Nikolai Obryn'ba

Published september 27, 2010

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I thrice hate those who, by inflicting this war, make me ill

Nikolai Obryn'ba, 1943.

In square helmets, with their sleeves rolled up, with sub-machine guns in their hands, Germans walk in a line from the village, firing periodically, and here and there our soldiers climb out of their hiding places. Leshka (Lesha, Leshka are short forms of the name Alexei - trans.) falls on top of me:

"They're really close!"

We hide our rifles under the straw, and then we can already hear above us:

"Rus! Los, los!"

Germans laugh and send us to a group of our soldiers, standing at a distance with two guards.

We stood in front of a village house, into which groups three-four men were brought, then, after they had been let out, a new party of POW's was taken inside. They were searched inside the house, if anyone had weapons and to see what papers each had.

I entered the house. Fresh yellow straw was lying on the floor, one of the windows was covered with a blanket, there were about five Germans in the room, among them a young junior lieutenant. They made us take off our knapsacks, gas masks, and put them on the table, then started combing through them thoroughly. One of the soldiers found a small piece of salo (salted pork fat - trans.) in my sack, all covered with crumbs, but he took it away, as well as a piece of sugar left over from my savings for a rainy day.

Looking through my medic's bag, Germans didn't take anything, but, finding a jar of honey with a label from some medicine, spun it in their hands for a long time, smelled it, but then decided it was also some medicine and threw it back inside the bag. One German was already taking a belt with Caucasian brass off my trousers, a gift from my brother-in-law, and was trying it on himself, saying: "Souvenir, souvenir, gut..." I realized that they were taking anything they liked from us, and this pettiness amazed me: how could a soldier take away a piece of sugar, a chunk of salo, a clean handkerchief from another soldier?

And then a red-haired freckled feldwebel pulled out the album with my drawings of the military life from the gas mask bag, saying "kunstmaler, kunstmaler", and started looking through it. Everybody put aside our knapsacks and also started looking, pointing fingers, laughing merrily. The lieutenant took away the album, looked it over, and asked from his questionnaire:

"Where from?"

I replied:

"Moskau, kunstmaler Akademie."

Then an idea struck him. Opening the album on a blank page, he stuck his finger there, then pointed at himself, and kept saying:

"Zeichnen, zeichnen portrait."

I took out a pencil and started sketching his portrait. The Germans and our prisoners froze with tension, started watching. In five minutes everyone recognized the lieutenant and started talking: "Gut! Prima!.." I tore out the page with the sketch and gave it to the lieutenant. He examined it thoughtfully, put it in his pocket.

...The fourteenth day of captivity. Holm-Zhirkovskiy. After a ten day stay behind the barbed wire where they were accumulating prisoners from the 350 thousand that had been encircled by the Germans at Viazma in October of '41, they started leading us west along a highway. During these ten days they gave us neither water nor food, we were sitting under the open sky. First snow fell in the beginning of October that year, it was a cold, dank weather. Here, for the first time we saw how healthy men died of hunger.

We are walking on the Warsaw highway for the fourth day toward Smolensk, with stops in specially furnished pens, enclosed by barbed wire and guard towers with machine gunners, who illuminate us with flares through the entire night. Next to us stretches a column of wounded prisoners -- in regular carts, two-wheeled carts, and walking. The tail of the column, spreading from hillock to hillock, disappears into the horizon. In places of our stops and along our entire route thousands of those dying from hunger and cold remain. Those still alive are finished off by soldiers with SMG's, a guard kicks a fallen prisoner and, if he can't get up in time, fires his gun. I watched with horror how they reduced healthy people to a state of complete helplessness and death. Every time before we set out guards with truncheons formed up on two sides, then a commanded sounded:

On the road. October 1941

Drawing on the reverse side of a German poster. Prisoners skin a horse's body.

"Everybody run!"

The crowd ran, and at the same time blows rained on us.

A run of one-two kilometers, and then another command:

"Stop!"

Breathless, hot, sweat covered, we stopped, and they would keep us like that in the cold, penetrating wind for an hour, under rain and snow. These exercises were repeated several times, as a result only the hardiest men set out on the march. Many of our comrades remained lying, single dry shots rang out -- they were finishing off those who couldn't get up.

Sometimes they herded us to the sides of the road, this was done with the purpose of clearing mines; anti-personnel mines exploded, but our weight was not enough for anti-tank mines, and when they would drive German vehicles through a path thus cleared, they often blew up.

