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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter One

Texte intégral

Cover of Dos faln un Berlin [The Fall of Berlin], New York: Tsiko Bikher Farlag, 1960.

1Towards the end of January 1945, two personal events deeply shook Dr. Anna Samuelovna Korina of the Red Army’s military hospital in the Praga district of Warsaw on the Vistula. They were sudden and so unexpected that they unnerved her, making her afraid to perform even the simplest operation. Under the pretext of fatigue, she entrusted the fate of the wounded soldiers to Dr. Leszniak. The snowstorm that had been raging for three days seemed to be pounding in her temples. She stood for hours on the top floor of the building, staring, immobile, through the little window at the snow-clad world.

2Nearby a rusty brown sheet of metal broke off from a shattered roof, ripping clouds of snow in a fierce blast of wind. She could not tear herself away from the window. She stubbornly refused to leave the desolate landscape. The clouds of snow that blasted against the windowpane swirled back into her memory that terrible experience with Zhillin in the swampy woods of the partisans, in the village hut, on the night they had lost the battle. Anna sensed the wind and felt the cold, and she felt better. The very whiteness, its wildness, the sharp snow cooled the fever in her eyes. She turned as white and translucent as the clouds of snow.

3No, the fatigue was not an excuse. She could overcome that. But she was terrified of her hands, of the trembling in her fingers. She held them up towards the gloomy evening light in the window and leaned her large, round forehead on the half-frozen pane. Now she again felt the fever pounding from her eyes.

4Anna’s agitation had begun as soon as she learned that Nikolai Zhillin was in Praga, and that he could show up at any moment. Would Zhillin dare to appear at her door? How would she react to his smile, the smile of NKVD Col. Zhillin, who had been awarded the Order of Suvarov First Class, and who had been honored “for distinction in the occupation of Praga and operations on the Vistula.” She ran over to the little white night table and threw down the newspaper. When she closed her eyes she once again smelled his sweaty, liquor stench all over her. She again felt his steel pistol against her with his weight. Once again it was if she were sinking down into a field of nettles. She again heard Zhillin’s orderly Zadurkin outside, laughing his snide little laugh.

5Now Zhillin had resurfaced on the banks of the Vistula. He had reached her through fire, through blood, swamps, nights of debauchery, and snowstorms. The next day, after a sleepless night, they brought Menakhem to the hospital in Praga.

6Anna was in the midst of night rounds in the surgical ward. Here was the bed of Isaac Farber lying next to Zakharchenko, and then, suddenly, a familiar face: thick eyebrows, a chiseled jaw, finely formed lips, and two small creases between his brows. She looked at the dark eyelashes, and an ancient memory surged from a time years ago, outside Moscow. Her gaze grew blurry and she couldn’t see anything. Was it from tears or from the clouds of dry snow?

7She brushed his jaw with her fingers shaking, as lightly as if it were in a dream. It felt good to run her long fingers over the face of the young injured soldier, a face battered by snow gusts, pounded by storms, yet still so gentle.

8The wounded man narrowly opened his eyes, moist, black, deep. Anna recognized him. She bent over and read the chart near his bed, and her lips whispered, “Menakhem, Mikhail.” The two creases between his eyebrows smoothed out, and a real smile radiated from the corners of his mouth. He sank into a soft white haze, luminous, and silvery, and his hands felt the warmth of a sunny meadow.

9Menakhem’s sudden appearance made the image of Zhillin’s face all the more repugnant to her. The few sentences in Pravda brought to life the pale-hued Russian from deepest Russia, the Politkommissar with the colorless, watery eyes that turned from clear to cloudy. His thin, sharp lips played with words insolently, words with the power to reduce to dust anyone he came into contact with. But Zhillin was not hated. More than once he had shown courage, even bravery. He was like a fox which, with its fur ablaze, can run through wheat fields, burning them down without being harmed himself. Instead of walking behind a traditional plow or driving a swing plow over the fields back home, he had been uprooted from his native village and dragged off to the barracks in a Moscow suburb, where he was trained to be in the Special Section, a Politkommissar in the Red Army. Mistrust, suspicion, and hatred were instilled in him. They riled up his latent peasant slyness and cultivated it with scientific methods.

  • 1 Workers’ Faculty: schools started in 1919, to prepare workers for university.

10They twisted around every word that was uttered by suspects and transformed them into acts. Their own words were like sweet, enticing seeds for birds that have been poisoned. Zhillin’s instructors were half-baked Russian intellectuals, “professors” from the Rabfacs,1 experts in Leninism, smooth Party theoreticians, and dull journalists who were tired of endlessly writing the same editorials.

  • 2 In the 1930s, Stalin was routinely honored with hyperbolic titles, among them, The Standard-bearer (...)
  • 3 Soviet Information Bureau, organized in 1941.

11By the time war broke out with the Germans, Nikolai Feodorovich was already a full Politkommissar attached to a military unit. He was well versed in the sayings of the “Father of the Nations”2 and the reports of the Informburo.3 He searched for suspects, for traitors to the Soviet homeland, and he would often be taken with an overwhelming need to root them out. And yet he was apt to speak humanely. Life around him was like a barbed wire fence that entangles people in the dark of night.

12The war was a relief to him. But by then his heart had hardened. The consciousness that he wielded power with his words was intoxicating. He was called on to prove his diligence, and in his intoxication with power he weighed the lives of people on the scales of his twisted morality. But whom should he choose? He had to denounce someone. Moloch was waiting. Who should it be? Through ice-cold eyes he considered a long series of people—everyone he had met. Whom should he denounce? He drank too much and laughed a cold little laugh with those nearest to him, even slapped their backs in camaraderie. But he imagined each of them in the snow-laden fields of Siberia or going down stone steps to a black cellar. Sometimes he would feel swept up by the flood of the people who had been sentenced, and a great sympathy—for his poor old self—would overtake him. But he believed that there was an enemy from within. Who was it?

13Anna had witnessed it, that first winter outside Moscow—how Zhillin had denounced Menakhem to the military court. And now, four years later, the wounded Menakhem had been brought to a hospital near Warsaw, and at the very same time there came the news that Zhillin was alive, and that he had risen to the rank of colonel.

14It was indeed a bizarre knot of coincidence, and she held the tangled threads in her hands: the Russian from a faraway village, the Jew from Poland, and Anna Korina from Moscow. Zhillin was somewhere near, very near. She could sense it. Something was bound to happen. It was a wintry night at the end of January, bluish snow against the dark windowpanes. The sudden reappearance of Menakhem frightened her. He had not seen her. The whiteness, the evening quiet had prompted his exhausted smile. His half-closed eyes had been seeing something far away from there, beyond his reach. He had been gazing at a dream.

15It was dark in Anna’s little room, with dry snow banging against her window. The beams from the searchlights could not penetrate the storm to the frozen skies. They fell along with the snow on the wreckage of the Kierbedz Bridge. Only a thin ray of light hung to the side, rocking on the black waters of the Vistula.

16Yekaterina Yurievna, the nurse, was speaking softly. Anna lay with her eyes closed. It was good to hear the gentle voice of this daughter of the Don steppes. Her voice was like a foothold in the dark for Anna. It was all heat and light, like the endless wheat fields ringing with the sound of scythes and the far-off singing of women tying up the sheaves. It reminded Anna of cradlesongs in a farmhouse among alder trees, with roosters crowing and wings fluttering.

17If not for Yekaterina Yurievna’s talking, Anna would now be watching herself wandering over the snow-covered fields near Moscow in the winter of 1941. She would again see the snowy Mokhovaya Street, the ugly birdlike face of Zinnin the house watchman, her sad old mother, the shadow-people swarming in the hungry streets, little Oleg, Fatima, Sasha, and Nina—the children in her apartment of wartime Moscow.

