chapter  IV
4 Pages

A Jewish Soldier

M y father was a butcher, and was descended from a family of craftsmen-tailors, weavers, bootmakers. He served in the Austrian army from 1854-62 as a non-commissioned officer. The old Austrian army, composed as it was of various nationalities not speaking German, which was the official army language, offered good chances for promotion to capable Jewish soldiers, who, knowing Yiddish as well as the language of their respective Slav 01 Hungarian countries, could easily serve as intermediaries between the officers and men. In those times each Jewish community, according to the numerical strength of its inhabitants, had to supply annually a certain quota of recruits to the army. The heads of the community took them from the class of the unlearned, who were sup­ posed not to mind eating Christian food and living in the way of Christians, not to mention getting killed into the bargain, in the event of war. Father, as a rule, never regretted having served the Emperor

Francis Joseph; he thought the years of military service to have been some of the happiest of his life, though in the annual “ days of awe”— between New Year and the Day of Atone­ ment-he used to pray hard for forgiveness of the trespasses committed in his years of soldiering. He saw the worldAustria, in those years the leading member of the German Confederation and ruling over North Italy, was a big slice of civilized Europe-and he was stationed in all those garrison towns which, either for offensive or defensive purposes, might become important in war, in Yaslo (guarding the Dukla Pass in the Carpathians), Przemysl, Cracow, Prague, Vienna, Luxemburg, Mayence, Venice, Milan, and the Venetian quadrilateral. He served in North Italy and Tyrol for several years, and fought at Solferino (1859), On the Emperor’s

birthday (August 18th) he never failed to polish and pin on the two medals which he had received for bravery in action. In 1863, having got his discharge from the army, he joined the Polish insurrection under General Langiewicz, who operated in the forests of Sandomierz against the Russian autocracy. Father liked the Poles, spoke Polish like a peasant, and sympathized with their national aspirations. In the long winter evenings, when knee-deep snow, crisp

with frost, covered roads and fields, Father used to retire early, which was my opportunity for asking questions about his soldiering. He soon became reminiscent of Solferino, and of the thousands of Austrians and Frenchmen who fell there. He unrolled the whole geography of the Tyrol, Venetia, and Lombardy, praised the bravery of the rank and file of the army, and severely censured the inefficient leading of the high command under General Gyulai, “who caused so much disappointment and pain to the Emperor.” Those conver­ sations inspired me with a love of history, geography, and foreign affairs, which has never left me. In the summer of 1875 he made the attempt to teach me how to load and handle his double-barrelled shooter. On a Friday afternoon, when he shut up his shop early in preparation for the Sabbath, he took me into our garden, and drew with chalk three con­ centric circles on the door of the shed which was standing there, so that we could have some target practice. We fol­ lowed it up for two consecutive Fridays, but we had to stop practising on account of the complaints of the Jewish neigh­ bours, who were disturbed in body and soul by the shooting. It was about that time that Father once came home with the news that the Emperor had made it known that the non­ commissioned officers who had fought in the war of 1859 or 1866 might send a son to one of the cadet schools free of charge. “ Ah, my boy,” he exclaimed, “ how I would love to see you a cadet and later, maybe, a lieutenant, marching smartly at the head of a company with drawn sword!” He

was quite moved and paused for some moments, as if strug­ gling with himself, then frowning he added: “ But you see, religion stands in the way. O f course, if the Emperor had commanded me to send you into the cadets I should not scruple about it; for, as our religion teaches, an Imperial law is law, and the Emperor’s command is law. But the Emperor, in publishing his offer, had left it to our discretion to accept or decline it, so that, if we accept, then it is we ourselves that are responsible for what we do, and in a soldier’s life there is, God knows, a good deal to answer for. . . . No, it can’t be done.” Such talks, mostly concerning his military life, he used to wind up with the warm advice: “ Boy, when you grow up, don’t fail to see the old synagogue in Prague and St. Mark’s Square in Venice!” Father was a genial, kindly, self-sacrificing soul, and public-

spirited to a high degree. When, in the early winter of 1873, the cholera broke out in our town, the Rabbi and the heads of the community, in deathly fear of the pest, fled to the neighbouring villages, “ and the town remained,” as the poor people complained, “ like a herd without a shepherd” (or in their Hebrew tag: k'zoon Vloy to'eh). They came to Father, who soon succeeded in forming a Committee of Safety. The Committee managed the affairs of the community for the whole winter, which, unfortunately, was exceptionally mild and humid, and therefore favourable to the spread of the epidemic; cared for the sick; arranged for disinfection and white-washing of the dwellings; and buried the dead. The work in the cemetery was going on day and night, as the mortality was very heavy, and Father was rarely at home. One day I fell ill with the cholera. Mother began to cry, handed me the prayer-book, bade me read the chapter dealing with the daily burnt offering in the Temple, and then fetched Father, who at once put me to bed, gave me a strong abdominal massage with camphorated spirits, swathed my body in woollen compresses, and put a hot bottle to my feet. I soon

25 got into an intense perspiration, which eased the spasms in the bowels. I fell asleep, and woke next morning as a con­ valescent. Father’s public work during the epidemic in the winter

of 1873-74 drained our scanty resources, and his utter lack of commercial ability made it very difficult for him to retrieve his position and keep the home going, all the more so, as drinking and card playing, the seamy side o f his military virtues, made him thoroughly unfit for business. He was very popular with the Polish farmers and landed nobility owing to his having taken part in their insurrection of 1863, and they offered him cattle for slaughter at low prices; but he never understood how to make a profitable use of his oppor­ tunities. And his sergeant-like demeanour towards his cus­ tomers-easily frightened Jewish women, whom he appeared to regard as recruits to be drilled and made to take or leave the joint he indicated-ruined his business altogether. My Mother, a commonsense and intensely conservative woman, tried all she could to mend matters, but her efforts were of no avail. Yet I could not help loving Father; his valour and generosity, his simple piety and cheerfulness, outweighed in my eyes his failings, grievous as they often proved. He simply did not realize that generosity ought to begin at home, and that drinking and gambling with his old regimental comrades prepared a very hard future for his six children.