tue 10/12/2019

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich | reviews, news & interviews

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Extract I of III - A Man's Story

Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich© Fitzcarraldo Editions

Between 1991 to 2012, Belorussian journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich travelled the countries that constituted the former USSR conducting interviews with the “the little great people” who had lived under Soviet communism and witnessed its demise. The resulting book, Second-Hand Time, is an oral history which tells through the words of ordinary people the end of what she, in her 2015 Nobel Prize lecture, called a “historical experiment”. This is the first of three extracts.

— My whole life, I’ve kept my arms at my sides! I didn’t dare breathe a word of any of this to anyone. Now, I’ll tell you my story…

I remember, when I was little, I was always afraid of losing my father… Fathers were taken away at night; they’d vanish into thin air. That’s how my mother’s brother, Felix, disappeared… He was a musician. He was taken away for something very stupid… total nonsense… He was at a shop with his wife and he said, ‘The Soviet regime has been around for twenty years, and they still can’t make a decent pair of trousers.’ Today, they say that everyone was against it, but I’ll tell you – the people supported the mass arrests. Take my mother… Her own brother was in prison, but she still maintained, ‘They made a mistake with our Felix. They have to sort that out. But people need to be punished, look at all the crime all around us.’ The people supported those policies… Then the war came! After the war, I was afraid of ever remembering it… My war… Afterwards, when I tried to join the Party, they wouldn’t accept me: ‘What kind of communist are you if you were in the ghetto?’ I kept my mouth shut. Never said a word… There was a girl named Rozochka in our partisan division, this pretty Jewish girl, she’d brought books with her. Sixteen years old. The commanders took turns sleeping with her… They’d crack jokes about her: ‘She still has little kid hair down there, ha ha…’ Rozochka ended up pregnant. So they took her off deep into the woods and shot her like a dog... People had kids, of course, there was a forest full of healthy men. The usual practice was that when a child was born, it would immediately be taken to a village. Left at a farmstead. But who would take a Jewish baby? Jews had no right to have kids. I returned from a mission. ‘Where’s Rozochka?’ ‘What do you care? This one’s gone, there’ll be another one to take her place.’ Hundreds of Jews who’d escaped from the ghettos wandered the forests. Peasants would capture them and give them up to the Germans in exchange for a bag of flour, a kilogram of sugar. Write that down… I’ve held my silence for long enough… A Jew spends his whole life afraid. No matter where the stone falls, it hits him.

We didn’t make it out of Minsk as it went up in flames because of my grandmother… Grandma had seen the Germans in 1918 and tried to convince us all that the Germans were an educated people who would not touch civilians. A German officer had been quartered at their home, and every night he had played the piano for them. My mother started vacillating: should we leave or not? Because of that piano playing, naturally… We ended up losing a lot of time. One day, the German motorcycles rode into the city. Some people welcomed them in traditional costume – embroidered shirts, bearing bread and salt. Joyously. Many thought that because the Germans were here, we’d finally get to lead normal lives. A lot of people hated Stalin and now, they could stop concealing it. So many new and strange things emerged at the outbreak of war…

That was when I first heard the word ‘kike’. Our neighbours started knocking on our door and shouting, ‘That’s it, kikes, your days are numbered! You’ll answer for what you did to Christ!’ I was a Soviet boy. I had completed fifth grade, I was twelve. I couldn’t fathom what they were talking about. Why were they saying those things? I still don’t understand it… I come from a mixed family: my father was a Jew and my mother was Russian. We celebrated Easter, but in a special way: my mother would tell us that it was the birthday of a very special person and bake a cake. For Passover (when the Lord took mercy on the Jews), my father would bring matzo over from my grandmother’s. The times were such that we didn’t advertise it… You had to keep quiet.

My mother sewed yellow stars onto our clothes… For several days, none of us could bear to go out. We were ashamed… I’m old, but I still remember how it felt, how embarrassing it was. There were flyers lying around all over the ground in the city: ‘Liquidate the Commissars and Jews’, ‘Save Russia from the Bolshevikike Regime’. Someone slid one of those flyers under our door… It all happened so fast… Rumours started spreading that American Jews were collecting gold to bail all of the Jews out of Europe and bring them to America, that Germans loved order but hated Jews, so Jews would have to spend the war in ghettos… People attempted to make sense of what was going on… to catch onto a thread… Even hell is something that people will attempt to understand. I remember… I remember how we moved into the ghetto like it was yesterday. Thousands of Jews marched through the city… With children, with pillows. It’s funny: I brought my butterfly collection with me. It’s funny now… The residents of Minsk spilled out onto the pavement to watch: some were curious, others were full of malicious glee, but a number of them were in tears. I didn’t look around much, I was afraid of seeing one of the boys I knew. I was ashamed… I remember the constant shame…

