Poli­wan­sky of Ed­in­burgh

Novem­ber 11 marks the cen­te­nary of the World War I ar­mistice that ended fight­ing. The writer tells the story of her fa­ther, who fought in a High­land reg­i­ment

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By SYLVIA FLOW­ERS

‘Where did you get that?” the fe­male gor­gon de­manded. She stood there, four-square and 12 stone [76 kg.]; heavy-hipped, bee­tle-browed and stern-vis­aged, in a uni­form rem­i­nis­cent of a fe­male gaoler.

The noise of the busy air­port re­ceded as her voice boomed out, and she stood there bran­dish­ing the shell case she had un­earthed from my suit­case. Peo­ple stopped rush­ing for a sec­ond, push­ing for­ward to see while other se­cu­rity of­fi­cers glanced our way, but as I an­swered, “It be­longed to my fa­ther,” the noise gath­ered vol­ume and mo­men­tum as life swirled into ac­tion around us, and the sen­sa­tion-seek­ers, dis­ap­pointed, drifted off.

“I told you that I had an empty shell case in my suit­case,” I rather lamely went on but she ig­nored me as she turned the shell cas­ing this way and that and in­toned with some amaze­ment,

“51st High­land Di­vi­sion, 1914-1917, Dannes, Mor­reil, Acq, Ar­ras, Anzin, Vimy Ridge, Wounded 1917, Ro­clin­curt,

38th Di­vi­sion, 1917-1919

La­vantie, Al­bert, Fins, Ar­men­tieres, Somme, Foret de Mor­mal,

At­tached 129 Field Am­bu­lance Unit, B.E.F. “The Dandy Ninth”!!!

Her mus­tache quiv­ered in in­dig­na­tion as her voice rose to a near squeak then backed down a full oc­tave, “The Royal Scots.” Her tone was now a ques­tion, “Mau­rice Poli­wan­sky?”

“Yes,” I proudly replied, “My fa­ther served in the Dandy Ninth in the First World War. He wore a kilt…,” my voice trailed off as she thrust the shell case back into its co­coon of clothes, slammed my case shut and ges­tured me on my way as she chalked a sign on its side at­test­ing to my in­no­cence.

As I dozed on the plane that took me back to Is­rael, I smiled to my­self, re­call­ing the ex­pres­sion on her face; then my smile be­came one of nos­tal­gic plea­sure as I thought of that dash­ing young sol­dier of so long ago. More than 80 years ago, I mused to my­self as I let my­self float on the mem­o­ries of the past. The shell had stood se­dately at the fire­side for years, hold­ing the fire irons-brush, shovel and coal-tongs in­stead of gun­pow­der. The coarse, heavy kilt of dark green serge, “hatched and cross-hatched” in yel­low and red had lain in tis­sue pa­per, redo­lent of moth­balls, in a cup­board up in the at­tic; be­side it, a lethal Ger­man Cav­alry sabre. I don’t know what hap­pened to them, but ever since I had heard the story of the shell as a young child, I had cov­eted it and now it was mine.

My fa­ther was born in Lithua­nia and his fam­ily landed at the port of Leith about 1898 when he was just a baby. He was the third of nine chil­dren, the other six be­ing born in Scot­land. He grew up in Leith and Ed­in­burgh, con­sid­er­ing him­self as good a Scot as any of his school­mates and all his life was ex­ceed­ingly proud of be­ing a Bri­tish cit­i­zen. Not well-off, his dreams of be­com­ing a doc­tor came to naught when he had to leave school at an early age, so he did what he con­sid­ered the next best thing – he went to work in a chemist’s shop.

Too ad­ven­tur­ous to set­tle down, when the First World War broke out in 1914, he im­me­di­ately de­cided to vol­un­teer for the Army, even though he was un­der­age. He didn’t know his ex­act age (they didn’t give out birth cer­tifi­cates back in Lithua­nia), so he could tell the re­cruit­ing of­fi­cer what­ever he liked. He had watched the High­land reg­i­ments, march­ing and counter-march­ing, swing­ing their kilts and bounc­ing their sporrans as they changed guard up at the Cas­tle and had thrilled as they slow-marched back and forth to the ma­jes­tic strains of the dig­ni­fied Strath­speys played on pipes and drum. In the Army he’d see a bit of life – far bet­ter be­ing a sol­dier boy than an er­rand boy to a com­mon­place and com­pla­cent chemist, or an obe­di­ent son with a re­bel­lious streak stuck in the midst of an ex­tremely re­li­gious fam­ily. With­out con­sult­ing any­one, he joined up and soon enough he wished he hadn’t. Army life was more than wear­ing the Hunt­ing

Ste­wart tar­tan and catch­ing ad­mir­ing glances from the lo­cal lassies.

