you are safe here...

                          

                                     YOU ARE SAFE HERE…           

                             the journal of anton kosachuk

                 written by anton kosachuk and stephen christian

                                for mary, ‘i love you.’ -anton

you can now download a free ePub form of “you are safe here” for your computer, kindle, or other such ereader here…bit.ly/mOJvlv

introduction.

        i only have one memory of my grandfather, anton. we were wrestling in the living room of his house on niles avenue in saint joeseph, michiagn. he was egging me on to wrestle, but being shy and very young i avoided his taunts but remember clearly the big smile and heavy accent that accompanied the moment. my grandfather died in 1983, much to early for me to have a deep or meaningful relationship or conversation with him. growing up he had always been a folklore to me, the stories that were passed around at sunday dinners were my childhood mythology.

             my grandfather wrote a short journal when he was in a hospital in the 1970’s. it has circulated my family for years but wasn’t translated from german to english until recently. the first time i read it i was in tears, then the second time, and so on.  this short book takes that original journal and turns it in to a story, where all the characters and events were absolutely factual. i kept as close to the journal as i could, even using word for word descriptions.

         through this process i got to know the man, the myth, and the human that i never had an opportunity to know.  i hope that you find inspiration in his words and hope in his survival, like i did.  

         -stephen christian

chapter 1.

                                            YOU ARE SAFE HERE

i was born a man.

         i was born into a world that seemingly never wanted me. i watched as those around me fell to an early grave,  perpetually robbed of everything and everyone i held close. i had no childhood, that was a luxury saved for someone else across the ocean. but not for me.

it is now 1939 and hitler is plaguing us here in the ukraine, which is apart of poland. we fear that the nazi’s are planning to move east and invade us here. however, in a decision of  historical ramifications hitler gave the ukraine to russia in a treaty.   in exchange for the ukraine the treaty outlined that all the germanic people living in the baltic region would be free to migrate to germany, or the ‘old reich,’ as we were told. my family was apart of this unwilling exchange.

my people began our walk across europe in the unbearable winter of 1939. we began with as many possessions as we possibly could strap to our backs, and for the fortunate ones they could strap their possessions upon what live stock they possessed. at first the weight of what we owned seemed justified because it represented the building blocks of the ‘new’ life ahead, but as the days trudging through the substantial pallid snow began to eek on they became a burden. evidence for this abandoned justification were left lying on the side of the dirt and slush roads. at first i would pick up a random silverware set or set of books. but soon i found myself loosing my load; beginning with what i had collected and ending up with only what was necessary for my families survival.

along with valuables i noticed that conversations were also found to be more and more scarce as the weeks when by.  it seemed many had speculations, stories, and speeches to share but now felt to talk only meant another ounce of energy we had that should be used sparsely.

i stopped counting the different refugee camps we occupied at 8, they became a blur, if i had to guess i would say that in our 16 month journey we had to suffer through 12 of them. each with their own heartaches and hardships, each with young faces that were so aged, thousands of them who should not know such bitter realities. my father and i took care of the other children, there were seven of us children total, and i often wondered if my father would have had so many if he knew what privation and heartache lay ahead.

there were two things that gave me courage to wake each morning, my faith in Jesus and a woman of 19 named helen. the former happened when an american missionary happened through my small town in the ukraine. he spoke of hope which now resonates all the more, i had never seen an american up until that point and am yet to see one since. 


the later was a barrage of sightings through different camps. we met, we married. it wasn’t until years later that i fell into love. it ‘s not that i did not care deeply about this woman but barbarically put, when you watch your father lose two wives, care for the sick third, and live in a perpetual war scorched earth your view of love is left with no emotional attachment.  i never heard the word’s ‘i love you’ spoken from my father to his third wife, and i do not find that strange at all. 

we were wed in a camp right outside of berlin, germany. father and my new family moved to oberseifondorf, kreis zittau and moved into a small dank apartment with one window and one single bed. i found work  as a machinist 20 kilometers from where we lived.  i walked it each and every day because i could not afford a bicycle or automobile. i was a mechanics helper, a burly man like myself and but a bit taller and with a full beard. i can’t recall much about what he said because i was just starting to learn german, but he was a patient man and taught with his hands. i picked up both machinery and german quite quickly.

everyone was constantly mystified at the world unfolding before them, i never felt at home and longed for the quiet days in my little town 16 months east of here. we knew there was a war in progress and held our breath in expectancy that any day now it would find its way to our doorstep. people tried their best to talk of leisure but it always felt so nervous and contrived to me. there were no holidays here. there was hard work. that is all we knew.

‘anton?’ my wife helen said as i walked in the door from my trek home after work.

‘yes.’

‘there is news.’

‘of the war? is it close?’

‘no, not of the war.’

‘is it father? has his wife died?’

‘no, anton, please it is about you.’

‘me, what news of myself?’

‘you are going to be a father.’

my heart sank and leapt at the same time. i instantly remembered the critiques of my fathers decision to have children in this somber period of history.

‘what should we do helen?’

‘what do we do? what kind of question is that?’

‘i mean what should i do,’ i said knowing full well we needed to flee to a life where we know the ending will not be written in blood.’

‘i love you.’

‘and i will provide and see to the needs of this child helen.’ words said and meant.

 

i longed for a support system, people with common interests such as hard work and perhaps ideas or news of how to get out. we found a church about 20 kilometers away, which with a wife in the stages of pregnancy was not a viable option. i had began to stash money in a tin can underneath our bed, right under where i lay my head in hopes that at any minute the heavens would open and we could buy our way out.

it was a hard decision to part with the money for a bicycle, my head swooned with options of where all the money could be spent. i did not see paper when i looked at the small wad of money in the tin can. what i saw were the hours of underpaid labor, sweat, blood, and the long walk to and from work each day.

the bicycle was nothing fancy at all; a basic seat and wheels, but for my wife i couldn’t help but feel like a confident provider. the paper was well spent even if for simply the look on helen’s handsome face  when i first brought the bike home.

helen’s face, though she had grown up through more agonies than a child should her smile did not show it. she talks much more than i do or ever did, and that is not necessarily a negative trait. though i have many stories there are very few that i wish to repeat with my lips. i can tell already that she will be a good hard working mother. she makes bread and does not let anything go to waste. i do not give her much of our money. it is not that i do not trust her, it is that i have learned that you never know what tomorrow may bring and money has a way of persuading just about any situation.

there is a switch in a man’s brain when his child is born, call it barbaric or instinctual but i was thrown into a deeper role of protector the instant that my daughter was born. i imagined that when my first child was born my heart would break and i would melt when i saw my child for the first time. instead my fist clinched and my eyes widened, i looked at the housewife and her husband not as caretakers but in a curious new light, as if they were going to try to harm my child. i did not cry, i did not laugh, i did not smile. i looked on, gazed into my baby daughters eyes and whispered in her ear so that only her and i knew my words.

‘you are safe here.’

perhaps she did not know what type of world she was born into, but even to the last tablespoon of blood i was determined to make sure that she never found out. 

helen had invited a few people over to the house to celebrate the birth of her first child. pastor janson came to the house and they had a baby dedication as i watched on. i positioned my chair into the corner so that i could watch on from a distance. never for one second did my daughter anne leave my site, i was only at peace when helen was holding her.

a knock at the door which was quickly followed by an mp38 submachine gun, which used no wood but had a folding metal stock, and a nazi attached to it briskly walked into the front door of our apartment followed by the mayor of our small village. i stood up keeping anne and Helen in sight the entire time, fists once again tightened. a sudden hush came over the few who were there and even the pastor seemed to lose his trademarked half smile.

‘come everyone, it is a time to celebrate!’ the mayor said as he walked through the door, ‘go back to the festivities please, now where is this baby!’

as he walked across the room i met him half way in attempt to block him from touching my child. i may be no match for a bullet but it will take an entire clip to get to my child.

‘anton, you must be proud, this is your first child. oh how i remember my first child such a beautiful boy, even now i look at him and see traces of me.’

‘yes.’

‘and now my son has grown up, and even at age 6 he has aspirations of joining this new hitler-jugend. children do grow up so fast, trust me your anne will be signing up for the wehrmacht before you know it.’

‘i hope that anne will be an academic, her mother and i were never afforded such privileges in the old country.’

‘oh anton, physical and military training are so much more important in a modern world than academics now, don’t you see?!’

the smile and charisma seemed to drop off the mayors face when he saw that still no one in the room had yet gone back to their conversations since he entered the room with his new insignia and guard attached.

‘thank you my friends for inviting me to your bravura apartment and dedication,’ the mayor said with a political twinge. ‘may the new one see many years of german prosperity under the eyes of the fuhrer’.

to me that was a curse not a blessing. with that he left in the same abrupt matter in which he entered. i immediately took anne in my arms and returned to the corner of the room.

‘helen, i want these people out of my home.’

‘ok everyone,’ helen said with a quiet urgency in her soft voice, ‘thank you for coming, it has been a long day and it is time for little anne to fall asleep.

everyone understood that it had nothing to do with anne, yet everyone understood.

as the last person left the room helen began to cry delicately, she always was much more emotional then i. she began to nervously clean every inch of the house as i stood staring out the window, watchfully examining every person who came in and out of our complex. i did not set anne down for the rest of the evening and she fell asleep in my arms eventually. i leaned in and whispered to her quietly, gently as not to wake her.

‘your  are safe here.’

Chapter 2.

in july 1943 helen’s father became very ill, the village doctor came over to examine him and decided that he needed surgery that day because his appendix had burst. the hospital was 6 kilometers and since my father in law could not ride the bicycle i had to carry him, set him down, carry him, set him down, until we reached the place of his operation.

the operation went less than poor. there were nurses running in and out, blood on hands, doctors shouting for gauze and equipment. i was much prepared for his death.  besides anne i was much prepared for anyone’s death at that time. hours later the doctor came to me and told me that they had removed the appendix successfully but did not know if father bettig was going to make it through the evening. he did.

the next six weeks i do not believe i slept. between taking care of father bettig who fought for his life each and every day, watching anne, working the machinery job and the subsequent 20 kilometer walk each day, closing my eyes seemed not to be much of a priority.

though our apartment was very small, with only one window, i felt at peace when i left the house each dawn because the neighbors treated each other like family. knowing my families plight the neighbors in our apartment complex were sympathetic and began to bring us free grain, as it was harvest season and the lot of them worked in the fields.

the machine shop i worked at had taught me much and i felt for the first time in my life that i had learned a skill, one that i could take with me when we found a way to leave this country. we worked on a variety of different machines, from tractors to the much-coveted automobiles. one time the boss gave me the task of repairing a 1939 RT 125 motorcycle  that looked as though it had been in quite the accident. after getting it running it sat in the back of the small garage for months waiting for its owner to return. i had always presupposed that whoever had wrecked it that severe would never be able to ride again.

months later i asked my boss if he thought that whomever dropped the bike off was ever going to return, in which my boss shared the same presupposition i did. a few days later my boss asked me if i would want it and he would slowly take the cost of the repair out of my paycheck for the next few months.

a bike of my own. very few moments in my life i felt this proud, i always imagined that this is perhaps how most men should feel when they have their first child.  when i pulled into the drive i calmly turned the bike off, walked up the flaking yellow painted flight of stairs to our not so well lit apartment and asked helen to come see what i had bought for us.

helen did not act as excitable as i hoped, she seemed so happy when i brought the bicycle to her, and expected at least the same result.

‘you be careful on that thing, do you hear me? i have heard of to many bad things happening on those motorcycles.’

‘helen, i can drive to see you father in a few minutes, and from now on it will only take me 22 minutes to get home to you and the baby, or to take us to church.’

‘i don’t like it anton. you will drive safe when you are on that, and little anne will never get on that piece of machine.’

                  ‘yes helen.’