Our column stopped because a German car had just exploded, I took out my notepad and started making sketches. Suddenly a cavalryman rode up to me and raised his whip, but fortunately a colonel riding in an open car called him back. He called me to himself, asked what I was doing. I said I was an artist, drawing. He looked at the sketches and said:

"Not allowed. You cannot draw dead German soldiers."

I dived into a crowd of prisoners walking through the mined roadside, they wouldn't search for me there.

 

 

...Melting snow and pale sunset, tall embankment, black silhouettes of people building a bridge can be seen on it, the bridge takes shape with its supports resembling the skeleton of a huge fish. We arrived to Yartsevo, the column of prisoners pulls into the area enclosed by barbed wire, on the territory of a former brick factory. It's divided into compartments with guard towers on thin posts, a machine gunner on every one -- the towers look like spiders.

I carried the bag with bandages, cotton, manganese on my shoulder through the entire march. My two comrades, Sasha (Sasha, Sashka are short forms of the name Alexander - trans.) Lapshin and Alexei Avgustovich, and I, students of the Moscow Art Institute, were medics. An idea came to us to be assigned to a hospital for wounded prisoners. We left the column and explained our request to a guard, he called a polizei and sent him to get a doctor. We stood and waited, a stream of exhausted people was filing past us, they were walking trying to keep their legs from spreading apart. Finally the doctor, also a POW, came. In response to our offer he said that he had more doctors than was necessary, much less medics. But suddenly, as if remembering something, he offered us the barrack for the seriously wounded. We agreed gladly.

The polizei led us through several zones enclosed by barbed wire to a wood shed. It had already become dark outside. A large man opened the door for us, he was an orderly there. After letting us inside, he immediately shut the door. We couldn't see anything in the dark, but the stench of rotting flesh struck us. We pressed ourselves to the wooden wall, its holes let in fresh air and pale light. The orderly was looking at us with unconcealed hostility, but I couldn't understand his displeasure. Finally he said:

"There is nowhere to sleep. Doctors don't come here. All these wounded are beyond hope."

Shaken by his cruel bluntness, he didn't even lower his voice, we remained silent.

"They are doomed anyway," he began anew. "What are you going to do here anyway?"

Then I declared decisively:

"We'll do anything to ease these people's suffering and, in general, anything in our power. We'll spend the night here and get to work tomorrow."

The bunks were three-tiered. A passage seventy or eighty centimetres wide stretched through the entire length of the shed. People lied packed, pressing closely to each other, trying to keep warm. Somebody touched my sleeve, I heard a moan:

"Doctor, doctor, save me, I want to live, I have a house with a garden, and children, three of them, doctor, cut off my arm, it burns, only to live..."

A lump appeared in my throat, but, getting a hold on myself, I replied as firmly as I could:

"I'll examine everyone tomorrow and help you. It's too dark now."

I didn't have enough courage to admit I wasn't a doctor, so I wouldn't disappoint these doomed people, wouldn't take away their hope. My comrades stood without saying a word, torn by pity and the feeling of helplessness in front of this suffering.

The "orderly" climbed to his bunk in a different compartment of the barrack, and we got down under the bunks into some hole, barely fitting in the small hollow, and somehow lied down.

On the march. October 1941. The ditch. April 1942.

On a march prisoners would run to horse corpses, tear off pieces of

frozen meat. Guards would shoot. To the right, a ditch with the corpses of

POW's in the Borvukha-1 capm. The ditches were long, up to three thousand

corpses would be thrown into each one, then a new one would be dug.

The drawing was made on the reverse side of a German poster. For

tearing of a poster - execution by a firing squad; for its "violation" - hanging.

It was stuffy, but the smells lost their sharpness, exhaustion was taking its toll. I closed my eyes and immediately the wet slippery road started flashing before my eyes, and corpses, corpses, corpses... We lied motionless in the hole among the suffering, delirious, dying, and despite the horror, it even started to seem cozy, we warmed up, and gradually we started to doze off. Suddenly a warm fluid started pouring from above, my leg became wet immediately. At first I didn't understand what it was, but then Sashka said:

"I'm all wet, the wounded are urinating on us."

The grey, dank morning came. By the time we got out of our shelter everybody already knew that doctors had come. Germans didn't give any water to the wounded, they only got a cup of tea or coffee -- slop of brown colour -- in the mornings. But I needed boiled water to work.

