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Читать онлайн The Man from Talalaivka: A Tale of Love, Life and Loss from Ukraine. Chaplin Olga.

Olga Chaplin


A story of love, life and loss from Ukraine 

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For Peter and Evdokia 

Ditte moyi ditte, ditte moyi kvitte 

Children my children, children my flowers

Taras Shevchenko

Note on the text 

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Occasionally throughout this work of historical fiction, I have taken the liberty to present key words and phrases in a personalised version of Ukrainian, as there were regional dialectical differences during the era. I have tried, as authentically as possible, to capture the language my parents used while at the same time acknowledging that my translations may not be entirely accurate and hope the reader will forgive me any errors.


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December 1929

A massive poster caught Peter’s eye as he entered. He paused, surprised. Lenin’s simple but inspiring portrait was gone. In its place, Stalin’s pseudo-benevolent face stared back at him, raised arm pointing the way forward to this, his first Five Year Plan. Peter looked about him and shook his head; sensed that though it seemed but a small change, it was significant.

Talalaivka’s central office was bristling with electrifying tension. Comrade Stalin’s protégé, Kaganovich, had just made his personal appearance, leaving extraordinary orders from the Secretary General. They would need extra forces from their military police and army units in order for this final radicalisation of agriculture to succeed at this breakneck speed. The consequences, the soviet officials knew, would be horrific. Already hardened since Stalin’s rise to power, and tense with anticipation, they braced themselves for the onslaught of human misery that the implementation of these extreme orders would cause.

The tension stung Peter’s face more than the biting air as he strode through the great door. He hurriedly took off his heavy cap, brushed its snow against his long army coat. He was anxious to return home, to sanity, to Hanya and his infant sons. He headed towards the back office to speak to Constantin, his senior veterinary colleague. His work papers were yet to be completed, then signed by soviet officials, before he could take his leave. Already he was several days late returning from his circuit of veterinary duties. And the winter snows had not yet set in.

He looked again at the poster and shook his head thoughtfully. At that moment a senior official, observing him, tapped his shoulder in recognition.

“Drastysa, Petro Yosepovich!” Peter returned the obligatory soldier’s salute. These days, it was difficult to separate the civilian from the military, or from the police. He knew he was walking a fine line of tolerance from the extremists among them.

“Ah, Petro,” Constantin smiled, his face lighting up. “I’m glad you’ve returned safely. Such heavy snows.” He grasped Peter’s shoulder reassuringly and glanced to the outside office, with its prickling atmosphere. “And so dangerous now.” He stopped, as a soviet official passed. Peter nodded. He could not comment. His ailing colleague had little to lose now, whereas he had his young family to consider. His fingers itched to complete his quota forms, his heart impatient to return to Hanya and their little sons. Vanya would delight in the few sweets he had wrapped, and even in these several weeks baby Mischa must have grown from his tiny proportions. This year’s Saint Nikolas’s feast day will be especially poignant, he promised himself, in spite of the political difficulties and economic hardships.

His horse, ploughing soft snow almost effortlessly as they headed homeward, seemed to sense his urgency. Peter’s spirits lifted. He felt revitalised in the freshness around him. Virgin snowflakes, carried by swirls of light morning breeze, danced about him like miniature white doves freed in flight. Each kilometre distanced him from the hotbed of political turmoil and conspiracy that had overtaken the Talalaivka bureau recently. He turned his back, temporarily, on the chaos the triumvirate had brought, with General Secretary Stalin at its helm.

In these few short years, since completing his army service and training, Peter saw changes within his Ukraine that could only be explained in the light of Lenin’s untimely death, and the ensuing power struggle between members of the Bolshevik Party’s Politburo. Whatever ephemeral unity the Party apparatchiks published in Pravda , Peter and his trusted friends knew differently. Now, with Lenin’s new economic policies abandoned, ostensibly for the ‘purity’ of Bolshevik ideals, and Stalin’s power supreme with the implementation of this first Five Year Plan, all certainty was gone. No-one in this part of the countryside, in Sumskaya Oblast, knew from where their daily bread would come, nor under which roof they would be protected. And already, the gulag labour camps were swelling at an alarming pace. Such was the legacy of Stalin and his henchmen’s application of the so-called ‘purist’ Bolshevik ideals.

He reined his horse at the southern crossroads of Talalaivka, and headed south-eastward towards Kylapchin and his family’s farm. He paused, allowing a unit of soviet militia, led by trained soldiers, to pass. The captain eyed Peter, recognised him in his heavy army coat, and tipped his cap in soldierly fashion. Peter responded. He had trained with this man who, like him, was energetic, keen to do well. Peter had chosen the civil service once his official national training was completed; the captain had remained in the army. “A good leader,” Peter noted thoughtfully as the unit passed, “but for whom, now that our circumstances are changing so rapidly?”

He cupped his hand over his eyes, protecting them from the sheen of the snow. Still so many kilometres to make good, but a perfect day nonetheless. The anticipation of being with Hanya and the infants spurred him on. He smiled as he thought of these irreplaceable jewels that filled his heart. Sweethearts, and so young, it seemed, he and Hanya had married immediately upon his discharge from the army; had planned and built their tiny xatka on his father’s lands at a little distance from the family’s farmhouse and had seen the birth, first of Vanya, several years ago and now of their baby, Mischa.

If ever there was a time of bittersweet contemplation, Peter felt it was now. The sweetness of his idyllic marriage, and his healthy infants. The bitterness of the fast-changing political and social events, and the consequent economic difficulties already ravaging the countryside. He instinctively reached down to check the sacks of food scraps fastened carefully to the saddle: like an expert scavenger, he had picked out still-fresh cabbage and beetroot, even black rye bread, carelessly discarded by the Talalaivka officials, whose daily supplies were purloined from the local area. “Such good fortune for my family,” he reflected, “we may not need to struggle. But what of the others, who don’t find enough food?”

At last, his xatka’s chimney smoke welcomed him. He reined his horse under the cover of the sloping roof and sprinted the last paces, threw open the door, the sweet smell of his home surprising his nostrils anew. He hugged his Hanya and touched her soft pale face, her silky dark hair, and felt the closeness of Vanya in his arms. Baby Mischa looked strong, content, and indeed had grown. Peter breathed relief. He knew he would need to hide this additional food; he determined to reinforce their secret cellar to keep it safe through the winter. But for now life was as good, as complete, as any honourable Ukrainian man could wish for. “Give us strength,” he prayed silently to his magnanimous Maker, “that we won’t be hounded into kolkhozes… that we won’t be starved out of our own farmhouses.” He looked forward to the feast of Saint Nikolas’s celebrations. Hanya and little Vanya had already chosen their small fir tree, and were collecting acorns and fir cones for its decoration; the few kukurhyske, baked and carefully hidden, to be brought out on the eve of the festivities.

He could anticipate the celebration of Saint Nikolas: the tradition and joy that a child’s symbolic birth almost two millennia earlier had instilled in his Ukrainian culture. But he could not have known that already, in Moscow, an opposing celebration was about to take place for the tyrant Stalin, who would eclipse these long held genteel traditions and eventually destroy them. Shafting home blame for his own economic mismanagement to t

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he people who could least resist, Stalin would seal the fate of any burgeoning liberal ideals that had begun to bloom under Lenin. Peter could not know it then, that twisted power and malice would savage and overpower the inherent good that had been the mark of his Ukrainian countrymen. It was a brutal irony that the ageold tradition celebrating birth and life would be obliterated by Stalin’s orchestrated birthday celebration, honouring his power, destruction and wasteful death of innocents.

Peter could not have known that it would be his family’s last Christmas celebration together. His heart, for the moment, was spared that pain.

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A long line of soviet militia specked the snow’s horizon, making their way to Yakemovitch village from the Talalaivka road. Evdokia craned at the window, imbued with her childhood habit of sighting her father’s buggy on the crest of the hill near their farmhouse as it returned from the village. The heavy-coated militia soldiers were too indistinct, but they aroused her curiosity, their horses mushing slowly along a ridge before, serpent-like, slithering over it, they disappeared from view. These militia soldiers could not be connected to the Yakemovitch village meeting, she was certain: her father and brothers would be returning any moment.

She smiled, in anticipation of the good news the soviet officials had promised them. At last, the villagers would put behind them the hardships they had endured this past year; the debacle of all their spring-sowing wheat and most of their winter food that had been taken from them was the result, the local officials insisted, of misunderstandings around implementing Stalin’s new quota orders. She did not understand the political machinations taking place around them, but trusted her father’s optimism that, despite the moderate Bukharin and his supporters having recently been removed from the Politburo, Stalin and his bureaucracy would make good their pledge to improve their lives.

She gazed at the wondrous vista before her and marvelled, child-like, at its beauty. Saint Nikolas’s feast day was not far hence and, as of old, her family would now be able to savour the celebration of Christ’s birth. Her eyes feasted on the sun’s ephemeral rays as they sparked the tips of soaring trees, turning them into spires of the village churches now extinct. The warming rays brushed transiently at the shadows of white-bearded oaks and firs that lined the nearby hills. Though her body was not yet satiated with the promised food, her heart swelled in anticipated gladness. From this day, nature’s generosity of beauty would be equalled by the fairness of Stalin’s regime.

She rushed to the door as her father’s buggy appeared on the hillside and ran bare-footed to the great barn nearby to push open its heavy door for her father’s horse. The light borshch broth simmering on their ancient earthen stove would warm them, and her mother need no longer fret at the dwindling meagre supplies. Almost childishly, she licked her lips to taste an imagined sweetness, wishing to return to the days when her father, cautious in every way, would bring a few kopeks’ worth of halva and honey for the family.

“Ny, Yakim…” Klavdina gently ventured, noting uncertainty in her husband’s demeanour. “How went it today? When will they bring back our wheat?”

“Ah, the meeting…” Yakim hesitated, distracting himself with his soaked hat, laying it carefully at table’s edge, trying to compose himself. He sat down slowly, heavily, touched his greying beard as if deep in thought, and bowed his head. Suddenly, his shoulders shuddered. He groaned, as if in pain. Evdokia, shocked, stood by helplessly. She had never witnessed her father in such a distressed state.

“They tricked us!” His eyes could not look at his family. “We came willingly, peacefully… They told us, beforehand… we would have our grain back… they would find ways to improve our living. But instead…” He faltered as he shook his head in disbelief. “We are to lose everything! They are forcing us into a kolkhoz! They won’t even tell us where… but it will be soon!”

Panic pierced Evdokia. She could not fully comprehend the import of the village meeting, but her intuitive sense told her her family’s future was changed from that moment. She could only watch, confused, as Klavdina comforted Yakim and grasped his proud shoulder.

“Yakim,” Klavdina reassured him, searching for words, her inner strength surpassing her diminutive body. “Our farm, our inheritance… What good will our farm be, if any of us should come to harm? At least they haven’t labelled us kulaks, as some unfortunates have been. We will have a home to go to… We will be given food… Our family will be safe…”

“I won’t need to go to a kolkhoz!” Procip, Evdokia’s twin, announced in manly fashion. “They are giving us young men a choice: the kolkhoz or the Donbas mines. Perhaps even a Tractor Machine Station, some day!” Procip looked at the youngest, not yet fifteen. “Makar! Once I’m settled, you can join me! We should even earn enough to send some kopeks back to Mamo and Tato!”

A sudden commotion outside distracted them. Procip, closest to the door, cautiously opened it. Evdokia turned from her distressed parents and watched in amazement as a young captain, in full army uniform stepped in, followed by a dozen soviet militia soldiers.

“Yakim Kyzmayovich Shcherbak,” he spoke quietly, respectfully, tipping his cap. “I have orders to deliver this document to you. You and your family are to accompany me, immediately, to a nearby kolkhoz… it will be decided later where your family will be permanently placed.” The captain’s modern regalia gave his status: he had his early training in Lenin’s new army, was disciplined, efficient, not threatening.

Yakim took the document, glanced at it and placed it on the table without perusing it. The captain watched quietly, gave Yakim a few moments; then stepped closer to him, dropped his voice. “Yakim Kyzmayovich… please… I would encourage you to obey these orders. Your family—all your family—will remain safe, if you follow them. Come now…” His voice dropped to a whisper, “I can’t speak for what may happen if you don’t. You are safe with me; my men will obey my orders; they will not hurt you or your kin. I will see that you arrive safely at the kolkhoz. Other soldiers may become reckless with you…” His young man’s eyes pleaded with Yakim to listen.

Yakim shook his head, defeated, then nodded agreement. The order of eviction lay on the table, unread. He motioned to his family to gather their belongings. Evdokia looked out through the open door. The remaining soviet soldiers were stationed at the barn. She hurriedly bundled her clothing, her heart paining as she folded her embroidered long petticoat shirt that had been denied its nuptials blessings so long ago. The waiting cart, soldiers at the fore, would only allow perenas and some utensils. Already the militia were circling the farmhouse, coveting possessions. They would return in due course, to take as they chose under Stalin’s new erratic orders, once the small farmholder and his family were removed.

The sun had passed its peak. The shadows drifted along the hillside as the captain, at the head of the posse, gave his order to move. The cart jerked, the gentle snow deceiving in its transparency, gradually camouflaging the family farmhouse until it had become one with the growing shadows of the hilly snows.

Evdokia could not know, as the blurred outline of their farmhouse disappeared like a mirage in the powdery mist around her, that she would never again step on that soft Ukrainian snow nor the soil of her family’s farm; would never again be permitted to re-visit the family place which had given her so much security and strength and love. Now, this long line of black-coated militia soldiers was taking them to a place unknown. The militia line had turned into a malevolent serpent, doing the bidding of the cowardly Stalin, taking them ever closer to ultimate disaster.

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“Hanya, moya Hanya,” Peter moaned as he knelt on his knee in homage as his hand gently caressed the hardening clumps of clay: yearning, reaching to Hanya, to Mischa. Time stood still as he grappled with the suffering. He was almost oblivious of the sounds around him as life continued inexorably in nature’s purposefulness, obeying a higher command. But all was stillness, below.

His hand searched helplessly across the mound. So small a plot for wife and infant son; so short, so precious the time together, now separated indefinitely. Already wild grasses were claiming possession, the sweetness of the flowers at grave’s head crushed by nature’s willful servants. He rested his head on the wilting blooms and closed his eyes, blanking out the cold reality as he drew in the last of their youthful scents.

“Hanya,” he whispered hoarsely, in vain. His aching heart could carry no more. Now, in the depth of grief, painful logic reminded him the hoped-for spiritual miracle would not eventuate. The pulsating life above, the cold below, separated them in finality. “Moya lybenka… what can I do now?” The stillness below, the silence, gave their reply. His griev

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ing shoulders shuddered, his sobs, tears, unable to penetrate the hardened soil to stir the permanently sleeping heart.

He raised his wet-streaked face from grave’s side, the early summer sun almost blinding him in a shimmer of life-giving energy. Despite his grief and the crushing pain, he observed in wonder as he gazed across from this hurriedly-extended section of the ancient Kylapchin cemetery. Everywhere, life and death were intertwined and vied for dominance. Nearby, from the shaded sanctuary of trees protecting the tiny chapel that delineated old and new ground, a flock of birds, impervious to the sorrow below, soared exuberantly, oblivious of his anguish and the anguish of other mourners burying their dead. The monstrous disease that was called starvation and privation, so callously meted out by Stalin and his henchmen, was already ravaging the countryside as it bit harder and harder into this part of the Sumskaya Oblast region. It cared not which victims it took in its wake, and was now fired up to fever pitch with the ‘excesses’ of the new regime.

The starkness between the living and the dead was too evident. The immaculate beauty of morning sunlight unswervingly giving life to his beloved Ukraine was almost painful in its perfection. It was as inviting, as warm and complete above, as the depth of cold and darkness below. He bowed his head in contemplation. The permanence of death was almost incomprehensible to his tortured psyche. There was no meeting of the souls, in this world. His pleas, his willing it from every part of him, could not stir Hanya’s soul to return.

At last, he crossed himself and prayed again for the souls of his lost loved ones. “Hospode Pomelyue,” he whispered. “We will be together again one day when our destiny tells us.” Gathering his strength, he continued. “Hanya,” he whispered as if afraid his words, like his beautiful wife, would be taken from him, “I pledged you my heart, and you have it. I pledged you I would keep you with me, always. But it was not to be. You were taken on a different path; I know not why. I could not save you. In that, I failed.”

He paused, head bent. He searched for words of comfort that his countrymen’s heroic poet Taras Shevchenko had beseeched and whispered from his own tortured soul so long ago. “Hanya… yet if my heart breaks completely, I will not keep our joyful memories, that made our lives true, and so I too will die from the pain. I must hold my heart together, for a future to be, for your spirit to live on with me.” He kissed the clod of clay and placed it among the wilting flowers. Silently, with head still bent, and as though he were acknowledging a passing spiritual blessing, he crossed himself again, then rose, almost dazed by the light and by the vibrancy of life striving to survive around him above the morbid soil: nature, life, pulling him, forcing him back from the abyss of despair.

From the shaded sanctuary his horse neighed the arrival of another rider. Peter squinted, saw it was his close friend Mikhaelo. He stood up and, straightening his rough linen shirt, wiped his streaked face with its sleeve.

“Petro!” Mikhaelo called as he strode towards him to the new, dishevelled mounds, boot-high grasses whipped aside by his strides. “Petro, my friend… you won’t go any faster to heaven than the rest of us, you know, even with all your praying! Come, man! I have a message from your father. He has a visitor waiting. I promised him I’d return with you!” Mikhaelo’s younger, watchful eyes belied his jocular tone. He had not yet lost such a loved one, but he felt the grief of his life-long friend.

“Dobre, dobre,” Peter smiled, grateful for his friend’s arrival. He turned to look one last time at the mound, beneath which lay so much spent joy, so much hoped-for future with his precious Hanya. Through Vanya, their surviving little son, her spirit, and Mischa’s, would be felt. His yearning, broken heart had somehow hung on amid inconceivable pain. He could not contemplate it now, but perhaps one day his heart might heal and learn to love again. It would be a sad, solitary mission, but it had to be.

He placed his hand on Mikhaelo’s shoulder in acknowledgement and walked back to his trusty horse, then led it down a gentle slope to the nearby spring. The willow’s leaves, playfully dancing with the cleansing water, dropped their tears of comfort as he drank the pure elixir of life. Face still wet, tears of sorrow blending with tears of hope, he took the horse’s reins and expertly steered it from the ancient cemetery, from the memories, the riven pain, in the direction of hope and the future.

He knew not what form it would take. He would have his beautiful Hanya’s spirit to guide him and Vanya’s life to protect and save. There were no promises, no assurances for him in this quest. Just as Taras Shevchenko had inwardly wept for his fledgling country’s soul, so he too inwardly wept for his fledgling family, now gone. Those tears of the heroic poet had added to the decay of the Tsar’s ancien regime; his tears now added to the decay caused by Stalin’s perverse cruelty.

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Peter hesitated, uncertainty edging him, as he recognised the dilapidated buggy in his father’s courtyard. Dismounting, he motioned to Mikhaelo to go into the farmhouse, forcing himself to contain his emotions as he prepared for Father Chernyiuk’s unexpected visit. He grasped at nearby grasses for the priest’s old tethered horse and leaned heavily against the crusted wall as he observed this creature of burden. The sun’s darting rays, captured in the courtyard, flashed at him, stinging his eyes. Even now, pain still blistered him. Two seasons ago, such elated joy… now, two seasons of unfathomable searing. In these few moments, in the privacy of his father’s courtyard, he held back a sob as he again felt the silent pain, yet forced himself once more to contain his emotions, to allow logic to rule his head, his being.

He looked again at the waiting farmhouse door and the visitor’s buggy. “He has not long called on us,” he murmured to himself, “there must be some urgency.” He felt angst for the old priest, reminded himself that he was not the only one suffering silently. The priest, too, had had recent reversals: a wanderer among his flock, ministering his faith as best he could, his ancient church of Kylapchin razed to the ground in the vindictive fervour since Stalin’s rise to power. The holy messenger of Orthodoxy was now without church or home, his community scattered, his means of survival precarious. His health was failing, but he nevertheless had accepted his fate stoically, without complaint. “How does he keep going, despite all this?” Peter searched for an answer. The elderly priest’s family was long gone: only his faith gave him the courage to pray each day, to await a better life.

Peter realised the political situation was rapidly changing in this uncertain summer of 1930, even more so than the psyches of the Ukrainian people of these regions could comprehend. Now, with the senior veterinary practitioner ailing, his own work took him even further in the area. He witnessed first hand the haphazard, iniquitous way in which collectivisation was implemented in their Oblast. The priest, like so many of his fellow countrymen, had become a pawn in the ensuing power struggle between Ukrainian farmers and Stalin’s apparatchiks.

This power struggle was not yet over, he suspected. Already in his travels he had heard of Lenin’s moderate protégé Bukharin’s demise; replaced, in these Ukrainian Oblasts, by the ambitious Kaganovich, who was once so devoted to Lenin’s ideals, but was now Stalin’s right-hand man in these regions, and given virtual carte blanche in honing collectivisation into unworkable models of excessive production. Peter feared for his father, who had earlier resisted the authorities, and who had worked so prodigiously with his entire family to maintain his productive farm. Ironically, the rewards for this effort and output were envy and jealousy, even vindictiveness from a regime increasingly setting impossible production quotas.

His horse nuzzled its heaving nostrils at his side, awaiting its master. He led his great, trusting creature to the water trough and rested his eyes on its magnificent frame and gently stroked its moist quivering shoulder. At last, he took the old jug from its stand, refreshed himself, drawing in a deep breath as he collected himself, summer’s hazy warmth brushing at cold droplets on his quenched lips.

He looked about wistfully at the countryside of his birth. To his left, at a short distance from the farm, Kylapchin lay hidden in a glen. The wispy spirals of cindered smoke from the remaining earthen ovens rising above the woods gave few signs of life. A pall hung over the once vibrant and industrious village as daily the soviet bureaucrats dispatched families to scattered kolkhozes, tearing the fabric of communal life. The village and its cemetery had almost merged, unable to withstand the onslaught of capricious officialdom and the politically engineered famine.

He gazed at his father’s full fields, the result of so much unrelenting work, and looked beyond these to the pinnacle of the hill lined with great trees, which delineated the new boundary of fields so hard-earned collectively by the family since Lenin had instigated his new economic policies. The sun’s rays glistened, deflected from the hillside, put a soft sheen over the artist’s vibrant palette that splashed before him: of golden wheat, corn, sunflower

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fields; trees, hedges, crops of variant greens; and wildflowers freely scattered in their reds and gold and blues.

Again, he breathed in its warmth and could almost taste the sweetness of summer’s early blooms, of the land’s generosity all about him. For a few suspended moments, he was transfixed by the beauty of this wondrous countryside, in awe of this idyll. Tears suddenly escaped his self-control. This was the soil on which he and his sisters and brothers were born, on which he was raised by his hard-working Yosep and Palasha, and in which his soul would one day be laid to rest. His gaze blurred: he could not dwell on this longer. Slowly, thoughtfully, he drew another deep breath, then sighed as if awaking to reality. He knew there was now no certainty in their future.

As he opened the farmhouse door, little Vanya ran to him. “Tato, Tato! Ve doma, ve doma!” Peter knelt down to his firstborn and kissed the soft infant face, gently tousling his dark hair. “You may play now, Vanya,” he encouraged him, watching as his son ran outside for his child’s play. He smiled, nodding gratitude to his caring mother.

“Ah, Petro,” his father’s measured tone greeted him as he stepped into the farmhouse. “Father Chernyiuk has just returned from the soviet committee. He wishes to talk with us, son.” Peter bowed in respect and received the old priest’s blessing, and joined them as they shared their grape wine and bread. He watched with heightening tension as the priest unburdened himself: the haggard, bearded face and dispirited eyes revealing the painful acceptance of his situation. “Both victim and messenger,” Peter thought, sensing the holy man’s dilemma, which confirmed his own inner fears that Stalin’s bureaucracy was now allowing officials almost total free rein in this region.

“What am I to do?” Father Chernyiuk suddenly burst out. “Am I to be both priest and spy?” he anguished. On pain of reprisal, the old priest was forced to join the local soviet committee, ostensibly to enable dissemination of Bolshevik Party policy, but in reality coerced to report on the very people who trusted him with their lives and souls. It was an almost untenable situation for this old messenger of Orthodox faith. Powerless, he could do nothing to alter this; he had little choice but to acquiesce. If he refused to co-operate with this sulphurous soviet committee, the consequences were extreme: imprisonment, labour camps, or execution awaited him.

Father Chernyiuk dropped his voice to a whisper, eyes widening in fear, as if an invisible enemy was already among them. Peter tensed, sensing danger. “Yosep, they are accusing you of being… a kulak! They use this false name glibly, so carelessly…” The words hurtled out as if the enemy had already thrown the hammer, about to crush them. Peter caught his breath, barely controlling his emotions, and looked at his stunned parents: Yosep and Palasha were being labelled kulaks by a local soviet committee, whose members’ only qualities lay in greed, envy and self-interest.

His heart sank, feeling their angst. All these years of back-breaking work by his family, even almost super-humanly meeting excessive quotas set by the officials, had come to naught. If anything, it had worked against them. Without the infamous kulak label, his Yosep and Palasha could have been considered as all the other small farmers, pushed into a nearby kolkhoz, to work as best they could. But now, as supposed kulaks, they would be deemed a danger to Stalin’s new Soviet society. It was ludicrous, but it was a clever label of convenience espoused by the very people of the soviet committee who sought protection from hard work and ostracism by mouthing Stalinist slogans in order to survive. He shook his head, grappling with the consequences. Somehow, he had to remain strong: his parents were too disturbed by their faithful messenger’s news. Father Chernyiuk’s information was only rumour, but instinctively Peter knew it was close to the truth of the situation. These were now dangerous times.

“Peta,” the old priest turned to him, speaking gently, his voice resonant with gravity: the voice of the Orthodox sage who had christened him and married him, his sad eyes determinedly meeting Peter’s. “You must prepare yourself, my son. The situation is changing very rapidly. You must plan for your little Vanya’s welfare. Peta…” he hesitated, choosing his words with care, the memory of Peter’s distraught face at Hanya’s funeral still fresh in his mind, “you must consider your duty to take a wife, my son… for your child’s sake, for your elders’ sake.”

Peter’s mind reeled. He was caught off-balance, unprepared for this counsel and the fast turn of events. “Come, Peter,” Father Chernyiuk continued, the mantle of his Orthodox faith imbued in him. “I must give you my blessing of dispensation from the mourning period. You must do this, my son, for your Vanya’s… for everyone’s sake.” He retrieved an old gold-embroidered ecclesiastical ribbon and small cross from his black shabby cassock and placed his hand on Peter’s bowed head. Incense on holy ribbon mixed with the mustiness of heavy cassock, confusing his senses: holy reverence, harsh reality, bore down on him. For a few moments, the farmhouse and its occupants were transposed by their priest’s solicitations and liturgical verse. Peter closed his eyes, forced himself to be inwardly strong, uncertainty encircling him. At that moment he could not allow himself to think of his Hanya and Mischa. The pain of these past months was too raw, too real. “But how do I tell this heart to not bleed… to heal?” he cried silently. He knew not how he would make the transition from widower to husband.

He stood in the old cobbled courtyard as the priest’s buggy made its way towards Kylapchin and beyond, and watched as the afternoon haze shimmered and enveloped the visitor as he disappeared behind the swaying corn and sunflower fields. He stood there for some time, pensive, capturing this remaining moment of permanence and security in his family’s farmhouse. He feared that his life, and his parents’ lives, were about to change at a faster pace than he could have envisaged. The uncertainty he faced, though precarious and unclear, was bearable, tolerable. But the uncertainties his parents faced were dangerously menacing. His skin pricked with anxiety: he sensed it would not be long before they would have their answer.

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Evdokia sat quietly, her face an enigma, shadowed in the great room of the ‘collective’ farmhouse. She smoothed her long black skirt; felt the tightness of her coiled hair. Her eyes darted to her gentle, anxious mother, Klavdina. Her heart lurched, eyes pricked with a painful memory, now carefully concealed in the half-light of the cavernous room. She knew, instinctively, that this meeting was as important to her beloved mother as it was to her.

Her eyes followed the grain of the great oak table as she watched the closed door, averting her father Yakim’s eyes as if, incomprehensibly, by some twist of fate she might jeopardise the arranged meeting. She knew his cautious, unflinching firmness. She had been scorched before by his resolute will, his denial for her to follow her heart. She had known painful disappointment: had had to watch her moment of opportunity pass as a loved one found happiness elsewhere, in circumstances she could not change but was forced to accept. Now, her family’s discomfort had increased immeasurably since collectivisation left them homeless, eking out the seasons in this once-grand farmhouse, vying with other families as they awaited the bureaucrats’ orders to place them in a kolkhoz, to an area yet unknown. She closed her eyes, hid away the past painful memory and her anxiety for their future; looked ahead, to the great beamed farmhouse door, to hope.

The massive door suddenly opened, nature’s light warming the enormous room. To all around, she was neatly poised: attractive in her long embroidered petticoat shirt. Yet inwardly, like a fawn caught in bright light unable to escape, she quivered, stomach compressed sickeningly tight. Her emotions were contradictory, difficult to control: trepidation, fear of rejection; yet, still, a certain excitement. She reached for her cup and sipped the cool spring water, distracting herself from her inner turmoil.

Stasyia, the old priest’s sister, looked kindly at her young protégé seated beside her. She patted Evdokia’s tightly clasped hands, her eyes smiling reassuringly as she rose to greet the party. Seasoned in these matters, she fully understood her role as the chosen intermediary, and knew the singular importance of this arranged meeting.

“Dobreye dene, dobreye dene,” she enthused, embracing them. She kissed Father Chernyiuk’s proffered hand and acknowledged his blessing. “Welcome, our good people, Yosep and Palasha Pospile, and your son Petro; welcome, our dear Father.” She ushered them in to the great room, invited them to sit at table opposite Yakim and Klavdina.

“So… you had a good journey to Yakemovitch, Peta?” she enquired, smiling warmly. “You know the way in these parts well enough, with all your travels for your work. A short distance, really, these ten or so kilometres, but such a long way in heavy winter snows!” Her soothing voice allayed the awkwardness, and prepared the two families she knew well, but who had not previously met.

Peter responded in the affirmative, taking his place beside his elders, and nodded respectfully to the hosts. His quick eye observed Evdokia in the half-shadows. At

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that moment sunlight from a nearby window shafted across, flickered at her head. “My God,” he thought, taken off-guard, “her hair is so blonde.” His own beloved Hanya was dark-haired. Until that moment he had not considered how different this young woman, Evdokia, might be. He realised the enormity of responsibilities on him that would emanate from this crucial meeting. He could not let his family down. He had to impress the host family, be a credible suitor. But he also had a higher responsibility: to be honest, to be true to himself, to not deceive this woman, Evdokia.

With the blessing of the victuals complete, Peter took the initiative. The grape wine chaffed at his throat; the borshch-like broth was delicate in taste but sparse. But he knew their difficulties, and generously thanked the hosts for their gifts of hospitality. His praise was exaggerated, but it pleased them. They warmed to this attractive young man who, despite suffering widowhood so recently, remained well-mannered and understood the value of conviviality.

Evdokia listened quietly, intrigued. The voice was warm, expressive. She had only briefly glimpsed him as he entered the great room. Now he aroused her curiosity. She eased her stiff posture. She had no preconceptions, but had not expected a potential suitor to be articulate, intelligent, entertaining. Stasyia sensed the moment. “Peta, I am told your family’s orchards are among the best in these parts,” she smiled, tilting her head as she half-winked at him. “The orchard here is in such disrepair now… but still, some fine specimens remain—before the soviet officials turn even those into another wasteland! Evdokia,” she nodded encouragement, “perhaps you could show Petro the remaining orchard… some of the fruits might yet be saved, with his knowledge.”

Evdokia blushed, and complied politely. Sunlight dazzled her as she stepped into the courtyard. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw him clearly for the first time, in radiant daylight. He was taller, more handsome than she had expected, unlike anyone she had previously met. He had an exuberance that surprised her. “Will he find me exciting enough?” she could not stop her inner voice asking. Her own life with her parents and siblings had been so ordered, even controlled. She held her breath, unable to gauge the situation, and could only smile at his gallantry as he held back heavy branches as she passed along the pathway amongst the gnarled old orchard trees.

The last of the trees’ blossoms fused with a honeyed scent as Evdokia passed him. The scents evoked tender memories Peter had kept hidden these past painful months. Now, he observed Evdokia in a different light, watched as she walked elegantly before him. He realised there was much to discover in her. He had to dissociate himself from his early love; to not compare her with Hanya. “How is it that she is still unmarried?” he wondered to himself. He determined to ask her mentor, when next they talked privately.

Stasyia could hear their voices, and laughter, as she strolled towards them along the unkempt path. She smiled to herself, relieved. This meeting seemed to be developing well. She returned to the farmhouse, to the burdens of the families: the uncertainties of daily life, of survival under collectivisation and Stalin’s rule.

Suddenly, a voice called out from the courtyard. Peter stopped, puzzled by its urgency. His brother Fedir ran to the orchard, panting. “Petro!” he burst out, almost exploding with agitation; then, seeing Evdokia, stopped for a moment and excused himself as he caught his breath, his face red with perspiration.

“Petro,” he gasped, his voice strained. “We must return to the farmhouse this minute! The soviet dogs are after our elders. They’ve come to question them… to interrogate them. Some idiot told them our parents are in hiding from the authorities! The fools! They’re threatening us with a warrant for their arrest! They wouldn’t listen to Ivan’s explanation—they’re holding him as a surety. They say if our parents don’t return now, then ‘he will do’ as the eldest son—the bastards! I’ve given them my word I would return with them immediately. We must move quickly, Petro… before those madmen torch our farmhouse!”

Peter looked at Fedir, who was usually so steady but was now almost wild-eyed, agitated. He shook his head, more to himself than to Evdokia, and pursed his lips, his face intent. He said nothing. But he knew this was the moment he had been dreading these past months, now that the farm was in full summer production, ripe for the taking. Somewhere in his psyche the absurd reached out to him: ‘Pospile,’ their precious family name: ‘ripe’ in name, ripe for the pickings by these lazy Stalinist cronies.

He beckoned Fedir to fetch his parents and turned quickly to ready the buggy for their journey back to Kylapchin. Preoccupied, he barely remembered the formalities of departure, could not be certain if he acknowledged Evdokia as she stood silently nearby, watching, confused.

Evdokia stood stiffly beside Stasyia watching as the buggy, driving speedily behind Fedir’s fast horse, receded through the haze of sunlight and churning dust in the direction of Kylapchin. She could not be certain if he had looked one last time to the farmhouse and their hosts. She watched them disappear along the narrow countryside road, and stood passively for a time to regain her composure. She could not explain her feelings of abandonment, even though this was an extraordinary misfortune for Peter and his family. She was too inexperienced in matters of the heart to know whether or not she had made an impression on Peter; too afraid to think of the consequences of being rejected by this attractive, lively man. She could only contain these doubts, these uncertainties, deep within her, and hide her disappointment yet again.

“Boje,” she prayed silently, “bring some good from this meeting.” Fate had already dealt her a double blow: it had first worked inadvertently against her through her older sister Hannah’s grief at losing her fiancé in the Great War, refusing to marry another suitor; dealing her a second blow, later, when her own young suitor could wait no longer. She closed her eyes and pictured Peter, capturing their moments in the orchard. She at least could say to her heart that, for a fleeting time, one perfect summer afternoon, she briefly played with love, almost lost her heart again. That was the legacy Fate left her, this time.

Now, Fate snatched her chance of finding happiness again in love. If she never saw this appealing widower again, she would always remember his liveliness, his winning smile, his hazel eyes communicating with the world. That would be her reward for being tricked yet again by Fate.

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Jugular veins visibly pumping, rifle strap held tense at the shoulder of his ill-fitting uniform, the soviet guard eyed Peter coldly as he unlocked the dilapidated cell door. He stood at its opening, legs stiffly astride, finger twitching at rifle’s trigger-lock. “A few minutes only!” His edgy voice punched at the stale basement air.

“He’s even younger than my brother Hresha,” Peter gauged silently, watchfully. He sensed the guard’s nervous disposition; he had been witness to such breaking-point tension during his own army experience. This young militia recruit to Stalin’s massive police bureaucracy was unpredictable, could not be trusted with his deadly weapon.

“Harasho, dakyuy,” Peter nodded respect for the man and his rifle. It was too risky to ask for more time. He guessed, accurately, the reason for this young guard’s edginess. Upstairs he and his comrades were massively outnumbered in the packed oppressive hall of this outpost prison of Romny by anxious men and women clutching visit permits. Peter could still smell the acrid adrenalin of the crowd’s collective anxiety. The silent swarming mob could easily overwhelm the few guards. Only their fears for their imprisoned relatives kept them in check. There were no guarantees they would set eyes on their loved ones, no guarantees their relatives were still alive. In this tense, almost surreal atmosphere, and now alone in the basement, the guard’s rifle had become his ultimate authority.

“Batko… Mamo,” Peter called out into the vaporous semi-dark. He sensed his elders’ presence, their discomfort in the dankness as his eyes searched out their silhouettes. Yosep clasped his son’s arms, held tight his strong shoulders, as if for a moment of reassurance. Peter felt a surge of relief rushing through him. His parents were still safe, for now. He kissed his mother’s uplifted cheeks, felt her thinness as he embraced her.

“They give us so little time here… on purpose,” he warned, softly. He searched deep into his jacket pockets. “I’ve brought a little sustenance… God willing, I’ll be back in a day or two with more.” He brought out the cloth-wrapped parcels of black rye bread and kobasa, and hid them quickly beneath the thin perena Palasha had been grudgingly permitted to bring.

“Batko,” he lowered his voice, trying to remain calm, “what is your situation now? Ivan told me they were interrogating you. We all know they can only be trumped-up reasons. You have done everything they wanted—met their quotas. It must be the farm they’re after!” He straightened, his tone determined. “I intend to speak to the officials here… plead your case, to get you released. They know they are getting all the produce they can, with us working the farm to the maximum!”

Yosep gently pressed his outstretched hand

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on his son’s chest, in an affectionate gesture to quiet him. “Petro… it is no use.” He hesitated and, glancing warily at the guard, dropped his voice to a whisper. “It is too late. They have sentenced us… The NKVD dogs! They’ve deputised NKVD men as judges for this so-called court. There is no trial here… No appeal… Just the sentence.”

He drew back for a moment as he collected himself. “They’ve sentenced us to five years… five years, in a hard labour camp in Siberia! They call us ‘kulaks’! We are but proud Ukrainian farmers! We’ve rarely crossed the threshold of a kulak’s door in all the years of toiling our own land!” He nodded his head, knowingly. “We understand the reason. A convenience to remove us from the farm. They will send us as far from our Sumskaya Oblast as their cattle trains will go… to a hell-hole that none of us have ever heard of!” He paused and smiled wryly into the dimness, despite himself. “What good will our old bones be in that Siberian permafrost? There are already enough Ukrainian souls there, to fertilise their icy forests!”

Peter’s stomach suddenly wrenched. He felt a clamminess, a sickening wave of nausea running through him. Instinctively he turned to one side, trying to contain a need to vomit, the shock hitting him hard. He felt as if someone had punched the very life out of him. Sweat pricked painfully at his forehead, at his body. He leaned against the damp cell wall, his eyes trying to focus on his brave parents; breathed deeply, slowly, willing himself to remain collected. More than at any other time, his parents needed his support, his clear thinking.

He knew what this meant. For Yosep and Palasha, it was a sentence to a prolonged death.

The guard shuffled his boots, edging to his final command for Peter to leave. “Dobreye cholovik,” Peter appeased the shifty militia soldier. “Give me one more minute… please… to farewell my close ones.”

He turned to his parents, standing forlorn in their crushed garb, yet somehow dignified in this dank cell. “Peta…” his father beseeched him. “Don’t burden your heart any more, son. We will live as we must, as long as God wills us. Peta, we want you to look ahead… to your happiness… Protect Vanya… Do what you must, son. You need to take a wife, be a family once more. It will ease our hearts, to know you and Vanya are not suffering.”

Peter nodded in acceptance, moist eyes concealed in the dimness. His parents, always so fair and selfless were now, in the midst of their own suffering, giving him their blessing to seek his own peace. He yearned to comfort them. But he knew he could do no more.

“I understand,” he whispered, almost to himself, “what has to be, so it will be.”

He felt their tears as they embraced him one last time. The guard’s impatient boots crunched the worn stone floor, rifle butt scraping his heavy uniform buckle. Peter looked back one last time, his parents’ visages motionless in the dusky light. He would plead for his parents, whatever the risk. The NKVD men might yet be swayed by his usefulness to this new Stalinist regime, by his experience as veterinary practitioner. He had heard of reprieves, of some softening in sentences for inexplicable reasons.

