“Come out!” barked a gruff voice from behind the powerful beam of light. “Give yourself up.”
Sonovabitch. I had let my guard down. Darkness surprised me with its swiftness, and the allied curfew patrol closed in. Pinned in the shadow of a rubble pile in war-ravaged Berlin, I calculated the distance to the alley, my only chance of escape; I could make a run for it and hope to avoid a bullet if caught in the beam of the spotlight. Decision made, I sprang to my feet and ran, a determined soldier hot on my heels. Damn! I stumbled, clambered, clawed over mounds of broken bricks and mangled beams. My lungs threatened to explode when, without warning, bright headlights shone from the far end of the alley, ending my sprint and, perhaps my freedom.
Two American soldiers leapt from the jeep to block my escape. The one chasing me wrenched my arm behind my back. “Achtung! You’re coming with us,” he hissed.
My mind raced. ‘You bastard,’ I thought. ‘You’re in for a hell of a fight!’ I twisted my upper body to upset the soldier’s balance and slammed him into a bullet-scarred brick wall. Spittle on the rush of his expended breath spattered my face as his knees buckled and he flowed to the ground like warm honey. As I grabbed the next soldier, his partner bashed my head with a nightstick; an explosion of stars clouded my vision.
I regained consciousness sprawled on a dirt floor, a ring of inquisitive faces staring down over the edges of multi-tiered bunks. A scrawny man stretched out an arm and pointed to a lower bunk. In the flicker of light cast by a kerosene lantern, I crawled across the floor, my brain throbbing in time with the beat of my heart, pulled myself upright against the rough timber frame and flopped onto the thin mattress.
Although my eyes sagged, my predicament kept sleep at bay. How could I search for my precious seventeen-year-old daughter, Ami, from the confines of this refugee camp? Near the end of World War II, the Soviet Army had swiftly pushed Hitler’s demoralized ranks back from Poland to Germany and I lost contact with Ami during our flight from the communist onslaught. For sixty-two wretched days, I scoured the countryside and the German towns bordered by Poland, then combed the destroyed streets of Dresden and Cottbus before moving on to Berlin. My thoughts, my energy, my everything had gone into searching for her—she was all I had left to live for.
While tallying the suffering that had shaped my life, it seemed as if I were cursed. What did the future hold for me—more hardship, more pain? Triggered by self-pity, my life escaped the confines of my soul, and played out in my mind as a vivid dream, a dream beginning in the bliss of my youth.
She Slapped Me
I hurried across the yard and dragged open the heavy plank door of the limestone block passageway, then eased my way down the creaky stairs into the root cellar, where shadows cast long gnarled fingers across the rough timbers. Next to the potato bin stood a large earthenware sauerkraut crock and a wine barrel on the packed-earth floor, perhaps with monsters hiding behind them. On the opposite side, Grandma had aligned various flasks on a low shelf, her writing on each barely legible. “Plum,” I read aloud and pushed the bottle aside. “Gooseberry.” An acrid taste arose in my mouth. “A-p-r-i-” I pried the cork from the amber bottle with my thumb and index finger and held it to my nose. “It smells like apricots … better try a sip.” I downed a large swallow, burped loudly, then scampered up the stairs without checking the sauerkraut crock’s shadow.
“Sorry I took so long, Grandma,” I said as she snatched the bottle from me. “The words, they’re kinda rubbed off.”
“Did you take a drink?”
She slapped me. “Don’t lie, Johannes. That’s a big sin.”
I nodded, but dared not rub my burning cheek.
She caught my ear and led me to the corner behind the stove. “Kneel here for an hour, you rascal.”
“Please, can I move to a different spot?” I asked. “It’s too hot here.”
“Not nearly as hot as you’ll be in hell if you keep telling lies.”
That evening at bedtime, I began to recite my prayer for a second time. “What are you doing, Kisser?” Kurt asked. “We already prayed.”
‘Mind your own business,’ I thought, before continuing, “When I lay down to sleep on the Good Mother’s lap, I ask her to tuck me in and make the sign of the cross over me.” I fluffed my feather pillow. “Kurt, how hot do you think it’d be in hell?”
