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.