My mother took off her wedding ring, wrapped it in a handkerchief, and told me where to take it. That night, I crawled under the barbed wire… A woman was waiting for me at the place where my mother had sent me. I gave her the ring and she poured out some flour for me. In the morning, we realized that instead of flour, she’d given us chalk. Whitewash. That’s how we lost my mother’s ring. We didn’t have any other valuables… We started bloating from hunger… Peasants with big sacks hung out outside of the ghetto day and night, waiting for the next pogrom. Whenever Jews were taken away to be shot, they’d let them in so they could loot their abandoned homes. The Polizei searched for valuables, while the peasants took anything they could find. ‘You won’t need any of it any more,’ they’d assure us.

One day, the ghetto went quiet like it usually did before a pogrom. Even though not a single shot had been fired. That day, there wasn’t any shooting… Vehicles arrived, lots of vehicles… Kids in nice suits and boots, women in white pinafores, and men with expensive suitcases poured out of them. Their suitcases were incredible! All of them spoke German. The guards and convoy troops were at a loss, especially the Polizei. They didn’t scream or beat anyone with their batons, they kept their growling dogs on their leashes. It was pure theatre, a play… it felt like we were in a play… That same day, we learned that these were Jews they’d brought over from Europe. We started calling them the Hamburg Jews because the majority of them had come from Hamburg. They were disciplined, obedient. They didn’t attempt to outsmart or trick the guards, they didn’t hide in any of the secret spots… They were doomed… They looked down on us. We were poor, badly dressed. We weren’t like them… we didn’t speak German…

All of them were shot. Tens of thousands of those so-called Hamburg Jews…

That day… it’s all a fog… How did they kick us out of the house? How did they transport us? I remember the big field on the edge of the forest... They selected the strongest men and ordered them to dig two big pits. Deep. While the rest of us stood there and waited. First, they tossed all the little kids into one of the pits… they started burying them… And their parents didn’t even weep or beg. Everyone stood there in total silence. Why, you ask? I’ve given it a lot of thought… When a wolf pounces on you, you don’t try to talk to it, you don’t beg for your life. Or if a wild boar charges you… The Germans looked down into the pit and laughed, threw sweets in it. The Polizei were dead drunk… Their pockets were stuffed with wrist-watches… They buried the children alive... Then they ordered everyone else to jump into the other pit. We stood there, my mother, my father, my little sister and I. Our turn came… The German in charge noticed my mother was Russian and gestured to her: ‘You’re free to go.’ My father shouted, ‘Run!’ But she grabbed onto him, clutched at me: ‘I have to be with you.’ All of us pushed her away, we begged her to leave… but she was the first one of us to jump into the pit…

And that’s all I can remember… I regained consciousness when I felt something sharp strike my leg. I cried out in pain. Somebody whispered, ‘Sounds like one of them’s alive.’ Men were digging through the pit with shovels, removing the shoes and boots from the corpses… Taking everything they could find. They helped me out. I sat on the edge of the pit and waited and waited… It was raining. The ground was very warm. They cut me off a hunk of bread, ‘Run, kikeling. Maybe you’ll survive.’

The nearest village was deserted… Not a soul around, but the houses were intact. I wanted to eat, but there was no one to beg for food. I wandered through the village alone. On the side of the road, I’d see a rubber boot, a pair of galoshes… A kerchief… Behind the church, there were charred bodies. Blackened corpses. It smelled like petrol and frying… I ran back into the forest. I lived off mushrooms and berries. One day, I came upon an old man chopping wood. He gave me two eggs. ‘Don’t set foot in the village,’ he warned me. ‘The men will tie you up and turn you over to the commanding officers. They just caught two little Jews that way.’

One day, I fell asleep and woke up to a bullet flying over my head. I leapt up, ‘Germans?’ It was these two young guys on horseback. Partisans! They laughed and started arguing amongst themselves: ‘What do we need a little kike for? Let’s go…’ ‘Let the Commander decide.’ They brought me to the regiment encampment, put me in a separate mud hut [1]. Had someone stand guard over me… I was summoned for an interrogation: ‘How did you come to find yourself in this regiment? Who sent you?’ ‘No one sent me. I climbed out of a mass grave.’ ‘But maybe you’re a spy?’ They punched me in the face twice and threw me back into the mud hut. Towards evening, they pushed another two Jews in there with me, young men in nice leather jackets. From them, I learned that they don’t accept Jews into partisan regiments unless they come with weapons. If you don’t have a weapon, you have to bring them gold, some gold object. They had a gold watch and a cigarette case – they even showed me. They demanded to see the Commander. Soon, they were taken away. I never saw them again… but that cigarette case did end up in our Commander’s possession… and one of the leather jackets. I was saved by a friend of my father’s, Uncle Yasha. He was a cobbler, and cobblers were considered as valuable as doctors. I became his assistant...