A work detail. 1942

To get water I had to steal my way to the camp kitchen. It was located in a large shed, the fires were stoked by putting the firewood right under the suspended pots, about twenty of them. They brought corpses of horses here, collected alongside roads, chopped them up and threw the huge chunks into the pots full of water, then they took out the meat and cut it into small pieces. I was struck by the fact that they brought horses in two-wheeled carts pulled by people. Everything around was covered with smoke and soot, dense grey smoke with a pink tint, permeated with sparks, rose over the suspended pots. They were licked by red tongues of flame on the bottom, dark sallow figures with the flaps of their caps covering their ears were skinning the suspended horse carcasses. A gigantic shadow of somebody's figure, swaying fantastically in the clouds of smoke and steam, rose and refracted, disappeared under the roof of the huge shed. All this looked like Dante's description of Hell; the scariest thing of all was that I didn't hear any sounds of voices, it was as if everyone was mute.

I found a bottle of boiled water with difficulty and we got to work. The majority of the wounded had only had their first dressing made on the battlefield. A bandaged wound would be wrapped with puttees on top. When I took a bandage off, I became nauseous from the smell. Sasha and Alexei were immediately put out of commission, I had to lay them down in the corridor near the wall. The dressings that I gave to the wounded came out nicely, I cleaned the wound with manganese and bandaged it, the look of a fresh bandage gave the wounded a feeling of hope of getting well. When I found my countryman (he spoke with Ukrainian accent - trans.) "with a garden", he was already dead, apparently, he had had gangrene.

 

 

Only the seriously wounded were collected here, I even had to perform a surgery -- cut off the remains of a crushed arm with a knife. My patient lost consciousness, I gave him ammonia to smell and continued working. When he saw his crippled arm dressed with a snow white bandage, a gleam of a smile flashed on his grey lips. Or at least it seemed that way, because at that moment everything swam before my eyes, I felt nauseous... When I regained consciousness, someone stuck a cigarette with makhorka (strong and cheap tobacco - trans.) between my lips, the latter was considered to be a most valuable thing, so that was an expression of the highest appreciation from my patients. And then back to dressings: head, stomach, scrotum -- what an inconvenient spot for bandages. Alexei and Sasha distributed food to the wounded, dismissing the orderly, who had been mercilessly stealing from them. It was snowing and raining outside, still newer columns of POW's kept arriving. A group of new arrivals ran to our shed, they started knocking demanding that we open the door and let them in. I knew that if even one of them started tearing off a board to get inside the barrack -- the shed would be destroyed, taken apart for firewood. After imagining this picture, I put on my bag with the red cross and came out, blocking the door with my body. The mob of tormented people roared threateningly, started pushing. Suddenly one of them jumped at me:

"Let me in!"

I kicked him in the stomach, he immediately collapsed and started crying. I felt bitter and ashamed. I looked over the faces blue from cold, watching me with their dark eye sockets, and said:

"The seriously wounded soldiers are here. There is no room even for us, medics. We bandaged the wounded, but if they are not protected now, they will all die."

The grey mass hesitated, but someone in the mob yelled:

"What are you listening to them bitches for?! Kill them bastards!"

In a second it flashed through my consciousness that the call to kill was plural, while I was standing alone against them -- it was terrible and unjust; it's as if they were justifying themselves with the plural, as if they wanted to tear to pieces and kill not just one medic defending the wounded -- killing me they would be killing some dark force that was killing them. And I started yelling. I couldn't show weakness. In that yell I rained down on them the power of accusation of cruelty to the wounded and crippled -- so they wouldn't have the justification.

The mob retreated. And I began to shake from what I had just gone through.

No one came to the barrack again, but we were on guard through the entire night.

On the third day my medicine supplies ran out, I felt sick from exhaustion, from moral suffering; it seemed that I was beginning to decompose like my wounded. I had the hidden jar of honey, with honeycomb and bees, which I kept for cases just like this, the one I had now. I decided to share the honey between the three of us, but the orderly came to us and proposed that we trade the honey for horse meat to the cooks. After negotiations through the barbed wire we agreed on the exchange with one cook, also a prisoner, he had had enough horse meat and wanted something tasty. We gave away the honey, and I was supposed to come at night when the horse meat would be ready, and take a back leg as a payment for the honey which the cook would have already eaten by that time. The cook -- a huge coal miner from the Donbass named Anton, with black eyebrows, he spoke a mixed Ukrainian-Russian language, so peculiar to the population of Ukraine's south -- said:

"Don't worry, I'll give you the leg if you just come. And don't get caught by the polizei at the gate."

