Grandma's Love by Natalia Liron

Friday, October 20, 2023
Natalia Liron's character listens to her grandmother Anya's story of clashing with Nazis in the Belarusian swamp during WWII.

The library cards smelled of dust, old ink, and something else irredeemably old, probably time itself. Next to the cards lay a small old doll, worn-out by hands, which was carved out of wood by someone a long time ago.

I was staring at my grandma - her arthritic fingers trembled slightly as she gently stroked those cards, all rough to the touch from use.

She was anxious today because yesterday she received a notice that a registered letter in her name had arrived at the post office.

I knew she had stopped by there on her way to the store. And now, having returned, she said nothing about the letter and simply sat down to look at the old library cards, covered with her large, sprawling handwriting. They were left over from her work in the library; they had long been lying forgotten in a box on top of the closet.

I was sitting next to her and was looking at the names written on the cards - Svetlana Kochkina, Vasiliy Bugaev, and, unexpectedly, Hen. Hoffmann.

"Grandma," I said, "did you mean Henry when you were filling out this card? And that weird last name - Hoffmann. Is it Jewish?"

"German." Grandma put aside the card and looked out the window. "Hoffmann is a German last name."

"Did you know him?" I looked at the titles written on it.

She didn't answer, took the card from my hands, stacked the rest of them in a pile, placed the wooden doll on top and put everything back in the box.

Then she gave a sigh. "How about some tea?"

In the kitchen, while I was putting the kettle on the stove and taking out some cookies, I took glimpses at her drooping shoulders, at how she was staring out the window with an absent look, as if she weren't there at that moment at all. I felt that she had a story to tell.

I returned and touched her on the shoulder.

"Granny, I don't know what this is about, but I'm a good listener. And I want to hear it."

"Oh... hear it..." Grandma smiled, flustered. "I don't even know where to start."

"Start with the main thing," I quoted a line from an old Russian movie.

"With the main thing..." - she looked at the full tea cups, shifted her gaze to me - "with the main thing... perhaps it is time I told about this to someone. And it'd be right if it were you."

I saw how worried she was, so I sat down next to her and took her hand.

"Grandma, I'll understand. I promise."

"Sweetheart," - she stroked my head - "I have no doubt you'll understand. It's just hard to speak about it. Well, then...

I turned seventeen that year. The war had just begun. My father, like all other men, was drafted into the army, and there we were - my mother, my four sisters and I - six women in total - on our isolated farmstead.

My grandfather from my mother's side lived close by. He was too old, so he didn't get conscripted. He lived as a hermit in a deep forest surrounded by marshes and swamps, almost one mile away from us. We would carry milk and eggs to him, and he would provide us with meat of his hunting prey.

It was 1941. We, in the Belarusian Polesia, were almost the first to be affected by the war. The front line was very close.

I was the oldest of the children. And the youngest, little Masha, was four years old. We lived well together. There was simply no time for quarrels and bickering. Fifteen-year-old Galya and I went to school for as long as we could. We had only one pair of shoes for the two of us, and the nearest school was over four miles away. We took turns - one day I'd go, the next day she'd go. Both of us loved school, and not just because we liked to study, but also because we could get away from doing household chores on those days.

Our only means of protection, mainly from wild animals, was my father's old double-barrel shotgun kept in the mudroom. Only Mom, Galya and I knew how to shoot; my three younger sisters were not old enough yet. This skill came in handy several times - we lived by the woods, with plenty of wolves and foxes.

We had a decent farm: cows, goats, pigs, chickens. We were quite well off by the standards of the time. Collective farming hadn't reached us, because everything could get lost in the Polesia wetlands, be it a person or even the Soviet government. Our swamps were our protectors.

But the Germans were not the Soviets. They would push through, and there'd be a lot of them. Everyone was scared, because they had already burned down several neighboring villages, and, rumor had it, they abused girls. Those who managed to escape went either to the partisans deeper into the forest or fled to Poland, which was close by. Those who didn't manage to get out were doomed.

It was a frosty winter that year. The days were bright and the snow was so white it was hard to look at it.

And then one day, I went out to milk our cow and I saw footprints. My heart pounded - where could they have come from? I looked around - they stretched around the house, but they weren't coming from our fence gate. There were two different footprints -two people.

Before I could even think, Guy, our dog, started barking from his kennel, pointing his nose toward the shed. I darted into the barn and looked out the small window in the back - and there they were, two German soldiers sitting by the wall of the shed, hiding. Where did they come from? Maybe they fell behind, maybe they got lost - go figure. So I stood there, scared half to death, and could only think that my father's gun was inside the house. The goats started bleating near me.

Both soldiers got up. One of them had a machine gun hanging off his neck, the other had nothing. I thought that's it, we're done for, they're going to kill us all now.

I saw them move toward the house. The faces of Mom and Galya flashed in the windows. I didn't see the rest of the girls. Mom had the gun in her hands.

The Germans were moving closer to the house. The one with the machine gun around his neck was rather fat and short, the other was as tall as a tower, and I didn't know what to do - run home or stay in the barn.

I hid behind our cow, trembling, praying to God.

They opened the fence gate as if they owned the place and went straight to the house. Guy was barking wildly. The dumpy fascist fired a short burst with his machine gun. Guy whined plaintively and went silent, as the tall bastard turned away not to look.

Through the open barn door, I saw the short fat one look around the yard. He nodded to the other one to check out the barn. The tall German came up to the barn door and looked carefully. I was almost invisible behind the cow. Almost... I couldn't hide my legs.

