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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter Two

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1The Third Belorussian Front launched its offensive under the command of Marshal Vasilevsky in the first half of March. The purpose of the attack was to wipe out German positions in eastern Prussia and push to the Baltic Sea, to Pilau and to the Bay of Danzig. Twenty German divisions were stationed there, important military units for special missions. In addition, there were significant remnants of shattered divisions that had made their way back from regions in Belarus and Lithuania.

  • 1 The Schutzstaffel, abbreviated SS, was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the (...)

2The Geman units were each locked in a separate vise, a separate stranglehold. They tried in vain to break through and reach the Vistula by attacking the Second Belorussian Front led by Marshal Rokosovsky, in an effort to join up with German units at the Warta River and the Oder. At the beginning of the war, East Prussia had been the most secure, the quietest place in Germany. The air forces of the Allies had not been able to reach it. The German generals, the SS officers, the high Nazi party officials, had come to East Prussia on holiday to be with their families.1 They had sent their wives and children away from central Germany to peaceful regions in the east. The families of big industrialists lived there in serene villas and castles. This was where they took refuge from the Flying Fortress bombers: Bartow, Neustettin, Schimmerwitz, Gross Tuchen, Neuhof. The Germans put up a vigorous defense. Prussia was turned into a mighty fortress.

3NKVD Col. Nikolai Feodorovich Zhillin was assigned to the headquarters of the Third Belorussian Front. He headed the Special Section in charge of political activities in Marshal Vasilevsky’s army and was in the inner circle of the Marshal’s advisors. Zhillin had risen to the top overnight, right after the death of Gen. Chernyakhovsky— under unexplained circumstances—in a little village in Prussia. He had arrived the evening before the death of the commander of the Third Front, carrying secret orders. It was a quiet night in the Prussian village Mehlsack when Zhillin assumed his post. The next day it was reported that a wayward bullet had killed the commander of the Front. Moscow sent two orders: First, that Marshal Vasilevsky was named to replace Gen. Chernyakhovsky; second, that Nikolai Feodorovich Zhillin was to report immediately to central headquarters.

4He climbed onto a U-2 airplane that had been prepared especially for him. It was a foggy dawn. Only a U-2 could quickly get through the thick fog and the black clouds. Freezing rain mixed with snow burned his face. But he was not alone on the plane. A plump man wearing a loose military coat of English cloth looked at him through watery eyes, a fellow with no eyebrows, no eyelashes. His puffy cheeks and the bags under his eyes bounced to the rhythm of the roar of the airplane. He must surely be a Kazakh, thought Zhillin, someone from the military buraucracy. But he had no idea where he was flying. The order had simply been: report to headquarters. Maybe his unknown silent fellow traveler was assigned to watch him? No, that could not be. No one was assigned to him. The Kazakh could not be connected in any way to his unexpected trip. But Zhillin was had been nervous for quite some time now.

5A few weeks earlier he had been interrogated about his time in General Bohr’s headquarters during the Warsaw uprising. He had been the intermediary between Rokosovsky’s army and the Poles. They questioned him about the role of various Poles that he had supposedly encountered at the headquarters. Then they again brought up that mess about the liquidation of the partisan units in Belarus. They were insistent questions, and they disturbed him. At first he thought it was all a misunderstanding. “They can’t do anything to me,” he whispered to himself. He was like an agitated child standing at the edge of a stormy sea. This light-eyed young Russian who had climbed from a rural village in the north to the highest ranks could not feel fear. But he had become troubled. An unseen web was being woven around him, which darkened the light from the little airplane window.

6He looked long at the mug of his neighbor and suddenly the desire welled up in him to get rid of that heavy, plump mass with cold fish eyes. The icy stare of the Kazakh’s eyes made him shudder. He wanted to strangle that fat neck with both hands and throw him out into the clouds. But when he closed his eyes he could feel the stranger moving. Zhillin was angry with himself for that moment of fear and he transferred his hate to the stranger. The plane flew low over darkened fields. As he dozed he saw himself again in Belarus... Mikhailov’s forest partisans... The night of defeat and drunkenness... Dr. Anna Samuelovna... His orderly Zadurkin was laughing. Now the general was dead. This was all connected to him. He was trapped in a dark web, and a bright silvery spider sat weaving at its center. He threw himself at it, trying to stomp on it, but the big blood diamond on its blue body terrified him. It moved on hundreds of spider legs. He had never seen such a large blood diamond.

7His dreams exhausted him. The airplane had already landed when he woke up. The Kazakh was laughing at him. Zhillin could not see his face clearly, only a pinkish blob.

8“Had a good sleep, Nikolai Feodorovich?”

9How did he know my name? Should I ask? No! Had he talked to the stranger the night before? But Zhillin could not remember any such conversation. That put him at a disadvantage. There was something haughty about this strange person. As experienced as he was, he knew that he could not stand up to this Kazakh. It was only when Zhillin saw the spacious snow-covered fields and the soil of the airfield that he could rouse himself awake and throw off the dark spiderwebs of the night.

10An officer stopped him at the exit from the airport and asked, “Documents?” He handed them to him with a barely visible smile. He was smiling to himself, the smile of fear.

11“Nikolai Feodorovich, why are you running away from me? We didn’t even say goodbye.” He felt a heavy hand on his back, the Kazakh’s.

12“I’m not in a hurry... I’m just used to walking fast…”

13But Zhillin immediately regretted his words. It might look as if he were defending himself, so he added, “You didn’t even introduce yourself!”

14“Babadjanin... My name is Babadjanin... Now we can have a drink. You can’t refuse?” They walked next to each other. Zhillin wanted to tell him clearly and defiantly: “Stop your games! We’re equals, after all! I can see you through and through! Show your cards! Are you guarding me? Are you taking me there…? Tell me! Speak plainly! I know your tricks! I’m a frontline soldier, and I like the plain truth!”

15They were in the airport restaurant. They drank a full glass of vodka and remained silent. Who would speak first?

16“Barabadjanin? The name reminds me of Kazakhstan.”

17 “Drink up, Zhillin! Another glass! Let us drink to the bright memory of General Chernyakhovsky!! What’s wrong, Col. Zhillin? Your hands are shaking. Eh, sonny boy? Don’t get riled up when his name is mentioned… . It’s a bad sign... Ha, ha, ha!” And after they had downed their second glass, the Kazakh stood up: “All right, you can go now. Now we can say goodbye... I hope we meet again somewhere…” Zhillin found this insinuation insulting, yet he was also thankful to the Kazakh. His feelings were mixed: resentment and gratitude.

18He walked through the evening streets of Moscow alone. It took a long time for him to shake off his encounter on the plane and the conversation over full glasses of vodka. He felt as though he were clawing his way out of the spider’s web, but the spider kept jumping into his face every time, with its blood diamond and its hundreds of black legs.

19A thick crystal layer of snow covered the squares of Moscow. Zhillin was wearing a new military outfit. The overcoat fitted him perfectly, and his epaulets shimmered in the streetlights. There were so many people on the streets. So many lights, buses, black Zis limousines. The lights! So much light! His eyes opened wide from joy, the joy of being alive, of being young, of walking on the streets of Moscow!

20He was on Red Square that night. Fireworks exploded in the garnet sky. A rainbow of rockets burst over the towers of the Kremlin. They lit up the cupolas of Uspensky Sobor. Purplish-red light flooded part of the crenelated Kremlin wall. Twenty-four cannons resounded near the old Kremlin ramparts. It was a celebration of the 300th order to salute given to the armed forces. The first such salute had been ordered in August of 1943, in honor of the liberation of Oriol. The 300th was to honor the victory over the famous fortress, Küstrin, the most forward defense of Berlin.

21It was a mild, snowy evening. Muscovites packed the streets around Red Square, men in dark coats and fur caps, officers in fitted overcoats, women with white woolen shawls, policemen at every turn. They stopped a young man at a gate and asked for his papers. Dozens of people walked past without even turning their heads. Moscow had become a magnet for all kinds of suspicious characters. The former Russian borders had been broken open. Trains now ran from Vladivostok to Warsaw. Moscow was the central rail hub.

