Military Service


"They look as if they'd enough of me!"

So I think to myself, as I give a glance at my two great top-boots, my

wide trousers, and my shabby green uniform, in which there is no whole

part left.

I take a bit of looking-glass out of my box, and look at my reflection.

Yes, the military cap on my head is a beauty, and no mistake, as big as

Og king of Bashan, and as bent and crushed as though it ha
been sat

upon for years together.

Under the cap appears a small, washed-out face, yellow and weazened,

with two large black eyes that look at me somewhat wildly.

I don't recognize myself; I remember me in a grey jacket, narrow,

close-fitting trousers, a round hat, and a healthy complexion.

I can't make out where I got those big eyes, why they shine so, why my

face should be yellow, and my nose, pointed.

And yet I know that it is I myself, Chayyim Blumin, and no other; that I

have been handed over for a soldier, and have to serve only two years

and eight months, and not three years and eight months, because I have a

certificate to the effect that I have been through the first four

classes in a secondary school.

Though I know quite well that I am to serve only two years and eight

months, I feel the same as though it were to be forever; I can't,

somehow, believe that my time will some day expire, and I shall once

more be free.

I have tried from the very beginning not to play any tricks, to do my

duty and obey orders, so that they should not say, "A Jew won't work--a

Jew is too lazy."

Even though I am let off manual labor, because I am on "privileged

rights," still, if they tell me to go and clean the windows, or polish

the flooring with sand, or clear away the snow from the door, I make no

fuss and go. I wash and clean and polish, and try to do the work well,

so that they should find no fault with me.

They haven't yet ordered me to carry pails of water.

Why should I not confess it? The idea of having to do that rather

frightens me. When I look at the vessel in which the water is carried,

my heart begins to flutter: the vessel is almost as big as I am, and I

couldn't lift it even if it were empty.

I often think: What shall I do, if to-morrow, or the day after, they

wake me at three o'clock in the morning and say coolly:

"Get up, Blumin, and go with Ossadtchok to fetch a pail of water!"

You ought to see my neighbor Ossadtchok! He looks as if he could squash

me with one finger. It is as easy for him to carry a pail of water as to

drink a glass of brandy. How can I compare myself with him?

I don't care if it makes my shoulder swell, if I could only carry the

thing. I shouldn't mind about that. But God in Heaven knows the truth,

that I won't be able to lift the pail off the ground, only they won't

believe me, they will say:

"Look at the lazy Jew, pretending he is a poor creature that can't lift

a pail!"

There--I mind that more than anything.

I don't suppose they will send me to fetch water, for, after all, I am

on "privileged rights," but I can't sleep in peace: I dream all night

that they are waking me at three o'clock, and I start up bathed in a

cold sweat.

Drill does not begin before eight in the morning, but they wake us at

six, so that we may have time to clean our rifles, polish our boots and

leather girdle, brush our coat, and furbish the brass buttons with

chalk, so that they should shine like mirrors.

I don't mind the getting up early, I am used to rising long before

daylight, but I am always worrying lest something shouldn't be properly

cleaned, and they should say that a Jew is so lazy, he doesn't care if

his things are clean or not, that he's afraid of touching his rifle, and

pay me other compliments of the kind.

I clean and polish and rub everything all I know, but my rifle always

seems in worse condition than the other men's. I can't make it look the

same as theirs, do what I will, and the head of my division, a corporal,

shouts at me, calls me a greasy fellow, and says he'll have me up before

the authorities because I don't take care of my arms.

But there is worse than the rifle, and that is the uniform. Mine is

years old--I am sure it is older than I am. Every day little pieces

fall out of it, and the buttons tear themselves out of the cloth,

dragging bits of it after them.

I never had a needle in my hand in all my life before, and now I sit

whole nights and patch and sew on buttons. And next morning, when the

corporal takes hold of a button and gives a pull, to see if it's firmly

sewn, a pang goes through my heart: the button is dragged out, and a

piece of the uniform follows.

Another whole night's work for me!

After the inspection, they drive us out into the yard and teach us to

stand: it must be done so that our stomachs fall in and our chests stick

out. I am half as one ought to be, because my stomach is flat enough

anyhow, only my chest is weak and narrow and also flat--flat as a board.

The corporal squeezes in my stomach with his knee, pulls me forward by

the flaps of the coat, but it's no use. He loses his temper, and calls

me greasy fellow, screams again that I am pretending, that I won't

serve, and this makes my chest fall in more than ever.

I like the gymnastics.

In summer we go out early into the yard, which is very wide and covered

with thick grass.

