Saturday, August 30, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Six

“Max, oh my god, you scared us!” Father exclaimed.

Max fell into Father’s arms, exhausted. Mother and I ran to hug and kiss him and help him to the sofa.

“Helena, get a glass of water,” Mother directed me.

“Max, are you alright? Are you injured? Where have you been? How did you get back into the city?” Mother rambled off one question after another, taking the glass of water from my hand and holding it for Max to sip.

“Give the boy a chance to answer,”  Father said.

Mother went to get Max a blanket. He noticed that I was looking at the bandage on his ankle. “Just a sprain,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”

Mother returned with the blanket and tucked it around Max like she was tucking a little boy into bed. We all had so many questions but sat quietly for a moment while Max got comfortable on the sofa. Finally Mother couldn’t wait any longer.

“Max, we’re just so glad you’re home. Where have to been the past three weeks?”

“Has it really only been three weeks? It seems as if a lot more time has passed. I’m glad to see all of you looking well. When I was out on the battlefield there were so many rumors about what was happening to our families back home that there was no way to know which, if any, were true. Oh, before I forget, that basket there. The people I was staying with sent some food with me. There is still some milk and a half dozen eggs that need to be refrigerated.”

“Max, no one cares about the basket. Tell us already, where have you been?” I pleaded as Mother took the basket into the kitchen. We haven’t had milk or eggs since just after the invasion and she wasn’t going to let them spoil. When she returned, Max took a deep breath and began his story.

“Those few days of training we had before the invasion were chaotic. Everyone knew the attack was coming. It was just a matter of time. Luckily my friends and I were assigned to the same unit so we were there to support each other. We were awakened each morning before first light, ate some breakfast and immediately went into training. The goal was to make sure the new enlistees could follow some basic commands, load and fire their weapons without any assistance, and wouldn’t panic during battle. During the day, we had several short toilet and meal breaks. Other than that, it was all running, marching, and firing our weapons, and it continued until it was dark. By that time, we were totally exhausted and practically collapsed onto our cots. That’s why I didn’t have time to call or even write a short letter.”

Mother brushed Max’s hair from his forehead as he continued.

“I was stationed north of the city. Early on that first day of the invasion, we began receiving reports from the border. The speed of the German advance had taken our forces by surprise, and it took some time for us to adjust. My unit was mobilized that day, and we began marching toward the northwest. After a couple of days, we began seeing some of the wounded soldiers who had been evacuated off the front lines. There were so many of them. I have to admit that the sight of so many wounded in addition to the reports of heavy casualties and many thousands of Polish soldiers being taken prisoner really terrified me.”

Noticing tears in Mother’s eyes, I handed her my handkerchief.

“We knew we had to fight though. We were surprisingly optimistic on that first day we engaged the Germans, actually gaining some ground and inflicting a good number of casualties. The tide quickly turned the next day.”

“My unit suffered heavy casualties. There were so many mortally wounded soldiers lying on the ground, crying for help that wouldn’t come because there just weren’t enough medics. We retreated to meet up with other units and regroup to take another shot at holding back the German advance. We moved forward again, engaged the Germans, and again were forced back to attempt to regroup. But the Germans came at us too quickly, and many of the men in our re-formed unit surrendered. Luckily dusk was descending, and a few of us were able to slip away into the darkness. Again, we connected with other units and waited for the command to move forward.

"The next morning, however, we came face to face with the German tanks. Many soldiers retreated. I decided to play dead. I crawled into a ditch and pulled two dead bodies over me. The German infantry had a habit of stabbing bodies with their bayonets as they march past to make sure they’re dead, so I pulled some bodies over me. I slipped into a deep sleep, totally exhausted. It was dark when I woke, and I could hear artillery sounds off to the east. I knew what that meant…I was behind the German lines.”

 “Oh Max!” Mother exclaimed. “What a horrible experience to be lying under those bodies. It was probably a good thing you fell asleep.”

“I decided it was time to crawl out from my hiding spot,” Max continued. “As I stood up and stretched after lying in one position for so long, I didn’t see any movement on the battlefield. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw that I was surrounded by bodies. I wondered if I knew any of these soldiers and if anyone else from my original unit had survived, especially my schoolmates. The silence was broken by artillery sounds from the east, so I decided it was best to head west. I could see a forest off to the northwest and headed for cover. As I walked past the dead soldiers, I picked up as many rifles and pistols as I could carry, as well as several water canteens. I walked into the woods for a short distance and found a ditch to settle into. The canteens didn’t have much water in them, so I drank it all before falling asleep again.”

