The Soldier that Endured: A Poem

It’s terrible to think that I’ve had such a hiatus from blogging here! I do apologise to all my followers, and thank you all for sticking with me. The past few months have been consumed by endless work, but honestly I’m not complaining– I’ve found a job which I really love, which is bettered by awesome people who keep me laughing and enrich my life, and which teaches me every single day.

But enough about that– on to this long overdue post! This poem is written in the context of (guess when…) World War II; but it was inspired by the struggles of life which I’ve observed in both myself and in friends of mine. It speaks to the stoicism of the human spirit, and in doing so I think it preaches a message of hope– that even when things are full of despair, we still find a way to carry on and reach something better. I hope you enjoy it.

The Soldier that Endured

Walking on the Tula road

A weary figure passed me by

Her steps were slow, but still they showed

The burning of her pride.

Her rifle held in one hand,

The other hand fell low

Crimson and scarred, Red as our Star

Which endures from long ago.

I watched her labour on at length

Her back hunched and tired

Weak but still bearing agony with strength,

A strength to be admired.

Her face was young, yet bore pain

Of years it had not seen

Its naivety had waxed and waned, but grit remained

In all the hours between.

As she passed, I spoke to her

And asked how she prevailed

The blood and gore that mauled and tore

Our hearts until we failed–

With startling eyes she said,

“There were hours I could not survive

And all through my head I believed I was dead

Until I breathed and was alive.”

Then she was gone, that soldier brave

And I pondered quietly

After all the battles through which I slaved,

Perhaps that soldier was me.

The Soldier at the Door: A Short Story

 

Stalin’s city was always a wonderful place to live. It was large and modern; with many factories supporting the industry of our Soviet Union. There were squares where we children played, and many shops and institutes where the adults worked. It was a city for the people, and all of us who lived there felt very glad that we did.

By autumn 1942 though, our beloved city was no longer where any civilian wanted to be. I guess when the fascists failed to take the capital, they set their iron hearts on another prize. Stalingrad must have been an easy choice. At any rate, they reached our doorstep and encroached into the surrounding villages; and that soon turned into streetfighting in the heart of Stalingrad itself. It was a dreadful situation; but my mother was resolute. My father and brother were out fighting the Germans, and we were going to stay here for them. The Germans will never take Stalingrad, she said, and we must give those boys a good home to come back to.

So we stayed, and we got accustomed to the sight of soldiers in the streets, and of tanks on the square. We weren’t even bothered by the gunshots after awhile, because there were always gunshots coming from somewhere. I guess we got used to the war, but what bothered me was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to help, but I was too young to do anything great. When our friends’ apartment in the next street was bombed, we took them in, and I shared my room with all three of their children. But it felt like it didn’t matter; because although they were warm and sheltered, we could still smell the smoke as their home and belongings burned. Even though we did the best we could, the war was evil and it kept coming on and on despite our courage and our efforts.

Life got a lot harder when winter arrived. The Germans were everywhere but so were our troops; and there were so many men about and so much destruction that food became less and less. Sometimes supply shipments made it, but more often than not they didn’t, and the ration centres had nothing to give us. As a young woman with the hope of marriage and a household ahead of me, I put my efforts toward creating palatable meals out of whatever food was available. I got pretty good at it, but we were still always hungry.

It was tough, but life in a combat centre does make for some extraordinary stories. One day before the streetfighting got really bad in our neighbourhood, a sniper from the Caucasus and his spotter set up in our front room. They were there for the whole afternoon, watching the street and the square beyond; and every few hours my mother sent me to them with a mug of tea. Another time, a German bomber crash-landed into the square and its crew was captured. When the city was quiet, the local kids used it as a jungle gym until it was smashed by shelling a few weeks later.

I think about these stories a lot, because they were a break from the hopelessness. We were trapped in our own city as it was broken down around us, and nothing seemed to change from day to day. Just more bombs and more bodies in the street. Anything different to that is what I try to remember, but nothing bests the story of the soldier at the door. It was December I think, and mother was in bed with pneumonia. Since I was freshly eighteen at that time, she entrusted the household and all its duties to me. That meant  I undertook the weekly trek through the rubble to the ration centre; which wasn’t easy all the time, but which made me feel like I was accomplishing something every time I made it back.

