Colonel Valery Sonovovich wandered through the streets of the fallen city after over-seeing the trial Major Demidov. Officially, Demidov was tried for Failure to Obey Orders, but his real crime was in his timing. Murdering S.S. troops might not have been regarded as a Crime Against the Soviet Union in 1945, but both the Colonel and the Commissar held his slaughter of the wounded S.S. at the hospital to blame for the failure of the Colonel’s negotiations and the ensuing and costly final assault on the garrison. It naturally followed, therefore, that Demidov got his “tenner” (ten years imprisonment) since he otherwise had a good record and the matter was quickly closed and forgotten.
So the Colonel now roamed the city with two armed guards, putting a stop to the worst excesses of the victorious Tank Corps and trying to maintain some reasonable façade of discipline amongst the celebrating troops.
The saddest portion of anyone’s life is that unique moment when the good in the world visibly and suddenly merges with the evil, contrary to any honest man’s expectations. For Moshe, that moment came when he attempted to defend Ursula from being raped by a drunken Soviet trooper. Seen through the bottom of a vodka bottle, her obvious Polish nationality and her former status as a slave to the Germans for over three years meant nothing compared to his lust. Moshe managed to push him off her, but he turned on Moshe with a knife, a huge knife with a long blade that curved upwards at the end. The fifty year old Jewish historian instantly retreated, but kept his body between the soldier and Ursula. That wasn’t quite good enough for the soldier, who lunged at him and plunged the blade deep into Moshe’s chest, piercing his thin striped jacket as if it weren't there. The ex-prisoner collapsed on the spot, coughing blood from his ruptured lungs.
Colonel Sonovovich just happened upon the scene and saw the frail old man fall with the knife still buried in his torso. Without giving it much thought, Valery shot the drunken soldier through the head and hissed an order at his drinking buddies. They quickly fled, leaving the corpse on the ground. In the Guards Tank Corps, “summary justice” meant exactly what the words implied.
Moshe at least had the satisfaction of seeing his murderer executed before he died. As for Ursula, once Valery learned that she was a Pole, he put her under armed guard. The few other Poles remaining in the town were also rounded up because of this incident and placed in what the Soviets called “Protective Custody”. Valery was high up enough in the Soviet chain of command to know that this part of Prussia was destined to become a part of Poland after the war and ingratiating the Red Army to the Polish population was the first step in this process.
In fact, shortly after the war, the remaining German civilians were herded West and Bad Frostberg ceased to exist as a German city. Its name was quickly changed and the terrible things that occurred there in 1945 were gradually forgotten by the new Polish population. The pages of history had turned, leaving behind them centuries of now inconvenient history that slowly quieted into only a whisper bordering on a myth.
The Reds chased W.F. and Hansen ever deeper into the forest, through the trees, bushes and snow drifts and over fallen logs and boulders. Their escape became a classic struggle between the determination of men who wanted to live and their pursuers, who wanted them dead. In a sense, it was all a matter of willpower, as both knew that their only real escape would come when the Reds grew tired of pursuing them.
After an hour or so, they came upon what appeared to be a trail which they began to follow in the hopes of improving their speed. After a very short walk, they found it to be oddly blocked by irregular-shaped lumps, both at the center of the trail and to its sides. From there experience in other winters on the Ostfront, this meant only one thing to them, that each of these “lumps” had once been a person. Without realizing it, they had come across the remains of those civilians who had lost their way earlier and missed the larger refugee column’s turn out into open ground. Instead of following in the relative safety of the column, these had fallen prey to the cold and the Cossacks.
There was nothing for it as W.F. and Hansen were bent upon their own escape. Indeed, even if they had the time to stop, by then there was nothing they nor anyone else could do for those hundreds of unfortunates.
Keeping to a quick pace, the only respect they could show the dead was to try not to tread upon their frozen corpses.
W.F. paused at the edge of a small flat hollow, a bright clearing interrupting the trail. He looked at his compass. “We should turn Northwest in another hundred or so meters”, he advised Hansen. Hansen nodded. W.F. walked out of the woods and into the little bare opening, only to halt abruptly.
Hansen quickly un-swung his MP-40, but noticed that W.F. still lovingly cradled his rifle in his folded arms at his chest.
“Now what could this mean? “ W.F. asked, to know one in particular.
In the center of the circular flat space, an unusual sight awaited them. For some reason, probably the density of the trees, the snow had failed to cover the three bodies they found there. A young woman hugging a baby lay on the ground. Her face was perfectly white, inhumanly pale, and the child was bundled up and half-covered by her long dark hair. Facing them was a kneeling priest, in full vestments, his hands together in prayer and a gold crucifix dangling from a black-beaded rosary clasped between his dead hands.