18Yekaterina’s voice lulled her but it could not drown out the roar of the trains speeding away to distant places… the siege of Moscow… imprisonment... the German camps... the liberation... the horrible nightmare with the drunken Red Army soldiers... Zhillin... Everything was swirling together in an awful tangle. She could never rid herself of the night-time laughter of the orderly... The faces came at her, crude, with scars, pimply noses, huge ears, greasy, sweaty... the clawing hands... the stink of liquor... the glint of steel... the vile words... hands grabbing, forcing themselves, like thorny weeds... the night-time screams of women being raped on the sidetracks... the shattering howl of Zakharchenko when she had amputated his feet... the stream of blood running from the mouth of the Jew who had been hanged in Smolensk… the Germans shrieking… her mother’s prayers in their Moscow apartment.

19Yekaterina’s hand was warm, and it guided her through her nightmare. The string of lights that had hung on the wrecked column of the bridge fell into the abyss below. A single shot rang out nearby, then all was quiet. This was a different kind of quiet, satisfied, sated with human blood. The shot did Anna some good, easing the tension from her heightened expectation that something was going to happen. No, it was not a death shot, but the innocent bang of a single solitary rifle, a shot aimed at the cloud of a shadow.

20 Anna prepared herself for her talk with Menakhem. She knew that his wound was superficial. The earlier wound in his shoulder had reopened. He was in a weakened state. She saw huge drops of sweat on his forehead whenever she stopped at his bed. He had been in a sleep of exhaustion for two days. He had woken up only once, and the nurse had forced him to drink something. Then he fell back half asleep.

21Anna was afraid that their unexpected reunion would be dangerous for Menakhem, though she wanted to see how he would take seeing her again. She remembered the infirmary in the village near Moscow. She could see Menakhem with his narrow shoulders, bent over white paper. His drawings were somewhere in her apartment. Four years had passed. A shock of gray hair now fell over his forehead. His face had grown even more bony, and the wrinkles deeper, more furrowed. There were creases radiating from the corners of his eyes. Anna remembered the clearing in the woods on the night before he disappeared. They had been walking to the nurses’ station. He had stopped suddenly. She could see the snowflakes dissolving on his trembling lips. She could still taste the melting snow.

22Yekaterina Yurievna watched Anna wipe the sweat from Menakhem’s brow. She stood to the side and looked on with affection. She knew all about Anna and Menakhem, and her tenderness overflowed. She choked up. That Yekaterina was going to weep; she could not stop her tears.

23Someone was talking about sleeping—short, choppy sounds as if from a well. Sobbing was coming from another room. Heavy, raspy breathing, like dull saws suddenly getting stuck in an old tree trunk.

24Anna knew all the patients. She knew every wound, and she knew the succession of all the battles of the war from the succession of wounded troops. Here was Gavronov from a village near Murom, who had been wounded in Warsaw. There was Karakin, and near him lay Sapogov and Zeitlin from Minsk, and Farber—seriously wounded—from Shpola. The hospital was flooded with wounded from the latest battles. Two weeks later many of them were sent deep into the far reaches of Russia. They were not kept near the front. Only those too sick to be moved and those who were lightly wounded would stay there until they were sent back to their regiments. A massive attack was being prepared. It was going to be the last assault on Germany. It would bring the long-awaited victory.

25 Chabayan the Tatar woke with a start and peered through folded eyes.

26“Why don’t you sleep, Chabayan? Does something hurt?”

27He laughed and gave the doctor the grateful smile of a wounded man. “Pain and suffering purify the soul”, Anna thought. His coarse face looked like it was veiled in a heavenly glow. Only the pockmarks on his nose and cheeks kept him looking real and mortal, rooted in the good, patient earth.

28“Do you get letters from home?”

29Now his whole face really laughed, his teeth big and dazzling white. His hand lay on his blanket, and he looked sadly at his fingers. Menakhem was awake, peering wide-eyed into the half-darkness. Anna’s hand was still hovering over his brow. In her hand trembled a little silk cloth, a white reminder of long ago.

30“Anna,” he said.

31That single simple word brought tears of thanks to her eyes. He had said it so naturally, so matter-of-factly, as if his lips had prepared to say it. That was the way to greet the dawn of a new day. That was the way to greet the stars after a cloudy night. She was kneeling, whispering quietly. Then it occurred to her that she was talking to herself and Menakhem would not understand her. But he did understand, for his whole being sensed what she was saying.

32“Anna. Anna Samuelovna. It’s been such a long road. From Moscow to Warsaw. Such a long road.”

33She touched his forehead with the palm of her hand. She was near him now, as near as sleep, as near as the quiet night.

34Soon Anna was standing at her little window. The sky was turning gray somewhere far away, on the other side of the Vistula. The snow had stopped falling. The window was covered with frozen tracery. It was cold in the room. She wrapped herself in her coat and fell asleep right away. The head nurse Yekaterina Yurievna did not sleep. You could hear her footsteps on the stairs.

35A week later Menakhem took his first steps. His wound was healing well. Anna knew that he was no longer in danger. He had been a wreck when they brought him to the hospital, and he could not get a hold of himself for quite a while. A mine had blown up right near his feet, and the force of the explosion had hurled him onto a snowy ruin. It had happened on the first day that his unit had reached Poland’s capital. The front line was rolling towards the west. Bombardment could be heard every night in the distance and gunfire in the streets of Praga. When he first opened his eyes, he saw a mountain of snow. It seemed like he had been ripped off the snowy Earth. His fingers clutched at mounds of soil, grasped at clumps of frozen snow. His fingers turned to wood until he touched the debris of a cornice. He could still remember how his fingers felt the gypsum leaf stems, then the Earth rocked, and he turned into a cloud lying at the bottom of the snow mountain. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, Anna was already near him.

36The grimmest hours in the hospital were in the evening, between day and night. That was when the seriously wounded died. The nurses went around like shadows. Someone leaned closer to hear a patient and listened to the whispered ravings of delirium. Would it be his last whisper?

37Menakhem took his head in both hands. His shadow was translucent. Chabayan was singing a mournful song about an injured soldier: “The little green blade of grass cannot sway in the field. A soldier staggers, falling dead in the steppe…” He sang it quietly and his lips quivered. His voice broke into a sob. Chabayan was now somewhere far away, very far from there. He himself was the soldier staggering on his way home from the battlefield, and his mother greets him: “Why do you drink hard liquor, my son? That’s why you’re drunk and can’t find the way back to your hut.” And the wounded son, lying in the grass, answers: “Bitter Fate has made me drunk with three drinks: the first, a bullet of lead; the second, a naked sword; the third, a long spear.”

38Anna was worn-out by evening. Menakhem was sitting in her little room, silent. The nights were cold. Anna got a little iron cookstove, and the only light came from its red-hot coals. She came over to Menakhem, wrapped him more tightly in the hospital gown, and brushed the lock of hair away from his left eye. She told him about her mother’s letters and added, “I’ll write to her about your coming.”

39“Then she remembers my visit in Moscow?”

40“She has mentioned it many times in her letters.”

41Menakhem was happy to hear it. “I’m glad, Anna. It’s the only greeting I’ve had in my loneliness.”

42“You’re not alone.”

43 Her upper lip half smiled and the corners of her eyes lit up. She didn’t want him to speak. Silence was better. Words would only take them back to the world of war, which would plunge them into darkness and sorrow.

44On her day off she took Menakhem for a short drive. It was a sunny Sunday. Volodka Sayanov, the hospital’s driver, drove them over the Vistula on the temporary wooden bridge, and they reached the former Jewish quarter. This was the first time that Menakhem saw the obliteration.

