It's war, it's war! God's angel keep it far
And put an end to it!
It's war, alas-and I desire
Not to bear the guilt for it!
Josua hugged the barrel of the machine gun. The Pe-2, the dive bomber of the Red Army, also known as Pawn, was diving straight down at its target, the long trek of rack wagons carrying fleeing people westward. Farmers and townsfolk of villages and small towns around the Warta were on the run scared by reports of the cruelty of the fast advancing troops of Stalin's army.
Josua hugged the barrel of the heavy machine gun even tighter as the small biplane started its dive. Blood shot into his eyes as the aircraft descended like a falcon in a 70° angle towards the trek moving slowly along the rough country road. The sour mush of the inedible army bread in his stomach made him nearly throw up. As soon as the plane abruptly pulled up into the air again Josua nearly fainted.
During the whole attack Josua, the gunner, kept his forefinger on the trigger of the machine gun sending round after round of deadly bullets down at the trek. The noise of the diving bomber was deafening swallowing up the BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG of his gun. Because of the pace of the diving aircraft Josua was unable to watch the bullets hitting their targets. The bullets, however knew their targets by heart. They perforated the canvas covering of the wagons, perforated what was in the rack wagons, perforated the draught horses, the drivers on the wagon boxes and everything on the road, living or dead. The bullets performed their innate task without compassion, perforated the belonging to fugitives and perforated the sleeping fugitives huddled insides the wagons. Sleep was no shelter anymore. Josua's bullets didn't discriminate between living and dead, between inanimate and animate, animals or humans. After Josua's dive bomber had reached the lowest point of the trajectory it's weight suddenly decreased by several hundreds of pounds, as its load of small bombs was uncoupled and smashed into the trek. Josua, the gunner, soared up into the dark sky again.
“It's a dream Josua; it's just a dream Josua!” Lukas desperately tried to comfort his older friend moaning loudly in his sleep. “It's a dream, Josua we are safe. Josua, we are in the cottage, a real house. We are in a bed. A blanket is keeping us warm. The door is locked, no stranger can enter. The cottage is leaning against a chapel with its tower pointing to heaven. Josua, you do not have to be afraid anymore, our guardian angels are awake, wide awake! Josua dear Josua, stop shaking with fear! You are scaring me. Josua!” Lukas was holding Josua, the older boy, in his arms, caressed him and tried to calm him.
The curtain of the small room in the back of the cottage moved to the side. The light of a kerosene lamp filled the cold kitchen with swirling shadows. “Is he sick, your friend Josua?” the Old Man asked with cracking voice, “Boy, oh Boy! Lukas, is your friend sick, your friend Josua?” “No Sir, no! The nightmares are hunting him every night since he rescued me.” “Does Josua need help?” “No, no, he is sleeping while the nightmares are hitting him. He is crying, every night he is shaking, he is tossing and turning like mad, but in the morning he can't remember a shred.” The Old Man watched the two boys some minutes longer and when Josua had calmed down and Lukas had fallen asleep, he left the room and went to sleep in his own bed in his room in the back of the cottage, not greater than a cubbyhole.
Soft shuffling steps aroused Josua from his light morning sleep. In the dim light filtering through the window shutter he watched the Old Man moving from his room to the stove, taking a metal bucket and shuffling to the door. The rattling of the bucket and the noise of the latch of the sliding door called Lukas back to life as well. Pulling the blanket over his head Lukas placed his head on Josua's chest, “The Old Man is already up, are we to rise as well?” he asked, “I am still so tired. I do not want to rise, Josua! I like it here. It's safe.” “Sure! You don't have to, stay in bed Lukas! The blanket will keep you warm. But I have too......!” While Josua peeled from under the blanket, the squealing of the pump handle let the boys know what the Old Man was doing outside. “He's getting water from the well. I have to.....!” He wiggled out from under Lukas, “Let me leave Lukas!”
At the door Josua and the Old Man met. “The outhouse is to the left behind the hazelnut bushes. Do not forget to clean your hands afterwards and your face as well too.” Cat-calling Josua, “Bring in an armful of logs from the pile of wood beside the door.”
Once inside the Old Man lightened a fire in the stove and moved the pot with potato soup prepared yesterday to the cook top to warm over the meager meal. Meanwhile Josua unlatched the wooden shutter and now the gray December light was seeping through the dusty window panes into the room. Turning to Lukas, the Old Man asked, “Hungry Lukas, my boy?” slightly chuckling, “You and your big friend have to be content with the left over soup from yesterday evening. I do neither have bread nor flour for backing some.” Lukas smiled, “A warm soup? We hadn't had a warm meal for days!” Jumping up from the rug covered floor in the corner of the room and taking a chair at the small table was the deed of a moment.
Slightly uneasy and with a questioning look Josua was meanwhile waiting at the door with an armful of frozen logs. “Put the wood down there besides the stove. It has to become bone-dry before it burns right. Then fetch the plates from the cupboard and join your friend at the table.”
Josua was surprised. In the small cupboard he only could spot four plates, three soup plates and a dinner plate. Every one of the chipped plates seemed to be of different origin. The soup plates were of different color. The bone white one had a golden rim. The one with a light blue glace showed a picture of a church and the last one was rainbow-colored. The ultimate surprise however was the dinner plate. The plate was of a milky white, nearly translucent and its edge as was decorated was with fire-spitting dragons. A marvel!
The table was hardly big enough for three soup plates. Therefore Josua placed the spoons into the plates. The Old Man served the steaming soup. While the boys dug in he began his questioning. “It's war, I know! I have made my own experiences with these cruel fights between brother and brother. It's sad.” Having said this, the Old Man dipped the spoon into the heavy pottage and ate silently. Giving the boys happily gulping down the soup a second serving he resumed the questioning, “People call me guardian of the chapel, but who are you two? Still wet behind your ears! What happened to you? Why on earth you are on the road? Boys of your age aren't supposed to be in the center of warfare. Smiling at the smaller boy, “A tender boy of your age Lukas shouldn't be on a journey through a war ridden country.”
“We are two!” Josua stated the obvious, while Lukas added, “We didn't set out alone! No Sir. We....” suddenly tears welled up in his eyes. Sniffling he told the Old Man, “No! No Sir! I left with my mother, my sisters, Greti and Hanni, my grandmother and my old aunty.” He dried the tears running down his cheeks, “We left our village together in a canvas covered wagon. We left together with five more wagons loaded to the brim with people and goods to go westwards.”
“Yes Sir, we also left our place, a small town!” Josua took up the thread, “Our treks met on the road along the Warta close to Srem. Our trek counted twelve carts. We had left Konin four days ago when our treks met two days later close to Pyzdry.” Josua stated with the straight face of an unaffected spectator.
“The whole morning an easterly wind had been blowing snowflakes and everyone in the trek was chilled to the bones. It happened just about 5 o'clock in the afternoon. It was already getting dark. With exception of the drivers everybody had retired into the shelter of the canvas covered wagons to be out of the cold wind. I too had wrapped up in my blanket.” Josua swallowed hard, “Then suddenly the high-pitched noise of dive bombers came drawing closer and closer.” he breathed hard, “Just a moment later a hail of bullets perforated the canvas, the people, the horses. Our horses neighed, tried to break away. The cart tumbled, turned over and came to rest in the ditch. Some wagons in front of us were ripped to splinters by the impact of bombs. ” Josua closed his eyes as if he wanted to ward off the memory. “I crawled out of the overturned wagon while the next dive bomber zoomed down from the sky like a falcon. The moment the dive bomber approached I was able to catch sight of the gunner's face. He smiled, while pointing his machine gun at me. I saw his face! I would recognize him at any place of the world.” When the Old Man look at him doubtingly, Josua explained, “It was the face greeting me every morning in the mirror. It was my own face! The gunner's face was my face! ” Josua broke off, in terror.
The Old Man looked worried at the distraught boy, remembering Josua’s nightmare. Did Josua recount the events of that evening properly or was it the nightmare the boy recalled? Had he really seen his own face looking down at him from the forward gunner compartment of the dive bomber destroying the trek? Truth or imagination? In any case bad for a boy of fourteen! He had to know! For the moment he was at loss with the situation therefore he decided to distract the boys, “Josua and Lukas let me show you around my place, you sure want to know where you have stranded. Yesterday it was pitching dark when you arrived!”
“No, no Sir! Not yet!” Lukas objected, “You have to hear my story first!” Lukas didn’t await permission of the guardian of the chapel, “I was in the rack wagon, when the explosion of a bomb ripped a crater into the street just in front of our cart. The horses were torn to pieces, flying all over the place. The wagon was lifted from the ground, tumbled through the air and ended upside down on the frozen soil of the field beside the street. The roof covered by canvas broke instantly and we all were trapped under the wagon. I passed out.” His face went sad. “I must have stayed unconscious for hours. When I woke up everybody was gone and I found myself stuck in the broken cart. I couldn't move, just cry and shout for help. I began shouting. I shouted again and again and finally I must have passed out again!“
Suddenly the sad expression of his boyish face changed into a big smile, “That's the situation when soldiers found me, soldiers of Red Army, small men clad in earthy-brown uniforms rescued me. They fished me out of the car. As soon I was standing on my own feet I run off across the bare field, fell, jumped up, fell again and then all went black. I came back to life when Josua picked me up, Josua, my Josua!” he slipped from his chair, walked over to Josua, crawled into his lap and clung to his big friend.
Josua smiled, holding Lukas tight, “It my turn now to fill the gap, Sir. I appreciate your offer showing us the place, but it's the best time now to tell you what happened after the next attack by the dive bombers.” He waited for an affirmative nod and then continued. “I was scared to death by the attack of the second bomber, maybe even more by the smile on the face of my splitting image. I took off, stumbled like a blinded man across the empty field till I found myself caught by a thorny hedge growing the edge of a grove. I ducked away between the shrubs, tried to melt with the cold ground, tried to become invisible to the dive bombers. Hours passed. The air was icy. I got cold to the bones. Soon I couldn’t move. I watched peoples leaving the destroyed trek, taking along the wounded but still living people, the horses still alive, all the recoverable goods. I couldn't move. I didn't have the wish to join the running people. I was paralyzed.”
“Didn't you care for your parents? Didn't you want to know what happened to you mother and your father, your brothers and sisters?” the dismayed Old Man tried to break the shell around Josua.
“I didn't try to escape the enemy with my parents. No! I wasn't with my parents, I was with my uncle and aunt. I had left my parents. I had lost them years ago!” Groaning bitterly, “No, I didn't leave my parents, they did send me away! Maybe they had to! They sure wanted my best, but I, I had never a chance to give them a helping hand since our separation.” Shaking his head, “At the age of seven my parents entrusted me to friend to save me from starving to death in the Ghetto of Lodsch. Their friend, an elderly man, I was singed over, my uncle in name only, was righteous but harsh. I have never been close to him, neither to my aunt in name. My head is thankful for the chance these people gave me, not however my heart. I would have preferred to stay with my parents, starve with my parents, to fight with them in the Ghetto against the Nazis.”