On the day in question, I couldn’t leave the apartment until mid-morning because the neighbourhood was chattering with gunfire. But eventually I deemed it quiet enough that I gathered the kitchen-basket, wrapped a shawl around my head, and went downstairs. Stepping outside, I was taken aback to find a soldier lying on the doorstep. At first, I thought he was dead, because he was slumping awkwardly against the wall and was barely off the snowy street. But then he turned to see me, and attempted to make way for me. His eyes were kind and he looked tired, so I thought it alright to talk to him.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, pausing opposite as I looked him over. “You seem tired.” The soldier was wearing a green greatcoat stained with old blood, and was cradling a submachine gun. At that time, I’d never had a boyfriend, but this soldier seemed like the type for me. He had kind eyes and a ready smile and I immediately wanted to help him. He was indeed handsome, but he didn’t seem very well. I judged that he was at most a half-dozen years older than me, but his face had a weathered look to it which was unexpected. Not only his face was haggard, but he had a bright red stain of blood on his far shoulder, too. I guess he was a frontovik.

The soldier sighed, but smiled. “Thanks. I’ve just stopped here to catch my breath.”

“I’m not sure you’ve picked the safest place,” I told him. “A shell came through a window downstairs yesterday. The old man who lives there says it knocked a jug of water right off the kitchen table.”

Laughing, the soldier tentatively pulled himself further onto the doorstep. “Where isn’t that happening? Don’t say that to my guys, though. We’ll stop the shelling soon enough.”

I hoped he was right and not just trying to seem brave. “You’re bleeding,” I observed. “How badly are you wounded?”

“It’s only shrapnel. I’ll be alright.”

“Why don’t you come inside? It’s cold out, and you’ll be safer there.”

The soldier shook his head but looked at me graciously. “I’d better stay out here. A medic will be by to pick me up soon, I’m sure of it.”

Surveying the empty, lifeless street, I disagreed. “Well, I’m not sure of it. There’s no one about. You might bleed to death!” And I tore the scarf from my head to use as a bandage for his wound, but he gently pushed it away.

“That’s too pretty a scarf to use for blood,” he said. “And weren’t you going on an errand?”

“Not if I can help you,” I replied resolutely.

He laughed quietly and gazed out at the street. “You shouldn’t worry. You go, and I’ll stay here. I bet your apartment’s never had an armed guard before.” I felt bad leaving him. I was sure his condition was worse than he let on, I’m sure he was trying to seem brave. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but he insisted. “Where are you going, anyway?”

“The rationing centre. It’s just at the other end of Bogunskaya.”

“Don’t take Bogunskaya,” the soldier turned grave. “There’s a sniper installed out there, and he shoots at anyone.”

“Well, thanks,” I said, still not wanting to leave. “You’ll be sure to look after yourself, won’t you?”

“I will, you have my word on it.” The soldier nodded. “I’m sure a medic will be by very soon.”

Begrudgingly, I took my leave of him and set off through the snowy city. The streets remained quiet but I had to wait for an hour at the rations centre. And despite the quiet, I knew the enemy was still there. And I wondered about the soldier at the door– was he still there, or had someone come for him? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? I guess, as a soldier, he had to remain on guard for our city, but I wish he could have gotten some treatment someplace.

As I came back within a few blocks of the apartment, I began to feel nervous about what I might find on the doorstep. Turning onto the street, I saw the soldier’s figure still slumped there. Was he dead? I felt a mixture of relief and concern when he gave me a jaunty wave.

“Where are the medics?” I asked him as soon as I approached.

“Someone will be along soon,” replied the soldier, but his voice was more weary now.

Unsatisfied, I looked down at the basket of food in my arms. “Are you hungry?”

The soldier laughed with a ready smile. “Are you?”

“I’ve only been hungry since winter started,” I said. “Will you have some bread?” The soldier stayed silent, but his eyes and his face were tired and hungry. “What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Marina.” And I started to divide up my ration of bread.

“I’m Nikolai.” Nikolai was slow to accept any bread, but once he did he ate it ravenously.

“I guess you are hungry,” I remarked woefully.

“Of course I am. But it’ll all get better soon. We’re keeping the Volga open for new shipments of food and supplies, and the enemy will soon be starved and beaten.”

“And do you still think a medic will come for you?”

“It’s only a matter of time.” Nikolai smiled, although his face was weary.

It would have been nice to share his confidence, or his bravado. I sighed, looking out at the snowy rubble-strewn street and pondering the sounds of guns in the air. Unconvinced, I turned back to him. “But how much time have you got?”

