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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter Four

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1Köngisberg was taken in early April. The huge German military concentration there was destroyed. Infantry Gen. Lösch and his general staff laid down their arms. The Soviets took 27,000 prisoners. A new tide of German civilians, wagons, and carts overran the roads of Prussia. White flags hung from their wagons. German civilians bowed humbly before exhausted, mud-spattered Russian soldiers. Towards the middle of April the Soviet army began its final attack on Berlin from the east and the southeast. In three days they had reached the suburbs of the German capital. A huge battle raged for five days in the fortified region between the Oder River and the Spree. The German general staff had brought together 180 divisions to stop the march on Berlin.

2On April 22, at around 10 a.m., the first three Soviet tanks entered Berlin. The commander of the tank offensive was Lieut. Gen. Semyon Moiseyevich Krivoshein, son of Moishe Krivoshein, a watchmaker in Voronezh. His tanks pushed from the Weissensee district down the Berliner Allee to the center of Berlin. His headquarters was in the concrete cellar of a five-story house. His closest advisor was Lev Oshanin.

3The Soviet onslaught began with a storm of artillery fire. Rockets and powerful searchlights lit up enemy positions, blinding the Germans. They fired back chaotically. Their cannons and machine guns were erratic.

4The Soviet infantry moved in, followed by tanks in tight formation, row after row. But there were trenches and antitank ditches everywhere. The bridges had been blown up. So the tanks found it impossible to maneuver around the obstacles. The Germans had erected barricades on the streets. And they had stationed antitank artillery inside apartment buildings with concrete defenses.

5Gen. Zhukov’s army had just wiped out the enemy in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, Wandlitz, Hennigsdorf, and Köpenik, and was attacking Berlin from the south. The Allies had crossed the Rhine! The hour of victory was at hand. Russian soldiers were marching on the streets of Berlin. They looked angrily at the huge buildings of banks, businesses, and corporations. They walked through the ruins. Fires were burning everywhere. The City Hall was on fire. So was the Tiergarten. The Soviet cannons flew huge banners: “To Berlin!”

6Capt. Israel Mirkin’s troops aimed their cannons on their targets and fired the first salvo at the enemy, unleashing a barrage of cannons after them. The fields around Berlin were all trenches and antitank ditches, and a triple row of ditches surrounded each neighborhood. There was a hilly, heavily wooded area with lakes that stretches from north to south. Soviet, American, and British bombers almost razed that central area to the ground. All that was left of the Propaganda Ministry was a charred skeleton. The Spree River was dark gray, like that of flayed carcasses. It reflected the ruins of the city. Mounds of brick shards and household goods were everywhere, and papers floated from ruin to ruin. The fragment of a poster barely hung on a wall: one wing of a black eagle holding a swastika in its claws.

7Ilyushin bombers ruled the skies. The Reichskanzlei stood at the corner of Friedrichsplatz. It was the Führer’s residence. The Germans were still resisting. With the city surrounded, they built an improvised airport on the asphalt of Charlottenburg Strasse. Lev Oshanin sent a telegram to operations headquarters: “Objective 25. Reinforce firing. Eigthy meters to the right.” Reaching the Reichstag was a struggle: fortified concrete emplacements, ditches with water, protective trenches.

8One night, Valentin sent a report to Krivoshein’s headquarters. He had carried out a nighttime raid in the dangerous streets of Berlin: “The Nazi leaders are hiding in the bunkers of the Reichskanzlei. Take steps.” He had sent the telegram in the middle of the night.

9The Polish divisions under the command of Gen. Poplavski had cut off the roads to the west, and were preparing to attack the Tiergarten, which protected the Reichskanzlei from the west. Hour by hour Oshanin sent news: “There’s a provisional airport between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column. The mice in the Reich’s cellars will escape from there.” Within a few minutes, artillery fire was pounding away.

10That night Moscow was celebrating. Colorful fireworks exploded in the air. Fountains of light lit up Spasskaya Tower. “The troops of the First Ukrainian Front and those of our American and British allies have struck the German front from the east and the west, splitting it in two, and have joined forces in the center of Germany in the region of Torgau.” Three hundred twenty-four cannons fired twenty-four times in salute. Oshanin listened to the victory celebration on his radio, mixed with the bombing of the Tiergarten and the Reichskanzlei. That was his victory.

11Lev Oshanin had been in good spirits when he separated from Valentin a week earlier, south of the Müggelsee and got on the road with German refugees. He had joined a group of Germans from the other side of the Oder. An elderly man had difficulty managing his little iron cart, and his wife could barely walk, so they had to rest very often. Since the road was narrow, they had to push the cart into the ditch to let the wagons behind them pass. But when they wanted to get back on the road, they could not. There was foul cursing, engines roaring, horses neighing. Insults and chaos ruled the road. The Germans pushed on without pity. Panic swept them with every airplane noise. Oshanin had just left the field for the road, and when he saw the old man and his cart in the ditch, he helped him get back on the road with the endless crowd of people and wagons, and headed south towards Berlin. The old man cursed his wife the whole way for having wanted to flee. It was all the fault of his sons, those Party members, God damn them! “Franz Glubke, my name is Glubke!”

  • 1 Nazi term for ethnic Germans living abroad, mostly in Eastern Europe, some of whom collaborated in (...)

12He wore a threadbare leather jacket with a sheepskin pouch that had the keys to his house, his barns, and his cellars: “It won’t be long before we can go back.” He had relatives south of Berlin. Maybe the Russians would not get that far. There was a wild assortment of people on the road: Germans from Posen and from Wartheland, Ukrainians, Volksdeutsche,1 farmers, officials, firefighters on their fire trucks, a Red Cross car from Danzig, a freight truck from a soap factory in Küstrin, cars and more cars. Oshanin recognized Russian buses and heavy vehicles. They had been plundered deep in Russia.

13Evidence of Allied bombardment and Soviet artillery was everywhere: bombed-out warehouses, ruined depots and repair shops. The roads overflowed with people young and old. There was no order. The crowd surged through every fence. They passed abandoned, desolate farms. Poles supporting electric cables were destroyed in some places. Abandoned buses, cars, motorcycles, and all kinds of vehicles stood abandoned on the roadside. Their owners had left them for lack of fuel.

14Oshanin observed a car full of SS men stopping. They got out to stop a truck, not to check documents but to take the fuel from the tank for themselves. A shootout ensued. When they left, Oshanin saw dead civilians lying in the ditch. He spent that night in an abandoned farm.

15Near Berlin he ran into a group of concentration camp prisoners. They had been hurriedly forced to walk to Berlin, these half-dead prisoners. You could not tell what their nationality was. Their SS guards would not let anyone near them. The civilian authorities had abandoned the Russian war prisoners and concentration camp prisoners to the SS. They shot anyone trying to escape. The mob on the road roared, “Why don’t you just finish off these filthy swine?” They did not kill them, because if they did then they would not be guards any more, just deserters. Keeping the prisoners alive justified their not fighting on the front.

16Oshanin walked proudly on German territory that was in flames. Vetka, Gomel, Minsk, Polesia. That was the region where the Oshanin family had taken root, like an ancient oak tree.

17He remembered his uncles: tanners, wagon drivers, cattlemen, orchard keepers. The October Revolution had overturned and disturbed everything. But his deep roots remained, and the old oak grew new branches. The family produced agronomists, military officers, sailors, engineers, tractor drivers, factory managers. The sons of his uncles had taken up occupations that Oshanins had never known. Artsho, the lumberman’s son, became a pilot, and the wagon driver’s son a lieutenant in the artillery.

