How I Joined the Czar’s Army, Beat Up My Commanding
 Officer, and Lived to Tell About It
  – Bryna Kranzler

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As summer dwindled to an end, a familiar pall of fear began to descend on our village. Soon it would be the 15th of September, a date which struck a terror even in the breasts of mothers who were still suckling their sons. For on that day, all young men who had reached military age during the preceding year became subject to immediate conscription into the Russian army. 

Do I need to paint a picture of what it meant in 1902, particularly for an Orthodox Jew, to be pitchforked into the Czar’s army? Our parents’ terror was due only in part to the knowledge that we would be exposed to certain dangers and discomforts, including the mercies and whims of superiors who would as soon torment a Jew as scratch themselves…. 

Thus… every home rang with heated family conferences, all dedicated to the search for some means by which an innocent child could be preserved from the fatal clutches of Fonya’s[1] army.

For the rich, there was no problem: they bought their way out. For the poor, however, there was only one avenue of escape: self-mutilation. And since there were any number of equally frightful possibilities to choose from, long evenings of consultation took place.

The year my turn arrived, Aunt Tzivia strongly recom­mended a man who would draw out all my teeth. Feibush, the bath attendant, held that the surest remedy would be for me to blind myself in my right eye, without which one cannot aim a rifle. And my Uncle Yonah, never at a loss, knew a man skilled in the art of severing a tendon at the knee. Had I accepted even half the suggestions offered to me, I should not only have escaped military service, but I would have ended up a cripple such as the world had never seen.

Although no one had bothered to ask me, I hadn’t the slight­est intention of maiming myself. In fact, the prospect of becoming the Czar’s eydem oyf kest[2] for three years and eight months did not strike me as the world coming to an end. After working one hundred and twenty hours a week in a Warsaw bakery, the army didn’t sound like a bad alternative…

***

On the 15th of September, all twenty-one year old boys who hadn’t found a way to avoid serving in the Czar’s army climbed into a row of open wagons. In a driving rainstorm, but with a good deal of comradely passing of vodka between Jew and gentile, we jolted toward Plotsk, the capital of the gubernya.[3] 

By ten o’clock the next morning, I was at the induction center, mother-naked, for a medical examination by several army doctors who fell all over themselves to pronounce me fit. I suspected that, by this time, they had seen such an epidemic of remarkably similar injuries that they assumed the boys from our town were unusually clumsy or particularly unlucky, and considered their afflictions an acceptable norm.

Meanwhile, the brief, drunken friendship between the young Jews and Poles from our home-town had already come unstuck. In the room where we put our clothes back on, a brawl had developed over some remarks made on the sacred subject of circumcision. Though my role in the fight was relatively modest, I ended up with a mashed finger, which had gotten caught in someone’s teeth.

Together with a friend who had also sustained some damage, I went to the aid-station, where, by luck, we happened to meet our future company clerk. This little man took pleasure in giving us advance notice that we would be stationed deep in Siberia, a province not legendary for its temperate climate. 

I left for Plotsk, once again, with a canvas-covered box that my mother had filled with bread, herring, chicken fat, and sausages. (Those who did not intend to touch Fonya’s un­clean food until they had absolutely no choice, had to stock up on such things).

Accompanying me to the coach were not only my near and distant relatives, but also acquaintances who seemed to have come solely for the purpose of adding their tears to the puddles made by the rain. My father alone expressed his sorrow by remaining silent. But it was only his three parting words that continued to ring in my ears long after the coach had taken me away. All he said was, “Be a Jew.” 

***

The barge rocked along the Vistula River under a weeping sky. I could still faintly glimpse the nebulous hills of my birthplace and, with the sudden sharp realization that soldiers don’t always return alive, I wondered if I should ever see it again.
Crowded below deck on account of the rain, we stood in steamy, suffocating closeness: Jew and Pole, Balt, Ukrainian, and transplanted German – and although the recent Syedlitzer[4] pogrom was still green in our memories, we managed somehow not to be at each others’ throats. This may have been because of our common fate. Or because few young people had remained untouched by the prevailing revolutionary spirit with its rosy premonitions of universal brotherhood.

