a Short Story
by Daniel Zwickel ben Avram


I am going to tell you a story.

          My name is Daniel Zwickel. The Zwickels of Galicia were not the bearers of a name so noble as, say, the Duke of Orange or as elegant as the Spanish Granadas (which means pomegranate.) No, we were the turnip Jews. Family history has is that Zwickel is not our original name and somewhere back before the time of the patriarch, Leybush Zwickel, we had something to do with turnips.

          Well, suppose Leybush lived, not in Austrian Galicia, but the Galicia of, say, a Franco-Hungarian empire with France as le Grande Fromage of nineteenth-century Europe – might his name not have been Leybush Navet (which is turnip in French)? So, then, Leybush begat Abraham who begat my grandfather, Chayim who called himself Charles. Suppose Charles Navet and his young bride emigrated, not through Ellis Island to America’s Brooklyn, but to a thriving, cosmopolitan, tolerant Paris and my father, Abraham, and his brothers and sisters were raised in the cultural Mecca that would have nurtured some of the greatest writers and artists the 20th century would know?

          My mother, Jean, received her degree from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. She and my father could easily have met in a cafe – he, a dashing young Parisian Jewish intellectual, she, bright, vivacious, willful and independent and lovely enough to cause such a dashing young man to think impure thoughts.

         But then something went horribly wrong. Not the Huns, but the arrogant French precipitated the “Great War” and it was they who got their arses whupped by the good guys and humiliated at Munich into signing the treaty of that name and so a now impoverished France became the petri dish which would cultivate its own little fascist monster by the name of Jacques leNoire who, lacking the efficiency of the Germans, only succeeded in killing two million Jews before being defeated by the Allies.

         Well, that was two million too many for the young Daniel, my father’s son and sole surviving Navet of the holocaust, who, not a pacifist, emigrated to the new Promised Land of Israel, there to mock the shades of his grandfathers and grandmothers by designing ever more elegant and efficient and effective weapons of mass destruction ’til his hands were drenched in the blood of his Semitic cousins, born on the “wrong” side of the progeny of Abraham.

          A Wandering Jew among the hills of ancient Judea, a prematurely old Daniel comes upon some alien technology which, he discovers, can transport him back in time. He has become a social historian of sorts and in search of a theoretical solution to the shambled horrors of the mid-twentieth century he has developed the “Nexus Theory” which suggests “nexi”, or points in time which could, if altered, impact dramatically on the course of history. His favorite is Puebla, Mexico, May 5, 1862, site of the famous Bataille de la République where cousin Napoleon III nearly got his arse whupped by the Mexicans before establishing the new Empire de la Mexique and that, my friends, is where our story is about to begin. But first, please be so kind as to allow me to share with you an entry from his journal, translated from the original Hebrew. It is dated January 8th, 1992 and begins thus: 

              I am an old man and I can no longer bear the pain. I carry the weight of too much history and too little humanity. Tonight I embark on a journey and leave this final journal entry more as a conceit than as a gesture to any reader as may come upon it—likely it shall cease to exist. I cannot say this for a certainty as I go the road never yet traveled, and so I leave this to a posterity which may or may not disappear in my absence.

             In my mind’s eye I see a triumphant post-WWI France, a united States where now, for all practical purposes, three separate nations exist (four if you include the secessionist Western Territories); a single Spanish Mexico celebrating a fifth of May or cinco de mayo if you prefer, where the forces of Napoleon III under the Brigadier Charles Latrille, Compte de Lorencez were defeated hard by the “Cerros de Guadalupe y Loreto”, the twin forts of el General Ignacio Zaragoza.

             For I believe the battle at Puebla to be absolutely pivotal. In a nutshell: The French lose. No more Mayan Dynasty, no Northern and Southern Mexico, French and Spanish biting and hissing and scratching like the British and the Irish, vainly attempting to hold together a country occupied by an absentee European landlord. The Confederate States, lacking the support of the French, lose their bid for autonomy, remain with a union of States with Louisiana but a sleepy backwater state rather than the trade nerve center of the continent. Perhaps the autonomous Western Territories forget their enmity over time and remain in concord with the Union. Such a mighty nation would easily help to defeat the Prussians.