18He remembered them, those uncles, short, broad-backed, curly-haired Jews who had wandered from Polesie to Gomel and Tchernigov. The mothers had wept bitterly when non-Jews married their sons. Blond, light-eyed grandchildren from Russian and Belarussian mothers played in their skirts. It took them time to resign themselves to their flaxen-haired grandchildren who sat with them at the head of the table for family feasts.

19The Oshanins were every-day Jews who no longer went to their synagogue, because the regime had turned it into a club “with red flags” on the walls. But they recited the afternoon prayers by heart, a little incorrectly, in the evenings, behind dust-covered windows, as they pretended to wipe off that dust off the tops of the windows with their fingers. Their Jewishness consisted in respecting the memory of their ancestors, and in their fellow feeling to other Jews.

20Oshanin had left home very young. He had joined the army at eighteen. He felt a powerful need to maintain his link to the Oshanin clan, but he could not read the Jewish alphabet. The only prayer book in the house was hidden in a drawer, along with two sooty candlesticks.

21He felt his Oshanin family feeling surge on German soil, the seething outrage for the sufferings of his people. If someone had said to him, even half-mockingly, “You’re a Jew,” he would have slammed his fist down his or her throat. Sometimes he would be filled with pride when he sang Jewish songs. But here, too, his emotions were mixed. Sleeping in a barn, the night before, he dreamed he was standing on a tower watching a procession of Germans. They were coming out of church, carrying holy images and crucifixes. When the procession came near the tower, he could see that they were actually images of Hitler painted as a saint, crucified on a cross.

22Oshanin stayed in the four-story house of a German woman. He had money and some gold coins. Even in that Berlin suburb he had enough to obtain food. The woman, Johanna Ostergard, showed him some friendliness. She was a withered woman with a large Adam’s apple and big blue eyes. She wore a black velvet neckband with a pair of gilded glasses that rested on her flat chest. When she was nervous she would repeatedly put the glasses on her nose, but they would immediately fall back down. Then her yellowed, bony fingers would feel around for them, and her eyes would moisten. Whenever her long legs took a step, it would make a cracking sound, as if dry bones were breaking.

23The brick-walled cellar was divided into a labyrinth with wooden ladders serving as partitions. In peacetime, the landlord stored old furniture and coal for heating there. Now the entire cellar had been transformed into a bunker where each family had its own little space. Oshanin stayed up most of the night, listening carefully to the bombing. When he first went down to the cellar and saw the wooden ladders, it was as if he had stumbled into a traveling circus, with tired, dozing beasts. Near him slept Sigfried Wendtke with his double chin, who wheezed and who stank from sweat. He was the principal butcher at the corner of the street. His daughters lay near him. A few steps away, beyond a wooden divider rested the family of Hosenke, the jurist and justice official. Next was Butke the lawyer, near a little table with a dark electric lamp. Right next to Oshanin was the family of Selditz, a Prussian Junker.

24Oshanin’s generosity alleviated Johanna Ostergard’s hunger. She told her neighbors that he was a relative and that he would be staying for only a week. Whenever the shooting quieted down he would leave to buy more food. She ate with great appetite. She took special pleasure in drinking “real” coffee, and she would ask him, “How did you manage to get this, Mr. Ristke?”

25Oshanin strode through the huge rooms of the old German house and observed the dark paintings. Generations of German faces looked out at him. Men with puffy cheeks, double chins and stiff pointy whiskers, women with huge coiffed heads and ghastly pale faces—all in dark brown and black frames. One showed a huge oak table with abundance of apples, pears, and various plants, and, at the very center, a dead duck with its head hanging. Its brightly-colored feathers, shimmered, but the dead eye sparkled like mother of pearl, with blood dripping from it. “That was a well-aimed shot,” said Oshanin, pointing at the picture.

26He touched the old hunting rifles that hung in the great hall, and he read the inscriptions painted in white in flowery Gothic lettering on the deer skulls. The dates reflected the wide reach of the Ostergard dynasty: 1866 Schwarzwalden, 1889 Wartheland. Oshanin lingered at one deer head, and he took it down from the wall: 1916 Bialowieza. “Not far from my home,” he thought. A spider crawled out of the head and hung by a thin thread.

27Oshanin leafed through gilt-bound books. Here were the six volumes of Johann Gottfried Schnabel’s Die Wunderliche Fata einiger See-Fahrer—Auf der Insel Felsenburg. He looked mockingly at Agnes Miegel’s Geshichten aus Alt-Preussen. Who would write about the end of Prussia? Would it also be a woman? Perhaps she would be from Müggelsee, where he had left Valentin? All his years at the military academy in Leningrad, his study of languages and of German military history—all of that was now useful.

28He moved about easily among all these furnishings. He hid his disdain, especially for the linens embroidered with rhyming epigram, which contrasted with the cruel taste of the owners for dead stuffed birds that hung in the rooms over the doorways, their wings spread out, their heads down, and their mouths open. Animal trophies were strewn near the tables and the sturdy leather armchairs: bears, leopards, and foxes, their heads stuffed and their eyes replaced with large, fiery red pearls. The darkness of the rooms gave those pearls the gleam of blood.

29Johanna Ostergard had remained an old maid until the war. It was only during the war that she had gotten married to an SS officer, a son of farmers and foresters. Her husband was a healthy, common fellow with little education, who wished to climb the social ladder by marrying a “von Ostergard” woman. The Ostergards were Junkers. There had been bankers in the family, lawyers, army officers, and even a minister who had been famous in Prussia in the time of Friedrich II. But the family had declined after the First World War. Its holdings had been primarily in former Germany colonies and in lands that were no longer part of the Reich, in Galizien. By the time the Nazis came to power, Johanna was the only one left in the ancestral house, until this country churl showed up, who did not even know the proper way to use tableware. She told Oshanin all of this in the first few days. She was intrigued by his demeanour: “It looks like you must have been raised abroad for some years. It’s easy to see. Or perhaps there’s foreign blood in your veins?”

30Oshanin had a clear view of the streets of Berlin from the top floor. That was where he set up his radio transmitter. He had been carrying hand grenades with him for some time now. He spent the night before reading the Berlin newspapers and monitoring the radio. A wounded soldier down in the cellar told of the huge military effort that the Germans were making to defend the city. They had divided Berlin into nine sectors, each with its own separate garrison. Once Oshanin even helped the Germans dig ditches in the street and construct concrete barriers. Then he observed that the work was being done by civilians and also war prisoners and concentration camp prisoners. The Germans were building bunkers and firing positions among the ruins, hidden behind mounds of rubble. The center of Berlin had a fortified ring around it, which protected most of the government buildings, and which included over 400 shooting positions.

31Oshanin made radio contact with headquarters the third night of his stay with Frau Ostergard. They had been waiting for his report. Their nerves were at high pitch, and telegrams flew fast and furious. The red light kept going on and off. Loud rumbling kept interrupting the radio dispatches, as if from a water mill.

32“Concrete fortifications are linked by underground tunnels. They’re using the metro network, the cellars, the sewer system’s canals. Narrow-gauge rails are carrying cartloads of weapons to the artillery.”

33“Hundreds of factories and workshops in underground locations are supplying the front: Objectives 6 and 9.”

34“Destroy objectives 71, 102, 103: Nests of the Third Tank Army.”

35“An army is being concentrated in Ketzin and Potsdam to defend Berlin.”

36Suddenly a terrible noise shook Oshanin. Three armored cars had stopped near the house. The red light of his transmitter went out. He hid it among old chests in the attic and went towards the stairs. He heard screaming in the street. They broke down the door. Guards closed off the street. Oshanin stood on the roof and watched the shadows of soldiers running in the deserted street. It was a bright night, the moon shining overhead. He heard boots running up the stairs, their heels banging. He only had two grenades on him. He went for the washroom on the roof. A German’s scream echoed off the stone walls. He heard footsteps on broken plaster.

