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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 12

It was the spring of forty-five. Our chestnut trees were already in bud.
.... German officers were billeted in our house, and this saved us from the Circassians. I was considered to be the wife of a German officer on the Eastern front. Robert was blond like a real little Hun. They made babbling noises at him and told him he would be one of the Fuhrer's soldiers, too. Were they really still hoping?
.... "Just a few days, Frau Muller, and then the Fuhrer will work a miracle," the officers said.
.... "The last of our troops is leaving your town. Would you like to come with us?" the Major asked my father.
.... We took with us only the barest necessities: the small attach‚ case with the documents that mother never parted with, and our sack full of tins, which had stood untouched in the pantry throughout the war. All this was on the bicycle, which father was pushing.
.... Father's acquaintance Valent was a member of the Partisan committee in the village over the hill. Father had not given him away when they had held up the train. Perhaps he would help us now.
.... It was night and there was silence all round. Everything seemed to be sleeping, but perhaps they were all awake. A dog barked now and then, and shots could be heard in the distance. I lay on my back with my eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, which I could just make out as a grey veil. One army had retreated to the west, and the other had not arrived yet. The village had been empty and deserted since the afternoon, when people had locked themselves up in their houses, blacking out their windows and turning off the lights. I was afraid to go to sleep, I was terrified of that knock on the door when the threads of sleep are broken and you wake up in a panic. Were the Partisans really like what the Ustasha said they were? Did they really kill, did they shoot and abuse women? The refugees from Sriyem and Slavonia talked of persecution and shootings, especially of ethnic Germans. What lay in store for us that night, what would become of us the following day? Exhausted by my foreboding and terror I would doze off for a moment, starting up at every slightest rustle. If only there were not that awful silence! I started at every sound and then lay there, tense, expecting to hear banging at the door or window. I listened to little Robert breathing. Would they leave him alone? They wouldn't harm a child, would they? What if they found out he was the son of a German soldier? Would they take their revenge on him? My thoughts wandered down strange paths of their own accord: memories of childhood games came back to me, I seemed to be running and Boris was trying to catch me, he caught my hand and held it, we looked at each other speechlessly... Everything might have turned out quite differently. My thoughts played a trick on me, and I imagined that I was waiting for Boris to come back, and that he would embrace me joyfully and take his baby son into his arms. No, that wasn't what I wanted, that baby would not have been my little Robert, and then I wouldn't have known Alfred existed. They belonged to me, Robert and Alfred, and Boris was just a distant dream...
.... Dawn was breaking, I could hear the first roosters, and the light around the curtains grew stronger. Somewhere at the end of the village I could hear dogs barking. Were they coming? My terror intensified. Well, let them come, only let this nightmare be over as soon as possible! They could do what they liked, but I wouldn't let them touch my baby! I would scratch and bite if I had to, I would scratch their eyes out with my nails, I would fight. I would defend Robert.
.... I fell asleep and dreamt that the war was over. I was standing by the window with Robert in my arms waiting for Alfred to come. Suddenly I was roused by a soft knock at the door, and then I heard my mother's voice: "Lisa, you must get up, the morning is almost over."
.... I recognized Boris at once, from afar, while they were still at the bottom of the road. Next to him there was a woman Partisan with black hair and a firm step, who at first I took for a man. The third one looked something of a country bumpkin, with a thick black moustache and thick black eyebrows which almost met in the middle of his forehead. As they approached the window I drew back a little, but I took care to let Boris see me. He was our only hope. We were afraid of the American, mother's cousin. "We'll meet again, only you'll hold your tongue then," he had said to my mother before he went off to the woods.
.... Was my hope that he would save us the only reason I trembled with joy when I saw Boris? Or was it because of our childhood memories: the games we had played beneath the crowns of our chestnuts, sharing cakes, taking the train together every day, occasional outings to the cinema? I loved no-one but Alfred, he was the father of my child, yet something strange crept into my soul and prevented me from thinking calmly. There they were, I hoped he would see me. They were chatting cheerfully. They glanced casually at my window, and then went on. Didn't Boris even want to see me? He stopped. The other two stopped, too. He seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, then he turned around, hurried to my window, and said,
.... "Lisa, is that you? Why didn't you say something? Brko, Stana, come here!"
.... Boris went on and on about the way I looked, how I was the same as when he had last seen me, only more beautiful. Brko coughed, as if in disapproval, and then Boris turned to the woman Partisan and introduced her to me:
.... "This is Stana, my comrade. We were having a bit of fun, but then this brother of hers grabbed me and said, 'Listen, Boris, you're like a brother to me, but keep your hands off my sister, unless your intentions are serious.' And so, there you are, we got married, the Partisan way, with no priest, but that's how it's done now, it's the new fashion. And I had just received a letter from my family..."
