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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter Six

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1It was the first few days after taking Berlin. The wind carried the scent of springtime and of dead animals. There were corpses of half-skinned horses at the end of the street. There were the ruins of an airplane without wings. German women in colorful kerchiefs, red lips, and painted eyebrows sold themselves in the cellars of ruins for a soldier’s bread ration; “Come here, Russki, good, good…”

2A Cossack regiment rode by, young men from the Don River, serious, focused. Germans gathered on the sidewalk to watch the riders. A horse reared up. A young girl left the crowd and threw them branches in bloom. A Cossack smiled. An elderly German wearing glasses said to the Cossack: “Comrade! Me Communist. Spartacist. Liebknecht.” `

3“Are you a Communist?” The Cossacks erupted in laughter. The rider slapped the old man on the back, “Don’t worry, little brother!”

4A crowd was massing at the gate. A Russian soldier was holding a German by the throat: “Come on! Let’s have your watch!”

5A woman screamed from the ruins. A soldier with Caucasian features was dragging her through a gate. A Siberian was playing a harmonica. The woman’s cries mixed with his music. A dust-covered rider was singing, his words carried over the lawless streets of Berlin:

6“On a broad, paved, well-marked street, a girl was walking to get water. A boy followed her and cried, “Stop, girl!”

7“Let’s have your watch!”

8It was evening. It would be a night of drunkenness, of soldiers out of control, a night of plundering, of anarchy in that city of anarchy, of raping the women of the “master race.” The next morning a young Pole said to Menakhem: “The Germans murdered us. The Ukrainians tortured us. And I’m gonna rape those blond, blue-eyed ‘Aryans.’ I’m gonna do everything that Hitler forbade. Their women are calling you. They stand at the corners, at the courtyard gates. ‘Come, come’, they call to us. And if they don’t call to us, well, I’ll go to them, to their houses. Germany ran wild over Europe. So let there be wildness!”

9Oh, God, why do you erase the fine line between the conquerors and the conquered? How similar they are! How the distinction between them is fading! One small step, and the righteous become unjust, the liberators become the oppressors. Our people have lived on that fine line for so long, until they were drowned by impure waters. Oh, God, keep the Russian people from turning into filthy rapists and rioters! May the victory that we have won with so much blood not be stained! May they tread this accursed German land with pure hearts, pure hands, pure weapons! May the Germans be punished justly, severely, and openly under the bright face of Your heavens.

10Menakhem was not worried about the fate of the residents of the conquered city. He was reserved and indifferent. He wanted revenge, and revenge to him meant: destroying their fortresses, blowing up their barracks, their air fields, their weapons factories, the concrete palaces of the corporate trusts, the beer cellars. It meant obliterating the swastikas, blowing up the stone monuments to evil, destroying the Nazis, and punishing their followers. It meant ripping the venom from the serpent, letting it return to its lair, harmless. It meant encircling their land with walls of suspicion and hatred.

11He now saw clearly the fine line disappearing between the conquerors and the conquered, their faces resembling each other more and more. And in those days when he saw this, he realized that it would be impossible for him to live in such a world. He would have to leave. Jews would not be able to exist in this new world. The “master race” was on its knees before common Russian plowmen from the fields of Kaluga, before workers from the steel foundries of the Urals, before fishermen of the Volga River.

12German prisoner Hauptmann Balder was ready to serve the Russians. He was a third-generation military man: “It’s my profession, just like that of a doctor. Do you understand, Sir? Would a doctor not go when he’s called?”

13“No,” said Menakhem. “We don’t need such ‘doctors.’”

14Zirkov was already recruiting thousands of Germans. He needed them for the Special Section, for the civil government, and he needed them to dismantle the factories.

15Captain Balder continued: “I’m ready to serve you with all my abilities and all my knowledge, honorably and loyally. I’m not a traitor. This is professionalism, Sir, professional duty under all circumstances.” Menakhem received a special order to send the captain to Zirkov’s Special Section. The women with painted cheeks at the courtyard gates, the Balders, all those who were servile and courteous—they were the first ones to erase the line between the conquerors and the conquered.

16Well before Berlin fell, during the round-the-clock bombings, the German general staff had arranged orgies in their comfortable bunkers, which had special ventilation, upholstered furniture, separate quarters, and a common amusement room. Jazz provided by male and female singers accompanied their binges of drunkenness and debauchery.

17There were half-naked dancing women and women wearing low-cut, black evening gowns, drowned in perfume. They were adorned with gold and jeweled brooches plundered from victims at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Blond, blue-eyed women had their hair carefully curled or coiffed up in radiant braids. The place reeked of the scent of women, their sweat, their perfumes, and champagne.

18The officers sported crosses on their chest and silver laurels on their collars. They were bare-headed, their closely cropped hair resembling stiff hog bristles. Others were bald. Music played from phonographs or orchestras under the concrete ceiling. Bombs were shattering the skies up above, but down below they were dancing arm in arm, embracing, body-to-body, breath to breath. The lights flickered with each explosion. Conversations were swallowed up in a thick cloud of dust.

19Waiters in black frocks with white cuffs and silk bowties slid among the dancing couples, carrying—on hands raised high—silver trays with dazzling champagne glasses. Couples disappeared, staggering down the long, dark corridors: generals with secretaries and telephone operators, admirals of the Navy, SS-StandartenFührer, SS-GruppenFührer, captains, colonels... drunken mugs, eyes blood-red from drinking... and fear... and the half-naked women... and the shadow of Death. The besotted Elsas and Gerdas tottered in their arms.

20But the heavy tanks of Zhukov’s army were already rumbling a few hundred meters from the bunkers. Fire and steel rained down up above them. And SS men were hounding a crowd of concentration camp survivors on the southern roads of Germany through the Bavarian forests. They were driving them mercilessly on to Tyrol, leaving tormented corpses all along the way. The Führer’s command was still in force. American artillery was already booming in the Bavarian hills, but columns of SS victims were still being dragged on the roads. Who will stop this massacre? Berlin has fallen, but Death still reigns on that soil.

21 It finally happened. Soviet troops broke into the bunkers. They came suddenly. A Schlagerlied was still playing somewhere on a gramophone. It was a woman’s voice singing, and through the doors the Russians barged in, with their Asiatic eyes, their flat noses, their hardened faces, their gleaming bayonets. They found the German generals, the half-naked women, the drunkenness, the black frocks, the faces sweaty like melted wax, the reek of women’s bodies, champagne, perfume, and smoke.

22And here were the Soviets who had stormed across the Dnieper River, the Nieman, the Vistula, and the Oder. They had lain in snow-drenched weeds, in torrential rains, in ditches. They had been torn away from their homes, their fields. They were hard as steel. And it was precisely that contrast between their life amid exploding bombs and the jazz music that greeted them, between the stink of dynamite and the scent of perfumed women, which overwhelmed them and ignited their outrage, their fury. Hobnailed boots crushed the faces of the generals and their women. They stomped on them and stomped. The ancient instinct of the eastern steppes had been aroused by the ancient worship of Germany’s pagan gods.

23Oh, God, don’t punish these men of the Volga for that wanton night of murder and rape. If You had been there that night, You would have covered your face and been silent, like me.

24Lev Oshanin often visited Marion’s house. He would come haphazardly several times a day to her upstairs apartment and bring packages of food. Her mother could not thank him enough. The house, the mother, and the daughter were under the protection of the Soviet lieutenant. On rowdy nights the Tatar Kerbaley often stood guard at the courtyard gate to stop drunken soldiers from breaking in.