 

father bettig finally was well enough to come to our apartment, and he was rather excited not only to be alive and out of the hospital, but to be able to ride on the motorcycle and not be carried back. it took some while for him to recuperate, and once again sleep evaded me. at night anne called to us through her tears and during the days it was father bettig who moaned for our attention and requests for help from his discomfort. even though i was happy that father was doing better the recently acquired financial strain was keeping me awake since i had now three mouths to feed in our diminutive living conditions and only one source of income. i figured if i was going to be awake and staring at  the ceiling i might as well get a night job, which i did.  i found a  night shift job in a factory a few kilometers from downtown gorlitz.

one morning as i drove home from the factory on my motorcycle a truck and trailer swerved around the corner and hoarded the majority of the road that i was barreling down. i immediately turned my motorcycle onto the sidewalk and the front wheel caught on the edge of the road and the paved side walked and found myself floating instantaneously in mid air.

the next thing i remember i was sitting upright in a chair of a hospital with a blood drenched bandage around my head. i was dizzy as if someone had swung my chair in circles the entire time i was unconscious, what smelled to be vomit was now mostly toweled out of my shirt and when i tried to stand up i fell right back into my chair.

‘rest there’

‘my head doctor, what happened’.

‘you are lucky to be alive, most accidents do not always end so well.’

‘ it is painfully bright in here do you mind closing the window?’

‘you hit your head in your accident, if you begin to have convulsion or have blurred vision come back in, but for now go home and rest.’

helen came to pick me up with the only neighbor who owned a car. she asked of my well-being. i asked of my motorcycle.

helen could see the pain on my face no matter how much i tried to keep a straight face even doing the most mundane tasks around the house. it hurt to bend over, it hurt to carry small loads of laundry, and anne’s small cries sounded like a megaphone to my brain.

for days and days after my head was tearing the life out of me, i felt every pump of blood in my head as if someone was using my head as the bass drum and striking a mallet upon it on either side.  i did not go to work for several days, but when i realized that i was going to lose my job and my family would then not going to eat i tied up my boots. i rode my motorcycle to the sound of the ‘thump thump,’ ‘thump thump,’ bass drum beat that was constantly playing in my head. sometimes a man must not only work through pain, but he must bite his lip and press on. only a man with no family will understand these words. 

news had traveled to father bettig that now mother bettig was sick, and she would be joining us. helen and friends had begun to pray for her but each day i watched as the light in her eyes began to rapidly fade into the eternal. we called the village doctor to come to the apartment and when he pulled me aside i knew then the prognosis.

‘its her kidneys and bladder,’ the doctor said. ‘they have a severe infection and she will die within the month.’

‘is there anything that we can do now?’

‘ you can make sure that she eats and keeps up her strength, she has symptoms of a fever and if that sets in than you are looking at mere days.’

i was close to my mother in law, not because we talked but because i saw the way that father bettig always loved her. they looked as though they were mere kids when they talked, he would gaze deeply and she would looked absorbed into every word that he uttered. at first i thought there playful banter was a waste of precious time but now i see it is what was helping her fight.

the fever set in and her temperature ran high.

every evening i would get on the motorcycle and ride into the night to the factory. my thoughts never strayed far from her, she had a little one, henry, as well and i couldn’t help but think of my little anne and how i do not fear death but a life without her or helen. 

one night as i was leaving for work and father bettig was outside pacing, surprised to see him up and about i tried to ease his nerves.

‘father go lie down, it is getting dark and the cold will set in soon.’

‘she told me today that she is dying, she said she will not be with us tomorrow.’

‘tell her not to say such things, she will be fine.’ i wanted desperately to believe what i said, but even more i wanted to feel for him, but death and manual labor had been a huge part of life up until now. i cared deeply for mother bettig, but she would not be the first, or second, mother i have lost. 

i drove a little faster home on my motorcycle than usual, actually a lot faster, i did not know that bike had such power. the accident had made me a much more the cautious driver but my mind was caught up in the possibilities that my mother in law might have just survived the night to fight another day. as i arrived i saw father bettig tending to the animals, something i had not seen him do since his trip to the hospital.

‘how is mother?’

‘yesterday she was seconds from the grave and today she is so much better! talking and laughing, with life in her face once again! go in and see!’

as i walked in mother was wide awake and smiling and even tried to get up and greet me, but i told her to stay down and rest.

‘what happened! how can this be?’

‘anton, last night i was very sick, my body was burning from head to toe and i knew that i was dying. i tried to pretend that everything was fine, but it got to the point where i was sure that it was over so i woke up father. i didn’t even say anything because he knew, and he pulled me into his arms and began to cry.’

‘what happened then?’

‘then he asked me what he was going to do without me, what were the small children going to do without a mother? i started to comfort him and told him that he is not that old and that he could still find a wife. he began to cry very hard and it ended that i was comforting him and held him till he eventually cried himself to sleep.

i laid in bed the rest of the night with my eyes wide open just thinking about my children and husband and feeling so very sorry for them. i couldn’t imagine them growing up without a mother and having just father watch out for them alone. so i began to cry and look up at the ceiling and pray like i have never prayed before. i begged God for just 10 more years so i could see the children grow up and by that time little henry would be 10.

while i was praying i suddenly got this overwhelming sense that someone was in the room, i tried to wake up father but i was almost immobilized by fear.’

‘someone was in our house?’

‘no i don’t think it was a person, perhaps it was death? or maybe an angel like in the bible! but i just began to pray to myself ‘Lord, don’t let me see whatever it is in the room, i am so scared! at that point i tried with all my strength to yell and wake up father and i thought the best way to rid what was ever in the room was to turn on the switch over the bed and turn on the light. i tried with all my strength to reach it, but because i was to weak i couldn’t reach the light or even put the covers over my head.

it was to late anyway because there was something like a small but bright star coming at me. all i could think was ‘is this death?’ but it wasn’t! it came towards me and then touched my lips and was instantly gone. at that exact moment the pain and fever was gone and all my strength was back. i woke up father and told him all what had happened and we both began to cry and hold each other and we thanked God for this miracle.’

all i could do was to thank God, last night i left doubting that i would ever mother alive and her she is talking, and already more energetic then i had seen her in months and months.

i called the doctor over to examine her and see if there was anything he could do in the expedition of what was left of her health problems. the doctor said that by some miracle she was better and she would be able to take over the household again in a matter of days.

now i have never seen a star come towards my lip, i have never seen a healing of any kind, but at this moment i believe in all of it. the doctor and i had a candid conversation outside of the existence of such and both of us came to the same conclusion.  a miracle had happened in front of our eyes and whether we wanted to try and explain it it didn’t even matter.  we had just witnessed a divine phenomenon.

she wanted to tell no one of this matter either, she warned us not to tell anyone what had just happened to her because she thought that people would think that she was crazy. i think the bigger miracle of this whole episode was the fact that mother really did not want to believe in God before this all happened. sure she would go through the motions, but she always questioned her circumstances and pin whatever outcome life handed her as another reason not believe in the divine.

it was not so anymore. i have never seen a cold heart broken, but this women has come undone in the best way. not only had strength returned but vigor and faith as a bi-product.

since mother and father were once again well and able to take care of one another and their children we felt it was time to move out. we gave them our little apartment and moved into another one kilometer away. an acquaintance of my wife, frieda fraunz, had offered us an apartment she owned big enough now for my daughter to have her own room, and still was large enough for a few pieces of furniture. mrs. fraunz was a wonderful woman who treated us like family and would even allow me to work for her in exchange for rent. it was nice once again to have our own place, but because there was a war this didn’t last long. the war left many homeless and my gracious wife would invite any family that was lost or despondent to stay with us for as long as they would like. i think my time at refugee camps gave me compassion for people like these, and i could never say no to helen on this matter.

 

‘gather around men,’ the man at the factory said to us at my night job. ‘we have been ordered to go to glokou.’

‘what? why?’ a small man in the back said.

‘we have been ordered to go to glokou and dig ditches.’

‘dig ditches? are we laying foundation for a new building? another factory? the small man asked.

‘no our country has asked us to go and dig trenches to slow down the enemy tanks.’

‘are they that close?’

‘close enough that we have to build trenches i suppose.’

        

         my wife cried inaudibly when i told her the news, she was pregnant now and wondered if she would have to have the child alone, or worse. i explained that the tanks were still far off, she nodded her head  in agreement even though we both heard explosions in the background from time to time. i had no i idea how close they were.

         we were loaded up on trucks within one days time, i assume the military was quite sure the tanks were close because the driver of the truck drove with a fury. potholes from mines and explosions, pieces of what were vehicles, and a few unidentifiable charred creatures made our long ride more like a accelerated obstacle course and less like a ride through the country. a few of the men got sick, but we never pulled over.

         when we pulled into the camp it reminded much of the refugee camps i was used to, some of the men had never left the city they were born in and this was a whole new experience. for me it has felt like running, traveling, or escaping was apart of my everyday life, it reminded me of the passage in the bible where Jesus said he had ‘no place to lay his head’ or call home. 

         digging ditches took a toll on every one of us within a few weeks. we were undermanned for the task at hand and the long hours and lack of food and accessible water was becoming  unbearable. i finally convinced a few guards to allow us to work in shifts, so that each one of us could receive a break midday. i had to remind them that ‘we were hired help and not russians’, they laughed and they loosened up as the days went by.  i have noticed the these german soldiers love their alcohol as much as their russian counterparts, every night around five in the evening their drunken songs begin and do not end till very late at night; i am not sure when exactly they sleep.

i received a letter from my wife that our second daughter was going to be born any day now and i asked the camp director for a leave and he granted it.  i had heard that he had turned down a few men for the same request and felt blessed to be on my way home. he said that i would not receive pay for the time i missed, but did not mind because we were not receiving but 1/5th what we were making back home.

         i was not given a ride home but several people pulled over to give me a ride in the general direction of home, some for short distances others for much longer. the faces were different but all the stories seemed the same, war sadly unites people in the common ground of sorrow and fear.

         by the time i got home my headache was so severe from the combination of lack of water, and the aftermath of the motorcycle accident that i could not appreciate my wife and daughter running to greet me. i lied down for what felt like hours and my wife, whom i was supposed to be nursing, nursed me.

         within a few days time my second daughter was born, helen named her helga and many people told me she took after me because of the thick tuft of hair she was born with.  i was glad to be home, i wanted to slow this time down, i wanted to perhaps freeze it so i never had to leave this day for some time. i had two healthy daughters and a wife who took care of us. in spite of bombs rumbling in the distance on occasion i felt safe. 

         within 2 days of the birth of helga i was back on the obstacle course headed towards the ditches once again. my family and some of the village  had packed me a large amount of food and letters to share with the men back at the camp.

         WHAMMMMMMMMMMMM, the truck hit a giant whole and all of us in the back hit the ground and one man almost fell out of the truck. i dropped everything i was holding and my whole head felt as though it had touched both my chest and my back in succeeding seconds. my head was pounding as i tried to gather what i could off the floor of the truck. the axle had broke due to the impact and as the rest of the men were climbing out the truck i sank down against the floor of the truck in pain.

         the commander in charge ordered the men to start walking and i had to leave most of the food there on the broken truck. i took the letters because at this point news from home and emotive letters fed the body more than any amount of bread or fruit. within ½ a kilometer i was dizzy and ½ a kilometer later i was throwing up from the pain in my neck and head.

         i sat by a tree and the driver told me to wait until the next truck to arrive and take it to the camp. at this point it felt as though the pounding would never stop, i realized that if this went on for a long period of time that i would rather simply die.