W.F. took a moment to look around. The sky was bright brilliant blue and clear although the wind was picking up. Light fell gently through the overhanging and interwoven tree branches above them, hanging heavily with snow and bending down under its weight.
The three bodies showed no sign of violence. Hansen concluded that they must have frozen to death. But W.F., puzzled, asked again. “what could this mean?”
“It means that they’re dead and we’re not.” Hansen grunted cynically, passing behind the priest.
Unsatisfied, W.F. bent over to look at the frozen features of the cleric, wondering at how he could die while kneeling. Ordinarily, a dead man’s facial expression seems unreadable to a living man, unless the person died in great pain or in the grip of some other overwhelming emotion. W.F. knew this well (he had certainly seen enough dead people) and he knew that death usually transforms even the untroubled visage of its victims into something not quite human, the image of a mere object or thing, with the blurriness of a shell or husk that resembled but didn’t quite replicate body’s former humanity.
But none of these distortions were evident in the dead priest’s frozen face. His features were sharp and held their clarity despite the frost clinging to his skin. On them, W.F. could read only the outline of some deep mix of emotions that encompassed in turns devotion, reverence and awe.
W.F. straightened. “I think that this is what we were meant to remember of this place.” W.F. said clearly after a moment. Hansen looked him in the eyes. Then he looked about at the frozen snow covered blobs that lay at the entrance of the clearing. But, before he could reply, a burst of fire hit all around them.
Flinging himself to the ground behind the dead priest, he heard several bullets meant for him hit the frozen flesh of the corpse. He fired back into the trees, hearing a scream and hearing himself curse.
“I’ll be g*dd**mned if this isn’t the first time a Priest ever did anything good for me!” Hansen yelled as he emptied his clip into the trees. Not hearing any return fire, he scrambled to his feet.
W.F. lay on his back, at the feet of the dead Priest. The shot that killed him had struck his heart, entering just above where he held the scope of his rifle to his chest. It had been an instantaneous death, unexpected and unanticipated because of its speed.
W.F. had been an old and dear kamerad, much admired by Hansen and everyone else who knew, him despite his reputation as a loner. Hansen couldn’t think of any appropriate honor to pay him.
As he left the tiny clearing, he used his knife to cut a branch and sweep away his own footprints. The weather was changing quickly and it soon began to snow heavily, great wet drops of snow falling like rain into the forest. After a few minutes of backing down the trail and trying to obscure his path, he decided to leave it. Heading Northwest, as W.F. had advised, he pushed through some bushes, only to discover another clump of bodies, obviously thrown together in a pile by their killers. The wind had really picked up and the snow swept from the ground began to cover him as much as that falling from the sky.
He swallowed another blue tablet and lay down besides the heap of bodies, careful to hide his weapon underneath him. Soon the snow would cover him, he knew, but he relied on the pills and his natural strength to keep awake and alive. He lay there with the dead, unmoving and praying that the snow would cover him quickly. He focused on keeping his ears alert, on hearing rather than seeing.
It must have been a half-hour at least before he heard the Russians chattering and stomping their feet as they made their way down the path. Quite imperceptivity, he renewed his grip on his submachine gun, feeling the cold metal through his gloves.
But the enemy weren’t enjoying the weather any more than he was and were, in fact, wondering by then at the point of this chase. The air grew even colder as the fullness of the winter storm descended on the forest. The Russian voices came and went.
Hansen’s teeth were clenched together so hard that his jaw began to hurt. He began to shiver despite his best efforts to control it. That’s when he realized he had to get up, no matter the consequences and thinking that, at worst, he might have the opportunity to avenge his friend. Shaking off the blanket of snow, he rose cautiously. But everything was white. He couldn’t see five paces into the storm and knew that in its embrace, he was safe from the Russians, if not from nature itself.
He shook himself again and peered back at where he had left the trail. “I think that this is what we were meant to remember of this place.” W.F. had said in those moments before he died. Hansen pondered those words, the bodies of the woman and child and the kneeling frozen priest. He was now alone in a dead forest, having lain with corpses to survive. Experience had taught him to keep a close rein on his emotions, but he swore himself to remember those words and those sights forever, if only out of reverence to a fallen kamerad.
Hansen slung his weapon over his back and began the long, cold trek back to German lines.
Death is lighter than a Feather, Duty is heavier than a Mountain....