Last Laugh

 


Photo: Sabrina Jones

Last Laugh

By Steve Stern

 

As he strolled, daydreaming, across the square in the market town of Zyldzce, Menke chanced to brush against the tunic of the Obersturmführer von Graf und Trach. “Swine!” roared the Obersturmführer. “Menke Klepfish,” replied the young man, bowing and clicking his heels. And he got away with it. In fact, the chief officer of the occupying Wehrmacht task force was so amused that he designated Menke his pet Jew. But that was later on, after the barbarians, whose forewarned arrival the locals had refused to believe in, had come.
 
Before that, Menke had been merely the shtetl scapegrace, whom pious and not-so-pious citizens alike enjoyed disdaining for his waggish antics. This was even before he’d run off with—so it was rumored—a traveling circus, not that he seemed to have acquired any special talents during his time away from Zyldzce. He had laid claim upon his return to an ability to ropewalk, but once he’d strung a rope across the River Bug and collected five kopecks from each of the spectators, he announced from his perch, “Ladies and gentlemen, I confess I’m a fraud. Should I attempt to do what I promised, I will certainly fall into the river, and since I can’t swim, I will drown. Now if you think it’s right that a man who’s the sole support of his poor ailing mother should drown on account of your five measly kopecks, then I’m ready to commence my performance…”
 
It’s true that he cared for his aged mother; he may even have come back to Zyldzce for that purpose, though he wasn’t above teasing even her in her dementia. If she mistook him for his worthless dead father, he might say, stroking her sparse, mouse-gray hair, “I’ll give you your tea, Chana-Frayda, just as soon as I can get a furlough from paradise.” And if she asked him to please close the window, it’s cold outside, he might reply, “If I close the window, will it be warm outside?” The things he did with her slopjar are better left unsaid.
 
Some had it that he was different for a time after his return from his travels; he was somber and given to uttering warnings about approaching calamity. But as his reputation for a joker had long since preceded him, the townspeople shrugged off his admonitions, so that in the end Menke himself dropped the portentousness and resumed his native demeanor. Out of charity he was given occasional odd jobs. Allowed to assist Reb Tubal Boymbaum, the baker, he couldn’t help confiding in the customers that his boss made the divot in his bialys with his extruded navel. “And you should see how he makes the hole in the bagel!” Sacked, he was reluctantly hired to wait tables at Shmulke Goiter’s so-called hotel, where he was wont to ask a patron, “So, do you want dinner?” “What are my choices?” the patron would respond, and Menke: “Yes or no.” When the patron complained that he served the brisket while pinning it to the plate with his thumb, he replied, “Do you want it should fall on the floor again?” Served his own meager portion as included with his meager wages, he remarked, “For this they had to kill an entire ox?”
 
Booted from the tavern, he tried peddling fruit past its prime in the market, but even at that he couldn’t resist playing pranks: he hollowed out an apple, dropped in a live beetle, and replaced the cap of its stem. To the astonished spectator observing the apple rocking to and fro, Menke explained that it was possessed by a dybbuk. He earned the outrage of the rabbi and his disciples when he claimed that a pair of shriveled figs were the Sacred Relic of the Testicles of the Holy Baal Shem Tov, then tried to pass off a sausage skin as his prepuce. One fine day, penniless and with nothing left to lose, he tried fobbing off a blank canvas as a picture of Moses Crossing the Red Sea, then gave the bewildered onlooker to understand that “The Jews are gone, the Egyptians haven’t arrived yet, and dumbkopf, the sea has parted!”
 