“Hot as being in the sun all day, I bet. Naih, it’d prob’ly be hot as inside a Bachofen. Or maybe hotter than a blacksmith’s fire. Or even …”
I poked him in the ribs with my elbow. “Shut up already.”
“Well, you asked.” He turned and faced the wall. Soon his breathing settled into a deep steady rhythm, however, I lay awake trying to rid my mind of horned devils and red-hot pitchforks.
He Spat On Showman’s Dusty Boots
Mist from the pond drifted across the street in eerie black shapes as dawn crept over the horizon. Near the far end of my assigned route Herr Bauman’s carriage, trailed by a contingent of armed men, appeared on Pototski Road. Something inside me screamed, “Run for home!” but there wasn’t time. I quickly climbed a linden tree and disappeared among the autumn foliage.
The closed carriage made a wide turn in front of the church and came to a halt below me. I slowly, quietly, climbed higher, my fingers fumbling for grip. The door burst open and two burly men wrestled Herr Bauman from the carriage. Dark red stains covered his rumpled shirt, and one torn sleeve flapped at his side. Blood seeped from an open wound on the top of his bald head, his left ear hung loose, and his hands were bound behind his back. He blinked coagulated blood and morning sunshine from his swollen eyes as one of the men forced him up the steps to the elevated luggage platform at the rear of the carriage. Igor Kronchin climbed onto the platform and stood beside the captive. “Kuzma, go ring the church bell,” he ordered one of his men. “And Attila, do you still have that rope in your saddlebag?”
My heart pounded as the one called Attila climbed onto the carriage roof. He knotted the thick rope to a sturdy branch above Herr Bauman’s head and dropped the other end to the platform. When the administrator slipped a crude noose around his prisoner’s neck, my right hand involuntarily clutched my throat.
The ringing church bell attracted the bleary-eyed village men. They jostled with the guards and shouted for the release of Bauman, who appeared confused and steadfastly gazed at the white cross on Saint Gustav’s steeple. Yuri, Oleg, and the other Russian harvest workers banished by Bauman gathered near the carriage, but Ivan stood leaning against a tree at the fringe of the crowd. I saw Grandpa and Uncle Heinz, their heads turning in every direction, but dared not call out to them.
Father Heisser hurried from the rectory as quickly as his arthritic hips would allow, shouting as he approached the carriage. “Keep your men out of my church! And release this man! He is a child of God.”
Kronchin glared down from his position beside Herr Bauman. “There’s no place for your God in the Soviet state, just as there is no longer any place for this ruthless capitalist.”
The mounted men formed a circle around the carriage, forcing back both the villagers and the agitated priest. Herr Bauman teetered on his feet as the nervous team caused the carriage to sway. He tried to grasp the edge of the roof behind him, barely able to stay upright. I prayed someone would undo the noose.
The administrator seized the opportunity to condemn Herr Bauman and all estate owners. “These rich men, these kulaks, are nothing but parasites and must be removed from Soviet society,” he said. He spat on Showman’s dusty boots. “This … this despicable person’s land and all his possessions are now the property of The People. And his family has been disinherited by the government. Anyone who aids them will be judged guilty of this man’s crimes and sentenced to a similar fate—banishment to hard labor in the far north.” After a pause, Kronchin’s face opened in a grin. “To save me the bother of taking him to Odessa, who wants to lay the whip to this fine pair of horses? Come on, surely this man has enemies.”
“I have reason to do it,” Katya Kurganov screamed. “My Boris was so proud to be your horseman and you wouldn’t pay a measly bribe to keep him out of the army. He died there and you owe him … and you owe his boy Ivan!”
Hang ‘em! Hang ‘em!
Uncle Heinz and Grandpa didn’t exactly invite me to accompany them to the meeting, but when Grandpa noticed me tag behind, he said I should hurry up, we were late. Before we joined the milling crowd, the blacksmith Herr Epp approached my uncle and Gus Vetter. After a hushed conversation, Gus said, “That’s enough evidence for me. Come on, Heinz. Let’s find them skunks.”