             Mexico would in all probability not be a factor at all, and without Northern Mexico, Louisiana and the Confederacy, Germany would stand not a chance in leNoir's hell of defeating the French and its allies.

             A triumphant France would not suffer the indignity of defeat leading to a massive economical collapse and an inflation where, literally, a wheelbarrow of francs is needed to buy a family's groceries. And a Belgian half-Jewish carpenter son-of-a-whore would not rise as the savior of Royal France to send two million Jews to the ovens. You see, with a German defeat in WWI, a fat and complacent France would never entertain such a monster, and leave not so much as a stain in the path of history.

             So tonight I intend to go after that Lieutenant whom I believe inspired the French to victory in 1862. I intend to bring along a few 20th century devices as insurance.  I shall not return to Israel for in the absence of a Holocaust the need for a Zionist homeland should be sufficiently lessened as to leave Palestine the sleepy, peaceful land God intended it to be.  I shall not miss my job with the Ministry of Defense, designing weapons with which to terrorize the Palestinians; I am sick to death of the blood on my hands. I shall not miss Israel and its fanatics.

              I intend to jump only part way back to the second decade of this century and observe from a cantina somewhere in Baja's La Paz, the Prussian defeat. Then contemplate the Torah with a shot of tequila in one hand and a Havana cigar in the other, in proper communion with the Master of the universe.

              For the Germans will know better than to allow a dog like LeNoir to rise to power and goose-step across Europe with two million dead Jews in his wake. They are a people of culture, of industry and efficiency. Certainly they could better rebuild with vigor than the contentious and arrogant French. The Germans are a proud lot and their Jews are a partly a source of that pride.

              And those two million of my brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and cousins will die natural, peaceful deaths, far from the flames of war.

              My chariot awaits. Peace shall be wrought in Puebla.

[Translated from the original Hebrew
by Rabbi Benjamin Lieberman.]

Then was then ... (part I)

          Once upon a time I stood on the top of the world, or so it seemed to a Hemet High School sophomore who enjoyed spending his summers trekking ten miles to the peak of Southern California's Mt. San Jacinto ("Mt. San Jac" to the locals.) If I were 21 and so inclined, I could hike an hour or so back and take the tram a 40 degree temperature jump down to Palm Springs and party. In fact, were I so inclined, I might want to get royally plastered just on general principle. I have in my pocket a translation of some Hebrew I got from an old man in La Paz a few years ago and to tell you the truth it scares the hell out of me.

          I was an eleven-year-old kid full of frijoles and mischief and got myself purposely lost on a supply trip to La Paz, the capital of el Territorio de Baja California, Sur. My brother and I were kind of spoiled, my mother being a school teacher specializing in progressive private schools. So when my folks heard about this new one starting up in Baja, they must have thought it would be cool for my brother, David, and I to be their first guinea pigs, so (suckers!) they wound up financing the first nine months of Shimber Berris' existence.

           If you take the train down the mainland of Mexico to the city of Los Mochis, then by bus to the coast, you will end up in one of the loveliest towns the Mediterranean never had, called Topolobampo, terraced down to a bay I once saw filled with thousands of brilliant blue jellyfish. From there you would take a fishing boat called the Blanco which I would have named "Termites-Swimming-Like-Crazy" which was basically what kept us from sleeping with the fishes. Sixty-five miles of desert scrub in an old Dodge army ambulance took us to the town of San Bartolo, home of an experiment I was too young and stupid to be nervous about. Founder, Dr. David Burden had been a missionary in Africa and had become the town doctor when he and his wife, author Virginia, had this bright idea. 

          Something immensely disturbing began that summer that supposedly connected with the death of six million Jews, if you believe in time travel. 