But, deep within, cold reasoning told him it would be futile. His parents were not Bolshevik Party members. They were of no consequence to Stalin or his cohorts of the new dogma. If anything, this new so-called troika regime gained perverse pleasure and thrived on stripping them from their farm, from their Oblast, from their Ukrainian heritage. Little wonder the very word ‘kulak’ had become an infamous instrument of propaganda for Stalin and his bureaucracy who, like a pack of howling wolves, tore increasingly faster through their prey, leaving misery and death in their wake. Peter knew his parents’ fate was sealed. He had yet to see what his would ultimately be.

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Stasyia lovingly adjusted the long, embroidered cloth framing the miniature icon of holy Mother and Child and passed her eye over the makeshift altar. It was devoid of its ecclesiastic artefacts, but the simple roses and cornflowers at table’s end exuded a tranquil beauty as they picked up the sun’s rays from the nearby window. She took a deep breath of satisfaction. “Praise be to our Lord,” she murmured. She was pleased her part in this union, despite almost overwhelming difficulties, had been received so well. “Give us all strength to live good and long lives,” she prayed silently to her Maker. Every moment was precious, in these uncertain times. Crossing herself, she bowed low before the altar table and kissed its fine linen cloth as if the icon of the Lord were still in its honoured place; then, straightening and smiling warmly to the wedding party, she motioned them to the hallowed setting. “Drastysa, Petro, i dorohi; drastysa, Evdokia, i dorohi,” she welcomed them, and awaited Father Chernyiuk as he blessed the families in the ‘collective’ farmhouse. She fondly observed him, pleased with his neat appearance. His shabby black cassock had withstood her careful handling in the cold spring water and even evinced a new respectability before this scented altar.

Peter stood taller, more confident, head held proudly high before the priest. He glanced quickly at Evdokia, smiled at her pensive face. “So calm,” he thought, “… so far away.” She seemed removed, almost unattainable, her emotions hidden beneath her short lace veil. He breathed in her honeyed scent complementing the delicate perfume of flowers woven in her braided hair. The wafts of summer’s blooms mingled with the reassuring hint of incense as the priest took out his precious gold-embroidered ecclesiastical ribbon and kissed it, as the nuptials began.

Peter drew a deep breath, turning his mind from the painful events of the past months and of his last visit to his imprisoned parents. This was a time for living, for new commitment, for some joy. There could be no more room in his mind for doubts or regrets; no more room in his heart for sorrow, for what could have been. Only room for a future, for healing, for affection and love to grow.

As Stasyia gently bound their hands with the fine gold ribbon in the symbolic joining of two souls in marriage, Evdokia could feel Peter’s pulsating warmth envelop her. She tilted her head slightly and smiled gently beneath her veil, her seeming remoteness broken. They moved in unison, slowly, Ivan and Fedir’s unadorned crowns of wildflowers held high above them, and Father Chernyiuk guiding them in their first steps as man and wife.

Stasyia carefully unpinned the square of lace shielding Evdokia’s face. They crossed themselves and kissed the priest’s upheld cross. “Go forward, good man and wife,” he beseeched them. “Keep to each other in this life. Live your lives according to our Lord’s ideals.” He crossed himself and held up his cross in a final blessing for the attendants to acknowledge, then carefully folded his gold ribbon and hid his precious relics deep in his cassock.

“Well, now,” he smiled, old eyes brightening, “let us have our celebratory drink, share our meal and be glad for this day!” His eyes rested on Peter. “Let us also pray for our loved ones who cannot share this day with us. Pray for their safety… for their good health. We must be strong for them.”

As their wedding dinner progressed, Hresha stepped forward and embraced his older brother. “Oi, Petro!” he called out, teasingly. “Look what I’ve brought for the celebration! This’ll keep us on our toes, once the grape wine runs out and the samohon is on the table!” He held up Peter’s old balalaika. Peter grinned and eyed him mock-threateningly, but pleased nonetheless with the promise of frivolity. It was time for celebration, not for mourning or despair. There had been enough time for those in the past; there would be time enough, again, for that in the future. Today was for living, for savouring the good moments.

He looked affectionately at Evdokia as she blushed politely and received congratulatory embraces and jovial comments from his brothers. His heart filled with pride at her composure, her courteous manner and warm response to his family who, until now, knew her so briefly. “I am truly fortunate,” he thought to himself. He realised there were no guarantees in this life but he intuitively sensed Evdokia would have in her the qualities, the strength of character, that would sustain them in the life they would share from this day. He sighed to himself. He desperately needed time to be alone with his new wife. He looked ahead to them sharing quiet moments, and to adjusting to each other’s ways. “And Vanya will be glad to be with her,” he surmised thoughtfully. “She takes her duties seriously… he will find in her a warm and caring mother.”

The simple feast-meal and grape wine raised their spirits. For so short a time, Stalinist dogma and bureaucracy were forgotten, soviet officialdom pushed aside. The samohon, clandestinely reclaimed from a hidden cellar, and the beckoning balalaika, made the men game: brought on their songs, their dancing. The ‘collective’ farmhouse families joined the wedding party. Someone brought out the pipe-flute, another expertly pumped a hand accordion. “Veprahaete xloptsi koni, a na zavtra pochevate…” the men began a spirited folk song, a reminder of their past unfettered lives, the music and laughter reverberating in the lofty ceiling of the farmhouse.

“Horko! Horko!” his friends called out, signalling to him and his new bride. Peter grinned and, taking the cue, took Evdokia’s

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hand, eyes flirting as they danced to a Ukrainian wedding song. He caught her eyes, shining, teasing him, as they moved in step in their traditional dance.

“Come on, Petro!” his friend Mikhaelo teased, challenging him. “Let’s see which of us is leader in the kopak!” His brothers pulled him away from his bride. The party circled them as they dared each other, and competed in their agility and sport to the ever-faster pace of the music. In these unguarded moments that seemed to have been snatched from his early freer days of the past, he threw himself into the energetic excitement of the dance. Not for a long time in these recent years had he felt such a sense of freedom and elation. For those few enraptured minutes he let go of the responsibilities and concerns he had been wearing for so long. The grape wine and samohon, the music and reverie of the bridal party, did its work on his senses: spurred him, artist and athlete as one, to leap ever higher, to the party’s cheers. Proud, exhilarated, his inhibition abandoned, he felt himself soar like a free bird, high above the mundane, to some higher plane: it was intoxicating, liberating to his senses. Evdokia watched, entranced, her heart daring to raise hopes for their happy union.

At celebration’s end, Evdokia embraced Yakim and Klavdina and honoured Stasyia and the priest, through tears of joy and sadness, and looked back one last time to the ‘collective’ farmhouse that had been her temporary home. “Don’t worry, Dyna,” Peter gently anticipated her emotions. “From now, our home will be your home… let’s make our way home.”

It was still light. He followed her, observing her careful steps as she lifted her long skirt and embroidered white linen underskirt, and as she sat composed, waiting in the buggy. “I hope I can live up to her ideals,” the thought flickered in his mind as he checked his horse and tied her bag securely at the back. The circumstances in which he married his first wife, the beloved Hanya, had been auspicious, even relatively easy, under Lenin’s more relaxed leadership of the twenties. The circumstances under which he was now to provide a home for Evdokia and Vanya were vastly changed. There was little hope his father’s farm would remain their home for long. And food was becoming more and more scarce by the week.

The cold night air, as he steered his horse in the direction of Kylapchin and his family’s farm, brought a chilling reminder of what lay ahead of them. He hoped fervently he would be able to keep the promise he made, before the priest and before his God, that he would keep his young wife safe, for all time. He held fast to the horse’s reins, held fast to the hope that their farmhouse had not yet been taken or, worse still, set upon by the local soviet-led bandits roaming their countryside in this totalitarian nightmare. Vanya waited for his new mother; Evdokia waited for her new home. He waited for a future, which was still unknown.

His horse manoeuvred the last south-westerly turn towards the farm. They were still a few kilometres away, but already he could see the red-black blaze of a huge fire in the direction of their farm. He caught his breath in disbelief. It could not be possible, surely, for fortune and misfortune to go so closely hand-in-hand for him in a single day.

He cracked the reins, unable to think beyond saving his family’s farm, unable to think of his own safety should the soviet soldiers try to stop him. The pain, anxiety and adrenalin that had been held down all these past days and months, in a finely balanced scale of emotions, suddenly shot uncontrollably in an opposite direction, throwing his fears to the fore. Juxtaposed balance of emotions was gone, logic escaped. In its place was the agony of not knowing whether he could save his family’s farm in time. Worse still was the agony of not knowing whether Vanya had come to harm. He cracked his horse’s reins again, racing almost recklessly towards the billowing red-black inferno in the night sky, towards he knew not what: towards the man-made hell.

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What is it that makes a man risk everything he has, to achieve what is almost an impossible goal? Peter could not bring himself to answer this as he took the stained envelope proffered by his new assistant and pushed the letter deep into his coat pocket. He pretended composure, aware of the increased political intrigues surrounding him, and nodded thanks to his watchful colleague.

“Dakyuy, Dimitri… it is from my dear elders…” He caught the assistant’s arched brow. “He knows its contents, even before I do!” he realised, dismayed. “Another ambitious young man being groomed for higher office!” He feigned distraction and quickly collected the papers for his kolkhoz duties. He needed to remove himself from this cauldron of stultifying suspicion; to read his Yosep and Palasha’s censored words away from prying eyes.

His horse grazed on autumnal grasses as he leaned against a denuded tree, its yellowed leaves crumpling about him. He looked towards his next kolkhoz of duty from his resting place on the bluff-like hill. An uncompromisingly chilly wind whipped up, flattening the dying grasses and forewarning him of the barren landscape that would soon descend upon them, and trap them in its deep snows.

His fingers, blackened from the censor’s ink that besmirched the victims’ words, trembled as he tried to decipher the contents of his elders’ letter. Too many months had passed with the censor’s tampering. He could not gauge, from this last letter, whether or not his parents were still alive. His shoulders and body stiffened, like a visceral shell holding in his anxieties, his fears for his parents.

He looked out to the kolkhoz of his next calling, but hesitated. He felt the letter and sensed its fragility, felt also the depth of the blackened words denied to his Yosep and Palasha. He pondered the situation, weighed up the risks. He mentally laid out his life before him.

His beautiful first wife and baby son had died at the start of the famine that felled his fellow Ukrainians. But he had quickly remarried, primarily to give a home and mother for his surviving three-year-old son, Vanya. He could even hope for a happy and lasting marriage with Evdokia, this young woman who was attractive, agreeable and stable, even if she wasn’t his first great love, Hanya. Yet he was prepared to risk it all for this secret, reckless, almost suicidal plan to see his parents, who were now eking out a wretched existence in Siberia, until who knew when.

He knew the risks. He was acutely aware of the politics in his region of Sumskaya Oblast, in this north-eastern part of Ukraine, so close to Russia’s borders. This was no longer Lenin’s Russia of the early 1920s. It was Stalin’s Russia. The first Five Year Plan was executed with ruthless effectiveness, soon to be declared a ‘total success’ by the Communist regime. Collectivisation was almost complete, certainly in the Ukraine. His parents had been labelled ‘kulaks’ or wealthy farmers and were imprisoned in 1930, their farm confiscated. Their family, like so many of their Ukrainian fellowmen, was herded off to kolkhozes in this so-called ‘agrarian revolution’.

His parents, elderly and in poor health, were spared execution. They were given the mandatory sentence of five years in a Siberian labour camp and were languishing in prison when he remarried. It seemed even now almost a surreal situation to him: happiness at finding another life partner, and relief at saving his little son from illness and likely death; and despair at being powerless to help his parents. “God, keep them safe,” he prayed daily, willing them to find strength to live.

Now, a year later, as he looked eastward to the distant horizon in the direction of the Siberian wastelands, he was making the decision to try to see his parents, to take some hidden food to them, to comfort them if he could. The risks were enormous. He would be missing from his work as a veterinary practitioner in the local kolkhozes. His travel papers would be forgeries of the proper documents allowing travel through and from his region. He held his breath as he considered the dangers. Travel in the Ukraine was hazardous enough at the best of times. But under Stalin, with Communist dogma and implementation of further restrictions, it was foolhardy. The famine was worsening by the week, and month. Life was becoming cheap and dispensable. Peter knew this and observed, with increasing anguish in his travels for work, the daily hardships endured in his own Oblast.

But he knew, only too well, that if life was precarious in his own region, it was nigh almost impossible in the Siberian wastelands, hastily created camps to isolate huge numbers of Ukrainians and other nationalities for political expedience. He wanted to reach his incarcerated parents before it was too late. “And Halka must be struggling… she is still so young!” It was a further pressing reason to get to them. His youngest sister, only fifteen at the time his Yosep and Palasha were sentenced, chose to go with them to the labour camp. Her reasons were noble: to care for her parents, regardless of the consequences. She could not bear to see them go and to never know their fate and condition in the camp. Practically, there was little opposition to this from the regime: one less mouth to consider, one less body to accommodate in the kolkhozes; and the relatives were also relieved not to be labelled as housing the daughter of sentenced persons.

It was already late autumn, 1931.

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He had anxiously observed the prematurely denuded trees in his own Sumskaya Oblast as he strove to meet the kolkhozes’ deadlines in his increased rounds of veterinary work. He had heard that winter had also come early to the Siberian camps. This last letter, trembling in his fingers, only confirmed those other sporadic ones, and again was too censored to make any sense of his parents’ condition. He sighed, his heart heavy. It had taken so long for this last letter to reach him that he feared his parents might already have met their doomed fate. If he was to try and see them, it had to be before winter was fully upon them, before travel in Russia and in Siberia was made impossible by the harshness of the climate, the massive snows, the freezing temperatures.

For Peter, though he didn’t know it at the time, it was the defining moment of his life.

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Timing was everything. If he had seen a complete map of the Soviet Union, if he had really known the distance he was planning to cover, it must have been only cursorily considered. Just as his parents must have experienced weeks of transportation to their Siberian wasteland prison, so Peter also expected a long journey. ‘Revolutionary’ changes had altered his beautiful Ukrainian culture and life to a point where it was now unrecognisable. But some things always stayed the same. Travel within the regions, and throughout the whole of the Soviet Union was always counted in days, weeks, months. This secret journey would be similar to any that a State official would make for his Party.

Luck would also have to play a part, in order for him to succeed in his plan. His years as veterinary practitioner in his district, and now in the kolkhozes he was forced to supervise, made him relatively valuable to the Communist regime. The regime had brutalised the farmers and peasants, taking all their possessions, and burnt farms to force the villagers into kolkhozes. The hapless farmers took revenge and killed their own livestock rather than lose it to the Stalinist regime.

Peter’s work, in saving what livestock he could, temporarily gave him a higher status in the political upheaval. “It must count for something,” he thought as he considered the possible routes he would need to take, “that already I am trusted on longer journeys without checks, at times.” He had to use this to full advantage in the limited time available. The irony, that he was placed in this situation in his work, whilst his parents suffered at the hands of these same officials, played on his mind. It deepened his resolve to help his parents, to save them if it was possible.

Luck of a different kind, in the form of his despairing close friend, gave Peter the chance to finalise his plan. “Count me in with you, Petro! We will need each other for this journey, my friend!” Mikhaelo pleaded with him, in the secrecy of their meeting. His parents also had been sentenced, but recently, to the same area of Siberia. Each knew the risks involved if their plan was discovered. Trust in each other was paramount, on pain of death.

Their plan was simple, audacious. A senior veterinary practitioner, with an assistant, travelling on official business across the Oblasts, seemed plausible. Only the Oblasts were covered in the documents. Their real destinations were omitted: Omsk and Novosibirsk, the new cities created by the regime and from which the Siberian wastelands and labour camps stretched northwards towards the Arctic Circle. Communist Party propaganda, zealously printed in the Party run newspaper Pravda , espoused the virtues of the gold mines, oil research and industrial expansion of the Siberian region. But others knew the truth. Peter’s, and Mikhailo’s, parents were evidence of this.

In final preparation, they meticulously wrapped salted pork in thick durable cloth, which they then sewed into the front lining of their long, heavy winter coats, still serviceable from their army days. The weight was staggering, yet light compared with the inner burdens they carried. This hidden food was for their parents. It was too dangerous to visibly carry food anywhere now. Not only was food scarce. The regime was following a campaign of starvation in the Ukraine and elsewhere. People were killed in acts of desperation for carrying even small parcels of food, and they knew this. What little money they had was for emergencies, should their forged food vouchers fail.

In the murky dawn light, Evdokia saw her husband to the door of the kolkhoz farmhouse, which they shared with four other families. Peter seemed his usual, sprightly confident self. He resisted holding her that moment longer as he departed, her soft blonde hair merging with hoary mist as she turned to close the door. She had no inkling of what lay ahead for them both—he had spared her this, as the secrecy protected not only her and little Vanya, but also the other families in the farmhouse. The regime was superb at reprisals. It was best that she knew only that he had extended travel for official business. “Dear God, be near to them,” he pleaded as he turned to grasp his horse’s reins.

If there was a moment of truth to be faced at their parting that chilly morning, he pushed it even further from his mind. His new wife and little son needed him. Yet he needed to make this mad, possibly last, gesture to his parents, who may already have perished in Stalin’s labour camp.

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Pretence and opportunity were the daily dice Peter tossed and rolled as he played Russian roulette with their lives, picking their way north-eastward through the Oblasts. It was a haphazard and indirect route, yet believable. It reflected the idiosyncrasies of the regime’s own bureaucrats following inexplicable instructions in the blaze of the first Five Year Plan. And his years of national service and subsequent travels beyond his own Sumskaya Oblast prepared him to act ‘nationally’ on this journey. He was the confident senior veterinary practitioner, with an assistant, on an important mission around the countryside. His veterinary’s satchel, with its distinctive insignia on the front, became the immediate foil to anticipated questions from police and officials. The battered bag metamorphosed into a symbol of honour in the urgent need to save livestock at this crucial stage of collectivisation. Using clichés and correct terminology, he was a convincing, loyal bureaucrat. “God help us, if they see the discrepancies,” he warned himself. He flicked again through the forged documents and checked the locked clasp.

He knew he had to be courageous, for both of them. Watchful of Mikhaelo’s trembling state as they approached each searchpoint, he showed his daring and wore the mantle of senior bureaucrat ever more confidently, having encouraged Mikhaelo to act obsequiously as his junior. As each part of their jigsaw journey took them closer to their crossroads destination, Peter’s shoulders tensed taut like steel. He felt with each passing day, and each checkpoint, as if he were in some kind of circus, walking the tightrope, jumping the hoops to the crack of an invisible master’s whip. Reality became almost blurred in the daily charade: the caged creature and its master pitted against each other, in a ruthless contest of wills. It was a wicked reality, and one that could end their lives.

At last, in wan light, Ekaterinburg came into sight. “Ah! We may yet have a chance!” he whispered in relief and gently nudged Mikhaelo. The first part of their journey in their pilgrimage to the labour camp was complete. From this Ural Mountains crossroad, the great Trans-Siberian Railway turned its back on European Russia and looked eastwards to the Siberian and Asian Oblasts. Soft snow was falling; winter was not far from this distant doorstep of the Arctic Circle. Peter and Mikhaelo instinctively drew closer to each other for solace and support. Food was already scarce, and they hadn’t yet begun the Siberian part of their journey. They counted their kopeks carefully for their meagre meal. They huddled in the carriage, and soaked crusts of stale black rye bread in a soup caricatured as Russian borshch. They ate silently, thoughtfully. They were still eating. They dared not dwell on whether their parents were.

Each kilometre that the ancient carriage of the Trans-Siberian Railway gained on the snow-covered tracks to the Siberian outposts gave Peter hope that they might yet reach their destination, and achieve their goal. His calculation that fewer police and officials checked these trains heading in the opposite direction to civilisation was proved right. Omsk was in darkness as the train waited, seemingly endlessly, for orders to continue, but he guessed, rightly, the reason for the delay. “So this is what it is like to be the ‘soldier labourers’ for Stalin’s new Bolshevism!” his mind registered. The grey shapeless forms of prisoners being herded slowly to their graveyard destination outside Omsk were just visible. It was a chilling sight.

“O God!” he despaired, his mind racing to thoughts of his own Yosep and Palasha. This was what they and his young sister Halka had experienced at the end of their own nightmare journey. Only, their icy prison was even more

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remote and desolate. Most Ukrainian ‘kulaks’ were sent to the farthest labour camps that spread out from Novosibirsk. Stalin’s warped mind saw to it that the disease of independence was cut off at this farthest outpost, to wither in the frozen veins of this vital artery of the Soviet state. There was little need to heavily guard the hapless prisoners there. Icy weather and life-threatening conditions were the Oblast’s natural guards.

Day merged into night, and into day again, as the great train rocked seemingly protectively on its snow-laden tracks. The journey took on a dreamlike quality. Streaks of daylight merged with the horizon as the bleak tundra plains transformed into an eerie world that stretched beyond human comprehension. The countryside was reshaped by the falling snow. Only a dull lamplight, or a smoking chimney, revealed some life in the snow-white huddled villages in the mystical stretch of Oblasts. On one day, at a break in the snow, a child played outside a hut, oblivious of the muted sounds of this distant train. Peter remembered the loved Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s words: “Children my children, children my flowers…” He turned away from this innocent scene. It was too painful. The train moved on towards its destination. The snow began falling again.

Somehow, incredulously, Novosibirsk was there before them. No police guarding the chilly, dishevelled shed posing as a railway station. Not even officials. Only a black muddy track wending its way through waist-high fresh snow gave hint or direction of any life past the life-saving artery of the railway line. Peter tightened his grip on his satchel and touched Mikhaelo’s sleeve reassuringly. They made their way carefully, their long army coats dragging in the muddy snow as they trod. It was still daylight, but the sombre sky put an eerie silver-grey hue on the world. The snow-covered forest hovered about them menacingly. Little wonder the inmates needed few guards to bring them back to camp each day at dusk. Anyone left behind once the gates were locked faced certain death. The natural elements of these distant prisons were as harsh as the masters were ruthless.

Trudging silently, they reached the indistinct gates at the end of the track. Before them, snow-burdened huts appeared like discarded snowdrift mounds. They stood momentarily, hoar-like breath meeting in waning light. Peter grasped his friend’s shoulder in encouragement and pointed to a barely visible hut number. “Go on, Mikhaelo; your elders are located close by.” He watched thoughtfully as Mikhaelo headed towards a marked hut, then sighed in relief as he heard him being welcomed. “Mikhaelo’s parents are much younger… and only recently sentenced,” he reminded himself as he continued his search in the near-dark.

He faced the door of the shabby hut that housed his Yosep and Palasha these past two winters. He dared not think that a stranger might open the door, evidence that his family no longer had use of the hovel. Excited at the prospect of seeing them, yet fearing that he was too late, he paused one more moment. He drew a deep breath, readied his familiar positive smile, and knocked. Muffled sounds from within meant there was life inside. Instantly relieved, he involuntarily sighed, let his guard down.

Whatever he had told himself, all through this treacherous journey, it could not prepare him for what was to come.

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A grotesque figure, rags loosely hanging from the body like a spent banshee in the Siberian mists, hunched before him in the half-light as the door partly opened. Peter’s skin pricked with tension, pain in the pit of his stomach. This figure was unrecognisable. It couldn’t be his mother. He put his arm out to the door to steady himself. The silent rag figure crept back, uncertain of the visitor. “O God,” he cried inwardly, despairing, “I’m too late!” But he had to know. Somehow, he found his voice. “Good people, please tell me if Yosep and Palasha live here,” he softly enquired.

The grotesque shape opened the door slightly further. A scarfed head leant forward, eyes peering into the twilight. A sickening moment passed. Then, “Peta… Peta… is that you?” The shape seemed to collapse as she repeated, “Oi Boje mye, oi Boje mye.” He fell to his knees, now at her height. He couldn’t yet comprehend his mother’s condition. He only knew he had arrived just in time. The regime’s brutality and Siberia’s winters would be reaping several more souls before long.

His father, lying death-like in a crude straw bed in one corner of the hovel, raised his eyes in recognition. Whispers of light from one small candle picked up a spark in the proud elderly eyes. He tried to talk, but the pneumonic condition was too painful. Too ill, unable to work, he had lost his rations of food. The guards profited by this. They bartered their bounty of suffering for black market tobacco and vodka, their stomachs filled from the misery of others. His mother had tried to do a man’s job, to keep them alive. It was an impossible task. Her back told the story. Only her previous agility and inner strength saved her from leaving her frail husband to find peace at last with her Maker.

Halka, his little sister, now so tall, so skeletal, clung to his army coat as if afraid he would vaporise in the dim light. Mother, son, daughter huddled protectively at Yosep’s corpse-like frame and prayed silently, tears blending with tears; it was as if an invisible village priest and his spirit passed his blessing over them. They each knew their fate. They would have little time together.

A broth made up of rancid pickled cabbage and forest vegetation that had long-since dried and become mouldy, lifted their spirits. Peter cut wafer thin slithers of the salted pork, just enough to give them sustenance for the night. They relished each tiny morsel. “Charstvo Nabesno.” In whispered gratitude they gave thanks as they had done each time after Easter fasting and the midnight vigil of the death of Christ. Christmas was not far off in this scattered, forgotten part of Stalin’s empire. Perhaps Saint Nikolas may yet indulge them, make his presence there, sustain them longer.

With military precision, Peter cut and re-wrapped the salted pork into tiny portions. He knew if his parents had any chance to survive this winter they would have to discipline themselves and their starvation even further. They had already survived whilst many others had lost their daily struggle in this godless wilderness. Their resourcefulness and hope had kept them alive. Now, they hid the tiny parcels in secret places in the hut, in hollowed-out half logs of the walls and crude table legs. The guards were more interested in pilfering items they could barter easily, for their black market sport. There was little left in this hovel to take, and the death mask of disease kept them at bay these past weeks.

Despite himself, Peter slept soundly on the makeshift straw bed at his father’s side. The haunting sounds of forest wolves became enmeshed in a dream that passed into his subconscious. The dream that awoke with him was gaiety and goodwill in their family village of Kylapchin as Saint Nikolas celebrated Christ’s birth. Sombre dawn light brought a different reality. It had snowed heavily through the night, and the hut was now immersed in new snow up to the window.

Very soon, life would stand still in this region. They had already heard that the last transportation of prisoners was arriving in a day or two. Then the snowstorms, the icy conditions and the incomprehensible temperatures would stop the Trans-Siberian Railway going either east or west. “O God… there is so little time with them,” he realised, as he watched his ailing parents. He knew he and Mikhaelo had to return on that last delivery train before the elements would cut them off. They stood no chance if discovered in the labour camp. Their mission would fail. His parents, and Mikhailo’s, would be executed for their complicity.

It was a strange no-man’s land of time, of punishment. Halka, the only one able to move freely in and out of the camp on pretext of caring for her ill parents, conveyed vital messages. She also readied herself. Her parents willed her to leave them to their fate. She wanted to live. There was little more she could do for her pitiful parents. They did not want to watch their youngest child suffer during their last struggles with life. She became a vital conduit between the two friends as she listened for accurate information of the coming of the train.

* * *

“Petro!” Halka’s hushed whisper suppressed urgency after she rushed back early one day, pulling him to one side. “It’s already here! The train! The new prisoners are being taken this very minute to the holding yard!” Peter felt his heart lurch in sharp pain as if it had stopped. He knew what this meant. He could not look immediately at his grieving parents. He turned away, ostensibly to prepare himself. They knew they would not see another winter, would not see their Ukraine, or their family. He knew his eyes would not meet their loving ones again.

Yosep and Palasha blessed their son and daughter in a ritual of prayer long remembered from their days of religious freedom in their beloved Ukraine. Peter could not speak. His throat so tight, he felt he would choke with the pain. But he knew he had to turn his back; hope that what little pittance he had brought them might sustain them a little longer. He could not bring himself to look one last time at that door, at the hunched diminut

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ive figure that had given him life and hope and joy for so many years.

Gloomy daylight still remained as they made their way to the train station, weaving in and out of the muddy snow path wherever they could to avoid detection. To no avail. A handful of orphans, excited at the prospect of leaving this death hole, tagged behind them. Peter pleaded with them not to follow, but it was too late. He had warned Halka to keep going, no matter what happened. She had her forged papers with her, and she must be on that train.

With the tension mounting, he reacted instinctively to an unlikely shadow. “Halka! Break now! Hide! Break from us!” he urged her. “From now on we are strangers, if you’re questioned. Hurry!” He grabbed her arm, quickly pushed her towards a snow-mound. Just in time, she and the other children scattered, out of view.

From nowhere, it seemed, burly guards with their ancient but deadly rifles pointed, gave the men orders to stop and marched them to a back shed of the station, hidden from public view. There, stripped of boots, coats and warm clothing, they were strapped to well-worn chairs. These guards knew what they were doing; they were practised at this. Two Stalinist secret police, almost casual in their confident manner, strolled in, ready for their interrogation. They, also, were seasoned at this. No guns, no visible signs of tormentors. Peter’s mind raced. He and Mikhaelo had talked about such an eventuality. But their journey thus far, so long and tortuous, had been relatively uneventful. It didn’t seem possible that they would lose their lives at this juncture.

His thoughts flashed, at counterpoint with his logic as he tried to anticipate the interrogation. “Mikhaelo won’t withstand this… I must divert their attention,” he bargained with his mind. He was the instigator, the leader, the originator of their plan. He would try to save his friend, whatever the consequences. But his pounding heart, his logic, told him otherwise. It looked to him, in his military calculation, and with a veterinarian’s smell of looming death, that that would be nigh impossible. They were both dead men.

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A shot of fire seared through him as the ancient syringe penetrated deep into his left arm. Peter knew it had to be sodium pentothal, the truth drug. Stalin’s NKVD had been culled, streamlined, given extraordinary powers. The senior secret police bureaucrat leaned patiently against a grubby table. The serum took little time to do its work. No point in teasing out superfluous material. Wait for the truth to be revealed. His patience will pay off.

Peter knew he had only seconds to warn Mikhaelo, to prepare him for the inevitable. He had to take the brunt of the interrogation, divert the secret agents’ attention from his friend. Blank terror registered in Mikhaelo’s eyes. Younger than Peter, he was less experienced, less worldly than his trusted friend. Peter’s army and veterinary experience had exposed him to lethal drugs, and their consequent effect on brain and body. This truth drug could kill its victims. He hoped, irrationally, that these were experienced agents. They might give more measured doses of the drug, not kill their victims outright.

“Divitsa xloptsi,” he called out, his voice confident, official, his colloquialism ‘fellows’ authenticating his Ukrainian origins. “Be reasonable. You can see from the documents we’re on official business. No need to examine my assistant here. I can confirm anything you want to know about my mission.” He felt the serum taking hold, constantly shooting pain like an electric charge. The NKVD men watched, and waited. “We had some bad vodka to keep warm, and missed our last stop at Omsk. We need to get back to headquarters in Romny, in our Sumskaya Oblast. We’re already behind schedule. These blasted trains. We never know when they’re arriving.” Peter prayed he had thrown enough doubt to slow down, or even soften the interrogation.

The senior NKVD agent rifled through Peter’s briefcase again and scrutinised the documents, then frowned. There were so many changes in the Oblasts these days. It was difficult to discriminate genuine from forgery. There was little proof of espionage with these men. And they were leaving to return to Soviet Russia. Still the doubt persisted. Eyes half-closed, the senior agent gave a moment’s reflection: eyed his captives coldly, impassively. His nostrils widened, sniggered exasperation. The cat had its mouse. The game might as well begin. He nodded to his junior. Mikhaelo screamed, shock and fear overtaking him as the syringe came at him.

It was too late for Peter to plead further. The truth drug was doing its deadly work. He was hallucinating, drowning in a huge whirlpool, monsters enveloping him, talking at him through an ocean of foghorns. His brain felt as if it had exploded. His eyelids fluttered, trying to clear his vision and brain. To no effect. He sensed his mouth moving, but couldn’t comprehend what he said. He, too, spoke through incomprehensible foghorns. The burning sensation in his arm had surged through his body, penetrated the circuitry of his brain. It was in over-drive, over-kill.

One current of his brain told him he was related to Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s right-hand axeman in the Ukraine. “You do know, fellows,” he cockily exploded, “that Khrushchev is my kym, my godfather, don’t you? How else do you think I’d be entrusted on our Bolshevik Party business so far from Romny?” His mind raced to the absurd. “And Kaganovich! It was he who suggested this journey anyway!” His voice almost broke in explosive conviction.

He had no cognition of their response. There was more fumbling through documents. The senior NKVD bureaucrat picked up the telephone receiver, paused without dialing, then slowly returned it to its cradle. He signalled to his junior. They spoke in muted tones, observing their prisoners. The interrogation had not gone well. Their prisoners had no recollection of any counter-revolutionary activity. Except for their stupidity in drinking bad vodka, common these days, there was no hardcore evidence they were a danger to the Party, or to the NKVD. Their mission was unusual. But the seasoned NKVD apparatchiks knew the Oblast headquarters decreed ridiculous undertakings these days, just to outdo each other to demonstrate their loyalty at the Central Party meetings. Stalin himself had been Commissar of Nationalities and travelled throughout Russia, wreaking havoc. Though highly unlikely, it was just possible, in these crazy times, Khrushchev had sent trusted ‘connections’ to check on ‘orders’ in these Oblasts. These idiots had gained nothing by their trip: no black market money, gold, or precious stones, the currency of illicit travel. It was frustrating. Innocent or guilty? Either way, their limited serum was wasted on these two drunken idiots.

Peter sensed, rather than understood, that he and Mikhaelo were being dumped outside the station, in the dark. The train’s engine was heaving in readiness, steam gushing in the icy air, billowing around them, inadvertently protecting and warming them and hiding them from guards on the platform. He pulled at Mikhaelo’s arm, held on to him as they crawled towards an open goods carriage and, hauling themselves in, they lay shivering violently from the cold and serum. Next moment, someone outside heaved the heavy door shut. They were prisoners, but at least they were on the train. The carriage jerked. The train was moving, returning to civilisation.

In the safety of darkness, the life-long friends slept, arm over arm, the deadly serum doing its work in the continuing nightmare. Demons tormented them as they slept in a drugged state, amid piles of sooty used sacks and supplies. Too afraid to raise their heads at Omsk, they lay semi-comatose until they saw civilisation. They gauged it was Ekaterinburg. Though the carriage was partly warmed by putrid steam from the massive locomotive, they were frozen and near starvation. The sodium pentothal had weakened them. They could not survive without food or water. The rancid scraps of rotting cabbage and beetroot leaves amongst the sacks were negligible, would not sustain them.

Ironically, their weakened condition aided their survival. Their depraved appearance, rags on body and feet, leaning heavily on makeshift rods, elicited kindness from unlikely passers-by on the station platform. This was still the Siberia of mystique and superstition, from whence Rasputin had emerged to cure the young Tzarovich, to break the Romanov curse. Religion may have been outlawed by the Bolsheviks, but the people’s hearts and minds had not much changed. “Hospode Pomelyue, Hospode Pomelyue,” Peter, still hallucinating, whispered in priestly liturgical blessing as each passer-by gave a morsel of food or a kopek. These tiny portions, yet so generous in these hard times, might just see them back to their own Sumskaya Oblast.

Saint Nikolas must have passed over them, pointing the direct route to the safety of the Ukraine, and Romny. Just in time. Hallucination and deep sleep had given way to shaking and starvation. Sub-zero temperatures froze them. Once he was assured his friend had survived, Peter let down his own defences. He was gripped by fever, and began to slip in and out of consciousness. He was vaguely aware of Mikhaelo crying, of people calling out, of being transported in some form of vehicle. Life slipped into a different phase yet again. No longer any monsters, or demons. Just quiet, muted sounds. And the sound of medical instrumen

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ts. Sometimes pale-garbed people murmured, moved in a blur around him. He knew not how long he lay there. At times, he became aware of being raised, something gently sweet oozing between his cracked lips: natural antibiotic, honey, precious and costly. Still time passed. Several times heavenly white figures beckoned him to the light: he moved closer towards them, somehow came back. Months passed. Time passed. Time stood still. He was no longer certain where he was. Who he was.

* * *

Evdokia sat at his bedside, weeping quietly. She did not know if her husband would live or die. The doctors and nurses could do no more. Pneumonia and pleurisy had set in. The fever raged, subsided, raged again. Only time would tell. Peter had forgotten her face, her voice, her touch. Days went by before there was any recognition. Fleeting at first, his weak eyes met her tear-stained blue ones. He was aware of, rather than understood, her gentle crying as she silently willed her husband to live.

He would eventually recover from this ordeal. Except for the solid egg-shaped lump high on his left arm, as living proof of his hell in the inquisition chair, and the deep scar on his right lung, both permanent throughout his life, no other physical damage was evident in this man, who had seen too much for the human spirit to bear. The invisible scars of his journey, his experience—of witnessing his parents’ suffering, his helplessness in the nightmare of the labour camp, their starvation and imminent death—left scars too deep to heal. The scars of sorrow were mortal, put a permanent hole in his heart and spirit, as if Stalin’s bullet had gone through it, done its work.

Upset, weeping, Evdokia did not know all this; did not understand it. She was also to carry the pain in the heart, from its bleeding. Her news would have to wait. She prayed he would find the strength to live, to hear it. It needed a miracle. Stalin’s Russia had little of those.

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February 1932

Evdokia leaned her aching limbs against the solitary window of the kolkhoz farmhouse, knuckles white as she clung to its withered frame. Paralysed with anxiety, she waited. Her eyes searched the perimeter of the vacuous fields, in vain. Nothing stirred. The Ukrainian mid-winter ghost had passed over them, had dragged a blanched canvas over the depleted countryside. She longed for the familiar outline of her husband’s horse ploughing the snow, carrying its master. Tears escaped her. She did not know how many days she had left, her body now beyond trembling from the gnawing hunger it had endured each agonising day. “Boje,” she prayed silently, “Boje, daue miniue shche sely.” Her only hope, now, was that Peter would return to them in time.

Though daylight still beckoned, a pall hung over the kolkhoz farmhouse. Whatever victuals scraps remained were furtively hidden from other hungry eyes as each family struggled to live. Acrid vapours from a simmering watery broth permeated the hushed dwelling, testimony of the kolkhoz workers’ desperate plight. Already, the weak and sick had been taken from them, buried in haste by others still strong enough to carry the bodies.

She winced as her forehead pressed against the blank window, the icy sting of the pane a reminder of the chilling effects of collectivisation. Stalin had indeed exceeded his own dizzy heights, raping the Ukrainian black-soil regions of everything edible. His contradictory orders had come so abruptly, no kolkhoz worker could be prepared. Cruelly, his henchmen and soviet cadres had again ravaged the countryside with their ‘excesses’, on the spurious pretext of finding illicit samohon on St. Nikolas’s feast day. Backed by armed soldiers, they had removed every last grain and morsel of food, over-filling the silos of industrialised areas to rotting point. It was a bitter irony that at the very time of celebrating Christ’s birth, these regions experienced only suffering and death, so carelessly and haphazardly meted out to those least able to withstand it.

Vanya pulled at his stepmother’s limp body. “Mama, Mama,” he whispered through the weary silence. “Mama… can I have their soup? I’m hungry, Mama…” Evdokia forced back her tears and stooped slowly. Weakened eyes met the innocent, hungry child’s eyes. “Not yet, Vanya, not yet. We will make our own. There is still time before the snow comes.”

She braced herself at the open door, the numbing cold reminding her of the short but perilous journey. In her weakened state, she could not be certain she would find enough strength. She picked her way slowly, her worn boots crunching the crisp snow as they imprinted on indistinct outlines of footprints that had wended towards the ancient cemetery with the last victim. She turned from the snowy pathway to the white-laden thicket; fell on her knees and crawled beneath its heavy mantle. Her hands searched among the moist debris. She could not return to the farmhouse with bucket empty. She had to do this for Vanya, fill his aching little body with whatever edible growth she could find; will herself to live, for Vanya, for Peter, for their unborn child.

Her frozen fingers searched the sodden undergrowth for grasses, leaves, seeds from long-harvested sunflowers. With her remaining strength she pulled at the rotting tufts, cold reasoning telling her she would not return. Pain seared through her body. Faint with exhaustion, she held a handful of new snow to her mouth to stifle her sob, her warm tears cutting icily short on her freezing face. In her weakened state, she could not trust herself with the bucket. She watched anxiously as little Vanya carried it before her and dragged herself back, her eyes locked to the safety of the farmhouse door.