22 The guard changed at the Kremlin. You could hear the sounds of a military march. One of the Kremlin gates was guarded. The church of Vasily Blazhenny shimmered in the light of the fireworks. The mausoleum was dark. Few visitors stopped by. The guards called out, “Keep moving! Don’t stop!” Another rocket exploded, sending fountains of phosphorous sparks that died out. It was as if green and red waterfalls were cascading in the sky.

23Murmuring erupted in the crowd. A huge car slid by on the damp, gleaming asphalt, surrounded by military on motorcycles. It was a Soviet dignitary. The heavy Kremlin gates opened.

24Eyes were dancing. People were celebrating. But some walked with serious, somber faces. It was the middle of March; the start of spring, but you couldn’t feel it yet in Moscow. When the fireworks died down a moist mist descended, shrouding the Kremlin tower.

25The train stations were crammed to overflowing. Refugees were coming back from Tashkent, Alma-Ata, and the wilds of central Asia. Poles freed from Komi came through Moscow, western Ukrainians from villages deep in Siberia, and Jews from everywhere. Entire families slept there for weeks, waiting for trains to Lemberg, to Kiev, to Minsk. They had nothing left of the meager things they had taken with them when they fled. They wore raggedy cotton jackets, tattered caps stitched together from threadbare goatskin, clumsy shoes of woven hemp, frayed boots. The women wore useless galoshes. The children were wrapped in worn-out blankets. Whole families sat on wooden crates. Men ran with tin plates to fetch hot water.

26They all spoke various Slavic dialects. They felt strange on the marble steps, among the stone mosaic walls of the Moscow train stations and metros. They wandered the streets nearby, desperate to buy something at the stores, which were empty. The Muscovites were already used to seeing them.

27The stations and subways were also teeming with Moscow residents who had evacuated and had returned. But they could not get their old apartments back. Other tenants had moved in. People were pushing towards an entrance gate on Sadovsky Lane. A man in a military coat was surrounded by police. A woman sat weeping with her children: “This is my house!”

28 Someone wearing a round fur hat with red trim grumbled to himself, “They’re just taking too much... Hooligans in the street...!”

29A man of about fifty years old wearing glasses shoved his way through the crowd. He was the house custodian. The woman said to him: “Citizen! We used to live here! The whole street knows it!”

30“You shouldn’t be complaining! And you, citizen Greenstein, should still be at the front!”

31Fights were breaking out every day. “Those Jews are everywhere. They’re the first to leave Tashkent and the first to abandon the front... That’s for sure… They sure enjoyed the warmth of the sun in Tashkent!”

32“Hundreds of thousands of them are coming to Moscow. They’re coming from far away, Jews who never even lived here! They’re carrying gold, and they buy up what’s left of the bread in the stores. There’ll be a famine in Moscow, starvation!”

33A policeman watched the crowd in front of the big dark house, but he didn’t know what to do. “Why are they giving them permission to come into the city? We stayed here during the tough times, and now they come here from their country homes…” “There was a shooting in the Arbat neighborhood. A Jew killed a war invalid.”

34“How do you know that, citizen?”

35“I heard about it.”

36“It’s a lie.”

37“A lie?! I can tell you’re not a real Russian!”

38The people who had moved into the apartments of the evacuees were nervous. The former occupants of their apartment might show up at any moment. The policemen did not get involved in these arguments. They were powerless to act. They only stopped mobs from rioting, and they listened to all the quarrels.

39“And how do you come to be in Moscow?”

40“How?! I was born here!”

41“Your passport?!”

42“Here it is!”

43“And your official release from your job in Samarkand?”

44“I had to turn it over to get my papers.”

45“Well, now I see that I’m dealing with someone who deserted the Soviet labor front!”

46 Every train coming into Moscow had a special compartment for the police. Even people who had permission might not be allowed into the city. But they kept coming. They pretended to be headed for Gomel or Kiev, but they stayed in Moscow. Hatred of those who returned from far-off Soviet Asia grew by the hour among those who had stayed. They were mostly Jews, as well as some Party members and scientists.

47“They won the war. Our men died on their account... Now they’re coming back and driving us out of our homes!” They were scorned in the bread shops. There wasn’t enough bread for those who had stayed.

48An old man, a Jew, knocked on a door on New Pyeshchan Street with trembling hands. Would they let him back into his apartment? He had returned from Soviet Asia. His son had died in the battle of Stalingrad.

49A quiet Jewish woman in dark, ragged clothes presented her papers to the regional Party secretary in Moscow: “Look, my son is Yosef Yaffe. He’s twenty-seven years old, the head of a military unit, the mortar cannons. He’s fighting in Berlin. Surely I can get my apartment back.” The Russian lowered his eyes.

50A brawl broke out at the Kazanskaya Train Station. Invalids from the Fatherland Front in the First World War beat up Jewish refugees who had returned. They went from train wagon to train wagon searching for “dirty Jews.”

51“Leave the invalids alone, they’re just a little drunk... They’ve suffered enough… Let them have a little fun…” And the police stood by. “Don’t even try to interfere, you bastards! See these medals? They’re drenched in our blood! Jews and policemen are parasites!”

52A Party official pleads with a group of Jewish arrivals in a concerned, fatherly tone, “Go to Vinnytsia.” And he adds with a hint of irony, “Vinnytsia is a good place for you. Or else Berditchev.” But he can’t order them to leave. No law has yet been passed… “The Father of the Nations is preoccupied now with the conduct of the war. He has to bear such heavy burdens! A solution will surely be found.”

53“These Jews are a real pain!”

54“See how they’re coming from Tashkent? They made huge fortunes over there! They’ve got all the gold of Asia on them!”

55Long troop trains were arriving daily in Moscow. Cooperative workshops were running again. Ruined factories were being rebuilt. Trained specialists were needed. The NKVD did not rest. The Kremlin had never been so closely guarded as now.

56The same night that spectacular fireworks were lighting up Red Square and everyone was staring up at the magical sky, the cellars of Lubyanka Prison were crammed with prisoners. This was the time to clean out the enemy from within. That was what had happened when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, and it was the same now when our army was standing at the gates of Berlin. Then the order had come from on high. The almighty ruler had feared that the Germans would find collaborators among our traitors. And now it was time to wipe out those enemies from within, because the iron curtain around the USSR was shattered, and Moscow was being overrun by strangers. The border markers had been torn down. Only Soviet tanks stood in their stead. Huge areas in the western territories were left without Soviet control.

57A Soviet Jewish journalist was having a talk with a Ukrainian official, an uncomfortable man with a shiny fat face, a smudged nose, and quick, tiny eyes.

58“You’re of Jewish origin, right? So you know that your people are riling up Moscow? It’s quite an invasion. Ha, ha, ha! When they went to Tashkent they pushed the local people out of the prettiest streets. Now they’ve left Tashkent empty, desolate... They’re like a swarm of locust. Every Soviet citizen who lives in Moscow has sons at the front... When have we in the Soviet Union ever had inheritance of private property? Russia is big enough. What right do they have to settle in Moscow specifically?”

59This man from the Politburo smiled a barely visible sly smile. The Jew looked down and said nothing.

60“Why so downhearted? Think about it. There are now so many desolate towns and villages, so many ruined kolkhoz. Why don’t your people go there? Moscow is overcrowded. The food supply is in chaos. People have to stand on line in the shops. Foreigners can see it. What sacrifice are your people making for our Cause? You all have suffered, I know that. But the Jews of Moscow have the least to complain about... We protected you.”

61He spoke a lot. Sometimes his cheerfulness erupted into wild laughing. The Ukrainian poked him good-naturedly in the chest, “Let me be frank with you. After all, you’re one of us. I’m talking to you like a brother. I run things in Ukraine. Do you know why I’m not letting Jews into Kiev? It’s for their own good. Let them go south. To Kremenchug. No, further south, to Simferopol. We’re sending all the trains with Jews to the south. D’you understand? I know that HE esteems you.”

62The man from the Politburo raised his hand with a threatening finger, and his tone grew serious: “It’s your job to convince the Jews. You have a newspaper. You have the reputation of an experienced journalist. I read your articles in Pravda. We have Jewish writers… There are two options: let the evacuees stay where they are now, in central Asia, or settle in the villages south of Kiev, in the Vinnytsia district, let’s say. Wouldn’t that do? Or even more to the south, where there once were Jewish villages, but I don’t remember exactly…”

63“You mean Kherson?”

