At the lecture I gave tonight, I did not mention Stashek. I meant to say a few words about him and about what I discovered on Independence Day, but somehow it was deleted from my memory. Perhaps I was preoccupied with my new set of dentures given to me by that new damned dentist. This new set was supposed to make eating and talking easier and smoother. But my new dentist was grievously wrong. The dentures move loosely in my mouth and I live in constant fear lest any speech loosen them; my shame would be audible and visible. These blasted dentures are the reason why I forgot to mention Stashek and to tell the audience what I recently learned about him.
I was introduced to the meager elderly audience by a young man who told them I was one of the few survivors of the Battle for Latrun “who is still with us,” and alluded to me as one of the giant generation of the 1948 war. I did not particularly like the adjective. Far from being a giant, I have always been a shriveled raisin of a man, even in those heroic days.I was not very articulate this evening – all because of those ill-fitting dentures. Because of them, I had to refuse the supper they offered me, and I returned hungry to my room at the Golden Age Retreat. I had to prepare my own Quaker Oats porridge in my kitchenette, a porridge I could swallow without my dentures. Damn that fool of a dentist! And as I was gulping down the hot porridge, the memories of Latrun came back to me, and floating on top of them was my friend Stashek.
These days, as we drive up to Jerusalem and pass Latrun, we cannot even begin to imagine the ruthless battle which raged there 60 years ago. On May 30, 1948, I participated in the third and final battle for Latrun. Israel then was only two weeks old. The Egyptian army was marching toward Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was under siege. The fear was that it would be vanquished by famine unless the siege could be lifted. We in the Palmah were determined: This time we shall smash the Arab Legion’s noose and break our way through Latrun to Jerusalem.
Stashek joined our battalion a few days before the battle. He was one of the refugees who arrived from the DP camps in Europe and was transferred from the ship to the fledgling army. We estimated that he was 18 years of age. He did not know his age. We marveled at his tremendous physical prowess. Stashek was a quiet one. On the rare occasion when he spoke, he did so in a strange, muffled voice, mumbling a mixture of languages: Yiddish, Polish and concentration-camp-German and a few words in Hebrew. He would not tell us anything about himself.
“Stashek”, we would ask him, “What happened to your parents?”
“Ich weiss nicht.” (Yiddish for “I don’t know.”)
“Are they alive?”
“Ich weiss nicht.”
Stashek knew how to take care of himself in primitive field conditions. He knew how to put up a tent, make a fire, empty a jerrican into a jeep without spilling a drop and take apart and assemble a Sten gun in record time. His tall and heavy body contrasted with his agility under fire. He would rush to the next dugout as soon as the first sound of an outgoing shell was heard. He was powerful and at the same time skillful with his hands and could fix anything, including our captain’s watch.
There was one thing he didn’t know: how to strike up a conversation with us. When we used to sit around the bonfire and throw potatoes into it, singing Palmah songs, he would quietly walk away to his tent. I cannot recall his face, but I do remember it was the face of a grown-up child incompatible with his heavy solid body. And I do remember the look in his eyes, occasionally staring expressionless with motionless pupils into the distance.
“Have you got any family here?”
“Ich weiss nicht.”
Again that opaque look, peering at an invisible object.
“He stares into the void,” said our noncommissioned officer.
IN THE short time which elapsed between Stashek’s arrival and the battle itself, a strange friendship between him and me developed. I was a Hebrew-speaking kibbutz member. I knew only some rudimentary phrases in broken Yiddish, and he was from there. He was a big, sturdy young man; I was small and fragile. Stashek helped me with carrying the Bren machine gun and once when I fell by the roadside in one of our exhausting marches, he picked me up with his muscular hands and supported me throughout the march so that I wouldn’t fall again. I, on the other hand, explained things to him: what our commander said, the plan of attack, our Palmah songs. I told him that we sing: “When we are dead, bury us here in Bab el-Wad.”
No comment from Stashek.
I guided him through our routine, using sign language as well as bits and pieces of Yiddish and Hebrew. We became known as the odd couple – the big and the small – the Palmah version of Laurel and Hardy. We were always together although we spoke little to each other. Now that I think of it, I probably felt that there was something else linking us together, but I did not know what it was until later.
On the evening before our attack, we all gathered near a bonfire and listened to the harangue of our political officer:
“Comrades! Jerusalem is under siege. Jerusalem is being bombarded! Our people are hungry. What prevents us from breaking through to them? Only Latrun! Latrun, in which the invading Arab Legion has dug, in prevents us from saving our brethren. Tomorrow, we shall break the neck of the evil legion. We shall put an end to Latrun’s subjugation.”
I looked at Stashek’s blank face: “Stashek, did you understand what the political officer said?”
“Ich weiss nicht.”
“Stashek, are you happy here in our independent state?”
“Ich weiss nicht.”
THIS YEAR, when Remembrance Day approached, I suddenly remembered Stashek’s blank face and decided to visit his grave; however, I did not know in which cemetery he was buried. I contacted the appropriate department in the Defense Ministry.