45Snow still lay on the ruins. Only the unshelled roads were usable, covered with yellow clay mud. Menakhem stared stonily at his old neighborhood, now a wasteland as far as the eye could see: bare concrete columns with deformed ironwork; stones; bricks; facades; gates blown off their houses—gates leading only to ruins.

46Volodya pushed his cap to the back of his head and stopped at a church. It was the only thing still intact in a vast sea of devastation. A man stood on a little hill, as if frozen. Was it a statue or a person?

47“Wait, Volodya!” said Menakhem. “Let’s have a smoke.”

48Volodya took out his little pouch of tobacco. Menakhem stepped over the stones, and he wanted to stride over a boulder. Anna held his arm to guide him. She walked silently, stepping onto a mound of bricks.

49“This is my house. This was where I began my journey out into the world.” He bent down and sifted the earth through his fingers. A sharp splinter of brick lay in his hand. He put it in his bag. Anna did not see tears in his eyes. But he had turned to stone.

50The stranger was still standing on the same spot, his head turned up. He was elderly, gray, and his face deathly. Menakhem held out his hand as he approached him and said, “We’ve come back home.”

51Anna felt the profound grief in Menakhem’s Yiddish words, and her heart was grief-stricken. The man was silent. Anna took Menakhem’s hand and said, “Come. I can’t take it anymore.”

52The stranger’s stony gaze frightened her, and she pulled Menakhem closer to her. The man finished saying his evening prayers. Then they talked at length, trying to recognize their home from the half walls and the streetcar poles. The bells were ringing when they passed the church on Leszno Street. Half the roof had been torn off, and the shattered stained-glass windows looked like unraveled spider webs.

53 Menakhem learned from the man that there was a Jewish Committee not far from the hospital in Praga, where Jews who had survived got together and were compiling a list of names. Anna promised Menakhem that she would go there and inquire about his family. She would also give them his name, in case any of his family were searching for him.

54Volodka came back despondent. “This was your home? Well, Mikhail, you’ll find your family... See how the lady doctor worries about you?” When Anna turned towards the window Volodka took a flask of liquor out of his pants pocket: “Let’s go! Drink up! It’ll do you good! Fast, before the doctor sees!”

55Night fell again. Someone was dying. Chabayan was sitting on his bed, his empty sleeve swinging. He sang his song about the lonely soldier, the wounded one who staggered across the fields. Yekaterina Yurievna ran by again, disappearing into the dark corridor.

56Anna’s workload became much heavier. She did not leave the surgical ward for hours on end. The doors kept on opening. An eery quiet unsettled the patients in nearby wards. All you could hear was the cold creaking of white hospital gurneys covered with sheets and the footsteps of the nurses.

57Menakhem was alert to the slightest rustle. Past the threshold of the white doors was a world where words carried no weight. Peace and tranquility ruled: white bandages and Anna’s hands and the cold gleam of surgical instruments. It was all suffused in a silky whiteness, laden with the smell of chloroform. And once when he saw Anna on the threshold when the doors opened to wheel out a patient, she seemed distant and strange: cold, steely eyes, creases around her temples, and her hands in rubber gloves looked like raw, cut-off branches. Her white apron was stained with blood in one spot. Menakhem felt his head get dizzy, and his eyes bulged with an unusual fear.

58She came to his bed in the evening, but now she was different. “You’re depressed today,” she said. But he could not smile. The other Anna—the one at the threshold—had been alien to him.

59He took her hand and brushed his fingers along her arm. The day before she had gone through the streets of Praga looking for the Jewish Committee. Through a dark gate, up black wooden steps, she encountered shadows through long, eery corridors, and open doors. Deathly faces, circles of people sitting around bare tables. They invited her into a room. An elderly woman was leafing through papers with names. They spoke to her in Russian, surprised at this Soviet woman officer wearing the medical insignia. She told them she was searching for Menakhem’s parents, for his brothers.

60What should she say to Menakhem? Tell him about these last surviving Jews in dark staircases, in a dark, narrow room? He understood her silence.

61He was sitting in her little room a few days later. It was the evening; the snow had a bluish cast. Anna watched the branches from the chestnut tree banging against her window from time to time. It made a moaning sound as if the gloomy evening were calling her to the doomed and the dying. Now they were lying with open wounds under God’s heavens. A week later a military commission arrived, and Menakhem was sent back to his unit.

62The men in his regiment were already gone. Some of the Soviet units had already reached the Oder River at several points. The Germans were putting up desperate resistance. Would that be his last meeting with Anna? He had so much to tell her. Would she stay alive, and the farmers in Tengushay? Maybe the peasant girl Lioska, and her mother, Molkina?

63That snowy night Menakhem talked to Anna for a long time, unfolding the roads of his long odyssey, and she travelled along with him.

64As he spoke, she could see the house of Menakhem’s parents emerge from the ruins. She could see his father, the idealistic dreamer with the short, trimmed beard, who had manned the barricades in 1905. She met his mother, the village girl from Kukhar, the daughter of generations of Jewish farmers. She saw Menakhem as a child in a little town on the high banks of a stream, a barefoot kid standing on the bank with a fishing rod. She could see his school years, his first painting, the stirrings of love, then suddenly the German invasion... the Polish army... manning a machine gun on the roof of a house on Leszno Street... wandering through the German hinterland to Belarus... then to Tengushay on the Moksha River deep inside Russia... demobilization... Anna... the front... his trial… back to Tengushay… his last night in a peasant hut… Lioska… the prayers of her mother, Molkina… working in the mines… the Georgian Khatshap… Zhillin… the Vistula... Warsaw… meeting Anna again… .

65 He needed her to know everything. Everything. He wanted to share with her all that was nearest and dearest to him. He needed nothing more.

66He drew a lot during his last days there. He was restless, and he channeled that restlessness onto drawing paper. He drew people and landscapes, and Anna recognized them from their long nighttime conversations. The closer the day of his leaving approached, the sharper Zhillin’s face became in Anna’s mind. He would show up again. She was doomed to see him even after the war in Moscow, her hometown. He would wait for her in the dark gateway on Mokhovaya Street. She could see him standing and plotting with the dead watchman Zinnin. He was the victor, the conqueror, the all-powerful in this war. His was the evil weed that was blossoming across our fields that could not be eradicated unless the Earth swallowed it up. She appreciated the long hours she spent with Menakhem. He had opened up a new world for her; a world that she had long-suspected must exist.

67Now she could see it, the world of the soul. She had grown up in an era of secrecy and fear, in the years of terror and suspicion. At night she had listened for steps on the staircase. She knew them, the Zhillins of the world. The country was full of them. She had recognized their dark souls when the Germans were laying siege to Moscow. She had seen them when they stormed the trains transporting women prisoners. Now they would be the victors, thanks to the blood shed by the Farbers, the Mikhails, and millions of farm boys. They would parade around in clumsy, rigid, ridiculously shiny epaulets and all kinds of medals and bombastic, outlandish, military honorifics.

68She hated them, mocked them, sneered at them, on that night in devastated wartime Poland. The workload had changed her. She was no longer the Anna whom Menakhem had first met in a village infirmary. Her fingers no longer trembled. Her voice had lost its thin, soft, girlish magic. She was now tough as metal, and sometimes her voice was dry. Her eyes were sharp, no longer clear and translucent. He missed that Anna, who had left the little village Tshulan, a brown fur jacket on her back. He caressed her forehead, feeling the web of barely visible wrinkles at her temples. Her long fingers scared him, and the thought of Lioska came to him, that night on top of the oven, covered with straw mats and sheepskins, the scent of fresh-cut hay wafting from Lioska’s body. But it only lasted a second. His desire for Anna’s warmth came over him, and it seemed to Menakhem that the ice in her eyes had melted. They sat hugging and listening to the snow falling quietly. It was his last day in the hospital.

