The Devil's Stone


by Nigel Gordon

Mordecai looked down at the lump of crystalline carbon that lay, egg like, on the end of his dorp stick. He looked at it, but was not thinking of it. Rather, he was thinking of Rachel, his wife and Sara, his daughter, now both asleep in the attic flat on the floor above.

Fifty years ago this Sabbos, he had first seen Rachel's face as he had crushed the glass beneath his heel, and she had raised her marriage veil. He had been fifteen and she only a couple of months younger. She had been really too old to marry with little chance of finding a partner in life, but Debora the matchmaker had arranged this match.

Rachel's looks were not the best and she was considered simple and a bit backwards, always daydreaming around the village. Mordecai's family, though, could not be choosy. They were outsiders, new to the community, having come from further to the east. To make matters worse, his mother was the daughter of a convert. Not for four generations would the Hasidim regard them as truly one of the people.

That did not matter, though, to Rachel's parents. Here was a family with a son. Maybe they were outsiders but they kept the Sabbos and followed the ways. More importantly, they needed a wife for their son. The boy was fifteen; he should have been married two years ago. What sort of family did not find a wife for their son before the end of the year of his bar mitzvah? The answer was simple; one who would take their Rachel.

It was some three days after the wedding when the Cossacks had come and Rachel had shown herself to be a jewel. Whilst the rest of the village had fled down the road and eastwards towards Moscow, Rachel had led Mordecai deep into the forest. There they had lain hidden in a secret place that Rachel had found. When they had returned to their village, it had been empty. The pair of them had spent the day scavenging for what they could find for the cold journey west.

Two years later they had come to Amsterdam. Here they were welcomed. Their little family now included Samuel, their firstborn; by then he was already nine months old.

Rachel, already heavy with David, had found work first. Pushing the elderly Mevrouw Jacobson in her bath chair around the Dam. It was the granddam who had instructed her son Isaac to find a job for Mordecai. A job and also a place for the family to live. A single room in the back of the attic, sharing a kitchen in the cellar five floors below.

Mordecai had worked hard at even the lowest of jobs and Isaac had been impressed. Isaac started to teach Mordecai the trade and Mordecai learnt it well.

Saul had followed David and had been named after the granddam's late husband, much to the delight of the granddam, who gave instructions to her son. So Mordecai and Rachel, together with their children, moved to an achterhuis on the Keizersgracht.

Mordecai also showed that he had an eye for diamonds, showed that he could be more than a cutter and polisher, following the lines marked on the stone. He could look at a stone and see its potential. To know how to cut it so as to maximise its value: that was what having an eye for a diamond was all about.

It had been a large yellow diamond that had shown Mordecai's eye to Isaac. A large stone but badly flawed. Isaacs had marked it to be cut for one large and three small stones. When he handed it to Mordecai the latter had asked why they did not do an alternative cut? That cut would give two large and one small stone. It was, though, a cut perilously tight to the flaw. One error on the cleave and the stone would shatter into worthless fragments.

Isaac had repeated his assessment of the stone. He could find no error with Mordecai's line. After three days he handed the stone back to Mordecai with the instruction to 'cleave it'. The next stone that Isaac handed to Mordecai was not marked to define the cut.

That had been what, forty years ago? Or was it less? Mordecai could not recall. He only knew that decision had been the start of his real life. To take the rough stone and find the jewel hidden in its heart. As he cleaved such stones his name became known in the small world of elite diamond cutters. Those men in Antwerp, London, New York and Amsterdam who would tackle the most difficult of stones. To these he became known as 'the Dutch Pole', the man who could cut flaws out of major stones.

This acquisition of status brought with it many changes. Isaac made him a partner and the family moved into a spacious flat on the top two floors of the workshop and store on the Herrengracht. Major stones were now referred to him by name on a commission of the final sale price rather than a set cutting fee.

Samuel, his eldest, had come into the business, though he never had his father's eye for a stone. He was gifted though with a merchant's mind and rapidly became a major dealer in stones. Twenty years ago he had moved to New York to set up a branch of the business in that city.

That same year Sara, the jewel in Mordecai's life, had come into existence. The pregnancy had come late for Rachel and been unexpected. It had been a long and difficult labour that had taken its toll. From early on it had been clear that Sara was a simple child. She was, though, a loving one who filled the Herengracht apartment with laughter, music and song.

David, Mordecai's middle son, had become filled with Zionist ideas and gone to Palestine. He now fought in the Jewish Brigade, against the Germans, as part of the British Army. Saul, the youngest of Mordecai's son, was a rabbi who had sailed for New York with his young wife as the first bombs had fallen on Rotterdam. That was four years ago, and it had been many tense weeks before Modica had received word from his eldest that Saul had arrived safely together with the case of uncut stones that Mordecai had sent out to preserve the family's wealth.