64“Well, that’s not bad either. There’s an area near Kherson with lots of empty land.”

65The Jew could not understand why the man from the Politburo was refusing to say “the Crimean peninsula.” Why could he not bring himself to say “Crimea?”

66So he asked him directly, “Do you think that Crimea would be a good place for new Jewish settlement?”

67The Ukrainian jumped up and placed his hand on the Jew’s shoulder. His fat little eyes shimmered like tiny fish swimming on top of turbid water: “A brilliant idea! Crimea is empty! The Tatars were traitors! Having a loyal nation like yours there would be a valuable guarantee! You’ll be able to build a new republic there! And they, the Tatars, can stay in the taiga! A wonderful suggestion! But the proposal has to come from you. You have to do it... The Jewish Committee... Jewish celebrities who care about the fate of the Jews... You haven’t done enough for your people, that’s my reproach... Now you have the opportunity to make up for it. We can’t force you to do it. It has to come from you alone. And you’ll have support. Do you know why I’m talking to you? The problem of what to do with Jews in the liberated areas sticks right here.” He pointed with his small hand to his chubby throat. “Yes, Crimea is the ideal place for the Jewish nation. You’re right! Your suggestion must be considered seriously. I promise you my support.”

68“But it’s not my idea! It’s yours!”

69 “Stop it! I don’t like your parliamentary tricks, ha, ha, ha! It comes from you! Don’t you understand?” The man from the Politubro grew uneasy when he saw the challenging look in the man’s eyes. It was the nervousness of a farmer when his exhausted horse refuses to move in the middle of a meadow at night. He slapped the Jew again on the back and said: “It’s the only way. The sooner your people do it, the better for all of you.”

70An orchestra was playing nearby. Waiters carried trays of wine. Women were wearing long evening gowns. A younger woman accompanied a general. The Ukrainian’s eyes grew moist: “Greetings, Semenkov! Don’t you recognize me?” The general put out his hand.

71“Is she your war trophy?” asked the man from the Politburo.

72“This is my daughter.”

73He laughed, his lips gleaming, his teeth sparse, his brow knitted. The Ukrainian turned bright red. But the journalist was preoccupied. He leaned against the table, unable to decide whether to leave or to stay with the empty vodka glasses.

74Zhillin waited in front of the closed door for over an hour. Not so much as a rustle could be heard, not even steps in the corridor. People passed by like shadows walking on dark carpets. The doors were upholstered with leather padding. He was tired, having dragged himself through the streets of Moscow the night before. The wandering had exhausted him. He had gone to the addresses of all his old acquaintances but found no one. A prostitute had led him through narrow alleys, and when they approached the steps to her house, a war invalid with no legs was laughing out loud. She begged him, “Don’t wake up the kids. They’re sleeping!”

75After that, Zhillin stood on Red Square watching the fireworks and counting the 300 cannon salutes. If he had the time, he would visit the military hospital where Anna had once worked. Perhaps she was still in Moscow?

76Doors opened. You could tell which doors they were when the rays of light shone through when they opened. He saw large writing desks, upholstered armchairs and sofas. The Father of the Nations stood in a gold-framed painting, leaning on a plush red table, his body bent forward. His bluish, watery eyes looked bored. He passed more doors. The innermost guards wore well-pressed military outfits, thin, shiny boots, and revolvers hanging at their sides. A telephone was ringing somewhere. Zhillin saw another portrait of Stalin, this one full-size and walking, with the Spasskaya tower in the background, with its spires and clocks. He was walking on the bridge, wearing a military overcoat whose folds flew in the wind from the river. His left hand was buried in his bosom, and his round cap was pulled down to his eyes. The artist had gone to great trouble to paint the smallest creases in his boots, the slightest shimmer of wool in his coat. His face was delineated tenderly in the most delicate colors reserved for religious icons.

77Zhillin had an escort. They left one building and entered another. The floor was paved with square, chiseled stones. His steps could now be heard. He passed more doors. Someone spoke to him, but he did not hear what was said. Zhillin waited near empty tables. His eyes focused on a huge map of central Europe with hundreds of little red and black flags. A door opened suddenly.

78The Great Man himself was no longer in a gilded frame. He was standing in the open door. A greenish light shone through. The walls were covered with bright fabrics. The windows were narrow and long, from floor to ceiling. Red carpets covered the floor. Military personnel were whispering, as if to themselves. You could not hear what they were saying, just a rhythmic hum. Zhillin bowed. He knew no one there. Only one person came near, the Great Man, who watched him from the front wall.

79No one seemed to know why he had been summoned. Every movement of the bodyguards caused him to shudder. Their faces betrayed nothing, as if a great secret had been sealed inside them. The clock struck, breaking the quiet. It was ten. Every ring was echoed by dozens of other clocks, resulting in a cacophony of bells... one... two... and suddenly a tremor swept through the hall.

80The clocks suddenly stopped ringing, as if the tongues had been ripped out of the copper bells. The room was empty at the end, where the door was upholstered with silk. The guards spread out and pressed their palms against their bodies. The Father of the Nations stood in the open door. Zhillin felt his knees buckling under. His hands shook as a sudden fear befell him: terror that he would not be able to stand where he was, that some unknown force would propel him forward.

81 But his fear dissipated as soon as the Great Man took a few steps, and Zhillin could see him from head to foot. It was a short man with short legs who approached Zhillin, swaying forward on the long narrow carpet. He held one of his hands stiffly at his side, while the other rocked like that of a mannequin. His entire body was reminiscent of a stuffed torso. Perhaps it was because of his clothes, which were sewn and padded by tailors who wished to enhance his appearance just as painters had done with his portraits?

82Zhillin noticed that the Great Man of the Kremlin had a coarse face, his jaws and nose peppered with pockmarks, and ears a bit too big for his face. Zhillin’s nervousness was gone. His lips stopped quaking, and his temples ceased throbbing. His worldview had been shattered, and he was sorry. He had never expected such a disappointment. He had been better off when he was still waiting. Zhillin was like someone who looks at things or people but does not see them anymore. It was all a blur: parquet floors, turquoise walls, tapestries, rugs, cupolas, doors covered with leather, brocade, epaulets, pleated boots, leather straps, the talking, the laughing. The swirl irritated him. He wanted to observe it all calmly, but his disenchantment grew even worse when he heard the Father of Nations speak in hushed tones, words unfurled like strings of pearls, bathed in an aura of tranquility, and he heard his heavy alien accent—not Russian. A toast was offered to him, and a second later the toast echoed from all those assembled. Zhillin, too, joined in, raising his goblet high.

83How had he reached the long, covered table? How had he gotten there with his broken knee? He drank standing up. The mannequin body swam past him. Zhillin stiffened up like a yardstick and the blood drained from his face. The Man from the Kremlin said only a single word to him, offered him his small, cold, slippery hand, then turned right around. It seemed that he did not want to stand too close to the tall, healthy, young, blond Russian, who was a head taller than he. From the side he watched the young officer through inquisitive eyes.

84Aftern Zhillin left the Kremlin escorted by a group of military men; he found the highest Medal of Honor pinned to his lapel under his military coat, Hero of the Soviet Union. Nikolai Feodorovich stayed in Moscow for three days. He flew back to Warsaw on the last day, carrying an order for the commander of the Third Belorussian Front. He had new instructions from central headquarters. He had some time before the flight. It had been snowing. He did not find Anna at the hospital on Kaluszskaya Square. The staff had changed several times, and no one remembered that a young woman doctor had worked there a few years earlier. He could easily find the house on Mokhovaya Street where her mother had lived, but something kept him from going there. He was afraid of meeting her.

85Zhillin was still feeling the impact of his reception at the Kremlin and the medal that had been bestowed on him. On the one hand, he had seen him, a common man made of flesh and blood, with a coarse face and a stammer, who walked like a cripple. On the other hand, there were all those paintings and statues of the Great Man throughout the land. The sharp contrast was painful to him.

86In his youth, in his home village, he had once seen a silvery snake with a brown zigzag marking not far from the granary. A white sat rabbit sat nearby, its red eyes watching the snake raise its head. The rabbit’s fur did not even tremble; its glassy eyes did not blink. Only the snake’s poison tongue moved. The rabbit was stony, hypnotized by the snake’s breathing. Little Zhillin stood to the side, and he could not understand why the rabbit watched the snake’s head with such calm. Now, in the Kremlin, standing in the turquoise hall, he remembered the rabbit and the snake.