It smells delightfully, the sun warms us through, it feels so pleasant.

The breeze blows from the fields, I open my mouth and swallow the

freshness, and however much I swallow, it's not enough, I should like to

take in all the air there is. Then, perhaps, I should cough less, and

grow a little stronger.

We throw off the old uniforms, and remain in our shirts, we run and leap

and go through all sorts of performances with our hands and feet, and

it's splendid! At home I never had so much as an idea of such fun.

At first I was very much afraid of jumping across the ditch, but I

resolved once and for all--I've got to jump it. If the worst comes to

the worst, I shall fall and bruise myself. Suppose I do? What then? Why

do all the others jump it and don't care? One needn't be so very strong

to jump!

And one day, before the gymnastics had begun, I left my comrades, took

heart and a long run, and when I came to the ditch, I made a great

bound, and, lo and behold, I was over on the other side! I couldn't

believe my own eyes that I had done it so easily.

Ever since then I have jumped across ditches, and over mounds, and down

from mounds, as well as any of them.

Only when it comes to climbing a ladder or swinging myself over a high

bar, I know it spells misfortune for me.

I spring forward, and seize the first rung with my right hand, but I

cannot reach the second with my left.

I stretch myself, and kick out with my feet, but I cannot reach any

higher, not by so much as a vershok, and so there I hang and kick with

my feet, till my right arm begins to tremble and hurt me. My head goes

round, and I fall onto the grass. The corporal abuses me as usual, and

the soldiers laugh.

I would give ten years of my life to be able to get higher, if only

three or four rungs, but what can I do, if my arms won't serve me?

Sometimes I go out to the ladder by myself, while the soldiers are still

asleep, and stand and look at it: perhaps I can think of a way to

manage? But in vain. Thinking, you see, doesn't help you in these cases.

Sometimes they tell one of the soldiers to stand in the middle of the

yard with his back to us, and we have to hop over him. He bends down a

little, lowers his head, rests his hands on his knees, and we hop over

him one at a time. One takes a good run, and when one comes to him, one

places both hands on his shoulders, raises oneself into the air,


I know exactly how it ought to be done; I take the run all right, and

plant my hands on his shoulders, only I can't raise myself into the air.

And if I do lift myself up a little way, I remain sitting on the

soldier's neck, and were it not for his seizing me by the feet, I should

fall, and perhaps kill myself.

Then the corporal and another soldier take hold of me by the arms and

legs, and throw me over the man's head, so that I may see there is

nothing dreadful about it, as though I did not jump right over him

because I was afraid, while it is that my arms are so weak, I cannot

lean upon them and raise myself into the air.

But when I say so, they only laugh, and don't believe me. They say, "It

won't help you; you will have to serve anyhow!"

* * * * *

When, on the other hand, it comes to "theory," the corporal is very

pleased with me.

He says that except himself no one knows "theory" as I do.

He never questions me now, only when one of the others doesn't know

something, he turns to me:

"Well, Blumin, you tell me!"

I stand up without hurrying, and am about to answer, but he is

apparently not pleased with my way of rising from my seat, and orders me

to sit down again.

"When your superior speaks to you," says he, "you ought to jump up as

though the seat were hot," and he looks at me angrily, as much as to

say, "You may know theory, but you'll please to know your manners as

well, and treat me with proper respect."

"Stand up again and answer!"

I start up as though I felt a prick from a needle, and answer the

question as he likes it done: smartly, all in one breath, and word for

word according to the book.

He, meanwhile, looks at the primer, to make sure I am not leaving

anything out, but as he reads very slowly, he cannot catch me up, and

when I have got to the end, he is still following with his finger and

reading. And when he has finished, he gives me a pleased look, and says

enthusiastically "Right!" and tells me to sit down again.

"Theory," he says, "that you do know!"

Well, begging his pardon, it isn't much to know. And yet there are

soldiers who are four years over it, and don't know it then. For

instance, take my comrade Ossadtchok; he says that, when it comes to

"theory", he would rather go and hang or drown himself. He says, he

would rather have to carry three pails of water than sit down to


I tell him, that if he would learn to read, he could study the whole

thing by himself in a week; but he won't listen.

"Nobody," he says, "will ever ask my advice."

One thing always alarmed me very much: However was I to take part in the


I cannot lift a single pud (I myself only weigh two pud and thirty

pounds), and if I walk three versts, my feet hurt, and my heart beats so

violently that I think it's going to burst my side.