Slowly, like a sleepwalker in the dimness of the dwelling, she prepared their broth. Her fingers searched for a small cloth, hidden in the perena of their straw-stripped bed and carefully unwrapped the last grains of salt that would disguise the putrescent contents of the soup. She tasted the sour concoction and shuddered, but forced herself to consume it. The steamy watery mixture scalded their lips, but she smiled as little Vanya filled his hungry body. Their soup would last two days. She could not think beyond that. “Boje, miue Boje, prevezitue miue Peta do domy,” she prayed silently, hope almost gone that she would see Peter again.

With her last strength, she carried the broth to her corner; filled Vanya’s jug again, and placed it at their bedside. The cold timber wall numbed her back. She drew Vanya close to her, stroked his hair gently, and whispered for him to sleep. “Father, give me one more day; don’t take my soul yet,” she prayed to her Maker. Her last memory, of Peter’s straight back as he left with the soviet officials all those weeks ago, anguished her; the fear, that he would not return, became submerged as sleep anaesthetised her wasted body.

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Peter reeled back in horror as he stepped into the farmhouse. The smell of death hung in the acrid air. Panic seized him. His eyes searched the dim corner for Evdokia and Vanya. “O God, don’t bring me this!” he begged, his mind flashing to earlier memories, to the tragedies of Hanya and Mischa. He stumbled forward, stopping to gently touch the elder’s shoulder as he wept at the babushka’s body. Unshaven for days, he had travelled at first light from the last village of his conscripted veterinary duties. He had seen hunger and deprivation in other kolkhozes as he and the soviet officials salvaged what was left of the livestock in the area. But he had not expected death to so completely ravage his kolkhoz farmhouse: sufficient grain and winter food had been allocated by the bureaucrats overseeing their kolkhoz. His own daily ration of black rye bread and other scraps was barely adequate, had left him gaunt but still healthy, the vodka in his small flask his reward as he guided his horse homeward in the snow.

Trembling, he knelt at their bedside, steeled himself as he lifted the heavy perena. Little Vanya blinked, momentarily afraid of the wild-eyed, unshaven stranger. “Vanya, Vanya… yak te? Te harasho?” Peter whispered. His little son smiled, reached out for his father. Peter carefully lifted him from the bed, then felt about for Evdokia. He felt sick with tension, fearing the worst. She lay motionless, in foetal position, in a coma-like state, her stomach swollen beyond endurance. Her body had reached a last stage, its final reaction to its unbearable condition before death released it. She was barely breathing; but she was still alive. Hastily he warmed water, added a few drops of vodka. His strong arms holding her, he fed tiny spoonfuls of the warming liquid to revive her.

Evdokia sensed her husband’s presence, but was unable to acknowledge it. She was hallucinating: the unshaven face of a grim reaper was tempting her towards him. Painstakingly, Peter persevered until the mixture warmed her. At last, her weakened eyes met his as he desperately watched her every movement. “Peta, Peta…” she whispered inaudibly. He felt choked with emotion, but held himself fast. He could not break down now. His wife’s condition required urgent action. She was too close to death.

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Searching deep in his coat pocket, he found a crust of rye bread. He soaked it and gently implored her to eat.

He stood up, his head spinning with tension and exhaustion. He had not eaten that morning; but he was still strong and fit. His ordeal had been one of weeks of slavish work and persistence in his duties in winter’s harsh conditions. He could not afford to delay, even for a moment. Pleading with officials would be futile. With Bukharin’s removal, Lenin’s liberal ideals were now truly extinguished. Stalin’s posse of yes-men, led by Voroshilov and Khrushchev, had put paid to humane considerations. Few would believe that their soviet counterparts were over-zealous and excessive in their cruel and perverse execution of Stalin’s latest orders. Even fewer would care to arrest the starvation and misery, and to amend their orders, upon risk of being labelled ‘kulak supporters’ by those ever watchful to demonstrate their loyalty to Stalin’s demands in his collectivisation madness.

Peter knew what he must do. He kissed Evdokia’s cold forehead, and whispered gently, “Hold on, Dyna, hold on… I will find bread. Don’t be afraid, you will live, my dearest wife.” Carefully, he removed her simple wedding band, gold cross and tiny ear-rings, wrapped them in a cloth and hid them deep in his coat. He comforted Vanya and emptied the last of the sour broth into his little son’s jug. He steeled himself, uncertain that his horse could withstand the journey to the illicit gold trader, and return him to Evdokia in time.

* * *

In the semi-dark of late afternoon, he quickly worked the precious milled flour procured from the trader and added a little fresh hay and drops of oil. He watched intently as the tiny kykyrhyske baked in the ancient earthen oven. He counted each one; life-saving rations for his little family. In the darkness of night, he hid the box high in the rafters. He had to ensure the contents would not be stolen; had to avoid Evdokia’s searching eyes as he rationed each kykyrhyska to her and Vanya in order to keep them alive.

Evdokia was to eventually recover from her ordeal: her ravaged body pushed closer to the abyss of death than she could acknowledge, in the horror ghoulish winter of 1931–1932. No external scars were evident, as she slowly regained her strength to return to the kolkhoz fields in the spring. Uncomplainingly, she accepted the penalty of quarter-kopeks docked by the kolkhoz overseer for gnawing raw beet hidden in her pocket. And she could look admiringly, in wonder, at her resourceful and energetic husband, who had returned to her and had found a way to save her and little Vanya.

But internally, the wounds remained. The internal scars never left her. Death had stared her too closely in the face, had permeated her body, had extracted almost her last breath. She could not—would not—ever forget this, ever inwardly overcome this. From that winter, she was a changed woman, her spirit scarred beyond repair. She replaced it with the mantle of caution, of practical considerations, and wore this mantle, permanently, to the very end.

She would never again allow herself to explore and experience the joy of an unfettered creative spirit. For such a decision, the price was high. Too high. It was as if, in some ghoulish way, Stalin’s poisonous chalice had reached her after all. She never again raised herself to the idealism she had earlier shared with her husband, the altruism and love of life that still fuelled him every joyous day. Though neither of them could have known it, they had already embarked on different spiritual paths in life, crisscrossing at times, but never truly sharing, experiencing, the same ultimate, beautiful moments. For that, she had Stalin to thank.

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June 1937

Another posse of untried soldiers pushed past the buggy. Peter watched thoughtfully, quelling feelings of disquiet. He had seen few battalions in his Popivshchena area before he prepared for this journey, and his Talalaivka office had not previously attracted heavy army presence. He sensed something was afoot although he had no certainty of its import. The rumours whispered in quarters out of reach of officialdom, and Stalin’s NKVD spies, spelt an end to hopes of calm after the last of the tyrant’s purges. Kirov’s murder in December 1934 had already caused a veritable bloodbath, with little need to prolong the mass executions and sentences to Siberian gulags. These marching battalions of Komsomol soldiers were visible proof that yet another of Stalin’s purges was about to erupt. Glancing quickly at his wife and children, Peter sighed and shook his head. He had hoped Evdokia’s long-awaited visit to her elders’ kolkhoz on the extreme side of Talalaivka would bring great joy, but he now feared for their safety.

At last, he caught sight of the bent silhouette in the afternoon shadows of the kolkhoz farmhouse. “Klavdina!” he called out confidently and waved as he reined his horse from the ragged country lane to the farmhouse track. He hid his apprehension. Though in different kolkhozes, Evdokia and her elders had enough concerns, surviving each day as they could, with the strictures of increased quotas and continued food shortages and privation. Threats of the political kind would only burden them further and could even cause a physical or mental collapse. The countryside kolkozes were already short of workers, who, though overworked, continued to be threatened by accusations of ambitious and desperate supervisors and administrators interested only in securing their own positions in the purges’ melee. There was little left to demolish in the Ukraine; yet still, manipulations were afoot in his own Sumskaya Oblast.

Manya ran excitedly to the withered figure, dropping stalks of wildflowers in her rush. “Watch where you are running, Manya… don’t fall,” he cautioned gently, as she fell again on the uneven track, scattering the flowers. He shook his head and laughed. Two long summers had passed since their last visit. Their joy at this sojourn warmed him, enabling him to temporarily push aside the political strife and his fears for their future. He lifted little Mykola and then Evdokia to the gravelled courtyard, holding her a few moments longer as they eyed each other gently, knowingly. Klavdina had not yet seen Mykola before this visit, and Evdokia would give her Klavdina news of their child expected before year’s end.

“Petro!” Yakim waved him to the woodshed. Peter sprinted to the shack and grasped Yakim’s proud shoulders, felt the warmth from his ailing frame. “So, they let you all come, this time?” he queried. “It has gladdened our hearts, Petro… Klavdina has fretted often, that she may not lay eyes on Evdokia and the little ones again…” Peter pulled out the travel documents and smiled wryly as Yakim perused them with raised eyebrows.

“It takes two of Stalin’s latest officials to let us go, Yakim… and only one over-burdened man on the land to do the work of five. A clever improvement of our times. Stalin’s new laws—and the new constitution—give guarantees to some… and take everything away from all others.” They smiled at their jesting, glad for the privacy of the woodshed. Both knew that such words, if overheard by any one of Stalin’s innumerable officials or spies, would be enough to sentence them to life in a labour camp, from whence few returned.

Their evening feast was simple but heartwarming, shared with the few remaining staroste of the kolkhoz farmhouse. The few delicacies were savoured in bittersweet awakening of tastes long repressed, of happy feast days before Stalin’s ascendancy to power. Peter opened the small bag, hidden beneath his buggy floor during their journey. He spread out the ripened sunflower seeds that had been carelessly scattered among the grasses by newly-arrived kolkhoz workers from the towns, and offered the hardened rye bread for dipping with their borshch. The staroste beamed appreciation, their food allocation having again been cut too severely since the heightening purges of recent years.

“Petro…” Vasily, one of the staroste, turned to him at meal’s end. “Yakim tells me you are to go in the morning to your Talalaivka office for ‘urgent duties’? You may surely see my son, Viktor. He was captain of his battalion, before all this…” he gestured, referring to Stalin’s rule. “But something does not ring true, Petro… he was made lieutenant, and then raised higher still, in Kiev…” He leaned closer. “Petro, I know you… I can trust you, I knew your Yosep and Palasha,” he paused and, bowing his head, he crossed himself. “Charstvo Nebesno,” he murmured, and clasped Peter’s hand once more. “My Viktor has been sent to Talalaivka… no explanation… no questions allowed. I fear for him, for his safety. It would ease my heart, my kym son, if you would look for him… find out what you can.”

Tears etched the old weathered face. Peter’s heart went out to him. The starosta had recently lost his wife, and his Viktor was the only surviving child. Peter knew he could not take unnecessary risks in this political climate of yet another upheaval, but his duties at Talalaivka ensured that he mingled with bureaucratic officials and the passing army personnel. It was just possible that Viktor may be in the vicinity: the shed that served as a holding stables was but a short walking distance from the office. He nodded, placating Vasily as he placed his hand over the old man’s. There was no need to refuse this burdened starosta now. Circumstances would reveal themselves once he returned

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to Talalaivka.

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Peter sensed, even smelt, the commotion in the Talalaivka office grounds before his horse’s hooves clipped the cobbled gateway. The town was known mostly for its important railway junction, famous for the siphoning-off of harvested food supplies in their area. But even so, already there was a long line of soldiers on horses straggling from the junction-line towards the office building. His horse neighed, nostrils flaring as it flicked its mane in warning. Peter stroked its strong long neck, quietly dismounted and firmly held the reins as he walked towards the familiar courtyard. The yard was overcrowded with new recruits, cautiously practising the morning drill, their officer’s voice barking orders of control.

“Over here, Petro!” an official waved him to an inner courtyard. Peter drew a deep breath and glanced surreptitiously at the disorganised battalion. He guessed, correctly, that all those horse-mounted soldiers streaming into the grounds were also to be drilled for duty, although they were ignorant of where they would be sent. And their horses had to be checked, made ready, for the unexplained army manoeuvre.

“So these will be my ‘unspecified urgent duties’,” he realised. There could only be one explanation for this. Stalin and his henchmen were planning a flash strike on someone, somewhere. Such numbers here, at this junction, meant the army contingents were well-placed to be sent to any other part of this Oblast. It was even likely they could be sent to Kiev, where wrangling over the bureaucrats’ and NKVD’s overlapping authorities had been whispered in dark corners. Peter braced himself. He determined to work speedily, complete his work and remove himself from the Talalaivka cauldron as quickly as possible. His travel documents, hidden deep in his coat pocket, specified the date of his young family’s return to Popivshchena kolkhoz and, since the draconian work conditions were now enforced, his officials here were unlikely to challenge. He moved quickly, hiding his instinctive concerns, his face presenting the veneer of officialdom, intent not to become involved in the conflicting factions and rivalries that were brewing.

Late in the night, a quarter-moon smiled pensively, reminding him he could carry on no longer, wanly nodding its approval at his compassion for the burdened beasts. He secured the bolt of the inner door of the stables shed and moved to heave the large heavy frame of the outer door. In the black night, a hand touched his shoulder. He jerked, about to turn, to defend himself. “Petro,” a low voice whispered to him, “don’t call out… I am a friend.” He slowly turned, to face the stranger. In the darkness, he could not recognise the bearded man, but forced himself to stay calm. “Petro, I am Viktor Vasilevich. We can talk here… there is no-one left, now. I have watched you all night but so many others were coming and going…” They slumped to the earthy floor inside, resting against the closed outer door. Even if someone had espied them, the darkness and lateness of night gave some protection.

“Your father, Vasily, has asked me to give you his greetings… also his concerns, Viktor.” Peter clasped his arm in the dark, in reassurance. “But he has fears for you… he says ‘things are not as they should be,’ in your situation.”

“He has guessed well, my friend…” He hesitated, as if gauging Peter’s trust through the dark, then finally spoke. “I am a marked man, Petro… on two counts. I shook Marshal Tukhachevsky’s hand at the Military College, earlier this year.” He half-laughed at the absurdity of such a crime against the State. “And then… how unlucky can one be?… the stupid officials sent an encrypted army notification to my senior—who’s been removed without notice—and handed it to me, next in line!” He leant to whisper in Peter’s ear, distrustful of the dark night’s refuge, his soft breath in contrast to his steeliness of nerve at his calculated future. “The encrypted message… it mentioned Khrushchev and Uspensky ‘favourably’, which hints at coming changes, sometime soon!”

He sighed in resignation, preparing himself in the late night for the darkness about to engulf his own young life. “There are no proper trials, you know… only the odd ‘show trial’, to give that air of justice.” He wiped his clammy brow. “They will sentence me to a labour camp, for being a subversive, or Trotskyite, or Nazi spy… if I am not to be shot first. It will all depend on Yezhov, or his underlings… whatever ‘looks good’ for the Party, on that particular day… And no-one comes back from the gulags… they make sure of that, these days.”

Peter’s heart felt too heavy; he could not speak. His eyes welled in the protective dark. His stomach tightened painfully at his inability to help Viktor, their days of innocent belief in Lenin’s opening egalitarianism now a lost dream, like the pile of dust scattered at their feet. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the tyrant Stalin from eliminating—‘liquidating’—whichever person, whatever layer of his newly-devised regime, that his monstrous mind constantly created as potential rivals.

They stood and hugged as brothers in the damp dark. Each knew they would not meet again. Viktor’s sentence, his certain death from one of Stalin’s bullets, or wasted moments in the gulag would, like millions of other unnecessary deaths, go unrecorded. Peter felt torn: he grasped Viktor’s shoulders one last time, tears of sadness, regret, hopelessness, escaping him, as he finally closed shut the huge unwieldy door. His friend disappeared into the night, to await a new day of service to his country and the regime, before the ‘guillotine’ came down on him, as on so many innocent others. He hoped Viktor’s suffering would be short: prayed this, to his Maker, into the blackened night, to ease the pain he felt for yet another luckless victim of the Terror.

* * *

Peter waited a little longer as Evdokia said her farewell to her elders. His heart reached out to Klavdina as she clung to her daughter, unable to let her go, her diminutive frame more fragile as her shoulders heaved with emotion. At last, as he helped Evdokia into the buggy, he noted her pallor. The heavy man’s harvesting work enforced on her this past week by a new supervisor at her parents’ kolkhoz, who had disregarded her leave conditions and her present delicate disposition, had exhausted her and had placed her health at risk. He silently prayed for her wellbeing: a full day’s journey on these unstable country roads in the heat of summer could worsen her condition. He had a deadline to meet, their travel documents specifying their date of return. He had memorised the date: ‘12th June, 1937’, should unscrupulous officials in this kolkhoz confiscate the documents. But his wife’s condition could not be further endangered. If need be, he would risk reprisal from his own kolkhoz officials to ensure Evdokia’s safety. Their own soviet bureaucrats had somehow, inexplicably, not been tarnished with cruelty of late, as some of these others. He would appeal to them, if necessary.

The last moments of Klavdina’s waving scarf, as she farewelled them from the farmhouse, were heart-wrenching for him, and for Evdokia. In her emotional state only the rough country lane distracted her, forcing her to protect herself and to settle Manya and Mykola. A cooling breeze temporarily comforted them, enabling him to make reasonable progress as he steered his muscled horse to their Popivshchena kolkhoz. Yet the sense of foreboding remained. For good reason. Too much had happened in recent weeks to suppose Stalin’s torment of the masses would remain subdued.

Even as Peter reined his horse onto the familiar road in sight of Popivshchena, Marshal Tukhachevsky’s execution was announced. Vasily had lost his Viktor to the insatiable Stalinist Terror scourge; Evdokia had lost her hoped-for child, the price for such harsh work at the behest of cruel kolkhoz officials. The Ukraine, and Russia, had lost the young charismatic Marshal Tukhachevsky, the last visionary leader still imbued with Lenin’s ideals and a sense of right and honour, and who also could have protected them from a future military catastrophe that was to befall them. The price paid was personal, and national. Too many unclaimed souls could testify to that.


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June 1941

Munificent morning sunlight, in the swansong of unfettered collectivisation, bathed and blessed the fields of wheat and the kolkhoz workers who had back-breakingly sown them. Evdokia picked her way carefully along the well-worn path as it wended its way towards the hallowed cemetery grounds, lifting her precious embroidered petticoat so tenderly sewn all those many summers ago in the comfort and security of her parents’ home in Yakemovich. She paused momentarily, catching her breath. She could still hear the voices of her little family ahead of her: Peter in animated conversation with a fellow kolkhoz

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neighbour, Manya and Mykola laughing and teasing each other as they ran towards the familiar meeting place.

“Catch me, Kola, if you can!” Manya called out gleefully as she darted back and forth from the pathway, tickling her younger brother and disappearing through the tall grasses again. Evdokia smiled as she adjusted her headscarf, and silently gave thanks for her healthy family. She cherished the Sunday pilgrimage in their controlled lives on the Popivshchena kolkhoz, which had become their home, their way of life, this past decade.

As she drew closer to the ancient cemetery grounds, golden heads of sunflowers bowed their approval at her as they swayed gently in summer’s breeze. She always experienced an inexplicable sense of spiritual transformation as she negotiated this familiar path. With her back to the old dark kolkhoz farmhouse, she could temporarily shut out the discomforts of their kolkhoz life, the cramped living conditions that until recently four families had endured. Vanya, Peter’s firstborn, was now a man of fourteen. She smiled, remembering the day Peter victoriously negotiated a separate bed for them, their first symbolic act of privacy, upon the death of the elder of the farmhouse.

Those same local soviet officials, who now allowed three remaining families to occupy the kolkhoz farmhouse, had also grudgingly approved the Sunday cemetery gatherings. They need not have worried. The local priest, a survivor of the purges and more flexible than his peers, had pragmatically become a soviet official, blessing his flock whilst cautioning them to remain faithful to the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution. The Ukrainian population had long been subdued, the continuous Five Year Plans were now entrenched as a way of life and Stalin’s purges of every strata of society, in the name of dogma and revolution, were now complete. All that lay before them was the predictability of the kolkhoz life, unattainable workers’ quotas for grain and food from the regime’s breadbasket of the Ukraine, and the certainty that dissent or personal misfortune inevitably led to imprisonment and execution. Six million Ukrainian souls had learnt this tragic lesson.

The priest had already begun his familiar liturgical prayers. Peter moved towards Evdokia as she stepped around overgrown mounds of graves, crosses missing, towards the fresh burial plots. “So there you are,” he murmured, eyes teasing, his confident smile disarming her, as it always did. She beckoned to Manya and little Mykola, held their hands in solemn acknowledgement of the official prayers, then nodded to them as they hurried off to join their friends, at play in the ruins of the church, destroyed in the fervour of Stalin’s collectivisation.

An invisible hand of blessing passed over her as the priest sang the ritual final prayer. It was this ritual, this pilgrimage to the ancient grounds, which gave her sustenance to face each coming week: ahead were six days of back-breaking work on the kolkhoz farm, lack of comforts, perpetual bickering among the kolkhoz farmhouse families. The slender shape of an elderly woman, scarf hiding her face, reminded Evdokia of her dear, gentle mother. Her eyes pricked with tears. Several years had passed since her last permit to visit her parents in their kolkhoz on the farther reaches of Talalaivka. Such a short distance for Stalin and Khrushchev’s soviet officials, wanting for nothing, travelling freely for their comforts, yet such an impenetrable distance for her. Peter, though valued in his capacity as veterinary practitioner for their kolkhoz area, could not plead Evdokia’s case and he knew certain risks were not worth taking now. Stalin’s purges had conveniently ended with the outbreak of war in western Europe, but the NKVD maintained a ruthless vigilance.

A long way off a child’s cry, short and seemingly insignificant, pierced the hazy air. Evdokia, lightheaded from hunger at service end, did not fully comprehend its meaning. The children returned. Manya, limping and ashen faced, smiled at her tired, pregnant mother. She could not tell her of their forbidden play at the antiquated rusty maypole. She had always tried to please her mother, and in a few short weeks, some little gift might come when she reached her ninth birthday. Hiding her pain, she bent among the grasses and picked a handful of delicate wildflowers for her patient mother.

“Dopobachenya, staroste,” Evdokia smiled as she farewelled several elders from the neighbouring kolkhoz. She hesitated, breathing in the warmth of late morning and watched nature’s winged creatures at work as she waited for her husband. Peter, frowning and in serious conversation with a trusted friend, stood back as they turned homeward to the kolkhoz farmhouse. She sensed something was disturbing him but, already at a short distance from the men, she was unable to distinguish their words. “Another kolkhoz matter…” she conjectured, “he will tell me, in good time, at home.” She continued slowly, heavily, back to the dim dwelling.

With only the seasons to guide her, in a kolkhoz and regime intent on controlling even the drudgery of daily work life, she was unaware of the date, of its significance: Sunday 22nd June, 1941. Peter knew better. Aware of the war in western Europe, he understood the political implications of that singular date. Concerned for her delicate condition, he did not tell her, that day. He knew too well what it meant for Russia, and especially for the Ukraine. To her eternal sorrow, Evdokia would soon know, always remember that date.

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An uneasy drone of loaded aircraft, until recent days unheard of over the kolkhoz fields of Popivshchena, caught Evdokia’s attention. She looked up, squinting into the late afternoon sun. A dozen angry fighter planes cut westward across the sun’s rays, dotting its deceptively warming vista with moth-like precision. She straightened, arched her back and leaned on the heavy primitive hoe for support. Elderly workers passed her as they chopped at their own endless rows of sugar beet. She could not complain. It was tiring work, but tolerable compared to the heavy lifting and threshing the able-bodied workers were subjected to, since Comrade Stalin’s edict that harvesting be completed at breakneck speed.

Everywhere about them, hues of red and gold rays of the setting sun sprayed the kolkhoz fields, showering workers with unspoken praise for their back-breaking work, their excelled quotas, their devotion to the cause, at Stalin’s behest. She shuddered as she thought of these same red hues that must have vaingloriously splayed the fields surrounding Lvov with human carnage and sacrifice, before that proud city and its inhabitants prepared to surrender to the German armies. “Hospode; Hospode,” she prayed silently, “protect my little brother Makar.” It was one of a million silent prayers for the safe return of the conscripted men throughout the Ukraine and Russia. She shook her head, wondering what was to become of these Russian fighter planes, and of their pilots.

Reports were so limited, so unreliable. Stalin’s propaganda was so effective that even the soviet officials of the trusted bureaucracy, barking Stalin’s orders almost daily, knew little of the fierce battles raging in the west of the Ukraine, of the real carnage and loss of patriotic lives so soon after Hitler’s three-pronged invasion of their lands. Instead, the panic was conveyed in urgent quotas for production and harvesting, longer hours of work on the kolkhoz fields, and appeals to patriotism for the Motherland interspersed with threats of reprisal for disloyalty and cowardice. This propaganda, passed on daily by grim-faced soviet officials on the dilapidated army truck that collected the wary workers, assured them the German menace had been halted and the enemy would soon be forced back to its own territory, the Motherland would be victorious once again.

“Kincheyete tyt!” the foreman shouted at last, signalling to them to stop work. Evdokia climbed onto the waiting truck, grateful her pregnant condition permitted her return to the kolkhoz farmhouse in its first load. She was anxious about Manya, who was still ailing and had remained at the farmhouse with an elder. It was uncharacteristic of her little daughter not to want to join Vanya and Mykola in the stacking of hay in these fields, the only outward sign of youth and merriment for the kolkhoz workers, as children played and sang and helped with the growing haystacks. She determined to speak to Peter about Manya’s condition. She knew that he, too, was burdened with excessive work, returning home later and later each night, his responsibilities of veterinary supervision extending far beyond his previously allocated areas.

* * *

Manya, looking gaunt and exhausted, limped towards her mother the moment Evdokia came through the farmhouse door. She threw her fevered body and thin arms around her mother’s neck. “Mama, Mama, thank heaven you are here,” she whimpered. A sense of panic wrenched through Evdokia. Manya had always been so placid, so undemanding. Even though her troublesome knee did not seem to be healing, her little girl, in grown-up fashion, had bandaged it, saying, “It is nothing, nothing, just a little fall; it will heal, you will see, Mama.” Evdokia puzzled at what next to do. All these past years of good fortune in the health of their children had left her ill-equipped to sense this emergency.

The farmhouse door flew open. Evdokia rushed to see if Peter had arrived, hopefully earl

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ier that evening. It was Hresha, the senior kolkhoz official, with urgent news. Comrade Stalin had just broadcast his first national speech, from the safety of the Kremlin. Evdokia, exhausted and anxious over Manya’s condition, could not fully comprehend what this madman was saying. Comrade Stalin could not possibly mean they were to prepare for a battle, for packing and loading what possessions they could carry, and to burn their ancient farmhouses, the only shelter they had in this Sumskaya Oblast, and to then retreat eastward to Russia and the Ural Mountains with whatever livestock they could tether. There had to be some mistake. Hresha was a highly-strung man, imbued with Stalinist ideals. He must have misunderstood Stalin’s orders. The totalitarian dictator of Russia would not have pursued collectivisation all these years, only to destroy the very farms and crops that fed his empire. Their lives, and region, could not be in the kind of danger this mad zealot was preaching.

Peter, pushing back exhaustion, came in thoughtfully as the kolkhoz families, panicked by the turn of events, argued with the soviet official. He put his arm gently on Evdokia’s shoulder, averting his eyes from the distressed babushka crying, “Oi Boje mie; oi Boje mie” nearby. He, too, had earlier heard of Stalin’s speech. He fully understood its import. It was the tyrant’s strategy to stop Hitler’s armies taking Moscow, and possibly Russia. Stalin was using another previous Tsar’s strategy, used so effectively against Napoleon’s huge armies, the ‘scorched earth’ policy, to stop the enemy’s advancing armies, regardless of the human cost. Peter knew the Ukraine’s value to both Hitler and Stalin was far too great. Either way, his Ukraine, and its hapless people, would pay a shocking price for being vital to the ambitions of these two totalitarian tyrants.

The nightmare did not leave them that night. Manya’s cries and moans revealed her burning temperature and the full extent of her injury. Evdokia had tried all the homemade potions, to no avail. Peter knew fast action was needed, regardless of the military panic from without. Even in the dim flicker of candlelight, his little daughter’s swollen, discoloured knee meant it was a deep infection, even, possibly, septicaemia. Evdokia, tired and overworked, and accepting their little daughter’s assurances, had not been fully aware how quickly this injury had changed.

He knew what they must do, and immediately. Already medical supplies, and surgeons, were being rushed west and north in Stalin’s empire to cope with the carnage of the continuing battles against Hitler’s advancing armies. There was little point in heading to the nearby makeshift clinic, some ten kilometres hence: it was already stripped of any remaining medical supplies and abandoned by the staff, who were hastily transported westward in the direction of Kiev, where fierce fighting was taking place at this very time. Their only hope was the large hospital at Romny, thirty kilometres from their kolkhoz. Every hour counted, both for their sickly child, and as the military situation deteriorated.

Dawn was barely breaking as Peter readied his tired, trusty horse and secured the cart that would carry Manya. He had spoken to the elder, and clasped Vanya’s hand, leaving little Mykola still sleeping. Evdokia, quietly weeping as she dragged pillows to the cart for Manya, glanced at Peter through her tears. She tried to stay calm. He looked convincingly in control, assured. She consoled herself. He would ensure their little firstborn would soon be well again.

They made their way in the grey morning light past the fields that had shown so much joy and promise only hours earlier. The haystacks, uneven and ghostly grey in the dim light, evoked a sense of foreboding, as though a grim reaper had cloned itself over and over in warning to unsuspecting passers-by. The sunflowers, so ripe and heavy, and ready for next day’s harvesting, stooped helplessly, hiding their faces with tears of morning dew. Evdokia’s own distress held Peter back from revealing his worst fears. The Romny hospital was their only hope. But it, too, may have been depleted of supplies and surgeons, on Stalin’s orders. Ukrainian lives were, in the tyrant’s estimation, always expendable. His orders of ‘ruthless priorities’ subjected everyone, regardless of their creeds, to Stalin’s needs. Peter realised that Evdokia, so politically unaware of these things, did not need to suffer unnecessarily.

Evdokia glanced again at her husband, his attractive face outlined against the lightening grey of the new day. She remembered the gift she had readied for Manya. Her firstborn will be nine within days. She calmed herself, in the certainty that Manya would return well again, and even run to the farmhouse for her little trinket.

Their old horse passed another grey haystack, another clone of the grim reaper eyeing them menacingly. Evdokia shuddered, as her childhood superstitions surfaced. Those same malevolent spirits hovered over, and followed them, as they left their kolkhoz fields and turned westward, in the direction of Romny.

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A harried soviet official checked Peter’s papers, then hastily waved him through the hospital gates, his instructions drowned by another squadron of heavily-laden Russian bombers heading to Kiev. Military trucks followed Peter’s cart, their engines growling impatiently. Evdokia, too anxious for Manya’s deteriorating condition, did not understand the commotion in the hospital grounds, as soldiers shouted orders. Peter’s heart sank. There was an air of haste, confusion and panic as hospital staff hurriedly loaded medical supplies, and soldiers and soviet workers lifted heavy machinery into the waiting trucks.

Stalin’s Committee on Evacuation, hastily formed just days after Hitler began his invasion of Russia, had its desired effects: workers did whatever was required of them, now with patriotic zeal to save the Motherland, regardless of the human sacrifice. These medical supplies were heading westward and northward, to Kiev and Leningrad; every piece of heavy equipment that could be moved, was being transported east, to the safety of the Ural Mountains and Siberia regions. Romny was not a major centre, but was still required to give all it had to Stalin and Hitler’s war. “O God!” Peter cried silently as he steeled himself, his earlier hope of the hospital’s capacity to save little Manya now tempered with the realisation that they may have arrived too late.

The desk attendant looked fleetingly at them, at Manya in Peter’s arms, and pointed to a grubby lounge nearby as he continued his telephone conversation. “No, no, we cannot take them…. Don’t bring them here,” he pleaded, his voice resounding to the high ceiling of the grand old room that had once known nobility. He shook his head, carefully placing the telephone back on its cradle. “It is not possible…” he murmured, as if to himself, “soon there will be no-one here for the sick.” He sighed, then beckoned Peter and Evdokia to follow him, his shuffling club foot excusing him temporarily from the compulsory army call-up that Stalin’s directives required.

The old doctor, seasoned with the experience of revolution and political upheavals, remained calm as he inspected Manya’s wound. Evdokia, relieved at help being administered to her child at last, stood quietly crying, oblivious of the surroundings. Peter’s heart sank further. The ward was almost devoid of any medical equipment, the few remaining beds unused. The doctor, though kind and attentive, was hesitant, unhurried, as if he already knew he could do little for their child. Nursing staff stood back, patiently awaiting the doctor’s decision. At last, they placed Manya on a long trolley that would serve as an operating table and wheeled her to the operating room. The old doctor looked sadly at Evdokia as she wept and said gently, “We will do all we can to make your little daughter well… as you can see, the war priorities… there is very little here.”

Hours of waiting became blurred for Evdokia, as she leant on Peter’s shoulder for support on the grubby lounge in the large reception room. From somewhere, she was handed some soup and hard rye bread, the strong smell of the onion broth reminding her she had not brought food for their journey. She forced herself to sip the soup, for some sustenance, watched as her husband ate his meal thoughtfully, even heartily. She comforted herself that he would need that strength to guide them and Manya home once their little child had recovered.

Shafts of late afternoon sun pierced through the high windows of the great old room, waking Evdokia and Peter from a fitful sleep as the old doctor approached them. He spoke quietly, cautiously. They could now see their little daughter. She had survived the operation, but she was still fighting a fever. Evdokia took heart that her little daughter was safe. But she could not see, through her tears of relief, the grave look he gave Peter. Both men knew there were no miracle supplies left to fight infection and septicaemia.

Manya, pale and feverish, eyelids flickering as she murmured in pain, became aware of her parents’ presence. They waited at her side, praying separately and silently into the night. In the dimness, the familiar smell of candle-wax and wispy smoke effused a church-like aura on the bare surroundings, which hid the harsh reality. At one time in the despairing hours, Evdokia remembered the gentle tones of a long ago lullaby she had sung to her Manya. Cla

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sping hope as she stroked Manya’s limp hands, willing them to recovery, she whispered her comforting lullaby kaska: “Sleep quietly now, little kukla, for when you wake the day is full of play once again…” She stopped and held back a sob as Manya’s face contorted. The pain had become too much for the child. Staff, like mute and ghostly figures in white garb, moved back and forth in the night, administering whatever they could to abate her pain and fever. In the abyss of the darkness, Manya had a moment of clarity and tried to raise herself, calling out, “Mama, Mama, why did you bring me here? Take me home, Mama, please, take me home.” Evdokia broke down, wept inconsolably. Nurse and husband comforted her, removed her as more local potions were administered to ease the child’s fever and pain.

Deep grey dawn surrendered to clear early morning light. It was summer, but the large austere reception room was icy. The old doctor, shoulders hunched, stood before Evdokia and Peter as they stirred from their slumped state. Still hopeful of Manya’s recovery, Evdokia at first did not fully comprehend. Peter, with his army and veterinarian’s training, sensed the worst. He had watched his adored first wife Hanya and infant son Mischa take their last breath in the horror year of 1930. He had steeled himself for this.

But Evdokia had not prepared herself, or her heart. Numb with shock and disbelief, Evdokia allowed her husband to take her to Manya, who lay pale and calm as if only in a deep sleep, then to lead her away, take her back to the kolkhoz farmhouse. The old doctor, concerned for Evdokia and her condition, used his dwindling authority to have Manya returned separately.

* * *

Evdokia, supported by the women from the kolkhoz farmhouse, followed Peter and their sons along the familiar path to the kolkhoz cemetery. Still numb, unable to accept the loss of her firstborn, she moved like a sleepwalker in an unending nightmare. The priest was already waiting for them; the gravediggers stood back from the mourners, their shovels ready. For a final time the coffin lay open, the priest sang his blessings for Manya’s soul. “Hospode pomelyue, Hospode pomelyue,” the mourners responded, crossing themselves; then, one by one, they passed by the little coffin and bowed their respects.

Peter, eyes filled with tears of anguish and loss, and pain stabbing at his heart, kissed Manya’s forehead, and moved closer to his wife. Evdokia leant for the last time to say goodbye to her little daughter, her beautiful little white kukla, in sleep forever. She touched the little hands, placed the tiny birthday trinket between the perfect, cold kukla fingers, kissed her little daughter goodbye, a silent prayer remaining permanently locked in her broken heart.

The well-worn pathway pointed Evdokia back to the kolkhoz farmhouse, to the cold wake, the tearful mourners, the sombre children. She let go of little Mykola’s hand, watched as he joined the other children ahead, glanced at the fields around her. The sunflowers were gone, the countryside almost denuded, desecrated, according to Comrade Stalin’s orders for the early harvest, for his war. There was little else to take from this countryside, in his ‘scorched earth’ policy.

She looked at Peter who, seemingly composed, was in deep conversation with other kolkhoz men, his attention momentarily diverted from her, from her personal grief. She could not know that their future life on the kolkhoz, and their safety, depended on his discussion with the soviet officials. Suffering, seemingly alone, her immense grief was too much to bear. Somewhere deep in her subconscious, an irrational logic buried itself: her gallant, capable husband, who had achieved so much despite the odds, had not found a way to save their child. It was this firstborn that she had willed herself to live for and give birth to in the horror famine years of 1931–1932, as she lay starving, before her husband’s desperate measures saved her. It could not have been for nothing.

The pain of the loss of Manya was never truly addressed. The tumultuous upheaval of Stalin’s war against Hitler, and the consequent occupation of her beloved Ukraine by Hitler’s armed forces, made insignificant a woman’s cry for help in her own personal despair. Thus there remained, deep within her, that invisible worm: of resentment, discontent, bitter disappointment, that ate at her unknowingly. It was to one day resurface from its dark core, to mark husband and wife irrevocably, permanently.

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A rustle, an indistinct sound somewhere in the dark pierced Peter’s subconscious, alerting him from fitful sleep. Blinking at his dream-state, he peered into the murky cavity of the kolkhoz farmhouse. A shadowy shape wavered, paused, moved silently to the door. Peter felt the pre-dawn chill of dewy air circle nearby, almost imperceptibly, as the shadowy figure disappeared into the night.

Peter shuddered, awakening, and hesitated. He crept across the hollowed room, his breath shallow, cupped his hand to the misted pane. All was black, silent, desolate. The grey night owl had long given its last cautioning call: it had already winged itself to another safety, its reflexed senses attuned to the warning drones.

Even before early morning light smeared the night sky, he quickly dressed to check his horse and staked the farmhouse parameter for any sign of tampering. All was unchanged. Heaving a sigh as he shrugged off his unease, he returned inside, reassured it was the dream. Then he noticed the gnarled wooden hook protruding from the far wall. The coat was missing.

“Dimitri never leaves without it,” he murmured, tensing again. He felt his way in the camouflaging darkness to check the soviet official’s bed behind its curtain. The panic bolted through him as the realisation hit, his intuition confirmed.

“He knows they’re close, now… that’s why he’s gone… without telling…”

He knew what this signified. Dimitri had slunk away to join Hresha, his senior kolkhoz official operating between the vital Talalaivka and Konotop railway junctions. As Bolshevik Party members, both these men knew it was paramount they retreat with the Russian troops before Hitler’s army overtook this region as it forged deeper and deeper into the Ukraine towards Moscow and Stalingrad.

“Then they must know the German army’s movements,” he calculated. He realised how hollow Stalin’s propaganda was in assuring all kolkhoz workers through these officials that the German armies had been stopped and were even retreating. Now he fully understood the import of those secretive gatherings between these soviet officials and frequent strangers who inexplicably called through the Talalaivka office these past weeks. And Stalin’s efficient spies were everywhere, reporting daily to the dictator through intermediaries, protected, at this pinnacle, by Khrushchev himself, Ukraine’s political commissar since the German invasion erupted.

Most importantly, Stalin’s men were warned ahead of all others of the panzer and light military ‘advance units’ fanning out hundreds of kilometres east of the barbarous fighting that was raging in and around Kiev right now, as a million soldiers from each side attacked each other. There was no knowing when these German advance units would strike. But Hresha and Dimitri knew they could not afford to be caught by these swift-moving soldiers in their lightning-like strikes: they would be summarily executed as Stalin’s Communist agents.

“My God, they’re really coming this way! Any time now they could be upon us!” he whispered to himself, looked again at Dimitri’s unslept-in bed. Even a few hours’ gain in distancing themselves from this region could give these officials advantage, protection out of reach of the Nazi invasion. His stomach felt the sickening pain of fear as he contemplated the likely consequences for all those remaining workers. He had to mentally prepare himself, after all those hollow assurances, and try to prepare Evdokia and the children. Everyone left at the farmhouse needed to stay fast, whatever befell them.