My one friend in the group, a friend since boyhood, was Chaim Glasnik. When he and I prepared to leave Vishogrod – I, full of idiot enthusiasm, he, with a prophetically long face – his mother had seized my arm in two trembling hands and pleaded with me to stay close to her son so that we might protect each other. She swore that if anything happened to him, she would not survive him by even one minute. By the time she was done, my eyes were drowning in tears, while Glasnik merely stood to one side squirming, and pretended she was someone else’s mother….

Some time around noon, determined not by the absent sun, but by the hunger pangs in our bellies, the barge stopped and we were marched, in a straggling column of twos, to a railway siding where we boarded a passenger train. Although it was unheated, we could at least sit down.

While waiting for the train to start, we shared a bottle of vodka providentially carried by one of the Polish boys. A Fonya noncom with a stripe on his collar came pushing in with a stack of papers and started calling out names.

Having, to his visible astonishment, found us all accounted for, he launched into a pompous sermon on how we should conduct ourselves as good, pious subjects of the Czar, meaning we were to jump to obey all of his orders. In the meantime, we would shortly be issued our subsistence pay.

Before Glasnik could wonder aloud if this was the right train and not some cattle express bound for Manchuria, another Fonya walked into our car bearing a sack of coins. I already knew that the Czar didn’t pay princely wages. But even I was unprepared to be handed seven groschen for a day’s subsistence, which at that time was not quite enough to buy a pound of bread. Among those who raged against this Russian stinginess were some of the gentile Polish boys, who had been raised to believe that Poland was their country, and not a Russian colony.

…For my part, I wanted nothing to delay my getting to Petersburg, and tried to calm down the Poles by pointing out that it was undoubtedly not the noncoms who were robbing us, but the greater thieves at the top who took the money allotted for soldiers’ food, and put it in their own pockets. 

I never would have dreamt I’d said anything out of line, except that the two noncoms I had saved from a taste of hearty Polish violence, asked me gratefully for my name and then let me know they’d have their eye on me now as a revolutionary agitator….

By this time, being a soldier of the Czar had lost much of its charm. I resolved for the balance of my enlistment to keep my nose out of all brawls, mutinies, riots and revolutions or, in fact, any incidents other than those involving what I grandly thought of as “the honor of the Jewish people.”
The train left Poland and, in the gloom of a sunless afternoon, began its grudging progress through a desolate landscape of meager fields, occasionally populated by skinny Russian horses and skeletal cows hunting for blades of grass. The Russians may have been a great military power, but they had a lot to learn about farming.

Night fell, and the train sped on without stopping for the promised hot water, while the lot of us scratched our unwashed bodies and groped peevishly for comfortable positions in which to sleep. Finally, in the suffocating air and the foul smell of our bodies and feet, most of us fell into a state that was not so much sleep as loss of consciousness. 

It seemed that I had barely closed an eye when the train screamed and shuddered to a halt. It was shortly after midnight. Military voices roared at us to get off with all of our belongings. We tumbled out, still half-asleep, and were driven like cattle through narrow, dirty streets until we reached a row of barracks.

Here in the mess hall were a row of long tables hammered together out of splintery boards. On each was placed a tin bowl filled with cooked dirty water. Floating desperately on top of this brew were a few scraps of roasted pigskin that had probably been too tough to make into boots.

We were each given one of the Russian army’s wooden spoons. And while the others fell upon this soup as though it were fresh-baked bread, none of the Jews in our group tasted a drop. Not that we wouldn’t, eventually, have to eat the same unclean food as everyone else. But each of us put off that moment as long as he could.

At two o’clock in the morning, we were herded back to the station. Along the way, our comrades discussed their first military supper. One said it was perhaps a little too salty, another complained there wasn’t enough fat in it, a third guessed that the cook had washed his dirty clothes in the water, and a fourth agreed that the soup did have a slight taste of army soap. And all of them roundly cursed Fonya for his stinginess with food.

In the morning, they loaded us onto boxcars that had signs advising that occupancy was limited to eight horses or forty men, but with a little effort was able to hold many times that number.

We traveled in this way for two days until, at four o’clock one morning, we reached Petersburg. It had been arranged that my older brother, Mordechai, who had attained a position of some influence, would meet me at the station. But to my great disappointment he was not there. (It turned out that he had already been to the station several times. In fact, the very morning I arrived, the stationmaster, with that wonderful Russian efficiency even the Communists could never change, told him that the train was not due until the next day.)