Yasha’s first piece of advice: ‘Change your last name.’ My last name is Friedman, so I became Lomeiko. His second piece of advice: ‘Keep your mouth shut, or else you’ll get a bullet in the back. No one will be held accountable for killing a Jew.’ That’s how it was… War is a swamp, it’s easy to get stuck in it and hard to get out. Another Jewish saying: ‘When the wind is strong, the rubbish rises to the top.’ Nazi propaganda had infected everyone, and the partisans were anti-Semitic, too. There were eleven of us Jews in the regiment… and then there were five… People would intentionally have conversations in front of us like, ‘What kind of warriors are you? They lead you off like sheep to the slaughter…’ ‘Kike cowards…’ I held my silence. I had a friend in battle, this hotheaded guy David Greenberg. He’d talk back to them, stand up for himself. He ended up getting shot, and I know exactly who killed him. Today, that guy’s a hero, strutting around, showing off his medals. Acting all heroic! He murdered two Jews for allegedly sleeping on duty. And another one for the brand-new Parabellum pistol he coveted… Where could you run to? The ghetto? I wanted to defend my Motherland… avenge my family… And the Motherland? The partisan commanders had secret instructions from Moscow: don’t trust the Jews, don’t let them into the regiments, annihilate them. They considered us traitors. We learned the truth about all of this thanks to perestroika.

You feel sorry for people… But horses… Do you know how horses die? Horses don’t hide like other animals: dog, cats, and even cows will run off somewhere, while horses just stand around waiting to be killed. It’s hard to watch… In films, cavalry soldiers charge in whooping, brandishing sabres over their heads. Nonsense! Pure fantasy! There were some cavalrymen in our regiment for a while, but they disappeared pretty quickly. Horses can’t walk through deep snow, let alone gallop – they get caught in snowdrifts. Meanwhile, the Germans had motorcycles – two-wheelers, three-wheelers; in winter, they’d put them on skis. They’d ride by laughing, shooting our horses and riders. Some of them would take pity on beautiful horses – many of them must have been country boys…

The orders: burn down the Polizei hut, along with the family… It was a big family: a wife, three kids, a grandma and grandpa. At night, we surrounded them. Nailed the door shut… Drenched the house in petrol and set it on fire. We could hear them screaming inside. The little boy tried to climb out the window. One partisan wanted to shoot him, but another one stopped him. They threw him back into the fire. I was fourteen… I didn’t understand a thing… All I could do was try to remember it. And now, I told you the story… I don’t like the word ‘hero’. There are no heroes in war… As soon as someone picks up a weapon, they can no longer be good. They won’t be able to.

I remember a blockade… The Germans decided to clear out their rear units and set their SS divisions on the partisans. They hung lights on their parachutes and started bombing us day and night. After bombing, they’d shell us. Their division was retreating in small groups, they were evacuating their wounded, so they’d gag them and put special muzzles on their horses. They were leaving everything behind, even domestic livestock, who ran after their retreating owners. Cows, sheep… we were forced to shoot them all. The Germans got so close we could hear them, ‘Oh Mutter, Oh Mutter’… Smell their cigarettes. Each of us had a final bullet… but it’s never too late to die. One night, three of us were left behind as the rear guard. We cut open the belly of a dead horse, tossed everything out of it, and climbed in. We spent two days like that, listening to the Germans go back and forth. Shooting at them from time to time. Finally, the forest was completely silent. We climbed out, covered in blood, guts, and shit… half-insane. It was night… We saw the moon…

You should know that the birds helped us, too… When a magpie hears a stranger coming, it will always squawk. Give out a warning signal. They’d gotten used to us; the Germans smelled different: they wore cologne, washed with scented soap, smoked cigarettes; their overcoats were made of excellent military baize, their boots well polished. While we only had hand-rolled tobacco, our feet were wrapped in rags, our shoes made of woven cowhide and strapped to our feet with belts. They had woollen undergarments… We’d strip their dead down to their underwear! Our dogs would eat their hands and faces. Even the animals got sucked into the war…

Many years have passed… half a century… but I’ve never forgotten that woman. She had two kids. Little ones. She’d hidden a wounded partisan in her cellar. Someone informed on them… They hanged the entire family in the middle of the village. The children first… Her screams! They weren’t human, they were animal… Should people risk making such sacrifices? I couldn’t tell you. [Silence.] Today, people who weren’t there write about the war. I don’t read any of it… Forgive me, but I can’t…

We liberated Minsk… For me, that was the end of the war. I was too young, they wouldn’t let me enlist in the army. I was fifteen. Where was I supposed to live? Strangers had moved into our apartment. They tried to get rid of me: ‘You dirty kike…’ They didn’t want to give anything back: neither our apartment nor our things. They’d gotten used to the idea that us Jews were gone for good…

[A discordant chorus rings out.]