“What is the family name of the fallen one?”
“I don’t know.”
“And in what district is he buried?”
“I don’t know.”
“And his place of birth?”
“I don’t know.”
“Excuse me, but do you know anything about him?”
“Only that his name was Stashek and that he died in the Battle for Latrun on May 30, 1948.”
The girl could not locate his grave with the rudimentary information I gave her, but she explained that recently they had succeeded in finding and naming all unknown soldiers and that they had been reburied in a special part of the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
I phoned our former battalion commander, now in a convalescent home.
“Do you remember Stashek, our immigrant-soldier who died on the first day of our last attack?”
“Of course, Stashek. The one who died in Latrun. He was your friend, wasn’t he?”
“Do you remember his family name?”
“Not really. Actually, I don’t think I ever knew his full name. He died before we really got to know him.”
So on Remembrance Day, I went looking for the grave of someone who died more than 60 years ago and whose full name I did not know. But I became obsessed with the idea of finding Stashek’s grave. And what if the army decided that Stashek was not an appropriate name and “Hebraicized” it? Then I wouldn’t have a chance of finding my friend’s tombstone.
I was walking around the graves of the formerly unknown, now reburied soldiers – most of them 1948 boat-to-battlefield immigrants – when, lo and behold, I suddenly came across Stashek’s name. The tombstone stated that he died in Latrun on May 30, 1948. No doubt about it. His family name was inscribed on his stone: Krochmalnik. Strange. This was my own family name before I “Hebraicized” it in the ’50s. What a strange coincidence. I read a few sentences from Psalms, heard the lamentations arising from fresh graves and went back home to look for details about Stashek Krochmalnik in the special Internet site for fallen soldiers.
WE LOST the battle because of a navigational error. We wrongly assumed that a certain stronghold marked on our map was held by our units when in fact it was held by the Arab Legion. When we approached it, all hell broke loose: We were fired at and bombarded by a well-equipped and highly trained Arab-Jordanian force.
I shouted at Stashek: “What the hell is going on here?”
Stashek answered with his ubiquitous three Yiddish words.
We all hit the ground, lying there, clinging to the rocky soil, waiting for the bombardment to stop. All except for Stashek. He stood there, his body erect, his eyes staring at some distant point.
“Stashek, lie down! At once! It’s an order!”
But there was no comment. That opaque glassy look again in mid-battle. The frozen, distant stare. He was not with us.
“Stashek, I beg you. Please don’t stand like that. The bastards will shoot at you!”
I crawled toward him and tried in vain to push him downward. He stood there hard as a rock. Two bullets hit him, one in his shoulder and the other in his head. Then he fell to the ground with the full weight of his solid body.
“Stashek, everything will be okay. The paramedic is on his way to you. Just don’t close your eyes.”
Stashek mumbled: “Wasser, wasser
It was midmorning and a dry heat descended on the dead and wounded bodies scattered in the field. Flies appeared out of nowhere and landed on the bloody wounds of the dying men. Between one explosion and the other, there was a dead silence broken only by buzzing clouds of midges hovering above us. I had some water left, and wet Stashek’s gaping mouth. I could not carry that huge man on my fragile shoulders, but I did manage, resorting to unsuspected reserves of strength, to drag him toward a wheat field. There I thought we would be hidden from the snipers. There, in the field, he died. In my arms. He died without uttering a word, while I, among the sheaves of wheat, cried out:
“Stashek, don’t die. Please don’t die, Stashek.”
After Independence Day I entered the special Internet site devoted to the fallen, and looked for the entry of Stashek Krochmalnik. I found him, and when I hit his link, I shuddered. He came from the same shtetl as I did. He must be somehow related to me. Ours was a small shtetl. I shivered.
I wanted to relate all this tonight to my audience when I spoke about the Battle for Latrun, but because of my mobile dentures I forgot to do so.
THE QUAKER OATS porridge is by now cold and tasteless. I must have sunk into one of my “daydreaming” breaks, into what my late wife used to scold me for: “You are stuck again on a cloud. Come back to us.” I simply forgot all about the porridge because I was “up there.”
Suddenly, I cringe. This mental disconnect is the twin phenomenon of Stashek’s stare into empty space. Both of us share the same characteristic. Now there is no doubt. This cannot be a coincidence. Stashek is my kith and kin, a member of the Krochmalnik family from the same shtetl. But who could he have been? My cousin? The one who was considered such a genius in the yeshiva? The son of my elder brother whose photo would bring my father and mother to tears? The grandson of my uncle who was active in Maccabi Warsaw? I had no memory of the family who stayed there.
My parents came to Palestine and left their family in Poland. I grew up
without an extended family until I joined the Palmah family. My
memories of my family in Poland consisted of old photos my father used
to show me. He told me many tales about all of them. Those who stayed
behind. But now, I realized that not all of them perished. Stashek is
my own flesh and blood. But I don’t know how he is related to me. Now
there is no one who can tell me. All are gone – murdered there or died
here. And as for me – I don’t know. Ich weiss nicht.
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