April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“Alukah (the leech) has two daughters {and sons} crying ‘Give, give!’”

—Proverbs 30:15

“Listen my son to the story of an old woman who lived to be nearly 100 years old…she was suspected of causing bad things to occur all her life. She died while alone and her death remained unknown for three days. After they had buried her, every night, she would visit those who were ill and within seven days those visited would die. For 40 days the deaths (according to accounts, more than 200 in the city), plagues and her appearances continued until they burned her corpse.”

—Chief Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (Radbaz), Metzudat David (1554, Cairo), Commandment 436, 63b.

On a bright spring morning in Teaneck, Manny Fretz was opening his grocery store on Cedar Lane. Almost as soon as he turned off the alarm system he had recently installed, the front door opened and before him stood a tall, Lincolnesque figure, dressed in a dark suit.

“Hello, sir, may I introduce myself? My name is Horla, Dr. A. Luca Horla to be exact, a Sephardic surname my family picked up in the Middle East some time ago… I’ve just moved into town and wonder if you could help me.”

Horla spoke with a somewhat thick accent, one Fretz couldn’t exactly pinpoint.

“Sure,” Fretz replied. “What do you need?”

“I am a medical man, and I treat various ailments professionally. Not a physician, per se, but a healer nonetheless.”

“Are you looking to rent offices here? If so, I can certainly recommend you to my landlord who always has empty space in this vicinity.”

“That would be perfect,” responded Horla.

Fretz thumbed through his phone contacts and soon found the number he sought; he wrote it on a piece of paper and slipped it into the hand of the stranger. At that moment Fretz noticed how pale, almost emaciated looking, Horla seemed, his light skin framed by his dark coat.

“I’ll give him a call as soon as I get settled in. Thanks for your help!”

“No bother,” replied Fretz, as Horla left.

In a matter of days, Horla arranged to rent a small office with and examining room where he could see patients. He also inquired where a local synagogue could be found so he could attend services. He was directed to Congregation Bnei Israel, not far from Cedar Lane, where he met several worshipers to whom he introduced himself.

“I’m looking to settle down in Teaneck,” he told them. “I’ve heard a lot about the community and I think I can improve the health of the population. I’m particularly adept at treating many of the common maladies that afflict people: malnutrition and eating disorder cases. But first I need to announce myself to the community, I guess. Any suggestions?”

Several people mentioned advertising in the Jewish Clarion of New Jersey, a local weekly that had grown popular in Teaneck, becoming the paper of choice among the Jewish population.

Horla took the advice of his new acquaintances, and shortly glossy advertisements began to appear in the Clarion, trumpeting Dr. Horla, originally of Budapest, as a new man in town. As the ad stated, for a small fee, Dr. Horla would amazingly restore the health of his patients. He specifically offered hormonal supplements to assist in the therapies he provided. Office hours were listed in the ad as well as a convenient 800 number to dial for an appointment. Evening appointments were recommended without any explanation.

Dr. Horla thought it best, as a newly minted Teaneck resident, to attend regular worship services in the Bnei Israel synagogue, and in this manner to increase his visibility in the community. In this regard, he was quite successful. In a matter of a few weeks, he had attracted a dozen or so patients, mostly women, to his practice. He saw all his patients on his own, opting not to hire any office help at this early stage of his work.

As spring turned into summer, Horla found himself inundated with clients. Word of mouth, as it sometimes does, made him an “overnight sensation” in the community. As is also the case in such situations, success breeds jealousy, and the Clarion received anonymous complaints asserting Horla was an uncredentialed quack, who should be hustled out of town before he seriously harmed someone. The Clarion refused to give weight to what were obviously unfounded accusations against Horla.

That was until Labor Day that September, when Horla happened to stop by the Fretz grocery store. The proprietor who had been so helpful to Horla upon his arrival in Teaneck months earlier greeted him.

“I haven’t seen you in a while, Doc,” said Fretz. “Are you getting your groceries elsewhere?”

Horla smiled and replied, “Not really, just haven’t had the opportunity. Nothing personal, of course.”

Fretz, upon getting a closer look at Horla, was surprised to say the least. Instead of that rather gaunt, tall stranger who had entered his store months earlier, Horla appeared ruddy-faced, almost plump in comparison.