The villagers busily compared losses until Herr Redekop pointed down Middle Avenue. “Hold on! Somebody’s coming,” he yelled.
A swaggering Gus prodded Oleg with his old shotgun, while Martin and Lothar slunk ahead of my uncle. “Ve got the stinkin’ bastards. They couldn’t hide from us,” Gus said proudly.
“What’s this about?” Oleg growled, his gaze fixed on his shoes.
Herr Goldstein stared at Oleg, his anger building. “You two helped the raiders on Christmas Eve. I heard you call to Martin on the church steps.”
“And you were in a hurry yesterday for me to fix your horse’s shoe. Was it so you could ride out and signal the Red Army?” Libby Epp shouted. “What did they pay you? A few measly roubles?”
“Martin’s the one you want! Him and his brother.”
Lothar nervously rolled the hem of his jacket. “I-I don’t know nothing about it. And when the two of them were gone for the night, I wasn’t even with ’em.”
“Did ya’ hear that?” Whiskey Wolff pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed Lothar by the hair. “This little piss-ant pretty much admits Oleg and Martin were the ones who told the Red Army that we had money.” He swayed on his feet, then steadied himself against Herr Redekop’s shoulder. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a goddamn rat! Who wants to hang the bastards?”
Herr Redekop brushed Whiskey’s hand from his shoulder. “Let’s not be hasty. We’ll take them to jail in Mannheim and let the court decide on a punishment.”
Whiskey loosened the pistol tucked under his belt. “Ha! The same court that said anybody has the right to take our grain and we’re the ones breaking the law if we stop ’em? I say get rid of ’em right now!”
Herr Goldstein confronted Whiskey. “I’m certain that Martin helped Oleg, but I can’t say anything about the young fellow.”
“He’s only a boy. Let him go. We’ve got the other two, gehl,” Herr Epp conceded.
Lothar broke loose, dodged through the crowd, and disappeared behind the town hall. Before anyone could react, a hysterical female voice echoed above the clamor. “What are you doing to my boy?” Philomena Degenstein, her ankle-length skirt fluttering behind her, shouldered her way toward Martin. “Let him go. I beg you.”
Whiskey waved his pistol in the air. He turned to the street, to the faces contorted in anger. “Hang ’em! Hang ’em!” he shouted. The angry mob surged forward and muscled Martin and Oleg against the stone fence, knocking Philomena off her feet.
Bam … Bam. Two shots rang out. An intense silence enveloped the crowd.
Some Germans On The Run
I strolled among children playing tag on their way home from school, enjoying the warm sun on my face. Within a few blocks, the church Grandpa and I had seen from the hilltop loomed on my left. While I admired the stained glass windows, a lilting female voice called out, “Gutten Tag. You’re not from here, are you?”
I peeked beyond a rose bush in the tree-lined churchyard and saw a girl of my age waving from a bench. “Dooo, do you mean me?” I said.
“Of course, I mean you. I don’t see anyone else.” A radiant smile bowed her lips; her eyes, blue as the evening sky, sparkled below fluttering lashes.
The girls in Chornov were not so brash, nor were they as fair-skinned. “You don’t look like a German, but you speak our language,” was all I could think to say.
“I’m from a Swedish colony near Nikolajev. My father moved here to work at the wagon factory years ago. Do you know where Nikolajev is?”
I felt quite ignorant. “Nnnnaih, I don’t know that town. Is it near Chornov?”
“Chornov.” She curled her lip. “Ach, that’s not so far away.” She patted the rough plank seat. “Come, sit down.”
I sat on the extreme edge, afraid my shabby boots and the patches on the knees of my trousers would not meet with her approval. My new friend smiled and said, “My name’s Ottilia. What’s yours?”
“Johannes, ahhh … Hans. I’m pleased to meet you.” She chatted about her family, Selz and school, while I sat enchanted by the sound of her voice.
Seemingly a short time later, four loud chimes burst from the bell towers. I sprang from the bench like a startled rabbit. “Yesus Gott. I’m late to meet Grampa. We want to get home before dark.”
“Ya, our Home Guard fought off the Red Army a few weeks ago, but they might come back. Be careful.”
