THE CANONIZATION OF SHLOMO SOLOMON
Published in "London Magazine"
When I settled in Israel, I was briefed on all the various groups of Jews who made up the new state: the Poles (Galicianers) were double-crossing cheats; the Romanians compulsive thieves, bordering on kleptomania; the Moroccans, quick to reach for the knife; the Germans had no sense of humour. The easiest accent to make fun of was the Hungarian one.
Unkind as the classification was, I found it rather accurate. There were exceptions, of course, but Shlomo Solomon, a Romanian, did not seem to be one of them.
We first met in the Sinai desert, on the bank of the Suez Canal, right after the Six-Day War; actually on the first night of the armistice. Everyone was exhausted and exhilarated by the stunning victory. The platoon I was commanding had bedded down in the sand next to that in which Shlomo served as machinegunner. The bank of the Canal was nothing like a real frontline: thinly spread units with large gaps between them; a few observation posts facing the opposite bank, a few night-watches here and there, everyone else inside their sleeping bags.
In a deep flat-bottomed crater behind our dune I came across a faint glow of a small fire, out of the sight of anyone not standing directly on the edge of the crater. There was a tin of meat and a coffee pot on the coals, and a lone figure sitting by the fire, next to a backpack with a light machinegun leaning on it. The soldier looked up while his hand rested casually on the machinegun.
"Hello," he said. "You're the commander of that platoon over there, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said.
"Would you like some hot goulash and a cup of coffee?"
"Goulash, no, but a cup of coffee would be great if you can spare it."
"I can. You're welcome."
We shook hands and introduced ourselves.
"Are you Shlomo the machinegunner who held that hill single-handed when your platoon ran into an ambush the day before yesterday?"
"Yes," he said with a smile. "Is my fame spreading already?"
"Sort of," I said. "It was our platoon that was rushed to help you but we were warned that you'll probably be overrun by the time we got there. You seem to have saved the situation."
"Thank you for getting there so quickly. As for saving the situation, please don't tell anyone, but there was no choice. My number two was wounded in the leg, and the two of us were on top of the hill, actually a sand dune, with bullets whistling all around us. Our platoon was scramming down the rear slope and the Egyptians coming up the front one. If I got up to follow our platoon I would be shot, and crawling was too slow, so the safest thing was to stay there and shoot. When my ammunition ran out I carried on for a while with handgrenades, and by the time they ran our your platoon showed up and the Egyptians withdrew."
Then he looked up to make sure we were alone, reached into his pack, and asked "How about some of this in our coffee?" It was a pocket flask of brandy, about half-full.
By the time we finished the coffee the flask was also empty and the two of us slightly drunk, Shlomo more than me and talking a lot.
"You know," he said, "this war; maybe I shouldn't say it, but I rather enjoyed it."
"Of course," I said. "So long as nothing happens to you personally, it's something to remember and talk about for the rest of your life. Of course God help you if you admit to the women at home that you enjoyed it."
"Not only the women," he said. "There is, for example, that boss of mine at the office. Won't let me do or decide anything on my own. Change this, no, put that in that file and not this one, no, don't telephone, write a letter, all the bloody time. And here, all of a sudden, you make life-and-death decisions on the spot, without anyone to consult even if you wanted to, and if they are the right ones then the Egyptians die, and if not, you do. It will keep me going for a long time when I get back to the office."
"Why don't you change your job?"
"Oh, there's seniority and a decent salary, and then the boss is going to be pensioned off in six years' time and if all goes well there's every chance I will get his job."
"Look at this," he said with some hesitation, taking from his rucksack a small bundle wrapped in a hankerchief and untying it. Inside there were a half-dozen wrist watches, a couple of fountain pens, some insignia and decorations, and, at the bottom, three or four gold rings.
"Souvenirs," he said. "All from the Egyptians I shot. I mean," he added lamely, "if I wouldn't have taken them others would, and after all it was me who brought them down, wasn't it?"
"Would you say the rings are real gold?"
"I am not an expert, but it looks like it."
* * *
The next summer, my five-week tour of reserve duty was an intensive one. The army was studying the lessons of the Six-Day War and reorganizing to suit. In spite of the stunning overall victory it transpired, for example, that massed infantry transported along roads by busses and lorries was slow, sluggish, and not all that efficient or disciplined. Our brigade was getting trimmed down and mounted on half-tracks, on the assumption that a squad capable of moving quickly across practically any terrain on a half-track was worth more than a whole foot platoon of the last war. The officers were called a few days before the ranks to prepare the plans. By the end of the course, much of it involving jumping off and onto moving half-tracks, a selection would be made on the basis of performance, fitness, past record, and morale, leaving the brigade with half the manpower and, it was hoped, twice the efficiency.
