Menachem's Writings

The Partisan's Trilogy

Part I: That Cigarette

It's a cool night. We are well into autumn. Soon winter will be upon us. That won't be so pleasant. It is dark now. A cloudless, moonless night providing some shadowy safety.

I unthinkingly light another. I rarely smoked back home. We knew nothing of addiction and disease. I detested the smell. People smoked because it relaxed them. Seemingly it does. I suppose that's why our father smoked so much, virtually continuously. Lighting another while stubbing out the previous. I assume the ever present odour adversely affected me.

Our father is a wonderful man. We all love him dearly. He is kind and generous, and very street-smart. He was a widower with two children at the time he married our mother. She was a daughter of the renowned and much respected rabbi of our town. I am their youngest.

Except on shabath. I sometimes wonder how easy it was for him to endure the 25 hours. For his children, it was a difficult afternoon. By lunch, father was becoming irritable and edgy. His agitation increased as the day rolled on. After the big meal, he, as was the custom in our town, would take a long nap. We each sought to leave before he awoke, following our individual paths. There was no shortage of pretext: youth group, learning with the rabbi, play or even study with a friend, visit some of our many cousins' more restful homes, or just relax by the river in the shade of the one of the ubiquitous towering poplars after whom our town was named. Only our notably saintly mother remained.

Evening prayers were our signal to return. Immediately after the service, father lit his luxurious first for the week. He had it sequestered at the bottom of the box in which he stored his prayer articles. He lit it from one of the synagogue's many candles. He was not alone. Our synagogue quickly became as full of smoke as the Holy of Holies on Yom Kipur. Entering our home, we were greeted by our calm, loving father. Mother beamed as we sat around the table holding the havdala candle, wine and spices.

Out here, on most of these lonely, ostensibly quiet evenings, I had begun to enjoy a cigarette or two. It indeed was relaxing. It was good. We lived in especially arduous times.

My thoughts drift to my darling Yoli, and our gorgeous little Eva. We were wedded a little over a year before I departed. I had to leave. Knowing my past combative incidents, she insisted I go. We knew they would never touch mothers and babies.

I am now clueless of the situation in our town. My sisters and brothers? Our now 91 year old father? Uncles, aunts, cousins? Our oldest sister, Bozsi, is safe in America. I was a child when she left.

Providentially mother passed away peacefully in her own bed, prior to tensions or hostilities. On a Wednesday night she dreamt of repasting Melave Malka, the special post-shabath meal, with her revered father, who had passed away 39 years earlier. Within minutes of the close of the following shabath, she was with him.

I am the only Jew in our group. My compatriots are not renowned philosemites. They are unaware of my background. I impulsively changed my Jewish-sounding German surname. We have a common enemy. All arms are welcome. I continuously pray my family are safe, but I now know how ruthless is this enemy.

We hide during the day when there is no action. Now we sense a level of freedom under this cover of darkness — up here in the hills, in the woods, remote from the bulk of our population. In normal times this is a peaceful, soul-searching spot, a place to relax, leaving mundanity behind. We are constantly vigilant and prepared, disposed to any unpredictable eventuality. It could come from anywhere, whenever. We recognise that at any time we will receive new orders: to move, to attack, to flee.

We believed our local uprising was successful. To a large degree it was, lasting far longer than any other on the continent. We pushed them out of our region. Taking into account our meagre numbers and paltry arms, only with great struggle did they ultimately put down our insurrection. Had we scratched the first, minute crack in their armour? Perhaps, but now they seek as much revenge — bloody and violent — as they can wrought on our scaled-down nation, whose tiny bands of irregulars eroded their pride and honour. I did not doubt that, as always, our Jews are bearing the brunt.

The English say the devil is in the detail. Ironically that idiom is from the German, the loving God is in the detail, paraphrased "could God have been the cause of my downfall?"

In the mountain air, the smell is not so abhorrent. We puff away without a second thought, unaware that on a dark, moonless night, the light of a cigarette can be observed ten kilometres away. A lone cigarette on a forested, uninhabited hillock. I am signing my own death warrant with that last stinky death stick.

They come suddenly, stealthily, from nowhere. Only Stanislaus and I are here. In the darkness they grab us from behind, gag us, tying each of us to a tree. We know it is over. Our war just ended. They leave us, until morning. They return, stand us up straight, tying us more firmly to the trees. I understand their discussion.