The Old Man understood the reasoning of Josua. The care of his parent had prevented him to pay back their love, to carry out his duty as their son. Was it this sense of guilt, why Josua did care for Lukas like his brother?
“Sure I did look for my aunt and my uncle at the destroyed trek. In the dark I searched all along the wrecked carts, but didn't find a sign of their presence. They had probably left with the other people, I was sure!. I searched our destroyed wagons for food and useable items. In great haste I recovered my backpack, a heavy blanket and all food I could find. Afraid of more dive bombers I left the dead trek to return to my hide out across the field in the grove. Further up the hill just behind the grove I found a haystack offering shelter for the night.”
“Had this been the place we spend the next days? Lukas asked, “The days you called me back to life?”
“Yes Lukas, but this night I did spend alone. Around midnight the rumbling noise of combat tanks in the distance aroused me from sleep. The noise increased minute by minute and then the tanks came rolling on. They didn't stop at the remnants of the trek. The iron monsters just did run over every single part still on the street, they crushed everything, broken wagons, dead horses, dead peoples. Much later in the early morning light an advance party of the Red Army came along. Small soldiers riding on small wagons, drawn by small horses, panje-horses pulling panje-carts. The soldiers pulled up and began to rummage the remains of the trek. That was the moment I saw Lukas for the first time. “
Lukas, still sitting on Josua's lap turned his head to the Old Man, “Yes that's the moment Josua and I became brothers!” As the Old Man shook his head in surprise, “Yes Josua and Lukas are brothers now!” the small boy added in triumph.
“As I told before the soldiers began to rummage the wrecked wagons. Two of them turned over Lukas's wagon and the only usable item they recovered was a boy, a crying, struggling boy fighting back the strange looking men. Surprised by his fight back they let him escape into the gray morning light.”
“That's the truth. I stumbled across the frozen field. I hardy could keep upright. My legs were still like paralyzed from being caught in the broken cart. Then out of the dark Josua came. My Josua took me pick aback and carried me away.”
“Yes, I fetched him and not one of the soldiers did hinder me from doing it. They pointed their guns at us, but didn’t shoot. Yes Sir, that's the very moment I got my brother.” Josua became silent, pressing Lukas to his breast.
The Old Man rose, walked over to the boys, looking down at them smiling, he just said, “Sometimes a wonder happen!”
After lunch Lukas's head dropped off, full and still tired from the exhausting days before and he fell asleep sitting at the table. “Wake up Lukas, wake up.” Josua was trying to shake his friend out of his after lunch nap. “Wake up, we have to leave!”
“Let him sleep Josua. Look at him! Doesn't he, look like a little angel, a Christmas angel, with his unwashed hair. Let him sleep. He needs to rest!” the Old Man smiled. “But we have to leave, Sir. We have bothered you too long already and I promised Lukas to go West as soon as possible. He longs to be with his mother, with his sisters!” Shaking Lukas slightly, “Thank you for all you did, Sir, but we have to leave!”
The Old Man went to the door opened it partly and the cold February wind blew snowflakes through the crack into the room. ”It's snowing Josua, you and Lukas have to stay. My old bones are forecasting bad weather. It will not stop snowing for the next few days.” Closing the door, he walked over to the boys, eying both carefully, ”So far you have been lucky on your odyssey, just walking on frozen ground but not through fresh snow. You can't make it far in wet deep snow. You look also tired big brother! “But....!” Suspecting correctly that Josua didn't want to bother him further on with their presence the Old Man interjected, “Stay her Josua, keep me company. I am an Old Man and happy to have young blood around!” “But you will have to feed us, because we have consumed all the food I recovered at the trek.” “I got enough foodstuff to feed three of us, if potatoes will do. However we have to prepare some straw sacks, because you can't sleep on a rug covered ground a night more.” When Josua didn't object anymore, ”You agree? Help me put Lukas into my bed. He's just seven and needs his sleep!” In the small back room the Old Man eyed Josua up closely. He older boy too looked tired to death. “Aren’t you tired too? Join Lukas while I get the straw from the shed.”
The soft sounds jolted Josua out his dreams. For the first time in days he felt well rested. He had been dreaming a nice dream, a boy's dream of sun and fun, not of bombs and destruction. Glancing around in the small room in the back of the cottage he noticed a small locker, a bookshelf with dozens of books, a map on the wall and a crook, like a bishop's staff, leaning against wall by the door frame. Rested, Josua slipped out of the bed trying not to arouse Lukas, who still was sleeping like a log.
In the kitchen the Old Man was stuffing potato bags with straw singing in low voice. “You woke up just in time. Come on help me wad your mattresses and later you can help move the shelf from the wall. We will place the straw sacks in the space between the wall and the shelf and then you two will have your own little room for the time being.”
Josua examined the darned potato sacks closely, shook them well and then glanced at the Old Man, who answered with a laugh, “Are you scared of dirt? I thought you have been sleeping outside in the dirt during your odyssey. The sacks are clean! Besides we will cover them up with this old carpet. It has been used in the chapel by generations and generations of pilgrims and now is soft like sheep skin.”
Working along with the Old Man, Josua started wondering. The night before the Old Man had offered shelter and food to two strange boys frozen to the marrow knocking at his door at dark. He invited them in without asking, he fed and bedded them. Today he had patiently listened while they had opened their hearts to him. Now he invited them, the uprooted kids, to stay with him, without setting a time frame or claiming recompense.
In his short live Josua had met many people, students and teachers, rabbis and ministers, policemen and soldiers, neighbors and people from far away, he had been living with his fellow brethren in a Ghetto, living with the strangers giving him shelter from the relentless police, his uncle and aunt in name only. Everybody had expected a counter value for his efforts, his care, his affection. Even his parents had demanded compensation for their care, their affection and their love. Sure it was different in case of his parents. He loved them dearly, missed them daily, but in exchange they had expected his obedience, his affection and his love. Up to now the Old Man hadn't ask for any compensation. He just was here for them, the two strange boys. Shaking his head in surprise, Josua was sure he had never experienced this kind of selflessness like the one of the Old Man.
The two had barely arranged the straw sacks at the sleeping place when Lukas showed up, sleepy dust in his eyes. Spotting the new bed and jumping into it was the matter of a second. “That's comfy, Sir, did you prepare this for tonight?” turning to the Old Man, “Can we stay over at you place, Sir? At least one other night? I like it here, it's.....” Lukas hesitated a moment, “It's nearly like at home.” Then he ran over to the door. Examining his features in the clouded mirror beside it he tried to comb his matted hair but he had only limited success untangling his hairs. He turned to Josua and whispered questions in his hear pointing at the Old Man. “Lukas asks for a comb. Do you have one? He doesn't want to sleep in a clean bed, with thistles in his hair!” The Old Man chuckled, “Have you both got any water on your body since your odyssey began?” sniffing at Lukas's hair, “I guess not!” “We always did wash our faces, Sir,” Lukas countered, “and my mother gave me a wash from head to toe the day before Christmas!” “That's more than 40 days ago. Tomorrow it Candlemas and you sure should be clean on a high holiday like this!” smiling at Lukas “Do you like to bathe, Lukas?” When the boy nodded, “There is no bathroom in this poor cottage. I can offer you a small bath tube full of hot water however, provided Josua is helping me to get the water from the well and enough wood for the stove to heat it up.” When Josua shed the Old Man a questioning look, he nodded, “Sure big boy, you can use the tub as well, but standing up only and provided you do not mind using the same water Lukas has been using.” With a shrug Josua accepted, “As long Lukas doesn't pee into the water I am fine with it.” Sticking out the tongue to show his scorn for such a groundless suspicion Lukas retorted. “I am no baby anymore! You should know this by now, Josua!”
Looking at Josua, the Old Man asked “Do you know the genesis of the church festival called Candlemas, Josua? No?? On the second of February every year the church is celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple. It's one of the twelve great holidays of the Catholic Church! You may have heard about Candlemas, but you sure don't know that this chapel was built to celebrate this anniversary.”
“In school we learned about it, but I am …....” Josua fell silent. The Old Man guessed why Josua didn't speak on. His name Josua betrayed his descent. Therefore the Old Man continued, “I am no Christian, neither a Catholic, nor a Lutheran, nor an Orthodox, nor a Jew. I am not a Hindu either or a Muslim. I do not belong to a religious group.” The Old Man hesitated a moment, because he was afraid to shock Josua. Then however he continued stating expressively, “I am what I am! I am no Buddhist also, however as the fundamental principles of Buddhism is that all entities are equal and that you should do onto others as you would wish them to do onto you, you may call me a Buddhist, a Buddhist by heart, not by religious affiliation. Buddhism also teaches the whole universe develops out of its own accord, implying there is no God directing the fate of the world, nor the fate of the mankind. However there is one fundamental rule rooted in all religions: Love others as much as you love yourself. Let me tell you my Josua, in these horrible times altruism, the selflessness, the concern for the welfare of others, is the only adversary of war.” Josua furrowed his brow trying to get the Old Man's point to its full extent.
Practically inclined and trying to get his mind off the complicated reflection Josua asked the more obvious, “Is the chapel harboring an altarpiece devoted to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple? Every church honors the patron saint of the church, does it the chapel too? Can I visit the chapel? I tried it! However the front door is bricked up and the side door locked!”
The Old Man looked very sad, “This chapel had been a famous pilgrim site for more than five centuries. I have the key deposited beneath the door sill. Go have a look yourself. However it's war! In war times even the most valued treasures are uprooted, people, trust, understanding, love. Even inanimate treasures like works of art are becoming nothing but merchandize.” He then added, “You should have learned this truth by now!”
Josua cleared a way through the snow to the side entrance of the chapel, unlocked the door and pushed it open. Stale, cold air hit his face and made his eyes flicker. Adapted to the dim light inside he guessed the number of pews more than actually counting it, because of the deep dark hovering inside. The only light entering the interior came through four small windows in the presbytery two on each side of the back of the choir where Josua expected to marvel an altarpiece displaying the Presentation of Jesus in the High Temple of Jerusalem. However instead of an alabaster shrine with golden ornaments and high candles and a golden tabernacle in front of a colorful triptych he could only distinguish a heap of clay bricks on the floor and an overturned altar stone. There was no sanctuary light burning and of the pulpit only some steps of the winding staircase were left.
Shivering with cold and disillusioned Josua turned to retreat when the voice of the Old Man stopped him. “That's war. The altarpiece for more than four hundred years adored and worshiped by pilgrims from near and far is now the pride of a museum far, far away from here. The chapel has lost its soul and the people their place of refuge, their harbor, their retreat. In the museum the triptych is just a piece of art, not of hope, it's a nothing, you can replace the triptych by pile of gold.” Lagging behind the Old Man Josua dragged himself back to the cottage deep in thoughts.
