A Demanding Enquiry (WWI, Przemysl)

From the balcony, he stood looking down the street, it was mid April, 1915, winter snow was being sucked up by the ground, and melted by the sunlight, the sun was high, and the streets slippery the Russians had invaded the city, of Przemysl, (Ukraine).

His back was to the white outer door that had a big and long window, the stone building was painted deep-purple red, and he almost blended into the building. The Caretaker was behind the second door, listening to the Russian soldiers below, an officer, he held the door open an inch or two,

“What is to become of him now?” he said, as if asking a rational question, only to get an incomplete answer, if he got one at all, and he didn’t get one, it was really a rhetorical question.

It had all started so simple, the man on the balcony told himself, a occupant of the hotel: implying to his subconscious: this old Jew had nothing to do with it, matter of fact the whole world was being destroyed because of some person named Fernando got murdered during a visit in Serbia, and that got the Russians involved on one side, with the French and British, and the Germans, and Austro-Hungarian empire on the other, which stretched now to India, Africa, China and Japan, and was swallowing up all of Europe slowly. How could this be over one assassination? The who world under arms, and now it was being called The Great War of all wars.

The city was one third Jew, and now the Russians were weeding them out, and taking them off doorsteps, out of synagogues, and who knows where they were bringing them, only half returned.

The old Jew was handing the Russian officer some papers, he had a long white beard, and long white sideburns, and was old, very old. His wife in the doorway, he put his hand out to her, “Stay back,” he told her. He was very careful to say it softly, not to disrupt the Russian officer’s thinking.

When he had finished reading the papers of the old man, he took him into a small room of a nearby hut, “You will sign this paper,” he told him; it was giving him the rights to his house, like a deed.

“No, sir, Colonel,” the old Rabbi answered.

He leaned back in his chair, ripped up the papers, saying, “I didn’t enjoy reading them anyway.”

Outside the sun had went behind the buildings, a soldier came in and put some wood into the iron stove in the middle of the room, “Be quick,” said the officer, and he was, and left him alone, he was one of the Colonel’s orderlies.

The Russian had a dark-face, from the sun and wind burnt, from the cold of the previous winter, which was not completely over. They now left the hut; the orderly carefully shut the door behind them.

“Rabbi,” the Colonel called.

The Rabbi had started to walk over to his wife, thinking the Colonel was done with him. “Yes sir, Colonel?”

The Colonel walked up to him face to face, as if he had no blood in his face, pale like, eyes staring, shoulder to shoulder, “Stay here, who said you were relieved?”

The Colonel laid his hand on the old man’s shoulder, the old man was perhaps five-feet eight inches tall, the Russian, six foot. His long fingers reached up to his ear, his fingers wrapped around it, having a full grip, lightly stretching it to feel if it was grasped securely, the old man’s pinkish dark flesh, turned lightly red, and he started to squeeze, “If you move I’ll have you shot,” said the Colonel; then looked straight into the old man’s eyes you could see silent pain.

“How old are you old man?” said the near thirty year old Colonel, still squishing and pulling his ear, several Russian soldiers standing nearby laughing, joking.

The old man didn’t answer, “You love your wife?” asked the Colonel.

“How do you mean?” said the Rabbi.

“Love, are you in love with her or not?” and he started to pull and twist the old man’s ear again, the old man trying not to grind his teeth, to withstand the sharp pain.

“Have you ever been with any other girl?” asked the Colonel, “I shouldn’t ask that but I have to, and you better say yes, so my comrades can hear you and your old bag of a wife over there can hear!”

“Yes, sir Colonel, I am in love with her.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am sure.”

“Rabbi,” the Colonel said in a more fanciful voice forgetting that he had said he needed him to say he was with another girl, said, “Can you hear my soldiers talking; they want me to rip your ear off your head?” And just then, he jerked it, and blood came pouring out, and it ripped, tore.

There was no talking from the soldiers now, and the Colonel looked at him sternly, and quickly ripped the ear with all his force, in a twist and a pull, and his finger slipped off the old man’s small ears, and it was just hanging from the upper seam of the ear, the lobe part was tangling freely.

“You Jews are corrupt, you know that right?”

“I don’t know what you mean, corrupt,” said the old Jew.

“All right,” said the Colonel, “you needn’t play the better here.”

The Colonel looked at the ground, the mud, his horse; the old man’s face was in a lamenting despair, “Orderly,” he said in a sharp and stern tone, “bring a sharp knife, or razor out, cut his beard off and his sideburns and if he moves, you three over there, shoot his wife.”

The three soldiers dropped their apples, and one had a cigarette and he did the same, and aimed their rifles at the old lady, as the orderly brought a razor he had pulled out of his pocket, and brought it up to the old man’s face, and without any soap or water, shaved him clean on the spot.

The old man now was beardless, his wife had her hands over her face, and then the Colonel without a smile walked around him,

“And where is all that Jewish gold, you really don’t want to die do you?”

The Colonel now paused, waiting for an answer, the old man was looking at the ground, the mud, he knew he could not win, that you greet death the same way as you greet life; and he was too old to greet it any other way, and so he greeted it without fear, and knowing he was at peace with God. The old man folded his arms and hands.

“Do you want anything of me?” he asked.

“No,” said the Colonel. Then he told a soldier in back of him, “Strap him onto the back of my horse, and when I am gone, beat his wife.”

The old man heard it, and the Colonel wanted him to hear it, and he looked his last look at his wife of sixty-years, she still had her hands folded over her mouth, so she’d not be heard.

Awkwardly he mounted his horse, and dragged the old man down the cobblestone street, out of the city, towards the mountains, as the orderly brought more wood for the stove so when the Colonel returned he’d be warm, and the three soldiers went over to the old woman, and with the butts of their rifles, they beat her half to death.

When the Colonel returned, he went into his little hut, it was warm, and he opened a bottle of wine, and lay back in his bunk, looking at his uniform, and all its medals he had on it, his helmet, his mud covered boots, and said, to himself,

“The old devil took a lot of silent pain before he croaked, thought he never would.”

2-28-2009 (Partly based on actual events)

Dedicated to my Grandfather of WWI, Anton Siluk