25Oshanin was drawn to the dark house. He would sit in the great armchair, his head resting on his chest, listening to Marion playing the piano. Sometimes he would glance at her girlish neck or her fine, graceful fingers. He watched her under his bushy eyebrows. Once, on his way to her house an hour earlier, he had run into several drunken German women, probably coming from some revelry with soldiers. They had stopped at a gate with some German men. The women were only wearing coats, so that parts of their naked bodies and knees were visible. “They’re drunk,” thought Oshanin. That was easy to tell from the way they were yelling.

26And when he got nearer to the gate, he could hear one of those scantily dressed women screaming: “You’ve got it easy, you German men! You lie hidden in the cellars! Cowards that you are! You let Germany be defeated! Better to have ten Russians on my belly than nothing in my belly! You parade ground heroes! Why are you hiding?” They were laughing and weeping and cursing each other. They smelled of liquor. The waved their arms about menacingly, then disappeared through the gate. The men followed, like shadows.

27Marion’s father had been a merchant from Breslau. He had been murdered in Dachau. Her mother was an “Aryan” from Oberpfalz. They had hidden in the villages of Niederbayern to escape Nazi persecution. Marion had been arrested and was sentenced to Auschwitz, but she escaped from the assembly point for deportation. They hid with her mother’s “Aryan” relatives. Their apartment had belonged to a doctor who had fled.

28Marion was a pianist. She had completed secondary school in Breslau. Her voice was pleasant, and it sent a sweet shiver through Oshanin’s back when she sang. She awakened subtle, long-suppressed feelings in him. He appreciated it that she sang quietly, for her voice gently rocked him like leaves in a mild wind in the spring. You just could not sing loudly in the midst of ruins, with the stench of corpses in the street. The hours became dear to him in that house with Marion playing the piano and singing softly.

29Time stopped, severing itself from the chaos and nightmare around them, sending rainbows like bridges to the fine days of the past and to even more wonderful days ahead for a world reborn. Suddenly her fingers began fluttering like butterflies. She was playing a familiar tune, the song of the Volga boatmen. She had heard it from a Soviet soldier’s accordion passing by her window after midnight. Oshanin sang along, and the voice coming from his chest was unknown to him. That strangeness depressed him.

30Oshanin had not been born only to hate. He had been unable to completely suppress the love that was in his heart, and it searched for a road into the hearts of others. The stronger his hatred grew, the more his love sought a way out. Oshanin took Marion’s hand. Her eyes opened wide, dazzling. Was it fear? Her big white teeth shone in laughter. Was it embarrassment? Her lips whispered. Was it an entreaty, or perhaps an appeal for compassion? Her shoulders shuddered. Was this resignation, was she giving in like all the other German girls? Or was she merely repaying all his kindnesses, the bread, the coffee…?

31Her mother left. Oshanin heard her close the door. He was disturbed by her sudden departure. His throat tightened up. The light in Marion’s eyes troubled him, her laughter, her whispering. He was standing at the door. He wanted to leave, to get away from her fear, the entreaty in her face, the resignation to repay him his kindness. He just had to leave. He could not bear to watch Marion turn into one of those other German women. He would not come back again. His orderly, Kerbaley, would take care of them. Oshanin would not buy “love” so cheaply. She said, “Don’t go. Stay a bit.”

32He knew that the slightest motion towards the girl would unleash his hands and lust. He wanted it and he did not want it. When he closed the door behind him he was still agitated. The street was quiet. A patrol passed and German civilians wearing white armbands. An old woman was carrying a pail of water. The ruined bridge was well lit. Floodlights illuminated the iron girders. They were working on it at night. The canal was dark, with floating chunks of wood, papers, and trash. It was a cool and windy May evening. Oshanin asked himself how young Marion had managed to drown out the detonations and the shrieking steel splinters with her gentle voice. He had been full of the horrors of war, then suddenly she had calmed him. Those hours of Marion’s music were like polished, mounted gemstones that radiate a glow, a brilliance. Those times with her had a beginning and an end. They had a separate existence totally apart from everything that was happening and that was going to happen. He was deeply grateful that the girl had taken him to such heights.

33That night, when the officers went to amuse themselves in German houses, Oshanin stayed in the barracks. Sgt. Sergei Orlov was on guard duty in the Strasse Unter den Linden. The city spread out before him: ruins, white armbands, columns of German prisoners, unshaven, tattered, filthy, hungry. German women and children sat in small groups and watched them. Orlov strode back and forth. At his feet lay piles of debris and crumbled pillars. He could hear Russian soldiers singing nearby, as they walked towards the Brandenburg Gate. Smashed metal heads rolled on the ground, and the Angel of Peace stood with its wings broken. There were charred ruins of stone columns and housing blocks that resembled meteorites that had just fallen from the bright skies. There were corpses wearing filthy SS uniforms, others in Navy dress. Swastikas littered the cratered pavement. Prussian Junker arrogance lay under the marching boots of Russian troops.

34Orlov yelled, “Where are you going? Get back!”

35He had been ordered not allow the mob near the bridge. So he stood there gesturing with his hands for the mob to stop. His gaze softened. His hatred for Germans had begun to recede. He despised them and he pitied them. Orlov had seen Russia and Poland devastated from Smolensk to Bialystock to Warsaw. The Germans are to blame for it, and for the fact that people are starving in faraway Siberia. It was the Goddamned German bastards who forced us to leave our homes, our fields, our forests—and to wander on the terrible roads of war.

36The night before, he had walked the length of the canal. Thousands of homeless Germans were sleeping in the metros, among ruined pillars. They wanted to cross the Elbe River and get away from Berlin. They were coming from the Oder, from Wartheland. Orlov gave away his bread. A woman was sitting among piles of rocks. He stared as she bit into the bread with her white teeth. Her hunger brought her closer to him. She did not weep, nor did she beg, but he was deeply moved by the hunger that he saw in the way she ate the army bread ration.

37He patted her hair and said kind words to her in Russian. He wanted to tell her about his bitter years at the front, about the desolation in Russia, and about the Oka River. But he could not make himself understood in Russian. His gentle hand caressed her neck. The star-lit springtime skies over Berlin were gentle, too. The woman let Orlov caress her arm and her shoulder. Perhaps it was because her hunger was somewhat soothed by Russian bread, perhaps it was the gentle Russian farmer’s hands, perhaps it was the skies over devastated Berlin, perhaps it was fear mixed with heightened human instincts that brought their bodies close together among the ruins of Berlin, not far from the black Brandenburg Gate—that German woman and that Russian soldier. “Back! Get back!” he warned the mob again the next morning, the women and the old men, as he held the machine gun, cold and terrifying, in his hands.

38 On one of those May days, NKVD Col. Nikolai Zhillin—the decorated Hero of the Soviet Union—showed up at the headquarters where Menakhem was working. He had become one of the most powerful officers in Soviet-occupied Berlin. There were preparations for his arrival. Maj. Andrei Ostrowski welcomed him personally in his office, where they had a long conversation.

39Zhillin came with several soldiers. With their short jackets and the black revolvers on their belts, Menakhem saw right away that they were NKVD men from the Special Section. And when he looked closer at their faces it was obvious that most of them had not fought at the front. They were well-rested, well-fed men who had just recently arrived in Berlin only after it was conquered.

40Menakhem at first had not wanted this meeting with Zhillin. He remembered those winter days outside Moscow, in their underground bunker. He remembered that German war prisoner who refused to answer Menakhem’s questions because he was Jewish. And he remembered Col. Galinkov’s fish-like eyes at his trial. But why should Menakhem avoid meeting Zhillin? Let the Soviet officer see that Menakhem had battled his way all the way to Berlin, and that the Soviet victory over Germany was also Menakhem’s victory.

41“Hello, Nikolay Feodorovitch!”

42Zhillin stopped. They looked each other over. Zhillin still looked young and fresh, but deep creases had grown where his eyebrows met. Whereas Menakhem had changed greatly since that winter in Moscow, his face more bony, his black hair streaked with silver, the chiseled mouth even more sharply defined. His dark eyelashes and deep brown eyes darkened his face, worn-out, restless, troubled.