          So this gringuito was having too much fun to realize I really was lost, or to even worry about it. The Burdens were getting supplies and I managed to sneak away while they were looking the other direction. It was a typically blazing hot day; a radio somewhere was blaring the jingle, Tome Pacifico—¡y nada más! which sounded pretty good even though I didn’t particularly like beer. And the smell of a street vendor’s tamales reminded me that I was sin pesos (broke, loosely translated.) I turned toward the source and I saw this old man sitting at an outdoor cafe table.

           At least he looked old – I mean really old, much older, I think, than he actually was.

          He looked like a monk, like the skinny ones who thought that starving themselves made them holy or something. Except he had an unlit cigar he was more chewing on than smoking, the thin, almost meatless hand holding a shot of Tequila curiously steady. I may have had a kid’s boundless energy but he made me bone-weary just looking at him, as if, were he to take just one good siesta, he’d never bother even waking up. He was reaching to pick up the ancient fountain pen next to a small leather book that looked like a diary when he noticed me staring. I got a bit nervous, not to say embarrassed, and began to walk on when he reached one of those monk’s hands toward me.

    “Eh, ¡niño!” He continued (in Spanish, but a strange kind of Spanish that reminded me vaguely of relatives. Jewish relatives.) “You look thirsty. Hell, you look lost. Let me buy you a Tamarindo and we’ll figure out how to get you back to whoever you belong to.”

           Before I realized I’d decided to take him up on it, in my mind I was already slugging down a cold Squirt (¡Nunca le deja sed!)

    “What’re those you’re writing? Some kind of code or something?”

           My Spanish was pretty fluent by now but then he surprised me by replying in English.  Now he sounded like my Jewish relatives, except more like French than Austrian.

    “It’s Hebrew. That’s what we spoke in Israel.”

    “Israel. That’s where all the Jews went. My father talks about moving there some times. How’d you know I was American?”

    Niño, you may sound Mexican but you don’t look it. Do you like to read?”


    “What kinds of books?”

    “Oh, science fiction mostly. You know, I used to live in Tarzana. It’s named for Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote all those Tarzan books. He wrote science fiction all the time. Once I even wrote a story about shrinking and discovering that atoms were tiny solar systems and discovering a new planet with its own civilization.”

    “Aha! A writer, nu? How about time travel. Do you like to read about that?”

          Suddenly the smile faded and he appeared about to collapse and he looked so sad I almost cried. I didn’t know what to say so I just sat there, sipping my Squirt. He seemed lost, distracted. Then he carefully screwed the cap back on the Waterman he had been using and clipped it in his shirt pocket. Funny, I just thought of that. It was a emerald-green, tortoise-shell Waterman. He went through the old leather notebook, pausing here and there.


    “Six million dead,” he mumbled.

          I distinctly heard him mutter, six million dead and it gave me goosebumps. I’m sure it was just a kid's imagination but those words carried the smell, almost, of a large number of corpses. And I realized I was looking at a dead man in all but fact.

    “You know what your name means in Hebrew?” I had told him my name was Daniel. I nodded. “The same as mine. God is your judge. Well, God is mine, too.

    “So you like science fiction.”

          He looked purposely through his journal and found the pages he was seeking, separating them from the rest, neatly folding them and handing them to me.

    “I am through,” he said, more to himself than to me. “I am through.” He looked up and searched my eyes, then smiled fleetingly. “You know, by all rights those pieces of paper shouldn’t exist. Ah well. Have a good life, Daniel. Shalom.”

          He rose and walked away.

         My last impression of him as I heard Mrs. Burden's exclamations upon discovering my whereabouts was of the strangeness of his clothes. I hadn’t realized it before but they looked somehow peculiar. They looked maybe European but somehow, well, different. And his shoes. I had never seen anything like them.

Then was then ... (part II)

          So here I am on top of the world and I finally know what was on those pages.

          My Philosophy class was having a section on comparative religions. A Catholic priest, a Methodist minister and a Buddhist monk had come in and later a Moslem and a Ba’hai would talk to us too but that day it was a rabbi and I couldn’t get those pieces of paper out of my mind. 

          I went up to him after class. 

          Soon after the dreams began.

