PARTISAN

PARTISAN

I beg your pardon? Who? Morris Ziegler? That's me.
Let me look at this. That's right. It's the right address.
Am I too young to be Morris Ziegler?
Oh! Now I understand! You are looking for Morris Ziegler, my grandfather!
I was named after him. And when I was young they called me Metek, like my grandfather.
Because his original name in Poland was Metchislaw or something.
He told me once that that name was just on the legal papers, and that he was called Metek by his schoolmates. At home, they called him Mendel, which was a diminutive of his Jewish name Menachem.
Why did you want to talk with him? Did you know him? No? Oh! I see!
Unfortunately, he died a couple of years ago.
Do I know his story from back then? Well. Sort of.
He wasn't a big talker. He said that the years in Poland before the war and during the German occupation were a closed chapter for him. He used to say, "The past is the past, the future is the future, but you have to live in the present. Do not speculate what was yesterday, or what will be tomorrow. If you do that, you are not living today!"
I could not agree with him. I knew that he was in a German concentration camp, that he somehow escaped and had fought the Germans as a partisan in the woods. He was a hero for me.
But his reaction was, "Hero, shmeero, kvetch! I can tell you that I was no hero at all! The only reason that I'm alive is that I was a coward and a scoundrel. I was ready to kill my best friend, if necessary, to save my own life! I lied, I stole, I ran away, and I killed. Some hero I was!"
He would never tell his story. I only got crumbs of it.
Actually, we only talked about it once. I remember it very well because what he said was very different from all that I heard and read before.
Our Jewish Community had organized a presentation of a documentary about the Bielski Brothers, the Jewish partisans. Excited I went to my grandparents' house and told my grandpa: "Zayde, I saw a movie about you!" He looked at me and asked, "How come?" "I saw a movie about the Bielski brothers! They were partisans like you!" "So what?" he asked. I became a little bit mad at him. "Why are you so negative? Why do you always want to diminish, what you did, and what happened to you back then? I could imagine you in the forest, fighting against the Germans! For freedom! For dignity! For humanity! The people with high ideological standards against the Nazi thugs! Justice won! The villains defeated by the heroes! It could be an uplifting story! What is wrong with it?"
He answered, "I didn't want to do it, but you force me to say it. So listen carefully because this is the one and only time you will hear it. I have no use to remember or talk about that time. Why? Do you know how I and the other prisoners behaved in the concentration camp? Like animals. Pure survival instinct. Only for oneself. No care about others. No pity for the others. There were, for instance, some prisoners, young men, who were held by one of the SS-guards as his private sex slaves. None of them was gay, but it didn't bother that guard. Do you think that we had pity for them? No! We envied them because they got some extra food and were free for labor duties! One time someone had stolen a pack of cigarettes from a guard. We were told that the whole barrack would remain standing on the assembly square until they found the guilty one. And who had pointed out the guilty one? Yes! Your grandpa! Because I did not want to stay there all night and get lashes each hour. And because he didn't want to share those cigarettes with me! So don't tell me that crap about dignity or high standards!
Do you think that it was better in the woods? I was an inexperienced town boy and I didn't know anything about surviving there. The first year I could not sleep because every noise in the woods scared me to death. The living conditions were in a way more primitive than in the concentration camp! Of course, the commanders had better facilities, even a hot bath. But an ordinary partisan was a filthy and, from time to time, hungry creature.
Our first goal was not to fight the Germans but to stay alive. And we did whatever it took to stay alive. How do you think the food supplies were provided? From the grocery store? No! Do you think that the peasants in the villages were happy to see us take a part of their crops and cattle? Especially, since our unit was not the only one in the woods. Some peasants tried to hide their crops and animals. The villagers tried to organize self-defense to avoid our requisitions. We could not cope with strong self-defense, but the small villages could be punished. It happened a couple of times after we were incorporated in a bigger partisan unit under Russian command. For a while, I was romantically involved with a girl in one of these villages. To say romantically is, of course, an exaggeration, and I did nothing when our Russian commander decided to punish that village and burn a couple of farms. We also had problems with the other partisan units. The unexpected encounters in the villages or in the woods were very dangerous. The shootings occurred quite often.
One time I was almost killed in the woods when I met an armed partisan from another group. I was lucky because his first shot was inaccurate, and he got a problem with his rifle. I could shoot him with my weapon, but I was so scared that I ran away. Our fight against the Germans was limited to some ambushes, where we could kill a couple of gendarmes. We could also capture and kill some collaborators. We have never fought against regular German military units. They were too strong for us. Each time they came too close to us, we ran like hell! The other groups did the same.
You say humanity. I can tell you how human we could be. It was in 1944. The front was very near us. We could hear the noise of Katyusha Rockets. A young girl and a young boy had been on guard duty during the night. What they did wrong was that instead of being on guard they made love. And during their sexual intercourse, a German soldier came into our camp! Fortunately, he wanted to surrender! What was the punishment of those two on guard? Because it was a serious violation of military rules in combat, they were shot dead!
A couple of days later the commander sent me with some messages to our outpost. I was on my way back, and I chose a shortcut through the nearest small road. Suddenly I heard the noise of the engine coming from the nearest road turn. There was no place to hide, so I tried to bury myself in a road ditch covering myself with the leaves lying there. There was no time to do it properly, and I could see the front lights of the oncoming car. That bloody car had stopped where I was lying and one German soldier came out. He stayed one meter from me. I could see him because there were no leaves on my left eye. I was afraid that he saw me too because he stayed there for a quite long time. Suddenly I could feel some warmth and wetness on my cheek and mouth. He was pissing on me! I couldn't breathe. I was convinced that he pissed on me just to humiliate me. But he stopped pissing, went back to the car and the car drove off. Do you think that I was mad at him? No! I was happy to stay alive! That was it! Not fighting the Germans. Not liberation of the country. No! Just staying alive! This was also valid for all the others in the woods. Jews, Poles, Russians. You name it.
The Poles and the Russians could later attribute their hiding in the woods to some more high and important reasons. For instance, saying that they fought for their country's liberation. We Jews could only claim the fight for our survival. Indeed, a part of my Jewish partisan fellows joined the new regime's forces. They wanted to build a new and righteous Poland, where all citizens were equal, regardless of nationality, faith, or other differences. I couldn't see my future in Poland. I had no family and no places to come back to.
Grandma? Yes. We met in Poland, married there, and went together to America together. I love her. But when we met each other the first time we only had in common what we didn't have. All our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings have gone. We couldn't even find any graves. The Germans destroyed the Jewish cemeteries in our towns. The remaining matzevahs were taken for building purposes. The postwar Poland seemed to be an enormous graveyard for millions of Polish Jews. A graveyard without graves or tombstones. Just some skeletons, bones, and ashes after burned alive or shot dead people. Not buried and not mourned because there were no more tears back. The Germans have made their job.
So I decided to leave that country and promised myself to forget the past forever. This is the first and the last time I have broken that promise. So don't bother me with that partisan fighters, heroes, dignity, and humanity crap anymore!"
From that time, we never talked about it again.

Alex Wieseltier
April 2020