37He thought: “They’ve found me now. Or maybe it’s a coincidence that they’re searching this house. No, it can’t be coincidence. They’ve detected my radio messages, and the transmissions led them here.” Oshanin knew that there were special watches that could determine the source of radio transmissions within a few meters. The house stood like a lonely boulder among the ruins. Where could he go? Someone was tearing down the attic door and searching with a flashlight. A blue light slid across the moist stone and walls. Oshanin hid behind an antenna. Armored cars were waiting down in the street. He knew that the slightest motion would attract their searchlights. And then it would be too late. But it stopped two meters away from him. A single cloud rose up to cover the moon, and it grew dark. That would last two minutes. Half the cloud passed through. He was three meter from the edge of the roof. He jumped and threw both grenades at the cars.

38“Hands up!”

39Oshanin did not answer. The searchlight fumbled among the antenna wires and came to rest on his chest. His little revolver burned in his hands. Should he shoot first? But before he pulled the trigger an explosion shook the night. Something dark and heavy broke off the building and flew up towards the sky like a black wing. The searchlight went out. Flames rose soared up from the street. The German started edging back towards the staircase. Right then Oshanin lunged through the attic door onto the German’s back. The German did not resist. He crouched at Oshanin’s feet with his head hunched between his shoulders.

40There was shooting in the street and screams for help. People were running on the lower staircases. Oshanin forced open the door to the Ostergard house and knocked into Johanna, who was terrified: “Oh, my dear God! You’re bleeding…” His face was drenched with blood, and his hands were bleeding, too. Johanna looked for her handbag and tried to run out, screaming. Oshanin blocked the door: “Don’t move! Stay here!”

41Her Adam’s apple began throbbing up and down. She fumbled for her glasses with her bony fingers but could not put them on. Oshanin’s severe tone cowed her. She took him to the bathroom and brought him towels and bandages. She kept whispering, “My God! My God!” Oshanin washed off the German’s blood from his face and hands and tracked every movement that she made. Then he lay down on the plush divan and smoked. It was pitch black in the room. The woman stood by the window. There were ambulances, corpses, wounded men. She said, “Yes, dear God, this is now the end!”

42Oshanin thought, “Soon they’re going to go through the whole house. From room to room.” But he could not leave. It was too late. The whole street was being guarded. His radio was still upstairs. What should he do? Maybe he could somehow slip out like a shadow? It would start soon, as soon as they finished with the wounded and the dead.

43The woman was weeping. She had fallen to her knees. She wept aloud, hysterically. It was totally dark. Oshanin’s cigarette went out. He leaned towards the weeping woman and touched her thin neck: “Frau Johanna, calm down, calm down.” She took his hand in her warm fingers and brought it to her lips. He felt her tears and saliva, slippery, sticky. She guided his hand to her neck and he felt her Adam’s apple. Then she pressed his hand to her chest, and he felt the cold glasses that hung on the velvet neckband. She stopped weeping. He felt the convulsive trembling of her shoulders, and then something hard and bony embraced his knees.

44 The First Belarussian Front under the command of Marshal Zhukov began preparing its artillery in the middle of April for a short but fierce attack. It started at midnight. This artillery onslaught was accompanied by air strikes on the deepest positions of the enemy all the way to the outskirts of Berlin. The infantry and the tanks moved in right afterwards, along with more powerful air strikes. It was still night when Menakhem’s regiment marched towards the east, towards the Seelow Heights.

45The Messerschmitts and their counteroffensive stymied the attack. It seemed impossible to take their objective in one blow. The fighting at night was heavy, for the enemy had assembled a well-organized defense. It was difficult trudging in the moonlit night on hilly terrain among bushes, plowed fields, and deep trenches that the Germans had dug. There was the scent of overturned soil in springtime and of fields beginning to green. “Oh, God! Lead me to the gates of Berlin! May I see the city in ruins! Let me not die in this awful land, among mine fields, in a night of fire! Since You have taken me back to my desolate homeland, show me the desolation of the enemy! Lead me to the lair of the beast and let me see with my own eyes Your wrath and your punishment of the murderers. For I will not be there alone. My whole people will be there. Hear my prayer in this final hour! Hear my strangled cry to You! I will not forget Your grace!”

46Menakhem carried a letter to Anna under his jacket. He had written it before going on the attack. Why had he not mailed the letter? Now it was too late. Maybe tomorrow? “Will there be a tomorrow for me?”

47Good Sergei Orlov walked next to him, singing something. Menakhem knew it was meant to drive away fear. He wanted to free himself from the terror that gripped his chest and pounded in his temples. Every time he tore himself free from that grip of fear, he would say something to Menakhem and laugh an uneasy little laugh: ‘Life and death are so close together that even a flea couldn’t jump between them.” Dobrusz walked not far away. He was confident. He had drunk some liquor before leaving. Zipunov moved like a shadow. Col. Gusyev was energetic. Three enemy planes appeared from a mountaintop, then were shrouded in smoke. A mine exploded.

48“Get down! Hit the dirt!”

49The earth was cool. It was good to people, it embraced them. Even the earth of the enemy. Menakhem took Sergei’s arm, and they walked together. Suddenly huge searchlights lit up a semi-circle. The beams grew brighter and brighter. They cut through the front lines of the Germans, blinding them with their harsh brightness. The footpaths lit up, the roads, the bushes, the twisted tree trunks, the skies. It was all light and shadow, shadow and blinding light.

50“Forward! Forward! Hurrah!”

51Orlov stretched up tall and raised his machine gun over his head, then he lowered it a bit and began running with Menakhem. They ran faster and more eagerly downhill, as if they were spurred on by the searchlights through the fields. It was like running through a fire. Their shadows grew gigantic, so it seemed that their heads had already reached the enemy trenches.

52“Sergei, there’s letter on my bosom. Take it out of there. Don’t let... Mail it. The address is on the envelope. Don’t forget. On my bosom.”

53Someone was shot. They could not stop. Everything was rushing with them, the bushes, the roads, the clouds. Everything on Earth was rushing westward. Blazes of light sliced up the skies, the fields, the people, into a thousand pieces. But not the shadows. Your shadow always ran ahead of you, for miles. The artillery was no longer frightful. Now it was the nearby rattling of machine guns that terrified.

54Clouds of sand rolled on the sandy road. The branches shook as if a harsh wind were blowing. But the night was calm. It was machine gun bullets. Why did the night not end? The searchlights stopped the day from coming. “Will my elongated shadow come back close to my feet so that I can put my arms around him? Or will I be stuck forever with this ridiculously large shadow? How will he fit into the four corners of my house?”

55But that was not his shadow. It was fear running ahead of him. It was terror that spread from horizon to horizon!

56“Anna, I write to you hurriedly. We’re getting ready for the onslaught. I only have a few minutes. I’m sitting in headquarters. Last week they gave me back my rank of lieutenant. Night is falling. There’s a commotion in the street of the village. But I’ve been ready for a long time. I’m facing towards the west, and if I turn around, it’s only to look towards you. I don’t know why my life is unfolding before like a parchment right at this minute. I can see myself living among Jews in my village near the Wkra River. A four-year-old boy sits on a wooden threshold in the marketplace. He sees the high church tower, and bright, puffy clouds over it. The street is paved with crooked fieldstones. My uncle Elye arrives from the countryside in his shabby cart.

