THE REPUBLIC of Haiti was a land without Jews except in myth and memory. There was no Jewish community, no Jewish life. Even that most final sign of Jewish history, as of all histories, was lacking -- no Jewish cemetery, no Jewish place in a cemetery. A Jew might run and hide, history is full of that, but the cemetery remains, or the place where the cemetery once stood, or the memory of this place. None. No graveyard, no place, no memory of the place which never was.
And yet, as it happened, even here, in this lovely, forsaken corner of the world, Jews had come. As a student, I spent two Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs there in the mid-'50s, and have been returning for the past 35 years as a writer enchanted by this place of the best nightmares on earth.
Before I found the vivid traces of Jews, I found the antisemites, refugees from their crimes. The Gestapo informer from Paris who became my friend and companion ("Get me into the States, can't you? Surely you can!"), and the Petainist colonel in exile. Odd to meet the evidence of my history first in the form of its enemy, the exiles biting their nails, biding their time in a backwater of time. And I found Haitians like Jean Weinger, as handsome and lofty as a Watusi, with a cackling hysterical laugh when he described the origin of his distinguished Roman Catholic family: "A Jew from Vienna came here to trade in coffee!"
Through Jean, I met a morose accountant with a degree from a school of business in Philadelphia and a mania for recounting the days of his persecution. Restaurants, doormen, professors, women had all treated him like a Negro -- "Moi qui est Haitien!" he cried. Remembering the purgatory of Philadelphia, he despised Haiti, the peasantry, and the Jews, and his name was Cohen.
When he confided one evening that the Jews are at the root of all the trouble in Haiti and the world, I said to him, "I'm a Jew." He peered at me blankly through his red-rimmed eyes, as if he had never seen one before. "And you, with your name," I said.
"My grandfather came from Jamaica."
"You must have had a Jewish grandfather in there someplace."
"You're making that up! . . . How did you know?"
"Cohen?" he asked. To him Cohen was the name of a Mass-going Haitian accountant. I explained that the Cohanim were priests and he was descended from priests and princes.
"Priests don't have children," he said irritably.
"Do you really think Jews caused all the trouble in Haiti?"
"No, not all," he said, "but the wars, the world wars they started, all the wars hurt us, too." There was a double ledger for his secret Jewish grandfather and his need to find an explanation for trouble and sin. I could nag at him with facts, scandalize him with my own history, but I could never change his accounting and put Cohen, the Haitian accountant, in touch with Cohen, the man with an ancestor who began the line of Cohens in Jamaica. He had horn-rimmed glasses, owlish eyes with reddened conjunctiva, pockmarked black skin and a Jew-hating heart which was outraged by the information, which he knew already, that his name meant something drastic in his past. He was not descended from an infinite line of Jamaican mulattos.
"If you knew more about the troubles of the world," I told him, "you'd be safer from them."
"J'en ai eu, des difficulte's."
I was only confusing the black Roman Catholic Cohen in search of clear definitions.
There were others like him, of course, good Mass-going Haitians with names like Goldenberg, Levi, or with Sephardic names like Mendes and Silvera. In Jacmel, a tiny town on the sea with an unpaved Grand Rue, perhaps once a week a police jeep scattered the traffic jams of black Haitian pigs, flailing dust; the cochons noirs as skinny and speedy as dogs. There was a pension, telephones and electricity which rarely worked, the mud huts of an African village -- and in this place, Jacmel, I found a Jewish tailor.
A few elegantly carpentered Haitian dream houses floated above reality like candy visions, slats and shutters, parapets and magic cages filled with lizards or birds, but Monsieur Schneider lived in a dwelling only a few boards and nails separated from caille-paille, the country shelter or mud and straw. He did his work at a hand-treadled machine in the dusty street, his head tilted to one side to favor his good eye, his joints swollen and his body twisted by arthritis. He was old and wore rags, like many Haitians, but the rags were sewn into the blurred shape of a European shirt and suit. It was too hot for such formality. He was one of three white people in the town. In the air around him, like the insects and the animals, eddied the members of his extended family, the mixed African and Semitic, some dark and some light, children and adults, wives and grandchildren.