“I woke at first light feeling well rested but very hungry. I wished I had thought to grab packs from a couple of soldiers so I might have some food. I emptied several of the weapons of their ammunition so I could carry just one rifle, one pistol, and extra ammunition as I set off to the west again. It wasn’t until the end of the day that I emerged from the forest into a clearing. Across the empty fields I noticed a farm house. There wasn’t any activity outside so I decided that, since it was late, it was best to find another hiding place in the woods for the night. I could watch the farm the next day to determine if it was safe to approach the house. I didn’t sleep well that night, though, because I was very hungry.”

I took Max’s glass to refill and returned as he continued.

“The next morning I watched the farm for a while. I saw only a middle-aged farmer and his wife going about their daily chores as if nothing had changed in the surrounding countryside. I didn’t notice any damage to the farm buildings, but it was difficult to imagine that the sounds of battle had escaped their notice. At midday I decided to approach them to ask for food and shelter. When I was about half way across the field, two barking dogs came running toward me. The farmer grabbed his rifle and took a stance in front of the house. Upon sight of my blood-stained uniform his wife gasped and hurried toward me, ignoring her husband’s protests. She shooed the dogs away and led me toward the house and into a chair on the porch. As I tried to assure her that it wasn’t my blood, she shuffled off into the house, returning with a glass of milk and a slice of bread. The farmer was still eyeing me suspiciously as I stuffed the bread into my mouth, practically choking on it. The milk was fresh, the best I could remember ever drinking.”

Mother was in tears again, so Father told me to get another handkerchief.

“I introduced myself and briefly told them about my experiences over the past few days. That seemed to relax the farmer a bit, and he joined his wife and me on the porch. They introduced themselves as Szaja and Hulke. Hulke told me that they had two sons who had joined the cavalry six months ago and they haven’t heard from them since the invasion. She invited me into the house, giving me a change of clothes. ‘You have to get out of that bloody uniform,’ she said. They were her son’s clothes. I looked around the house after I changed and noticed some interesting items above the fireplace.

"As I stepped forward to get a better look, Szaja asked, 'Is there a problem?'"

"'No, Sir,'" I said. '“It’s just that I’ve never been inside a Jewish home before. These are beautiful. Are they antiques?’ Hulke stepped forward. ‘This candle menorah has been in my family for five generations. We don’t use it very often, but it brings me great comfort when I look up at it.’"

“They were Jews!” I said.

"They were very nice people," Max continued, "especially after they realized I wasn’t a threat to their safety. I asked them if any of the German soldiers had come this way, and they said that none had. I asked if they had heard the stories about how the Jews are being treated in Germany and suggested that they might want to hide everything that identifies them as Jewish in case any Germans did come by. Hulke said they'd be safe for the time being and thanked me for my concern. ‘You will stay with us for a while, until it's safe for you to go home,’ Hulke insisted. I thanked her and told Szaja I wanted to help with the farm chores while I was there. He nodded and Hulke hurried off to the kitchen to begin making dinner.”

“You did farm work,” Father said, trying to keep from laughing. “I can’t picture you doing manual labor, tending animals, and milking cows.”

“Well, I did all of those things and more,” Max said. “And I have the calluses to prove it. See.” He held up his hands. Father squinted, pretending not to be able to see them, and we all started laughing.

“I can’t wait to tell your Uncle Jozef that his star law student knows how to milk a cow.”

“And that’s where I was until two days ago. As I said, Szaja and Hulke were very nice people. They treated me like one of the family, probably because they were missing their sons. Working on the farm was a nice escape for me after what I saw on the battlefield, and it helped me clear my head. Szaja and Hulke were admittedly not very religious. They explained to me what it was to keep kosher, even though they didn’t follow all of the rules. They stored meat and dairy in the same icebox, but didn’t eat them together at the same meals. They observed the Sabbath by not working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, but do not mark the beginning and end of the Sabbath with special prayers as many Jews do. It’s very interesting. Their traditions go back to ancient times. but it seems that some Jews take a practical approach to those traditions, choosing the ones that allow them to still feel Jewish.”

Mother rolled her eyes as she stood to clear away the dishes. “Why don’t we take a break and let Max rest,” she said.

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