“Wiedersehn,” I called over my shoulder.
“Come see me next time you’re here. We live on Schmier Avenue.”
I arrived breathless and flushed at Salomea’s house and clambered up beside Grandpa, who already sat in the cart with Jake’s reins in his hands. “Sorry, Grampa. The time just flew by. Honest.” I hung my head in shame; I hated to disappoint him.
“We’ll still get home in daylight.” He patted my back. “It’s fine.”
Grandpa skirted past a wagon loaded with bags of threshed grain, then urged Jake into a trot. We were almost out of the valley when an ear-shattering boom echoed across the liman. “Leiber Gott! Somebody’s shooting a cannon into Selz! And it looks like it’s the Red Army!” Grandpa said, as a regiment on horseback waited impatiently just beyond the crest of the hill to our right.
I knew the situation was grave when fear reflected in my grandfather’s eyes, something I had never seen before.
On command, the soldiers raised their rifles and charged into Selz. However, two riders parted ranks and galloped toward us. Grandpa slapped down my hand as I reached for the rifle under the seat. “Don’t bother, Hans. They’re armed better than us.”
The riders guided their horses to either side of our cart. Their tunics hung loose, their hair was straggly and their beards unkempt. The one on my left came so near I could smell his musty sweat. My jaw tightened when he pointed his cocked pistol at Grandpa. “Ahhh, some Germans on the run. Should we shoot the scums right now?”
His comrade, a broad-shouldered man with fire in his eyes yelled, “Jesus no, Sasha. Ursulov wants every man alive. Take them back to town.” He brusquely addressed Grandpa. “And you! Give me that rifle under the seat.” The second rider slung the rifle over his shoulder, dug his heels into his horse’s ribs and galloped down the hill.
Relief swept over me. They had spared our lives, but why did Ursulov—whoever he was—want us? My mouth felt dry as cotton.
Sasha grabbed Jake’s reins and led us toward the rising fray. The deafening blasts of gunshots echoed between the damaged houses, the inn, and the hardware store. Two soldiers dragged a man wearing a white hat and an apron from a main street building where the sign ‘Schwab’s Bakery’ dangled over a broken window. When one of them swung his rifle down hard on the struggling man’s head, a frantic woman ran screaming from the shop, pleading for mercy. The other soldier whirled around and plunged his bayonet deep into her chest, then wiped the blade clean on the felled woman’s dress. Sasha waved to him. “Good enough. That’s one less Nemtzi,” he said with a sneer.
I turned my head and retched over the side of the cart. “Keep that frickin’ contraption moving, Sasha,” one of them ordered. “We’re going to the hall, and not for a dance.”
Sasha tied Jake to a hitching post in front of the town hall, a stone structure with small high-set windows, and prodded us into the dimly lit room where a group of disheveled hostages cowered along one wall. Somehow, I felt relief that we were not alone. Sasha crossed the room and greeted four soldiers resting their feet on a rectangular wooden table. He tilted his head to drink from a bottle. “Those Germans can keep their goddamn sauerkraut,” he slurred, wiping his mouth on a sleeve, “but they sure make good wine.”
The windows turned black when night descended several hours later. Eventually, eighty-nine of us, some wet from hiding in reed beds, others covered in chaff from straw stacks, sat cross-legged on the cool stone floor, the soldiers’ ugly threats and rifle butts keeping order. When intermittent gunshots echoed from the street I wondered if a hostage recognized his wife or child’s voice in the blood-curdling screams. Unable to look anyone in the face, I solemnly bowed my head.
A burly bareheaded officer wearing a grime-streaked uniform staggered into the hall sometime around midnight. Our guards scurried to their feet and saluted the officer steadying himself on the back of a chair. “I am Commander Ursulov and we, the Red Army, rep-represent Russia,” he said to us, barely audible. “B-by law, you are to help drive the opposition from our country. Instead, last month you organized a Home Guard and became our enemy.”
Grandpa struggled to his feet. “Excuse me, sir, but my grandson and I are only in Selz to collect reeds. We’re from Chornov.”
“Ch-ornov? That’s close to here. You could’a been part of this Home Guard idea, too.”
