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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter Three

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1Prussia, the end of March 1945.

2The train tracks and the terminals were crammed with cars from Belgium, Holland, France, along with those from München, Frankfurt, Karslruhe and Berlin. Train bridges and water towers had been blown up. Civilians wearing a dark square on their chest with the word “East” in white lettering were Russian citizens who had been taken from their homes to work in Prussian factories and farms. The roads were scarred with bomb craters and littered at every step with ruined trucks, buses, suitcases, and the carcasses of dead horses whose backsides had been hacked for their meat. You could hear the mournful bellowing of cows that had not been milked for a long time in abandoned farms. Runaway horses ran wild through the meadows, their manes unkempt. Some of them dragged broken harnesses, broken wagon shafts, or wheels. Tens of thousands of Germans wandered with backpacks, the women carrying their children. Some of the men had barrel necks and beer bellies. All of them wore a white armband, the symbol of surrender.

3Germran deserters who had quickly changed into civilian clothes mixed in with evacuees. They walked past the farmers’ wagons, their heads lowered. “Berlin is burning! Berlin has been bombed without stop for five days! The Gestapo is running the government!” Those were the reports in German on Allied radio. The headquarters of German land forces in Zossen was bombed on March 15th by several squadrons, causing severe destruction. General Krebs and some of his staff were badly wounded. The Germans issued orders to the Gauleiters1 not to allow anything of importance to fall into the hands of the enemy, not anything significant. They must destroy whatever they could not take with them. Bormann ordered evacuation from areas under threat to the central region of the country.

4The German “Vistula armies” had already retreated back to the other side of the Oder River. All that remained of their days of triumph was the name “Vistula.” General Busse, commander of the Ninth German Army on the Oder, also gave the order to retreat before they were completely encircled. During the last week of March, the Americans crossed the Rhine River and were moving on Darmstadt and Frankfurt am Main. On the eastern front, there was bitter fighting over Danzig, and the Soviets renewed their attack on Küstrin. At the end of March the American General Patton’s tanks rolled into Frankfurt.

5The German military base in Danzig was destroyed. Their army was still holding out in Königsberg, but their fate was sealed. In Danzig there were endless columns of German prisoners, stretching for kilometers, with all kinds of faces: dull, sharp-featured, chubby, dandified, obsequious, pleading, calm, boyish, dissolute, arrogant, farmers’ faces, reserved, gray, desolate, tough, stone-faced.

6They wore all sorts of uniforms, including those of the Volksstürmer and the black jackets and sailors’caps of the navy’s infantry. The “brave” Prussian bastards had not obeyed General Weiss’s order, “to fight to the last man.” They were marching in their own country and were guarded by troops with machine guns from Tula and Perm, from villages on the Volga River and Lake Baikal. Major Heinrich Landwitz marched at the head of the prisoners.

7“They wanted to take over the East?! So let them stay in the East! Don’t let one German leave here alive!”

8“Where is Gauleiter Forster?”

9A captured officer shrugged his shoulders: “Don’t know him, Mr. Russian.”

10“You’re lying!”

11Maj. Gen. Vladimir Leibovich insisted on finding the Gauleiter. He had a special score to settle. He was Jewish. His grandfather and father had worked all their lives in the Goldenberg paper factory in Odessa. His father’s name was Leib, and he had had nine children. All the others had been murdered. Vladimir Leibovich was going to find the Gauleiter.

12The Germans put up a desperate fight at the Oder River. Their defenses were impressive: five rows of barbed wire; six lines of artillery; innumerable trenches and anti-tank ditches; huge fortifications, mortars, cannons. But Zhukov’s army was unrelenting. A few days later, Zhukov rode around the fortress from north to south and established a stranglehold of steel around it.

13Even the smallest movement of the Germans led to losses and defeat, just as a wild horse which, tracked by an experienced horseman, with a noose already around its neck, cannot stop its flight, tightens the rope more and more every time it tries to tear itself away until it can no longer breathe. Then the wild animal falls on its back, baring its teeth in white foam, and its eyes full of blood. The German high command was like that horse, unable to control its rage and stop in time. Its destiny was doomed.

14It was springtime in God’s world. New grass sprouted along the war roads. Under the yellow rusted iron wreckage colorful little field flowers were germinating. Next to a wattle fence a tree was already decked out in splendid white. The days were bright and clear, the nights were moonlit. Only the Germans wore mournful faces. They prowled at night on side streets, avoiding the highways and the trains, crossing through bushes, sleeping in barns, foraging in abandoned houses and empty cellars for food and civilian clothes. They roamed around alone or in small groups. Complete strangers became fast friends at the first encounter. Defeat and their terror brought them close. Behind a picket fence, in the courtyard of a farm, the body of a German hung from the swinging gate. Slave laborers from “the East” had hung him. Groups of Germans walked through Prussia, trying to reach the Oder River, and to go west from there. Among them, too, were military auxiliaries, traitors who had dutifully served with the German army. Sometimes they attacked each other, with shootings breaking out at night. They robbed civilians wandering on the road that wore white armbands and carried little white flags: “We shed our blood for you, and now you abandon us! With your white rags you’ve already begun the surrender march!”

15They stole their horses, rummaged through valises, and carried on just as if they were still masters in the land. Their leaders passed judgment on terrified old people “in the name of the ReichsFührer” and condemned them to death. Their search for civilian clothes took on manic proportions, as they rid themselves of anything that might betray their military service. Some of them put on bizarre clothing: bedraggled sweaters, riding breeches, the black jackets of formal evening wear, worn-out fur jackets taken from Belarussian prisoners, rubber raincoats. Some were bundled up in cloaks, or the remnants of blankets, or dark woolen shawls. At night they looked like scary ghosts.

16Some groups were well-organized, with hidden weapons, goniometers, and radios. One such group was camped out in the peat field near the village of Duckwitz and was trying to get close to the front line. Their leader, Karl Ristke, was from Donauwörth, and he still ruled as he had in the good old days. His inn, well-known in Lower Bavaria, was still waiting for him back home. The large brick house with narrow windows stood near the Danube River, huge black letters across its entire width proclaiming “Karl Ristke—Gasthaus.” Three steps down the street was the beer hall, with heavy oak tables and long benches. The ceiling hung low, and on the walls were displayed deer antlers, brown, twisting, unfurled, fastened to black wooden boards, with a date inscribed on each board. They dated back to earlier generations who had hunted in the woods on the high banks of the Danube. The beer barrels, the beer steins with heavy copper lids, the two sleepy dogs, the wife, and the maid. Ristke could see them all so clearly. He just had to get across the river…

17Karl Ristke’s long march across Europe had started in the Sudetenland, but where would it end? In the icy waters of the Oder River? In Siberia? He wore his Iron Cross on his chest under his clothes. He would have liked to throw it into the swamps, but he could not. He had to bring it back home. There it would be wrapped in plush and be saved for his children.

