Nikolai walked slowly across the room and opened the door. Standing in the doorway, he turned and looked at his pretty, young wife and two small children. They stood huddled together at the far-end of the room somehow hoping they if they didn’t get near the door he wouldn’t leave. He studied their faces, his wife’s beautiful eyes and the big white bows in his daughter’s hair. Then without a word, he turned and walked out the door.
Nikolai joined a group of men in front of the concrete apartment building. They stood looking at their feet as they made patterns in the dirt with their thick-soled shoes. Someone whispered, “I guess we better go.” The lifeless group moved without a sound down the street. It was the beginning of a journey that they didn’t want to take with an unknown destination . Was imprisonment, injury or even death waiting for them?
It was 1941 and Germany had invaded Russia. Daily reports on the radio recounted stories of death and capture. The Red Army was forcing all able bodied men to protect the Motherland against the fascists. Stalin had built a country that provided him more power than he had ever imagined possible. He wasn’t going to let it go.
Nikolai was assigned to a division headed for the front near the Polish border. They were transported by train, but it wasn’t relaxing with so many men cramped together. Nikolai stared out the window into the darkness. He couldn’t see anything, but it didn’t really matter because his mind was far away. He wondered, “Are they sleeping right now? Will they survive? Who will take care of them if something happens to me?” The thoughts tumbled over and over. Finally, sometime in the middle of the night, the thoughts turned to dreams as his body tried to sleep.
The train jolted to a stop. It was morning, but the gray, cold sky seemed to touch the earth. Small rain drops splashed against the train window blurring the view.
“Hurry up! Get off! Form ranks!” a young officer yelled as he quickly walked through the train. Nikolai slung his small duffel bag on his back. On the platform, other officers were screaming orders and groups of soldiers were standing in straight lines. The new recruits weaved their way through the crowd and found their designated place.
Within a few days, Nikolai and his division were in the field prepared to kill or otherwise face the alternatives. No one thought about home anymore; it was too painful. The lived in the now because it was the only way to stay sane. Soon the order came that they would begin marching that evening when the sun set. When the march began, the darkness and fog were so thick the person right in front could not be seen.
When the leader wanted the group to move or stop, the message had to be passed back. Nikolai somehow found himself near the end of the long rank of men. “Stop, stop, stop stop…” was whispered until the last soldier knew the command. “Move, move, move, move…” kept the division together. There were times after the command to stop was given they would wait for a hour or maybe more. Only the commanding officer knew the purposes of the messages to move or stop.
The group had been stopping and marching for hours. It must have been in the middle of the night when the command to stop was passed down the line. “If only I could sit down,” thought Nikolai. “I’m so tired.” It seemed longer than usual that a command had been given, but there was nothing to do, but wait.
In the distance, the first pale streaks of morning were painted across the gray sky. Still the group stood without moving. “Morning is coming. We can’t just stand out in the open We need to find some protection,” Nikolai reasoned. Without warning, there were suddenly German soldiers surrounding them. They tried to fight back, but it was useless. They quickly realized that most of their division was not there. They had obviously moved on ahead. There were only a few them who had somehow been left standing.
Through hard hits from guns Nikolai and the others understood they were now prisoners of war and were to follow silently. Coming to a road there was a truck waiting to take them no one knew where. The pushing and shoving finally stopped and each found a small place to sit down. Because of the generosity of the German soldiers they could now talk.
“What happened?” someone asked. Everyone looked at the man who had been standing at the front of their little group. He looked at the floor of the truck. He couldn’t look at them and answer. “I fell asleep.” When the division had stopped, he had fallen asleep and did not hear the command to move. Everyone from him to end of the line had been left standing in the middle of an open field where the Germans spotted them with the first rays of light.
The other men couldn’t find any words. They couldn’t even think. They now had no control. In several hours they found themselves shoved onto a train. This time there were no seats. The German soldiers continued to push prisoners of war into the cattle cars. It was almost impossible to breathe. Finally, all the doors were closed and the train moved.
