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< Echoes of Memory

A Horse Named Fritz

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By Martin Weiss

This is a story about a beautiful horse called Fritz. It probably was sometime in 1944; our area was under Hungarian occupation. We lived in the village of Polana and life was very difficult for the Jews under the Hungarian regime. Mendel and Isaac, my two oldest brothers, were inducted into slave labor battalions, as were all Jews of military age. They referred to us as “striking Jews,” referring to beating us.

Jacob, my father, was a proud man with a large family. He had to be very inventive and try to do business legally and sometimes illegally right under the nose of the Hungarian police. We owned farmland, so we were able to produce all the food we needed, but with my two oldest brothers gone the burden of farming landed on Moshe. He was about 20 years old at the time. Moshe took on all the responsibility of running the business and working the farm, and I was his helper. We plowed the fields from early morning into late evening. Moshe would hold the plow while I led the horses. I remember that at the time, the top of my head was the height of the horse’s nose. It was a good thing that Moshe was a tall, strong man. He was a hard worker and was able to tackle anything, which was another good thing since our father had high standards and was very demanding.

Our family always had horses. My father took pride in having nice horses, but since nice horses were expensive, we often had plain-looking workhorses. They were used for transportation, plowing the fields and pulling freight. Then one day our father bought Fritz. Fritz was this beautiful tall, brown horse from a large estate. Fritz was one of a kind in the area—he was three years old and gorgeous. From the moment he was born, he was groomed to be a racehorse. He was fed plenty of oats and was allowed to roam the fields of the finest clover and tall grass. When he was three, he was ready to begin training for the racetrack, but his previous owners discovered he had a defective hind leg. When my father heard this, he bought Fritz at once even though it was a financial hardship. When we brought Fritz home, we discovered that one could hardly go near him. If you so much as put your hand on him, he would kick and be unruly.

Our father, who had experience working with animals, tried to break him in gently, but Fritz was so spoiled and full of energy that it did not work too well. One day when father was not at home, my brother Moshe used some cajoling and a whip and showed Fritz who was the boss. He put the harness on Fritz, in spite of the horse’s objection. When Father returned, he took him on the road. As soon as he took off, Fritz galloped through town at such a high speed that we thought he’d run someone over. Father had to restrain Fritz with all his strength.

For a while, my father was the only one to use him for transportation, hitched to either a carriage or a wagon. I remember one incident. A young man of 18 who prided himself on his ability to handle any horse came over and tried to show how it’s done. He also was known to be cruel to animals. As he approached Fritz and tried to show him who was boss, Fritz just grabbed the guy with his teeth and tossed him aside.

Slowly, we tried to harness Fritz for work by pairing him with another horse so he would learn to pull a load. Finally one day, Moshe mounted him and Fritz took off like lightning, but Moshe stayed on. We rode bareback and most of the time without a bridle or a bit in the horse’s mouth. Moshe, who was seven years older than I, was fearless and could handle almost anything. I looked up to him and I tried to copy him in many ways.

We owned a large parcel of wooded land on top of a huge mountain and on it was a large grazing area. On the weekend we would take the horses and leave them there over Shabbat so they could graze. One Sunday, my brother could not go to fetch the horses so I had to do it. I left the house around six in the morning and hiked up the mountain. When I reached the top I recall being scared out of my wits because there was fog. The fog was so thick that when I saw a bush from a distance I thought it was a wolf. (Wolves were prevalent in that area then.) When the sun broke through the fog and cleared the grassy area, I was able to find Fritz. He was out there free and enjoying his freedom. As soon as he saw me, he lifted his tail and ran wild, away from me.

I became so frustrated trying to catch him that I was ready to cry. Then I got an idea. I had a small burlap bag and called the horse’s name while shaking the bag, as though I had oats in it. Finally, I caught him and led him to a tree stump. I climbed up on his back and he took off like lightning, and I had no way to slow him down. Horses like to run home since they usually get oats when they get there. Somehow, I stayed on Fritz’s back.

When we reached our neighborhood, he had to make a sharp left and I was sure I would fall off, but somehow I stayed on. As Fritz came into the backyard he was running at top speed, straight for the stable. The problem was that the stable door was very low and there was just enough clearance for him, but not me. Instinctively, I bent over toward his head and slid my hand over his face to his nose and squeezed, while jumping off just in time before he reached the door. After this experience, I remember being very proud.

Moshe and I were very close and it was from him that I had learned how to overcome my fears. Moshe will always be my hero. Moshe survived the war, but disappeared, never to be seen again, after liberation. About 30 years after the war, his girlfriend from back home found out what may have happened to him.

My brother Moshe was in a camp with a fellow from our town named Wolf. Wolf had been a “Kapo” during the war and it turned out he was a mean and nasty Kapo. So, after liberation, Moshe threatened to expose his past, so that no one would want to associate with him. One day Moshe and Wolf went out looking for food. Three days later Wolf returned by himself. When he was asked where Moshe was, he said they had separated and that he did not know. The people in the camp assumed that Wolf killed Moshe.

Years later, Wolf was at a wedding in Baltimore. While there, some men recognized him. They were about to take some kind of action against him and he found out, so he left the wedding abruptly and went back to New York, where he lived. However, soon after, he got sick with cancer and died. After all these years I still can’t believe that I survived and Moshe did not. I still miss him.

©2015, Martin Weiss. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   martin weissechoes of memory, volume 8

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