18At night his radio operator tried to contact headquarters to obtain instructions, but no answer came to his desperate request. Only isolated Russian words came through. They were very clear, reverberating as if they were vibrating against a metal wall. He also heard appeals for help coming from Königsberg, a helpless cry from someone calling himself “General Lersch.” Those appeals were drowned out by jazz music and then a coarse voice in Russian! Then suddenly rockets exploded over the peat field. Blinding light spread for several seconds over the swaying tops of the marsh reeds. It was as bright as day.

19The Germans hit the dirt. Searchlights were hunting for them, sweeping the blackness with swathes of light, slicing right into the river. A machine gun crackled. Karl Ristke crawled, and then rested. His men crawled behind him like night lizards. But some stopped moving. “Deserters,” he called them. They would surrender to the Russians the next day. Better to be a prisoner than to drown in the river or be blown up by Russian grenades. Some of his men disappeared every night. The first to go were the Russian traitors, Vlasov’s men. By the time Ristke reached the river, only three men were still with him, all of them from western Germany.

20 The moon would soon disappear behind dark clouds. The silvery water spread out before them. It would soon turn dark and they would jump in. But before Karl Ristke could raise his head out of the water, a Soviet patrol appeared on the other side of the river. It all happened so quickly and quietly that the Germans were stunned. It was all over by the time their fear had subsided. They were on their knees with their hands up, and a young Russian searched them, while his comrades looked on. The moon crept out from behind the clouds, and again the searchlights turned the river into a silvery road and lit up the tips of the marsh reeds in bloom.

21The Russian searched through their clothes and laid everything out on the grass: revolvers, wallets. The radio lay on the side, its metal glinting in the moonlight. Suddenly something happened. Karl Ristke tottered, then fell on his face, howling as if he had gotten a cramp.

22“Get up! Get up!” ordered a soldier, hitting him with the butt of his machine gun.

23“Don’t shoot! Don’t, sir!”

24When Ristke stood up they could see his officer’s insignia on his clothes. Under his unbuttoned shirt they saw a small cross on a silver chain, and an iron cross shimmered at his feet.

25“Look how sly this guy is! Threw himself on the ground howling. Wanted to hide this in the grass…”

26The soldier brought the iron cross to Menakhem, and said, smiling, “Kaputt! Kaputt!”

27Menakhem held the cross and looked at the dragoon Ristke standing at attention. And one of the Germans repeated, “Kaputt! Kaputt!” like a hesitant echo.

28Everything was ready for the final onslaught. They were just waiting for the order. This would be a massive blow against a concentration of very heavily fortified German forces assembled in the Berlin region. Meanwhile reconnaissance missions continued to ferret out the enemy’s artillery positions. On one of those nights, Lieut. Lev. Oshanin and another Soviet officer—recently sent by division headquarters—were dispatched across the front line. They were both well-equipped and had radios. Their main purpose was to correct the line of Soviet artillery fire.

29Martin Pannwitz, the captured German officer, had made for the Soviets a detailed map of all the military objectives that he knew. It was a solid topographical representation of the area on the way to Berlin. The two reconnaissance men were dropped by airplane about thirty-kilometers to the east of Berlin, not far from a highway. Day was breaking.

30Oshanin took on the guise of Ristke the innkeeper, and the other Russian had documents proving his identity as a Prussian landowner. They aimed to get to Berlin and start their actions. Both spoke German and could orient themselves on the roads. They spent their first day with German refugees who had stopped in the village of Neuwalden. The villagers were terrified by the nighttime offensive. In the morning they stood in front of the locked church and watched silently as their troops retreated. It appeared that the order had been given for the remnants of the various armed forces to return to Berlin.

31The two Soviet officers left for a little forest in the evening and slept in a haystack. Lights were on in Neuwalden. Exhausted German refugees slept in barns. Trucks and armored cars rushed past on a narrow road lined with linden trees. They could hear an artillery barrage coming from the south. “Must be ours,” thought the Soviets. Lev Oshanin took the satchel off his back. It was quiet in the woods. An old, dry tree trunk creaked. He looked closely at the little green eye of his radio. He could hear small sounds, like those of peas being thrown against a stretched hide or the ticktock of a wall clock. Suddenly the green light lit up his face. It was headquarters answering! He had made contact! “We’re at objective number five... bedlam... chaos... columns of armored... they’re retreating.” The green light went out. Oshanin was now the innkeeper Ristke. He knew every detail of Ristke’s life. There was a small road from the inn running along the right bank of the Danube to Regensburg. The Iron Cross was in his satchel. Karl Ristke... Karl Ristke. He kept repeating his name.

32His comrade was silent. Oshanin knew only his “German” family name and his Russian first name. “Call me Valentin,” he had told him. The night wore on. It was already spring. It was a mild, starry night. Not far away the glow of huge fire lit up the sky, with black and garnet clouds of smoke. Oil reservoirs were burning. “Atta boy! Nice piece of work!” They heard shooting coming from Neuwalden, then it stopped. “The Fritzes in uniform are murdering the Fritzes without uniforms.”

33 Oshanin admired his friend’s excellent German. Only now could he study the features of his face by the light of the moon, but he couldn’t read him. It was an unremarkable face, such as could be found among all peoples, a face without any special traits. Although Oshanin looked at Valentin for quite a while, he knew that he would forget his face as soon as he closed his eyes. It was the face of hotel bellhops, barbers, bank officers, a round face, vapid eyes, chiseled nose, tight lips, and sparse hair. It’s a face you might see on any street in any city, showing no hint of any nationality. Sometimes they appear plain and dull; at other times they attract your attention without knowing why. Oshanin had been disappointed at first when he had been introduced to the reconnaissance man named “Valentin.” He knew right away that it was not his real name, for he himself had been introduced under a false name. Despite the fact that they faced a difficult mission in common, each one totally mistrusted the other. Their mutual ignorance of the other kept them apart, but the enemies around them and their mission drew them together.

34Freshly trained troops were arriving from deep inside Russia. They were sent from their trains right to the front line in Germany. These were the youngsters who had grown up during the war and had been mobilized on a mass scale in the liberated territories of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. In addition, hundreds of thousands of war invalids took over administrative posts in the army in the hinterland, allowing for the mobilization of those who had not yet served, a new source of manpower at the front. These new recruits were joining an army that was on the advance, which gave them courage. No one now doubted that victory was near. Troop trains ran night and day from distant Siberia to Poland and from Poland to German territory.

35These soldiers were well clad in new military dress and leather shoes. Their food was ample and nutritious. They received larger rations of tobacco, zwieback, and American canned food.

36On to Berlin! To the Elbe! To the Reichstag!

37It was spring, and the days were sunny. When it did rain it was warm and gentle. And the nights were moonlit. The sons of Volga farmers, the lumberjacks from Siberia, the coal miners from the Urals, the steelworkers from Sverdlovsk—could not stop heaping praise on the German roads and walkways, the villages and towns that they saw from the trains: “How well they’ve been living!” Everything was built of stone: the barns, the houses, the bridges. “All of this wasn’t enough for them! So rich! But they just had to invade our humble kolkhozes!”

38“They wanted our coal from the Donbass and the oil from Baku!”

39The Russians attacked German soil with hatred: the bitterness of starving muzhiks, the years of misery, the devastated fields, the little wooden cabins, the ruined roads with humble wagons being dragged by decrepit horses, the little oil lamps, the shoes woven from linden bark.