Finally he had no response. He sighed too, and his smile turned sad as he adjusted his grip on his gun. He looked broken and tired, yes, but only in his face. The posture of his bloodied shoulders and the precise, ready grip he kept on that gun told me that he’d made his mind up. And yet I still wanted to help him– I’d been fruitlessly just existing for the past few months, and now the chance to do something was sitting on my doorstep.

“Please, Nikolai,” I said desperately. “At least come inside to get warm. You’re not doing any good out here in your state! Won’t you just come inside?” I already knew the answer of course; but I had to ask him.

His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marina. I can’t leave my post. I have to stay here.”

“That’s alright,” I said. “I know you’re a soldier.”

We were quiet for a moment, and the atmosphere was one of regret. Then he spoke up. “Those guns are getting closer. You should go inside before you get hit.”

I smiled and nodded, but I was unable to reply… since I was leaving him, he was probably going to die. It just didn’t sit well with me. I turned to go, but Nikolai caught the handle of the kitchen-basket and stopped me. Looking at me with earnest brown eyes, he announced, “You were good to me, Marina. Kindness can make a big difference.”

That heartened me, and I was able to reply. “You make sure the medics take good care of you. You know I would have.”

“And you get inside, and stay there until this skirmish passes! Do that, and we might even see each other again.”

I left Nikolai sitting half-slumped on the doorstep, exactly as I had found him. But I hoped that I had made a difference to him as he’d said.

The next morning, the gunfire had quietened down and I rushed downstairs to the doorstep. I felt sick with worry over Nikolai; I wanted him to be there, but I didn’t want him to be dead. But there was nothing on the doorstep; nothing except a pool of dried blood where Nikolai had been. There was no one in the street, and I asked all the neighbours and nearby soldiers if they’d seen anything, but nobody had. My mother said that somebody must have come for him after all, because if he’d died then his body would probably still be on the doorstep. I hoped she was right, but I could never know.

After meeting Nikolai, I decided to join the medical corps in the Red Army. It was there that I met my first boyfriend, who in time became my husband. There I tended by chance to my brother, who had been severely wounded by shrapnel near Voronezh. By a miracle, he, my parents, and my husband all survived the war. We did some good work in the medical corps, and I finally felt that what I was doing mattered.

As for Nikolai, I can’t be sure that he survived that night, let alone the whole war. But there is one funny little event which makes me wonder. It was July 1945, after Victory Day, and Stalingrad was rebuilding. There were soldiers out and about to help and oversee the efforts, and I had returned home to visit my family. Walking along Bogunskaya, I had my floral shawl over my head to protect me from the sun. There was a convoy of army trucks crossing the street about 75 yards ahead; each truck packed full of soldiers hanging on like barnacles.

Well, one of those soldiers shouted my name and gave me a jaunty wave. He was too far away to recognise, and then he was gone, but not before I managed to wave back… And I do believe it was Nikolai, I always have. He was right after all. They did come for him, and we did see each other again. I might not have had much of a war, or a life, if I hadn’t met him. It’s been an encouraging thought all these years that, whether he lived or died, I made a difference to that soldier at the door.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017

A Soul Remembered: A Poem

I hope that this post will take you, the reader, on a journey. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you’ll know that I post many stories and poems that I’ve written over the years. However today, this poem is a little bit different because it’s accompanied by beautiful atmospheric photographs from Michael at Forties Photos! Michael and I “met” through Twitter, and share a love of World War II subjects and everything ’40s. He’s quite a photographer, and has been kind enough to help me out by supplying me with photos for my blog. I’m excited to share this collaboration with you, and I’m sure you’ll be as thrilled with it as I am.

A Soul Remembered

The atmosphere feels thick yet calm

In this place that I have known

The air sparkles brown and gray

With the dust of a weary day

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And I hear voices; no, an echo

Memories are my only fellow

Each man, each friend, has gone home

In a place so busy I am alone

But still can feel what I used to feel

A joy electric, an accomplishment real.

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Whether that lives here or just in mind

Has an answer undefined

Though I remember; remember well

The stories only these walls can tell

And a story much more unknown

More rare and precious, and not yet grown

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I remember you who know it too

Though you are gone, and barely in view

We had that chapter, over too fast

Now onwards, perhaps the story will last.

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The doors are locked, the memory within

And I am their keeper, their guardian

The soul of this place chills me yet

As I look around I can never forget;

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Echoes of toil float through the air

The laughter, the hardship we had to bear;

Our footsteps, etched forever in dust

Remind me of your presence, and that I must

Live on in this place, for the soul still remains

Somedays a whisper, then louder refrains.