The fire burns bright in the little stove
Sap drips down the logs, like tears
In the mud hut, the accordion sings
About your smile and eyes...

— The people weren’t the same after the war. I myself came home crazed.
— Stalin didn’t like our generation. He hated us. We’d tasted freedom. For us, the war meant freedom! We’d gone to Europe and seen how people lived there. When I would walk past a monument of Stalin on my way to work, I’d break into a cold sweat: what if he could read my thoughts?
— ‘Back to the stables!’ they told us. And so we went.
— The democraps! They’ve destroyed everything… now we’re rolling around in shit…
— I’ve forgotten everything… Even love… But I still remember the war…
— I fought with the partisans for two years. In the forest. After the war, for seven years, eight years… I couldn’t even look at men. I’d seen too much! I had this apathy. My sister and I went to a sanatorium. People courted her, she’d go dancing, but all I wanted was peace and quiet. I ended up marrying late. My husband was five years younger than me. He was like a little girl.
— I went to the front because I believed everything they wrote in Pravda. I fired guns. I had this passionate desire to kill! Kill! It used to be that I wanted to forget it all but couldn’t, now it disappears on its own. One thing I remember is that in war, death smells different… Murder has a particular smell. When it’s not a lot of people, but just one lying there, you start to wonder: who was he? Where is he from? Someone out there must be waiting for him…
— Near Warsaw, an old Polish woman brought me her husband’s clothes. ‘Take everything off. I’ll wash it. Why are you all so filthy and thin? How did you manage to win the war?’ How did we manage to win?!
— Oh, please… put away those violins…
— We won, indeed. But our great victory didn’t make our country great.
— I’ll remain a communist until my dying day… Perestroika is a CIA operation to destroy the USSR.
— What stayed with me? The most hurtful part was how much the Germans hated us. Our way of life, our daily lives… Hitler called the Slavs rabbits…
— The Germans invaded our village. It was spring. On the very next day, they started building plant beds and a toilet. The old people still talk about how those Germans planted flowers…
— In Germany, we’d go into people’s homes: the closets were filled with so much high-quality clothing, so many linens and knick-knacks. Heaps of dishes. Before the war, they’d been telling us that people were suffering under capitalism. Then we saw it all for ourselves and said nothing. Try praising a German lighter or bicycle – they’ll slap you with Article 58 for anti-Soviet propaganda. For a brief while, they let us send packages home: a General could send fifteen kilograms, an officer ten, and a private five. We flooded the post office. My mother wrote me, ‘We don’t need any more packages from you. Your packages will get us all killed.’ I’d sent them lighters, watches, a swatch of silk fabric… Huge chocolate bars… So big that they’d thought they were soap…
— No German women between the ages of ten and eighty were left unfucked! The generation born there in 1946 are ‘the Russian people’.
— War erases everything… It already has…
— Here it is – victory! Victory! Throughout the whole war, people fantasized about how well they would live afterwards. They celebrated for two or three days, and then they wanted something to eat, they needed clothes to wear. They wanted to live again. But there was nothing to be had. Everyone walked around in German uniforms. Adults and children alike. They’d mend them and re-mend them. We bought bread with ration cards, waiting in kilometre-long lines. Rage hung in the air. You could get killed over nothing.
— I remember… the clamour all day long… Invalids rolling around on homemade boards with ball bearing wheels. The roads were paved with cobblestones. They lived in basements and sub-basements. They’d get wasted and lie around in the gutters. Beg. Trade their medals for vodka. They’d roll up to the bread line pleading, ‘Please let me buy a little piece of bread.’ But the lines were full of exhausted women, ‘You’re alive, my husband is in his grave.’ They’d chase them away. When life got a little better, people started outright hating the invalids. No one wanted to be reminded of the war, everyone was busy living in the here and now. One day, all the invalids were cleared out of the city. Police-men caught them and tossed them into cars like they were piglets. Swearing, squealing, yelping…
— We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home… They issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in prams. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough, they wheeled them right back… They weren’t toys… it wasn’t a film. Try loving that chunk of man. He’s mean, hurt, and he knows he’s been betrayed.
— Oh Victory Day…

--

[1] A common forest dwelling dug into the earth; it is at least partially underground and has a thatched roof.

I regained consciousness when I felt something sharp strike my leg. I cried out in pain. Somebody whispered, ‘Sounds like one of them’s alive’

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