         6 hours later a truck drove by, in his hands was some of the bread of mine off the last truck and i was not going to ask for it back.  on our way to the camp we saw the rest of the men still walking and pulled over and loaded them on. i wondered if i could have made it for that many hours  in my current condition.

         each day was the same, wake, dig, break, dig, with my head swooning the entire time. nighttime was the worst because the throbbing kept me awake. it was like trying to fall asleep with a brass band playing on either side of you while someone punches the back of your back with every beat.

         i couldn’t sleep. i couldn’t eat. everyone noticed and tried to help.

         i told the commanding officer the story of the motorcycle wreck, and the truck, and asked him for some other duty than digging. at this point i would have helped the elderly women who cooked, at least then i would be standing in one place. he said no and that if i did not want to dig ditches then i would be fired from my job.  i slept on it, or tried to sleep on it; and in the morning told him that even though it was a good job and that i needed to support my family i could not go on. and he sent me home with no pay for the final week i was there.

         even though the machine job was 20 miles away it was a good job, and a steady paycheck. i wondered if i was going to find something that good when i returned home. helen of course was elated that i was home again, i told her everything except that i had no money and no job. these are concerns for a man.

        

         by the grace of God i found a job only 5 miles away, it was for a lot less pay but the owners of the small farm were very friendly and willing to teach me about farming and cattle. i think i reminded the wife of a son she had lost not to long ago and showed me favor. i learned quickly and within a few weeks had been taught all the basics, a lot of it was trial and error, especially with the cattle. i helped the elderly man build, he was a much better carpenter than me, but lacked the strength and youth to implement it„ which was my job.

with the farm being so close i felt much more at ease, i wanted to be closer to my daughters because there was a growing military unrest in our little town and it seemed the soldiers were much more tense and sullen within the last few days. hurrying here and there, setting more and more barbed wire in place. i thought they knew something we did not, but their actions were foreshadowing all.

as i was out with the cattle one day with the elderly man we heard a series of explosions in the direction of my home. neither of us had ever, ever heard something so close in our lives, i have never peddled so fast in my life, i didn’t even feel the headache i knew i should have had because of the physical exertion. i have never seen my legs move this quickly, but the closer i got the more relieved i was because i saw that the explosions were well east of where my home was. still, the reality that the russians were moving closer was undeniable to everyone and you could feel the quiet trepidation throughout our petrified little town.

chapter 3.

my little ones were crying as i sat down my bike in the front lawn, you could tell that they too knew what was on the way. they just wanted to be held the rest of the night and when i would set them down they would follow me like little ducks around our small home.

there was a knock on my door the next morning and a two armed nazi soldiers stood at my door.

‘are you employed,’ the stoic sodier said.

‘yes. i work 5 miles from here at farm in panzig.’

‘do you have papers of employment?’

‘please wait here,’ though they didn’t they walked in and stood in the center of my house sizing up the structure.

         my girls hid behind their mother, and again followed her around the house, my little apprehensive ducks.

         after i showed them my papers the soldiers explained that they ‘are gathering men for the nazi folksturm, (they) are in need of men to help dig ditches here and to watch the bridges’, and if i knew anyone who is not employed and would be of service to tell them right away. i wouldn’t think of it.

        

         ‘they took him!’ helen said with tears welling up slowly in her eyes.

         ‘who?’

         ‘my brother, paul. you know they are not recruiting men, anton. they are recruiting boys and old men, they came here looking for father as well, i told them he was away on business for the month’ helen said,

’they are in desperate times when they take 15 year old boys and grey headed men make up the new recruits for the army.’

         ‘i have been seeing a lot of new faces in our village, i have never seen so many people in niederbilou in my life!,’ she said. ‘a lot of people in the town are packing up and leaving, do you think we should go anton?’

         ‘the russian front is moving closer, but for now we stay. i will ask around as to where we could go and see what i can find out from they mayor.’

         as i walked out the door i noticed that a few of the neighbors were gathered together with shovels in their hands, as i went closer i noticed that they also had plates, clothes, silverware, and a few had jewelry.

         ‘what is this about?” i asked.

         ‘they are here anton, the russian front will be at niederbilou any second now and you would do well to pack up and leave with us.’

         ‘but why the shovels?’

         ‘the mayor said we must. we have found a spot in the woods and are going to bury everything that we can not carry, when the russians have left we will dig them up and take up our lives where we are leaving them off.’

         i had never heard of such a thing,  as i walked away i wondered what i would take, what i would leave behind. we had made a wonderful little life here and even though i did not own a lot i knew what little i did have would be taken by russians.

         there were several people gathering in the streets and i could see the mayor, i could hear one man shouting about why he won’t leave,  and there was a woman weeping and pulling on his hand. no one wanted to leave. but no one wanted a war either.  i didn’t stay to listen to the arguments, there was no point. the people who wanted to stay seemed panicked, and those of us who were leaving were panicked.

         as i got home i walked in on my wife putting a few dresses into a potato sack, she looked at me as if i was going to have questions or be upset. i had neither to give. i helped pack up what i thought i could carry, i was used to this after all and knew what was going to be left on the side of the road by others.

         it was snowing as i set out to bury my humble belongings, i buried them away from the others because i didn’t want someone who stayed behind to bribe the russian troops with everyone’s buried belongings. as i was digging it felt like i was digging a grave, as if i was physically closing a chapter of my life. i saw in one of the bags my wife’s thin white wedding dress and i held it for a second and stared. it was at that moment that i realized that i would never see any of these belonging again. if all my prayers are answered then i will not have to raise my daughters in a nazi german, or a russian occupied area, i want to be free of war.

i was now burying them not to keep them safe or protected while i was gone, but so that no one finds them. this was their final resting place.

i do not morn their loss, there are much heavier things on my mind.

as i was walking back i saw a group of people walking slowly through the woods and snow, the majority of them just children.

‘anton?’

‘opalko?’

‘my friend! how are you? i did not know you are here!’

i had met opalko some years back, in a refugee camp on our way to germany.

‘yes friend, come to our home, please. how many of you are there?’

‘we now have 7 children, their mother, and i’

‘where have you come from in this time of year?’

‘we have walked from breslau, many, many miles from here. our village was shelled by russian artillery and we lost hundreds of people.’

we began walking to my home and my dear friend opalko told me the horrific story of his journey to our village. at first he would make his children cover their eyes when they saw a dead body, but after awhile the girls stopped crying at the site. they had past many lame or dying refugees and soldiers. he warned of the coming destruction if the russians made it here.

we had no idea where to put so many people, more and more refugees were pouring into our village and my house was much to small to house the four of us and the nine of opalkos family.

i talked to my neighbor sommer and we decided to build an underground bunker in the woods, if we got enough men together it would not take long. this would provide a roof over the refugees head and provide a safe haven in case we needed to leave our little home.

in just three days time we build a bunker that housed  22 people in all, we also joined in to help a few other neighbors to build some of their own. though the  labor was hard the process was rather uncomplicated as it was not intended to be a permanent structure. we started by digging a giant hole, something i was used to, then we would cut trees and used the larger pieces of wood as support walls, and the smaller pieces as a roof. in between the pieces of wood we would pack it with dirt, mulch, and grass. we made these makeshift bunkers even with the ground so that we would not be seen by either the germans or the russians. the germans only had the russians to worry about, the russians only had the germans to worry about… we had both.

it took a lot of food to feed the 22 people living in the bunker, we ate only what we had to and helen learned to stretch food for our little family for weeks on end. when i thought we were running low she would surprise me with a meal using scraps of this or that.  improvisation and thrift were not a character trait to be acquired but a way of life, and a devastating fact for me that this life was all my little girls knew.

the women were constantly baking bread, when i would leave for work they were baking and upon my arrival home i would find them in the same place. i told my employers about the plight of all these refugees in our town and they graciously gave me a pig to slaughter to help. people would harvest and collect potatoes from the peoples gardens and homes of those who had left our village.

one night after an intense bombing several kilometers away i lied awake thinking, it was inevitable that we were going to have to leave our village soon, but when i did not know. the youngest of my daughters crawled in bed with me, a normal occurrence when your lullaby sounds more like an earthquake then an orchestra.

‘papa, i don’t want to be scared anymore,’ she said as she burrowed her head into my chest.

what does a father say to this, what response could i have had in that moment. i did not say anything, i just held her little body a little tighter. i laid awake that night staring at the wood beams holding our home together. i wondered what was holding me all together. i was very small when i lost my sense of security, now here i am failing at even giving a false sense of it. we had to leave.

 

‘listen to me. it is time, this in not the plea of a mayor or a government, but of a man who has children and a wife just like you, who has worked with a shovel and a plow. we can no longer live in this town surrounded by both the germans and the russians,  but must make a life outside of all we have known, if the war ends soon then we will come back and pick up the pieces where we are about to leave off.’

‘where will we go anton?’ one of the men yelled in the back of the huddle.

‘it is either live life in fear here each and every day, or fear only the unknown.  i would rather be concerned with where i am going to lay my head to sleep tomorrow then to fear if i am going to even wake up tonight. i am taking my family to the bunkers we have built near the river nice. it is close enough that if the armies pass through we may be able to come back, but far enough away that the german army will not find us.’

the entire town packed their belongings in a rather calculated unison, there was a hush upon everyone’s lips, a nod here and there was the only acknowledgement that the other person knew you were alive. some were going to head west along the river, while others were going to try to cross the river nice to try to get from poland to east germany, and continue as far west as they could. i wondered if people were honest with themselves and knew that the majority of us would never be back. knowing that the russians would be here any day to pillage what was left of our community was a disheartening notion to leave on,  hoping ones house was going to still be here in the coming years was a prayer we would rather not waste our breath on.

most of the farmers had horses to pull the wagon, but because i was a machinist i was able to acquire an ox to pull my family and few belongings.  i knew how these long marches would go therefore packing what was essential for life, not quality of life.

in one single night the entire village had become a ghost of what it once was, once a  community thriving with a sense of unity had now because a hollow shell with no plans of a future existence. a few women were crying, the men had no time for consolation, there were more pressing matters at hand.         

we did not go with the rest of the villagers across the river, but watched them slowly fade into the forest. we went to where we had built our hidden bunkers deep in the woods, even though we knew that there were already so many people in the bunkers we would have to share will many other people.

‘anton!’

‘opalko.  it is good to see you again friend. is your family well?’

‘yes, each one of us is fine, all my children are alive and surviving the winter.’

‘opalko, i have many people in my family and i am going to have to ask you if we can stay with you the rest of the winter, if we are still here in the spring we will build one of our own.’

‘no need anton, your neighbor sommer, who we build a bunker for, has left to go west with the rest of the villagers. feel free to take it for you and your family.’

this was a great relief to me, because as of now there were so very many of us. there was the bettig family which had nine people, the opalkos also had nine in their family, and we were with four. twenty-two people in all, sixteen of the children were under fourteen years of age.

‘someone should go back anton’ helens father said.

‘to do what?’

‘we need to get the cows, they are tied down in a few stables in the town. we could use them for food, and milk. the children have no milk.’

‘we have no idea what army if any is in our town. it would be practically death to enter the town if either the russians or the germans are there.’

‘it would be worth it, i don’t know if all of us can make it through the rest of the winter, there are so many people anton, and not enough food.’

after wondering through the series of bunkers i realized that father was right, we couldn’t last on the handful of wild vegetables and food we brought from home. it also occurred to me that there were only a handful of us men, most had gray hair or were mere children.

i gathered the handful of men i felt able to go into town, five of us in total.

‘we must go back in town and…’

‘suicide! simply suicide’ one of the men exclaimed before i had a chance to even explain.

‘there is not enough food for us all’.

‘the red army has to be in the town by now, i am not leaving, and none of you should go either.’

‘we must,’ i began to find myself a little frustrated. ‘your children have no milk, my children complain of hunger before sleep even now. imagine what it is going to be like in a few weeks.’

‘you brought us out here to these god forsaken bunkers if anyone is to blame for us starving it is you.’

‘i never asked to be the voice of reason, you are free to go west with everyone else or back to the village. but if you stay here you will listen to me.’

‘i would listen to you if what you were asking was for me to die for a glass of milk for children. what you’re asking is suicide. come men, leave anton to scheme by himself.

only one other man left, leaving three of us to save us all.

‘i do not know if the army is there now, or even which army it might be. we will leave before dawn this morning using the dark to cover us.  i will be surprised if the livestock is even alive if either side has occupied our village.’

