In 2003, I toured the country of Ukraine interviewing hundreds of World War II veterans and survivors. Their stories became the backbone of my novel, which releases in Spring, 2016. I will publish a series of posts telling these stories so that the world can remember – these men were more than statistics. They were more than a tally mark in history. These stories, though fictional, are based on the stories given to me by those who survived. These people wanted nothing more than for someone to tell the world what they saw, what they lived, and who they lost.
This series of posts is dedicated to the survivors of The Great Patriotic War.
Pushing through the brush, I tear down the hill. My head pounds and I feel the panic rise in my chest. I burst through the trees and skid to a stop at the base of the wooded park, Kreshadik Street looming before me.
Daylight has broken and a few soldiers move in the early morning light, though the city of Kiev, Ukraine remains mostly quiet. I stand still for a moment, my heart beating wildly, and I take in deep, ragged breaths, then look down at my shaking hands and realize I’m still holding my gun. Reaching back, I slide it into the waist of my pants beneath my thin, regulation coat. The chill in the air moves beyond the unprotected fabric and leaves me shivering. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I look up at the brightening sky and swallow against the panic that rises.
I failed again.
It’s been one month since my father paid an unexpected visit, and every day since then I have tried to gain back his approval. I’ve killed. Over and over I’ve pulled the trigger, ending life so that I may birth my own. This has been the worst month of my life.
I close my eyes, wishing I could ward off yesterday’s memory, but it’s too strong. I was following orders when I led a group of ten men from our division into the countryside just outside Kiev where we were informed a pocket of Jews hid beneath a barn. I hear their screams as we pulled back the hidden door. I think the sounds are trapped inside of me, payment for my actions.
There were fifteen of them curled together in a hole like animals. I ordered them out, the women and children wailing, and we lined them up against the wall of the barn. I see them all so clearly, old and young. Their screams so loud. I could have ordered the others to end the lives while I stood to the side, but that would have been cowardly. My father would have heard if I’d done such a thing, and I couldn’t let him down again. As I stood before that line of life, I knew what needed to be done to gain my father’s approval.
I needed to kill. I needed to taste blood and the completion of a human life ended. So I pulled the trigger. Fifteen times I pulled the trigger, stopping twice to reload my gun, and I did not miss once.
In less than five minutes it was over. The screams were carried away with the winds and I was left with little but smoke in my hands and bile in my throat. When I turned to the men in my group, the ones who came on this mission expecting to play a part in it, I saw neither respect nor admiration.
I saw shock, horror and anger.
I open my eyes and take in my surroundings. The world around me has become increasingly grey, and I wonder when the color drained from my surroundings. Was it the first moment I killed? Was it when the color of life slipped from the woman in the fur coat at Babi Yar? Is that when the world turned grey?
I try to remember the moment the war started, when I felt so confidant in my purpose here. That was before I had ever pulled the trigger, when the notion of cleansing seemed romantic and sure. I don’t feel the same pride now. Looking down at my shaking hands, I realize for the first time why my father sees me as such a failure.
It was masked beneath ignorance in those early days of war, but now that I know what death looks like I cannot escape the fear. I am afraid of my father. I’m afraid of this war. I’m afraid of the person I’ve become – the person who aims a gun at a baby’s head and pulls the trigger without a breath of hesitation. Is that the man my father intended me to be?
Looking back up the hill, my heart sinks low. I left that man alive. I didn’t shoot to kill because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill again. And now I’m confused. Did my act of leaving him alive reveal my weakness, or did killing the shivering pack of Jews yesterday show weakness? I now know unequivocally that I am weak and that I’ll never earn my father’s approval, but where does my weakness originate?
I push away from the tree and take off back up the hill. My legs burn with each step forward and the cold air in my lungs cuts like a knife. I can’t think of anything now except reaching the man who saw something in me that I don’t understand. He saw my fear. I need to know what to do with it.
I reach the top of the hill and stop cold. He’s gone. A small puddle of blood is pooled in the spot where he laid when I buried my boot in his forehead instead of a bullet. I look at the line of leaves scattered in a path and a thin trail of blood revealing his escape. Slowly, I follow the trail and the clues that will lead me to the man who saw deeper inside me than anyone else.
The tracks lead into the trees and as I step beneath the foliage, I stop a moment to allow my eyes to adjust to the dim light. I can no longer see the trail of blood, but I can see the broken leaves and the tracks of a man dragging his wounded leg. I am now the hunter tracking my prey, but my goal is no longer to kill. I have to look into that man’s eyes and know what he sees.
I move as quickly as I can through the thick brush, curious as to where this man is going. I don’t know where the trail leads, but my focus lies solely on the liberation of my angst. I’m surprised at how quickly he was able to move.
About five minutes into the chase, I hear his ragged breathing and the fevered pants of a man fighting for survival. Like a deer on the run, I hear him shuffle ever forward, the sound of his wounded leg dragging heavily behind him. I slow my own pace and try to keep my footsteps from crunching on the brush.
On we move in tandem until I’m finally able to make out his faded shape in front of me. He grasps at the trees around him to stay steady and upright and his left leg hangs limp and lifeless behind him. I stop and watch for a moment, trying to decide what to do next.
