Oleg’s Story

Oleg was watching the news. What he saw on his TV screen disturbed him greatly. Sometimes he was shaking and sometimes a tear or two rolled down his cheeks. He was near the end of his life and the present should not aggravate him that much. But he did care about his former homeland, the Ukraine.

 

What was unfolding there brought back bad memories and opened up old wounds, he thought had healed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For the first time in a long time, his homeland had become an independent country.

 

And now this, he thought. First the Crimea and now the East of the Ukraine. Where will it all end, brother will fight brother. He was almost ninety-five. But the memories of the bad old days were still fresh. He grew up with his parents in the Western Ukraine but shortly after he was born his homeland was hit by the man-made famine, caused by the Bolshevik government confiscating all agricultural produce. They only survived, because of his father’s ability  to outsmart the food inspectors. But the hatred of all Russian was inculcated in him from then on.

 

When Oleg was eighteen he was drafted into the Red Army. In December 1939, he was on the Karelian front fighting in the terrible Winter War. Perhaps, fighting was too big a word. It was more hiding from the Finnish who adapted to the snow and ice better than their Soviet enemies. Oleg and his comrades didn’t dare going outside unless it was unavoidable, like going to the latrine. Many of his comrades did not come back. Finnish sharpshooters had their rifles trained on the toilet door. It was a short war and he survived.

 

Less than a couple of years later, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Oleg and his unit were near the border and he was taken prisoner during the first week. He was not unhappy about it as he did not need to fight for the hated Soviet Union anymore. He thought, his people would welcome the Germans anyway.

 

The Germans found out quick smart that there were Ukrainians among the prisoners of war. They offered them work in Germany which was much better than starving to death in the prison camps.

 

Oleg wanted to survive and was sent to Hamburg to work as a shunter in the world’s largest shunting yard. He met people from other European countries working there. The yard master wasn’t a bad chap. As long as one did the job properly all was okay. He was a good and fair man.

 

One day, after the terrible air raid on Hamburg in 1943, Oleg was called into the office of the yardmaster. An officer of the German Luftwaffe was waiting in the yardmaster’s office.

“What now, do I have to go back to the POW camp?“ he wondered. The officer smiled at him and asked him how he would feel joining the Luftwaffe as a helper with an anti-aircraft unit. He reminded him that as a Ukrainian he would surely hate the Russians and their allies, the Western powers, who were helping the Russians to win the war. “And that, we don’t want to happen, do we?“ He asked with a sly look.

 

And so it happened. After a short training, he found himself on one of the Flak towers on top of the air raid bunker near the Berlin Zoo.  There was no time to get bored. American bombers attacked during the day and British bombers during the night. They were housed in the confines of the bunker.

 

As Oleg was remembering all this, he was thinking, what a miracle it was that he survived at all. Towards the end of April 1945, the war entered its final stage as the Red Army was storming towards Berlin for the final showdown. Oleg’s unit ran out of ammunition at the flak tower and he was ordered to report to a new command centre in the city. The Red Army had entered the outer suburbs already and was pushing from all sides towards the city centre. How you get, in a chaotic, ruined city, to the place you have been ordered to? Public transport had come to a halt. The dreaded military police patrolled the city looking for soldiers who were AWOL or plain deserters. Corpses were hanging from lamp posts, people were queuing for some groceries and artillery projectiles were crossing the sky looking for a target. The smell of fire hung in the air.

 

For a Ukrainian it was a doubly dangerous place. Germans could take him for an infiltrator working behind the front line. Anyway, where was the front? It could be just around the corner. If the Red Army turned up they would shoot him instantly. Oleg was  a traitor as far as they were concerned.  After a short rest behind a burned out tram,  he continued his odyssey. He made it to his destination. The headquarter was near the Reich Chancellery and when he arrived the non-commissioned officer, after checking his papers asked him, ”You are speaking Russian? General Krebs needs someone who can help him out. Good luck !”

