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Rachoff

Short Story: Rachoff

A True Story

Karl Josef Friedrich

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Der Fall Rachoff (“The Case of Rachoff ”) was first published by the Furche Verlag, Berlin, in 1919. Though based on historical fact (the original source is a summary of Rachoff ’s life in Hefte zum Christlichen Orient), the story was fleshed out by the author, and similar liberties (including a few abridgments) have been taken in preparing this translation. The anecdotes and spirit of the story remain unchanged.

Reader, behold your hand. Sometimes I watch my own as I write; or as I hold it up, fingers spread, so that it gleams like a pale star against the dark background of books piled on my table. The human hand – this bundle of bones, flesh, and nerves – think of all it can do. It can bless or curse. It can draw blood or bind a wound. It is gentle, agitated, vicious; supplicating, ardent, tender. It can weld an iron bridge or caress a child’s head. It possesses the power to both harm and heal.

Rachoff was fourteen, when the devout old Timofei, a dealer in wheat and a guest in his father’s house, laid a blessing on him. Taking the young man’s hands in his, Timofei reverently made the sign of the cross on them and said, “Vassili Ossipovich Rachoff, I hereby set a seal on your two hands, that you may never use them for anything evil, impure, or shameful, but only to comfort, give, and heal. Your hands shall rest tenderly on brows furrowed with pain and care; they shall gently rub weary backs. They shall carry food, drink, and warm clothes to the poor. They shall be a blessing to everyone.”

Deeply stirred, Rachoff knelt before the old man for a long time, his large, earnest eyes searching the wooden floor, his ears reddening with a sense of inadequacy. Timofei’s words had struck him and sunk quickly to the depths, and yet he could still hear their echoes, their strange and wonderful sound. What did they mean?

Timofei turned and went, and not long afterward he died. But his words did not die. “Your hands shall be a blessing to everyone.” That was at once a consecration and a call. God himself had put the words into Timofei’s mouth, and they had power. Power to change and to purify. Power to grant a vision that grew ever clearer.

Rachoff was born in 1861, the son of a respected citizen in Archangelsk, a city far in the North between the vast Russian tundra and the White Sea. Like Timofei, his father was a grain merchant, though well-to do. Rachoff grew up in his father’s large, stone town house near the harbor and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. After he turned seventeen he was apprenticed to a family friend, a merchant who owned a large German export firm, and every day he went to this man’s house to learn all he could about commerce.

Though successful, Rachoff’s master was not a worldly man but a sincere believer who was more concerned with inner, rather than outer, things. On Rachoff’s eighteenth birthday, he presented the young man with a Bible. Looking at him intently he said, “You are as a son to me, dear Rachoff, and I have long wished to seal your eyes as a father would. See clearly when you read this book. Every thing depends on it. If your eyes are not truly open, you may as well be blind.” Then he blessed Rachoff, saying: “I seal your eyes as a father would, so that God’s Word is not an obstacle to you but a source of comfort, wisdom, and peace. Your eyes shall see nothing in this holy book but Jesus’ power and great love.” Rachoff stood there, startled and perplexed as the strange word “seal” rang again in his ears. What could it mean?

Soon Rachoff was reading the Bible almost every evening. He had to read it secretly, for his father, an Orthodox believer who felt that the study of God’s Word was better left to priests, would not have approved. But that did not matter, for the merchant’s words were true: Jesus spoke to him from every page – and not only spoke, but turned his life upside down, robbing him of complacency and setting him on edge. And that is how it should be, because it is written, “He who draws near to me draws near to the fire.”

The next winter a distant cousin moved into the city with his family. He was a poor man and did not wait long to inform Rachoff’s father where he lived and how he was related, so one Sunday after dinner, Rachoff’s father, who was tired of his pestering, set out with his son to visit the man and see for themselves whether something could be done.

As they entered the house – really a squalid, cavern-like cellar – they saw that the entire family of seven lived in one room. The children huddled in it were famished and half-naked, and the floor so dirty it made Rachoff’s skin creep. The man motioned them to take seats in two peeling painted chairs, and as he did, his wife darted forward to wipe a brown smear from one of them. Rachoff grimaced, then sat down anyway. What else was there to do? He looked around. There was one window, a small, high opening in one wall, but the light it let in was wan, and the draft that seeped from it sour and chilly.

Rachoff’s father sent for food from a nearby inn, and meat was brought. As soon as it came, the man, hunger-crazed, thrust his fingers into it, snatched up a piece, and devoured it. The rest of the family followed suit. It was a dreadful sight, one Rachoff would never forget. What filth – what degradation! His heart tightened at the sight of such broken, animal-like beings. And to think that they were his own relatives!

That evening his thoughts kept turning to Jesus. For was it not Jesus who had forced his eyes open, searing them as if with sparks flung from a burning fire? He broke down, weeping. What would Jesus have done? Waves of shame rolled over him, for he knew the answer. His hands would have soothed and healed and given blessing.

After that night new insights burst upon Rachoff at every turn, driving him forward and dismantling every cherished and long-held assumption. Even the church brought him no peace. Previously the bells had rung out sweetly, dispelling all his troubles and inspiring him to prayer. Now their chimes unsettled him, reminding him only of the bishop’s endless wealth, and the grinding poverty of the peasants who flocked to hear him. Previously the statues of the saints had awed him, as did the candles (some weighing a hundred pounds and costing a thousand rubles apiece), the gilded images, and the wall hangings. Now, however, he saw that such beauty was really a pious distraction from reality – from the wretchedness of the poor who sought comfort in its intoxicating veil.

At length, driven by his disquiet, Rachoff attempted his first act of charity. It was a gray, rainy day in February, and from his window he saw a ragged old man tottering along the street. Without a word to anyone, he went out and called the beggar into his room, bathed him, dressed him in clean clothes, fed him, and offered him his own bed. Stupefied, the man stared first at Rachoff, then at his fine furniture, then at the tapestries on his walls. He shook his head. Rachoff, equally  tongue­-tied, let him go and with him, his gold watch, as he was embarrassed to discover the next morning.

After this incident, a period of disillusionment set in, and Rachoff began to doubt the value of generosity. For a while he even adopted his father’s way of thinking, whereby the poor were all classed as one kind: cheats and liars responsible for their own plight; undeserving riffraff who had no sense of what it meant to earn money.

Yet Jesus continued to work in him, and soon Rachoff was again restless and unable to find peace. In his turmoil he went to a Marxist, a preacher who believed that the State would one day be replaced by a just economic system and a citizenry of equals. Such was his dream. At first Rachoff was attracted by his oratory, but when he realized that the man was intent on seizing political power, by armed struggle if necessary, he turned away. The Jesus he knew was a humble man.


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