He spotted me and went straight to me. I shut my eyes. I realized that was it, I was done for. He was going to kill me. And then they would kill everyone else. I opened my eyes - he was standing in front of me, looking down. I went silent. My heart was beating like a drum in my chest, and tears were falling from my eyes.

Grandma paused and put her hand to her chest.

"No way, Grandma! And what did you do? What happened next?"

She exhaled, took a sip of the tea, which was already tepid, and continued.

He put his finger to his lips, meaning "Be silent," gave a nod and left. I was so confused, could not process what just happened.

"Nein," he shouted to his comrade as he walked out of the barn.

I let out a sigh of relief, leaned on the cow's rump with my hand and stroked her, my knees buckling.

Then in one jump, I moved to the corner of the barn and clung to the crack on the back of the door. I peeked through it - they were walking up to the house.

The door of our house swung open. Mother stood with the gun in the doorway.

Everything was so quick. The short soldier raised his machine gun and fired. I heard a scream, the windows shattering. He was shooting at her, she was shooting at him.

They fell at the same time. Mom kept shooting, even as she lay on the threshold in the mudroom. She got him. The short soldier collapsed flat on his back. He did not move.

I dashed toward the house, rushing onto the other German headfirst. He could have hit me, but he just pushed me away and ran off. I fell and hit my head. I got up - everything was spinning, my ears were ringing. I turned around - two steps away from me, that small German was lying with bloody foam coming out of his mouth. I heard someone scream, but I couldn't figure out who and where. Everything echoed in my head.

I looked around. The German who pushed me was already past the gate, running away into the forest through the field. I turned to the house. My mother was lying on the threshold. I ran to her. She raised her head. "Shoot," she whispered. "Shoot, or else he'll come back." There was blood on the threshold. She was wounded, but I didn't know where. Either in the stomach or in the chest.

On the bed, near the window, one of my sisters was lying, motionless. There was so much blood on the bed that the first thing I thought was that a pig had been slaughtered there. The window was shattered, glass shards everywhere. The sun was blinding me.

"Galya!" I cried out my sister's name. She didn't respond. "Varya, Nina, Masha!" I couldn't see them anywhere. I kept calling them.

I ran back to Mom. She reached up and handed me the gun.

"Your sisters hid in the basement. Anya, quick, shoot. Otherwise he'll come back and bring others. Shoot." Her voice was weak and labored.

I took the gun, went out into the yard again - the German was already far away, but he was still in range.

"You shot him?" I asked.

"I did," Grandma answered, "and I got him the first time. It was a clear day; you could see quite far. He fell into the snow like a stone.

I rushed to the second German, now lying in the yard. He was already dead.

I returned to the house, threw the gun in the mudroom and tended to my mother - she sat up, leaning on the doorjamb and clutching her side, and then, giving a nod to the bed, asked, "How's Galya?"

I ran to my sister, started shaking her, calling her name, but she wasn't breathing anymore. The dead German, when falling, had fired a burst. Galya was sitting by the window and a bullet hit her right in the neck. There was so much blood.

I shouted Varya, Nina and Masha's names again and ran back to my mother to tell her about Galya.

Mom didn't understand what I was saying to her right away -it was if I were speaking a different language - but then she clamped her hand over her mouth to muffle her wailing so as not to scare the little girls. She shook her head, as if in disbelief.

And I had that strangest feeling, you know. As if none of this even mattered, as if I were dreaming. Numb. That's the word. I felt numb.

My younger sisters climbed out of the basement.

Eight-year-old Nina and little Masha started screaming and crying the moment they saw Galya on the bed. But Varya, who was a bit older, held herself together. She bit down on her lip, not even making a sound, just looking from under her brows.

I yelled at my sisters to stop crying. Our wailing would fix nothing. Everyone quieted down. I sent them to the bedroom so they wouldn't be getting in my way; there was a lot to do.

I examined my mother's wound - it didn't seem very bad. The bullet only grazed her side, just ruptured the skin, and got wedged in the doorjamb.

I knew that, while it was still light out, I had to go to my grandfather's. He had gun cartridges, and all sorts of medicinal ointments, which he made himself. He was a good hunter and game warden, and even a healer of sorts.

Varya and I quickly wrapped my mother's side with clean rags and lifted her onto the bed. We took Galya to the cold mudroom, covered her whole body with an old blanket. We removed the broken glass from the window and plugged it with pillows and rags so the house wouldn't get freezing cold. We dragged the corpse of that damned German behind the barn and covered it with fir branches, and then put our dead dog behind his kennel. I took the machine gun from the German and gave it to twelve-year-old Varya, whom I would leave in charge and ordered to protect everyone while I was gone.

And then I left for Grandpa Miron's place.

I had to walk along the path that was not far from where the tall German fell after I shot him, then about half a mile toward and a little bit more through the forest.

I took our gun and went as fast as possible, hoping to get back before dark.

I was walking and couldn't get rid of the thought - Galya's dead, Galya's dead, Galya's dead - ringing like a struck bell in my head. On my way, I saw there was no body lying where I shot the German, and there were footsteps and drops of blood leading toward the forest. So I hadn't killed him, only wounded him. Frightened, I was about to turn back, but I had to get to my grandpa, to tell him everything, to take some provisions and ointments back to my mother. I didn't have any choice, I had to keep going.

I was walking with the gun in one hand and a milk can in the other.

I went up to a patch of young spruce trees and saw the tall German lying there like a big gray bag.