 

Oleg was instructed that his job was to listen and observe what was being said at a meeting with the Russians. It was already dark when a convoy of several cars set off to somewhere unknown to him. They drove along the devastated Wilhelmstrasse towards Hallesches Tor. During a short stop, white flags were attached to the cars. Oleg was in a Kübelwagen at the rear. The big shots travelled in their Mercedes. At the Hallesches Tor Oleg could make out the silhouette of the elevated train he had used often when he travelled across the city to meet his Polish girlfriend, Irenka. Here, heavy fighting took place, Russian soldiers stopped their convoy of cars and after a short conversation, Russian Jeeps led them to their destination in Tempelhof. It was not a romantic setting. It was the final curtain in the destruction of the Third Reich. Explosions could be heard and flares went up, eliminating the dying city in its death throes. T 36 tanks were moving towards the centre. Berlin was a hell hole and Oleg could not believe that he was there. It was truly a surreal situation. He would have preferred to be with Irenka. The Polish woman, he had befriended while stationed in Berlin, worked for a German butcher and had often brought him some small goods.  At they drove through  the night he was wondering whether he would  ever see her again?

 

When they arrived in a small side street, someone pushed a briefcase into his arms so he would look official. The talks went on for hours. Oleg learnt that Hitler had committed suicide the previous afternoon. The Russians acted like they knew. But he could overhear a phone conversation in which this important message was passed on to someone along the line. The Russians wanted the Germans to capitulate unconditionally, but General Krebs said, that  wasn’t why he came. A truce, yes, but not more than that.

 

Next morning, on the first of May, they returned to the smouldering city centre but not before the Russians took photos, for posterity, of the Germans while they were waiting for their transport back.

 

After a quick meal of black bread and jam, he went back to the non-commissioned officer for further instructions. He told him. “Corporal, you are in luck,  that comes from associating with the big guys. Krebs was happy with the information you supplied and as he is aware of your precarious position being Ukrainian, he has ordered to give you a travel pass out of this doomed city. ”He handed him a  piece of paper and said, “Good luck and survive.”

 

The travel document directed him to Potsdam, but unknown to the Sergeant and Oleg Potsdam had fallen to the Red Army days before. He was on his own.  A group of German soldiers, some from the Luftwaffe like him,  were holed up in an once stately hotel. He joined them when they told him they were trying to break out and go to the West. They felt, that becoming prisoners of the Russians would do their health not any good. Oleg agreed. They decided,  they would take a slight detour through the suburbs as on the main roads they would only meet with Russian tanks. Still, as soon as they hit the road they had to fight their way out. All the buildings were damaged and it was convenient to use them for cover.
In one of the doorways, they found a group of SS soldiers, real desperadoes, some of them from the Nordland Division, mostly Norwegian and Flemish. The soldiers of Oleg’s little group had told him they had been fighting the SS too but now that they met those members of the Nordland Division they agreed to combine forces. The chances of breaking out of the encirclement were enhanced with them. After a couple of engagements with the Russians, they were able to get through the front line.

 

Two days later, they reached the American front and they surrendered. That was the end of World War 2 for Oleg. He never found Irenka again and got married in Australia to a Ukrainian woman. Now he was a widower and he had never expected to worry about his homeland again. But there it was, Ukrainians were fighting Russians in the East of the Ukraine. It was painful for Oleg because, despite his animosity towards them, he regarded them as brothers. But then, brothers could be the worst of enemies.

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Day One after “Zero Hour”

The day on which we came out of the dark world of the air raid shelter and back into daylight was Wednesday, the 9th of May 1945. As I mentioned before, after living in the cellar for days on end, the days of the week had no meaning at all. Nobody would give a fig of what day of the week it was. Abnormality had become the norm.

Bombedout people in the streets of Berlin 1945

Bombed out people in the streets of Berlin 

It was more important to us, that the fighting was finally over and we were allowed to be on the streets of Berlin for an extended time. There was still a night curfew in place, but we could, if even only for a short time, resume life. The most important question was, where would the next meal come from?