At the manoeuvres I should have to carry as much as fifty pounds'

weight, and perhaps more: a rifle, a cloak, a knapsack with linen,

boots, a uniform, a tent, bread, and onions, and a few other little

things, and should have to walk perhaps thirty to forty versts a day.

But when the day and the hour arrived, and the command was given

"Forward, march!" when the band struck up, and two thousand men set

their feet in motion, something seemed to draw me forward, and I went.

At the beginning I found it hard, I felt weighted to the earth, my left

shoulder hurt me so, I nearly fainted. But afterwards I got very hot, I

began to breathe rapidly and deeply, my eyes were starting out of my

head like two cupping-glasses, and I not only walked, I ran, so as not

to fall behind--and so I ended by marching along with the rest, forty

versts a day.

Only I did not sing on the march like the others. First, because I did

not feel so very cheerful, and second, because I could not breathe

properly, let alone sing.

At times I felt burning hot, but immediately afterwards I would grow

light, and the marching was easy, I seemed to be carried along rather

than to tread the earth, and it appeared to me as though another were

marching in my place, only that my left shoulder ached, and I was hot.

I remember that once it rained a whole night long, it came down like a

deluge, our tents were soaked through, and grew heavy. The mud was

thick. At three o'clock in the morning an alarm was sounded, we were

ordered to fold up our tents and take to the road again. So off we went.

It was dark and slippery. It poured with rain. I was continually

stepping into a puddle, and getting my boot full of water. I shivered

and shook, and my teeth chattered with cold. That is, I was cold one

minute and hot the next. But the marching was no difficulty to me, I

scarcely felt that I was on the march, and thought very little about it.

Indeed, I don't know what I was thinking about, my mind was a blank.

We marched, turned back, and marched again. Then we halted for half an

hour, and turned back again.

And this went on a whole night and a whole day.

Then it turned out that there had been a mistake: it was not we who

ought to have marched, but another regiment, and we ought not to have

moved from the spot. But there was no help for it then.

It was night. We had eaten nothing all day. The rain poured down, the

mud was ankle-deep, there was no straw on which to pitch our tents, but

we managed somehow. And so the days passed, each like the other. But I

got through the manoeuvres, and was none the worse.

Now I am already an old soldier; I have hardly another year and a half

to serve--about sixteen months. I only hope I shall not be ill. It seems

I got a bit of a chill at the manoeuvres, I cough every morning, and

sometimes I suffer with my feet. I shiver a little at night till I get

warm, and then I am very hot, and I feel very comfortable lying abed.

But I shall probably soon be all right again.

They say, one may take a rest in the hospital, but I haven't been there

yet, and don't want to go at all, especially now I am feeling better.

The soldiers are sorry for me, and sometimes they do my work, but not

just for love. I get three pounds of bread a day, and don't eat more

than one pound. The rest I give to my comrade Ossadtchok. He eats it

all, and his own as well, and then he could do with some more. In return

for this he often cleans my rifle, and sometimes does other work for me,

when he sees I have no strength left.

I am also teaching him and a few other soldiers to read and write, and

they are very pleased.

My corporal also comes to me to be taught, but he never gives me a word

of thanks.

The superior of the platoon, when he isn't drunk, and is in good humor,

says "you" to me instead of "thou," and sometimes invites me to share

his bed--I can breathe easier there, because there is more air, and I

don't cough so much, either.

Only it sometimes happens that he comes back from town tipsy, and makes

a great to-do: How do I, a common soldier, come to be sitting on his


He orders me to get up and stand before him "at attention," and declares

he will "have me up" for it.

When, however, he has sobered down, he turns kind again, and calls me to

him; he likes me to tell him "stories" out of books.

Sometimes the orderly calls me into the orderly-room, and gives me a

report to draw up, or else a list or a calculation to make. He himself

writes badly, and is very poor at figures.

I do everything he wants, and he is very glad of my help, only it

wouldn't do for him to confess to it, and when I have finished, he

always says to me:

"If the commanding officer is not satisfied, he will send you to fetch


I know it isn't true, first, because the commanding officer mustn't know

that I write in the orderly-room, a Jew can't be an army secretary;

secondly, because he is certain to be satisfied: he once gave me a note

to write himself, and was very pleased with it.

"If you were not a Jew," he said to me then, "I should make a corporal

of you."

Still, my corporal always repeats his threat about the water, so that I

may preserve a proper respect for him, although I not only respect him,

I tremble before his size. When he comes back tipsy from town, and

finds me in the orderly-room, he commands me to drag his muddy boots off

his feet, and I obey him and drag off his boots.

Sometimes I don't care, and other times it hurts my feelings.