No one at the station was prepared for our arrival with even a cauldron of tea. The first snows of the winter had just fallen. Through this we trudged with our belongings along endless Petersburg streets for what seemed like a good five hours. Finally, panting and staggering with exhaustion, and drenched with sweat, we reached the Novocherkassky Barracks. 

Our feet were swollen, and a man would have needed an ice pick before he could blow his nose. On top of which we were hungry as wolves, and our revolutionary spirits were at a pitch not to be reached again until 1904.

I must admit that, on this occasion, Fonya treated us all – Jew and gentile, alike – with perfect equality: none of us got a thing. One of our guards explained they could give us no food because our names were not yet on the roster. They did, however, give us free hot water and I, for one, was relieved to hear nothing more mentioned about our “mutiny” on the train.

Later we were all measured like yard goods so that we might be assigned to platoons in a way that would best make use of our talents. Toward this end, we were asked our civilian occupa­tions. I already knew from some of the veterans back home that getting into a good platoon made all the difference in the world. A good platoon meant sitting in an office and being part of natchalstva, officialdom. A bad one was bitter as death. As my brother’s letter had advised (no doubt afraid that, in my youthful stupidity, I would give my profession as “labor organizer” or “terrorist”), I gave mine as tailor, although I had never threaded a needle in my life. Possibly because of the incident on the train, I was put into the 15th Company, which had the reputation of being the “Con­victs’ Company.” From the first morning on, I understood why.

In other companies, the men were treated in a fairly civilized way. They were awakened at six o’clock in the morning, cleaned their floors, and polished their boots and brass buttons until seven o’clock, when they were taken out into the waist-high snow and made to run for an hour.

With the 15th they were less gentle. We were roused at four o’clock in the morning, driven out into the snow at five o’clock and kept running until eight o’clock, by which time the others were already sitting comfortably at breakfast, which consisted of tea with sugar and chunks of shriveled bread. 

Since I was healthy enough not to be among those who collapsed during our morning run, I still had not fully realized what I was in for during the next three years and eight months. But I soon received Czar Nicolai’s proper sholom aleichem,[5] and that sobered me a little.

What happened was this: Having not tasted hot food for three days now because our names were not yet on the roster, I awoke early one morning with a powerful thirst, and took my own little teakettle over to the cookhouse.

The mess attendant explained he was not allowed to give out any hot water until the bugle had sounded. I slipped him a cigarette. I got my hot water and ran happily back to my cot to drink my tea. I was about to pour the first cup when a Ukrainian noncom with a face like a sheep and a nose like a bulldog, the kind of treasure whom, in Russian Yiddish, we’d call a katzap,[6] entered the barracks. Reading from an ominous roster in his hand, he asked for, “Marateck, Yakub.”

When I answered him, he took one shocked look at my cheerfully steaming kettle and promptly gave me a Russian misheberach,[7] that is, a blow across the face which sent me sprawling.

Blood-spattered and stunned, I had barely managed to get back on my feet when he screamed, “Zhydovska morda! Jewface, pick up your hand and salute!” (Except morda, more precisely, refers to the snout of an animal).

Until he said that, I had been willing to overlook his bad manners. But I grew to manhood in a section of Warsaw where a man does not lightly let someone spit into his kasha. So, without thinking, I snatched up the full kettle and walloped him once across the head…. In the commotion that followed, with plenty of warm encouragement for both sides, he ended up on the bottom and I on top while the blood from our mouths and noses mingled fraternally on the floor.

At the hospital, my injuries turned out to be hardly worth mentioning: a tooth knocked out by the first blow and a finger cut to the bone by the sharp edge of my own smashed kettle. But they insisted on putting me to bed so that my opponent, who, among other things, had lost part of his nose, should not suffer by comparison.

Here Mordechai finally found me at two o’clock in the morning. He’d brought his own little welcoming delegation of Jewish soldiers from our home town. But when he found out I had committed violence against a Russian of superior rank, Mordechai, in his loving anxiety over my ignorance and dimming prospects for survival, started to shout at me that unless I learned to control my “Polack temper,” I would spend my army years going from one prison to another until I forgot what a Jew was.