Most of the women were with their children on their own unless, of course, they had been sent to the countryside. My two sisters were somewhere in the former Reich. My mother had no idea where they were. And in regard to the men, there were only a few on the streets and those were too old to even serve in the ‘Volkssturm‘, a kind of “Dad’s Army” without the laughter.

My mother had heard, that there could be some food items in cold storage in warehouses at ‘Gleisdreieck’, a station of the elevated train system. It was said, because of the cut in power supplies, that the warehouses could not be kept cool anymore and the stored foodstuff would only get spoilt anyway.

Nothing was sure, but rumours were getting around like wildfire. The fear of the Russians was still great, but dissipating. Slowly people calmed down somewhat. At least the weapons were quiet now and the howling of the dreaded ‘Stalinorgel’ had ceased.

Russian soldiers loading  "Katyusha" rockets for lunching.

Russian soldiers loading “Katyusha” rockets for lunching.

Hunger had become the dominating urge and some found it unbearable, especially if they refused food from the Russians. The fear of death was pushed slowly into the background.

We, my mother and I, had survived the air raids and the storm on Berlin by the Red Army – just so. Artillery grenades had hit our building and none of the apartments had any window panes left.

On the other side of the street were garden allotments where the fruit trees were in full blossom at the time. It was a beautiful sight as if mother nature wanted to compensate for the folly of mankind. Every day we had to go there and fetch water from the pumps. There wasn’t any town water anymore. Sometimes the Russian soldiers worked the pumps for us.

At the suggestion of some people a few women decided they would go on a reconnaissance mission to find some food or anything useful. Mr. B was the only man who accompanied us. He had been discharged from his military unit. It made his wife decidedly happy that he had come back from the war, so early in the piece. He was uninjured at that.

He was convinced that he could give the women, and me as the only child in our little group, some protection. We set off in what turned out to be beautiful Spring weather. We went through the “Viktoria Park”, passed the two air-raid shelters where today’s children are tobogganing in Winter without having any ideas what is underneath them.

Along Möckernstrasse, we crossed the heavily bombed out Hagelberger Strasse. At the corner of Yorkstrasse, we got to the freight depot and climbed onto the railway tracks to check out a freight wagon we had spotted in the distance. Between the rails, we spotted a dead Russian soldier. He must have been one of the last of the fallen.

The old freight depot at Möckernstrasse

The old freight depot at Möckernstrasse

I was curious and keen to see what he looked like. There he was as if sleeping, without any visible injury. His mouth was open and flies came out of it and buzzed about into the balmy spring air.

My mother called out as she wanted to inspect the freight wagon. When we came closer, we noticed its doors were open and the wagon was full of birdseeds which had spilt out of the wagon and onto the ground.

I was delighted as we had a budgerigar at home and not much to feed him with it. On top of it, we could have used the bird seeds as a means to bargain for food for ourselves. Just at that moment we heard the “tack, tack” of a machine gun. The grown-ups got frightened and my mother called out for me to leave the wagon at once. She promised me, that we would stop on the way back and grab some of the seeds then. Before I jumped off the wagon, I saw a brand new shoe-brush. I grabbed it and it was very useful to us for many years to come.

The machine gun stopped firing, but we left the rail yard anyway. There weren’t many people about. Many were still careful and dared not coming out yet. Soon we arrived at the “Landwehrkanal” (a short-cut canal for the river Spree) and found the bridge there, with its back broken, resting on the bottom of the canal. Ruins were everywhere. We turned left because we wanted to get to the cold storage at “Gleisdreieck”. “Gleisdreieck” has its own history as a triangle rail junction.

Where  "Möckernbrücke" used to be was only a shuttle serve by boat.

Where “Möckernbrücke” used to be, there  was only a shuttle service by boat.

Today, I’m not sure why we, in the end, did not go there. Perhaps other people warned us that the Russians had taken control over the warehouses and would not let us near it anyway.

While Berlin was starving, the foodstuff was rotting in the warehouse. Later in June, former members of the Nazi Party had to clean out the warehouses. The rotten meat was disposed of  in another former bunker in the Viktoria Park. The stench was bestial.

