The Days... Content
Back to Chapter 8

The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 9

In the villages, during the daytime, the army from the city was there, but at the approach of sunset they got into their trucks, climbed into the armoured train, and went back to the city. This was like a signal for the Partisans to come down from the hills, creeping through the vineyards and orchards. As soon as the armoured train moved off, they would turn up in the village. They would spread out through the village, two, three, or four of them together, and go to the farm they had been assigned to. Supper was prepared for them, milk was warmed and hard-boiled corned mush cooked. In winter, a bit of smoked bacon would be found in the loft.
.... In these parts it was not so bad. The Partisans had something to eat nearly every day, even if they had only one meal daily, but up in the hills food was scarce and there were few houses left, because many of them had been burned down. The people who lived there were short of food themselves. When the snow melted and the young grass sprang up it was easier, especially if a tuft of sorrel could be found.
.... The Partisans' frozen feet were wrapped in rags, and this was the only footwear some of them had. When a foot froze, it often had to be amputated. A wooden shed served as an operating theatre, and sometimes operations had to be performed out in the open air. With luck, a bottle of brandy would be found and used in place of an anaesthetic. After drinking half a bottle the poor man would start singing, and the surgeon would start cutting. The teeth of the saw would rasp on the bone, and the song would echo through the forest: "Comrade Tito, we swear to you..." The song would then turn into something like a moan or a painful groan, continuing through gritted teeth, with tears flowing down the patient's cheeks. The sawn-off foot would fall to the ground, and the surgeon would tie up the blood vessels and treat the wound. A stretcher made from two poles with a blanket stretched between them would be ready, carried by two comrades who stood by waiting for the signal to move on. The thought of freedom restored their strength. They would no longer be servants, they would make their own decisions, they would keep what they earned for themselves. They would build a prosperous society. They dreamed of white bread warm from the oven, the smell of which would regale their souls. There would be no cold and no hunger. "And just think of our children. They will scamper about our feet, well-fed and happy, and we shall say proudly, 'This is the result of our struggle. Those who oppressed us and built themselves villas earned by the toil of others are gone.'" And when, on top of all this, you were cited for bravery, you charged into battle regardless of the danger. Medals and ranks were handed out, citations for bravery were awarded frequently. They were mostly young people, and there were even children - so-called pioneers. Some of them were so small that the small carbines they carried, called "Italians", would drag along the ground. They would shrug up their shoulders, so as to look taller. They were solemn and proud, like seasoned old soldiers. When the need arose, they were dressed in civilian clothing and sent to carry messages. Sometimes they would carry leaflets into the city. Many of them took part in attacks with hand-grenades and died as great heroes.
.... "Lisa, why don't you come and stay with us in the village for a few days? It would cheer you up," Aunt Maria said.
.... "I'm afraid of the Partisans," I replied.
.... "They won't hurt you. You've been told a lot of nonsense. As you can see, I'm perfectly all right. Well, they fetch a so-called 'volunteer' now and then, but otherwise they leave people alone. We used to think that everyone really joined the Partisans voluntarily, but when our neighbours' son Branko, a real bookworm, joined them, it made us think. In the morning I saw his mother crying. Then the truth came out: they're mobilizing people! Who would join up voluntarily, to go hungry and to spend the winter with no roof over his head? The ones who run off to the woods to join the Partisans are those who have been forced to flee by the Ustasha. Mostly Communists and members of the Orthodox community, because the Ustasha take them off to concentration camps."
.... Then she drew closer and went on in a confidential whisper:
.... "Can't those people in the city see that it's they who are driving people to join the Partisans? No good can come of what the Ustasha are doing. Over in Bosnia, the Chetniks are committing all sorts of atrocities. They're persecuting the Catholics and the Moslems and cutting their throats. So the Ustasha on the Croatian side, and the Chetniks on the Serbian side, are creating the Partisans, who are bitter enemies of the Chetniks as well as the Ustasha. Each of them is tugging in a different direction, and no good can come of it. Unless they come to terms somehow, there will never be peace here."
.... I wasn't really so much afraid of the Partisans, but I didn't know what I would do if I met Boris. What if he asked me about Alfred? I couldn't lie to him, yet it would be even harder to tell him the truth.
.... "As far as Boris is concerned, you needn't worry, because they left a few days ago, and it seems they've gone a long way off," said my aunt, as if reading my thoughts.
.... It was decided that I would go, but we would first ask Aunt Nada to hold a seance, to see what the table would tell us.
.... Plump and good-natured aunt Nada, who was always smiling, turned up that same evening.