Nuisance that he was, the Zyldzcers regarded Menke as largely harmless. Even as they disapproved of his mischief, they might spare a kopek or two in acknowledgement of an exuberance at odds with the otherwise dismal atmosphere of the shtetl. Having no village idiot of their own to endow, the townspeople seemed to have tacitly decided that Menke was as good as. The only aspect of his roguish behavior that rose to the level of scandal in the eyes of his co-religionists, however, was his courtship of Blume, Rabbi Vaynipl’s beautiful daughter. Of course, “courtship” was stretching the term when applied to the succession of pratfalls and wisecracks with which he diverted the girl. Walking beside her through the market platz, flocked about by crooked houses buckling under their swayback roofs, he might declare, “How I love to watch Mrs. Mukdoyni’s auburn hair blowing in the wind. What a shame she’s too proud to chase it.” He might regale her on a ramble along the towpath beside the river of the sights he’d seen during his travels: a floating island inhabited by giant black rabbits, a country whose population’s only nourishment was the smell of apricots.
 
“Menke,” she would ask, her ebony eyes moist and unfathomable, porcelain brow veiled by strands of midnight hair she was forever brushing away, “are you never serious?”
 
And he would reply: “Serious, shmerious, as long as you got your health.” Which was a rather transparent dodge, since he was seriously in love with the girl. As were most of the young men of Zyldzce, where there was no shortage of candidates for her affection andthrough the good offices of Blind Tsippe the matchmakerher hand. They were an impressive lot, Blume’s suitors: there was Yoysef Blokzilber, the lumber merchant’s son, who wore a bespoke Prince Albert imported from Lemberg and carried a hunting watch in a gold-filled case; there was Moyshele the Prodigy, foremost among the study house benchwarmers, who could recite from memory the whole of the Book of Job, and Yitzkhok Sumak with his luxuriant corkscrew sidelocks, whose family was related on his mother’s side to the Gaon of Vilna. It wouldn’t have occurred to Menke, spindly in his ill-fitting sack coat, bulbous head rank with ragmop curls, that he could ever compete with them, just as they would never have regarded him a serious rival. He was content to remain simply Blume’s clown. But while she suffered with an equable grace the earnest petitions of all her suitors, none of them made her laugh.
 
“Oy, am I thirsty; oy, am I thirsty!” Menke complained at the back door to the rabbi’s house in the autumn of what would be a black year. And when Blume fetched him a cup of water: “Oy, was I thirsty!” he exclaimed.
 
Blume’s chuckle was a wren skittering over piano keys. “Menke monkey!” she scolded him fondly.
 
Once, in a gesture of reckless largesse, he offered to buy her a strawberry kvass from a market vendor, and when she declined, telling him to save his money, he informed her of a recent windfall.
 
“What are you saying?” she asked, suspicious.
 
“Well,” a bit sheepishly, “I got an advance on my mama’s funeral expenses from the burial society.”
 
“The burial society doesn’t give advances.”
 
“So I told them my mama was already dead.”
 
Blume surrendered to snickering despite her best efforts not to, then chided herself for having been so wickedly complicit with such a rascal.
 
Then Menke’s mother really was dead, and the town paid their condolences, though the orphan said it was a blessing that she’d had the good sense to expire before the barbarians arrived and the awfulness began.
 
They arrived tramping in boots that shook the flimsy shtetl architecture like Jericho, on motorcycles with sidecars roaring like hornets, and in—as was the case with the Obersturmführer von Graf und Trach—a gleaming black Mercedes cabriolet. They scattered the leaflets declaring the Jews responsible for all the earth’s ills, confiscated the homes of merchants (as well as Shmulke Goiter’s hotel) for their garrisons, appointed Ignatz Wisniewski, a renowned Polish pogromchik, as mayor. They requisitioned all manner of goods from the Jewish businesses and demanded a Judenrat be formed to oversee the collection of “taxes” and the selection of work details. They forced the rabbi and his students to give a ritual burial to a statue of Pilsudski and imposed the wearing of the yellow star. There were arbitrary beatings and humiliations—the beards of elders clipped, the sheitels of matrons snatched, the bodies of young girls violated—which the population resolutely endured; such things were not uncommon in their history. Zyldzce was after all an impoverished rural ghetto that had weathered decades of depredations. Why should it matter to them that no one was allowed to leave town, when who had the means to travel anyway? So what if the electricity was cut off in the dead of winter, when electricity was a luxury few could afford? As for the scarcity of food and the interdict against trade, well, there had always been a fine distinction between the observance of fast days and periods of outright starvation. Moreover, the bright badge of the yellow star—Menke was not unique in observinglent the Zyldzcers’ wintry garments a certain panache.
 