‘we are with you anton,’ my mother in laws younger brother johnathon said. ‘we do not have weapons, none of us do.’

‘hopefully we do not need any, hopefully we will never need any.’

chapter 4.

the next morning we met at dawn,  my mother in laws brother, and a farm hand named marcus. none of us spoke. there was no need to. we began to walk a half a kilometer off the road, following our route home but staying off the beaten path.

as we ran across a fork in the road i found myself face down in the dirt thrown with force intertwined with marcus.

‘down!’ he said.

just then two german motorcycles blared by with side cars in tow.

‘how did you hear them that quick?’ johnathon asked.

‘ i didn’t. i saw the cloud of dust moving upwards, like a charging cattle herd.’

i liked the young man from this moment.  we were then much more cautious from that moment on, and assumed that the nazi army had occupied our town. and we were correct. we rounded the corner to the east entrance of our town and standing in the way were tanks and soldiers.

‘we know the village better than them, we can move to the north and get the cattle from the outlying farms.’ johnathon said.

‘i am not sure that is such a good idea, i don’t want either of you to get caught.’

‘anton, we are with you, your not going to do this alone.’

‘ok, then we are going to move to the north, we will stay off the roads, and stay a kilometer from each other, that way if one of us gets caught the other two are not in danger. if we get separated then meet back at the bunkers at nightfall. i will lead.’ i could not tell if it was the temperature of the air or my fear of getting caught that was causing johnathons arms to shake.

as we crept around in the snow my hands were growing numb as my gloves absorbed the water of the melting ice.  i made my way north, using overgrown fields, trees, and the snow to hide myself. i do believer that there were that many soldiers in the town, it seemed that they were just setting up camps, more troops were slowly infiltrating the village.

i finally reached the northern most farm and from a distance saw marcus untying a pair of young calf’s behind the barn, they looked thin and underfed. not sure how he reached the farm before i did i began to walk through a clearing to meet him.

just then i saw two armed men walking out of the house, with a handful of bread they had stolen from the house. they were laughing as they were slowly making their way to the barn,

i tried to signal marcus but he was not even aware that i was there, if he were caught taking the cattle they would arrest him for stealing from the nazi’s , or worse. they were only paces away and there was nothing i could do to get his attention, my heart was racing because i knew at any second marcus would come into the clearing with the calf’s if i didn’t warn him first.

‘seig heil!!!!!,’ i yelled.

‘who is there!?!’ the soldiers yelled as the dropped their bread and grabbed their guns and aimed.

‘i am the farmhand here, a friend! a loyal friend, please take what you want, can i cook you breakfast?’

the guards approached cautiously, but i walked right towards them. out of the corner of my eye i saw marcus dive into the forest, safe.

‘where are your papers?’

‘here, here,’ i said reaching into my coat and pulling them out.

‘you are not allowed here, this town is now a military post.’

‘i had no idea! i live here on the outside of town, and don’t get out much. there is so much to do here i rely on my boss to tell me what is happening.’

‘we will take you to the west road, from there you are never to come back. if we catch you, you will be arrested immediately, now grab your belongings and lets go.’

as i walked into someone else’s farm house they seemed to follow me every step, i had to pretend that i knew where everything was.

‘would you care for some more bread, or fruit?’

‘the fruit is going rotten, how do you eat it?’

‘i don’t mind,  nothing a little sugar can’t cure.’

i opened up the drawer looking for a knife to cut the apples open, as the guard took a seat at the small wooden kitchen table. wrong drawer. wrong drawer again. i wondered if the guards caught on. i finally found a drawer with a few knives leaving the bigger one in there so if an opportunity arose i could grab it without them knowing.

‘hurry with the fruit, and grab your things.’

i ran into the farmer’s bedroom, grabbed a pillowcase and began to stuff some warm jackets, and clothes i thought my helen would wear. i went back into the kitchen and stuffed what food i could find in the cupboards into another pillowcase and we left the house.

as i walked away from the barricading tanks and guards i heard a few guards talking and i could not quite make it out except for the words ‘farmer, and folkssturm’.  i prayed at that moment that they would not come seize me and take me as a soldier, i had to get back to helen. as i rounded the corner i began to run as fast as i could, and into as deep into the forest as i possibly could, i threw the pillow cases into the brush and dove on the ground, hiding myself behind the largest tree i could. i heard a series of yelling and motorcycles rumbling past my position. i hoped that they were not after markus, or that they had not found johnathon.

i must have lain there for hours, nightfall had come and the roaring of motorcycles and soldiers had died down to almost nil. i went to gather the pillow cases and behind me i heard a low roar brushing through the trees and bushes.

         i laid there holding my breath when i heard what seem to be a haphazard trampling was coming right towards me, it had to be soldiers. then i heard a cow cry ‘moooooooooooo’,

         ‘shut that thing up marcus, do you want the germans to capture us?’

         my heart leapt to realize that it was my friends and in tow were two calf’s and two cows, and both men were carrying backs full of goods they had taken from our homes.

         ‘friends!,’ i said as they dove nearly out of their skin. ‘it is just me, look at all you have brought, this is wonderful.’

         ‘anton, you saved me, thank you thank you thank you.’

         ‘it is no problem marcus, you would have done the same.’

         ‘they could have arrested you, taken you to prison, or the folkssturm!’

         ‘you heard that too?’

         ‘yes i overhead  a soldier saying something at the kitchen table when you were packing up in the farmhouse.’

         ‘we cannot take chances anymore,’ johnathon said. ‘if we are caught in the shelters they will take what we have, and ship all of us off to the war.’

         i tore off my shirt and made long strips of cloth, tied them end to end and put them around the cows mouth so that they could not give away our position. i knew johnathon was right, we couldn’t take many chances anymore for if we were caught i am afraid we would not be heard from, like my brother in law paul, for some time if ever again.

as we walked back into camp a crowd gathered around our humble parade of cows and each person thanked us and began making preparations for maintaining the cattle. i noticed that the other men who though our mission to be suicide were absent but i assumed that they would be present when it was time to distribute milk and eventually meat.

‘there will be no more fires from now on, and no wondering anywhere near the road. there will be no exceptions if you wish to stay in this community.’ i expected to hear some complaints or at least an excuse as to why their fire is a necessity but in light of the recent victory no one said a word. i am not sure how i was placed as the leader of our glorious parade of cows and village, but i accept in the utmost hesitance.

the bunkers were sinister and utterly dark, there was only one way in and out, with no windows and very little sunlight coming through the dirt and brush. we were very well hidden as the only way for a soldier to find us is if they were lost and stumbled on our camp. we were all very cautious now, for weeks our lives existence in mere silence in these makeshift bunkers. as if even they innately knew the infants never seemed to cry. the cattle were only unmuzzled only to eat and for very short amounts of time.  we lived in fear of being drafted, or arrested, or worse. i questioned myself more than once a day if we should not pack up and head west, the constant barrage of bombings told us that we were not near the war, we were in it.  bullets were not the only thing that endangered us, the winter seemed as though it had decided to invade our country as well.

the river nice was well frozen over and the only way to get water was a continual cycle of bringing the snow into our bunkers and melting it, this process was continual because we had many mouths to quench.

‘anton, we need warmth at night,’ helen said, ‘and we must cook for our children can we start just one fire?’

‘no helen, we cannot, if our smoke was to be seen by soldiers, or our fires by the airplanes our position would be compromised. i will try to figure something out.’

‘i know you well anton, and i know you will.’

it had to be a small deep room, my mind started to race and i grabbed markus and johnathon and we began to conspire. i saw it all in my head and knew i needed to be practical and thought out. we began to create a small bunker that night, right in the middle of all the others. it was much deeper than it was wide because we did not want the fire to catch the roof, made of  dead sticks and leaves,  on fire. i knew we could not attach it to any of the other houses and improper ventilation would suffocate anyone in the room. we found a hollow log and used it as a makeshift smoke stack. it took us several nights to complete, but doing our best to not leave the bunker during the day leaves many hours to sleep while the sun is high.

‘the rule is no more than two people are to be in the fire bunker at a time, that way there is less traffic coming and going at night. the fire cannot be to big because we do not want it to get out of hand and catch anything else on fire. it can only be used at night as the smoke will not be as visible.’ helen stared at me with a half smile standing in the doorway of our bunker.

i was just about to walk into our place when i heard my wife say.

‘he never says i love you mother, but i hear it. i heard it in every word he said when explaining the rules of the new bunker.’

‘he is a good man, he cares for you and watches over your family.’ mother said.

i stood there, and turned around and walked away. she was right. everything in my life had changed. jobs, marital status, children, wars, rumors of war, death, & my life. the only thing that stayed the same was the Lord. i realized through this period of my life how important faith is to mankind. here in the bunkers people did not place their hope in moving west, or hope that the war would not come to our doorstep, it was hope in something greater than this earth.

i could not imagine a people without hope, without something else to live for. right now there are hundreds and hundreds of bunkers all over germany, and i cannot imagine how they live without faith. this world would feel so overgrown with bitterness and hate. i would be lost, we would all be lost.

it is truly amazing to hear helen each day, you would think that she talked to herself, but if you listen closely you can hear her day and night praying for her children and i. i have never seen another human take such joy in the simple things of life, even here she i catch her smiling. it continually throws me off, because i can not even begin to recall laughing.

         ‘what are you looking at helen?’ i asked catching my wife staring out of the opening of our burrow with a smile on her face.

         ‘shhhhh anton listen.’

         ‘is there someone out there?’

         ‘no not someone, something!’

         ‘what?’ i stopped and listened. ‘all i hear is a bird’

         ‘that is the song i am listening to. when all seems lost i just listen to the song in the woods, those birds have not one single care, they know no war. how much more does God care for us then them?’

who is she, what world did she come from, and how did i get so fortunate to be with her.

it had been one month to date, one month of hiding in the darkness of our bunker in the day, and darkness of nightfall. all seen and kept in silence. we did not know what would be worse, to be found by the russians, the germans, or the rest of the winter.  at times we would hear sounds in the forest, it sounded like each week the sounds would get a little closer. we all hoped it was a bear, but knew better.

‘opalko come with me, helen said that she heard the sounds again,’ i said crawling into his bunker.

         we had no weapons, and knew that bare hands were nothing against a russian or a bear, but i had to know how close the beast’s were coming to our hiding place.  we were trying our best to step on fallen trees or limbs as not to let our footprints in the snow lead back to our camp.

                  ‘you there!!!!!!’ on the ground now,’

         i swung around quick enough to see three rifles pointed at us and one soldiers running at opalko and tackling him to the ground. i put my hands up and got on my knees but was instantly kicked in the back and found my face drowning in snow.  we were both searched, and the flint in my pocket seized.

                  ‘who are you and what are doing here?’

                  ‘i am anton and this is opalko, we are both from the town, we have come out here to wait for your victory so we can move back into our homes.’

         one of the soldiers walked back off into the tree line and back towards the road, presumably to retrieve more soldiers.

                  ‘you are not supposed to be out here, if we were russians you would have been killed,’ the german said speaking up over to what sounded like tanks rolling on the road. ‘we are pulling out of the town and the russians will be here any day, to your feet.’

                  ‘your leaving?’, opalko said.

                  ‘yes and suggest you leave as fast as possible, over the river nice. you can stay if you want but you will be in the russians hands within days.’

                  they walked off, not returning my flint, and as fast as they came they were gone.

                  ‘why do you think they didn’t grab us for the folkstrum anton?’

                  ‘why do they need us to watch bridges that are in russian hands? they know that we would just weigh them down on their escape route and they have given up on our town.’

         just in case they were trying to follow us to our camp we split us and decided we would walk in circles for over an hour before going back to camp so we would throw off anyone trying to track us.

         when we got back to the camp opalko told everyone what had happened to us and exactly what the germans had said. we had a decision to make; we could either stay and take our chances with the russians or we could take the germans advice and move west now.

                  ‘the germans were just saying all that so you would move your family out onto the road and capture us,’ one of the other men said.