.... "Who wants to know what the spirits of the dead are going to say? Are you getting married by any chance, Lisa? Come on, I'm only joking... Have you got a suitable table?"
.... Previously we had held seances at Aunt Nada's. This was the first time we were doing it in our house.
.... The table in our room was big and heavy, and there were only four of us.
.... "We would need seven people for this table. It must be an uneven number. If only there were five of us, we could at least try," said Aunt Nada.
.... "Shall we ask daddy?" I suggested.
.... "He'll fall asleep after half an hour and fall under the table," my mother joked.
.... We managed to persuade father. He had never attended a seance before, he didn't believe in that "nonsense", but he agreed, to please all the women. My mother was not all that keen, because father and aunt Nada would sometimes flirt a little.
.... We carried the table into the middle of the room. My mother, my father and Aunt Maria sat at the longer side of the table, Aunt Nada sat at one of the shorter ends, and I at the other. Aunt Nada told us what to do:
.... "You must put the palms of your hands on the table top so that they are pressed as close as possible to the surface, and your thumbs and fingers should be close together, not spread out. Nothing must be crossed. You should put your feet together, we shall untie any knots on our clothing and our shoelaces, and let our hair loose."
.... "Whom shall we call?" asked father.
.... "I don't call anyone in particular," Aunt Nada replied.
.... We kept glancing at the big clock on the wall. Nearly thirty minutes had passed. Aunt Nada wriggled, as if to make herself more comfortable in her chair, and then announced that we were about to begin. She told us to be silent and hold still, and to think of nothing else. She cleared her throat a little, and then the room fell silent. The only sounds to be heard were our breathing and the clock ticking. It seemed to me that that clock had never ticked so loudly and that it was getting louder.
.... Aunt Nada's voice startled us:
.... "Table, rise!"
.... We peered at each other with half-closed eyes. The faces around the table expressed curiosity, and perhaps a little fear.
.... After the first command the table did not move. There was a short pause, and then Aunt Nada repeated:
.... "Table, rise!"
.... Still nothing.
.... "It's often like this," Aunt Nada explained, "it takes some time for the table to 'warm up', and in the beginning it needs a little help."
.... Several more futile attempts followed. Then Aunt Nada said, louder and more vehemently:
.... "Table, rise!"
.... First we heard a creaking noise, and then the table moved slowly, rising several centimetres off the floor, at the longer end where no-one was holding it, and then came down with a crash. We all jumped.
.... "It'll be all right," said Aunt Nada. "The table is big and heavy, if only we had two more people, or three, because I really ought to be free."
.... As if reading all our thoughts, aunt Nada said questions could be asked mentally, without saying them out loud for the others to hear. This pleased us all, because everyone had a "secret" question to ask.
.... After a short pause Aunt Nada said, this time with greater confidence:
.... "Table, rise!"
.... The table creaked, rising slowly at one end, and then stopped, remaining like that on two legs. We were all excited, and then Aunt Nada said:
.... "Table, come down!"
.... The table came down and hit the floor.
.... Another short pause followed, and then a command:
.... "Table, rise and knock on the floor twice!"
.... The two table legs rose more obediently this time, and the table knocked on the floor twice. Sighs of relief could be heard. It was going to work. Aunt Nada relaxed, and the rest of us, sensing this, relaxed too.
.... We started asking questions. Aunt Nada asked who would lose the war:
.... "If Hitler will win the war, knock twice, and if he will lose the war, knock three times!"
.... The table knocked three times. We exchanged glances, and I was overcome by fear, especially for Alfred. Russia, death in the snow or imprisonment. There was so much I wanted to ask, but I was so afraid of what the answers would be that I gave up. What would the Partisans do to us Germans? Will they be vindictive? We ought to run away, but where to?
.... We remained at the table long into the night. We were all tired and worried. Perhaps what the table had foretold would not come true, after all. A ray of hope hovered over us as if it were a straw we might clutch at.
.... I was so anxious I couldn't get to sleep. What if the Germans were really defeated?
.... Outside, in the night, there were white posters plastered all over the houses and trees with an enormous V and the words VICTORIA, SIEG, VICTORY.
.... I decided to put off my visit my aunt in Kozine after all, because the table had "said" they would blow up the railway line the following day.
.... A little after noon father came in to lunch. He shouted from the doorway:
.... "The Partisans bombed the armoured train this morning and attacked it, there was a battle, right next to the home signal, not far from Maria's house. There were dead and wounded, even among the civilians.