Grandpa’s reply was calm and steady, his hand resting on my shoulder. “We weren’t, and I beg you to release this boy. He’s barely sixteen.”
“Sixteen’s old enough to use a rifle against us. Guards, m-make sure both of them stay here.” The commander stormed out of the hall, stumbling on the raised threshold.
Despite feeling trapped and frightened, I wouldn’t have left without Grandpa even if Ursulov had released me.
A Measly Bucket Of Wheat
Shortly before winter set in, and with no advance notice, the Cheka swooped down on Chornov in four over-sized military trucks. The echo of the church bell summoned the villagers to the churchyard. “We are here to collect grain and flour from every household,” Captain Shukov, a tall, wiry man with a mysterious angular face, shouted from the steps. “And I remind you that hiding grain, no matter how small an amount, is punishable by death.”
Three members of the Cheka emptied our granary, and then together with the captain, stomped to the attic to carry away our last bag of flour, and another of oatmeal. Still not satisfied, Shukov tipped over several barrels to make sure they were empty. Relief washed over me when he ignored the tools stacked across the access hole to The Pantry and, instead, crossed to the opposite side of the chimney. He abruptly popped open the small side door and wrinkled his nose at the sight of the smoker racks. “Damned sausage-eaters. Nobody except Nemtzis could like that stinking stuff. Let’s go!” The sausages may have disgusted him, but at least we would still have something to eat besides the contents of The Pantry.
In mid-afternoon, the bell rang for the second time that day. At Saint Gustav’s Church, an elderly couple, Ludwig and Gertrude Reinbold, huddled on the upper step, hands tied behind their backs, fear etched into their faces. Their adult daughter, Irma, who could attain no more than Form One in school, shifted from foot to foot on the bottom step. “Mama! Papa! Come down,” she cried. She wiped a sleeve under her dripping nose and pushed past a brusque sentry, who poked his rifle muzzle in her ribs and loudly ordered her into the street.
The largest of the military trucks, the timber-framed box stacked with sacks of wheat and flour, rumbled around the corner and ground to a halt in front of the church. Captain Shukov slid from the passenger seat. Exuding an authority one could almost smell, he adjusted his collar and climbed the stairs to face the Reinbolds. He raised his arm, made a fist, then uncurled two fingers and pointed to the trembling couple. “During the search, my assistants found wheat hidden under a pile of potatoes in their root cellar. An entire bucket filled with wheat!”
A sorrowful groan rippled through the crowd. Philomena, standing next to me, made the sign of the cross over her chest. I followed suit, mostly out of habit.
“Everyone must assist in the building of our Soviet state into a model for the world. Your duty is to supply grain for export to speed our country’s industrialization. My duty is to ensure you perform your duty. Now, follow me.” Shukov squared his frame and strutted down the steps.
Seven sentries, one no older than I, brushed the villagers aside with their rifles and shoved the Reinbolds in line behind the captain. We paraded toward the small earthen dam that blocked the flow from Chornov Creek, creating the pond where Kurt and I had skipped pebbles on lazy summer days. Suddenly, Irma swerved in front of the captain. She pulled on his sleeve and yelled in his face. “Where are you taking—”
It happened so quickly. The captain raised his pistol and I heard bone crack as he struck Irma on the temple. She shrieked and dropped to the ground with her arms cradling her head. Captain Shukov continued the march down the rutted dirt road, and even though the distraught woman lay in our path, no one dared stop to help her.
Two stern-faced sentries led the shackled couple onto the dam. We witnesses—victims by default—obeyed the captain’s order and encircled the pond. Gertrude called out her daughter’s name. Irma, blood dripping down her cheek, shoved through the crowd until Philomena grabbed her. She buried her face in Philomena’s bosom, cries fading to a low moan.
Shukov strode onto the dam and glanced around, his eyes wild. “Private Toupen! Get that wire from the sluice gate,” he barked. “Now, tie these criminals together by the neck.”
My heart sank. Would the captain uphold the government’s threat of death for hoarding a measly bucket of wheat?