During those first few days I also tried to start an affair with Nilly, a pretty and quiet typist at one of the offices. We got as far as kissing and fondling in the grass under a tree on the outskirts of the base. The moon was up and her brassiere was off, but when I tried to get my hand under her army skirt she gently pushed me away, looked into my eyes, and said:
"Stashek...there's something I'd like to ask you."
"Go ahead, darling."
"Are you married?"
"Yes, I am," I admitted. I have always made a point of honour not to lie about my married state and not to invent last stages of a divorce, even if it cost me a love affair. I did not wear my wedding ring because on two occasions it had caught on projections, once of a bus and once of a jeep, and almost took my finger off.
"Well, then, you see," she said sadly, ending her sentence there and pulling her skirt down as if the matter was self-explanatory and final. She did remain in my arms and let me caress and kiss her a little longer, but any attempt below the waist was firmly resisted, and it was more like a platonic parting of old lovers. "I hope you're not angry with me," she said apologetically as we were walking back with our arms around each other. "You see, I couldn't bear the thought of having anything like a broken marriage on my conscience; there is too much of it as it is." I have always admired women's confidence in their power to break up marriages. I also understood that, at nineteen, Nilly had decided that her next major project would be a husband and a home, and that no affair with a married man, however attractive, was going to delay it or gum up her prospects.
* * *
The next day, walking through a crowd of newly-arrived soldiers, I felt a heavy slap on the shoulder and there was Shlomo Solomon grinning happily. We shook hands and went aside for a friendly talk. He wanted to know what this training was all about and I told him. "By the way," I said, "I'll need a good machinegunner for my own half-track. Would you be interested?"
"Of course. That would be great."
"Then I'll arrange it during the final selection if you don't break a leg by then." I preferred a good machinegunner who took watches and rings off dead Egyptians to a bad one who didn't.
The next evening, as I was walking with Nilly to the canteen, Shlomo crossed the road and intercepted us.
"Excuse me, Stashek," he said, combining a formal salute with the familiarity of a nickname. "Does our exercise start at eight or half past eight tomorrow morning? It wasn't quite clear."
"Eight o'clock sharp," I said. It was a very transparent tactic to be introduced to a pretty girl and I obliged, adding that Shlomo had distinguished himself in the Six-Day War. "He is also a bachelor," I told Nilly when we were alone again.
"He's nice," she said. "What does he do in civilian life?"
"He's an accountant, with a bright future I understand. Slated to take over the office when the boss retires."
Half a year later Shlomo and Nilly were married, and my wife and I were invited to the wedding. I was introduced to their families as the old friend who had brought them together after having fought side by side with Shlomo in the Six-Day War, and I was treated as a guest of honour and invited to hold one of the four poles of the wedding canopy during the ceremony.
* * *
In the following years Shlomo and I would spend a month together each year on reserve duty. My wife and I were duly invited to the ritual circumcision of the two sons that were born to them at about two-year intervals, and we also visited each other at home a few times, but not very often. The comradeship of a half-track commander and his machinegunner failed to infect the two wives who were busy with their homes and children and older and closer friends. Marriage had done Nilly a world of good; from a reasonably pretty girl she had bloomed into an almost beautiful young woman, with the figure improved if anything by the childbearing. Otherwise both she and Shlomo were rather dull; their conversation turned around home, children, food, furniture, and gadgets. My wife was bored in their company, and so was I unless discussing military matters with Shlomo or innocently flirting with Nilly in the kitchen.
* * *
The Yom Kippur War caught me at lunch at home - most Israelis don't fast on the Day of Atonement - and in the evening I was already at the base, with Shlomo checking and oiling his machinegun. He had also stolen from the store twice again the quite generous amount of ammunition allotted to each machinegun, saying that he had ran out of ammunition once, in the last war, and didn't like it.