                  ‘well that is why this is an individual choice,’ i said. ‘we have tonight to sleep on it, i am not even sure what i am doing. but for those who want to leave i believe you should meet at daybreak and leave then.’

         there was such a commotion that day, people felt free to talk outdoors because they knew the germans were leaving, already a few people were visibly packing for the mornings journey.

                   ‘what are we to do anton?’

                  ‘i am not sure, but i think that if the russians are already here then they will be here for a long long time. and i do not know how many months, or years we can live here. if the germans found us, the russians can find us.’

                  ‘do you think it is a trap by the germans?

                  ‘i heard the tanks moving west as well, if it is this is a very elaborate trap, and if they wanted to they could have followed opolka and i here tonight.’

                  ‘i will start packing.’

         with the dawn came unbearable temperatures and the rumbling of artillery ever closer. the majority of us had packed up and met at dawn, a few people stayed back, staring out of the front of their bunkers. no one said anything or even exchanged a goodbye, fear has that effect on  people.

         i packed the oxen and cart, which were to carry the minority of possessions but the majority of our collective children.  the sun was busy watching us pack up and an occasional dark cloud would float by reminding us that the bombs were dropping closer to our village of niederbilau.  there was not much talking now, everyone was dealing with leaving our town, our bunkers, our life into the dark unknown. we had been trying to avoid this moment for months now, but the moment was finally here.

         opalko and i lead the way to the main road, we wanted to make sure that it was clear, and not a trap like the others presumed. as we reached the road there was not a soul in sight; not a soldier, not a civilian, nothing. as we looked back towards the town we saw billows of smoke. the germans must have set the majority of our town on fire, perhaps so the russians had no shelter or items to use to restock or replenish. i already knew that i would never see our town again. i do not think that this realization had hit some of the others in our group as i heard gasps and tears when the rest of the family reached the road.

as we began to walk marcus and johnathon lead the way so opalko and i could watch the rear, children, and carts.  the cart itself was a miracle because it was so old it looked as though it should have fallen apart years ago, it was so very heavy and when it would get stuck trampling through the woods it took practically all able bodies to push it past the stump or pothole. we were a massive group of people, consisting of mostly small children who did not understand the heavy hearts of responsibility that this caravan possessed.

         it is going to take us weeks to travel these six kilometers through the dense forest; short legs and three buggies being the contributing factor. as i looked all the aging faces in our group i noticed that only would look up and around and occasionally smile. at first i did not know what to attribute the contentment but i soon realized that through the snapping of wood and twig beneath the cart and the absorbent amount of explosions in the distance you could hear a still, small voice in the woods. listen to the small birds, content in war or peace, blessing or curse. much like my helen. 

chapter 5.

it has been nearly four weeks now, and we have not seen another soul. it has given many of us much concern, even to the point of letting our minds wonder and wondering if we were the last people alive. the fading explosions behind remind us that in fact we are not alone.

         finally we entered a clearing, it was as if our lungs were filled with fresh air as we soon realized we were approaching the small town of rotenburg. the sun was setting in an open sky behind a row of houses to the west, and it was perhaps one of the most breathtaking views my life; not because it was scenic but because we were out of harms way for the time being. we were free from hiding in the still black of the bunker, we were free from the fear of weapons and soldiers of our little town in nieder bileu. many people would consider people in our current state homeless, but i would say at this very second we are absolutely hopeful.

         the sun seemed to stay up just for us, just to see us into town and then he faded and said goodnight. in comparison to all the homes here in rotenburg there were astonishingly very few people to occupy them. we were thrilled to see other people and a few of the children ran to greet new playmates in the distance. as we began to talk to the local townspeople we began to realize that this town had a preliminary fear to what became of our town and had packed up and moved west.

         ‘and then they just packed up most of their things and moved on.’

‘but the front is several kilometers to hear, it could take months to get this far, my family and i are from nieder bilaw and it the war just arrived there’

         ‘well we are considering moving west as well, my family is old and if the war spread quickly we would be stuck here. the radio says that the war is to be over soon and that the russians are retreating in the north.’

         ‘the russians are moving west my friend, i have heard the artillery creeping towards my doorstep every night,  a much unwanted house guest.’

‘well i do not suggest you leave now friend, across the river there are many, many refugees all over the streets, so many in fact that there is not enough beds for the women and children, and not enough food for the men. ‘

         ‘we plan to continue west i believe, as far west as it takes to avoid this war. hopefully the war will be over, or the front will bypass us so that i can get my family back to their home.’

         that night we slept on the ground just like we had done throughout the walk through the forest. tomorrow i would look for shelter, but it was dark and did not want to disturb what was left of the neighbors looking for a place to stay. even though we laid in the grass and dirt on our ragged blankets we all slept so sound that night, the first time in what felt like years.

          i stood on the east side of the river nice i could see the town across the river, filled with so many people. like ants they moved around each other, looking for food, shelter, safety. i refused to be apart of that problem, we would stay here on this side of the river until we were ready to move across the river. the government was not taking care of these people, the townspeople talked of them as homeless and treated them like beggars. i did not understand why more would not spread out and get off the streets of the city, but i learned that the government was promising them this or that, with aid perpetually, but falsely, on its way.

          

         ‘what about this one johnathon?’ i said, pearling through the window of an abandon house.

         ‘these three in a row are all without a family, did you try the door, actually i would knock first.’

         ‘i did, i pounded on all the windows and doors, nothing. no one. it does not even look like they took anything of theirs, there are still bed sheets on this one.’

         ‘well  the two over there are barren and dusty, lets use those two tonight, and if no one comes back by morning we will take this one too.’

         it felt good to have the children finally able to rest their head under a roof instead of stars. the house was dusty and within moments helen was rallying the girls to help her dust and straighten.

         ‘expecting company?’

         ‘anton please. its just… well… this is someone’s house. there is someone right now who is wishing this war to be over and longing to be right here. their windows. their doors. their walls. to someone this is “home”.’

i had much more pessimistic views at this juncture in my life. i assumed they were simply dead.

there was a stall for the ox about 300 meters away from the small house, it was nice to tend to the animal and look back and see smoke coming out the chimney. helen and some of the women were over at our borrowed home cooking meals, doing laundry, and bathing the children. i took a deep breath and wished i could simply relive this day over and over for the rest of my life. momentary peace is the most prized possession in the midst of a war torn existence. everyone had looked, well, human again.   the children were once again laughing and playing as children should.  i could still hear artillery in the background, but no where remotely close to where we were, we were safe for now.

the kind neighbor who helped with the information was now packing up his house and elderly family. even though the roads were crowded with traffic moving west he needed a head start because of slower pace his family could travel. in exchange for helping him strap everything down and helping him bury some of his possessions he gave us some food and milk, the first milk my children had tasted in over 2 months.

the town across the river was erupting with movement the next day, it made us all nervous as to what was causing such the commotion so markus and i decided to cross the river and see what it was about. the bridge was busy with life; soldiers and beggars, townspeople and beggars, the wanted and unwanted. 

         ‘what’s happening, where is everyone going?’

         ‘the soldiers, the mayor, they are telling us that the russian artillery will be here any moment’.

my heart leapt and i stopped breathing for a split second.

         ‘but, but i don’t hear the artillery shells getting closer. where we are from you could hear the explosions moving slowly towards us.’

         ‘no, these are not from artillery my friend, these are from russian bombers… airplanes!’

i had never experienced such a phenomenon, we knew only tanks, and soldiers. our little town was no target to bombing raids. markus became visible nervous peering towards the empty horizon, that now looked more like an ominous unseen villain and less like the gracious savior we thought it to be a few days ago.

         ‘what do we do?’ markus asked as we made our way back to our borrowed home. ‘we should have stayed in the bunkers, at least there we could have dug in and perhaps hidden from the russians. we could have been more careful! we could have heard the tanks and not feared for airplanes!’

         ‘calm now.’

i could not appear in a panic, but the fear of the unknown perhaps may in fact be the most paralyzing fear of them all.  it seemed we were trapped, to the east were the advancing russians with their bomber planes, to the west were the germans advancing to hold their ground, not to mention the hoards of homeless trying in a hurry to flee the city. even helen looked uneasy when i told her the news, this is all we discussed into the late afternoon.         

                  the men had come over and we began to go back and forth the options we had, throughout the small meeting i could see fear seeped into the veins of every person here.

         ‘tomorrow i will ride the bicycle back to the bunker, it should not take me long as i do not have the children nor the oxen with me. if i ride by myself i will be able to hide more quickly and the closer i get to the bunkers the better i will know the forest in case i have to run from the russians.’

         ‘ill come with you,’ johnathon said. ‘your going to need one of us at least’.        

         ‘no, we need all of you to remain here with the children, in case you have to leave in a hurry and cannot get the oxen or cart hitched in time.’

we bowed to pray, as was the conclusion of every weighted decision was made.

as if hell had opened up its gaping mouth and every voice of every damned soul screamed their torture at the same time the earth shook and fire and brimstone to the soundtrack of russian planes dropping their malevolent cargo. my knees trembled instantly and you could hear screaming from within the city as if it were the next house over. the children all ran into helens lap and the men ran out of the house in search of their family.

         ‘what do we do…?’ helen shrieked.

         ‘get into the basement! all of you. NOW!’

the roof was begging to spew dust and now i realized it was not my knees shaking, it was the earth moving underneath me under the power of the bombs being dropped from the heavens. machine guns blazed towards the sky, and i ran out to go check on the others.

         ‘what do we do?’

         ‘it looks as though the fighting is across the bridge, the russians do not care about these little houses, i am not sure they can see us from the sky.’

         ‘should we go to the forest? we should get as far from this as possible!’

         ‘yes, but there we will have no cover. take your children and go to helen, ours is the farthest shelter from the city and we will decide on what to do next i am going to go check on opalko.’

i ran to a house and peered in the window where the light was coming out of the windows, i opened up the door to find that there was just a mother and a little girl living there. i put out their fire because i was afraid that it would draw unnecessary attention from the sky above, and told them to follow me and we ran to the house.

         ‘please don’t leave me again, anton. please’

         ‘i will keep you safe here, helen.’

as we all sat there in the kitchen under makeshift barriers, we jumped and clinched every time we heard a screech or an explosions. it began to be much like thunder in the fact that when you heard the screech you knew approximately how far it was away and how loud it was going to be. flashes and bullet fire kept us awake, but began to let up just a few hours before dawn. some of the kids were even able to fall asleep, surprisingly. we heard tanks moving constantly, heading to and fro, and many of them sounded like they passed right by our house, to the long bridge over the river nice to the western side.  

chapter 6.

as dawn approached there was silence, all the tanks must have made it across the river because there was an daunting stillness in the morning mist.  as i went outside i could see german soldiers trying to cross what was left of the bridge with their heavy anti-aircraft guns. the bridge was in such disrepair that most of the nazi infantry were crossing through the river itself.

besides a few officers yelling ‘schnell, shnell’ it was quiet. and the ground was no longer moving.

as i approached the river bank i noticed that the pace had picked up and soldiers were now running, and stopped walking towards the bridge. in the distance i could see german artillery being set up on the river, and many men were scrambling.

         just then i heard a look pop sound, and a small billow of smoke pour from the minute mouth of an artillery shell, the all to familiar whistle was, was flying straight over our head.