He looked about the emptied room, into the purple-grey darkness: the exposed bare rafters, all spare timbers and possessions gone. There was no place to hide, now. The kolkhoz farmhouse, stripped of everything that could be useful to Stalin’s war effort, was but a shell of its original dilapidated state. It was only saved from ‘scorched earth’ torching by these very same soviet officials who were now escaping to safety behind the ‘Stalin Line’. Peter shook his head, confronting the reality. The able-bodied men and soldiers were all gone to fight Stalin’s war; there was no-one left to protect these workers. He knew too well what risks lay ahead for all those remaining to guard the farms without even the ancient hoes with which to protect themselves. Now, like Hitler’s belligerent warnings, coming conveniently too late, Dimitri’s disappearance was prophetic.

* * *

“Dyna, leave the milking to me this morning… I’m already dressed… rest a little longer,” Peter whispered as Evdokia stirred, wincing in discomfort as she pulled at her straining petticoat.

He made his way to the barn and, with practised hands, attended to the waiting creature. Still pondering, he strode back to the farmhouse to wash at the trough. Suddenly his heart missed a beat. The sounds of crackling dried leaves nearby, of a distant motor rumbling on hardened earth, were unmistakable. He wiped the drops of water and clammy pers

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piration from his face and straightened, straining to hear.

“Vehod syde! Vehod syde!” The guttural command in unfamiliar Ukrainian confused him, but he understood its meaning. He raised his arms slowly, in submission. Another soldier appeared from the barn, then another, their rifles pointed at Peter and the farmhouse door.

“Everyone come out! Everyone come out!” the soldier shouted again. Peter nodded and gestured to himself, then to the door.

“I will call everyone,” he reacted instinctively, fearing a bloodbath in the panic. The soldier, eyes hidden behind the steely rim, jerked his helmet in consent. With one arm still raised as he cautiously pushed at the heavy door, Peter called to each occupant.

Other soldiers surrounded the farmhouse, positioning themselves in a well-drilled stance. A dozen kolkhoz workers and children, backs pressed to weathered timber walls, faced a dozen efficient, cocked rifles. The captain’s helmet tilted a fraction, eyes piercing, as he noted Evdokia’s heaving frame clinging to Mykola and Vanya, and watched her eyes pleading to Peter. He signalled to a soldier beside him, gave another order.

“Is everyone accounted for, in this farmhouse? Is anyone missing?” the interpreter commanded. The elders nodded: Dimitri’s absence was noted.

“Does anyone have a rifle… a pistol… any other weapon? You must tell us now!” The elders shook their heads, surprised. Stalin’s regime, with its decade of military and political purges, had long ago carried out reprisals for such misdemeanours.

“The horse in the barn… who rides it?” Peter raised his arm and gestured towards Talalaivka, briefly explained his work. The captain stepped closer, eyed him, calculating, then glanced back to the quivering group huddled against the wall.

“They are your family?” He pointed to Evdokia and the children. Peter nodded.

“And you leave them to work in this… Talalaivka?” Peter nodded again. The captain pursed his lips, observing Evdokia’s extreme condition.

“Good!” he commanded. “You come with us. We are heading to Talalaivka now. You will be helpful to us. The others,” he flicked his hand in dismissal, “must stay on this farm. If they leave, they will be shot.”

His stomach pitted tight as a drum, Peter glanced helplessly at Evdokia as she held fast to the children and forced back her tears, too fearful of the rifles to break down. He touched her shoulder gently, gestured to her not to despair. At that moment, with rifles still aimed at them, the drone of overloaded Russian TB-3 bombers heading westward for their battle around Kiev brought the cold reality of this war to their very doorstop. He realised with a sinking heart how dangerous it was to be a countryman or woman of Ukraine. No place was safe now: they were being attacked in the countryside, in towns, on battlefields. The cost, the carnage, would be horrific.

As he steadied his horse to take its place in the posse of armoured cars and soldiers on horseback pulling their supply wagons, he looked wistfully at the forlorn families: captives in their own land, German soldiers stationed at their door, rifles pointed at their backs. His throat tightened to gripping point as he watched Evdokia and the others being herded back into the farmhouse.

He brushed at his eyes and pulled at the horse’s reins to distract himself, and looked towards Talalaivka. He could only guess at what might be required of him. He prayed, above all, that he would not be made to do something he would regret for the remaining days of his life. The war encouraged amazing acts of bravery. But it also excused acts of unimaginable cruelty. Already, Hitler’s ruthless tactics in western Europe were attesting to this.

One more time, as the convoy moved into the country lane, he strained to glimpse the farmhouse. Instead, he caught a glint from the bonnet of the vehicle tailing them. The SS officers, in their impeccable leather jackets, belts firmly buckled and boots polished to extreme, were well protected in their armoured vehicle. Peter did not know the real role these SS men played in their ignoble operations, of the over-riding power they wielded, so effectively, all in the name of higher ideals. Still hopeful, he could not know the full intent of Hitler’s war against the Ukraine and Russia, did not realise what kind of sentence would be meted out to his people.

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From a distant field a motorcycle, revved-up at full throttle, sounded its urgent delivery. The posse paused at the bend; captain and soldiers watchful as the skilled driver, manoeuvring and zig-zagging his beast over harvested wheat mounds, sped towards the motorcade. Despite his predicament, Peter watched, fascinated, as split-second images of rider and machine flashed between the stagnating stalks that, like upright prison bars, were suddenly smashed open and flattened as the automaton tore towards them. The German soldier jumped off his motorcycle, brakes grinding, a cloud of dust smothering him. Back straight as he clicked his muddy boots and saluted, he handed the captain his document. The senior nodded as he perused the missive, a hint of a smile softening his determined face.

“Gute, gute!” he replied, fully understanding its import, wrote a brief reply and signalled the messenger to return it to senior command. Within moments, the rider raced his motorcycle off at breakneck pace back through the fields, the heady motor fumes spurting a fine spray that hit Peter’s nostrils like an acrid atomiser.

“It’s amazing!” he thought to himself, patting his horse’s quivering coat as the revving motor resounded across the fields. “Our soldiers are struggling to find a horse and cart for their defences, yet this army has everything in its power to push ahead. They won’t be stopped in their aim to take Moscow!” But already the autumn leaves were being denuded, and he reminded himself of winter’s cruel early snows, even in his Ukraine. Ponds, lakes, even essential roadways were often overnight suddenly frozen or made impassable, trapping all who travelled. “But the German army must know this… that Ukrainian and Russian winters are more severe than their own.”

Another posse of soldiers joined their motorcade at a crossroad as a narrow lane met the rough roadway. The captain’s interpreter waved Peter forward.

“Pomozhe, pomozhe tyt,” his guttural Ukrainian barely understood. As Peter reached the front of the line the captain looked up from a large map spread over the bonnet of a truck. His juniors leaned over it in obsequious helpfulness. He glanced up, mouth tightening, brow creased in frustration.

“All these country roads… we must reach Talalaivka in the shortest time… we have deadlines!” Peter guessed, correctly, that they must now be pushing at speed to secure not just Talalaivka, but the larger Konotop railway junction, which was strategically vital in sending their troops and supplies from north-east Ukraine, and linked other main lines through Orel, Tula, and on to Moscow. And only when Konotop, so relatively close to Russia’s borders, was taken could Hitler be confident of his earlier boasting that Stalin’s ‘scorched earth’ policy had ceased, and failed, and that the Ukraine—and even Moscow—would be his before year’s end.

Peter studied the map, his fingers tracing several possible routes. A fleeting thought of circuitous diversions to slow these soldiers, even take them off course, crossed his mind. But he pushed the thought aside and took a deep breath, his logic maintained. Evdokia and the children, and all the workers of their farmhouse, were being kept hostage, in the eventuality of just this sort of deviance. And not only they, but perhaps many more kolkhoz workers, would suffer the German reprisals. His heart felt the twist of entrapment as he thought of Evdokia, of her distraught look, her heavy appearance as he last turned from her.

“Dear God,” he thought, “I hope the birth will be without difficulty… I hope they will not come to any harm.”

Swallowing hard as he felt the invisible noose of blackmail tightening, he nodded to the captain and explained the different courses and intricacies of the routes: that there was a possible dual method of speed, of horseback soldiers taking the shortcut laneways and cutting through farmland, the panzer trucks taking the longer but reliable country roads, with their supply wagons following. Given the speed of the panzer trucks, it was just possible both groups would reach Talalaivka in close time.

The captain eyed him, querying, evaluating, as he pondered his motorcade’s safety, looking for a possible trap. Then something caught his attention. He looked up to the sky, listening. High above them, and heading north-east, he could just make out the sound of the Luftwaffe’s Ju88 bombers, generously laden yet still faster than the enemy’s, tearing through the sky to target Moscow. He blinked and focussed back to the map, tapping his finger, then made his snap decision. There was little to lose: a hundred soldiers on horseback, used to clear out the outlying farmhouses, were within his calculation of loss at this crucial time. The race to reach the junctions held even more importance now.

He conferred with his deputy and pointed to the horsemen. “Spalten!” he waved them aside, then “Bewegen!” he ordered, jumped into his jeep and motioned the panzergruppe forward to a country roadway.

“Right! We move this way now!” the second-in-command waved his soldiers on. They reined their horses into line, gave way as

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Peter followed the interpreter to the front. The motorcade, with powerful engines growling, raced on, churning clouds of dust and exhaust fumes that choked the pristine countryside.

A strange pall greeted them at the outskirts of Talalaivka, as the posse of soldiers rode in. “They must be hiding in their huts… they, too, have nowhere to go,” Peter suspected. These town dwellers, even with their varied skills, were exposed to the same dangers as the kolkhoz farmers as the German advance units moved from house to house to secure the town for their operatives. He watched, his hand quietening his horse as the deputy silently motioned to some of the soldiers to position themselves at cross-streets, the remainder to follow him to the railway junction. Now, each street corner was guarded by well-armed soldiers, having little to fear from the remaining town dwellers, who were left to their fate.

As they reached the junction, the distinct roar of the motorcade reached them. Peter held his reins tight, waiting for the gunfire to begin between remaining Stalin loyalists and the advance units’ gunners, their barrels scouring for enemy movement. He could hear the crackling fire of rifles, the return fire of German gunners… then silence. Stalin’s men knew they could not save this junction now, even if they had wanted to, their token riflemen no match against the gunners, spurting out their continuous rounds of deadly bullets.

The Talalaivka office had an unnerving appearance of fast retreat. “They must have moved out in the greatest haste… not even time to burn the papers,” Peter gauged, with mixed emotions. Only days earlier this centre of bureaucracy had operated with unswerving confidence. Now, he felt a sting of failure at his country’s sudden demise, yet somehow relieved that the buildings had not been destroyed. As he walked through the soviet bureaucrats’ offices and flicked through the open files and papers strewn across the floor, he felt certain that the vital NKVD documents would already have disappeared with Dimitri and Hresha and were possibly already safely filed with their Kremlin masters. Straining to rest, yet tension still pounding him, he could only feel cold security as he leaned against the familiar stuccoed wall, awaiting the commander’s order.

* * *

As the dawn light broke through the protection of night, Peter could hear the motion of horses and motors preparing to move. The interpreter rushed in, his message brief. Still shaking himself awake, Peter caught the words, “Konotop junction.” To his horror, as he stepped from the building to the courtyard, he was summoned to a panzer truck to join the commander. He shook his head and pointed to the laid out map, his finger outlining the direct route on to Konotop and, gesticulating, attempted to explain it was a good road, clearly marked, that they did not need him to direct. He sensed it was safer to remain at Talalaivka: the German soldiers understood his place there, and he was desperate to try to return to Evdokia, the birth imminent.

The captain waved aside his concerns. His jawline firmed, glinting eyes just visible beneath his steel rim. Peter stopped in mid-sentence. He was captive, they were masters, weapons loaded at their sides.

Ever more confident as each kilometre abridged the two junctions, the motorcade moved at a faster pace, the trucks swerving from side to side as they negotiated the pitted country road. Peter realised, as some of the kolkhoz farmhouses appeared at a distance, that they were only a short way from Evdokia’s Yakim and Klavdina. For a few moments he closed his eyes, remembering, visualising the day Klavdina greeted them as they arrived for their visit… of Manya running among the grasses, picking her wildflowers for her babushka. A small invisible hand pressed at his heart, reminding him how long ago that all seemed, now… how crushing Manya’s passing still was.

Suddenly, at a crossroads, the motorcade screeched to a halt, dust from the earth road clouding their view. As it settled, Peter saw the shiny bonnet of another panzer motor, its occupants immaculate in their leather jackets, their distinctive SS officer hats poised. The captain jumped out of his jeep to confer with them, then looked towards Peter.

“O God! What are they planning? Are Klavdina and Yakim… Evdokia, the children safe? Or… is it me they’re after?” His throat tightened again. Anything was possible, now.

The captain returned, gave orders for the trucks to wait under cover of nearby bushes, and signalled his driver to follow the SS officers’ truck. At a short distance, off a side lane, a small farmhouse was just visible, hidden in a grove, its great trees and orchard a natural barrier against all intruders. The cars pulled up at the silent courtyard. The SS officers, in well-practised stance, signalled the captain and spoke in low tones, their fine officer’s hats avoiding the captain’s grubby helmet.

Taking shallow breaths, yet trying to appear calm, Peter prayed silently for strength, fearing the worst. But still he reasoned with himself, that the captain, even the SS men, could have shot him anywhere, did not have to take such a circuitous route for his execution.

They had reached the back of the farmhouse, the old orchard trees tall and dignified even as their fruit had already dropped, past usage.

The SS men took a few steps towards a path, then stopped and smiled knowingly. Peter looked to the captain, his only source of consolation at that moment. Then he caught sight of something, or someone: at first, only trouser legs and boots, moving strangely, above the grasses. He felt sickened, but had to know: either he was to become another hanged Ukrainian, or else these SS men wanted something else. He looked again at the captain, then took the fateful step, uncertain if he was to become the SS officers’ next victim.

“These officers want you to tell them if you know these men,” the captain pressed him. Peter still could not be certain what would happen to him, but truthfulness was all he could offer. Evdokia and their children’s lives depended on this.

Even before he recognised the jacket, with its distinctive trim so proudly worn as a reward from none other than Kaganovich, Peter knew it was Dimitri, alongside Hresha, his superior. He bowed his head, in instinctive respect for the fallen, then nodding, spoke in answer to the SS men’s questioning. He realised with leaden heart that, although these men were agents of Stalin’s regime, they were still his countrymen, attempting to escape from the invaders. Even with all the help from Stalin’s intelligence officers, they could not have calculated how swiftly the pincer units from Konotop would meet these southern townships. They had jumped from one SS search into the path of the other.

Peter could not hold his nerve any longer—he turned away from the SS men, closing his eyes, waiting for the worst, voices murmuring in their foreign language fogging his senses. When he looked again, the SS men were gone. The captain, standing legs astride and hands on hips, was calculating his next move.

He nodded at Peter and continued back to his panzer truck. Peter could not move, uncertain what was planned for him.

The interpreter touched his arm. “You will come back with us to Talalaivka, after Konotop. It may be our headquarters for this area.”

His stomach still so tight he thought he would be ill with the tension, Peter swallowed hard, again and again, trying to focus on all his past training, on his profession, and slowly made his way back to the panzer truck. The captain was keeping him on. He had not yet outlived his usefulness to the new regime.

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The captain scoured the landscape below his vantage point, his shoulders granite-hard, and focussed his binoculars again on the thunderous explosions. Peter, crouching behind the partly destroyed wall with the surviving soldiers to one side of the captain’s makeshift bunker, felt the earth shudder, vibrating through him, and waited for the whistling sounds of panzer rocket fire as they shrieked through the blackened air. He crouched lower, almost in foetal position in the hollow, his arms protecting his head as fragments of debris and volcanic-like dust blew over them. He breathed into his jacket. He dared not cough, the dust particles so fine and insidiously acrid that they choked the unsuspecting soldiers, disabling them. Hobbled in his bent position, he could feel the bulky food packet in his jacket pocket, untouched since morning, his stomach tightened for battle.

Another short lull, then more explosions, panzer-tank rocket fire and crackling sounds of burning timber amid the ruins. At last, he peered between the fallen rocks of his crumbled parapet. The captain, protected by an armoured steel panel, binoculars glued to the carnage of Konotop junction, stood proud at his bunker, a slow smile breaking his dust-hardened face. “Ah! Gute! Gute!” he cried as he pushed back his helmet and wiped his face, his fair hair streaked grey with dirt and perspiration, belying his youthfulness, his appearance matching the intensity of the war’s experience.

Peter followed the captain’s gaze to the battleground. He sensed they had reached a critical point in the fighting. He turned to the interpreter, who was still huddled beside him, unable to move, the trauma of the bombs’ near misses impacting on him, his earlier soldierly confidence gone, revealing a tormented youth’s face. Peter took the gamble, edged

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his way out from the rubble to view the scene. He could now hear the rumbling victorious tanks as they appeared through the smoking haze, and watched as they rolled into ordered positions. Finally, a protected motorcade circled in, unexpectedly, from the north-west of the pivotal junction.

“So this was the captain’s deadline…” he whispered. “His men had to position themselves, give this panzer army the lie of the land here, at Konotop, before their onslaught!” He shook his head as he speculated on the audacity and speed of such a campaign, thousands of kilometres from Hitler’s heartland. The surprise element of these panzergruppe armies caught out even the most dedicated Soviet forces, to their cost.

The captain waved his men on, to clear the junction, save whatever stock they could. The interpreter pulled at Peter’s sleeve: he, too, was required to mop up. Even without his veterinary supplies, he could still check, and indicate, which livestock could be saved. His stomach tightening again, mind numbed by the resounding blasts, he prepared himself for the slaughter before them. There would be few, if any, prisoners left in the wake of this ambitious General Guderian’s daring attack. His successes were legendary in the German Reich, even before his panzergruppe army began its diversionary south-westward hammer-swing from Russia’s Smolensk back into the Ukraine, on Hitler’s insistence, towards the final battle of Kiev.

* * *

“Hurry! Hurry! The commandant has arrived! We must hand-over now, and you must be explained!” The interpreter’s message rang out through the office, his eyes flashing with excitement as he ran back to the courtyard. Peter nodded to Andreye, his assistant, and clasped his shoulder as they headed for the line-up. The Talalaivka office and soldiers’ quarters had a peculiar normality about it, removed from the battles in the east and south. Miraculously his junior had, like him, survived the German invasion and demands of these past weeks.

It was final, then. The German armies had pushed Stalin’s forces back to Russia’s border, had crushed the Soviet armies at Kiev, boasting its record capture of Soviet soldiers, and were poised, now, awaiting Hitler’s changing orders, for their attack on Moscow from the safety of their secured territory of the Ukraine and Belorussia. Like a chessboard game in which only the dominant player knows the rules with its life-and-death consequences, the German army systematically manoeuvred itself as it installed its commandant in each conquered area, while Hitler’s adversary, Stalin, remained almost mute, bunkered in the Kremlin, even as he prepared his government’s retreat eastward to Kuybyshev. The chessboard game was over, in mid-game. The Ukrainian people and lands would remain in the German army’s control.

Peter bit his lip, as he waited with the soldiers. Despite all the grotesque fighting, the sacrifice of life from all sides, Stalin’s ‘scorched earth’ policy had almost certainly pre-determined the fate of the Ukraine and its people. Now, once the commandant and his ruthless army unit were ensconced to administer this area, they were under the rule of their new master, Hitler. Peter shook his head, the irony looming before him. His countrymen and women would henceforth—for how long he knew not—be forced to produce the agriculture and industrial goods, in ever-increasing quantities: those very goods and utilities that Hitler’s armies would ultimately use against Russia and other peoples. His countrymen had changed one master for another; their new master, Hitler, just as obsessed with his domination of the Ukraine as the seemingly conquered Stalin.

He stood at attention, at the incongruously formal hand-over, his shoulders taut, still proud beneath his dusty jacket.

“Please God… at least let them permit visits to our families sometime,” he prayed in silence. Weeks had passed, with no contact, no word from their kolkhoz village. There was no knowing how Evdokia and the children were faring or if they were still safe. He closed his eyes for a moment. Flashes of his enforced duties in the mop up of Konotop were still so raw and unsettling, reminding him of war’s horrors. All were victims, ultimately. Whatever was to come, and for however long they would be under the subjugation of Hitler’s regime, perhaps, with relative stability, lives would be spared and not wasted in unwinnable battles.

* * *

The wind biting at his ears as he made his way on the familiar roadway back to the kolkhoz farmhouse, Peter tugged at his jacket collar and let out a deep sigh. He smiled to himself. At last he could contemplate his home-coming. In a moment of emotional release, he even teased himself with child’s names as he whispered a little kaska from earlier days, a simple rhythm that blended with his horse’s mud-clogged pace: “The home of my flower, The home of my youth, She always awaits me, My heart for her to soothe.”

At the bend in the roadway his horse shuddered, then jerked. Peter strained to look ahead for any obstacles, the afternoon light already casting deep blue shadows across the muddy way. He could see nothing untoward, and flicked the rein. Still, his horse neighed and raised its head, its mane tossing in warning. He steadied the horse and lowered himself, held the rein tight as he looked about towards the thicket. The deepening shadows cut surreal shapes, but something glinting caught his eye. He leaned closer towards the ditch hidden by the thicket.

Without warning, his back pricked with tension: there was someone tossed there, among the lower branches. He stood back a moment, trying to gauge the situation. He was unarmed, with only his horse as his means of transport, still kilometres from the kolkhoz farmhouse. And light would soon fade, the bitter autumn night treacherous in this unpredictable climate. But he could not leave this man there: the ditch was already water-logged; the nightly rain would fill it to the muddy roadway.

He took a deep breath, pushed aside his disappointment that he would not reach Evdokia before night fell. He tightened the reins at the adjoining tree and clambered down the muddy incline, the pungent musty undergrowth confounding his senses. He could not understand how this German soldier could be here, on his own, not to have been missed by his senior or his unit. He felt for a pulse, put his ear to the face. There was still sign of life. He felt along the man’s torso, his head and neck. His leg was broken; he was unconscious, concussed.

Peter felt for a rifle, or gun, his stomach tightening as his fingers searched for a nozzle or trigger that might discharge at him. Somehow it was mislaid as he fell—from a horse, a wagon, or army truck. This soldier may even have come by motorcycle, with a message. He tensed as he considered these possibilities and realised it was possible this could still be the work of partisan activity, before all opposition to the German takeover was eliminated, and that he, too, could be targeted for interfering with this German soldier.

He straightened a moment, dug his boots into the bushes for balance. It would be easy enough to leave the German soldier in this ditch. It was even possible his body would not be found for some time. But he was still alive, and could possibly survive if he received immediate help. On the other hand, if there was still partisan action in these parts, it was possible that their own kolkhoz could be unfairly implicated. Reprisals would automatically follow.

But over-riding the fear of these consequences, he felt pity for this man who could only be saved with fast, direct intervention. Whatever his personal views may be of this injured soldier of Hitler’s army, the man, too, had kin who cared for him, waited for him to return to them. Peter swallowed, salty lips and muddy water beads reminding him that he, too, was parched, exhausted. He braced himself. He could not in conscience abrogate the responsibility to help a wounded man who had not, to his knowledge, tried to injure him or his family.

He grabbed a few soft branches, placed them under the flagging leg, secured it with the soldier’s belt, and manoeuvred him out of the ditch. There was little choice: all medical help was back at Talalaivka. With almost his last breath he hauled the man over his horse, positioned astride, at its neck, braced himself behind him and reined his horse back to Talalaivka. The doctors, the medications, were there. He could do no more than this. He knew he would not need to look back over his own shoulder, to question his conscience or to remind himself one day that he would have let not only himself down, but humanity as well. With all else taken from them—dignity, pride, self-determination—it was the only credo which he and his compatriots had left to keep.

It would have to serve them well, and long, for the duration of Hitler’s occupation of their Ukraine.

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September 1943

Heart pounding uncontrollably, Peter jumped off his horse and threw open the farmhouse door. “Dyna, dite, ve doma?” An elder, startled, shook his head and pointed. Evdokia and the children were not yet back from the fields. Nor was Vanya. His heart sank as he tried to contain his feelings of foreboding of events about to be played out in their region. He must find Vanya, protect him from imminent danger. Everything had changed so rapidly these past few weeks. To their north Konotop, the German army’s last remaining supply line for its contr

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ol over this area, had just fallen. Talalaivka, north-west of Romny, was only just holding its grip for the German army’s evacuation and retreat westward.

The German commandant knew this. Almost too late, he had received his evacuation orders from Hitler’s Army High Command, the OKH, which was still in disbelief and still unwilling to concede defeat in this region. Peter, in his punishingly long veterinary rounds, saw preparations for evacuation already taking place. He winced, now, as he thought of the choices given them, to his Ukrainian compatriots, as their military and political masters were about to change their iron fist batons again. He did not need to speculate far to see what lay ahead of them. News of German evacuation and retreats had been propagandised through Stalin’s henchmen, exaggeratedly, but realistically, pointing out the atrocities of the German Hun as he left their lands.

German military confidence had been dealt a huge blow in this summer of 1943. The Red Army, like an unquenchable monolithic giant girded to avenge these past two years, cut a massive military swathe with its new scythe of impenetrable armour to win back every kilometre of Stalin’s lost territory. Despite horrific loss of life, the Red Army was now unstoppable. It had buried forever Hitler’s hopes of conquering Moscow, had fought to the death to win back Stalingrad, symbol of both totalitarian goliaths’ might, and it had crippled Hitler and Goering’s Luftwaffe in the sacrificial battle for Kursk. Orel had fallen next to this almost obsessed Russian war machine, intent on making good Stalin’s promise to push Hitler’s armies back to western Europe. Then Kharkov, Ukraine’s eastern city, now back in Russian hands. German military strongholds in these vital areas were now gone, their life-pumping supply lines permanently cut. The small railway junction from Talalaivka was the German army’s only remaining hope for a hasty retreat from this area. Peter knew this. The German commandant’s orders for him to inspect the remaining horses for transport, confirmed this.

He ran to the fields, heart pounding recklessly. Evdokia, still tending to the solitary kolkhoz milking cow, looked up at her husband in relief, received his kiss on her dishevelled forehead. Little Mykola and tiny Nadia ran to him through spiky stubs, the harvested wheat having long completed its journey west to feed Hitler’s war machine. Soft early September light surreptitiously seeped away, transforming the wheat stubs into a myriad of bullet-like spears across the fields. The sun’s elusive rays had long gone. Ominous shadows spread over the countryside, over the dreaded woods and hill at the extremity of their kolkhoz fields.

“Dyna,” Peter somehow contained the panic within as he asked, seemingly nonchalantly, “no sign of Vanya yet? He hasn’t returned? Kysma is already finished on his fields. He gave Vanya permission to come home.” Evdokia thoughtfully shook her head, without looking up. His heart sank.

“Peta,” she ventured softly, “Vanya is hardly home these days. They seem to need him even more on Kysma’s fields. They have few men there too. And you know how fond he is of Shyra. They are both so young, just sixteen, but Kysma likes our Vanya… and, in these times…” She shook her head again, as if unable to contemplate the future. The precariousness of life was not indulgent thinking. It was a reality. Her own beloved older brother, an innocent pawn in the early weeks of fighting for his country, lay somewhere, unknown, on his native soil, one lonely brave soldier among the millions fallen.

Peter’s stomach tightened, his fear for Vanya too real. He hesitated. His wife could not take more heartache. Her outward calm belied her own inner turmoil, her own grief and anxieties: the dark wells of her eyes, the loss of weight, the sad acceptance of her long hard days, said all. His heart skipped a beat, eyes stinging with pained tears. Looking at his forlorn wife he was reminded, too speedily for him to check his own emotions, of happier past times. And Manya’s death still plagued, tortured, her since that dark day shortly before the German invasion of their region.

He blinked hard, shutting away private memories, private thoughts. The need to find Vanya was paramount. He had to force himself, remind himself, that their little family was not unique in its pain and hardships. Other families throughout the region suffered similarly, were often dealt even a worse hand in Hitler’s deadly game of stacked cards. Hitler’s murderous regime had cast a huge net, a mighty long shadow, over their beloved Ukraine. What the tyrant’s henchmen Heydrich and Himmler had unleashed and exacted in western Europe, so, too, had their underling Koch exacted from the Ukraine and its people, from the relative safety of his Kiev headquarters. The Nazi regime had gorged well on its ‘breadbasket’ of the Ukraine. Peter knew it would not be relinquished lightly. Everywhere, there were testimonies to their cruel sport. Their ink stains of infamy would indelibly stain their own countrymen as surely as the funereal markings placed on their innocent foes, Jewish and others alike.

At least, he reminded himself, the commandant of their kolkhoz area had not played sport with their lives. He had allowed them their subsistence living, even observing a peculiar personal respect for these stoic, conquered Ukrainian people. But Peter also knew this could all change at a moment’s notice. Acts of treachery ended in executions, often of whole families. The dangling bodies so often seen in nearby villages earlier in the war, reminders of the Nazi regime’s will to succeed at any cost, were again prevalent with the German retreat as it attempted to contain counter-movements and partisan activity. If Ukrainian life under Stalin was cheap, it was nigh on worthless under Hitler’s tutelage.

Panic pricked his flesh, his stomach still gripped tensely as they returned to the farmhouse. Dusk had cloaked the kolkhoz fields, but there was still no sign of Vanya. He could not tell his wife of his fears for Vanya. He would not tell her of the fall of Konotop. Evdokia was not a political being, but she knew of the town, its proximity to this kolkhoz area. He needed to find Vanya before tragedy struck. He opened the farmhouse door and kissed Evdokia and tiny Nadia, tousled little Mykola’s white-blonde hair. The waft of familiar nightly broth hit his nostrils but he could not, would not, eat. On pretext of another veterinary check, he manoeuvred his intelligent stead in the direction of the shadowy woods.

The pitch-black night, eeried by slivers of moonlight that shone like an intermittent beacon over the woods and hill, gave little protection as he tethered his horse under a thicket and gave it his last precious lump of halva kept for this purpose. He patted his loyal companion, grateful it remained silent as if it, too, understood the import of its master’s mission. He crept hesitantly in the direction of the place he knew Vanya had frequented, out of bounds most times. Vanya had found there a reclusive place, seemingly removed from the incomprehensible world in which he lived.

The German occupation had weighed heavily on his young man’s shoulders. Now, Vanya was so impressionable, even imbued with the ideas of a Ukrainian national resurgence one day, once the German menace was gone. Peter knew better. He had experienced first hand Stalin’s iron will. The tyrant would not rest until he had retrieved everything lost to his nemesis counterpart, Hitler. Russian partisan activity was now organised, and increasing in military support, in these days of Stalin’s new successes. The German High Command knew this. The orders were clear, to every commandant, whatever his personal ethics. Whole families, nay, whole villages, were wiped out in reprisal for involvement with Russian and Ukrainian partisans.

From out of nowhere a brilliant flash of light, like an aberrant comet, whooshed over him. Stunned, he instinctively fell to the ground, face soaked in the leaves and heavy night dew. “My God!” he murmured as he lay there motionless, gripped with fear, puzzled. He looked back at the smoking ground behind him. This was not a German bomb; he knew this. This was like a katyshka, fired from some Russian gunner. Almost certainly, it came from an ‘advance group’ on the eastern fringes of the kolkhoz fields, in this vicinity, protected by these woods. They were that close now, preparing to soften up the German defence line before a major attack.

Peter could taste blood in his mouth as his teeth clenched, as he hesitated for a split-second, his heart pounding so furiously he felt as if a time bomb was about to explode within his body. He knew instinctively these woods and the rising hill above him would become another battleground for the opposing armies and that the German evacuation would be the signal for a Russian attack of this area. He had to find Vanya, plead with him to return to the relative safety of their farmhouse. He dared not contemplate what Vanya was doing, what his decision would be: only that he must try to find his son, warn him of the overwhelming dangers. “Hospode pomelyue,” he prayed silently, crossing himself. Hunching low, his face stinging with tension, the cold mist biting in the oppressive night dew, he lunged into the darkness, towards the hill, towards the partisans’ bullets.

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“Vanya… are you in there?” Peter’s hoarse whisper was a stranger’s voice, melding into the misty atmosphere. He crouched lo

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wer to the ground, boots crunching the crystallising droplets of heavy night dew on the undergrowth. His stomach tensed as a figure seemed to appear through the foggy dimness, then disappeared, as threatening clouds shut out the moon’s slivers of light. Every tree, every mound, was distorted in this no-man’s-land of the hill, shadows playing tricks on perception and reality. “Vanya… Vanya…” He stopped. Each sound he uttered exposed him to a partisan’s bullet.

“Who comes here?” an unrecognisable voice growled through the blackness, almost within arm’s reach. His skin pricked with unbearable tension. “Vanya… is that you?… Vanya… it’s your father, Peter. Answer me, I beg you.” In the darkness, Vanya touched his father’s shoulder and, whispering for him to remain silent, led him to the safety of a cavern-like undergrowth.

“Vanya, Vanya… son, you must come back immediately with me… there is no time to lose. The partisans are all over this area. There will be fighting any time now. Vanya, you can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous now. You must return with me!” Peter’s hoarse whisper broke. He gripped his son in a desperate attempt to persuade him. In the flickering miniscule candlelight, he could just make out Vanya’s hollow-eyed appearance, despite his youthful defiance. He knew that look of inner despair. His son, too, was torn in his loyalties: to his country, to his family, to his loved ones.

Heart hurting despite his self-control, Peter held onto his son. In that flash moment, he realised Vanya was his last link to his own first love, to his deceased infant son, and to his own idealism of life under Lenin’s modified utopia, before the cruelty and madness of the Stalin regime took hold over every part of their lives. He wanted desperately to hold onto his last soul connection with the unblemished love of life that his own youthful mind had so embraced. He realised, at that moment, that finding Vanya, and pleading with his son to stay with him, meant more to him than the possibility of that stray bullet from a partisan’s rifle. Already, his heart was being torn open by Vanya’s hesitation, his uncertainty.

Eyes downcast, Vanya avoided his father’s pleading stance. He was lost for words, his natural shyness endearing him even more to Peter. “Tato, don’t worry for me… Kysma will be coming soon. He wants me near him… Please tell mother not to worry for me. I will be all right.” Defiant but respectful, not yet a man at sixteen, he was making a man’s decision to remain behind. Peter felt immobilised, the pain jabbing him within. In the urgency of the situation he had not prepared himself for this, was stunned at Vanya’s resolve. He held him close to him, embracing, willing him to safety. “Come back to us, back home, my dear son,” he pleaded gently, one last time.

He could do no more but to return to the relative safety of the kolkhoz farmhouse, protect his remaining little family as best he could. Whichever way he turned, the situation was precarious. Propaganda from both adversarial armies was now at fever pitch. The partisans, ever more confident by the day, trigger-happy and nervous, and increasingly distrustful of villagers who had harboured the German menace in these parts, had ‘shoot to kill’ orders from advance groups of the Russian army, and to speedily bring the Ukrainians back under Stalin’s control. His ‘scorched earth’ policy had left the Ukraine barren, its people at the mercy of Hitler and his armies. Now, they were once more pawns in the struggle between the two tyrants: a struggle to the end. There was no knowing what would become of Vanya now.

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In pre-dawn darkness a German soldier threw open the farmhouse door. “Achtung, achtung!” he called out to the sleeping families. More soldiers positioned themselves, grim-faced, rifles ready. The German captain took charge. “Attention, everyone. We are evacuating. Put on warm clothes. Put on your coats. No luggage… I repeat, no luggage. One bundle of clothing for each family allowed. That is all. Hurry! We move immediately!” He approached the shaken elders of the farmhouse, nodded to them. “Return to your bed. You will stay.” Peter guessed, correctly, that the area commandant had been anticipating this and readied his area for this urgent evacuation and retreat. The commandant had good reason to act so quickly. The katyshka-like bombs were more frequent, aiming closer to his quarters. In the quiet panic of the farmhouse, Peter whispered to Evdokia, reassured her, helped dress the children.

“Hurry, hurry!” an anxious German soldier on horseback, rifle pointing, commanded the farmhouse occupants to waiting wagons, then Peter was ordered to lead. He grasped the horse’s reins, checked his wife and children were securely beside him. The captain signalled to move. Evdokia, with little time to think, felt for the tiny photograph of little Manya she had slipped inside her rough work shirt, close to her heart. It would stay there, hidden for protection for an indeterminate time, before it would see safety again.

Another bomb blast, followed by a volley of machine-gun fire from Russian artillery, burst through the dawn air in the direction of the eastern fields, the woods and the hill. It was highly likely the Russian army’s advance party had linked up with the partisans, and was preparing for a major attack. The German soldiers must have known this, hence their nervousness. They were short of supplies, and even shorter of ammunition, despite their menacing and deadly rifles. The rumours whispered these past days were true: under Marshal Zhukov’s brilliant direction, Rokossovsky’s central east army was pushing relentlessly towards Kiev, re-occupying village after village, railway after railway, at breakneck speed. Even at the fast pace they were pushing their horses, on the captain’s orders, it would be a miracle, now, if this small convoy arrived at Talalaivka railway station before it, too, was destroyed by Stalin’s air fire, which did not distinguish captives from captors.

Peter glanced towards Kysma’s kolkhoz farmhouse, close to the woods, close to the area of threat and destruction. It showed no signs of life. He prayed that Kysma and his family, and Vanya, were safe and perhaps even heading in the same direction, towards Talalaivka. He turned to look back one last time in that early dawn, as their kolkhoz farmhouse, which had been their home for these past dozen years, receded from view. Now, only their memories remained. They were forced to leave all else. Most of all, they were forced to leave their Ukrainian heritage, their Ukrainian soil. It was a double punishment: forced to leave at gunpoint, forced to give up what they cherished most in life.

The early morning sun warmed them. Peter gauged they could not be far from Talalaivka. Suddenly, the convoy stopped, on orders from the captain. The wagons forked their way around a nearby wood. They were ordered to look ahead, on pain of reprisal. It was too late. The smouldering remains of a burnt-out village, its smoke permeating the pure morning air, warned them. But not enough. Not even the acrid smoke could hide the stench of human carnage nearby. In a clearing, at a short distance from them, exposed to passers-by as a warning, was a mass grave. Hitler and his henchmen, as vindictive in retreat as they were in the initial invasion of the Ukraine, had urged such carnage and destruction so that little could be left for either Ukrainians or Stalin’s regime. Peter grasped Evdokia’s hand, tried to warn her, too late. In those few moments she, too, could see the open mass grave in the field beyond the trees, the stench confirming this execution massacre. Peter knew this was the shocking reprisal for disobedience. The retreating German army needed little excuse for such horror: partisan activity, or even support, was enough to trigger a vengeful response such as this: the consequent horrific, collective end.

Evdokia blinked and gasped involuntarily at the horror, her eyes wanted to deceive her, but could not. She shuddered, the early Ukrainian morning sun unable to warm her. All those many, many bodies: so many innocent men, women and children paying the ultimate price for simply being in their own homeland, caught between two tyrants’ armies. Her tears of sorrow for these hapless innocents blurred her vision, as she held tiny Nadia and little Mykola closer to her. She felt helpless in those sickening moments of discovery and realisation. She could not imagine the last moments of those victims, lying on the warm bodies of their compatriots, some finding within them the comfort of words to whisper to the already dead and dying, before they, too, would suffer the same fate moments later. How many “Hospode pomelyue” were whispered; how many “Requium in pachem”, “Borach dayan haemet” were whispered to their Maker that day.

“O God!” Peter cried inwardly, sickened. He bowed his head, tasted the bitter reality of his powerlessness in the situation. His mind registered the full extent of the imminent danger, and forced cold logic to over-ride his almost overwhelming emotions. He could not put his little family at any risk. He could not search out for Vanya again, even if an opportunity arose. The risks were too great, the punishments unthinkable. He could only hope and pray silently that Vanya was safe from harm. He could do no more. He could only, in these moments of horror, be thankful that the commandant of his kolkhoz area, and his disciplined captain who was leading them to Talalaivka, had not taken such inhumane

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revenge on the Ukrainians under their control. For that, he could be thankful.

* * *

Talalaivka railway station was almost unrecognisable. Fast Russian fighter planes, now having little opposition from Goering’s limping Luftwaffe, had succeeded in wiping out part of the railway line. Supply carriages, smashed and unusable, lay scattered, creating chaos, as acrid blue-black smoke billowed from the debris. As he reined his horse to one side, on orders from the captain, Peter could see the frantic efforts of teams of soldiers unchaining the damaged carriages in a desperate attempt to prepare the remaining supply carriages at the front of the line for fast evacuation. Their group was ordered to a holding yard, ready to board as soon as each supply carriage was checked. The monstrous locomotive, fired up before the attack, was choking to be released to its destination, somewhere westward, to a place unknown. Peter sensed his family’s fear and held tight little Mykola’s hand. He whispered to Evdokia to stay close as he reassured her and the children. Still, his eyes searched again for Vanya. Straining, he looked over the waiting prisoners in the holding yard. There was no sign of Kysma or his family. Nor of Vanya. No-one from that kolkhoz farmhouse for him to enquire.