"Mister Schneider," I began, first in English. No English, but he understood what I was asking. Was I? Yes. Oui. A flood of Yiddish poured out of his head. I spoke no Yiddish. He looked at me as if to doubt my sanity. A Jew, I said, and spoke no Yiddish? He tried Creole. We settled on French, which I spoke in a Yiddish accent, with Creole words and phrases. He believed I was what I said I was, for otherwise what gain for either of us? Who needed to tell lies here, so far from the czar's police? He kicked amiably at the grandchildren -- children? -- playing about the treadles of his Singer machine. The treadle was cast with ironwork scrolls and Art Nouveau symbols polished by his bare feet. He did not have the look of a person who asked deep questions, but he stared at me from his one good eye. "What's a Jew . . . ?" he asked.
I also wondered.
" . . . doing in Jacmel?"
His face was shriveled against sunlight, shrunken by age, blotched and deeply freckled. It looked like a dog's muzzle. "Why is a Jew living here?" I asked him in return.
"My home," he said. "You call this a life? My wife is dead. I have another wife. My children and grandchildren are here."
"Would you forgive the question? How did you happen to settle in Jacmel?"
He plumped furiously at the machine. He was fixing a seam, a simple matter, but he gave it all his concentration. Then he squinted around at me. I had moved so he wouldn't be staring into the sun. He winked, Jew to Jew.
"And where else?"
Jeremie, St.-Marc, Cap Haitian, Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix -- that's all. So he settled in Jacmel.
"Were you Polish?"
"So were my parents. Why didn't you go to the United States?"
"Ah," he said. "Because I wished to learn the French and Creole languages, c'est vrai?"
"Because" -- and he spread wide his arms -- "I had adventure in my heart?"
He put down his cloth and he stood up.
He put his face close to mine, pulled at the lid of the dead eye as if he were stretching a piece of cloth, and said, "I went to Ellis Isle. Maybe your father did, too. But he didn't have a sick eye. It was infected from the filth. They sent me away. And then I wandered, no place left, so instead of killing myself I came to Haiti."
"I'm sorry," I said, although it seemed foolish to be oppressed by a sick eye from a generation before I was born.
He started to laugh. It was not the dry, old-man's laughter of my uncles in Cleveland. It was a rich, abandoned, Haitian old man's laughter. He clutched at his crotch for luck. "You see these children?" You see all the brown Schneider children in Jacmel? Many died, my wives often die, but look what I have done. I have proved God is not malevolent. He let me live. He let some of these children live. God is indifferent, but I have shown, not proved, of course, but demonstrated that He is not malevolent."
"If you believe, God is not evil, merely all-powerful."
He put his face down. He reached for a packet of sugar and held it up to my face. "If He were all-powerful, then He would be evil. He could not allow what He allows. You like good Haitian coffee, Monsieur? Marie!" he shouted into the caille-paille. "Blanc v'le cafe' -- pote'."
I drank coffee with the tailor and his new wife, who said not a word as she sat with us. He sucked at sugar and sipped his coffee through it.
"I have a few books," he said. "A scholar I was not. My uncle was a rabbi, I think my brother was going to be a rabbi, but" -- he shrugged -- "I never found out what he became. You're not a rabbi?"
"It's not so stupid to ask. I heard of rabbis now who don't speak Yiddish."
"I don't speak Hebrew, either."
"Then you couldn't be a rabbi, could you?'
I wanted to give him answers and ask questions, but we made mere conversation. We were two Jews speaking a peculiar polyglot in the town of Jacmel. At that time there was no paved road from Port-au-Prince, and when it rained, even jeeps couldn't pass the streams. Jacmel was a port at the end of the world.
His wife watched us with mournful eyes, as if I might take him away from her, but time was taking him away faster than I could. We had little to say across the years and history between us except to give each other greetings in the town of Jacmel.
When I said goodbye, dizzy with coffee, he stood up painfully, a small, thin, bent brown man, a creature neither Russian nor Jewish nor Haitian, something molded in time's hands like a clay doll. He put out his hand and said in a cracked voice, laughing at the peculiar word he must have pronounced for the first time in years: "Shalom!"
Herbert Gold is the author of the novels "A Girl of 40" and "Dreaming." His memoir of Haiti, "The Best Nightmare on Earth," from which this article was adapted, will be published in February by Prentice Hall.