                  ‘IN THE BASEMENT!’ i yelled and just then the forest behind my house exploded into a panic of fury and fire. never before had we come so close to the sound we knew so well. the forest not a kilometer behind our house was opened up and a new horizon was instantly created.

         less then half a kilometer away i saw a site i had never seen since arriving in germany, a russian tank broke the peace of the forest line and began firing across the river, we did not have to guess where the front was, we were the front.  i ran down the steps practically jumping all the way down the staircase where from the basement we could hear the beams of the house shaking free and crashing on to the floor above us.

         up to this point in my life i have never died, but i know what hell must be like. i could hear windows above us breaking as a pack of stray bullets were unleashed on our house. my little girls faces were buried in my lap, and  the tears of my youngest were soaking my thighs.

         i pray. but at this moment i was not praying, i was furiously appealing my case before the thrown room of God himself.  i often wondered how Christ prayed so hard in the garden of gethsemane that blood literally poured from his brow, i may not have bleed, but i could not fully and completely understand.

the clamor of shots fired from tanks were becoming more rampant, but now it was coming not from across the river, but near our house. the russians had advanced and now the germans would be shooting directly at our basement.

this was my fault, all of it. it was my idea to move west from the bunkers. it was my idea to stay here and not leave with the refugees upon arriving here. my little girls blood is on my hands now. there was no where we could go, we could not run west as the forest is alive with inferno. we can not go east because the little ones cannot cross the river because the bridge is out.

only six feet under and were already in our graves.        

         for the first time since my childhood i felt a warm watery substance collecting near my nose and running slowly down my cheeks. ‘lord, if you want to punish me please do not punish me hear, i do not want the innocent lives all lost because i did not listen to you. save us here. keep us safe here.’  i put my hand in my face and wiped the tears before helen could see them.

         ‘STOY!

                  ‘STOY!’

         the russians were at the entrance of our house and yelling at whomever might be in the home. i ran up the stairs in hopes that i might be able to convince them that i was the only one in the home, and perhaps shoot me and no one else. Jonathon and marcus ran after me, which ruined my plan.

         ‘let me do the talking,’ i said.

                  ‘comrades!, i said beginning now to speak in russian, ‘i am from the motherland, but have been recalled by the nazi. please  please let us go back west towards russia, we are simple refugees here.’

                  ‘who is there with you?.

                  ‘just some helpless women and children, we have no weapons or food.’

                  ‘you must get out of here, this entire city will be on fire by nights end, go now.’

         at that the soldier ran ahead to the next house and i ran down the stairs to get the family. i could not believe that the russian soldier had such temporary grace on a fellow ‘russian’. i still felt the tear from moments before and as i looked it i stood still momentarily remembering the prayer i just prayed and thanking God.

                  ‘get to the stall johnathon, you and marcus get the ox ready.’

                  ‘we don’t have time!’

                  ‘we have to make time, we have to many children and to short of pace to make it out of here alive.’

         as they went to the stall i saw one of the house that opalka had stayed in just a few nights before explode, even markus and johnathon fell to their knees. bullets poured over our heads and the sky began to blacken with the billows of smoke coming from the forest behind us and the city before us. i don’t think the sun should see this anyway, it has seen much, but this heartache is something i don’t even think she could bare.

                  ‘do you think we should leave?’ opalka asked me.

                  ‘we have no choice, if we stay here we will die, we have to make our way into the forest and back to the road to the east. it is the only chance we have to survive. ‘

         while we were packing up the children onto the cart the greatest of the fighting was happening right around us, dead or wounded bodies were carried right beside our cart and i ordered the children to cover their eyes.  the russian planes flew so very close to our heads, it felt like i could pick up a rock and hit the bottom of them. they sounded like thunder as they flew to their fulfill their mission.

         with wagon readied we began our slow march to the heart of the coming russian front.  we saw grenades coming and going, and explosions in the distance to prove they had reached their destination.

as we reached the forest line we could hear overhead bullets showering the treetops, like tens of woodpeckers determined to tear apart the wood.  the children were crawling on the ground behind the wagon like little ants, and the men were hovering over them to try to block any large falling  limbs that might have been sawed off by the menacing ‘woodpeckers’ above. we were only 300 meters when all of sudden the ox stopped dead in his tracks.

                  ‘move that ox!’

                  ‘i can’t anton, it will not move’.

                  ‘everyone, help move it, stand here in the back and push! push with all you’ve got!’

         just then several treetops fell only a few paces away from us as if lightning had snapped them off with ease.           while putting my back to the back of the part and digging in with my feet i looked up and saw little two year old annie, standing still in her tracks meters away.  she was smiling, as she said ‘daddy, daddy,’ as if she had not one care in the world. here i am sweating, bleeding, dirty with mud all over my body and here is annie in her white rabbit coat, trusting her daddy for protection. i sent her eight year old cousin val to run back and get her.

         the ox would still not move, not half a mans step.

                  ‘unload the belongings, we have to lighten the load if we are to move this stubborn ox’

 we got all heaviest items off, even some of the food and coverings and again pushed until we had little strength left.  father bettig slumped to the ground with exhaustion and was frustrated with this relentlessly stubborn ox.

                  ‘anton,’ marcus said from the front of the cart, ‘come here, there is something i think you will want to see.’

         as i walked to the front of the cart i stopped in my tracks much like the ox, there just paces ahead of the ox were ground mines littering the path ahead of us. the germans must have placed them on the ground to stop the advancing russian military not taking into consideration that the russians might just trounce through the forest itself.

                  ‘the ox must have sensed something wrong. he knew what he was doing.’

         as father bettig came around he stepped in front of the ox to examine the finding, and as soon as he did that the ox followed. wherever father bettig went, so did the ox.

we reloaded the wagon to the sound of bullets hammering the tree line around us, and continued on our way. father bettig cautiously lead the ox, and the children crawled on hands and knees behind the ‘stubborn’ yet life saving ox.

at points the road was the dividing line between the german and russian fighting, rounds were fired within feet of us, and once a few soldiers used us for cover assuming the nazi army would not fire on innocent civilians, they apparently did not know their enemy that well.

there was a faint whistle and then a loud THUD. something massive dropped right in front of the cart as we were coming through to where the road narrows, i thought it was a large animal darting from then father bettig yelled….

         ‘STOP! STOP!’

 

         none of us moved, and catching the profile of his face i saw that he had turned a ghastly pale white within one single second. he let go of the ox, his hands dust dropping in surrender to his side. something was wrong. horribly wrong.

                           ‘back up slowly, all of you. tell the children to run. oh God help me, help us all…!’

         the rest of the prayer was inaudible but i imagined it to be much like my basement contract with the heaven above. every man has secrets or vices they knew they should surrender at any given moment, but it takes death or failure to lay it out before God himself sometimes.

         the children got quite far back and as i was backing up i looked under the cart and there, standing lodged into the ground vertically just a few paces in front of father and the ox there was a large metal cylinder, still traces of smoke pouring out various points in the metallic body. it was just resting there, as if it were catching its breath after an elongated flight.

          we  were almost feet away from a direct hit from german artillery, no one moved, well no one that saw it moved. i could hear people behind us yelling, asking questions, but those who saw felt it could be their breath or motion that set off the trigger and killed us all.

         one by one we backed up. those who escaped the radius yelled at the others to get at least a few meters back. after a few minutes it was down to me and father, he was frozen so i had to grab the strap to the ox and begin to turn him around.  the ox came willingly knew what lay before him. father stood there well after i was on my way out of the radius. i think he was literally looking death in the face and instantaneously reconciled, believed, doubted, internalized, and philosophized the meaning of life in that moment.

         i do not remember father opening up his mouth to speak for some time after that. 

         we made our way around death by marching through the radius and tried to make our way back towards the road once we believed we were out of the threat of the artillery exploding. this was very time consuming as the cart was wide and the trees were not planted with us in mind. we saw many soldiers, alive and dead. by this point we stopped covering the children’s eyes, there was to much.

         there were substantial hollow points in the ground, dug up and smoking from the impact of either bombs or artillery or both.  as we made our way back to the road i saw what was left of a soldier, there laying next to him was a gun. i walked right past it, we had made it this far in the war i do not want to become apart of it now.

         once we made it back to the road we were once again in the middle of the war. germans on one side and the russians on the other. how we survived is miracle our grandchildren will speak of, twenty two people walking at a ox and child’s pace and yet not one hair on our head was touched.

         we would watch as russians would run across the road yelling and firing, firing and yelling. then a kilometer later we would see germans running into the russians forest and yelling and firing.

         the entire time we were walking any time i would walk close to helen i could hear her praying, not one breath was kept for her lungs alone. every inhale of exhale were all used invested in us. she was still calm, this entire time, looking more like she was deep in thought on a pilgrimage than in the middle of a war zone where death was stealthily stalking us from all sides.

                  ‘the children have to eat,’ my mother in law said.

                  ‘we don’t have time, we must keep moving.’

                  ‘one of them almost fainted, they are not as strong as you men.’

                  ‘then take little time, and move them off the road. helen knows where the rest of our dried meat is, tell her to give them the rest as we need the strength for a day like this.’

         a few russians were a few hundred feet away from us just staring, watching everything we were doing. this was nothing new, but we were just standing here now, and a few of them were now pointing in our direction.

                  ‘we should get moving anton.’

                  ‘go and hurry the women as fast as they will go. and get yourself some bread as well.’

                  ‘i’m fine.’

                  ‘get some bread marcus, and bring some for the rest of the men as well. with meat.’

         the soldiers kept a watch, but i believe that they had much more to worry about then a the few men and women coming and going from the woods, but as soon as the children came out from the forest the soldiers moved in on us.

                  ‘what do you have in the bags there comrade?’

                  ‘a few loaves of bread, and a few things that we will need along our way back to russia’.

                  ‘oh, your going all the way back to russia in this weather. well i am not sure with this winter and war weighing you down that you will need all this food.’

         at that the handful of soldiers moved in and took what they liked. fathers tools, what was left of helen’s cooking utensils, and the majority of our bread. they cut open the bags and put carbide powder in them.

                  ‘please, i have 21 people to feed on this journey, we need as much bread as we can get.’

                  ‘you have plenty, and women here to bake it for you. you are lucky that we don’t take it all. now move along we are moving in the tanks and the fighting is going to be even more than what you have seen here today. move along’

         i had no idea how we could ever see more fighting then we had seen today.  most peace time soldiers throughout history past have never experienced what we have gone through in this one day.

                  ‘my turn father, i will lead the ox. if i step on a mine no one else will be hurt.’

         with that he said nothing and handed me the worn leather strap. the ox began to move so fast that we could hardly keep up with it. it to was ready to be done with this unspeakable day.

         the forest had become more dense and we felt better knowing that we had the cover of the trees so close together, but still an occasional treetop would break off due to heavy machine gun fire or perhaps anti-aircraft fire. the farther from rotenburg and the river the better off we were, or at least the better off we felt.

in this silence, and due to the fact that we were still alive i can safely say that there is not a single one of us that doubted that there is a God above. not that we doubted before but that you could not shake our faith in the face of any kind of ridicule, torture, or threats of death. only a God could have saved us from the hell fire that we have walked through today.

we had walked around too many land mines at this point, and the ox seemed in such a hurry that it almost pushed me into one, so we began to walk a few paces into the woods. from the forest we could follow the road and still avoid them. go into detail of what the mines might have looked like.

from rhotenburg back to our bunker it was about 10 kilometers, our pace was faster getting back, we had much ‘motivation’ to return. upon our arrival back to the bunkers there was a sense of relief. even though they were only holes in the ground covered up by sticks and mud we felt like we were back home.

we should have never left, and i know that now. i was waiting for someone to come out of hiding and greet us, i was waiting for some of the men to emerge from the bunker and gave me that same look as when we were leaving. but there was nothing of the sort. there was nothing.

the bunkers were empty, not a trace of life. perhaps they moved back west, or tried to follow us east. or they were found by the russians. either way there was no trace.  this concerned a few of us, but only for a minute because as soon as we walked into our ‘home’ almost everyone fell instantly asleep. they felt safe here, this was all familiar, we had spent many of months here without harm so we slept.

i woke up right before dawn to check on the children, the neighbors, and the family, and as i suspected everyone was sound asleep. as i walked back down into my own bunker i saw my little wife sitting up, leaning against the back of the bunker with her hands combing through our little daughter, helga’s, hair.

‘do you think we will hear from my brother, ever?’ helen asked

‘it is the german army, they are unpredictable. but paul is probably digging a ditch, or watching a bridge somewhere. i wouldn’t worry he is much to young at 15 years of age to be fighting a mans war. ‘

‘i find myself staring at every soldier that walks by, even if they are russian just looking for him’

‘i am sure we will hear from him soon. but for now you must rest, we have had a long and hard journey and you need your sleep.’