57“A goat stands near a fence. The grasses have a wonderful scent. I’ve never again in my life smelled such an aroma as when I chased the little white goat we had gotten. I ran through the meadow, the grasses up to my face. Blooms from the grass stuck to my lips. I couldn’t catch that rascally goat. They looked for me late into the night, and it was only when the moon rose that they found me asleep in the deep grass, little white goat standing near me. My mother carried me home in her arms. The goat ran after us, bleating, with a big, brilliant full moon over my mother. That was also the only time I ever saw such a moon. I’ll never see one like that again, just as I’ll never smell the wonderful scent of the grass that was as tall as I was. Perhaps tonight I will, or some night soon, when I’ll return to my childhood, lying in the grasses of the field in springtime. My life will again unfold like a scroll of parchment that someone opens for a while. And when I go back to my beginning, to those earliest memories of a four-year-old, my lips will taste the field again, and the memory will return, and that will be the end.

58“No, that won’t be the end. It’ll be a return to the beginning and the start of another existence. I’ve wrapped a package with my recent drawings. You’ll get them. Lieut. Sabayev will send them. When I close my eyes I see the blinding whiteness around you, the whiteness and the quiet bound together. Anna, you’ll be the only witness to my war years. Perhaps someone will rise from the ruins and look for me. Tell them the little you know about me. Tell them that I remained a mournful Jew until the end who walked across his destroyed homeland until he reached the gates of Berlin.

59“I’m no hero, and my death won’t be the result of heroism. I was thoroughly scared, angry, loving, prayerful. Every night sound frightened me, and I asked the Almighty to protect me with every step I took. I wanted to live. I loved the peaceful sky and the sprouting green grasses. I’ve often picked up branches with flowers in German orchards that bullets have broken off. I’ve blessed life even on the soil of those who sowed death.

60“Everything will be over when you get this letter. We’ll celebrate our victory. The flag of the righteous will fly over the Reichstag. Remember me on that day as someone who helped achieve our goal, even if he didn’t get there himself. I can see our victory already, and that fills me with joy. The other thing that makes me happy is that you came into my life. I hug you and kiss you as I get ready to go. Menakhem.”

61A cool wind blew on the far side of the hills. The searchlights outshone the stars and obliterated the sky. The twinkling stars died out as the night receded. Shadows tried to hang on but could not. They lay stretched out on the open field, torn and fragmented.

62Sergei Orlov was driving his sled over the roads through the woods covered with frosty bluish snow. He was almost at the edge of the woods. He could see Sorovo, his village, in the distance: a blanket of gray snow on the roofs and dark, bluish smoke rising. It was bitter cold. His poor horse was covered with white frost. The horse stopped suddenly, heavy steam blowing from his nostrils. The sled creaked. The horse stood mutely. The “Redhead” walked across the snow, dressed in a light-colored sarafan with silver lace. Her unkempt hair, fiery red, fell to her breast. The horse neighed. A wolf howled in the distance. The sled crashed into a ditch. Sergei was on his knees, and the redhead was leaning over him closer and closer. Her flaming hair brushed his forehead, all afire. He could not bear the heat she radiated. Suddenly the horse lunged and galloped. He was now alone with her. She held out her hands. He felt himself being carried across the fields. An old wolf ran ahead. Every step of the redhead brought a blaze of heat and light. An owl hooted in the lonely oak tree that he had avoided when he was plowing. The redhead laughed. The wolf’s eyes were burning, the snow was melting…

63Someone was screaming in his ear: “Move it! Run!” Oh, it must be Menakhem. What’s he doing here in the icy fields of Sorovo?

64Night was gone, and the sky was pressing down upon him.

65“Sergei! Get up!” Menakhem grabbed him by the shoulders and breathed right close to Sergei’s mouth.

66“Where are we, Mikhail?”

67They ran together over rough terrain. Neither a regular plow nor a swing plow had torn up the soil. Mines and cannonballs had lacerated the field, ripping deeply into its red flesh. Something was gnawing at Orlov, but he did not know what. Was it the snow fields that he would not see again? Was it the redhead, who had pulled him to her arms? Or was it the horse, who had run on without him that night on the road home? Would Sorovo be there, when the horse returned, frost on its breath, dragging the empty sled? The horse would pass by the market place and the abandoned church and stop at the gate of his home. His mother would come to the stoop, frightened. His girlfriend Nastiya would come running from the next house. When they saw the empty sled they would wring their hands and moan, “We’ve lost our beloved Seryozhka! Lost the apple of our eye! Open your doors, people! Sergei is dead! His body lies somewhere among wolves on the frozen field!”

68Sergei ran over the ditches. He fell, got up, and kept running, and he could hear the moaning in that faraway village on the Oka. He was weeping to himself with his mother, with Nastiya, lamenting his fate. She will sit at her spinning wheel and sing the song about silky grasses that cover her footsteps, a sign that her beloved was no more. It was good to hear Nastiya’s voice again. It was all over. He was far, far away, looking down from the sky, seeing everything, hearing everything. How fast the time had flown since he had fallen all alone in the snow field, until Nastiya’s singing.

69Now came new ear-splitting explosions. A German tank lifted its cannon, and everything went dark. Who opened the floodgates? A torrential flood was unleashed to the skies, it swirled together, then foamed and swept away. Clusters of clouds dragged the heavens down to the earth.

70A distant little island sparkled at the center of a world that was going to Hell. Menakhem was back in Mazowia. Six-year-old Menakhem was standing in the market square. The farmers had already left the fair. The scent of horse manure and hay mixed with the smell of milk from the cows that had just returned from pasture. He was looking at the big redbrick church. Little Jewish houses and miserable shops were crowded around it. The bell ringer walked through the empty streets and opened the iron church gate. Menakhem followed him, drawn by the quiet of the church yard. The bell-ringer, Mr. Franek, patted his head. Two long ropes hung down from the tall tower. When little Menakhem looked all the way up he lost his balance and fell. Mr. Franek suddenly pulled the rope, and bells rang out up over Menakhem’s head. The sound echoed, then multiplied again and again, resounding over the evening fields and all the way to the bluish edge of the forest. They reverberated, combining and recombining, but softer, gentler, polished by the beautiful sky. But before they had totally quieted down, still barely hanging on, old Mr. Franek pulled the rope gain, and peals again rang up to God in Heaven. The little boy held on with his hands, because the booming bells shook his little body, and he grabbed at the bell-ringer’s coat tails. “Let me pull the rope, Mr. Franek.” He grabbed it and swung with it. The world swung with him. The brass peals shook the woods. Flocks of birds flew up and around the bell tower. Uncle Elye had stopped at the open church gate, angry. He picked the boy up and carried him on his shoulder and carried him across the market. Mr. Franek was laughing, his laughter mixing with the clanging bells. Menakhem could hear nothing. He had called the villages to vespers. From then on he was called “the bell-ringer.”

71Now those bells were clanging once again, and the hills and valleys resounded. Menakhem pushed his face into the ground and covered his ears. The echoing tore at his body. These were no longer brass bells, but a thundering as if the Earth were splitting. Col. Gusyev was running across the field. He yelled at a soldier: “Get up! Run! A hundred more steps! You coward!” He held his heavy revolver against his chest: “Move it! Forward!”

72Wings of steel were fluttering over his head. A bonfire was burning, Kalmyk herdsmen sitting around it. The herd stood in the middle of the field crowded back to back. The silvery moon shone, reflecting in the horns of the bull. The flames leapt up to the sky. Suddenly the bird of the steppes called out. The bull was black and so was the forest. The bull rushed out of the black herd towards the night cry of the bird, dragging the cord that was attached to its nose ring. Gusyev the cattleman ran right after the aroused bull. He reached the end of the rope and tied it around himself. The steppe bird flew lower. Now he could see that it was a huge eagle, its wings outspread over Gusyev’s head. Gusyev fell, and the bull dragged him over the field. There were the woods, and Gusyev would be smashed against the tree trunks in a few seconds. But he refused to let go of the rope. He tried to grab onto something to hold him. He tried to anchor himself in the earth, but a brute force ripped him away. One more second and he would be dead. The herdsmen sat calmly around the fire.