There Was No Going Back
A rumor circulated that before dogs were at the camp, one prisoner, a former athlete, had escaped by simply running into the forest. Whether he survived, I did not know, but that man became my idol. From that moment on, escaping wasn’t just what I thought about, it was all I thought about. Four more years in the camp would kill me—one way or another. Dying from exposure in a bid for freedom seemed a better ending than going mad or starving to death.
Shortly after the much-anticipated arrival of spring, fishing duties became my next assignment, no less taxing than felling trees. I spent miserably long days on the lake reeling in heavy wet fishnets alongside my foreman, Stephan, a feisty Hungarian sporting a bright red beard. The buffeting winds stung exposed flesh and my hands blistered; the joints swelled until my knuckles broke through the skin. I would never again complain about working the fields with Herta—if ever that opportunity arose. When I wondered aloud about an end to this damn hard job, Stephan shook his head. “Only gonna end when we quit eating. And now, they’re putting up a supply of salted fish for all the guys coming in to dig the canal. A goddamn canal. And all the way to the Baltic, too.”
I cautiously questioned a young surveyor of a civilian crew marking the construction line for the canal near our launching area early in July. “The Baltic Sea is at least a couple of weeks’ walk westward from here,” he said. “But there’s some awfully rough country in between.”
Interesting. The idea that the Baltic route could be my best chance of escape intrigued me. According to Headmaster Blokin’s geography lessons, Saint Petersburg stood on the southeast shore of the Baltic Sea. From there, I could hop a train to Moscow and then to Odessa, jumping off at Railroad Valley. Only one problem seemed insurmountable: the tracking dogs at the camp—Kaspar’s downfall.
Early one morning, while Stephan and I paddled our fishing raft away from the launching area, I noticed three large fir trees on a nearby promontory flooded from the spring runoff. One of the trees grew behind the other two, making it visible only from the lake. By the time we reached our destination, I had formulated an escape plan.
That evening, Commander Golya rewarded Laika with chunks of fish; perhaps the guard dog’s appetite could be of use to me. I removed two bits of fish floating in my supper bowl to tuck into my pocket—the one without holes. When the owls began to hoot in the dead of night, I crawled from my bunk and quietly rolled my extra clothes into a tight ball. After one last look around the room at the sleeping zeks, decent men sharing so much misery, I tiptoed from the bunkhouse, a glance at the tree in front of the window causing my heart to miss several beats. While keeping a sharp eye on the guards’ quarters, I surveyed the dogs encircling the camp and approached Laika, chained under a small spruce, his neck hair on end, his lips curled. He relaxed his ears at the smell of the fish extended on my fingertips. I crouched down to give him the morsels, stroked his head, and slunk past him into the forest, beads of fear dripping down the small of my back.
Kurt’s little red pocketknife retrieved from the soft soil beneath the bush easily fit through a tear in the lining of my coat. My one regret was not risking a farewell visit to Hubert’s grave. With my heart hammering against my ribs, I scampered toward the fishing launch, ever aware of any sound coming from the camp. I tied my extra clothes and birch bark shoes together with the wire shoelaces, and then slung the ungainly bundle over my shoulder. At the edge of the water, I bent low to take a long drink before wading to the promontory. The tree that extended farthest into the lake proved the most suitable to hide in for one, possibly two days. Several hours after settling among the thickest foliage, shouts from the barracks summoned the inmates for roll call. Baying hounds soon raced toward the shoreline, running in frenzied circles at the fishing launch. Commander Golya’s voice reverberated with rage. “You, Feodorin,” he yelled to his assistant, “get in there and find Seven-eighty-eight’s tracks.”
“I’m looking, but I can’t tell which are his,” Feodorin shouted to the commander. “There’s too many tracks from the fishing guys always coming and going.” I felt goose bumps rise on my arms when Laika waded through the shallow water to the base of my tree, but breathed easier when Feodorin muttered, “You stupid mutt. There’s no time for a swim.”
“Take your men and two of those useless dogs that way around the lake.” Golya waved his arm toward the northern shoreline. “I’ll take the other two this way. Seven-eighty-eight’s gotta come out of the water sometime. We’ll see how smart he is when I get my hands on him.”
