Chapter 4


Oberwachtmeister Hans Schäufler, leader of the land-line platoon in Panzernachrichten-Abteilung 79 of the 4. Panzer-Division

February 1942. We were in Chatkowo, operated the telephone network for the strongpoint and monitored like a hawk our sole connection to the outer world, the telephone line to Ssusseja, about seventeen kilometers in length.

We were the six men of Weiß’s land-line section, which had been converted to sleds. “We” also included Wassil, a former Russian soldier, who had been with us since July and was a great comrade to everyone; a bushy-haired panje horse by the name of Marusja; some 5,000 lice and a few score bugs; and me, the leader of the entire menagerie. All of that was crammed into a single room of a half shot-up Russian hovel on the northwestern edge of the village.

The field wire had been laid in a broad arc curving out to the north. It was in the same spot as we had laid it during the attack.

From evening dusk to morning dawn, the wooded area around us and all the way to Ssusseja belonged completely to the Russians, since we could not take the chance of venturing out into the night in our thin little overcoats, when the temperature ranged from 30 to 50 below zero. They came in large groups every night, set up dozens of mortars and plastered us in Chatkowo, practically overwhelming us.

During the day, Russian and German patrols romped around in the area. To be more precise: they attempted to avoid each other by means of trickery and deceit. You didn’t have to have an encounter here in order to determine where the enemy was, what he was doing and what he was planning. The loose powder of the snow, at least a meter high, told the story like an open photo book of what happened the previous night in the woods, where the Russians had come from and where they had gone, where they had occupied positions, where they had taken a break to observe, where they had taken a smoke break, even where they had had to relieve themselves. After a while, you started to develop a sense for all those details.

Wassil, who had been born in the Taiga, the boreal forest of European Russia, and had grown up there, saw even more than that. He told us how fast they were going, what they were wearing, whether they were tired or still fresh. He was even able to tell how many there were.

He was also the one who first determined whether a Russian patrol was predominantly interested in our field wire. He found a Russian field wire that was next to ours, even though it was buried deep in the snow. That meant that Ivan was eavesdropping on our conversations. That’s why the bastards were firing with such precision.

Of course, we had to report that to the division signals officer. The reward: we received orders to follow the line each day half way to Ssusseja as far as the burnt-out and shot-up village of Debrik. That was eight kilometers there and eight kilometers back. With a great deal of sweat and effort, a carrier frequency device was also brought to Chatkowo, which was supposed to make the connection safe from eavesdropping. At least that’s what we still believed at the time. It wasn’t until much later that we discovered that the Russians could pick out conversations, despite the modulation provided by the device, by means of a regular commercial radio set.

We then starting placing the wire at one place and then another. We also hid it in deep snow. Unfortunately, we could not quite hide our tracks from the Russians. We had to come up with something new each day: Stomping out paths to nowhere; marching with Russian felt boots; moving backwards. It was a real game of cowboys and Indians, despite the biting cold. One party attempted to outsmart the other and to observe from a hidden spot; everyone avoided direct contact, however, and for good reason. It was a rare occasion when shots were exchanged, since everyone knew that even a simple grazing wound could mean certain death. You immediately froze to death if you could not move. Even self-sacrificing comrades couldn’t help much there.

Once again, we were churning our way through mountains of snow. We were being careful so as not to traipse on to a mine, which the Russians had just started to place in the tracks that had been worn into the snow. That meant we had to take a new path each time, and that made you tired.

Along the way, we could only conduct a check wherever we had established a testing station. That meant along the woodline, where there was an open bit of marsh land, along the river bottom, which was still not completely frozen under the deep snow, and in Debrik proper, where we had been able to sink the grounding connector in a deep well. It was simply impossible to get a ground out in the open, since the earth was frozen solid for meters on end and was completely isolated. What we didn’t try to make contact!

The highest commands had already wrestled with that unfortunate problem—without success.

We tramped our way, step-by-step, to the bottomland, connected our field telephone and . . . no longer had any communication with Chatkowo. Damn it all! Did we need to send everyone back to the edge of the woods? Everything was fine there an hour ago. And then follow the line once again? No! I sent three men on to Debrik, slung the telephone set on my back and went back by myself. What could happen to me, after all? We had just come from there and I would certainly run into line troubleshooters coming form the village. On the other hand, I had been given strict directives that no man was to move through the woods by himself.

As a precautionary measure, I placed my pistol in my overcoat pocket, with my hand right above it. Despite the biting cold, I soon started sweating, since the whole thing was creepy to me, and I was walking faster than I should have. A branch cracked and a handful of snow fell from the tree; a bird took off. All of my senses were on edge. I shouldn’t have gone off by myself. But I didn’t want to turn around either at that point; I didn’t want to be laughed at. I started seeing the clearing through the leafless vegetation. The tree with the testing station was no longer so far away. It was so peaceful in no-man’s-land; one could learn to fear.