73“Hey! Get up! Move on! Forward!”

74 Dobrusz was advancing towards the enemy, his head held high. His fear left him when the firing began. He did not belong anywhere anymore, not to the night nor to the day. Not to the Earth nor to the sky. A dull indifference was upon him. There was no home for him in this world. Now he was attacking an unfamiliar, evil world.

75Oh God, why did You put Dobrusz on such an indifferent world? Why could he not have stayed in the village Olyevsk like a homeless dog? Why had he not gone with the little farmer at the train station to a new home? He wrestled with the black shadow that wanted to take him on his wings up to the smoky skies. He cried, “No! No!” on that gray dawn and ran with his chest out towards the low clouds. He feared the quiet. It hid a thousand dangers. Quiet meant death. When he heard the artillery firing that meant the evil hand had begun, and it would stop. It was not monotony and loneliness. Shooting made the time fly fast and gave you hope that it would end, and then everything would be different. No, things would not be different! His home was still gone. The farmers had plowed under the humble Jewish farmhouses. He looked into the village huts. He saw the icons at night and their lamps. A dog smelled him and wagged its tail, the neighbor’s dog. Dobrusz could feel the heat from its nostrils. The barn door was barred. He opened the door and climbed into the hay. The dog curled up at his feet. He could hear cows mooing on the road and dogs barking far away. The dog’s ears perked up. Footsteps were coming through the puddles. Farmers banged on the door, holding lanterns: “Get down from the hayloft, dirty Jew!” Pitchforks shone in the light of the lanterns. The dog howled pitifully. They were coming after Dobrusz with clubs and pitchforks. He broke through the straw roof. He lit one match after another and threw them down. The dry hay caught fire, then the straw roof. He was surrounded by fire. Smoke was blowing, with Dobrusz hidden behind it. He started to roll down, faster and faster until he hit the plowed earth. The farmers opened the stalls and drove out the cattle and horses. The chains of the wells were creaking. Dobrusz was running in the fields. The fire spread more and more. His shadow had almost reached the forest. Just a bit more and he would be swallowed up by the wonderful darkness blessed by God.

76Someone at his back yelled, “Forward! Forward! Run!”

77 “Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Menakhem! Give me your hand! Another few steps! Be strong, Dobrusz! We’ll be out of danger.”

78Papavkin remained in the middle of the desolate field and bent towards the earth. He took the pouch out of his pocket and poured tobacco into his black pipe. He went down on one knee and searched for his lighter. A shell flew close by, screaming. The blast sent him flying on his face.

79“Swine! Made me spill my tobacco, bastards! Couldn’t wait a bit till I had a smoke?!” He opened the pouch again and took some with two fingers. But they were stiff, so it was hard to hold the pouch.

80“Get up! Run! Run!”

81“What’s the rush? I’ll get there in time. I won’t miss anything. Are you deaf? Let me smoke!” He stuffed the pipe and inhaled. Then he stood up and looked around. Dawn was breaking. It was time to open the gate, time to open the stable and let out the cows and the lambs. Soon they’d be driving the herd down the street. Onufri was already sounding his horn. Lame Vanyushka was cracking his whip. The lambs were bleating. Hey, old woman, why don’t you heat up the oven? Planning to spend the winter on top of the stove? You lazy bear! Are you paralyzed? Soon there was a flame in the oven. He heard her pushing the heavy cast iron pots and the clang of the poker against the tin oven. Then he smelled the fresh-baked rye rolls. The leggings were dry. He took them out of the oven. They were of pure gray wool. He strapped them on with leather thongs. He was in the mood to work. He wanted to push the plow. He wanted to cut through the hay field with his scythe. Yegorka, the kolkhoz brigadier, came knocking on his window. A bowl of hot cabbage soup was on the table. He stood at the threshold and looked out at God’s world at dawn. He shamelessly gulped down the soup. Some old men were hanging around in the kolkhoz courtyard. Pitiful horses dragged miserable harnesses around the muddy roads. The roof needed to be repaired with new straw. The walls of the stables were sinking because the wood was rotting. The wool on the lambs was all matted and knotted. They wouldn’t make good fur. Vanyushka drove them over thorny fields.

82After taking his dun-colored horse for the kolkhoz stable, they had sent it away to the city after a year and never brought it back. Papavkin could still not forget his horse fifteen years later. He also remembered the boundaries of his land. He had marked them secretly. Maybe one-day things would again be as they had been. That day must come, and his farm would live again. Now he was running towards his own fate. Brothers, why are you running like demons? Don’t be in such a hurry! The herd is already in the fields beyond! Oh, bitter fate! Papavkin marched among tanks and trucks. He trod heavily on German soil. He knew that behind him lay a homeland that was so poor, yet a thousand threads bound him to it. He would go back right then to those pitiful fields. Don’t expect anything good when you return, pals! If only it doesn’t get worse! God’s world is being ruined. If you survived another day, get on your knees before St. Nikolai the miracle worker and thank him!

83Zipunov remained lying among bushes, curled up in pain. He was sure that bomb fragments had torn up his body, so what was the point in torturing himself—mortally wounded—by still running over that faraway hill? His howling gradually turned into moans: “Oh, my poor little head! Poor me! What has happened to me? What will my pitiful orphans say?”

84He felt himself all over, tore open his tunic, ripped open his shirt, and touched his chest with his fingers. He was alive. His heart was warm. Then he brushed his face to see if there was blood. His eyes glowed. He opened them wide. Circles of light and blobs of wax sprang before him and vanished. A heavy weight pressed on him. Shiny boots with heels were dancing on his back, his chest, his head. Burning rods were slicing into his body. One more blow, and that would be the end of Zipunov. No, he would survive.

85Suddenly, he forced his hands open and looked for the linen bag hanging on a strap from his neck. He opened it and poured out little gold rings, gems, watches, silver coins: “Take it! Take it! It’s not mine! I’m giving it back!” The gold gleamed brilliantly under the searchlights. Everyone saw the jewelry all around him. A stranger mocked him bitterly. A riding crop whipped over his head. Suddenly the stranger jumped on a black horse and drove off. Zipunov was alone in the bushes. The jewelry was still there, at his feet. He was not going to just leave it there. Why was the night so blinding? Zipunov crawled on all fours. But as soon as he reached for a gold ring he felt something soft, drops of blood! When he touched his fingers to his eyes he saw that they were drenched in blood. He began to lament out loud that he was dying, very soon. But wait! Maybe he was already dead. Zipunov waited for something to happen. He waited for a black wing to flap over him and for someone to close his eyes. That waiting was good. It grew calmer and calmer in the field.

86The medics dragged him out of the bushes the next day. His eyes were still closed when they took him to the field infirmary, though they found no wound on him. His hands were closed tight on his chest, gripping his little linen bag. He opened his eyes narrowly and there was both joy and terror in them. Oh, Death was already building its nest in me! Who knows if I’ll ever manage to drag my bones back to my village? No, he would not go back! His Belarussian neighbors were waiting for him. They would take revenge. He would quietly find a way to tell his wife to meet him secretly in the hut in the forest. He would leave with her and the children for distant villages. Zipunov was full of self-pity. His whining lament was drowned out by the roar of planes flying low overhead.