“Doc, have you been treating yourself? Because you look fantastic—in the pink of life!”

“No, not really, just leading a generally healthy life—and business has been good!”

“Maybe I should drop by one of these days to try some of your supplements.”

“Any evening you like, I’d be most happy to see you, for sure!”

Among Fretz’s regular customers was one Dr. Karl Klein, a famous biochemist, known as the town skeptic, a scientist know for his sagacious approach toward life. He was famous for doubting anything he could not perceive with his five senses. The world of the supernatural didn’t exist for this man of science. His clothes smelled of formaldehyde, which always kept him well-grounded.

When Klein visited Fretz’s store later that day, Fretz commented to Klein on Horla’s improved appearance.

“He must be exercising more than in the past,” said Klein. “There’s no mysterious short cut to better heath, I assure you!”

Over the next week, Klein met his close friend Sam Foxman at several congregational gatherings. Foxman was, among other things, an amateur investigator. He smoked a pipe in tribute to his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes, using a particularly fragrant rosewood-scented tobacco. Foxman had spoken with Horla in the recent past on a number of occasions; he too had noticed how well the Hungarian looked.

“Maybe there’s really something to his approach, Karl,” suggested Foxman.

“I doubt it, seriously, Sam,” responded Karl. “The problem with hormones is that too little won’t help and too much can kill you!”

“You’re always so dramatic, Karl.”

This debate about Dr. Horla went nowhere until a disturbing set of facts became apparent to both Klein and Foxman. Independently, these gentlemen began an informal survey of Horla’s patients, going back to as early as April of that spring. The conclusion they drew after comparing notes was unmistakable. As Dr. Horla was becoming more and more robust, his patients were becoming not healthier, but weaker and more emaciated! It had taken about a month or so for the treatments to cause this deterioration, but ultimately all seemed to take a turn for the worse.

Just before the New Year, the two friends decided to confront Horla in his office, to visit him unannounced on the following Wednesday evening around 8:00. Telling their spouses of their plans, they were last seen arriving at Horla’s Cedar Lane office. A young passerby confirmed seeing two gentlemen of their description (Klein was short and Foxman tall) enter the building, but no one saw them leave.

The amateur sleuths had disappeared, leading their families to ask the police to intervene. The head of the Teaneck Missing Persons bureau, a Sgt. O’Rourke, accordingly arranged a surprise visit to Dr. Horla’s place of business the following Monday. Horla ushered him to his office and sat down behind his mahogany desk:

“How can I assist you?” began the doctor.

O’Rourke detailed why he had come and asked Horla if he knew the whereabouts of the missing twosome.

At O’Rourke’s question, Horla bristled slightly, hesitated, then smiled weakly before replying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know a thing. They may have entered this building but they never were in this office!”

After several more inconsequential questions, O’Rourke departed. As he started to leave the room, he stopped for a moment as he detected a combination of what appeared to be a rather strong odor of formaldehyde mixed with a slight hint of rosewood oil.

As he turned back toward Horla, he paused, then said, “I suggest you don’t leave town for a while, Doctor, we may have further questions for you!”

“I assure you I’ll be available.”

Not long after, as Sgt. O’Rourke was coming up Cedar Lane following his interrogation of Horla, Manny Fretz was closing his shop. As Fretz nodded a greeting toward the officer, he heard the distinct sound of wings beating in the distance, and suddenly a shiny black object hovered nearby, then speeded up, startling the two men. Outlined against the moonlit sky, there was no question what that object had been that had zoomed past.

“Bat!” shouted O’Rourke. Startled, Fretz could only nod in agreement.

With Horla’s disappearance that night, the condition of his patients improved almost immediately, except for the occasional nightmare in which Horla appeared to them, to their obvious consternation.

Sadly, Klein and Foxman were never found; it was rumored from time to time that two individuals fitting their description were seen wandering aimlessly in the forests to the west of Teaneck, but, as in the case of the mythical Ichabod Crane, these sightings could never be confirmed.

Finally, Horla himself seemed to have vanished for all time that night in Teaneck and he too was never seen again—at least in a form where he could be definitively recognized.


Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays, entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment,” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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