Wasn’t that a cautious step? Wasn’t there some crunching of snow up ahead? I chewed myself out. Wait, was there something else again? “Hans. You’re going crazy!” I admonished myself. But, nonetheless, something wasn’t just quite right. I don’t know why I was imaging that. I took my pistol out of my coat pocket and pulled off my right glove. Brrrr! Man that metal was cold. It was sticking to me right away. I was at the oak tree at that point and was in the process of connecting the field telephone. I saw that the wire had been pinched off—no, it had been cut with a saber. In the blink of an eye, I was alert and prepared to defend myself. I had a strange feeling behind my back. I felt . . . I believed . . . I knew beyond all doubt all of a sudden that someone was observing me. I turned around, slowly and carefully and scrutinized everything. No twig, no snowflake escaped my searching eyes.

Then I shuddered, as if I had been struck by a blow. An icy cold and boiling hot feeling ran up and down my back at the same time. I stood there for a moment, as if paralyzed. A Russian soldier in full battle gear was no more than five steps behind me, his submachine gun pointed at me. Initially, I want to throw myself on the ground. That would be a joke, I thought to myself. I ordered myself to get behind the oak tree. Thank God, I did not budge an inch from where I was standing.

The thought that I might be captured almost within eyesight of Chatkowo as a result of my own carelessness . . . my own inattentiveness . . . was unbearable. There had to be a way out.

The film running in front of my eyes was in slow motion. Seconds seemed to expand to hours. How long had I been standing there doing nothing? And nothing occurred to me . . . what a blockhead! Whatever I did could be deadly.

I sized up my opponent, drawing the image into me. Where was there a weak point? Amazed, but also tremendously relieved, I saw that the Russian did not have his finger on the trigger. He had extended it in such an unmistakable manner that I had to see it. I held my pistol cramped in my hand. I painted a picture for myself: How long I would need to take aim; how long the Russian would probably need to crook his finger. Would I still have a small chance, if I were very quick and if I were lucky? I tried to attract the gaze of the one standing across from me. Velvety brown eyes were staring at me—good eyes, somewhat off center in an Asiatic face. It could be the look of a friend. I didn’t see any hate. If there had been no war, if that absurdity had not been the law that two men had to kill one another who did not even know one another. Who had never even seen one another before in their lives. Who had never done anything wrong to one another. Who, perhaps, could have been good friends. If only there hadn’t been a war.

Should I make a try for it? Should I raise my pistol? No, it may sound absurd, but there was no way in the world that I could aim at those eyes. I felt that with every fiber of my being. At the same time, I also knew that I was not about to go into captivity with him. He would have to shoot me dead first!

Then, suddenly, it occurred to me: that guy could have long since shot me, even before I had seen him. What was he waiting for, that man whom the war had made my archenemy?

We stared at each other without moving; we were literally transfixed. Then, quite slowly, the rigid mask of the Russian started to loosen up. A slight, suppressed smile flitted over the weather-beaten, yellowish face; it remained hidden in his eyes. The whites of his teeth shimmered through the brownish lips. A white breath cloud formed in front of his face. From far, far away it seemed to me that a whispered word fluttered towards me. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. All of my senses, stretched to the breaking point, took it what he was tossing my way: “Woina1—pfui!” He actually didn’t say “pfui.” Instead, he spit out to the side with a contempt that came completely from the heart.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had anticipated everything but that. Deeply embarrassed, I looked at him and looked back into those warm and good eyes. Eyes that had no hate. Eyes that were not afraid. They were flashing in anger, but the anger was not directed towards me.

I didn’t speak his language, and he didn’t speak mine. Despite that, I understood him. I knew what his heart was saying. We kept up that silent conversation for a while. We attempted to know one another better. We had so much to say and, at the same time, didn’t need a single word.

Never before in my life had I burned the image of a face into my soul so quickly as that of the Russian, who stood within my reach and yet was still a world away from me. His submachine gun was still at the ready, but it was no longer pointed at my breast.

He moved back a few steps while still facing in my direction. He said, “Woina,” one more time and then spit into the snow off to the side in an unmistakable gesture. It was not in my direction. It was as if he wanted to say: “I don’t mean you!” Then he turned around and went back the way he had come, light on his feet and without paying any attention to me. I was still standing there, a pillar of salt. Subconsciously at first, I put the pistol back in my overcoat pocket with clammy hands.

After about fifty meters, he stopped, smiled from his very soul, waved to me like a high-spirited boy, slung his submachine gun around his breast, and disappeared slowly into the underbrush.

I simultaneously felt really lousy and unspeakably happy. My picture of the world had received a little rip in it.

That simple “child of nature,” as we, in our arrogance, called those unspoiled people, people who operated outside of the playing rules that we accepted without thinking . . . that philosopher from the woods of Siberia, who was morally vastly superior to us “cultured peoples,” had had the courage to vocalize, to demonstrate, and then to act out that which we, in our blindness, no longer wanted to see: “War is the root of all of the suffering in this strange world. Are we supposed to shoot each other dead because of that? I won’t think of it! Don’t you do the same either!”

At least that’s what I took from him. And I am convinced that I understood him correctly, since I had glimpsed into his soul in my hour of mortal danger.

He might have been observing us for days on end and waited longingly for the proper moment to be able to say and demonstrate unpunished to another human, who had to listen to him, what he wanted to fling in the other’s face: “Woina, pfui!”

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