.... Boris went on talking, but I didn't hear what he was saying. I heard just the sounds, but the meaning was lost among my whirling thoughts. Was it only fear that Boris would not want to help us now, or that he might not be able to? Then I heard him saying,
.... "Lisa, I'm glad to have seen you; if there's anything you need, just let me know, say you're looking for Boro and Brko, everybody knows us, from Triglav to Gevgeliya. Especially the fellows on the far side of our gun-sights; you should have seen the two of us in action, but we'll talk about that another time. Won't we, Brko? What happened the other day with that dugout full of Ustasha. Let me just tell you about that, while it's still fresh in my mind. I met a mutual acquaintance of ours, too, you'll be surprised to learn where and how; I can't get him out of my mind. We crept up, our bomber squad, to a hill where there were Ustasha dugouts. Everything was quiet, you could hear every rustle and every twig snapping. We arrived at some barbed wire and a comrade got out his pliers and cut it. The rest of us drew back a little, and the comrade with the wire-cutters snipped away: snip, snip, the wire broke, and a gap was made. We were lucky to be able to pick out a path between the mines. Usually just one of us went in front, a volunteer, or sometimes a man under orders. The comrade squeezed through the gap in the wire, and off he went through the undergrowth and grass. We followed him because it was safer to take the same route. As soon as we moved, a mine went off. The flash lit up the dugouts: five round concrete domes up on the brow of the hill. Then they started to shoot, that's the way it goes. Guns roared, machine-guns stuttered, bullets rained down all around us, and when one hit a rock, it screeched like a knife being drawn across a wire. Those are the dangerous kind, you can't hide from them, they'll find you wherever you are. Brko and I knew what to do. Brko went a little to the left, and I went a little to the right, towards that gap. I waited for Brko to fire. He fired a round at the dugout, shooting at the place the firing was coming from. Then they started firing at him. That was when I slipped through the gap in the wire and ran the way our dead comrade had gone, the one who stepped on a mine. It was quite safe to go that way now, there wouldn't be any more mines there. Then I ran and started firing, and my comrades on the left stopped. Brko ran towards the gap in the wire, crept through and turned left. The two of us, one on each side, crawled along and unfastened our bombs. When we came up to the emplacement, we turned our backs to the concrete and leaned against it to pull ourselves together. We took the pins out, hitting the bombs against the concrete, and now we had to be careful to hit the loop-hole; if we missed it, we would both be goners. We knew that, it was not our first time. We would always throw a bomb each, in case one of us missed. We crouched down and the bombs exploded, twice, like a double-barrelled gun going off. The dugout shook, and then everything was still. We had done it, there was one machine-gun nest out of action. Fire came from the other two even more furiously, but it was easier once you got going. And so we got them all, one after another. Didn't we, Brko? We went into the last dugout, and they were lying on the floor like sheaves of wheat. I thought one of them was looking at me. I pointed my automatic at him, but he didn't move. It was dark and I went closer. Who should it be but Peritsa, the one who sat behind you in school and often pulled your hair. We used to have fights about it. He was small but tough, and I got my share of the punches. I watched him now staring at me glassily and for a moment I was somehow sorry for him. But then I snapped out of it and said to Brko, 'Well, we got them, didn't we?' At night when I can't sleep I often see Peritsa lying there with his eyes wide open."
.... They left. I heard Brko saying, "Look here, that's a pretty girl, is she an old flame of yours? Listen, Boro, you'd better watch out. You know what I told you when you started going with Stana. You're like a brother to me, but I wouldn't and couldn't forgive you. My father said to me on his deathbed, 'Son, you're the eldest, look after Stana and the other brothers and sisters. That's a sacred duty in our family.'"
.... Boris replied, "Come on, Brko, don't worry, a Partisan's word cannot be broken. That's a schoolmate of mine."
.... Was I just a schoolmate, did I really mean nothing more to you, Boris? I remembered his words that evening before he left, and his letters from the Partisans. Had he forgotten it all? Then I remembered that visit from Boris's father the night after Robert was born: "There's no need to reply, we've already explained everything to him in our letter."
.... It was evening, and I was standing by the window, gazing into the darkness. Then I heard knocking at the door, just two or three muffled knocks. Boris!
.... "I've only come for a moment. When you go home, let me know. You know, that cousin of yours, the American, could be dangerous. It's a good thing you left, because anything is possible in the first wave. Sometimes a gun is drawn too hastily. Those are the orders. 'Shoot at anything that's suspicious.' You know what it's like, it isn't easy to go in where the other side has been for years. You never know what people are thinking or what they are up to. That's why we have permission to shoot at our own discretion. True, many people are using this to settle old scores, but who can keep an eye on everything that goes on? That's why it's important to beware of the first wave, until the people's government is set up, the committees and the courts. Where are your parents? I'd like to say hello to them, too."
.... Boris was looking round the room, as if he was looking for something. I knew what he was looking for, so I said, to make it easier for him, "The baby is asleep in the next room."