Four years ago—it seemed longer. Mordecai and Rachel had been glad that Mevrouw Jacobson, the granddam of the family Jacobson, had died before the Germans had arrived. She had not been there, unlike Mordecai, to see her son, the now elderly Isaac, kicked and beaten to death by a group of Stormtroopers. Mordecai had seen it. He had been looking from the window he now looked out off, as it had taken place on the street below.

Mordecai had seen a lot from that window over the last four years. He had seen the columns of his fellow religionists moving to the station, to go east for resettlement. Many of his friends had gone on those trains. Many had also vanished underground, like the Franks. Others had been taken, usually during the night, not to be heard of again.

They had not come for Mordecai yet. At least they had not come for him, but they had come to him. Many German officers, in their black uniforms with their death head insignia, had brought him stones to be recut, so they could not be recognised.

Mordecai lifted his gaze and looked at the clock. It was ten past four. Rachel should have been preparing the Saida, the Sabbos meal, rather than sleeping. Though it would not be a real Saida as there had been no kosher meat for the last four years, and now that the Allies had taken the South of the country, there was little food of any kind to be found here in the North.

He looked out of the north-facing window. The late afternoon light was just right, perfect for viewing the stone. Beyond the window, life moved on. A large black-cowled nun cycled past the old police station. The building was now the Gestapo local office. Outside was a young solder, thinking of a girl in Holzgerlingen, taking no notice of the nun. Probably just as well thought Mordecai, as he realised that the nun did not seem comfortable on the cobbled road along the canal.

The observation set up a new chain of thought. Was it a nun? The local sisters were quite proficient at making their way along the canal side roads at high speed on their bikes. So, who was the nun? An outside sister, moved into town from a country convent? Unlikely, as since the war had started the orders had, so far as possible, moved their members out of the city. Was it an RAF airman, shot down, now making his way down the line? Mordecai hoped it was and that he would soon return and drop more bombs.

Hopefully they would start bombing the railways. That would stop the Germans moving people east for resettlement.

Resettlement, such a simple term. They now knew what it meant. The camps were around Lublin. Then there were the names that were whispered by people passing on news, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other places, that were no longer just names on a map. Word had got back about them. Now they were a terrible reality.

Through the window, Mordecai could also see Josef Khoen walking down alongside the canal. On the opposite side from the Gestapo building. A sensible precaution, even for one who assisted the occupiers in their work. Even without his yellow star, Josef's beard and Hassidic sidelocks proclaimed him to be a Jew. What services he supplied the German overlords, Mordecai did not know, though he had his suspicions.

Josef was carrying a small brown case. Where was he going? Not to the station! No Jew went to the station of his own free will. Though how much free will was left to them these days? Not much, Mordecai thought — though there was always some left.

He looked back at the diamond. Two hundred and fifty carats cut in the oriental style. That style attempted to preserve the size of the stone. In this it differed from the European cut—that tried to maximize brilliance. That brilliant cut had been developed in Antwerp and here in Amsterdam.

That the stone had an oriental cut was not surprising; it betrayed a blue cast that was associated with Indian Stones.

The drone of a light bomber sounded overhead. Mordecai glanced upwards through the window. Against the sky he saw the plane. Luftwaffe. It would be returning to its base after a patrol out over the North Sea. It was rare these days to see a German plane in the sky.

A ribald comment from one of the two men behind him brought him back to the task in hand. How was he to cut the stone?

He knew the stone of course. It was famous or was it infamous? It was called 'The Devil's Stone', though it had other names across the ages. Many thought it was the stone given to the Great Khan by the Khmer, which he wore in his turban. That was the stone he gave as dowry for his daughter on her marriage to a Persian prince. Neither the daughter nor the diamond ever arrived in Persia.

The Emir of Zanzibar, that island of slavers and pirates, acquired a fabled stone about that time, along with a pretty eunuch for his bed. Neither did him much good. Five years later, the eunuch, at the instigation of the emir's nephew, poisoned the emir. His reward was the diamond.

Being a wise eunuch who did not overestimate the gratitude of princes, he left Zanzibar for Oman with the diamond. Unfortunately for him, he met with a Dutch privateer under letters of marque from Prester John, who intercepted the dhow with the eunuch and diamond on board. At this point the diamond enters the formal record and the eunuch leaves history.