43“Mikhail Isaacovitch!”

44They embraced. Zhillin was very glad to see Menakhem.

45“What great luck running into you! Congratulations, Mikhail! Great job! Come, sit in my car. We’ll ride over to the officers’ mess. And I see you got your epaulettes back!”

46They rode past the Tiergarten, a bombed-out train station, the burned down Excelsior Hotel, across the Potsdamer Platz, and went around the headquarters of the Gestapo and the German Air Force. They sat silently, taking in the ruination of Berlin.

47 Zhillin’s pleasure at seeing Menakhem again soon dissolved. Every once in a while he would glance at the Jew, and in that glance there was something inquisitorial, curiosity mixed with suspicion. The night before it had been reported that two soldiers had disappeared. They had searched the entire sector, as well as in the Spree River. On Zhillin’s desk that morning lay a more detailed report of the case. It turned out that both men were Jews. “Now everything becomes clear!” he said to his adjutant. “Why didn’t you say right away what their nationality was? They’re probably already on the other side of the Elbe River! This isn’t an isolated case. It’s a bitter twist of fate: Nazis, SS men, Vlasov’s army— and Jews—are escaping to the other side. It goes against common sense!”

48Zhillin wanted to tell Menakhem the whole story. The car stopped. The officers’ mess was deserted. They sat at a little table, and a German girl served them. Menakhem was surprised: “What? They’re serving us so soon?” Zhillin’s look said “You can count on us.” They understood each other completely, the Russian from the south and the Jew from Plonsk. The waitress served Moscow vodka, American cognac, old Prussian liqueur, and French vermouth.

49“Take your pick,” said Zhillin. “We have a choice.”

50Menakhem took the bottle of vermouth. Zhillin laughed. His hand lay on Menakhem’s arm as he said, “I just knew you wouldn’t take the Moscow vodka!”

51They drank a couple of glasses, toasting to brotherhood. He continued: “The Soviet government knows how to punish. But it doesn’t just punish. After all, you got your epaulettes back.”

52Menakhem closed his eyes and again he saw that forest in the snow... Frolitch near the little stove in the dugout... Anna. He told Zhillin: “You remind me of those terrible days near Moscow. Nikolay Feodorovitch, you did me wrong then, with what you said at my trial. You remember?”

53“Tell me, Mikhail, where will you be a month from now?”

54“I don’t know,” he answered.

55“Why don’t you know? You have to know, Mikhail!”

56Menakhem did not get what Zhillin was getting at.

57“I’ll be with my unit.”

58“You’re not leaving? What I mean is, where will you go when you’re discharged? Where to? Over there?” He motioned towards the west.

59“I’ll go back to Poland.”

60 “Why not Tengushay?”

61Menakhem was surprised: “What a memory you have!”

62“My memory has made me what I am. But one thing isn’t clear to me. Why won’t you stay with us, in Russia? You can become something. Why drag yourself around in that wasteland Poland or in the capitalist jungle of the west?”

63“Stop it, Nikolay! You’re wasting your time on nonsense at such a table. Don’t worry about me. I’ll manage. Better if you leave us alone. There are more serious problems in Berlin.” He lifted his glass and continued: “Nikolay, let’s drink to victory!” Then he called over a soldier who was passing by, and he offered him the bottle, “Come here, Russian!”

64Zhillin walked Menakhem to the car and said: “This soldier will drive you back. Don’t get lost in the ruins!” When he was sitting in the colonel’s black Mercedes and was looking at the driver’s short leather jacket, Zhillin bent over to the open window: “Do you get letters from Mokhovaya Street?”

65“You mean from Moscow?” Menakhem knitted his brows

66Zhillin whispered close to his face, “From Anna Samuelovna.”

67Menakhem could smell the liquor on his hot breath. He felt Zhillin’s burning hand on his fingers. The mention of Anna’s name turned him pale, and his head was pounding. His face turned red. He repeated after Zhillin, “Anna, Anna Samuelovna.”

68And joy erupted from deep inside Menakhem, a spiteful joy breaking through, the way the clear light of day dissolves the fog: “Anna? She’s alive! She’s in Warsaw! At the military hospital! A doctor!” Menakhem wanted to add something, but Zhillin’s look had suddenly changed. His forehead had wrinkled up, and his eyes were shimmering with an eery iciness.

69The car flew over the evening streets. At the gates of the Soviet occupation headquarters stood the tall, blond Zhillin, wearing a smart officer’s uniform with gilt medals and epaulettes. A light spring breeze blew through his hair. He was still watching the broad avenue down which his Mercedes had taken Menakhem.

70Birds were swaying on the linden trees in bloom. It was spring in his bosom, too. Verdant spring was wending its way through conquered Berlin, between death, hunger, the cold, the rapes, and the white flags of surrender, to every tiny bit of earth, to every savaged tree trunk. And Zhillin’s heart, too, broke open, like the ruined bridge. “Anna,” he said to himself. And he felt as if that Jew Menakhem Isaacovitch had stolen her away and left him standing there at the guarded gates of headquarters. And when Zhillin crossed the cobblestoned courtyard towards the guards who presented arms, his pace became quick and energetic, like those of someone who knows that people are waiting for him.

71Menakhem slept badly that night. First he stood at the open window and stared out at the blackness. Clouds of smoke were rolling in the west, and part of the sky was hidden behind a curtain of fire. When the wind blew apart the clouds, silhouettes of burned ruins appeared.

72Branches swayed near his window. Part of the tree was charred and bare, while new leaves had grown on the rest of it. Assorted chunks of cornices littered the courtyard, as in an old cemetery. The wine had left a burning in his temples and a thick foam in his mouth. Zhillin had made him uneasy. Menakhem went down to the yard. Kerbaley was on guard duty.

73“How’s Oshanin?”

74The Tatar tried his best with his broken Russian: “Ha, ha! Lieut. Oshanin is a good man. A good man. He’s seeing a Fräulein. A beauty. A German girl. Pretty like the sun itself. He’s totally changed. He’s protecting her from our Russian guys. She’s turned his head all around. The way she sings, whoa, mama, she melts his little heart like the snow in springtime. But he stopped going there recently. She invites him. The mother and the daughter. But he’s stubborn.

  • 1 Tent.
  • 2 Nomadic yurt.

75Menakhem left the talkative Tatar and went into the great halls equipped with army cots, where the battalion was quartered. The Kirghiz Alturov was there. He was sitting at the edge of his cot, writing a letter. He was concentrating hard, focusing on the letter and wiping the sweat from his chin and neck. Now he was in another world, in an aul1 in Kirghizstan, or in a shepherd’s kibitka.2 His young wife would come out of the shadows and he would say sweet words to her. Menakhem watched Alturov’s lips move, and a warm glow spread across his tanned Kirghiz face. He felt so close to those frontline soldiers, as if they had been his friends since earliest childhood. It would be hard for him to leave them for distant, unfamiliar places.

76Sgt. Sergei Orlov was downhearted. He held his head in his hands, propped on his knees. Menakhem said, “Sergei, what’s worrying you? Have they stopped writing?”

77“No, it’s nothing. I’m just depressed.”

