Menachem's Writings

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 the advance scouts have saved our lives.

Posted 31st August, 2021 -- 23rd Elul, 5781    

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