Review of “The Origin of Sorrow” by Robert Mayer

The author reports that, while reading about the founding members of the Rothschild dynasty, he became interested in what the first Mrs. Rothschild must have been like. He couldn’t find out much about her, so he decided to write the book on her himself. She definitely had to have been a fascinating character to have been the devoted wife of such a towering figure in history, as well as the influential mother of sons whose financial prowess could make or break kings and countries.

The story takes place in the late 1700’s in the Judengasse, the notorious ghetto of Frankfurt. [Jewish communities were confined after being blamed in most of Europe for the Black Death, in spite of the fact that Jews were victims of the Plague like any other group.] Incredibly enough, this is the place where Mayer Rothschild got his start. All Jews were required to live within the walls of this ghetto, although men could go outside if they had approved business, but the gates were locked at 5 p.m.

The City of Frankfurt regulated much of the lives of the Jews in the ghetto. Men were not allowed to marry until the age of 25, to cut down on the rate of Jewish births. This was not such a bad idea considering that the ghetto consisted of a single lane only: a quarter of a mile long and from ten to twelve feet wide (with a sewage ditch the whole way down its length). But by the mid-1770’s there were already more than 3,000 people living on the lane in a space originally intended for 300. How did they all fit? Most houses were no more than eight to ten feet wide, and there were two rows of them. The Jews could build upward, but windows that looked out over the walls had to be boarded up by law. As a result of the tall, multifamily houses over a single lane, the Jews never could see the sun except for the few minutes it was directly over the lane in between the houses, and subsequently the Jews became known for their pale, pale complexions!

1883 Painting of the Judengasse by Anton Burger

The confined quarters of the Judengasse plays a large role in the book, as it played a large role in the lives of those who lived within its walls.

The focus of the story, besides the Judengasse itself, is Guttle Schnapper, the young girl who won the heart of Meyer Amschel Rothschild. They married in 1770 when Guttle was seventeen. They had ten children who survived to adulthood (and at least seven more who didn’t). In this book, Meyer remains largely in the background. This is Guttle’s story, as imagined by the author. He envisions her as way ahead of her time in some ways, but tied to tradition in others.

Most of the narrative concerns Guttle as a young girl before and for a short time after her marriage to Meyer. A nice epilogue fills us in on what happened toward the end of Guttle’s life, long after Meyer had died. (She survived him by thirty-seven years, and refused to leave their house in the Judengasse.)

Evaluation: Mayer brings the the Judengasse to life, and makes an interesting case through his imaginings for what the exceptional young girl could have been like who was the mate of the man, and mother of the men, who changed the Western world. We also get to know some of the other residents of the ghetto, and learn about the ways in which they coped with the physical, legal, and psychological strictures of the time. For fans of historical fiction, this book makes a definite contribution to the genre in exposing a little-known but important aspect of the Western World at that time.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Combustoica, 2011

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16 Responses

  1. This sounds fascinating. I wonder if it’s available in audio.

  2. There is always a woman behind the scenes, making everything work seamlessly for these powerful men. Good for the author for wanting to share her story, at least as he imagined it.

  3. I find the premise of this one fascinating, and it sounds like something that I would really like to read. I do enjoy stories like this, that explore the origins of a people, and explain how and why they evolved the way that they did. This sounds like an amazing book, Jill. I need to get my hands on a copy of it soon.

  4. This sounds like one I’d definitely like to read. I don’t know anything about the Rothschild dynasty or the Judengasse, so I’m intrigued.

  5. I’ve read a lot of books about the WWII ghettos, but not about those from earlier in history. It sounds like it would be informative.

  6. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this one definitely sounds interesting.

  7. This could be one that I would enjoy…would certainly cause me to do some research!

  8. I always feel like I learn so much from your posts Jill–or at least I learn how much I have to learn. Off to google Rothschild dynasty! Also not familiar with the Judengasse. I’ve been to Frankfurt a couple of times–wonder if the area is preserved in any way?

    • Much of it was destroyed, either by the Nazis or by Allied bombing during WWII. But the historic cemetery is still there, with tombstones dating to the 1200s, the Rothschild house is still there, I believe, and there is a new Judengasse Museum at the site.–rm

  9. How in the world did you discover this book?

  10. Ms. Broderick was just lucky, I guess. You can be too, it’s on Amazon in paper and Kindle form, and on Barnes and Novel for the Nook. Try it — you’ll enjoy it. –rm

  11. Thank you for participating in the Jewish Carnival. I enjoyed your article. I love historical fiction, especially something I don’t know much about. I may try it.

  12. Curious, how did you find this book. It sounds very interesting. I am doing my own research.

  13. Another history lesson from Jill. Thank you for not letting my mind turn to mush :)

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