Back to our walk which led us to “Schöneberger Brücke” which was still intact. We could see, that on the other side at the “Hafenplatz”, heavy fighting must have taken place. Dead soldiers, of both sides, weapons and other devices were everywhere.

Constantly, the adults were calling me to keep walking. They weren’t so keen, as I was, to explore and examine what I saw. One of the dead was especially grotesque. I could not recognise whether he was a German or a Russian soldier. His body was bent from being burnt in the front but not in back. Most likely he was caught by a flame-thrower. His lower body was exposed and he held an unburned piece of paper for cleaning purposes in his hand. I still have not forgotten this horrible sight and a mother, somewhere, was waiting in vain for her son to return.  

At the corner of the “Hafenplatz”, the Russians had set up a checkpoint. At the kerb, a group of male civilians were standing about. When we reached the post the Russians asked Mr. B. to stand aside. They were not interested in the women or me and they demanded that we move on.

The man stays here!” they said and emphasised that all the men were required for clean-up work only.  Mrs B. was beside herself and wanted her husband back. The Russians weren’t nasty just insistent and tried to calm Mrs B down. They explained there was no need to worry, “only rabota (work)” was their mantra and he would be home in the evening, they assured her.

When we finally moved on Mrs B. was heartbroken. We knew Russians could act arbitrarily. She saw her husband never again. Years later she received the bad news that he had died in a Siberian labour camp.

We walked on and soon reached “Askanischer Platz” a large square at the “Anhalter Bahnhof”, formerly Berlin’s largest and most famous railway station. Heavy fighting had turned the whole area into a heap of rubble. All buildings were destroyed. The station building looked like a ruin of ancient times. In the middle of the chaos, I saw a destroyed German half-track vehicle with a large red cross. I could not see any other heavy equipment but lots of thrown away rifles and bazookas.

The Anhalter Station in all its glory in 1910

The Anhalter Station in all its glory in 1910

Anhalter Station at the end of the war

Anhalter Station at the end of the war

What is left over today from the glory days.

What is left over today from the glory days.

The adults were by now downcast, first because of the incident with the Russians and then because of the unimagined destruction. They were numbed by their experience and seem to have had forgotten why they had left in the morning in the first place.

We walked along “Saarlandstrasse” (today Stresemannstrasse) and to my amazement saw on both sides of the road many Soviet T-34 tanks as if parked. On closer inspection I noticed they all had large holes where they took a hit from the bazookas.

Soviet tanks during the battle

Soviet tanks during the battle

Only sixty years later I was to learn (“BERLIN – The Downfall 1945”, by Antony Beevor) that a group of volunteers from the Nordland Division (mostly Scandinavians) of the SS had hunted down the Soviet tanks and transformed the area into a “tank cemetery” (their words).

From then on we only wanted to get home. We walked past the “Belle-Alliance-Platz” (today Mehringplatz) once one of the prettiest urban squares in Berlin since before the turn of the century. The square (actually round) was totally devastated from the bombing and the battle. Only in the middle of it was the “Peace Column”, with the Angel Victoria still standing on the top, as if it wanted to make a mockery of all the destruction around her. 

When we got home we had not much to show for our pains. I had the shoe-brush only. In the meantime the Russians had cooked another warm meal for the house community. At least we could be thankful for that.

Soviet soldiers ladling out soup to hungry Berliners, May 1945

Soviet soldiers ladling out soup to hungry Berliners, May 1945

The fighting is over. Soviet soldiers can relax.

The fighting is over. Soviet soldiers can relax among the debris 

Tuesday, 24.April 1945

My dear mother wrote:

Day 4 Tuesday 24. April 1945

“We are up since 6 o’clock. During the night there was an air raid for one hour ! Russian fighter aircrafts are over Berlin. Our borough is unscathed.

Russian plane over Berlin. The destroyed building can easily be spotted.

Russian plane over Berlin. The destroyed buildings can easily be spotted.