I had to crawl under the barbed wire of the fence separating our shed from the kitchen yard, run through the yard unnoticed, and steal into the kitchen door before a polizei.

Anton said his pot was second from the hall's centre. And it was true, I found him.

"Well, see, you found me, even though you were afraid. And your honey was put to good use, I have a sick comrade, so he needs to drink tea with honey. Here, take your leg."

He pulled out a huge leg from the pot, it was steaming and it was impossible to get a hold on it immediately. I let it be shaken, put it under my armpit, covered myself with Tonia's red blanket that had saved me so many times. I sneaked to the exit, but I didn't even step over the threshold when the policeman called to me:

"What are you carrying?!" -- and grabbed the blanket.

Without thinking, I instinctively jerked and, straining every nerve, turned the corner of the kitchen. The polizei slipped, fell, tearing off a piece of the blanket, yelled: "Stop him! Stop him!.." One more push, I ran by the light, and Sasha was already waiting for me there, raising the barbed wire. A machine gun started firing along the fence, but I had already been pulled into the shed, we shut the door and propped it up with a stick. We could hear the polizei's tramping, swearing, they were so mad as if they themselves had been robbed, and it was difficult to even imagine what would've awaited us the next day on the parade-ground had I been caught.

But then we felt merry and cozy, touching warm pieces of meat in the dark. We split the horse meat into four shares, and then plucked the muscly leg. Soon only the bare bones remained, everything was accounted for, and it was still so little. We gave one share to the Navy orderly (that was his nickname in the barrack for his sailor's shirt), he was happy, kept assuring us that we couldn't go wrong with him. We gave some pieces to those lying nearby. Everybody was happy, and quietly, very slowly, plucking one fibre at a time, started chewing, and everyone was thinking of something pleasant... I suddenly realized that we would eat everything at once and whispered:

"Guys, enough! Hide everything, it'll come in handy later."

Sashka hid his portion into a pot that he kept in his knapsack, I wrapped mine with a towel. Leshka, even though the skinniest one, agonized more than anyone of us before agreeing to lay off the meal.

We fall asleep in our stinking corner, delirious ravings of the wounded can be heard, sometimes someone would get up and go to the door, he would need to be let out and the door guarded so that no one would enter. Finally everyone settles down and slumber comes, a polizei's yells can be heard somewhere, and I pull the transparent, ragged Tonia's blanket higher.

Thin rays of the bleak sunrise were already sticking through the holes of our shed, Sashka was shaking me; noticing that I was awake, he started whispering that we needed to leave, we couldn't do anything else for the sick, and would just perish ourselves. At that time someone started knocking on the door authoritatively. I climbed over Leshka who, not understanding anything in his sleep, started to fight back with all his strength. Finally I got to the door, opened it. The doctor that had sent us here was standing in front of me. He was surprised by our encounter, and both of us were glad. The doctor was able to secure permission from a German boss to select a group of wounded that could walk on their own together with a column of prisoners to Smolensk. He decided to take us as orderlies escorting the wounded right there on the spot.

 

 

It's painful to remember how hard it was to make the selection, everyone understood that staying in that shed meant certain death. Hands were stretched toward us, the wounded assured us that they felt well, tried to keep a brave, even merry expression on their faces -- but I remembered how I dressed stomach wounds, crushed arms and legs, and understood what inhuman effort those smiles cost them. And on the march, during the very first collapse and a kick from a guard's boot, if he wouldn't be able to get up, he would be finished off immediately. And your heart would flip -- you had selected him to march, and no matter how many times you would tell yourself that he would've died anyway, it would not bring you relief.

An execution. Beating by the polizeis. April 1942

Drawing on the reverse side of a German poster.

It was cold, sleet was falling turning the road into a yellowish mixture. The column formed up and set out toward Smolensk. Images of what I had lived through kept flashing before my eyes: here I clean wounds, dress them, set bones, faces contorted with pain... The camp kitchen... The scene of an execution comes up: a feldwebel yelling that Russians are swine, and they, Germans -- a great nation; a spread-eagled body lies motionless, two bestial polizeis sit on his head and feet, and the third strikes this quivering body, the feldwebel counting the blows. When I first heard these blows I thought it was someone dusting mattresses; after seeing with my own eyes the source of these sounds I would feet nausea and my heart would start beating every time -- the beatings were so sickening; even death was better. But then, death was never far away...

