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 serebrisiji – Where 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.