.... When he saw him, he said, "He's just like his father, blonde as a sheep. You know. Lisa, I'd like a daughter. Stana and I are planning a baby, of course, when all this is over. I would like her to be beautiful like you, I would like your son and my daughter to play under our chestnuts and I would like there to be no-one to interrupt their game, no third person to interfere."
.... When we opened the door to my parents' room and stood in the doorway together, my mother exclaimed, "Boris, is it really you?!"
.... Later my mother said to me, "Seeing the two of you in that doorway, like a living picture in a big wooden frame, was like having an old dream come true, a dream of seeing the two of you together like this."
.... I told her that Boris had a wife, a Partisan called Stana. My mother said nothing, but she turned pale and went to look for her heart medicine.
.... Zagreb fell on 8th May. The Germans and the Ustasha retreated without a battle because they wanted to save the city from destruction.
.... We were going home the following day. We asked Boris to accompany us, we were afraid of the American. What if he was lying in wait for us to settle accounts? Boris promised he would try to go with us, but he was not sure he could because of his duties in the field. In the morning he brought us a pass and wished us bon voyage. He tried to comfort us by saying that no-one would harass us, and when we got there, to go to his parents, and not to our own house.
.... We set out alone. What lay in store for us there? We put our few belongings on the bicycle; the sack of tins was there, too.
.... We went over the hill, taking a path that led through the woods. Everything was quiet, except that the boom of guns could be heard coming from the western slope of the valley. Beside the road there were bits and pieces of military equipment scattered on the ground and an occasional abandoned vehicle. We came across Partisan patrols. Some of them asked us to show our pass, others passed us by in silence.
.... We passed through our street, but did not go into our house. A slogan was scrawled all over the facade: DEATH TO FASCISM - FREEDOM TO THE PEOPLE! The clumsy letters, over half a metre tall, had been scrawled by some barely literate hand with garish red paint. Above the slogan there was a huge red five-pointed star. My mother sighed in despair, "Look, they've ruined our new facade."
.... The other houses in the street also had slogans scrawled on them: LONG LIVE COMRADE TITO! LONG LIVE THE RED ARMY! DEATH TO TRAITORS!
.... We heard that the American had been asking about us.
.... That spring, in May 1945, the war came round full circle for us. It had started four years before, also on a spring day, in April. I could still see the scene when that unhappy young man with the big bare belly, whom we used to call "Leave me myself alone", ran down the street from the direction of the main street during the bombing at the beginning of the war. Those were the only words anyone had ever heard him say. Nobody knew what his name was, so we nicknamed him "Leave me myself alone." He was the only person in the street then, because everyone else was sheltering in their cellars or their gardens. He was carelessly dressed, his shirt was unbuttoned and it was coming out of his trousers, and his trousers had slipped down under his big belly, which was left bare. He ran along, shouting "Leave me myself alone."
.... For four years various armies passed, and he moved about aimlessly in the street, getting out of everybody's way and showing his gratitude for a piece of bread, a mug of milk or some scraps of food by bowing humbly. He had no family and nobody knew where he had come from. He slept in the railway station waiting room. Towards the end of the war we saw him strutting about with a row of medals on his old coat, which was too tight for him and which he couldn't button up. The soldiers threw away their medals, and he picked them up, collecting them. When they saw that, many soldiers pinned a medal onto him themselves.
.... On the last day of the war, when one army was retreating and another advancing, they found "Leave me myself alone" dead in the roadside ditch, with those medals on his coat, some of them riddled with bullet holes.
.... The day after our return, aunt Maria's neighbour came to see us. "Go to Maria at once," he said.
.... When we came in, she was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in mourning.
.... "On the evening of the day when the last Germans, Ustasha, and Domobrani retreated, and when the first wave of Partisans came, someone knocked on the window," Aunt Maria told us through her tears. "We were getting ready for bed. We thought it was our neighbour Stevo, come to fetch little Anitsa, and we were glad. But it was Rade, the sacristan's son, the one who was taken to concentration camp at the beginning of the war, where he disappeared. Rade asked Mato to come out. They went into the yard. I ran to the window to see what would happen. I saw Rade taking out his gun and cocking it. Mato glanced towards the window and said, 'Not here, Rade, let's go into the barn.' They went quietly one behind the other, Mato first, and Rade behind him with the gun in his hand. They went into the barn, and presently I heard a shot. Everything was quiet for a moment, and then the barn door opened and Rade stood there. He left through the yard towards the road without looking back, and I stared at the half-open barn door, unable to believe the worst... Last night Anitsa's father came to fetch her, he was wearing a Partisan officer's uniform. He arrived in a good mood. When he heard about Mato, he was sorry he hadn't got here earlier."