On the way back to the cottage the Old Man picked up a bucket full of cold water at the well, while he asked Josua to go for more logs to feed the fire in the stove. As soon the water in the big canning pot was nearly boiling he added some fragrant herbs to it and poured the sweet smelling brew it into the small bath tube standing close by the stove. After adding cold water to get the temperature passable he told Lukas, “Now Lukas hurry up, undress and get into the tube. But please do not spill all the water because Josua has to use it after you.” When Lukas looked shamefaced from one to the other, the Old Man grinned, “I go to my room to get some rest. In the meantime Josua can help you to get clean. I bet you are not ashamed to be bare in front of your big brother.” Now Lukas smiled “Thanks Sir. Should I help Josua also?” “Ask him, but I know he is old enough to clean his back without your help.”
Lukas was freezing. Turning around on the straw sack he fished for the blanket he and Josua had to share. The older boy had it pulled away and now was wrapped up to the nose in the coarse woolen fabric. “Give it back to me, give it back!” he demanded, but Josua was dead to the world. Soon however the door of the room in the back opened and the Old Man entered the kitchen stiff-legged. This solved Lukas's problem. He scrambled out of the bed, “Good morning, Sir! How late is it?” calling on the Old Man happily. “Josua has snatched the blanket and is sleeping like a log. He didn't move the whole night, he didn't dream, his nightmare is gone! Sir, that's sure because we can stay with you!” The Old Man looked relieved and when Lukas repeated, “It's because of you!” a smile lighted up his face. “No, no. Lukas, that's sure because of you, you are his little guardian angel!”
The February wind blew snowflakes through the crack of the door when the Lukas attempted to open it. “Get dressed first, Lukas. You shouldn't walk over to the outhouse barefoot and in your underwear only. Winter is back.” Examining the surrounding through the window the Old Man explained, “The path over there is covered with snow knee-deep. We have to clear snow first.”
Once dressed and outside Lukas did a 180 turn in amazement, “Josua, Josua, quick, get up and come outside. The vicinity looks like a picture in the book I got at Christmas, the snow covered chapel, its pointed bell tower, our cottage, even the outhouse. Look it's like Christmas time again.” Eying the Old Man like a hungry puppy, “Do we get some cookies today, too? On Christmas I always get cookies!” “Cookies? No, but I got still some shrivelled apples in the cellar.” “These will do, Sir! Thanks.”
Back in the cottage the Old Man put aside an old tattered rug concealing the trapdoor to store room underneath the chapel and opened the hatch. Handing Lukas a kerosene light, “Climb down the ladder, get you some apples from the box and fetch potatoes, carrots and onions for our meal from the stockpile.” When the boy hesitated, he laughed, “Hey, Lukas, afraid? There are no ghosts down there. You ought not to be afraid!”
Whilst Lukas got heebie-jeebies looking for the food in the cold cave, Josua came back from his tour around the small sanctuary. “It's peaceful around here, big boy, isn't it?” the Old Man greeted him kindly. “Lukas told me you did sleep without waking up only one time this night. Has ….?” realizing his mistake, he didn't ask for the night ravens bothering Josua the day before. He continued instead, “Will you help me prepare the meal? You can peel the potatoes, the carrots and the onions Lukas is fetching in the cellar, while I cut some bacon rinds to add more zest to our meal.”
Josua was still rubbing his hands to get warm when Lukas sneaked through the trapdoor and startled his friend touching his neck with his icy fingers. “A ghost, a ghost, the ghost of the chapel!” Lukas attempted to scare him.
While Josua started to peel the potatoes the Old Man came back from his room with an old, thumbed up, dog-eared book out of his small library. “Is this the picture-book you were talking of, Lukas? Look this woodcarving, children playing in a village. Do you remember it?” Lukas nodded and his faced lighted up with happiness, “It's just the one I got at Christmas. Can I read a poem to you?” and he began to read, no, the small boy recited the winter poem by heart:
Winter is a cold man,
extremely hard and long to last
his flesh is of pure iron
he knows not sweet not sour.
When stone and bone break from the cold
and ponds and lake are cracking
he loves that sound, he hates it not
and kills himself laughing.
Now here he is, now there he goes
to run his country well
and when he passes, we stand still
and stare at him and freeze.
When the recital ended, the Old Man Josua clapped the performer and Josua beamed at Lukas like a proud father called for the first time “Dadddy” by his junior! ”Lukas, Lukas I would never have...........!”
Josua's voice suddenly failed, his face went pale and he doubled up like in pain. “Sewing machines, sewing machines!” he shouted in terror. Slumping to the floor and crouching down below the small kitchen table his warning cries alarmed both, the Old Man and Lukas. Now they perceived the strange sound as well, a blubbering sound, drawing closer and closer. Soon the sound increased to a deafening noise just meters above their heads when the first of the small canvas covered biplanes did a dive-down at the chapel and the built-on cottage. The ear-shattering burbling did repeat two more times and then faded off while the three biplanes were racing towards their next target, the village some miles down the valley.
Running out of the cottage the Old Man just managed to identify three small Russian P-O planes, before the blob, blob, blob of exploding bombs resounded in the narrow valley. “P-O's are excellent toys for scouting and harassing opposite forces by day and night.” he announced back in the cottage to Lukas sitting baffled at the table, “I guess these are just the advance party of T-34 tanks and the ground forces chasing the retreating German Army.”
Searching for Josua he caught sight of the completely slumped boy. “Oh Josua, Josua my boy, it's nothing, nothing special to people caught between battle lines, in the hard-fought zone between two armies, in the middle of nowhere!” When Josua didn't respond he knelled down beside the boy, holding him firm he pleaded, “Come on my boy, help me, help me and Lukas. We need to make provision for unwanted guests, open door the chapel, hide our most precious belonging, that's food and clothes and then kill the fire in the stove, because smoke coming from smoke stalk will deceive us!” “But I am hungry, if you kill the fire, we have to eat the potatoes uncooked!” Lukas complained in lack of understanding the threat ahead. “You are right as always Lukas, let’s hurry up. Josua please, help me fix the dinner!”
About two hours later in the early afternoon the roar of diesel-powered T-34 tanks broke the peace of the valley. Josua was scared to the bone nonetheless he darted to the edge of the chapel to spy on the oncoming monsters. The armored colossi approached slowly, leaving deep grooves in the virgin snow cover of the rural road. Drawing nearer to the chapel they began to aim with the high velocity guns in the towers for the chapel and the built-on-cottage. Having passed the chapel they turned the guns back towards the village ahead. Sighting with relief Josua raced back to the Old Man and Lukas waiting in the kitchen, “They are gone, the tanks have passed without attacking. The danger has passed.”
“Really Josua, my boy? Remember first the spotter planes, then the heavy tanks and then the ground forces, the panje-wagons with the infantry soldiers. Planes, tanks, foot soldiers! You never know who poses a greater threat!"
Soon the logs in the stove were consumed by the fire and the room went cold. The water of the fogged window panes froze to fern frost and the exhaled air condensed to fog. Wrapped up in blankets the three waited for the things to come. After a while Lukas fell asleep and Josua put his small friend to bed, while he and the Old Man stayed at the table the eyes set on the door and cocking their the ears like watchdogs. Nothing happened for the next hour. Despite or because of the tension Josua fell asleep. His head dropped to the table and the Old Man dozed off too.
Daylight faded and with the fading light the winter's cold spread in the room. There wasn’t a knock on the door. It just opened, first a crack, then halfway, then it was busted open and six short men in dirt-brow padded coats, ear caps and high boots barged into the kitchen, brandishing their sub machine guns with drum magazines, called Pe-Pe-Sha. The leader of the reconnaissance party, a corporal of about 20 years of age, rammed the barrel of gun into the neck of the Old Man bringing him back into reality all of a sudden. One of the soldiers flipped the chair with Josua backwards. As Josua’s head hit the ground he woke up with a shriek of pain. The other four intruders split up. While two searched the kitchen, the other ransacked the room in the back, the Old Man's bedroom.
The noises and especially the shrieking of Josua aroused Lukas. His wailing alarmed one of the soldiers. Overturning the shelf separating the boy's bedstead from the kitchen, he found Lukas clutching the picture book in his arms with eyes wide open. “Mal'chik, mal'chik!” “Young boy!” the soldier called to the corporal. “A boy with a book!” The following volley of words ended in the question directed to the Old Man, “Shena?”........ “Math?” The Old Man didn't understand what the soldiers were asking for, but he got the meaning of the last words, repeated several times and illustrated by gestures.
“No, no wife, no mother, no daughter, no women! No women!” he repeated several times, “Only men! Me father!” pointing at his heart, ”And my two boys!” “Atiez!” pointing at Lukas and Josua. “Sin!” “Sin!!”
Meantime the two soldiers had turned the bedroom of the Old Man upside down, without finding anything of value. Disappointed they scattered the books on the floor, overturned the locker and finally slashed open the straw sack as well as the pillows, spreading straw and feathers all over the room. Charging into the kitchen they told the corporal of their unsuccessful search. After a brief but vociferous discussion the corporal forced the Old Man, Josua and even little Lukas to line up face towards the wall. Pacing up in the back of the scared captives, he launched a volley of question and threats ending always in “Diengie”! “Money!” “Padarak!” “Present!” “Chasy!” “Watch, wrist-watch!” However the corporal achieved no success! Getting mad tried to enforced his demands by bashing Josua over the head with the butt of his gun.
Josua went to the ground crying in pain. The assault of his friend shocked Lukas but didn't frighten him. The small boy dropped the picture book he still was hugging and attacked the corporal. Lukas's sharp kick on the shin made him hop around on one foot and finally tumble over. The unexpected result of the small boy's brave action provoked loud laughter by the other soldiers and the oldest of group, a guy with a graying stubby beard, put an arm around Lukas to protect him and at the same time tried to calm down the corporal, “Rasslabit'sya!” “Rasslabit'sya!” “Calm down!” The corporal however got even madder and attempted to tear away the boy from the older soldier. The setting in quarrel didn't escalate into a fight as the neighing of horses announced the arrival of the panje-carts of the platoon.
All men of reconnaissance party immediately started for the door. Once outside the still mad corporal turned, pointed to Lukas's protector, “You stay! Don't let these rotten people escape! If so, I slit your throat!” The man just shrugged and grinned first at Lukas then to Josua. Pointing to his heart, “Andrej! Ya! My name is Andrej. I am the interpreter!” The Old Man bend down his head slightly and pointing first to Lukas and then to Josua, “Lukas! Josua!” and then again, “S'Lukas! S'Josua!” “Bratiya!” “ Brothers!”