40“But here, what a rich country!”

41The surge of victory moved them as they drove through German villages. Their hunger and poverty had not been for nothing! “So what if we ate bread made with bran, quinoa, and potatoes? Our commanders have taken us to victory!” They carried Stalin’s picture on their regimental flags, on their silver medals. His words had come true: “We will destroy the beast in its own den!”

42But instead of a den they found beautiful homes, and bright, spacious cities. Their hearts were inflamed by victory, by joy, by hatred, and bitterness. Their rifle butts forced open gates, their fists banged on doors, and they found themselves standing inside German houses with their sweaty faces and bloodshot eyes. The Soviet soldiers were intoxicated with vodka, with victory, with hate.

43But sometimes they felt the decency of common village people, and they happily took the rifles off their backs, loosened their straps, and sat down at the table to drink some tea and admire the clean, high, well-made beds with little nickel angels, the embroidered pillows, the soft divans, the copper kitchen utensils, and the full-bosomed, pale-faced, white-skinned lady of the house.

44They would stammer words to the German people to calm them down and were ready to accept them as their brothers. “Are they not people like us?” “D’you see how they work the fields?” And they felt respect towards them. At moments like that they would lie down in barns in the hay and dream of their own homes far away in Russian villages. But those quiet minutes were rare. When they ran into concentration camp prisoners on the road who had been freed—slaves who were half alive, slaves from every country in Europe—and when they heard the survivors tell their tales of horror, their hatred of the Germans would flare up.

45 They would weep when they heard Jewish women tell of their years of pain at the hands of the Germans. A young Pole led a Soviet detachment to search for the German landowner who had hundreds of Ukrainian girls working for him, and those slaves had been forced to leave with the German army when it retreated. When the Soviets arrived at his house, they found an old man. “That’s him!” cried the Pole.

46“How can that be?! This doddering old man owns all these fields and woods?! It’s all his?! And they didn’t take it away from him?!”

47The Soviet went over to him and pointed at the fields and barns and asked: “Hey, German, this is yours? Yours?! Speak!” Then he pointed at the huge house, “Yours?!”

48The withered old man was confused, and he stammered: “Yes, sir... Yes, gnädige…”

49The Soviet pointed to the pasture land and the forest: “Yours? Yours?” This was his first encounter with a landowner, the class enemy. He could not understand something. Why was he such a decrepit old man? He shrugged his shoulders and said to the people around him, “I won’t stop you from executing a class enemy. But this has nothing to do with our war. You exploited and oppressed people can settle your own accounts.” The crowd responded, “Hurrah! Long live the Soviet army!”

50The Slavs who had been forced to work for him surrounded him. The Ukrainian

51Mitrokhin was doomed. What should he do? He had served the Germans. Where should he go? Back home? He would be shot. To the front? A bullet would get him. He was standing now, facing the landowner and his forced laborers. He looked at the withered old man and at the Soviet soldiers. What if someone asked to see his papers? As he watched, an idea came to him under his shaved head: he did not want to die. One more day and it would be too late. The NKVD would be here and do a thorough investigation. Not one forced laborer would speak in his favor. His heart was pounding and he felt himself strangling. He could already feel the noose around his neck. How many people had he himself strangled with a cord dipped in pitch? That had been back in 1943. He had killed his own people. He tensed up in terror and screamed, “The German is guilty! The German is guilty! Him!!”

52Mitrokhin crept up slowly, then suddenly threw himself on the German with a ferocious howl and knocked him to the ground. He seized him around the neck and choked him, all the while screaming and growling unintelligibly. It was already dark. The German and the Ukrainian looked like a sick old wolf wrestling with hunting dog.

53Every day they brought new German prisoners. But they were dressed in civilian clothes. Some pretended to be slave laborers who had barely escaped execution. Others claimed to be deserters from the German army. Several of them spoke Polish and said that the Germans had forced them into serving in their army. Lieut. Sabayev called Menakhem to headquarters and relayed an order from the commander that Menakhem should do the first interrogations of the prisoners. And when Menakhem tried to object to the order, Sabayev grew angry: “That’s enough of keeping to yourself! Why do you avoid us? You don’t speak frankly. You don’t answer questions. I’ve noticed it for quite some time.”

54“I want to be a frontline soldier, not here at headquarters.”

55Sabayev blushed. It seemed that those words were aimed at him personally.

56“So there’s nothing worse than someone at headquarters? You don’t like headquarters?”

57Menakhem said nothing. He was scornful and indifferent. He thought: “I know these guys only too well. They’re all the same kind, the Suzayevs, the Khatshaps, the Zhillins. And this is no longer the start of the war! Now I can see what they’re up to! Why did you call for Zipunov yesterday? I know everything. I could see it on Zipunov’s fat lips. I’m an old hand at this. Stop playing your games. Just say what you mean!” But he had not uttered those words aloud to Sabayev, but the expression on his face was clear, and Sabayev surely understood it. Sabayev’s anger evaporated:

58“Stop rolling your eyes like that, Mikhail Isaacovitch… Well, good buddy, you can still get promoted. Sit down. But it’s not so easy to get the rank of lieutenant. We know everything, Mikhail. Everything! Nothing is a secret from us. Nothing. Don’t do anything stupid. You’ve already suffered enough…”

59Hundreds of Germans passed through Menakhem’s interrogation office during his first days there. They were troops from the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armees in the Baltic regions. Among them were also troops of the Third Tank Division and the Fourth Armee. Plus there were assorted suspicious characters with no papers at all. Some refused to speak German, only Czech. One of them spoke French. Some of them stood before Menakhem straight at attention, and answered his questions accurately with military precision, and continued to stand at attention until he dismissed them. Others entered nonchalantly, with their hands behind their backs, wearing tattered clothes, and stood before him with their legs apart and their shoulders drooping. They looked calmly at the walls and tried to avoid looking at Menakhem’s face. And when they were ordered to leave, they took their time and stood around.

60Many of them were terrified when they came in. They mumbled and showed their big rough hands to prove that they had been proletarians all their lives. They would say, “Thank God” after every sentence. One of them said the same word over and over: “Finally.” At first Menakhem did not quite get what he meant by “Finally.” Did he mean that finally the war had ended? Or the end of Hitler’s rule? Or maybe his own end: that he would be shot by the Russians at the bottom of some antitank ditch?

61They assembled a small group of prisoners in the courtyard and sent them to special locations. And thus the “master race” passed before Menakhem. He had already faced German prisoners before, when he was fighting in Moscow, at the underground headquarters when Petrov was the chief. On that snowy night the Fritzes in front of him had been freezing, despondent. Now it was springtime. They were in Germany, on the banks of the Oder River. They were brought under guard to his office in a fine mansion, and he was doing the interrogation. Now he was on their territory. In their “Thousand-Year Reich.” He did not now feel the fury, the rage that had seized him when he had first encountered German soldiers.

