On the Way
In the market are standing both civilians and military people, most of them with backpacks on their shoulders. The movement of trucks and tanks is getting stronger every minute. I walk with quick steps and arrive next to the NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs], where three comrades of mine are already standing and waiting for me. The armory is open to all; anyone who sets out, takes what they want: a rifle, a revolver, grenades. The soldier working at the armory calls everyone from the street in and hands out any weapons that are requested. The four of us go in, and each of us takes a revolver and two grenades to go with it.
The armory man squeezes our hands and wishes us to use the bullets well: each bullet should hit the enemy's head. We are very pleased that we have received weapons, and thus something to fight with. As well as looking at the revolvers and the grenades, our courage to fight grows.
Around us, it is black with people. Mothers accompany their children with tears in their eyes. Deep sighs escape the fathers from the depths of their hearts. I see my father next to me. Sadness is written all over his face. His lips tremble as he speaks the first words to me: You're going with everyone, too!?
Yes, Dad, I'm going with my comrades, I answer.[Page 68]
Take Peretz with you. Let him go with you and save himself! my father says.
All right, I'll take him with me. But it's already late. We still have 50 kilometers to go today!
I'll go and bring him, wait there!, Dad replies.After 5 minutes, my younger brother, Peretz, is already standing next to me, with a small sack under his arm. I quickly run into the armory and take out a revolver for him.
Don't tell Mom! She wouldn't be able to stand it!, I yell after Dad, who quickly leaves in the direction of our house.
We take one last look at the crowd standing around us. My dad's next to us. His last words to us are: Go, go, save your lives!
We take the first steps of the road toward Wolkowysk-Slonim-Baranavichy-Minsk.
In front of us, we see a white highway; on both sides there are large fields with half-ripe ears of grain.
Behind us, our shtetl disappears from view. We take a last look at its houses and enter a forest.
We hear the echo of an air raid alarm, and above our heads three German planes are flying very low in the direction of our shtetl. A machine gun salvo echoes towards us. These are the projectiles of the planes aimed at the moving trucks and tanks. On the white horizon, black smoke curls, from which large tongues of fire reach up to the sky.
We lie down on the ground and wait until the planes have flown through.
For several minutes, we hear the whistling of the bullets and the loud noises. We are lying in the ditches of the highway. A little further from us, are lying Red Army soldiers who had to leave their trucks and tanks on the highway. A bit away from us, on both sides of the path, there is a dense forest, in which many soldiers are now lying, looking up to the sky to see where the sounds are coming from. In this way, we have lain for half an hour, until it became quiet.
In the surrounding area, white smoke has curled from burning houses, from which we are separating. And just now, we already lose
sight of the last little houses. In front of us is a green, white speckled field, which stretches to the dense pine forest.
We decide to go quickly, not stopping for a single minute, because every moment is precious. We take off our shoes and throw them over our shoulders. With our pants rolled up, we follow the highway into the dense forest.
The road is full of moving trucks and tanks. On the sides, frightened people, civilians and soldiers who have lost their regiments and are now going to look for them. The sun is not stingy to send us its hot rays. The sand and the stones under our feet are burning.
We walk fast, meanwhile driving all those who walk ahead of us. We do not look at each other, each walks with his head bent forward, eyes fixed on his feet; and on his shoulders, tied with a rope, each wears two shoes or boots, plus a white sack on a knotty stick from the forest.
With every minute, all the things we carry with us, become heavier and heavier. One of us is already throwing away his heavy winter coat that his mother gave him, so that the child, God forbid, should not catch cold on the way.
Still we are the fastest of the pedestrians. Everyone looks at us and says: go slower, then you will get further! But we don't listen to their advice. We do what we want and what we think is right. One is pushing the other, shouting, Ahead, ahead! We still have 100 kilometers to go today!
The four of us walk the full width of the highway: Me, my brother and two comrades. We mark a path on which we can reach our destination more quickly and our destination is Minsk!
Because in Minsk, they said, the Russians would be able to maintain a strong resistance and we would be on the Russian side.
We are already drawing up plans to return to our shtetl and free our parents, and our courage to fight is growing within us with every passing moment.
We have already walked 20 kilometers, but none of us feels tired. Everyone is shouting, Faster, faster!
Suddenly, we hear a voice from the forest: Comrades, what are you running for? Come, sit down, rest a little!
We see three people in front of us on the left side, under a dense green bush three Russians! They ask us for a piece of bread and a cigarette. We stop and give them bread and some tobacco.
They ask us who we are and where we are going. We sit down next to them in the grass and after a few minutes, we are already friends! They are the Russian pilots who lost their plane at the Bialystok airport, and now they are leaving together with all the fugitives.
They ask us, if we want to come with them, they would lead us to the destination as straight as the crow flies. Each of them has a map, a compass and full backpacks, which now are lying under their heads, in the grass.
We decide to join them. Firstly, we will be more comfortable, and secondly, they know the way well, which does not lead along the highways where it is very difficult to walk now, because of the frequent air raids and the dense traffic of trucks, tanks and motorcycles.
Well, comrades, let's set out and get moving! orders one of the Russians, a lieutenant.We already know the names of all of them. We are now seven people in total. The lieutenant's name is 'Kuzin'. He gives us a short speech: we should be disciplined and walk as fast as possible. We are to protect and help each other. We have to avoid villages and farmers because the Germans have landed parachutists there, disguised as farmers and soldiers.
So, comrades, on the way! We must quickly reach Minsk, and then to Berezina, because there on the river Berezina, the front will line up.So the lieutenant tells us, and we march right away across the fields where grain and potatoes have been sown. We crawl among the golden ears of corn.
The path is much more burdensome to walk than the main road, but it is much shorter, and every minute is precious.
We come to a small river that flows silently between the fields and quench our thirst; one drinks from a top, the other directly from the river, with his nose in the water.
The sun is already setting, and a cool breeze brushes our sunburned faces.