In an instant, the man before me whirls around and we lock eyes. We’re no more than five meters apart, and in the dusky grey light of the trees, I see his eyes widen in horror. I raise my hands to show him they’re empty.
“I won’t shoot you,” I say, unsure of what the right words are in this situation. He stares at me, his face wet with sweat and hair matted to his forehead. Leaning his thin frame against the tree next to him he nods his head.
“Put your gun down there and come to me unarmed,” he slurs. His voice is thick.
I slowly pull my gun from the waist of my pants and lay it on the ground, then take halting steps forward until I am within arm’s length of him. Standing this close, I notice that his cheeks are grey, and his eyes dull.
“Why did you come looking for me?” I ask. He takes in a long, deep breath.
“I told you already,” he says. “I know there’s good in you. You don’t want to kill.”
I shake my head fiercely. “That’s not true,” I answer, my words sharp and defensive. “I do want to kill. I want to prove myself. This is what I was raised to do.”
The man looks at me steadily and I feel exposed under his stare. “You may have been raised to do this and there may be someone who wants it for you, but you don’t want it. If you did, you wouldn’t have left me alive. You wouldn’t have come back to find me. You wouldn’t look so torn and scared.”
I feel my shoulders slump, and my eyes begin to burn. Blinking hard, I force back the tears. I refuse to allow the dam of emotion to break now.
“You don’t know who my father is,” I say, my voice much softer. “If I don’t kill, I’m weak and I bring shame to his name. I do this for more than my country – I do it for him.”
The man smiles slightly, and I see his body begin to tremble. His pants hang heavy under the weight of the blood.
“You’re better than your father,” he whispers. “You’re stronger than him. Have you ever thought about that?” His voice fades as he slumps forward. I catch him in a heap. His breathing is thin and ragged.
I lay him down on the ground and pull off my coat. In one swift move, I’ve torn a strip of fabric off of it and I tie it tight above the bullet wound in his leg to stop the blood flow. I ball up the remaining bit of my coat and put it under his head then lean close.
“Where can I take you?” I ask. In this one moment I can no longer think of my father or my country. All I can think of is saving the one man who saw something in me that I didn’t know existed.
I see him working hard to fight against unconsciousness and I shake him roughly. “Let me help you,” I beg. “Where can I take you?”
“Home,” he whispers, his voice barely a breath. “Take me home to my wife.”
I put my arms underneath him and rise to my feet. He’s thin and light, but very tall and carrying him is awkward. I cannot do it without pushing against the wound in his thigh and he moans in agony.
“Where is your home?” I ask, my voice sounding desperate and foreign.
“Walk…straight forward….until you come to a clearing in the trees. Then turn right and head down the hill.” He pauses to catch his breath and cringes in pain as I begin to move. “When you come out of the trees, my flat will be across the street.”
I move as quickly as I can while trying to keep him still. He moans and cries with each step and when we finally make it to the clearing, I stop to catch my breath.
“We’re almost there,” I pant. My focus and drive to get him home seem to have given him a little energy to stay awake. He’s more alert, though his body still hangs limp in my now burning arms.
I turn to the right and carefully make my way down a sharp hill. In moments, I reach the edge of the tree line and I see the flat before us. I peek my head out and look both directions down the exposed street. I must make it into his building without being seen. When I’m sure no one watches, I move quickly out into the open. I’m sweating profusely now, and the man in my arms gurgles and cries with each jostling step.
We finally reach the building, and I kick open the door then duck into the damp, musty stairwell. I wince as the door slams back shut behind us. I wait a moment, expecting someone to appear and take in the sight of me, a German Nazi bred under the finest in my country, carrying a limp Ukrainian man in my arms.
But no one comes. I look up at the stairs and take a deep breath. “Which floor?” I ask. When he doesn’t answer, I realize he’s finally lost consciousness. I give him a small shake.
“Which floor?” I ask again. No response. Shaking him harder, I feel my throat burn again with the unacceptable emotion that I have fought all my life.
“You have to help me,” I say louder and with more desperation than I intended. He moans, then speaks, his voice barely a whisper.
“Third floor, first door,” he says. I climb the stairs as quickly as I can, legs and arms burning as I gulp in deep breaths. Finally we reach the third floor, and I set his body down on the ground. Standing back up, my legs tremble with fatigue. I raise my hand and bang on the door.
Kneeling down, I pull the man’s head up and shake him again. He opens his eyes and takes a brief moment to focus on me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, eyes burning. I cannot stop the tears and for the first time since I was a small boy, I feel the hot emotion spill onto my cheeks, cleansing me of all impurity.
The door flies open and a small woman steps out with a shriek. I stand up to meet her eyes, my hand quickly moving across my cheeks, wiping away the shameful tears. “I’m sorry,” I say again. “Please forgive me.”
With those words, I spin on my heel and dash down the stairs, out of the dark building and back across the street to the comfort and shelter of the trees. I run for a long time before stopping and when I do, I realize that the collar of my shirt is soaked.
The tears became a waterfall.