The Death of Uncle Layish

The partisans were ambushed with artillery and heavy machine gun fire in the Yugoslav forest fields near the border; the mortally-wounded courier barely made it home…

7 min

Yaakov Bar Nahman

Posted on 22.12.10

Solomon’s Trains, Part 12
 
Vienna the city of the Blue Danube, city of the Waltz and crème torts.
 
1937, the shadows were starting to lengthen on a late summer afternoon. There was clear cloudless sky and a gentle mountain breeze. The streets in the Jewish quarter of the city were quiet. Then…
 
Da da dak da dadak da dadak da dadak … the rider was pushing his horse at a pace that would have made Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride look seem like a carefree trot.
 
The thundering gallop of horse hooves rumbled right up the garden walk, a heavy thump on the door. Ernst opened the door and jumped backward in shock. The blood stained horse strode into the entry hall then backed out and went, after its very obviously wounded rider fell off splat – on the wool carpet runner at the front of the salon.
 
The bloody shape on the floor raised his head and spoke, "Do not bother calling a physician it will not help. Bela Barukh …, it is I Yizschav, son of your younger brother Yosef, and a fighter in the Serbian partisans commanded by your illustrious elder brother my uncle Colonel Layish Nahmijas."
 
He gasped and continued. "We were ambushed with artillery and heavy machine gun fire in the Yugoslav forest fields near the Hungarian border. Though already wounded, I was sent to you by him, to give you these documents. I apologize that some got lost on the way and these that remain are damaged. I doubt if uncle Layush survived.”
 
He rested his head on the now blood stained carpet.
 
Another pause, a bit longer than the previous one and with now labored breathing, obviously having difficulty speaking he continued, "I believe that … none our men survived. I … I'm sorry but I did my … best. I am … am … finished. God have m m mercy on my soul and on the House of Israel. Shema Yisrael H' Elokeinu H' Ehhad …."
 
And he was gone.
 
Poppa stood there stunned. He never had been a soldier nor even a street fighter. The galloping horse up to the door, cousin Yizschav falling off wounded bloody into the house, the gasping hasty message, the bloodied parcel and the young nephew's death at his feet – was hard for him to deal with.
 
Trude, had run out and up to her room screaming at the first sight of the horse and the bloody rider at the door.
 
Hal, stood there confused for a moment then said, "Oh my God – Hashem Yekom Damo. What on earth do we now?"
 
Moshe Paul replied, "I feel that your question will soon be answered for us," then bent down, closed Yizschav's eyes, took the blood soaked parcel and then …. then there was the sound of more horse hooves coming close to the house.
 
… and voices …
 
"Captain, here the trail of blood drippings goes up to that house with the open door. Ah, look there is your horse Captain, grazing in the garden."
 
"Well at least he's found himself a meal. Hup to the house. Detail dismount!"
 
As he neared the entrance he added, "Oh, I know this house. That Jew blacksmith farrier from the 23rd artillery lives here."
 
A heavy knock on the already open door. "Paul, are you here. Have you seen the thief who stole my ho …. oh. What is this bloody corpse on your salon floor?"
 
Momma was too busy crying in the kitchen over the news of the deaths of her brother-in-law and nephews to even notice the arrival of the Forest Guard detail with their captain, and when he asked about the corpse both poppa and Hal collapsed.
 
Moshe-Paul briefly explained what could be understood from his cousin's words. Then asked the captain, "What is the connection between my dead cousin and your horse?"
 
"We were on patrol at the edge of the city were the glade is nearest, you know the place, yes?"
 
"Yes"
 
"I was in my regulation position to the right of the patrol. When suddenly a horseman bursts from between the trees like a lightening bolt, the rider close to the neck of the horse. Before I know it they are beside me and with one move, that I still don't know how, he had thrown me, me one of the Vienna Guard's best horsemen and cavalry veteran, off my horse and was there in the saddle instead of me and riding off into the city, at a speed like a lost soul with the devil and a hundred demons chasing him!"
 
"Corporal Herbst barely got a shot off at him before he disappeared from sight. We followed the hoof marks till we got to the stone streets; from there we followed the trail of blood drops." "From what I see here, even if Herbst's shot had hit him it doesn't explain all those wounds. Also the horse he left us with was exhausted and is all covered with blood and had sustained a bullet wound too, poor beast."
 
"Your cousin you say? I swear by eternal God that I have never seen a horseman like that. A cavalry soldier like that could take out two squads of an enemy single handed."
 
"His commander and uncle – who was also my uncle, may he too rest in peace, won a medal for doing precisely that several times in World War 1."
 
"Where did he come from?"
 
"Yugoslavia, they were partisans after the crushing of Novi Sad and the rest of Serbia."
 