Ahead! Ahead! shouts the lieutenant from time to time, and the others assist him. Some of us get tired and already drag their feet like heavy blocks. We put our shoes back on because of the sharp stones that prick our feet like needles.
My brother gets tired and asks me to rest a little; but to rest the lieutenant has to give an order, we can't just do that, because the others would not wait for us. And we do not want to stay alone again as before, because we are now somewhere between fields, forest and sky. We do not know where there is a village or a town. But the Russians are also getting tired, and the lieutenant suggests that we sit down and rest for 10 minutes. This is quickly implemented by all by us Jews even faster, because we were indeed all exhausted. At this point, we notice the consequences of the first 20 kilometers that we had virtually flown to show our strength which we now have already lost.
We are lying among tall ears with ripe grains. The lieutenant takes out the map and the compass, and we immediately know where in the world we are, namely in the vicinity of Slonim. We see the city on the paper and draw a line to bypass it.
The gloom of the night has embraced us like black liquid, blocking our way in its flow. But the luminous pointer of the compass is guiding us through the darkness. We are now walking with slow steps, there is already no more shouting Forward, faster!
We leave the grain and enter a large area where potatoes are growing. And after the potatoes, comes a field of oats.
Here we are in a small, young grove, and every now and then one of us bumps his whole body against a little tree [that is swinging back?], and they both kiss each other off.
So we walked until a bright, gray streak appeared on the vast, dark horizon, slowly growing wider and wider, pushing away more and more of the surrounding blackness. We reach a new green field where the softness of the earth bothers us from hurrying further at a fast pace.
It's already light, a cool breeze blows by and dissipates somewhere away into the wasteland. We are now marching in single file, one behind the other. The first to go is the lieutenant, the last is me. In front of me is walking a Russian, who turns to me after every few steps.
Comrades, the lieutenant warns us, a swampy area is coming, and everyone must be very careful not to sink into the thick mud!The sky becomes clearer with each passing minute, and a red streak appears, extending from the bottom to the top.
We go on. Everyone keeps his tired head lowered to the earth. We walk barefoot. The black mud splashes out between our toes and against our pants. We splash each other full of mud. The lieutenant decrees that we should take off our pants and go on half naked, this will make it easier for us to walk over the swampy path that still stretches on for a long time.
Again and again we think that we are already getting out now, into the dry. Soon we reach the sky that lies over yonder before us, merged with the earth. But heaven plays its little games with us. The closer we get to him, the further he runs away from us!
Just now, one of us puts his foot in a black mud pit and can only pull it out again by summoning up his last reserves of strength.
We hear a loud sound of planes flying over our heads in the direction of Minsk.
The lieutenant orders: Everybody lie down!
We throw ourselves into the swamp, and I get up to my head in the mud. Three planes approach in a row.
They fly very high. We are all lying there with our heads hidden behind each other.
Mask the white sacks, or they'll notice us! the lieutenant exclaims. Everyone reaches for their provision sacks and hides them under themselves or in the mud.The planes have disappeared in the distance and out of our field of vision; their noise is still reverberating in the silence of the surroundings.
We rise, taking our little sacks and shoes on our shoulders. Trickles of mud run down from everything; our faces are sweaty.
But it's essential that we get through the swamps faster and arrive in Minsk to be out of danger. We, who are in between heaven and earth, do not know what is going on around us at the moment. We don't see anyone to ask. Each and every one of us only knows that the sooner we arrive in Minsk, the safer and better it will be for us.
Everyone marches with slow steps, silently. All think only one thing: When will this end? When will we finally get out of the swamp and onto dry ground, so that we can tread firmly and safely again?
But the road is still long and difficult. Many will lose their lives along the way. Others will reach the dry path and a path of joy and happiness.
Ahead, ahead, comrades! We must be in Minsk tonight! Tomorrow morning we must already arrive in the Berezine!, the lieutenant is motivating us, already himself with a weak voice. He is also already tired and can barely lift his feet, which have heavy clumps of mud stuck to them that won't fall off.
One comforts the other: Soon we will reach dry ground, then we can rest a little and continue to the marked destination.
I go last and step in where another has already
left his footprints. I am walking, so to speak, on a well-trodden path.
And just now, I put my foot down and feel it sink, deeper and deeper into the black swamp. I muster all my strength and want to pull it out, but now the second foot has no solid ground under it either and I sink deeper and deeper into the dense, black muck.
My comrades have hurried ahead and have not noticed how I, sinking into the mud, have remained behind alone. Just now I have found myself in the swamp up to above the knees, and now even deeper! With every moment the mud reaches me higher and higher! All my efforts are in vain. I'm already stuck up to my neck. Only now does a desperate cry escape me, Comrades, save me! But no one answers my call. Everyone is already far away and I don't even see them anymore. Again, I try to free myself by mustering all my strength alone, but in vain. I'm already stuck up to my chin and now even the liquid, black earth is already creeping into my mouth.
I try to shout one more time, Comrades, save me, save me!
I hear the echo of my comrades' voices in the silence of the surroundings.
Hey, hey, Alyosha, where are you? that's the lieutenant and two comrades, who come running to me! They have recognized my situation and quickly have called the other comrades, who have stopped, waiting for the lieutenant.Now, everyone is already standing next to me, and everyone is trying to pull me out, but in vain. They are also sinking into the depths of the swamp.
Give me the rubber boat! shouts the lieutenant.The boat, which was folded up in one of the backpacks, is spread out next to me. Two comrades have taken the sleeves of four jackets and have tied them together to use as rope. I have held on tightly to the rope, and the comrades have already started to pull.
After pulling hard three more times, accompanied by : Ra-az, dva-a-a, tri?! [One-two-three]!, I have already lain on the rubber boat, covered all over
with mud. They have taken off my clothes, wiping away the muck with a shirt.
We fold the boat again and continue our way. Now, I'm walking second behind the lieutenant, and all the comrades are laughing and making fun of me for being such a jinx.
