Thief Among Thieves
by Rita Ashley
All recently immigrated Polish Jews felt somewhat paranoid, and Bumirn Slavatizki was no exception. He stormed into the country with teeth clenched and fists at the ready. His cheeks, blotched red with resentment, and fixed glaring eyes sent a clear message, "Don't mess with me."
Bumirn's intrinsic anger had not abated upon passage to America. During vain attempts to sleep on board the ship, scenes of rape and murder had flooded his thoughts. Too often, sweat soaked and barely asleep, he had tossed on his berth in restless yearning to escape the images, more real than sleep-induced. He relived in explicit, horrifying detail how he had hidden in fear under sodden haystacks in a shtetl, a Jewish ghetto, near Kuden. From there, he had watched a young farm girl repeatedly raped by five Cossacks. The memory of the stench of rotting hay and filthy vodka and vomit-soaked uniforms and sounds of vicious Russian grunts prevented real rest.
Ben wore his enmity of the Cossacks as a second skin. He hated them all because they committed horrible acts on Jews simply because they could. He withered, powerless to stop their evil or punish them. Upon waking, he vowed every night he would never be so helpless again.
Bumirn faced what was to be his final Ellis Island official, scowling. The clerk interrogated him. "What's your name, religion and where are you from?"
Bumirn winced and replied in loud Polish. "Bumirn Slavatizki, Zydowski, Polska."
The disinterested clerk, intent on ridding himself of yet another unpleasant Jew as quickly as possible, could neither spell nor pronounce Bumirn Slavatizki. The official randomly selected from a short list of names he believed to be Jewish. He vacillated, "Shall I make you Israel Levine, Aaron Cohen or Benjamin Bernstein?"
Ben watched the clerk for signs he would pass scrutiny. Instead, he heard, "Your name is Benjamin Bernstein."
The clerk filled in the form with careless penmanship, handed Bumirn his copy and, with a perfunctory flick of his wrist, motioned him to leave. In an instant, Bumirn Slavatizki was transformed into the newly minted American, Benjamin Bernstein.
During the month-long passage he had heard much talk of what he would find in New York. He listened when passengers shared stories of relatives who immigrated and were never heard from again. They warned of a New York awash with parasites and scam artists poised to fleece immigrants of their cherished belongings and cash, and sometimes their lives.
Predators circled new arrivals like vultures around fresh kill. Ben had seen it in the fields. A sick cow would be attacked by wolves, and from miles away, the vultures would congregate, locate the prey and circle until the wolves had their fill. The vultures would swoop down and pick the bones clean of any remaining scraps. Like wolves, the dockyard thieves were keen to detect their prey, the naïve and vulnerable.
As dispassionately as he had watched wolves attack and vultures circle, so too Ben watched the various shipyard con artists pick their prey clean with skill and purpose. He kept a close eye on one well-dressed couple who wore what Ben imagined were the latest fashions. They appeared to be waiting to meet their kin. In fact, they scoured the crowds for the their next sacrificial lamb.
The woman 'accidentally' bumped full frontal into a newly disembarked man. He repeated his apology in Russian, Yiddish and Polish and fidgeted with embarrassment over such intimate contact with a wealthy female stranger.
Unnoticed by anyone but Ben, she had removed the man's fat money purse on contact. She deftly slipped the unsuspecting dupe's pocket watch into her dangling wrist purse, while her 'husband' snagged valuables from onlookers.
When Ben saw the stealthy couple unshackle one oblivious traveler from an expensive leather valise, a "humph" of disbelief gurgled from his throat and he shook his head.
His attention then fell on two men of exactly the same height who worked the crowd together. Mesmerized by their constant movement, which Ben interpreted as a surveillance tactic, Ben watched. The men rapidly approached the third gangplank now crowded with Jews about to disembark, and Ben left his post to monitor the team's technique.
From a distance of ten feet he saw the two hustler's forelocks and black clothing worn by religious Jewish men for centuries. Their long beards were clean and one wore the traditional black hat of the Orthodox Jew; the other, a simple skullcap or yarmulke.
Scanning the crowd of disembarking Jews, they moved in on the most heavily burdened and approached slowly.