         ‘anton.’

         ‘yes’

         ‘will it always be like this?’

         ‘no. i’ll see to it that it is not.’

and with that she slid down the wall slowly and curled up next to her daughter. i lied awake wondering if i could promise something so lofty. all i could do was try.  my mind began to race for the hour or so before the sun came up, making plans, trying to figure out what to do next, regretting the predicaments that i had put us in by making plans and figuring out what to do next.

chapter 7.

the first morning back to our once lost home and we all felt safe, hidden. you could see it in the children’s faces that emerged from the ground like small woodland animals, their faces were bright and believe i even saw a smile. it seems like the woman picked up right where they left off, using the fire bunker only at night and gathering what they could from the forest only during the day and within sight of the bunkers.

         ‘anton, you must come with me, you really must see this.’ marcus said in a whisper.

i followed marcus as he made his way crept subtly into the woods as to not draw attention to our mission.

         ‘i left at daybreak to go and check out nieder bielau. i never made it to town, on the way i found this.’

and with that we crept behind some broken limbs, quietly. he put his finger over his mouth and pointed for me to look around the corner of the tree. within 300 yards of our bunker there, like ants rebuilding their hill, were at least 15 russian soldier. some were pouring sand and dirt into sandbags, while others were hoisting up an artillery station with levers and pulleys. the bunkers were not as safe as they had first seemed.

         ‘if they build up made a clearing for artillery then the airplanes can spot them, and if the planes are aiming for them…’

         ‘there aiming for us. yes. lets make our way along them, i want to see nieder bielau.’

we made our way to the outskirts of the village. what was a nazi post had now become russian, and by the looks of it both sides had had their way with our little province.

random artillery shells were thumping the small village here and there. sparse but still sending the message that the germans were still in range and they were not leaving anytime soon. the russians had dug in and the town was now an artillery distribution point for them, the rubbish from what was our homes were now barriers from german  weaponry. 

we had to get back to the bunkers. but then what. where do we go? we have tried to go east. if we move west there is only the long trek back to russia and encountering the barbaric russian soldiers would be worse then the last winter.

as marcus and i began walking toward the bunker i began to think that our best bet was to slowly move deeper into the forest. bunkers that were deeper underground, better fortified. we were only 50 yards away when marcus and i began to hear a muffled screaming.

‘what is it, what’s happened!”’

                  more muffled screams.

         ‘i don’t see anyone! where are they?’

but the closer we got we realized that the screams were coming from within the bunker. right outside one of the entrances to the main bunker was a large smoking divot in the earth. artillery. german artillery trying to hunt our new russian neighbors had hit so close to the bunker that it had buried our families inside.

marcus and i got on our hands and knees and began digging as fast as we could, so fast that my hands did not feel the debris, sticks, shards of metal, or my blood now streaming from ripping through such things. i did not know who was hurt, or worse.

as we got through i began to grab the little ones hand, blood now intertwined and i dug even faster. they were all gasping to get out. all of us clawing to reach each other. helen was the first one out.

         ‘who is hurt?

         ‘just one of opalkas son, not badly though. he just sliced open his hand on the side of the bunker while running in!’

         ‘what happed?’

         ‘well we were all in our own bunkers, very few of us outside. we began to hear a noise very close, it sounded like something very close was shooting at the russians.’

         ‘yes, marcus just showed me a russian outpost very close to here.’

         ‘i yelled at the children to get inside the bunker, and then we heard shells from the germans began exploding not far from here. the child ran in and cut his hand badly and was screaming, everyone ran in our bunker to see what was the matter and just then the loudest explosion i have ever heard, and right outside the door. i couldn’t hear anything. everything was ringing and when i picked myself up i couldn’t see, the bunker door was gone and i only a few gaps in the bunker roof gave us any light.’

a few feet over. the death of everyone that i care about was a few feet. i think this is the moment where the wars of man felt the closest to home. i never cared about my own life. i have seen to much death in my life that i do not fear what men can do to me. but what men can do to my family, that is what i fear the most.

i brought the men into the fire bunker that night. we had to make the hardest decisions. while asking them i thought for a second on why i did not ask them women into such resolution making assemblies. but then it occurred to me that we were about to make life and death decisions, if one of their children died due to their decision they would never be able to live with themselves. if we, the men, died do to our resolution then there would be no blood on anyone else’s hand. we sealed our own fate.

         ‘what do we do?’

‘what can we do?’

         ‘we can leave.?

                  ‘and go where. our village is gone, we can not go west or east. to the north and south we will run into the same.’

‘we are alive, here.’

         ‘but if we stay the russians are sure to find us, they are within a kilometer of where we sit right now.’

         there was a long pause. each man was playing out his own scenarios to each one of the decisions. and none of them turned out the way they wanted them to.  i broke the silence.

                  ‘we will stay, at least till spring. then the children will be able to walk faster. hopefully the russian front moves farther into germany and we will be left alive, here.’

                  ‘we must build the bunker deeper than, and fortify it with even more wood, and if we find it, scrap metal.’

                  ‘agreed. and we must be minimal in our movement. only the men are allowed to leave sight of the bunker, and if you go then go alone, we cannot take the being captured and losing two men.’

                   ‘we could start digging tonight, we will all stay in opalkas bunker tonight, everyone; women and children. we will all help dig through the night.’

         it pains me to think that this is the childhood that my children are going to remember. helen and i talk about it often. i did not have a good childhood at all, but i am a man, and men don’t think on such things. i have a family now, and every father wants to give their children what they did not have. i have given my children nothing but a hole for a home, a bed of dirt, blanketed in fear.

         i never had time for a childhood. watching your brother starve to death in the midst of a russian revolution, constantly fearing for ones life, and at moments only bark to eat, are good cause for the loss of a childhood. wars and rumors of war were not a prophesy but a reality for almost my young existence on earth. i was born into the war torn ukraine where stoicism seemed more rampant than vodka.

death was nothing new when i was just a boy. my mother died when i was very young leaving my brother phillip, father, and me behind. my father married again and she had two children, peter & maria. then she died. my third mother was of czech decent and had four children, all girls.

that was then.

 

         now, i have a family of my own, and there were so many of us here. as the  salient sun came rising up i looked around at the huddling families trying to sleep i glanced around the room and saw so many children.  baby twins that belonged to the opalko family, henry, the youngest of the bettig family was only 1 ½. my little helga was only five months old now, and mother bettig just informed us that she was pregnant. again. with so many children we did not have many options now. 

         many of the people would talk to each other about how the war was sure to end soon, i think it is human nature for man to hope. i think they were speaking positive so reality seemed a little less dim. i would nod my head in approval but the reality was i was not concerned with tomorrow, i was to busy keeping my family alive today.

         gathering fire wood was easy as there was plenty of wood laying around the forest due to the fact that we were bombarded on a daily basis. it was hard because we had no axes and we never went together, therefore bringing back massive logs were quite hard. we also could only store the fire wood in our bunker as we could not make our little part of the forest lived in. if a soldier did walk past we would not want anything to look out of the ordinary, like a pile of logs stacked up.

         signs of spring were coming, green plant life was slowly breaking from the snow and even signs of life were forming in the trees above. it was going to be harder to find snow to melt for water and i knew that we were going to have to figure out a way to catch spring water for drinking but also an irrigation system to keep that same spring rain out of our bunkers. my mind was racing with possible ideas.

         father bettig, jonathon, and i all went our separate ways to find wood for cooking, it was a daily ritual and very few times did we ever even come close to encountering any soldier. i had not gotten very far when i  started breaking a few larger pieces of wood when from behind me and quite far away i heard…

                  ‘stoy! stoy! STOY!’

         i turned around just long enough to see four russian soldiers running right towards me. how careless could i be! my mind raced with what to say, but i began to speak in russian, which seems to detour somewhat.

                  ‘hello friends, it is just me. i have no weapon!’

                  ‘who are you and where do you come from!’

                  ‘my name is anton lived in the ukraine, i was told by russia to move to germany against my will. i now live in this little town, and have been hiding here since the germans took it over.’

                  ‘are you alone? where are your friends?’

         just as i was about to open my mouth two guards yelled in the opposite direction, as i turned around i saw that they had father bettig, they had caught the both of us. we were much to close to lie, if i had not told them the truth and they found the bunker then we would have been taken for sure.

                  ‘it is just me and my family, we have many children and have been hiding from the germans out here.’

                  ‘take us, take us to your home. NOW!’

         they began to yell at us over and over, saying that ‘we were nazi sympathizers’, they called us ‘wolosovits-partisans’ and that they were going to take us away if we were lying. by this point in the war i had lost all my papers, i had no proof i was even alive.

                  ‘where is your family you partisan’

                  ‘they are here.’

         i opened up the bunker to show them our bunker, they seemed to look right past the women and children and like rabid wolves began to take everything else we had. food, clothes, even my winter leather coat was taken.

                  ‘comrade, come here!’

                  ‘what is it soldier,’ the officer said.

                  ‘it’s a map, a map of this whole area.’

                  ‘ahhh we are not dealing with russian refugees, we are dealing with spies!’.

         for the next two hours they integrated us and finally decided that there was nothing else for them to take of ours.

                  ‘take what is left of your things,’ the soldier said,’ your coming with us tonight. you are going to a gathering camp.’

                  ‘please, take us at daybreak, we have many children to feed and they get tired so very easy. it will be much easier to take us in the morning.’

         after talking about it for some time the soldiers told us to stay here for the night, rest up, and they will come back for us in the morning. if we were not ready there would be ‘hell to pay’. i thought to myself how that we have paid hell, for a war we never wanted, and now are in a country where we ourselves are not wanted in.

         gathering camps are atrocious, they capture people who came from russia, the ukraine, or any other eastern block countries and sent back to russia. we have heard that people are treated like animals, their possessions taken, and some do not even make the trip. with 22 people, and most of the children. on top of this at the gathering camps the men are usually taken off to war, they have been known to tear apart families. this was not an option i was willing to take with my little family.

         why didn’t i take my family over the river nice. it is not the soldiers, but we who are the living casualties of war. i have no idea now what to do, the russians are coming in the morning, the nazi artillery could visit us tonight. i missed my chance to cross the river to the west, but now might have my family taken to the east.

         i wanted to consult the men, but this time for some reason i found myself inside my wife’s embrace.

                  ‘what do i do helen? what do i do? ‘

         she began to pray, she did not tell me what i should or should not do. she simply prayed. i was asking for answers but she prayed that i might have direction. my heart was heavy, i wanted to lie down and sleep this whole terrible dream off, but i stayed. in her arms.

                  ‘we will leave first thing in the morning, we will move west away from the front, we can’t be taken to the gathering camp.’ i heard from behind me. it was father bettig, as of late he rarely spoke, but when he did i listened. ‘now get some rest.’

chapter 8.

before dawn in the cover of darkness we packed everything up on the cart, the soldiers were most likely not anticipating us to leave voluntarily  and were not likely to arrive for some time.  as we made it to the road, and then to the village with the ox, the women, and the children we saw that what was left of the village was crawling with the russian army. they inhabited every house, every stable, every crease of every crevasse. 

         on the roadside were massive amounts of bodies on either side of us, some russian, some german, some civilians. mother thought she knew one of the civilian bodies and went to check but the russians told her to move along and not touch anything. i think they wanted to be the first ones to search the bodies to take what they wanted.

         and take what they wanted they did, more than once we were stopped and ‘searched’. the soldiers seized whatever they wanted and by the time we made it through the town they had taken all they wanted, and we had only the ox, the cart, and the women and children left.

         we were all cold and tired as we reached the edge of the town, we could not go into the forest to sleep because everything we used to sleep on was taken. the temperature had dropped significantly and we needed a place to stay but every house we attempted to stay in were occupied by the russians. finally after much searching a russian lieutenant in one of the houses offered us a room to sleep in. we were with twenty two people, and the kitchen he allowed us to sleep in was so small that we had to put the babies in the corner, and the men slept sitting up on the doorway.        

         we were so hungry, to the point of tears for the children. we did not have much food in the bunkers, we were trying to ration it out for our trip, but what we did have was taken by the troops. i searched everywhere, only coming up with less than a handful of food to feed all twenty two of us.

         there was a long banging on the door and a we heard a loud yet inaudible  conversation between the lieutenant and a couple of drunken soldiers. one of the russian soldiers stumbled into the kitchen and looked around at us laughing,  he took a gulp of vodka yelled at helen to get up.