The earth begins to get harder under our feet until we reach completely dry ground. Now, we can already march with firm steps. Who cares that we are splattered with mud from head to toe!...
I go in my underpants. I threw away my long pants where I entered the swamp, and that's where they have remained.
We enter a forest and all drop into the grass, dead tired. In this way, we remain lying for a whole two hours. With each of us, the legs are heavy as blocks, and no one wants to be the first to remind that we must march on. The sun is baking and roasting. We are all hungry and thirsty. We grab our white sacks, which are now all black from the mud.
We all eat together, but we have nothing to drink. Anyway, no one wants to go out to look for water.
The lieutenant has already stood up, wondering, if we don't want to march on. Some of us have already fallen asleep, but the lieutenant wakes everyone up. Everyone yawns, their sleepy eyes still half closed.
Well, comrades, let's move on! Now the way will be easier for us, the lieutenant encourages us.Everyone asks if we can lie down for another minute, but eventually, we have to go.
We stand up. Our feet are heavy and swollen, but we must go on! We have to reach our destination and time is precious.
We do not know what is lurking around us.
We march out (of the forest) with slow steps. The sky is deep blue, the sun is sinking. The evening is getting closer and closer, with every step we take ahead.
Night has fallen. We have left the forest and come back to a field with high, half-ripe ears of corn, where we have to put on our shoes over our swollen feet for the walk over the stones.
The lieutenant takes a look at the map and the compass and sees that we are already not far from Minsk. All in all, there are still 40 kilometers to go. We have already crossed the old Polish-Russian border and are now marching on Russian soil.
Looking across the wide field, we spot a village with a few scattered cottages on a small mountain. We decide that one of us should go to the village, ask what's going on, and bring water for all of us.
It is the lieutenant who goes to the village. We all remain in the field among the potatoes. After ten minutes he comes back, bringing a full wooden bucket with water. Still far away, he has already waved his hand that we should come to him.
We run up to him and all ask in the same breath: What's going on?
Comrades, he shouts in a trembling voice, drink the water quickly. We have to get out of here, immediately. The Germans are very close to us!All of us take out our revolvers and put them in our pockets.
What, Germans? everyone asks in astonishment.
Germans, Germans, parachutists! the lieutenant answers in a quivering voice, faster, comrades, faster, they are here in this area.
My revolver is lying in the little sack. We all wipe the mud off our revolvers and load them with new bullets.
Thus we go on, around us dark gloom. At every snort we hear, we stop with our revolvers drawn.
We reach again a long, open meadow, overgrown with tall green grass. The grass is cold and wet; we put on our shoes again. Those of us
whose feet are swollen, just wrap them in rags. And so we march ahead, though very slowly, because we have to be careful. We do not know what is hiding behind our backs.
The lieutenant informs us about a farmer who told him that this morning there, in the field around the village, parachutists landed, shooting at anyone they met, whether civilians or soldiers. Thus, on the other side of the village, there would already lie many dead civilians and soldiers. Today in the morning, they were suddenly shot at with machine guns from the cornfields.
The lieutenant chooses a swampy path on which we can make our way to Minsk, or somewhere beyond it.
We turn right and walk as the lieutenant leads us. I walk next to the lieutenant and familiarize myself with the map and compass.
The third night is cold. A damp wind whistles around us and we march again across a field where the foot does not meet the smallest piece of solid earth to tread firmly. We are careful and go slowly again, one behind the second.
The earth is swaying like large ice floes in spring, floating on the water.
The lieutenant takes a look at the compass, points with his hand the direction in which we have to go, and shouts again: Ahead, ahead, comrades! We must reach our destination! Pay no attention to your tired feet! If you go ahead faster, we will achieve the goal we have set for ourselves!
The lieutenant advises that those who find it too difficult to carry their trousers or coats with them, should just throw everything away so that they can walk more easily. The majority of us follow him right away, dropping anything that is just an unnecessary burden.
Ahead, ahead, sounds the voice in the darkness of the surroundings. We are all cold and we find it difficult to take the next step. But the inner momentum drives us. Death chases us from behind, tirelessly like a shadow. Everyone knows what to expect when they fall into the hands of the murderers. Thus, nobody feels anymore, how swollen and lame their feet are. Now, nobody has any strength to keep going.
Only their inner impetus and their fear of the shadow that lurks on all sides is driving all ahead, ahead to save their lives.
The path becomes heavier and more dangerous with every step, but we don't stop for anything. Our feet pull us down, we would love to lie in the mud and rest for a minute!
Ahead, cries the lieutenant, and his eyes gleam like those of a wild cat that is just on the prowl for mice, or else fleeing from a vicious dog. We hold on to each other because we don't want to lose anyone in the gloom of the night. Just now, we think that in the vastness of the night we saw a forest with tall grass where we could sit down, but when we get there, we are disappointed: what we had marked as forest is just an open field.
Two of the rearmost comrades become limp and can go no further. But there is not a single piece of dry earth where they could rest and sit down. It is very dangerous, because we are not sure who could suddenly come out of the darkness.
Two strong comrades take the weaker ones on their shoulders and walk with them until they themselves get too tired and have to surrender both of them to others. We don't want to leave any comrade alone in the dark night in the swampy terrain! After all, we promised each other mutual devotion, and we intend to keep that until we've made our way to our destination.
The sky is black. The stars twinkle and show us the way. The glow of the crescent moon shines on us and gives us light in the dark surroundings.
In one corner at the edge of the sky, a large streak appears, growing rapidly in length and width into the surrounding black. The twinkling stars slowly go out, leaving dark gray patches in their place. A cool breeze blows by and penetrates our wet, sweaty bones. Everyone walks silently, no one speaks to the other, even as if there were complete strangers walking. Everyone is deeply immersed in his thoughts and
fantasies, which paint us the most beautiful achievements solid earth under our feet!