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But always in the quiet, I can near touch that soul

Voices fade, friends leave; but it won’t grow old

In a cheerless shell, it brings hope

Through monotonous days, it gives scope

And as the poisonous dust hangs ever low,

Through it I see you as you come and go

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You still exist here, somewhere in my heart

And here this great story got its start

Here I have lived, and many times cried

Here my feelings of doubt have died;

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Even as the soul sleeps, I know it is there

I can feel its breath, its life in the air

In the depths of silence, in questioning why

I find peace, in this place still alive.

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All photographs are attributed to Michael from Forties Photos, taken at former RAF base Metheringham. Check out the Metheringham Airfield website here, and be sure to browse more of Michael’s work here on Forties Photos!

The True Soviet: A Short Story

Let me begin this post by saying that I am not personally a Soviet, communist, or anything of the sort. That said, Soviet culture and particularly the culture and attitudes within the Red Army of World War II fascinate me. While I tend to look at Soviet socialism with a critical eye, and while this ideology had many sins and downfalls; it’s true that many people were very sincerely committed to it. There were citizens who believed that it was the best way forward, and who were committed to using it to its full potential. With that in mind, I wrote this short story; examining the actions of a loyal Soviet soldier throughout his unfortunate capture on the Eastern Front.

The True Soviet

The fascists captured me three days after they took Vyazma. I was still in the foxhole behind my machinegun when the panzers started rolling past. Ilya Soshnikov, my assistant gunner, had lain dead beside me for at least a day and a half; so I tried throwing grenades under the passing tanks instead of shooting. It didn’t have much effect, but I was determined to fight on. I felt sure that I would only leave the foxhole when the fascists dragged me out as a corpse.

Soon the tanks were gone, and the infantry appeared to liquidate the area. They quickly noticed that I was alive, and I quickly realised my stupidity. Idiot. It’s impossible to shoot yourself with a DP28, so I should have saved one grenade for myself. That would have been the Soviet thing to do. But I didn’t. I’d thrown them all fruitlessly under the tracks of the panzers. Thanks to my stupidity, the fascists caught one live and healthy Soviet that day.

I found myself being marched with others to a makeshift POW camp somewhere south of Vyazma. The journey was long and hard, and the fascists kept us going for hours at a time despite the speed of our pace. At the beginning of the march I was only angry at myself for allowing the fascists to capture me; but I became increasingly troubled and less angry as it progressed. I started thinking about what was to become of me. How would I, a true (if shamed) Soviet, cope in the hands of the fascist enemy?

The camp came into sight after many hours. It was set secluded in a valley, and though the sun was setting behind the surrounding hills it was easy to see that this camp offered no shelter. The fascists had tents to sleep in, but we prisoners had nothing. And there were hundreds of us, maybe a thousand. I despair that so many Red Army men have chosen the disgrace of capture. I did have the good fortune to meet another true Soviet who shared my shame– although he had less cause to feel shame than I do. Maksim Ilyich Belkin was captured a few miles from where I was, having been knocked unconscious by artillery. Poor soul, he woke up on the back of a German wagon.

A number of the other prisoners told me quite early on that I should consider throwing away my Party membership card. Needless to say, I balked at that. I will cling to my Party card like I should have clung to that last grenade! However, apparently the fascists have shot every comrade commissar to set foot in this camp, and my comrades told me they’re likely to shoot anyone with a Party card. That’s another reason for me to keep it. A true Soviet should be ready to die for socialism.

As the days passed, I became more and more tormented. There was some talk that we prisoners would be shipped to Germany to work in munitions factories there. I couldn’t tolerate such a fate, and confessed my fear to Maksim Ilyich.

“I won’t go to Germany,” I told him. “I will never help the fascists more than I already have.”

“Then what will you do? Will you escape and run away?”

I sighed. “I don’t know yet. I guess it would be possible to slip away from this camp at night.”

“You might never find Soviet units though, you’ve no way of knowing their positions,” he said. “And if you don’t rejoin the fight, that’s desertion.”

But it was worse than that. I know Soviet law inside and out, I’ve lived the Soviet life since I was fifteen years old; and I knew that I must find Soviet units again, but I could never rejoin the fight. If you’re captured by the fascists, you’re no longer worthy of being called a Soviet. The only thing left for you is death.

