Friday, December 22, 2006
The Ayn Rand -style railroad trip
THE BLACK ICON
In the week following the first battles, the attacks of the Russians on Sophia's village grew more frequent. She was not the first to realize that the village was a target, that her house was a target, and that she and the children would have to move. The Germans were now gone and in their place were Hungarian troops under the command of German officers. The Hungarians did not treat the population with any less harshness than their atavar, Atilla the Hun. Only intervention by German officers saved girls and children from rapine. And they could only save a few.
The Russians were close to overrunning the Kolomya region of Galicia and they had help from not a few Red-leaning Ukrainians. The Hungarians would then hold reprisals and mass shootings became common.
Sophia gathered up her family and made for the village of Ivanovetz, a few miles away from the front. But here, things were no better. Artillery attacks were frequent. The Russians were harrassing the Hungarian brigade posted to defend the village. As in Sophia's hamlet, the whole population took to livng in holes, cellars, anything that would protect them from the Soviet barrages, the siren-wail of Katyusha rockets, the hollow whistle of artillery before the blasts. Sophia and her family, being strangers, would gently be shooed away from existing shelters, people having grown panicky and xenophobic. The family would hide in a hollow formed by ancient floods along a millstream, spending nights in the little grotto and taking their chances by day.
One morning, Sophia stumbled onlto a well-hidden cave entrance. Uncharacteristic planking among exposed roots and bushes had caught her attention.
So much like a doorway into sand. She made for it.
Inside, an old couple was huddling. The Baba and Guido protested loudly, but Sophia ,with persuasion, tears and a little food, was able to talke the two into letting her and her family in.. After the initial greetings and grudging acknowledgments, the group of five settled down.
Nights would bring dirt cascading down over the extended family as shells landed uncomfortably close. Defending Hungarians would reply and all the while the cave became musty, dank. Lice began to spread. The adults became irritable, short-tempered. "We live underground like moles. We're even beginning to look like them," said the old man, tossing his scraggly whiskers up with an open palm.
Genyk became caugh up with the allusion. He imagined himself as an animal." I am a mole. Dig, dig, dig," he would mutter to himself while scraping at the sand floor. He and Katerina would build sand castles when there was enough light. At night, Genyk would have frightful dreams about apartments of horror, of the cave roof falling in, of him having to dig out the family. Awaking, nuzzling into Katerina's warm arms. Katerina, goodnatured Katerina. Security. Not like mother, who had lately been beating them both, and violently, for no good reason. Sometimes the old Babushka had to step in. "Things are bad enough. What is the matter with you, woman?"
They stayed in the hole for two weeks. One morning, a tired, red-eyed Hungarian pointed a rifle into the cave and ordered them out.
On this morning, the Hungarians found themselves retreating before the vigorous Russians. Civilian townsfolk were told to line up on the road where horse-drawn wagons waited.The old and the very young were told to board the wagons while the fit were ordered to walked alongside once the column began moving. "We are taking you to Ukrainian lands west of here for your safety," a tall, peak capped major explained to the assembled villagers.
Sophia hoisted Genyk up on one of the wagons, lodging him etween an old man and his battered rucksack and a
well-dressed fussy straight-backed woman who kept complaining of "this indignity." Genyk watched her fuss with her purse, pulling out an elaborate, lembroidered handkerchief, sniffing every so often, and in her high Poltava accent about having to be subjected to all of this.
Before coming to the marshalling point, Sophia had seen a cow and a goat wandering around between houses and shell holes. She had asked the Hungarian soldier whether she could curb the animals and the man answered with a shrug. The animals could provide food and milk for the trip and there were so many of them just ambling around. The goat had burned its udder in a fire, and once the columns started moving, sophia treated the goat with a little stolen butter, salving the burn.
Sophia's joy with the cow was shorlived, however, when a man came by and positively identified the branded animal as his own. During the night, when the column rested, someone stole the goat. Now all of Sophias possessions were on her back and in the little bundles carried by the children.
For two days the column plodded. The Carpathians, heretofore dim and blue, now stood out stark, some of them snowcapped. And then a real mountain of a problem for the refugees, who had stopped just short of Loivy, a smalll hill town built on the spur of a railroad. They were not allowed to go farther. The major, heretofore sympathetic to the refugees, suddenly did a frightening about-face and ordered the group surrounded by his soldiers. The accompanying troopers unshouldred their machine guns, while a five-man sqauad rapidly set up a heavier calibre weapon, training it on the refugees. The circled wagons were now themselves encircled.