62Now he observed them with steel-cold eyes. He was not disturbed, not by their dullness, nor their arrogance, nor their dejection, nor their servility. He had seen German prisoners weeping at the edge of a ditch before being shot or begging on their knees. But now cold armor gripped his heart.

63Only once during the interrogations did Menakhem come near a prisoner. He was tall, long-legged, with a sullen, bony face. He ripped a copper swastika off the German’s neck and asked quietly: “How dare you?” He knew that among those who passed before him there were those who had exterminated masses of civilians. He could tell who had done the murdering and who had watched without saying a word. All of them were now fleeing to the west. They lied boldly, gave false names and phony birthplaces, and refused to say in which military units they had served. Sep Dühring, the Obergruppen Führer of an SS corps, showed his decoration, the “Knight’s Cross With Oak Leaves,” and demanded to be treated like an officer. Menakhem leaped up and moved forward, as if a hot wind were pushing harder and harder against his temples and driving him. He felt he might explode. He knew that neither words nor screams would relieve him. He pressed his right hand against his belt, digging his nails into it until they hurt. His left hand gripped the edge of the table and moved it around, his fingers trembling.

64Before him stood this SS officer, a h ereditary P russian Junker, his face covered with scars and deep wrinkles like the ridges on a tree trunk. He was in his fifties, with a short haircut and icy, deep-set eyes. He looked like an oak tree whose leaves had just fallen off. Only his red neck betrayed the seething rage of this officer with the ghostly gray face.

65It was not easy for Menakhem to maintain his outward calm. His natural serenity, his reserve, the profound dignity that he had inherited from generations of impoverished Jewish commoners reined him in. It was a clash of two worlds far apart. Here was the grandson of Jewish villagers somewhere near Sochocin, the descendant of orchard keepers, peddlers, and craftsmen. And there stood Sep Dühring, the Prussian Junker. And it was the general who was the prisoner of the Jew Menakhem.

66Menakhem wanted to summon witnesses to this meeting, all the Jews from his country who had been murdered, in all its cities and towns: The Jews of Pultusk whom German soldiers had herded into the synagogue and burned alive! The Jews of Ciechanow! The Jews of Makowa! His brothers! His neighbors! Let all of them come! All! Come and see! This is a unique event in our tragic generation! This must be remembered! There must be witnesses to this historic encounter!

67Menakhem pressed his fingers to the breaking point. He could see Dühring marching his SS corps into the Jewish towns of northern Poland. In 1939 he had watched the German army’s victory parade. Come! Come all you martyrs! Watch him tremble! He is now in my hands, he who exterminated our old Jewish communities in Poland with iron and steel! Look at him!

68It seemed to him that his spacious office in the German mansion had filled up. The witnesses had all come, all those radiantly joyous Jews, as if for a holiday, waiting for a great trial. Sabayev sat calmly, carving a five-pointed star and his initials into the table with a penknife. It was quiet in the room. Menakhem looked at the stony German, then at Sabayev. It seemed as if he were the odd man there, as if it was they who had summoned him to that big black table in that German village between the Soviet army on one side of the river and the German army on the other. What was he doing there? There was something unsettling about that silence of those two officers. They were like two rivers that flowed into each other somewhere in a flooded field. But the tree that had been uprooted by the raging waters would never take root again. It would be carried away in the roaring torrent.

69Menakhem refused to take revenge on the Germans. He refused to cross a German threshold and refused to accept clothes that the Soviet army distributed from German stocks. He refused to drink from German glasses and to eat off German dishes. Any revenge taken against a German whose personal guilt had not been proven would diminish the immensity of the crime that the Germans had committed against the Jewish people. His scorn for the nation was so great that he stopped conceiving of them as a nation. He saw them as human beings, common people, farmers, farm women, children, the farmers walking slowly to their fields like oxen. He stood at the large window and looked at the fields, the distant villages, the green valleys of springtime, and the tragedy of the Jews dimmed in his eyes.

70He asked, “Why did you put up such fierce resistance? Why didn’t you put down your weapons?”

71Sep Dühring answered in a dry, hoarse voice: “We wanted to protect Prussia from the worst possible fate that could befall it.”

72“Didn’t you see the end of the military operations as a good thing?”

73The German laughed sarcastically: “A good thing?! We’re talking about the life and death of a nation. My troops knew that if we lost, that would be the end of a culture hundreds of years old. Seven hundred years of German labor in Prussia. That would all be lost in an invasion from the east.”

74 Menakhem paced back and forth across the room. Sabayev stuck the point of his penknife into the center of the star that he had carved in the table and watched Menakhem pacing.

75“A culture hundreds of years old?! Culture?! Culture?! How dare you use that word?! Have you no shame?! D’you have any idea how stupid you are, you Junker, you Prussian bastard?”

76His anger arose not from his placid ancestors on his father’s side, those scribes and scholars, but from the blood of country Jews on his mother’s side. He saw before him his uncle Elye, short and stocky, who would storm into the marketplace brandishing a wheel axle, demanding justice. He felt that rage now coming from that side of the family.

77“The culture of generations?! I’ve seen your culture! Your regiments occupied my homeland. I was a witness to what your SS corps did to civilians!” He ran to the map on the wall and ran his feverish fingers over East Prussia: “These are the roads your regiment took. Here’s Torun. You slashed through northern Poland like a knife. Then to Wloclawek, Makowa, Mlawa, Plonsk. Come here, you German ObergruppenFührer! Those towns are older than your Prussian seven hundred years! I’m from there! That was September 1939. I was in the Polish army that got beaten by your corps. And now we meet again. A great encounter on the Oder! This is my revenge! I am the son of a nation that you wanted to destroy, that you scorned. I scorn you and your heritage and your land! Seven hundred years of culture?! And what has it given the world?! Auschwitz!! Majdanek!! You SS ObergruppenFührer!!”

78Menakhem was silent, like granite. Two guards took the German away. His Iron Cross lay on the table. Menakhem brushed it away in anger. Sabayev mumbled discontentedly.

79Tempelhof, near the big German airport, was Lev Oshanin’s destination. A place had been prepared for him in the cellar of one of the houses built like barracks. He was expected. But he had some other addresses in case the house was destroyed by a bombing. In a hilly area to the south of the Müggelsee Lake he received the news that Valentin was to head north to Wohlgarten. They had separated on a rainy March day. Oshanin was glad. He had disliked this person named “Valentin” right from the beginning. Apparently “Valentin” already knew that they would split up in that hilly village by the lake.

80 Their stay in the abandoned inn lingered, and Oshanin concluded that his companion was waiting for a radio message. That message came in a code that Oshanin did not know. It appeared that Valentin had his own separate mission. Searchlights lit up the sky. A reddish fog hung over the western horizon. The evening before their separation they spoke about the Caspian Sea and the Volga River. Oshanin knew the fields along the Don River well. That was where he had done his basic training. But he was from Polesia, humid, mossy green, with stands of white birch trees, silvery willows, and pale poplars.

81Valentin asked him nonchalantly, as if he had no ulterior motive, “Are you Jewish?”

82“Sure! But you must have known it already. And if you ask a question to which you already know the answer, then it means you want to see how I’m going to answer.”