.... * * *
.... After the last shooting of the war died down, a flood of soldiers came, but this time they were unarmed. They filled the road the way water fills a swollen stream after rain. The soldiers were worn out and famished. It was the "death march" of the defeated army. They moved along listlessly underneath our chestnuts. There were no trucks or Zundapp motor-cycles, they went on foot. Not long before they had marched along with their heads held high, in neat uniforms and polished boots. Now they were creased and crumpled, many of them bare-headed, and their footwear was dusty and dirty. Here and there a prisoner of war would dart into the yard to beg for a piece of bread or a glass of water. People would bring out a bucket of water and hide it behind a bush or a fence, and when they had a chance, they would hold out a cup of water or a piece of bread. The prisoners took off their wrist-watches and offered them for a scrap of cured bacon. Omegas and Doxas exchanged hands, in return for bacon and a piece of bread; they exchanged owners, bringing joy to both sides; the long-standing dream of owning a watch came true for one, and a ray of hope that he would survive after all gleamed for the other. People ran out of bacon, and bread was scarce, so they asked for anything to eat. A little flour, some grains of maize - and a gold Omega, yellow as the maize, exchanged owners. Maize was worth more than gold now.
.... The big fairground, not far from the railway station, where until recently colourful fairs had been held with booths selling gingerbread and a merry-go-round, was now covered with the warriors of the Reich, sitting there hungry, thirsty, and many of them afflicted with serious digestive disorders and sores on their feet.
.... I stood by the window of my room and watched the prisoners moving along. That day they were continuing their "Way of the Cross", as we called their painful march. They moved mostly along the roadway; their Partisan escorts rode along on the pavement. The wind whipped up clouds of dust. The sun was hot, but many soldiers were wrapped in their overcoats. They needed them at night, because the nights in May are still quite cold. There were no more iron crosses or other medals on their chests, there were no more stripes or marks of rank, only a darker colour remained where they had been. Insignia on clothes were easy to get rid of, you just ripped them off and threw them away, but what could you do about the tattooed marks on your own skin? I remembered how the soldiers used to wash at our well. Those from the SS troops would proudly display their tattooed symbols. They believed the Fuhrer when he said they would be the victors. Many now removed those marks with a razor blade, cutting off pieces of their skin. There were no more belts with the inscription GOTT MIT UNS.
.... Sometimes I would think I saw Alfred. I would run outside, stare into the soldiers' faces, and say his name, but they would only shake their heads.
.... The end of the column drew near. On the other side of the street, on the small bridge leading over the ditch to our neighbour's house, there sat a German prisoner, his legs dangling down into the ditch, his head bent forward, as if he was about to nod off to sleep. A mounted Partisan officer approached him and said something to him. The prisoner looked up at the officer, then bent his head again, staring into the ditch in front of him. The Partisan unbuttoned his holster and took out his gun. He pointed it at the back of the prisoner's neck. He wouldn't shoot, would he? I was petrified. A shot rang out and the prisoner swayed, then tumbled into the ditch. The men at the head of the column started at the sound of the shot and they all quickened their pace, some of them running, limping with their last strength, especially those at the end of the column because they might get an occasional thump on the back. When they were allowed to rest for a while, those at the back of the column would push their way to the front, so that often they didn't have time to rest at all.
.... "The Way of the Cross" was passing through Kozine. Johann W., aunt Maria's godson, left the column and stopped to see the house where he had been born. His family had left at the end of the previous year, he had heard about that, but his desire to see his native hearth, his hunger and his thirst overcame his fear. The house had new owners, Serbs from the mountain villages, whose house had been burned down during the war. The new master of the house still wore his Partisan uniform. Let them have the house, Johann thought, perhaps they would give him a piece of bread and some water from his old well, with its big wooden wheel and a bucket on a chain. There, everything was the same, it was as if he had never left. His eyes strayed to the school building next to the house. The ochre-coloured facade was a little faded and cracked in places, but otherwise everything was the same as it had been. Images from his childhood flashed before his eyes, when his mother would push a piece of cake left over from the holidays into his hand, or a slice of white bread and a mug of warm milk, telling him to hurry up, not to be late for school. He remembered the "bundle ball" at the end of the first form, when, according to the old German custom, they brought food, meat and cakes in small "bundles", as they called them. They used to dance polkas and waltzes. Some time around midnight the boys would see the girls home, shyly squeezing their hands for the first time...
.... Johann W. and another prisoner, with spades over their shoulders, escorted by the new owner of Johann's house and a couple of other farmers, made their way towards the village graveyard. There they were seen digging a pit, with the three men standing around with guns in their hands, gesticulating and talking. They kept casting impatient glances at the cemetery entrance, and then, not waiting for the pit to be completed, the new owner of Johann's house took up a spade, lifted it and brought it down towards Johann's head. Johann started back and the spade hit him on the shoulder. He stumbled and fell into the pit, and the same fate befell his companion.
.... People said that the earth over their common grave rose and fell for a time, as if the grave was breathing.