I put the can down in the snow and readied the gun. My hands were shaking. I went up to him. He was lying on his side with his back to me. I poked him with the gun. I heard him moan.

"Turn around," I said in German. (We learned German in school in the village, so I knew a few words.)

He turned around slowly, looked at me - his eyes were huge, probably like mine when I peeked out at him from behind our cow. There was blood on his arm. So that's where I wounded him. He had tears in his eyes.

He said, simply, "Kill me."

I took a step back and raised the gun. I was trying to be angry with him and... and I couldn't. He took pity on me in the barn. And he wasn't the one who killed Galya.

I lowered the gun. "Nein," I told him. "Nein."

I picked up the milk can and went on. I walked a little, stopped. How was he going to survive without food all by himself out there? The frost was biting my cheeks, the blue twilight was about to fall on the frozen swamps, and then, the night. I came back, dug a hole in the snow, put the can of milk in front of him and continued on my way. I was walking and thinking, he would die there if I left him, even with the milk, he would freeze. And even if he didn't freeze to death, the wolves would get him.

I turned around. Shuffling my feet, I was telling myself, "What a fool you are, Anya! He's a dirty fascist, a bastard, an enemy!" But I went to him.

I guess he wanted to drink some of the milk, but he couldn't lift the heavy can with one hand, so he ended up flipping it over and spilling the milk onto the snow.

I was holding the gun in one hand. I took the can with my other hand. There was a little milk left at the bottom. I held it out to him and told him to get up.

He took a couple of sips, tried to get up. He tried to lean on a nearby tree, but slipped off.

I came up closer to him, threw his good arm over my shoulder, lifted him. He was not as heavy as I thought he would be. It was as if his wound, his nearness to death, had lightened him up in some way, had hollowed him out. Off we went together.

He asked, "Where are we going?"

"To my grandfather," I answered, and then I stopped...

The forest was all around. The trees stood motionless, dressed up in snow like ball gowns. The animal tracks were everywhere, and I was alone with a half-dead German.

We kept walking. We had nowhere else to go.

Grandpa Miron met us with a gun. His dogs were barking at us as if were both strangers, but I calmed Kulya and Tishka down, saying, "It's okay, it's okay. He's a friend."

Grandpa pushed the German man away from me. He fell into the snow like a log. He had become so weak.

"Who's that? What is this?" he yelled out, "Who's this fella, Anya? Huh?"

I told him everything, I kept nothing back - how he felt sorry for me in the barn and pretended not to notice me, and how he didn't grab the machine gun from his friend to start shooting at us later, how he simply ran away, and how I shot him. I told Grandpa about Mother, about Galya, about Guy. And about the dead fascist, covered with branches, lying behind our shed.

Grandpa looked at me, gave a sigh and said, "Oh, oh, what a mess you've made, Anya, oh, what a mess. Do you realize that if we give him to the partisans, they'll kill him and us too? They'll ask us, 'Why did you hide him?' And if we let him go now, where will he go? He'll freeze to death" - he looked at the motionless figure in the snow - "he'll need to be nursed... And if we do nurse him back to health and let him go, he'll bring his friends here."

"He won't." I nodded at the wounded man. "He's good."

"Hmm, good," Grandpa chuckled. "How can a German be good?"

"He felt sorry for me," I said. "He really did, Grandpa. If he had told his friend that he'd seen me in the barn, I wouldn't be standing here right now."

"Alright," he said flatly, "I guess it can't be helped. Let's help him into the house and see if he makes it to the morning."

When we got inside, Grandpa Miron probed the German's wounded arm. The bone was intact, but the bullet was deep and needed to be pulled out. The soldier was almost unconscious. He'd lost a lot of blood, and he was very cold, and his arm was obviously causing him pain - you could see it in his face.

We undressed him and made him drink some of Grandpa's stiff tincture. I clamped his mouth with a cloth so that he wouldn't scream, and Grandpa took the bullet out with special iron tongs. The soldier didn't resist.

By then darkness had settled over the land. I knew I had to spend the night there (the woods were too dangerous in the dark, the wolves' time). I was cursing this German and couldn't stop wondering about how things were back at home: how was Mom doing, how was the dead Galya, lying in the mudroom (I guess I knew the answer to that one), and how was Varya with the machine gun holding things together, and how were the little ones? My mind was filled with these questions, but the answers would have to wait,

The next day I woke up when it was still dark out. The first thing I did was check to see if the German was okay - he was alive. Was I happy? I guess I was happy.

I quickly put together breakfast - rusks with soured milk. Then I shook Grandpa awake.

"Well?" he asked. "He alive?"

I nodded, and we walked over to the benches where the soldier was sleeping. Grandpa lit up his kerosene lamp, and in its light we saw that the soldier was a young man - dark hair, long straight nose, pale face, black eyelashes.

Grandpa touched him on his good shoulder and he opened his eyes right away.

"What's your name?" I asked him in German.

"Heinrich," he said in a hoarse, sick voice.

"Heinrich it is then." Grandpa pulled a chair up. "I'm Miron, and this (he pointed at me) is my granddaughter Anya. Yesterday we took the bullet out of your arm. I need to check the wound now. Lie still and everything will be alright, okay?"

I translated as well as I could.

Heinrich nodded very quickly, as if he understood.

Grandpa examined his arm - the blood from the wound was no longer oozing.

"It'll heal quickly," said Grandpa. He was an excellent hunter. He knew about bullets and wounds.

We asked the soldier where he came from, and who he was, and how he got to our country, and if there were any other soldiers nearby.