We hear again a soft sound of airplanes, which comes closer and closer, and now, we already see in the deep, foggy clouds whole flocks of flying steel birds, which carry a special charge for healthy, peaceful people: death, instead of bread!
Faster, ahead, ahead! We have to hide, they will notice us and machine-gun us, the lieutenant yells, waving with his hands and nudging everyone to go faster. The comrades who had stayed behind had already begun to walk a little apart, but now we all begin to walk in long, quick strides. But it is impossible for us to escape the planes, and the lieutenant gives the order to lie down on the wet, muddy grass, because the planes are already very close to us. They are flying in the gray haze, one next to the other, bold and proud, as if the earth already belonged to them. They are carrying a heavy load. In a moment they will spew out pieces of iron, filled with dynamite and hundreds of people will be dead.
Oh, where is my plane? exclaims the youngest pilot, now lying grudgingly next to me, his fists clenched, his eyes fixed far upward at the flying planes.A second one speaks up: Soon we will get airplanes, and then we will also swarm out like this in the sky towards Berlin!
The sound diminishes. We rise and receive a strict order from the lieutenant: Comrades, quickly forward! It is already getting light. We have to get out of this swampy area faster! According to the map, we are very close to Minsk, so the forest must be coming soon, that big old forest that stretches from Minsk to Bialystok!
We are meeting forest, comrades! Run faster, there I see forest! shouts the lieutenant, who goes ahead, waving towards the rearmost comrades.[Page 80]
His eyes are full of joy. A large pine forest spreads out in front of us, and now we have already reached the first tree.
In a moment we drop to the ground, over which dry needles and leaves of blueberry bushes are poured. Oh, how good it feels to lie down for a bit, legs up in a tree, so that the blood can distribute itself throughout the body again! The feet are hot and the tips of the toes sting as if needles were pricking them. Everyone falls asleep right away, even before the provision bags are brought out.
When we wake up, there is great commotion and noise around us.
The edge of the forest is occupied and covered by Red Army soldiers, lieutenants and higher officers. Everyone is worried and upset. We see many people without weapons, but others carrying two rifles or machine guns at once while loaded with hand grenades. We stand up. Our legs are swollen and heavy like lead. The lieutenant asks us to muster all the strength we still have and set off for Minsk. We are already no more than 9 kilometers from the city.
The lieutenant not only asks, but also helps each of us up with the words: Comrades, we have already passed the first hurdle. And with courage and faith in our victory we will achieve everything!
We begin to take the first steps into the forest. The further and deeper we get into the forest, the more soldiers are around us. Some lie hungry and overtired in the grass and sleep, some lie wounded and with dried lips and nobody gives them sanitary help. There is no discipline at all anymore. Soldiers no longer follow their commanders, commanders no longer follow their lieutenants, and so it continues all the way up to the colonel.
In front of me walks a young soldier leaning on his rifle. His pants are bloodstained and torn. His face is pale like a dead man. His eyes are deep in their sockets.
I ask him: Comrade, what about you? Are you wounded? I took three bullet holes in my leg, and my comrades were
all killed in battle. The Germans are scattered across the length and breadth of Belarusian soil, he says with tears in his eyes and asks me, don't you have something to smoke, comrade?
I hand him some tobacco that was still hiding in my pocket, mixed with pieces of bread.
I want to smoke another cigarette and then die, the wounded soldier tells me as I pour the tobacco from my pocket into his hand.We are now walking absentmindedly through the forest. Soldiers are lying against every tree with their heads hanging down. There we see a truck where colonels are standing and studying a map. The sun is baking strongly. The sand burns under our feet. We are now walking to a village located on the edge of the forest.
Where is the front, comrade?, I ask him.
The front has spread everywhere, he says, our soldiers are in a bad situation. We have to see if we can get over to Minsk faster, because the Germans may arrive any minute from the air with parachutes.
The village is besieged by military of all divisions. One can see Russian infantry, cavalry, tank drivers, pilots and a great deal of Cossacks with their big, hairy tippets, sitting on their small, skinny horses, or lying on the grass with their little horses standing next to them, holding their heads bent low to the ground. The horse, too, feels the danger that is approaching every moment.
In the village, there is a wooden well overgrown with green moss. Above the well hangs a long beam made of oak. Two heavy stones are tied to one end of the beam. At the other end hangs a heavy, wooden bucket. Soldiers and civilians are standing around the fountain. Women with small children in their arms stand at the side with teary eyes, asking to get a little water in a tin can.
But no one pays attention to the women with their children in their arms. Everyone is busy with himself. Everyone's tongue is burning like hot coals, and everyone wants to cool it as quickly as possible. Soldiers form a line, and now they all stand, one behind the other, looking at the one who holds his head in the bucket and doesn't want to stop drinking or even pull his head away from the bucket again.
We from our group are also all in line, one behind the other. We have to wait a very long time for the bucket to come to us too, because those who go to the bucket without a tin can or a ladle have to push their heads into the bucket together with their hands, and half the water pours out onto their feet. Then there are fierce arguments, and a few times there are also fights and finally even that one shoots at the other with a revolver.
All the soldiers and officers here are angry at one another. Many ugly and indecent words are heard. Even the term prodatel (traitor) is used and after this word there is a heated quarrel and there is no one to separate the quarrelsome people. No one is bothered by what the other is doing.
Four comrades from our group get tired and leave the line. Three remain standing, I am among them. In front of me is a lieutenant who can't keep his mouth shut. He does not stop shouting and ranting.
The lieutenant, a tall, strong young man with a red, sunburned face, wears an unbuttoned shirt as if he had just come from a great sword battle.
Comrades, he says to the bystanders, there is no reason for us to fight anymore! We have lost the war. The Germans are already in Minsk. Let's all go into captivity together, because there is no point in fighting any more. Everyone looks around at the lieutenant, who is now speaking to the soldiers.
With each passing moment, more people gather around him. From the sides confirmations are heard, it is true what
the comrade lieutenant is telling us. In fact, it no longer makes sense to fight. It's just unnecessary bloodshed!