83Oshanin’s Jewishness was his love for his own family, for the years of his youth, for his warm childhood home. He still remembered how his father had touched his son’s new officer’s insignia on his uniform and thanked God for allowing the son of a lowly wagon driver to achieve such distinction. As a child, Oshanin had heard stories about the massacre of Jews in Gomel and the self-defense group that his uncles had belonged to. Being a Jew also meant singing Jewish melodies late into the night, mixed with the songs the muzhiks sang as they harvested and threshed the grain. He knew those songs well and often sang them for his army buddies around the campfire on the banks of the Don. He had sung them marching all over Russia, wherever he was with his troops. He was their lead singer.

84Being Jewish also meant being a son of the land that stretched from the Dnieper River to the Amur River. His Yiddish was like the soil of Polesia, mixed and knotted with roots, grasses, mosses. The most wonderful plants grow in such soil. He was tightly bound up with his home, his parents, his uncles. Of course he was Jewish! But that was all a personal matter. It was no one else’s business. He was not interested in making a show of his Jewishness for others. He spoke only Russian, for that was the language of his gigantic country, and he could speak in that language to everyone. For him, Yiddish was like a cozy shirt against his skin.

85 He said to Valentin: “Ever since this catastrophe struck the Jews, I mistrust anyone who asks me if I’m Jewish. They have to see me as a human being, and that’s enough. And if someone asks whether Oshanin is anything other than a Soviet citizen, then that means…” He did not finish the sentence. They sat, silent, resentful.

86Before they separated, Valentin told him: “The Germans have not only slaughtered your people. They’ve convulsed the peace of mind of every Jew who survived. It will be impossible for non-Jews to live together with Jews. You’re full of mistrust, hatred, suspicion, fear, and desire for revenge. Just as someone who loses a lot of blood will be sick all his life, so, too, a nation that has lost so much blood will suffer for generations. You’re now a sick nation, and I’m one of those who sympathize with you.”

87“You sympathize with us?”

88That was their last conversation. Oshanin left without turning around. A farm wagon passed by, hitched to two oxen. Some Germans followed it, refugees. “Good mornin’!” he called to them, and he quickly followed the wagon, which was loaded with straw. A sooty lantern hung in the back, swinging between iron-clad wheels. A German with a very flat chin was smoking a pipe. A wounded soldier walked slowly, leaning on the wagon. Some Volksstürmer passed them on motorcycles, leaving behind the foul smoke of gasoline. The bedlam on that village road reflected the chaos that reigned in Germany.

89Menakhem could not get any rest on those nights. Something big was happening. In his half sleep he imagined the hammering of chisels engraving the judgment against the Thousand-Year Reich onto stone tablets.

90During the day hundreds of Germans came through his office: farmers from Saxony, railroad workers from Spandau, a student from Frankfurt, a merchant from Leipzig, a landowner from Prussia. Their faces were already fading from memory. At first he had searched for signs of criminality, and he was relieved when he discovered them. He did not understand why he felt better when he was face to face with a German who had committed crimes. Why was he not looking for signs of decency, or humanity? He resisted the twisted pleasure of having before him a German with a stupid face. Those faces justified the profound scorn that he felt. He thought he had solved the puzzle: Why had they served the Nazis? He flew into a rage whenever a prisoner would start mumbling about having lost his home, about having done his duty to his country, and about his joy at having remained alive, “It’s finally over! Dear God!” Then Menakhem lost track of what he was trying to find out. For here was a mortal soul, with fine facial features, bewildered. You could find such people anywhere.

91At night he would go to the barns where the Soviet tank troops were lodged. There he ran into Sgt. Orlov amidst groups of soldiers. They were sitting on their cots, playing cards. There was German liquor. They were drinking from pink porcelain cups with gilt edging. Papavkin was pouring. When they were done they smashed the cups against the stone wall.

92Papvkin yelled, “Real porcelain! You can tell from the sound!” They enjoyed breaking them.

93“Mikhailo! You’re half German since you talk like them! How’d you like to be my matchmaker? I know a girl, real sturdy, a tank couldn’t move her! But I can’t make her understand! She just says “Das, was, das,” and I don’t get a word of it! Can you help out a brother? The liquor’s on me!”

94“Let’s have it!”

95Platon Voronka jumped up: “Let’s have some snacks.”

96Dobrusz was drunk. Zipunov shook him by the shoulders: “Hey, sonny boy! Just one drink and already your eyes are closing?”

97Zipunov had shown great interest in Dobrusz as soon as he joined the regiment. First he taught him how to use a machine gun. Then he showed the inexperienced Dobrusz how to find his way through all the connected trenches at night. They did guard duty together. Then he took Dobrusz around to all the estates, hunting for watches, silver cigarette lighters, and cigarette cases. By the light of the moon Zipunov displayed all the loot that he had taken on German territory to Dobrusz. He took pleasure in the shiny numbers on the watches, the polished gemstones, the gleam of the silver. They drank German wine together. Dobrusz would doze off right away, while Zipunov stayed awake, rolling cigarettes in very thin paper. At dawn they sneaked into German houses. They looked like a father and son who had found each other again in faraway Germany.

98 Menakhem knew about this strange friendship between Dobrusz and the sinister Zipunov. “No good will come of it,” he thought, watching Dobrusz’s boyish head swaying from drink and exhaustion. It pained him to see Dobrusz this way. He had tried to get close to Dobrusz more than once, but without success. It was difficult to talk to the boy. His words had fallen on deaf ears.

99Dobrusz was agitated. Every few minutes he would jump up, looking around nervously, up and down. His eyes betrayed mistrust and mockery. Now Menakhem saw him close to tears in his drunkenness, so he went over and stroked his feverish brow. Platon stood in the doorway with a tall German woman.

100“Come on, Klara! Let’s go! Let them look at you! Let them see your eyes!” He was holding on to the sleeve of her nightgown with dark-colored flowers. Her hair was in disarray, her face flushed. With one hand she tried to hold the nightgown closed over her breast. With the other she pulled her tailcoats down over her knees. It looked like he had brought her right out of bed. “Here’s some food and vodka!”

101A soldier brought a woven basket full of freshly baked goods and set it at the head of the table. Menakhem turned away to leave. Raucous laughter erupted. “What are you scared of? Hey, hero! Come here! You’ll meet our Klara. Shake Mikhail’s hand! Get to know him! Why are you just standing there, girl?” Platon gave her a push, and put out his hand towards Menakhem and said, “That’s it, German girl!”

102She looked at them with big smiling eyes. Her fear had left her. “What’s wrong, Klara?”

103When she offered her hand the bathrobe slipped down, uncovering her naked shoulder and a lacy nightgown. Wild laughter broke out. Orlov offered her a full glass of vodka. The musician from Leningrad who had spent his free time playing the church organ struck up a song. The drunken, dozing Dobrusz woke up, took a harmonica out of his pocket, and joined in wildly. Zipunov started dancing around the half-naked German girl, clattering on the stone floor with his heels, crouching all the way down, and spinning around madly. The soldiers clapped along. Someone called to Mikhail: “Brother, why are you standing there like a German crucifix? Come on!”