78Menakhem sat next to him, but they said nothing. When the others left for guard duty he spoke quietly to Menakhem: “Yesterday when I was on guard duty, a Ukrainian called me over. I followed him to an abandoned bunker, and there were half-naked German women and lots of our guys. The Ukrainian says to me, ‘Take your turn.’ I didn’t want to, so I left. I was hanging around near the bridge. Hundreds, thousands of Germans were waiting there to try to get across the canal. Our men wouldn’t let them. I was walking around, and I saw a German woman among piles of stones, all by herself. I bent over and gave her my bread. I patted her arm and her head, and I talked to her in plain Russian. When I was ready to leave I felt her cling to my hands. Such big eyes! Such an inviting, unusual breath! Such a bright face! It was as if I were in another world, and that world was calling to me. It was pulling me. I wanted to pick her up and carry her in my arms, and take her far, far away, to the fields back home, to my village, to the Oka River. She clung to the earth and to the stones and to me. Then the moon vanished. And she was mine in the darkness. But I had to go on guard duty. I came back to her at dawn, but I couldn’t find her. I searched for her in that crowd that was mobbing at the bridge. I screamed, ‘Halt! Get back!’ and I aimed my machine gun. I was looking for her and I thought I saw her, but it was someone who looked like her. I was so upset that I just wanted to shoot. I have to find her! Where is she? Why are they running away? Won’t I ever see her again? Tell me, Mikhail! I can’t get it out of my system! Where is that young woman with the wonderful eyes?”

79Menakhem thought, “Oh, God, see how close lust is to rape? A mere spider’s web separates them. And how close life is to death! Even there where life and death walk arm in arm, love can bloom unexpectedly like the roses of the steppe!” What could he possibly say to Sergei? He did not wish to besmirch the wondrous rose of human beauty that had sprung up among the ruins of accursed Berlin. He consoled Orlov with the assurance that many more wonderful experiences were in store for him. When the skies had regained their peace, when the curtains of smoke had cleared off the ravaged earth, when the plows did their work again, when the fields of rye turned gold again—then he would surely find again those big, warm eyes that he had been so fortunate to encounter.

80Politkommissar Vasil Akimovitch Sabayev called Menakhem for a meeting right after Col. Zhillin’s visit. They talked about the German prisoners, about the civilian population, about the destroyed museums. Sabayev showed Menakhem old paintings of the “Münchener School” that had been found in a cellar. The orderly brought them tea. The sergeant then checked the weapons of the guards on duty.

81Sabayev asked, “Do you know Col. Zhillin from your days in Moscow?”

82“Yes, from the Winter of 1941,” answered Menakhem.

83“Yes, yes. He’s interested in you... He said good things about you. You’re a painter? It’s important. Very important... Changes are coming to the general staff...”

84Menakhem sensed that Sabayev was getting at something.

85Sabayev continued: “What do you think of these paintings?”

86“They remind me of our own painting... but our painters have ideas, whereas they, the Germans, didn’t... dead subjects... overdone still-lifes... colors of the evening dusk. Now take our Gerasimov…” Menakhem had said these words with hidden mockery. Sabayev realized it, but he was not sure who was being mocked.

87He said, “I think you’re mistaken, Mikhail. The Germans do have ideas. Their idea is to celebrate gluttony for the lazy ones who gorge themselves. These pictures are meant for the propertied class and the princes. They’re destined for opulent bedrooms. They’ll look very nice hanging over big feminine beds. I once heard a lecture on German art. Those lectures were part of a special course that we were required to attend. And what I just told you I heard from a connoisseur from Leningrad.”

88Menakhem shook his head in agreement, with the mocking smile still on his face. He knew that the officer had an excellent memory and was repeating word for word what the connoisseur from Leningrad had said.

89 Sabayev went on: “What you’re lacking, Mikhail, is a Marxist education. If only you had that, you could really be something! You simply must read the fourth chapter of the short course. Your lack of knowledge confuses your thinking.”

90That is how the conversation ended. But something had been left unsaid. Sabayev had not shown his cards. Something was brewing.

91Soon after, Nikolay Soloukhin stopped Menakhem: “Jewish troops are being moved away from the Elbe River. They’re fraternizing with the Americans, and there are Jews among them. And your people are crossing the river. At first we thought that the Germans would take revenge on ‘the pitiful Jews, ’ and murder them. But it turns out that Jews are escaping. Sometimes they take Russians with them. Now units from deep inside Russia are patrolling the Elbe instead.”

92Sepp Düring, until now an SS-ObergruppenFührer, was named head of the German police that the Soviets had just organized in Berlin. When Menakhem found out, he immediately remembered what the Jews of Volhynia had told him that all the Ukrainians who had collaborated with the Germans had become the heads of the new police set up by the Soviets. Men who had shot thousands of Jews were now serving under Soviet command.

93He asked Sabayev, “Do you know who Sepp Düring is?! Do you know what he did to the Jews in southern Poland?!”

94“We know everything,” he answered. “The bosses know. You have a personal account to settle, but Soviet interests are totally different. Yours is a narrow grievance. Blind hatred of Germany is disruptive. Did you read Stalin’s last speech about the Germans? No? Well, that explains it.”

95A few days later Sabayev told Menakhem that he had been ordered to transfer him to another unit: “I think the place that they’re assigning you to will be more suitable for you. You’re being sent to a unit in charge of dismantling factories. It’s more your line of work, disarming Germany, blowing up weapons factories, and the German machinery and their specialists that we’ll need to rebuild Russian cities. “

96Sergei Orlov embraced Menakhem like a brother and wept. “Don’t forget to write a few words, soldier. Let me know where you are. I’ve been depressed since that night at the canal. That beautiful girl with the huge eyes just won’t let me be! I’m ruining my eyes looking for her everywhere. I’ve been to the far ends of the city. Maybe you’ll run into her, Mikhail. Tell her Sergei is looking for her. I don’t know her name, but I’d sure recognize her. I’d know her right away, as God is my witness!” He had changed after that night, becoming more pensive, more serious. Now, after long years in the trenches, weariness and apathy hit him.

97Lev Oshanin came to say goodbye to Menakhem. They fell into each others’ arms. Kerbaley mumbled aloud, “Good people... good people,” wiping away tears. Menakhem and Oshanin had much in common, and they were kindred spirits. Just being close, working in the same headquarters, had been great for them. Whenever they ran into each other they felt an ethnic bond. There was no need to shake hands or say anything, just an exchange of glances. But even that restraint bound them together, and they were not even aware of it. They realized how much they had meant to each other only when they had to separate.

98Anna wrote:

99“Mikhail, Mikha. The days have grown harder and sadder. Your letters are short, your sentences disconnected. I can feel that you’re troubled. The joy of your victory is being spoiled by lawlessness everywhere. The roads of Poland are in chaos. Jews who return are being murdered. Trains are being attacked. They’re hunting Jews and Soviet officers. Gangs are running wild on the highways, in the villages, in the towns. Jewish committees have to house Jews for protection. I’ve been to them and seen those broken people.

100“Only the children bring me joy. I don’t have the time to describe in more detail the kids whom we’re taking back from Christians. My children’s refuge is growing. Each child is a world unto itself. Little Ignacy sends you greetings. He’s seven now, but his eyes are mature, full of pain. Hanka asks when you’re coming back. We also have little Aniuta. I got her from a farmer’s family near Plock. She’s very scrawny, but what a clever girl! Yekaterina Yurievna comes with me to the refuge. I can now say a few words in Yiddish.

101“I told Aniuta, ‘Come here, little girl, ’ and she came over and hugged me.

102“Then she asked, ‘D’you want to be my mother?’

103‘Yes, Aniuta dear, good little Aniuta.’

104‘I’ll be a good child. Take me away from here. I’m gonna love you a lot.’

105 “My eyes are getting teary as I write these lines. Who could ever have imagined what was going to happen in this country? I fear what the future holds for these children. Mikhail, my Misha, will I see you soon? How hard are these days of waiting! The hospital has moved across the river to Warsaw, but some departments are still in Praga. I was sorry to leave my little attic room.