Our column stretches out, people walk hugging, supporting those too exhausted, swaying. Grey covered and open cars rush past us toward the east, full of men laughing at our sight, pointing their cameras on us, men infected with the brown plague.

Yes, it is war, we are faced not only with physical annihilation -- fascism is trying to destroy our dignity, our faith in everything good, beautiful. It will be hard to survive in this hell, but a hundred times harder to remain human.

A car passing by drenched us with cold mud, covering the white bandages of the wounded, we hear Germans laughing, the sound of a harmonica...

We were loaded on a train at Smolensk. They drove us toward the cars with rifle butts, shoving us in our backs. The crowd was pushing, you had to balance on two inclined boards, people were stumbling, falling, unable to hold on. German yells: "Schneller! Schneller!", polizeis swearing. Together with Alexei and Sasha I climb inside among the first dozens, and we manage to get a good spot in a corner. But the prisoners are still being packed into the car, tighter and tighter. We manage to sit down, pulling our feet under ourselves, but others have to stand. About twenty women medics are the last to be shoved inside, they can only stand near the door. Finally the door squealed, the bolt clanked. But the train remains motionless. Everyone half-whispers for some reason; after the march and transfer camps people are exhausted, their faces covered with stubble, caps are lowered on their ears; coats are without belts, many had their belts taken away during the search; knapsacks and gas mask bags are half-empty, Germans robbed everything; the only thing is a mess tin attached in front -- the main instrument and the purpose of existence. An emaciated aged man falls to his knees next to me, he wears glasses, but one lens in cracked, and he strangely tilts his head trying to look with his one myopic eye, and covers the second one; he doesn't speak, his lips are swollen, and you can only hear the hissing and wheezing moan through them: "Water..." But the majority of us doesn't have any water, and those who do hide it for themselves, for when they will moan the same way in the hope of moistening their lips and throat. Buffers clanked, a push, another, the car jerked, and the train moves slowly and unwillingly, the yells at the Smolensk freight station fade away.

"Where are they taking us?" a neighbour to the right whispers.

"Does it matter?" a stoop-shouldered man in a green coat with grey stubble on his face, apparently, a former opolchenets (member of narodnoye opolcheniye, literally "people's militia", irregular force of volunteers raised to stem the German tide at the critical moment in 1941 - trans.). "It's all the same now that we're caged. Where they're taking us, probably Germany."

Wheels bang on rails...

The neighbour on the left stops wheezing and I feel how his body fell on me heavily, I try to free myself, but can't, since he's also being pushed from the other side. Suddenly I see that a thin spurt of liquid came out of his swollen lips and his head fell. Of course, he died. I say: "But he's dead." No one reacts, everyone turned away. Leshka wrinkles his face in pain, whispers: "Nikolay, what am I going to do? My stomach hurts badly, I need to get out." I pull out a towel from the gas mask bag with difficulty, give it to him: "Put it under yourself." Leshka manages to use my towel, but it's not enough, he has diarrhoea and stomachache. Almost a boy, a very young soldier in a greatcoat, already lowered himself on top of my dead neighbour, glances with mad eyes, he's also thirsty.

An hour, two hours of our ride pass. I notice that no one stands anymore, everyone sits managing to contorting to take as little space as possible. Only a group of nurses stands near the door; covering each other, they try to put themselves in order. Sasha sits with his eyes closed, I feel sleepy, or maybe I'm simply half-unconscious, the heavy smell in the car causes stupefaction...

The train slowed down and then stopped. Yells in German, footsteps on the platform. What's out there? Where are we? None of us have watches, some had theirs taken away during the search, some hid them and wouldn't display them now for the world. Somebody gave out a moan, screamed out gutturally: "Aah," and fell silent. I'm not surprised any more that my neighbour sits on a dead body, he acts strangely himself, and suddenly starts suffocating, swallowing the air frequently in small gulps, his blue eyes gleam even in the semi-darkness of the car. He tore off his cap, searches with his hands unconsciously, unbuttons his shirt. Suddenly he grabs my head: "Water, water..." I try to pull out, but he grabbed my hair painfully, I strain with all my strength to unclasp his hand, but can't. Leshka helps me, and we don't notice that they boy is already dead. We disentangle his hand from my hair, he falls, his head down, the light from the window reflects from his open and insane eyes. The neighbour on the right pulled the dead boy's cap over his eyes. At that time a girl in the group of nurses screamed, became hysterical... It had already become dark in the window high above the floor. A guard passes on the car's roof, we hear his heavy footsteps.