.... * * *
.... From Aunt Maria's house there was a view of the railway line, right up to the railway signal and the point where the railway crossed the road, after which it was hidden by poplars, so that you could see only another ten metres where the poplars mingled with the telegraph poles. "Leaning on the fence during the last days of the war we watched an unusual train moving along slowly. There were two locomotives, much larger than usual, pulling along a strange apparatus with a huge hook, which passed down the middle between the rails, catching the sleepers and breaking them like tinder, with a loud cracking noise," Aunt Maria said.
.... The railway embankment was overgrown with brambles and grass. The sleepers were broken, and the rails, bent and rusty, lay on the ground like the skeletons of long snakes on both sides of the ballast, dug up along the middle.
.... Meetings were held at which people were invited to take part in voluntary building campaigns. Activists from the Committee visited the schools and, with the help of some older pupils, held meetings at which they spoke of the need to rebuild our devastated country. Some immediately agreed to go, while others did so only out of fear that their teachers might look at them askance if they did not join the reconstruction campaign. That is how the youth brigades started. Unskilled hands struck the embankment with heavy picks, the stones crunched, sweat poured down faces and backs. Water-carriers ran from one group to another. The embankment gradually assumed its former appearance, with a flat surface on the top and two symmetrical banks sloping down, one on each side, looking as if they were made of rough cardboard. It was only when you came close that you could see they were actually made of rough stones the size of a man's fist. New sleepers arrived, black, soaked in tar. They were laid down at regular intervals, long steel rails were brought, and two parallel lines could already be made out in the distance - the new railway line.
.... The trains started. First trains with mostly freight cars, because the passenger carriages had been destroyed during the war. A song rang out, occasionally accompanied on an accordion, flags fluttered and lilac branches swayed in the breeze. There was now a red five-pointed star on the flag. Would it ever again bear the Croatian coat of arms?
.... Trains arrived from the western borders, where the last battles of the war had been waged. Through the half-open doors of the freight cars you could see they were carrying coffins. The corpses had lain dead on the foothills of the Alps, on the banks of the Sava and all over the Slovenian hills, fields, vineyards and woods. That was where they had drawn their last breath of fresh mountain air scented with spring, that was where they had looked around in a desperate hope that someone might come to their aid; they had been hit by the last bullets of the war. Their wide open eyes searched in vain, and their gaze was slowly extinguished. The young men lay on the Slovenian crags as if sleeping after their long sleepless nights. Their guns lay beside them in the grass, no longer needed, and the steel, once so shiny, was already beginning to rust. Relatives came with sheet metal coffins to take away their loved ones, so that they might visit their native region for the last time and say farewell to their kin, and then they would lay them in their graves next to their grandfathers, some of whom had come back in the same way from Salonika and the Piava in the first war. The others, those who had been on the other side of their gun-sights, lay there abandoned. No-one went to fetch them. Their bones would remain scattered. Even their graves could not be marked. They had lost the war, and with it the right to a decent burial. All the fallen had died convinced they were doing their duty to their homeland.
.... On the embankment by the road, on the steep side, overgrown with brambles and grass, there was a small white slab of concrete. On it were inscribed the words: WENN DIE MUTTER WUSSTE* .
.... Here, with peace so close at hand, when the echoes of the last explosions of the war had already begun to die down and the defeated soldiers had already laid down their guns, waiting unarmed in the hope that they would be saved, bursts of machine-gun fire were heard and steel-jacketed bullets whizzed through the air ominously like furious invisible hornets, piercing soft human flesh with their steel stings, bursting blood vessels and smashing bones. The soldiers scattered in panic, looking for a place to hide their heads, but in vain. All that was left of the unarmed prisoners were heaps of corpses scattered over the fields at Bleiburg.
.... ----------
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.... * * *
.... They were changing the currency. They gave 7 dinars for 1000 kuna. People hid bundles of kuna notes in the hope that those who had fled to the west would return.
.... New masters moved into abandoned German houses. An occasional house still stood empty, with broken windows and no door. At night the wind would rattle the shutters. People said it was the ghosts of their grandfathers coming to the houses at night and rattling angrily, and that someone had seen our dead neighbour, Martin Fischer, walking through the empty rooms of his house.
.... The biggest house in the village, once the property of Josef Pfeffer, was especially brightly lit up that night. Lanterns and coloured ribbons hung from the ceiling. The house was now the Community Centre. That evening the president of the Municipality and the brigade commissar were to give lectures, which were to be followed by a play about the war. When one of the actors yelled, "The bandits are coming!" many people started and gazed in alarm at the door. Here and there a Partisan in the audience flung himself flat, trembling and writhing in fits, and those next to him held him down to prevent him from hurting himself, holding his hand and saying, "Hello, are you there? Hello, are you there?" This seemed to calm the poor man down, he would sit up and look around, as if he did not know what was going on. We called this disease "a nervous breakdown".
