the town was different, it was if he had seen very little war, almost everything was still in tact. johnathon even found two small cows and tied them to the back of the cart. we never knew how long they would last because they were the first thing taken by the soldiers for meat, but as long as we did have them they would provide milk for the children.
we found an empty house and crowded in, we found stale bread in the next house over but we had the delicacy of fresh milk and the two were an ideal dinner. we had no long we were going to be permitted to stay, but for tonight we were content.
i walked out the front door the next morning to find five soldiers standing by the cart, they were all carrying guns and i could see that they had already taken the two cows and our ox somewhere.
a german soldier lit up a cigarette and walked toward me.
‘are you russian?’
‘no we are polish, we are on our way home, we will be on our way this morning if we can retrieve our ox.’
‘that won’t be necessary, russia has need of you. i see that you know cattle is that true?’
‘no, we just found those on the side of the road yesterday. i have many thirsty children and i wanted to give them fresh milk.’
‘so you stole the cows?’
‘no, not at all, the cows belonged to no one.’
‘your going to come with us, all of you. pack up what you can carry, the cart will be fine here.’
my thoughts raced, am i to be arrested? are they going to take us to a gathering camp? i won’t let them take helen again, my God in heaven i won’t let helen out of my sight ever again.
we packed up what we could, and the russians took us many kilometers west, we were now in poland. they lead us to a larger barn and told us that we could stay in there tonight, they left us a little bread and said they would be back in the morning to get us.
‘should we run?’
‘i don’t know, have you looked outside the barn? there are at least thirty soldiers walking about.’
‘where are we? what is this place.’
‘i can’t tell. at all.’
‘ i don’t hear any guns or artillery.’
‘i will stay up tonight, if i see a chance to get us out of here safely we are going to take it.’
that moment never came, i sat up all night, but it seemed like the russian soldiers did to. the next morning we were awoken to the front of the barn door being pounded upon.
‘get up, all of you. the men and women will be coming with me, you can choose one women to stay behind and watch the children, but only one of you.
‘when will we be back?’
‘when your done.’
they took us in a truck not a kilometer down the road as we rounded the corner we saw a large farm with over 1500 cattle, we all looked at each other with a sense of relief.
‘this will be the farm you work on, we will tell you when you can leave in the evening, you will walk down this road to get back to your children. if you try to escape remember that we have your children back at the barn.’
we began to work with the cattle right away, even though the majority of us had never worked on a farm before. the russians thought that they had captured us, taken us to work but in all reality this was the greatest stroke of luck that we had received since the war began.
our jobs were to milk the cows each day, and there were five separate farms in all that we had to attend to. they also had other herds in fenced in pastures, to the point where i could not tell you the exact number of cattle that they had.
they taught the men how to use the equipment to make butter. we were overwhelmed, not because making butter was hard, but because we had so much to do every day and not enough time to do it in. we had very little time to eat, we had little time to sleep, but we felt safe. it was easier on the women because they could take turns staying back and watching the children, more then once they let two women stay behind, because there were so many children under one years old.
‘look there,’ mother bettig said. ‘there is a group of people coming.’
‘there walking up the road this way, i see soldiers.’
‘anton they are coming here.’
‘take helen and the rest of the women and go hide yourselves in the hay in the loft.’
mother bettig ran off and a few of the men joined me at the barn entrance, as the soldiers approached i began to hear voices, not soldiers but of children. as the guards go a few paces from entrance of the barn they broke off to reveal at least twenty more frightened men, women, and children.
father bettig called for the women, and we went outside to help them inside with their things.
‘i am nicolai,’ one of the men who approached me first said.
‘and i am anton, and these are my family and my community. where are you from?’
‘we are from kiev, displaced to germany, and now on our way back.’
‘we come from the ukraine as well, we were in germany as well and have been doing well to avoid a trek back to russia.’
‘what are they doing with us here, is this a gathering camp? i do not think some of the older family members would survive a trip back.’
