1592 – The Holy Roman Empire, Prague
A sharp knocking jarred Judah from his deep slumber. The darkness outside his window did little to reassure him. He was much too old for midnight visitors. “What is it?” he called, his voice choked with the grit of sleep.
“Maharal!” called a familiar voice as the handle to his front door rattled. “Maharal, I have news.”
Blinking back the sleep, he placed the voice: young Philipp. It was enough to get Judah to push back the too-thin blankets and climb to his feet. As the knocking came again, Judah fumbled for his cane and pulled a robe from the back of a nearby chair. He could not move as fast as he once did. The knocking came again before he was halfway across the front room. “Patience,” he rasped as he stumbled to the door. “Patience, please.”
As soon as Judah lifted the latch, the door swung outward to reveal a young man—a boy really, Philipp could not have been more than twenty. By the light of a flickering lantern, Judah could see that the boy’s clothes were sharp and vibrant, a stark contrast to the Maharal’s threadbare robe. More importantly the boy had forgone his badge. Only this youth would dare leave off the six-pointed star that the rest of them were forced to wear. But it was not the missing badge that caught the Maharal’s eye. It was the boy’s face. He was frantic and slick with sweat, even on such a cold night. He must have run straight from the palace.
Philipp spoke before the Maharal could marshal his thoughts. “It’s happened again, Rabbi. They’ve found another one.”
The Maharal found himself lacking in words. Either sleep or age was clouding his mind. “I see,” he finally said before turning back into his home. “Come. You must tell me all.”
The youth eased into the room, shutting the door behind him. The lantern light revealed a small dining room with a potbellied stove in the corner. “Please,” Judah said, his voice still graveled by sleep. “See to the fire.”
“But—“ The boy began to protest but Judah cut him off, taking the lantern from his hand and setting it on the table.
“Your news can wait until we are settled. Don’t leave an old man to shiver on this cold night.”
The boy sighed but knelt in front of the old iron stove. As the boy worked, Judah filled the teapot from his basin. He returned the tin pot to the top of the stove and settled into the chair closest to the stove. Philipp rose, a fire crackling merrily in the hearth, and perched on the chair across from the rabbi.
“Alright Philipp, tell me what has brought you to my home in the middle of the night.”
“They found another kid, Rabbi. A girl this time.”
“And where did they find her?”
“Down by the river. Not far from here.”
“I see.” It was unsettling news, though not wholly unexpected. “When did they find her?”
“Not an hour ago. I overheard them telling the emperor and ran straight here.”
The Maharal did not ask what the youth was doing in the emperor’s chambers so late at night. The emperor’s proclivities were a wide-open secret. And, as this meeting proved, it paid to have someone in the lap of power. “Do they suspect anyone?”
Philipp shook his head. “It’s like the others. No witness, no leads. One of the night’s-watch practically stumbled over her while on his rounds.”
“And we can expect much the same response as we saw with the others.” This was the fifth such child to be found this month. All found with their throats slit. All found near the Jewish quarters. “Thank you for bringing this to me Philipp. We must expect a difficult time ahead of us.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Right now? I’m going back to sleep.”
“What?!” Philipp spluttered. “Back to sleep? But Rabbi—“
“There’s nothing to be done ’til morning,” the old man said with a deep sigh.
“But I ran all this way.”
“And I’ve thanked you for it.” Judah stood, his cane shaking with exertion as he did. “But there’s nothing I can do this night. I must be prepared for the harsh light of morning. It will be a hard day for all of us.”
“The best way I can prepare,” Judah continued, raising his voice over the boy. “Is by getting sleep. You could do the same. Please now, leave me to prepare.”
Philipp rose and made his way to the door. “I…I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I just thought…” He trailed off as he undid the latch.
“You did well, Philipp.” Judah said, his rough voicing smoothed. “You do not realize, perhaps, how much you have helped.”
The young man turned and met the Maharal’s gaze. With a small nod, he stepped out into the night.
Judah sighed, letting the mantle of the Maharal drop from him. Too soon he would have to pick it back up again. He turned and plodded over to the stove where the tea water hummed in a boil. With a shaking hand he removed it and poured into a waiting mug.
* * *
By midmorning the entire city had heard of the girl’s death. The markets raged with the news. “We cannot let this go on,” one preacher cried from atop his soapbox. His stark white robes placed him as more than just a street-side sermonizer. “The emperor will not speak out but we know the truth. We know where the darkness lies in this city.” He stood in the square that divided the jewish quarters from the rest of town. As he spoke a crowd began to gather and the Maharal was quick to note that not a single one of them wore a six-pointed badge.
The Maharal had made a point to be out amongst his people this morning. As he walked the alleys of the ghetto many a person stopped to ask if the news was true. Everybody knew what a dead child meant. Especially a dead Christian one. The Maharal stopped and spoke soothing words to any who would hear. He tried to calm their frayed nerves; to focus his people on the comfort that tomorrow would bring. But when he got to the market he was not surprised to find this preacher undoing his careful work.