Moments later, the captain signalled for them to move. The German soldiers, rifles pointed to the ground, but with safety locks off, ordered their kolkhoz captives into the crude supply carriages. Peter helped Evdokia into the massive cabin, lifted the children to her. He positioned himself at an open window, watching with strained eyes for any sign of Vanya. A soldier, avoiding eye contact, slammed the great bolt shut on the outside. A signal came from somewhere. The carriage jerked, in anticipation of its race westward before the Russian pack of aircraft returned. He leaned out, straining to catch every last moment of the platform. Only a young German soldier, rifle idling, wistfully looked westward in the direction of his own homeland, then turned back to the chaos, for further orders. The platform was empty.

From an alcove of the platform a figure emerged in full German uniform, officer’s hat partially hiding his face. It was the commandant of their kolkhoz area. He walked up the platform and stood at a short distance from Peter’s open window, then looked up at him. The early morning sun was dazzling. Peter could not be sure: perhaps it was a trick of light, the movement of the carriage. The commandant seemed to raise his hand, tip his officer’s hat, as if in respectful salute. Peter had no way of knowing what this meant: whether it was perfunctory, or honourable.

The supply train was no longer under the commandant’s control. Its occupants were now at the mercy of new masters, dissociated leaders and bureaucrats, commanding recklessly from OKH in far-off Berlin: ordering trains to every part of German-controlled territory, ordering trains to labour and extermination camps as expedience suited them. “Dear God, where are they taking us?” he cried silently as the massive engine’s ash, and black smoke, overtook him. They were being pulled in a direction not of their choosing, destination unknown, uncertain in which direction fate would take them.

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High above them, like black-winged birds frenetically darting in playful flight, three fighter planes circled their target. The hazy blue sky flashed, signalling the deadly game was over. Peter’s strained eyes followed the Russian bomber as it spiralled towards them, its contact with the ground shuddering the train tracks, its flames licking the carriages as they passed. He could taste the pungent smoke long after the train had snaked its way past the crater that had become the pulverised burial site of another Russian bomber crew. He glanced at Evdokia and the children. The carriage, crammed with fellow prisoners, was silent. Then a child whimpered in its mother’s arms.

“Dobreye Bohe,” he murmured to himself, “it’s difficult to know which way to turn.” He pondered the irony of their situation: the tragic death of the Russian fighter pilots, who were not unlike himself and his countrymen in their love of their nation and who had done their sacrificial duty, and the retreating German army and its desperate pilots, who had just moments earlier saved all their lives. He swallowed the bitter pill of calculated compassion. Whatever the outcome, there would be tragedy on both sides. And for this prisoner train, there would be further dangers as the carriages nosed westward. The Russian forces grew more confident by the day, even, it seemed, with each hour. It would be a miracle if they survived this journey.

Each winding bend, each minute pause on the railway tracks, increased the pent-up tension. Anxiety suppressed their thirst and hunger. Interminable hours dragged on. Droning bombers and fighter planes spat at each other again and again, almost anaesthetising the train’s inmates to the constant danger.

Peter skimmed his eyes across the late afternoon vista. They had now left the Kievsky Oblast. Somehow, amazingly, their long cargo of prisoners had criss-crossed railway gauges, evading Kiev. They were now heading into the western Oblasts. The German forces would move faster now, their control of these regions more certain, for the time being at least. Night would protect them, and partisan disruptions to transport were less common in these German-controlled parts.

* * *

In near-darkness, at a clearing near the woods, the train jerked suddenly to a halt. A posse of German soldiers, rifles ready, stood at each carriage door. At a signal from the commander, the occupants were ordered out. “Oi Boje mye,” Evdokia groaned, fearing the worst as she grasped Peter’s hand. Heart thudding, he whispered reassurance. “Dyna, they wouldn’t have brought us all this way to finish with us now.” He squeezed her hand tight, stroked tiny Nadia’s hair as she clutched Evdokia’s jacket. “We will see, Dyna… they have to give us water… some food… and they have to let us relieve ourselves.” Minutes later, the long train belched its steamy fumes again, hassling them back to the carriages, then lurched again into the blackened night.

* * *

Even before the train reached its Drohobych junction, south of Lvov, more Russian bombers streaked across the dawn sky. “They’re softening up Lvov now,” Peter surmised, as the reprisal explosions met their target. The German army was racing against time and would soon be forced to retreat from this vital westernmost city of the Ukraine. Only Russia’s approaching winter could temporarily stop Stalin’s armies reclaiming it now.

The train screeched to its halt in a huge junction yard. “Attention! Attention!” a seasoned soldier shouted his command. “Move quickly! Quickly! You will move to the waiting train!” Panicked, their captives pushed as one towards the carriage door. Peter grabbed Evdokia’s arm. “Wait; wait,” he whispered. “We’ll be crushed if we move! Kola,” he woke his little son, “stay close to us…”

He peered into the semi-light. Two powerful engines at the front of their next transport train awaited them, their markings distinct: ‘Reich Wehrmacht Transport’. His heart sank. Wherever they were being taken, the next part of their forced journey would be faster, and further from their homeland. “They must be desperate for labourers, to take us so far… wherever it is,” he thought. He spared Evdokia the heartache as, tending to the children, she was unaware of this.

As he stepped across the rough platform, his boots heavy, thumping the damp soil like a slowing heartbeat as he walked, he realised, at that moment, that his footsteps were feeling his Ukrainian soil for the last time before being taken to foreign lands. An almost overwhelming sense of grief hit him. He did not know when he would return to his Ukraine, to the life that had meant everything to him. And Vanya’s last image came to him. Tears stung his tired eyes. He had nowhere to turn to, to contain his sorrow. Nausea gripped him. He looked at Evdokia, so dependent and trusting, and at Nadia and Mykola. He swallowed hard, somehow controlling himself. He had to stay strong for them, whatever lay ahead.

* * *

With Drohobych behind them, a new confidence pulsated from the armed guards as they signalled with their rifles for their captives to take water from huge milk urns. The massive engines now powered almost effortlessly northwest through acquiescent Poland. Peter steeled himself, sensing they still had far to travel. He gazed intently at the passing meadows and forests, looking for changes that would indicate their location. Significant railway junctions now had duplicated German signs. Four long years of German occupation of these lands had stripped its people, rendered them harmless in Reich hands. He closed his eyes, exhausted. The late morning sun warmed his face as it pressed, unconscious, against the window pane.

At a change of pace, the train eased to a stop. Peter jerked awake, familiarising himself with the surroundings. They had stopped at a country station, with no signage. Nearby, cottages with curtains drawn, hid their mute occupants. Soldiers, astride army trucks, waited stiffly as their officers approached the train.

The carriage door flew open, startling the dozing prisoners. The SS officers moved slowly, deliberately, through the carriage without speaking, eyed each prisoner carefully. Peter’s stomach felt a sickeni

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ng bolt as he guessed their purpose. “My God!” he suppressed a gasp. “They’re searching for more Jewish people!” He forced himself to stay calm, glanced surreptitiously through half-closed eyes beyond the ghost-town houses.

In the far distance, and almost out of view to the unwary, he could see the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp, its furnace stacks almost obscured by the trees. He had heard rumours of Hitler and Himmler’s extermination camps, most of them in Poland. But he had hoped—prayed—that these rumours were part of Stalin’s anti-Nazi propaganda. A wave of revulsion hit him. He closed his eyes, willing himself not to react, pretended he was dozing. He could not risk revealing his true feelings at that moment. Hitler’s SS men did not need to justify who they singled out for the waiting trucks. The SS officer stood over them, eyed him and his blonde-haired family coldly, then moved on in his inspection.

* * *

In the dead of night German military efficiency brought them to the outskirts of Berlin. Their prison train crept along the tracks, its large front lights dimmed deep blue. Above, and about them, the night sky lit up, as if daylight had hit them. The explosions sent raining shards of light and colour, as if in celebration of a great event. Peter pulled back from the flashing window, could not believe his eyes. The fireball in the night sky was deadly, yet spectacular. He comforted Evdokia and the children, reasoned these explosions were farther than they seemed, and prayed to his Maker that he guessed right. With every carriage door locked, the train would become a molten tunnel, with no means of escape.

Suddenly, more soldiers rushed into the darkened carriage, relieving the guards. An officer yelled commands to the new patrol: water cans, sacks of foodstuffs dumped at the door, then the door locked again. Peter sensed the extreme urgency. If Berlin had been their final destination, then the scaled-up Allied night bombings must have forced a fast change of plans.

The commanding officer shouted his final order for the train to move. It jerked forward, almost recklessly, its great engines forced into faster gears. In the flashing semi-darkness, lit up by the spectacle of the Allies’ bombs, and the orange-red hurricane of fire left below in their wake, Peter could smell the adrenaline-fuelled panic. Their captors were taking them westward again, from one inferno to another. Now, they would be even closer to Allied territory and the unrelenting bombing raids. It would take more than a miracle, now, to survive such a barrage of firestorms and bombs. Peter, deep in his soul, did not believe in miracles.

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At precisely the moment the Allied night bombers emptied their deadly cargo and swooped their retreat out of range of German anti-aircraft fire, a shrieking signal pierced the morbid silence. Like clockwork, German soldiers flung open the carriage doors, shouting orders as they flashed their torches through the darkened carriages.

“Bewegen! Schnell, schnell! Bewegen!” The tension was palpable. There was insufficient time to transfer these prisoners from train to trucks, to reach the labour camp before the next onslaught of Halifax and Lancaster bombers returned, within reach of Berlin and this fringe forest.

In strategic formation, the trucks were already lined up alongside the carriages at this unmarked railway siding, the dim coal-red glow of the sky burnishing a deceptive warmth over the silhouetted trucks, with back supports unhinged, awaiting their human cargo.

Peter sensed the soldiers’ pent-up agitation; he, too, felt the oppressive danger. His nostrils flinched. Even in the chill of night, he could smell the strange mix of sweat and adrenalin of their tensed bodies as they ran through the carriages, could see their twitching jugular veins as they repeatedly shouted orders to evacuate the train. The Allied bombers would return too soon, aim again and again at these vital railway lines and other installations in unrelenting nightly missions to disrupt German war production, their ultimate goal to paralyse the enemy.

“We all want to live,” he thought with a pang, in spite of the incongruity of the situation. “And they’re so young… they, too, are afraid of dying.”

He gripped Mykola’s arms, lifted him into the waiting truck, then little Nadia and Evdokia. Captors, prisoners: all were vulnerable, so close to the railway line. He stood astride, arms outstretched, locking his little family to him. The truck jerked, preparing to move.

As each truck was hurriedly loaded with its human transport and each back support locked, it joined the convoy that was already weaving its way in the dark. Like a night creature with its red bulbous eyes glowing back at the following truck, front lights turned off, the procession of prisoners headed to its hidden destination.

As the convoy wove through the dark, from sealed to gravelled road, Peter smelled the vegetation brushing against the truck on the narrowing road, glimpsed trees that reached higher and higher until, it seemed, the forest had become a canopy protecting them from the bombs and fires of Berlin. He peered into the night, heard the clanging of locks on wire gates. The truck edged forward, motor throttled to idle, waiting its turn. At that moment, he heard the hum. He looked up to the night sky in the direction of Berlin and could just make out, through the gap of the open camp gates, the red glow of burning buildings, scattered around Berlin.

“They’re closing in again… those buildings have become markers for their bombs,” he realised, as the bombers’ distant hum grew closer and became a menacing growl; about to release their lethal tonnage from higher, more confident altitudes, to the despair of Hitler and his OKH.

The truck rumbled forward a few more metres. Peter looked up as the night sky flashed white as anti-aircraft fire shot out from the direction of Berlin. He could now see the hard-wire fence, high above the truck as it passed through the gates, and could just make out the rows of barbed wire higher still, like an illusory glitter of stars reaching up into the night. He pressed his family closer to him. They were saved from incarceration on the train but were now facing another imprisonment, with no prospect of escape, nor of survival, still within range of Berlin’s bombs. He felt the panic, prayed silently as he felt Evdokia and the children clinging to him. There was no knowing how much time they would have together, as a family; no knowing how long any of them would live, from this night on.

* * *

Evdokia pulled at her old jacket for warmth, felt the end of the rough blanket, then realised, in those waking moments, that she had wrapped it over the children as they sank to the concrete floor in the dark. Her body ached with exhaustion and hunger. She peered into the near-dawn dark, trying to make sense of their surroundings. Hundreds of other inmates lay all around her, so lifeless in their exhausted sleep that it seemed, in her semi-conscious moments, as if she had been unwittingly placed in some kind of morgue. She peered further, her eyes searching for Peter, felt the panicked shock as she remembered those last moments of separation, of the men being taken from their families and that last desperate supportive clasp of Peter’s hand on hers as he was forced to join the other men. She caught her breath, suppressing a sob, hid her grief under cover of her jacket. She had to be strong, for the children. She had to remind herself that the German army, authorities, must have some purpose for them, would surely aim to keep them alive, having taken them so far from her Ukraine. She closed her eyes, sleep overtaking her turmoil-filled state.

A shrill siren signalled the formal start of their day.

“Achtung! Achtung! Aufstehen! Aufstehen!” An older, burly soldier waved his juniors along the huge workshop. Like automatons, each repeated the senior’s orders, their rifles, though pointed to the floor, still menacing. Evdokia grabbed the blanket, took Mykola and Nadia’s little hands and queued in line with other frightened women clinging to their children, waiting to be checked by the grim-faced officials at the entrance of the building. Evdokia, in turn, stepped forward, looking away from the steely-eyed official who coldly inspected her suitability for work, waited for his nod before joining another queue.

As the grey dawn emerged, she could now see the full dimensions of this massive structure, with its solid high walls and steel girders that hung parallel along the building, a metre below the ceiling, with great wheels, chains and hooks attached and the conveyor belt and benchtop running almost the full length of the building. She had never seen an engineering factory, had no experience of what it may have produced.

“They must want us to work here,” she thought, puzzled. “But we have no skills in such things. What could we possibly do, all this way from our homes? It’s inconceivable.” She shuddered, as she noticed for the first time that each glass panel of the large windows of this gloomy factory had been meticulously painted black, with no prospect of seeing the sky, or a cloud, or even a green-tipped fir tree. She sighed, controlling her fears for her children’s sake; resigned to a fate unknown, she waited in the queue as, one by one, each woman and child was recorded, and each jacket ink-stamped at the left shoulder.

She tried to comfort Nadia a

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nd Mykola in their bewilderment and fear. “Everything will be alright,” she lied to her children to calm them. She could not yet understand the significance of the ‘OST’ initials, Hitler and Goering’s ingenious labelling of the ‘Ost-Arbeiters’, their forced labourers from the Ukraine: could not gauge whether it gave them protection from a concentration camp, or was a temporary passport to it.

A chilly wind whipped around them as they trudged, silently, to their dormitory. Evdokia clasped her children’s hands, felt their warmth as they walked the short distance in the forest. The fir trees and heavy foliage blocked out the daylight, yet ironically protected them from the distant drones of bombers somewhere in the distance. She drew on her inner strength, as she carried little Nadia the rest of the way and smiled at Mykola: the children pale-faced, too afraid to say they were hungry, trusting her reassurance.

Another older, limping soldier waved the queue into the dormitory with his rifle while other soldiers allocated a bunk for each woman, in strict order, and marked them off. Evdokia slumped on the lowest bunk, spread the blanket around her shivering children. She prayed the narrow bunk would be their refuge, for how long she knew not.

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The hellish nightmare began with each dark dawn. Like a regimented prison cue, the dormitory siren shrilled its command. Her deep sleep snapped, Evdokia jumped up, reached for the wet rag she prepared each night before sleep overtook her, wiped her children’s faces, kissed them quickly. She managed a brief smile, to try to reassure them that each day was routine, and safe.

“Be good children, Nadia and Kola; be good today for Tato and me,” she whispered, her own anxiety gnawing at her as she watched them run dutifully to the waiting soldier, to be led to their daytime dormitory. She wiped her face with the wet rag, ran her fingers through her long hair, deftly looped it into a bun and straightened her now-loose skirt and jacket. Her inner sense told her she must present well, whatever happened. She had her children and Peter to think of.

Already, all around her in these two months since their imprisonment, women were becoming dishevelled and emotional, some, breaking down entirely, unable to move from their beds or, worse, becoming suddenly hysterical as they worked at their conveyor belt. They were removed without warning, not heard of again, their children left to be cared for by other women in the dormitory. She winced as she thought of these poor distraught women, who could no longer cope with the anxieties of their incarceration and fear of bombs. She felt heartbroken for these children who would almost certainly remain orphans.

Each day, she presented herself ready to glimpse Peter as he and the other male prisoners were lined up outside their dormitory to climb onto the trucks that sent them to the southern outskirts of Berlin to clear the rubble of the bombed buildings: she and her inmates marched to their converted ammunition factory each dawn, as Peter and his inmates were trucked to the destroyed buildings, all returning at dusk, or night. Her only hope was catching a glimpse of him as he stood in the truck, facing her dormitory, straining to see her in the queue as the women were marched to the factory.

She sat at her workbench, in winter’s semi-dark, carefully spread the tiny square of concocted butter onto the piece of black bread with her fingers and ate it quickly, gulped the black chicory coffee a shaky-armed soldier had poured at the queue-line, and then placed her tin mug for safety at her feet. It would be many hours’ wait to the lunch break, at the workbench: the watery vegetable-like soup always insufficient to quell the constant hunger pangs. The evening kasha, though little better, signalled that rest would come: her reward, to share the kasha with her children and to hold them, knowing they were still safe.

The dull overhead lights were turned on. The conveyor belt started. She took a deep breath as she disciplined herself for another interminable day: hour after hour, day after day, of identical work, of some small parts that, however insignificant and innocuous they seemed on the conveyor belt, would find their mark in the future bombs on Allied cities in far away countries. She looked along the conveyor belt and noticed there were a few more vacant places, shivered at the consequences for these missing women. Then, at the farthest end, she caught sight of young Maria, from the Talalaivka journey. They nodded courteously to each other, their eyes still on the conveyor belt. The guards were watching, eyeing them. Her mind shut off from the friendship nod. The guards reported all activity to the camp commandant. Mechanically, she placed another ball bearing into a socket, the smell of grease and kerosene permeating around her, the fumes from a strange orange powder stored in a far corner stinging her eyes, her tears undetected in the gloomy light.

* * *

A thunderous blast shook the dormitory. Evdokia grabbed Mykola and Nadia, fumbled her way in the dark towards the locked door, waited, trembling, with the other panicked women for the soldiers.

“Dear God, may these doors open quickly,” she pleaded inwardly, afraid that they would all perish. She could hear the soldiers, the keys jangling at the locks, smelled the suffocating fumes of the burning factory as their dormitory door was thrown open.

“Hurry! Hurry! We must evacuate! Move now! Move! Move!” the soldiers shouted, their torches beaming haphazard paths for their inmates to follow. Newly recruited cadet soldiers, they feared for their own safety, if not for the prisoners. Clutching the children, Evdokia ran out towards the flickering path. Only then, as the icy droplets of dew shot pain through her did she realise they were all barefoot. She looked about, desperate to glimpse Peter’s dormitory, her heart pounding as she feared they would remain separated.

In the confusion of the darkness, with flames leaping up into the night sky and the crackling of factory chemicals around them, Evdokia ran towards one torch-lit path, then another; then froze. The soldiers’ shouting, their wavering signals, confused her. The past months of imprisonment and regimentation had made her cautious: too cautious. Now, she could not make sense of their conflicting panicked instructions: could not trust them, uncertain whether she and her children were being led to safety, or to their doom.

The din around her began to fade: she felt faint, about to black out. At that moment, a man’s shape stood before her, silhouetted by the reddened night. “Dyna,” Peter’s familiar voice whispered in the dark. His hand grasped her stiff shaking arm that would not let go of the children. “They’re moving us, Dyna… the factory is demolished… they may come back again in the night, the bombers. The commandant is moving us all out right now, before the next attack. Come, now… we are together again… God willing, we will live.”

He looked up into the black night. He could only guess at the Allies’ new ‘carpet-bombing’ strategy, whispered among the guards, which was made even more deadly with the improved American B29 bombers that now almost seemed to hover above the anti-aircraft fire, to Hitler and Goering’s chagrin. He shook his head. The new year of 1944 was almost upon them, the surrounding fir trees soon to be made Christmas-like with the anticipated snow. But these fireworks, from above and below, were lethal. There would be no joy, whichever side of the military divide laid claim to any victories in this harshest of winters.

Peter’s soothing voice, his firm grasp leading her, gave Evdokia hope. Still in a confused state, she followed him as he carried Nadia and comforted Mykola. They took their turn in the long line of prisoners as each truck filled to capacity, and rumbled off into the night to another temporary destination, westward yet again. In the chilly air, as the truck grappled its way along another pitted road, Evdokia grasped her shoulder in a moment of self-protection, felt the rough fabric of the ‘OST’ insignia she had months earlier sewn over the temporary ink-stamp. They were labelled wherever they were taken, within Hitler’s Germany; labelled with his other dictum, ‘Unmenschen’, that excused the feverish zeal with which his underlings Sauckel and Himmler utilised their forced labourers: labels that added a further sting to each proud Ukrainian.

Her heart still pounding and missing beats as if she might blank out again, she clung to Peter. Miraculously, their little family was united again. But her heart prepared her: at a whim, they could be separated yet again, as they were these past months. She could not be certain her body, her mind, would find the inner strength, the resolve, to go through this trauma again.

High up in the night sky, the loaded Allied bombers droned to their new targets, over-riding her inner moan of despair, her tears at last released as she leant towards her strong, hopeful husband for support.

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Perfunctorily saluting, the SS guard jerked his rifle at his prisoners to step forward. The cam

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p commandant pushed his lunch tray to one side and nodded to the interpreter. Evdokia felt defeated. Her fear was increased by the nausea she felt in her state of pregnancy. She glanced at Maria. There was little use in collaborating a story. And the evidence the SS guards had when they captured them heading towards the tiny Federwader station was proof of their guilt in their attempted escape. She realised, too late, the folly of accepting her friend’s assurance that they would not be followed along the quiet wooded roadway.

“You were caught leaving the camp,” the commandant began, glancing from the files to the women, then back to the files again. “You were preparing to escape… You and your children were dressed for a journey, with your valises… You planned to go to Wilhelmshaven?” He looked sternly at Evdokia, then at her friend. He did not wait for their answer.

“You know the penalties for attempting to escape. They are severe… even for women with children.” Evdokia’s heart pounded within the cavity of her strained body, hunger gnawing at her. She looked at the generous scraps on the commandant’s tray and realised she had not eaten since early morning, having given little Mykola and Nadia her piece of black rye bread for the long walk to Federwader station. Her body, heavy with expectant child, ached for nourishment. She bit her dry lip, felt faint at the thought of punishment for the crime of her desperate attempt to reach Peter’s camp. She had no news of him for many weeks, could not be certain if he was still alive. Somehow, Mikhaelo’s letters continued to reach Maria. She surmised that the men, grouped by the SS as forced labourers, must still be fighting the air-raid fires of Wilhelmshaven, as much in order to stay alive at the behest of the SS rifles as being blackmailed to risk their lives in order that no harm would come to their wives and children in the Federwader camp.

She blinked, eyes swelling with tears, as the irony of Mikhaelo’s regular letters to his wife hit her. The German system of administration was remarkable, in the face of its adversity in this summer of 1944: its cities constantly bombed, its factories and railways disrupted, its people killed and maimed. Yet, somehow, the postal and communications systems continued to operate as if it were servicing a nation in peace-time conditions. For this, Hitler could thank his chief Reich architect, Albert Speer, who worked tirelessly to untangle the chaos wreaked daily through Allied bombings and underground espionage.

The commandant adjusted his spectacles, glancing again at the women’s files, then looked more closely at his captives. The older woman, Evdokia, advanced in her pregnancy, was of a similar age to his own wife, who remained safely removed from this camp and the bombings, at their country estate with their children, with little risk of attack. He thumbed the papers of Evdokia’s file, murmured questions to the interpreter, who replied in muted tones. He removed his spectacles, wiped his eyes again, leaned back in his hard leather chair. Why would this pregnant woman, who had already been through so much, take the risk of leaving this camp, to travel even closer to Wilhelmshaven, where almost certainly the bombs would destroy her and her children? They had managed to survive the horrific journey from their village in eastern Ukraine: had survived the Allies’ bombs on the outskirts of Berlin at the camp hidden deep in the forest, where for some months she worked daily in the hidden munitions factory, and had only been removed with her husband and children just in time before the January air-raid carnage in Berlin, to be brought, miraculously safely, by train to this camp at Federwader.

His militarist’s mind told him punishment was in order. But his camp commandant’s logic gave a different answer. His superiors needed all the workers they could muster, in this crisis year. Their munitions factories and fire-fighting corps from captured countries had to continue. From the many thousands of prisoners in camps in the forests surrounding Berlin, relatively few were selected to make the train journey to this north-west coast of Germany, within reach of Wilhelmshaven. Their months of initial imprisonment and harsh conditions at that first camp had singled them out. Their ‘OST’ labels were removed from their jacket sleeves and they were given more food, and now were supervised in a camp without the massive barbed wire fences.

He sighed to himself, pondered thoughtfully. These prisoners must have stood at the gate that decided their fate. They must have somehow been trusted sufficiently to step to one side, walk past the infamous gate set by Himmler and his new civilian army that, at a whim, took the remainder of trapped prisoners to concentration and extermination camps.

He wondered, fleetingly, what his own wife would do in these circumstances. He could not be certain that she would have shown the loyalty, taken such high risks, to leave the relative safety of this camp, which saw fewer bombs flying over them, than the camp towards which these women were heading. Whoever these workers were, and from wherever they came, Germany needed every one of them. His own nation was being torn apart not just from one front, but now from three. Stalin’s armies had taken back the Ukraine, were even at the eastern borders of Germany’s satellite states. Italy had surrendered, entangling even more German troops to the south. And, just weeks ago, the Allies put into action their much-suspected ‘D-Day’ invasion, forcing Hitler’s last reserves of German men to bolster France’s western coastline. He could not stop the sense of foreboding hitting him. He instinctively felt his left leg, held together by long screws, the symbol of his recent dedicated duty as commander at the front line. He shuddered inwardly, hoping futilely that his young son, not yet fifteen, was not already being groomed to train in the army reserves.

He sighed, in pensive resignation, and glanced at the ambitious SS guard at his door. Himmler’s growing power over the administrative police of the Reich had grown so silently, yet so speedily, efficiently. Now, it seemed, these SS men could wield as much power as it suited them, often pushing the camp administrators into violent acts of reprisal against their prisoners.

“Gerhardt,” he calmly directed the guard, “you may take your break now… I will deal with this matter internally.” The young guard saluted, eager to be relieved. Meddling with these emotional women, crying before them, had left him feeling uncomfortable, in spite of his rigid training. Life in these low-security camps was confusing, unlike anything his army drills had prepared him for. These people, though different in some respects, and with their incomprehensible languages, were surprisingly like the villagers he had left behind in his own outpost hamlet.

The interpreter cleared his throat, carefully conveyed the commandant’s decision. “You must return to your barracks, and continue working in the munitions factory. You will receive your daily rations, as before. You will not be punished: on condition you do not attempt to leave this camp again. You must wait for news from your husbands… In any case, you must stay at this camp for your own safety. That is all. I do not expect to have you brought before me again. Do you understand this?”

Through her tears, Evdokia nodded. “Danke schon,” she whispered. She leaned against the table to steady herself, relieved. And she needed to know that Nadia and Mykola were safe.

“Oh Dynasha! Forgive me… I didn’t know we would cause such trouble!” Evdokia comforted her sobbing friend, who resigned herself to wait with her infant for Mikhaelo’s letters. She heard herself placating her friend. “Maria, don’t weep so, now. Your Mikhaelo will return to you, you will see… everything will go well.” She could not be so certain with her own husband, who she knew took greater risks than Maria’s.

Evdokia returned to her tiny space in the barracks building that was her family’s home these past many months. With each passing day since Peter was taken to his makeshift camp, closer to Wilhelmshaven and the increased Allied bombings, she lived in heightened anxiety. She feared she may never see her husband again. Remaining silent, she did not confide in her friends. But her deep fears were grounded in fact. The camps were strewn with forced labourers separated permanently in the chaos of Germany’s war, so many to never know what became of their loved ones. She could not tell herself, at that moment, as she looked about her and unpacked the suspect bag, what her plan would be. But she knew she had to act quickly, as each day brought greater numbers of air raids and destruction. And, in her distressed state, she could not be certain her pregnancy would reach full term.

* * *

She chose her day of escape carefully and watched the movements of the SS guards, then picked the time of their changeover shifts. The late afternoon was muted, with simple Sunday services following factory work. The children, lightly dressed, played at her side as she carried their jackets, on their permitted walk to the nearby woods, adjoining the railway.

She furtively checked the station for any guards. Fortune smiled on her, at that moment. The ticket attendant looked up at the quiet, neat woman who proffered the feniks for the journey. “Ah, Fraulein, off to Wilhelmshaven, eh? There will be little to find in the shops there these days, no?” he quipped as he gave her the ticket and change. “The train will come soon… they still come on time, just like the bombs, these days!” She smiled and thanked him, pretending to share his jesting. She found a wooden seat furthest from the ticket box, partly obscured by a bush, held her children close to her. She felt faint with exhaustion and

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the mounting tension, feared being recognised by the SS guards. She could not contemplate what would happen if she were caught again. “Please…” she silently pleaded into the darkening night, “let me reach my Peter safely.”

Twilight began to envelop them. She could not return to her camp now, even if she lost her nerve. The guards were on the look out for troublemakers, for partisans, working for the underground movement. By now, perhaps, she may even have been reported missing. She feared for her own unborn child, and her little children. But most of all, she feared she would never see Peter again. That pivotal thought forced her to remain on the hard wooden seat, her children folded close to her.

At last, she heard the rumbling in the near-darkness and heaved a sigh of relief. The train was running erratically late. A few night workers stood nearby, waiting to board it. She peered into the darkness, searching for the dimmed train lights, but none appeared. Suddenly she realised, too late, what the rumbling whooshing noise was. Her skin pricked with uncontrolled panic as she grabbed Nadia and Mykola, pushed them as far under the heavy seat as she could, lay between them and the sparks of ricocheting bullets and shrapnel, as the Allied plane swooped past. Too close, on one side of the station, the bomb exploded, as it missed its railway target. With her face pressed into the gravelled dirt of the platform, she could smell her singed hair as the cinders scattered about them. Her eyes followed a night bomber’s path as it swooped its way towards Wilhelmshaven, towards Peter’s nearby camp. Another bomber growled high above her, and another, and another. “Boje mye,” she began, pushed her body closer to the ground, to the children, as the shrapnel slated about her. Her darkened world was in a state of chaos, and somewhere amongst it was Peter, engulfed in fighting the furious inferno of reprisal.

In the fiery furnace raging about her, she did not think she would survive another moment. In self-protection, her mind went into slow motion, like a fragmented newsreel inexplicably unravelling at great speed, her mind’s eye gathering fractions of moments of her life one last time: parents, siblings, children, Manya… an icon and priest before whom she and Peter had given their vows. She moved her parched lips in prayer, for her children, her husband, before yet another bomb crater burst nearby.

Her mind would take no more. She could feel her consciousness shutting down: the fear, the imminent presence of death too great. In those last moments, her mind tried to reason with the events. If there was any justice in this world, of country fighting country, totalitarian dictator against dictator, then it was that, perhaps, the chaos Hitler brought on Europe, that now hounded him back to Germany, would eventually one day cease, with the Allies’ bombings. Her comfort—as her mind went into blackness—was that she and her loved ones would die on God-given soil and not in the gas chambers so ingeniously planned and executed by the brains of Hitler’s regime. At last, in this death, she and her children were closer to the heavens, could look for the distant stars, could draw themselves even closer to their All-Seeing Maker.

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Like primeval creatures trapped by their hunters, the camp sirens shrieked out their death-warnings to the inmates. Peter, disoriented for a few moments, jumped from his bunk; his senses, body, numbed by fitful sleep, the torturous duties still impacting on him since the previous air raid only hours earlier.

“Dyna!” he called out, his mind foggy but sharpening in the urgency. He peered down the dim mid-afternoon light shaft of his barracks block as men, dragging heavy jackets, hurled themselves towards the far open door. With only seconds remaining before the revved-up fire trucks would charge to their destination, he pulled back the board covering the glassless emergency-exit window, forced himself through its narrow opening and ran to the women’s block.

“Dyna! The truck’s leaving early! This could be your only chance! Leave everything—the women,” he nodded to her traumatised inmates, “will take care of the children!”

He helped Evdokia to move as best she could. Though panicked, she had waited for such a moment. None of the women in this makeshift camp, treacherously close to Wilhelmshaven, had experience of delivering a child. She gasped for air in her severely uncomfortable state, paused again to catch her breath, then followed Peter’s running outline to the fire truck.

It was imperative she go, this time. The fire truck was permitted only one deviation from the Wilhelmstrasse route to the smaller hospital on the fringe of the city. The shrewd camp commandant, calculating the risks—the disruption to the camp and the men should this woman Evdokia have an unfortunate birth—had made his decision. The hospital authorities would do what they could in these extreme circumstances.

“Schnell! Schnell!” Hermann, their crew leader shouted at them, his commands drowned out by the siren’s shrill warning. Seeing Evdokia’s condition, he ordered his men to help her onto the truck, raised his arm for the driver to go. In the choking fumes of their over-revved exhausts, the trucks crawled stealthily from their forest camouflage, waited while yet another squadron of Allied bombers passed over them, then charged out from the natural bunker of heavily-foliaged trees.

Peter breathed in deeply, rubbed his eyes, prepared for the coming debacle. He held in his emotions as he looked at Evdokia, held her shoulder firmly as the fire truck rumbled along pitted roadways towards the bomb-blasted city. “You’ll be safe in this hospital, Dyna,” he whispered reassuringly, smiling at her determined stoicism. “Don’t worry, everything will work out well here.”

He would not allow himself to think that this may be the last time he would see his wife, or his children. Such all-too-realistic thoughts would only undermine the duty which lay ahead of him, could even inadvertently affect his split-second judgment in the impending danger. He squeezed her shoulder, his taut muscled arms feeling the vulnerable compliance of her over-stretched body, and grinned confidently, his smoke-dusted face eliciting a smile from his anxious wife. He would remember that smile, he told himself, to come back to, to the safety of their prison camp. His eyes followed her heaving body as the hospital receded from view, returned sombrely to his prisoner compatriots in the fire truck as they prepared for their next life-or-death ordeal of duty.

It was yet another fire storm, wreaked on Wilhelmshaven by the combined Allied bombings. He sensed something was changing in this never-ending conflict. It was as if the Allies had cranked up another notch in their aim of fire against this important German city. These bombings were no longer the regularly-expected daytime and night raids. They were more frequent, punctuated by shorter and irregular intervals and seemed, almost, to come from all directions. Though there was no knowing the true situation of Germany’s military might, he had heard of Goebbels’ excited speeches on behalf of the Fuhrer, predicting that the enemy Air Forces’ collapse was imminent, now that Hitler’s ‘secret weapon’ was ‘eliminating’ their dwindling air power.

But Peter sensed this was far from the reality. The desperate measures being taken in the city and satellite towns of Wilhelmshaven by Himmler’s newly-ranked Gauleiter Commissioners pointed to a very different reality. Goering’s Luftwaffe was still game and seemed indomitable, but was, with each week, less and less effective against increased Allied bombing raids. His mind flashed back to Germany’s retreat from his Ukraine: to Russia’s increasing fire power, spear-headed by the Russian Air Force, which grew daily as their production lines improved. Germany, now, was facing a similar situation of retreat, right here, on its own territory. Even Albert Speers’s genius in munitions and production organising could no longer outwit the Allies’ chessboard moves in this deathly game.

His skin pricked with tension as their trucks reached their targeted part of the city. Massive plumes of black smoke warned them this was another monstrously successful sortie unleashed on the city. Whatever Goebbels’ and Goering’s daily propaganda churnings, whatever Goering’s right-hand man Milch had devised in the return flak, using Russian prisoner gunners conscripted for these air attacks, Hitler’s war against the Allies was flagging.

Peter braced himself in this contrast of military and political wills, his stomach tight, drum-like. He realised he had not eaten that day, was relieved, as his body prepared for a battle of survival. He knew that each day, each time the fire truck left the camp’s relative safety he, or any of the prisoners, may not return. There was a sense of entrapment over this once-great, free-spirited coastal city, now made incomparably dangerous by the ‘shuttle’ bombing raids devised by the Allied powers, and even more so since Hitler lost control of Rumania and its vital oilfields, allowing the Allied squadrons to extend their ‘country-hopping’ from British to Italian and Soviet soil.

And the liberation of Paris in these past days had made a cataclysmic difference to both sides: the Allies bolstered by eventual victory, Hitler’s Reich more shrill, determined it would succeed. Peter felt a conflicting foreboding: each day, each hour would be more risky, treacherous

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, for all those within the reach of this city; yet he hoped, somehow, peace could come quickly to this beleaguered continent. Hitler’s erratic manoeuvres had already cost Germany a million soldiers’ lives in the western Europe campaigns alone this year, similarly the enemy soldiers’. D-Day, the hoped-for salvation to end Hitler’s madness in Europe, was long gone. The Allied leaders had not counted on the blinded vision and vindictive power-wielding of the Fuhrer to over-rule even the most hardened and experienced realism of his rotating generals.

A wall of fire met the trucks as they converged on the bombed-out building. The Allied bomb had met its target, made a direct hit on the manufacturing plant, its diesel oil, hidden in bunker-like storage now adding to the massive caustic fumes, choking all nearby.

“Stand back!” their crew leader shouted, gesticulating. “The Volkssturm crew is checking the tanks—they have to save them! The Fuhrer’s orders!” Peter pulled out the large sooty rag, tied it around his face, but his eyes, blinking away the flying embers, revealed the reality that his tightened stomach could not. Before them, the whole building was in flames. As he stepped back, waiting for his orders, he could see through a bombed-out chasm of rubble men in bright blue protective jackets feverishly working. Himmler’s newly-extended Volkssturm crew had somehow managed to reach the central yard of the burning building, and were desperately trying to contain a leaking tank, hosing, shovelling earth in an attempt to stop the holocaust.

“Now! We go in now! All of us! Together!” their leader yelled, almost hysterically, his voice belying his bravado. He waved them on, stepping aside to ensure the dozen men under his control moved as one. They had stepped into a building that was now open to the skies, but only the billowing black fumes and fiendish licks of flames were visible. Peter, his legs astride for balance and directing the powerful water hose with both hands, twisted his head as best he could to avoid the hot-red ember feathers that floated like misspent atoms about them and realised that no water force or volume could save this building and its contents.

As he repositioned himself, closer to the flames, the water hose shuddered. He looked back through the blackened haze, uncertain what was causing it, dismayed. The heat of a molten metal machine had burnt the hose, rendering it useless. He took a gasping breath, was about to call out to his leader, Hermann, a few metres ahead of him, and closest to him. Suddenly, his senses were even further sharpened by a strange sensation, which he had never previously experienced. The flames, the billowing smoke were there… but the usual whooshing, crackling noise of the fire had subsided.

He could not explain it, had no logical reason for his reactions, felt the imminent danger. He sensed he had only split moments to run to safety. But he could still make out the shape of Hermann, the only man within reach. Already the deathly quiet was changing, about to expel its heated fury upon them. He instinctively grabbed his crew leader’s arm. “Danger! Danger! We must leave now!” But the man could not hear him: he was transfixed, as if mesmerised, awaiting his fate in vacuous heat, then collapsed as Peter pulled at his arm again.

The backdraft had begun. The weird sensation of skin, clothes reacting to meteoric temperature in seconds was excruciating. Peter used every muscle in his wilting body to haul his leader over his shoulder as he followed the melting threads of the fire hose towards safety. The heat was insufferable. The smell of flesh burning pulsed through his suffocating nostrils. He could not see the end of the hose, or the waiting scorched fire truck. He stumbled over the rubble, desperately hoping his sense of direction had not failed him. Lightheaded, unable to breathe, he willed himself to the hoped-for exit. His logic told him that, had he retreated at that crucial moment of inner sense, he would have reached safety by now. But his heart told him a different story. He had witnessed enough of life and death, and of sacrifice, of both sides of the ideological divide. In those last moments, of searching through the black haze for the rubble-strewn opening, he knew that in life, as in death, we are all equal, and that any life saved, whatever the cost, must count for something in humanity.