He was reluctant to speak at first, but then Grandpa said that if he wouldn't talk, we'd hand him over to the partisans. We needed to know all this so we would have time to flee into the woods and hide there if more Germans were on the way.

Little by little, the soldier told us that he and his comrade had strayed away from the front and were making their way back to their unit's main location, but got lost along the way, got very cold and ran out of rations.

It was clear to me and my grandpa that no one would come looking for them. It became easier to breathe.

We helped the wounded man sit up and leaned him against the wall. I put a mug of sour milk into his good hand, and he quietly said to me in Polish, "Thanks."

Grandpa heard it and turned around. "Do you speak Polish?"

My grandpa was half Polish. His mother, that is, my great-grandmother, was a pure-blooded Pole.

I also knew a little Polish from Grandpa, about the same as I knew German, but Grandpa Miron spoke it well.

"My mother is Polish," the soldier replied.

Grandpa looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

Heinrich chewed rusks and shot short glances at us. Then we started preparing to return to my home - we had to take care of my mom's wound.

"My father's German, " the man said, as if he were answering a question we hadn't asked.

"Lie still until I come back, and if you run away, then good riddance," Grandpa said to him in Polish and turned to me. "Come on, I'll take a look at your mom, and we need to bury poor Galya." He hesitated. "She would have grown up to be a beautiful girl."

As soon as he mentioned my sister, I began to cry. He pat me on the back and rather quickly changed the subject. "There, there... let's take some hares I shot the other day, shall we? Come on now."

There was an icebox in the yard, made out of snow, where he kept gutted wild animals wrapped in cloths.

Before leaving, we moved the wounded German up to the attic in case the partisans suddenly showed up. We told the soldier to sit there quietly.

When we set off, Grandpa whistled to his dog Kulya to come with us and said to me, "It's no good for you all to live without a dog. She's all yours now."

On our way home, while we were sweeping away the German's bloody footprints in the snow with fir tree branches, Grandpa told me, "Don't you tell anyone he's alive, neither your mother nor your sisters. No need for this. The less they know, the better for them." He was thinking about both himself and us, because if the partisans found out that we'd hidden a fascist and treated him, we all would be in big trouble.

When we were getting close to our house, my sisters ran out to meet us, even little Masha. They thought I'd been killed. Foolish Varya was waving with the machine gun. Kulya, overwhelmed with joy, barked at everyone and tumbled all the girls in the snow.

Grandpa took the machine gun away from Varya, gave everyone a hug and said, "Alright, alright, girls, let's go inside now."

Mom, all hunched over, went out into the mudroom. And I kept waiting out of habit for Galya to come out and greet us. And then it hit me that she would never say hi to anyone again. It wasn't really sadness. It was like an empty hole inside you. Or maybe that's what sadness is: emptiness.

It took us a long time to dig Galya's grave. The ground was frozen solid.

Grandpa looked at my mother's wound and confirmed that the bullet had only grazed her side. He smeared some kind of herbal pungent ointment on it, wrapped it with clean cloths and told Mom to rest and stay in bed, so that the wound would heal faster.

It was already dusk when he started getting ready to leave. He took the machine gun with him, left us our father's gun and a cartridges. He ordered Kulya, who wanted to go back with him, to stay in Guy's kennel.

I saw him off at the gate. "Thank you, Grandpa."

"I'll get that dead man the day after tomorrow. I'll bury him somewhere in the forest, away from here." Grandpa patted me on the shoulder. "Make sure your mother stays in bed for now. Don't let her do anything, otherwise the wound will open and get worse. And keep mum, too... " He looked at me.

I gave him a nod. The girls never saw the tall German, save for Galya, and Mom thought I'd killed him, so no one would ask about him. Death was everywhere in those days. It was easy to forget about.

I hugged Grandpa tightly, took a sniff of his delicious scent. He never smoked, as most other men did, and he always smelled of something warm and welcoming - of the woods, wild animals, the resiny scent of logs, and dry grass. A good smell, a smell that's dear to you.

Grandma paused, poured some more tea into our cups, and looked out the window. It was already dark.

"And what happened next?" I asked.

Grandma shrugged her shoulders.

I carried milk, bread, eggs, and sometimes chickens to Grandpa Miron, as I always did. Mom recovered quickly. So did the German. Grandpa told me about him. I'd seen him only once since I left him in the attic. He still lived up there, and I never stayed at Grandpa's for long.

One time when I came to Grandpa's, as usual, with a can of milk and a basket of eggs, I found him standing in the yard in his snowshoes.

"Well," he said, "you're just in time, Anya. A few men came to me, partisans. They almost saw our German. Barely managed to hide him, and now I'm going out to hunt some animals and help them with something else, so you'll have to handle things around here yourself for a few days" - he paused - "if not more."

I opened my mouth, didn't know what to say. Grandpa told me not to worry. The soldier was a good man, a good Pole. He wouldn't do a bad thing, and if anything happened - Grandpa wasn't clear what he meant by "anything" - there was a second gun in the mudroom. He said he would run by our place to tell my mom that I would be staying with him for a while.

"Don't think of bad things," he said before leaving. "And remember me kindly, should anything happen." Grandpa turned around and quickly left for the woods.

I stood there for a couple of minutes, just thinking, and went into the house. I walked around a bit, tried to listen carefully for the German up in the attic. Not a sound. I peeled some potatoes, chopped some corned beef into a pot, and suddenly I heard footsteps from above...

I looked out from behind the curtain of the kitchen corner and was shocked to see the German, standing like a tall pine tree in the middle of the cabin, with a knife in one hand and something else (I couldn't make out what) in the other.