I pondered this for a few days, while also plotting my escape. Of course, I did think about ending it all at the camp; but the fascists had confiscated my knife, my razor, even my belt. I didn’t know how I was going to escape, but then Maksim Ilyich told me a plan which suited us both. We would wait until dark, and then he would attack one of the perimeter guards, allowing me to escape. We knew that such an attack would probably result in him being executed, but Maksim Ilyich was looking for a noble escape just as much as I was.

Last night was the night of our plan. I was sorry to leave Maksim Ilyich; as he had become a good friend and I saw in him a pure Soviet heart. If only I had kept one last grenade, I could have been an honourable citizen and soldier like he was!

“Good luck, my friend,” he whispered, shaking my hand. “I’m sorry the circumstances are what they are.”

I reciprocated his sentiment, and then he was off after the nearest fascist guard. As soon as the shouting began, I was off on my own way. Scrambling up the eastern hillside, I didn’t slow for anything– not even when I heard the single gunshot that was probably the end of my good comrade Maksim Ilyich. I stumbled on through the night, hungry and troubled and despairing that I’d let this situation come about. I traversed countless miles of ravaged terrain; and it pained me that the flesh of the Motherland had been cut so deep by the fascists I was sworn to fight. I have failed my Soviet duty, and must atone for it and be shamed forever. The only way to atonement is death.

Finally, a group of scouts found me. I felt both relieved and ashamed to see the Red Star worn so proudly on their uniforms. “Comrade!” They greeted me warmly. “Where are you coming from?”

“You won’t greet me so when you find out,” I replied, and explained to them my capture and my escape. When their expressions turned grave, I said, “I know. Just take me to the commissar.”

They did so, not speaking to me any further but giving me looks of both sympathy and disdain on the way. I was brought before the regimental commissar to face my fate– the regimental commissar, such is the severity of my sin. When I came before him, I expected to feel my spirit broken. But instead of shame and defeat, I felt mostly regret. What could have been… but there’s no sense in thinking about what I might have been when I can still control what I am.

The commissar began to speak, with all the harshness that I deserve. “You allowed yourself to be captured by the fascists. The Soviet soldier is worth more dead than in the hands of the enemy. You went through training, you had a commissar. You know this!”

I nodded. “I do.”

“Well, then. What’s your name? Sergei Yuryevich Petrokovsky, you have violated our solemn Red Army Oath, and are hereby sentenced to death.”

I nodded again, finding both relief and disgust at my sentence. How could I have done such a thing? As I was led to custody, I passed the commissar.

Scrutinising me with curious eyes, he said, “You escaped and made your way back here. You’re a Party member. You knew how we would receive you.”

I clenched my teeth until I could reply. “I might be a fool,” I said, “but I don’t desert.”

“Hmm,” the commissar shrugged, waving me away. “Well, that’s something.”

Today I faced the commissar, and tomorrow I face the firing squad. As I should. But I feel that the commissar was right, that is something. I was foolish in battle, and I must pay for it; in fact, I’m determined to pay for it. My life is useless now, but I won’t let even an unforgivable mistake separate me from my cause. I was too weak, but my comrades are strong; and I hope I’ve acted in the end like a true Soviet, even if I was never a good one. At the end, I stand by this oath of my beloved Soviet Motherland:

If, for some evil intentions, I violate this herein-solemn oath, let the Soviet Law, nationwide hatred and contempt of all the workers strictly punish me.

© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2017

Memorials for Today

I often hope that whatever I create, whether novels, poetry, or blog posts, will live on as a memorial to the past. Memorials stand all over the world in bricks, metal, and stone; but I know that memorials can exist in the written world as well. Remembering the sacrifices of the past is of utmost importance to me, and I hope that I am doing my part to see it through.

For awhile now I’ve been wanting to publish a post focused on the status of war memorials today. For many of us, war memorials are simply a block of stone in the centre of town that we drive past every day; and gather round every May 9 or November 11 when it is time to remember. But upon examination, war memorials are much much more. The multitude of names inscribed upon them represent hundreds of thousands of hours of courage and sacrifice; hours dedicated to the owners’ fellow man. War memorials commemorate the darkest hours of history; hours which many people feared would never come to a happy end. As you will see in this post, war memorials are infinitely more than monuments we only notice once a year. They represent entire lives given in sacrifice, and they live just as much today as those men and women lived for us so many years ago.