87On the way to the airport he ran into a childhood friend, Aleksei Karasov, whom he had not seen since the start of the war. Zhillin hardly recognized him. Aleksei looked much older. He wore his fur cap to the side, a lock of black hair over part of his forehead. Webs of little wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes and mouth.

88He said, “Such a meeting! We have to have a drink!”

89Zhillin answered, “Drinks are on me! I’m treating for vodka! Good to see you…”

90Karasov cut him off: “There’s a restaurant near here. Valya works there... Let’s go, Nikolai! You’ve been a success... If only my Nadya could see you now!”

91“Nadya? Who’s that?”

92“What’s wrong with you? You used to run after her. You gave me a lot of grief, brother! You bastard! Ha, ha, ha.”

93 He pressed Zhillin’s hand, laughing freely. A young waitress hung around Karasov, stopping every so often to lean over and laugh into his black curls.

94They drank full glasses and snacked on a beet and cucumber vinaigrette.

95“I have to go to the publisher.”

96“Aleksei, you’re still writing poems?” Zhillin laughed and looked at Valya the waitress. Now he remembered his affair with Nadya. That had been in Kazan, two little iron beds in a tiny room. There was a stool in the little space between them. A mandolin hung from a blue strap on the wall. Aleksei had been late. You could hear Nadya’s laughing voice in the corridor. Then the little light over his bed stayed on all night. He didn’t go to school the next morning. Nadya came home, and all three sat on the beds. Karasov read the poems that he had written the day before. Zhillin left for the military academy. Journals published Karasov’s poems. Zhillin had once bought his little book, Bright Skies, in a bookshop. Its first poem was dedicated to the Father of the Nations.

97“You’re wasting your time in Moscow, brother, you and all your medals. This is your time, Zhillin! Reap the corn while it’s ripe!” He was a bit tipsy, and his speech was garbled. It wasn’t his first drink of the day. Soon I’ve got to go see that editor with his glasses and his big nose, his nose hairs drooping like those of a horse who sticks his head in a trough and the chaff comesflying out of his mouth.

98He went on: “Nikolai, you don’t know what it means to lay this stack of poems on the desk of Yakov Moiseyevich. You’re doing well. You’re a free man. You give orders, while I’m being judged all the time, with every sentence I write. They read meanings into your poems! They dissect them! Their tongues are like a snake’s, they’re quick and they bite. That Yakov Moiseyevich Gurman! You should see how he handles your notebook in his pudgy fingers as if it contained dynamite! Your fate rests in that big nose of his. First it squirms, then the hair on his dark mole quivers. Drink up! Have another! And boy, are they smooth talkers, like Gypsies! Pretty soon you believe what they say. Russia! Homeland! Soviet Union! Damn it, d’you know how those words sound, coming from citizen Gurman?! He’s gonna teach Karasov how to be a Russian?! D’you understand, Nikolai?”

99 Zhillin listened quietly for a long time. He remembered the Father of the Nations. The words that he had heard in the Kremlin came back to him. An unfortunate country, he thought. Karasov went on: “Foreigners rule the country: Georgians, Jews, Armenians, Ukrainians. They think they’re the heirs of Kutuzov, of Suvorov, of Pushkin!” He stood up, but it was not clear to him whether he had said those words aloud or had only thought them secretly.

100Zhillin sensed panic in Karasov. He seemed to fear Zhillin’s silence. How could Karasov know whether he had spoken those words aloud or not? No, I didn’t say anything! It was only in my head. He had not gone too far. The blond waitress returned: “What’s your name, honey?” Valya laughed close to his face. That calmed him down. It meant that nothing had happened.

101They walked a bit, not speaking. A car was waiting for Zhillin at Lermontovskaya Square. It would take him to the airport. The weather was good, sunny. The fresh air had a very fine dusting of snow. Karasov had drunk too much. His eyes had opened wide, and his eyelashes darkened. His mother lived in a village not far from Kazan and worked in a kolkhoz with empty cattle pens, hungry horses, and pitiful sheep. Nadyezhda, his young wife, lived there now. She was a teacher. They had sent his two sisters to work in the peat fields north of Moscow. In his poem he had addressed the Father of the Nations: “Your word brightens our skies.”

102Karasov laughed bitterly: “You’re flying away and I’m going to Gurman the editor.” It was a laugh of self-mockery and grief. They had reached the car, with only a few minutes left. “Why are you silent? Can’t you speak to me like a brother?” He held Zhillin’s arm. “You’re afraid of me, Zhillin?! I’m going to give it all up and go back to the village. In me runs the blood of Russian muzhiks and Tatar khans. It’s bound up with the soil. You think I avoided the war? Well, take a look!” He unbuttoned his jacket and showed him a zigzag scar like lightning. “Got it at Stalingrad. There’s still shrapnel, but they can’t take it out. Too near the heart. I’m not supposed to drink whiskey. Starting today… I won’t last much longer anyway. Some day you’ll see my name in a newspaper. It’ll be in a black frame. Don’t be surprised that I’m talking so frankly. I might as well. They can send me to the white fields... It’s all the same to me.”

103 “Aleksei, what are you blabbering? You’re drunk! Good times are coming! Berlin will fall soon. Then there’ll be big changes here.”

104Karasov whispered up close: “Nothing’s going to change. It’ll only get worse. D’you know why?” He looked around. It was noisy on Lermontovskaya Square, with buses, passers-by, and military trucks. Karasov’s words burned Zhillin. They hurt, but Zhillin couldn’t get away from him.

105“D’you know who’s at the foundation of our economy? Who makes the uniforms? Who makes our iron, our coal, our timber? Who builds our industries? Who cuts down our forests? Who provides the cannons and ammunition? You don’t know?! You’re silent?! Well, then I’ll tell you. Fifty million prisoners in the labor camps! Those are our slaves who work for nothing, for a bit of watery soup, for a crumb of bread. It’s thanks to them that I can write my poems. Ha! Why so pale? Don’t get scared! Don’t pull away! You don’t want to hear it? Don’t be afraid, you Hero of the Soviet Union! D’you think they’re going to free those millions? You fool! They’re going to send millions more! The labor supply in the camps has to be replenished. If they free them all and disperse the camps, that’ll be the end of our Beloved Homeland and our Bright Skies!”

106Zhillin felt Karasov’s warm hands. The car was full. No one could hear what the two young people were saying in the middle of Lermontovskaya Square. They were both glad that this would be their only meeting. Their roads would part now. Zhillin pitied him, as if he were some contaminated sick person who would bring disaster to all his friends. In his mind he already imagined him lying on a stone floor in a cellar, unshaven, among kolkhozniks and criminals. His one little published book would disappear, and his name would be erased from everyone’s memory. No one would remember him. Only his old mother would kneel in front of icons and whisper his name.

107When the airplane soared, all that remained below were quadrilaterals and triangles.

108Moscow was a crisscross of streets, squares, and canals. Clouds hung over Moscow, soft and puffy. Zhillin was tired. He could still smell the whiskey breath of poor Karasov, who was already just a shadow of himself. His brain swirled—Yakov Moiseyevich Gurman, Aleksei, the partisans in Minsk, the Moscow train terminals, the Jews, the face of Anna again, the officers at central headquarters, the silent soldiers, that night in a Prussian village, General Chernyakhovsky, the fog over Moscow, the quadrilaterals. It was a tangle without beginning and without end.

109Zhillin wished to get to the headquarters of the Third Belorussian Front as soon as possible. The offensive was proceeding with unusual speed. On March 19th the enemy’s units were forced to the edge of the Baltic Sea. The German divisions were squeezed into an area twenty-five-kilometers long and ten-kilometers wide. The weather cleared up, permitting the Soviet air force to begin its onslaught. More than 80,000 German troops and officers were wiped out, and more than 50,000 were taken prisoner. Thousands drowned when Soviet airplanes oparrePolishened fire as they tried to swim across the Frisches Haff Lagoon.

110He read the military communiqués very carefully. His army was on the march, and he was up in the clouds. He just had to be there. The Hero medal on his chest called to him. How would the front-line officers react to it? What would the mud-drenched, exhausted soldiers think, they who carried the burden of the war? They who lay in the trenches under a hailstorm of bullets?