Two of them pace away, perhaps fifteen or twenty metres. They turn, cocking their rifles. The end. I cry out Sh'ma Yisrael. It doesn't matter now that Stanislaus knows I am Jewish. And to them it does not matter at all. I die a proud Jew. I stand tall. I close my eyes. I do not want to witness their gleeful faces executing another two of their hated uprising partisans. Shots ring out.

I remain standing. I open my eyes. The executioners lie dead on the ground before us. There is commotion in nearby undergrowth. Their compatriots are fleeing. Only then do I notice Russian uniforms. In the very last second their advance scouts have saved our lives.

Published 31st August, 2021 — 23rd Elul, 5781    

I initially wrote the above as a standalone piece. As a result of correspondence which ensured its publication, especially requests to know what happened to our partisan after his miraculous rescue, I wrote another two pieces, each which were designed to stand on their own. The piblication date shown is the date of each piece. Here I have combined the three into one piece.

Part II: The Existential Barber

Subsequent to his miraculous, in the nick of time, salvation from an SS firing squad by the Red army, our partisan joined the advancing Russians on their westward push through Slovakia, towards Austria and Germany. Our freedom fighter's combat experience did not qualify him as a useful infantryman. However his rescuers were content to have a local bivouacking with them, assisting their course through the region, its customs and language. As Slovak and Russian descend from the same language family, they all managed, though with some tribulation, to converse. There may have been some awkward colloquial moments.

Though I had never previously cut another man's hair, I was appointed the unit barber. Per their request, I merely placed an empty soup bowl on a soldier's head and cut around it. They loved my finesse, praising me as "the best barber they had the whole war". This humoured me as I had not previously witnessed this Russian coiffure.

I remained with these soldiers until they liberated my hometown, Topoľčany, the place of the tall poplars. There I bid farewell to my comrades. As I separated from them I did not know what or whom I would find of Jews in our town, family, friends, neighbours. Given what I learnt from the Russians, combined with earlier information, I was not enthusiastic to be back. But nothing could have prepared me for what I would witness. Prior to Chamberlain's 1938 experimental appeasement of Hitler, breaking Czechoslovakia apart, the population of our town was 15,000 of whom 3,200 were Jews, each publicly shabath observant.

I was the first Jew to return. It was December 1944. I could not find another Jew. I went to my father's house. His neighbours reported that he passed away on 9th October. That was Sh'mini Atsereth, the solemn Eighth Day of Assembly concluding Sukoth, the last day of the period in which the Almighty judges the entire world. The neighbours indicated the spot in the backyard where they had buried him. Later, together with a few of my returning landsman, we reinterred him in our cemetery, beside my mother, who passed away of natural causes four years earlier.

By the time of my father's demise no Jews remained in our town. Incidentally, two days later, the final expulsion of the Jews of the Slovak capital Bratislava, known to the Jews as Pressburg, took place.

Eventually I located two Jews still alive. A 91 year old lady — the same age as my father — and her daughter. That was all! No-one else. I could not understand how they managed to remain in life.

My beautiful wife, my golden daughter ... not a trace. Vanished ... along with the other Jews who were accepted, desirable and model neighbours. All their houses, shops and businesses were now occupied by good neighbours, all moveable property expropriated.

I was apprised that on 10th September, in retribution for the large and initially successful partisan revolt, the Germans rounded up our town's last 66 Jews, none of whom had played any role in the insurgency. The SS were actively assisted by the townspeople, keenly eying Jewish property. The uprising was at its height to the east and initially the Germans were not faring well. But they were keen to kill all the Jewish nation, even at the expense of being weakened by the rebellion.

These remaining Jews were forced to the nearby village of Nemčice. On their arrival, the SS, wasting no time, compelled them to excavate a large ditch. Each person was shot in the back, their bodies plunging into that trench. Six of those murdered that day were children, the youngest just three months old. My friends and I returned each of their bodies home, to Topoľčany, for reinterment in a mass grave, which we dug in the centre of our cemetery. It was no longer possible to identify individuals. We placed a tombstone above the sepulchre narrating the story of those interred therein.

Two more Jews outlived the Nemčice slaughter. My cousins, Ali, who owned and managed the largest horse feed company in Europe and his younger brother, Nazi, who assisted him. Theirs was an indispensable industry— and they needed my cousins to manage it. On the last day, as the Accursed pulled out of our town, they shot Ali and Nazi dead. They were merely collateral.

During the first few months of 1945, 600 Jews trickled home. They too found themselves strangers in the town in which many had lived for generations, most now with no family, sole survivors.