104Menakhem turned his back to the girl and took Dobrusz by the arm: “Come!” Dobrusz smiled at him good-naturedly. Menakhem again saw in his face that same boyish scorn mixed with tearfulness. He left, followed by Platon’s hoarse laughter and the high-pitched little laugh of the big German girl in the bathrobe.

105Menakhem walked through the dark streets, constantly running into guard-posts. Rays of light came from some windows. Voices could be heard. A wayward cannon ball rolled towards the black horizon and exploded over the fields. It would surely be thrown back soon to the Soviet trenches. The tin rooster on a church tower creaked. A tank blocked the way to a side street, and its shadow multiplied itself on a white wall. A door opened somewhere nearby. Frogs were croaking in a meadow. The air was moist, smelling of horse manure, gasoline, and springtime.

106“Halt!” Yet another guard. This time it was Kerbaley the Tatar, confident and fearful. Every soldier now knew that fear and confidence were not mutually exclusive. They went hand in hand here on the front line on German territory. More than once Menakhem had seen the natural goodness and decency of soldiers disappear when they enjoyed the fruits of criminal acts. He himself had been tempted by those fruits. But he reined in the intoxication of victory. He did often feel the urge to break free of the restraints that he had imposed on himself. But they constrained him like a rigid, heavy harness. Why should he not walk through the German village arrogantly, laughing, and all liquored up— just like Platon, like Orlov, like the Kalmyk, Gusyev? Why should he not sit at German tables and have a good time with their wives and daughters? Why must he wander around at night among dark houses, like a vagabond who gets no rest? How often had he stood dumbfounded when doors opened and girls beckoned to him! He slept well on those nights, listening to the footsteps of the night watch and the rumble of armored cars.

107It was late. The Tatar Kerbaley was singing, a far-eastern melody. It was as if the wind had brought it from Asia. It was a pleasure to hear his singing. But he could not fall asleep. The darkness drew him outside. He went up the steps to headquarters. Alturov was on guard at the entrance. Dawn would break in two hours. A truck passed with blue headlights. He could hear voices calling every few minutes. A telegraph machine tapped away. Communications men ran around like demons. Someone stopped with a long paper scroll in front of the dim light of a car. Col. Gusyev approached him; his tunic slung over one shoulder. The man read him the telegram that had come. The Kirghiz Alturov leaned against the door and put down his machine gun. A commotion stirred in headquarters. Doors opened and closed. Footsteps creaked. An orderly brought in some tea. An old German woman washed the steps outside. Lights went on in the street. A heavy car was started up. The multiple shadows of the tank on the wall disappeared, as did some of the shadows from the church tower.

108Menakhem was standing next to the Kirghiz, silently rolling cigarettes. The morning chill was refreshing, and it dispersed his nighttime restlessness. Now you knew that you had another day coming, that God had given you one more bright day. The day was yours entirely. Nothing would happen to you under that bright sky. Only the night was not in God’s domain. It was lawless. Now Menakhem could shake off all those night demons that had clawed at him like thorns. Why had he envied the soldiers the day before who were enjoying the fruits of their crimes? In the sharp morning air he regained his composure. He was not immune to the impurity that courses through the veins of all those who invade the land they have conquered from their enemies. Why have You bound my hands? Why have You stopped the mad rush of blood in my veins? Why am I not like all the other soldiers? Let me be free for one hour, God! Turn Your face away from me, for I cannot keep out Your light that overwhelms me! Spread out the darkness around me so that I can run wild over the desolate roads and the blackened footpaths of this evil land. Do not go with me on my impure way. Leave me alone in my hour of victory, just as You leave us alone in our times of defeat, alone among victorious troops face to face with the Germans. Let me enjoy the mad, sweet fruits of revenge and victory.

109The springtime earth reawakened in the Soviets their longing for the fields back home. They looked with wonder at the alien soil, which became dearer to them with each bud that opened. At night Sergei Orlov talked of the fields and woods back home: “D’you hear the frogs croaking? It’s time to sow oats. Looks like it’ll be a good harvest, because the mosquitoes are biting. Oho! That’s a western wind with low-lying clouds. Time to get ready for the summer sowing.” And when he saw a rowan tree in bloom, it augured a good flax harvest. Once he stopped at an oak tree and smiled: “D’you see, Mikhail? If all the leaves have fallen off in autumn, and in the spring there are no leaves left from the previous year, that’s a sign that it’ll be a good year both for people and for cattle.”

110He was now back in the fields at home: “Now’s the time to take the tractor down the hard road along the poplars all the way to the little wooden bridge. Once again Akim forgot to put in a new support beam. The bridge to the Redhead’s fields has to be mended. Otherwise how can the tractor get across?”

111“Who’s that Redhead? Your girlfriend?”

112Orlov burst out laughing: “Oh, that’s an old story. Once upon a time, long ago, we’d often run into a girl with red hair in the fields. She lived in the last cabin in the valley. She’d say she was going over to the next village. That went on for years, and she gave birth to bastards every year. No one in her village knew who the father was. Years later they caught a man who had escaped from internal exile, and the redhead lived with him for about ten years in a ditch in the woods. This was all during the Turkish War. I heard it from my grandfather. Several footpaths lead from her place:

113“On the right, towards the big pasture lands. The grass there is low, tangled, greenish brown. When you walk there, your feet get tangled like in rope loops. There’s enough there for the sheep to eat. The spring that I pass on my tractor overflows in the springtime, and the water spreads out over the plain. In the summer dry spell you can catch slippery tench fish with your hands and thorny grass pike.

114“The path on the left leads to the hay fields, where the grass grows up to your waist. The shepherd Stiopka doesn’t drive the herds there. They’d trample the hay. If you come at harvest time, you’ll be amazed! The waves of grass swirl like a swollen river. You can watch the colors shimmering, silvery-green here, pinkish blue there, or yellowish-brown, and sometimes it looks like the clouds of white fog before dawn. D’you know what it’s like to walk with your scythe through a field like that?! We’d spend weeks there for the harvest, with our wagons, cows, wives. We’d light fires. We’d sit in a circle and we each got a wooden bowl. We ate ukha fish soup, and then we’d lie down in the shade of the wagons and the haystacks. What kind of life do they have here in Germany? They say that the Germans have a ‘method’ for everything. Even when they fall off the oven they have a ‘technique.’ Thank God, Mikhail, they’re losing the war with their ‘technique!’” Orlov was beaming with the warmth of the Russian hearth, the good nature of the muzhiks.

115“I’ve seen so many things in this world! Listen to what a Russian farmer tells you: I’d give you everything, Mikhail, everything—all the trinkets jangling around in my pockets—I’d give all of Germany, to have a single evening on my porch in my village on the banks of the Oka River. Here I don’t smell the earth, the trees. The houses have a strange odor, and the German women have the scent of washed calves. They reek like pharmacies. But our women have the aroma of meadows in bloom, of freshly baked rye bread. When you lie at night with one of our girls, you feel as if you’re surrounded by the heavens and the fields, the forests, the meadows. With German women it’s the stench of old underwear, dried sausages, awful medicines.”