69He left the next morning. Volodya drove him to the train station. Anna had just been called to the operating room. He waited for her to show up again. It was a long time until the door opened. The driver honked downstairs. Several other soldiers were waiting to get to the train. He was standing with his satchel, his face turned towards the door. Yekaterina Yurievna came out first, then Dr. Anna Samuelovna Korina. She stopped in the open door, her hands raised, looking at Menakhem. He saw the corners of her eyes welling up with tears. She nodded to him and quickly turned towards the window.

70Warsaw. The beginning of February 1945. The deep freeze was beginning to thaw. The puddles of snow froze only in the early morning. The banks of the Vistula were covered with a yellow-gray mess of snow. Passers-by were rarely seen. Somewhere between the ruins a ribbon of smoke spiraled up. Laundry was hanging on a pole. An elderly man wrapped in a brown shawl. A woman carrying two pails of water. A pale girl in a tattered man’s jacket was collecting kindling. In the middle of the desolate street lay an overturned German Panther tank. The turret was covered with soot, the wheel chains were drooping. The cogs, covered with snow, looked like steps. Nearby, on both sides of the street, near the sidewalk, lay yellow-flecked Panzer tanks, wrecked cannons, and overturned diesel trucks. A company of troops went past, through the narrow passageway between the ruins. You could see the devastation of the old city through an opening.

71Menakhem’s truck stopped often to let marching troops pass. The air was clear and crisp. He could see his old home from the lower part of the truck. His head was bare, and every bounce of the wheels resounded in it, and it hurt. He wished to close his eyes but could not. Dizziness lulled him, and it felt as though the truck had become light and was floating through a fog. Someone was speaking loudly, the tank driver, Platon Voronka:

  • 4 Jagdpanzer Elefant tank destroyer designed by Ferdinand Porsche.
  • 5 Multiple rocket launcher used by the Soviets.

72“Ferdinand,4 Katyusha5 greets you!”

73 He was pointing to a destroyed German tank, a “Ferdinand” that was half buried under brick rubble and snow.

74“Boys, this kind of a machine almost killed me in Lublin! But you can count on Katyushas! This was their doing! I can recognize it by Ferdinand’s torn-up backside.”

75The silver wings of a Messerschmitt were glinting in the morning sun near a ditch in a snow-covered city square. Six soldiers rode in the truck. Traveling to the assignment point, besides Menakhem and Platon, were Sgt. Sergei Orlov, Papavkin from a kolkhoz, Zipunov, recently drafted, and Lt. Lev Oshanin. Zipunov had been working on a German estate in Posen. He had wandered on Poland’s desolated roads after the Germans retreated. A patrol had found him in a ruin, frozen and drunk, and drafted him into the army. Platon told him, “You’re lucky that they didn’t hold you under disciplinary guard. All those who were in German forced labor are under suspicion.”

76Papavkin had never really yet been under fire. He had rambled aimlessly from one town to another. Before the war he had been a manager in a kolkhoz not far from Gomel. He was always on the sidelines, and something always seemed to happen just before he was called to be sent on the offensive. Once it was that he had twisted his hand. The second time he had fever. The third time he just could not be found, and they even informed his wife that he must have been killed when they attacked across the Vistula.

77His sleepy eyes were watery, his shoulders hunched if he had forced his way through a narrow door. The brittle yellow fuzz on his face made him seem old and weary. But he was thirty years old at most. He peered at everyone with dog-like humility.

78“Where are you from, sonny boy? Hey, you, bad luck, huh? Seen some tough times, huh?”

79Sgt. Orlov told him, “Hold on tight, little man! You’re gonna fall off the truck!”

80“Where could you fall? The Earth is always right here. Sooner or later... What’s the difference?”

81“You’re gonna end up in the infirmary again,” said Platon.

82Zipunov and Vanyushka Papavkin, the two farmers, understood each other. Those two had clicked as soon as they first met in Volodya’s truck. They immediately sensed a peasant kinship, and they felt as close as two peas in a pod.

83Lt. Lev Oshanin was quiet. To Menakhem he whispered, “We have to be the first to get to Berlin.” He squeezed his hand as he emphasized “we.” Now it was clear to Menakhem that Oshanin was Jewish. Why hadn’t he realized it before? Dark, thick eyebrows, an aquiline nose, black curls, a long olive face, with big brown almond eyes.

84The truck was leaving Warsaw. They passed bare fields, blown-up train tracks, destroyed train cars, tangled iron fences, bombed-out water towers, knocked down telephone poles, boxes of weapons sunk in the snow, guardhouses, farmers’ wagons, carts, the carcasses of horses, flocks of crows, piles of black soil ripped out of the ground. Smoke spiraled nearby from chimneys in mounds of earth. Those were the earthen bunkers of the infantry and trenches that had just recently reached all the way to the first front lines. Farmers were rummaging through them with shovels. They all looked very old, their faces unshaven, with sacks on their backs, tattered boots, fur caps pulled down to their eyes. They avoided the military vehicles that were passing by. When a patrol stopped at their hedges, the men hid behind the curtains or hid on top of the ovens. Only the women went out to the troops, wringing their hands, their faces mournful, lamenting their bitter fate, their possessions that had been looted, the man of the house who was totally worthless and could barely stand on two legs. They related far-fetched stories about children whom the German bastards had taken away.

85But at night, behind closed shutters, the farmers would straighten up their backs, comb their matted beards, and have a good time. Oh, how well Papavkin knew those Polish muzhiks! He thought, “The German bastards must have left behind what they had plundered. The barns are crammed with rye. And there are piles of gold hidden in the ground. And you, poor guys, have to run across the front lines, and you can’t even stop to catch your breath!”

86He said: “Sonny boy, what times we live in! Little brother, I know where to look. I can tell just by looking at their eyes. I’ll find exactly where that Jewish gold is! By now the Poles have gotten all their gold. It’ll be too late by the time we get back from Berlin. They’ll take everything. It’ll be no use to even try to find it.”

87 Menakhem and Oshanin looked at each other. Voronka announced, “The road is now open. You can see Warsaw in the distance.”

88The truck hurtled towards the west. They soon reached a large estate. Headquarters was in a brick building. Half a viorst away stretched long, low structures, barracks fenced in all around with rolls of barbed wire. Units of the German 17th Army had been quartered there, as well as a tank unit from the 4th Army. A large airport lay not far away. Dozens of German planes had been destroyed there, still in their hangars, before they could even take off. Now Soviet planes were based there. The highway was full of tanks. The military administration was paving the side roads. They assembled hundreds of farmers to clean up the roads leading to the airfield. Warning signs were posted everywhere: “Mines!” Guards were stationed at empty crossroads, near granaries. Airplanes thundered. Diesel truck engines that couldn’t start roared. Tank wheels dragged in a thick stew of mud. Horses shrieked wildly.

89Menakhem stood on the steps of a brick house. He could see Warsaw. He recognized the misty blue, familiar contours of his hometown. It was from there that the Focke-Wulf bombers, the Heinkels, and the Messerschmitts, had flown to incinerate his city. It was from there that the tanks had launched their attacks on Warsaw. Warsaw, which had staged an uprising half a year later. He had stood on the other side of the river then, powerless as the city lay dying. His home was now ashes. Where was he going? West! He was going to destroy Berlin. He had to be there! In Warsaw he had realized the evil did not reside in Berlin alone. It was all around. It lurked from the huts of greedy farmers. It hid in all the Zhillins of the world. It sprouted like poisonous mushrooms on the ravaged and desolated fields of war.