Through the fogged-up window panes the boys watched the panje-carts arrive. The foot soldiers, their sub machine guns ready, immediately fanned out investigating the place and the surroundings. Finding the place desolated three of them pushed open the side entrance to the chapel while the corporal reported to the lieutenant, a tall man with smooth chin. Shooting a glance to the cottage with the captives he first inspected the chapel. Finding it suited for the night quarter for his soldiers he allocated the different duties to his men.
Meanwhile the Old Man with the help of the soldier with the graying beard had restarted the fire in the stove. The smoke attracted the attention of the lieutenant. Walking over he pushed open the cottage door and scanned with the beam of his flash light the dim room. Spotlighting Lukas, he checked him over. In rusty German he asked, “Are you the small devil wounding my corporal? The devilkin?” When Lukas looked for shelter clinging to Josua the lieutenant bent down and fetched him. Tickling him he uttered, “You are just the same age as my son Igor! You look even like him, with that blond hair. What's your name?” As Lukas wriggled in the lieutenant's arms like an eel in the mud unable to answer Josua did it instead. “That's my friend Lukas! Please do not hurt him. Please! All he attempted to do was to help me, because your corporal downed me with the gun butt!” “Lukas? Like the saint? putting Lukas down showing a grim face. “So my corporal did hit you! Why? Did you try to attack him or my other soldiers? “No!” Then hesitating to tell the true reason, “No! I didn't attack anyone! No! He..., he just asked for ....” hesitating once more, therefore Josua answered, “He asked for presents, Sir! For Dary! But we don't own anything of value anymore!” Now the Old Man interfered to prevent a buildup of trouble, “I...!” “Not you, Old Man! It's his turn!” pointing at Josua, “But...!” the Old Man tried to continue. Impatiently the lieutenant repeated “It's the turn of the boy! Tell!” “He looked for goods, he and the others! Watches, money, gold! But look and see yourself! There is nothing of value around!”
The lieutenant’s voice relaxed. Slightly smiling he inquired, “You are brave! What's your name?” Josua beamed, being taken serious, “Josua! I am the big brother of Lukas.”
“Josua? That's not an Ayro-Germanic name? Or is it?” He put his forefinger to his nose. “The best friend of my boyhood looked exactly like you. He was Jewish. His parents named him Dzhoshua, that's Josua. They named him after the successor of Mose, Moisey, the prophet! But do you know the Latin version of Josua?” Not really awaiting an answer, “It's Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior of all Christians.” When Josua stared at him quizzical, the lieutenant added. “In other words if your parents called you Josua, they called you Jesus as well. If the Nazis persecuted you, Josua, the boy named after a prophet, then they persecuted Jesus the savior as well. The Nazis did not only persecute the Jews, they persecute Christians as well, they persecute, slaughter, annihilate Jews, annihilate Christians, annihilated just all human beings not their conviction. The goal of these oppressors was and still is to destroy each and every one believing in liberty, equality, fraternity.” Because Josua eyed him skeptically, he stated, “Ask the Old Man, he knows. I guess he has enjoyed liberty, equality, fraternity in his youth, a time long gone. He knows persecution, slaughter and annihilation of even of a single human being is a crime!”
While the Old Man nodded his assent, Josua asked back completely distraught. “And why Soldier, do you wage war? Why have your dive bombers attacked the trek of people attempting to escape, to flee the country because of the war? Why have the bombshells pulverized the horses, the rack wagons, the people seeking shelter in the rack wagons? Why did the attacking planes annihilate people no matter of their innocence or guilt? Did the explosives annihilate Lukas's mother, or Lukas's sisters or his aunt? Did they or did they not? Did they kill to my aunt in name, my uncle in name as well? What happened to them. We didn't find a shred of their bodies after the attack of the dive bombers. Tell me Soldier! What is the reason behind the war anyway?”
The lieutenant needed long time to think over these accusations. When he finally spoke up he was aware the answer would just be a preliminary attempt. “The reason is to defeat the oppressors of freedom! At least that's my personal reason. I am neither fighting your parents or your relatives nor do I fight for land, for wealth, not even for honor. Josua, my maxim is Death to the Oppressors!” When Josua did not answer, the commander made him an offer, “Join me, Josua! Join me Jesus! Boy, join my fight against the oppressors, the oppressors of freedom of human rights!”
During the discussion little Lukas was leaning bored against his big friend Josua, now however he sudden came to life! He began to protest, stamping his foot to enforce his protest “No, no Sir, no soldier! Josua cannot become a soldier!” fixing his gaze at the big man, “No! Josua has to stay with me. He has to help me find my mother, my sisters, all the ones I love. He confirmed this by oath.” He drew a deep breath, “I promised to him to help find his old uncle and his old aunty and if they are still alive his parents he left in the ghetto. We two have to stay together! We two do not have time for fighting!” Then the small boy turned around and looked Josua straight into the eyes. “Josua, my big brother, you promised this by the life of your mother! You can't leave me, you can't go to kill people. No Josua, you promised to save people!”
The lieutenant realized the sincerity of the boys intentions. He realized, the future their life would depend on their commitment to this objective and the mastering of this task as good as possible. At the same moment however he foresaw the difficulties of their project and recognized it was his task was to help Josua and Lukas. For a moment his heart saddened realizing that his dream to take Josua along on his campaign would never happen. But then he balanced his desires for a companion against the needs of Lukas for Josua and decided to do his best to help the two boys to attain their high objective.
“My men are preparing a fire to roast the fat pig they collected this afternoon,” The lieutenant informed the Old Man. The Old Man got suspicious, knowing about the shortage of dry wood around the chapel. The particular conversation had completely distracted the attention of the people inside the cottage from the events outside. Therefore all were staggered by the flames blazing up outside. Lukas was the first to press his nose against the window pane. After just a brief look through the door the lieutenant gave an all-clear signal. Looking closer the Old Man was alarmed. Pushing open the door he rushed to the side entrance of the chapel and attempted to prevent the soldiers carrying more pews out of the chapel. “It's a shame!” he hurled screams of horror at the soldiers, “It' a condemnable act to use century old pews to roast a pig! Do you have no respect at all of irreplaceable objects?” As one of the soldiers did thrust the Old Man aside, he turned to the lieutenant, “Do you and your men not mind sacred objects? Are you of the same kind as Hitler's SS-men? These robbed the chapel of its most precious object, the altarpiece of the painter Stefan Lochner. The Presentation of Jesus in the High Temple of Jerusalem was the goal of pilgrims for more than four centuries! And NOW! Your men even burn the pews on which the pilgrims opened their hearts to Jesus!” With tears in his eyes he turned and walked away into the dusk. Lukas ran after him, took his hand trying to hold him back, but in vain.
Curiosity tipped the balance. Josua, like all boys of his age, wanted to know how to handle a gun and to play with it. This was his first chance, because his uncle in name had strictly forbidden him to touch guns. “Never use a gun, Josua!! The one who uses a gun will die from a gun. Remember this, my son! There are always ways to solve problems without a gun!” his uncle had told him with stern voice. “But uncle, I just want to shoot at sparrows not at men!” “Never hurt a living creature, Josua!! Not even aim at one! Remember, never!”
But now Josua had the chance. “I am just aiming, not shooting! I love all living creatures” he told himself and took the sub-machine gun, the lieutenant had left unattended at the door frame. A short glance at the officer, still mulling over the words of the Old Man and Josua picked up the gun. He inspected it carefully, first it's wooden butt, then it's barrel and it's big drum magazine. He was surprised by the guns good handling and the way he seemed familiar with it from the first moment on. The sub-machine gun was a PPSh-41, usually called Papasha by the soldiers. Papasha is meaning daddy.
Getting braver he finally began to point the gunat potential targets. He aimed through the L-type rear sight with its right eye, closing the left. He first aimed at crows perching on a tree in the distance, simulated a gunshot: Bang! The target was hit. Next he aimed at the heart-shaped peep hole of the outhouse: Bang! The guy just taking a shit fell from the throne frozen with fear. Finally he aimed at the small horses resting by the panje-wagons. No! This time he couldn't even do his “Bang!” No, not at horses, his heart told him. Don't aim at these creatures with the big almost human eyes.
Just when he lowered the gun disappointed by his own behavior, the lieutenant turned around and was suddenly confronted with the muzzle of his own gun pointing at his heart. His face went pale, likewise did Josua's. Stammering an apology the boy wanted to let the gun fall to the ground. The strong lieutenant was trembling in every limb, “You scared me to death, Josua! Are we enemies or are we friends? Are you just crazy? Give it to me, Josua. Do you know what you did?” After Josua had handed the gun to him, the lieutenant checked the lock and set the gun aside feeling assured. Then he hugged and squeezed the boy and started laughing, “You silly kid!” pointing at the gun, “Aiming at me, would have been your death sentence, if one of my soldiers had witnessed you doing this! He would have shot you first and checked later if the safety catch of the gun was released.” Ushering the trembling Josua back into the cottage, “What did you want with the gun? It's a high velocity gun, capable of firing 1000 rounds per minute! You could have killed half of my people.” Josua stammered, “I never ever have been allowed to handle a gun, not even an air-gun. I just couldn't resist touching it, checking how it feels to hold it, checking how it is to aim at targets.” Josua explained, “But I never wanted to shoot at someone, especially not at you! I just was aiming at birds and inanimate objects.” The lieutenant shrugged and then smiled “I was a boy also and know of the charm of forbidden things. If we would stay together longer, I could teach you to handle a gun!” he continued. But......!”
The fatty smell of fried meat fanning out all around the chapel lured Lukas back. “Are you smelling the roast Sir, do you? It smells delicious! I am hungry! Please Sir lets return to the chapel.” With the old man in tow Lukas came out of the twilight and his first question to the lieutenant was, “Sir, Sir can I have something of the roast and my friend also?” pointing at the Old Man, “The food smells delicious and I had nothing but potato-soup the last days!”
“Don't ask Lukas!” the Old Man interrupted the boy, “It's the soldiers' food, they may not like to share it with strangers.” The gray-bearded soldier standing nearby, dismissing behavior of the Old Man and aware of asking expression of Lukas's face, took the boy by the hand, “Daway, daway! Let's go! Soldiers are under the obligation to feed even their captured enemies!” then smiling, “Especially as my enemy is as cute as my own son back home!” With that he guided the Lukas to the fire pit, despite the disapproval glances of the Old Man. The lieutenant adjoined ordering Josua, “Josua, let's go!” and to the Old Man he remarked, “There is enough meat for all of us and my soldiers are obliged to share!”
The “dinner” was quite an experience for the boys. Josua as well as Lukas had so far never participated at a feast like this, not only the amount of meat and the way it was prepared, but the whole arrangement made them wonder.
