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The Fall of Berlin

Mendl Mann

The Fall of Berlin

Chapter Eight

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1He heard steps in the rainy night. Menakhem was standing at the window. The panes were clouded over. The steps faded into the black of night. They would probably return. The pine trees cast scattered shadows. An oil lamp swayed in the big hall, its pale, yellow light falling on the children’s beds.

2Dr. Jabrow was sitting, hunched over, and reading. He was exhausted from visiting one child after another. The rain was pounding on the windows, lighting them up with a silvery glow. Menakhem went out on the street, his collar up, to listen to the night sounds. The dog, Rex, curled up at his feet. He felt the dog’s warm breath on his hand, and it felt homey. He started walking around the building. The dog disappeared among the bushes and suddenly started to moan. That is how dogs weep when some unkown fear takes hold of them.

3Menakhem had been guarding the children’s refuge at night for several weeks. He spent his days in Warsaw getting officials to give him food for the children. In the evenings he would sit with the older children, telling them stories about voyages and deserts and about the intelligence of God’s creatures. It was a way to calm the anxiety that gnawed at his heart. Then he would grip the loaded pistol in his pocket and go out to stand guard. Shadows swarmed around the house.

4Harvest time brought rain-swept days. It was bad enough that the fields had been half destroyed and wild growth had sprung up on the unplowed soil—a tangle of ugly nettles and wormwood never seen before. And now rain poured down, and the paltry tufts of rye were beaten down by wind and water as if hordes of dancing demons had trampled them at night. At dawn the farmers saw footprints in the damp soil, but they were unable to tell if they had been made by humans or by creatures not of this earth. Sometimes they could hear shooting at night, and they could see farms burning on the horizon. Armed men overran the roads. They held up trains, plundered baggage, kidnapped passengers, and then disappeared. No one knew who they were, what they wanted, or whom they were fighting. They might be dressed as peasants, or Russian soldiers, or religious hermits. They spoke all kinds of Slavic languages. They had only one thing in common, hatred for Jews.

5Anna always waited for Menakhem with both joy and dread. When she caressed his forehead and his neck, he always choked up and turned away his moist eyes. But he did not like that weakness in himself. He struggled to control it, and he did. After a sleepless night of guarding the children’s refuge, he would sit on Anna’s bed in her little hospital room and hide his face behind her long fingers. His shoulders trembled, and his tears touched her hand. Then he put his head under the cold-water tap and smiled. Anna understood that the war was not over for Menakhem. He could not be at ease yet, after what he had gone through. It was still war for him. He was still surrounded by danger. Even there in the hospital, the war was still raging.

6How good it was for Anna, to be able to look at his face, the dark eyes, the black hair of the exhausted Menakhem! She loved to see the smile spread from the corners of his mouth while tears ran down his face. She loved their salty taste on her lips. She waited for him to embrace her and hold her tight. She longed to feel his warm breath, his panting, and wanted to breathe it in even deeper. Her lips hungered for his. And he loved her even more for it, and for the arms that welcomed him so freely, her warmth, her big, gentle eyes that were so open to him. It was intoxicating.

7As Menakhem left her room, walking with Yekaterina Yurievna, he met Capt. Klyuyev. They looked each other over. Then Menakhem heard a heavy door slamming shut. The nurse wrung her hands and left him. When he was on the street, Klyuyev’s inquisitorial stare came back to him. He was sure that something was going to happen very soon. He wanted to suppress that certainty by thinking of Anna. He loved her big eyes. They were always bright, shining even at night. His fingers could still feel the softness of her neck. Klyuyev’s eyes had the look of someone who knows another person’s fate. No, it was silly to worry about the captain who sniffed around the doctors and patients in the hospital! But Menakhem stopped when he remembered the nurse wringing her hands and leaving so suddenly.

8The next day day Dr. Jabrow was summoned to Warsaw. He returned late at night.

9 He told Menakhem: “We have the possibility of taking the children across the border, to the west. The authorities have promised not to stop us.”

10Menakhem shuddered, “Leave? Escape?”

11He said those words in such a way that he did not know whether he was asking the doctor a question or agreeing with him. They were part of an interior dialogue he was having with himself, but he had voiced only two words aloud.

12A Soviet liaison officer had invited Jabrow and had explained that there would be no objection to taking the children to the other side of the German border, to the west: “We can’t be responsible for their lives. Anything can happen. Furthermore, foreign representatives have taken steps.”

13The doctor added: “Those officers have been well paid off. It’s worth their while.”

14Menakhem was silent.

15The next day he was playing with the children again. He told them stories about a big, beautiful world on the other side of the sea, a world of perpetual summer. He held little Aniuta in his arms. Rysiek with the bright eyes played at his feet. Freckle-faced Adasz asked him: “Is it true that we’re getting ready to go far, far away? Are you coming with us, Mikhail?”