106“When I first got there, the branches of the chestnut tree were bare. During winter nights they banged against the windowpane. Now they’re in bloom. I love the broad chestnut leaves, like open palms of the hand. The whiteness of their flowers soars up to the sky. I woke up last night, half asleep, half awake, and the flowers spread out before me like hundreds of white lights in the light of the moon. Don’t laugh at me, Mikhail! I know that you may think me strange, a surgeon who’s surrounded by the wounded and bleeding by day and dreams of dazzling whiteness and trees in full bloom. Do you remember that winter day near Moscow when I came out of the hospital to see you off? I stared at the snow field for a long time after you left. I remember your footsteps in the snow, the curves in the valleys, the blue-tinged mist over the forest. I kept looking at the fields until it was dark. That’s when the whiteness took hold of me. I look for it everywhere, and when I find it I see your face there.

107“I just read over what I’ve written, and I wanted to rip it up. But I can’t. I know that tomorrow I’ll put on my serious face, and my cold hands won’t even shake when I touch the cold sharp steel. I’ll get angry at the nurse, I’ll say very little, I’ll open the opaque glass doors and go into the operating room, where my own life totters between soldiers I don’t know, the dead and the living. Then I’ll collapse on my bed, exhausted. Don’t be bad, Mikha, don’t laugh at my dreams of dazzling snowy whiteness. Your Anna.”

108Soviet man was never so free as when he was in the ditches fighting at the front. It was there that he walked a thin line between life and death, but it was also there that his terror disappeared: the fear of the NKVD, the fear of being sentenced to slave labor, the fear of long prison sentences. The black cloud of dictatorship began to dissolve in the nighttime sorties, in the reconnaissance missions, in the heat of the battle, in the fortified dugouts—everywhere that initiative and boldness were summoned up. During all that time the NKVD men hid far behind the troops, with the regimental secretaries, with the office bureaucrats, at headquarters far from the front line. That freedom from fear turned the Russian soldier into a hero. The hands of the common man were now unbound.

109Even his language regained its former richness. It was no longer fettered by slogans and poster jargon. It flourished with Russian wit, parables, ancient epics, tales of the medieval bogatyrs, passionate love ballads, lamentations longing for little Mother Russia. They quietly mocked the Politkommissars and ridiculed the Party heroes who had never seen action. The freedom that they tasted at the front would never again be taken from them. A new path had opened for them, which would lead to a renewed Russia without starving villages and bread made of clay.

110A chunk of ice does not melt immediately, even near fire. It needs some time to thaw. Some law of nature maintains it until it turns to water, then steam. It cannot happen in an instant. That was how it was with Russia. Government by dictatorship, too, would have to thaw. It was surrounded by the flames of war. In a short time, just a little longer, the homeland would restore itself. After all, it could not be any other way. After all, it was so clear and obvious. Let the kolkhozes survive, and the red flags, and the statues of the deity with the crafty smile, and the star high over the Kremlin. But do not take away the freedom won by the soldiers on the front! Who would dare to unleash again the terror of the NKVD? After all, the soldiers had defended the fatherland with their lives. But yes, they did dare!

111Berlin was crawling with military NKVD. New headquarters were established for the generals of these units. They came from all over Russia, well-rested, well-armed, well-trained. They took over buildings, factories, airfields, garages, entire streets, and enclosed them with barbed wire. Their special units kept watch over train stations. They controlled neighborhoods with a network of guardhouses and patrols. Their first victims were the frontline soldiers, precisely those Russians— frank and warm-hearted—with their new-found freedom, who had put down their weapons to rest after their victory.

112It was those troops who had conquered Berlin. But right after their great victory, Berlin was again conquered—for the Red Kremlin—by whole divisions of prison guards sent from Butyrka Prison, Sukhaya-Bezvodnaya, and the slave-labor camps in Komi and Temnikov. Marshal Zhukov was not the real ruler of Berlin, nor was Marshal Rokossovsky. The real rulers were Ivan Serov, Stalin’s personal emissary, the shadowy Kazakh, Babadjanin, and the recently celebrated Col. Zhillin. Those three had a throng of assistants.

113The map of Berlin lay unfurled on the large tables of the NKVD headquarters. The battle had begun “to maintain the Socialist conquests of the Soviet Union,” as the Father of the Nations had promised in his speech at the May First parade. Ivan Serov was speaking in a conference hall of a former German corporation: “We are starting our battle to rule Berlin as a Soviet, Bolshevik conquest.” A storm of applause interrupted him. Who was that Col. Ivan Serov? No one knew him. His face was gray and wrinkled, and marked by two deep creases from the corners of his eyes down to his lips. It was a dark, blank face with no hint of a smile, cold and tough.

114Zhillin was his opposite: “Napoleon said that big cities are like women. You can take them, but not control them. We Russians, who beat Napoleon, will now destroy his theory. We will control this city.” Someone smiled, but then immediately turned around to look behind him. The iceberg that had begun to melt from the flames of war was already beginning to freeze again.

115If the war had continued and if there hadn’t been a natural river border separating them from the Allied soldiers, the troops from both sides would have met, and the curtain would have been broken. The freedom that the frontline troops had just won in battle could not have been taken away from them. The NKVD was building concentration camps in Berlin, not just for SS men, Vlasov’s men, and German war prisoners, but also for frontline Soviet troops.

116Long trains were sent speeding back to Russia, some full of wounded troops, some with machines and all kinds of goods. But others were sealed. They ran at night, carrying frontline soldiers straight to Siberia. When military transports had been sent from the Urals to the front at top speed with no stops, all the lights were green, and it was called “the green road.” But now, having conquered Germany, the “green road” carried suspect veterans quickly to labor camps in Siberia. But it was now called “the white road.”

117 It was a brilliant, sunny day at Tempelhof airport. The piles of debris were cleared from the concrete roads. Destroyed hangars spread far and wide. Ruins of aircraft lay everywhere, speckled with green and silver aluminum, twisted propellers, wheels, maneuver fuel tanks. Piles of that debris resembled monuments to the air force of the Reich, erected by German war prisoners under Soviet guard. There was a roar of Soviet bombers. The squadron soared into the sky one at a time, under the command of Maj. Tiulkin. They were on their way to meet up with Allied airplanes at Tempelhof. The Allied high command was to arrive at 2 in the afternoon. Engines roared from the west ten minutes before the time arranged. Two Douglas bombers appeared, then a third, circling over the airport, over part of Berlin, and then landed. A silvery Douglas stopped on the asphalt runway. Chief Air Marshal—and Deputy Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force—Tedder stepped out. Down the steps after him came the American General Spaatz, commander of Strategic Air Forces, and Harold Burrough, the commander of Allied naval forces in Europe.

118They were greeted by Soviet Lieutenant General Vasilev. The flags of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States flew over the airfield. A few minutes later two more planes landed with the rest of the delegates and members of the press. An honor guard lined up. The flags of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were presented. The orchestra played the national anthems of the three countries. Col. Lebedyev reported to Marshal Tedder that the honor guard was ready. The head of the delegation, along with those just arrived, reviewed the honor guard. Tedder said, “You have greatly honored us with this parade.” The Red Army responded with shouts of “Hurrah!”

119The audience was nervous. Some looked at the sky as the noise of airplane engines approached. Soon they saw a fourth Douglas land at Tempelhof, which was bringing representatives of the defeated German army to Berlin. Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, Generaladmiral Hans Friedeburg, and Generalleutnant Stumpff walked across the airfield, accompanied by American officers, towards cars that were waiting for them. Marshal Tedder spoke through a microphone, his clear voice echoing, metallic. He explained that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces General Eisenhower had appointed him to greet the Soviet marshals and generals, and that he was especially pleased to do so in Berlin.