The soldiers had arranged pews at three sides of the fire pit, while three wagons pointed with their rear panels to the pig roasting on a spit. Some soldiers slouched leisurely on the pews raising bottles to each other. Others sitting on the wagons dangling their legs did likewise. Meanwhile two of the soldier were cutting hunks of done meat from the carcass and served these their companions. Chunks of dark bread were passed around and wolfed down with pleasure. The arrival of their lieutenant and the interpreter towing along the boys and the Old Man caused a buzz. After a short skirmish between the lieutenant and his men the boys were allowed to take place in the row of the soldiers.
Lukas was immediately hogged by two blond-haired soldiers with baby faces. As it turned out later that evening the two were twins and just sixteen. Used to younger siblings they treated Lukas like a small bother missed for a long time. At the end of the meal Lukas could hardly walk back to the cottage, because he was stuffed with meat and bread to the brim.
Josua on the other hand was assigned a seat between a stringy soldier, looking not more than 17 with a downy beard and a short, fat one looking slightly older because of a dark mustache. While the stringy soldier politely invited Josua to have a seat, the other one pouted. “That's Fedja, my batman and this his bitch buddy, Tischa, called Tish.” Since Josua was looking slightly confused, the lieutenant cheered him up. “Batman? You don't know the duties of a batman? He has to handle the personal problems of an officer, like caring for his accommodation, food and all other personal problems eventually arising. But Fedja is more than this. He is speaking four languages and therefore he can help me to stay in contact with our allies and enemies.” Chucking the fat boy under the chin, “Tischa is so to say Fedja's batman, supporting him especially in combat missions. He has saved Fedja's life more than once. He is a hero!” Chuckling slightly, “Yes, Tish and Fedja are best friends. They are thick as thieves and Tischa is guarding Fedja like a chuckling hen! So take care!” Josua sat down between the two friends, not knowing what to expect.
While the two young soldiers fed him chunks of hot meat, Josua had the opportunity to study the friends more closely. Shivering with cold Josua envied the soldiers because of their heavy clothing. Both were dressed in mustard colored, dirt-brown, wadded uniform jackets, the same trousers and sturdy combat boots and had holed up in wide wadded coats. Wrapped up like this, both looked like crouching giants particular because of their big fur caps. Studying the shy, shivering boy for a moment, Tischa opened his coat and placed it over Josua's shoulders, provoking Fedja to do the same. “Nemetskiy?” “Nemetskiy?” Tischa inquired and when Josua didn't conceive the meaning of the word, Fedja explained “My buddy wants to know if you are the German boy from the cottage?” First Josua nodded his ascent. Then however recalling the talk with the commander, he shook his head negatively. Tischa grinned and told Fedja to ask Josua a question, “So you are not German? Are you of Jewish origin? Is the lieutenant right?” as Josua nodded, Tischa grinned pointed at Josua's crotch and asked his friend to translate his request, “Then prove it! Tish wants to see if you are circumcised! Show it!” As Josua looked bewildered and jumped up to run away, Fedja started laughing and pulled him back, “Tish is a complete and utter pig, but a nice one. Therefore don't care! He just wanted to make fun of you! The commander told us you are Jewish and we trust him!”
The party was in full swing. After a short time the dinner had turned into a party at least in Josua's eyes. After having satisfied their first hunger, some soldiers passed bottles around, others asked for music, began to clap their hands and chant a sad song rather discordantly. This changed however, after one of the soldiers emerged out of his panje-wagon with an instrument Josua hadn't seen before. It looked like an accordion, but was much smaller, had an octagonal bellow and many small buttons on both ends. It was a concertina! The singing sound of the instrument and the hoarse voices of the soldiers blended into a sentimental performance making Josua cry like some of the very young soldiers as well. “Do you like Andrjuscha's music?” Fedja asked, “Before the war he was a soloist in a philharmonic orchestra, a famous one! Belief it!” The singing went on and the soldiers only interrupted their singing to wet their throat with vodka. When one of the bottles finally reached the three, Tischa urged Josua to take a pull. The burning of the booze running down his throat made him immediately cough. Luckily Fedja caught the bottle before fell to ground and shattered. “It's vodka! Haven't you tried it before?” Fedja teased, “Beginner!” Tischa chuckled while Fedja tried to wise Josua up “Russian boys likes vodka like their mother's milk and Russian men like it even better. Vodka softens your heart and makes your body grow warm! But be careful, it makes men lose their brains as well!”
Satisfied to the brim Josua relaxed and began to admire the service bars adorning the uniform jackets of the two. Studying Tischa's decorations more closely, he suddenly got confused, because besides the Russian stars, he detected an iron cross of the German army attached to the bar. Pointing at it, “Isn't this a German decoration, Fedja?” he asked, “Did Tischa fight in the German Army against you?” After translating the question he earned a hearty laugh by both, “No; my Tish has captured it by killing a German SS-man! That was the night he rescued my life. He is a hero! The commander told you already! He is my special hero!” Fedja proudly announced, “And Tish got more keep-sakes!” Gesturing with his hands he addressed his friend and Tischa began to produce his tokens, an officer's dirk, a small field glass and a golden wrist watch. The objects left Josua speechless for a moment, then however, swallowing down his fear, he began to preach his credo, “You shall not kill, you shall not steal! Why did Tischa kill the man, why did Tischa steal his possessions?” Now Fedja got angry. “I told you, Tischa saved my life.” Then he began Josua to tell the events of that special night.
“One dark night we were on a reconnaissance patrol close to the enemy lines when the detonation of a pineapple killed two of our comrades and rushed me as well as Tischa off our feet. We blackened out. The German SS-officer throwing the hand grenade wanted to check for the result his attack and carelessly left the cover. He was just about to honeycomb my body with his sub-machine gun when Tischa recovered from his shock and attacked him. He knocked the man over and killed him in a long fight. All during Tischa's life and death fight I stayed unconscious. Therefor Tischa had to pull me back to our trenches despite the danger getting shot by the enemies. This way he saved my life.” Taking a deep breath he went on, “Next morning we searched the battle field for the remains of our comrades and found the SS-man's body. Tischa had every right to take his possessions.” As Josua didn't retort, Fedja continued, “Tischa killed him, to save my life, the life of a friend! He didn't kill out of lust to kill.”
Tischa guessed that Fedja was telling this story to Josua as he had done a hundred times before in Russian language. He just shrugged his shoulders, then pulled up the left sleeve of his wadded jacket some more. Beside the golden watch three more wrist watches decorated his arm. Then he pulled up the sleeve of his right arm and produced still more watches. He pointed at rather big one, a pilots watch and Fedja explained that Tischa had got this one as a reward from an aircraft captain he had rescued from his burning plane. Tischa was all smiles but. Then he did something neither expected by Josua nor by Fedja. He took first Josua's left then his right hand and pushed back the sleeves. Looking rather startled he asked, “Net chasy? No watch?” When Josua shook his head, he removed the pilot's watch and put it around Josua's arm, “Vash!” “Vash!” “Yours!” When Josua protested, he just said, “Drug!” “Drug!” “Friend!” Fedja translated, “Tischa wants you to be his friend, his first German friend!”
Josua was stunned. Never before, he had met such an outgoing character. He was stunned and ashamed at the same time. For one because he had been afraid of this sturdy guy looking somewhat displeased when the lieutenant had placed the “enemy boy” between him and his friend Fedja and even more because of the unexpected gift. He frantically thought about a way to express his thanks to Tischa. He searched all his pockets for a gift in return. Finally he remembered a coin-sized medallion he had picked up at a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.
There on the muddy path leading to the Sanctuary he had found the medallion halfway hidden by a stone. At the first glance the mud-covered pendant looked just like a coin. After he had cleaned it, it turned out to be a silver medallion showing the picture of the Black Madonna. He had kept it for a sign of good luck. During the assault of the dive bombers on the trek he had clasped it hard and later on he was convinced the Madonna had saved his life. Now he took the medallion out of his pocket and offered it to Tischa, “The Black Madonna may help you to survive! You need it more than I do!” Getting a good look at it and recognizing it as a Christian souvenir, Tischa smiled and then asked Fedja to translate his answer. “I am a heathen. Neither do I believe in god nor do I venerate saints. Are you really convinced a medallion will save the life of a heathen?” “I do not know, but there are things we will never know! Please take it, Tischa!”
Fedja was wondering about Tischa's generosity towards Josua and at the same time he was jealous of his friend, because his outgoing nature. He also liked this small German-raised Jewish boy stranded in the nowhere behind the enemy lines. He even became to like him more every minute. Considering carefully what would the fitting gift for a boy in need of everything an idea hit him.
What would a boy in thin clothes need most on a cold winters day besides food and a warm place to hide? He suddenly knew it. He needed warm, wadded clothes like Tischa and he were wearing! His face lighted up! As the batman of the lieutenant Fedja knew where to get those and he knew there was a wadded jacket in the supplies of about Josua's size. Maybe it was a little too large, but better too big than too small. But there was still a problem to be solved. Should he just steal the jacket or ask his lieutenant for permission first? His gift for Josua had to wait.
He was lucky. The problem sorted itself out. The commander showed up and reminded Fedja of his duties. “Time for business, Batman! Time for serious work Fedja. The headquarters need our report!” Before he turned to leave with Fedja he asked, “Josua, did you like the evening?” When the boy smiled, “Did my two best-ever soldiers care well for you?” While leaving, he called back, “Tischa, remember Josua is just 14! No vodka!” “No vodka for a Mal'chicki, baby!” Tischa made fun of the commander poking Josua in the ribs “Hi Mal'chicki, adults always know it better!”
On the way to the cottage Fedja asked the commander, “Sir, don't you think Josua needs a warm coat! He was cold as a marble when he arrived. Tischa and I had to huddle him to keep him warm!” After a moment he put forward his suggestion, “Do you remember, there is a small wadded coat in our stock, can I give it to Josua?”
Neighing horses awakened Josua rudely. “The panje-horses are fighting back while hitched to the carts” Josua mumbled to himself rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Slowly he got back to reality smelling Lukas's hair still reeking of the fire and the roasted pig of the night before. His head was thumping. Now he remembered. After the lieutenant's vigorous admonition not to feed Josua any vodka, Tischa had all the more persuaded him to try it telling “The lieutenant is a fuddy-duddy! You are fourteen, right? In my village a chap of your age has to have at least his first hangover at this age!” Finally Josua gave up, tried a sip and coughed up his lung. Bound to making his new friend drunk the first time and feeling sorry for him at the same time Tischa got some raspberry juice to make the vodka more tempting. Josua liked raspberry juice and the story ended as Tischa intended. Talking with hand and feet they pledged eternal friendship and began to call each other Josua and Tish. Now hardy awake in the dark room Josua could neither remember walking back to the cottage nor finding his doss besides Lukas, except for Tish's arm across his shoulder before he dropped dead.
