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 of silver cutlery he noticed 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 tired 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 on 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 his hands disappeared into the drawer and began 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 at 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 damned 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 of 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 uncontrollably 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,


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.

October 27th

Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s birthday. He was born in the year 1900 and he would have been 113 years.

Fifteen of his descendents live in Australia and nine  in Germany . Two of his grandchildren have passed away. 

I loved him very much but this feeling was not reciprocated.

This is how he looked when I become aware of him during the first years of my life.

My father as a taxi driver in pre-war Berlin

My father as a taxi driver in pre-war Berlin

Oddly enough this photo was taken in the street where the  hospital is in which  I was born in. Perhaps he was there to visit  my mother. Who knows? No date was given for this picture. He looks a bit cheeky there. This is what he was like.

I loved the taxis of that time. They were spacious, had a fold back roof and two  fold  up seats for us kids. I still think he was the best driver ever. Normally he was a   nervous type,  but behind the wheel he was Mr. Calmness himself. He made the car seemingly float through the traffic.

The oldest picture of him, I have is this one. Here he is with his mother and his two sisters as a six year old.

Sunday outing

Sunday outing

On the next picture he looks bit  like young  Master Richard (his name).

possibly 10 or 11 years old

possibly 10 or 11 years old

He was born outside Berlin but his family soon moved to the big city where the work was.  In school he received not very high marks, but we know he was good at German and mathematics. I think he caused  lots of trouble and his reports were accordingly. My sisters and I, we discovered his school reports one day and found that he was not the ideal pupil he always made out he was.

In the next picture he looks even more like a young gentleman.

Young Richard

Young Richard

But his youth was rudely interrupted when WW I started. He volunteered for the army after his father fell on the front in Flanders in 1916.  Because of his age he was only an auxiliary soldier in the occupied Polish – Ukraine.

Auxiliary soldier at Dubieczno

Auxiliary soldier at Dubieczno

Here he was put in charge of the local church. The post card is ninety-six years old. Still, life must not have been easy as he lost one toe due to frostbite.

Church at Dubieczno

Church at Dubieczno

After the war he went to learn  the bank business. He worked in the bank till the great crash of 1929. He was retrained as a car driver and worked then as a pool driver with the Berlin radio station. Later he became a taxi driver. That is what he was when I joined the family in 1935.

Three stages of his life in his own handriting

Three stages of his life in his own handwriting

He hated the Nazis and he forbade us children to ever exhibit the Swastika flag. The world financial crisis  probably made him a communist. He was twice arrested by the Gestapo for saying he would like to kill Hitler. They left it up to my mother whether she ever wanted to see him again. Later she  joked she was stupid for pleading for his release.

When WW II started he volunteered again. He never told us why he did this. Did he like adventure, did anybody ask him to do it in order to spy on the Wehrmacht.? I wonder. His regiment was part of the occupation force in occupied Poland. He was either in Poznań or Lodz. Once on furlough he complained bitterly about the treatment that was dished out to the Russian POWs. He told us they were starving and giving them some bread was very difficult and strictly forbidden. While stationed in Poland he was mostly a car driver.

As a soldier in Poznań 1940

As a soldier (second from the right) in Poznań 1940

In Lodz he was billeted with a German family. The woman there and he became lovers. This, and other matters,  later lead to frictions with my mother and divorce.

After the landing of Western Allied forces on Sicily in August 1943 he was transferred to Italy. His regiment in Poland was later totally decimated (germ.  aufgerieben) at the Eastern Front. In Italy he drove mainly motor lorries with supplies to the front from the north to the south. Every trip became shorter as the Allies pushed up the Italian Peninsula.  It was often very dangerous and a real carnage as the convoys came under attack from  the US Army Air Force. 

Dad (with cap) relaxing with comrade in Italy - Brixen 1943

Dad (with cap) relaxing with a comrade in Italy – Brixen 1943

It must have been terrific and must have had an effect on his mind. Nobody was talking about trauma counselling.  In April 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Italian partisans. The prisoners were handed over to the Americans and taken to Southern German to a prison camp. During the handover the German soldiers were relieved of all personal items like watches, wedding  rings etc.

My Dad always knew how to adjust to a new situation.  He was able to trade his cigarette ration into American Field rations (Type C).  He had an arrangement with a woman outside the camp who helped him sending them by post  to my mother in Berlin. I think, he must have been the only person in history sending  parcels from a prisoner of war camp. The rations contained  tobacco and cigarettes too and they became valuable items for trading for other goods in short supply. It was a great help for my mother.

In May 1946 he was released from the prison camp and returned to Berlin with my two sisters he had picked up on the way from where they had been evacuated to at the end of the war. It should have been a great occasion for me, but it was not.  I think one day I will write a fictional account of that day. The day after he came back he went to join the Communist Party.

From the day  of his return on the  relationship of my parents went downhill. In January 1949 my mother left my dad with us children, and they divorced later that year. Women of her generation had learnt to live and manage their own lives without their husbands. Shortages became the cause for many arguments.

I never lost contact and I saw him often on the streets of Berlin driving his own taxi. When we migrated to Australia we wrote to each other and he even had the idea of coming out here for a visit.

But he became ill with lung cancer and died 5 March 1973 after a long hard battle. The last time I had seen him was in August 1958 on a visit to Berlin. We lived with our daughter Gaby in Düsseldorf at the time.

After the war my father was with us for only two and a half years. There is not much to remember about the time before the war. The time after the war was filled with disputes between my parents. Sometimes he told us stories from the war in Italy. He did not trust politicians very much. Hitler was a criminal for him.   All in all there was not much time for a proper father / son relationship.

He always dressed well. He never had dirty hands. He could cut tomatoes in thin slices with a blunt knife holding the tomato in one hand. He loved to drink beer and bet on the horses (both vices my mother objected to). He never went to a theatre, but liked movies. I think he was just an ordinary guy who would have fitted very well into Australia.

I nearly  forgot. He remarried my mother in the year before he died. It wasn’t meant to be the happy end, but he  wanted to make sure that someone received the widow pension after his death. He moved in with her and she looked after him for many months. They are reunited in the cemetery as their ashes share the same plot.

I miss him and often dream about him.  In those dreams I want to talk to him. Here in the last picture he looks like I always remember him.

My Dad, Grandfather of my children.

My Dad, Grandfather of my children.