Be­fore ei­ther he or his par­ents could take in what had hap­pened or do any­thing about it, he was on the way to France, part of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force. He never told us sto­ries of the hor­rors of war, but a large il­lus­trated book he had, ly­ing on its side in the book­shelves, im­printed them on my mind as did the 17th cen­tury en­grav­ings of Jac­ques Cal­lot’s “Les Mis­eres et les Mal­heurs de la Guerre,” il­lus­trat­ing the Thirty Years War, or of Goya’s “The Dis­as­ters of War” or of the World War Two news­reels doc­u­ment­ing the dread­ful sights at the sites of the con­cen­tra­tion camps that we sat through in shocked si­lence.

When one of his war wounds trou­bled him in the 1930s, he was hos­pi­tal­ized in an Army Hospi­tal at Ersk­ine Ferry near Glas­gow. I vis­ited him there in that beau­ti­ful ver­dant spot and saw there, nearly 30 years af­ter the First World War, limb­less vet­er­ans and those who had been gassed, blinded and maimed for life. The flot­sam of one world war would soon have to make way for the jet­sam of the next.

To look at my fa­ther, no one would ever have dreamt that he was a Lithua­nian Jew. He looked a typ­i­cal swag­ger­ing “Hei­land Lad­die” with his smooth black hair and bright blue eyes. Pic­tures of him taken in France show him gaz­ing cock­ily at the pho­tog­ra­pher. Even later pic­tures, taken when he was wear­ing leg­gings and breeches in­stead of the flat­ter­ing kilt, show that in­nate jaun­ti­ness that even the car­nage of the Somme couldn’t erad­i­cate. When I asked him, “What hap­pened to your kilt?” he told me how the heavy coarse serge kilts, trail­ing in the mud and icy knee-deep wa­ter of the trenches, never dried out, chafed their knees raw and caught on the barbed wire as they swept over the top. Im­peded by their kilts, they were prob­a­bly not sorry when War Of­fice fi­nally ex­changed them for tar­tan trews.

On one of his for­ays over the top, the ar­tillery bar­rage laid down by both the Bri­tish and the Ger­mans was ex­tremely heavy and when added to what was the dec­i­mat­ing fire of Ger­man ma­chine guns all di­rected at him (or so it seemed to him), he de­cided that dis­cre­tion was the bet­ter part of val­our and he jumped into a mud-filled crater say­ing over and over again like a litany, “Shma yis­rael adonai elo­henu, adonai ehad,” a prayer be­fore dy­ing, so sure of death was he. Surely no Catholic ever said his “Hail Marys” more fer­vently.

As he jumped into the crater, he saw cow­er­ing there a Ger­man sol­dier, a boy no older than him­self. He raised his bay­o­net in a killing stroke. The boy raised his arms in sup­pli­ca­tion and sur­ren­der. As my fa­ther paused in mid-stroke, a shell landed close by and they were both show­ered with mud, de­bris and shrap­nel. He was bleed­ing from shrap­nel wounds, but the Ger­man boy seemed to be in far worse shape. When the bar­rage fi­nally less­ened and the troops strag­gled back for­lornly to the trenches they had erupted from, my fa­ther dragged the Ger­man back with him and took him to a field am­bu­lance unit. As he left him there, his Ger­man pris­oner to whom he had spo­ken in Yid­dish asked him, “Wie heis­sen Sie?” (What’s your name?) and my fa­ther offhand­edly replied, “Poli­wan­sky of Ed­in­burgh.”

The War, like all wars, fi­nally ended and vic­tors and van­quished alike re­turned home. In 1919, the post­man brought an en­ve­lope, post­marked Ger­many, to the house. It was sim­ply ad­dressed to “Poli­wan­sky of Ed­in­burgh,” and as there was only one fam­ily of that name in Ed­in­burgh, it reached him first try. In it there was a let­ter from the sol­dier he had saved and taken pris­oner. He hoped that my fa­ther was in good health and had sur­vived the war as he had, and if ever he should be in Ger­many, he would be more than happy to en­ter­tain him.

