Part I: Before
“…It helped that after the meagre, tasteless prison diet Nachman developed a voracious appetite. He hoped that it would help him gain enough weight to meet the military’s minimum standards. Despite his imprisonment by the repressive regime, he had not lost his desire to serve. In fact, he was more determined than ever to prove that Jews were as able as their Polish peers to handle military discipline and weapons. Each time his mother served him a portion of food he would say, “Mama I am hungry as a bear. I need some more,” then immediately felt guilty because food was not plentiful.
Nachman arrived at his third medical commission with trepidation because he knew it was his last chance. When the military physician asked him to step on the scale Nachman, undaunted, trained his eyes on the upper weight as the doctor slid it along the increments of the metal beam. He exhaled when it came to rest two notches higher than ever before.
“You made it, finally!” the doctor said, and signed the requisite form. “Report to the officer down the hall with this document.” Nachman felt as if he had won the lottery. He sashayed into an office full of young men who had passed their medicals and approached the desk, proffering his prize document. The officer on duty looked up and said, “Libeskind? Are you of German extraction?”
Now, I’ll be sunk, Nachman thought, but he answered looking directly into the officer’s face.
“No, sir, I am a Jew.” The officer smiled. “Are you sure you want to serve?” “I believe I have some talents the army might find useful,” Nachman said.
“If you won’t accept me you will never know.” The officer raised his eyebrows in surprise, visibly chose to overlook the impertinence. “All right, then,” he said. “Here is a list of things you need to bring when you are called up for service.” And then he called out, “Next!”
Nachman counted the days until he had to report for basic training. His friends thought he had gone mad. At last, in March 1933 the military called him. A three-hour journey by train took him to join the Fifty-sixth Infantry Regiment in Krotoszyn, a town southwest of Lodz, dominated by an old Prussian castle. When Nachman arrived at his base he was processed and issued a uniform. He was dazzled by it. He couldn’t believe his image when he saw himself in it in the mirror for the first time. He admired his reflection and felt as if he had gained a foot in height. How different he looked from his days as a prison inmate. He smiled to himself: If Jadwiga or the other girls would see me now, they’d go crazy.
Soon he was called in to see the commanding officer. “Libeskind, I am putting you in charge of my horse,” he said.
A horse? He’d expected to be given a weapon, or to be given some special instructions, but a horse? What did animals have to do with anything?
Nachman had never been to the country and the only time he had seen a horse it had nearly run him over at the May Day parade demonstration. The animal towered over him and flared its nostrils. He still remembered its hot breath and huge eyes with surprisingly long eyelashes. He had no idea how one would even approach such an animal, but to think of feeding it and harnessing it was terrifying. He wasn’t sure he was up to such an overwhelming task, but immediately started to think about how he would deal with it.
“Okay, sir,” he said. “Is there anything else?”
“Now that you mention it, there is one more thing. I need a bugler for my company, someone who will play the morning reveille and evening taps. Do you know how to play an instrument?”
Nachman’s heart stopped. “No sir,” he said, “but I can learn quickly. I have a good ear.”
“If you do a good job of handling my horse, private, you will be enrolled in our training program for buglers. Dismissed.”
Nachman saluted smartly and marched out, hoping he would not wake up from what surely must be a dream. Being a bugler would mean that he would have a bugle. He didn’t have to do anything to acquire it, except for dealing with the horse. Getting an instrument in exchange for taking care of a horse now seemed like a great bargain. He would learn how to do it if it killed him.
First, I’ll have to make friends with the horse. It’s a living creature, surely it would respond well to gentle handling, he thought. After all, it would be his ticket to the bugle. A horse couldn’t be that different from, Filozof, his childhood canine companion. Nachman remembered how no one else in the courtyard wanted the mutt who hung around for days looking dolefully for scraps. Their neighbours had no pets, they were just mouths to feed, but Nachman’s mother eventually relented and allowed him to bring the dog home. Nachman vowed to befriend the horse. Like Filozof, it might not need more than food and love, he thought.
The old stable hand on base gave him some tips on horse care and Nachman listened as if his life depended on it. Then he walked to the stall where his officer’s stallion was kept. The pungent smell of hay hit his nostrils as he entered the dim space. It was unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. When he saw the animal up close he was astonished by its grace and elegance. It was a chestnut Arabian with a white blaze on its forehead and socks to match. Something about the animal’s calm demeanour made Nachman approach slowly but with more confidence than he thought he had in him. He kept his eyes lowered as the stable hand instructed. The horse towered over him but turned its head toward Nachman, which he read it as an invitation to make contact.
He reached up and stroked the animal’s neck and flank, intoning gently in Yiddish, “Du bist a guter ferd, aza min shayner ferd” You are a good horse and a handsome one, too. The animal’s skin twitched, but it stood there serene and royal in its demeanour. Nachman was surprised by the warmth and softness of the coat.
He wanted to offer the horse some treats as a sign of his good intentions, but he had no idea how to do it without losing his fingers to those large teeth. The sugar cubes in his pocket now felt sticky in his hand. Nachman stepped backwards toward the horse’s rear attempting to come around toward its face, but the horse kicked its back leg nearly knocking him down. Nachman stumbled and returned to the right flank, gently inching forward and repeating his Yiddish praises. When he neared the animal’s head he raised his arm and opened his palm. The horse lowered its head and picked up the sugar cubes with its wet, raspy tongue. Nachman was elated. He felt he had made a real connection with this huge creature…”