He noticed me and started to come closer.

I shouted to him in German, "Don't move! I'll shoot!" even though the gun was lying in the mudroom.

He took a step back, looking at me, and smiled.

"Be healthy," he said in Russian. And the way he pronounced it was so funny that I almost laughed. Then he followed up in Polish, "I'm not moving."

"Drop the knife," I said to him in Russian and pointed at his hand.

He understood me, bent down and lightly placed the knife on the floor, and immediately started jabbering in Polish, "Your grandfather gave me the knife. I carve out dolls with it. Look." Then he said in broken Russian, "Your grandfather learn me Russian. This for you." And he held out something.

I came closer to him and took it from his hand - and it was a doll indeed. It had tiny arms and tiny legs."

"Is it that very doll?" I asked, remembering the small doll in the box with the library cards.

Grandma nodded. I had to look closely to see it.

I thanked him and put the doll in my apron. But it was so hilarious to me - he made a toy for me, as if I were a little girl. He remained standing, while I turned around to the stove to put the pot on the fire.

He obviously didn't know what to do. I heard him hesitate for a second and then turn and walk back to the attic.

Then I called out to him, "Heinrich!" and gestured to the table with a bench and said, "Have a seat."

He sat down at the table and looked at me, smiling again, and I could feel my cheeks burning. I came over, sat across from him.

We sat there a bit, not talking, playing peek-a-boo in silence. "How did you become a soldier? " I asked him in German.

He gave a heavy sigh and began to tell me his story.

It turned out that his mother was a Polish Jew. She lived with her parents and two brothers near Warsaw. After university, she came to work as a teacher in Hamburg. She was an incredibly beautiful woman.

His father, Klaus, a German from Hamburg, helplessly fell in love with the young woman and wanted to marry her, but his parents didn't like the idea of having this girl as their daughter-in-law. And her parents had similar sentiments. But they got married anyway. They lived a happy life together. First, they had a son, Heinrich, and later a daughter.

At the start of the war, the whole family moved in with their relatives in Cologne, where no one knew that Heinrich's mother was a Jew. But someone found out the truth about her.

Heinrich's father told him that if he joined the German army, they wouldn't have to fear any denunciations. That's how he got into the army, and his parents were left in peace - he laughed a little when he said the word - because their son went to war.

When he ended up in Polesia, he was twenty-four years old.

So that was his story. He joined the army to protect his family.

We spent a couple of hours there at the table. Just talking like that. I made him lunch too. I didn't think of him as a dirty fascist anymore.

Grandma put her hand over her eyes and smiled. You know, Heinrich taught me how to play a game back then...

He made two small boats out of tree bark and whittled sticks into masts, and I made sails out of rags. They looked like real ships. We took a basin filled with water, put the boats at the opposite sides and started blowing at the sails trying to get our boats across. The boats were spinning, the water was splashing in all directions. We were sitting over that basin, blowing and laughing.

I was looking at Heinrich and all of a sudden I realized I'd never had so much fun before. Because... well, no one had fun in those days. Sure, there were things that made you feel good. You'd milked the cow and that's a good job done, you'd weeded a patch in the garden and that's a good job done, you'd pluck the chicken and that's also a good job done. Such simple joy from work. But this was different, this was fun."

That day, towards evening, he said to me, "Pani Anna, teach me Russian language."

I nodded, and then I told him in German, "Go to bed."

Grandpa returned five days later, gloomy and silent. I asked him what had happened, but he only said that now he'd often be away and I'd have to stay at his place to keep watch of the house.

And that's how things went afterward. When Grandpa had to leave, he'd stop by our house. Then I'd go to his place. My my sisters managed fine without me. Mom had completely recovered by then, and the winter had already begun to wane. In March, the marshes and swamps would thaw completely, and we'd be cut off from the rest of the world again, at least for a while. That was Polesia, wetlands all around. It was possible to get to us only in winter, with everything frozen solid, or in summer, with everything dry and solid. But between these seasons of cold and heat, we were all by ourselves there. We were safe. The swamps were impassable. Only locals knew the paths out, but strangers could not get in.

And as for Heinrich... I brought him my school textbook. I tried to speak Russian with him almost all the time. In return, he taught me German.

One day, I brought Heinrich a book, sat down next to him and started pointing at letters with a stick, and he tried to read them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he was looking at the book, then at me, then back at the book, then back at me. He moved his shoulder close to mine and ever so gently put his palm on my hand. His face was so close to mine. He looked at me with his huge jet-black eyes. "Pani Anna," he whispered. "Pani Anna."

"Grandma..." - I suddenly felt uneasy, picturing my grandmother kissing someone for the first time when she was a young girl - "so what happened afterward?"

Grandpa went away more and more often and looked grimmer than ever. When he'd come back, he'd mutter something under his nose and take a glance at Heinrich, and the poor guy would go to the attic right away and sit there as quiet as a lamb, and I'd hurry back home.

Grandpa always returned from his long absences in the mornings, but one day, Tishka became agitated in the middle of the night and started to growl. But he wasn't barking, meaning this was no stranger he heard.

Heinrich was lying next to me. I quickly shook him awake, whispering, "I think Grandpa's back." Half-awake, he babbled in Polish, "What happened, Anya?" feeling for his clothes in the dark.

But Grandpa was already right there - standing in front of the bed.

"You stupid girl!" he said angrily. I thought he'd beat me, but he grabbed Heinrich by his underclothes, dragged him out of bed and asked me, "Did he force you?"