.... At these events, songs from the Partisan struggle were sung. The favourite was "On Konyuh Mountain", while popular Russian songs included "Shiraka strana maya radnaya" and "Tamnaya noch". The young men danced the Kazachok until they dropped, and none of them wanted to be the first to stop because the girls were standing round, watching.
.... On our class photograph, in the last row, the last child on the left was little Ivo, Yozo the blacksmith's son. Only his head can be seen, and part of his chin is concealed. The blacksmith was a man of medium height, thickset, burly, and unusually strong. He could hold any horse's hoof between his strong thighs and hammer the nails through the horseshoe. The blacksmith would sometimes gaze at his little boy with an expression of bitterness mingled with sorrow. He wanted a son he could be proud of, one who would one day take his place. His business was doing well because he was the only blacksmith in the village, and he also had customers from other villages, especially those who had spirited horses, or young horses that had never been shod before, and were not easy to work with. "Who'll take my place when I'm too old to work?" Yozo the blacksmith wondered. They said he never struck his son, and how could he, when an unlucky blow might hurt him severely? When the boy did something wrong, his father would grab his arm and squeeze it with a vicelike grip, and tears would flow down the boy's cheeks. He dared not cry, because crying only infuriated the blacksmith, and his grip would grow even tighter. The boy wore long shirt sleeves even in summer to hide the bruises on his arms.
.... Partisan committees were being set up in the village. Yozo the blacksmith found himself in the People's Liberation Committee of the municipality. He usually said nothing at meetings, and sometimes he would doze a little because the meetings were held in the evenings, when he was already tired from wrestling with horses. No-one reproached him for dozing, because everyone respected him as the strongest man in the village.
.... Children were afraid of Yozo the blacksmith. When he pinched someone, the pain would bring tears to their eyes. That is why we avoided him by day, and often dreamt of him at night.
.... I could still remember one of my dreams about him: the Fire Brigade Club was decorated, festooned with flowers, lanterns and little flags. People shared chairs or stood in the aisles, which were crowded with those who had not been able to find seats. A clamour of voices filled the hall, sweat was breaking out on people's faces, and the air was hot and stuffy so that you could hardly breathe. Everyone was waiting impatiently for the show to begin. Usually it would begin with a speech by a prominent political figure, followed by people who knew how to give some kind of performance, such as reciting a poem or singing a song. Ivan, who could play the accordion, performed at every show. Yozo the blacksmith climbed up on to the stage. He seemed somehow even taller and bigger. He was wearing his leather blacksmith's apron. I noticed he had a small moustache. He carried himself stiffly, his head held high, and his eyes glowered; he was obviously aware of the solemnity of the occasion. He was gripping the neck of a violin in his left hand and a bow in the other. He stood right on the edge of the stage, so that I gazed apprehensively at his shoes, afraid he might step forward and tumble into the front row of the audience. Stiff as he was, gazing into the distance over the heads of the audience, he slowly raised the violin, leaned it against his left shoulder and pressed it with his chin, raised the bow, held it against the violin strings, and stood like that for a while. I found all this most odd, because the blacksmith had never touched a violin or any other musical instrument. His beating his hammer against his anvil did sound, to be sure, like a musical rhythm, and even suggested the melody of a march. Silence fell in the hall, and then the violin strings resounded. At first the music sounded fairly harmonious, but then we were startled by an unpleasant sound, the grating noise heard when a beginner handles the bow clumsily. The faces around me grew sour, and some people's mouths widened into a kind of grin. Some members of the audience in the first row started clapping, and the blacksmith stopped and puffed his chest out even more. Then he gripped the violin once more, drew the bow across it, and a harsh screeching filled the hall, giving me those painful goose pimples we used to get when as children we rubbed a metal drainpipe with wet hands. Pained grimaces appeared on people's faces. At that moment a crack rang out. The bow snapped, and the blacksmith pressed the remaining half of the bow harder and harder against the violin, making it sound as if it was weeping. Then the rest of the bow fell into the body of the violin, accompanied by the crack of splintering wood. Some people started clapping uncertainly. The blacksmith lowered his gaze and glared at the audience, making them start back in alarm. The applause in the front row grew louder, and as the blacksmith's eyes passed from row to row, so the applause became louder and louder, spreading through the hall. Everyone was clapping frantically. The people in the front row rose to their feet, followed by the next row, and the next, as if a tidal wave was rolling in, and soon the entire audience was on its feet, clapping harder and harder. Some people remained seated with painful grimaces on their faces. The blacksmith's moustache seemed to grow wider, and soon it reached his ears. Frowning, he pointed his broken bow at the people who were still sitting down. Those next to them jumped up, seized them, and dragged them out of the hall. Some of the others quickly joined in the applause in order to save their skins. The people from the front row leaped up onto the stage and heaved the blacksmith on to their shoulders. The applause in the hall was now so deafening that the windowpanes shook. The blacksmith had a fixed smile on his face. His eyes were as red as the embers in his smithy when he was blowing them with his bellows.