"All the way from there on that horse? Maybe he stole other horses on the way to change. Any way, Paul, by law I must see the documents he brought you. If they are of military or security importance I must confiscate them. You understand I hope."
 
By this time poppa and Hal had recovered. Moshe replied to the captain’s statement, "Understood, no problem. But we will open them on the runner which is already blood stained so as not dirty a table. I hope you don't mind this captain."
 
"Understood and fine by me. I see they are shot through as well, full of holes like a Swiss cheese, much stained with blood too."
 
"Well we will see what can be made of them between the bullet holes and the blood stains. Poppa, look they are parchment, not paper."
 
"Since when does anyone make maps and military orders on parchment in our days?" commented the captain. "Eh, what alphabet are these strange letters? Surely some secret code?"
 
"Kerr Kapitan, look at these lines and branches with names and dates next to them. Does this look to you like military document?"
 
"Now that you ask, no. It rather looks like a genealogical chart, a family tree, what can be seen at all that is. What a mess, Almost nothing legible remains."
 
"Exactly so Herr Kapitan, and the language is Ladino written in Hebrew letters. Uncle Layush apparently realised that he and his sons would all die and wanted us have the family tree."
 
"What in blue blazes is Ladino?"
 
"It is a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew that the Jews spoke in Spain before the expulsion four hundred forty years ago, and many of their descendants still use it."
 
"Whatever. Anyhow, enough; you may keep these bloody documents. They have no military importance. I will have my sergeant arrange removal of this corpse and its burial, and see to it that the police don't bother you for it."
 
"Thank you, Kapitan. Though since the man is a Jew, and my cousin, please see that our ceremonial burial society is permitted to deal with the burial."
 
"Fine, will be happy to. One less chore for ours. Oh, yes and the rider's original horse will remain ours if it recovers well. Good night.”
 
The captain and his sergeant strode out into the night. “Detail, mount up. Fritz, take my horse's lead. Ho, move out."
 
When the trot trot of the hooves faded out … "Hal, have a servant bring some oil cloths to spread on the big table. Then you and Poppa help me read and copy down what can be rendered at all from these damaged parchments."
 
After hours of poring over the bullet torn, heavily bloodied parchments, their eyes reddened and tearful both from the terrible loss as well as the eye strain…. "Well this is all we can get out of these. Pity that some of the older parchments are lost, and the most recent section is here but totally illegible, impossible to read enough to get even one complete name, place or date. Thank God I had the opportunity to see it in its entirety on a visit to uncle Layish’s farm."
 
Poppa stated, "Boys I will put this copy with my important papers. The originals must be buried with poor Yizschav, since there is so much of his blood in them. So too will be done with his clothing and probably that carpet runner for the same reason. Hashem yikom damo (May God avenge his blood)."
 
Both sons answered, "Amen"
 
At the funeral Moshe was reminiscing. He recalled the last visit in Novi Sad. Moshe had been learning armed and unarmed close combat techniques with uncle Layish and his sons. They now sat resting on some tree stumps at the edge of the field. At the far end ventured forth a small herd of Roe deer, nearer by a group of rabbits nibbled on fresh grasses. The mild midday breeze whispered through the long needle pines above their heads. So peaceful, so beautiful, nothing like the hubbub of Vienna.
 
Uncle Layish had looked into Moshe's eyes, "My dear nephew this is last time we will meet in this world. Learn well what we will teach you these days that you will be here. Hopefully one of my sons will come to visit you soon to teach you more before it is too late." He put left hand on Moshe’s occiput, right hand on were the front fontanel had been as a baby, closed his eyes muttered something Moshe did not quite hear what. Uncle Layish kept his hands in place for a while. "There are things you cannot be taught but the ability to learn and use them will come to generations that follow after you. There is more, much more, to our ancient knowledge of what is hidden in the saying of “Yehudah Ben Teimah”; methods more than mere physical combat, ask not what.
 
“Your elder son will receive what you could not. Your elder son will not be your first son, but rather the first live birth. Through him the chain of light will return. And from him his sons, especially one with his eyes…. The right teachers will be sent to him by God at the right times. That is if the “other side” does not manage to interfere too much.”
 
“Uncle Layush, what do you mean? What chain of light? What light? What other side?”
 
“He will know what I mean. Hopefully I will be permitted and able to come to meet and guide now and then. There is a chance that one of my sons will survive the war and meet him to tell, to….”
 
Moshe was broken out of his reveries by Poppa saying Kaddish for his nephew. While Yizschav was not an immediate first level relative, who else would be able to say the mourner’s Kaddish for him?
 
All who were present answered, “Amen, Yehei Shmei Raba Mevorakh …..”
 
To be continued

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