          When I was very young I used to believe that Hitler was still in power. I knew that I was Jewish, but only half Jewish, and that made a great difference. My folks don’t remember but I used to wonder, out loud, maybe, if I was safe because I was only half Jewish, if Hitler would leave me alone. Twenty years after the end of the war, a continent and an ocean away and that bastard still had that power over me. 

          So the dreams came, and I saw the marching and heard the speeches except Hitler was speaking not in German but in French. And behind the swastika-laden banners not Deutschland Über Alles but La Marseillaise. After several weeks I had one final dream. 

          I was in a cantina, I know, much like I imagined the cantina in San Bartolo to be (I never actually went inside one), with its wind-up Victrola blaring old rancheros and Saturday-night boracheros singing Canción Mixteca at the top of their lungs. 

          I was sitting at a table across the room from a fireplace and I saw him enter the room. He didn’t notice me; he saw the French soldiers sitting by the fire drinking cerveza and probably wishing it were cognac. I called to him.

    Monsieur Navet.”

          He glanced my way, startled, then started toward the soldiers. He couldn’t have heard right. 

    “Monsieur, venez ici, s’il vous plait.”

          Now the soldiers even noticed, but as quickly returned to their conversation. The man, however, stopped dead in his tracks. 

    “Qui est toi?”

    “You don’t know me yet. Please come over here and join me.”

    “You speak English. You are American?” 

    “¿Prefiere español?” (I usually like to switch languages just to be a smart-ass, but I was serious this time.) “My English is a lot better.”

          By now he was approaching my table. I offered him a chair, called to the dueño for another cerveza. Sixteen and I’m ordering drinks for a stranger. But this is a dream, remember. 

          He sat down, but glanced nervously at the French several times a minute. 

    Monsieur Navet...” 

    “How do you know my name?” 

    “I’ll explain. What year is this?” 

    Alors..., 1882 , je croix.” 

    “That’s what you think. Please, look at me. Look at me! You need to see my eyes. It may be the only way you’ll believe me. And you must! 

    “You can’t do what you are about to do.”

    “What do you.... How.... Incroyable!

          He abruptly rose to his feet and turned toward his original destination.

    “1959. We will meet in 1959 in La Paz,” I said hurriedly. “We’ll talk about science fiction and time travel. You write in Hebrew in a leather notebook with a green Waterman fountain pen and you will give me the last seven pages you wrote in your journal before you left 1992...”

          The man turned back to me and fell back onto his chair. 

    “Vous savez trop, garçon. What I do is vital. I must....”

    “You must listen to me, damnit! You come from 1992. You think that you can waltz into the past and change history for the better. How many Jews did Hitler... I mean, LeNoir kill? Two million? Ever hear of Hitler? Of course not. You guys were too busy in France to notice the Austrian scum. Believe me, Hitler will do your LeNoir four million better. I’m a Jew! I was born in 1948 but that son-of-a-bitch gave me nightmares six years and six thousand miles away. Six million of my cousins he sent to the ovens! Your tequila and your Havana cigars won’t give you much comfort as you sit in a cafe in La Paz and think about six million Jews.”

          He looks at me hesitantly, glances at the French, start to speak and then falls silent. 

    “Please, you must believe me. Go. Return to your home.” Curiously, I felt like a father talking to a son. “You can do nothing here.”

          All color has drained from his face. He looked several years older, closer to how he looked in 1959. He swirled the remaining liquid around in his glass, set it down, smiled a smile that collapsed in on itself. Then he arose and walked back to the door. His hand hesitated at the door’s handle, he glanced at Maximillian’s men and was gone. I whispered to his shade, “Shalom. ¡Vaya con Diós!” and fell back into a dreamless sleep. 

... And this is now

          “Bonjour, mama,” I called as I came into the kitchen.  I’ve got to practice my French if I’m to accompany her to the Université de Guadalajarre this summer.  Mexican French isn’t Parisian French but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.  I can still afford to go to San Diego State in the fall and begin my studies for a secondary teacher's credential in earnest.  Living in Mexico for nine months gave me a good start but just a start.