From 6.30 till 11.30 we were waiting to get 1/2 kg of meat, also we received 30 gr coffee and one loaf of bread.

Just now, we hear that the Anhalter Railway Station  and the Görlitzer Railway Stations are in the hand of the enemy (approx. 2 and 4 km away, but in different directions. berlioz). One can hear intensified artillery fire. and easily distinguish our own heavy Flak. From time to time we can hear targets being hit nearby and observe some aerial combats. And while queuing and shopping we have to take cover from time to time. One is always amazed how people adjust to the prevailing condition and their thought processes quickly find a way to prolong their lives.

The 4th Day passed without any special events. (Shades of ‘All Quite on the Western Front? berlioz)”

It has come to this.  The war was coming closer and closer, the bombardment of the city has intensified and my Mum says, “…the day passed without any special events .” 

While we were queuing for the meat we witnessed some aerial combat. We were waiting at Hefters in Boelkestrasse (what an irony the street is named after a famous air combatant in WW I) close to our Parish church. We heard the sound of the two planes approaching. A Russian fighter  plane was following an ME 109. The German plane tried to shake the Russian by flying around the church which is  actually a  round building.

The Church on the Field of Tempelhof

The Church on the Field of Tempelhof

Quickly they were around and disappeared behind the trees and buildings. But we could hear the onboard cannons of the Russian plane and shortly after a loud explosion as the ME 109 crashed, and exploded  into the nearby hospital a few streets away. Only this year, while researching another story about the hospital -where I was born – I learned  that four  people died in that incident. On that day, my Mum  came home from a warehouse, obviously looting it, with a large soup tureen full of jam.

 Aerial combat, people taking cover, the enemy fighting with the remnants of the German Army in house to house combat and my Mum says no “special events”.

Even during  the  war we can become blasé. Or is this a defence mechanism?

Monday, 23. April 1945

My mother wrote:

Day 3: Monday 23. April 1945

“Today the ‘queuing fun’ continues. From 10 am to 4 pm, once again we queued in vain. Later there is butter for free. 1/2 kilo per head, but no luck here either. Just when we were about to enter the shop the supply runs out.

So, slowly we are becoming weaker from hunger – the cold – and tiredness. Let us hope that we get through all this. The shelling is getting louder, but people are getting dulled. We will see what the day brings tomorrow.”

As usual, my mother and I  exchanged places in the queue. Often the  queueing  went on for hours.

My mother’s diary is not really comprehensive and I must say so much is missing and I saw the world around me differently from the way she saw it. Different impressions are often the result.

On that particular day, we were hoping to get “our” butter ration as long as we waited long enough.  For me, all this waiting among the old people was an experience in itself. “Old people” because younger persons were either working or helping out at the front. Not to speak about the men that were in the army and were just now defending Berlin against the onslaught of the Red Army. And for a nine-year-old boy all people are “old”. For me, it was interesting to listen what they had to talk about. Some were fearful and others were stoic. Whatever will be, will be!

In those days, the  butter did not come conveniently prepacked in 1/2 kilo portions. It came in  drums and the grocer had to weigh every portion himself.  This was a very slow process done with a wooden spatula.  The People  owning  the shops were usually very old people who should have been retired a long time ago.

On this particular day, we inched our way towards the shop door. Just at the moment when I reached the door and the butter seemed to be in reach a motor lorry of the Waffen-SS stopped at the kerb.  Heavily armed soldiers jumped off and entered the shop. I could not hear all the conversation that took place, but one word I could understand, “Requisition”. That was the end of our  dream to have some butter. It wouldn’t have been much anyway,  but  every scrap of food was important. as regular supplies were not available anymore.  The soldiers carried out a few drums of butter, threw them into the lorry and disappeared. The people in the queue grumbled and went home. They were probably  thinking if  their own  soldiers  were stealing from  them,  what could they expect from  the Russian soldiers who would be, most likely, out for revenge?