.... "Lisa, don't be afraid of the Partisans, they're all good-looking young men, more or less, and there are even girls among them. Just imagine, they wear trousers, too. Most of them have their hair cut short, you can't tell whether they're boys or girls. Sometimes the young men forget themselves when they're telling stories, and then they notice a girl comrade is there and start apologizing. The girls like the men's stories too, you know what young people are, but they act, may God forgive me, as if they were nuns. Who knows, there's no-one there to see what goes on in the woods," said Aunt Maria... "Come on, comrade, join us, our struggle's just, we'll bring freedom to the people," the Partisans tell the girls in the village. "There'll be no more rich people, everyone will have the same." Old Simo smiles and asks, "Listen, comrade, you say there'll be no rich people, does that mean that we'll all be poor?" Some people laugh at this, and the young Partisan, nonplussed, starts stuttering and trying to wriggle out of it. Then the experienced commissar comes to his aid, talking as if he were reading it all out of a book. The farmers don't understand it all, and even when they do, they shake their heads skeptically and roll their eyes slyly... Then you can hear guns in the plum orchard and bursts of machine-gun fire from the railway line. The Partisans save ammunition, each of them gets only a few bullets and is told that each bullet has to hit at least one bandit, as the Partisans call all the units of the enemy army. They probably call them that to get their own back, because that is what the army call the Partisans. They say the Partisans don't fight like a proper army, they attack from bushes, not following regular rules of combat, and that's why they call them bandits... Whenever the armoured train leaves for the city, you can hear voices in the courtyard, and then someone knocks at the window. 'Open up, comrade, the people's army is here!' They come in and head straight for the table, like hungry wolves. 'I'd never change places with a rich man, comrade. He can't bear the sight of all those fancy delicacies any more, roast meat and cakes. He sits at the table picking and choosing, fussing over his food, never hungry, always full. And often his stomach isn't what it should be, instead of food he has to swallow syrup and pills, poor man. He can never appreciate how delicious cured bacon and an onion can be, with your maize bread or this piping hot flat cake of yours. It's not bad when it's cold, either, even if it's as hard as a rock... How delicious your bacon is, if only we could have a jug of your red wine, but we're not allowed to... Come on, bring us at least a little red wine, let it stand there so that we can at least smell it while we're eating. When the war's over, I'll come and visit you, and you can offer me bacon like this, and leave a bottle of your red wine for me, so that I can make up for staying sober now.' In the end they take a few sips after all and pass the jug round, looking round to make sure no-one sees them, because they would be in for it if the commander came in."
.... * * *
.... Mother and father seemed worried. Did they know something about Alfred and me?
.... The rumble of vehicles moving towards the east reached us from the main road day and night. In the evening we would sit round the table waiting for father to tell us the news. There was more and more talk about the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad. This made us feel anxious, because our fate depended on events at the front. We were afraid that the Russians and the Partisans, if they came, would destroy everything that was German.
.... In the pantry we still had a sack full of tins. Mother went through them from time to time, throwing away the swollen ones. We had accumulated quite a number of tins, given us by the officers who lodged with us, and some had been brought by Alfred. We didn't eat them, but kept them in store for really hard times.
.... English bombers flew overhead almost daily, going from the north-west to the east. At the sound of the siren signalling an imminent alert, we would take the pots off the kitchen range, grab a piece of bread and run out into the garden. We would lie down on the ground between the rows of tomatoes. Father would carry the sack of tins with him, while mother took care of the small attach‚ case containing our documents. If our house was destroyed by a bomb, we would at least have food to eat for a while. What mattered most to mother was that she had the title-deeds, all the legal verdicts, contracts, solicitor's letters and paid bills. The nearer the drone of plane engines came, the tighter she would hold her little attach‚ case, and we would all push our heads down among the tomato plants.
.... Terrified, we watched the planes dropping shiny objects which grew bigger and bigger, and then one fell into the meadow of our late neighbour Bara. We pushed our heads even further down among the tomato plants and put our fingers in our ears. Nothing happened. Had the bomb failed to go off?
.... "Maybe it's not a bomb," father said, and raised himself up high enough to see.
.... Mother and I also raised our heads. On the meadow, not far from us, lay an object, two or three meters long, fairly wide, with a shiny metal surface. It looked so menacing that we quickly pushed our heads back among the tomatoes. Then, after a while, when we saw that everything was still quiet, we slowly raised our heads, with our eyes glued to that massive shiny object. If this was a bomb, we thought, it could blow up the whole village. It turned out to be an empty aluminum fuel tank.
.... As the planes flew over Zagreb, the anti-aircraft guns would start firing, and we would watch curiously to see if they would finally hit a plane. Puffs of smoke would appear in the sky in rhythm with the firing of the guns, but they were always lower than the planes.

Next: Chapter 10