 

 

...We're on our way again. It became roomy in the car, many are lying already, and no one knows how long he's going to sleep. I suffer, I'm thirsty, but we don't have a drop of water; I've already forgotten that I'm hungry, I only know that I need water. Time drags by, or rather doesn't move at all, since we have neither a goal nor hope. It's completely dark... Somebody's hand searches behind my back trying to get into my knapsack, I push it away. The hand pulls back, they realize that I'm still alive, I hear noisy breathing. I fall into semi-consciousness again...

I regained consciousness. The train is not moving, they are hitting the door with a rifle butt, that's the bolt being opened, and they're already yelling:

"Los, los! Schneller!"

The door squealed, ran over the metal grooves, fresh air and grey dawn burst into the car. Sasha was shaking Leshka, who became completely helpless, his face was pale yellow. He and I can't get up, our feet have gone numb, we try to get to our knees. The women left already, the rest of us move toward the door stepping over corpses. It's very difficult to get out of the car, since we have no strength left for the jump. I catch Lesha, he already sits with his legs dangling, Sasha helps him. Finally we got Sasha off. A half destroyed station, the train on the tracks -- it turned out they brought us to Vitebsk, we're happy it's not Germany. Polizeis helping German guards yell and hit with their truncheons if a man slows down even a little. They take us to a POW camp -- a huge area enclosed by several rows of barbed wire, towers with machine guns, guards with dogs. I walk as if asleep, Leshka has cheered up and even jokes:

"We'll not wash, there are no towels to dry ourselves."

They bring us to the parade ground and form us up. An interpreter yells:

"Prisoners of war! The German command cannot allow officers and political workers to be with soldiers! We want to give them better accommodations! As officers deserve! Political workers and officers, one step forward!"

But no one makes that fatal step. The command sounded again. Suddenly several men stepped out, but all of them are well fed, healthy. The interpreter says:

"Are you political officers?"

Those five reply:

"Yes!"

The officer ordered:

"Pour their tins full of soup!" And started praising them.

I badly wanted to say that I was also a political officer since the smell of the soup completely clouded my head. But Sashka says:

"Don't you see, they are provocateurs. And over there, see, fresh soil -- that's the grave of real political officers."

Getting nothing from us they form up the column and take us to get bread and balanda (in Russian prisoner slang, a thin soup - trans.). I almost lose consciousness, Leshka and Sasha support me so I wouldn't fall, but someone has already unfastened my mess tin, and I'm left without a vessel and, therefore, without balanda. Sasha gets in line at the end, puts me there, and then forces his way to the front, receives and quickly eats his portion, and then gives me his tin. It became easier after the balanda, and sitting happily on the floor of the kitchen barrack, I eat my bread crumb by crumb.

The happiness in the Vitebsk camp did not last long. They formed us up in the early morning and again led us through the ruined streets of Vitebsk, we already knew that we would be sent to Germany.

This time we got an open car with high walls. The loading took a long time, German and Russian swearing poured, polizeis' whips struck, prisoners moaned, fell from the beam unable to take the shoving, Germans shot those too weak without pity, and so, settling near the wall in the corner, we even felt cozy, since there was no danger of being executed anymore.

Soviet POWs. Autumn 1941.(Photo taken form Vostochnyi front site)

Grey clouds loom over us, the cold walls of the car and the broken boards of the floor didn't hold the warmth for long, it became cold, the shroud of drizzle covers our red, with flowers, transparent Tonia's blanket, our only protection from snow, rain, and cold. The heavy metal door closed, whistles sounded, telegraph poles started flashing by faster and faster, and then we couldn't see anything any more, only dark smoke hanging along the metal body of the train filled with the bodies of people.

As always, the shuffling begins, everyone tries to get settled comfortably, some, too weak, lie motionless. I am so weak now that I don't try to get settled, sit with my arms hanging down. Suddenly an idea struck Sashka:

"Guys, let's trade."

"Trade what?" I ask through some mental shroud. "With who?"

"With the locals."

"What locals?" I still can't understand what he came up with.

"But they won't let us out," Leshka says.

Sasha took a bar of household soap from his knapsack, Leshka and I were staring stupidly, and he went on to develop his idea further:

"The car is open. We'll put the soap in a mess tin. During a stop we'll let it down over the side of the car using our belts, and we'll start yelling: "trading, trading."