It seemed like years by the time the doors opened again. Nikolai didn’t know how many days had passed since he had been standing in the field. It almost seemed unreal that he had ever known freedom. His world had become the cattle car with the other men as his family. Was it possible he even had a real family?
He was taken to a concentration camp in Poland. He never told anyone what happened there, but the tears that would slide out of the corner of his eyes when asked were all the information that was needed.
One day the young, pretty wife answered a knock at the door. An officer stood at the door. “Your husband has been captured. He is now considered an enemy of the Soviet Union. Your only choice is to divorce this traitor.” He walked away leaving this innocent young woman standing in the doorway.
She slowly closed the door remembering another day that she had closed the door. Somehow she made her way to the bedroom and fell on the bed. She covered her face in a pillow so the neighbors wouldn’t hear her cry. They would probably report it, and then she would be charged with being an enemy of the state. The tears finally stopped.
“Well, if he is a traitor, then I have no choice. I will divorce him,” she firmly decided. She had been taught that it wasn’t right for her to think; her job was to obey. She had to do what was best for all the people.
Years passed. She remarried and the children grew older. It seemed the stupid war would never end. Hope had risen and fallen so many times there was no ability to feel any longer. But suddenly in the spring of 1945 the tide was definitely changing. The Germans had been defeated at Stalingrad. Maybe, just maybe, this war would end with Russia the victors.
And yes, the day came! The Red Army defeated the German fascists. Stalin christened May 9 as Victory Day to celebrate the greatest victory in Soviet history. They won the Great Patriotic War. However, the tears during the celebration told a deeper story. Almost 30 million Russians died during the war. Thousands had been starved death in St. Petersburg. Every family experienced grief. There was a victory, but the cost had been much higher than they ever dreamed. It is hard to even grasp now.
Every year on May 9, Victory Day is still celebrated. In every town and village, there are parades, speeches, concerts, etc. In Penza, it is a day of great pride for the people. Thousands of men and women from Penza fought in the war with many of them never returning.
On the morning of May 9, a large remembrance is held at 10 in the morning at the Victory Monument on Victory Avenue. The monument is of a soldier with a woman beside him with a child on her shoulder. The child is holding a gold olive branch–the hope of peace in the new generation. An eternal flame burns below. Children buy tulips to give to the veterans or place by the eternal flame.
The time of remembrance begins with a 21 gun salute. After some music and a recorded speech about the importance of the victory and loss of 30 million lives, a great mass of people from opposite directions marches toward the monument. The group is made up of veterans and their families and the families of those men and women who were killed during the war. The large group stands together–old and young, men and women, solemn and jovial.
A veteran general with ribbons of every color and shade covering his uniform gives a speech. He speaks about the greatness of the Soviet army and its victory. When he has concluded and while the army band plays, a group of soldiers carry a wreath up the large stairs to the monument. Then all of the veterans and family members make their way to the foot of the monument to place flowers. It is a time of celebration, a time of remembrance.
After years of hardship and pain, Nikolai was finally released. His years of captivity had taken away his health. He thought, “If I can just get home, then everything will be fine.” An army officer said, “You are now a traitor of the people. Your wife has divorced you and has remarried.” It never crossed his mind that he was considered an enemy. It had been for his country that he spent years in the concentration camp. How could they now turn their back on him? Somehow after the years of torture he didn’t even feel sad. He would start over.
Nikolai experienced the pain, excitement and pain of the Great Patriotic War. There was pain in the war, excitement in the victory and pain in the aftermath. The structure and nature of the country was forever changed. 30 million people died, many of them the best of the best. Families were torn apart through death and divorce.
The effects are still felt today. My friend, Nikolai’s grandson, just recently related his story to me. He spoke with sadness as he remembered the only time he met his grandfather. Life after the war went on. But the pain experienced cut too deeply. The older generation just makes it from day-to-day. It hurts too much to feel.
Victory Day is the day when the emotions are allowed out of their hiding place. But they must be placed firmly back in. Life must be lived today.
Copyright © 1998 by Jane Carole Stein