90In early February the Soviet army’s First Ukrainian Front completed the liberation of central Poland. They had marched more than 480 kilometers from the Sandomierz bridgehead and fought their way across the Oder River. The Germans struggled bitterly to hold the eastern bank of the Oder. Much of the German force on the eastern side was wiped out that first week of February, and many bridgeheads were captured on the road to the west.

91Marshal Zhukov and his army crossed the border into central Germany and launched offensives on German soil. But the Germans were holding fast to Küstrin, their stronghold on the Oder, a fortress already known in the sixteenth century. It was the gateway guarding the roads to Berlin. Menakhem’s unit was rushed northeast to Küstrin. Their mission was to take the fortress. Lev Oshanin and Sergei Orlov were also assigned to that unit. A few days later he ran into Papavkin and Zipunov in a liaison unit.

92The Küstrin region is swampy, especially the northeast. Two rivers join there, the Warta and the Oder. Though it was still the first half of February, the marshes were no longer frozen, and the defensive trenches were filled with mud. The soldiers slogged between the bushes and masses of reeds. The German plains spread out before them. It was easy to see that the new structures on the land—farms and estates—had been erected along the border according to the plan and specifications of military headquarters. The walls facing eastward were concrete, and the cattle stalls and granaries had narrow openings for cannons instead of windows.

93Lev Oshanin was assigned to command a reconnaissance team, which also included Menakhem, and which carried out all kinds of nighttime missions through the forests and swamps in the area. Oshanin spoke German fluently, and the information that he gleaned from German farmers and from liberated Soviet citizens who had been dragged off to forced labor was very useful. There followed an endless advance of motorized infantry, cars, baggage trains, and tanks. The siege of Küstrin was being prepared. Whole sections of forest were mowed down, as if with a scythe. No civilians walked on the roads.

94On one of their reconnaissance missions in a German village, Menakhem and two others entered the cellar of a magnificent house. The cellar was concrete and filled with a vast quantity of war materiel: stockrooms with bullets, fuel oil, and Avio bombs. They also found cases of French wine, barrels of Danish butter, Polish sausages, and Dutch cheese. The estate seemed to have been abandoned. One of the troops brought down an old woman from the attic room. She was the lady of the house, a young boy who spoke Polish told them. She was dressed in black with a black tulle veil across her face. The Russian asked, “You’re a German woman?” She uncovered her veil. He perused her face for a long time. Menakhem brushed off her cold stare and walked away without a word. But she cast a foul shadow that stayed with him.

95 Then he stood in the huge rooms of the mansion and waited for the trucks that were coming to haul off the weaponry. It was his first time in a German house. He saw big nickel beds bedecked with piles of comforters; paintings of hunting scenes in gilded frames; wall hangings embroidered in red Gothic lettering with rhymes of proverbial sayings; credenzas; black wooden armchairs upholstered in leather; brocaded sofas. He walked on parquet floors. Nauseating opulence oozed from every corner. Clocks rang out, big and clumsy; the hours marked in Roman numerals, with a clutter of naked angels with golden laurel leaves and copper wings. A glass-enclosed cabinet held books. He took out a volume and leafed through it. It was Heinreich von Kleist. He put it back in its place and took out another, of Schiller’s works.

96The soldiers assembled Germans in the courtyard. They were kept under guard, waiting for orders from Lev Oshanin. He walked through the lines and peered carefully into each German face. They found only one of military age and sent him to headquarters in a wagon. The rest were released. On the way there, he reported that he was Martin Pannwitz, age forty-five, born in Crossen an der Oder. His posture clearly revealed an experienced military man. They could see it in his bearing, his stride, and his answers.

97Oshanin said, “He’s going to sing like a bird... I can see it… He’s a high officer.” The first interrogation was fruitful. Martin Pannwitz commanded a German tank unit, and he was a major. His wife and children were in one of the captured villages. When Menakhem returned to headquarters from a reconnaissance mission, Pannwitz was sitting at a table, marking with a pen the German fortified positions on a map of Küstrin. He knew every house in the city. Lieutenant Oshanin sat nearby, rolling a cigarette. The captured war materiel was sent to division headquarters that night.

98Maj. Martin Pannwitz answered with precision the questions that were put to him. His division had recently been transferred from France: “But it was too late, gentlemen! Our armaments industry is shattered. Our synthetic oil factories in Stettin and Braunschweig were destroyed… on January 14th, our refineries in Magdeburg, Derben, and Bohemia. The situation compels Hitler to send reinforcements to Austria and Hungary to hold on to the gas and oil refineries, because they’re critical for Panzers and the air force.” The next day came the order to send him to the head of the division.

  • 6 Members of a national militia organized by the Nazi Party when the German army was in full retreat.

99 The Germans bowed obsequiously to every Soviet soldier, whispering fearfully, “Comrade Soldier!” These were Gestapo men, SS men, and Volksstürmer.6 The “master race” was groveling in the dirt. Menakhem had seen it the very first time he set foot on German soil. Menakhem accompanied Martin Pannwitz to division headquarters, keeping quiet the whole way. He ignored every effort of the German to make conversation. The Soviets were preparing their artillery. It was clear that the final onslaught was soon to begin.

100Menakhem went out on reconnaissance again that night. On a rampart half covered with snow, the body of a communications specialist lay near a trench, holding a telegraph wire in his hand. He had managed to use his bloody fingers to write in the snow: “Extend the wire further.” Menakhem took the wire and dragged it into the enemy’s territory. That night the Germans began to bomb relentlessly, hoping to blow up the “Berlin Bridge” that the Soviet engineers had erected across the Oder River. Pontoon bridges were floated on both sides. Menakhem went through the communications trenches. Fire swept the sky, raging between the clouds, and falling to the bluish snow on the ground. Every step was fraught with danger. Mines were blowing up in the fields. Machine guns kept firing again and again.

101German deserters prowled around at night, SS men, and all sorts of suspicious characters and paramilitaries who were now surrounded by Soviet troops and were desperately trying to get back to the Vaterland that was shrinking day by day. The nights were windy and rainy. Sometimes a wet, yellow snow would fall and melt before it hit the ground. The fields were shrouded in fog. These were mists that drifted between the trees on the roads and the stretches of forest. Islands of snow still clung in places.

102Menakhem was on guard duty, his eyes searching far and wide. He knew that he was in enemy territory. His binoculars pointed to the west. The cold copper field glasses framed a village in fog… wet fields… bare poplar trees… the shadows of low-lying clouds… plumes of smoke from village chimneys… cows standing near a stable… He could hear their mournful whining... Peering very carefully, he could see only the stone walls of the barn still standing. Fire had destroyed the roof, and you could look at the black sky from inside. A farmer was walking from the fields, leaning on a cane.

103So this was the land of the enemy? He searched through the short bushes and peered at the field wagons. His eyes came to rest on the bare poplars, high up where dry leaves were fluttering. They had held on through the winter, and spring was coming soon. The hidden buds would blossom. Maybe it wasn’t leaves after all, but little birds, common barn birds whose nest had been burned. They would soon fly up to the evening sky and disappear into the forest. He was tired. The cold damp always stirred up piercing pain in his old wound. The farmer appeared again. He was going to the village, taking the same field road. Old willow trees stood on one side of the road, recognizable by their tousled branches twigs and their hollow trunks.

