The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.
illustration by Avi Katz
When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”
Shlomo started laughing again. He shook his head. “That’s real talent,” he chuckled. “It takes real talent to tell a joke like that well. I mean, I can just picture them, the babushka and the rabbi and the convent girl! Where’d you learn to tell a joke that way?”
Pini shrugged and set his Bren on the ground. A ray of sunlight coming from behind the café bounced off a store window on the opposite side of King George Street lit up the large bald spot on the top of his head. He rolled up the sleeves of his khaki shirt, revealing the squad’s only sinews as well as number tattooed on his forearm. It had been cool just an hour ago on that May morning, when Richie had woken them and told them that their People’s Reserve Guard platoon, made up of unfit, middle-aged, and barely trained men, was going into action. An Egyptian battalion, fresh from victories in the south, had besieged Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, on the city’s southern edge, and if Ramat Rachel fell, so would Arnona and Talpiot and then the enemy would be able to march straight into the heart of West Jerusalem.
Until telling the joke, Pini had barely spoken since they were called up a few days before, after Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Arthur, who’d done guard duty with him the first night in the pillbox on Gaza Road, later reported to them, in barely comprehensible Hebrew, something about Pini having fought in Spain. Meir had whispered, one morning when Pini was shaving in the far corner of the room where they were bivouacked, that this Pini, was the son of a bigwig at the Jewish Agency. Did you see the number? Doesn’t he look too healthy and full of himself for a man who was there? There were stories about what he’d done in the camps. But then Pini had come back, clean-shaven and much better-looking than the rest of them, and Meir clammed up.
Again Shlomo asked: “Where’d you learn to tell a joke that way?”
Pini looked him straight in the eye. “Auschwitz,” he said.
The men fell silent. He surveyed them and they avoided his glance. Except for Meir, who looked straight back.
“At Buchenwald,” Meir said evenly, “we were too hungry to tell jokes.”
Pini considered Meir. “You were at Buchenwald?”
“Why? Is the face familiar?”
Pini shook his head.
“Buchenwald too?” Arthur shifted uncomfortably.
“After Auschwitz.” Pini pursed his lips. “And the death march.”
“I saw you get beat up by some shkotzem,” Meir said. And to the others: “He deserved it.”
Pini walked over to the curb, spit into the street, looked up and down to see if the requisitioned bus they were waiting for was approaching, and walked back to face them.
“He was brought up for trial in a people’s court,” Meir explained. “He was a kapo there, in Auschwitz. Lackey of the big Polish thug who ran one of the barracks blocks. While other Jews starved, he ate well. They slaved and he whipped them. If they disobeyed him, he killed them with his bare hands.”
The men froze in place. Nissim looked at Pini and shook his head.
“Must have been someone else,” Nissim said. “They wouldn’t have let him into the country, wouldn’t have given him a gun if that was true.”
“Helps when your father knows the old man,” Meir said. “When you’re a crown prince.”
“Oh, lay off,” Shlomo said, lighting a cigarette and coughing. “Let him tell another joke. Let me go out with a laugh. And a hard-on.”
“Have you heard the one about Goering and the Valkeries?” Pini told it, acting out how the corpulent Luftwaffe chief leapt onto the stage at the Berlin opera house and tried to insert his member into the mouths of some Wagnerian altos. Shlomo doubled over and Nissim nearly turned blue before he could get some air in. Arthur couldn’t possibly have gotten it but he laughed, too, and even Meir couldn’t keep from smiling. But he didn’t let go.
“This joker,” he told his fellows, “was a kapo. Worked for the Germans to save his skin and that of his fellow Communists. Yes, he’s a Communist. Still are, right, Pini?”
Pini shrugged. “For what it’s worth, now.”
“Hated the Jews, especially yeshiva boys and rabbis. Made sure they got sent straight to the furnaces.”
Nothing moved in Pini’s face.
“Pini sucked up to the Pole. To keep his position, he beat up Jews when he knew the Pole was watching, made them stand out in cold for hours, sent men so sick they could barely walk out to hard labor. All to show he was more Nazi than the Nazis. That’s how he survived.” Meir stroked his gun. “I’ve got half a mind to put a bullet in him if the Arabs don’t do it first.”
“What difference does it make now?” Shlomo mumbled. “I’ll probably never see my wife and girls again. Let me at least have some fun.”
Pini told the one about the innocent French farm girl and Marshal Petain’s silk diaper fetish.
Shlomo sank to the ground and beat it with his fist. “You’re killing me! Where did you learn to tell a joke like that?”
As they wiped their tears away, Nissim looked as if he wanted to say something, then stopped. He finally blurted out: “Is any of it true?”
“Let me tell you a story,” Pini said.
“Wait,” Shlomo gasped. “I have to recover first.”
Pini didn’t wait. “It’s night. Hundreds of skeletal men shivering six-seven on a shelf in an unheated shack in the Polish winter. In a room off to the side sits the block chief, a man who sent a score of men to their graves even before the Nazis arrived. Killing for him is like sex for us—he’s got to get it every night. He keeps order by making a public example every night. Grabs a zhid and strangles him barehanded, douses a Slovak in water and sends him outside to freeze to death. Anyone who objects, who gets on his nerves, gets put on the list of the next morning’s shipment to the gas chambers.”
Arthur looked at him wide-eyed.
“That’s what it looks like when I get there with a bunch of my Communist friends. Yeah, I’m a Communist. And you know what that means? When I see death standing in front of me, I don’t pray and I don’t give up. I’m not scared because I know I’m a cog in the machine of history, that my life means nothing except inasmuch as I let history use me to bring about the proletariat’s ultimate victory over fascism. I’m a tool and I look around to see what my job is.”
A rickety bus turned up King George from Jaffa Street and began rattling its way up to receive them.
“And I see that the Pole gets enough food to be able to be horny. So I tell him that I lived in Paris and can tell him some real stories. Turns out that he likes them to be funny.”
Richie waved at the bus. The men picked up their gear.
“So each night, once everyone’s inside, I tell him a dirty joke. Long, as raunchy as I can make it. He goes into conniptions. I start another story and then promise to finish it the next evening. And you know what? A lot less people got killed.”
“So all you did was tell jokes!” Meir spat. “That’s not what they said at the trial.”
Pini shrugged. “To tell the joke you have to have credibility. To have credibility you have to keep order. To keep order you have to beat some people up.” He hoisted his Bren and boarded the bus.
On the way to battle, he told them about the one about the old whore and the seminarian, which had been a special favorite of the Pole’s. The bus took them south, and then as it climbed the hill toward Ramat Rachel the Egyptians opened fire. A bullet took out Arthur. The rest of them scrambled out. Shrapnel hit Richie and made a hole in his belly. No one knew what to do. Pini crawled up behind a boulder and, as best he could from his inferior position, he tried to cover for his comrades by firing his machine gun in the direction of the enemy. It jammed. He looked around him and saw no one. He raised himself up on his hands to see if anyone else was firing and an Egyptian bullet pierced his neck.
Meir refused to go to the funeral, but Nissim and Shlomo went. After the brief ceremony, Pini’s father approached them.
“Could you tell me,” the distraught man asked them, “what his last words were?”
The two men looked at each other.
Nissim cleared his throat. “He told us how he saved the lives of Jews in Auschwitz,” he said.
Shlomo began to laugh, uncontrollably, crumpling to the ground.
Stunned, the old man shook his head and walked back to rejoin his wife.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Shlomo said, and Nissim could not tell now whether he was laughing or crying. “Pini was such a scream.”
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