In 2003, I toured the country of Ukraine interviewing hundreds of World War II veterans and survivors. Their stories became the backbone of my recently finished novel. I will publish a series of posts telling their 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.
Ekaterina Ivanova – “Katya”
I open the letter. It arrived one week ago. Already the paper is thinning, tear stains smudging the typed letters. I lay it flat on the floor beside me and read the words carefully. Just one more time.
“We regret to inform you that your son, Maxim Ivanovich Gorokhov, has died in service to his country on June 25, 1943 in the Galicia District.”
Mama weeps in the other room. I keep waiting for her tears to dry the way that mine have, but a river of grief pours from her eyes. Maybe mothers feel the loss more deeply. Perhaps her reservoir for tears is larger because of the nature of a mother’s attachment to her child.
Papa doesn’t cry. He is stoic as I would expect him to be. My father is a hard man, but he reserved a bit of tenderness for his children. I watched his face when he read the telegram. A light went out in his eyes, and his hands trembled as though the weight of the slip of paper clutched between his fingers was too heavy to bear. The trembling hasn’t stopped.
Rolling onto my back, I stare up at the ceiling. A particular memory keeps folding over me. The bitter, biting cold of a Ukrainian February pushes the sun beyond the hill overlooking the Dneiper River earlier each night, and I find myself overcome with this one moment in time. I can’t escape it, and so I have given myself to it. The shadows of night and the frozen air make fighting memories too difficult.
Tonight is no exception. I close my eyes and slip under the blanket of the past.
I’m eight years old again and we’ve gone to our dacha for the summer. The dacha – our happy place. On this particular day I wake up early and tiptoe outside to watch the sun lift up over the small lake settled at the back of our property. My long gown soaks up the morning dew, and I shiver against the chill of daybreak. I breathe in deep and take in the scent of dill mixed with the earthy smell of morning.
As I come out of the trees into the clearing, I see him. His back is to me, long and thin, always stretching out and up. I don’t speak but the rustle of my feet in the moist leaves reveals my presence and he turns, his thin face breaking into a smile.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I wanted to say good morning to the sun,” I reply, and he laughs. I have always loved his laugh and even now, as I listen to it dance through my mind, I feel a smile spread slowly.
“Well, sit,” he says, and together we drop onto the banks of the lake, the rocky soil digging into the backs of our legs. I look at him, my brother, and I am completely at peace.
“Max?” I ask.
He turns to me, his thick eyebrows raised. In this memory he is more boy than man. At twelve years old, he didn’t feel that much older. But then Max never did feel too old for me.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I ask.
Max takes in a deep breath and looks back out over the lake. A thin layer of orange and pink slowly pulls up over the horizon. Daybreak is coming and our solitude will quickly slip away. I find myself wishing then and there that the sun would never rise. If only I could have frozen us on the bank of the lake for all of eternity.
“Don’t know,” Max says with a smile.
“You don’t know?!” I ask incredulously. “How do you not know? It’s very important to know.”
Max laughs again. Magic. “Well, I just don’t know yet,” he says with a grin. “Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?”
I open my mouth to answer, then snap it shut. Afraid.
“I don’t want to tell you,” I finally answer, and Max gives me a gentle push.
“See, you don’t know either,” he says with a laugh.
“I do know!” I protest. “But you have to promise you won’t tell anyone.”
“And you can’t laugh.”
“Okay,” he says, and he means it. My brother always kept his promise. Taking a deep breath I lift a small handful of sand and pebbles and toss them into the water, watching as a hundred droplets form rings that pierce the sheer glass of its surface. The strip of orange is getting brighter. Morning dawns.
“I want to join the circus. I want to be an acrobat.” I don’t look at him while I say this, and I wait for him to laugh at me. I can’t even turn a cartwheel, but still I long for the thrill and the lights and the beauty of movement that captures me every time Papa takes me to the big tent.
Max is silent for a moment. Slowly I peek at him, barely turning my head. He isn’t laughing. Instead he stares intently at the rising sun. Now that she has broken the surface of the horizon it seems she races toward her perch in the sky. Time sped up – never slowing down.