16If everything was such a great secret, how had the little redheaded boy learned of the trip they were planning? Oh, how children find out everything!

17The night before they left, Dr. Jabrow talked to the children: “I’m going with you. It’s a long trip. Don’t be afraid. It won’t be easy to leave behind these Polish fields and forests. We were born here. We love the Polish skies and the tragic Polish soil…” He choked up and could not catch his breath.

18A while later he added: “This land has turned into a stepmother, and the skies have turned against us. The nights have become dangerous. Farewell, Poland!” Then the doctor turned towards the window and lowered his head. Just then a boy began to weep in the corner of the room. Everyone listened to his thin voice screeching like a violin against the silence. The sobbing child was slender, about ten years old. They had rarely heard him speak above a whisper. He was shy and reserved and always stood apart, watching the others play.

19Menakhem went over and asked: “What’s wrong, child?”

20“I don’t want to go away from here. Sometimes I can hear my dead mother singing. Over there, far away, I won’t hear her. The soil is good for everyone. The skies, too! It’s the people who are bad. God will make them good. We have to pray to God.”

21Menakhem wandered through the rooms of the children’s refuge all night long. He stepped outside a few times to listen to the rustle of the wind in the pine trees. His eyes scanned into the dark distance, followed the light of fires hidden in the fog, then he opened his arms to take in the night of late summer, and he breathed it in deeply. Once again he smelled the scent of the Polish fields and almost tasted the pine resin on his palate, as he had in early childhood. He still had not decided whether to leave with the children or to stay behind.

22Anna’s face came to him a thousand times a second. His inner dialogue with her continued without interruption, all bound up with the rustling of the wind, the black of night, the stars, the smell of pine resin. It was one long dialogue with God’s world. Little Adasz had asked him, “Are you coming with us, Mikhail?” And what about Anna? Could he leave her behind? Would she go with him to unknown lands? Could she even do it, she who was a surgeon in a military hospital?

23Menakhem’s conversation with Zhillin convinced him that he had to leave Poland. Anna would also have to escape. Something awful would happen if she didn’t. No, nothing would happen to her! But then he remembered that her face had turned pale and her hands shook when she heard about Zhillin’s meeting with Menakhem and Dr. Jabrow. Now it became clear why Zhillin had asked such discreet questions about Anna in Berlin that night during the victory celebration. And the night before his death, Marek had told him of the strange encounter between her and some Soviet officer in the hospital corridor. Menakhem now realized that it had certainly been Zhillin.

24Menakhem sat half-dozing on the steps in front of the house, with Rex lying at his feet. He dreamt of speeding trains with locked doors and barbed wire. He saw train stations in the black of night. Airplanes were soaring over burning forests. Someone was weeping nearby, someone he knew. It was Anna. She was standing on the other side of the rails. He was running through blackness, his arms reaching out to her. Suddenly a black train roared past, dark wagons, and more dark wagons. When will these wagons end? A black wall stood between him and Anna. When will this black train ever end? Now he could not hear her anymore, only the train wheels clattering, the locomotive howling.

25It was dawn when he finally shook himself awake. He shivered in the cold and felt sick and tired. That day, trucks would come late at night to take the children and some adults. He walked to the train station, Rex following. A suburban train arrived. From the window Menakhem could see Rex barking, his ears perked up.

26The night before, head nurse Yekaterina Yurievna had knocked on Anna’s door after midnight: “Anna Samuelovna, get dressed. They’re waiting for you downstairs in the corridor.” Anna sat up and looked at the nurse, nervously, anxiously. The wrinkles from her eyes grew deeper and they glistened. Her eyes seemed to radiate some inner light, not the eyes of someone who has just woken up. She got off the bed and put on her doctor’s robe.

27Anna was used to the nurse waking her at night, but this time she saw that it was not to go help a patient. They walked in silence. Anna saw the woman soldier she had met in Klyuyev’s office. She stared at her short forehead, covered with freckles, and at the upper lip protruding over her crooked teeth.

28The woman said hoarsely: “Doctor, I’m from headquarters. You have to come with me now. Take your things, I mean your equipment. The driver is outside. Don’t forget a warm dress. It’s cold at night.”

29The black Mercedes sped through the dark Warsaw streets. The woman said nothing.

30Anna asked, “What’s your name?”

31“Zinaida Karpovna.”

32“I met you in Capt. Klyuyev’s office, right?”

33In the dim light of the car, Anna could see the woman smile at her obsequiously. She responded with a stony look and reacted only when the guards shone a light in her face. She walked quickly down the hall. Someone opened the door to a brighly-lit room. The woman with the crooked teeth stammered something. When Anna walked in, some Soviet officers were deep in conversation. They grew silent as soon as they saw her. Zhillin walked towards her.

34 “Sit down.” She recognized that mixture of his, of feigned weariness and indifference. She could not argue with those two words said so quietly, although furious words lay on her lips. How did they dare to drag her through the city at night? How would she be able to function at the hospital in the morning? They were putting the lives of wounded soldiers at risk! So irresponsible! The mad impulse of an officer who had been hounding her since the start of the war! But she said nothing.