"You're feeding the Partisans, you lousy bunch of cripples," said the Hungarian major, in accented but good Russian. "Four of my men have been shot already and it was all from behind. There's no way the Partisans can get food or ammunition along this trail except through you. You will all be searched and if I find something, you will all be shot."
A great wail went up from the crowd. The soldiers began to search everyone without regard to sex or person. A hapless old woman was caught with more bread in her sack than she could posibly consume in a month. They beat her and knocked her to the ground while the round loaves spilled out of her enormous shoulder-borne sack, rolling away like Johnny-cakes. They cuffed the old woman until she sobbed for, and got mercy. The search continued, but outside of surplus food, no weapons or ammunition were found.
Now the officer said something to the men and they began cocking their weapons. A hush fell over he group. Some crossed themselves. Others fell on their knees. They shook with fright, like primitives exposed to their first eclipse. But the eclipse passed.
Hope, like dazzling sunlight, now cut through the fear.
The soldiers put up their rifles and were beginning to dismantle the heavy machine guns.
"That ought to put a good fright into them," the major said to his adjutant before going back to the car.
The Hungarian ordered everyone back to the wagons and the mass of refugees, relieved and thankful for life, followed the column.
The marchers moved through the town, making for the railroad depot, peering at the almost Tibetan style cottages and seeing the strange clothing of the locals, who were also assembling at the track. These hill folk wore sandals that curled up, Arabic fashion; tight breeches and hats like Switzers. But they too were tired and hungry, waiting for the train. The Hungarians stopped at the station and began boarding troop coaches. Apparently their responsibility had been discharged by bringing the the refugees to this point. The Galicians now stood in front of the track, uncertain of what to do next. Some tried to board the coaches, but were pushed off by soldiers and trainmen. "There's a freight behind. Wait for it," they were told.
But no freight came. Three hundred men, women and children waited for four hours, then another four.
"I'm hungry, mother," Genyk complained. Sophia reached into her bag and pulled out one of the hardened rye platters she had long ago prepared and gave half to each child.
With dusk approaching, the group set up leantos of discarded packing cases and then lit fires. In the middle of the night, something roared toward them. The sound increased, as a headlight, dim at first, finally cleaved through murk and smoke. A score of peope rushed to trackside. But as the train approached, it did not slow down and soon rushed by, its suction almost knocking people over. Only three cars could be seen behind. One, a flatcar, carried a mounted cannon. The other two car bristled with men and protruding weapons.
The following day, a freight finally arrived, but as the refugees massed toward the boxcars, a squad of soldiers with drawn weapons stopped them. A captain in charge stepped down from the the lead car and told the crowd that those who wanted to go to Germany would have to line up on one side of the track and those who wanted to remain in the Ukraine should take the other.
Everyone was for Germany.
The last thing Genyk remembered was the boxcar door closing, cutting of all light, the smell of bodies, garlic, food and urine heavy in his nostrils. Were it not for Sophia and Katerina to either side of him he would have screamed out loud. That night, he woke up after a frightening dream. A laughing, devil-faced monster in a Hungarian uniform was sitting on his chest and roaring with laughter at every attempt Genyk made to free himself. Genyk woke up with Katerina's hand on his brow, comforting him. Someone in the darnkness nearby had drunk a bottle of cheap vodka and was laughing out his release.
White light slicing through the cracks announced a new day and the refugees, sick of the smells and confinement, pried open the boxcar door, sliding it just far enough to let in air and light. Genyk could make out the shapes of mountains and piney, green forests. Sometimes the train would stop, for no accountable reason. Someone would move by the trackside with a flare and they would be off again. During one of these stops, red-eyed relatives hustled a dea man out of the Podolski's car, running back from the ditch quickly, lest they be left behind.
At the end of the second day, Genyk felt the train slowing. He looked out the open, breezy door and saw two enormous mounds rising up in front of a large city. "Krakow," somebody said.
Inside the city, the train stopped among some tiered black brick railway buildings. The squintng passengers followed the lead of others and debarked. Where next?
Here, a dozen Black Madonnas came to the rescue. Polish nuns had set up a refugee camp and were quick to administer food, medicine an deleusing the the hungrey, vermin-ridden peastns and princes. Here was shelter. Here was food;hot soup. Here was basic humanity. Beds. And nearby the empty trains, all bound for Germany
........End Chapter Thirteen, THE BLACK ICON.