Bohemian legends and other poems/A Jewish Legend of Prague
A JEWISH LEGEND OF PRAGUE.[*]
They were dying, dying daily,
The small children of the Jews;
And each mother’s heart was heavy,
As she heard the bitter news.
Every mother clasped her infant
With a love unfelt before,
While she sought Jehovah’s blessing
For the little child she bore.
They were dying, dying daily,
Still the little prattling tongue
That had been the household’s treasure,
And the little lips that sung,
Stilled in death the restless fingers,
And the little toddling feet;
And their parents in their sorrow
Had no comfort but to weep.
One by one Jehovah called them,
Till a home was scarcely found
Where some loved one was not lying
In the cold and noisome ground.
Prayer and fasting, naught availed them,
Day by day the sickness spread;
Raging midst the Jewish children,
Till the half of them were dead.
Then a stricken, weeping mother,
Who had lost her youngest son,
Sped her to the Rabbi,[†] crying,
“Save, oh, save my eldest son.”
“Woman!” said the Rabbi sadly,
“Am I God, to do this thing?
Much as I have loved my pupil,
Can I save him from death’s sting?”
“Oh, Rabbiner,” said the woman,
“You are learned and very wise,
And Jehovah loves, your master,
He will listen to your sighs.”
“Woman! for the good of Israel
Will you sacrifice your son?”
But the woman started backward,
Clasping to her heart her son.
“’Twas revealed me in a vision,”
The learned Rabbi sadly said,
“For the crying sins of Israel,
See our little ones are dead.
’Twas revealed me in a vision,
All our dearest ones must die,
Till some woman gives her darling,
Gives him up without a sigh.
To the graveyard they must lead him,
Leave him there amidst the graves;
He will see strange sights and visions,
Hiding where the tall grass waves;
He will see the children dancing,
Dancing in their shrouds of lawn;
In and out amidst the stone heaps,
They will dance their dance forlorn.
He must creep, and creep still onward,
Till he nears the dancing band;
Then with fearless heart unshaking,
Seize a shroud with skillful hand,
Seize a shroud and bring it to me,
Then the pestilence will cease.
Woman, is thy heart so holy
Thou canst give thy son in peace?”
Weeping from the Rabbi’s presence,
Went that mother stricken sore.
“Oh, Johovah, spare my children;
Spare the little son I bore!”
When the evening shadows lengthened,
Lo, a girl died in her arms,
And the morrow found her weeping,
Her dead baby’s little charms.
Then the broken-hearted mother,
Weeping, led her eldest born
To the Rabbi, saying sadly,
“Take him—let me die forlorn!
Better he should die for Israel,
If Jehovah will it so,
Than sink down beside the others,
Who are lying still and low.”
“Woman!” said the Rabbi, raising
Both his hands above her head,
“May Jehovah spare thy eldest,
For the words that thou hast said.
Like to Abraham, who offered
Isaac with a perfect heart,
May Jehovah spare thy darling,
Reunite thee ne’er to part.”
When the evening shadows gathered
In the graveyard sad and lone,
Lo, the Jewish boy was watching,
Hid behind a mighty stone.
And at midnight all the children
Rose as the Rabbi had said,
Dancing in their shrouds of linen
Till the midnight hour had fled.
Then the Jewish boy soft creeping,
Caught the shroud of one near by,
Rushed away without once turning
At the children’s bitter cry;
On he fled, fled ever onward,
Till he reached the Rabbi’s home.
At his feet he lay the garment,
Then fell senseless as a stone.
Soon the Rabbi heard a wailing,
And a childish voice called clear:
“Give me back my shroud of linen,
I am naked, master, dear.”
“Tell me,” said the Rabbin sternly,
“For whose sins the children die?”
Then the childish voice spake clearly,
Telling him the reason why.
Back he gave the child his garment,
Bid him sleep in peace for aye.
Fast and penance then he ordered,
That the plague might pass away.