Then he accidentally brushed up against the Obersturmführer’s field tunic and returned his greeting, which was not allowed: a Jew was forbidden to greet a German; but instead of shooting him dead on the spot, the Obersturmführer laughed out loud, and after that invited his company. He was a clean-shaven, thin-lipped, ramrod-straight professional warrior, was Obersturmführer von Graf und Trach, but he was blessed with a rare sense of humor. He had a flair for the comical degradations to which he subjected the Jewish citizens and permitted himself the indulgence of electing from among them his very own fool. Once his staff and the rank and file were made aware of the fact that Menke had been chosen their commanding officer’s favorite Jew, they were compelled to tolerate his license, and in time began to enjoy his buffoonery themselves.
 
“Two Jews are facing the Czar’s firing squad,” Menke might announce, standing on a chair in Shmulke Goiter’s low-ceilinged taproom (since converted to a mess hall). “Yossel cries, ‘Up with the homeland!’ and Hymie puts a finger to his lips: ‘Shah, Yossel, do you want to make trouble?’” Then, when he had them braying into their beers, he would step off the chair to see just how far he could push his luck. Pointing to a fat lieutenant, he’d been heard to say: “Excuse me, your honor, but you’ve got a smidgen schnitzel on your chin. Not that one but the third one down.” And to a foppish major with a well-oiled mustache: “I like what you’ve done with your hair, but how do you get it to grow out of your nostrils like that?” If any of the company rankled at his mockery, they were ashamed to show it in the face of their comrades’ mirth. They were further constrained by the throaty laughter of their commandant, under whose protection Menke’s liberties were emboldened. The enlisted men marveled at the spectacle of a Jew taking the piss out of their betters.
 
The townspeople, however, cringed at Menke’s conduct. They fluctuated between their open resentment for the favored status he’d acquired among the occupiers and their fear that his brand of drollery would antagonize them even more. He should make himself scarce and leave them to their more orthodox attempts at appeasement, to informing on their neighbors and bribing the barbarians with their pittance of gelt and paltry possessions—with their wives’ heirloom jewelry, strands of which the soldiers were given to festooning themselves when in their cups. A few dismayed members of the community, not yet silenced by their contempt for him, cautioned Menke that he was playing a dangerous game. Among them was Blume, who cornered him one evening in the month of Kislev, behind a curtain of icicles hanging like dragon’s teeth from the bathhouse eaves.
 
“Menke, I’m worried for you,” she said, in a voice that sounded more chastising than concerned. He was grateful nonetheless. Generous as was the ration of worries every Zyldzcer was allotted, he treasured the girl for sharing hers with him. He grieved for her as well: so gaunt and disheveled, though the sharp relief of the bones of her face, in the shadow of her woolen shawl, only served to accentuate her perfection. But what good was her beauty when her suitors were becoming increasingly extinct?Yitzkhok Sumak hanged in the marketplace after a failed attempt to contact the partisans; Yoysef Blokzilber murdered by his brothers (who were murdered in turn) for collaborating with the occupation; Moyshele the Prodigy having perished from hunger during a marathon prayer. And her father the rabbi, installed as head of the Judenrat, was half a ghost, his beard as marinated in tears as the sponge Shmulke Goiter wiped his bar with. That she could still fret over Menke was a gift.
 
“It’s all right,” he tried to reassure her. “So long as I can keep them entertained, they will neglect to destroy us.” And saying it, he almost believed it.
 
“Menke monkey,” groaned Blume, wringing her hands in their fingerless mittens, “are you mad?”
 
He grinned his foolish grin. “The only difference between me and a madman is that”—and here he cut a little caper in the slush“I’m not mad.”
 
