Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
Excerpt, “Short Story Classics (Foreign), Vol. III, German.” Edited by William Pattern, 1907. Translator: Harriet Lieber Cohen.
Leopold, chevalier de Sacher-Masoch, was born in 1835 at Lemberg, capital of Galicia, where his father was chief of police. He died at Lindheim, Hesse, in 1895. He studied at Prague and at the Gratz University, where later he became professor of history.
The success of his first romance, “A Galician Story,” published in 1835, induced the author to resign his professorship here, but he afterward accepted another chair at the University of Lemberg.
The best of his tales, most of which are short stories, are those that present Galician life or little Russian, or Jewish, all lighted by a graceful, keen, but amiable humor and sympathy – a man of the world’s tolerance for all phases of human nature.
THOU SHALT NOT KILL
Countess Mara Barovic was the Circe, Omphale, and Semiramis of the mountainous part of Croatia.
Old and young (men, be it understood) were at her feet; and this despite the fact that she was regarded as plain-looking rather than pretty. Her ugliness, however, was the sort that strikes attention, attracts consideration, and excites interest. Moreover, she boasted a “past” that cast a halo about the present.
It was rumored that one of her lovers had “accidentally” shot her husband while out hunting, and that this accident had occurred at a time when the Count had become “embarrassing.”
Besides, she was original.
If it be true that woman is a work of art, as a celebrated poet has said, it must be borne in mind that in these days the agreeable and pleasing in art is no longer “the thing.” Cruel, unadorned truth is preferred to draped loveliness, in love as well as in art.
The Countess belonged to the type demanded by the modern school. By her two more ardent admirers, Baron Kronenfels and Mr. De Broda, she was termed respectively the iconoclast and the naturalist.
She mounted her horse like a hussar, was a dashing whip, and indulged in passionate fondness for hunting. One of her favorite pastimes was roaming field and forest in the picturesque costume of the Croatian peasant; and she could apply the horsewhip as dexterously and mercilessly to her creditors as to her refractory horses.
The fair lady was head over ears in debt. There was nothing she could longer call her own, not even the furniture in Chateau Granic, not even the false braid which adorned her well-poised little head.
The young aristocrats who danced attendance upon her ladyship explained the preference displayed by this Croatian Circe for the “wise men of the East” – as they called Kronenfels and De Broda – by the brilliant financial position of her two Jewish admirers.
Of the two, Baron Kronenfel’s noble birth rested upon the more ancient foundation, and for that reason, perhaps, he enjoyed a certain priority in the fair lady’s preference. De Broda was a mere sapling in the forest of aristocracy, having been but recently ennobled. The unfeigned adoration he displayed for his armorial bearings made him the butt of endless practical jokes. His coat-of-arms glittered wherever it could find a resting-place. It shone upon the collar of his dog; it was emblazoned on his cigarettes, made especially for him at Laferme’s.
Despite certain differences of taste, Kronenfels and De Broda were good friends, good comrades as well, for they were both officers in the Reserve. But how often does friendship stand its ground against the whispers of jealousy, especially when a woman’s favor is the prize at stake? The relationship between the two grew strained and unnatural, and they were both secretly conscious that they were walking along a path where the least deviation from the centre would result in a catastrophe.
The long-looked for alteration took place one evening at the club. Wine had been flowing freely, the betting had been high. Countess Mara was the subject under discussion, and Baron Roukavina was telling an amusing story in that lady’s eventful life.
She had not paid her taxes for years, was threatened with an execution, and had been moving heaven and earth to avert the impending disgrace. She had gone to Agram, from there to Buda-Pesth, importuning ministers, seeking favor with deputies, and had actually got so far as to ask an audience of the king. She had received hopeful promises everywhere, but the danger hung heavier over her head with the passing of every hour.
At that particular juncture, Baron Meyerbach called on her, and offered to settle her troubles. Meyerbach was an intelligent fellow, with a good heart, and a purse with the proverbial open mouth; but Hungarian aristocracy could not receive him within its inner circle for the simple reason that he was a Jew.
“Have you so much influence?” asked the Countess. Her breath was almost taken away by the offer.
“Do not inquire too closely into my modus operandi, Countess,” said the Baron. “It must be sufficient for you to know that my success is assured.”
“And what do you ask in exchange for this service?”
“Simply this; that for the next two weeks you will take a walk with me every day for an hour in Vaitzen Street; that you will skate with me an hour in the park; and that each evening you will give me the privilege of escorting you to a different theatre.”
“And that is all?”
The Countess yielded willingly to the Baron’s terms. At the end of the fortnight, she received a receipt in full for the payment of her taxes – thirty-two thousand florins – and Baron Meyerbach found Hungarian aristocracy ready to receive him with open arms even within its most inner of inner circles. The Countess had launched him.