At that fraction of a moment, he could not look to the blackened skies for an answer. Hundreds of kilometres from Wilhelmshaven’s burning, in the safety of his Ziegenberg bunker, the Fuhrer could. Yet no re-reading of Hitler’s astrologers’ charts would help his Reich: the clash of empires had already rained down from the universe, the imminent result obvious even before the auspicious planets had aligned for him. If there needed to be proof of that, he needed only to leave his Ziegenberg den to witness the visitation of the heavens onto his cities. Those below, in those infernos, could scream the horrors out to him, even above the shrill sirens and earth-quaking bombs. Peter knew, if he and all others like him ever survived this madman’s totalitarian nightmare, those walls of flames of destruction would be etched for ever.

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A lone wolf’s howl, high-pitched like a misguided V1 flying bomb, pierced the temporary lull of night, sending a chill through the women’s dormitory. Evdokia, always only half-asleep these nights, shuddered. Comforted by the sleeping shapes of Nadia and Mykola crammed at her side on the rough timber bunk, she rose to check the pram at her bedside. The wailing wolf signalled again from its hidden vantage point across the forested gully.

She lifted the perena square she had hand-sewn in her last days of confinement, touched her baby Ola’s face and drew close to her. She was such a still infant, Evdokia was in constant fear for her baby’s survival, and even more so with each shrieking air raid. In the still and seeming calm of the night, she wanted to hold her close, as much for her own reassurance as to protect this new life, but resisted. There were too few hours, now, in any day in which children could rest unfrightened by the thunderous sound of bombers from the north-west and south-west of this small hidden camp that was too close to Wilhelmshaven.

The lone wolf cried its final siren-like warning, sending another shiver down Evdokia’s spine. “At least we know the ways of the wolf, its territory,” she thought, her mind drifting in half-sleep, “but who can understand all this other horror around us?” She trusted Peter’s observation that the bombers seemed to approach Wilhelmshaven from the west and north-west, from England and the North Sea or, more recently, from some safe south-western airstrip in France, now that Paris was liberated from Nazi control. This last camp, strategically located on the south-eastern periphery of Wilhelmshaven, and at the end of a small gully covered by a thick forest of firs, gave them protection from the carpet-bombing as the planes targeted the city’s vital port and industrial heart.

Evdokia sighed. The commandant of Federwader camp had been right, in that regard. This camp was so close to Wilhelmshaven that just one well-placed, if misdirected, bomb would wipe out its dormitories, its hidden fire engines, and its small underground munitions factory. This reality numbed her, each waking moment of every passing day in the camp, consumed any creative energy, or joy, that she had hoped would return, with the birth of her child.

* * *

The November dawn was crisp, its black-grey cloak seeming to protect her as she and the children walked the short distance to the crèche building. She stoked the iron stove’s ash, prepared the twigs for the morning’s cooking, checked the chimney’s funnel that ran alongside the building to an underground dispersion point. Within minutes the small building, within sight of the dormitories and of the metal door leading to the underground munitions workshop, came alive with the warmth of the fire and smell of Evdokia’s platske as the other women brought their children and hurried to the workshop. Evdokia counted the dozen or so children as she prepared their early morning meal. By now she knew each child well and watched with satisfaction as they sat at the table: some, like Mykola, so hungry, other infants, playful with their platske and chattering.

She looked up as the door opened. A boy-soldier stumbled in with a large bucket of chopped wood.

“Guten Morgen, Karl. Danke schon,” she nodded to him and removed several logs as he staggered to the stove. The young soldier tipped his hat, more to steady it, nodded silently. His eyes flicked across the room, observing this scene of apparent normality, paused as he noticed the pram in a corner. He lowered the bucket near the stove and stacked the wood to pyramid perfection and stood back, still eyeing the pram, then tiptoed closer and gazed at the sleeping baby. He seemed puzzled and shook his head, then, noticing Evdokia observing him, he blushed. She could not surmise what this young man was thinking: whether he was in awe of such a young infant in this makeshift camp, or curious of its ancestry, its white hair and pale, almost translucent skin giving it a doll-like appearance. He shuffled his feet, appeared to clear his throat, pushed his oversized hat back as he made for the door.

She hesitated, distracted by the needs of the children. “Danke, Karl,” she nodded as she closed the door after him, felt emotio

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ns of empathy sweep through her as she tried to understand his situation.

“He is just fifteen, and is already in this army… yet he is only a little taller than my Mykola…” She looked across to Mykola. Her heart skipped a beat. “He is also trapped… not permitted to step outside this room all day…” Already he tried to fill his day: working out incomprehensible words in a German grammar book left mysteriously in this room weeks ago, playing games made up with other children, from new Ukrainian words she taught each day, and even attempting crude whittling of broken twigs with blunt utensils, to make figurines of make-believe horses and soldiers and aircraft, in games that kept the children amused for hours.

He had become her companion, her assistant, in these past three months. Though still a child, he was being forced too soon to become a man of ten tender years, with responsibilities placed on him by the war’s circumstances as Peter and the other men were pushed to greater and greater risks of exhausting fire brigade work. Her Mykola attended to the fire at the stove, even helped in preparing the evening meal in the large pots as the women returned at twilight to eat with their children before taking them back to their dormitory.

“It is just as well the commandant lets our men visit us here,” she thought, relieved at this concession by the soldiers. “He knows our men risk their lives for us as well… It gives us hope we could survive to the end of the war… God only knows when that will be.”

At last she made her mug of tea, poured in a few drops of milk she had saved from the platske mix, sat at her chair within sight of baby Ola’s face. Constantly tired, over-awed by the threatening air raids that, like clockwork, would begin again as soon as the fog cleared on the northern coastline, she allowed herself some contemplative moments, to try to regain her sense of balance in this unending way of life. She watched as Nadia and the other infants gazed over a child’s picture book someone had left on another night, watched as they interpreted the German fairytale, excitedly giving their version in hand gestures and explanations, acting out the roles of princes and princesses, and dancing to the final happy ending. She smiled, warmed by their spontaneity and innocence, in the midst of the inexplicable that surrounded them.

She closed her eyes for a few moments. “Thank you, God,” she prayed, in acknowledgement of her good fortune, thankful that Ola’s birth those three months ago had concluded well, despite the trauma of that day. She sighed, relieved, yet her emotions were mixed with sadness as she remembered her own fortuitous circumstance of giving birth to her child in a dark corridor of the hospital, within hours of arrival, as traumatised nurses ran to save the lives of yet more bomb victims rushed to the overcrowded hospital, which also was constantly under attack from the mighty bombs.

Evdokia turned again to observe her baby, and waited for her next waking time. She was grateful that here, at least, there seemed to be sufficient food for them to survive on, whatever came in the supply truck, and however sporadic its delivery.

* * *

Another mid-morning air raid on the northern port-side of the city had passed. Evdokia prepared the children for their rest. She spread the mats on the floor and allocated the children their rest corners. She had more kasha to prepare, cut the dark brown bread into small pieces to avoid wastage. The next onslaught would be upon them before the children were fully rested. She shuddered as she thought of this carpet-bombing strategy the Allied powers now used relentlessly in the hope that Hitler and his regime would sue for peace. She could not repeat to others the rumours Peter had heard whispered, for fear of reprisal, even at this extreme time of Germany’s shortage of workers: of the Hitler regime’s having just pulled together another half-million soldiers from its male workforce, to replace all those millions lost on the eastern and western fronts.

“And the Russian army gets closer and closer,” she murmured to herself. “Peter hears they are at Germany’s eastern border.” With Hitler’s satellite states in the east falling, one after another, as if in a badly-played child’s board game, some even suing for peace with the Allies, the atmosphere within the German army, including its High Command, was becoming desperate. Yet not only did the July attempt on Hitler’s life fail; somehow, it had reinvigorated the tyrant to try again, for ever more ambitious campaigns of assault.

Evdokia shook her head, could not contemplate what else this total war would lead to. Even though she had had little education, her own life’s experience told her that to be fighting an ever-stronger Soviet military machine on the one side, and ever-stronger united Allied forces on the other, could only lead to a disastrous conclusion for Germany and its people. Yet its leader refused to surrender. And so the bombs kept coming, the cities permanently damaged, scorched, even almost wiped out… and Hitler’s soldiers, and the overworked Albert Speer, had to devise ingenious ways of continuing production, such as this makeshift munitions workshop underground, which only housed a few dozen prisoner women in this temporary camp.

She bent down to the bucket that held the water for the lunchtime meal, paused for a moment. It was almost negligible, but she could hear the droning, yet it was not following its usual path. She straightened, metal mug in hand, trying to work out the drone’s direction. The hum seemed to be fading. She heaved a sigh of relief, bent again for the water. Then suddenly, the shuddering drone was above her. She gasped, ran to the door, could not see anyone running to warn her. The munitions workshop was buffeted by the many metres of walkway down a long-unused shaft, and the metal door, when shut, would not be opened from the outside. The other women would either be safe, in their natural bunker, or incinerated if the mine-shaft took a direct hit.

She screamed to Mykola and the children. She could not run with them to the dormitory: it had even less protection than this building, which was located closer to the commandant and soldiers’ quarters, with their underground bunker beside their building. Only the soldiers were permitted to use the bunker. But the bombers were risking all, had not taken their usual course: had veered from the south-east, swooping along the narrow forested gully.

Already the fire trucks were leaving for Wilhelmshaven, anticipating the bombs and had just left, on a side escape, as a bomb blasted at their holding bay.

“Oh, Boje!” Evdokia heard herself scream as shrapnel and gunfire cracked on the old roof, singeing timber, scattering debris around her. Their men were gone, the women trapped underground.

“Kola!” she shouted. “Quickly! Take the little ones now! You and Ivor—take the children’s hands… Run! Run to the bunker! We must all hide there! Quick! Quick, Kola!” She pushed them all towards the door, pointing them to the bunker, the older infants running after Mykola and Ivor as they carried several of the weaker children.

Another blast sent window glass scattering into the room. She rushed to the corner, Nadia still in her arms, threw a pillow into the pram over baby Ola, then Nadia on top, placed another pillow over her to protect her from the flying glass and pushed the pram as fast as she could, leaning over it to protect the children, towards the concrete underground bunker. She could just make out the shapes of soldiers diving into it through its small opening, could not see the children, but prayed they had reached this safety.

“Dear God, please let them find room for us!” she pleaded, grabbed Nadia and Ola at the doorway and hurled herself into the bunker, just as a soldier was about to close its metal door. “Oh, danke, danke!” she tried to gasp for air, winded. Someone in the near-pitch dark steadied her, made room at a pew along the wall. She clutched Nadia on her lap, Ola in her arm as she tried to acclimatise her eyes to the dark to seek out Mykola and the other children. The bunker was airless; she felt suffocated. But she was grateful she and the children were not refused a place.

Someone moved close to her. At first, she thought it must be Mykola, but after a moment or two, she sensed otherwise. The boy-soldier, Karl, was trembling violently, almost convulsing, the shock of the near-fatal blast too much for his inexperienced mind. She leaned across and touched his arm, patted it, tried to reassure him, her Ukrainian words lost in meaning, yet she hoped they could in some way soothe him.

A flickering kerosene lamp in a corner revealed the pale frightened faces of Mykola and the other children. She sighed in relief as she tried to regain her composure, to hold back her tears in the dark. It was a tragic reality that her son, who also felt traumatised, at his tender age, had by now witnessed enough bombings and hardship, to somehow be able to distract himself, hold in his emotions, and to calm the younger children around him.

At last, they were given the order to leave the bunker. Evdokia waited at the opening, as each child appeared. They were all accounted for. She hugged Mykola, relieved they were safe now. She nodded respectfully to the soldiers, thanked them for the bunker. Some nodded as they passed, eyes averted from her and the group of children as they returned to the soldiers’ barracks. “I wonder… were they also thinking of their loved ones… their own wives and children… wherever they are, now?”

She followed the children back to the crèche building, then, puzzled at what one child had clung to throughout this ordeal, stooped and checked, and smiled. It was the children’s story book, with its fairytale, which had besotted t

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he children, its happy ending locked in their innocent imagination despite all the threatening bombs.

A long way from this camp, in his deep underground Ziegenberg bunker near Frankfurt, Hitler, in a highly agitated state, was still living out his fantasy fairytale of out-manoeuvring Stalin in the east and the Allied coalition in the west; was still imagining that, despite all the crushing defeats of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, as evidence to the contrary, he would bring Germany to victory. The ‘Wolf’ who had hunted the Soviet Union and western Europe had, yet again, changed his lair, from the Wolfsschanze, in east Prussia, and had reached almost his last lair: was soon to leave Ziegenberg for the Berlin Chancellery bunker, his final hiding place, from which he would not return. His false howl had had the following of a nation for a dozen years. His fairytale would soon be over. The reality for Germany and its citizens, for all the people of Europe, and beyond, involved in this human tragedy, was almost too much to comprehend, to bear.


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Summer 1947

With one final victorious swing, his body stretching drum-tight as if emulating the soaring trees, Peter brought down his axe with muscular precision, shattering the virgin log. Chest heaving, he stepped back, his parched lips tasting the mix of beech sap and sweat beads in confusing sensation. He pushed back his soaked hair, adjusted his dusty cap. Hryhori and Borys, paused at their unyielding log, watched their friend admiringly.

“Hah, Petro! What devil are you hunting from here?” Hryhori called out. Peter grinned and waved back, returning the jest: “Come on fellows, show your strength!” as they resumed their chopping. Like brothers, they had followed him to this forest camp after the horrors of the Wilmhelmshaven bombings and had been guided in camaraderie by their friend who, their senior in years but young in hope, had shown courage, even reckless bravery, in the fire-fighting brigades in those long months of Hitler’s war.

Peter straightened his back as he surveyed the next log, and breathed in deeply in satisfaction. There was honour to be found even in this menial shoulder-crunching work, so different from his veterinary work in his Ukraine. He knew its significance, for his family’s eventual safety. Since transportation from Wilmhelmshaven to their Heidenau camp, uncertainty for their future continued. His quick thinking had temporarily improved their chances, in hastily arranged records upon leaving their wartime camp, the illusory village of Mirohoshtcha, Polish-Ukraine, giving some protection for him and Evdokia. And the Allied Occupation Forces’ control of western Germany reduced, somewhat, the chances of being forcibly returned to Stalin’s Russia and his waiting labour camps. Every stroke of the axe he now made in this back-breaking work was a stroke for his family’s ultimate future. He regained his strength, picked up his weighty axe, began again.

Absorbed in his work, the piercing yard horn that alerted them to early Saturday finish-time startled him. Despite his exhaustion he moved swiftly towards the office grounds and the waiting transport truck, took the treacherous shortcut, carefully avoiding the ‘danger’ markers that signified unexploded Allied bombs in the muddy undergrowth. He was anxious to see his little Ola: her fretful crying through the night had given him and Evdokia little sleep. He heaved himself onto the truck, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the window of this British Timber Agency office: a dishevelled, drawn face, almost unrecognisable as the man taken from his Ukraine almost four years earlier. He blinked away, caught the commandant’s glance at the office door.

“Herr Pospile,” the commandant eyed him thoughtfully. Peter nodded, in respect. Fleetingly, conquered proud eyes met dusty hopeful eyes. The commandant stepped back into his office, his uniform spotless, now without its epaulettes, shabby, but worn with resigned dignity, belying the grubby shame he still carried for his generation of Hitler-followers. Peter brushed at the wood-dust on his face, felt the sting of a splinter lodged into the crevice of his gaunt cheek. Stung by the pain, his eyes moistened, momentarily. He felt empathy for this German commandant, now required to do his duty, not for Hitler’s Third Reich, but for the British and American Occupation Forces who controlled northwestern Germany, for reconstruction and reparations. “At least he has stayed to do his duty,” Peter told himself. “At least he found the courage to remain, rectify some of the wrongs… unlike those cowards who escaped the consequences of their murderous acts. Secret vials of potassium cyanide and silenced bullets are an easy sentence of death, when it is self-inflicted, without any show of remorse.”

As the transport truck swerved routinely into the Heidenau camp grounds, Peter jumped and strode quickly to the barracks block that housed his family. Immediately, he sensed danger. The tiny partitioned room was semi-darkened by a blanket, Mykola and Nadia watching, mute. Evdokia, tending to Ola, looked up, began crying again. Their child was moaning, in pain. Peter rushed to her side, felt the feverish little body. Ola had seemed better, was subdued, at daybreak. He had prayed, when he left for the Ostend forest work, that she would overcome her illness. Her condition had worsened these past days, was now severe. The rock thrown as she passed a group of older children, in child’s play that descended into stone-throwing, had inadvertently found its target.

“Petro, Petro,” Evdokia’s streaked eyes pleaded, “she is listless… she cannot eat, or even drink… She looks at me the way Manya did…” She sobbed quietly, wiping her youngest child’s brow with the damp cloth.

Peter’s skin pricked with alarm. He sensed there was no time to lose. The nearest hospital was Hamburg, which was still dilapidated but was equipped with surgeons experienced in emergencies. The Tosted forest labourers were sent there with serious injuries. There was nothing the camp medical attendant could do for their child: the area surrounding her left ear was red-purple, needing urgent attention, possibly even delicate surgery. He gently picked Ola up, her feverish body silent, and carried her swiftly to the camp commandant’s office.

“Herr Pospile… Frau Pospila… what has happened?” The commandant’s aide rushed forward as Peter pleaded to speak with his senior. At the commotion, the commandant opened his office door. He saw at a glance the panicked parents and their sick child, understood sufficient of Peter’s pleas in fractured German to gauge the urgency. He had witnessed many of these dire personal calamities, was seasoned to discriminate understandable parental concern from serious emergencies. And these times were different, too. In the early days of this Heidenau camp this child almost died twice, through infection and accident. Only the ministrations of an experienced German nurse saved such children in the dark days of 1945, before reconstruction had fully begun.

He signalled to his aide to order his vehicle to the door and instructed Peter to sit beside him. Evdokia, knuckles white with tension, cried silently as she caressed Ola, comforting her youngest with the precious Red-Cross-parcel shawl sent from a far-off kindly place.

Gravel potted road gave way to more efficient roadways as they neared Hamburg. Despite his daughter’s suffering, Peter observed the changes taking place in this new Germany, the speed with which rubble had already been cleared, and used, for buildings in reconstruction work. “Gute arbeit,” he heard the camp commandant murmur to himself. The work, admittedly forced on the inhabitants of the defeated nation, now had Allied aid from all parts of the globe. Peter could not help but admire the application of these people to the task before them, could not help but compare Stalin’s decimation of his Ukrainian homeland, even before one German soldier’s boot had stamped on its soil.

The irony hit him that here he was, travelling in a German commandant’s vehicle, nearing the hospital in which a German surgeon would be asked to save his child’s life, a child born in the heat of the worst bombing Europe had ever experienced. Tears fell uncontrolled down his face. “Dae Boje nam,” he prayed silently, for all the lovers of humankind. He turned his face away, his tear for humanity scorching his parched cheek, cleansing it. It would take another miracle for his child’s life to be saved, and he and Evdokia had already had their share of miracles in their life’s struggles up to this time. All he could ask of the German surgeons was to do their best for his child. This, he felt hopeful, with his veterinary training and having watched life come and go, is what they would attempt to do.

With only minutes to spare, his inked signature still wet on a consent document, the doctors rushed little Ola to the operating room. Memories of their long night vigil at Manya’s side rushed to sap at his emotions. He drew Evdokia closer to him, put her delicate shawl around her shoulders. Tragedy brought them close together again, their pulse beating as one, silent prayers appealing to the same God.

Some time later, the surgeon

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appeared and beckoned them to his office. Too early to yet know, he was hopeful of their child’s recovery: the septicaemia had been arrested, due to quick action and the surgeons’ skills. The doctor, dark hair smoothed and in a clean white jacket, took out a decanter and two thimble glasses, poured the black market vodka for Peter and Evdokia. He watched, with serious brown eyes, as Peter drank the vodka medicine. The medicinal vodka was good; too good. Its anaesthetic effect, blunting his pain, etched and imprinted in his mind, from that moment on. His saviour, henceforth, was not just his Orthodox God, but a pure spirit of fire aiding his faith that was man-made, readily available in time to come, the crutch which blurred the senses, hid the vulnerabilities. He could not know it then, but the sensation of that moment, the relief it brought to his jagged emotions in the uncertainty of his daughter’s recovery, was a moment too well remembered, too well learnt.

Gratitude to the doctor before him overwhelmed him. He knew, in his heart, this would not have happened in Stalin’s Russia. For all the spiel of Stalin’s ‘new nationalism’ in driving out Hitler’s armies, the Ukraine would continue to suffer under Russia’s yoke, never to be given equality for the duration of Stalin’s life.

* * *

Peter knew, as he nightly watched Evdokia prepare their simple meals in their too-cramped quarters of the ex-army barracks, and as their little Ola gradually regained her strength, that they had somehow, miraculously, come out of a blackness, the nightmare of the horror war years, and of their anxieties spanning almost two decades. In spite of their post-war difficulties, as ‘displaced persons’ without status or country, he felt a deep optimism. And that optimism stemmed, not from wealth or land or possessions, but from the outstretched hands of humanity, from the most unexpected quarters, to help them rise to their feet, raise their spirits and look to the future, to find those intangible, best things in life through this humanity, which transcend money, and power, and dogma. He hoped passionately he was right. His heart told him so. His head, given his life’s experience, cautioned him still.

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Even as the work truck wound its way back to the camp commandant’s office, Peter sensed the tension of the disparate group of men mutely waiting as the commandant’s aide secured the new list to the board. His stomach felt pitted with anxiety and anticipation, perspiration pricking him. He wiped his dusty face again. It was another warm summer Saturday, yet he felt cold, clammy. He forced his work-weary boots to the board, his stomach tensing again as mixed cries of anguish and elation spread through the group. He did not know how long he could bear this continued, prolonged waiting. He had had to steel himself for months, now. Time was running out, he knew. Most of his friends already had their interviews confirmed. Their youth, his age, little Ola’s illnesses, must have worked against his chances.

The men had already dispersed before he reached the board. He knew what this meant: it was a short list, this time. Whatever the problems experienced by the UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration office from the Munster region, the length of each monthly list and the haphazard selection of names was never explained, and could not be questioned.

He closed his eyes momentarily as he removed his dusty cap, and ran trembling fingers through his hair. The tension was crippling. He felt more overwhelmed, at this moment, than he had felt when he was holding the torturous fire hose nozzle at the massive walls of flames in the Wilhelmshaven bombings during those horrendous months of war. At least there the pain would have been immediate, life’s ending swift. He pushed to the back of his mind the horror of the alternative now awaiting him and Evdokia. He could not contemplate being returned to Stalin’s Russia, to the waiting labour camps swelling stealthily in the gulags of Siberia and Asian Russia, or even to Stalin’s satellite states in the eastern bloc, where misery and starvation were perpetuated in the name of Soviet progress.

The Cold War that was sprung unawares on them in Europe even as Germany’s surrender was imminent, overnight changed the political structure of the continent, leaving displaced persons with even less certainty than they could have imagined during the fire-burst of the war. The ‘Iron Curtain’ had come down not just to put a divide between east and west Germany, but now also between east and west Berlin. It crushed the hopes of so many peoples, who had looked forward to only peace between nations and safety for their loved ones. Now, both these dreams were gone. Left in their wake, he and Evdokia, with millions of other displaced people, were but pawns in the political melee that, like an uncontrollable glacier, was now spreading over Europe.

He forced himself to scan the list, then gasped, rubbing his eyes almost in disbelief. There it was, at last: ‘Pospile, Petro. Interview Date: 22 July, 1948’. “Ahh!” he cried out, confidence surging and invigorating him. He strode towards the barracks block, to give Evdokia the hopeful news. The difficulties of life in the camp could be minimised now that the hand of hope had opened to them. He could savour the piquancy of her freshly-made borshch, listen patiently to his children’s escapades. And Mykola would now resist the troublesome youths in the camp. With each stride of his skin-blistering boots, he planned his strategy for the fateful date.

“Ha, Petro!” Borys ran across the barracks yard to greet him. “Can you believe! Our priest has agreed to marry Katya and me tomorrow, at service end! ‘A short service,’ he said, ‘but it will suffice!’ Now that is a good holy man! Katya and I will be together… and my interview will have a better chance of success!” He grasped Peter’s hand, then, remembering his older friend’s plight, queried him, beaming with congratulations as they hugged.

“You know, Petro,” Borys dropped his voice, in respect, “our priest could not marry us later… Vicktor’s little Elenia did not survive… The mourning period goes beyond my interview date.”

“Charstvo Nebesno,” Peter bowed his head and crossed himself; then, as Nadia and Ola ran to them, he warned his friend. He would choose the time to tell them, felt the pang of grief for the child’s family. Their tiny Ukrainian Orthodox chapel, adjacent to the school, will be over-spilled with wet-eyed children farewelling their white-veiled princess, who had only recently played with his own daughters.

“Tato! Tato! Borys is going to marry! And Katya wants us to be the flower-girls!” Nadia ran around them, spinning Ola in an impromptu dance. “Flower-girls! Flower-girls! We are going to be flower-girls!” Peter grinned and gently tousled their white-blonde hair, feasted his tired eyes on their innocent exuberance. He determined to take them high up the hill behind the camp to pick the abundant wildflowers for bouquets.

For a moment his heart skipped a beat as Nadia stretched and turned in her child’s-play dance. Though younger, she was now almost Manya’s height, before her passing. Blinking at stray tears, he reminded himself that he and Evdokia were triply blessed, still now with three of his children beside them. He could ask for little more. Others, like young Maria and Andre, had lost their only infant, with no prospect of another. The dice of life tossed at each family was precarious, unpredictable. He would be grateful for just one more chance to toss the dice, have it fall one last time in his and Evdokia’s favour.

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An indefinable fragrance floated through their cramped living quarters, awakening senses in Peter too long held in check. He breathed in the mixed scent, then remembered. Even on this day, he awoke early, disciplined by all the years of hard work. He pulled himself up on his elbow, leaned back on the perena pillow Evdokia had recently enlarged for him. His eyes tracked the soft beams of sunlight that penetrated the worn blanket that served as their curtain and watched them ricochet across the patchwork of timbers and boards that gave his family privacy from the adjoining room. The beams darted to the opposite wall, flickered and played among the wildflowers in the bucket near the door.

He smiled as his eyes rested on his daughters’ tousled white curls, pale angelic faces just visible as they slept, side by side, on the narrow bed he had forged for them. He shook his head in amusement as he thought of Nadia and Ola’s efforts to pick these flowers, one by one, seeking his approval and their wide-eyed gasp as he plucked a perfect white lily from its hidden hollow. He sighed, now, as he took in these private moments, unobserved by others, allowing himself scant moments of reflection before the day’s happenings. The hazy warmth was already heavy with summer’s promise of fulfilment: their friends’ nuptials would be savoured today. But, he reminded himself, it was also a day for some reflection, for loved ones lost, as Vicktor’s Elenia awaited her candle.

“Tato, Tato! Please get up! Get up! We’ll be lat

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e for their wedding!” Nadia’s voice sang around the room as she tugged at the battered valise under her bed. “I’ll be ready first—you’ll all see!” She pursed her lips as she struggled to dislodge the case. “Kola—help me! You can do this, now!”

Peter grinned, watched as Nadia frowned then stepped aside as Mykola lifted her little bed and dragged out the valise. She snapped open its lid, took out the two Sunday dresses with their accompanying ribbons and, looking proudly at her mother, clicked shut the bag and pushed it back to safety. Evdokia smiled wistfully. Her precious photograph of Manya was now secure in that valise, wrapped in its fine lace and linen handkerchief from the generous gift parcel recently distributed, together with these embroidered white dresses, so admired by others, and delighting Nadia.

Peter laughed as he tease-scolded his excited daughter. “Remember—there is our long church service first. You must behave yourselves all morning!” He winked at Mykola, both understanding the jest.

* * *

The young Father Naniuk greeted them at the door of the newly sanctified chapel of Saint Pokrovskii, handing Peter a thin, used candle to represent his family. The tiny chapel, converted from a farmer’s store-room and refreshed with a motley of available paints simulating the sky blue and gold of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, was already crowded. Peter clasped Evdokia’s hand, squeezed it gently. They exchanged smiles as they watched their children, who were wide-eyed, entranced by the elder Father Mikolaeyev, in his mock-gold regalia, performing his liturgical rituals at the altar. Wisps of candle smoke, mixed with the senior priest’s incense, formed a heady haze, blending in an atmosphere of ritual mystery as the priests alternately read their verses and sang their prayers, allowing their congregation to follow in sung responses.

Only at the service end did Borys and Katya step forward from the others, their white-ribboned flowers pinned to their lapels. Nadia and Ola, followed by other curious children, stood beside them, their bouquets of wildflowers trembling in their excited fingers. The shortened wedding ceremony still weighing heavily in its significance, brought tears to onlookers’ eyes as the small choir sang its blessings. The couple beamed as Father Mikolaeyev nodded for them to follow him in a tight circle around the altar, signifying the final moments before their union. At last, they kissed the priest’s cross and, bowing their respect, followed him as he addressed the congregation. All were welcome at their barracks block for the wedding festivities.

The rough timber table outside the barracks block, that served the men at casual card games on an odd Sunday afternoon, was now covered in a threadbare but pristine white cloth, as women rushed out with plates of food previously prepared, for all to share. A sweet homemade lemonade was served from a bucket, some local schnapps shared by the men. Katya, in her fine crocheted blouse borrowed from another bride, glowed with happiness, blushing as Borys scooped her to him during the toasts. Peter laughed and shook his head, as someone teased “Horko! Horko!” to the couple for their celebratory wedding kiss.

“Borys, my friend,” he jested, patting the young man’s shoulder, “the sun is still high… you will need to watch the schnapps, if you want to enjoy the moon!” Everyone laughed as the groom blushed, then mock-poured some schnapps to the ground to honour his bride.

Peter drew closer to Evdokia, protectively placing his hand on her shoulder. His eyes followed the neat braids of her hair kept in place with tortoise-shell combs, to her delicate cream silk scarf, constantly mended, both gifts from an early parcel in this Heidenau camp, which she proudly displayed. He leaned closer and whispered in her ear, watched, delighted, as she flicked her eyes at his, a smile teasing her lips. She blushed, distracting herself with the party. Peter savoured the moment, remembered their own nuptials in those difficult times, almost two decades earlier. His heart swelled with pride as he watched his children follow the nimble-fingered accordion player to the grassy field nearby for the bridal party photographs: Mykola’s trousers and jacket already too small for him, as his stature grew, and Nadia and Ola’s hair blowing about in the afternoon breeze as, bouquets held high, they stood excitedly with the bridal party.

“Nadia, Ola,” Peter later sought them out, “I need to take your flowers to the church…” He hesitated. He would wait until morning to give them the news of Elenia’s passing. “Father Mikolaeyev likes your bouquets… he wants to make his church pretty.” Now tiring, they gladly held out their bunches. “Perhaps you could take a flower or two to Katya and Borys, for them to keep?”

They ran off to the couple with their selected flowers. Peter nodded to Evdokia, knowing she understood his purpose. He walked the short distance back to the barracks block, where the accordionist and party were in full voice, and continued on to the far end of the camp to the church, the simple wooden painted cross above its door its symbol of Orthodoxy. The door was closed, but unlocked. His eyes adjusting to the dim light, blinking at the candle haze that still hung in the air, he made his way to the altar, now devoid of its ecclesiastical robing, revealing its simple timber planks of a hand-hewn table. He arranged the flowers along its length, placed the pure-white lily with its long stem at table’s end. Tomorrow, the plain plank table would touch other hand-hewn planks, of a child’s coffin, the child’s porcelain-white face would be embraced by this pure-white lily, also cut too early, before its prime.

Peter stood back, head bowed as he said a silent prayer only known to his soul, of the enduring love he held close, deep in his heart for his young lost loved ones: Hanya, Mischa, Manya.

The tears fell over the lily, slipped down to its stem, to its heart that once existed. “Charstvo Nebesno,” he whispered. “May we all be together, one day, if our God wills it.” He shuffled his feet, to stir himself from the deep moment. A clump of clay broke from his worn boot. He picked up the clod, symbolically kissed it and placed it next to the lily, remembering another clod of clay that had been left all those years ago, in his Kylapchin village cemetery. What had to be, had to be, his heart had told him. And so it was. He crossed himself once more, stepped back from the altar, closed the church door. There will be time enough for more tears in the morning. The rest of this day was still one for the celebration of life, of love, of joy. Today’s celebrations reminded him our hearts needed only to look about us, to find it so.

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“Herr Pospile…” the UNRRA official looked up from his documents and beckoned Peter to the chair opposite his desk. Peter nodded in respect and glanced about him. This cramped room, adjacent to the camp commandant’s office, but now with its walls stripped of paraphernalia, felt clinical, reflecting the sombre tone of the German officer. There was no hint in his demeanour for Peter to gauge which side he supported: the old Germany under Hitler, the Western Allied Occupation forces or, now, the newly developing administration that would soon emerge as the German Federal Republic.

Peter tried to take a deep breath to prepare himself, but his chest felt as if it was being crushed by a suffocating weight, the enormity of this meeting almost submerging him. All his preconceptions for this interview were suddenly swept aside. He realised in that singular moment that, except for one vital fact, honesty was his best ally. Pulled in both directions, afraid of his own ability to fully convince the UNRRA official at this sunset stage of Germany’s migration proceedings, he thought of his little family, so dependent on him, and forced himself to remain composed, convincing.

The official laid out his documents in careful order. It was more than orderly, somehow almost a method of entrapment. Peter suddenly realised that this man may well have been trained in Germany’s secret service. There was something unnerving in the way in which he scrutinised the documents, ran his eye over this one, then another, then back to yet another, looking for inconsistencies, untruths.

In spite of himself, Peter watched, intrigued, trying to gauge the officer’s thoughts. “This man is trained to watch for serious offenders,” he thought to himself. “Traitors, collaborators… people with stolen identities still trying to escape the clutches of the administrative police.” It was possible, in post-war Germany, that some of them could still be within the boundaries of this camp, unwittingly protected by others.

He drew a deep breath, and waited. Whatever the cost, he would take his chances with the one vital deviation from the truth. He could not contemplate being sent back to Stalin’s Russia. Already, Stalin’s much-altered NKVD had a new arm to its iron fist in the form of Smersh, the aptly named acronym of ‘Smert Shpionam’—‘Death to Spies’, extending its poisonous tentacles so far that even in Heidenau camp the waiting inmates froze in fear. The pretexts for Smersh’s stamp of ‘traitor’ that led straight to Stalin’s labour camps were spurious, but the consequences deadly: forcible removal by enemy forces from Russian or Ukrainian soil, even temporary, placed the interrogated under permanent suspicion.

Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the gulags were but rumoured, still

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to be revealed. But the anecdotal histories of so many like him were already circulating. And no-one was removed from suspicion by the vindictive Stalin. Even the brilliant Marshal Zhukov, saviour of many battles and thus of so many Russian and Ukrainian lives, barely escaped trumped-up ‘non-patriotism’ charges, with only his supreme popularity halting Stalin from carrying out his threats. Peter knew he had no choice but to do whatever he could to protect his family, in order to escape their inevitable fate if returned to Soviet soil.

“Herr Pospile… I see your Red Cross cards issued by the Geneva office, dated 28th July, 1945, indicates you are Ukrainian, and ‘stateless’.” Peter nodded. The officer put the document to one side, picked up another. “Then these documents… in Wilhelmshaven, dated 15th October, 1945, indicate you and your wife Evdokia came from Mirohoshtcha, Polish-Ukraine. Is that so?” He watched Peter carefully, his expression neutral, listened impassively to his explanation.

“So… your village was within the border of Poland?… But you are Orthodox, Ukrainian… And so you must be bilingual, then?” Peter affirmed, responded readily in Polish. “Hmm…” the officer paused. He turned thoughtfully to a bound reference, frowning slightly as he searched for the elusive village that may well have been obliterated along with thousands of others in the vast regions of the war.

“And so… you have not practised your veterinary surgeon skills since… your arrival in Germany… at the end of 1943?” His sharp eyes watched Peter’s reaction, ostensibly even more dispassionately. Peter felt a sting of pride testing his pent-up emotions. If this official’s demeanour was intended to unnerve the unwary applicant, he could succeed at any moment. He took a deep breath, responded in a factual manner: their Berlin temporary camp, their many months in the Wilhelmshaven camps, and now the Heidenau camp of the Hamburg region.

His heart sank as he realised that he may never have an opportunity to return to the specialist veterinary skills he had gained all those years ago. It pained him that he could now be judged only on his merits as a wood-cutter, and not on the life he had held so dear as a veterinary practitioner. He swallowed hard, bowed his head, felt the tightening of his throat like a waiting noose. As he looked up, the officer was still watching him, evaluating him. For the first time in this traumatic interview, he sensed a few moments of empathy. “O God!” he thought, unable by this time to second-guess what this meant. He wanted to bare his soul, plead with this man, to be allowed to migrate, out of danger. But he knew that would only arouse even more suspicion, cast doubt on the authenticity of every other part of his story. He could only wait. There was no knowing which way the dice of this interview would fall, for or against his and Evdokia’s fate.

“Hmm…” the officer sat impassively, still in thought. Then suddenly he pushed back his chair. It seemed as if some kind of burden had been lifted from him. “Herr Pospile… you know that Poland now allows its citizens to either return to its new borders, or to nominate to migrate… elsewhere?” Peter nodded. “So… what do you wish to do, Herr Pospile, you and your family?” He noted, calmly, Peter’s response: “Desires to migrate to a ‘friendly’ western country.”

“Ahh…!” the officer breathed easily as he signed his name and dated the document with a controlled flourish. “You understand that this testimony does not give a guarantee of migration? This will be forwarded to other… committees. It can be a long process… very long… you do understand?” Peter nodded. The interview was completed, but he waited respectfully for the officer to stand.

“You know, Herr Pospile,” the officer spoke in a softer tone as he stood to shake Peter’s hand in official manner, “the Russians these days are very ‘generous’ in sending their workers to Poland, to… ‘stabilise’ that country.” He looked quizzically at Peter, with the hint of a smile. “It could well be that the Polish government may not need its citizens to return there, as much now, as previously. But… who knows? Each day brings new developments, surprises, in Europe.”

Even in those last moments of his interview, Peter could not know which way his fate would fall. The officer’s hand was strong, purposeful. The man was taller than Peter had first imagined, his light grey hair confounding his age. “He is a disciplined man,” he thought to himself. “He would almost certainly have served somewhere in Hitler’s regime.” Yet, despite the difficulty of the interview, this official showed no malice, expressed no derision for the exhausted displaced worker in the dilapidated jacket who had sat before him. Whatever his views, Peter thought, he had conducted himself honourably: another German citizen in the Allied zone, conducting himself with dignity in such humiliating circumstances, in his own country, which he still could not claim as his own. In spite of his own personal trauma, Peter felt a surge of compassion for this man who, he felt, could possibly be inwardly as traumatised by the events of the past decade as he and so many others were.

Instinctively, noticing the officer had no watch, Peter dug down deep into his jacket for the only prized possession he had kept from the Red Cross parcels. In broken German, he shyly offered the man his gift, in honour of their meeting of ways. “Ah!” he responded and placed his hand on Peter’s outstretched gift. “There is no need to give me your watch… you may need it, some day. You have earned the right to keep it, Herr Pospile… I am… just doing as I am required, here.” He waited for Peter to put away his watch, then, uncharacteristically, as Peter looked back from the open door, the officer tipped his forehead as if in casual salute. Peter stopped and did likewise. Whatever happened, now, he could not accuse this German administrator of pre-judgment. And, in that sense, it made the potential of rejection more bearable.

Germany’s summer sun flashed in his eyes as he stepped down to the pathway to his barracks block. He half-laughed to himself at the inconsistencies, the vagaries of life, even now, in defeated and peaceful western Germany. In one single facile stroke, he could either be a truly freed man, or yet another statistic in one of Stalin’s labour camps in the growing gulags of Siberia and beyond. Now, he could only hold on to his hope, that fortune would smile on them this one last time, to give his heart the chance to feel real freedom from the anguish he had suffered all these years, freedom to allow his spirit one last chance to rise—soar—again.