The base was humming like a generator. New reserves were arriving all the time; the half-tracks were being given a final tune-up and loaded with jerrycans of water and fuel. The news from the front was nasty; above and beyond the surprise of the massed Arab attack - the army left adjectives like "treacherous" to the civilians - something seemed to have gone seriously wrong. By midnight we already knew that the Bar-Lev Line had fallen the whole length of the Suez Canal, while in the north the Syrians were over the border with masses of tanks and pushing into Galilee. There was tension but no panic. We may have been caught with our pants down, on a Sabbath and the Day of Atonement at that; or, for political reasons, the government had let the Arabs to make the first move so as to have a clear case of aggression for the diplomacy that would follow their defeat, once again leaving the adjectives to the civilians. We were mobilizing efficiently and fast, and the counter-attack was scheduled for Monday or Tuesday. By then, our brigade was to reach southern Sinai and catch up with the counter-attacking tank brigade of Bren Adam, mopping up and consolidating the ground gained.
By the time we caught up with the tank brigade it has been destroyed, with three or four tanks limping back, out of ammunition, their crews completely exhausted and some of them wounded. The rest of the tanks were scattered all over the place, gutted and charred, some still burning. All around was Egyptian infantry, hundreds of them, with suitcase or shoulder anti-tank rockets, and they started on us. The leading half-track went up in flames, and a rocket whooshed past ours. By the time I noticed a prone Egyptian taking aim at us Shlomo opened fire in short cool bursts, and the Egyptian slumped face down over his rocket launcher without having fired. I yelled to our squad to get off the half-track, and a minute after we did it went up in flames. The other squads were also dismounting and taking cover. We then started slugging it out with the Egyptians on a plain infantry against infantry basis, with none of the traditional lightning surprises or technical tricks of the past to help us. This was the beginning of the long and hard two-week battle which finally took us across the Canal and into Africa over the long pontoon bridge laid by the paratroops and engineers at the cost of two hundred lives.
A few hours after the final ceasefire, our brigade, reduced to almost half of its original strength, was moving along a dirt road to reinforce the paratroops who were holding the ceasefire line a few kilometres ahead, and stopped by an abandoned mudhut village, dusty and poor, to get our bearings and check the road ahead for mines. With the engines of the half-tracks stopped, the silence was a blessing, and we now knew that we have survived the war.
Shlomo was pointing to the top of the sand embankment on our right. Up there, bodies of two Egyptian soldiers, swollen with decomposition, could be made out, surrounded by a few mangy village dogs. The hand of one of the bodies was pointing upwards and there was a metallic gleam on the wrist. With his helmet on, his machinegun in one hand and a pair of binoculars in another, Shlomo slid off the half-track and made for the embankment.
–Where do you think you're going?" I asked him.
"Back in a minute, Stashek."
"Nobody is allowed off the vehicles."
"Oh, for God's sake," he hissed - our colonel and a couple of officers were by the front half-track, studying some maps - "let's say I am going up there with binoculars and the machinegun to make sure there are no Egyptians on the other side, OK?", and he started scrambling up the embankment without heeding my repeated orders to get back.
There was an explosion and he was thrown on his back, coming to rest with his head lower than his body. When I reached him - carefully, putting my feet in his footprints - he was dead, with his stomach and chest spattered with blood. There was a trickle of blood still running from the corner of his mouth up his cheek and temple into his hair although he had been killed instantly by the mine.
I was glad that we had to remain in the desert without leave for another month because I was not exactly looking forward to calling on Nilly in my triple capacity of an old friend, a comrade-in-arms who was there when Shlomo was killed, and his commanding officer, and tell lies. Together with the brigade commander, who was an old soldier and guessed immediately Shlomo's real reason for climbing that embankment, we concocted the official version, proposed by Shlomo himself: he had volunteered to scan the area through his binoculars for any remaining enemy and stepped on a mine; an honourable death in action, sacrificing his own life so that others might live.
When I finally called on Nilly she fell into my arms and wept, and I couldn't help remembering her in my arms under that tree at the base. Her face seemed to have grown thinner and her eyes larger during the one month's mourning period. Her and Shlomo's parents were there for the meeting. There is a saying that a good lie is like good margarine; at least half of it must be truth, like butter in the margarine, and I had no problems with Shlomo's death on that account. There was an uncomfortable quarter of an hour when they wanted to know who gave Shlomo the order to go up that embankment without first checking it for mines, and I had a difficult time convincing them that it was his own idea and that he insisted on going up there right away so as not to give the Egyptians who might have been on the other side the time to creep up on us. There was a solemn moment when I gave Nilly Shlomo's shattered binoculars, and she cried again.