Hearing that he is getting supporters for his plan, the lieutenant becomes bolder and bolder and now continues to speak:
Comrades, let's all go into captivity together. I will lead you all and there we will have enough to eat and drink!Among all the gathered soldiers, a younger one stands sideways, and his eyes fix intensely on the lieutenant's face.
Now I see how this small soldier quickly leaves the group and runs with quick steps to the next barn, where several colonels and political commissars are standing. And at the same moment I see this soldier already coming back, behind him two soldiers from the NKVD and a major. They stop next to the gathering of soldiers who listen with open mouths to the words of their rescuer who wants to lead them into captivity where there is a lot to eat and drink...
The major stops next to the lieutenant.
Passport? he asks the lieutenant in a loud voice. The latter is not embarrassed, but takes out his passport with an implied smile.The major gives a wave to the two soldiers, and at the same moment the hands of the brazen lieutenant are turned firmly downward, and they immediately take from him his passport and his revolver,
From which regiment? the major continues to ask, simultaneously waving his eyes at the two soldiers standing to the lieutenant's right and left.
Who is the colonel of your regiment? the major continues to ask. The lieutenant, who used to have such a red face, has suddenly turned white like a piece of red paper that you smear with white paint.
I, I forgot the colonel's name...I don't remember it so well...because...I just came from a big battle, and I forgot everything, Comrade Major!
which (he) has not stuck in the leather scabbard, but has been stuffed under the passport, as the majority carry these weapons.
A loud shouting can be heard from the lieutenant, who is now being led away with his hands twisted backwards.
Everyone goes after him, like after a funeral. He has been led down the hill to where the barn is located, by which many officers are standing with maps unfolded. They do not pay attention to the incident at all.
The red-faced lieutenant, who has just been so proud, has his shackles removed, and the commissar, who has been standing in the middle of the group studying the maps is approaching now, taking out his revolver. We are hearing a bang that echoes. The bullet hit the head next to the neck, and the tall, strong man has now fallen down like a sawed-off oak. Immediately, a stream of red blood has stained the green grass. The lying lieutenant has given another gasp, which is immediately interrupted by a final death moan.
The commissar, who has done his duty, has ordered two soldiers to take off the dead man's clothes and search everything thoroughly.
A large number of hands are immediately busy with the lieutenant's body. One pulls on a boot, the other on the sleeve of his shirt. In a few seconds, the shot person is already lying in his bloody underwear, and everyone who has stood there gives him a kick with his foot, like kicking a ball that is lying in a large puddle of mud.
The commissar and the major are standing and reading the papers that fall from the pockets (of the clothes) onto the ground. Next to me are two soldiers who feel every seam of the pants. Suddenly there is a scream from a soldier who has felt a piece of hard paper in the rim of the trousers. Immediately, the commissar and the major are running to him, undoing the seam. A piece of folded, thin paper has fallen out. Everyone looks with strained eyes and wants to be the first to read
what is written on it. But the major exclaims something and at the same time, he gives a pat on the shoulder to the young soldier who was standing there so quietly before, listening to the lieutenant's beautiful speech.
Comrades, he was a German spy! A parachutist, who posed as a lieutenant in a Russian uniform! Bravo, comrade! shouts the commissar, holding the paper in his hand.Everyone has stopped and simply cannot believe that the lieutenant, who spoke Russian as well as a real Muscovite, was actually a German!
We gather again as a group next to a tree, where several soldiers are still lying with swollen feet, and our lieutenant says:
Comrades, we have to move on. We are already somewhat rested and now let's go on our way again!Some soldiers have been sitting next to us, listening to the lieutenant's words.
Comrades, where are you going? asks us one of the soldiers, lying there with his feet propped up on a tree.Listening to the soldiers' report, all of us have been sitting frozen.
We want to go to Minsk and continue towards the Berezina, our lieutenant answers.
How are you going to get through the city? All the roads are closed. The Germans are already in Minsk with a strong incursion.
We have to wait here in the forest until night falls, then we want to go on the attack and fight our way through the city. Right now we cannot go, because the air is dominated by German planes that fly over our heads, just as soon as we go out into the open field.[Page 86]
Is that really so, comrade? the lieutenant asks again, and we all are listening intently to hear what the soldier might answer.
Yes, comrades, it's true! We have already tried to go on ourselves, but the field leading to Minsk is already covered with dead soldiers!In the depths of the forest, we all march in a line. The whole path is covered with soldiers. One is sleeping, the other is sitting and looking for something between the seams of his shirt.
Comrades, get up! We will go alone and see for ourselves!, the lieutenant says to us, and we are already standing ready on the way. The sun is already sinking. Its evening rays are shining through the dense coniferous branches into the dark forest. Pieces of the sky are peeking out from between the branches.
Where are you going, comrades? we hear the voice of a reclining major beckoning us toward him.We all go towards him and stop around him.
We are going through Minsk to the Berezina, the lieutenant answers him.We are silent. One of us glances at the other, and our eyes ask: What will happen now? Where shall we go now?
Don't you know that the road is blocked off and no one can go any further? says the major in a cold undertone.
Lie here, comrades, until you are called, then, when it becomes dark. We want to do everything we can to open a path so that we can get to the front on the other side of the Berezina!We have stopped and do not know what to do. To go further is impossible now. We decide to wait until it gets dark and the enemy planes disappear from the sky. Then we want to go out to fight against the few dozens of parachutists.
We sit down next to a free tree and take our provision bags, which are almost empty.
In the forest, more and more soldiers and civilians arrive every moment. Everyone remains sitting on the grass and we wait for the moment to go out into battle.
Suddenly, we hear a loud sound of an airplane flying very low over the trees.
Put out the fire, we hear officers commanding from all sides to those sitting by the fire.All are lying, their heads hidden behind the other. One person runs confusedly from tree to tree, not knowing where to lie down and where to find a safe place.
