Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Slightly Late Purim Story - - Part I

After some weeks of basic training the so-called convicts' company, which Mordechai felt I was danger of beginning to enjoy rather more than was proper for boy of my refined family background, I found myself unexpectedly transferred to the regimental tailor shop. Mordechai hoped that joining this platoon, which consisted of one hundred and eighteen men, forty two of whom were Jews, would keep me out of further brawls and court martials.

Here, out of eight men, I think two were actually tailors and therefore obliged to cover for the rest of us. However, no one complained because it was apparent that we others must have had some pull with notchalstva (bosses, in general, or local government), or we wouldn't be there.

But I soon realized that my years in the commercial jungle and newborn labor movement of Warsaw had almost totally destroyed my ability to cope grew bored with the blessing of idleness. Within less than a month, to my brother's dismay, I began to crave some other outlet for my youthful energies and thirst for adventure.

Finally, against Mordechai's vehement advice, I applied successfully for a transfer to the Fourteenth Company, which was under the command of my defender, Captain Mikhailoff, the Czar's relative. It was, after all, peacetime and, while life in the infantry might have been a little more strenuous than smoking my pipe in the tailor shop, being back among real soldiers was as exciting to me as going to a summer camp, with all facilities for outdoor sports, would be to an American child today.

Being only a captain and in command of a mere company of infantry, Mikhailoff might not have been quite as close a relative to the Czar as he liked to let on. But during the time he was in charge of our company, I must admit I found military life a great deal more interesting than the ‘freedom’ of working twenty-hour days in Warsaw.

While we were well aware of our good fortune in having such a humane and easygoing company commander, we continued to talk among ourselves of the necessity to overthrow our abominable Czar, Nicolai Alexandrovich, and to abolish altogether such instruments of tyranny as the army. This revolutionary fervor, at least among the Jewish soldiers, was further inflamed as we heard about ongoing pogroms in even such large modern cities as Kishinev and Gomel, and about the latest atrocities committed by the "Black Hundreds" (anti-Semitic groups that conducted government-sanctioned pogroms) often led by uniformed Russian or Ukrainian officers.

Our noble Mikhailoff was a man who not only enjoyed life, but also did not begrudge others. He believed, for example, that in peacetime there's little sense in tormenting your men with a lot of useless exercises. So, while the other companies were sent on field maneuvers and forced marches and entertainments of that sort, our excellent captain took us, the Fourteenth Company, to some shady spot in the woods. Here he permitted us to amuse ourselves with such leisure activities as trick riding and marksmanship. And we, in anticipation of the revolution, and thanks to Mikhailoff's generosity with ammunition, soon became so handy with our rifles and horses, we began routinely to win a good many of those regimental competitions on whose outcomes our officers so loved to place wagers.

In fact, we did our Captain Mikhailoff so proud that he was presently relieved of his command, promoted to colonel, and placed in charge of an important customs post on the Manchurian border, where it was understood that a man would have to be made of stone not to pile up money like manure.

Very well. We'd had a sensible and humane officer and, instead of simply thanking our good fortune, we'd gone right on plotting the overthrow of his wretched relative, Nicolai Alexandrovich. Now fate rewarded us for our zeal in wanting to liberate our one hundred and thirty million other countrymen, as well, with a new commanding officer.

He made his appearance on a cold Wednesday morning. Unnaturally tall, he had shoulders like a barn door, upon which rested a small Slavic head with a broad nose and little pig eyes. In fact, all the parts of his body seemed to be not quite in proportion, so that when he walked, he looked not so much like a man as the way you might picture the original golem (In Jewish Folklore, the golem was a mythical creature created from mud that became animated when the name of God, written out, was placed in its mouth).

We were promptly called into formation where, for a start, we were allowed to shiver at attention for some time. Presently, our new boss introduced himself as Captain Fedorenko, but before the day was out, his nickname among the Jewish soldiers was Haman (Chief Minister to King Ahasuerus, (aka Xerxes, 486-465 B.C.E.) who wanted to exterminate all the Jews in the kingdom of Persia. The Jews’ reprieve from Haman’s plot is commemorated by the Festival of Purim). Not only because one of his first official acts was to deny some thirty-five of us permission to attend the reading of the Scroll of Esther on the morning of Purim, but, already at this first formation, before he even knew one face from the other, he delivered a speech in which he let us know he was quite well aware that the Fourteenth Company, under its previous commander, had become disgracefully lax, undisciplined, unsoldierly, a virtual vacation resort. Well, he was here to put an end to all that.

(To be continued)

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