 In those days people, when they departed, did not say, “Goodbye” or “See you later” but said. “Bleib’ übrig!”. This is very difficult to translate and the meaning is obviously to stay alive and survive, but actually   wishing you to be at least one of the few who was still alive, after  the battle was over. The feeling of this being the “endgame” was in the air.

Sunday, 22. April 1945

The calendar says it was Sunday.  I have to confess,  the weekdays were meaningless at the time.  I can’t remember when the newspaper stopped either. During the last few weeks, the newspaper was reduced constantly in size. Four pages became two and eventually the paper had only one sheet. What did the paper tell us.? It told us where the front was.  By now   the Red Army was closing in on three sides. It was clear even to us, that they were going to encircle Berlin to cut it off from the West. Any relief  for the beleaguered city could only come from there. Our needs were immediate. Some food was still available and extra rations were announced over the radio. Sometimes, only selected shops would have a particular item and long queues would form.

Here is how my mother saw the day:

Day 2 Sunday 22. April 1945

“It is Sunday! After being awake half the night we finally got a few hours of good sleep. Suddenly, rumours are spreading like wildfire throughout the apartment building: There are to be extra rations of meat, legumes, coffee and other groceries. The sale is supposed to start as from 11 o’clock on. Peter has already, at 10 o’clock, taken his place in an endless queue at the butchers. Every hour or so we are swapping places with each other so that we can have a rest or something to eat. It is a cold and rainy April day. Now, after 6 hours queuing, we are exhausted and we are cold right through to the bones. We are giving up queuing for the day and console ourselves with more luck for tomorrow.

The activities of the artillery have somewhat lessened. Only towards the evening it is getting more livelier. But as from today, we are allowed to stay in our  building’s air raid shelter. This is much better because we are able to go back to our flat to fetch something when and if the need arises.

Some of the occupants of the upper story flats have already arrived. Today we are especially brave as we go after a while into the flats to be able to sleep in our own beds.

According to an OKW (Supreme Command of the Army) statement the enemy is now at Lichtenberg (approx. 8 km as the crow flies.berlioz).”

This was the block of flats or apartments where I grew up

This was the block of flats or apartments where I grew up

The small green door, then black and of better design, led to a hallway and to a courtyard. The shop on the right used to be our greengrocer where we often queued for hours to get  potatoes or some veggies.  To the left of the door can be seen a  window.  This used to be a barber shop before the war. When Herr Vogel, the barber, died  the shop was converted into a room.  Herr and Frau Vogel were the parents of our  caretaker. The next shop used to be a shoemaker who was not only repairing our old shoes but was  making new ones if we supplied the leather. For instance from an old handbag. He was not only paid with money but also in kind.

The other tenants have relented and allowed  us back into the air raid shelter. I  must have looked harmless being without my sisters.  I would not say “Boo” to anyone. My mother was my God. At that stage of my life, obedience to her was the only object of my  life.  In the evening, when we moved into the communal cellar, that was the air raid shelter, my bed was on a two seater kitchen bench. Even for me, it was too short. My mother made it comfortable with lots of cushions and blankets. We were right in the middle of it. The other people took their places along the walls of the cellar.

Entrance door

Entrance door (photo with the  courtesy of NotMs Parker)

The hallway to the court yard  (phot with the courtesy of NotMs Parker)

The hallway to the courtyard  (photo with the courtesy of NotMs Parker)

In the photo on the left, you can spot  four bricks made of glass on the ground. They were there to let some light into the cellar. But it was next to nothing. After one walked through the hallway one saw the courtyard.

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the wall all looked from the grime

The courtyard, then there was no greenery and the walls  looked black from the grime of years of neglect.

We lived in the apartment in the corner on the ground floor. In the flat above us  my  maternal grandparent lived  before they passed away. This courtyard played a big part later after the Russians arrived.

Ivan the (not so) Terrible

At the end of the Second World War Ivan, a young Russian soldier, was happy to have survived the battle for Berlin. The Red Army had just conquered the city and his unit, a company of the 8th Guard Army, camped with their motor lorries on an area where a twice weekly market used to be held.