One of the soldiers, who is not far from us, has shot up with his rifle to the plane that was flying overhead. At the same moment, the plane has let out a cloud of white smoke that is hanging over the forest; above our heads!
Faster, comrades, flee! They are about to shell the forest! shouts the lieutenant, who is well versed in interpreting the signs of aircraft movements.We get up and walk bent over, one behind the other, to the village, which is not far from the village.
Trach, tararach! Pieces of earth and fiery splinters explode and fly in the air, down to the place from which we have just fled. Again trach, tararach!, and red, fiery splinters shoot up between the trees and the lying people. We hurry quickly in the direction of the village. Parts of branches fall on us, pieces of earth with grass fall on our heads and get into our eyes. People are screaming. Another artillery round and the people, who have climbed the trees in fright fall down one by one.
There we see parts of roots, earth and torn people. And flying through the air are a hand, a head, a foot, still wriggling in the air.
Now we are in the village. The shooting gets stronger every moment, always coming from the same direction. It is fired from heavy cannons, which the Germans have captured from the Russians.
We are lying in a deep, stone cellar, one on top of the other. One shouts, Save me, I'm wounded! but no one looks around for him. Everyone is lying in confusion with their bodies twisted. Every single limb is trembling.
All of our group are here. No one has stayed in the forest. The shooting is continuing. Right now, an artillery round explodes in the village! A shout goes up, help, help!
The village is on fire. The women who are among us are crying and wringing their hands.
No one leaves the cellar! shouts a colonel lying by the window. His face is pale, his hands are shaking.The shooting dies down, but no one wants to leave the basement. The village is still on fire; the fire is spreading more with every passing moment. There are large cloud fields in the sky. Bundles of straw shoot up to the sky and immediately fall onto a second thatched roof, from which large tongues of fire are already blazing toward the sky.
The shooting has stopped. One by one we leave the cellar. The whole village is now on fire. We hear the cries of burning cows and sheep, which are mixed with the cries coming from the forest from the wounded soldiers and civilians.
We walk back to the forest; no one puts out the fire. The farmers from the village who have run out of the burning houses are now confusedly moving around, not knowing what to do first.
There is no water. The only well is now surrounded by great flames and no one can get to it. The forest is covered with uprooted trees and looks like a plowed field. People are swathed under roots and branches. Some are lying quite still like pieces of wood. All that can be heard is a crying scream, intermixed with tears and pain:
Comrades, save me, save me! But no one comes to help. We don't know which one to go to first. From under every tree the same shouting can be heard, everyone is calling us to them.The night is fallen. We set about pulling the wounded out from between the branches. Others lie buried under the earth, still gasping softly. The colonel, who had been in the cellar with us, walks among the uprooted trees,
revolver in hand, and shoots the soldiers who have their hands and feet torn off, or even their stomachs ripped open. His eyes glisten moistly, and the hand in which he holds the revolver trembles after each shot that hits the wounded man's temple. The lightly wounded are pulled out and placed to the side. Several nurses are standing there, not knowing whom to help first.
Every moment, more and more soldiers and civilians arrive, and the rescue operations intensify. Our group is now scattered throughout the forest, and everyone is working beyond their strength. We do not feel the pain in our feet, which are still swollen from the long trek.
Among the people, a colonel rides a black horse and give commands to everyone what to do. The dead, and those shot by the colonel, remain in their places. Everyone is very busy carrying out the wounded who can still be helped.
It's getting darker and darker now. We carry the wounded and have to walk with every step over the fallen trees and the dead.
Several trucks have arrived on which we load the wounded. After two hours of hard work, we have pulled all the wounded out of the branches and have loaded them onto the trucks, which have now left to who knows where.
The colonel on the horse rides around shouting something to everyone. We are to gather in a group.
The forest is again black with soldiers and civilians, new ones keep pouring in, but all are apathetic and upset. The same mood prevails among all of us: Lost, defeated!
Quite a few tanks appear, stopping between the trees that have been torn out. It's getting pitch black. We no longer see each other, but we are not allowed to make a fire. In the darkness, we hear only screams. Everyone gathers in one place to form a group. Anyone who resists or disobeys the order, will be shot on the spot. And it no longer impresses
anyone that on the earth, under our feet, people are lying like pieces of wood. A few soldiers are still standing by some of the dead, pulling off their boots and searching in all their pockets for tobacco or anything else.
The colonel, who had been riding around on his horse, now stops in the middle of the crowd:
Comrades, we must prepare for the attack, he says, now standing with his feet on the horse as he speaks to the soldiers.Half an hour later, thousands of soldiers are ready to attack. There are two or three tanks in front. The Lieutenants and officers line people up side by side, each with a rifle or grenade in hand. The colonel has been riding ahead on his horse, with a glistening sword in his hand, reflecting a light into the surrounding darkness.
I and my group are also standing next to each other, not far from the tanks, which are already noisy and ready to go. The sky is starry and the crescent moon smiles down. The forest is fragrant, a cool wind blows across your face. It is quiet, nly the sound of the tanks can be heard.
Comrades, be ready! For our fatherland, ahead, ahead! exclaims the colonel, who has already ridden ahead first.The whole crowd has started to move. Everyone has the grenades and guns ready.
Now we are already next to the first houses of Minsk! All around is silence. In long steps we go forward to the city.
Suddenly, from both sides of the main road and the field, a barrage of machine-gun fire and a hail of grenades hit the marching crowd. We throw back with our grenades. Under a flurry of gunfire from all sides, soldiers fall at our feet like flies.
We run ahead. Now we are already in the city, but we are being shot at from every house!
The battle is getting stronger. Red fires are flickering in the surrounding darkness. There! A bullet hits our lieutenant in the chest! He falls over backwards. People run over him and hurry on. The hail of fire from all sides becomes more and more intense. People lie on top of each other. Yells are ringing out, Ura, Ura, ahead!