104Searchlights scanned the skies when dark fell. They would crisscross the night, slice through the woods and the sky, and slash through the wandering mists, shining a harsh light on the dead, naked corpse of God’s creation, a corpse like the blue-gray remains of dead, skinned animals left on the roads in wartime. He knew that here was the lair of the beast. It was here that “the Führer” was ranting and raving. Menakhem scanned the rainy vista for traces of that insane evil but couldn’t find it. Evil was widespread all around him, from the Urals, from the Moksha River, all the way to the Oder River. And everywhere it was the same fluttering of birds, the same nighttime shadows, the same whining of cows, the same desolate fields, the same shady paths through the forests, the same sunlit roads through the fields.

105Where was the borderline between good and evil, between the predator and the prey? It was a blur; there was no borderline. Take Zipunov, for example, the little farmer from Belarus. He had looked forward to the Germans coming to his hometown. He had thought: “Now things will be different!” He would no longer have to stand in the courtyard of the kolkhoz and wait for the brigadier to give him orders. The markers of the land he had inherited were still—barely—visible. The stone was still there; the one that he had secretly placed after they had confiscated all the land and plowed over the boundaries, leaving only a flat border that you could hardly see. He had often gone to the field with his son and wiped off the soil that covered it. “This was mine!” A narrow strip of land along the Sozh River where it flows into the Dnieper, barely enough to sustain a peasant family. But it had been his own. The Germans were good to the farmers at first. They let them go into town to loot the homes of the Jews. Then Zipunov was recruited into Vlasov’s regiment, which was terrorizing Poland. And when it was destroyed, he hid on a German estate. He changed into civilian dress just before the Russians arrived. And now he was again a Russian soldier. He was manning a machine gun on the front line. The next day he would either march into Berlin or die from a bullet.

106Sergei Orlov came to relieve Menakhem. They sat down on blocks of wood and smoked. Menakhem took his embroidered pouch and rolled a cigarette. It was hard to get a light. The sparks kept going out. It was raining aslant, and heavy drops rolled off the earthen rampart. The flame was tiny, and the wind blew it out. He leaned towards Sergei and breathed in his warmth. Looking up, Menakhem saw his welcome, gentle face and big hands, lit up. The nearness of his breath renewed his spirit. The nearness of his warm hands calmed him in that war-torn blackness of night, in that desolate alien land, in that tense stillness. Was Sergei, then, different from Zipunov? In that instant they were the same to Menakhem. The night, the rain, the death that stalked them beyond the rampart, the skies slashed by searchlights—all of it brought them nearer to each other. The tiny flickering flame and a good smoke that remind them of their houses, their homes—those, too, brought them closer. It made them brothers.

107What made people better than the indifferent Earth, the fields, and the skies? Why was there no boundary in the sky to distinguish the torturers from the tortured? How gently did the Earth give in to everyone who walks on it! How patient it was! Why did he expect any more from people than from the skies? Or from the Earth? After all, they are insignificant by comparison! After all, they are made of the Earth’s dust!

108Menakhem returned to the earthen hut. He trudged among the bushes, slogging through the mud. The sky was getting light in the east. Now you could see the Oder clearly. Its western bank was high and dark, resembling a steel bridge connecting sky and water. He listened to whispering nearby. The wind carried the quiet words to his ears. The wind brought a taste of spring: the smell of earth, pine tar, roots, and peat. Russian soldiers were manning the machine gun and puffing on cigarettes. You could see the smoke. They were talking about their homes far away, where the fields lay buried in snow and the rivers were frozen until May, and spring arrived suddenly, so powerful, so unexpected, that the Earth erupted in pain and joy. You could watch the grasses sprouting, the buds blossoming, the seeds springing up before your very eyes, that winter had sown. The air was suffused with the scent of blooming meadows and reborn forests. The ice broke on the rivers, sending streams radiating through the valleys. The cattle were impatient to get out of their stalls, to rush through the gates out to the fields. The udders were full, and the call of the oxen spurred them on. Nowhere is spring so abrupt and short, two weeks long at most, than along the rivers of deepest Russia.

109Sergei Orlov was talking: “I was at home this time last year. But only for a week. I was in charge of a regiment from the Urals. They gave me a week’s leave to go home. Well, the women flocked to greet me. There were no young men left in the village, only the elderly and one invalid with a limp. The women from my street gathered on my porch in the evening. You could hear the sheep bellowing in their stalls. The eyes of the women were limpid, their bosoms drawn. They looked at me with longing. It was, after all, the time when the plows worked the soil, when the sheep ran bellowing in the fields, and the cows roared, looking for bulls. And here there were no young men, only women and more women. But my wife Pelageya was as pleased as could be.

110“Suddenly my neighbor Katya gets up and screams like a madwoman, ‘Ha! Pelageya! Aren’t you lucky! You get to sleep with your muzhik! You’re the lucky one! But what about us? Are we made of clay? Doesn’t blood run in our veins? Who even knows if our men are still alive?! It’s been three years, and not one letter!’

111“She stopped short, choking on her saliva, and wiped her mouth. Her lips were burning, swollen. ‘We’re flesh and blood, not clay! You’ve got it all with your muzhik! Let me have him for one night. What would it cost you? What is it to you?’ His wife looked down, and Katya left. Said Orlov, “I could hear her yelling sharply at her cow at home: ‘You’re disgusting! Shameless! Lascivious!’ She hit her neck with her fists and kicked her with her knee. Then she calmed down. I could hear Katya crying. The next morning, she went for water with her yoke. She passed our hut. I could tell she was angry from the way she banged her empty pails.”

112A soldier laughed hoarsely, “You stuck with your wife?”

113Another added, “Oh, Sergei, if I had been in your shoes all the women in your village would have been happy.”

114“I couldn’t go out once all week. My wife was watching. How greedy is the female sex! Not to let the women neighbors have some fun!”

115Papavkin had already picked out a German woman with big hips and a triple chin. Dimples broke out on her cheeks whenever she spoke. “Brother, is she soft! Like dough.”

  • 7 Military force formed by the Russian engineer Andrey Kaminski with Russian and Ukrainian collaborat (...)

116Zipunov shuffled his feet and rubbed his palms together. He looked sideways at Menakhem. Something mean and mocking was stirring in his small, pointy-head. How long ago was it that he had flung hand grenades into cellars crammed with Poles? He had been in Warsaw, with the Kaminski Brigade.7 Now he was as insignificant as the dead trunk of the bare willow trees.

117He said to Menakhem, “Hey, Mikhail! Why are you quiet? Why so sullen? You’re from Poland? Zipunov groaned, wiped his face, and scratched his head with his hand. Menakhem answered, “Yes, I’m from Poland, from Warsaw.”

118“From Warsaw? You poor bastard! Boy, did your people suffer!” Zipunov whispered the words “your people” softly, as if it were a forbidden word. He did not want the others to hear it. Menakhem gave him a long, hard look. Zipunov turned away, turned up his collar, then bent towards the ground as if he were looking for something:

119“We slaughtered your people... Mikhailo, you’re going to have a hard time after the war… Everyone hates your people, by God!... Even God! Even our side, the Soviets… But I’m a fair muzkhik! Why shouldn’t we let the Antichrists live on God’s little world? Everyone’s an Antichrist now… New times are coming… The Orthodox churches are open again… My wife wrote me about it from home… It’s a bad world for you… I’m sorry for you… Poor guy, just got out of the hospital…”

120 Vanyushka Papvkin interjected, “What’s that Zipunov babbling about? They must have found themselves a German whore. That Zipunov is gonna drag our Mikhail into it. He’s a muzhik’s muzhik like the nettles that sprout everywhere!”