“Our city has suffered enough at the grubby hands of these leeches. It is time to cast them out.” The preacher’s vehemence was rubbing off on the crowd. With every hate-filled stanza, the Maharal could see violence forming in the thoughts of those gathered. “They kill our children. They use the blood to make their bread. We all know it to be true. So it is time to act. For our children’s safety if not for our own!”
These were claims that the Maharal had heard all his life. Always from someone like this priest. He would not listen to them again. He stepped forward, intent on soothing the gathered mob, but someone else spoke first. “Who are you to accuse us? We have done nothing wrong.” The speaker was standing across the gathering from the Maharal. He was a tall man, one who wore his badge with pride: Rafal Levitsky, the baker’s eldest.
“I am Vladamir Prucha, abbot of Strahov Monastery and companion to the emperor. And you are a Jew who has not been shown his place.”
“Worse than you have tried,” Rafal yelled back. But the crowd bristled and, as if commanded, reached for the man. As the first blows rained down upon the man, the Maharal could hear others trying to come to his aid. If he did not act more than blows would be traded. But what to do? As he turned, he caught sight of the abbot. A grin had slid its way onto the preacher’s face. A grin not of amusement, but of calculation.
Judah spun, catching sight of the red and gold uniforms of watchmen. Stumping over to them as fast as his cane would allow, Judah reached out a shaking hand to one. “Do something,” he wheezed. But from the grin on the man’s face he knew that it was no good.
“About what?” The man barked, not taking his eyes off the melee.
“They’re killing him.”
“They’ll only rough him up,” the guard’s companion said with a snicker. “And if they do well… it wouldn’t be much of a loss.”
Judah cast his eyes about the market, trying to find something that would put an end to the carnage. But all he saw was ruin. Carts were overturned, stalls abandoned, and the people—his people—had scattered. All those left were intent on harm. Judah shook his head, turning away from the square, and wiped the water from his eyes. He left the two guards, still laughing, behind. There was nothing an eighty year-old man could do in the face of such violence. Or at least, almost nothing.
* * *
The ghetto was deathly quiet for the rest of the afternoon. Anyone who could, stayed off the streets. Those who couldn’t hastened along, casting fugitive glances over their shoulders. Rafal was not the only one to lose their life to that morning’s butchery. Moshe Lesky and Suzzana Catz also fell to the mob’s fists as they tried to help Rafal. The chevra kadisha was busy that afternoon preparing the bodies for burial.
The Maharal sent feelers out into the non-Jewish corridors of Prague. What he heard was not promising. Most of the city saw the deaths as retribution, a sort of payment for the children who had died. But their anger was far from slaked. To make matters worse, Abbot Prucha continued to spread his blood libel around the city. Philipp reported that after the mob had dissipated, the abbot had visited the palace. The emperor had granted him a private audience which not even Philipp could find what it was about. Whatever it was did not dissuade the abbot from spreading his hatred. His monks swept throughout the city. It seemed every marketplace and street corner now acted as pulpit to a radical in white.
“We should go.”
The Maharal had gathered the leaders of the community together in his front room. For three hours the wealthy and influential had been crammed around his dinner table. There was Rabbi Openheim, the Maharal’s successor at the Altneuschul; Mordechai Maisel, the philanthropist who had built one of Prague’s most beautiful synagogues; Betzel Gershom, a printer and leader amongst the younger Jews; and of course Philipp, the emperor’s favorite.
Rabbi Openheim was the leading voice in an argument that they were all too familiar with. “Maybe Anatolia will take us. We’ve done it before and, if it means safety for our people, we should do it again.”
Judah caught the eye of Mordechai from across the room. They were both old enough to remember what it had been like thirty years ago when they had been forced out. And again, twenty years before that. It was not an experience they would choose to repeat. But, though the rabbi was not old enough to remember, he had a point. The city in those days had felt similar. As if it were a hive buzzing with anticipation. And Judah was afraid that this Abbot Prucha was just the man to break it open.
“The bloodshed will continue,” the rabbi said, looking about the room for support. “And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
“So we fight back.” Betzel stood up, pushing his chair back from the table with force. “If they want bloodshed, we can give it to them.”
“No,” the Maharal said, cutting across the youth. “Too many have been killed already.”
“No. I will not see more young people die in a fruitless cause.”
“But what other choice is there?” Betzel persisted. “If we leave, people will die too. Do you think my mother can make such a journey? Even you, Maharal, can you truly claim to be able to survive a journey of hundreds of miles?”
The Maharal sighed. “No. I do not claim such power.”
“Then why shouldn’t we fight?” Betzel had allowed himself to get worked up. His voice was raised in accusation. “If we stay, people die. If we have to die, why shouldn’t it be while fighting for our home?”