A shell hits not far from me, and a splinter hits me in my left leg. I fall to the ground and feel myself getting hot. I feel the wound with my hand and feel weakness and pain in my body. I want to get up again, but in vain. The remaining soldiers run back to the forest. Still more fire everywhere. I can still hear cries of wounded lying next to me.
With my hand, I squeeze the iron splinter, which has not stuck deep into my leg. A sharp pain under my heart runs through me. I hit the ground with my whole body, and then I don't know what's happening to me.
When I have opened my eyes, it has been already light. Soldiers and civilians were lying around me, all wounded, one lighter, the other heavier. My whole body is shivering with cold. I feel severe pain in my leg. I tear a piece of linen off my shirt and tie it around the wound. I squeeze out a piece of splinter, wipe the blood with my shirt and wrap it around my leg.
I want to rise, exerting all my strength, but I cannot. My feet are swollen, and after every movement the pain radiates to below my heart, and my eyes go black.
I hear the noise of trucks that are about to drive up to the people lying on the ground.
Russian paramedics are standing around the trucks. And suddenly I see Germans! The Germans are standing there with their rifles pointed at the medics, and their
murderous eyes are glistening in all directions. I can hear them yelling:
Faster, damn pigs! And the paramedics drag the wounded onto the trucks and drive away.The Germans stop around us, rifles pointed at us.
I exert the last of my strength and want to get up, but every effort is in vain. I look for my revolver and my grenades, but nothing is left. Soldiers are still lying around me, each one groaning deeply from time to time; one is lying there completely still like a log.
The trucks return, and now they are already next to me. Two paramedics come running, put me on a stretcher and carry me onto the truck. One of them stays next to me, wraps a bandage over the wound, washes off the blood and puts on some more gauze.
We have been taken to an open field between two forests. The grass is wet. Germans with machine guns are standing around every two meters a German. The whole field is occupied by soldiers and civilians. Not all of them are wounded. Many are lying broken and despondent on the grass.
Soldiers lie around me, their eyes deep in their sockets, their faces yellow, each looking as if he had already died.
I don't know where my comrades are, where is my brother, where are all of them? I search among the crowds of soldiers, but I can't find anyone. Every soldier is despondent, depressed. No one talks to the other. Each is lying on the grass with his face to the ground, absorbed in his thoughts.
The whole territory that my eyes can see is full of soldiers. Some sit around a fire where paper and rags burn. I unwrap my bandages and look at my wound, which is still bleeding. My neighbor advises me that I should put green leaves (chicory?) on it, then the wound will heal quickly, because it is not deep. He brings me several leaves and bandages the wound. I feel
the wound cooling down that was burning like fire before.
A truck is arriving, on which several shot Russian horses are lying, from which a smell emanates already from a distance. The horses are now lying on the grass, and the Germans order to eat them. A few dozen Russians are going for them right away with knives, cutting off pieces of the horses.
Soon, they roast pieces of meat on the fire and eat them half-raw.
The first day is over.
The night is cold, a rain drizzles and we lie under the open sky.
On the second day, very early, several trucks with Germans arrive, and next to them stands a young man dressed in black, holding a folder in his hand.
A German speaks to him, and soon you hear whistling and shouting for everyone to gather in one place.
I already feel significantly better than yesterday. The leaves have helped me a lot, I already have no more pain. I exert all my strength and try to stand up. It works! I can already stand and take a step forward, but not a firm one, like with my healthy leg.
I go closer to the trucks, where now almost the whole camp is already standing. The place where we have been was a collection camp, and from there people have been taken to other camps.
The man in civilian clothes is now standing on the truck and speaking to the prisoners. His first words are:
All Jews should line up separately, Russians too, Tatars too, Uzbeks too, and so on.Immediately, there is pushing and falling. One steps on the other. There are shouts: Russians here!, Tatars here and there!
And there are several dozen Jews standing there shouting: Jews here!
What should I do now? Should I go to the group of Jews? No, I decide, I will not go to the Jews. I know only
too well what the murderer will do to them. When you are among the Jews, there is danger. I decide to stand among the Tatars, who are similar to the Jews and also circumcised.
I am already standing in the back row, between the Tatars. No one is paying attention to me. Everyone is only busy with himself. I see two tall Germans standing around and their intoxicated eyes sparkle at the groups, which stand apart from each other.
Right now, their murderous gaze fall on me.
They go from group to group , looking at everyone from head to toe. Now they are with the Jewish group. It gives me a stab in my heart. A murderous voice is heard, spat out like cauterized pieces of lead:
All Jews on the trucks!One after the other, the Jewish soldiers, officers, commissars and many civilian elderly people run, driven by the Germans, who beat the heads and backs of the refugees with their rifle butts.
My last glance falls on the remaining Jewish comrades, who are now being deported to who knows where.
Immediately after that, the same trucks come again, and now the murderers shout in German, and the man with the black suit in Russian:
All officers from the First Lieutenant to the colonel, have to come out of the group! All political commissars are to come forward as well!A few dozen men came out. Among them the colonel, who had been on horseback and was the first to enter the battle.
Immediately, another order follows: Everyone on the trucks!, and they drive off in an unknown direction, leaving behind clouds of dust, swirling up from the wheels. The trucks disappear from our view towards the dense pine forest.
Another day has passed.
I feel a strong hunger and thirst. I have not eaten for three days. My lips are dried up and cracked. The Russians dig in the earth with spoons and draw out a little dirty water. But to dig a whole hole, they do not manage.
I already feel much better than before. The pain is gone. I change the green leaves on the wound every hour. There are enough of them in the field.
I see a Kyrgyz, sitting and frying pieces of meat, which are impaled on a long, rusted wire. He pulls out a piece of white meat from his pocket, and places it in the fire.
My hunger grows even more when I see the Kyrgyz with the watery little eyes take pieces of roasted meat and put them in his provision bag.