116Orlov was embarrassed when he spoke about women. His words rambled, and he would lose his breath. When he talked to the troops about the feminine sex he would use foul language, but he stammered when he talked to Menakhem about them. The two of them grew close after that night of conversation. They could often be seen together. Menakhem would come to watch him working in the shop where tanks were being repaired.

117“Say, d’you see how the cranes are flying high up? That’s a bad sign!” Orlov had an explanation for every natural phenomenon. He had spent his life in the village. He had worked in the fields from an early age with old men, and he had absorbed the folk wisdom of generations. He could lay traps to capture foxes and knew how to hunt wolves and bears. In the autumn he had collected chanterelle mushrooms in the woods, filling whole barrels to be marinated. He had floated timber down the Oka River and caught fish in huge nets. Sergei had dragged firewood in the winter from the far reaches of the forest.

118Once Menakhem told him about African elephants who knew that hungers were upon them and that they had no more strength to fight back. Wounded, they would plunge into the densest part of the forest and keep moving until they reached boulders against which they smashed their tusks. Sensing that the hunters were after the ivory, they refused to let their tusks fall into their hands intact.

119Orlov jumped up, amazed and delighted: Did you see it with your own eyes, Mikhail?”

120 “No, I read it in an account by a traveler. He also described the elephant cemetery. When they sense that their end has come, they go to the cemetery where other elephants have died. They lie down there until they die.”

121Orlov was very taken with the story. One day Menakhem drew him a picture of an elephant destroying his tusk against a boulder. Hunters stood in the background. Orlov could not believe his eyes: “You drew this with your own hands?!” He looked at the elephant and the boulder sadly and sympathetically.

122“Just let this war end, Mikhail, and you’ll come and be my guest! You’ll go visit the Redhead, you’ll see the gleaming waters of the Oka, and I’ll take you to the hay harvest. Why would you want to hang around in filthy Poland?”

123Menakhem was silent. Only a tiny smile, barely noticeable, came to the corners of his mouth. He remembered faraway Tengushay, Lioska’s house, her mother Molkina. It was winter. He was sitting at the bare wooden table. A candle burned in front of the icons. Shadows danced on the walls. The men of Tengushay had been sent off to war. Menakhem had returned for a few days. He was leaving for Murom the next day. Lioska was lying on top of the oven. It was quiet in Tengushay. Suddenly they heard a lamb moaning. Mama Molkina was weary and downcast: “Lie down on the oven, Mikhail. Tomorrow we’ll walk you to the train station, like one of our own.” Then he watched her kneeling before the icons. Lioska’s hands had the scent of hay…

124When had that been? Menakhem closed his eyes… Lioska from Tengushay. He could see her carrying the pails from a yoke on her shoulders. She was walking on a snowy street. Her embroidered red sarafan was brilliant… Anna was standing over his bed. There were brightly lit, white rooms. Searchlights scoured the skies... Elderly bearded farmers were going to harvest hay. They took off their caps and kneeled in the still-green hay field, whispering prayers... Suzayev… Petrov… Zhillin… Adrian… Orlov… Sabayev… They ran around in his head wildly, incoherently… the fields along the Volga… the road to Dudnikovo, a village of the Mordvin shepherds… to Aleksandrov with its plowmen… the fishermen of Krasny-Yar... Maidan and its wood-turners… to Atenino and its Tatars… trudging on those roads, end of autumn 1941... thousands of peasant sleds, with whole villages following them to Moscow, to come to its defense. The Germans were at its gates... mines on the snowy fields... rockets... Moscow was like a frozen river whose icy cover suddenly cracks, revealing cold dark waters below it. Would that be the end of his remembrances? The villages on the Volga returned… the German prisoners… Here was Hugo Rudoss again, in the earthen guardhouse outside Moscow… Here was Menakhem’s trial again… Sentenced to slave in the mines… Khatshap the Georgian… Abilev the Tatar… Here he was on the banks of the Vistula again… Anna, again…

125This swarm of daydreams exhausted him. When he opened his eyes the slight bitter smile vanished from his face. He was grateful that Orlov had resurrected the scent of hay fields in him. Something vital that had escaped from him during the war years was returned to him. He felt disjointed, as if cannon fire and explosions had torn him to pieces. If he were destined to survive the war, a new man would be born from those fragments. And he feared that new man.

126On his table there were a number of pencil drawings of German prisoners. It was his favorite pastime. They calmed him down, those agitated, rough strokes on whatever paper was handy. He drew them as he interrogated the men. His left eye grew smaller and smaller, while little wrinkles radiated from it to the left side of his face and brow. His temples gleamed like marble, from the veins. Here was Sep Dühring, SS ObergruppenFührer, in full length; Ristke, with the house on the Danube; the dragoon Dietrich Stulpe; the officer Martin Pannwitz from Crossen; and dozens and dozens of others.

127They had odd faces, with broad, flat chins like spades, and angular, distorted jaws, close-shaved heads, rounded skulls, thick necks, and big, hairy ears. Most of the officers were very tall, with big feet and long, stiff hands. They stood glumly at attention before Menakhem. But they relaxed when Menakhem looked at them nonchalantly or indifferently, or if Sabayev showed curiosity or surprise. They would mumble and say they were sorry at every turn. And they really relaxed when they were offered a seat. Menakhem could not understand where their humility came from, those hard German faces with piercing eyes, bony chins, broad mouths and lips that barely hid their large, uneven teeth.

128Sabayev leafed through Menakhem’s drawings. Once he showed them to a war correspondent from a Moscow newspaper and said, “See these German bastards? They all came to this office. Mikahil drew them. Only an artist who could plumb the depths of these swine could penetrate their souls.” The journalist shook Menakhem’s hand: “Good job! One day these will serve as documentation for historians of the Great Patriotic War. You can see the German soul. One look and you can see the whole nation. No, these aren’t caricatures. It’s the truth. This helps me really see the face of the German nation. We haven’t even been introduced! My name’s Simonov.”

129Menakhem asked, “Simonov? The poet?”

130Alturov brought in liquor and snacks. Sabayev drank one glass after another, and he was in a good mood. Mikhail’s drawings would get to Moscow. They would know that he was serving in Sabayev’s general staff and that Sabayev had picked him for it. Simonov was not just anybody. It was said that he was welcome in the Kremlin.

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131“Hey, Alturov! Where have the devils taken you to? You managed to find your way from Khirgizia all the way to German territory, but now when we need some common sense, you’ve lost your head!” Sabayev walked firmly, trying to mask his drunkenness. Simonov, too, had drunk, but you could not tell. Sabayev said, “My orderly Kerbaley brought the bacon. Those Tatars have a good sense of smell. He can detect a horse’s behind. He brought the bacon, because he himself doesn’t eat pig meat. That’s why we get to eat a good zakuska.2 Eat up, Mikhail! Oh, you’re a faker. You pretend to drink but you don’t. We Soviet people, we know those tricks!”