87“Dobrusz, there’s nothing wrong with you.” Menakhem looked at the boy with big, fearful eyes. The boy lay on his back, facing the sky. His upper lip was twisted in a grimace, holding back tears. He was breathing heavily. A purplish film covered his lips. The tin bowl of soup that they had brought him an hour ago lay near him. The field kitchen had risked their lives bringing hot soup in a thermos under German fire.

88“Why don’t you eat, Dobrusz?” He did not answer. His machine gun leaned against his knee, the barrel pointing towards his jaw. For the first time Menakhem realized how young he was, maybe sixteen. Peach fuzz glimmered on his cheeks, and his pupils were large. The whites of his eyes had yellowed. Menakhem touched his hands. He brushed his fingers on his face: “Why don’t you answer? Tell me what your father’s name was? What’s your family name? It’s important. Answer me, my good Dobrusz! He undid his straps. Dobrusz’s eyes moistened.

89“What’s wrong? There’s nothing wrong with you. Look at me! Why is your head down? Just try to be strong!”

90The boy’s face was drenched in sweat. It was daybreak. Bullets flew overhead. Clouds of smoke like shreds of torn cotton hung in the air, then dissolved slowly.

91 “Dobrusz, give me your hand. We have to go.” Suddenly Menakhem began to speak Yiddish, the language that Jews spoke on the Vistula and on the Dniepr, the language of their fathers and grandfathers. He spoke Yiddish gently to Dobrusz amid the din of gunfire. He was really talking to himself aloud, and it was a pleasure to Menakhem to hear his own words. Some time earlier when he had spoken to him in Yiddish, the boy opened his eyes wide in surprise. From then on he had spoken to him mostly in Polish, sometimes in Russian. Dobrusz answered in Ukrainian. But this time when Menakhem spoke Yiddish, the boy’s eyes filled with tears. Just as a layer of ice thaws out in the sun, Dobrusz’s face began to soften. He sat up, grabbed Menakhem’ hands, and stammered in simple, plain, country Yiddish mixed with Ukrainian.

92Dobrusz wept. He could not hold the dish of food in his trembling hands.

93“You’re a Jew when everyone hates you, when the Christians look at you in anger and suspicion, and their children scream at you, ‘You killed Jesus!’ And then the Germans come and exterminate us all.”

94The first stage of Operation Berlin ended on April 25th. The German forces in Berlin were cut in two halves, isolated from each other, and surrounded by the Soviet military. Then the second stage began, the liquidation of both halves of the enemy, the storming of the city, and the broad push by the Soviets towards the Elbe River, where the forward guard had already made contact with the Allied armies. Before the German military in Berlin was completely surrounded, the Nazi headquarters ordered the Twelfth Army, which was face to face with the American Army, to turn around and march towards the east. In doing that they opened the road for the Americans and launched a bitter attack on the eastern front. At the same time the Ninth German Army, which was surrounded in the forests south of the city, pushed westwards in an effort to join with the Twelfth and combine their forces.

95Those days were difficult for Menakhem’s division, which was being attacked from east and west. Its positions were raked by fire from two sides. It was a wooded area with lakes and swamps and waterways. The Nineteenth Germany Army fought on two fronts, one trying to reach Berlin from the southeast, the other trying to join with the surrounded Ninth Army.

96Anna’s letter back to Menakhem:

97 “Mikhail, we’re waiting to hear that Berlin has fallen. This must come to an end! These last days have been very hard. I fear the nights. The most savage beast can be at its worst while it’s dying. I’ve tried everything to calm down. I know that my unease comes from the doubts that I get after difficult operations and from worrying for your safety. I jump at every word addressed to me. I’m afraid to open letters. Only your jittery handwriting on the envelope can calm me.

98“You don’t know what it is to lie down, exhausted, and look up out the window at a chestnut tree in bloom. The smell of anesthetics is overpowering. I’m in a stupor, half conscious, prey to devils and demons who laugh and mock me in my dreams. When I exhale I don’t want to inhale that oppressive odor again. I fight off the swamps of my nightmares until I can see your face. You don’t know how many times you chased away my nightmares!

99“We talked so little between us! I’ve never even held your handsome, troubled face in my hands. I’ve never felt you next to me or even your warm breath. I’ve often regretted the reserve that I showed you. Our goodbye was only the touch of your trembling fingers and the light brush of your lips. I’m not ashamed to say it, Misha. You stirred new feelings in me. You made my soul thrill with excitement and sweetness.

100“The harder I work and push myself during the day, the stronger I feel your presence at night. I wake up in the middle of the night and walk through the wards of the wounded. When I stand over them, I see something of you in their faces. All their faces lead me to you. All their eyes remind me of yours. Every drop of blood makes me shudder and think, ‘Has Mikhail been wounded?’

101“Don’t be surprised. I always write to you at night after a wearying day. I’m exhausted, like you. Yes, the distance, the gunfire, and the blood that separate us also bring us closer. I want to tell you all of this again and again during these fateful days, now, before the end of the war. Maybe my love for you could replace what has been stolen from you—your home. Will you accept my love? Yes, I can feel it. I believe it.

102“The children’s refuge that I’ve organized is moving along. I often visit these sad, lonely Jewish children. The house is in a nice neighborhood in Otwock, not far from Warsaw. You can’t imagine how they wait for me! I’ve found some good Russian friends who are helping me to get everything I need for the children. The gratitude of the children towards the Soviet soldiers is very touching. I hope they never become disillusioned! I’m counting the hours till Berlin falls. I’m waiting for you, Mikhail, Misha! How hard it is to wait!”

103Was it really Anna?

104The last time he had seen her she was in her white medical coat, her hands raised. It was painful to remember her professional, icy, steely eyes. Her face was hard then, sad, and fearful. And there was something vague and alien that disturbed him. The deep stress wrinkles in her eyes bothered him especially.

105But he saw a different Anna in her letter. He knew them both. The first one would lead him out of all dangers and wipe the dirt off his lacerated face. The second would give him her girlish heart and brighten his days. He read the letter dozens of times, and each time he found something new that he had not been aware of. Menakhem had never embraced life as he did now. To live meant to see Anna. Oh, God, now I can look upon your veiled face with hope and faith. I’ve started hearing the twittering of frightened birds during lulls in the shooting, and my eyes look with pity on every little blade of grass. When I see a lonely dog running over the trenches I pray for its life. In the heat of battle, fighting on the east and the west, I can breathe in the scent of trees in bloom. I follow the flight of the clouds. My fingers touch the grasses near the trenches. I take pleasure in recognizing those I knew so well as a boy. I feel Anna’s letter in my bosom. The love that bloomed under terrible skies and clouds of smoke has given me back the world, Oh God.

106The shooting stopped on the third day. Purple clouds floated down to the swamps and hung from low trees. Sometimes the silver wing of a plane shone through, and you could hear anti-aircraft cannons. Pearl necklaces seemed to shimmer on the clouds. Capt. Rezinko, head of the medics, led his men out to pick up the wounded. The forward positions of the Germans were on the far side of the lake amidst rushes, in a forest of alders and poplars. You might think the landscape was normal and tranquil, if not for the purple pearls dotting the sky and the spirals of smoke floating between heaven and earth. You might expect a farmer driving a village wagon on a dirt road to the fields. His herd might appear from the valley. Crows would flutter over the field, waiting for the plowman to open the first furrow.

107 But that would be a surface impression. If you looked closer, it seemed that a whirlwind had torn through. The treetops had been mutilated. Smashed branches dangled from them, swaying in the wind. Some trees were left with no tops at all. Only a severed trunk remained. The woods had been desolated. The pine tops looked as though they had been sliced through with sickles. Dark craters scarred the fields. The fresh carpet of new grass was ruined with roots and wood splinters tangled in the dark brown soil. It was a ghastly mosaic.