Comrade, give me a piece of meat! I haven't eaten for three days, I say to the Kyrgyz.He gives me a look with his small eyes and then answers nasally: Go and bring me paper or wood, and I will give you a piece of meat! I have jumped up, keeping one foot raised a little, and have searched around and between people, pieces of paper, rags, and old, torn shoes.
After I have brought him all this, he has torn off a piece of black meat, which is only a little burnt on the surface, but inside red and hard as bone. But I accept it, and with hungry teeth I tear off pieces of raw meat.
Well, did you like it? the Kirghiz asks me.[Page 96]
Yes, certainly, now everything tastes good!, I answer.
If you like it, I'll give you another piece! he tells me. I accept it and hide it for later.
Comrade, what kind of meat is this? From a horse or a cow? I ask him.
It's human flesh, he answers me with a smile.
What? Human meat?, I ask him again, and immediately spit the bite out of my mouth, which is already the last of the first piece.
Yes, yes, comrade, this is human flesh. I cut that from the dead lying there.I stand still as if frozen. I have eaten human flesh! I want to spit it all out again, rip it out of my stomach along with the intestines! But is that really true, comrade? Is it really human flesh?, I ask again, thinking that he was just making a fool of me.
Yes, it's human flesh, he repeats, still laughing at me for being so startled and turning pale as lime.We approached the dead, who were lying one on top of the other in the middle of the field, and now I see the Kyrgyz shouting something to me and pointing to a foot with his hand: From this Polish woman I pulled off a piece of soft flesh! My eyes go black as I watch:
Come on, I want to show you where I cut this off.
The Kyrgyz is back on the dead, cutting off pieces of flesh from a second soldier.
I fell on the grass with my face to the ground, and great tears poured out of my eyes onto the green grass.
Today they cut pieces of meat from a comrade, and tomorrow from me! No, I don't want to stay here anymore. I can't stand the man-eaters and the murderous faces of the drunken Germans anymore. I must find a way out, do everything to escape. Either fall from a bullet or be free!
For six days already, I have been in the same field camp. Everyone is now allotted 100 grams of bread a day and a liter of water mixed with black flour.
I can already stand well on my feet. The wound is getting better every day. The man who stood with the Germans and spoke to the prisoners in Russian is in the camp all day. His face has Jewish features. I decide to make his acquaintance and actually have stopped him the same day, asking him for a piece of bread. He has given me a piece of bread and turns back to his work. Later, already towards evening, he has met me next to the kitchen. He has stopped me, asking if I would like a piece of bread. I have taken a piece of bread from him and we have both talked to each other.
Comrade, you must be very careful! I know who you are, he tells me. I, too, am a Jew, I'm from Minsk. My family is in the city, and here I work as an interpreter.
I have turned pale when I hear his words that he has realized and knows that I am a Jew.
You don't have to be afraid of me. I will not betray you. I will help you with whatever I can.
I'm not saying anything. My teeth are chattering. What will happen when I am handed over? I ask him with tears in my eyes: Where have the trucks been taken with all the Jews?
He looks around and answers me: They are not alive anymore. They were all shot in the forest.
I have known in advance what awaits the one who puts himself
as a Jew into German murderous hands.
Comrade, if you want, I have a good job for you, where you will get so much bread every day until you are full.We agree that in half an hour, he will carry out to me a bag of flour and sugar. We are three kilometers from the city.
What kind of work is that?, I ask, making sure not to be overheard what we are talking about.
I will give you a bag of flour every day, and you will go with me to our house. My parents, sisters and brothers are starving, and I cannot carry anything out alone.
Well, what about the guard?, I ask him, thinking he's playing me for a fool.
The guard I've already taken care of that. I have already arranged with a guard that he will receive something from me and I will take something from the kitchen every day, but I alone cannot carry it. Besides, I have to have a person from the camp with me for whom I am responsible. If you want, you can be that person, only you must remember that I am responsible for you!
Yes, and if I am seized, what shall I say?
No one will seize you. I have also already made an arrangement with the officer. It's just that I'm not supposed to carry (the sack) myself.
I'm going to get bread for this?
Yes, you will receive bread, and I will also give you tobacco.
Ok, I will go, I answer.
Yes, I will go and see to find a way, not to come back. The half hour is over and the interpreter comes to meet me with a paper cement sack filled with flour.
Well, comrade, you take this sack now, walking behind me. And all will be well!I walk with the sack on my shoulder and my legs buckle. And already, I fall down onto the way. The interpreter walks thirty meters ahead of me. Right now he has already stopped next to the German who is
standing on guard by the machine gun. I take smaller steps until I see that I am being beckoned to go forward.
And there, I am standing next to the piercing eyes that are examining me from head to toe. I pretend that I am not even there. I am already above the bearing line, (Lager-Linie) walking on a free field! A long, narrow path is lying before me. The interpreter turns every minute after me and waves with his hand that I may follow him faster. But in the way I have to walk, I can't do so. My legs are weakened and the wound, from which blood is still running, is large.
Now we are already between the first houses of Minsk. The streets are empty, as if nobody is living there. Everywhere is dead silence. Only the reverberation of fast passing vehicles can be heard.
We are walking in a narrow alley. A hungry dog walks by and stares at me with its eyes. The interpreter is thirty meters in front of me.
I decide to put the sack down and hurry into the first courtyard. But there, he just looks at me and waves, that I should go on.
I put the sack down on the ground and quickly run with my last strength into the opposite courtyard. I jump over the fence and find myself in a large garden. It is quiet around me. I don't know whether the interpreter has already seen that I have fled.
I'm lying on the lawn of the garden for a while. My heart is beating wildly it's about to jump out. Sweat runs down my entire body. I quickly run on one leg after having felt a strong pain in my injured leg.
Through an open window, I enter a stone basement. Now, I am already lying on the stone floor of the
cellar. It is dark. My heart is racing, and with every rustle I think that I will be taken back to the camp and left to death because the camp also means certain death, only a longer one, by starvation.
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