                  ‘she is not going with you, that’s my wife.’

                  ‘she is coming with me. she is going to do my laundry. if she is fast she will be back here soon enough.’

                  ‘she is not going to do your laundry, we are russians, find someone else to do it.

                  she walked over to helen and grabbed her wrist, i stood up in between them and pushed her down and then put his gun into my chest. several other soldiers had now come into the room because of the commotion. in a quiet voice that almost sounded sober he said

                           ‘i will kill you. i will take anyone i want out of this room.’

                           ‘let her go anton,’ mother bettig said. ‘they will kill you. i will go with her.’

         and with that the soldier smiled as he grabbed helen’s wrist and lead her out, mother followed them all out.  with that i ran across the room towards the door to chase them and i was tackled by the other men.

                  ‘what good is a wife to a dead man, they won’t kill her. they will kill us all if you go out there, starting with you.’

         i began to pace the room, i had no idea where they would take them, or what these drunk men were going to do.

                   i did not sleep.

         awake.

still.        

                 

 

 

 

it has been hours.

 

it was just an hour or so before dawn and the children were fast asleep, father bettig was praying and i would join him occasionally , listen, then eventually resume pacing the little floor we had. then i heard a cart pull up and a thud, thud. i heard some talking, something about ‘poland paper,’ and then silence.

i held my breath as the front door to the house opened, there standing at the front door was mother, who was holding helen. they both looked so crushed and it looked as though they had cried for hours.

         ‘what happened.’

‘not now,’ mother bettig said. ‘let her sleep.’

i took my wife and held her in my arms, like she had done for me only the night before. she began to cry and her body practically went limp in my grasp. i laid her down next to her children and she held them tight.

         ‘what happened please. i must know.’

‘come outside anton.’

as father, mother, and i walked outside i could see that her face looked as though she had been hit, traces of dried blood were around the corners of her mouth.’

         ‘are you ok, father please get her a wet cloth.’

         ‘i am not sure how far they took us, it felt like the other side of camp, i don’t recognize anything because everything has been laid to waste and rebuilt into military posts. they took us into a room full of soldiers and a few of them threw their cloths at us, to watch yelling in russian thinking we did not understand what they were saying. they were saying such horrible things, and so we tried to get out of there as soon as possible.

         as we went outside to wash we became somewhat of a spectacle to all the neighboring houses and were being harassed by several russians. we were then called into another house to get their clothing but when we went in…’’

         ‘yes…

 

 

what mother, go on.’

         ‘when we went in one of the soldiers began to dance with helen, then started to touch her, i yelled at him saying that she was a married women, in russian, and that he should not do such a thing.

         at this the man began to strip off her clothes to the amusement of his comrades, anton… 

         they raped her.’

there are those moments in life when it all stands still. all of it. as if there is a mirror and you can literally look at yourself, holding your breath,  knuckles white, eyes red and focused. this was that moment.

         ‘ i am going to kill them, i want to kill them all.’

         ‘wait! anton, there is more.’

         ‘more? more? how can there be more. i have heard enough.’

         ‘i was so devastated i was hysterical yelling and screaming, yelling for them to stop, who would do such a thing to a young girl in front of her mother.  i made such a such a fit that they soon became tired of the entire thing and turned their attention towards me, one of the officers said ‘i have heard enough from the old woman. take her outside and kill her.’ i froze, helen and i locked eyes as i was being dragged outside to be shot. he took me behind the building near the stable and held began to load his gun. my entire life passed before my eyes, i saw each one of my children in my head and was crushed because they would never grow up without a mother.

         i was laying on the ground and got on my knees and began to pray for each one of my children by name. if i was to die it was going to be with a loud prayer for my children and my husband on my lips.  he cocked his gun and the stopped, and listened to me. he took his gun from off my forehead and put it to my side. ‘my grandmother prayed just like that when i was a boy. i remember going to church when i was just a child and she would put me on her lap and pray just like that.’. he looked around and saw a horse and attached a cart full of hay to it.

         he then told me to get in the cart and hide myself in the hay and not to come out no matter what. he then stood a few feet back and fired his gun into the air, and ran off. a few minutes later he came back out helping helen walk out to the stable. he picker her up and put her in the cart and made sure we were both underneath the hay, then he stood back and fired his gun again.

         we just laid there underneath the hay holding hands, crying softly, and praying. a few hours past and then we heard footsteps and held our breath. it was the young soldier, he came out jumped on the horse and took us back here. he saved us, we were supposed to be shot and that russian saved us.‘

i was devastated, but not for me, i have known of many atrocities in my life, and even seen this with my own eyes in refugee camps. but helen, my innocent sweet young helen. at this second my empathy far outweighs my need and desire for a brutal revenge.

                  ‘anton!?, where is anton?’ i heard from the doorway.

                  ‘i am here helen, outside with your parents.’

                  ‘please come back inside, i am scared, come to bed.’

as i laid there holding helen i hoped that helen didn’t notice that my tears had wet the back of her beautiful black hair. i wanted to keep her awake reassuring her that everything was going to be ok. if we survived this long, God himself must have a reason.

the next morning i woke up to wit the overwhelming smell of hot fresh bread, to the starving the aroma of food is the absolute worse torture you can be subjected to. but even worse torture for a man is to see your children in tears crying out for food. there in the main room of the house was a black oven, and a cook was making bread to feed the officers.

i looked over at helen, she was not caught up in the bread, or the children, or last night, she was staring out the window, praying. i have never known such peace in a women, i have never seen such a tender heart, though i never asked her i always thought that she was at the window, praying for the soldiers who hurt her so badly.

father bettig began to pray out loud, it was true we had a lot to be thankful for, for we have lived through armageddon. if Jesus saved us from bullets and bombs what are a few loaves of bread?

a pounding at the door sent helen back to sit down next to me, all of us got wide eyed as more orders were barked at the lieutenant. there was much shuffling in the house, and doors were slamming  and commotion was rampant both in and outside.

as we got up to look the town was alive with soldiers, in their marching line, the soldiers were moving out.  we waited a few minutes to make sure that they were in fact marching west and when we saw that we were helen and the ladies ran to the black iron stove and pulled the hot fresh bread from its warm surface.

we were eating an officers breakfast, every single one of us had a piece of bread, and there was so much extra flower that we had enough to bake more. every one of us was full.

         why God, why me. what did i do in this life that you have shown me such favor. i am not an evangelist, a pastor, even a doctor who saves people. but You, you have given me life. there is no way to repay you is there. with what i have, whatever is given to me,  it is yours.

as we walked into the fairly empty streets we noticed that most of the russian infantry were standoffish. they seemed to be packing up small ammunition boxes onto carts, scavenging what weapons or bullets that they could. not once did they come near us.

         ‘anton, come here. you won’t believe it, they have left everything!’

         ‘what are you talking about marcus?’

         ‘come into this next house, they have left clothes, and food! lots and lots of flower for food.’

in their haste to leave the russians gave us everything back that they had stolen and more. by the time we gathered what we could we had more than when we arrived. every one of us had plenty of warm clothing and we had more bread than we could eat before it went bad.

we had to move on, the german army could perhaps still believe that the russians are here and may bomb the town. if the russian army was advancing they may be back to use this town to replenish supplies, or if they are defeated they will retreat here.         

we packed up the ox with our new found treasures knowing full well that any encounter with russian soldiers down the road most of it will be ‘confiscated’. i took a pillow case and filled it with flower then put that inside another pillow case. i found a brick and a few nails and hammered the bag to the bottom of the cart, it was not hard to find, but harder to find.  it always beguiled me to think that the people that the russian army are supposedly fighting far are the russian civilians, yet i have never see such hideous treatment as from the soldiers to their own people.

         ‘he told me that we should show polish papers.’

         ‘ i don’t understand helen.’

         ‘the soldier who brought us back in the cart, he said that father bettig should show his polish citizen papers when asked for identification. before we became german citizens father was a polish citizen and he still held on to those papers. the soldier said that polish citizens had a little more protection.’

         ‘this is the first time you have spoken of that night helen.’

         ‘im sorry, i am so sorry,’ she ran and buried her head into my shoulder, beginning to sob.

         ‘sorry for what helen, if anything this is all my fault you have done nothing wrong. nothing you hear me.’

         ‘anton there is nothing you could have done. i am not angry, it could have been far worse, my children could have grown up without a mother.’

         ‘i will never let that happen again, do you hear me helen, they will have to kill me to get to you.’

         ‘can we never speak of this again? it is over, it is in the past and i would like to leave it there.’

         ‘of course helen, of course.’

we moved ahead.

when asked by soldiers at the edge of town where we are going father bettig pulled out his polish papers and simply said ‘home’. as if they were some type of miracle papers the guard looked at the papers and told us to move along.

         ‘we are not really going to poland are we.’

         ‘no, were not, we need to stay here, so we can move west and out of this war.’        

         ‘i don’t know any place in this world that is not in a war anton.’

         ‘then we do not belong in this world.’

         ‘i will ask around and see if we cannot find some germans who know a safe town ahead.’

         ‘these roads are barren of civilians, let us take our time attempting to get out of germany, if we go to far we will end up in poland, and if we are caught they will take us men to the front line and everyone else to gathering camps.’

         ‘slow it is.’

we would walk at a slow pace and only for short while, we were even stopped by the same russian soldiers twice, and twice they took what supplies that they needed. the soldiers would periodically change places with soldiers on the western front line which bought us a little time.

every time russian soldiers came into sight line the women would run and hide in the forest, they would not come out until we sent one of the boys into the woods to tell them it was safe. we did our best to stay off the road when we could, between the polish papers and the hiding deeper in the forest from the soldiers we bought a lot of time.

with twenty mouths to feed and the constant theft from those pretending to be fighting the russian people we were growing running short on food, my pillow cases on the bottom of the cart were never discovered, but even those were being used to sustain us now.

we began to survive by camping out away from the road and then at night the five us men would go into abandoned houses or houses that had been burned or bombed. we would rummage through the house looking for anything we could find that we could eat, scavengers. this nightly foraging was the only thing that kept us alive.

the russian army had no regard for civilians, they were growing tired and weary from war and were taking it out on anyone they saw. the polish papers were not giving us the free pass that they used to and we were forced to move on but each soldier we encountered seem to be worse then the last. some soldiers just walked by when they saw us, but when we were asked to stop you knew it was going to be a hassle, or dangerous, or both.

as we were coming into the village neudorf there were two soldiers, one looked drunk which was always disastrous.

         ‘stoy! stoy!         

                  where are you going?’

         ‘we are going home, to poland, we are all polish.’

         ‘how many of you are there?’

         ’22 in all, mostly small children.’

the soldier turned to the other and said something about how many men there were, and women, and the other one got on his motorcycle and drove off.

         ‘well your papers are good, you will spend the night in this town, you can move along tomorrow.’

                   * scroll to bottom of page to find the next chapter or simply click here:                                             http://bit.ly/mqZfU9 

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additional stephen christian projects:

the acoustic/piano driven anchor&braille record ‘felt’ is available in stores and online here: http://bit.ly/kAp9Kt

the book 'the orphaned anything's' available here: http://amzn.to/mje1R3

you can now download a free ePub form of “you are safe here” for your computer, kindle, or other such ereader here…bit.ly/mOJvlv

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