We, who left home to work camps and to the forests, had been certain our women and children would be safe, not be touched by these monsters. We should have known better. We made the fatal mistake of not learning from history. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, well before the rise of Nazism, Germany brutally colonised three large swathes of Africa. In South-West Africa, in April 1893, a heavily reinforced German army unit, in place on orders from the Kaiser, launched a dawn raid on the small Nama clan, located some distance from German settlement, but in an area they wanted. Taken by surprise, the clan chief ordered his men to flee, leaving behind women and children on the assumption they would be unharmed. The Schutztruppe — so called protection force — Germans have a peculiar sense of humour — butchered women, children and the elderly, indiscriminately. Additionally, eighty women were taken back to their fort where they were distributed as house slaves. Germans did not need Mein Kampf to instruct them in Jewish and Black racism, active hatred directly leading to their genocidal enterprises. It has always been there, in their mothers' milk.

Accounts trickled in of Slovak partisans who fought further east. The largest partisan group was that of Viliam Zingor. They were known to be have been fiercely Slovak nationalistic, as were most of these bands, but uncharacteristically, religiously tolerant. Of its 1,300 members, nearly a quarter were Jewish. There were a few all Jewish groups too, notably one comprised of 300 escapees from the Novaky concentration camp. Almost as a rule however, the Slovak partisans, in line with the general populace, were strongly antisemitic. As a result Jews in their ranks hid their Jewishness and this was why I and others Slovakised our surnames.

By now I was no longer particularly interested in what had happened. I was left alive, but all on my own. I only lived from one day to the next. No wife, no daughter, no father, no aunts and uncles, no nieces and nephews ... only, and thank God for this, a handful of cousins. A second cousin, Miki, also a partisan, too survived his ordeals. My sister, Iren, moved to America in 1929 and an aunt and uncle with five of their eight children, including my former flatmate, Ali, were already living in Israel. Their departure was not for overly ideological reasons, but rather as a result of the Anschluss when my Jewish Austrian uncle suddenly became stateless. They were outside Europe and survived.

What inertia forced us, who did not have to leave, to continue here, to remain in situ? After what we were already witnessing, well before the first shot of the war was fired? Some 5,000 Slovak Jews did emigrate before the war, largely to Israel. Others managed to follow in the early years of the war. Why was I, so involved in Zionist youth movements and activities, not one of them? There were always excuses. My parents were old and frail, there was the business ....

Now I am just tired. I do not know how I will continue living in this void. I have been fighting since 1938, beginning late one night with a few friends. We counterattacked a group of hated black shirted Hlinka-Garde activists, who had been stirring up trouble against our Jews. The next morning our community was in wonderment, having no idea who carried out this heroic deed. However as a new Slovak government had just been installed, our leadership, always worried about the reaction of the goyim, was not impressed. But it was not long, as early as November that very year, 1938, that those black shirts were actively assisting in the deportation of our people from Slovakia.

Why did more of us not see the writing on the wall?

Published 7th October, 2021 -- 1st Marḥeshvan, 5782    

Part III: The Second Generation

Readers requested to know more about what happened to our partisan after things in his hometown eventually returned to normal.

I now continue this portrait in the third person.

In essence things never settled down. Normality was never to return. A pogrom took place in Topoľčany on 24th September, 1945. The underlying cause was secondary antisemitism, directed at Jewish survivors who were rightly demanding the return of their property, stolen in their absence. The locals never expected any Jew to return. The feigned catalyst for the persecution was a doctor, Karol Berger, who was vaccinating seven and eight year olds at the local school. Their catholic mothers claimed the Jewish doctor was poisoning their children. Forty-eight Jews were injured in the ensuing riots, fifteen requiring hospitalisation. The police were understaffed to prevent the violence. Soldiers also participated in the riots. Contrary to the expressed desires of the rioters, very few Jews left in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom, most remaining to rebuild their lives and continue the fight for the restitution of their real estate.

However just two years later, most surviving Jews again ran for their lives as the Russian-backed Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Property was again appropriated in the name of nationalisation. Along with many of his contemporaries, our partisan fled once more, with only what he was able to carry.

In response to Part I: That Cigarette, one reader commented, "Happy endings are always good ... is this fiction or a reality based story? Who is 'I'?" To me the latter question answers the former. My response however targeted the former. "Funny. I didn’t write it as a happy ending story. Too many open-ended questions and too many still open wounds. How could the partisan continue living?"

My correspondent replied, "The partisan went on to remarry and have children. Is that not a happy ending?"