111It had happened in Prussia. Zhillin had himself seen a Soviet tank throw its weight against a six-wheeled German Panzer Rena. The Panzer Rena burst into flames. A column of German armored cars came to a halt and the Germans jumped out into the ditches. The tank opened fire. The tank commander was called in to headquarters that evening. He was exhausted and black with filth. His name was Aaron Levitin. Why had Zhillin suddenly remembered him?

112The new orders from central headquarters would be read out to the regiment. Zhillin would be honored, but he himself wanted it to be over, to be left in peace. He would announce: “650 tanks, 3500 cannons, and a huge quantity of loot have come into our hands.” That operation had been planned by the general who was killed by an unknown bullet after he had prepared the whole attack.

113Zhillin looked out the little airplane window. It was night, but the clouds below were still bright.

114Back then, that night had been foggy. They had drank from crystal goblets. Another drink to victory, to our women and children, to the powerful Party. The commander of the Front had downed four goblets. Just one more... Then Zhillin had raised the sparkling goblet high, his hand shaking. The whiskey might spill. Even now in the airplane he again felt that strange trembling. He had known that it would be the commander’s last drink. His last! Zhillin had announced: “A toast to the man who planned this victory over the German army,” then he stopped short and took a deep breath. “To the Father of the Nations!” And the officers shouted “Hurrah!” The general had smiled a little scornful smile. But it had calmed Zhillin. It had eased his conscience.

115Now, high above the Earth, he could distance himself from that night. He was afraid of no one now. He did not have to account for his actions to anyone. There was a reason for everything that had happened. He knew what was good for the homeland and what was bad. He had needed to weave through a labyrinth with hidden paths. Those paths would lead to the light of day. A crimson, red day! He could not rest. A force impelled him. He would push on, not like Aleksei Karasov, who would be crushed under roaring wheels.

116Russia was the scene of the mass migration of its peoples. Just as the waters of a river that has overrun its banks—flooding the fields, the meadows, the roads, and the walking paths—begins to return to its original river bed, so, too did people begin to return to their former homes, which they had abandoned with the invasion of the Germans. Hundreds of trains were sent westward every day from all over Russia. They were being sent to bring back war booty from the occupied territories before the local people dragged it off or marauding looters tried to take it. Freight trains rushed westwards empty. They were sent from junctions everywhere in Russia, and refugees trying to go home were massing at those train stations.

  • 2 Brigade of Bronislav Kaminski, who fought with the SS against Soviets, and killed Poles and Jews.
  • 3 Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, some of whose followers massacred Poles and Jews.
  • 4 Ukrainian nationalist Taras “Bulba”-Borovets, whose followers murdered Jews.

117The government treated those homeless people decently for a variety of reasons. First of all, the western regions were bereft of a labor supply, and they were needed in the desolated villages and ruined cities. In parts of western Ukraine and Belarus, there were not even enough hands to harvest the crops. Soldiers had to be brought in from the front. Secondly, it would be dangerous to permit a vacuum to exist between the homeland and the front lines—a no man’s land where the dregs of Vlasov’s regiment could wreak havoc, along with the Kaminshaks,2 the Bandera3 gang, the Bulba gang,4 as well as Soviet deserters. Third, those areas were needed to provide food both for the soldiers at the front, very close by, and for the rest of the Soviet Union, which was suffering from starvation. Since all the wagon trains in the country were mobilized into long trains of hundreds of empty cars, the order was given to use them to transport the evacuees.

118And that was the beginning of the mass migration in reverse. But everywhere that the unfortunates had fled, thousands of them who could not go home remained in the far-off villages of Kazakhstan, in the mines of the Urals, on the shores of lake Baikal, in the ditches of Sverdlovsk, in Komi, in Bashkiria—just as a river that overflows its banks leaves behind little pools of water everywhere, and some of it seeps into the earth. Some of them had been deported to internal exile, locked in prisons, enslaved in labor camps, or ordered into labor battalions in industries whose production was needed for the war effort. Shattered families—consisting of the elderly, the children, the women, the invalids, dragged themselves across Russia for weeks and months. The long troop trains often waited on sidetracks waiting for locomotives or an opening. Hungry and thirsty, people took shelter in old freight wagons. They walked miles to reach villages where they might buy food. Sometimes elderly farmers would approach the wagons to sell baskets of food, and chaos would erupt over a bread roll. A small bit of yellowed sugar would be bartered for a slice of bread, salt for a cooked potato, a piece of cloth for a herring.

119And at the same time, special troop trains rushed along the “Green Road” without stop.

120It was called that because all the train signals were always green for them. The troop trains carrying returning evacuees had to wait on sidetracks until they had passed. The masses of returnees were like herds of sheep starving on snow-covered fields that walk slowly, huddled together until they reach spacious green pastures. Then they can spread out and rest. That was how it was with the returning refugees.

121From Belarus on, the trains ran half-empty to the German cities. All kinds of other vehicles also followed the path of the trains without stopping. They sped through the small stations, distrustful and scornful, leaving behind station workers and police, surprised and sleepy. If at the start of the war, when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, the roads of Russia were like the clogged blood vessels of a giant whose blood has stopped flowing, now the roads were like the hot arteries of a roused bear who just woke up after his long hibernation, fully ready and galvanized to attack and roar for joy.

122During those March days in the trenches, Menakhem grew friendly with a Jewish soldier who had just been mobilized in Volhynia. He had left Olyevsk at the start of the war. His name was Dobrusz and he was fifteen at the time, working as a shepherd in a kolkhoz driving the herd towards the east. They had marched the sheep across Ukraine, through Kuban, all the way to the other side of the Volga River. At night Dobrusz told Menakhem all about his wanderings through Ukraine, its villages and rivers, and about his trips across fields in a wagon covered with the hides of dead horses and sheep. He had spent the winters in kolkhozes and summers searching for pasture land in the most remote regions of Kuban. The herd dwindled. They had to pay off the local villages with some of their sheep, and they had to secretly slaughter others in exchange for bread. More than half the herd had died from hunger or disease. New ones were born, but when they returned home only a very small flock was left.

123Dobrusz found no Jews left when he returned to his village. Armed gangs were swarming in the woods nearby. Some of them had come to the village and gotten drunk with the peasants. “Run away from here,” urged the shepherd elder. “They’re slaughtering your people.” The gangs had attacked Soviet patrols and murdered the local Soviet activists one at a time. The Soviets punished the farmers and searched for their sons hiding in the woods. Dobrusz went to the train station, about fifty viorsts away. He had brought the herd back home. Now he could leave. But where should he go? Should he try to find Jews? Their language was unfamiliar by now. He only knew the language of the farmers and the cries of his sheep. Dobrusz was tanned; his jaws sunburned, with a head of thick black curls, all the way down his neck. His eyebrows were closely knitted. His voice had become strong and coarse from living outside in the fields, and his hands as tough as chestnuts.

124 Dobrusz stayed at the train station for two days. He watched people closely, peering into their eyes, trying to guess whether they were Jews. Trains came through with locked wagons and open platforms. There were wagons covered with tarps, trains sending soldiers to the front, and trains with the wounded coming back. Young Dobrusz, now homeless, wandered among the cars. “Take me,” pleaded Dobrusz, speaking a farmer’s Ukrainian to an officer.

125Then he approached the military commander of the station, who ordered him to go back to his village near Olyevsk: “You’ll be mobilized from there. Your time will come.” But Dobrusz had no interest in going back to a home that was no longer his home. There was a short, stooped farmer standing in the station, a whip in his hand, his fur cap pulled all the way down. Only one puffy eyelid was visible. The other was shut tight. The night before, a Soviet disciplinary patrol had come to his home. The patrol leader had given him three days to turn over his son: “After three days we’re deporting you and your family to the land of the white bears. One of your sons is in the woods. We know it. You bring him food, while those gangs attack us.” That was what he had said to him.

126It was now the third day. They were going to load him, his wife, and little children onto train cars and ship them to Siberia. He had gone to the woods, but his son would not give himself up because he did not want to serve in the Red Army, although there was an amnesty for the people hiding in the woods. His Afanas would have left the forest, but he felt bad for his father and his farm. The leaders in the woods said: “We’ll burn down your home and murder your Afanas if he goes with the Soviets.” Death was looming both from the Russians and from the gangs in the woods.