But the girl had her doubts, especially since whatever distraction Menke might have provided the Germans seemed to have had its day. A contingent of Einsatzgruppen had appeared one afternoon, along with throngs of refugees from the surrounding towns. The tales they carried of stupefying cruelty, related in a flat monotone, might have gone unbelieved were they not now savagely repeated in the muddy streets of Zyldzce. Punishment for minor infractions was greatly enhanced. For violating the curfew by minutes, the scribe Berel Munkascz was stripped naked and made to break the ice of the frozen Bug with a pickaxe. Ordered to jump in the water, his body shuddered as from an electrical shock, then turned from chalk-white to indigo before it sank. For trying to conceal her bruised black market potatoes, Rivka Rogovoy’s duffel-sized breasts were lopped off with a cleaver; and when her husband Puny tried to interfere, his arms were pulled from their sockets, his knuckles left scraping the blood-sprinkled snow like an orangutan’s before he was shot. Not that the barbarians needed any excuses for their actions: where depravity was encouraged, humanity was condemned. Targets were pinned to the backs of random laborers dispatched into fields, where they were cut down by rifle fire. Mothers, avoiding rape, leapt into the river between the ice floes, their children clutched in their arms. (Soldiers practiced their skill with the bayonet by spearing the babies floating in their wake.) For hazarding a glance at the visiting wife of the Obersturmfürher von Graf und Trach, feline in her pleated skirt and ermine, the tailor Chaim-Yankel forfeited an eye.
 
Menke told the officers grooming their mounts in the ransacked prayer house—since turned into a stable—the one about the blind man who was given a matzo. (“Who wrote this drek?” he asks.) He told the one about the old man whose doctor says, “I need from you samples blood, stool, and urine.” (The old man: “Just take my underwear.”) He did the business where he ducks behind the bar in Shmulke Goiter’s and makes as if walking down stairs into a cellar. He did the bit where he puts his hand in his pocket until it comes out his pants leg. But the soldiers, compelled by new directives to ever greater enormities, had little time or patience now for his tomfoolery. The Obersturmführer, though still laughing, was preoccupied since the arrival of his wife, who was only mildly diverted by his Jew. He was also quite busy with instituting new measures, imparted by the high command, that involved the confiscation of souls and the outlawing of memories. As a result, no one was able to recall ordinary life anymore.
 
There was a knock at the door of Menke’s crumpled house on the outskirts of the shtetl. It was a tentative knock at a dangerous hour, and Menke might not have heard it but for a lull in the tempestuous snoring of the refugees strewn across his plank floor. He opened the door a crack to see Blume, who was wearing, under her heavy shawl, her blue High Holiday dress with the lace collar and smocked, dove-shaped bodice. Her face held a radiance magnified by desperation and need.
 
“Such a look, Blume,” managed Menke, thunderstruck to find her there, “I would like to pour over my latkes, were there any potatoes for latkes.”
 
The girl closed her eyes before saying what she had to say—a snowflake landing on the tip of her nose melted there. “I want,” she announced, “to know, before we die, a bisl love.” Then she opened her eyes and threw back her shawl, unfastening a clasp to scatter asterisks of starlight from her dense midnight hair.
 
 Menke was more frightened by the drama of that gesture than of all the jackboots in Zyldzce. “I know something…” he wanted to assert, knowing nothing. Oh, he’d learned in his travels how to pet and nudge a woman, but what had that to do with love? He loved Blume. Nor did it matter that she’d come to him because who else was there left to come to? Or that, in a proper world, their union was a thorough impossibility. Thank God, he thought, for the shadow of death!
 
When Menke attempted in his fever to wisecrack, the girl interrupted, saying she was cold. He threw on his sack coat over his gatkes, wedged his feet into his broken shoes, and stepped out onto the brittle snow to take hold of her hand. Had he ever before taken her hand? He led her to the outhouse, as where else was there to go? Its fetor could make you swoon, though the wind whistling through its slats, mingled with the girl’s own faint musk, dispelled somewhat the pungency. The shtetl outhouse was a notorious gathering place of demons, but outhouse demons were a trifling annoyance when compared to the ones that had dominion over broad daylight.
 