120The delegates took seats in their cars and drove through devastated Berlin to the Karlshorst suburb. The French delegation arrived at 2: 40, led by General De Lattre de Tassigny. Marshal Tedder gave Marshal Zhukov a white silk flag bearing an embroidered emblem of the Allied Forces. The historic event that everyone was waiting for was to take place in a gray house at the corner of Zwieseler Strasse and Rheinsteinstrasse, the former building of the School of Military Engineering. Long tables had been prepared in a gray hall. The flags of the four Allied Forces hung from the wall. The evening was getting late. Marshal Zhukov entered, along with Marshal Tedder and the delegates of the other Allies. Each delegate took his seat under the flag of his country: Zhukov, Tedder, Spaatz, De Lattre de Tassigny. The middle of the table was occupied by the representatives of the Allies and the war correspondents of the international press. One table remained empty.

121Marshal Zhukov addressed the audience: “Gentlemen! We have gathered here to accept the unconditional surrender of the command of the armed forces of Germany. I suggest that we begin the work and invite the authorized delegates of the German command.” Then he gave the order: “Ask the delegates of Germany to come in!” With that, Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, Generaladmiral Friedeburg, and Generalleutnant Stumpff walked in with their adjutants. Generalfeldmarschall Keitel and the others took their seats in complete silence. Zhukov continued: “Gentlemen, now we will sign the act of unconditional surrender. I address these questions to the representatives of the German high command: Do they have the act with them? Have they familiarized themselves with it? Do the representatives of the German high command agree to sign this act? Then Chief Air Marshal Tedder repeated the same questions. Everyone waited for the answer.

122“Yes, I agree,” said Generalfeldmarschall Keitel, his voice breaking. He fixed his monocle, then walked towards Zhukov and stopped at the large table. He held the document from the German general staff, signed by Grossadmiral of the German navy Dönitz, which gave Keitel the authority to sign the act of surrender. Zhukov then asked the German delegates to approach and sign the act. The Nazi generals signed the historic act one after the other, while photographs and films recorded the event for eternity. The document was signed: Germany had surrendered unconditionally. The document was in Russian, English and German versions. Only the English and Russian texts were deemed authentic. One copy was given to Keitel. Marshal Zhukov announced, “The German delegation may leave.”

123Lev Oshanin cames looking for Menakhem late that night: “I’m back from Karlshorst. They signed the surrender. I saw them, the German generals. What a wonderful night! I just can’t sleep. Something made me find you. I’m wandering around for hours. This is our victory.” They walked arm in arm through the streets of Berlin. Everywhere they saw the white flags of surrender and the flags of the victors. Triumphal arches were going up. The next day would be festive.

124Moscow celebrated that night. A thousand cannons fired thirty shots. The world had never seen a salute like that. The sky became one huge cascade of fireworks. The light over Moscow was as bright as daylight. Moscow was jubilant! The war was over! Germany had surrendered!

125The next afternoon, Zhillin’s driver came for Menakhem. The short Mordvin man with a broad face and heavy jaws was pleased that he had found Lieut. Mikhail Isaacovitch:

126“I’ve been looking for you for hours, Lieutenant! I’m supposed to bring you to Col. Zhillin without fail. Something’s going on. You have to look nice. There’s going to be girls. You have to shave. Here’s some eau de Cologne, not easy to find! Let’s go, comrade lieutenant! Move it! D’you know what the Colonel said? ‘Vavilov, you Mordvin, if you don’t bring me Mikhail Isaacovitch, don’t show your face here again!’”

127“Your name is Vavilov?”

128The Mordvin nodded.

129“Where are you from?”

130“The Tengushay district, Barashovo.”

131Menakhem embraced him: “I know Tengushay, and I was in Barashovo. That’s where I was mobilized.”

132The Mordvin pulled a bottle of eau de Cologne from his satchel: “Lieutenant, let’s drink to this encounter! It’s good to drink, but it has a smell. You get used to it. It’s tasty.” Vavilov was soon tipsy, and his words were garbled: “You can take what’s left for shaving. Oh, you don’t want to drink? That’s all right, we’ll take care of it!”

133 He drove the Mercedes like a madman, almost crashing the car into a wall. He banged into piles of iron and ran up onto the pavement, whistling. Then he knocked into the wooden guard post, refused to show his military papers, and took out his revolver. Luckily Menakhem took hold of his arms. Right from the courtyard it was clear that a big party was being prepared. Loads of bottles and barrels and chests were being brought in. There were army bureaucrats, Russian women in military dress with white aprons and silk headdresses, and a mob of waiters. The courtyard was already crammed, from trucks to limousines.

134Vavilov did not leave Menakhem’s side: “I have to present you to Nikolay Feodorovitch, then you can do as you please. He has to see me here, my good buddy, my countryman. Come, let’s find the Colonel.” Menakhem followed him, smiling. The Mordvin reeked of eau de Cologne. He slurped when he talked and kept covering his mouth: “If the Colonel smells it, I’m a gonner.”

135Zhillin was elegantly dressed, with all his medals. Menakhem saw him standing with a group of commanders, Zhillin being taller and more trim. He was unusually handsome, except that his forehead was too low, and there was something sinister in his eyes. “Well, here’s Mikhail Isaacovitch,” he called out. Menakhem greeted the officers. Vavilov stood to the side and waited for Zhillin to signal to him to leave. The Mordvin mumbed to himself, staring through yellowed eyes at the long tables decked out with bottles of vodka and wine.

136Zhillin introduced Menakhem: “This is my friend, from the battle for Moscow. A painter. Do you remember our posters on the Moscow streets in the first winter of the war? The Red Army trooper trampling on the swastika hydra? The caricatures of the German rulers? That was all the work of Mikhail Isaacovitch.” Then he went over to the Mordvin, leaving Menakhem alone with the others.

137The reception was to last all night. They were waiting for important guests. Marshals were expected to come. Menakhem spent time talking to Lieut. Karopov and Capt. Prokunin.

138“We’ve got to hit the bottle.”

139“Let’s start,” answered the lieutenant.

140“They’ll give us a sign. Then we’ll storm the tables, and I mean storm, nothing less.”

141 The large hall was decorated with colorful papers, pine branches, and portraits. Over the head of the table hung a picture of the Supreme Commander. Oh, how Menakhem knew that face well! What had been Zhillin’s purpose in inviting him? Menakhem did not understand. Was it some nostalgic feeling for those days in Moscow?

142Karopov was impatient. His face still bore scars that had not healed yet, and something like dark steel glinted on his neck. He had seen terrible combat. He had broken through the stranglehold of German forces and fought in Kertch and Korsun, and bridged the Dnieper River, the Bug, the Vistula. He was from Krivoy Rog and had been a work brigadier on a kolkhoz.

143Capt. Prokunin, from Tomsk, had been the manager of a tractor station. He had survived the siege of Leningrad and had led his reriment to Vilna, Königsberg, and Posen. He was a Russian with broad shoulders, big, powerful hands, and a ruddy, smiling face.

144Goblets were raised. All eyes were turned to the head of the table. A general, his face in bright lights, stood under Stalin’s portrait. Menakhem looked at him carefully, and it seemed that he had met him somewhere before. Someone murmured half-aloud, “That’s Ivan Serov.” That was a name that was said very quietly, in a whisper. Menakhem repeated it to himself: Ivan Serov. He perused his gray, rigid face, looking as if it were made of wax and ash. Incapable of smiling. Motionless eyelashes. Deadly serious, like lead.

145The general began, “We are gathered here,” then he paused. His hard, dry voice was like a dull saw cutting an old tree trunk. He looked around then continued: “We are gathered here to celebrate our victory over Germany—here, in conquered Berlin. Let us raise our glasses in honor of the Great Man who led us to victory, the Father of the Nations.” He could not continue because of the thunderous “hurrah” that surged like a river that overruns dams.