127So the little, shriveled farmer wandered around, looking with his one watery eye at the long trains and at the people, feeling his world getting smaller and smaller, so that he no longer had a place in it. His poor little horse waited in front of the station. It was noon, and a very long train pulled in. Young soldiers jumped down, all smiles, energetic, wearing light uniforms, and talking loudly. One of them came over and asked, “Little father, d’you have any makhorka tobacco to sell? The old man shrugged his shoulders and opened his closed eye. He pulled a withered pouch out of his pants pocket and poured some homemade tobacco into the soldier’s palms, “Take it, my son.” He shuddered as he said “my son.” If only it were! He wanted to weep, but he could not. Farmers do not have tears for weeping. They only weep when they are drunk, and a quiet joy wells up from their belly to their chest, and from there to their eyes, and tears pour out. They wipe away those tears of joy with their warm gnarled fingers.

128Dobrusz passed by just then, as he was walking along the train cars searching for someone to help him. The military commander of the station blocked his way and said, “Young man, go home!” The farmer perked up his ears. He suddenly threw down his whip and began to run towards them, the way farmers run after horses that are trampling fields of rye. He threw himself on Dobrusz, embracing him and sobbing, “My son! My one and only! The apple of my eye, come home! You’ll be all right with us! I’ll give you the best we have! Come home, my one and only! My son, I’ve been looking for you for weeks! Thought you were dead! Oh dear God, my sole support!”

129Dobrusz could feel the farmer’s hot tears on his cheeks, his moist lips, and bristly whiskers. He stopped talking and wanted to tear himself away from the strong, gnarled hands of the farmer. But the boy’s silence only stirred the farmer’s fatherly instincts even more. He now turned to the crowd around him, “Oh, good people, look! My son is back! Let’s go home! Let’s tell the authorities that you’ve come home. Dear boy! My sonny boy!” His saliva and tears, his warm breath, and his hands tight around Dobrusz startled him out of his initial shock, and he tried to break loose.

130He struggled quietly until he managed to squirm out of the farmer’s arms. They stood silently, panting. Dobrusz looked at him cautiously. The farmer approached him again, like a playful kitten, his hands outstretched and beckoning. He bowed very low, as if before a holy icon. He tore off his cap and warmly embraced the boy’s legs: “Come home! I’ll die without you! Come, my angel! Is this how you return your father’s love? Sweet Jesus!” The station police and the soldiers from the train called to Dobrusz: “Go home, boy! Why are you dawdling out here? You fool, obey your father!”

131If he did go with the farmer, he would have a room, a bed, as much bread as he wanted. But he feared the farmer’s obtuse insistence and he resented his coercive hands on his body. He tore away again, and yelled hoarsely, “Leave me alone, old man!” And with that he struck him in the face with his fist. A trickle of blood slowly ran down his face to the corners of his mouth and into his prickly yellow beard. The sight of the blood stiffened Dobrusz’s resistance, and he hit him again. The man fell to the ground, moaning, “People! See how my own son beats his father?! See? Oh, Jesus!”

132The locomotive echoed his howling. The wheels turned faster and faster. Soldiers looked out the windows. The train sped towards the front. Dobrusz ran along the track after it, and when he reached the last wagon, he jumped on. He saw the farmer in the distance, reaching out his arms, “My son… See, people?... My son has left for the front.”

133And that was how Dobrusz had come to be in Menakhem’s regiment. And now they were sitting in a trench, where he related his experiences.

134Zhillin kept waking up. The night was pitch black, and he was rocking between the clouds. There was a red eye over him. Who was watching him in that nighttime roar? He could see garnet boulders through the window. Suspended between sleep and half-sleep, his childhood came to him: the north country, somewhere near Novogrodsk, on the banks of a cold, rolling sea with chunks of floating ice, a land of roaring rivers and stormy lakes, dense with forests and tundra as far as the eye could see.

135The dark garnet cliffs that he saw on the horizon were clouds in the March night. He was in a plane taking him to the front. Its steady hum rocked him to sleep. He saw the cradle hanging in the humble cabin. Frost had painted white thorns on the little windows. His mother rocked the cradle that hung from the ceiling on a rope. The walls were beams of raw pinewood. Green moss filled the spaces between the beams. She sang an old Russian lullaby: “What rustles without wind? What’s always green without roots? Turbulent rivers rustle without wind! Boulders grow without roots! And pine trees are always green!” They were coming, those good, gentle, snowy dreams, to drive away the darkness, the shadows that covered his northern heart.

  • 5 Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, a tsarist officer who led the White Army against the Soviets in souther (...)

136Zhillin’s father had joined a Red unit fighting against General Wrangel.5 He returned to get his family a few years later, and the cradle remained in that empty in that faraway snow-laden cabin. Then Zhillin had spent years in Kazan, and later at the military academy, and then came the war. He fought the Finns in Karelia, and the German bastards right after that. Flying in the clouds, he saw it all again. He would have gladly hunted in the mossy tundras with a rifle. He would have gladly gazed forever at the turgid rivers running across forest glades.

  • 6 In 1944 Gen. Ivan Chernyakhovsky invited leaders of the Polish Armia Krajowa to meet with him. They (...)

137Who was it who had pulled him into the stony courtyard of the Kremlin, among the cupolas, the columns, the bright marble steps? Who had instilled that fear in him, that awful terror? Where was the plane going? Zhillin could not tell which direction. Was it to the northern fields, back to the garnet boulders, to the tundras? There he would be thrown onto the mossy banks of the northern sea. It was indeed a strange world! How long had it been since General Chernyakhovsky had invited to lunch the commanders of the Polish partisan units who had helped liberate Vilna?6 Not one of those Poles came back. A year later the very same general had been invited for lunch—with whiskey—and… .

138But Zhillin had returned from the Kremlin. Now he was flying in a plane, flying to the front. Nothing would happen to him. The day before, someone from central headquarters had said, “Nikolai Feodorovich, why do your hands shake when you raise up your goblet? It’s a bad sign, that you have a bad conscience.” He had laughed along. That was a pompous fellow! He went on: “You know what the Father of the Nations told me once? You don’t? Listen and remember it. Stalin, our commander-in-chief said, ‘I choose my enemies myself. D’ you understand?’ Remember, Zhillin! Those were important words! Repeat them to yourself a thousand times. You need to choose your enemies yourself. Don’t wait for them to choose you for an enemy. You decide who is your enemy!”

139No stars could be seen, only puffy clouds. The red eye of the sun was blinding. Something always happened after every ball at the Kremlin. Someone disappeared. Right after the last goblet was drunk, and everyone was tired, and drunkenness was strong, and heads were throbbing, and tongues were loosened, that was when the Father of the Nations woke up. The lethargy in his body wore off, and his piercing little eyes grew animated.

140 Zhillin had once heard a blind farmer in a rural fair in Murmansk sing a song about Kniaz Dmitry. Now the first stanza came back to him. It began, “In his good city... in his Kremlin.” The man with the empty eye sockets told of Count Dmitry, who had planned a great ball and invited all the boyars. He also invited Domna, a boyar’s daughter, to be his love. But when she saw the count’s ugly face and heard his alien Karelian language, she disappeared... But he outwitted her and had her head cut off, “So that no one else will have you, and I won’t have to listen to your mockery and hatred.”

141It was now the time to cut off all ties. The man in the Kremlin understood that. The world was still shrouded in the smoke of conflagration. It was scarred with trenches and barbed wire. The Earth was falling apart and the skies had come down low, right over the heads of suffering humankind. Who would even hear a single gunshot in the back, down in a cellar, or even on the front lines? “I choose my enemies myself.”

142It was not a dream. It was reality. An awful truth. The proof? Night was night. The plane was flying over Prussia, and was now in range of the searchlights, making it as bright as a star. It flew down, sinking along with everything else. Even the red eye of the rising sun.

