This Night of Nights


This Night of Nights

By Sarah Lerner


Sol sits apart from the others  on an empty ammunition box and writes how much he misses them. He is waiting for his Passover parcel to arrive. It should be in this afternoon’s mail, a special parcel containing matzos, apples, raisins, cinnamon, salt, parsley, bitter herbs, sweet almond cake, and ‘Kosher for Passover’ wine. He will celebrate this night of nights in the trenches with the contents of his parcel.
Around him, in the platoon’s quarters, the boys are getting ready for their return journey to the front line where they will spend the next two days. As he writes to his family, he thinks of the frantic preparations for the first night of Passover that will be keeping them busy at home.
At 6.30 in the evening, the platoon sets off on its three-mile march back to the trenches, but Sol’s parcel has not arrived. He will get no mail now for three days.
He trudges with the others along scarred roads. Above them the sky is clear with a full moon and stars. There’s a chill in the air but, walking along in his uniform, he soon warms up.  His thoughts are far away from Flanders, and with the smartly dressed crowd making for synagogue. Mama and his sisters will have new outfits for Passover: for Rosa a pretty frock, for Mama a dress and tasseled shawl, for Sadie a fancy skirt and blouse.
He smells the heavy air of the synagogue, warm and close from all those people. He sees the lights and hears the chanting. He thinks also though he won’t mention this in his letter of dark eyed Renee, her sudden flashing smile, her inward-looking beauty, her hair such a deep brown it’s almost black. He wonders if she thinks of him as she stands in the Women’s Gallery. She will surely be reminded of his absence when she looks down at Dada and Eli amongst the swaying men.
He's brought back to earth by the boom of a big gun. The star shells shoot up through the sky. His platoon is being fired at as they approach the line. He scrambles down with them to take shelter in the ditches at the side of the road. He crouches there, shivering. He pictures his family gathered around the table and hears the musical clink of glasses and tableware. He hasn’t been this homesick since he landed. If only he were with them now in the place that, despite his absence, they surely will have laid for him.
When the firing ceases, they march on. He’s relieved, when they arrive, to find his platoon is not on the front line, but in a reserve dug out about one hundred yards back. So at least he won’t be firing at another human being on this night of nights. He might have even shot someone who was also celebrating Passover, for there are Jewish boys out there fighting for the kaiser.
As soon as they’re settled, he gets a fire going, makes some cocoa, and recites the blessing over the wine, “Blessed art Thou, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has created the fruit of the vine.”
He raises his cup and says quietly, “To the dear folks at home.” He makes another toast silently “to the beautiful Renee”. He knows his family is thinking of him. He hopes that Renee is missing him also. He hears the clink of silver and china. He sees the sparkle of glass at those Passover tables back home as he sips his cocoa.
He takes out a biscuit in place of the matzos and says, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them come and celebrate Passover.”
He blocks out the sound of the big guns roaring across the firing line as the sweet biscuit dissolves on his tongue.
He thinks of the meaning of Passover, escape from slavery, a journey to a promised land. There is no escape for him, though, or for the other men of his platoon, from this war. They are all stuck behind the lines. If they no longer wanted to fight, they couldn’t run away, and if they tried they would be court-martialed and shot as deserters. It’s the same, he supposes, for the Germans on the other side.
The other boys are looking at him, though they keep a respectful silence.
“I pray this war will end soon, and that God brings us all home safely to our families,” he says. “I’m thinking of my family at home tonight celebrating the Jewish Passover.”
Some of the boys frown and shift, but others look at him with open faces.
And so he decides to explain Passover: “For the Jewish People,this night is different from all other nights because, on this night, we recount the story of our escape from slavery in Egypt. We drink not one but four glasses of wine, and recline in our seats like kings.”
He talks of the taskmasters whipping the slaves and the slaying of the Hebrew firstborn. He mentions the plagues, but not in too much detail as he finds their cruelty disturbing. His voice shakes as he speaks of how the Red Sea parted to let the Israelite slaves escape.
The boys listen quietly.
“That’s all right, old man, we understand,” Dick says when Sol has finished.
None of the ten other soldiers in this dug-out with Sol are Jews, yet they would share their last crumb with him if he asked for it.
Towards midnight, the other boys settle down for the night, but Sol’s mind is too full for sleep.
It was that final plague, the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, which broke Pharoah’s will. So Moses and Aaron drove home their advantage and negotiated the Exodus, a brief passage of time to escape, not long enough even for the bread to rise.
Moses was not dealing with a stranger. He was brought up in the Egyptian court, seeing Pharoah as a father figure. He would not even have lived to lead the Israelites out of slavery if it were not for the compassion of the Egyptian princess who found him when he was a baby, floating amongst the bulrushes.
The Egyptians were not all evil, just as those Germans in the opposite trenches are not all evil.
At first Sol hadn’t wanted to join up; he couldn’t imagine killing another man. He remembered the words of the psalm, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall men make war anymore.” But then there were the posters, Your Country Needs You! and he had to do his duty. 