Menke shut and latched the door, and the couple clung to one another if only to relieve themselves of the chill. But the urgency of Blume’s breathing hastened Menke’s own. Then she asked him to kiss her, and having never kissed a girl before, he made sad work of it. But the funny thing was that the clumsiness of his effort had its graceful complement in Menke’s brain; just as their mutual fumbling, her with the buttons of his longjohns, him with the drawstrings on her combinations, had its synchronized ideal in the timeless dimension they’d groped their way into. Even the reciprocal banging of their hearts beat out a code that their unfluent bodies seemed to comprehend. The gooseflesh at the back of Blume’s calf, of—halevai!—her sunken abdomen, was silk to the touch, absorbing terror and evoking a whole market fair of sensations. Then came a stupefying moment when the callow jester realized that he’d entered the girl; he had penetrated his cherished Blume to a depth of years, past decades when the silk became crepe, beyond the hungry years and the lonely ones after their nestlings had left home. He’d invaded his beloved as far as the day when their forgotten children sent them passage to come and live with them in Bronx, America. Every moan, every sigh that escaped the girl’s breast had its own spectral character.
 
Egged on by the soldiers, the Polish boys stoned their Jewish schoolfellows; the miller Januscz Nowak eviscerated his boss Leybl Loyfer with a kitchen knife and corraled his family to watch the greedy bastard’s writhing agony during the seven hours it took him to croak. Arrests and executions continued apace; their neighbors appropriated from the Jews what little the barbarians had left behind, until there nothing more to steal. Zlateh Kochleffel the midwife delivered a child with a caul and said that it augured dark times, which prompted the ghetto’s single instance of hilarity—since how could the times become any darker? A few days later, in a climate of fear that stopped tears, it was discovered that a couple of members of the Judenrat had gone missing. The remainder of the assembly were made to dig a trench of fifteen meters in length but only one in depth. They toiled all day in the granite-hard soil then knelt in exhaustion at the edge of their labor, where, silhouetted by a frigid coral sunset, they were summarily shot in the back of the head. They pitched forward uniformly into the trench, all save their leader, the esteemed Rabbi Vaynipl, who’d been spared to shovel the dirt back over the corpses. Mumbling Kaddish through a beard that crackled like a bib of ice, he managed to complete the task, thanking Hashem for the miracle of his endurance. Then the Obersturmführer himself, lately flanked by leather coats and peaked caps with the Totenkopf insignia, shoved the rabbi into the unfilled end of the hole with his swagger stick and enjoined his men to bury him alive. The rabbi’s hand, with its fingers waving like hydra heads before they furled, was left protruding above the surface of the earth.
 
The Zyldczers had been forced to witness it all, Blume among them held back, hysterically pleading, by her companions. When the senior officers became aware of the girl, due to the keening volume of her grief, they had her brought forward. “How has such a pretty bit of crumpet gone unnoticed?” they wondered aloud, because she’d managed until then to conceal her extravagant comeliness under her slipped shawl. Deciding she was too choice a piece to share with the enlisted men, they commandeered her for themselves. They dragged her around to the open forge and partook of her, each in his turn, expending a locomotive’s worth of steam in the process. Having sadly abstained in deference to the raised brow of his visiting wife, the Obersturmführer nevertheless took the liberty of curtailing the girl’s pitiful whimpering with his Luger. The echo of its report nearly reached God’s ear.
 