‘no, this is a farm, we feed the russian soldiers with milk and butter, and occasionally meet. we have done well to be here. my children go to sleep every night with milk on their belly. the women take turns watching the children, the work may be hard but the russians need us, so because of our job we are safe.’
‘i have not had bread in a day, do you have anything that might satisfy my families hunger?.
‘of course nicolai. please come meet my family, eat with us.’
helen had already began her extraordinary gift of hospitality and was passing out food, nursing wounds, washing clothes, and even offering to bathe the smallest children. my heart races when i watch her work like this, to watch as she cares for people, and as she takes care of my children.
the workload lightened a little, not a lot like we expected with so many new men and women. with the influx of more able hands came the influx of higher expectations from the russians.
a russian came to the barn one morning where we were beginning our walk to the various farms, he asked if they needed one person to go and bake bread, and since they only needed one i was not going to send helen, or any women for that matter to be by themselves. i volunteered, i did not think they would let me since i was a man in my prime and could be better served with the cattle, but they were desperate and allowed me to proceed.
i must admit i had only seen bread baked, and tried my hand at it very few times. but for some reason the soldiers enjoyed how i made bread, my mother in law showed me what to do with the ingredients and after awhile it was rather rote.
‘where are you from comrade?’ an officer asked after being in the kitchen for over a month.
‘the ukaine, HOMETOWN to be specific.’
‘HA! that is it, this bread tastes like home, i to am from your hometown!’
‘from now on take whatever bread you want home with you to your family, we are practically neighbors friend! when this war is over we will see each other back in the ukraine and you will bake bread for me there as well! and i will show you my small farm and you may have what you like from my garden!’
‘thank you friend, if you bring me sugar i will make you sweet bread as well, just for you.’
‘this is a deal, i will see that you get whatever you need in the kitchen to make this bread! and i will expect it tomorrow.’
i have no idea how to make sweetbread, so that night i had mother write down the recipe and i hoped that i would be able to recreate it the next morning. she laughed and said that she had never seen a grown man so interested in baking before.
the next day i asked for extra of every ingredient i needed, that way i can try my hand at baking the sweet bread and can fail many times before i get it right, but mothers instructions were perfect the first time. this was a good day.
‘this is WONDERFUL anton,’ the boisterous russian officer said. ‘i want this every day from now on, and tomorrow you will make it for all the officers. i will see that you get these ingredients each morning, and if there are any other baked goods you know how to make then please, ask for ingredients.’
i had found favor, something more valuable than gold in a war. with so many ingredients left i made more sweet bread in between baking mass amounts of breads for all the soldiers, and everyone on each farm. i wrapped 40 pieces of sweetbread into napkins and placed them in the basket i normally take bread home in.
that night i gathered all the children around, i sat them down and said how good they have been and that they deserved a special treat for being so good to their mothers. i passed out the sweet bread and watched as their faces glowed and laughed between each bite. it was a good day.
the officer and i would talk almost every day, we had discovered we knew many people and both of our brothers were killed in the russian revolution. he wanted to know more about my older brother but i told him that that was all i knew, because i was so young.
‘what are you doing in a kitchen? you are a healthy young man, you should be fighting for russia not baking soldiers bread!’
‘i have a family, there are 22 of us in all. my wife has two little children and i would not want to leave them for the front. i am well into my thirties, war is a boys game. ‘
he laughed in his normal boisterous manner
‘you are right, men like us should be telling people what to do, not being told what to do. have you worked on the farms yet?’
‘yes, when we first arrived i milked the cows, mended the fences, herded the cattle, and operated the machinery for butter.’
‘then you will tell men what to do, starting tomorrow you will be in charge of the nearest farm. you will find me a replacement who makes sweet bread as good as you do, and you will report only to me.’