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Here, civilians march past the “Motherland Calls” statue on Mamyev Kurgan, site of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad. Copyright Sputnik/Kirill Braga  https://sputniknews.com/photo/20160509/1039314582/russia-victory-day-celebrations.html

Some of the nicest moments of remembrance are spontaneous ones. It’s great to have the dedicated day of November 11 where the world makes a concerted effort to pause and remember, but unplanned moments are wonderful too. Throughout my travels in Canada, America, and Great Britain I’ve come across many memorials that weren’t on my radar; and those memorials are usually the ones which have the greatest effect on me.

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Huge thanks are in order to Michael from Forties Photos for offering me this and the following two photos! While visiting the (Canadian-run) Juno Beach Centre in Normandy recently, he noticed some maple-leaf clad cyclists passing by and convinced them to pose for a picture with the Canadian memorial sculpture. What a photo op!

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I love the surreal yet evocative feel of this sculpture.

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The Canadian memorials at Juno Beach appear to be well-remembered, even today.

I expect that there are similar traditions in other countries as well, but at the Remembrance Day service in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, the custom is to place one’s poppy on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the service. Although it happens every year, it’s still a very beautiful sight to see the grey and sombre tomb slowly become covered by a blanket of red poppies.

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We don’t know his name, but we remember him nonetheless. Fred Chartrand/ The Canadian Press http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/in-photos-canadians-honour-fallen-soldiers-on-remembrance-day/article5173239/

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Ottawa’s remembrance service is always broadcast nationwide on TV, and it’s always exceptionally well-attended in person too. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Mikkel Paulson. Public domain.

I am personally quite transfixed by the Soviet Union’s part in World War II; and consequently in Russia’s continued remembrance of it. Russia is a deeply patriotic nation, and her citizens both young and old are eager to remember and demonstrate their remembrance. On May 9 (Victory Day), young people hand out flowers to veterans and everyone turns out in patriotic garb to commemorate the event. One of my favourite examples was one I discovered while doing a high-school project on wedding traditions around the world. I read that many Russian brides lay their wedding bouquets on a war memorial after their wedding ceremony. This is akin, of course, to the Queen Mother’s gesture in Westminster Abbey back in 1923; but what I love about the Russian tradition is that it is embraced by the masses. Masses of Soviet citizens fought to the death from 1941 to 1945, and it is beautiful that newly married couples of new generations recognise the sacrifice that afforded their futures.

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Here in Stavropol, two young Russians light memorial candles for the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Reuters via http://www.telegraph.co.uk 

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Even inside the Arctic Circle, this Memorial for the Defenders of the Soviet Arctic has been laid with flowers and wreaths. This region is nearly forgotten by civilisation; yet its memorials are remembered. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Vincent van Zeijst. CC-BY-SA 3.0

I wanted to close with one of my favourite photos ever. It can’t exactly be substantiated, and so often Internet finds are not what they profess to be, but regardless this photo makes me emotional. It makes me wonder what surviving veterans must really feel when they look at memorials today. So many years have passed, but I doubt that their memories ever will.

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Countless Russian towns and villages employ WWII tanks as gate guardians; reminders of the battle that was waged 70 years ago. And still- note the flowers atop this T-34- they are remembered. Image from englishrussia.com

 

 

Farewell, Motherland: A Short Story

To mark today’s 75th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa and the Wehrmacht’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, I have written a short story about one of my favourite subjects. Throughout the five years I’ve been obsessed with and studying the Eastern Front, the story of the last defenders of Brest Fortress has always stood out to me. The Fortress in Belarus was one of the first Soviet strongholds to fall; but brave soldiers remained hidden within the walls, beneath the floors, and around the complex for weeks after it was overrun. These soldiers displayed great courage in their dedication to fight the enemy, as they chose to hide and create resistance even as they were starving and running out of water.

It’s in thinking of stories like these that I am so motivated to write about the Eastern Front. I want these stories to be known; they must be known, and if I can make them known in any way then I must. Also when thinking of these stories, my own efforts seem so inadequate. My story below, although I worked hard on it, just doesn’t do heroic deeds like those seen at Brest Fortress justice. But I will always try nonetheless. Farewell, Motherland imagines the last days of two of those last defenders. Their final days must have been bleak, but their endurance shows that their spirit was never broken. I hope I have portrayed that well.