The fighting had stopped and Ivan and his comrades were no longer afraid of being killed. The soldiers gathered for impromptus parties, celebrating their victory. One soldier started to play popular folk tunes on his accordion and was soon surrounded by others clapping or singing. When he played Kalinka some even danced.

On the evening before, Ivan had received a letter from Natalya, his fiancée at home. They had promised each other to get married after the war and in the letter she dared to request a present he could bring from Germany. She had heard, that the Germans were all rich and surely, they would still be able to manage even if a victorious Russian soldier, would help himself, here and there, to a few war trophies.

When his comrades heard about it they could only agree and they explained to him that a set of silver cutlery would be just the thing. All Germans owned them, they assured him and it would be easy as pie to find such a set of cutlery. Natalya would love him even more for such a gift and they added, with smirks and loud laughter, that he should try out one of those German ‘Fräuleins’. Once he was home again in his village and married, they told him, all hanky panky would stop. They roared with laughter, slapped him on his back and sent him on his merry way.

“Go soon!” someone shouted after him as Ivan jumped off the motor lorry. He adjusted his tunic and put his cap, on a cheeky angle, on his shorn head. He felt encouraged by the crude jokes of his comrades but did not know were he could find such cutlery.

The street in which they camped was not as damaged by the war as he had seen in other suburbs. At times Ivan was involved in horrific house to house fighting. Burning buildings had collapsed onto the streets. After the battle it was the duty of his company to provide guard duties for the headquarters of the 8th Guard Army. Ivan was mighty proud to do this especially for the commander of the army, General Vasily Chuikov was leading the army since Stalingrad.

It was this General who had negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Berlin. Ivan was sure many lives of the heroic soldiers of the Red Army were thus saved.

He was happy that the fighting had ended and the prospect to see his beloved Natalya soon again filled him with heightened expectations. Only ten days earlier the fighting had been, at its peak and survival was not as assured.

He had survived. The howling of the Katyushas had stopped. It was quiet now in the city after the big upheaval of the battle. The trees that survived were in full blossom and fresh green made people forget the horror of the war. It was spring-time and nature seemed to want to compensate for the folly of what had done during that great conflict.

As Ivan walked in search for silver cutlery he notice that people walked the streets too. They had left the air raid shelters or their bombed out buildings to look for something. Something that had been in short supply lately, like peace or their neighbours. People wanted to know who had survived or they tried to organise some food or just a pile of precious water.

The street Ivan walked in was only built up on one side. On the other side were garden allotments and people with buckets went there to get water from a water pump. Ivan saw worn out human beings queuing at the pump. Women and old men were working the pump to fill up their buckets. The queue moved very slowly and Ivan could see that the emaciated people,with drawn faces from sleepless nights, did not have much energy left. He decided he could help them and he took over the handle and started to pump.

The queue moved much quicker and got shorter and shorter.

Thank you, thank you,” and even a “Spasiva !”, they said and looked surprised at Ivan who did this for them, the beaten German people. Ivan was strong, and liked showing off his strength, but after a while even his arms got tired and he remembered that he wanted to get some silver cutlery for Natalya.

He left the people at the pump and crossed the street. Soldiers sitting on tanks and motor lorries, with large red stars on their bonnets, made rude remarks to the women in the street. Those women were not inclined to hang around with them. Too many horror stories did the rounds of what the women had to endure during the last few days.

Ivan did not like the behaviour of his fellow soldiers and he was wondering what Natalya would say to him if he would behave badly towards the German women. He entered an apartment building, walked through a long hallway into a courtyard. A soldier, working as a cook with a field kitchen, was preparing a hot meal for the residents of the building. Most apartments had their windows blown out and he could see two women and a child in one of the ground floor apartments.

“They are an easy target,” he thought. It was clear to Ivan that he had to act firm and decisive if he wanted to be successful. But in fact he had a bad feeling in his belly. He knew he was not a thief. All his comrades had come back to the lorry with stolen goods to take home as war trophies. On the other hand, he believed he should bring something home for his beloved Natalya

from this crazy war, the Germans had started in the first place.