* * *
For the next few months I saw Nilly quite often. All her relatives and old friends made a point of inviting her to Friday night gatherings, weekend excursions and picnics, anything that didn't smack too strongly of gaiety and cheer. The women helped her with shopping and with the children, while the men took care of household repairs and the lawn. It took a few months for the relations to cool, and it was happening to hundreds of attractive Yom Kippur war widows all over the country. The initiative came from the wives. The war widows, however unfortunate and deserving of help, were competition: young, attractive, with their sexual instincts unimpaired, and perhaps even beginning to think about marriage, with most of the suitable men already - or for the time being - married.
In my own wife's case the wariness was not altogether unjustified because in the meantime I had succeeded in what I had failed in some years before under that tree on the outskirts of the base: Nilly and I became lovers. It was a gentle and easy-going affair and must have helped her a lot to return to normal life. One of the first things she told me after we made love for the first time, in her bed - the children were spending the night with their grandparents - was that she had never been unfaithful to Shlomo while he was alive. She had always been a very conventional girl, caring greatly for appearances and reputation. I don't know to this day whether my wife suspected what was going on; if she did, she must have remained confident that it will blow over in due time and that Nilly won't be able to take me away from her. She may have also had a little extra-marital affair of her own at that time, to keep things on an even keel.
"Stashek," Nilly asked me one afternoon as I was repairing a leaking tap in her kitchen, "do you happen to know a writer or a journalist who could do a good job on a booklet about Shlomo? My father-in-law suggested it last night and it sounds like a good idea. Many bereaved families do it; it can be quite expensive, but it's something to give to relatives and friends, and for the children to read when they are older."
I knew those memorial books. They ranged from a few mimeographed sheets stapled together to quite lavish hard-cover productions written by a professional journalist or writer for a fat fee and containing many photographs, graphics, and facsimiles. Many of the fallen had written poems or sketched, and their work was duly reproduced. The poems and sketches were in most cases embarrassingly amateurish; but as many of the victims were young, in their late teens or early twenties, the implication was that the war might have nipped in the bud a considerable talent.
Every soldier knows that his comrades-in-arms are a mixture of good and bad, brave and cowardly, intelligent and stupid, handsome and ugly, generous and mean, and that when bullets and fragments begin to fly they strike at random. But one does not speak ill of the dead, and if one were to judge by the memorial books alone it would transpire that death on the battlefield took only the handsome, talented, brave, and generous, letting the scum return safely and live out their mean little lives in a society degraded by the loss.
In Shlomo's case, I watched the creation of such an image from inside, having myself provided most of the material concerning his army past. An attractive lady journalist was hired by Shlomo's parents to write the book, and the parents and Nilly spent many hours with her sifting through Shlomo's kindergarten and school drawings and through the family photographs. (He did not write poetry.) A whole chapter was devoted to his part in the Six-Day War when he had held that hill single-handed until rescue came. As the embankment on which he died could also be considered a sort of hill, the book was finally called "The Last Hill". Some way through the book, the lady journalist enlisted my help. "I am a decent writer," she said on the phone, "but out of my depth on statistics, strategy, and maps. If you could help me a little." After an initial session over a map of the Sinai Peninsula on the floor of her living room, I gave her most of the information in bed, with her little tape-recorder sitting on the crumpled sheet between us. Thus my two love affairs overlapped for a while, although that with Nilly was slowly ending. She had realised by then that I was unlikely to leave my wife and marry her, and the danger of my wife discovering the affair was putting a strain on both of us. There also showed up that rare creature, an eligible divorced man with just one child, an American businessman too, a distant relative of Shlomo's parents, who had called on them during a visit to Israel to express sympathy. Shlomo's parents were deeply touched and invited him for a few dinners and lunches, while Nilly took him in her car for a tour of Tel-Aviv and old Jaffa. He became very fond of Israel during his short visit, and seriously began to think about settling here. Nilly gave him several copies of "The Last Hill" for other distant relatives in America, and they kept up copious correspondence after he went back. He returned the next summer, with his son, for a month's vacation; Nilly met him at the airport and they kissed like old friends. At the end of the month, he and Nilly were married, and have lived happily ever since. Nilly is now pregnant.
It is now mainly Shlomo's parents who visit his grave at the military cemetery, lay flowers on it, weep, and say the prayer for the dead. Having come across my copy of "The Last Hill" recently, I noticed that the pages are yellowing at the edges; the printer had cheated on the quality of paper.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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