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The message scratched into a wall at Brest Fortress, left by one of its courageous defenders. It reads, “I am dying but I do not surrender! Farewell, Motherland. 20 July 1941.” Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Sergei Semyonov (Stauffenberg). CC-BY-SA 3.0

Farewell, Motherland

“You say we’re to wait until the Fritzes are all relaxing, eh?” Pasha drawled sceptically. “I don’t see how we’ll be able to tell when they’re asleep. It always looks like midnight down here.”

“Shut up,” Volodya growled. He could only just make out his comrade’s hunched outline, but he sent a scowl in Pasha’s direction all the same. “If you’d be quiet, then we’d at least hear them walking around.”

“Don’t bite my head off,” Pasha shot back. “My commentary at least enlivens the atmosphere a bit. Makes it a bit less dead. We’re the only breathing things down here… except for the worms and the rats.”

“I didn’t hear a commentary, it all sounded like complaining to me,” Volodya replied, pausing in the middle of his sentence to smile. Pasha and his stupid jokes. Maybe down here, in the dry, unwelcoming darkness, they were good for something. “Anyway, shut up for a minute. It’ll do you good to quit griping and listen for awhile.”

What a pleasant change; Pasha obeyed without a word, and the two men craned their necks toward the rough floorboards above them. There was absolutely nothing to see, so all they could do was try to hear what was going on in the room overhead.

“There’s nothing,” Pasha announced, before Volodya had even gotten focused. “Face it, Volodya, we’re never going to figure this out. I say we just burst out now and let them have it, before they find us and before we starve.” The floorboards creaked overhead, dumping a shower of dust and splinters onto both of them. “Ugh, my eyes! What an atrocious little cellar this is, anyway!”

“You dolt,” hissed Volodya, grasping blindly for the idiot’s collar. “Concentrate, why don’t you? The fascists’ footsteps are worth more than all the clever things you’ll ever say! And this cellar’s our saving grace, in case you’d forgotten. We’d be dead or ashamed like Kuzakov and Nazhinsky without it.”

“Okay, okay, fine!” Pasha yanked at Volodya’s hand, wheezing. “You’re right about that. But cut me some slack, okay? You outrank me, but only by a few months. And only because you’ve got a heart of stone and no sense of indecision! As it is, I’m a grunt, and a thoughtful one; so I’ve got to do some grumbling. If I don’t, who knows… I could end up like Vova Federov.”

“Vova Federov?” Volodya knew the name, but couldn’t ascribe it to anyone in particular.

“Yeah… the kid from Gomel, who vomited enough for a horse when he saw his first dead man. Then he stabbed himself in the foot with his bayonet and jumped off a bridge before he’d been a soldier for a month.”

“Right,” Volodya relinquished his grip on Pasha’s collar. “What a coward.”

“Well, there you have it.” A puff of dust into Volodya’s face signalled that Pasha had leaned his back against the earthen wall. “A lack of grumbling will turn this brave Soviet into that sort of a coward.”

Volodya shrugged. “Grumble away, then. But quietly. I’m listening.” And he turned his face back to the floorboards. He enjoyed a few minutes of silence; but of course Pasha the parrot couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long.

“What’s the plan, anyway?” Pasha was whispering, but that didn’t make his interruption any less irritating. “Once they’re asleep, what do we do?”

“For goodness’ sake, can’t you keep your words in your own head for once?!” Hissed Volodya, slamming his fist down onto the dry, sandy ground.

“Well, I thought it might help if I was prepared, but if you don’t think so, then fair enough…”

Now Volodya leaned his head against the crumbling wall. He knew Pasha was right; annoying, but right. “Okay, but pay attention. I won’t explain it twice, and I’m only taking questions now– not in twenty minutes, when you’ve worked out all the things that might go wrong.”

“But, Volodya,” Pasha protested, “don’t you want a second opinion? Surely we want the plan to be as perfect as possible.”

“The plan’s never going to be perfect,” Volodya replied after a pause. “There’s only one thing we can do now, and that’s figure out the most productive way for us to die.”

That shut Pasha up for a bit, but all Volodya could hear was his comrade’s anxious breaths and the fascists’ jackbooted footsteps above.

“I bet you’re glad you let me grumble now,” Pasha muttered presently. “If I were Vova Federov, I’d have topped myself not to avoid the fascists, but to avoid coming in here.”

“It’d be much more peaceful if you were Vova Federov, then,” Volodya smiled.

“Yeah, much more peaceful,” echoed Pasha. He paused and sighed, almost inaudibly. “So what is your plan?”

“You’ve still got grenades, right?”