“Welcome to your new country." In a calm tone, the 'rabbi' promised a safe haven. "I am Reb Rabowski and this is my Cantor, Moiseh Rabinowizt. We have a house with plenty of rooms not far from here and Jews from all over come to live with us for a short time while they find their way. Would you like to join us?”
The new arrivals nodded their heads and expounded in Yiddish. “Hashem (God) has sent you. We will stay until we find transportation to our relatives."
Ben felt no surprise at how quickly the victims succumbed. Travelers were used to Jews helping Jews. It was natural to find help among their own, especially from a rabbi.
The scammers continued. “Let us take your bags for you. We can put them on our cart and I will take them to your new home right now. Moiseh will lead you to us. There are many Jews from Poland and you will feel at home.”
“We did not welcome carrying all our things, our whole life, on our backs.”
Ben registered their gratitude, and the skillful way the ersatz rabbinical leader gained their confidence and pitched relief to the unsuspecting newcomer.
“Would you like us to change your money for you? We go to the bank and change your Zloty to American dollars. We will give you your American money when we all meet at the house where you will find a clean bed and good Kosher food for everyone.”
Succumbing to visions of a clean bed, and for the men, prayers and talk of Torah, they handed over all their worldly goods and money with an eagerness that caused Ben to cringe. He shook his head in disbelief and kept watching.
The victims retrieved money hidden in their stockings, under their belt, inside the lining of their coat or from inside their boots. All of it. The naive Jews uttered sighs of relief and audible prayers of thanks and handed their cash to the holy man. The 'rabbi' pocketed their money and loaded their possessions and rolled the cart out of sight.
Moiseh held back to adjust loose boot laces. He bent over, momentarily lost his balance and after a prolonged and clumsy effort, retied the laces. He righted himself, smiled to the expectant marks and walked with them to a crowded spot where he slipped away and lost them.
The new victims searched for him, certain separation was just an accident. Several heartbreaking minutes passed before their new reality jarred them into awareness. The 'rabbi' had stolen everything they owned. Ben witnessed their tears, heard the women's screams and the men ranting to an unseeing God.
For the next hour, Ben observed this same duo run their scam on two more groups of gullible Jews. A plan to make his own way easier sprang whole as he watched how easily these wolves fleeced the unsuspecting.
He kept his distance and followed the thieves to carts hidden from passersby. He passed a disposal pit of bricks, chains and boards impaled with rusted nails and grabbed a particularly lethal looking board, which he held close to his body.
Ben's breathing grew regular and his stride relaxed. Unconvinced that he could defend himself or even hurt them with the nail-laden board he brandished, he could always run.
The thieves continued to load their ill-gotten gains onto precarious overflowing carts and did not see Ben approach. He swooped in and summoned his deepest voice to command in Yiddish, “You have stolen money and you will give it to me. Give me what you have collected today and I am on my way. If you do not, I will follow you every day and tell everyone what you are doing. You will make no more money.”
The fake holy men spoke in English and Ben picked up only a few unrelated words. The counterfeit rabbi said to his mock cantor, “It will cost us from four we did so far, but there is still time to work more today. We can make up the difference if we work until dark. If he doesn’t keep his word, we can get rid of him later.” The 'rabbi' raised his eyebrows, then shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands in a gesture of acquiescence. He nodded to Ben.
Ben pointed to an aged leather pouch nestled in the corner of one cart. "Dump it out and put the money in that black satchel."
Family heirlooms, pictures in carved wooden frames and silver combs clattered onto the red brick street. The 'rabbi' shook the satchel and the last bits of jewelry fell to his feet. He stuffed Kopeks and Zloty into the bag, closed the battered case and threaded the worn silver buckle into place.
Ben said, "Put the bag on the ground and shove it to me." The 'rabbi' complied immediately. Ben lifted the bag and walked backwards to watch the thieves. He stumbled from the unexpected weight of the bag, then he righted himself and turned and dashed into the crowd.
He did not look back as he made his way to the street. He moved through a small flock of grey seagulls and watched as they scattered out to sea. He adjusted his ragged cap and covered his dirty brown hair. It was time for Benjamin Bernstein, American, to find his dinner.
See other stories by this author: Polio Cats