“Okay,” he says, his eyes narrow and serious.
“Okay, what?” I ask.
“I think you should do it. I think you should plan to join the circus as an acrobat.”
I narrow my own eyes and study his profile seriously. “Are you making fun of me?”
Max turns and looks at me, his gaze a little deeper. The sunlight gleams in the dark parts of his eyes, swirling with an intensity that I’ve never seen before.
“Katya, you can do whatever you want to do. You’re a fighter. I believe you can do it…if you want to.”
We study one another for a quiet moment, then he turns to look at the sky again. The colors reach from left to right as far as our eyes can see, vibrant, full and brilliant. The golden orb hangs above, giving forth the heat that will ultimately dry the grass and give way to a day of grace filled memories. I lean gently into my beloved brother and sigh.
“Thank you,” I say with a small smile.
Max is quiet briefly before responding. “When I grow up, Katya,” he says softly, “I’ll make sure that you can do and be whatever you want. That’s what I want to do.”
Dragging myself away from the warmth of that summer memory I shudder again, my brother’s words floating through the tomb I’ve created in the corner of the room. I’m sixteen now, and I’ve long since abandoned the dream of becoming an acrobat. I still can’t turn a cartwheel. Really, my hope for any kind of future feels fleeting in these dark and confusing days.
Curling up on the small pad beneath the window I close my eyes, wishing that I could go back to the bank of that lake. I long to lean my head against his shoulder one more time.
I look up to see Papa standing over me, thin lips stretched taught across a weary face. Has his hair always been so grey? Pushing up on my elbow, I study him closely.
“Would you like to have some tea?”
I nod and slowly stand up, stretching my tight muscles. The air in our flat is cold and damp. A steaming cup of tea is enough to draw me away from the riverbank of my mind and into our small kitchen. We pass Mama, her tear stained face turned toward the window, gaze focused at nothing. I imagine she, too, is trapped in a memory.
Papa motions me to sit and hands me a mug. I wrap my hands around the searing metal and take a sip. Papa sits across from me, a deep sigh pushing past his lips. We’re quiet a long time.
“He will be nothing more than a statistic,” Papa finally says. His voice, like his hands, trembles, marring the strength that normally carries his words.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“No one will remember his name. No one will know who he was, or of his dreams. He will be nothing more than a number to add to the final tally when it’s all said and done.”
I reach over and grab Papa’s hand. It’s cold. “No. It won’t be like that,” I whisper. “We won’t let that happen.”
“Won’t we?” Papa turns to me. His eyes are bright, and the grief finally gathers in the corners, pools of sorrow glinting in the fading light. “Who will we tell? Who will hear his story? Who will know that my son wasn’t just a soldier, but that he was also a poet, a comic, a kind-hearted young man? His story will die with us, and he will be left nameless and faceless. Just another casualty of war.”
Tears now drip from Papa’s eyes and make their way down his weathered cheeks. I drop his hand, stunned by this display of emotion. Papa looks away, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his face.
“I’m sorry, my darling,” he says after a long pause. “I shouldn’t burden you with these thoughts.”
I run my hand over my eyes and shake my head. “You’re wrong, Papa,” I answer him. He turns to look at me, the familiar stoicism back on his face, a mask of strength to cover his frailty.
“Max won’t be forgotten, and he won’t be a statistic because I will tell his story. I’ll tell everyone I meet of my brother who joined the Red Army to fight for his country. I will tell anyone who asks of his goodness, and the way his laugh infected us all. Max isn’t going to be a number, Papa, because I won’t let that happen.”
Papa reaches across the table and pats my hand. I think he means to be supportive, but the gesture feels condescending, and I pull my hand away. It’s then that I decide that the stories cannot be forgotten. Max was real. He had a name and a personality. He had dreams for his future. His hair was brown, and his eyes green. He was tall and thin, and more than anything he loved a good joke. He isn’t a statistic. He is a story.
I tell you these things so that you’ll know. My brother was more than a soldier. He was a man, and he lived a lifetime in nineteen years. Perhaps his future has been snuffed out, but his past cannot be stolen.
Remember him, and all the men like him. This is how we honor their sacrifice.