The search parties moved quickly, ducking under branches, sinking to their ankles in the marshy areas. When the baying of the hounds eventually faded, my body shook so violently my feet nearly slipped from my perch. If Feodorin had looked up … if he had followed Laika’s lead, this would all be over.
Though my fishing mates seemed trustworthy, I remained silent on my perch when they arrived at the launching area for the workday. “I kind of wondered about Hans, always lookin’ around the lake, but running is suicide,” Stephan said. “If the dogs don’t get ’im, the bugs and wild country will.”
His new partner pushed their raft into the water and started paddling. “I’d like to get the hell outta here, too, but I wouldn’t take the chance. Not with that sadist Golya in charge.”
By late afternoon, the sun beat down relentlessly, my tongue thickened from thirst and my back muscles throbbed. As a safeguard, I tied myself to the tree trunk with the shoelaces when my head began to nod. My brief dreams were not of Katie, Amilia, or even Kurt and America, but of dogs sinking their fangs into my throat.
The sound of barking grew louder as the sun swung low, and I surmised the search parties had returned to the camp. Within minutes, the fishing raft bumped against the shore and Stephan’s partner said to him, “Remember on the other side of the lake when we heard Golya tell Feodorin that the dogs never found footprints leavin’ the water? Do you think they gave up the search?”
“Yeah, for sure they quit lookin’ for him. I’d say he tried to swim across the lake and drowned.” Stephan called across the water before heading to the barracks. “Goodbye, my friend!”
Regretfully, I dare not acknowledge his sentiments.
Though lingering doubts eroded my confidence in my escape plan, there was no going back to camp. The time seemed right to begin my odyssey. Near midnight, I left the safety of the tree, red-hot pins flowing through my legs as my circulation increased. Numerous drinks of water finally relieved my cracked lips and parched throat. After wading two miles, I felt secure enough to leave the water and slip on my birch bark shoes. Reaching Saint Petersburg seemed impossible, but with certain death behind me, and the prospect of reuniting with my family ahead, I set off across the inhospitable taiga. One of Grandpa’s astronomy lessons helped me determine that if Saint Petersburg lay to the southwest, I would need to travel directly opposite the point of the rising sun.
The torturous days eventually blurred together. I endured slogging through bogs, insect bites and scratches from thorns swelling my arms, and soon, my clothes hung from my body in ribbons. The rough forest floor shredded my birch bark shoes, leaving my feet a bloodied mess. When hunger gnawed a hole in my stomach, delicate petals of wildflowers tasted every bit as good as had Grandma’s homemade Kuchen. Meandering streams provided welcome water, and low-hanging branches sheltered my weary body at rest. Each night, I prayed to awaken the next morning.
On perhaps the tenth day, I cornered three ducklings against a partially submerged log in a shallow pond. Barely taking time to pluck the feathers, I devoured their carcasses raw, blood dripping from my beard, and felt every bit the wild man I was. However, the decision to eat raw meat on an empty stomach wreaked vengeance on my digestive system. I spent the following morning doubled over in agony, and the two deer bounding away from behind a bush didn’t seem like a missed meal.
One sweltering afternoon, while considering whether I could possibly continue on, my pulse quickened at the sight of an expanse of pale blue stretching to the horizon beyond a break in the trees. I shuffled to the water’s edge and wet my fingers. Fresh water? Not in the Baltic Sea. Where in hell was I? My drained body buckled to the coarse sand, and spread flat on the shore. The thought of the waves sucking me into the water’s depths seemed strangely calming.
I’m Not Guilty
Late the following Thursday night, Police Captain Orlenko yelled for me to open the door or he would force his way in. Still half asleep, I drew back the bolt. He shoved me onto the kitchen bench, then hunched over me while his comrade shone a flashlight beam into my eyes.
“For how long have you and your brother-in-law been communicating with Germany?” said Orlenko.
I shielded my eyes with my hand. “What are you talking about? Georg and—”
“I mean Lothar Degenstein. Here’s a letter you wrote for him to their embassy in Moscow in November 1929.” The captain’s coarse mustache worked back and forth beneath his ample nose like a maid’s scrub brush.