121Zipunov answered, “Mikhail is a Jew. Jews are different. They won’t go near a German girl. My wife writes that Orthodox churches are ringing their bells again in Russia. I remember when they took down the copper bells from the churches. People said the Antichrists had ordered it.”

122Zipunov added, “There was a church in the Kremlin in Moscow that had a roof made of pure gold. A Jew, a Red kommissar, sold it to Jewish bankers in England and America, and with that money he bought weapons so that the Russians would murder each other. He was a top kommissar; Judas Trotsky was his name. He brought disaster to our people. Then our Little Father, Stalin, came and drove him out… by God!… drove him out… After all, Stalin’s Orthodox… Russia’s catastrophe began when they took down the golden roof… But our people have come to their senses… When this little war is over we’ll bring back the golden church roof, and the bells of St. Basil will shine again, by God!… Stalin promised this to Patriarch Sergius, the new head of the Soviet Orthodox of all of Russia... The picture of the Patriarch was in Pravda, with a big cross over his heart, in ecclesiastical robes…”

123Menakhem turned his back to the soldiers. Dawn would soon break. You could tell from the rims of the clouds. Sgt. Orlov was in a quandary. Zipunov’s words were straightforward, and he had not spoken against the Soviet regime. Patriarch Sergius had indeed been photographed for Pravda wearing his cross, and Stalin had welcomed him in the Kremlin. Orlov was a Party member, and that made him responsible for this kind of talk in the trenches. What if someone were an informer for the Special Section? Then there’d be trouble, with interrogations. He looked around. Who could be the informer? The Jew Mikhail? The way he stands aside, his ears perked up, listening, being careful with his words? Once, when they had sent Orlov from his village to attend a course for Party activists, there were two Jews there. They were smooth talkers, and they had such strange eyes. Those two were always the first to volunteer. When they started talking about Marxism, oh, brother, it was as if they formed a troika. Devils!… What a strange nation... good people... like our own… they speak our language, and yet they’re foreign. It’s fine to drink with them, to have a good time, but then you feel odd. You think less of yourself, you lose your self-worth. You’re no longer Orlov. You have to pay attention, do what they say, they’re always right. Such demonic power! You can’t argue with their smooth tongues. You have to follow their orders and repeat their words, their clever sayings. And when you drink with them you see that Satan has you in his power. Is what that shrimpy muzhik

124Zipunov says true? Is it true that a Jew named Judas ordered the golden roof taken down from the church? Things were becoming clearer to Orlov the farmer’s son, things that he hadn’t grasped before. Now he knew why Jews were hated.

125Menakhem left unnoticed. He didn’t head for the communications ditches, but rather right across the early morning swampy fields. His machine gun was slung on his strong back, the field glasses hung around his neck. His face was marked by shadows, and he himself was like a night cloud that crept along the ground. He didn’t mind slogging through the ditches and the bombed-out fields of fire. He walked through a plowed field with deep rows of furrows. The bombing grew closer. The steel wings of a Messerschmitt swooped down across the dawn clouds and the shimmering light. Menakhem avoided the sunken wreck of a tank. The burned corpses of Germans lay scattered nearby. Crows scavenged around.

126And when he closed his eyes for a second, familiar faces came before him. Only one of them shone with a wonderful glow that drove all the shadows away from him, from the fields and woods, from the rivers and the skies—Anna’s face. And however surprising it may have been, her face was always followed by that of Lioska, barefoot, quiet, embarrassed, wearing her flowered kerchief on the streets of Tengushay. He sensed an aura around him. Was it the snow or the sun? It sometimes happened that you woke up and God’s light blinded you and you couldn’t tell whether the light came from the sky or from the Earth. Everything was translucent, clear, radiant... trees, grasses, houses, people. These were rare moments, and not everyone was so lucky. Menakhem experienced just such a rare moment of happiness on that foggy dawn in a desolate, swampy area near the Oder River, among all the tributaries of the Warta River. He prayed, “Oh, God, protect my dangerous path through this alien, evil soil, and take me to the city that lies on the other side of the river. Lead me to Berlin. Give me strength. I will etch with fire the symbol of your people on its walls. I want to proclaim that the forsaken Jews who lost this war have won the great battle against their oppressor. He’s now cringing in terror down in some deep stone cellars somewhere.”

127It was dawn, and the last of the snow lay on the grass, dissolving like salt. A farmer was standing near his red brick hut, peering into the distance. The village street was full of Russian soldiers. They were washing up in the courtyards, pouring water from copper vessels, shining their boots, brushing the caked, black mud off their clothes. A cannon, its muzzle facing westward, stood near the small village monument: a bust of Bismarck in black iron, set on a marble stone, with letters under brown oak leaves made of tin, listing the names of those who had fallen in the First World War. Wilted wreaths drooped from iron fences.

128You could hear the Russian language coming from barns and courtyards. German women in colorful aprons wore white kerchiefs on their heads. Oshanin rode down the wide street. His horse threw back his head and neighed. Menakhem’s unit had been stationed in that village for three days. The reinforcements had arrived the night before. The war prisoners and suspect civilians had been assembled in the long stone barn near the church waiting for orders. The troops were lined up in a courtyard to get soap rations. Soldiers sat on stone thresholds eating breakfast from tin bowls. They had caroused at night with German girls in their houses.

129At first they had stood quietly, in front of the doors and touched the brass doorknobs with respect, and tried ringing the doorbells. As he shaved, a Tatar soldier with huge, sharp teeth recounted: “Featherbeds piled all the way up to the ceiling! The German girl kept mumbling, ‘Das, Was, Was’... Couldn’t understand her! If only Oshanin or Mikhail had been there... I made a sign to show I was thirsty. So she cooked up some bitter, black, muddy coffee, ‘Kaffee, Kaffee’... So I said to her, ‘Frau, drink this shit yourself!” And she says, ‘Was? Was?’ So I took out a flask of liquor and said, “Have some, bitch!” And she laughed, ‘Danke schön! ’ I saw a crucifix around her neck. Her mouth was like silk. I looked over the house, opened the closets, and searched the corners. She flirted with me and laughed very close up to my mouth. It got me all excited…”

130 The German houses were unrecognizable the next morning. The beds were filthy, windows broken, doors ripped down. German girls with downcast eyes stammered obsequiously to “the Russian gentlemen.” The soldiers returned from their first night in the village of Altlinden with trophies: square watches, cigarette lighters, razors, and gilded trinkets.

131“Brother! These German girls aren’t like the Polish girls, who you can’t touch—except for the prostitutes on the street corners. The German girls are pitiful. They’ll do anything. She wiped my boots, cleaned my clothes. What a loser! She was afraid I’d muddy her rugs and pillows.

132“I can’t stand it! If only they’d put up a fight or scream! They just wait for you. They hide their men in the cellars. You look into their eyes, but you can’t tell what they’re thinking. If only we could get some leave here in Altlinden!”

133Zipunov came into the yard to wash up. He was wearing silk underwear and smelled of perfume. His boots were gleaming. A pocket-watch hung from a silver chain.

134“Mikhail, you fool! Are you angry with me?” He stared at him with his pointy eyes, laughed, and rubbed his palms. His tiny head, his shrunken face, his drawn lips, and the mocking smile at the corners of his mouth were particularly irritating that morning. He laughed: “Why are you staring at me like a sheep at an unfamiliar gate, Mikhail?