We got immediately excited, imagining: what if some local would come and put in a piece of bread or something else. We started taking off our belts, I even took off the straps from my knapsack. We decided that Sasha would get on top of my back in order to reach the top of the wall, and Leshka would be ready to replace me.

We reached some station and the train stopped; someone was running, we could hear soldiers yelling because women were approaching the train. Sashka got on top of me, lowered the tin and started swinging it in order to attract attention, but he couldn't really stick his head out, he was yelling, but the sound was coming out muffled:

"Trading... Some bread..."

 

 

Leshka replaced me, but still no luck. People in the car were looking at us with surprise, then they figured it out, but you had to work in twos or threes for that, and while others were getting organized, we were already trading.

But then the train moved, Sasha pulled in the tin with the soap, and we went on rocking in the moving car.

Suddenly shooting began. I asked Sashka to get down on all fours and climbed up to look. The train was moving over a high embankment which formed a semicircle. Several men got over the side of a tall open car and jumped out, one fell badly and I could see he was finished, but the other two got up and ran, falling and getting up again, toward the forest. My heart was ready to jump out it beat so hard from excitement -- there it is, there it is, now I need to do something! Again and another time someone jumped out of the same car and were already running over the snow covered grass. The shooting began from a guard tower on the car in the centre of the train, our car was closer to the end so I could see everything. First they fired two sub-machine guns, then a machine gun opened up. Two in greatcoats fell immediately, the other three ran, fell, crawled. More shooting. I could see how two of them were wounded, they tried to get up, but rifle shots finished them off. The train was moving in a semicircle, and the hunt began for the last one. He reached the ravine -- one more step and he's saved! But they killed him, didn't let them make that step. I fall from Sasha's back, I don't want to run anymore, my strength left me. A neighbour sits above me frowning, his boot almost touches my lips, drones lecturingly:

"Don't fuss, sit tight, or they'll shoot you down like a hare."

Time passed, the rain stopped, evening was approaching...

Banging, clanking again, we get shaken, and the train stops at some station. Sasha and Leshka again set up a "trade post", this time Sashka on all fours, and Lesha on top of him, with a drawn-out yell:

"Trading, trading. Soap..."

Suddenly Leshka felt someone pull the tin! He feverishly pulled it up, got down -- there was a handful of cottage cheese in there! We didn't see how the others started moving closer to us, Sashka saw that, and at the moment someone shoved me aside forcefully, Sashka managed to stick his hand inside the tin and grab the cottage cheese. Hands grab him, Alexei and I try to fight them back, everyone falls and starts rolling on the floor, there are already several men on top of us, a huge man wheezes: "Give it to me!" -- but no one knows who has the cottage cheese. Several minutes of fruitless fighting passed, and everyone, losing their strength, crawled apart. We're in a corner of the car, Sasha sits resting his back against the wall. When we cover him, he spits out the white cottage cheese with red veins of blood into his hand, says: "I hid it in my mouth." We split it, a pinch for each, and try to hold it for as long as possible in the mouth. We don't have anything else to trade. The train moves on.

The train stops again and stands for a long time. It's night. The rain picks up, and now we sit next to the wall, tightening ourselves into a ball and putting our knapsacks under ourselves. Our knees grow numb. We're half asleep. Dead bodies used to lie near us, somebody dragged them away already. In the evening they used to be dressed in greatcoats, but now they show up as white spots, they were undressed for cover, since the cold and dampness pierce everyone to their very bones. The train creeps, stopping sometimes, we, struck down by slumber, now sleep in the common pile, travelling around the car's floor in our sleep...

Dawn brought little cheer, our train stood still, the wind that picked up in the morning brought dark clouds, and it didn't get warmer for us. We wanted to sleep badly. We started to simply swing the mess tin outside the car, and one hopeless moment five potatoes were put in it. The potatoes were raw, it was hard to eat them, but no one tried to take the raw potatoes away from us, and we swallowed them with difficulty.

The train started moving again. Big and light snowflakes started falling, first lazily, and then flying in our faces opposite the train's movement. There are four of us now, we speak quietly, all limp, hungry, and sleep deprived. The number of dead keeps increasing, they are dragged to the end of the car, and not feeling any shame anymore, others take off their clothes and cover themselves. But I noticed that no one was taking the boots, probably they all thought that they wouldn't get to wear down their own.