143They had landed. Zhillin walked through damp fields. The airport was huge, with many camouflaged aircraft. The soil was soft and yielding. A sharp wind, undoubtedly from the Baltic Sea, woke him up. Sleep had left him. The dreams were gone. What was more real, the bright lights of the turquoise hall in the Kremlin or the little candles that he remembered in front of the icons in his mother’s village house? The man in the Kremlin with the mannequin body or the face of the blind farmer in the market in Murmansk? The drunken chorus of toasts with raised goblets or the trembling of his own lips in the dark? Who could know whether tomorrow someone might show up and tell him, “Zhillin, I’ve selected you as my enemy, because I choose my enemies myself.”

144He stopped suddenly, as if a crippling pain had gripped his heart. It probably lasted only a second, or even one hundredth of a second, and then it vanished. He grew angry with himself for that terror, angry at his own weakness, with the black night. He began piling blistering curses that fell on deaf ears in the night: “Devils without horns! Filthy bastards! What a God-forsaken swamp!” He looked for the orderly who should have been waiting for him. But he only saw shadows in front of him and behind him. Where were the people? Only shadows flitted around him in that stinking land of the German bastards! “Hey! Show yourselves!” he ordered angrily.

145But all his cursing and yelling were meant for no one but himself, to build up his own courage. He was trying to dispel the nightmares in the airplane, the spider’s web of terror and the spider bouncing at its center with its blood diamond. He wanted to wake up the real Zhillin, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

146In the distance artillery was pounding without stop. Searchlight beams scoured the ground, then soared up, shattering the blackness of the skies. Zhillin thought, “It’s good that the shooting is far away.” He finally found the ordinance and his car. He was suddenly glad, for some unknown reason. It was as if that joy had swept away his sudden terror. The auto flew over the soaking Prussian soil, along secondary country roads. He saw twisted willow trunks, fences made of branches, and a small, dark roadside niche for the Virgin Mary. At every crossroads stood iron or stone crucifixes. Zhillin wanted to talk to the driver, but his words were drowned by the screeching of the wheels and the splashing through the puddles. The car was now on a highway. They came to a guardhouse. “Halt!”

147A flashlight glided over the car roof and stopped in Zhillin’s face. The soldier suddenly froze. Zhillin laughed to himself. The car continued. He asked the orderly a question but did not wait for answer. Zhillin talked and cursed good-naturedly, lightheartedly. He felt renewed. They stopped at another guardhouse. This was now headquarters. He would be drinking German wine again out of medieval crystal goblets. The tables were already set. They were waiting for him. Plenty of wine was left in the cellars of the Prussian palaces. There would be enough until they had occupied Berlin.

148He stood at the head of the table. His hands did not shake now. They toasted, “To the Father of the Nations! Hurrah! To the homeland!”

149“How many have we drunk already?”

150Then he suddenly saw him again, painted in a heavy frame, the man in the Kremlin himself, stern, piercing. Zhillin downed the whole goblet in one gulp. The old terror crept back like a cat. He wanted to strangle that black cat, and he threw the goblet, smashing it against a marble column.

151“Hurrah!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

152That was echoed a hundredfold, as dozens of officers smashed their goblets, too. The orderlies stumbled around, picking up the shattered crystal.

153It was a damp and cold March dawn. Menakhem was bundled in his military overcoat. Little Dobrusz dozed near him. Zipunov was awake, gazing into the distance. His face looked like a water stain spreading on the scarlet-gray soil. If not for the war, Zipunov would be waking up now in his cabin, looking down from the bed on top of the stove at the little blue windowpanes. Was it daylight yet? He would hear the creaking of the gates and the bleating of the sheep being driven down the broad street. In the evenings he would sit on the bench outside rolling a cigarette of homemade makhorka tobacco. But now he was like a plant that a sharp plow has ripped out of the earth along with its root ball. The plant lies at the edge of the field, not able to grow in the earth but not completely withered. The tiny bits of soil tangled in its dense mat of roots and the morning dew keep it from dying.

154How will the farmer Zipunov be able to readjust to his home on his own soil after the whirlwind of war has driven him over desolate roads? His hands would no longer know how to hold a plow. He thought that the blood that had been spilled in the fields would make poppy flowers sprout among the rye. At such moments he prayed to Jesus to forgive the sins he had committed on Polish soil. He gazed mournfully at the sky and was struck by fear. When that fear passed, he felt hollow, and the slightest noise rattled him. It was as if he filled up the trench, sat apart, stayed in the corners, and listened intently. He mumbled to himself, unintelligibly. Was he just humming, repeating what others had said? Or were these stifled sounds choking him? He grew forlorn if a superior looked at him, shrugging his shoulders, turning his head away. His throat seemed to sink into his chest, and his hands were twisted. He never said yes or no.

155It was the kind of moan that could be interpreted as one wished: acquiescence, depression, fatigue, sleepiness. It took quite a while to get used to Zipunov’s garbled speech. Only at night, in the trenches, when he was eye to eye with Menakhem or Dobrusz, did he liven up and loosen his tongue. And when the troops near him were dozing he would take little watches out of his bags and play with their long golden chains. Sometimes he would wind them up and gaze at the phosphorous gleam of the numbers. He would often hide deep down in the trench and enjoy the brilliance of a gemstone. He did all of this out of sight. He would often wake up and feel with his fingers for the cloth bag on his hairy chest. Then he would laugh quietly into his chest, his mocking peasant laugh.

156Dobrusz had a childish face with a little dark fuzz on his upper lip. He was indifferent to the cold at night. In his dreams he was again on the roads of Ukraine. He was angry with the cattle and the sheep. Even now he remembered the distinctive bleating of each of his sheep. He carried the scent of sheep wool, and in his breath was the scent of reeds in the wind. Menakhem once told him, “Dobrusz, you’re a Jew. Always remember that!”

157“A Jew?” Dobrusz was surprised. “A Jew?”

158He crouched down and looked at Menakhem suspiciously: ‘Why do you need to remind me that I’m a Jew? It’s better if I don’t remember it. It scares me. It’s like telling me, ‘Dobrusz, you’re mortally ill. Dobrusz, you’re going to die.’”

159Menakhem leaned away, feeling tears well up in his eyes. He was devastated by Dobrusz’s words. He avoided him for the rest of the day. Dobrusz began to speak when they met again for guard duty at the lake: “From the Horyn River to the Don they kept asking me, ‘Are you a Jew?’ I hate it when they do that! I wanted to jump down their throats! Whose business is it what Dobrusz is?! I want to talk to them like equals, and they interrogate me?! That makes me nothing! That makes me no one! Like wind, a tree, a piece of earth! This one wants to know so he can pity me. That one wants to hate me and to kill me. I hate them all. After the war I’ll go back to the Horyn or to the Sluch River. I’ll find myself a farm girl and be like everyone else. Then I won’t be Dobrusz anymore. I’ll be a real farmer. I’ll raise cattle, I’ll pull barges on the river, I’ll get drunk in the taverns. A farmer once told me how the Germans murdered my parents. I’ve come here to get revenge. Why are you looking at me like that? I don’t care who you are. All I care is that you’re at the front like me. But to you it does make a difference. You have to know who Dobrusz is. Why do you need to know? Tell me!”

160 Menakhem stroked the lock of hair on Dobrusz’s childish face and smiled, while tears stuck in his throat. They spoke no more of it. But Dobrusz did not leave his side from that day on. He knelt down and rolled his own cigarettes. They smoked and gazed to the west, towards Berlin.

161The cannons began blasting early one morning. The air was shattered. The booming came echoing in deafening waves. And those echoes were ripped by the roar of aircraft. They flew in formations of nine planes, heavy bombers, in tight symmetry, wave after wave. And at the side of the bombers Jaeger planes swarmed like windblown birds from under the clouds, flying west. Was this the final offensive on Berlin? The night before, the Soviet radio commentator had said: “We have three possibilities. We can attack Berlin frontally. We can go around the capital from the north through Stettin or come from the south. Or, the third option—attack from all directions at the same time.”