.... * * *
.... The wheat was ripe and the harvest was already under way. Waggonloads of sheaves were taken to the fairground where the thresher threshed the wheat all day long. Carts loaded with straw came from the direction of the fairground, and straw got caught in the branches of the chestnuts and was scattered all over the street. Straw hung from the branches, too, like the tinsel on a Christmas tree. Poor people who had no straw of their own collected the straw that was scattered here and there and took it home, because it would come in useful in wintertime. They would first use the straw to stuff their old straw mattresses, which had become too hard to sleep on, and what was left over would be put down for the piglets in the pigsty.
.... Not far from our house, on the spot where two chestnuts were missing, a German prisoner sat in the sunshine chipping stone into cubes to pave the road. He was not allowed to sit in the nearby shade. He was taking great pains over the stones, working carefully, almost meticulously, as if further orders depended on it. The sun was growing hot, he was sweating, and his lips were dry and cracked like the bark of a tree. Thirst is unbearable. We would have liked to give him a glass of water, but we were strictly forbidden to go near the prisoner.
.... I often thought about Alfred. Was he still alive? Hideous stories were told of abandoned wells filled with prisoners, who would often be flung into the wells alive. People spoke in whispers of the dreadful sufferings of Croatian soldiers, those who had lost the war. During the first days after the end of the war, close to Zagreb, among the picturesque rolling hills of Zhumberak, the engines of lorries loaded with wounded men rumbled for days, taking them from the hospitals. They would be led or carried from the trucks to the edge of a deep pit, where they would be hit on the back of the head with a hammer or mallet or shot with a pistol and then hurled into the pit. Among them were the nuns who had nursed them in hospital. With a cry, the nuns fell to their knees, pressed the palms of their hands together, raised their eyes towards the treetops, where a small patch of blue sky showed through, and said their last prayers. Christ Crucified appeared before their eyes as their only consolation and hope; the words, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," seemed to echo through the woods. Their prayers were interrupted by blows from a mallet and their heads in their white veils fell forward at the edge of the pit. Heavy boots swung through the air in an arc, thrusting the fragile bodies of the Sisters of Mercy into the pit.
.... * * *
.... Somewhere near the centre of Kozine a lane branched off, leading towards the foothills of Bilo-gora* . The houses along this lane were small, often with only one or two little rooms, and here and there there was an empty plot. Behind the houses the ground rose gently, so that haystacks and piles of straw peeped over the red roofs. Beyond them you could see the crowns of walnut trees and the branches of plum orchards, which seemed to be growing out of the haystacks. A little further on, where the ground started to rise more steeply, regular rows of vines showed blue and green in the vineyards. The vineyards were interspersed with peach trees scattered about in a random pattern, like small flowers on a piece of cloth. The fringes of the woods thrust into the rectangular plots like great green spikes.
.... ----------
.... *A mountain in the Pannonian plain, stretching northwest-southeast for 70 km. Its highest peak is Riyeka (307 m). It is mostly covered by woods, and is suitable for wine-growing.
.... The lane was called Riyeka, i.e. the River. It had been named after the brook that flowed there. Its bed was so deep and wide that to the locals it seemed like a proper river. For centuries, the torrents of water flowing down the hills into the valley had brought soft clay with them. When the torrents subsided, they left behind a deep bed strewn with pebbles that gleamed white in the clear, shallow water.
.... Among the thatched cottages, huts, and hovels, there ran a carriage-way, with a footpath hugging the houses on one side only. Although there was a stretch of land ten yards wide there, the narrow carriage-way wound this way and that to avoid the pot-holes, full of water on rainy days, where geese, ducks, and a pig or two, which had broken free from a rickety pigsty, paddled and splashed happily. The pig would lie sprawled out in the mud, and if a chance passer-by happened to come along, it would raise its mud-caked head in surprise, peering at him with its two guileless eyes.
.... In autumn, the farmers hurried to harvest their crops as soon as possible, especially the vineyards. If the autumn rains fell before they had finished with the vintage, even the strongest pair of oxen would have difficulty pulling a cart loaded with full tubs of grapes. It would be a terrible calamity if the grapes were ruined. Without a glass of wine men's hands would tremble, and it would be that much harder to make their hoes cut into the soil.
.... About a hundred yards down the lane, bordered up to this point by two rows of houses, there was a wider open space overgrown with grass. The houses seemed to move apart to make way for the cattle, peacefully grazing and chewing the cud all day long on the bank of the brook. In the middle of the common there was an old-fashioned well with a draw-well boom. This was a tall, sturdy pillar, which stood there like a giant with outspread arms supporting the centre of a long, moveable beam. On one end of the beam there hung a wooden bucket, and a large tree stump was fastened to the other end.
.... The villagers came here rarely, mostly when they needed labourers. This was where the poor people of the village lived, landless day-labourers. They seldom went into the village; they would only venture there when they had run out of salt and matches; they had no money to buy anything else anyway.