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“Come, Dyna, Nadia…! Mykola is already there!” Peter waved his encouragement and squeezed Ola’s hand in jest and grasped abundant berry bushes with blistered fingers, his boots searching leverage in acquiescent undergrowth. His muscles burned, but he forced himself up the steep incline to the hill’s peak. As he stooped to carry Ola for the final ascent, the earthy pungency of crushed moss and autumn’s lingering wildflowers hit his nostrils, sharpening his senses. His body ached, but he felt enlivened, optimistic.

“See, it was quicker this way!” he called, drawing victorious breath. Beyond the ridge the party with its accompanying music was already in full revelry. He paused, contemplating the last tricky steps, then beckoned to Evdokia and Nadia to hurry.

Suddenly the expanding vista of the countryside that had become their world these past four long years in Heidenau opened out to him. Its pristine beauty of forests and ostensible tranquillity pricked his senses anew and revived his spirit. He breathed in its freshness and vibrancy, wondered at the unexpected, unpredictable turn of events. From this vantage point, German soldiers had stood in snowy nights and on exposed warm days, guarding their Heidenau army camp during Hitler’s war, their concrete bunkers providing scant protection from constant Allied bombings that had become a part of their daily survival in those last years of war.

Now the bunkers were overgrown with forgiving vegetation of these past four springs. Behind him, to the north-east, and beyond the Tosted forest in which they laboured, Hamburg now bustled, its growing international flavour heightened by the surprising events of the past year. Below him, the camp sprawled even beyond its original boundaries, as new refugees arrived and were dispersed to far away places, whilst others, like him and his family, still remained.

“Ah, Petro!” Borys waved and stepped up to greet him. “Here you are at last! What, it is not enough for you to work at your logs all week, that you must test your strength again on Sundays at the farm? Come, Petro, drink with us! Today we can all find reasons for celebration! Be happy for us, my friend! We may yet see you and your family in America as well!”

Borys handed him a mug with its clear elixir. The shot of vodka scorched his throat, burned deep in his chest, fired sharp sensations at his brain. He had forgotten how fast, how active this elixir was. It shot deep beneath his optimism and his logic, disengaged and relieved the pain of his anxiety and uncertainty that lurked daily, hourly, as he awaited their fate. For those few moments the countryside faded, the sun’s generous shedding of afternoon’s rays blurring his vision. He was transported to another hill, thousands of kilometres away, all those years ago, to his father’s hillside land, to the sweet smell of summer’s Ukraine.

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Tears welled, confusing sensations competing with his composure: pain of the past, anxiety of the present, released by the vodka’s potency, surfacing and over-riding his controlled emotions. Now it was autumn, and September 1949. He was not celebrating his father’s hard work in his own Ukrainian land, but those of the German conquerors who had just gained their freedom in their new western Republic, witnessing, at this very time, a new phase of government and leadership under a true democracy. He was happy, now, for these conquering people, who had gone through much suffering, but he felt even more painfully the sense of his ‘displacement’.

He swallowed hard, drank the dregs of the tumbler’s potion, and took some home-brewed schnapps proffered him, fired his mind to Borys and Hryhori. Fortune had smiled on them, the haphazard American migration openings picking such young men and their brides at a time when so many ships were diverted to Ben Gurion’s new Israel, a priority over all other migration. He smiled generously as he listened again to their good fortune, glad for them that their wishes were met.

Yet his heart sank anew. The element of luck played a great part in this last migration. He consoled himself that his family’s chances were good, still. Four long seasons had passed since his fateful interview with the cautious German migration officer, and still no word of their prospects even though, recently, they had had inoculations under the new banner of the International Refugee Organisation, in preparation for a possible fortunate outcome. Yet there were still no promises, no guarantees. All they could do was wait, and wait. And celebrate this hillside party, and western Germany’s elections, that had been the cause of so much consternation and, now, excitement.

“Dear God,” he pleaded silently. He hoped fervently this new government could signal that he and Evdokia would not be transported, even at this stage, back to Stalin’s Russia and the obligatory labour camps, as had recently happened, inexplicably, with some of the camp’s ‘displaced persons’. He prayed his information to the migration officer would hold. In such uncertain times, all was fluid, even quicksand. The four years’ encampment at Heidenau could still count for nothing, if some untrue or malevolent information fell in unsympathetic hands.

He sighed philosophically, his psyche of these past years matured now to accept uncertainty and inconsistency in this ‘new world’ of freedom in bondage, democracy in a split new nation state, immense international goodwill and welfare in an unrelenting daily climate and blast of Cold War diplomacy, and outbursts of Stalin’s belligerence in his threats of reprisal, even as the Berlin blockade ended and ‘normalcy’ resumed.

He watched as a group of men and women, with giggling children, stepped out a traditional dance in a clearing: the women’s skirts brushing the nettles, thorns stopping them in their turns, their laughter as they faltered. He smiled, in spite of himself. He thought of the steps he took in life, turning this way, then that, doing everything possible to stay alive, keep his little family together. It was a haphazard, unpredictable dance he negotiated, almost like a minefield in this political and social milieu of a new Germany, that still was strapped with the problems of recent war. Yet his heart still held hope. He desperately wanted to increase his family’s chances for safety, and happiness, one day.

“Aha, Petro! Here is our song! Come! I know you are in good voice, my friend, when the throat is whetted!” Hryhori slapped his back and cued in the tune, as a Polish folksong ended and strains of their Ukrainian were chorused. Peter laughed and drew his arm over his friend’s shoulder, tousling his daughters’ hair as they stepped to join their waiting friends, his eyes teasing Evdokia to follow them in song. “Xodite, xodite, nashi xloptsi i ridni…” The vodka and schnapps had kicked in: his natural wit and humour and optimism came to the fore. He confidently led the men in heartfelt verse, to the applause of those around them. “Od moyi ochi padyt sloze… Ale me do novi domue yidem…”

The accordion, Christos’s balalaika, another’s harmonica, raised them in crescendo:

“Come on, come on, good men and loved ones…
Though tears flow freely as our hearts are aching…
We will find our new abodes in other havens…”

He embraced the camaraderie as he joked with Evdokia and their friends, felt delighted at how easily his witty regaling could make them laugh. Music filled the hillside, the chorus was raised ever higher: the celebration of a community of nationalities imprinted in their memories before they scattered to, as yet unknown, parts of the globe.

In the distance, trudging up the long pathway from the camp, several guards in unfamiliar uniform headed for the revellers. The accordion quietened, the balalaika strings paused. Someone steered them towards Peter’s group and pointed to Peter. Instinctively, his stomach shut tight, all those years of habitual fear and anticipation over-riding even the schnapps and vodka looseners. Aware he was being singled out, he whispered to Evdokia to console her, pretending the camp commandant had information for him, and stepped forward.

“What is it, sir?” he called out to the senior guard, who was already displaying his badge. “Please don’t concern yourselves to climb further… I will come to talk with you.” His friends, emboldened with drink, waved him on: “Good man, go and tell them, you are one of us, and you are ‘clean’!” He followed the officials to the level ground as the temporarily quietened party again took up song.

“Herr Pospile,” the senior official addressed him, his shiny Polizei insignia adding gravity to his orders, “you are instructed to attend a Police hearing tomorrow morning at the Heidenau/Tosted Police quarters with our senior Police Administrator. I am instructed to inform you that you will not be told prior to the appointment the nature of this matter. Your camp commandant has been advised. He will arrange your transport to the Police Headquarters. Are you clear about these instructions? You are advised not to miss the appointment, as it will be viewed gravely, and will go against you.” Peter nodded thoughtfully, thanked the police guards for their duty. They quickly saluted, as if still on wartime patrol. He returned a short salute. His early training and years of army service instilled a respect for these government officials.

He stood frozen, shoulders still stiff and proud, holding up a tired body now racked with even more uncertainties. “What possible reason could the police have to interview me, separately?” he wondered. His mind quickly tore through possible misdemeanours of these past four years in the camp. His only crime—if it could be called one—was the tiny clandestine cellar beneath the floorboards of their crowded living space, dug out with his bare hands and lined with waste timber, in which he stored precious supplies of cabbage and green apples to help his family, particularly Ola, survive the winters and springs of camp rations. And he could not allow his mind to dwell on the only truly significant ‘misdemeanour’ of fact, of his and Evdokia’s origins. Their survival as a family depended on this. “God!” he cried inwardly. “Tell me these new blisters won’t come to naught! Evdokia needs our few feniks for her trunk of worldly goods—if we are to be approved!”

Caught off guard, he looked up in a moment of bewilderment as he sought an answer from Above. No Word came to him. Only the music responded: teasing, playful, as the merry-makers, emboldened again, continued their celebrations. He stood there for some moments, trying to make sense of his own situation: the music whirling about him yet pushing him, the outsider, out. The music, his fears, the momentary despair, his pent-up hope—all seemed to collide, like dancers with secret inexplicable steps, each with intriguing goals and outcomes of their own, unconcerned with others’ actions.

Stretched, his nerves jangled, he felt his life was like a macabre dance, the intricate steps of which were not revealed to him until—too late. He turned away from the partying crowd: back to the cramped conditions of his barracks block, his life’s successes and failures flashing before him as he tried to take hold of his emotions, tried desperately not to feel crushed, yet again.

In that moment of truth, as the music faded and the revellers’ laughter receded out of reach, he realised at last that his dance was a dance with destiny: that only the direction of a chance ship would point him to a final home. Yet even now at this one last, late moment, one slip, one wrong step, could still take them out of safety, back eastwards, to an unthinkable Siberian oblivion.

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A jag of lightning slashed across the sombre sky, awakening tree-tips of the gorge in crystal candles like a premature Christmas mass. Peter jerked awake, stunned by nature’s revelatory force, then leaned back in his carriage seat. The Black Forest was so dense, the hills and mountains so steep above the lurching train as it headed southward to Switzerland’s border. Instinctively, he felt for the vital documents in his coat’s chest pocket and sighed in relief. Across from him, Nadia and Ola slept folded within Evdokia’s arms; Mykola slumped next to him, succumbing at last to the day’s long journey.

He closed his eyes as the lightning flashed

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again in the dusky night, heavy snowfalls slowing the train to a near-crawl as it wended its way on elliptical bends. He carefully retrieved the precious documents and re-read their simple contents, still felt a sense of disbelief. From the moment he was ordered to present himself to Administration Headquarters for interrogation, miraculous wheels of action were set in motion. Police records were incomplete, inconclusive. Someone, a stranger who must have dogged him, and now recently disappeared, had assumed his identity.

The Cold War undercurrents, even espionage, thrived on these transient political systems, as east and west Europe struggled for political advantage. The camp commandant, aware of Peter’s precarious position, stood alongside him at the tribunal and produced the vital document, long hidden in his archives, authenticating Peter’s transfer from the Wilhelmshaven to Heidenau camps those four long years ago; further, he appealed to his friend, the Kreis Harburg Burgermeister, as witness. The final authorisation was signed, approval stamped. Peter, with heart pounding in the charged moments, was handed the two life-changing documents which allowed him and his family to leave Heidenau camp, and Germany.

As if a magician’s cloth had ripped away uncertainty, within the few rushed weeks inoculations were completed, Evdokia’s trunk sealed, heartfelt farewells shared with those still languishing in the camp. In the heightened tensions and frenetic arrangements, Peter still could not know which country would take them, the choices limiting: his concerns of damp climates affecting Ola’s health were confirmed by the camp doctor, his own fear of Stalinism, and of Cold War repercussions, made his eyes look afar.

Lightning flashes flicked on and off Evdokia and their daughters’ slumbering faces, ghostly, yet ethereal, in their heavy dark coats generously given by others for their journey. “God,” he prayed silently, hands clammy from inner tension he hid so well from his family and those about him, “give us strength to come through this unscarred… keep Ola well for our ship from Naples!” They were heading to their port of embarkation, their final destination still unknown. Borys and Hryhori had already left in their America-bound ship, migration to that country increasingly competitive, and the quota for displaced persons almost full. Canada, Brazil and other destinations, were less inviting. Above all else, he needed to be among people who believed in democracy and who had respect for the rule of law. And Ola’s health had to be accommodated. If America could not take them, they would go to another country that was equally fair in political and geographical climate.

He gazed up in wonder at the night sky, its vast blackness dotted with gently falling snow. The fir trees bordering the snow-covered rail tracks were being shrouded in feathered cloaks anew, becoming the night’s battalions of mystical guardians which were guiding this migration train to its ultimate destination.

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“Ah!” Peter braced himself as he splashed his face with the icy water and blotted it with thick towelling, thankful that his reflection in the large ornate mirror was now less gaunt. His eyes skirted the capacious marbled bathroom of this grand old hotel, their temporary home these past months, paused as he noted the shrapnel pock-marks along the walls, the legacy of Naples’ pitched fighting in the war, ostensibly long-since gone, that set country, village and neighbour against each other in the madness of extreme idealism and aggression.

He stepped onto the terrace and smiled as Nadia and Ola, who were oblivious to an adult’s concerns, sang and danced in their child’s play. He leaned on the marbled balustrade. “My God,” he marvelled, “this was a place for kings!” The lofty location, far enough away from the city noise and bustle, was well-placed to meet their daily needs. The view was expansive, yet serene: a long sliver of Mediterranean blue-greens merging gently with hazy azure sky, the hillsides and villa gardens covered in foliage of recovering olive and citrus trees, unrepentantly hiding recent scarring of wartime bombs. He sighed, savouring the tranquillity of this setting.

He reached into his pocket for the tobacco, then paused. He would not open this rationed pouch; he would need it to barter for citrus and vegetables. Ola’s wellbeing depended on these. He watched as she played, still pale and underweight, but active enough after the last injection. “Thank God these officials have good authority,” he thought, viewing the seemingly innocent setting of the metropolis, now harbouring infectious diseases, as ships came and went and as migrants from all over Europe congregated in cramped city spaces. In an unprecedented move, the IRO commander had ordered last-minute inoculations for the most vulnerable, Ola among them.

“Dyna,” Peter touched Evdokia’s arm gently, distracting her from her mending. He smiled confidently. “I’m going to the marketplace… I’ll look for cabbage, and beetroot… whatever there is, for the borshch… and citrus for the little ones.” Their eyes exchanged gratitude: he for her forbearance under all circumstances, she for his energy and optimism with each new day.

“You might yet see Kola in one of the nearby squares,” she ventured. “He and his friends play football with the local boys.” He nodded. He was glad that Mykola and his friends occupied their time in harmless ways. Naples was a mecca for gaiety, but also for renewed underworld activities, as local groups competed for control of parts of the city.

He walked the familiar route to the market place, carefully negotiating steep laneways and ancient uneven stone steps. Everywhere along this unpretentious back route there were visible signs of war not long over: the buildings scarred or partly demolished, makeshift shutters hiding glass-shattered windows, and evidence of shrapnel everywhere. Yet the verve of the city dwellers excited him, helped him look past the carnage, to optimism in the future.

By now, his daily walk to the market place had become almost automatic. He crossed from sunlit streets to shadowed lanes, to sunlit streets again, his eyes adjusting to light and dark, and light again. He was almost at the market place. As he stepped out of a shadowed laneway into a bright street, something—someone—caught his attention. He stopped to check his step, then blinked, gasped. It was Vanya! His Vanya! He was too far ahead for Peter to clearly see his face, close enough to observe his walk, his dark hair, even the way he kept one hand in his pocket as he strode swinging the other. Peter followed him, each of them walking quickly, Peter unable to run as he controlled his urge to shout, his eyes glued to Vanya’s back, stepping the cobblestoned streets and laneways, finally half-running, about to call him. At last, the young man stopped and turned slowly as he became aware someone was following him. Peter felt a sickening blow to the heart as he realised the young man was indeed, like Vanya, but he was younger. Slightly shorter than his own firstborn, perhaps even slightly stockier—he could not be certain, any longer—this youth, so like Vanya in many respects, was a Neapolitan, and barely fifteen. The young Italian turned slowly away, and disappeared into an alley.

Peter leaned back against a dilapidated stone wall, his heart beating wildly, still panging. He was momentarily lost, unaware of his surroundings. He realised he had followed this youth for some minutes. Disoriented, upset at his own depth of longing, he bent his head, unable to weep, the pain biting at him.

As he drew breath, he looked across the narrow laneway to a darkened doorway, from where choir song could be heard. Instinctively, he was drawn to it. He slowly made his way along the dimly-lit aisle, to a pew at a small distance from the altar. As he sat, shoulders hunched, a nun walked softly towards the choir, paused as she passed him, her face of kindness gracing her ebony habit, a garb now worn with dignity and pride, not the humility of shame at Mussolini’s doings. She smiled her understanding and continued to the altar, nodding to the choir boys to continue practising:

“Ave Maria, gratia plena
Dominus tecum, benedicta tu…”

Peter felt himself become immersed in the beauty of the music, and purity of the children’s voices. He had never encountered such gentleness, yet such strength of spiritual feeling, as he experienced in this prayerful song. He bent his head, silently praying in song with it: tears of pain, and sorrow, and anguish, all washed in human caring and understanding, whatever the circumstances, wherever the location. He wept for Vanya, for his beloved Hanya and baby Mischa, and little Manya, for all those souls gone and missing, whether it was for Stalinist totalitarianism or Hitler’s imperialistic gains. In each circumstance, in each of the countries where he was forced to work and travel, good souls could be found that outweighed the evil; good souls could be found wherever one was sent, in this ever-widening arc of the globe.

“God, give us good enough health, take us wherever You want… let us live a life of freedom from the oppression of the past. For my family’s sake… for my children’s sake…”

At last, he realised the choir was finished. The nun silently receded. He was alone in the dimmed cavernous light of the church. He stood up slowly, held firmly to the pew before him. He had cried the last ti

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me for his homeland, his lost loves on European soil. He would accept whatever ship came next, to take his family to safety. He had to think of them, above all, even if it meant being taken to the far end of the globe, even further still from so many of his friends now journeying to America. He had made his pledge to his Maker, had reconciled his heart. The universal music, passed on to him so freely and unexpectedly through children’s voices, reminded him of the value of love, through unselfish giving, even at a cost to himself. He had paid dearly before this: perhaps the bill for the remainder would be lighter yet.

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“Oi, Petro, hurry on, or else they’ll leave you behind!” a welcoming shout alerted Peter’s attention. He laughed and waved to familiar faces among passengers already positioned on the deck. Handing his family’s embarkation papers with their newly standardised surname to the officer, he nodded respectfully to the posse of police displaying IRO armbands. He looked about him, murmured to Evdokia and the children to stay close. As haphazard as the procedures were, the security prior to boarding was over-burdened as each individual was checked and double-checked by IRO officials from different persuasions. He realised Italy’s recent inclusion in western Europe now meant that Cold War diplomacy required greater controls. His eyes scanned the massive steel wall of the Castelbianco  and sighed in relief that generous IRO sponsorship had released ships such as these for long voyages.

At last they were moved forward to the boarding plank, then were directed to male and female dormitories. Evdokia clung to the single valise, their only accessible luggage for the month-long sojourn. She remained mute as he reassured her there was little they needed on this equatorial voyage, that ship-deck living would improve their health. He laughed at his daughters’ excitement, nodding approval for them to follow Mykola to an enclosed deck. Evdokia waved Peter on, settling herself in her allocated bunk to converse with the other women, all strangers, all displaced persons from disparate camps in western Europe.

Peter found the higher deck, and gazed at the scene before him. Below him at quayside, officials, exasperated the docking time had passed, were shouting orders to the crew. Last orders were chaotically directed, the boarding plank removed as the ship’s horn blasted above all the other commotion. He felt the first lurch of freed ship as the mooring lines came away, a soft cheer from the crowd on deck acknowledging they were at last departing.

He could now look beyond the embarkation point, to the whole bay of Naples. Though it was late-January and the breeze was crisp, there was a gaiety, a casualness to the life of this busy vibrant city. Their stay had been prolonged, but not unhappy, and little Ola had finally thrived in the relative warmth of the Mediterranean climate. He sighed in relief, assured at last that their Naples stay had not been in vain: it had formed his decision to take this available ship to Australia, rather than risk Ola’s health. He had conceded that Australia, and especially Sydney, which he had nominated, was not unlike this Neapolitan city with its inviting climate. He was glad, now, that he had perused again, more carefully, the brochure earlier given him by an IRO official.

Now, as the ship pulled away from its dock and passengers celebrated in song, he watched as the Mediterranean water pushed him further and further from European soil. He could not cry: he had to stay strong, for himself, for his family. He looked again one last time towards the slowly receding buildings and hotels lining the shore near the docks, then blinked in disbelief. Someone had hung a Ukrainian flag over the balustrade of a great old building, its blue and gold colours lit up by the sun’s rays. He tried to control his emotions: he had kept them locked tight since that eventful day in the local Neapolitan church.

He looked to the heavens, to give him emotional strength. As if in answer to his unspoken prayer, high above him a white dove circled round and round and, catching the uplifting breeze, it was being transported upward and upward to the sky. His heart pounded: he knew he had this voyage to make across the seas. But try as he might, he could not hold his soul: it followed the winged dove, was transported north-east, to his homeland; paused for him; waited. And waited.


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“Bonjorno! Bonjorno!” the Italian official’s incomprehensible message crackled again through the loudspeaker above, startling the men in their game. They paused, straining to decipher the foreign language. Anton, with his trump cards held ready in mid-air, looked up to the staff deck and frowned, sunlight piercing his eyes as it flashed between the ship’s flag and funnel, making him lose his concentration. Suddenly, he threw his cards at the deck table and lurched back, tripping himself.

“Ah! Otse tyt! Orders! Orders! They told us this would be different from the camps—ordering us about every day of our lives!”

Peter grinned and shook his head in mock reproach, and winked at Semmen and Mikhaelo as they cajoled their friend. “Anton,” he grasped the man’s shoulder in reassurance and retrieved the deckchair. “Come now, man! Why, they tell us we haven’t even yet reached the halfway point of our voyage!” Anton, eyes downcast and his face flushed, began collecting the scattered cards. He pushed back his thick, knotted hair that, after weeks of sea spray and burning sun, blew about like discarded bleached seaweed in the stiffening late afternoon breeze.

Peter controlled his mirth and gestured for peace. Anton’s almost comical appearance these days was incongruous with his inner turmoil. Peter felt concern for this youngest member of their group as they wiled away their days at card games on the ship’s narrow open deck. He watched closely, noting that Anton, usually so affable, appeared to be uncharacteristically edgy now, even somewhat distressed. Peter sighed. He understood Anton’s dilemma. Separated from his frightened young wife and infant, who remained in the safety of the ship’s cramped lounge area, Anton felt powerless and strangely alone on this small troopship carrier crammed with a thousand displaced persons and crew. Peter, too, felt the sense of entrapment that grew with each day on a voyage, never before taken, by sea. He had to remind himself it was but a short period of discomfort in a journey that promised a new future.

“Anton, good fellow,” he ventured, grasping his agitated friend. “Do us a service and check that officer’s newsboard! It might explain some of today’s commotion. At least it will be in a language we can all understand!” Anton nodded, relieved to be given a distracting task.

“And you know your Raya and baby Rosa are with Evdokia and our little girls today? I hear they join them each day now… Evdokia welcomes your wife’s company; she watches over Mykola and his friends as they amuse themselves nearby. You could call by the women’s lounge, see how they are faring!”

Anton grinned with relief, steadying himself at the deck’s rail as the ship dipped and lunged again in the deep swell. The men paused before beginning another round, each caught in his own private thoughts of their recent vivid memories of Naples where they had only weeks earlier celebrated and anticipated a happier future. Now that future was unfolding before them, and doubts were setting in, their fear of the unknown somehow more threatening in an ocean as vast as this.

“What is a man to do on such a ship?” Semmen shrugged his shoulders as he watched Anton disappear from view. “We are in darkened dormitories, separated from our families, with only this deck and little else but the card games to distract ourselves from the seasickness all around us!”

Mikhaelo nodded and leaned forward, cradled his head in his hands. His eyes skimmed the seemingly infinite horizon as emerald ocean met azure sky in the glare of the burning sun, and distracted himself as he watched Peter expertly cut and deal the cards. “You know, Petro, some of us are already talking of leaving the ship at Fremantle. Our wives and children cannot overcome their seasickness. My Maria queues each day now to see the ship’s doctor. He can do little for her… so today they have permitted her to remain in the dormitory with our little son.”

Peter and Semmen’s eyes met. They instinctively understood the import of this. They had all nominated Sydney as their destination. This decommissioned troopship had remained just long enough in Aden to re-fuel and re-supply. Once it reached Fremantle, there were no further ports of call before the ship’s short re-fuel in Melbourne, not even in an emergency, until it reached its Sydney dock. So much depended on the health of each family member, and from the outset Mikhaelo’s Maria had reacted adversely to the sh

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ip’s constant swaying.

Peter sensed the pensive mood. He glanced at the exposed cards on the deck table and counted his own winning hand. It could be a protracted game but he surreptitiously allowed his friends the advantage. “Ah, dyrak!” he cried, shrugging in seeming disappointment as they beamed, cheered by their unexpected luck.

“Time for some morsels, while we wait for our Anton!” He retrieved a small cloth bag from a crevice and laid out their daily fare of dried Italian bread crusts, onions, and small tin of sea salt. Their strong black tea, in metal mugs, diluted somewhat the pungency of the mix: their food of survival distilled from sailors’ accounts, that would counteract the generous but rich cafeteria meals, and the nausea that hit them almost without warning as the diesel fumes, acrid below-deck air, and seasickness, permeated through their windowless bunk dormitories in the ship’s bowel. Adjusting to nature’s elements of burning sun and stinging sea spray was testy enough to endure each day on this narrow outer deck, but it was far more preferable to the misery being experienced daily below.

They ate slowly, savouring the tang and sting of onion and salt on dried flaky bread. Few passengers were enticed by such potions, and fewer still believed in their medicinal efficacy. Others still, like Ola, could not tolerate any raw onion, its effects leaving her buckled in pain. Peter sighed and felt his jaw stiffen. It had taken months to improve Ola’s health before embarking this ship in Naples. He prayed each day that his little family would not succumb to the ship’s illnesses. The easy, calmer part of the voyage was now behind them, the more treacherous ocean crossing was still ahead.

Anton rushed back, his eyes gleaming and his unruly locks causing further jesting. “Well! Can you believe! Those announcements!” He blushed as he remembered his earlier outburst. “We are to have a ‘Crossing the Equator’ ceremony tomorrow! We are all asked to participate! Do you know… a sort of ‘King Neptune’ is to officiate, and the ship’s captain will attend. They will give us certificates, and gifts, and the children are to have a special party!” He looked sheepishly at Peter. “Your Evdokia has also promised to accompany Raya and our baby Rosa!” Peter grinned and nodded, pleased that Anton was no longer so despairing at his wife’s morbid fear of the sea voyage.

He suddenly realised as he observed Anton that he, too, had been a similar age when he married his first love, Hanya. Without warning, tears smarted his eyes. He turned away and leaned against the cold steel rail, allowing the stinging sea spray to wash over him, as he searched for his pouch of tobacco. He forced himself to concentrate on his present surroundings, to remind himself of his and Evdokia’s good fortune. He could not allow himself, now, to think far back to those days of an earlier youthful married life. They were now in the middle of the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Africa and Asia, forging south-east towards another strange new continent at the opposite end of the globe from whence they came. In the vastness of the unfathomable ocean about them, and with no landmarks in sight these past days, there seemed to be a sense of unreality as daily he watched, mystified, as the deep emerald water changed to a liquid ebony with the disappearing sun.

He re-lit his rolled cigarette and licked at its bitter brown paper wrapping, all that remained in the ship’s cantina, and smiled as he remembered Evdokia’s triumph at her purchase of two small rugs from traders in the Suez Canal, in exchange for his cigarette carton that had been the captain’s gift upon embarkation. He leaned on the ship’s rail and pondered the events of these past weeks. The laden Castelbianco  had an atmosphere of joviality as it left Naples, protected in the safety of the Mediterranean, taking on an almost carnival atmosphere during its slow passage through the Suez Canal, where traders from the exotic continent manoeuvred their bobbing boats and bargained trinkets and rugs with excited passengers on deck. Then their ship to freedom berthed at Aden, their last European port, for re-fuelling and being laden with crates of supplies. And now, as if in tune with the stiffening winds, after the earlier calm waters, the ship had cranked up its knots and forged ahead, determined to make up lost time.

The deck was now quiet, conviviality gone. His friends had packed away their chairs, left him to his reverie. Already the night was enfolding about him. He looked up in wonder, at a Higher Being performing its nightly alchemy magic. With each passing minute, the stars seemed to reach lower and lower towards the ship, as the inky sky darkened, soon to merge with the sea. He felt, in those moments, as if he could reach out and touch them, to catch their perennial spell, but resisted. He could just make out the large black-painted ′V′ on the ship’s funnel and marvelled at the ship’s new owner, Alexandre Vlasov who, it was rumoured, had also been a displaced person, somewhere in Europe. He shook his head in wonder. It took enterprise and courage, at war’s end, to so quickly gather such decommissioned troopships and place them at the behest of the International Relief Organisation, which was desperate for seaworthy vessels to transport displaced persons to all the continents of the globe. It also took courage, and generosity of heart, even if cased in pragmatism, for an Australian government and its people to open their doors to these strangers from a devastated continent.

Mykola’s blonde head was just visible in the ship’s muted light as he clung to the now wet rail. “Tato, Tato! Mama is already in the cafeteria queue!” Peter smiled, pleased that Mykola’s appetite had not waned on this voyage. He paused to look a last time at the ocean, which was now a murky black, with only slivers of refracted light streaking out a dubious path. Like a great sea creature, their black-hulled Castelbianco  was now racing to join all those other great natural monsters of the antipodean oceans. He shivered as he made his way from the biting wind. He sensed that the next day’s equatorial celebrations, announced in admittedly intrusive spurts via a fractured public address system by well-meaning crew, would be a welcome distraction, and timely. Beyond that, there was no knowing how each passenger, each family, would fare for the remainder of their voyage.

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A senior ship’s officer checked Mikhaelo’s documents and stamped them, then gestured him to the small group queuing at the gangway. Peter, standing nearby and distracted as he watched a flock of large white seabirds circling high above the bay, heard his name.

“Petro!” Mikhaelo hugged him, his natural reserve dissipating. “Petro… all these years, we have been like brothers… the camp… Naples… and now to leave like this…” He held back a sob as his Maria and little son joined him to farewell Peter and Evdokia. He leaned closer. “What can I do, Petro?” he whispered. “It is too risky… Even the ship’s doctor agreed we must disembark here… for them to recover.”

Peter’s chest tightened with emotion, the sun’s bursting rays and chatter of friendly workers dock-side giving little comfort at that moment. But he smiled and tried to reassure this gentle man. “Ah, Mikhaelo, my dear friend… we will meet again, one day… soon, God willing.” He lifted Ola to Mikhaelo, watched as godfather and goddaughter hugged their farewell. His lips quivered, bravado shielding his doubts. Their sea voyage had brought them to this port of Fremantle, already so far from Naples, from a Europe he could understand, yet still there were several more weeks of the voyage before them. His heart felt heavy as he thought of their past life and contemplated their future. He would be forever grateful for this passage to a safe country that was to become their home, but only fully realised now what a great distance, great expanse of ocean, separated them from their European heritage.

“Come now, Dyna… don’t cry!” He linked his arm through hers and waved as Mikhaelo and Maria stepped off the gangway onto their Western Australian soil. He sighed as he watched Ola as she played nearby with the other children, her hair white and curly like the foam tossed by the waves, her face no longer pale in the fierce sunlight. Yet already she was thinner, less steady than she had been at their Naples embarkation.

“Ha, Petro! There you are!” Semmen beamed as he stepped forward with an acquaintance from their dormitory. “We have such luck, here, with our friend Fedor! When he’s bored with playing his instrument,” he waved jokingly at the newcomer’s hand accordion, “he wants to make up our number at the cards!” He turned to Fedor, spurred him to play a few chords. “Kalika, Kalika, Kalika moya!” Semmen sang to the tune. Peter grinned and patted his shoulder. He, too, was a brother in life in the camp. Each understood the other’s heavy heart at Mikhaelo’s departure. Their jesting with their new partner at the card game, and distraction with the accordion, were but a camouflage for the uncertainties that befell them each new day.

He leaned at the deck rail, observing the spacious bushy surroundings of this busy western port; watched with interest as muscular wharf workers, arms browned in the burning southern sun, loaded boxes of foodstuffs and supplies onto wooden platforms that were swung dangerously from wharf to ship’s hold. The ship’s replenishments, activities, were at last completed

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, the cranes and gangway removed. The funnel, with its distinctive ′V′ glistening in the heat of the bay, blasted a final signal.

A sharp wind farewelled the Castelbianco  as it churned its way westward out of the docks, as if intent on following the lustrous setting sun; then, like a magnet drawn to an inexplicable compass point, it made its surreptitious way southwards, to yet another zone of the antipodes.

* * *

A lone wolf howled, low, from far away, signalled its territorial dominance in the black of night. Peter stirred, felt for the straw that had been his makeshift bed in his parents’ Siberian camp hovel, blinking at sleep as he tried to locate their snow-covered window. The howl became a wrenching sob, unlike any he had previously heard. He raised himself on an elbow as he took stock of his surroundings. His Yosep and Palasha receded in the dream, the lone wolf no longer audible, the snow-trapped window but an illusory memory in the windowless dormitory.

He felt his way between the bunks, gripping the timber rail of each upper bunk to steady himself as the ship swayed and lurched with each pounding swell. The sobs, more muffled now, were emanating from a far corner of this large dormitory in which a hundred men nightly cohabited.

“Fedor,” he whispered. “What is it?” He touched his friend’s shoulder. “What is it, my friend? What’s distressing you so?”

Fedor turned to him, his tormented face protected in the dark, his tears brushing Peter’s face. He was inconsolable: gasping, his shoulders heaving. Peter feared for him as he grasped his shoulders. “Come, Fedor, what has happened here? You must tell me, man.”

“Vera and I…” he groaned as he tried to control himself. “I have just returned… from the hospital bay… Vera and I… O God!” He broke down again. “We didn’t know… no-one could save our Galina. O God!” Still sobbing, he clung to him. Peter could feel the trickle of tears through his night shirt, felt the prickling sensation of tension and adrenalin as he tried to comfort Fedor.

“Petro… they are to give her a ‘burial at sea’ at dawn—before other passengers become aware of it… They are a superstitious lot, you know… these sailors. They’re afraid it may cause panic among other passengers.” He leaned closer, to whisper. “Some of them even believe there must be a ‘kraken’ in this southern ocean…” He pulled back, took a deep breath, readying himself. “Petro… my Vera will not attend… she is medicated, in the hospital room. Will you stand beside me, Petro?”

Peter held Fedor’s shoulder and whispered his support. He had known his own loss, of his loved ones, of his children. Yet somehow since boarding this ship to freedom, the relatively casual manner of their shipboard life had put a veneer, even an expectation, that all the displaced people would reach their destination safely. Even as this ship left Fremantle, there had been a cavalier atmosphere on board, as if concrete certainty had swept over all those who were sailing on to Sydney.

Now, he could no longer be certain. Fremantle and the southwestern point of Australia were now far behind them. There were still too many days at sea before they would reach the major eastern metropolis that was so akin to Naples. He bit his lip, his anxiety unrevealed in the dark. He remembered how light Ola felt in his strong arms as she hugged her godfather. He now realised, with dismay, that her white, windswept hair and sunburnt face belied her weakening strength. He shook his head and shuddered, could not contemplate the fear, the pain, as he comforted Fedor in his grief.

* * *

A roaring wind, whipping up even further a great angry swell in the barely visible morning light, made almost surreal the small line of ship’s officers, standing solemnly in sombre grey uniform in accordance with the ritual, as an infant’s casket was brought to the deck’s handrail. Peter whispered to Fedor and, letting go of his arm he stepped forward and crossed himself, then picked out two white flowers from the coffin’s bouquet that had been provided by the captain. He stepped back and stood beside Fedor, shoulder to shoulder for support, and gave him the only reminders of this funereal occasion.

The steel sliding tray was locked to the handrail, its angle adjusted to the sea’s surge. A final prayer in an unintelligible language was passed over the tiny coffin, the word “Amen” repeated by the officers. “Amin, Amin,” Peter and Fedor repeated as they crossed themselves again. “Charstvo Nebesno,” Peter added, knowing, even now, that he had said these words too many times for his heart to erase.

The sea churned and thrashed at the ship. The foaming spray from the wind-lashed swell welcomed the weighted coffin as it disappeared into the green-grey depths of a treacherous southern ocean. Peter, sensing his friend could collapse at any moment, grasped Fedor’s arm and led him away, his jaw stiff with tension, his heart reaching out to his bereft friend. He could not gauge how this voyage would end. Freedom had a price, whatever one did, wherever one sought it. This eerie daylight service confirmed this all too clearly.

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Mykola proudly scraped at his plate and grinned as he rose from the pew-like seat of the cafeteria table. Evdokia looked up, surprised; queried him. “Oh, we’re still playing ‘tors’ on the deck—before it gets too dark!” he exclaimed, mimicking the nickname the ship’s staff gave the tile game in which Mykola and his friends tossed and scored along the lurching deck.

“Kola…” Evdokia hesitated, resigned these days to soothing reprimands. “You know it’s too risky, now… that deck is always awash with seawater.” She looked to Peter for support and paused as she observed him eyeing Ola’s untouched meal. Mykola blushed, his natural shyness always over-riding his bravado as he made his halting steps towards adulthood.

“I promise, Mamo, we’ll be careful… and we don’t run for the ‘tors’ until the water washes back. It’s all right, really!” He waited another moment for his mother’s approval, then a boyish petulance returned. “And, anyway… what else is there to do here, now? They show us a film they call ‘Coming to Australia’,” he mimicked the words, grinning cheekily, “but it’s the same film, every day… the same animals, and birds… and it’s not in our language!”

Peter watched as Mykola, white-haired and sunburn-blistered but happy and well, ran off. He turned to Evdokia. Their eyes met, each understanding the other. Their Nadia, too, ate well. Indeed, she had even grown stronger on this voyage, the fresh sea air and liberal meal portions agreeing with her. Evdokia pursed her lips, held back a rebuke as she watched Ola pick at her food. She could not understand it. Her own near-death experience in her Ukraine all those years ago did not allow her mind to accept that nausea and seasickness could have such an extreme effect, and her older children were thriving on the generous servings on this voyage.

“Petro… tempt her with something…” She tried to contain her frustration as she watched his thoughtful demeanour. He realised, with dismay, that these days the ship lunged so much from frightening depth to peak in the furious latitude of the ‘roaring forties and fifties’ that even the ship’s officers no longer joked about their ‘sea legs’. And he could see Ola weakening, with each day. He calculated the days before their arrival in Sydney, felt the fear return as he realised that there was little hope she would improve in these extreme weather conditions.

“Come, Nadia and Ola,” he cajoled them, taking them by the hand, “let’s watch Kola and his friends at their ‘tors’ game! Then we’ll see how quickly you can run back and finish your meal!” Evdokia smiled in relief, grateful for the distraction. She dreaded joining the queue of the now constantly sick passengers who found comfort in words but little medical relief in the ship’s hospital room. “Oi Boje,” she pondered, as she remembered Fremantle. It was now long behind them, Sydney still so far away.

* * *

Peter stood one last time at the open deck and viewed the southern-most night sky. A strange calm seemed to have befallen the sea and its cargo. He smiled, in spite of himself, at the irony of the situation that, almost at the very point of their departure from the Castelbianco , the sea now seemed lulled into some kind of submission, as if the very spirits of this far away and ancient land had reached out to placate it. He looked up in wonder into the cloudless night. A new universe of unimaginable vastness and depth and mystery held him spellbound. Nowhere, in his upbringing and shortened education in the army, was there an explanation of an infinity of this kind that went hand-in-hand with his Maker.

He felt a sense of elation, a heightened awareness as he took in the nebulous beauty of the universe, felt overwhelmed at the magnitude of the inexplicable. He bowed his head, uncertain if his silent prayer would be received, or accepted, from this southernmost vantage point of the planet.

He blinked away the tears of relief, tinged with anxiety. Relief, that they had safely traversed half the globe in a friendly if somewhat uncomfortable voyage, as far away from Stalin’s communism as he could wish for his little family. Anxiety, with every day watching helplessly as Ola lingered in ill-health, requiring visits from the ship’s nurses in attempts to hydrate her before the morrow.

“Dear God,” he pleaded, his vo

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ice breaking as he appealed to the Great Almighty of the universe. “Please don’t take her from us… not now…” He held back a sob, his jaw tightening again. Evdokia was waiting for him, in her dormitory. She needed to see his confident self, to be told their Ola would recover, disembark with them. He needed to prepare himself for any eventuality. Each day told a different story, which could have an unpredictable outcome.