162“Mikhail,” wrote Anna. “Why are you silent? It’s been a long time since I’ve had a letter from you. Mikha! Misha! Where are you right now when I’m writing to you late at night? It’s so desolate in Praga on the Vistula. The hospital is overflowing. The streets are dense with foreigners. I went to the Jewish Committee to search for the names of your relatives in the lists of survivors. Last week I gathered up a group of Jewish children, homeless, aged eight to fourteen. I’m working to get a home for them in Otwock. In the meantime Yekaterina Yurievna has made them a home in a little apartment not far from the hospital. Our hospital kitchen is feeding them. My mom cried for joy when she heard that you’re still alive. She wrote to me: ‘Don’t lose him again.’ I worry about her health. She’s lonely on Mokhovaya Street. She sits in her chair for days and listens to the racket that her daughters-in-law make. It breaks my heart when I think about her. Only the grandchildren are friendly. I just can’t wait for Berlin to fall! I’m afraid at night, I’m afraid when I hear steps coming to my little room. This is a hard time for me. But I’m ready for this meeting. I’m sorry now that I didn’t tell you everything. It’s painful to me that I can’t talk to the kids in their own language. It would be good if you were here with us. There’s a girl here, Hanusz, and a Rokhele, and a Janusz. When I look into their faces I feel that I’m one of you.”

163 “Mikhail, I can hear the wind raging and the rain pouring down the windowpanes. Be strong, Mikha, push on push on! My prayers are with you. We may have to leave Praga. Yesterday was a hard day. But I don’t want to remind you of me in the operating hall. You didn’t like me then. I know it. You’re afraid of the doctor in me. You’d rather imagine me as a nurse. They say that distance brings with it forgetfulness and leads people to regain their calm when relations are strained with their nearest and dearest. Is it true? I stand in the white hall every day. I hold the lives of the wounded in my hands, even when they shake a little. I want to cry because I’ll never be the same Anna again. Maybe that’s good. Change is the best sign that we’re not finished yet. I hope my words of fear and premonition don’t disturb you. Perhaps I should tell you everything now. No. It’s very late now. You, Misha, Mikhail, have a peaceful night. Your Anna.”

164Menakhem was ordered to report to regimental headquarters. Over several days the big German village had been transformed into a huge military camp. Spacious rooms housed the various headquarters. Repair shops for freight trucks, tanks, and armored cars were set up in the brick barns. The village was teeming with liaison officers, military engineers, and medics. A long line of supply cars carrying weapons still stretched across the stone bridge. Menakhem ran into a group of German prisoners on the street. Zipunov and Sgt. Sergei Orlov were guarding them. Zipunov was quite cheerful; he would surely discover something good in their pockets. They would surrender their watches. Menakhem perused the prisoners for a long time. He searched each face individually, then he saw their backs soaked in mud. Some trudged barefoot, unbuttoned, their tailcoats in tatters, unshaven, their hair disheveled. Others marched effortlessly, heads held high as if in a victory parade. They passed a wrecked Focke-Wulf bomber brough down in the marketplace. One of its wings pointed straight up to the sky, and someone had clumsily written on it with black paint: “To Berlin! To the Reichstag!” The German prisoners detoured around the wreckage of the plane.

165Guards stood in the large courtyard at the iron gate of an aristocratic manor. Menakhem smoothed out the gray-green jacket, pulled the straps tight, and untied the hand grenades from them. He left them with the guards. There were signs hanging everywhere on the stone fence, on the walls, on boards banged into the soil: “Mines!” “Mines!” Other signs had names and indicated locations: “This way to Volodya,” “Yekaterina is fifty meters away.” Menakhem looked for Yekaterina and saw low buildings whose walls were hung with wild grape vines. He came to another guard post, with inside steps leading to corridors. There were machine guns at the entrance and several soldiers with calm faces. A sign over the door read, “Remember! You are on enemy territory!” Menakhem stopped at the open door and thought of going back. But it was already late. A freckled officer came up to him. A picture of Stalin, not framed, hung slightly crooked, as if temporarily. On the table lay a bomb fragment used for an ashtray. The whole room was carpeted, and the walls were bedecked with silk hangings.

166“Sit down,” said the officer. His tone of voice did not suit the freckled face and the heavy body. Thin sounds came from his throat like cut glass. He took a silver cigarette case out of his bag and laid it on the table. “Want a smoke?” Then he opened a drawer, pulled out some papers and leafed through them.

167Menakhem had realized right away that he was not in the operations department of headquarters, but in the Special Section. He knew it from the open door, from the quiet, from the emptiness of the room, the lack of military maps. He could tell from the lines in the officer’s face that this was not a frontline soldier. He was from the NKVD, highly suspicious of everyone. Invisible threads connected this man to every trench, every position on the front line.

168“Yes, yes, yes, Mikhail Isaacovitch…”

169It seemed like he had not decided how to begin the interrogation. “Yes, yes, yes” was just a tactic to gain time.

170How Menakhem knew all this already! You couldn’t know how they would do it, you just couldn’t know. They had a thousand ways to do it, each one different, but all leading to the same black end. He looked at this well-rested officer with hidden scorn, the kind of scorn that only a soldier who is just back from the advance point of the front line—and was wounded more than once—feels for a man in headquarters who reeks of eau-de-cologne. The fear and depression that Menakhem had felt at the Vistula vanished. Just stepping onto German soil had filled him with assurance and boldness. Here in Germany he was face to face with the enemy, in the lair of the beast. Back in Poland he had been up against not only Germans and Vlasov’s army, but part of the Polish population, too. That was depressing. Here he faced only one enemy, the Germans. Back then his enemies were massive. They had all been against him: his neighbours at home, the Ukrainians, the Lithuanians, the various marauding gangs. Even the night itself and the soil of his own village had betrayed him.

171Menakhem did not have enough contempt and hatred in him for such a big world. His hatred now was concentrated on one target, Berlin. The unfriendly soil on which he trod gave him strength. He strode across it with his head held high. Here he was the victor. No one would be able to take from him his part in the victory that he deserved.

172Menakhem’s voice was loud and clear: “I hear you.”

173“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mikhail Isaacovitch. My name is Sabayev, Vasil Sabayev.” The officer struck a match and offered it to Menakhem. “I’m surprised that we haven’t met before. I’ve heard of you.”

174Menakhem smiled at the sudden switch from his use of the informal “you” to the formal. “Oh, you’ve heard of me? I guess my reputation precedes me.” He laughed and it was obviously a sarcastic laugh, as if to say: “You, look closely at my clothes, at my whole appearance! And you’ll know that I’m wise to your tricks! Just wait till Berlin falls. Then maybe the spider’s web that your Special Section has woven will fall apart. Maybe things will change, and you’ll become decent people again, if there’s still a tiny spark of humanity left in your souls. You’ll have to take up the plow again.” That was what Menakhem thought as he looked at the officer from the Special Section.

175Sabayev said, “You’re an artist, right? Why don’t you draw anymore? I remember your drawings in the army newspaper.”

176Menakhem thought, “You sly fox, you’re real glib with the smooth words.” But he just said, “I’m occupied with other things now.”

177“I just wanted to get to know you, that’s all. Someone here mentioned your name, so I wanted to see you with my own eyes. It was an opportunity. Tell me, please…” And here Politkommissar Sabayev was choosing his words carefully, then he stopped short. He shuffled the papers in his drawer and pushed the ashtray around on the table. He continued: “Were you at the gates of Moscow and also at the Vistula? Do you remember anyone in command then? Perhaps we have some friends in common?”

178 “My commanders? I don’t remember them clearly... Oh, yes I do remember one.” Menakhem raised his eyes to the picture hanging on the wall and nodded to the Father of the Nations.

179Sabayev grew serious. His deep-set red-gray eyes turned icy: “Why are you protecting your commanders? Maybe you really don’t remember them. That’s a bad sign. You were very active in the war. I believe you do remember Nikolai Feodorovich Zhillin, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Right?”

180Menakhem turned white.

181“Well, I can see that you remember him. He was here and sends you greetings. That is all. You can go, Mikhail Isaacovitch!”


1 The Schutzstaffel, abbreviated SS, was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Nazi Germany, and later throughout German-occupied Europe during the Second World War.

2 Brigade of Bronislav Kaminski, who fought with the SS against Soviets, and killed Poles and Jews.

3 Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, some of whose followers massacred Poles and Jews.

4 Ukrainian nationalist Taras “Bulba”-Borovets, whose followers murdered Jews.

5 Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, a tsarist officer who led the White Army against the Soviets in southern Russia during the Civil War.

6 In 1944 Gen. Ivan Chernyakhovsky invited leaders of the Polish Armia Krajowa to meet with him. They and thousands of others were arrested, many were executed, others deported to Siberia or forced into the Red Army.


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