He used his fist to bang onto the first door in the hallway. An old woman with a headscarf, very much like his own Babushka back home, opened the door.

“Ja, bitte – Yes, please?” she asked and surprised Ivan with her politeness. Ivan did not understand her and didn’t want to either and pushed past her. Her perceived politeness only irritated him. He walked straight into the kitchen.

In the middle of the kitchen he saw a middle aged woman holding a young boy, like a protective shield, tightly against her body. Fear was written all over her face. The old woman followed Ivan into the kitchen. There was a moment of silence as they all looked at each other, gauging the situation. The woman with the boy was too frightened to do anything and the old woman looked too frail to look for trouble.

Ivan turned towards the kitchen cabinet and pulled, with a sudden, powerful movement, the top drawer out. One of hands disappeared in the drawer and began therein to shuffle the cutlery he saw. He could not discover any silver cutlery. His face flushed and his hands shaking he pulled out the next drawer – nothing. And another one – again nothing! Disappointed he hit the cabinet with his fist. Against his own inclination he had forced himself into stealing silverware. But there wasn’t any!

Gde serebrisijiWhere is the silver?” he screamed enraged. Nobody understood his words but Ivan assumed the two women would guess what he wanted.

Zavtra – I will be back tomorrow,” he said. He noticed the woman holding the child was even more frightened after his outburst. The boy, who reminded Ivan of his younger brother Kolya, looked at him with big wondering eyes.

Ivan, his hand gesticulating and his mouth twitching, looked at the Germans. He knew that he would not be able to go through the same act again and that realisation made him even more mad with himself. As his self confidence took a dive the old woman stepped up to Ivan and shoved him out of the way and hit the kitchen cabinet with her small fist. Her face had become red with rage. All her accumulated feelings of the last few weeks boiled over. The air raids, the fighting in the streets, all the fears she had gone through came together to the point where she felt, she had something to defend too. A wave of adrenaline swept out all fear from her tiny body.

Ivan knew the face from his own, no nonsense suffering Babushka and he realised immediately that there was a storm brewing. The bravery and boldness of the old woman made him take a step backwards. He thought, “I’m a hero of the glorious Red Army, I don’t need to take this.”

But more was to come. The old women screamed at him, “You dammed Russian, you think you can come here and steal from us. I have enough of your lot.”

Ivan stood frozen, not understanding the words, but the meaning, was clear to him. Babushka walked past him to the apartment door, opened it and screamed again, ”Out off here.– Go!” Her outstretched finger pointing the way.

Ivan walked out and was actually relieved. He had escaped the fury of the German Babushka. Fighting the German Army had been much easier. He could have been killed or become a Hero of the Soviet Union, but felt this encounter had ended in confusion and dishonour. Glory and honour could not have been won. He feared what his comrades would say to him.

He went back empty handed and prepared himself for guard duty, happy that he could avoid the corrosive remarks of his comrades for a few more hours. Standing in front of the Kommandantura on point duty he was able to see the building of his humiliation. After another night of celebrating the end of hostilities in Europe his mates were able, next morning, to squeeze the whole story out of him. They laughed uncontrollable about Ivan and his lost battle with the German Babushka.

“But she really was terribly cranky,” Ivan tried to justify himself.

“But this is the nature of all Babushkas, you should know that!” they told him. But this knowledge was no consolation for him.

On the next day he wrote a letter to his beloved Natalya:

“My Darling Natalyushka,

the Germans are not as rich as we think they are. They have suffered as much in this terrible war as we have. Europe is now free from the Nazi scourge. Hitler is dead. I’m healthy and haven’t even got a scratch on my body. When I get home we will get married straight away and make lots of babies. Comrade Stalin will be proud of us.

Your always loving,

Ivan.”

The weapons fell silent in Europe and both women were able to get their silver cutlery out of the hiding place. Some of it was later used to trade in for bread on the black market. But one spoon made it to Australia where the German boy later, with his own family, migrated to.