146That ended his speech, and an uncontrolled buzzing swept the audience along with a sense of relief, as if they had thrown down heavy backpacks after an exhausting march. The man with the unpleasant, ashen face would have continued speaking, for he was still standing at the head of the table. But the clinking of liquor bottles and the popping of corks made it impossible. Someone struck up a harmonica. Soldiers waited on the tables, carrying trays of hors-d’oeuvres. Menakhem recognized some Jews among the officers. He looked for Gen. Shamshin but did not find him. Zhillin came over to him a few times. They drank toasts together. While they were drinking, one of the military correspondents said something to Zhillin, then pointed to Menakhem and asked, “Nikolay, who’s the lieutenant?”

147Menakhem offered his hand and smiled. Not waiting for Zhillin to reply, he introduced himself, “Mikhail Isaacovitch.”

148“Karasov,” answered the correspondent.

149Zhillin was not pleased at this meeting, and Menakhem sensed it. Zhillin even tried to pull Karasov away from him.

150“Stop it, Nikolay! I want to talk to Mikhail Isaacovitch.” Then he turned to Menakhem and asked, “Are you Jewish?”

151“Yes, I am.”

152“I’m a writer. Have you heard my name? Jews are interested in literature. I know Gurman, an editor, and Sheynin, a critic. Are you on the general staff?”

153Menakhem detected irony and sarcasm in his words. Karasov smelled of brandy. When had he managed to drink it?

154“Mister Karasov,” said Menakhem with exaggerated courtesy, in mockery. “Excuse me for calling you ‘Mister, ’ but I don’t see an insignia of any military rank. Your questions are such that they don’t require an answer. Yes, I am Jewish. Do you have something against that?”

155“Oh, Mikhail Isaacovitch, my boy! I like you, by God! I was just joking. You’re sensitive. That’s good. I’d swear to it that you write poems. I can see it in your face,”

156“I’m a painter.”

157“Well, why didn’t you say so? At least there’s one respectable person here among these drunken revelers! Don’t be shocked. You were ready to think me an enemy of the Jewish people. I know Jews. In my opinion, you bring problems on yourselves. Your deep distrust alienates you from others. You don’t trust us. Even the slightest insult enrages you. You seize on every word that anyone says about your people, often without reason. We say the same things about ourselves, about Russians and Ukrainians. But we’re not allowed to say them about you. You think you deserve kindness and love, and that’s natural, of course. But one wrong word and you lose your reason; you get riled up, obsessive, terrified.

158 “And you become antagonistic when you’re defending yourselves against injustice. It’s a pleasure to spend time with you when times are good, but your mistrust of your neighbors the non-Jews, pours out in times of war and suffering. Then you think the whole world is conspiring against you and wants to destroy your nation. You think they’ve been trying to destroy you ever since there were Jews. Don’t you realize that this is an absurd, imaginary fear? If it were real, there wouldn’t be any Jews left today. Hundreds of nations have disappeared over the centuries, but your people have survived and they will survive. The Nazis didn’t plan to exterminate only your nation. It was a pretext to destroy the Slavs. Why have you asserted that the world hates you? You assume that anything that is said about Jews is hateful. It confirms your worldview. That justifies the hatred of non-Jews that runs in your blood.

159“Why are you staring at me like that? Are you going to count me among the Jew-haters? I’m not, Mikhail Isaacovitch. It’s the Ukrainians that I hate. But no Ukrainian ever looked at me like that. I have Jewish friends, Moscow Jews. Now this problem has shaken things up. Until now this problem did not exist. It’s the Nazis and you Jews who created it. Nazism has unleashed the hatred of the Jews, and that hatred is raging in places where there are no Jews left. This anti-Semitism is no longer directed at you, because you have practically disappeared from the liberated areas of Russia, except in the cities.

160“Hatred needs a name, an address, and it must be concrete. The Jews were the springboard to unleash race hatred. And that antisemitism spread in the hearts of men, and, like lava, it expanded against other peoples. Hatred has no borders. We know where it started, but not where it will end. If the Jews could understand that, they wouldn’t take it so tragically.”

161Menakhem interrupted him: “Not so tragically? Do you know what it has led to? The murder of millions! You talk as if there were no Auschwitz and no Majdanek!” He could barely speak. The fingers of his hands clutched each other, as he looked at Karasov with sorrow and regret. Behind them a colonel was laughing so hard that the glasses shook. Menakhem turned around and saw a stereotypical Russian face, wide, shiny, heated, his skin riddled with fine, delicate veins. When he laughed it seemed like those veins were simmering.

162 Wine glasses were tinkling. A woman soldier from the general staff approached Menakhem. She was laughing. Her front teeth hid her lower lip. Her teeth and upper lip were moist. Her forehead was all freckled.

163“This is Zinaida Karpovna, from Zhillin’s staff.”

164She asked, “Why are you young people talking so much? You’re practically not even drinking!” Then she left to bring hors-d’oeuvres, and Menakhem saw her exchanging winks with Zhillin. “Looks like my old friend wants me to have a good time,” thought Menakhem.

165“Let’s go,” said Karasov. “Let’s get away from her with the big teeth. With teeth like that, she’ll have eaten you in no time, and the only thing left will be your belt buckle and the soles of your boots. Zinaida Karpovna is one of those women like crystallized jams.” And he burst out laughing.

166They walked arm in arm through the hall and went into a side room, which was also crowded.

167“Mikhail, you’re wrong to bring up the murdered Jews. That has nothing to do with it. They died as the result of a war between Germans and Slavs. They’re victims of that war. If you believe that the world hates you, then you accept your own death sentence.”

168Menakhem replied: “Why do you keep harping on the Jews? Leave us alone. All we ask of you is tolerance. Nothing more. You, Russian poet, what compels you to keep talking about Jews, a small and lonely nation?”

169The Russian answered: “The Jews are more than a small nation, a minority among others. They’re a stream that doesn’t merge with the larger river, and when the stream does merge with it, then it reappears somewhere else, even stronger. That’s what the Jews are like.”

170Menakhem grew impatient. He decided not to respond. But his silence only provoked Karasov more:

171“Your people have two choices. Either they can merge with the larger sea, or they can go their own way. Your people shook up Russia. They made the Revolution and Communism. Your people were the cream of our revolt. Their experiences let them tap into the highest instincts of our intelligentsia as well as the lowest instincts of the mob. Should I name all the Judases who poisoned Russia? Now they’re working in another sphere. They’ve become our experts in literature and art. They’re bright, they’re very clever and articulate, and they’re on their way again.

172 “Don’t you think that a strong hand that sweeps away the foam at the top will reveal the silent, suffering Russian people? But no, it isn’t silent! The waters are boiling deep down; they erode the riverbed and its banks. It’s a heroic struggle with a rotten, alien, non-Russian layer. Do you see, Mikhail, that there’s no proportion between the foam and the waters. That’s how I see your ‘small and lonely nation.’”

173Menakhem did not answer. He drew Karasov’s face on a paper napkin with a pencil.

  • 3 Leader of a Ukrainian Cossack uprising against Polish domination in the seventeenth century. Tens o (...)

174Karasov continued: “You Jews are good at bringing goods that are needed to the market. What we need now is Russian patriotism. Your Ilya provides it. Who can compare to his brilliant writing? We needed a national anthem? Jews provided it. Poster slogans and articles promoting the Russian war effort? David Zaslavsky! They do their job well. Our guys can’t compete. A book about the hajdamak Khmelnytsky?3 Who can write it better than Natan Rybak? Soulful Russian poems? Ilya again! His sonnets are rich and complex. He can do everything! World-class novels. Pamphlets. Biting feuilletons. Lyrical songs. Russian people, just help yourselves to what modern Jews can offer you! They have a whole store! You were the first to adopt Communism, and I have the feeling that you will turn against it. Or rather, Communism will betray you and trample on you.”