          All of which, of course, is rationalization for a six-week party in Guadalajarre before the grind begins.  Pretty soon we're chattering away in Frenglish.  Only a month to go.

          So here I am, sitting in a place called Café de la Paix, scuffing my tennies on the cobblestone patio and looking over the terra cotta roofs at the Sea of Cortez harbor of Topolobampo.  Brilliant blue jellyfish swarm the waters of the cove below this Mediterranean-looking, terraced fishing village.  And I’m minding my own business, really. Munching some pain douce and sipping Mexican chocolate, reading Jules Verne in the original French. It’s good practice though I’ve already read it several times in English.

          It was tough talking my mom into letting me travel with some buddies I met in Guadalajarre, even if it was to the Copper Canyon.  Talk about spectacular! Several Grand Canyons would fit in it with room left over.  One of my friends was an adult already, it was a popular tour, completely safe.  And besides, I only needed to remind her that she bicycled through Europe in ’39, just before LeNoir, may his soul rot in hell, began his march on Germany.  This looked to be boring in comparison.

          Then, of course, when we got to Los Mochis the train was to be delayed for a couple of days so, hey, there’s this great little village just a couple of hours away by bus.  My buddies are sleeping off a hangover and I’m reading Verne for breakfast and an odd-looking man is walking over to a table and notices me.  He stumbles, catches his balance and stands, staring.  I can barely hear his whisper from across the way.

    “Who are you?”

          The scenery is hard to ignore as the train crawls along the rim of a chasm that truly dwarfs our own puny Canyon.  But I can’t exorcize him from my mind.  His words constantly haunt me, speaking of a universe that never happened, one that almost did.  He looked at me is if I knew him, as if I were in fact relentlessly dogging his footsteps. Across the aisle the forest rolls by....

    “Hey, I really don’t know you.  Am I supposed to?”

    “Please.  I’m sorry, ... I mean....”

          He hesitated.  I had no idea what to say so for lack a better plan I just waited.  He tried again.

    “It wasn’t supposed to happen.”  He spoke half to me, half to something over my shoulder.  “I got back and it was all wrong. LeNoir won, for godssake.”  Had I been less bemused and more on my toes I would have remarked, ‘Certainly not for God’s sake.’  Of course he won. Europe’s got twenty years of fascist rule to show for it.  “But he wasn’t supposed to,” he continued.  “We defeated him.”

          He wasn’t really talking to me, was he?  Just sort of bouncing the sounds off of me, maybe to hear them more clearly himself.

          At this point my poorer judgment got the better of me.

    “What you mean we, Kimo Sabe.  If I remember my history correctly we were too busy fighting off the Confeds to be of much help.  Not that we could have done much good anyway.  It’s tough to fight the Confeds and France and Japan and South Africa all at the same time.  Diamonds buy a hell of a lot of planes and tanks and guns.”

    “But I didn’t do anything.  I went back, just like you told me to. And it was all different.  More than two million Jews were killed.”

    “Yeah, six million more, to be approximate.”

          This was getting a bit weird.  I never told him anything, never even met him before.

          Suddenly,it was like a film just lifted from his eyes.  He spoke clearly, firmly.

          “Daniel,you like science fiction, don’t you.”

          I don’t remember telling him my name but I was already a little confused anyway.


    “Just give me a moment to compose this.  I’m going to tell you a story. You may not remember me but the last time we spoke you said we would meet again, but in 1959....”

          We spoke for hours as he wove the most fantastical tale and when it was done he gave me seven pages from his journal, ones he claimed to have given me in a once before that never happened.  They’re in Hebrew, all right, but I know what they say.

          He had been on his way to La Paz.  He started looking for answers in Puebla but it held no clues as to why the universe had changed so he continued on and the most natural land route took him through Topolobampo. As it turned out, that was to be his destination.  I asked him if all this traveling around might not keep on changing things.  He replied that he felt a stability now that he hadn’t before, that he felt that things would be different before he had known.  He had theories but they meant nothing now.  He’s no longer a scientist but a pilgrim, a part of the landscape, an insignificant piece of flotsam on the jetstream of time.