“Because the emperor won’t let you.” Philipp’s voice was cool as he stared across the table at Betzel. “The moment you fight back, Rudolf will bring his army down on the ghetto like a fist. He will smash all of your resistance and burn this place to the ground. We are lucky he has not done so already.”
“What do you mean?” Asked Mordechai, the old man leaning forward in his chair. “What has been said?”
“Rudolf has hinted that he is feeling pressure to exert more power over us.”
“That’s no big surprise,” the Maharal said, leaning back in his chair.
“No,” Philipp agreed. “But I think Rudolf is strongly considering it.”
“All the more reason to leave then,” Rabbi Openheim cut in. “We need to go before the emperor is forced to act.”
The Maharal raised a hand, silencing the younger rabbi. He found Philipp’s eyes across the table. “Can you go to him? Can you talk him down?”
The youth paused to consider. “Maybe. The abbot is hard pressed against us. But I think Rudolf will listen.”
“What if we removed the abbot?” Betzel cut in. “Without him, surely the populace would calm down.”
“Only after burning a dozen of us in recompense.”
It was enough to cool Bezel’s fury. “So what then…we leave?”
“Let me see what I can do,” Philipp said, raising to his feet. “Give me a couple of days and then we can decide.”
* * *
For the second night in a row, Judah found himself being awoken in the middle of the night by someone pounding on his door.
“What is it?” Judah grumbled as he threw open the door. A boy, a young one, whimpered and thrust a scrap of paper into the Maharal’s hand. Before Judah could say anything more, the boy turned and scampered into the night. He shook his head and turned back into his home. There were few places the messenger could have come from at this time of night. With shaking hands he lit his candle. By the dim light he could barely make out the handwriting on the note.
They’ve found another one.
Rudolf’s sending troops in the morning.
Judah collapsed into the nearest chair. It was all moving too fast. They needed more time. His eyes began to sting. It had been a long time since he had felt so powerless. His people were counting on him and he had let them down. If only he had tried harder. If only he had more power. If only…
He raised his head out of his hands. With a burst of strength he took hold of his cane and pushed himself to his feet. Rushing as fast as his frail body would allow, he retreated to his bedroom where he kept his most prized tomes. Even without his candles’ meager light he knew which one he wanted. It was his oldest, most ragged volume. Rumors said it was centuries old. And it might just hold the answers that they so desperately needed.
* * *
As the first warming rays of morning touched the city a company of troops emblazoned with the yellow and black Imperial eagle poured into the market square. A slight breeze was all that moved throughout the rest of the ghetto. Any other day and there might be children in the streets and pedestrians enjoying the crisp air. But today doors remained locked and families hid. More than one face was already covered in tears.
Only two forms stood against the ugliness that was about to unfold. In the center of the market, an old man leaned stiffly on his cane. There was little hope as he looked at the gathered soldiers. His robes were ratty and covered in muck. And he looked as if the cane were the only thing keeping him on his feet. Behind him a figure loomed. It must have been ten feet tall. It stood at attention stiffer than any of the soldiers across the square.
“Clear the area!” A sergeant barked at the two figures. “By order of His Holy Roman Emperor; the King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia; the Archduke of Austria, Rudolf the Second.”
Neither of the figures moved.
The sergeant hesitated, glancing down the ranks towards his captain. The captain sat astride a roan charger, one of the only such animals in the square. The captain nodded.
The sergeant yelled again. “By command of His Holy Roman Emperor, you are to clear the square. If you are of jewish descent you have been given until sunday to leave the city.”
Still the figures did not move.
With another nod from his captain, the sergeant broke from the line and advanced towards the figures. Before he could get more than a couple of yards the old man raised his hand.
“Come no further.” Though the man’s voice warbled with age, the soldiers were able to make out every word. “I am Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague. These people are under my protection. If you continue your show of force you will be stopped.”
The sergeant wasn’t the only one to laugh. “Oh yeah? I think we could get through you no problem, grandad.”
The Maharal lowered his hand back to his cane. “It is not me you have to worry about. I leave that to my associate Yossele.” With that, he turned and began to hobble back in the direction of the ghetto proper. His companion stood as rigid as ever.
The sergeant stared after the old man, baffled. To give him credit, this Yossele was a big fellow. But even such a giant couldn’t stand against the hundred men gathered here.
With a word from the captain, the troops began to advance. The sergeant was one of the first to reach the giant figure. Club raised and companions at his back, the man paused one last time. “Really buddy, you don’t want to do this. Go follow your grandpa and nobody has to get hurt.”
Yossele didn’t so much as flinch.
With a sigh and a shrug the sergeant brought his club down. A loud crack echoed across the square.
* * *
Judah stopped at the edge of the market, just out of sight of the troops. He heard the sergeant addressing Yossele. And he heard the sergeant’s club snap off of the golem. He felt like he owed it to these men to watch what was about to happen. And a part of him was more than a little curious.
Then the screaming started. Once again, Judah found tears springing to his eyes.
ZB Wagman is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. When not writing, he spends his days working at the Beaverton City Library.