"No, no, no," I blurted. "Let him go, Grandpa, let him go..."

"He released him. "Darned kids!" Grandpa Miron found a candle in the dark, struck a match and lit up the room.

"What do I do with you two now, huh? You need to run." He glanced at Heinrich.

I asked, "What? Why?"

"No time to talk. We better hurry. Partisans will be here soon. He must leave quickly." He ran to the mudroom, came back with a bundle and threw it to Heinrich. "Get dressed!"

The bundle turned out to contain a Russian soldier's uniform (pants, shirt and overcoat).

While Heinrich was getting dressed, Grandpa turned to me. "Prepare a knapsack with food and water for a couple of days, and listen to me - the swamps have already thawed, so you'll have to take him through the Miring Swamp because you know the path through it, don't you? (I nodded, wrapping a piece of lard in a cloth.) Then go through the Duck Pond. There's a ford not far from the bridge - you remember, don't you? (I nodded again, putting some corned beef jerky in the knapsack.) Meet me in two days on the north side of the Gloomy Hill. Got it? (I nodded a third time, wrapping some rusks.) There's a haystack by the hill. I'll be waiting for you in it. I'll take him from there (he glanced at Heinrich). I know a guy at the outpost. He promised to get him to Poland. Take your father's gun" - he paused for a moment - "and if... I don't make it there, then go to the outpost by yourselves. You'll have to go there alone first, ask for Isay Petrovich and tell him you're from Miron. He'll get you two across. You'll need to make your way through forests and swamps, but you're a smart girl, Anya. You know how to look for paths. You'll get there alright."

"Grandpa, Grandpa..." I didn't know what to say.

"That's it." He hugged me. "Hurry." He looked sternly at Heinrich. "If anything happens to her, I'll find you in the next world, I'll tan your hide, keep that in mind, boy."

Grandpa took out a seventeen-ounce flask of moonshine, gave it to Heinrich and put his hunting knife behind my belt.

"Thank you," Heinrich said, trying to get his tongue around those simple Russian words. "Thank you for everything, Grandpa Miron. And don't angry. She dear to me."

"Alright," Grandpa said and hastily made the sign of the cross over us. "Go now. Go."

My heart sank. I thought it was the last time I'd see Grandpa.

"Was it really, Granny?" I asked anxiously.

She didn't respond, just continued.

We were making our way in the dark, almost blindly. Heinrich, that big city klutz, stepped so loudly you could hear him a mile away. We heard the partisans twice. We thought they'd notice us, but they never did.

At dawn, we made it to the swamp and took a quick rest. I glanced at Heinrich and laughter came over me - he looked so ridiculous. The pants on him were too short, and the shirt was too wide, and the overcoat looked as if it were made of concrete. Ridiculous, yes, but I thought to myself that I'd never seen anyone or anything in the world more beautiful than this man.

I found two long sticks, sharpened them with a knife, showed Heinrich how to hold the stick to probe the swamp, and told him to step only where I step, to avoid getting sucked into the quagmire. The Miring Swamp is called this for a reason. We ate quickly and then set off again.

We walked a mile or so. Suddenly I heard his voice. "Anya, Anya..." I turned around. He was about ten steps behind me and already almost knee-deep in the marsh. He was stuck there, practically dancing.

"Stop," I shouted. "Don't struggle, stand still. I'll pull you out. Lie down on your stomach." I ran to him and threw him my stick and shouted, "Grab on."

I didn't know how long it took me to get him out, it felt like hours. We were both soaked through - with the sweat, with swamp itself. I ordered him to strictly follow my steps this time, without setting his foot even half a step away. We wanted to rest, but we had to keep moving.

We walked for another couple of hours. Exhausted, we stumbled on an islet that seemed secure, so we fell on the withered grass. We were lying there, trying to catch our breaths.

He turned his head to me, stroked my hair with his hand and whispered, "I love you, Anya. Go on yourself, without me. I'm like extra weight for you."

It made me both laugh - the way he pronounced the words - and cry.

I bent down and started kissing him on his eyes, on his cheeks. "You're a fool," I told him. "What a fool you are. I'm not going anywhere without you."

We rose on and continued to wade through the marsh. We reached the forest by nightfall. Both of us were so exhausted that we couldn't feel our legs.

We made a fire - a dangerous thing to do because you could easily spot us from afar in the dark, but we had to dry off and warm up.

His pale face turned golden and in the light of the fire; his eyes still jet-black. I looked at him, I couldn't get enough of looking at him.

We got to the Gloomy Hill the next evening. I looked around, trying to find Grandpa. On the north side of the hill, a haystack had been standing since winter - this was the place we were to meet up with Grandpa. We reached the haystack. No one was there. My heart sunk. My gut feeling was right after all - I knew something bad would happen, and I wouldn't see my Grandpa ever again.

We decided to wait one day, and if he still didn't show up, we'd go to the outpost ourselves to look for Isay, Grandpa's friend.

After we talked things over, we snuggled up against the haystack and instantly fell asleep.

I heard a gunshot in my sleep... Loud and close. Was it in my dream or in real life? I jumped up. The dark sky was swaying above my head. Shadows were running all around me. Someone was breathing heavily. I tried to feel for Heinrich at the haystack - he wasn't there. Another shot, close by.

I whispered, "Heinrich!"

I heard a voice. "Stop!" Someone fell next to me. I dropped down too. I touched his face -hot and sticky with blood. My hands were shaking, my throat was dry. I looked closer - it wasn't him, the hair was light, almost blond.