Unconvinced I proposed an alternate final paragraph. The partisan did indeed die in the volley of SS bullets. This is a more anticipated and logical conclusion. However in truth, since this piece is not fiction, he did survive. Let us assume, in the vein of the legend that Yitsḥak actually died on Mount Moriah at the hand of Avraham his father, that our dead partisan was lifted up into the arms of the angel Gavriel. Looking heavenward, he petitions haShem appealing that the partisan has yet to fulfil his predetermined assignment on earth, that he should breathe again, continue living, that he has not lived long enough to bring my brother and I into the world, to substitute for some of the murdered lost souls. We humans are unable to make such calculations. They are beyond the realm of our human perception and understanding.

Sadly I know very little of my father. Based on either ending, his reprieve was far too short, an insubstantial twenty-one years. Rav Yisroel Shurin, whose father had had the foresight to bring his family to Israel in 1935, once told me, without knowing of the firing squad, that my father, dying at the age 50 so soon after the shoa, "was without doubt a victim of it". I find wisdom in his assessment.

I often dream of just one more conversation with my father. Then I wonder, if that request were granted, what would I ask, what I would ask first? My father never talked much to me about the shoa. That's not unexpected for at least two reasons. One, no-one in the sixties talked about their shoa experiences. There was too much pain in those memories. Survivors wanted to reconstruct their lives in their new world, through new families and offspring. For us, the second generation, this was one of the tribulations of the world in which we grew up. We were living our parents' lost lives without fully understanding. We were aware of something but knew never to ask. Second, how much can you tell a child? I was just 13 when he passed away. And he certainly told me a lot more about himself than to my brother, 3½ years my junior. But it was all piecemeal, almost in code. As in a puzzle, I have had to arrange the pieces to build his life's mosaic. Even in his short time with me, he very strongly instilled in me what it was to be a Jew. I only now in hindsight understand his motive, he a survivor of the tragedies that befell him and our nation, purely for being Jews.

In my mid-twenties, after learning some more detail of my father's life — in reality it was still just a drop — I asked my mother questions about him. Surprisingly she stopped me in my tracks. "I don't know, really. He never wanted to speak about those days." Implying she knew not to bring it up with him and thus had no unknown information to provide me.

My father came back from the war a religious Jew. It is difficult to understand how. Many who suffered did not. A cousin told me, on returning from a year of backbreaking slave labour, ending the war on a death march to Buchenwald at the age of 16, that there was spiritually "nothing left for me". While some of his siblings survived, neither of his parents came home. He said he decided he wanted no further part of it. He start living it up, eating everything, hanging out in not such "good places" etc. Until one night, during a very deep slumber, his father appeared to him. "What are you doing? For this we died?!!" He told me he woke up in a cold sweat, shaking uncontrollably. On that day he returned to the ways of his parents.

My father worked hard to restore the Topoľčany Jewish community, though he did not see permanency there. Then in Australia to bring a new Jewish family into the world, a new generation. He was very active in Jewish and Israel community affairs.

My mother left God behind in Auschwitz. Her father never visited her. She loved my father greatly and went along with him. Now I am older and understand a little of the ways of the world and of relationships. I no longer rush to judge people like that hotheaded teenager living in a black and white world. There was incongruity. He loved her a lot, incredibly so — I don't know too many love stories like it, especially post-shoa and second marriages — but there were pressures. The shoa effected each of them in different ways. Friends have told me they would hear their fathers, often screaming and crying aloud in the middle of the night. I do not remember anything like that, though that's not to say it didn't happen or that it would not be comprehensible. I am sure that knowing one is certainly very imminently about die, must have more than just a minor effect, both physically and psychologically. It took him nearly two years to actually document what transpired during the war. In a very depressing letter to his cousin, one of his best friends and a former flatmate, he summarises the horrors that occurred to the Jews of their hometown.

Now, less than eighty years on, I see it all before my eyes, in all its detail. I often wondered how the Germans pulled off the annihilation of the Jews along with others, with the full compliance of most of the European, not uniquely the German, population. I no longer ask. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945, summed it up in one word at the Nuremberg war trials. "Fear — all you need to do is to instil fear into the population. Then they will do whatever you require."

I now see it all so clearly, certainly more distinctly than my father did when he escaped into the forests. Where is my forest? If I do arrive there, I pray that, if necessary, Gavriel will also be there for me.

Published 11th October, 2021 -- 5th Marḥeshvan, 5782    

This completes The Partisan's Trilogy.
For the Partisan's experiences in his own words,
please continue to Letter to me from Beyond the Grave

Writings Homepage               Photography Homepage