It seems to Sol, as he listens to the sound of battle around him, that there is no such thing as an enemy.
He pulls himself out of his reverie, and continues his letter by candlelight as the bullets hit the bank overhead.
At 3 a.m. Dick shakes him, dragging him from sleep. “There’ve been casualties, we have to go forward,” he says.
It’s what Sol has been dreading, but he follows Dick, his limbs stiff and cold as they move towards the firing line while the cruel stars glitter overhead.
 By the time they arrive, the guns are quiet. Sol dozes against the side of the trench, though he knows he shouldn’t sleep. Just now there’s no shooting but at any moment there could be a command to attack the enemy, to shoot perhaps at one of those other boys who, like him, is celebrating Passover.
He opens his eyes in the grey light of early morning. On the other side of the trench a clump of grass sticks out surrounded by bare earth. The sun rises slowly, its rays lighting up the drops of dew that cling to the grass. On the front line, nature has almost been destroyed, but a few miles away on French farms the orchards are heavy with blossom. If Sol were at home, he would get out his paints and spend hours trying to capture the pattern and colour of the blooms. If he was happy with his painting, he might include it in the portfolio he was preparing for submission to art school when the war broke out.
 The afternoon continues to be quiet. As the sun rises high over Flanders, he whiles away the time with Dick and some of the others playing cards.
Towards five there’s a noise, a hum at first, but then it’s clearly shouting coming from somewhere further down the line. A bunch of the boys scramble up to put their heads over the top and Sol follows them. Two or three hundred yards away, the spring air is filled with a strange yellow cloud which hovers just above the ground. It’s not hanging still, though; it’s coming towards them.
“Get down!” someone shouts, and then he hears “Gas!”
It’s around them, all over them, the smell is intense, sharp and acrid. Sol’s eyes are running, his throat hurts. “Cover your nose and mouth!” someone yells. He sees other boys douse their handkerchiefs with water and cover their faces, for they have no gas masks. Sol does the same but it’s ineffective. He can’t breathe without inhaling the stuff, and the stench is horrific. He crouches low in the bottom of the trench, as if taking shelter. He coughs, a painful rasping which hurts the back of his throat and his chest. After a while, he struggles to breathe at all.
He feels as if he’s drowning, like an Egyptian chasing the Hebrew slaves. Soon the waters will cover him.
The Israelites sang in triumph and praised God when they saw the Egyptian army drowning: “The deep waters have covered them, they sank to the depths like a stone.”
But God has made a mistake. Sol’s done nothing wrong he’s not an Egyptian slaver. He’s a Jewish boy fighting for the king.
 When they were safely on the other side of the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess took a timbrel in her hand and started to sing. The women followed her, dancing and singing, “Sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”
A rabbi once told Sol that the singing made God angry:  “The work of my hands has perished and you sing?
Each breath is more painful than the last. Sol curls up, waiting for it to end.
“Get up, get to higher ground!” someone shouts.
 Hands take hold of him, pulling him out of the trench.
He can’t open his eyes. They place one of his hands on the shoulder of the man in front of him to guide him.
 He forces his eyes open and sees piles of bodies lying by the side of the road. It hurts too much to look and he closes his eyes again.
“Christ, there’s hundreds of them!” someone says.
“We’ll send back help for them, we can’t do anymore,” another man replies.
Sol staggers along, gasping and trembling. He’s grateful to be helped to safety. He’s in a worse state than many of the men around him, but plenty of them, including Dick, are panting and short of breath.
He wonders how many firstborns, how many boys on both sides of this war, have died, and if he will be one of them.
Towards midnight they get back to the platoon’s quarters. Someone gives Sol a blanket and he lies on the ground. 
“We’ve got this far, we’ll be all right,” Dick says, coughing.
Sol knows that gas has invaded their bodies, but he doesn’t know how far the poison will spread.
He thinks of his family, and his unfinished letter.
He wants to have a future.
He wants Renee to be his sweetheart. 
He wants to go to art school.
The soldiers fighting for the kaiser, some of them Jews, have done this, but the boys from his platoon, none of them Jews, have rescued him.
In the weeks since he landed, Sol has stood for hours and days in the trenches, firing towards the Germans on the opposite side. He doesn’t know who he has killed, or how many. He doesn’t remember how he came to be a soldier. A soldier needs an enemy; otherwise there’s no point to his existence.
He wants to stand on the front line and shout for all to hear, but he can only whisper, “Nation... shall not… lift up….”
He lies on the ground struggling for breath, on this night unlike any other. 

This night of nights.


Copyright © Sarah Lerner 2024

Sarah Lerner combines fiction writing with her work as a legal aid lawyer. Her work has been published in the Jewish Literary Journal and in Local Voices, a collection of writing by Hackney based authors. She has written one novel  and is working on another. She lives in Hackney, East London with her partner, two adult daughters and two cats. “This Night of Nights” is a work of fiction. It is partly inspired  by a letter from Sarah’s great-uncle Izzy Epstein which was written in the trenches at Pesach. Izzy  was gassed at Ypres and died soon after the war.

Please click here to donate to  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.

Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.