108The Germans were preparing a new offensive. It was quiet except for the roar of Junker and Fokke-Wulf bombers. Menakhem’s division was face to face with the German Twelfth Army. Col. Gusyev addressed his troops: “Soldiers! This is the final battle! Then there will be peace on Earth. The road to our homes goes through Berlin. The German bastards are getting ready for their last desperate attack. Are we going to wait here in the trenches until they’re right on top of us?”

109Gusyev peered through his binoculars and checked his watch. “Get ready, good buddies! Tighten your bootstraps! Pull in your belts! We’re just waiting for the rocket signal.” And just as he said those words they heard the powerful roar of rockets: “Those are ours!” They were flying in groups of three like wild ducks. They ripped through the clouds, group after group, behind clouds of smoke. Smoke riddled the sky. The troops’ nerves tensed up like taut strings ready to break. The air grew so thick, that it was like breathing in metal. Their chins got heavy and their mouths drooped open. Menakhem could not rely on his five senses anymore. Suddenly a piece of the cloudy sky seemed to fall into the lake. It was as if a lightning bolt had split the forest. It seemed that the horizon had somehow collapsed at Menakhem’s feet. The Earth rocked with a howl. Signal rockets shot over his head into the heavens.

110The end had begun. No, it was not the end. The rockets sent the heavens that had crashed down back up to the heights of God. “Hurrah!”

111Gusyev stopped, his face excited. Someone was wringing his hands, “Sergei! Sergei!” A shadow rolled towards a bush, and a terrible cry came from low bushes with roots upended and unopened buds.

112They overran the German positions in the evening. Gusyev had led his men through swampy fields, trudged through the enemy’s fortified positions, and attacked on the right flank. Air power had covered his attack. It was a daring assault by battle-hardened soldiers with long experience in the war. Menakhem was sitting in a bunker that they had taken. German prisoners with their hands in the air were standing nearby. Their weapons lay strewn on the grass.

113He could not breathe. His throat was constricted. His eyes were popping out of their sockets, bleeding. It hurt him to close his lids. He was lying on his back, face towards the evening sky. His hands were stiff, fingers clutching clumps of earth and grass, but he could not open his fists. The good earth was cooling.

114Now his back was leaning against the bare, sandy wall of the trenches. It had happened back home in the village. His mother had carried him to that unfamiliar doctor who would plow every morning near the river. That doctor used to come from the big city for his summer break. Little Menakhem was sick. His mother carried him over a plowed field. A farmer with whiskers: that was the doctor. His mother lay him down on the ground. His little hands clawed at the good earth. He gripped clumps of soil.

115That memory had already come back to Menakhem when he had returned to Poland, not far from his village. And now it was back again. He looked at the evening sky with blind eyes and did not see it. He felt as if someone were strangling him with powerful hands. “Stop it!” he whispered. His lips felt odd, puffy and heavy. He could feel only the earth. He knew that German prisoners were standing nearby. Someone passed by. A cool wind mussed his hair, bringing the scent of cherry trees in bloom. He remembered that aroma. Aunt Marem and Uncle Elye had managed large cherry orchards stretching from Plonsk and Sochocin. He used to lay there in a straw hut on starry nights, a boy of sixteen.

116The black cherries were ripening, and with them ripened Surcza, aunt Marem’s youngest daughter. He had taken her in his arms once, that curly brunette Surcza, but she would not hear of it. She fought back. That was on cool straw on a cool evening. The cherry branches were hanging down to the ground, over their struggling bodies. The moon looked through the branches. But Surcza’s throat was whiter than the moon. It was the first time that he felt her warm lips. His blind passion welled up in uncontrolled anger towards the girl. They wrestled silently, passion and hatred intermingled. It was his first experience of love mixed with hatred and fear. Then they sat in the doorway of the hut with their backs to each other. And when Menakhem left, Surcza followed him in tears. Now the evening breeze brought back the scent of cherry trees, and with it the weeping of aunt Marem’s daughter Surcza.

117“What’s wrong, soldier?” Familiar words. Menakhem picked himself up, but he still could not breathe. His machine gun hung from his shoulder. His face was filthy, his skin bruised. Before him stood Gen. Shamshin. Menakhem recognized him. He wanted to speak to him but he could not. The words were on his lips, but they would not come.

118“Why are you silent?” the general asked him. “Are you wounded?”

119Menakhem pointed to his weapon. And a few Yiddish words came pouring out: “I was not silent, general. My gun did the talking.” The general’s Jewish fellow-feeling was aroused. They embraced and wept together.

120“What do you have in your dirty hands?” Only then did Menakhem realize that he was gripping chunks of soil without knowing it.

121“This is the soil of an impure land. You haven’t recovered from the battle yet. It will pass. You’re from Poland? We’ll be in Berlin in a few days. The battle is won.”

122Menakhem climbed out of the communications trench. He hesitated to take a step, fearing that he would lose his balance. The Earth was still wavering, and with it the swamps and the ruined forests. Why were the lakes not pouring out? How can they keep the waters from overflowing the rivers? He put out his hand, looking for support. His knees buckled. He would sit down soon on the ground, like a sawed-off tree trunk. He had to walk. Here was the lake that rocked. He kneeled on the level lakeshore and saw his reflection in the water. His face bobbed up and sank down to the green bottom, but his eyes stayed on the surface.

123He scooped up water in his steel helmet and drank. Then he washed his face, the water running down his neck, onto his body. He shivered with pleasure, and it woke him up. A machine gun rattled towards a flock of birds. A soldier was trying to scatter a crowd of birds massing towards the west. Menakhem whispered to them: “That’s where there’s trouble, that’s where there’s war. Fly to the east, to our fields and meadows.” The birds answered the gun fire with screeching. “See? They’ve turned towards the east.” But they turned around at the woods and were flying over Menakhem’s head. They were the starlings from back home. He recognized them. “Fly to the quiet, peaceful villages. There the plowman is at work now. There you’ll build your nests in old poplars and willow trees. Don’t stay here in this land, which has been cursed by God!”

124It was night at regimental headquarters. Menakhem was sitting in a German cabin on the edge of a marshy field. Vasil Akimovitch Sabayev had just arrived in his heavy car. The radio operator in the next room was yelling, “Pine Tree here! We’ve gone past objective X! Sixty-meters to the north. Point 12!” Menakhem went out to the front steps. Dew was covering the fields. Nearby a guard patrolled in front of a niche with the Virgin. A forgotten searchlight stayed still in the sky. Its frozen ray of light seemed to be holding up the night sky.

125German prisoners were sitting in a clearing in the woods, about 300 of them captured in the fields and bushes. Some had surrendered willingly. An armored car with a loudspeaker drove around into the night. An officer of the German Ninth army, prisoner Walter Höpke was calling on his men to surrender to the Soviets. Soviet planes dropped leaflets: “Nazis come and Nazis go. But the German people will remain.” Stalin had said so.

126“Pine Tree” was still talking. You could hear his monotone droning across the marshland. The Germans sat huddled together between the field of bushes and the piece of bare earth. The looked like cold, dark blots to Menakhem. Kerbaley the orderly stood near a truck. He would have to drive Sabayev back that night. Menakhem said, “Let’s have a smoke.” The little flame flickered in the Tatar’s hands, illuminating his angular jaws and narrow eye folds, far apart from each other. The puffy pouches under the brows deepened his eyes.

