In 1935, when I was just eighteen, I entered the household of Rudolf Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. “The scholar of Karaism”— at that time I had no idea what that meant, or why it should be “the” instead of “a,” or who Rudolf Mitwisser was. I understood only that he was the father of what seemed to be numerous children, and that he had come from Germany two years before. I knew these things from an advertisement in the Albany Star:
Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3–14, requires assistant, relocate NYC. Respond Mitwisser, 22 Westerley.
It read like a telegram; Professor Mitwisser, I would soon learn, was parsimonious. The ad did not mention Elsa, his wife. Possibly he had forgotten about her.
In my letter of reply I said that I would be willing to go to New York, though it was not clear from the notice in the Star what sort of assistance was needed. Since the ad had included the age of a very young child, was it a nanny that was desired?
I said I would be pleased to take on the job of nanny.
It was Elsa, not Mitwisser, who initiated the interview—though, as it turned out, she was not in charge of it. In that family she was in charge of little enough. I rode the bus to a corner populated by a cluster of small shabby stores—grocery, shoemaker’s, dry cleaner’s, and under a tattered awning a dim coffee shop vomiting out odors of some foul stuff frying.
The windows of all these establishments were impenetrably dirty. Across the street a deserted gas station had long ago gone out of business: several large dogs scrabbled over the oil-blackened pavement and lifted their hind legs against the rusting pumps.
The address in the ad drew me along narrow old sidewalks fronting narrow old houses in what I had come to think of as the Albany style: part Hudson Gothic, part Dutch settler. But mainly old. There were bowshaped stained-glass insets over all the doors.
The lamps in the rooms behind them, glowing violet and amber through the lead-bordered segments of colored panes, shut me out. I thought of underground creatures kept from the light. It was November, getting on to an early dusk.
Frau Mitwisser led me into a tiny parlor so dark that it took some time before her face, small and timid as a vole’s, glimmered into focus.
“Forgive me,” she began, “Rudi wishes not the waste of electricity. We have not so much money. We cannot pay much. Food and a bed and not so many dollars.” She stopped; her eyelids looked swollen. “The tutor for my sons, it was you see . . .
charity. Also the beds, the linens—”
She was all apology: the slope of her shoulders, her ﬁdgety hands twittering around her mouth, or reaching into the air for a phantom rope to haul her out of sight.
Helplessly but somehow also slyly, she was reversing our mutual obligation—she appealing for my sympathy, I with the power to withhold it. It was hard to take in those pursed umlauts sprinkled through her vowels, and the throaty burr of her voice was lanced by pricks so sharp that I pulled back a little. She saw this and instantly begged my pardon.
“Forgive me,” she said again. “It gives much difﬁculty with my accent.
At my age to change the language is not so simple. You will see with my husband the very great difference. In his youth for four years he studies at Cambridge University in England, he becomes like an Englishman.
You will see. But I . . . I do not have the — wie nennt man das?—the idiom.”
Her last word was shattered by an enormous thud above our heads.
I looked up: was the ceiling about to fall in on us? A second thud. A third.
“The big ones,” Frau Mitwisser said.
“They make a game, to jump from the top of the . . .
Kleiderschrank, how you call this? I tell them every day no, but anyhow they jump.”
This gave me a chance to restore us to business. “And the littler ones?” I asked. “Do you need help with them?”
In the dimness I glimpsed her bewilderment; it was as if she was begging for eclipse.
“No, no, we go to New York so Rudi is close to the big library. Here is for him so little. The committee, it is so very kind that they give us this house, and also they make possible the work at the College, but now it is enough, Rudi must go to New York.”
A gargantuan crash overhead: a drizzle of plaster dust landed on my sleeve.
“Forgive me,” Frau Mitwisser said.
“Better I go upstairs now, nicht wahr?”
She hurried out and left me alone in the dark. I buttoned up my coat; the interview, it seemed, was over. I had understood almost nothing.
If they didn’t want a nanny here, what did they want? And if they had had a tutor, what had become of the tutor? Had they paid too little to keep him? On an angry impulse I switched on a lamp; the pale bulb cast a stingy yellow stain on a threadbare rug. From the condition of the sofa and an armchair, muuch abuseeeed, I gathered that “the big ones” were accustomed to assaulting the furniture downstairs as well as upstairs— or else what I was seeing was thrift-shop impoverishment. A woolen shawl covered a battered little side-table, and propped on it, in a ﬂower- embossed heavy silver frame that contradicted all its surroundings, was a photograph—hand-tinted, gravely posed, redolent of some incomprehensible foreignness—of a dark-haired young woman in a high collar seated next to a very large plant. The plant’s leaves were spear-shaped, serrated, and painted what must once have been a natural enough green, faded to the color of mud. The plant grew out of a great stone urn, on which the face and wings of a cherub were carved in relief.
I turned off the lamp and headed for the front door with its stained-glass inset, and was almost at the sidewalk (by now it was fully night) when I heard someone call, “Fräulein!
You there! Come back!”
The dark ﬁgure of a giant stood in the unlit doorway. Those alien syllables —“Fräulein,” yelled into the street like that—put me off. Already I disliked the foreignness of this house: Elsa Mitwisser’s difﬁcult and resentful English, the elitist solemnity of the silver frame and its photo, the makeshift hand-me-down sitting room. These were refugees; everything about them was bound to be makeshift, provisional, resentful.
I would have gone home then and there, if there had been a home to go to, but it was clear that my cousin Bertram was no longer happy to have me. I was a sort of refugee myself.
(Some weeks later, when I dared to say this to Anneliese—“I sometimes feel like a refugee myself”—she shot me a look of purest contempt.) Like a dog that has been whistled for, I followed him back into the house.
“Now we have light,” he said, in a voice so authoritatively godlike that it might just as well have boomed “Let there be light” at the beginning of the world. He ﬁngered the lamp. Once again the faint yellow stain appeared on the rug and seeped through the room. “To dispel the blackness, yes? Our circumstances have also been black. They are not so easeful. You have already seen my nervous Elsa. So that is why she leaves it to me to ﬁnish the talk.”
He was as far from resembling an Englishman as I could imagine.
In spite of the readier ﬂow of language (a hundred times readier than his wife’s), he was German—densely, irrevocably German. My letter was in his hands: very large hands, with big ﬂattene...