The story closed in a burst of laughter, and the diplomat Meyerbach’s health was drunk repeatedly and variously.
Of all the convivial party, De Broda alone was silent. Finally, with Goethe’s words in mind, he said in a low voice: “Everybody seeks money, and everybody clings to it.”
Kronenfels flung his cards noisily on the table, looked savagely at De Broda, and said, with an ugly frown: “Do you imply by that that such a woman as Countess Mara Barovic would willingly let herself be blinded by money?”
De Broda shrugged his shoulders.
Springing from his seat, the Baron cried out, scornfully: “You are a Jew.”
For a moment, participants and listeners seemed paralyzed with astonishment; then De Broda, every nerve tingling with rage, hurled angrily back at his assailant: “You are another!”
A challenge to a duel was the result of the quarrel. Seconds were chosen on the spot, the weapons were to be pistols, and the oak forest near De Granic was to witness the affair early the following morning.
De Broda had gone home. He was arranging his papers in order, when Rabbi Solomon Zuckermandel walked into his sanctum.
“You are going to fight?” were the old man’s first words.
“And with a Jew? No, Mr. De Broda, you can not. You dare not shoot a man! You will not do it.”
“Pardon me, Rabbi Solomon, but my knowledge is somewhat deeper than yours in affairs of honor.”
“Do you think so!” replied the old man, with an indulgent smile. “Ah, well, we shall see. You think we can wash our honor only in blood? My dear Mr. De Broda, spotless honor needs no washing; and if it has a blemish, it can not be effaced even by blood. The Baron called you a Jew. Is that an insult?”
“In the sense he attached to the word, yes.”
“Not so. Neither in that sense nor in any other. Does the name of a soldier become an insult because soldiers have deserted their flag? The Jews we call to mind when the word “Jew” is used in reproach are those who have forsaken their standard. They are no longer Jews. Judaism is the fear of the Lord, love of liberty, love of the family and humanity. The honor of the Jew consists not in spilling blood, but in acting uprightly and doing good.”
“You are right; but …”
“No, no. No ‘buts.’ When God in the midst of thunder and lightning gave the Tables of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, there were no ‘buts.’ He said: “Thou shalt not kill!” You are a Jew, Mr. De Broda. In other words: Man, thou shalt not kill!”
The young fellow turned toward the window. The rabbi should not see his emotion. But the Jewish heart was touched, and the old man who gave no thought to title and coat-of-arms had conquered the aristocrat’s pride and prejudice.
Midnight had struck when Rabbi Solomon reached Kronenfels’ quarters. The letter he handed the Baron from his adversary read as follows:
“Dear Sir –
You have insulted me grossly in calling me a Jew in the presence of a number of gentlemen, and have added to the insult, as it were, by making it at a time when Mr. De Treitschke in Berlin has spoken of the Jews as the schlamassl [the plague of the Germans]. You are, however, an only son, the pride of your family, and I should like to avoid our meeting for tomorrow. You have often seen me hit the ace at a good range; and you know as well that I am no phrase-maker. I propose, therefore, that we shall both shoot in the air, and that we shall mutually exchange our word of honor not to speak of this arrangement.
Kronenfels held the letter to the rabbi.
“What is to be done?” he asked, with a smile.
“Mr. De Broda has proved himself a true Jew,” responded Zuckermandel, gently. “Do not let him surpass you. Prove to him that you, too, are of a race which, boasting the most ancient civilization, is above all others from the humanitarian standpoint.”
Kronenfels wrote some hurried lines which Rabbi Solomon conveyed to Mr. De Broda before daybreak. The Baron’s answer was couched in these words:
“Dear Sir –
I was about to address you when I received your note.
I, too, should deeply regret having a mortal encounter with a young man upon whom so many hopes are placed.
I accept your proposition.
Moreover, between ourselves be it said, we are Jews – in other words, descendants of ancestors whose house is more ancient than that of the Lichtensteins or Auerspergs, ancestors who have transmitted to us two qualities which Mr. De Treitschke could scarcely possess, being as it were the offshoot of a somewhat recent civilization; and these are, repugnance to shed blood, and the “merciful” of the Jewish heart.
The duel took place at six-o’clock in the morning, the venerable oaks of De Granic forest casting an air of solemnity over the bloodless scene. The adversaries kept their word; the pistols were discharged in the air; and the witnesses declared that honorable satisfaction had been made. As De Broda and Kronenfels were shaking hands with hearty good-will, the brushwood parted, and old Rabbi Solomon slowly approached the young men. Raising his arms in benediction, he said, and the light of happiness beamed from his eyes: “Gentlemen, you are Jews!”
Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch – 1866