127The first interrogations were about to start, and the prisoners would then be sent immediately to assembly points. Transportation was ready for them. Sabayev was well dressed, his face clean-shaven. When he ran into Menakhem and saw the condition he was in, he shrank back and mumbled something that Menakhem could not make out. Kerbaley told him that Gen. Shamshin had just passed through on his way to check on the left flank, where something had gone wrong. The Germans were still holding the far end of the village. The general’s appearance at the most forward position of the front line, at the heart of the battle, elicited surprise and admiration. Shamshin had appeared just when fierce fighting was raging. This isolated German attack had to be repulsed. The general had grabbed a machine gun and had run out of the dugout to lead the company into battle.

128Col. Gusyev had been killed. The medical corps could not handle so many wounded. Capt. Rezinko went to regimental headquarters to ask for help. The radio operator sent out an appeal for medics. There were many badly wounded prisoners. Kerbaley announced: “Our men are in the outskirts of Berlin. It’s gonna be fun! The bureaucrats have already ordered wagons of vodka and red banners. Half a liter for everyone!”

129Menakhem asked, “Where’s the medical corps? Far away?”

130“Not far. Right there at the crossroads, behind the fence.”

131“I have to go,” he answered.

132But as he got near the niche with the Virgin, a messenger came running after him: “Mikhail Isaacovitch, report to the colonel!” They walked silently.

133The bright lights of trucks were kept on the prisoners. A unit with machine guns appeared from the village. Maj. Andrei Stanislavovitch Ostrowski, a blond man with fine features, had replaced Col. Gusyev. Though he was tall and broad-shouldered, his face was a bit too small for his height and his girth. Dozens of trucks arrived at headquarters just when Menakhem got there. Sabayev banged his fist on the table: “Too many German civilians are wandering on the roads. They’re soldiers in disguise. We have to arrest them all, then we’ll decide. D’you know who this old man is? He might be Hitler! They’re escaping from Berlin! They take the country roads, through marshes. But here chaos reigns! Three soldiers are guarding three hundred prisoners. We can’t let them get away, those Nazi gangsters! We have special instructions about this. Where are the guards?”

134It was past midnight. The interrogations continued. They stood in rows. Menakhem wrote down their names and took their military documents. Sabayev mocked each one. “Mikhail! Just look at that face! Isn’t that Goebbels?!”

135Sabayev grew serious and paused: “See? He limps like Goebbels, and it’s his mug!” Menakhem sized up the prisoner with a mocking look, shuffled the documents wrapped in cellophane, and asked, “Name?”

136“Hans Bethke. Bethke from Darmstadt”

137“Aren’t you Joseph Goebbels?” asked Sabayev.

138 Several prisoners smiled. Only Sabayev stayed serious. He kept watching the German, but often looked at the others.

139“Goebbels has the mug of a mouse, but this bastard looks like a dead bird of prey.”

140Sabayev grumbled, “It’s all the same.” He was disappointed that this German cripple was not Goebbels. One of the prisoners, a captain, had been in Berlin. He had retreated from there only on April 25th. He was to be interrogated later. Kerbaley led the chubby captain into a separate room and stayed with him, waiting for Sabayev’s order.

141The interrogation took place in the presence of Maj. Ostrowski. Menakhem knew right away that the new chief of staff was of Polish origin and that he knew German. Sabayev said, “Mikhail, ask him where Hitler is hiding. Where is Goebbels?” He was convinced that there were Nazi leaders disguised among the prisoners and among the civilians. He was afraid that it would later be found out that they had escaped from his hands. He was furious at the quiet, cozy interrogation of the prisoner by Menakhem and the new chief of staff. Who knows what the Devil they’re saying, that Pole and that Jew and that German bastard? It seemed to him that those three had something in common, something secret that bound them together, but that he could not discover. He was desperate to put his suspicions to rest, so he crept out unnoticed. “Little Goebbels” was sitting on the floor in the little corridor. The Tatar Kerbalay guarded him. The prisoner pulled his birdlike head down between his shoulders.

142Sabayev looked him over with his flashlight. The German did not even lift his head.

143“Fritz! Stand up! Fritz!”

144The Tatar shoved him with his boot. The little German stretched out his long neck and yanked his head away from the light. He got up, stood at attention, and raised his hand to his brow in salute to “the Russian gentleman.”

145“Come, Fritz, Goebbels kaputt!”

146Kerbaley pushed him into a room in which the chief was staff was sitting with Menakhem and the German captain. The lame little German stammered and groveled in fear. Sabayev banged the door shut and stomped over to the captain: “Who is this cripple? Tell me! You know him!” He was speaking Russian, and Menakhem translated into German.

147 “No, gracious sir officer. I don’t know him!”

148“You lie!” screamed Sabayev. “You’re all lying! A few days ago you were in Berlin in the basement of the Reichskanzlei! We know this! You brought his character here from there! He’s Goebbels!”

149The captain’s mouth dropped wide open in amazement, revealing big, gleaming false teeth. That gleaming angered Sabayev even more: “Who are you? We know everything anyway. You won’t get away with anything. Every tiny German document is now in Moscow. The whole archive of you German bastards is now in our hands. D’you think you can hide? You’ll get a bullet. Why are you staring at me with your piggish eyes? Who is this creature standing here in front of you?”

150“I’m Hans Bethke... Hans Bethke, a hotel employee from Darmstadt,” said “Little Goebbels.”

151“Silence!” thundered Sabayev.

152Kerbaley went through their pockets again and took their belts, ripped off their brass insignia, and locked them in a brick stall.

153It was already dawn when the radioman called division headquarters. In Sabayev’s name he reported that two suspicious characters had been arrested and that one of them had been in Berlin a few days earlier at central headquarters. They appeared to be important Nazi leaders, and they were being held under Sabayev’s personal supervision.

154In the early morning Menakhem learned that Dobrusz had been killed. Platon Voronko, too. A mine had blown off Papavkin’s right foot. Zipunov was nowhere to be found. He found out all of this from Sgt. Sergei Orlov. They went to the medics’ station. They saw freshly dug holes in the ground on a hill surrounded by lush green meadows. They were the graves of those who had just fallen in battle. On one wooden grave marker Menakhem read: David Abramovitch Dobrusz.

155The Soviet Informburo at central headquarters in Moscow reported: “The attacks of the German Twelfth Army were repulsed. They were stopped from getting through to Berlin. The Germans suffered heavy losses. In an effort to prevent total annihilation, their units retreated in disorder towards the Elbe River and across to the other side, where the English and American forces were stationed.”

156The German forces in Berlin were surrounded, holding an area of about 100 square kilometers. The ring around them was tightening by the hour. Moscow celebrated that night. Rockets flared over the Kremlin. Showers of light cascaded through the sky. Cannons fired salutes. The cupolas and the Kremlin walls were lit up. In the halls of the Kremlin they were drinking toasts from crystal goblets.

157Menakhem was standing on the watchtower. Berlin spread out to the northwest. You could not see the city, but you could sense it from the purple skies and the distant booming of artillery. He inhaled deeply the springtime air. It was suffused with the scent of tree sap from lacerated trunks and the smell of raw earth. It had the sweetness of morning dew and the acrid stench of dynamite. He looked in the direction of Berlin.

158In 1939 Hitler had said in the Reichstag in Berlin: “The war will destroy the Jews completely!” Now the Reichstag would burn, Berlin was burning, and in the basement the mad monster Hitler was hiding. Menakhem was at the gates of the city. His veins were taut and his heart was hardened. He could almost see it now, that unnatural city, in the light of revenge. “Tomorrow I’ll be in Berlin,” he said, his words as tough as steel cutting marble.


1 Nazi term for ethnic Germans living abroad, mostly in Eastern Europe, some of whom collaborated in the looting of Jewish homes and the murder of Jews when the German army invaded.


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