...The train stops and stands in a field, everything is covered with wet melting snow. By the yells outside we understand that they're not letting us go further, since our track is destroyed, and there is a stream of trains from Germany on the other one. Trains rumble past us, and when you look through a hole, you can see open cars with tanks, soldiers' cars, freight -- everything is moving to the east. Will no one stop them? In the corner of the mind there is a glimmer of hope that something that we don't know will happen, and this flood will break; but now we are reduced to the state of the dying and are not able to resist, get away from pain and cold, unable to unite, we're turned into people enslaved by their survival instinct, not capable of self-sacrifice, in the pile of bodies everyone dying alone.

The car's door banged squealing, and they started letting us out into what seemed to us like a field. It was hard to make our feet obey, even harder to get off, to crawl off the car into the wet mixture of mud and snow. They form us, those that survived, near the cars and give a loaf of warm bread to each one, real, strong-smelling, whose warmth we haven't felt in a while, we anxiously wrap it up in rags, those that have them, and begin putting it in the mouth, crumb by crumb, fearing that it would run out; others, with hateful eyes, stuff big chunks into their mouths -- they are already in the agony of hunger, they're doomed. The policemen yell, but don't swear. One of them shouted out:

"Russians, you must collect all your strength and reach the camp! Help the weak ones, or they will be shot!"

Which polizei dared to make that speech? -- A brave and real human being. I remembered those words and that voice for the rest of my life.

We barely walk stretching over the beaten into mud road. Someone falls, shots from the guards. And then that voice again:

"Russians, help your comrades!"

I can't help, my feet spread apart from weakness, and Volodia (short form of the name Vladimir - trans.) starts supporting someone walking next to him, Sasha helps me. I see a stump from a harvested head of cabbage sticking out very close to the road, I bend down and pull it out. Sashka hides it on himself, but I became very weak from this effort, lost my breath completely. We near the barbed wire among tall pines, the head of the column already pulls into the gate with a swinging barrier and many rows of barbed wire.

 

 

They lead us to a building and settle us. I was placed on the second floor, Sasha, Volodia, Lesha with me. The room was about forty meters; besides a small area near the door, there is a platform over the entire floor, on which people are packed. Only now they warn us not to stick our heads out the window, lavatory -- once a day. They don't give us water. But there is snow outside, and those who are brave tie their belts together, throw a mess tin through the window, and if one manages to scoop -- he's lucky, but he can also get a bullet, the guards are shooting.

Nothing in life is as agonizing as the absence of water. My God, how it burns excruciatingly! And nowhere, of nothing did people die so often like here from thirst. They would be carrying corpses out of the room all the time. We settled on the bunks all together, sitting, lying, almost without any talking, I draw in my album emaciated thin faces of the dying, sitting with purposeless gaze. Trading goes on here. One sells a cigarette, wants twenty-five rubles for it. Another ties belts together and then throws his mess tin out the window. Having scooped some snow, falls under the windowsill, and immediately a submachine gun burst breaks the still unbroken remains of the window, plaster falls from the ceiling. But the tin in the hands of this sullen guy is all covered in fluffy snow, there are a couple of spoonfuls inside. He immediately exchanges and spoonful of snow, which costs twenty-five rubles, for a cigarette and licks all the snow from the tin. Everyone watches with envy, not taking their eyes off the man with the liquid. Unexpectedly the man takes a spoon of snow to my mouth:

"Here, eat."

I pull away:

"I don't have any money or anything."

"It's free, eat, you need it more. You draw, we'll all die here, but maybe your drawings will remain, and they'll know that we were not traitors."

His words stun me, I feel shame and pain for some reason, but I can't deliberate, the agonizingly parched lips touch the spoon, the cool moisture melts in my mouth, and wet drops fall from my eyes. What all the horrors couldn't do was done by a mouthful of water given by that man. A mouthful for all, for their suffering and their shame. I felt sorry for everyone and myself, I wanted to do something for everyone, change something... Maybe at that instant I realized everything that was happening to me, felt my responsibility for everything and for all time. This instant will live with me through my entire life, the words of that man will sound like an order: "You draw!" There are seconds, minutes in a man's life when he suddenly comprehends his existence -- everything that goes on becomes clear, and your purpose apparent. It's as if this man's words returned my consciousness and human dignity, I left the animal state, and already after that the confidence arrived that I would get out of captivity as soon as I regain my strength. As if I could leave. But this will live in me.

Translated by:Oleg Sheremet
Photos and drawnings from the archive of N. Obryn'ba


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