“It had nothing to do with Lothar. It was an inquiry asking if there was a record of my family entering Germany on the amnesty day, but I never got an answer.”
“That’s because our Investigative Organ intercepted the letter to decipher your code.” He held a piece of paper under the beam of light, and moved so close we bumped foreheads. “It was only a ruse that you were inquiring about your family, wasn’t it?”
It felt as if a bomb exploded in my gut—Orlenko was framing me. Terrified of him arresting me and leaving Ami abandoned again, I mumbled, “It wasn’t a code. I’m not guilty of anything. I don’t even associate with Lothar.”
“I don’t believe you,” he retorted. “And the Troika won’t believe you, either. But if you co-operate with me, I can save your miserable ass. There’s going to be a trial soon and you will testify for me.” He slapped me in the face with the letter, and then huffed from the house, his comrade at his heels.
Don’t Come Looking For Me
Before the sun rose, we nibbled on frozen Zwieback, while Star munched on grain from a sack. As I urged her back onto the road, a drop in temperature added another layer of frost to the already treacherous conditions. The sound of curses and the snap of whips carried sharply on the frigid air. A ragged woman with a young boy in tow ran out from the haphazard line of refugees tramping along the road. “Please, sir,” she begged. “Can we just sit on the back of your cart?” Asking God’s forgiveness, I shook my head. Star already had one knee scraped to the bone and she couldn’t manage to pull another ounce.
The woman grabbed onto the side of the cart and dragged the boy along. “Get off or I’ll use this,” I ordered, raising the whip.
The boy lost his grip and his mother let go of the cart.
Ami stared from me to them, speechless. I knew the guilt of my actions would haunt me, but compassion was impossible in our situation; the fate of a young woman like Ami falling into the Soviet Army’s hands was unimaginable.
Late in the miserably long day, a German lieutenant leading a cavalcade of vehicles in the opposite direction frantically waved to us from his jeep. “Turn around! The Soviets are blockading the bridge ahead,” he yelled. “Detour north about thirty miles then bear west until you reach the next bridge. But schnell! When all our army vehicles are across, we’re blowing it up. That’ll stop those bastards.” He saluted and sped off.
Now it was every man for himself. I attempted to turn Star and the cart around on the narrow road, but other drivers doing the same impeded us. Finally, Ami pointed to a gap between two wagons and I maneuvered into the tight space. For three days, a cold wind battered our rag-tag procession as we crossed small creeks and crawled over hills wreathed with leafless poplar. The terrain sloping toward the Oder River still two miles away offered my first glimpse of Germany. I stood up in the cart and shielded my eyes against the sun as the air around the wagons filled with the uplifting sound of voices singing a German folksong. “Ami, those snow-covered hills are in the land of our forefathers. Doesn’t it make you feel like we’re coming home?”
Her bottom lip quivered. “But Papa, Ch-Chornov is my home. That’s where Semion and Gramma are.”
I felt sorry for her, but at the same time, was disappointed she did not share my enthusiasm. Perhaps she was too young to appreciate the significance of heritage.
As we bumped along toward our goal, the seconds seemed like minutes, the minutes like hours. My heart missed a beat when the whine of a diving plane disturbed the still air. “Run!” I screamed, desperately trying to alert the people in the other wagons. We jumped from the cart and pitched ourselves into an artillery shell hole near a grove of trees. As if from the bowels of hell, Soviet planes buzzed overhead, spitting streams of lead onto the road. The acrid smell of gunpowder and aviation exhaust assaulted our lungs. When the smoke and dust cleared, Star lay on the ground, blood gushing from her mouth. Ami shook the horror from her head and screamed, “Star! I’m coming.”
I caught the hem of her dress and dragged her back into the shallow pit. I pushed her down onto the scorched soil and whispered in her ear, “There’s nothing we can do for her. We must get across that bridge before the army blows it up, but it’s too dangerous now. We’ll wait until after dark.” As my grandfather had done to me many years earlier in the Selz town hall, I took her face in my hands and looked into her blue eyes, wide with fear. “If we get separated, don’t come looking for me. Just get across that bridge and go as far west as you can.”