‘my mother in law has taught me all i know about bread, she can start tomorrow morning.’ and then i admitted that i had never made sweet bread before baking it for him. i believed he loved me even more for the honesty. i was glad mother was taking over, she was getting older and needed to indoors and not working in the fields underneath the sun everyday.
managing a farm was not hard work, but tiring none the less. i had to make sure that each and every person pulled their weight each day at the farms, which is hard because i am friends or family with these people. the russian army was very strict and wanted to know how much milk each cow produced, counting in and out every cow every morning and every night.
i was up before dawn and coming in well after sundown. but we were safe, and well fed, and i would give up any amount of sleep for such as this. i helped with cleaning out the stalls each day, i could not order someone to do a job that i myself would not do so each day i was assisting whomever was called to do it that day, every cow was to be milked, which i put helen to work on since she could sit down most of the day.
the people were hard workers, they were all afraid of the russians and i protected them. i also made sure that no one went hungry, when the russians cut down our rations of bread i made the case for them, for if they ‘don’t eat well they cannot work hard.’
the officer loved my hard work ethic and made opalko and father bettig managers of neighboring farms. they would come home night after night talking about what new people they had met, all refugees, all russian or polish immigrants like us.
one evening, in may of 1945, i was returning from my farm when i saw mother running frantically from the kitchen, her arms full of bread.
‘mother, mother! why are you running, what has happened?’ i yelled as i began to chaser her.
she did not slow down or stop, she was running right towards the road as if she had stolen this bread, and was trying to escape.
i chased her all the way and when i got there i saw….
hundreds and hundreds of german soldiers, lined up, marching west. they looked sick, their pale white skeletons hanging on to the shackle of the person ahead of them. mother began to toss bread into the sea of nazi soldiers.
‘paul! paul!’ she was yelling. she was screaming out for her son, earnestly searching through the faces of the soldiers to recognize her own.
russian machine guns were shot into the air,
‘you there! stoy! do not throw bread to them or we will shoot you.’
mother still stood there with the pieces of bread resting at her feet tears in her eyes, still crying out softly for her peter. she and i stood there till all the soldiers had marched by each one, so hungry and thirsty. each one, not paul.
‘i miss him,’ mother said in between soft sobs. ‘i lay awake at night wondering if i will ever see paul again. what if he is dead, what if i have passed his body along the road. what if he is starving in a prison camp. my heart hurts every night, every hour of every day.’
there is a bond between a mother and a child that i have learned men will never quite understand, perhaps it is innate, perhaps it is in their spirit, buried in their soul.
‘what can i do for you my baker friend!’ my officer said.
‘i have come to thank you for protecting my family, and seeing to it that my friends go to sleep with bread and milk.’
‘well we are to grow old in the same town, together. it is the least i can do.’
‘there is something i would like to request, if you say no i understand. i do not want special treatment here but if there is any way to mend a broken mothers heart then i would ask that i could go back to our home of nieder bielau and search for her son who taken from her and forced into the german army, we would also like to go gather our personal items from our home.’
‘how long will this take you anton.’
‘this should not take long at all, i will take only one more man, and we will be on wagon.’
‘go. and return as fast as you leave. you manage your farm well and i cannot have production down with you gone.’
‘i will talk to the people, and beg them to work twice as hard in my absence.’
and i did talk to them, and my family promised to do so, and encouraged our friends to do the same. mother bettig saw us off, praying and blessing our trip. it was just marcus and i, and we set out with a little bread, and a little milk, and high hopes.
the road was no different, except this time we had papers from my officer, which was even more astounding and useful then the polish papers. russian enlisted would not even look us in the eyes after reading the paper, and sent us on our way.
a few days later we arrived in nieder bielau, but it looked nothing like the town i remembered. father bettigs house was obliterated, every last piece of his home was left in pieces scattered about. hopefully paul was not here.
the place was deserted, there was traces of human life existed here, but no longer. a makeshift flagpole and russian flag loomed over the village, and smoke and a smoldering burning house darkened the sky across the village.
there were very few things in marcus’ house, nothing of use for him now. as like many forsaken and derelict towns the place was completely overgrown with weeds, everything was portentously quiet as well. it seemed marcus and i were the only ones alive here.