“Two of them– I thought about using one when I seemed to be cornered, but then I found my way in here.”

“You mean, you followed me in here,” interjected Volodya.

“Well, at least I’ve still got my grenades… remind me why I shouldn’t use one on you?”

Volodya chuckled. “Because you’re lost without me, that’s why. Anyway, listen to the plan. Once the fascists are quiet and have forgotten all about our resistance, we’ll burst out and give them a magazine full. Then we’ll throw our grenades before they can return fire; and in the confusion, we’ll reload and shoot some more.”

“I’ve only got twelve rounds left,” objected Pasha. “Twelve rounds don’t go far.”

Volodya let out a pained sigh– Pasha could always think of something wrong. “We won’t go far, either! Don’t bother yourself with that. Just hope that you’ll have the time to get those twelve rounds off.”

“Am I allowed to save a round for myself?”

“You saw how many fascists poured into the Fortress. I doubt you’ll have to.”

There was a pause; even the scurrying rats seemed to fall silent and Pasha the parrot had nothing to say.

“Well, how long do we have to wait?” Finally he spoke, tapping what sounded like the butt of his Mosin impatiently. Volodya ignored this annoyance.

“As long as we can hold out without getting too weak. I’ve got half a canteen of water left.”

“Oh, alright then. That’ll last for at least a week.”

“Don’t get smart,” Volodya shot back. “Of course, it all depends on how long you can keep your mouth shut, too.”

Pasha snorted in reply, and Volodya smirked as a thought came to mind. “You know, Pasha my old comrade, you might make it out of this after all. Your nonstop chatter might entertain the fascists enough that they decide to keep you alive.”

Pasha laughed so hard that Volodya had to smack him to shut him up. As the floorboards creaked and the dust floated down, Volodya took a deep breath of the stuffy, dry air. “The fascists will be going to bed soon. After tonight, it’ll only be a few more days of this.”

“I know,” Pasha said, fidgeting like a child. “But after a few more days…”

Volodya ignored his suggestion. “We won’t be waiting long, the days will go fast. Three or four days isn’t a long time when we’ve both had twenty-five years here.”

“Well, not here, ” Pasha protested. “Twenty-five years here, in this little cellar, would be enough to drive anyone nuts!”

“You’re a moron,” Volodya looked towards Pasha’s dark figure, chuckling. “I’m spending my last few days with a moron.”

Pasha sounded thoughtful. “A moron, and a friend?”

“Yes, Pasha, a friend.”

“Well, that’s something! I thought you’d be grumpy with me right to the end.”

“There’s time yet… are you going to be talking even as we burst out and hammer the Fritzes?”

Volodya could hear the sad smile in Pasha’s voice. “I’ll be talking alright. I’ll be the last thing they hear!”

 

72 Years after D-Day

To commemorate this year’s 72nd anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings, I wanted to share a D-Day poem I wrote. I have shared it before on this blog, but it’s very much from my heart and is the best tribute I think I have to offer. After 72 years, of course the complement of veterans who return to the French coast on June 6 gets smaller every year; but there are still many who return to honour their experiences and their fallen comrades. This year and in years to come, let us remember with them and for them.

We Paid for the Beach in Blood

With hands clenched and eyes down

And stomachs sick from the sea,

We approached the beaches and soaring cliffs

Of concrete that made up Normandy.

We had to swim the last few yards,

And those ones were the longest;

Wading past bodies of those who fell,

We were the luckiest, not strongest.

Only machine-guns welcomed us–

Their zeal made every man shiver

But slowly we began to take the beach

A feat only sacrifice delivered.

Onwards, upwards; up to the cliffs

There was cover there, at least.

But the inheritance from our mates below

Was the grueling push to the east.

So many lives were taken that day

How many? I can’t remember,

Laid out on the altar of Normandy

On the rocks and in the scarlet water.

More plentiful than the dead was our bravery

Forget about love– courage is blind;

It considers not the peril of action

But acts with an iron-willed mind.

The beaches ours, we made it east

And opened the door to the final year,

But not without the will of the dead

Whose sacrifice made our path clear.

With strength of thousands and courage of heroes

We took the beach that day

Long, long ago but not so distant

The wounds don’t go away.

The numbers 6-6-44

Remain forever in my head;

Emblazoned like the shock I saw

On the faces of the dead.

It took us some time, and more than we thought

But we fought like an armoured flood;

For all our lives, we won’t forget

We paid for the beach in blood.