135“Get lost, devil!” Menakhem wanted to add something else, but he bit his tongue, left, and went down the street. It was soon his turn to stand guard. He walked down the communications ditches till he reached the edge of the forest. They were waiting for him. On the way he encountered a gray-haired man in a general’s military coat, accompanied by an adjutant. He watched the general shorten his steps to look at him. His temples and eyebrows were gray, his eyes dark and deep-set, his eyelashes gray—a face worn with worry, his broad shoulders slightly stooped, as if they carried a burden. He looked like a middle-aged Jew, possibly from Minsk or Kiev. Menakhem was sure that he discerned in the general’s look a secret joy of having run into each other on German soil, as if it said, “See, we’re meeting here on the road that will take us to Berlin!” And Menakhem’s eyes answered: “The evil predictions of the Nazis have not come to pass. This will be our victory!”

136 Menakhem stepped inside the headquarters, which had formerly been the pastor’s house near the church. He met Oshanin there.

137“What’s the general’s name, who just got here?”

138“That’s Lieut. General Shamshin.”

139“Shamshin?” repeated Menakhem.

140A station wagon drove up with the soldiers’ mail. The troops were waiting for it at headquarters. Who could possibly write to Menakhem? Anna’s face came to him again. She’s always in that same open doorway coming out of surgery, wearing a white surgical gown. She’s floating among the white beds. How strange her face was then!

141The sounds of an organ were pealing from the church. It was a soldier from Leningrad who was playing Tchaikovksy. He was sitting in a corner of the church, bathed in the colorful light coming from the stained-glass windows. The music evoked expansive Russian meadows, long rows of birch trees, familiar village nights. The German Jesus was awkward, with a plump chest... dark Crucifixions… black iron candelabras… tin wreaths… . tin silvery angels… rows of stone and iron pews… steel railings around the altar… Even the doors of the church were iron. A tin and iron rooster perched atop the church tower.

142Menakhem received a letter from Anna. His hands shook. He couldn’t open the envelope. How silly! His own weakness pained him. He always grew uneasy whenever his name was called out. The slightest attention paid to him made his heart pound. But this time it was a different kind of unease. Anna. Anna. But it wasn’t simply Anna, but rather a world of calm that beckoned to him. She had written: “Mikhail... Misha… My eyes gaze towards the west. I am with you on alien soil, with my love and my prayers.” He could read no more. A tide of warmth embraced him. His breath grew short. The words stuck in his throat. He was filled with light. It was as if he had been redeemed and returned to Creation, like the day, the pure air, the Earth. The very thought that Anna existed re-created the world for him. He himself felt he was a changed man. He was soaring to heights that he had never imagined. The hateful Earth had changed.

143Anna had written: “I often stood over your bed in the hospital peering into your face. I don’t know if it’s true that hereditary traits re-appear after generations. But it seemed that I could see ancient traces of them that had almost died out. You’re Jewish, and I first sensed it when we were outside Moscow. Your face reminded me of my own heritage. I knew my grandparents only from photos. My relatives live somewhere on the other side of the border. Your eyes, your eyelashes, your full lips, your black hair, your forehead with deep wrinkles at the temples. And I heard you speaking Yiddish when you were on the operating table. I know that language only from my mother’s whispers. Suddenly an awareness of something I hadn’t known swept over me, something that lay hidden from me. My Jewishness welled up in me. In these times, all decent people should feel Jewish, even if they’re not of Jewish descent. If not, then there’s something lacking in their humanity. I’ll always be grateful that you came into my life because it changed me. And it’s good that you never spoke of it. Your simple existence was enough to do it. We’ve found each other and lost each other, but now we’re growing closer and closer. Every step that you take further west brings us nearer and nearer together.”

144Menakhem read the letter over and over, but he could not believe it. Zipunov’s words, the trenches in the swamps, his grief and loneliness seemed to melt away like the fog of the night. Late that night his reconnaissance unit closed in on the banks of the Oder. They went right to the water’s edge, and under the cover of dark they were able to take up positions among the willows and hurriedly dug ditches in the sandy soil.

145Col. Gusyev had addressed them before they left: “Have you ever watched how cattle-drivers round up their herds? I’ll tell you, because I’m a Kalmyk and I drove horses when I was young, all the way to the Caspian Sea. You do it by waving your whip and flailing it in the air. You have to constantly flail it over their backs and heads. It’s not the pain but the fear of the whip that drives them on. If you beat them, then they’ll just come to a stop anyway. You gotta flail the air! Threaten them with the flailing whip and they’ll run!”

146Col. Gusyev looked at the troops and continued: “You reconnaissance men are the flailing whips over the backs of the stampeding German herd! Don’t give them a minute’s rest! It’s up to you tonight! We’ll shoot a red rocket tonight. That’s the signal to open fire.”

147Lev Oshanin went from man to man, urging them on with tough, angry words, “Make them keep their heads down. Way down!” He scooped up mounds of moist earth in his hands. Shadows skittered, bushes swayed. The other riverbank was high up, shrouded in a dense black-brown thicket. The river was gray-silver, dark garnet in places. Something floated in mid-stream, rocked by the waves, and disappeared. There was shooting on the left flank, but shooting was so normal that it was just a part of the night. If it had stopped, the troops would have been uneasy. It would have meant that the enemy right then was running right at them with his rifle outstretched. The constant shooting put them at ease. It meant that the enemy was far away. A cease in the firing would have made them nervous, and every shadow a suspect.

148Oshanin used his flashlight to check his watch. Suddenly fireworks lit up the black sky like a fountain spray with a million sparks. Lieut. Oshanin laughed, “The fire peacock has lost its feathers! You can set your watches. It’s eleven o’clock. Good buddies, we’re starting! Open fire!”

149A clatter rang out like a hailstorm falling on tin. A hand grenade exploded. The earth shook from the blast, and the night sky tore open as the clouds vanished.

150“75 milimeter artillery… Katyusha rockets... But the enemy fire is feeble. Looks like the Germans don’t want to reveal their artillery positions. That’s the purpose of our attack tonight, to force them to show us.”

151The night sky was shattered to bits over the other riverbank, so Oshanin could easily see where the enemy artillery was, and he could tell the caliber of their guns by their fire and by the sound of their explosions. He called on the field telephone: “This is Night Owl… Can you hear me?... Night Owl… Three meters to the right… Another two meters… Heavy artillery fire… Fantastic!”

152Menakhem felt the weight of his machine gun. His old wound was hurting. Someone handed him more rounds. He remembered: “My eyes gaze towards the west... Every step that you take further west brings us nearer and nearer together.” Now he felt just like the other troops. He had his country behind him. He was part of God’s world. He was just like Sergei Orlov, like Platon Voronka, like Col. Gusyev.

153Every step, every breath brought him closer to Anna. Everything was connected to her: the nights far, far away from her; the shallow soldiers’ ditches; the white and red rockets exploding in the skies; the mines and grenades; the scattering shadows on the other river bank; the exhaustion of plodding through enemy territory just as spring was about to bloom.


1 Workers’ Faculty: schools started in 1919, to prepare workers for university.

2 In the 1930s, Stalin was routinely honored with hyperbolic titles, among them, The Standard-bearer of Peace, The Great Helmsman of the Revolution, and The Leader of the International Proletariat. This one referred to his leadership of all the “nationalities” of the USSR.

3 Soviet Information Bureau, organized in 1941.

4 Jagdpanzer Elefant tank destroyer designed by Ferdinand Porsche.

5 Multiple rocket launcher used by the Soviets.

6 Members of a national militia organized by the Nazi Party when the German army was in full retreat.

7 Military force formed by the Russian engineer Andrey Kaminski with Russian and Ukrainian collaborators who fought with the German Army. It was absorbed by the Waffen-SS as Sturmbrigade-SS R.O.N.A. and spearheaded the annihilation of the last remaining Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

Table des illustrations

Légende Cover of Dos faln un Berlin [The Fall of Berlin], New York: Tsiko Bikher Farlag, 1960.
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k


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