colleen, with just the suggestion of a sigh, "goodbye."
On Tuesday Colleen walked past the coffee shop. Jakob was not there, and she wondered if he had thought better of it and not pursued that idea. She was more than just curious to see if he would be waiting there, and was surprised at herself when she felt a twinge of disappointment at his absence. But perhaps it was for the better.
Jakob had not had the opportunity to be at the coffee shop that day, and wondered if Colleen had passed that way.
The following Tuesday Jakob was able to organise his business visit at about the right time. He went in and ordered a coffee and waited. Presently Colleen came past, stopped, and looked in. There was a half smile when she saw him, but also there was uncertainty and apprehension, and after a few seconds she walked away and disappeared from view.
Jakob's feelings were raised at first and then squashed. Had she decided against seeing him at all?
A few weeks later Jakob was sipping his coffee when Colleen came by, and seeing him came in and sat down.
"I can't stay long, " she said, "mother will want to know where I have been if I am too late."
"Thank you for coming in, Colleen." Jakob said quietly, "I thought you had decided to forget the whole thing."
"Oh, Jakob, I was undecided at first, on that day when I walked away, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see you again."
"I understand, because I feel the same way, but I don't know what we can do about it. You had better go now, I will think about it a bit more. Call in again some time Colleen, and in the meantime I'll try to find an answer." For the next few weeks Jakob seemed to be a little bit remote at work, and eventually his father spoke to him about it.
"I'm sorry father, but there has been something else occupying my mind. I hope I haven't let it affect my business dealings."
"Not really," said the old man, "or not so far, but are you sure it is something else, or is it someone else?"
David was wise in the ways of young men—he had been one himself years ago—and he continued, "Is there a young lady starting to come into your life?"
"Yes," Jakob admitted, not wanting this conversation to go any further.
"Well, perhaps I could meet her some time. How do you know her?"
Jakob felt as if he was being led into a trap. "I met her in the course of business some time ago."
David seemed to show some enthusiasm. "Is she the daughter of one of our merchants perhaps, some of them are quite well off you know."
"Well no, not exactly." Jakob was very uneasy, and it showed.
The old man suddenly became very serious. "Jakob, it's not that Irish girl is it."
Jakob dropped his eyes. "Yes it is."
Now David was angry. "I told you to have nothing to do with her. She is not one of us, and if you persist with this, I promise you that you will have no part in my business. My brother's son is a more than capable businessman and could easily run this company without your help."
David took a deep breath, glared at Jakob, and went on. "Make up your mind son, it's either a secure business future here for you, or that Irish girl. You can't have it both ways."
This was a side of his father's nature which Jakob had not seen before. To have strong and uncompromising business and religious principles was one thing, but when they came before family ties, and what Jakob had always assumed, family love, it was more than he was ready for.
For the next few days his thoughts were in turmoil. Did he really care enough about Colleen to throw away all that security? Did he want to be associated with someone who didn't seem to understand love? Was he willing to be cut off from the Jewish community and the generations of tradition? Was Colleen worth all of this?
He met Colleen in the coffee shop again and told her of his father's anger.
Colleen looked at him with apprehension. Was this the end?
"Colleen," he spoke quietly, "I have decided that how I feel about you is bigger than dollars in the bank, and it has taken this to prove to myself that I love you. Are you happy about that?"
He reached across the table and held her hand.
"But what about the Jewish faith, I could not be a part of that." "I have thought of that and realise that I will be cut off from my family and not accepted in the synagogue if I go ahead with you." Jakob smiled at Colleen and continued, "but I am willing to do it anyway."
"I haven't told you yet, "Colleen replied, "but I have talked to my parents about us. I didn't know how serious you were, but I said to them that it must be possible to find a way through this if you were willing. Jakob, I love you too. Father was disappointed that you were not Catholic, and couldn't imagine you wanting to get married in a Catholic church." Colleen paused, and then questioned Jakob. "It would hurt my parents a bit, but there are other places aren't there?"
"Yes," he replied, "I've thought the same things and have found a pastor of a little free church on the other side of town. He is willing to talk to us about it. I have been to a couple of the services there and it seems that they talk about the same God as we do, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jakob, but without the regulations and traditions. He preaches a lot about Jesus and love."
Then Colleen became more serious. "But what will you do about work? Your father will surely not want to have you in the business, will he?"
"You are right. My part in that business is about to be finished." Jakob too was very serious now. "But I have saved some money and there are some opportunities for some of the newer technical and engineering products to be imported and supplied to industry. My father has never dealt with these products and has never wanted to move into that field. You would soon pick up some of the office knowledge, and together I am sure we can make a living out of it."
"But how was it that they were married in a small Protestant chapel when she was from a strict Irish Catholic family and he was a Polish Jew?" the young lady asked him.
"Well, we cannot be sure about that, but I have searched the records and find no evidence of childbirth or hospitalisation for miscarriage early on. It wasn't until two years after they were married that your great-grandfather was born. It appears that there was no marriage of convenience or necessity, they were just in love."