175Karasov was drunk, but that made him less clear and lucid. Menakhem looked at him and said quietly: “You take individual Jews make it seem as if they represent our entire nation. It would never occur to me, for example, to claim that Smerdyakov is your brother just because you’re both Russians. One can take any nation and smear it that way by generalizing. You wouldn’t talk that way if it weren’t for Hitler. You’re right that hatred has no specific boundaries. You’re bitter and you’re looking to blame it on someone. You’re not strong enough or brave enough to blame those who actually savaged your country. And so, out of cowardice, you choose a small, nearly exterminated nation to blame instead. You’re attacking victims whose hands are already tied, who are wounded and bloodied. You do it with no compunction whatsoever, no sense of morality at all. Blaming the Jews poses no danger to you. Yes, you feel the need to vent your righteous hatred of your regime, so you pick a target, and—to justify that hatred—you then pick and choose your facts like a ghastly mosaic. I could name dozens of ethnic Russians who would easily represent brutality, treason, and murder in our generation. Do you want to hear them?”

176Menakhem started to leave, but on the table lay excellent drawings of Karasov.

177“Stop it, Mikhail! Don’t get insulted! We were just having a normal conversation. Let’s see the drawings, brother! You’re too sensitive on the subject. Don’t look at me like that! I like you! You’re more frank than me, more direct. In your place I wouldn’t have said those things about Russians. Do you want to hear my poem? Sit down, Mikhail!”

178Karasov used both hands to sit him down. His face changed. There was something of the blue forests in his eyes. He began to read:

179“Russia, you are the bare pasture fields in late autumn,

180Where a hungry ox runs, his eyes burning,

181And a hamlet is cradled between its flaming red horns.

182All the horizons are cradled and evening falls.

183And I, a son of that melancholy, white hamlet,

184Play in the viburnum in the valley at nightfall…”

185Menakhem liked the poem. He looked at his stereotypical Russian face and thought how odd it was that vicious, insidious antisemitism could reside in a person with elevated feelings, an average person, a decent person. That antisemitism was like alcohol, which can rot and corrupt a person’s mind and heart.

186They strolled through the brightly lit halls. Karasov wended his way through the officers and the women. His eyes were not accustomed to the brilliance of crystal chandeliers. A Ukrainian was dancing a kozatchok, holding his hands on his hips, his thick neck stiff, his feet barely touching down, as if they were sweeping the floor, the people, the tables. He was crouched way down, so that only his curly head and shoulders were visible on top, and his black, shiny goatskin boots below.

187Karasov said: “Come, Mikhail. I don’t like that Cossack dance. It’s too primitive. He’s turned into a top that twirls of its own blind force. Just look at the mug on that dancing Ukrainian. He looks like an idiot, like a cooked red beet. His eyes are glazed, he’s foaming at the mouth, and lust just pours out of him. He’s possessed by some unnatural force. It’s the Devil that makes him twirl like that. All his movements are out of his control. He can’t stop, and he can’t control himself. It’s a mixture of self-satisfaction and depravity, and the release of very taut muscles. He’s not human anymore, just a wound-up spring that suddenly uncoils itself. He’ll keep spinning until he’s all worn out.

188“That dance reflects the Ukrainian character. They rise up at every historical event, sometimes against the Russians, sometimes against the Poles. They had Khmelnytsky and they had Petlyura. But they were just briefly stirred up, a passing movement. D’you see, Mikhail, how he’s all done for, out like a light? His eyes are closing, his face is now ash.”

189Karasov went over to the Ukrainian: “Little brother, you’re all spent! Straighten up! You’re a rag now. When you dance you look like a rooster who’s twirling around and his red comb twirls with him.” Karasov was drunk, and he went around slapping people on the back: “Russians dance differently. Have you ever seen how Russians dance? Mikhail, where are you? Come closer. When a Russian dances, you can see his soul on his face. All his dreams are in his gentle eyes.”

190Suddenly the outside doors opened. Several aides entered, clearing a path. They were serious and tense, and they lined up in an honor guard. Menakhem heard cries of “Hurrah!” Karasov’s lips turned pale and turned gray.

191“What happened?”

192He replied to Menakhem, “Nothing. Must be some parade-ground general. They’re carrying on that old tradition of parading around. That’s great for recruits, not for veterans.”

193A member of the Supreme Military Council walked to the head of the table. He was a pockmarked character with a short beard. He looked as though he were wearing three layers of uniforms. He did not seem to be made of flesh and blood, but rather artificially stuffed with some strange padding. Three high officers followed him, looking just like parade-ground horses, very young officers just recently come from the officers’ training school near Moscow, where they had studied strategy with German generals who had been taken prisoner.

  • 4 This refers to the Stalinist campaign to collectivize all the farms in Ukraine in the 1930s, which (...)

194When the member of the Supreme Military Council had taken his seat of honor, Aleksei Karasov said to Mikhail: “D’you know what his military feats were? During the period of collectivizing the farms, he was sent to suppress the revolt of the farmers in Kuban.4 He attacked the villages at night, at the head of Kalmyk and Tatar regiments. Later he led the Kuban regiment against Kalmyk villages and hamlets. Then he was named Politkommissar at central headquarters of the Army, the Kremlin’s watchdog over the troops. Now he’s in Berlin. You all paved his way here, all the way to the Elbe…”

195“Stop it, Aleksei! There are people behind your back. You’ve drunk too much. You’re putting yourself in danger, and me, too…”

196“Are you a coward? Tomorrow I’ll write a poem to the glory of our powerful ruler, the Father of the Nations, and I’ll give it to Gurman the editor... Ha! I’ll write a report on the first day in conquered Berlin. But you won’t find a trace of the real Karasov in any of it. Little brother, you’ll rub your eyes trying to find that mournful Russian who ‘plays in the valley with the red pearls of viburnum.’”

197Cries of “Hurrah” rang out again. They rolled in waves, coming together in a roar or unbridled joy. Aleksei joined in the clamor. Marshal Zhukov walked into the hall, the conqueror of Berlin, the commander of the First Belarussian Front, middle-aged, powerfully built, with the face of a plowman. His eyes were piercing, metallic. He had a broad nose, with large nostrils, dilated, looking as if they had just taken a huge breath. Two deep creases ran down to his nose, and he had a chiseled chin, protruding, with a deep dimple. His neck was short and stocky, with folds. His lips were pressed tightly, but half open on the right side of his mouth. His smile was fatherly, but severe.

198Karasov applauded: “He’s the Kutuzov of this war. Only Russians could have produced such a regimental commander! Mikhail, we haven’t yet toasted in honor of the Great Russian nation. Come, let’s drink! Look, there’s Zinaida Karpovna and Zhillin! Let’s all toast!” They raised their glasses full of vodka.

199“To the great Russian nation!”

200Zhillin said, “Enough, Aleksei! Mikhail! You’re neglecting Zinaida. You’re not gentlemen!” Zhillin did not have time. He had to be everywhere. Singing was coming from the other rooms. But when it was interrupted you could hear loud “Hurrahs!” and women laughing.

201 The Russian poet and the Jew Menakhem left the halls at dawn. They ran into drunkards on the steps going out. Some Germans had also been invited to the reception. “Those are our German bastards. They helped us, showed us the way to Berlin. We couldn’t have managed to get through the ruins and the devastated streets without them. The map of the city was useless.”

202Menakhem shuddered. He saw Sep Dühring. They looked at each other. And as Menakhem stood in the courtyard and felt the early morning May breeze, he was overwhelmed with grief. He left, alone, through the streets of conquered Berlin.


1 Tent.

2 Nomadic yurt.

3 Leader of a Ukrainian Cossack uprising against Polish domination in the seventeenth century. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered. The term “hajdamak” referred to paramilitary Ukrainian and Cossack bands serving under Khmelnytsky.

4 This refers to the Stalinist campaign to collectivize all the farms in Ukraine in the 1930s, which led to starvation and suicides on a mass scale.


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