.... It was unusually quiet there that day, as if everyone had gone off somewhere. Even the common was deserted. Not far from the draw-well boom there stood a strange structure: two freshly cut acacia trunks dug into the ground, a little over two yards tall, joined at the top with a round log.
.... I grasped Aunt Maria's hand firmly. We gazed down the empty road, saying nothing, wondering what to do.
.... "Should we go down the lane?" asked my aunt.
.... "Why should we be the first to get there?"
.... "There they are, they're coming!"
.... A group of people came from the direction of the village hall. They turned down the lane, the column narrowing as people crowded together to avoid the pot-holes in their path. At the head of the column, right behind the first rank, there were two young men. They were lean and unshaven, and they walked with their heads bowed. Their hands, fastened with chains, hung limply in front of them. Several men around them watched their every move. Behind them there marched a group of women and children. Somewhere at the end of this group, a little apart from it, two haggard young women tottered, their pale, tear-stained faces peering out of black headscarves. Each of them had a baby in her arms. At the end of the column a burly man with a moustache was hurrying along, holding a rope in one hand. This was the village messenger, Gyuro. He had apparently fallen behind, and was now hurrying to catch up the column, running down the dry bed of the roadside ditch. The head of the column stopped and people moved aside to let the group with the two manacled men pass through. They stopped by the tree-trunks near the draw-well boom. The village clerk opened a file and his eyes roamed over the crowd in front of him. The murmur of voices died away.
.... I couldn't hear what the clerk was saying. I gazed at the two men in their chains, sunk in memories of the past:
.... During the long break we used to go out into the school playground. This was the time when we took out our slice of bread spread with jam or lard, although some children had just a slice of plain maize bread. Someone crept up behind me and suddenly grabbed my slice of white bread and jam with one hand, offering me a piece of maize bread with the other. I liked maize bread because it was sweet, and we didn't get it at home. I wasn't upset. I stood there holding the maize bread and watched Yozha devour my white bread and jam. From time to time he glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, smiling roguishly, greedily gulping down whole mouthfuls. "If you don't want the maize bread, give it to me," he said, snatching back half of the piece he had given me and eating it. When we went back into the classroom and sat down in our places, he pulled my pigtails, and then looked quickly at the windows. "There goes a black hat," he said, pointing to the window. On the other side of the window, a black hat bobbed up and down, as if floating on an invisible wave, since the parish priest was hidden from view. We all rose, and I hurriedly chewed and swallowed what was left of the maize bread. "Jesus be praised!" "May he be praised for ever. Sit down, children." The priest looked round the class and then said, trying not to laugh, "Yozha, you haven't shaved today." Yozha stood up, because that was the proper thing to do, and stared in astonishment, perplexed. He looked round the class, as was his habit, hoping someone might give him a hint, then just stood there waiting for someone to whisper an explanation. Laughter echoed through the classroom because Yozha really had a black moustache, but the moustache had been left by my jam. A smile came to my lips, but then I snapped out of my memories to hear the clerk saying,
.... "Yosip Moruna and Styepan Latich have been sentenced to death by hanging for desecrating the corpse of a Partisan comrade, who had given her life in the struggle for freedom..."
.... It was rumoured that those two, walking back from the town, had stopped by the roadside where a dead Partisan was lying. Someone had informed against them, saying they had pissed on her, while others said they had stood at some distance from the corpse. They defended themselves by saying they had had a drop too much to drink and couldn't remember anything.
.... "Let the first accused, Yosip Moruna, mount the bench!"
.... A rope was now hanging from the horizontal beam and there was a bench underneath it. Yozha slowly put out his right foot and stepped onto the bench, standing there with his feet slightly apart. He surveyed the crowd as if looking for someone, and then said in a weary, but clear voice:
.... "Give my regards to my family!"
.... A man I didn't know stood on a chair, slipped the noose around Yozha's neck, got down from the chair, grabbed the bench Yozha was standing on, and jerked it away. Yozha's body first stretched downwards as if he was trying to touch the ground with his feet, and then started twitching and swinging to and fro.
.... I felt like running away, but I couldn't drag my eyes away from the dying man.
.... The loud, piercing wails of the two young women and their children, who had pushed their heads against their mothers' shoulders, rang out over the common; the women were standing by the fence, alone, apart from the other people.
.... I turned round and hurried back towards the railway station. I sat down in a corner of the compartment, next to the door. I was afraid one of the passengers might try to strike up a conversation with me, so I shut my eyes. The scene from the common and the scene from the past, when Yozha had taken my slice of bread and jam, melted into each other and mingled with the clatter of the wheels on the joints of the rails; the clatter grew louder and louder, I covered my head with the curtain and put the palms of my hands over my ears... and then I jumped up, went out into the corridor and opened the window. Dusk was already falling.

Next: Chapter 13