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
‘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.
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.’