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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 3

They said on the radio that the Germans were advancing fast. Resistance in besieged Leningrad was faltering, and big, decisive battles were being fought at Stalingrad. They said it was only a matter of time before the Reich would be celebrating its victory.
.... Aunt Maria said that in Slavonia, where she came from, people were running off into the woods and attacking the Germans and the Croatian army.
.... "That's nothing," said the Colonel, "We'll clean that up easily enough. We'll soon destroy the Communists in Russia, and this here is child's play."
.... Some people who belonged to the Orthodox Church and others who were politically suspect were taken away, as were Jews and Gypsies. There was talk of concentration camps where people lived in wooden shacks in compounds fenced off with barbed wire.
.... One night they took away my aunt's neighbour Simo, the sacristan of the Orthodox Church, and Stevo, the chairman of the "Hawk" gymnastics and athletics club. Rumour had it that they had been involved in a Chetnik organization. My uncle Mato played some part in their arrest. At first he wouldn't co-operate, saying that he knew nothing against these people from the village. When some of the neighbours started looking askance at him and complaining that he was sitting on the fence, my aunt Maria chipped in. "You can't stand aside like this, go along with our people, help as much as you can."
.... Uncle Mato knew every house and its inmates, not only in the village but in all the outlying hamlets. He helped the men from the city find the people on their lists. They said they only wanted to question them, because some of them were suspected of anti-government activities.
.... The day after some people were taken away, quite a large number of the Orthodox community, especially the youngsters, disappeared from the village. It was rumoured that they had run off into the woods. One of them was the sacristan's elder son Rade, who was my age.
.... Startling news reached us more and more often. I tried to talk to my father, but he was a man of few words. He would wave my questions aside, saying, "Forget it. The less you know, the better." Should I ask Boris?
.... Boris looked at me, hesitating, and then replied, dragging the words out a little, "Well, I do know a certain amount, but perhaps you do, too. They say the people are rising up, that they are fighting to free their country, that they want to drive out the occupiers and the Fascists."
.... "Do they think they can fight against all that military might? How many of them will die, and what can they hope to achieve?"
.... "There are rumours that they are going into the woods, people of all nationalities, Croats too. In Bosnia they already have real military units of the Partisan army. This summer they blew up the Mostar-Sarajevo railway, and they have already set up their own government in lots of villages. They call themselves the People's Liberation Army."
.... As he was talking, Boris seemed somehow to have changed.
.... Often, as we were leaving the cinema, I would forget about the film; I was haunted by the pictures from the newsreel. Air raids by German planes, armoured units ruthlessly flattening wheat-fields and plantations, columns of unshaven and wretchedly dressed men, mostly young, standing with their hands raised in surrender, and, in areas where the Partisans were, houses in flames.
.... One night Boris hadn't shown up, although he had promised to come. We were getting ready for bed when someone knocked on our door.
.... "But Boris said he was going to see you," Boris's father said in surprise.
.... It was becoming increasingly dangerous to move about at night. Police checks were stepped up. In places around Zagreb there was a curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. All strangers who came to the village had to report to the police as soon as they arrived. A special pass was required if you wanted to go to the woods.
.... I asked Boris why he hadn't come.
.... "I was helping my father, copying out some briefs."
.... I did not tell him that his father had come looking for him at our house that same evening.
.... "What's the matter? Why are you so solemn? Come on, let's hurry. Let's make up for the evening you're so moody about."
.... That was not the only time Boris failed to show up. When I heard he had not been home for two days, I became worried. I was haunted by a question: had he gone to the village of Kozine, had he gone to see Irma?
.... ***
.... Whenever Sunday dawned bright and sunny, I felt it was a gift of nature and I was overcome by a holiday mood, a special joy and inner warmth.
.... Underneath my bedroom window, under the chestnut trees, there were covered trucks. Soldiers milled around them; some were standing, leaning against the bumpers, others were sitting on the steps or the backs of the lorries. They were opening tins and eating.
.... I ran into the kitchen and called out to my mother from the doorstep, "Mum, can I take the soldiers a plate of gherkins? We have so many that we won't be able to eat them all, and I don't like gherkins anyway."
.... My mother looked at me in surprise and then answered, "Well, if you really want to. Take the big blue bowl."
.... My hands were trembling as I approached the truck. I don't know how I pulled it off. The joyful cries of the soldiers and several voices speaking all at once saying, "Danke schon, Fraulein," were still ringing in my ears as I went back to the house.
.... As I was going into the kitchen, still a little bewildered, I ran into our lodger, the lieutenant. He was asking my mother whether she could boil a few potatoes for them on the edge of the kitchen-range, next to our own pots. I almost blurted out that I would boil the potatoes for them, but my mother replied before I could say anything, "Jawohl, Herr Leutnant, we'll boil the potatoes for you."
.... Mother went to Mass and left the potatoes to me. I decided to surprise the officers and, instead of simply boiling the potatoes, to slice the boiled potatoes and fry them with some of our home cured bacon, finally pouring some melted butter over them.
.... I melted the butter, added a pinch of salt to it, and poured it over the potatoes. I tasted them. They were delicious. I was in a hurry because I was expecting the lieutenant to come for the potatoes any moment, so I grabbed the hot pan with my bare hands. Half-way between the kitchen-range and the table the hot handle slipped from my grasp and all the potatoes were spilt on the floor. At that moment there was a knock on the door. Confused as I was, I first said, "Ja," and then, quickly, "Nein, einen Augenblick, bitte," but it was already too late.
.... The lieutenant appeared in the doorway. He looked at me with a smile, and then his eyes fell on the pile of potatoes on the floor. His face grew grave for a moment, and then he burst out laughing.
.... "Are those our potatoes, Fraulein?"
.... I stammered something unintelligible, turned away, covered my face with my hands and burst into tears.
.... "But, Fraulein, all those tears for a few potatoes? If you stop crying and look at me for a moment, I'll make a suggestion that will remain our little secret. We have a little time because the other officers haven't come back yet. We'll hurry up and collect all these delicious potatoes off the floor, and we won't say a word about it to anyone. Only please, don't cry. Eyes as beautiful as yours should never cry."
.... I looked at him with gratitude and relief. Encouraged by my response, he took a handkerchief out of his inside pocket and asked, "May I, Fraulein Lisa?"
.... It was the first time he had called me by my name. He wiped away my tears. We both smiled, and then we quickly gathered the potatoes off the floor and put them on a china platter.
.... Long after that I was haunted by the image of the lieutenant and me crouching on the floor with a pile of steaming potatoes, smelling of fried bacon, between us.

Next: Chapter 4