I recoiled, got up, looked into the night and felt someone quietly come up behind me. I froze, slowly took out the knife from my belt. I needed to strike right then, but a strong hand clamped over my mouth and someone whispered into my ear in my grandpa's soft voice, "Easy, Anya, it's me."

I turned around to face him and immediately burst into tears. "Grandpa... what took you so long? We've been waiting and waiting for you here... Where's Heinrich?"

"He's here, he's here." Grandpa Miron hugged me. "There, there, come on now."

Heinrich stepped out of the darkness with my father's gun.

"Pani Anna..." He always called me that, timid-like, when my grandpa was around.

I wrapped him in my arms in relief.

"We must leave quickly," Grandpa whispered. "I didn't know I was being followed. Old fool! I've no idea how I didn't notice them earlier. There were two of them. When I did finally notice one of them, I dealt with him quickly, but the second one... if it wasn't for Heinrich, I would've been lying here instead of him," and he pointed his finger down where the shot stranger was lying.

"Yeah, yeah," I said, picking up the knapsack, which had gotten rather thin, out of the hay, "let's go."

Grandpa stopped me with his hand and gently said, "Me and Heinrich will go to the outpost, Anya. You run back home, sweetheart."

"Wait." I was taken aback. "Why's that? I'll go with him."

"No, " Grandpa said calmly. Heinrich came next to me.

"I will go with him," I said stubbornly, "to Poland."

Grandpa looked at Heinrich. "If she goes with you, they'll kill both of you, and I'll get you, boy, across faster if it's just you. You'll live and wait for her. And I've got Polish documents only for you. I have nothing for her."

And then he quietly said to me, "You'll come to him in six months, Anya, sweetheart. Just six months. It isn't much after all, is it? I'll get you across just like him. But it can't be done right now. People are after you two."

"Grandpa..." I was standing there, tears rolling down my cheeks. "I'm going, I'm going with him."

"Go back home in a roundabout way, through the Bald Mountain," Grandpa quickly told me. "In the daytime, wade through the marshes carefully. And don't stop by my house, go straight home. Here's some rusks for the road, take the flask too. That's it, Anya, sweetheart. Say goodbye to him and go... God be with you, child. Everything will be alright."

Grandpa took two steps into the night as Heinrich came closer. I could hardly see him in the dark. I felt for him with my hands and pulled him to me. "I love you." It was easy for me to say. "You wait for me. I'll come to you. In six months, as Grandpa says. And if he says so, it will be so."

He pressed me tightly to his body. "Anya, sweetheart, Anya, " he whispered, "you come. I wait you in Poland. Come. I tell Grandpa Miron my address."

"We have to go," Grandpa's voice rang out from the darkness of the night. "Come on now. Let's go."

Stroking my head, Heinrich leaned over to kiss my salty lips.

"Love you," he said. "Love you."

He took his first step away from me and suddenly there was a gap of air between us, a gap so huge it felt as though an entire world had come between us. It was an April night. I touched my stomach, still warm from him. I heard their footsteps move away. Each step seemed so loud to me.

I raised my eyes to the dark sky. Please keep him alive, just keep him alive.

I don't remember how I waited till dawn. I made my way back, as Grandpa told me to, through the marshes in a roundabout way. I returned to my home on the third day.

As soon as my mother saw me, she threw her hands up in the air and clamped her mouth shut not to scream. She was so happy to see me. She thought I was gone for good. I fell into her arms. I was so exhausted, no strength left in me at all.

There was no sign of Grandpa. For four days, I was worried sick. He came on the fifth day, emaciated and weary. We had him eat hot soup, but he didn't stay for the night.

"Hey, Masha," he said to my mother. "I'll take Anya away for a couple of days. I need her to help me around the house." So off we went.

As soon as we got out the gate, I asked him, "How's Heinrich, Grandpa?" To which he briefly replied, "Let's get to the house first."

As we were walking, I felt my heart shrink into an icy pebble and hot blood stream from it. We made it to Grandpa's house. The journey this time felt endless, as if years passed while we walked the familiar paths.

"Tell me already," I said, "Heinrich, he..."

And he looked me over from head to foot and asked, "You, Anya, sweetheart, with child from him?"

I broke into a blush. I was ashamed to admit it, even to myself. I wasn't showing at all. It had been only three months. How did he know? But my grandpa was a sharp-eyed hunter. You couldn't hide anything from him.

"You sit, sit, child." He pointed to a bench, and sat down next to me. "It's alright."

He hugged me.

And I sat there, cold with fear. My hands were shaking.

"Graanndpaa." I buried my face in his shoulder. "Graaannndpaaa, tell me how it is."

He hugged me again and blurted, "They killed your German boy. The Poles at the outpost shot him dead."

It went dark in my eyes, and I fell off the bench.

"Oh, Granny..." I let out a sigh. "And what happened afterward?"

"Afterward..." Grandma whimpered. "I thought there would never be an 'afterward' for me."

Life was passing me by. But I'd still bring Grandpa milk and eggs. One time, I was doing chores around the house. I put an apron on and slid my hand into the pocket, and there was that wooden doll.

I was standing in the middle of the house, hugging this tiny doll and sobbing. That was all I had left of him.

Grandma sighed and went quiet for a while.

"And then I gave birth to a girl," she said.

"Aunt Galya?" I asked, judging from the timing.

"Yes," she nodded. "We told everyone she was from a Russian partisan who was later killed. Only Grandpa knew the truth. Even Mother didn't know.