Menke could have rescued her. If only he’d been able reach his protector, his appeal—tempered with a soupçon of levitywould have saved the girl. But he’d been restrained by the teamster Shepsel the Hammer, who’d encircled his waist with a powerful arm while clapping a meaty hand over his mouth. “You’ve caused enough trouble,” he grumbled. When the brute finally unmuzzled him, waving the hand that Menke had bitten, the jokes that had thus far been stifled erupted from the jester’s lips. They poured forth in a merciless, unending regurgitation: the one about when Max comes home to find his wife in bed with his best friend (“Solly, I have to, but you?”), the one about the young man who tells a skeptical matchmaker that he wants to marry for love. He danced a quadrille and lit his farts, which flared like a blowtorch, and tried to peddle striped paint and elbow grease in the market, even as the roundup had begun.
 
The Jews were told to gather in the wagon yard; they could leave their belongings in a heap, they wouldn’t need them. They were herded in their ashen number through the narrow strait of Egypt Lane toward the synagogue. It was an ancient wooden synagogue, the pride of Zyldzce, its domed interior painted with mythical beasts and symbols from the zodiac. (“The ceiling of the Zyldzcer shul,” Reuven the Apostate had famously observed, “puts the vault of heaven to shame.”) If any member of the community had questioned why it was spared the desecration suffered by every other edifice in town, they now understood that it had been preserved for their confinement. Confinement for what purpose, and until when? They were much too shattered to wonder. As the families trudged toward the shul with their bawling children in their arms, their dumbfounded old folk in tow, they were jeered by a gauntlet of Polish neighbors and schoolfellows. Those that stumbled and fell were scourged with spiked oxtails, their wounds gnawed at by ravening dogs. An SS officer with a movie camera on a tripod filmed their progress.
 
In the midst of the Jews, the schlemiel persisted in performing his high jinks. The Poles and Germans alike laughed at his gags, though not so much at their content—which was admittedly tiredas at the sheer idiocy of his unhinged mind. He stepped out of line to tell the one about the lady with tuberculosis (she thought the doctor said “Too big a toches”) and to hurl comical insults at the barbarians: “You march like you soiled your breeches and look like you smelled them.” One soldier raised his rifle to take a potshot at the blitherer, but his barrel was deflected by the baton of the Obersturmführer, looking smart in his fur collar and silver gorget, who signaled that the lunatic sack of bones be brought to his side.
 
The last of the Jews were being driven through the portals of the shul, as Menke told this joke and that one, and started to pish a punchline with his urine in the sooty snow. So long as he could hold captive their attention, he was convinced, they would refrain from dousing the synagogue’s foundation with kerosene. And when they’d splashed the building’s weathered boards with the contents of several containers, he would sneeze confetti and pull an endless thread from his threadbare coat to keep them from striking a match.
 
“After the Czar was assassinated,” he piped, having sidled close to his protector, who cupped an ear, for it was difficult to hear him over the machine-gun firing at the few who tried to escape the shul, to say nothing of the howls of “Shma Yisroel” from inside. “After the Czar was assassinated,” cried Menke, “a government official says to a rabbi, ‘I bet you know who’s responsible.’ ‘Gevalt,’ replies the rabbi, ‘I have no idea, but the government will conclude the same as always: they’ll blame it on the Jews and the beekeepers.’ ‘Why the beekeepers?’ asks the puzzled official.” 

“Why the Jews?” replied the smiling Obersturmführer von Graf und Trach, thrusting his swagger stick into the small of Menke’s back. The clown staggered across the threshold at the tail-end of his wretched race and went sprawling through the synagogue doors, which were slammed shut behind him. Then the Obersturmführer struck a match on the heel of his boot. “I heard that one already,” he said over his shoulder to the death’s heads and leather coats, who guffawed. 

 

Copyright © Steve Stern 2019

Steve Stern is the author of a number of novels and story collections, including The Frozen Rabbi and The Book of Mischief.  He's the recipient of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American fiction and the National Jewish Book Award, and has received fellowships from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations.  His stories have been included in the Pushcart and O.Henry Prize anthologies, and three of his books were cited as New York Times Notables. He lives with his partner the comic artist Sabrina Jones and divides his days between Brooklyn and upstate New York.

 



 

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