“Josua, you have been quite tipsy last night, when Tischa came dragging you along!” Lukas laughed. “The lieutenant was quite mad at him and gave him hell! He nearly chucked him out on his ear!” when Josua glared at him amazed, he added, “Fedja saved Tischa's neck and later he even was allowed to spend the night in the kitchen with the lieutenant and his Fedja ! The three were snoring all night long!”
Only now Josua became aware he had not been sleeping on the straw sacks in the kitchen but in the Old Man's bed. “Where is our host, the Old Man?” “Probably already in the kitchen, clearing away the rubbish! The lieutenant had banned us into the back room, needing the table to enter the new frontlines into his maps. Fedja assisted him.” bouncy Lukas added “He didn't need spies, he told me, slapping me across the backside.” “Did he hurt you?” “Naw!” Lukas giggled, wagging his head, “It was more like petting me and he me called Attaboy!”
The curtain separating the backroom and the kitchen was busted open. Together with the warm kitchen air Fedja and Tischa entered, “Time to say Good Bye to friends!” Fedja said with breathy voice and Tischa sighted, “One day you get a friend, the other day you have to leave him! Don't forget us Josua! Don't forget us Lukas!” Meanwhile Josua had tumbled up from bed and was staring at the two young soldiers in disbelief. Slightly trembling because of his hangover, he asked, “But why? But why? Can't you...!” Fedja cut in “No! We soldiers have taken an oath of allegiance! Our hearts are sad as yours. But...” then he flicked a wadded soldier's jacket over Josua's shoulders, “But that's our gift to remember us, me, Tish and the lieutenant.” He abruptly turned and fled from the cottage tears in his eyes.
Tish smiled, kissed Josua on both cheeks, bowed down to Lukas, slipped a goody bag into his hands, “Good bye, little brother. We will meet us again for sure !” Then he turned, leaving the new friends. What Tish didn't say but think was “We will meet us for sure again, if not on green meadows on earth then over the clouds in the sky.
First the reconnaissance team left the chapel on horseback, then the platoon followed most of the men riding on the carts. The place looked deserted now and Lukas as well as Josua missed the noise of the soldier's voices, the loud instructions of the lieutenant and his corporals and the neighing of the horses hitched to the panje-carts.
Before sunrise the Old Man had left the place to avoid a clash with the lieutenant because of the damage the platoon had done to the chapel. Returning to the place he ran into two sad boys, Josua wrapped up in a too big, wadded army jacket and Lukas wearing Josua's anorak as an additional shell above his own, much too thin coat. “We are already missing Tish and Fedja!” they announced in unison. “We made friends!” Josua declared, while Lukas emphasized “Even with the lieutenant! He is sending you his deeply-felt apologies, because of the mess his soldiers have left.” “They had to leave in a hurry ! They received order to reinforce frontline immediately!” Josua added. “We just can hope guardian angels will spread their wings to keep our new friends alive, Tish, Fedja and the lieutenant.” “Not only these, but also my blond-haired twin friends!” Lukas completed Josua's request searching the sky for guardian angels. But up there were only hoodiecrows cutting across the sky from east to the west.
Walking up to the cottage the Old Man found a document pinned to the door reading in big letters: “Armiya Komandnyy Punkt”, “Army Command Post!” For a moment he was about to tear it down, then however he got the meaning. This official document issued by an officer of the Red Army was more valuable than money. Not in his dreams he had expected this favor by the lieutenant. He turned to Josua and Lukas, “You both sure have won the heart of the lieutenant's soldiers but also his own! Look here!” he pointed at the sheet of paper with official seal, “Now we are under the protection of the army at least around here!”
Entering the cottage a something unexpected hit him. Happy like a four year old because of a bag of sweets the Old Man called to the boys, “Come on in Josua, come on in Lukas! Look! There is bread, sausages, flour and lard! Do you get it! Enough food for the weeks to come!
The battlefield left behind by the platoon was a wonderland for Lukas. Searching amongst the rubbish left around the burned down fire he retrieved a handful of cartridges, a broken jack knife, a wet cigarette box with five papierossi and several bottles each with still a slug of the clear vodka. His most valuable find however was a hand grenade. When he called Josua pointing at the small pineapple-shaped grenade, his big friend got the jitters, “Don't! Don't touch it, Lukas! The grenade may shear of your hand in case it explodes! It may even kill you.” Running up to his friend, he discovered that the pin was missing. “It’s defused, but it still is dangerous. I learned about hand grenades in our youth group at school. The team leader showed us ugly photos of careless boys who had lost some fingers playing around with defused grenades.”
While Lukas had been attracted by shambles around the fireplace, Josua had wanted to know what had happened inside the chapel. Opening the side entrance to the nave a disgusting stench nearly made him turn around on the spot. The soldiers had spent the night in there and now the air was reeking of unwashed bodies. Entering the chapel he became aware of the mess inside and at the same time realized why the lieutenant, his batman Fedja and Tischa had preferred to stay in the cottage. Some infantrymen had not only had spent the night here, but being bloated with fatty pig meat and juiced up with vodka, they had thrown up and passed out in puke. Others obviously hadn't made it to the outside anymore and had relieved themselves in the corners of the chapel. With satisfaction he realized however that none of them had been so impious to use the broken altar stone for his business. While Josua still was inspecting the mess the Old Man, entering also, threw up his hands in horror. “Where is the deference of holy places? Does war destroy all inhibitions? Does war turn men into pigs?” inspecting the devastated room he asked Josua for help. “We need to clean the room to restore its dignity, even if this chapel was profaned already by the church its walls still rebreathe the prayers of the innumerable pilgrims.”
Just in this instant the burbling sound of P-2, the Red Army's biplanes, draw nearer and nearer. Pale-faced Josua withdraw from the side-entrance of the chapel and attempted to hide away under the bench seat of a pew covering his ears. But in vain. The ear-shattering burbling increased to an infernal noise as the three plane in a nose-dive inspected the place around the chapel nearly raising the roof. Wiggling their wings for greeting they went away leaving Josua with chattering teeth. Not so Lukas. “The planes have waved at me! Really! I even could see the pilot in the first plane! He waved at me! He smiled at me! He brought me greetings from my blond-haired friends, because they couldn't say good bye this morning!”
However Lukas wasn't right. Next instant the dive-bombers were moving in circles in the gray air above the village just some miles away. From the distance the small planes reminded Josua of harriers circling river flood plains in search of prey. They didn't stay long. Soon the trails of black exhaust melded with the gray clouds at the western horizon and the flaring up fiery glow followed by dead-sounding explosion marked the next target of their deadly cargo. Lukas was shocked. His reaction however was not as intense as the one of big friend. Josua sobbed convulsively and in a fit of black despair he ripped the watch, Tischa's present, from his arm and threw it into the gray snow slush the remains of the white tablecloth spread out by the clouds around the chapel the day before. Lukas surprised by the over-reaction of his friend, picked up the watch, “It was not Tischa! No! Not your friend Tischa, not your friend Fedja, who dropped the deadly bomb load. They are our friend.” He passed the pilot watch back to Josua, ”Please put on the watch again! Tischa and Fedja love you!” The Old Man, shaking his head in resignation, put his arms around the boys and ushered them back to the cottage, “Don't vent your frustration on a dead object! Do you believe in earnest you can blame war and dead on a watch? Do you in earnest believe the war is to blame on your friends. Keep Tischa's watch!” What the old man didn't tell Josua, was his premonition of Tischa's dead. Instead he invited the two, “Let's eat, let's strengthen our physical condition by a meal, prepared from food provided by our new friends.”
Lukas' after lunch nap was suddenly cut short. Sitting up straight on the straw sack he listened into the twilight room. Sound in foreign language echoed in the narrow valley, mixed up and on with short blobs caused by the firing of guns. “Josua! Josua wake up! Guns! Voices!” Still half asleep Josua listened to the approaching sound: “Dawai! Dawai!” Forward march! Go! Go!” Cusses Josua hadn't heard before, volleys of Russian cusses followed by the short blubs of shots slowly approached the chapel. “The Red Army! The Russians are coming!” Josua hollered at the Old Man, who had retired into the back room.
The boys sneaked to the edge of the chapel to watch the approaching trek. A bewildering file of men in rows of four came into sight. The men waking in front were wearing heavy fetlock-deep coats and field-caps with earflaps. The badges had been removed from the coats but Josua recognized the men as officers of the defeated German Army. “Prisoners of war!” he whispered to Lukas. Most of the privates following the officers were not clothed for the icy weather. The fewest did wear hooded parkas, with the hood down, most of them were clothed only in light army jackets not fit of the time of the year. Some were wearing ear caps against the cold, others used women headscarves against the biting cold.
At the very end of the trek Josua spotted two small figures, too small, too young to be regular infantry men. Their dark blue uniform betrayed them as members of Hitler Youth, the Fuehrer's last ditch defense, not more than cannon fodder to the Red Army.
For Josua it was easy to recognize them as members of Hitler Youth because of their dark winter uniform, a short battle dress style blouse, a long-cut ski pants and a field cap with flaps covering their ears. These uniforms were too thin for a weather like this and neither of them was wearing a field coat against the stinging cold. They had not even a woolen blanket around their shoulders to fend off the cold. The bigger one was limping, he smaller one was wearing a sling on his right arm and had bleed through bandages around his head. They walked hand in hand, the limping one guiding the bandaged one.
Back home, living with his parents in name, he had envied the boys being members of the Hitler Youth for their uniforms, the brownish shirt and the black extremely short leather pant in summer and the dark winter uniforms. He had envied them because of the badges sewn to their shirts and blouses and the Swastika armband. Most of all however he had envied them for the boys for the scout like activities they were undertaking, like hiking and camping. Later on he also envied them because of the military training they obtained. As the war progressed and the German Army went short on soldiers they had been trained as messengers, signalers, weather observers, as ammunition carriers as well as gunners. He had hated his uncle in name, because he was strictly forbidden to join the Hitler Youth. Now however he pitied these boys for being wounded, killed by a bullet or the explosion of a bomb or for stumbling into war captivity. In hindsight he admitted that his uncle was right. Compassion hit him like a bullet. He had to help these poor boys, he had to help them to escape war captivity. He had to help them to dash for freedom.
Josua looked out for the guards of the prisoner's trek he had ignored so far. “Red Army soldiers,” he told himself “shorter than most of the captives, muffled up in wadded, full-length coats were securing the column of prisoners, rifles shouldered or holding the Pe-Pe-Sha, the sub-machine gun, at the high port.” Up and on one of the soldiers stopped pushing a lagging behind captive with the butt of his gun, cussing and swearing at him, firing bullets into the sky. Josua counted about a dozen of guards on both sides of the trek and some more in a panje-wagon to follow. Further down two more panje-wagons were showing up at the curve of the rural road coming from the village. In his head Josua worked out the chances to free the two Hitler Youth. “Less than one to a hundred.” he reckoned, “Not now, not while the trek is still moving. No! I can't undertake a rescue mission now. My chances will increase as soon as the prisoner's trek will settle down for the night. But where would this be? At the Chapel?”
