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Charlie spreads the word about Washington

Many of my own stories took place when I was 8 or 9. This took place when my father was that age, around 1921, in Peabody, Mass., among the Jewish immigrant community.

One of the more successful members of that community was Charlie Schmid, a builder. There is a street in Peabody, where he built the houses, that is still named Schmid Avenue. Charlie was an apikoros - a skeptic - and something of a practical joker. I forget the names of the other characters except for my great-aunt Mrs. Baeser, so I'll have to make them up.

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One day Mrs. Baeser was looking out her window when she saw Charlie walking down the street in the middle of the day when he should have been working.

Mrs. Baeser: "Charlie? What is wrong? Why aren't you working?" (All of this was in Yiddish, of course.)

Charlie: "Oy, Mrs. Baeser, who can work today? With the great disaster, who can work today?"

Mrs. Baeser: "What happened? What is wrong?"

Charlie: "You didn't hear? George Washington ist gestorben!" (George Washington is dead.)

Mrs. Baeser: "So, who is George Washington? Someone we know?"

Charlie: "George Washington was the president of the United States, and a friend of the Jews."

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Now, of course, it gets serious. These people had just come from Russia and spoke little English as yet. In Russia, when a czar died, there were pogroms. When a czar who was friend of the Jews died, there were major pogroms. They had come to the United States because they heard there weren't pogroms here, but if the president who was a friend of the Jews had died, who could be sure?

Mrs. Baeser went into full mourning immediately. Putting on black, hiding her valuables, taking down pictures, and wailing. Then Mrs. Levi from next door came to her house.

Mrs. Levi: "Are you ready to go shopping, Leah?"

Mrs. Baeser: "Oy, Sadie, how can we go shopping? What will become of us? Where can we go now? Where can we be safe?"

Mrs. Levi (looking at the signs of mourning): "What's the matter? Is somebody dead?"

Mrs. Baeser: "George Washington has died!"

Mrs. Levi: "Who is George Washington? Someone around here?"

Mrs. Baeser: "He was the President of America and a friend of the Jews...."

Within two hours, all the women in the neighborhood, several blocks on a side, were in full mourning, busily trying to decide which country to move to and how much they could carry with them if they had to leave Peabody.

At this point, the children came home from school for lunch. Sarah, age 12, entered the house.

Sarah: "Mama, I'm home! I'm hungry! Where's lunch, Mama?"

Mrs. Baeser: "Oy, my child, my child, what will become of you? (Clutching her daughter to her breast.) Where can you go? What shall we do? Where can we go? You shouldn't have to know about these things."

Sarah: "What's wrong, Mama? I'm hungry, Mama."

Mrs. Baeser: "George Washington is dead."

Sarah: "Of course, Mama. He's been dead for a hundred years."

Eventually, the children of the community calmed down their parents.

But no one in town would speak to Charlie Schmid for weeks.

George Washington was born in Virginia on Feb. 22, 1732.