132Sabayev often used the expression “We Soviet people.” When he was tipsy he put it into every sentence. Now he stumbled on the carpet and fell against the door: “Alturov! You swine! We Soviet people…”

133It was dark now. Menakhem walked Simonov to his car, arm in arm. Menakhem struck up a song, the one about the blue kerchief fluttering in a girl’s hands. The drink had raised his spirits. He had not sung in many years. A blurred face looked at them through a window. An old German with a pipe in his mouth was walking towards them. They could clearly hear artillery. It was a good sign. Things were moving!

134“Simonov, you’re a Russian and I’m a Jew. According to Sabayev we’re both ‘Soviet people.’ The enemy—our common enemy—has brought us together. But what will happen afterwards? I’m worried about the postwar period. German hatred of your people will fade, but hatred of us will remain.”

135Simonov answered by telling him of his Jewish friends. He mentioned Jewish officers whom he had met recently: “They’re heroes, those Jews. Fantastic regimental commanders: Maj. Gen. Krivoshein, tank brigade Maj. Gen Weinrib, Col. Smolin, artillery Lieut. Gen Rozanwicz. Your people have shed a lot of blood. And in defending the Jews we have exalted our weapons. We have washed the blood off our flags.”

136Simonov embraced Menakhem before he left, and they hugged each other. Simonov gave him some of his poems as a souvenir, and Menakhem gave him some of his drawings.

137Headquarters was a mess. Sabayev was snoring on the carpet. Empty bottles and leftovers were all over the place. The smell of liquor was overwhelming. Menakhem opened the windows. The drink had given him wings, and he was pulled outside, barely touching the ground. Near the church he started towards the barns. He ran into Platon Voronka and his girlfriend Klara at a corner near a stone wall.

138“Mikhail, you scared us!”

139“What a coward! You don’t need an interpreter anymore?”

140“We’re getting along fine without words, for God’s sake! She’s a quiet little woman. I’ll take her back to the kolkhoz with me. What do you think? Will they allow it?”

141Menakhem left. Kerbaley the Tatar told him that little Dobrusz and Zipunov were spending the night in a German house, where there lived a woman and her daughter. Zipunov and Dobrusz were now “family.”

142Kerbaley laughed: “That devil Zipunov, goes to the front and gets himself a son-in-law!”

143A horse was neighing. The Tatar’s nostrils flared. A bat flew by so low that he had to duck down: D’you know, Mikhail, where bats come from? From churches. If a mouse eats up the tallow from church candles, they grow wings and become bats. Ha, ha, ha.”

144Menakhem could hear him laughing for a long time, the same sharp, ancient laughter of the steppes that had resounded centuries ago in Genghis Khan’s Mongolia.

145Oshanin was sending regular reports to the headquarters of the Berlin front. There was no word from Valentin. Oshanin had reached his destination. His dispatches were immediately relayed to the artillery positions of Col. Gusyev. A member of the Supreme War Council was coming to headquarters. Dozens of cars were pulling up to the house. The telephone operators were desperately looking for “Col. Ilya.” The glass doors were shaking. The rattling of the doors, the din of the car engines, the orderlies and staff running around on stone floors echoed through the night.

146Sabayev’s drunkenness suddenly evaporated. His short hair bristled and his ears burned. There would be a Party meeting for the officers. Sabayev would have to give a report on political activities. Where were Kerbaley and Menakhem?

147The subject of the meeting would be “Political Vigilance.” He would have to assemble the commanders of the various units fighting at the frontline. When Sabayev left headquarters he ran into Menakhem near the iron garden gate. A German came running and screaming.

148“What does he want?” Sabayev asked Menakhem.

149“Two soldiers went into his house last night, forced him into the stable, and locked him in. Then they partied all night with his wife and daughter. They really messed up the house. I’ll deal with it, Vasil Akimovitch Sabayev.”

150Then he left with the German. He was very concerned, because he suspected that Dobrusz had been involved. He ran into Papavkin near the barns. Dobrusz was on guard duty. Zipunov was inside. He woke up Zipunov. The little farmer faced Menakhem half asleep, holding up his pants with both hands.

151“Why’d you wake me up? I just got off guard duty.”

152The German, who had been behind Menakhem, pointed his pipe at Zipunov: “Him! And there was another guy.”

153“You can go,” Menakhem answered in German.

154When he was alone with the little farmer he asked, “So it was you who was in the German’s house?”

155Zipunov buckled the belt on his pants. Foam drooled from his mouth, and he wiped it with the tip of his tongue. His lips curled up as if in pain, and he yelled, “Since when do Jews defend Germans?! You should be ashamed of yourself as a Jew to reprimand me! What’s it to you if we had some fun with their women for one little night? You all want to be subservient to everyone. To the Russians, the Poles, and now the Germans!”

156Menakhem lunged at him with his fists. Just then Sgt. Orlov showed up and separated them.

157“You’re disgusting!” said Menakhem. “You have guilt on your hands. You’re no better than the Germans. Your pockets are full of plunder. And you have the blood of your Belarussian brothers on your hands.”

158“I wasn’t the only one there! Dobrusz was there. He was the one who took me to the Germans and said we should take revenge. He’s a Jew, too. Why are you picking on me? You don’t pick on your own! Only on Russians!”

159“Coward!” yelled Menakhem as he walked out.

160He was summoned to headquarters in the middle of the night. The member of the Supreme War Council was sitting in the reception hall. Col. Gusyev was also there, along with Politkommissar Sabayev and several higher officers who had been called especially from various posts. Sitting off to the side was an older man, gray, with broad shoulders and a gentle Jewish face. Menakhem could not remember where he had seen him, but he recognized the face. He was near the door, waiting, calm, unperturbed.

161Sabayev told Menakhem, “Come closer,” as he opened a Moscow newspaper. “See, there’s an article about you, and here are your drawings. Simonov describes you.” Col. Gusyev got up. He was a tall, large man, with deep-set eyes and striking features. His Kalmyk face revealed his good nature. He said to Sabayev: “Don’t make things worse for Mikhail Issacovich! Speak clearly, and to the point!”

162Lieut. Gen. Shamshin smiled. You’ve been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Your rank has been restored. Understand?”

163It was past midnight when Menakhem walked to the barns to look for Sergei Orlov. He just had to tell him everything! Sergei was already asleep. The soldiers woke up and congratulated him, then he left with Sergei. It was a mild night. They sat down at the foot of the German stone statue and sang.

164“Mikhail, there’s no wind. We could sow poppy seeds! The sky is like God’s palace. The stars are its windows, through which bright angels fly out.” He looked at the moon and continued: “Fire is the Tsar. Water, the Tsarina. Earth, the mother. The sky, the father. Winter, the innkeeper. Rain, the provider. The sun, the prince. The moon, the princess.”

165Guards passed them: “Are you drunk? Stand up!” Menakhem got up, and the guards lifted Orlov. They walked back to the barns arm in arm. Sergei pointed to an orchard in bloom: “See, Mikhail? They should have bloomed long ago. It’s already April. Back home they used to say that if an orchard bloomed late, it was a sign that the owner would die soon. They’re gonna die, those German bastards! That’s the proof! They’ve murdered so many nations. To Hell with their pagan souls!”

166A column of cars went by. One of the guards said, “Headquarters is waking up.”


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