“Josua, Josua, the trek has stopped! Do you also suppose they will stay here?” Lukas attempted to pull Josua away from vantage point at the corner of the chapel, “Let's go inside! I am afraid!” Josua was afraid too, but he wanted to know more. “No, no, let’s stay here and wait for the soldiers, if they want to stay here they better realize we are not dangerous, they better realize we are just kids. Stay!” Josua left the cover and headed Lukas at his hand to the soldiers walking down the small path from the road to the chapel. The sudden appearance of the two boys irritated the corporal in charge of the trek of prisoners. Raising his sub-machine gun, he called back to his team of guards, who immediately took cover in the roadside ditch. When Josua raised his hands waving his once white, now dirty gray handkerchief, the corporal relaxed and waved the two boys nearer. Searching them for weapons and finding none but a small pocketknife and some shells, he ordered his men to check to see if there are enemy soldiers around. After a while one of his man came back slightly nervous “Armiya Komandnyy Punkt” “Army Command Post” he informed his superior. Nodding his head, he ordered the trek to move to the chapel then he turned to the boys using a broken German, “The lieutenant of the infantry platoon leaving this morning advised me to stay here for the night. He told me about you and the Old Man!” Then he ordered Josua and Lukas to walk ahead of him to the door of the cottage. He inspected the document carefully and then urged the boys to enter the room. The cottage was empty. The Old Man was neither in the kitchen nor in the backroom. Josua shrugged his shoulders, “We are alone! No Old Man! Only we two boys! Dva malika!” pointing at Lukas and himself, “ Dva malika”. But the corporal insisted, “Where is the Old Man? Where is he? Mal’chik!” Josua shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, then “In the village, I guess. In the morning he told me he had to get supplies there!” pointing down the road. The corporal wagged a finger at Josua and Lukas to enforce their discipline, ordered “Stay here!” and left.
Meanwhile the prisoners of war had been ordered to line up in a single file in front of the chapel for roll call. The counting had to be repeated four times, as the number of prisoners each time differed slightly. Since it got dark the corporal finally decided to close the roll call and ordered the captives relieve themselves on an edge of a meadow backed by a dense woodlot before they were locked up to the chapel.
Josua looking for an opportunity to contact the two young soldiers figured out that this was a unique situation to accomplish the rescue attempt without causing a stir. Stealing up through the wood to the bushes at the edge the strip of land used by the prisoners for squatting or peeing he waited till the alertness of the guards was distracted. The moment came soon as the impatient corporal fired volley bullets with his sub-machine gun into the dusky sky to announce the end of the comfort break. In the resulting pushing and shoving of the captives trying to be the first to enter their night quarter in the chapel Josua used the wake-up call the Hitler Youth to attract the attention of the two youth.
The short call caught the attention of the limping youth. Spotting small a person hiding at the edge of the wood he took the youth with the bloody bandages around his head by the hand and guided him stooped to the forest edge. As the pushing and shoving of the other captives at the side door of the chapel demanded all the attention of the guards Josua was able to sneak with the two to the cottage without being noticed. Once inside he opened the trap door to the underground storeroom and ushered them inside without providing any information.
With eyes wide open Lukas had watched Josua bringing in the two boys in the German uniforms. He even was more surprised when Josua hid the strangers in the underground storeroom without giving an explanation. While he still was considering to ask Josua about the two, a Russian soldier pulled up the door of the cottage and crudely summoned both to the field kitchen in front of the chapel.
Anticipating the worst Josua as well as Lukas were surprised as the young soldier acting as cook at the field kitchen handed them mess kits filled to capacity with soup and spoons. The smell of the cabbage soup with chunks of fatty meat made Lukas nearly puke. Quashing the nausea he tried the first spoonful of shchi, that was the name of soup, and began to enjoy it. The mess kit was hot and warmed up his fingers blue with cold. Looking at Josua he began, “Who are the soldiers you did…..!” However Josua interrupted him abruptly telling with loud voice, “The German prisoners all are in the chapel. They have to spend the night there. All of them!” he emphasized. “At the roll call and none of them was missing! All are in the chapel!” turning to the corporal, “Isn't it so? Or are you missing one of the captives?” “No, not one of the prisoners, but where is the Starik, the Old Man from the chapel I was told about by the lieutenant!”
“Here I am!” a voice in the back of the corporal announced, “I am back. I took a shortcut to the village to get food, just at the time you walked the prisoners of war up the street. But now I am back and...?” The corporal sized the Old Man up. Realizing that he fitted to the description of the lieutenant he handed him over a thick envelope. “The lieutenant asked me to give this to you. It's the book he took by chance. He told me the devilkin would miss!” Grinning he pointed at Lukas, “Is that the boy?” When the Old Man smiled and nodded his assent, the corporal asked Lukas, “It's a book with drawings and poems. I like poems. Do you know a poem? In school we learned a poem of Matthias Claudius. We learned even to sing it. I like it! Do you know The Moon has been arising?”
In a sentimental mood the corporal struck up the song and after the first line Lukas and Josua joined in the evening song:
The moon has been arising,
the stars in golden guising
adorn the heavens bright.
The woods stand still in shadows,
and from the meads and meadows
lift whitish mists into the night.
The world in stillness clouded
and soft in twilight shrouded,
so peaceful and so fair.
Just like a chamber waiting,
where you can rest abating
the daytime's mis'ry and despair.
Behold the moon — and wonder
why half of her stands yonder,
yet she is round and fair.
We follow empty visions
and artisans' ambitions
because our minds are unaware.
So, brothers, in His keeping
prepare yourself for sleeping;
cold is the evening breeze.
Spare us, oh Lord, Your ire,
let rest us by the fire,
and grant our ailing neighbor peace.
Once the last verse had faded into the night, all guards clapped their hands smiling and the corporal stated, “In time of peace we three would give an excellent trio!” The singing probably saved Josua's, Lukas' and the two young German soldier's life and probably also the one of the Old Man, because the men of the guard squad urged the corporal to stay and celebrate the evening by singing Russian folk songs and getting drunk. The Old Man and his two boys were allowed to retreat into the cottage and go to sleep.
Back in the cottage Josua was nervous like never before. Should he or should he not tell the Old Man about his “guests”? As Lukas watched him as well as the Old Man anxiously, the guardian of the chapel finally got suspicious. “What happened while I was away? Should I know about it? I hope you didn't put us into a hazardous situation!” While Josua cast down his eyes searching for the apposite answer, Lukas got bold. “Josua has saved the life two young soldiers. They are down here in the storeroom. We have to hide them. Tomorrow they can make an escape!”
The Old Man jerked then went pale. Carefully he walked to the window, pulled the curtain closed and then checked the door. “What? What in heaven is gotten into you, boy? What in heaven do you think the corporal will do if he finds out two soldiers are missing? What in heaven do you think the corporal will do if he finds out you helped them to escape? That you have concealed prisoners of war?” Closing his eyes, “You have endangered not your own life! You have gambled also with Lukas' and my life, not to speak of the lives of the young German soldiers. Aren't you aware that the danger has still hovering over all of us? The danger will not have passed when the guard squad has left without missing the two!”
Josua was frustrated! He had expected the Old Man would applaud him for rescuing the two like he himself had he taken up Lukas and him without questioning. For a moment he had to search for arguments to persuade the Old Man. “Please Sir!” he begged wavering voice, “Please have a look at the two! They are just boys, not much older than I. They have been Hitler's cannon fodder, the last ditch defense of the Nazis! Both are wounded.” attempting to make a point, “Sir, they wouldn't survive the long march into captivity. Please Sir, first have a look at them before you make your decision.” Playing his last card, “Both are wounded, the one limping is named Jonnie, the other one Freddie, has an arm in a sling and the bandage around his head is bleeding through. Without your help they are lost!” The Old Man's heart softened and knowing no way out he agreed to visited the young Germans in the storeroom.
Checking the trembling young men up in the wavering light of a kerosine lamp, the Old Man’s heart melted and he had to admit Josua was right. Especially the one wounded on head and arm aroused his compassion. It even increased while the other told what had happened to them. “I am Jonnie. My friend Freddie got wounded by the shrapnel of a hand grenade at his right arm and his forehead. When I found Freddie in the dirty snow he had passed out, maybe because of the pressure of the explosion, maybe because of the wound at his head. After he came up from coma he couldn't remember his name, he didn't remember my name, he had lost his memory. Since then I have to walk him like child. Everything is new to him, he even had to learn how to eat and drink. Please Sir, help him! If we are separated, Freddie would get lost and I have promised his parents to bring him home safe.”
Josua slept restless. Would the Red Army move on with the prisoners of war without missing Jonnie and Freddie, the Hitler Youth. If they were missed what would happen? Would the soldiers search the cottage? Would they discover the hidden storeroom in the basement? What would happen to them, to Lukas, to the Old Man to himself? He knew of drumhead trials! Would a firing squad shoot them or would they end up on the next tree as a deterrent for others? “My fault! My fault!” his conscience told him again and again! “What can I do? Should I scare away Jonnie and Freddie? Have I to chase them into the cold night to save Lukas' and the Old Man's life, my own life?” Finally he fell asleep, in a restless sleep.
Long after midnight the creaking of the trapdoor to the basement aroused Josua from sleep. Spying from his straw sack behind the shelf he noticed the Old Man and the two Hitler Youth leaving the basement and sneaking out of the cottage door. Spying through the window pane he saw them crossing to the woodlot and vanishing in the dark of the trees. He waited for a long time not knowing what to do. Should he follow them or stay with Lukas? He decided to stay with Lukas, as he was sure he couldn't trek the three in the darkness. About an hour later the Old Man came back. When Josua asked him what happened, he just said, “You better don't know! If someone asks swear you have slept the whole night like a log!”
In the early morning light the tired soldiers of the guard quad scared up the prisoners of war. After receiving their daily ration, a piece of bread per man, they had to leave the chapel in rank and file for the day’s march. The officers in their heavy winter coats walked ahead followed by the regular servicemen most of them in light clothing. Josua watching them marching off, waved goodbye to the corporal and then turned to the Old Man with the question that had given him no rest during the second half of the night. “What happened to the wounded Hitler Youth? Where did you take them? What happened to them?” “I told you already, you do not have to know! However they are safe for the moment.”