I listened to him with respect. He was, after all, something of a big shot in Fonya’s army. Only later did I find out what made him so important. As Quartermaster, he was in charge of the warehouse from which the men obtained their uniforms. The way the natchalniks in the Quartermaster worked their racket was as follows. Each soldier was entitled to a new uniform once in three years. The old one was supposed to be ripped apart and used for rags to wash the floors. But many of the old uniforms were still in good enough condition to wear so that, if cleaned up, and with a new lining sewn in, they could be sold again, or even issued in place of new ones. There were large sums of money to be made out of these “resurrections,” and everyone, from the colonel on down, had a lick of this juicy bone.

Mordechai was the only Jew in that entire operation, and I suspected that they kept him only because they needed at least one honest man in the management of the warehouse.

So, my brother went about burdened with money he couldn’t send home without confessing to my father how he came by it. He knew that, for all his grinding poverty, our father would not have tolerated such a source of income for a moment, and Morde­chai would have been forced to ask for a transfer.

But having been away from our father’s influence a little longer than I, he explained that whether money was tainted or not depended largely on what you did with it. And since Mordechai lacked any inclination for gambling, drinking, or whoring, all he could think of doing with this cursed wealth was lend it to those of his officers who never could manage on what they had, or to buy vodka for his Russian comrades and superiors who would lap it up, cross themselves, and wish him eternal life.

It mattered little to him that few of the officers ever repaid his favors or loans. As a practical man, he reasoned, what Jew in Fonya’s army could ever know when a little influence in the right place might not, one day, mean the difference between life and death? Thus, almost despite himself, my brother became a man of some influence.

One of Mordechai’s best “customers,” but someone who at least acknowledged some vague obligation to pay him back, was his own captain. A relative of the Czar himself, Captain Mikhailoff was a wealthy man. Yet he knew nothing about holding on to his money, and freely admitted that his army pay, alone, couldn’t have kept him in cigarettes. Like most Russian officers, he was a passionate card player, and whenever his luck turned sour, he would tiptoe into Mordechai’s quarters in the dark of night, like a drunkard fearful of waking his wife. He always unerringly found his way to my brother’s bed, and Mordechai, still half-asleep, would automatically slip him a hundred or two. (We have a saying, “Lend money and you buy yourself an enemy,” but this, as it turned out, did not apply to Mikhailoff. He proved to be a good soul with a merciful heart, which naturally led to slanderous rumors about his having had a Jewish mother.)

The question in my present circumstances was whether Mordechai possessed sufficient influence to keep me out of jail.

In Fonya’s army it was virtually unheard of for a blood-raw recruit, a “Polack Jew,” at that, to raise a hand in anger against a noncommissioned officer, regardless of provocation. It was sadly agreed that my sentence upon conviction could well come to twenty years. What’s more, there was the reputation of the other Jewish soldiers to consider. As the expression says, “When a gentile steals, you hang the thief. When a Jew steals, you hang the Jew.” 

Although Mordechai was still in the midst of scolding me, some of his friends reminded him that I had, after all, defended the honor of the Jewish people. Had he forgotten how many Jewish recruits the sheep-faced Ukrainian had beaten and tormented in the past? One man now also recalled having heard him boast that, in a certain pogrom, he personally had killed two Jews.

At this, my blood was boiling again. I bravely announced that, if I’d known this, I wouldn’t have stopped until I had dispatched him to the Other World, prison or no prison. This instantly rekindled Mordechai’s anger, but his raging at me was like that of a loving father, and I didn’t take it too much to heart.

One of his friends now said to him, “All right, big shot. Let’s see what connections you have at headquarters to keep this from going any further.”

Mordechai mumbled and grumbled that his supposed influ­ence was severely limited and that he didn’t even know to whom to go. His captain? He couldn’t be sure. …[K]nowing the Russian officer class a good bit better than I, Mordechai had genuine doubts about whether his considerable investments in good will over the past two years would actually prove negotiable. 

But…Captain Mikhailoff appeared genuinely glad to have an opportunity to repay his many favors. Mikhailoff assured Mordechai that I had nothing to worry about, nor would I need to incur the expense of a lawyer, for he, himself, would defend me.

I had no way of knowing whether he actually under­stood the nature of the crime with which I had been charged, or what kind of legal training qualified him to defend a soldier in a court-martial. But it did me no good to suggest to Mor­dechai that, since it was my life, or at least my future for the next twenty or thirty years that was going to be determined by this military court, perhaps I would be better off with a professional lawyer. But as my brother pointed out, who was I to say no to a blood relative of the Czar?

