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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Napoleon and the tailor - a Yiddish folktale

My loose translation from Immanuel Olsvanger

When the emperor Napoleon was fleeing Russia, he found himself running through a Jewish village. He's running, and the Russians are right behind him!

When he saw a passel of soldiers hot on his heels, he ran quickly into the little house of a simple tailor and said to him in a shaky voice: "Hide me quickly or they'll kill me!"

The tailor didn't know who he was, but when someone begs you to save him, you save him. He said to the emperor: "Be so good as to crawl into my bed under the feather comforters, and lie there and don't move!" And the emperor got into the bed, and the tailor covered him with one feather comforter and another, and a third and a fourth as well.

Not a moment had passed when the door flew open and and two soldiers with spears rushed in. "Has anybody come in here to be hidden?"

The Jew said, "No! Who would come here to be hidden?"

The soldiers searched here and there, and finally stabbed through the feather comforters on the bed a couple of times - there was nobody. They went away, back to wherever they came from.

When they were well and truly gone, the emperor crept out from under the comforters, pale as the wall. He says to the Jew: "You should know - I'm the emperor Napoleon. And because you've saved me from certain death, you can ask me for three things. Whatever they may be, I'll give them to you!"

The poor Jew thinks a minute and says: "Look here, emperor my dear, see how my roof leaks? It's been this way for two years already. Maybe you could have somebody fix it?"

The emperor looks at him and says: "You blockhead, of course I'll do it! You're asking such a modest thing from me? Ask for something better! But remember, now you can only ask for two more things."

The little tailor turns it over in his head: what better thing can he ask for? He thinks and thinks, and eventually he says: "Here, on the same street as me, lives another tailor, he's taking some of my customers. If only you could get him to to move someplace else!"

The emperor waves impatiently and says: "There's an idiot for you! Typical! OK, I'll get that other tailor to go to the devil! But can't you think up anything bigger to ask for? You only get one more wish!"

The Jew heard this and thought very hard; finally he smiled and asked: "I'd like to know, please tell me, how did you feel, lying in my bed, when the soldiers stuck their swords through the bedcovers?"

The emperor heard this and was outraged. "How dare you ask? The nerve! For this kind of impudence I'll have you shot, you so-and-so!" He immediately called a couple of his soldiers, and they clapped the tailor in irons and carried him away.

You can just imagine how the Jew's heart trembled in his bosom, especially after they said: "You'll be shot tomorrow morning." He probably didn't sleep all night! He cried and shook, quivered and quaked, and said confession.

Next morning he was tied to a tree, and three soldiers stood facing him with their rifles. And a fourth stood to one side with a watch in his hand, waiting for the moment of execution.

Finally he raised his arm and started counting: "One! Two! Thr..."

He had not quite called out the word "three" - and here comes a General on a horse, shouting "Stop, don't shoot!" He goes to the Jew and says: "The emperor forgives you, and he's sent you this note."

Sighed with relief, the Jew took the note and started reading. And this is what the note said: "I felt then exactly as you were feeling just now."

The tailor has kept the note with him to this very day.



At 7:40 PM, Blogger Cap'n Sylvia Sharkbait said...

Oh my, what an excellent story!


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