35Her lips pursed, she merely said, “You sent for me?”

36She did not want to say his name. She had not been able to bring herself to say “Zhillin” ever since that terrible night in Polesia.

37“Yes, I called for you.” Then he got up to emphasize his words.

38“When are you going to stop hounding me? What do you want?”

39“I’m not hounding you, Anna Samuelovna. I’ve interceded on your behalf. Thanks to me you can freely go home to Moscow, to Mokhovaya Street, and see your mother. You’ve been ordered to go back. You’ll get work in a hospital in Moscow. There was an order for your arrest. You’ve had contact with foreigners, with enemies of our homeland. I’ve done everything to save you, to get you out of the clutches of a spy ring of foreigners, outsiders, who have entangled you. We’re on their tracks.”

40Something sinister and shiny flashed in his eyes. It was the snake that shows its back, then its belly, and readies its white poison. Oh, how well she knew him!

41“Look, Anna Samuelovna! This is the warrant for your arrest.” Zhillin slowly took a document from the desk, then drew on his cigarette, and tore up the paper into tiny pieces. “You have to leave Warsaw in two hours. My driver and Zinaida will take you. Here’s your plane ticket and the necessary permits.”

42The phone rang just then. Zhillin covered the receiver with his hand and said to Anna: “Have a good trip!” The door opened slowly, and the woman with the crooked teeth entered. Zhillin called out, “We’ll see each other again! We have to see each other again!” Anna did not turn back. She stood a while with her back to the officer and did not know whether those words had been addressed to her or to the person who had called on the phone. In the corridor she saw that she was being guarded. Zinaida said, “We’re going to the hospital to get your clothes. It’s getting late.” The driver slammed the door of the big black car.

43 They drove through a Warsaw that was half destroyed. Weak lights shone from twisted lampposts. Drunks were bellowing. A shot rang out. A lone woman slipped along a open gate, dimly-lit. A harmonica was playing nearby. They passed a patrol. An emergency vehicle sounded its siren. Anna closed her eyes. The relief of indifference suddenly descended on her. She would never see Capt. Klyuyev’s inquisitorial eyes again and shudder with humiliating terror. Yes, there is a terror that humiliates, that renders you abject, totally powerless. That was the fear that she had of Zhillin. That would all stop now. All of it.

44Anna threw her things into a straw satchel. Zinaida stood in the doorway, smoking. Anna said, “Why are you watching me? I won’t escape!”

45She looked silently at the window. Dawn was breaking. A cloud glowed like phosphorus. She had once seen a sky like that. It was when Menakhem had returned from the war, the night he had spent in her room. Such a phosphorescent cloud had hung over the black horizon when they had woken up. Anna’s relief and indifference dissipated, replaced by piercing heartache.

46She told Zinaida, “I have to say goodbye to the wounded. You have no right…” She strode quickly towards the door. Zinaida moved aside. Yekaterina Yurievna was wiping away her tears. Anna embraced her and spoke to her quietly, gently.

47“Your documents?” Menakhem had stopped at the hospital gate and tried to smile at the familiar guard, but he could not. Why were they not letting him in that day? “I have to see the Doctor. Anna Samuelovna. Don’t you recognize me? My name’s Mikhail.”

48“Wait a second. I’ll call.”

49The soldier’s face turned to ice, and his little watery eyes were cold. Menakhem laid down his documents on the sentinel’s window. The guard hung up the receiver and said: “There is no such doctor here. She has left.”

50“It’s a mistake! It can’t be!”

51The soldier erupted with dry laughter: “Ha, ha, ha! The bosses never make mistakes!”

52In the evening, head nurse Yekaterina Yurievna went to the children’s refuge in Otwock. Menakhem jumped up. As soon as he saw her face he knew what had happened. She told him: “Anna asked me to tell you: ‘Mikahil, leave this place. Don’t stay in this country.’ She’ll see you again. Your Anna has to see you again. They sent her away, I don’t know where to. They said Moscow, but it’s a lie. If they were sending her home, why would they guard her? ‘Tell Mikhail that what binds me to him was stronger than war and will be stronger than those who keep us apart now. Mikha must keep strong for the next wonderful time we meet.’ Those were Anna’s words.”

53Rex moaned softly when he saw Menakhem suddenly hide his face with his hands, shudder, and let his shoulders fall.

54Two trucks covered with tarps drove quickly towards the west. It was dawn. Menakhem was hunched in a corner, watching the tired children. They were curled up, sleeping under blankets. They were going to Berlin, and further. Yesterday Menakhem had been a conqueror, today he was a vagabond. The sun was rising in the east. He was leaving this tragic land forever, the soil of his ancestors.

55All he had left was a weary body and a heart full of pain, rage, and love.


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