The day of the trial arrived and I still had not so much as set eyes upon my ‘defense attorney.’ The Devil-only-knows how he intended to present my side of the case. In between biting his lips and shouting at me not to be such a worrier, Mordechai conceded that there were some grounds for uneasiness only when the trial had actually begun, and there was still no sign of Mikhailoff.

Meanwhile, my accuser entered the courtroom as though he, personally, were about to sit in judgment of me. I noted that the repairs on his nose and face had been carried out so artistically that, although he still bore a brotherly resemblance to a sheep, he looked notably less ugly than before.

The prosecutor painted our little brawl as an outrage committed by me, alone, an act of unprovoked savagery and insubordination that, unless punished so severely as to set an example for future generations, surely would lead to a speedy and total breakdown of all military discipline and inevitably to the dreaded revolution – a word that, in those days, was almost an invitation to a death sentence. 

I saw immediately that the judge was not in my corner. Any minute now I would be called upon to speak in my own defense. And what could I talk about? “Jewish honor?” I could already see myself blindfolded and tied to a stake.

Especially since my aristocratic defender, who had finally strolled in and taken his seat, one hand vainly attempting to comfort a throbbing brow, listened to the prosecutor like a man who couldn’t wait to put this tedious performance behind him and get back to bed.

But first the aggrieved sergeant himself took the stand, bearing his scars as officiously as though they were battle wounds. He delivered a good strong recitation on how I had attacked him, totally without provocation, in what he could only assume to be a Polack Jew’s typical frenzy of rebellion against good, Russian discipline. With each minute he spoke, I could almost see the judge adding another soldier to the firing squad.

But what offended me above all, was to hear no objection from the judge when my opponent referred to me, once again, as “Jewface.”

At this point, Mikhailoff, who until now had maintained a morose, hung-over, rather self-pitying silence, rose to my defense. Once he had found his feet, he straightened his body with remarkable steadiness. But, to my horror, he did not seem quite certain who in the room was the defendant. Nor, once he found me in response to Mordechai’s frantic chin-wagging, did he pay the slightest attention to any of the charges against me. Instead, he launched into an impassioned attack on those non­coms who, by their unrestrained brutality and total disrespect for the proud traditions of the Imperial Army, had already turned Heaven-only-knows how many innocent and patriotic recruits into embittered revolutionaries against his relative, the holy Czar.

It sounded like a speech he had long been eager to get off his chest, and I suspect he would have made the identical one had I been on trial for blasphemy or wetting my bed. Although my defender was plainly the sort of man who had more growing under his nose than inside his head, I saw the judge repeatedly nod his respectful agreement. But that still did not dispose of the crime for which I stood trial.

Only when the Captain had at last finished delivering himself of his heartfelt harangue and seemed ready to sit down again, did he briefly take note of “the so-called defendant.” True, he conceded, perhaps a more experienced soldier might have tried to moderate his righteous anger. But, as what I had done was so patently an attempt to defend the honor and security of the Czar, Captain Mikhailoff simply failed to comprehend why it was me, and not the other man, who was on trial here.

Much as I wanted to agree with my defender, even I had to admit that his argument lacked logic, not to mention common sense.

But to my astonishment, the judge showed himself to be totally persuaded by this line of reasoning. While I was let off with only the most gentle of reprimands, Pyotr, my opponent, who hadn’t been accused of anything, suddenly found himself reduced in rank.

 

[1]             A diminutive for Ivan, used to refer to all Russians

[2]             Yiddish: Supported or ‘kept’ son-in-law

[3]             Russian: Province

[4]             Siedlce. NOTE: The Siedlce pogrom actually took place in 1906, not prior to Marateck’s conscription in 1902. It is likely that, since he didn’t set down all of his stories in writing until many years later, Siedlce must have been the pogrom foremost in his mind, and he had simply confused the dates.

[5]             Yiddish greeting

[6]             Russian-Yiddish: Nationalistic term for a Russian person; someone who is wholly Russian, not a hybrid with another nationality

[7]             Hebrew: Sarcastic use of a term that is defined as a prayer said for someone ill

*This piece is excerpted from the larger book “The Accidental Anarchist,” published by Crosswalk Press in 2010

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