Although required by his letters of marque to hand half his prize to Prester John, the Dutch privateer knew where his interest lay. He sailed south to the Company colony under the Tafelberg. From there the stone went to the Seventeen, the directors of the Dutch East Indian Company in Amsterdam. he owners of the privateer's ship.

The Seventeen used it to purchase trading rights in Java. So, it came to pass that the stone became set in a Javanese prince's crown, but not for long. The prince and the Seventeen's representatives disagreed on exactly what rights had been granted. After several troublesome years, the prince ejected, not too peacefully, the Dutch merchants from his land. News of this event took time to reach Amsterdam and the Seventeen. When it did, however, a fleet was sent to Java to take back the trading rights. They also took the prince's crown and his head. So, the diamond, along with the attached crown but without the head, returned to the Seventeen and to Amsterdam.

Being good republicans as the Seventeen were, they had little use for the crown. Their wives, however, had good use for pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds, which the crown contained. As a result it was broken up and made into many pieces of jewellery. Exactly how the stone moved from the possession of the Seventeen to that of the family Van Meer is somewhat vague. However, it is known that it involved a duel, a couple of deaths and a rather unfaithful wife, whose husband did not ask too many questions. As a result it had, for over two hundred years, been the possession of that family. Now they had lost it, along with the rest of their possessions. No doubt if they had co-operated, they would have been relocated to the east. If they had not, then they would not need the stuff anyway.

Thus it was that the art collection, rare books, jewellery and the rest of the mobile wealth of the Van Meer family had gone to Berlin, with the exception of this stone. Somehow, the general felt that it would be better staying with him.

Mordecai looked once more at the time. Half before five, soon the light would start to fade. He needed good light to cleave a stone like this. Looking deep into the heart of the stone, he saw clearly the flaw that gave the stone its name. A blemish in a humanoid shape with a hint of horns and a tail.

The diamond could be cleaved in a way as to remove the flaw and its identification. The General would have two large stones and three smaller stones out of it. The cleave, though, would be hard. It would pass close to the flaw. A diamond, when correctly struck, will split along its grain. Make a slight error or hit a flaw and it will shatter into a thousand fragments.

The general coughed and muttered, "Herr Abrahams".

"Soon, general. The light is not quite ready for this strike. A few moments, please" Not that the light mattered that much; Mordecai could make this cleave in the dark.

It had been three months earlier that the general had come with the stone. Already it was clear that Germany would lose this war and its high officers were busy looking to find a way to survive once it was over.

The proposition had been simple. Cut the stone so that it can no longer be recognised and the general would make sure that Mordecai and his family were not on the last transportation of Jews to the east. It was even hinted that they would be allowed to go south, through the lines, to Antwerp from where Mordecai and his family could get transportation to New York. It had been hinted. Never absolutely said.

Mordecai knew this general well. He would never break his word. For him it was a matter of pride. However, his word had not been given. Mordecai considered carefully what had been said when he had questioned the value of the proposition. "I assure you, Herr Abrahams, on my word as a Prussian officer, cut this stone and you and your family will not go east." It was what was not said that was important. No, they would not go east, but that did not mean they would go free. Could the general allow a little Jew to know the truth about the diamond? Mordecai doubted it. He too doubted the survival of the young aide de camp who stood next to the general, for he also knew too much.

Mordecai looked once more at the clock. It was time. He picked up his tools and positioned them for the blow. By now the opium that Jacob the pharmacist had supplied would have taken Rachel and Sara beyond sleep.

The blow was struck. A thousand fragments of crystalline carbon shattered across the room. A look of rage crossed the General's face. On the stroke of five a single shot sounded out.


Achterhuis – Literally behind house, a small house or extension built behind the large merchant houses, not normally visible from outside of the property. Usually intended for servants' accommodation. During World War II the Frank family were hidden in an achterhuis in Amsterdam.

Dorp stick – A stick with a quantity of shellac or pitch on the end which is used to hold a gemstone in place while it is being worked on.

Herengracht – one of the major canals in Amsterdam. The name generally translates as a gentleman's canal, indicative of the fact it was considered the best canal for merchants of means to live on.

Holzgerlingen – a small village in Southwest Germany, near Stuttgart.

Keizersgracht – one of the major canals in Amsterdam. The name means Emporer's Canal.

Lublin – city in Poland; a number of concentration camps were situated around it.

Mevrouw – Usually abbreviated to Mv, the Dutch equivalent of Mrs.

Tafelberg – Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

The image is a composite made up from an image of the Beau Sancy Diamond by Aracist and the Devil Scull Icon by RootOfAllLight, both images being on Wikimedia Commons and available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0. This composite image is by the author and is available to use under the same Creative Commons licence.