The three had just finished breakfast, when loud voices and heavy blows against the cottage door for called for immediate access. The door flew open and two soldiers of the guard squad came rushing in followed by one of the German officers. While the Red Army soldiers pointed with their sub-machine guns at the Old Man, Josua and Lukas the former German officer spit out a volley of questions, “Where are the Hitler Youth, where are these deserters! Do you hide these cursed traitors, the scum of the German army?”
The Old Man was foaming with rage. He knew this kind of people very well, peoples trimming their sails to the wind. Yesterday Hitler’s henchman, today Stalin's the best friend. In his Klepper coat the tall man was the typical collaborator betraying his own fellow captives for an extra piece of bread and a packet of cigarettes! The long coat proved well enough that the guy was a former member of the Nazi Security Service, responsible for killing thousands and thousands of Jews. The Old man swallowed his anger and decided not to answer. “Not now,” he thought, “I am not his divine judge!”
When neither the boys nor the Old Man answered, the soldiers pushed all three into a corner of the room and forced them to kneel down face to the wall. Despite the fear for his life Josua pressed his lips and remained silent. Lukas however began to cry! Unafraid of the ready to fire guns he turned to Josua and held fast to him pointing with his head backward to the intruders, crying “Get out of here! Go away, go away!” The young soldiers having pity with Lukas and being tired of the useless interrogation by the Nazi officer began to search first the kitchen, then the room in the back and finally all around the cottage and the chapel. Not finding the escaped youths, the soldier pulled the pin of a hand grenade and threw it through the side door into the chapel. Then he released the safety catch of the next and the next and next and threw one after the other into the chapel.
The force of the detonation blew out what was left from the stained glass windows, blew off tiles from the roof, wrecked what was left of the pews in the nave and broke the window panes of the cottage leaning to the chapel. Ordering the Nazi officer to stop swearing the Red Army soldiers left signaling with their guns to the Old Man that he and the two boys had to leave the place as fast as possible.
The Old Man knew they had to comply with the order. He asked Josua to pack supplies into his rucksack and take two rolled up blankets. For lack of an own backpack the Old Man himself used an old potato sack for the carrying more supplies. For Lukas he found a schoolbag suitable for carrying goods like sugar and fat. Together with Lukas holding his beloved book in his hands they left the cottage about fifteen minutes later. Choosing an animal trail through the wood at the valley side they arrived about half an hour later at a dense untended spruce plantation hiding a derelict hunting hut not used for years.
The Old Man whistled. Branches of the spruce were thrust aside and Jonnie, the limping Hitler youth, stepped out, “I thought you would never come back, Sir. I need you! Freddie needs you. His forehead is hot like fire. He fell unconscious and now is unaddressable. I do not know what to do.” Then he noticed Josua and Lukas and furthermore the heavy load they were carrying. He went pale. By instinct he knew what had happened. “Are we missing? Did the Russians search for us? Freddie and me? Had you to flee the chapel?” Lukas stepped up to Jonnie, “They threatened us, the soldiers. They pulled their guns on us! They blew up the chapel with hand grenades. We had to run!” Pointing with his forefinger at Jonnie, “It's your fault! You, you, you...” Josua stepped in, “Don't Lukas! It's not his fault. It's the war's fault, the bad peoples' fault, the dictators' fault!” then he turned to Jonnie, “Let's hurry up, show us the way to Freddie, he needs us.”
Meanwhile the Old Man had searched his pockets for a remedy. “I have to go back to the cottage. I have left the only remedy I got on the shelf in the backroom, some aspirins. However let's bring the supplies to the hut first.”
“Let’s hurry!“ it was Josua, “You can't go alone! I will come along with you, then we can get more food to this place and may be some linen to replace the bled through bandages around Freddie's head.”
Fighting their way through the thicket of densely growing spruce trees they came to the one room hut. Freddie seems to have recovered slightly from his unconsciousness. He greeted the newcomers by a scarcely perceptible winking of his eyes. When the Old Man checked the shrapnel wound on his arm the young man fainted again. “First of all we need some disinfectant to clean the wound and then some aspirin to reduce his fever.” Turning to Jonnie, “You do not have iodine by chance, boy?” “No, they took away our first aid kits. Nothing is left!”
Josua remembered his aunt’s home remedy, “Spirit will do as disinfectant also. My aunt used it to clean my bruises with schnapps. But...!” he shrugged his shoulders, I don’t have schnapps either.”
It was on Lukas to know the solution. “Do you remember the drinking of the Red Army soldiers back at fireplace two days ago. Next morning I found some bottles with that stuff they call vodka besides the gnawed off bones of the pig. Initially I wanted to pour away the schnapps and save the bottles but then I tucked them away by the outhouse.” Lukas took Josua by the hand and pulling him out of the hut, “Let's hurry. They still must be there! Let’s go and find the bottles!” he urged Lukas.
The Old Man followed asking Jonnie to stay with his friend and try to start a fire in the potbelly stove in the corner of the hut. Near the edge of the wood opposite the chapel he caught up to Lukas and Josua and prompted the two to take cover and make sure that nobody was around. After a seemingly endless wait, he allowed Lukas to look for the bottle while he and Josua went to the cottage to get more supplies. “We do not only need food and the aspirins but also some cloth out of my locker for Jonnie and Freddie. They can't move around in the uniform of a member of the Hitler Youth, if so they will be suspected to be either escaped prisoners of war or partisans fighting in the back of the Red Army.” “But they are just boys!” “Do you know what their fate would be, boys or not boys? The gallows! If soldiers will take them captive their death would come the next moment. However if they are caught by members of the polish resistance they may get tortured before they get hung.”
In the cottage Josua and the Old Man collected more food and other items that they wanted to carry to the hunting hut at the next trip. They filled their packs to capacity and decided to hide the less needed parts at the edge of the woodlot.
In the meantime Lukas had recovered a bottle with vodka and waited in front of the cottage door. Suddenly he burst into the kitchen; pointing to heaven he shouted a warning, “The sewage machines are coming! The dive bombers, the dive bomber are coming. I can hear their high pitched noise.”
“It's close to noon. They are on their usual patrol flight. Don't be afraid!” the Old Man tried to calm the boy, but Lukas repeated, “Hurry up, hurry up. Let's hide in the wood.” “We better leave Sir, we got all we wanted. Let's go,” Josua said in a strained voice and left with Lukas in tow, while the Old Man stayed in the cottage.
That day it was different from the days before. The first two biplanes greeted the chapel waving their wings in the usual way about from 300 feet above ground, the third however lagged behind. Suddenly this biplane changed its approach. With screaming motor it soared up into the sky. At the topmost point of the ballistic path the dive bomber suddenly seemed to stand still for a moment and then descended like a falcon towards the chapel. Halfway down it decoupled its deadly freight.
Josua saw the bombs dropping like in a slow motion movie searching their target. The first bomb hit the nave of the chapel, the second its altar room and the last the build on cottage. In the first moment the small bombs seemed just to have pierced holes into the roofs, then a wink of an eye later, explosions lifted the roofs of the chapel and of the cottage into the air. The next moment only ruins were left. Both, the chapel and the cottage of the Old Man, it's guardian, were in shatters.
When the dust cloud had settled Josua found himself on top of Lukas covering the younger boys small body with his own. Silence seemed to hover over the place around the destroyed buildings. Josua looked around, then rose and attempted stand straight with wobbling legs. Then his gaze fell to Lukas. The boy had also risen. With his extended right arm he pointed to the ruins the cottage that had been their asylum for the last days and screamed in despair. At first Josua only perceived Lukas’ face distorted with fear, but then he realized that the silence covering the scene of disaster was not real and the buzzing in his ears was nothing more than a blast trauma. Bit by bit the trauma faded away and he could hear the crackling noise of the burning beams of the roof and pews in the nave.
Compelled by the same anxiety Josua and Lukas rushed to the ruins of the cottage. Like mad they began to pull on broken roof beams, cleared away pieces of the walls, removed bricks and tiles from the heap of rubble. They tried to listen for cries for help from the Old Man, for the heavy breathing of wounded man, for his whimpers of pain. But there was no noise just deadly silence! The uprooted boys perceived no sign of life from the Old Man! The only noise if life was the croaking of the agitated crows in the trees nearby. As the black birds took wings disturbed by someone deadly silence dominated the site. In that moment Josua and Lukas realized that their friend, the Old Man, the guardian of the Chapel of the Presentation of Jesus in the High Temple, was gone forever.
Josua looked at the pilot watch Tischa had given to him. It still was working unaffected by the misery around. The clock showed five minutes past noon. Josua took Lukas by the hand and together they walked slowly to the edge of the wood. There they met Jonnie perching on his heels with eyes closed shutting out the world around.
“The Old Man has gone! Gone forever!” Josua told Jonnie without emotion in the voice and Jonnie answered fact-bound, “Freddie as well.”
“Take the Old Man's coat!” Josua told Jonnie, pointing at the coat laying on the heap of goods at the forest edge. “The Old Man doesn't need a coat anymore. We are going to the West! We will find our way!”
It's war, it's war! God's angel keep it far
And put an end to it!
It's war, alas-and I desire
Not to bear the guilt for it!
What would I do, if in my sleep
Grieving and bloody, pale and wan,
The ghosts of the slaughtered came to me
And wept before me-what would I do?
What if bold men who sought only honor
Maimed and half-dead lay weltering
Before me in the dust and cursed me
In their dying distress?
What if by thousands fathers, mothers, brides
So happy till the war
Now all wretched, all poor people
Raised lamentation over me?
If hunger, pestilence, and their sorrows
Drove friend and foe into the grave
There gathering, and, to my dishonor
Crowed from atop a corpse at me?
Would crown, land, gold, or glory aid me?
None of them could give me joy!
It's war, alas — and I desire
Not to bear the guilt for it!
Is this story just fiction? Is this story reality? Not even the narrator knows!
But what happened in this story was reality for many of the uprooted boys and girls living through the final stage of world war II. It still is the reality for the uprooted boys and girls living at just this moment through the wars in the Ukraine, in Syria, and Iraq, in Nigeria, in Somalia, in Afghanistan.
Remember a fate like this was reality for uprooted girls and boys since humankind exists. It had been their fate about 400 years ago in the Thirty Year's War in Germany; about 1200 years ago, when Charles the Great fought his wars I Western Europe; about 2000 years ago, when the Emperors of Rome subdued the peoples of known world; about 2300 years ago, when Alexander the Great conquered the Eastern World from Greece to India!
Being tossed into the unknown was the fate of boys and girls since the arising of the mankind. But don't be afraid. Boys and Girls are resilient! Boys and Girls will stand fast.
Wolfskinder: movie by Rick Ostermann, Germany/Deutschland/Lithuania, 2013.
Matthias Claudius (August 15, 1740 – January 21, 1815): German poet and journalist.
Adrian Ludwig Richter (September 28, 1803 – June 19, 1884): German painter and etcher.
Copyright © Ruwen Rouhs, Berlin 2015
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