"You didn't tell her?" It seemed strange to me.

"No," Grandma said. "She had enough worries of her own. Father returned a cripple from the war."

"And then you met Gramps?" I asked.

She nodded, smiled. "He was a good man... and kind. He loved Galya like his own daughter. We moved to Minsk. I got my education at the Belorussian State University, where I learned to speak German fluently. Worked for some time as a German translator and then got a job as a librarian. That's when I made that empty library card for Heinrich. For some reason, I thought that maybe somehow he would come there to borrow some books. But, of course, I never believed that."

"Then why do you keep all those other library cards?" I asked, and immediately guessed: "So that no one would suspect anything, right?"

She nodded.

"That's it, just old library cards left as keepsakes of my work. Who would pay attention to those names anyway?"

"And on your farmstead, did -?" Grandma didn't let me finish.

One day, I came from the city to celebrate Grandpa Miron's birthday. It was ten years after the war. I was married and had already given birth to my second daughter. Well into the evening, after all the guests had left, there were just two of us left, Grandpa and me, sitting on the very same bench, and he said to me.

"Forgive me, Anya, sweetheart. Please forgive this old fool. I don't have long to live. Let me take one sin off my rotten soul, or else it'll torture me to the end of my days."

"What do you mean?" I said. I was frightened. "Grandpa, what are you talking about?"

And he said, as bluntly as ever, "Your Heinrich's alive. When I saw you were with child from him, I realized it was serious between you two. And I knew for sure that you couldn't go after him - they'd kill you. Either ours, for being with a German, or the Poles would shoot you both, and if you went to his darned Germany, sure enough you'd be killed there. And you would definitely follow him. I knew it. You are a stubborn one. Just like me. That's why I told you he was shot dead. I was afraid for you and for your child."

With these words it was as if molten iron poured on me from inside. I was sitting there with my hands pressed against my chest to keep my heart from jumping out.

Grandpa sat next to me, sobbing, and I didn't feel sorry for him at all. And he kept whispering, "Forgive me, please forgive this old fool. I meant, I only meant..."

I didn't say a word to him. Just got up and left.

"You still haven't forgiven him?" I asked.

"I have, but I didn't have a chance to tell him that I did. He died that winter," Grandma said. "I never talked to him again after that night at his birthday."

"I see." I sighed. "Then what happened to Heinrich?"

"At first, I wasn't sure whether to look for him or not. He never looked for me, after all, although Grandpa might have told him the same story he told me. Besides, you can never know - he could have died - there was so much death in those days - or moved. Seven years passed before I finally decided to search for him."

"Did you find him?" I asked.

"Well..." She shrugged her shoulders and leaned back in the chair. Her voice became low and quiet. "It turned out that he was living in Warsaw. He had a family, three children. So I never wrote him. Didn't want to disturb his life. He'd probably already forgotten about me. I was just glad he was alive.

She held up a cup of tea, arthritic fingers trembling. The evening had come over us and seemed to enclose us. There was nothing else: just my grandmother and me, a table with an old porcelain teapot, a lamp with a yellow lampshade, and the night.

"Did all of this really end like that?" I asked.

"I thought so until yesterday," she said. Grandma left the room, came back and put a sealed envelope on the table. "After so many years, he's found me... and written me a letter."

"Granny..." I said, looking at the envelope.

"And now I'm not sure whether to open it or not," she said. "What for? I'm sixty-one. He's sixty-eight. What could he have written to me? What difference could it make?"

We both fell silent. Our tea had gone cold a long time ago.

Grandma took the letter and walked to the window. For some reason now, exactly now, she made a decision. I heard the envelope tear and the unfolding sheets rustle.

I stared at her back, which suddenly tensed and then hunched with shoulders trembling.

I went up to her, hugged her, and from the side, I saw tears begin to fall down her cheeks.

"He writes," Grandma said quietly, "that his wife died five years ago, that he remembers me and... and invites me to come visit him."

"Will you go?" I asked.

She looked out the window into a peaceful night, remembering another time when she was a young girl who found and lost her love in the middle of endless swamps and war.

She hugged the letter as if it were alive and simply replied...

"I will."


  1. I’m almost speechless at the beauty of this story. The weaving of mercy and cruelty, of nationalities. Deeply soulful. Beautifully written. Amazing ending. I cried.

  2. What an incredible story!
    With global events such as they are, there is a great timeliness to this transcendent story.
    Is this a true story? Is it fiction? I am trying to decide which would be more amazing!
    Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

  3. Natalia Liron has crafted a splendid tale set in rather rustic climes, during wartime, in which young love holds fast. She takes us on rollercoaster ride of emotions and private thoughts and impressions. At first, Heinrich is dead, then he’s alive but taken with a family, and then he’s perhaps available – and interested in revisiting his youth. A lot of questions remain, but an author needn’t reveal everything (this allows the reader to personalize the story for herself). When I first sized up this fiction and saw that it was around 9,000 words, I said Yikes! That’s a commitment. But then I considered that it was much more of a commitment on Natalia’s part; I only had to read the story. And am I every glad that I did! Thanks very much for allowing us to share in your craft, Natalia.

  4. Adding my admiration for this moving and deeply revealing story. The black and white of war gives way to the complexity of human love and the demands of survival. Anya is truly heroic, as is her grandfather and the Polish German. I feel each of these people as having a timeless greatness, though the setting is very particular. Thank you, Ms. Lyon, for this story that reminds us that there is a far side to war and hatred.

  5. A wonderful story. Heartbreaking. It brought tears to my eyes.