Well, it so hap­pened my fa­ther had talked him­self into a job as pri­vate sec­re­tary to a busi­ness­man buy­ing and sell­ing war sur­plus. He knew per­fect English, Ger­man (not ex­actly “hoch-deutsch,” but his Yid­dish was more than pass­able) and flu­ent, col­lo­quial French. Be­sides that, he knew some­thing about small arms. So he would be go­ing to be in Europe and he’d be happy to visit Her­mann Ben­zig – the sol­dier now had a name.

When the day ar­rived, he stepped off the train won­der­ing if he would re­mem­ber what Her­mann looked like. He had no rec­ol­lec­tion of the face un­der the hel­met, only a pic­ture im­printed on his mem­ory, a mo­ment frozen in time – al­most like a minia­ture dio­rama of war in any one of a dozen mu­se­ums. As he came out of the sta­tion, he re­al­ized he would not have to look far for his host. Drawn up with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion in front of the sta­tion was the lo­cal brass band ready to greet him. The band es­corted him with loud oomph-pah­pahs to Her­mann’s home and played out­side while they sat in the gar­den eat­ing and drink­ing and rem­i­nisc­ing over bat­tles fought and won, fought and lost.

Fi­nally, be­fore his Scot­tish sav­ior left, Her­mann, who was an ex­cel­lent met­al­worker, pre­sented my fa­ther with a “me­mento vivo” in­stead of what could have been a “me­mento mori.” It was a highly bur­nished shell case in­scribed with all the bat­tles my fa­ther had par­tic­i­pated in, the name and date of the place he had been wounded, the crest and motto of the fa­mous 9th Bat­tal­ion of the Royal Scots, the donor, Her­mann Ben­zig and the re­cip­i­ent, Mau­rice Poli­wan­sky and the date, Fe­bru­ary 16, 1919.

Just recit­ing the list of bat­tles is like read­ing a his­tory of the war on the Western Front in the years 1914 to 1918. Ar­ras, Vimy Ridge, Ar­men­tieres, the dread­ful Somme…

Af­ter my fa­ther died, sev­eral years ago, our old home was sold and the shell, kilt and sabre dis­ap­peared from view, but I still thought about them ev­ery so of­ten. I once ca­su­ally asked what had hap­pened to the shell and was told that it had been given to my fa­ther’s sis­ter as a keep­sake, and, more im­por­tant from a util­i­tar­ian point of view, she had a fire­place. When I vis­ited her a few years ago, the fire­place had gone, re­placed by a sen­si­ble smoke-free elec­tric heater. At the time, I didn’t want to ask, “Where is the shell?” but when writ­ing to her, I asked her to keep it for me, as I would like to in­herit it ul­ti­mately. Next time when I was in Glas­gow vis­it­ing fam­ily, I went up to see her and I was greeted with kisses and the shell. “I pol­ished it es­pe­cially for you and I want you to have it now.”

My mother was shocked. “What do you want that old thing for? It’s too heavy to carry! Let one of the boys (my broth­ers) have it!”

I clutched it to my­self stub­bornly. “No! I want it! It means more to me than sil­ver tea sets or cig­a­rette cases. It’s his­tory, it’s mem­o­ries. I in­tend to take it back with me to Is­rael.” “You’re surely not drag­ging that back to Is­rael. They’ll never let you!”

But I packed it and brought it back home with me. It stands in a place of honor, its brass bur­nished and softly gleam­ing, filled with au­tum­nal leaves and dried flow­ers, catch­ing peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. I barely no­tice the flow­ers. Each time I look at it, it brings back mem­o­ries of my child­hood and a fa­ther brought to life far more vividly by it than mem­o­ries of an older, more seden­tary and silent man. For me, the shell holds youth, not death. The writer – a teacher, artist and au­thor who was born in Scot­land and made aliyah in 1953 – wrote the above in Re­hovot in 1983 and sub­mit­ted it to the Mag­a­zine for pub­li­ca­tion to com­mem­o­rate the 100th an­niver­sary of the close of the First World War.

(Pho­tos: Cour­tesy)

THE WRITER’S fa­ther when he was serv­ing in an am­bu­lance unit, af­ter he was wounded. The Royal Scots is the oldest in­fantry reg­i­ment in the UK, founded in 1633 by King Charles I and nick­named ‘Pon­tius Pi­late’s Body­guard.’

‘TO LOOK at my fa­ther, no one would ever have dreamt he was a Lithua­nian Jew.’

SYLVIA FLOW­ERS plants trees in mem­ory of her hus­band with the aid of some great-grand­chil­dren.

‘I TOLD you I had an empty shell-case in my suit­case.’

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