* * *

Sydney Harbour had put on its finest celebratory robe, as the Castelbianco  cruised cautiously between its great rocky headlands that, at last, separated civilisation from the impenetrable sea. In spite of the bustling concern of the passengers, with men and women tugging at their valises as they prematurely queued with their documents, Peter feasted his eyes on the grandeur of the harbour, with its wide expanse of shoreline trees and rocky outcrops, and caught a first glimpse, in the distance, of the famous steel structure that took pride of place on the coloured brochure given them in Naples before their departure. He smiled at yet another irony. Beautiful, the harbour and its surrounds certainly were. But Naples, it was not. The smattering of buildings at its busiest sector had some likeness to Naples. But the scale of this new country was so vast, he realised with sadness, as he reminded himself of that long voyage from west to east coast, from Fremantle to this civilised metropolis.

He took one last memorable look from the ship’s approach in the harbour, then hurried down the steep steel stairs to Evdokia’s dormitory, to prepare his family for disembarkation.

* * *

He carried Ola in his arms as Mykola helped Evdokia with the valise and whispered to Nadia to hold Evdokia’s hand. He instinctively felt inside his jacket pocket: the documents were safe, ready for checking.

Confusion seemed to predominate now as passengers squeezed together and tried to position themselves to have their documents checked and stamped by the ship’s officers. Peter smiled and shook his head as he watched the commotion unfolding. Now, as if their charge of displaced persons were disembarking from a pleasure cruise, the captain and his officers were farewelling each family with flourish and gallantry. Peter tempered himself and pulled back, knowing that Ola could not stand, and held her close to him as passengers jostled past. “But she is so light now… like a feather,” he smiled sadly to himself, “this is not a heavy weight to carry.”

A ship’s officer tapped him on the shoulder and beckoned Peter to follow him. The queue of excited passengers made way for the sickly child and her family. “Gratsia,” Peter thanked the officer, feeling sincerely grateful for his gesture. Time was of the essence, now, if Ola was to be allowed by the authorities to travel with him and Evdokia to their ‘placement camp’, wherever it was to be. The documents were cleared, the captain’s handshake given and the token photograph of the ship placed in his hand. His throat tightened with conflicting emotions: the immense relief upon arrival on new land, yet the mounting fear of the unknown. He stepped carefully from the gangway, felt a new generous nation’s soil beneath his feet.

They had entered a great austere building, adjacent to the Castelbianco ’s Pyrmont docking wharf. Evdokia, fatigued and anxious, could no longer remain calm. This great passenger processing hangar reminded her too closely of the engineering workshop outside Berlin in which she and the children were checked and labelled. She grabbed Peter’s arm. “Petro!” she whispered, fearing the worst. “Look! These people are like those commandants in that camp… near Berlin! Oi Boje! What is to become of us all?”

“Dyna, stay calm… these people are immigration officers… we are on Australian soil now!” He looked more closely at the IRO armbands of the United Nations officials. “Dyna, they are like the officers who allowed us to board our ship in Naples. It is all right, now… they won’t separate us.” Then he noticed a Red Cross sign on a nearby door. His heart sank as he watched a sick child being taken from its distressed parents by an ambulance officer.

“We mustn’t let her go, Petro… not now… Tell them she was well, that it’s only today’s excitement that has affected her… You know what happened when we left Manya…” She began to weep. Peter leaned close to her, whispered for her to stay strong. They both needed to convince the authorities that their daughter was well enough.

The IRO officers checked and stamped their documents, referring to their list of ‘Disembarking Displaced Persons’, then paused and conferred quietly with each other as they observed the family. Each family member’s inoculations were in order, but the youngest child was clearly ill. The interpreter stepped forward.

“Your little girl looks unwell. We think it advisable she be taken to the nearest hospital. It is close by, in this city. She will get immediate attention for her condition here… for whatever ails her.” Peter sensed the uncertainty. He broke the impasse, and smiled confidently.

“You needn’t worry about my younger daughter, sir! She indulged in too many sweets at our final dinner last night… the captain’s generous treats got the better of her!”

The officer cautioned. “But there is still a long journey by train, from Sydney—it may take all night, with so many passengers, and carriages.” He saw Peter’s puzzled expression. “Your placement camp is in the countryside,” he clarified. The officials were edgy, sensing the child was very unwell. Yet, seeing the healthy state of the family, the parents competent, they hesitated.

Peter tried one last time. “Ah! A train journey! It is just what she needs! The fresh air will refresh us all, I think, good sir!” He smiled confidently again, tousled Ola’s hair as he kissed her brow.

The queuing passengers behind them shuffled restlessly as the IRO officers conferred again. One officer shook his head; another frowned. At last, they stamped the transport papers for the next part of the journey.

“You are in luck, Mr Pospelyj,” the interpreter said, without smiling. “There is a hospital in the countryside where your family is being placed. You may need to use it, perhaps shortly, should your daughter not recover quickly.” He shook Peter’s hand and nodded politely to Evdokia, looked away as she began weeping.

Peter reached again into his pocket for the container of water and wet his sick child’s lips and brow, gently coaxing her to sip. He, too, felt exhausted and distressed, but had to keep up his facade of confidence. He had to cling now to the hope that their youngest would not need the far away hospital. But inwardly, he knew it was a race against time: a race to contain the fever and dehydration, before it was too late. Evdokia had her wish, to keep Ola with her. He had the anxiety, the knowledge of knowing the risk they were taking to fulfil this wish.

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The setting sun was playing a game of hide and seek between crevice and mountain top as the train laboured its way uphill and westward. Soon, streaks of softest pinks and deepening cerise splashed across cumulus and stratus clouds, transforming them to floating silken capes ready to shroud the blue-tinged valleys of the Great Dividing Range. Peter shook his head, amazed at the vastness of seemingly endless trees and rocky crags, and in wonderment at the changing spectacle of colour before him as the train paused to grip the railway tracks at yet another incline. “But where could this migrants’ camp be—so far in this wilderness?” he wondered. “Surely no settlement could survive here, among this bush and rock.”

“Cuppa tea, sir?” A waitress pushed her trolley before her and deftly poured the pungent brew into metal mugs for Peter and Evdokia. She frowned as she noticed their limp child in his arms, glanced at Evdokia’s distressed face. “She not well, sir?” she queried. Peter sensed her concern and shook his head. The waitress pursed her lips for a moment, then braked the trolley. She seemed to grow in stature as she pulled out a small notebook and pencil from her uniform pocket and recorded the carriage and cubicle numbers.

“My name is Doreen,” she said, pointing at her chest. “What is your name, sir?” Peter comprehended this, and gave her his name. The waitress’s large frame stood even firmer. “Peter, you say… hmm, that will do,” she recorded it, dismissing the surname.

“You take this tea, sir—your little girl needs to drink.” She handed him one full mug after another, then doled out spoonfuls of sugar from her tin canister before moving to the remaining cubicles of the carriage. Within minutes she returned, her face flushed.

“Come with me, sir,” she smiled, pointing to Peter, then to herself and the end of the carriage. He gauged this woman was attempting to help them. He quickly folded his jacket into a pillow and laid Ola on the seat.

“Dyna, perhaps we may be fortunate—there may even be a doctor on this train.” He squeezed Evdokia’s hand, observing her relief, and smiled at Mykola and Nadia, who remained quiet and wide-eyed. “And surely this journey will end soon.”

He followed the buxom waitress through several more carriages, but hesitated as she pointed to the guard’s door. “Go on in, sir… he should be able to do something for your little girl.”

Peter stepped into the guard’s carriage. Still wary, he noted its tidiness, the labelled parcels and other items secured by a

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rope on one side. On the far side was a stack of newspapers, tightly tied, ready for distribution. An accompanying headline placard rested against the stack. He could just make out the words: ‘Stalin Agent…’ The guard rose slowly, as if preoccupied. He brushed at non-existent crumbs as he turned to Peter. His desk was devoid of paraphernalia: a sturdy metal mug of the dark brew, and that day’s newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald , Thursday 2nd March, 1950, was spread out across it. The guard looked at its headline, then at Peter, then back to the newspaper. His eyebrows furrowed as he surveyed Peter for a few moments.

“You a German, mister? You a Kraut?” he blurted out, unable to control himself. “You speak Deutsch?”

Peter sensed that this Australian guard was querying his origins. He quickly glanced at the guard’s hat hanging on a hook near his desk and breathed a sigh of relief. The man’s uniform was a simple shirt and dark trousers and jacket, unlike the military uniforms of police or militia who had dominated their lives in Europe. He glanced again at the newspaper, as the guard continued to eye him.

“You read English, mister?” He was curious now. He had not yet met any of these newly-arrived displaced persons, and none had ever stepped into his private space until now. “You see what they’ve uncovered in the Old Bailey?” He picked up the newspaper and, raising his voice, read with authority: “‘Atom spy gets fourteen years. Fuchs pleads Guilty’.” He misunderstood Peter’s querying look and continued. “Here… listen to this: ‘Doctor Klaus Fuchs, a top British atom scientist, was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment today after he pleaded guilty to having divulged atomic research secrets to Russian agents.’ This man was German… this Doctor Klaus Fuchs… and the British government trusted him, and gave him a home, and protection!” He slapped his hand on the newspaper’s photograph of the sentenced scientist as if he were swatting a renegade fly. Peter blinked, surprised at the man’s vehemence. Then he remembered he had heard the words ‘Russian agents’ during their Heidenau camp years.

“Stalin? Agente?” Peter queried again. The guard nodded. “Communist?” Peter asked. Lips tight, the guard nodded knowingly.

Peter felt his stomach tighten. The long day with the departure authorities, and their sickly child needing attention, had strained him to the limit. Now he stood before this burly guard, being quizzed as to his origins. He and Evdokia were compatriots of their Ukraine, but Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union and they had spent six years in Germany, two years of which were under German control. He took a deep breath and stepped back as he tried to summon the courage to ask this guard to help him seek medical help for their Ola.

He swallowed hard, felt somewhat sickened. Stalin’s tentacles had spread all over the modern world, these days. He and his family could not be further from Stalin’s clutches, now, and yet the megalomaniacal dictator was able to penetrate the psyche and security of these English-speaking people living peacefully so far from Europe. Now he felt obliged to defend his beliefs, his family’s good intentions in reaching these far-off shores. Holding back his emotions, hand on chest as he tried to control his twitching lip, he could only reiterate: “Ya ye Ukrainske, ya ye Ukrainske. Ne Deutsch. Ne Stalin.”

The guard stepped towards him, still eyeing him, pausing for a moment, then grasped his shoulder. “It’s all right, mister… it’s all right.” He cleared his throat.

“Moya dochka…” Peter began.

“Your little girl is sick, mister?” He checked his list of passengers, then smiled and shook his head as he realised that neither of them could freely communicate with each other. He scratched his greying hair and, swinging back into his dilapidated leather chair, he pointed to the map on the wall behind his neat desk. “We are here, mister… near Katoomba. But we don’t stop here. We’ll be slowing here, at Lithgow…” his finger traced the Central to Bathurst line on his map. “They’ll be bringing us food, sandwiches—but not stopping, mind you,” he pointed to his mouth. They smiled, their eyes meeting as they communicated in the most basic of ways.

“When we reach Lithgow, I will telephone ahead,” he pointed to his telephone as if he were playing a game of charades. “Bathurst hospital will take good care of your daughter. She must drink this,” he pointed to his black tea. He stood up again and patted Peter on the shoulder, then turned to his log-book, in readiness to telephone the Bathurst authorities.

The night had set black over the mountains and countryside, the carriages barely lit by sporadic wall globes as Peter made his way back to their carriage. He caught his reflection in the blackened window panes, felt dismayed with what it revealed on this, his first night in their new country. His face had that same haggard appearance he had seen reflected on that fateful train journey through Germany’s Black Forest on the way towards their Naples destination.

He stepped soundlessly towards their cubicle, hoping their child may be sleeping. Evdokia looked up, weeping. She had been unable to stop Ola from retching, and now their child was lapsing into unconsciousness.

His neck pricked with panic. “Dyna, she must sip some liquid… even this sweet tea… to hydrate her, no matter what.” He feared the consequences. He had to encourage Ola to drink. She was burning with fever, could even suffer a seizure. He prepared for her retching. He took off his boot and placed it strategically at Ola’s side, away from the others, and held her upright in his arms. The remainder of this journey would be traumatic for their little girl. But he had to persist, to control the situation as best he could, until they reached Bathurst station. He could not allow himself to contemplate that she would decline even further, could not contemplate that his weakening to Evdokia’s pleas at the Sydney terminal might lead to another sorrow after all those years of war and uncertainty.

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The brickworks horn sounded a series of double-blasts, denoting it was end of week closing time. A collective “Hoorah!” echoed as men downed tools. Peter looked up from his stacking work and grinned. These signature blasts were Jahn’s way of humouring his fellow workers, as if the young man were still working the coastline vessels of his native Dutch ports. He paused, contemplating the remaining bricks on the long conveyor belt and arched his back to ease the pain after hours of stooping and twisting.

He watched as men covered in brick dust and clay jostled good-naturedly as they sauntered to the utilities shed to wash. He surveyed the now-inactive conveyor belt again. It would take some additional time for him to clear the bricks and stack them on the palette. He removed his heavy glove, saw with dismay the calluses that burned and bled. But the conveyor belt needed to be cleared: a safety issue, the union had stressed. He looked up to an office window a short distance away. The union representatives had already packed up and gone, their vigilance relaxed for their Friday afternoon meetings at a Parkes hotel. He took a few deep breaths and moved faster in removing the bricks from the belt, then stacked the remainder to the required number on the timber palettes, two by two, this way and that, his hands moving automatically as if they were an extension of the mechanised conveyor system.

“Ah, Peter! Come on! It’s holiday time now—Christmas, next week! No need to over-work yourself! And you know what our union bosses would say if they saw you…” Jahn stood straight, and mimicked in his broken Ukrainian: “‘You are disloyal to The Cause—you must not work overtime outside the clock’!” He laughed and slapped Peter playfully on the back. “I will see you at the camp! We will celebrate with Christmas schnapps!”

The afternoon sun beat down over the stilled brickworks which, although not too distant from Parkes, had an even greater sense of isolation when the machines stopped and men departed. Already, a few dust-swirls picked up in the open pits by a lazy breeze hinted at the coming of summer’s tormenting heat. He sighed in relief as he entered the utilities shed and washed with tank water warmed by the sun’s heat, grinned and shook his head as he remembered these same pipes had become frozen in the cold months of winter. The extremes of this far away sunny country were still confusing to the northern European mind.

He put on his faded clean shirt and, wrapping the few belongings he had brought with him that morning, he secured them to his bicycle rack. There was now no need to back-track to the billeted farmhouse nearby, his temporary abode during the week. His heart skipped a beat, as it did each Friday afternoon, as he thought of his little family waiting for him at their Parkes hostel camp.

Each Friday, these past seven months, he could celebrate his return home to Evdokia and their children from his ‘brick-pit’. Each weekend he good-humouredly regaled comic events at the brickworks, his wit brushing aside the exhaustion of the work, the loneliness of each night, despite the kindness of the farmhouse family, which supplemented its own meagre existence with these billeted European strangers.

He peddled at a leisurely rate, re-invigorating himself with each mile on the pitted gravelled road, ever watchful for the sharp granite-like stones that often cut through the worn bicycle tyres. With still s

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ome distance to go, he stopped to drink water from his metal thermos, and lit his rolled cigarette. He breathed out the strong pungent smoke, watched its wispy trail dissipate in the afternoon haze. It was during such moments, when he was quite alone in the relative quiet of the day, that he could observe and contemplate the surroundings, the life around him. There was a flatness—almost a blandness—in this part of the countryside, yet life stirred in the most unexpected ways. Birds of all descriptions and colours called to each other and dived among the many species of eucalypt trees, and wallabies and kangaroos paused, often in an upright position, before suddenly springing across the gravelled road as they headed from one pastureland to another. A hint of refreshing eucalypt hit his nostrils, then the burnt-bark smell of a far away bushfire. He instinctively stubbed out his cigarette, scraped at the red earth with his boot, and buried the butt.

Nadia and Ola were already waiting and ran to him as he peddled up to their one-room hut. “Tato! Come on, come on! I have to show you what I did in class this week!” Nadia couldn’t contain herself, pulling at Peter’s shirt as he secured his bicycle to the handrail. He laughed and tousled her hair, lifted and spun her around. Already, she had thrived and grown in this climate of fresh air and plentiful canteen food in the safe hostel haven.

And so had Ola. No longer pale, the freckles scattered across her browning face and with her hair wispy and white in the sun, she was an entirely different child, it seemed, from the near-tragic days of their arrival. She clasped her thin arms around his neck as he held her up. She was still light, but energetic and beaming. She nuzzled her cheek against his unshaven face and grimaced. He laughed as he gently lowered her. He blinked, his eyes stinging with emotion as he thought back to their arrival in Bathurst, of the ambulance waiting to take their child directly to hospital: of the tense days, that continued on to five anxious weeks, awaiting Ola’s full recovery in the hospital ward.

Evdokia, upon hearing their voices, stepped out of the hut and came down the few stairs to embrace him. Her hair freshly washed and coiled into a neat bun she, too, now exuded a quiet confidence. He smiled as he remembered their first meeting all those years ago, in their Ukraine. Outwardly, she seemed unchanged. The late afternoon was still serenely warm, but he shuddered as he remembered Evdokia’s distress and sense of foreboding in those early weeks of arrival. He shook his head, as if to dispel the memory. It was with relief that he had grabbed this chance to earn the meagre wage for his family at this far away place of Parkes, with its displacement hostel, and to put the memory of their Bathurst months behind them. And he had to fulfil his commitments. Their arrival as displaced persons was conditional: he had signed papers, was committed for at least two years to work wherever he was needed. The government of Australia wanted them to be employed as quickly and usefully as was possible. And he and Evdokia needed to look to another future in their new country.

“Oh, those wonderful doctors, and nurses!” he thought in admiration and praise, still in awe that among this chaotic wilderness were caring people who came to their aid without question or malice. He was so grateful for their dedication in treating for weeks a child from the other side of the world, a child not yet one of their own citizens. “If this is what this Australian country stands for, they deserve to have our loyalty in return.”

* * *

Jahn ran up the hut steps. Mykola, closest to the door, quickly opened it and greeted their friend.

“Peter! You must hear this!” he blurted in his stilted Ukrainian, before he realised the family had guests at their Christmas meal. Peter welcomed him to join his close friends Vasyl and Semmen. The small hut was crammed with the merry-makers, the table heavy with Evdokia’s cuisine as they clicked glasses of vodka and beer and lemonade. Jahn put down his glass.

“Peter! I have such good news! My friends have just returned from a place—closer to Sydney than here—it’s a sort of mining town. There is plenty of work there—and overtime!—and you won’t have to go down a mine, although it’s triple the pay if you do!” He noticed Evdokia’s expression, and stopped. “Peter, it will be easy work, my friends assure me. It’s a clean, new factory,” he lowered his voice, “not like these brickworks.” He paused, his excitement returning. “And we can make a great deal of money! I’m going back with my friends, to investigate. And, best of all,” he grinned as if he had found his trump card, “it’s on the government’s ‘priority list’—that means these Parkes brickworks bosses must release us!” He looked sheepishly at Evdokia, then at Peter. “You know, I’m only in my twenties, but I want to have a home one day, and a family, like yours… but this brickworks existence… we can never get ahead in life… we will never save any money, here.” He lowered his voice again, gently prodded: “There is no future for us here, Peter… and you have your age to consider.”

“Petro, your young friend is right, you know. Look at us,” Semmen nodded to his wife and little girls. “We live in a tent, now, outside Newcastle, and I have to find work wherever I can, near the mines. Only Vasyl here has managed to find better work, closer to Sydney.”

Peter looked at this happy group celebrating their first Australian Christmas in a climate of surprising heat. He observed Evdokia’s demeanour and realised, with a pang, that she had reached a certain equilibrium, a security, in this Parkes hostel. It had an orderliness and calm which far exceeded their cramped Heidenau camp life. But he knew his friends were right. The work here was exhausting, his wages barely enough to cover each week’s hostel and billeting costs. Seven months of heavy labouring on the conveyor shifts had shown him he could not endure this kind of work much longer.

The opportunity had come: the door was wedged open for them by this ambitious and fearless Jahn and his friends. However far away this mining town was from Sydney, and however inconvenient their living conditions may become, he and Evdokia had to make that initial sacrifice, into another wilderness, to increase their chances to build a better future for their family.

He shook Jahn’s hand, avoided Evdokia’s stare. He sensed such opportunities would not frequently come his way, at his age, in this new country. This year, 1950, had tested them significantly. He knew intuitively that the new year would bring them other unexpected challenges. Then he feasted his eyes on his children and wife: he knew instinctively that he had all he could reasonably ask for in this strange new country, with his Maker’s blessing.

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“Over here, Peter!” a baritone voice boomed above the din. Peter stopped and looked back, squinting, his eyes darting from the colonnaded hotel to the adjacent public bar building. “Here, Peter! It’s Friday, remember!” Jimmy, his foreman, stepped out into the fading light. “Time we spent some of that overtime money!” He patted his bulging shirt pocket and, slapping Peter’s back in welcome, led him to a group of miners at the far end of the bar.

“Here!” he pushed a schooner of the dark frothy brew along the counter to Peter. “Here’s to the King! Here’s to Empire Day!” His voice boomed over the crowd. The rowdy men paused and cheered. Peter followed their glasses of salute to a framed portrait of George VI hung high above the long bar. He grinned and shook his head as he thought of the incongruity of this dignified figure in robes and regalia contemplating the noisy rabble of miners and factory workers determined to quench their thirst and wash away the hardship and tedium of their shift work.

He gulped down the gifted schooner, raised his hand as he caught the barman’s sharp eye and ordered the next round for Jimmy’s group. In the months he’d worked at this Glen Davis shale works, he had observed and come to understand, to some extent, the work ethics of this strange mix of men, most of them itinerant workers like himself, from the scores of nationalities who had converged on this wild part of the world. Without exception, they all seemed fearless. They worked hard, almost to an extreme limit, be it in the mines or in the retort factory of the shale works. They played hard too, be it at cards, or sport, or drinking.

“Hey Wally! Come over here, will ya… Tell our Peter here that Empire Night is a celebration… a Bonfire Night, with food and crackers and a party!” The young man, who was conversant in a number of languages, blushed and came forward, his attempts at explanation drowned out by the rowdiness of the packed bar.

Peter skimmed his eyes over the smoky room as best he could. Once again, his young friend Jahn was nowhere in sight. He sighed. He missed his friend, who reminded him so much of Mykola who, too, was working hard, now at a far away farm, near Windsor. He remembered Jahn’s determination, and he was glad the young man was true to his word, saving all he earned at the shale works, even taking the weekend shifts. But the mining work was strenuous and already, in these months, it seemed Jahn had aged beyond his years. Even Evdokia’s wholesome meals during the few occasions he called by did not seem to revive him. Peter feared for his friend. There were frequent cave-ins in the narrow shale shafts, sometimes due to t

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he risks and exhaustion of workers taking these extra shifts.

He breathed in and made his way towards Jimmy, to excuse himself. He had learnt early, in this hotbed of mining activity, that there were certain rituals to observe, and to follow. Mateship may have appeared to be the obligatory slap on the back, and the swill of the beer but a certain respect for, and acknowledgement of, the leader and his close underlings was the unspoken code, whatever one’s national background.

It was almost dark as Peter made his way along the shortcut track towards the narrow footbridge point of the Capertee River that, snake-like, wound its way along the valley floor of this extinct primordial volcano. Already the night was crisp, the funnels’ remaining smoke pushed westward in a slight breeze. He paused at the footbridge, mindful of the unstable planks, and looked up at the sheer cliff face that stretched up to the dark sky. It was as if a giant primeval creature dominated over the vast valley, its splayed claw-like talus boulders and hills stretching down to the workers’ ‘bag town’ shacks. By day, the technological creature that was the large shale works factory dominated, its huge clouds of smoke and ash spurting into the westernmost part of the Capertee Valley. By night, the sheer cliff faces seemed to provide a cocooning protection for the valley’s inhabitants. Yet, instead of feeling dwarfed, even overwhelmed by this almost unnatural existence, he felt a sense of empowerment, a vitality and strength, despite the long shifts and hard labouring work, and enjoyed grasping the opportunities this rough, almost ‘wild west’ place offered.

The waft of Evdokia’s borshch hit his nostrils even before he opened the door to their half-section of the shack that was now their home in this wilderness haven. He kissed Evdokia and his little girls, retrieved his neat, brown packet and laid it out proudly. Evdokia could not resist. She put down the soup ladle and opened the packet, carefully counting each pound, the shillings and pence, then beamed with delight.

“Petro… why, this is the most they’ve paid you, so far! The overtime makes all the difference. Why,…” she hesitated, choosing her words, viewing the kitchen’s concrete floor and sparse dilapidated furniture, “we can save for our own home… one day… The Bilanenkos have written that they have just secured a block for themselves, not far from Sydney. It’s some distance from the local railway station, but they can walk to it!” She stopped, as she noted Peter’s wry smile.

He brushed at his dusty face and sighed, and took two one-shilling coins and gave them to Nadia and Ola. They hugged him as he gently tousled their hair. He turned to eat his wife’s hearty borshch: he could put generous serves of butter on his thick chunks of wholesome bread, and savour the conviviality and relative ease of his simple family life, despite the starkness of their existence in the Glen Davis valley. He rubbed at his calluses. They were healing at last; the relatively easier work of pulling the shale levers and shovelling coke was far less strenuous than his back-breaking work at the Parkes brickworks.

“Dyna, the foreman of the team… Jimmy… you know, the one with the good voice? He has offered me his winding gramophone machine… he’s just ordered a new ‘electric’ one! He knows how much we like to sing. He says he’ll give us some gramophone records… he is certain they will help us learn ‘the English’ better!” His eyes lit up as he anticipated the pleasure of music and song. Evdokia nodded briefly, calculating the cost. The harshness of their existence in this valley needed some softening, and it was preferable to entertain their divergent friends in their crude home than to see her husband drawn in further to the drinking crowd at the hotel bar. She would put aside a pound, as a deposit on this gramophone, before she made her weekly route to the town’s bank, the increasing balance in their deposit book giving her the assurance she needed that one day they would have security, a home to call their own. For this, she was prepared to struggle in this strange existence, attend to her many chickens and ducks, and tend the growing garden of vegetables that thrived, surprisingly easily, in this black volcanic and alluvial soil among the sandstone rocks and soaring cliffs.

“Look, Tato! See what our friends gave us!” Nadia opened her hand, revealing a little ‘fizzer stick’, attached to a wick. “My friend Selena and her sisters and brothers already have a dozen each! They bought them with their pocket money… and I’ll buy some too, with my shilling!” Peter puzzled at this purchase. “Oh, Tato… this is for the Bonfire Night party, next week. Our teachers told us,” she stood erect as she proudly mimicked, “we will be celebrating our Empire Day!” She shrugged her young shoulders, unable yet to understand its import. “But it must be very important… Selena showed me the big boxes of fireworks her family have hidden!”

Peter bit at his lip wondering at the wisdom of a large family living in such cramped conditions in a flimsy timber shack, higher up the rocky incline, which no fire brigade could reach. He had already seen, close-up, in this seemingly pristine valley, the devastation of a mine cave-in caused by a small ill-placed gelignite stick, of the irreparable damage to men’s fingers, limbs, even life. He shook his head, felt a sense of discomfort as the gut feeling of danger warned him. He knew his daughters daily ran up to play with these friendly near-neighbours and knew, too, how a child’s innocent prank could become disastrous. And the adults were smokers. He knew he had to act quickly. He would ask his foreman, Jimmy, what was best to do, at the next shift day. For now, he had to stand his ground with his little daughters.

“Nadia, Ola, come here,” he stood tall before them, legs astride. They knew their father’s firm voice and commanding pose meant he was to be obeyed. “You must promise me, moyi malenki, that you will stay away from your friend’s house until the Bonfire Night… until the fireworks are lit.” He dropped his voice, expression serious. “Do you understand?” They nodded their promise, returned to the family’s bedroom to dream of the bright fireworks display that their friends had described in such vivid detail.

The night was crisp and clear, the heavens scattered with its myriad of stars as he adjusted the bedroom window curtain. The nightly owl hooted its haunting call from its tree-nook nearby. All was quiet; all was peaceful with the world.

* * *

A rustling, crackling sound startled Peter from his sleep. He instinctively jumped out of bed: the reminder of the bombings and infernos of Berlin and Wilhelmshaven were too entrenched for him to forget. He ran to the kitchen, threw open the door. Not far above them, among trees and rocks, the hill was in flames, brilliant reds and gold and spurting shards of blue and green shot up into the night sky as if they were being sent into space. Already the fumes and hot ash were descending towards their shack.

“Dyna!” he rushed back to the bedroom. “Grab the children! Grab some blankets! I’ll warn Christov!” He banged the share-house back door. “Christov! Christov!” He wrenched open the weary door-handle, rushed into the adjoining neighbour’s rooms.

As Evdokia and the children huddled at a safer distance with their neighbour’s family, Peter and Christov ran with buckets towards the flames. Through the dark and the billowing black haze he could make out some figures cowering behind rocks for protection. He attempted to count the numbers, without success. Three generations of larrikin Australians lived happily and freely in that shack. He shuddered and swallowed, felt ill as he stood still at last, his buckets of water hissing uselessly back at him and Christov. The head-count of this generous, laughing Australian family, who had welcomed him and Evdokia and their children so openly upon their arrival, could not be made until dawn. He feared, with the sickening certain knowledge wrought from his own long fire-fighting experience in the Wilhelmshaven camp, that not all these souls would greet him and his family on the morrow. Empire Day had prematurely and unwittingly claimed its victims, in nature’s haven, tampered by man.

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The bus sidled into a resting bay at the hub of unpretentious Market Street, its chromed grille nuzzling the long sunburnt grass as if it were chafing to free its choked-up nostrils of insects and dust. With the handrail as support, Peter swung clear of the bus steps, desperate to smell the crisp air again after a jostling twenty mile journey of gravelled road from Capertee junction.

He sauntered along the grassy pathway, regaining his composure, and breathed in the pristine air of the verdant ferns and eucalypts of the Glen Davis valley. His new white shirt, purchased at the general store which took pride of place in this street, was now flecked with yellow dust and damp with perspiration, but he grinned as he savoured those minutes of success in the solicitor’s office in Sydney the previous day. He breathed, in relief, as he re-lived those moments of a certain empowerment, which he had not experienced for so long, as he placed his signature on the document of purchase for their block of land on the city’s outskirts.

He eased his grip on his suitcase, and smiled: he had trinkets for his little Nadia and Ola, hurriedly purchased at Lithgow before changing trains, and he could anticipate Evdok

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ia’s joy when he walked in to their shack. He was glad, now, that he had decided to act swiftly, once his friend Vasyl had written that few blocks remained, and it was with their good friend’s contacts that the purchase was expedited. Now he had the certainty of providing a home for his family, and they would be reunited with friends from their Heidenau camp days.

He looked about him, his eyes scanning the great surrounding cliffs of this mountainous volcanic valley, his nostrils alive with the unique pungency of crushed fern and bark as the afternoon’s shadows encroached on the blue haze of eucalypt. He realised, now, how much he had missed Glen Davis, though he had left it barely two weeks earlier. This valley haven was gradually, mysteriously filling the psyche of his being, nourishing him in the most unexpected ways, despite the extreme conditions. He and his family, along with all the other inhabitants in this cut off sanctuary, had to live within the confines of a harsh environment: freezing winter nights, searing summer days, the red glow of bushfires worming their way along the escarpment floor; all this, interspersed with the intermittent flooding of the Capertee River.

But in these past eighteen months of admittedly tedious shift work, punctuated by an unparalleled freedom, he had come to share in the camaraderie of all the men and women of the cultural melting pot of such diverse nationalities. At last, he was being rewarded for his hard work. At last, one day, Evdokia would have her home in a suburb not too far from Sydney, and near their many friends. And, he reminded himself, he would still feel the bush and nature at his door, their chosen block in a street that ended at a bush reserve. He brushed at the flies again, as he calculated: one more year of work at this Glen Davis shale oil factory, and then they would have their modest new home, for life. It was a small commitment, for such a secure future. The tedium of the work, the heat, the flies: such memories would dissipate for such an opportunity.

From the safety of an arching branch, high up on a centuries-old gum, a kookaburra guffawed at him. He laughed at the watchful creature, and he imagined the laughter he and Evdokia would share as they drank a celebratory shot of vodka and played again her favourite record, even attempting to sing to the words of ‘Irene Goodnight’. He headed for the old wooden bridge spanning the river that separated the formal part of town from the ‘bag town’ shacks and dwellings, when he suddenly stopped and looked back. Stepping off the bus he had been so engrossed in his thoughts that he had not carefully enough observed the shale works. To the east of the town, the massive structure with its buildings and retorts beamed vibrant as August’s afternoon rays hit the columns. This was a busy mid-week day. The humming sounds suggested activity, but the massive plumes of steam and smoke that were the by-product of full production, and which were funnelled daily by the westerly winds, were gone.

He hesitated, puzzled. Something did not ring true. There had been talk of changes in the factory, even of some ongoing problems in extracting the shale. But the Chinese whispers of the union leaders evinced such an outpouring of emotion and overwhelming support from the several thousand residents that even Jimmy, his hard-headed foreman, had laughed off Peter’s concerns before he left for Sydney.

He backtracked to the hotel’s bar, squinted as he searched for Jimmy’s familiar tall frame at his usual place at the bar’s end. Stern jaw in cupped hand, Jimmy looked solemn, his beer untouched. His sole team companion today, the burly Scot, usually dust-covered, appeared strangely passive in his clean clothes.

Jimmy raised his hand in greeting, but without his usual gusto. He attempted small talk: “A short shift today, Peter,” as he brushed at a few specks of dust. Soothing his lips with a gulp of the dark brew, he turned to face Peter squarely, his red eyes angry. “We’ve been duped, we have, Peter!” Jimmy’s voice boomed over his head, evoking instant agreement from others in the bar. “They told us we would fight this all the way to Canberra, and win!” He snorted in exasperation. “And all those newspaper reporters clambering to get our story! Ha! Well, they sold more papers in the big smoke, didn’t they!” He picked up his schooner, and put it down again, his heart not in it. Peter bit his lip. He understood his foreman’s tone of anger and distress, but he could only obliquely guess at the full meaning.

Jimmy stood up, his tall frame bearing over all around him, searching out his interpreter friend, then remembered. “And Wally’s gone too, now! He smelt a rat when all this started! He’s headed to the big smoke to look for regular work!” Peter didn’t understand the English but sensed that their work prospects had changed. He touched Jimmy’s arm and, as if he were playing at a game of charades, gestured the motions of pulling shaft-levers, a large part of his job. “Moya ‘sheft’? Kaput?”

Jimmy nodded, then shook his head in dismay. “Kaput it is, my friend! Isn’t it, fellas?” The other drinkers groaned in agreement. Someone muttered angry expletives.

“Benny and Tom? No here?” Peter asked, of the loyal miners who worked in Jimmy’s team.

“Nope!” Jimmy shook his head again. “Only Geordie here is left with me, God help us!” He lowered his voice and eyeballed Peter, as if this would help in his understanding. “Benny and Tom… well, you know, they see things we white fellas don’t… They said their ‘totems’ have moved away… that there’s trouble ahead. They’ve gone back to ‘country’, as they say in these parts—back to the bush.” He leaned even closer. Peter noticed, for the first time, Jimmy’s lips quiver. “They gave a warning… they said something is going to break… but they wouldn’t tell me how they know. They somehow ‘divine’ these things…” Jimmy shook his head, uncertain of what next to believe.

Peter’s schooner, barely sipped, began to lose its froth. The usually welcome bitter taste he had only recently come to enjoy had lost its appeal, the flat beer now symbolic of the men’s flattened spirits.

* * *

He greeted Evdokia and his daughters cheerily, but the earlier feelings of elation he held back. That unease, that familiar sense of uncertainty and anxiety had returned. All their bank savings had been withdrawn for this land purchase. And now, Jimmy hinted their work life at the shale factory could end any day. He pretended all was well: he had not had time to think of what next to do. The past weeks had been heady, even uplifting. But they had also been tiring, with many hours of uncomfortable travel and long days with excited friends in Sydney. He had not given himself time to consider what job prospects he might ultimately have in the capital city. His friends were much younger and were already secure in government project works on the roads and the railways. And he had counted on his family staying in this isolated valley: their new home one day was dependent on this.

Still, he smiled as he set out the newly signed document on the dresser and watched with pride as Evdokia beamed and appeared to study it. She looked up, her face flushed. “Why, Petro… this is to be our land, now! Our very own land!” Her brow furrowed as she hesitated. “And… we will be permitted to build our own home on it, one day?… They won’t be able to take it from us?” She touched his brow, her finger brushing at a stray lock of his hair. He felt the tightness in his chest, but he could not disappoint her now.

“And look, Petro! Mykola’s photographs arrived! What a happy Easter it was for us all, this time!” She set out her two favourite photographs of the family’s celebration. Peter looked closely at the small sepia frames and smiled, despite himself. Mykola was so grown up, now almost his height. The many months apart made him appear different, somehow. At seventeen, he was no longer a youth but an adult, making his own decisions as best he could in this new country. His eyes moistened with pride, but he also felt the pang of responsibility as he looked from the photographs to Evdokia. He knew how much she yearned for her family to share a home together again one day, soon.

He stepped outside once more into the night, to calm his mind before succumbing to sleep. He looked to its heavens, as his soul’s mentor Taras Shevchenko must have done so long ago in his Tsarist exiles. The night embraced him, the stars mesmerising in the pitch dark. The constellations may have been different for that great Ukrainian philosopher poet, but the stars’ eternal glisten of hope had not changed. They followed each soul’s journey to its eventual destiny, its ultimate peaceful place.

He crossed himself before this darkened church of the universe, let the tears fall freely, as he made his way back to the shack. They loosened the emotions he could no longer hold in, but could not share, now, with his sleeping family.

* * *

Peter felt the horse’s rocking motion as its hooves slushed through virgin snow, felt the lightest flakes of melting snow touch his eyelids and cheeks. He was on his way to the safety of his home in Kylapchin, to his Hanya and Vanya. But then the horse began to stall: something had baulked it. He turned the reins this way and that, but to no avail. He put out his hand to steady himself, felt the cold and damp as he fell…

Suddenly he awoke, his splayed hand soaked on the window pane as droplets of water cascaded along the corrugated tin ceiling and down the walls. The shack seemed to be swaying. It was not yet dawn, the sounds around him unfamiliar and perplexing. He carefully stepped out of the bedroom, stepped down the deep single step to the kitchen’s concrete floor.

“Good God!” he cried as the water sucked at him, silty mud al

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ready sticking to his feet. He felt his way back, dressed quickly, shook Evdokia gently.

“Dyna! Dyna! Wake up! The water from the river!” He rolled up his trousers, fumbled in the kitchen for candles and brought one to her. He could not believe the Capertee River could rise in so short a time. The rains had eased, days ago, the river flowed normally. There were no suggestions in the township of any dangerous peaks.

There was no time to even think of saving their kitchen furniture. A foot of seething muddy water was pushing at him as he moved from kitchen to bedroom.

“Dyna! We only have minutes before this mud will reach the bedroom! Dress the girls… I’ll lift their beds onto ours… it will give us more time to save some of these belongings! Quick! Quick! I’ll wake Christov and his family… God only knows how much of this we can save!”

As dawn broke they moved as best as they could, muddy water swishing at their knees as they bundled perenas and clothing to higher ground at the back of the shack. Peter realised, at last, the ultimate purpose of the small mouldy wooden shed at the highest end of this allotment, among the gnarled but still surviving peach trees. Someone, all those years ago, must have experienced a similar fate, the Capertee River having broken its banks time and again as floodwaters rushed from surrounding mountains into the valley in unpredictable torrential rain.

“Dyna, these belongings will be wet, but they can be saved… it’s this mud that will destroy everything it seeps into… We must go now—we cannot save any of this, now!” He waved his hand in surrender at the sparse kitchen furniture that his wife had so proudly cleaned and polished. Already the white-washed walls had ugly brown mud stains two feet from the floor. He grabbed the tied-up tablecloth containing whatever Evdokia could remove in those minutes, hauled the heavy bundle to the higher ground, then returned to unlatch the gate of the duck-pen.

He looked across at the changed scenery, unrecognisable from the calm and beauty of the previous day. The river, the valley, had turned into a floodplain. Only a flapping cardboard poster of last week’s film atop the corrugated roof of the local cinema shed gave any hint of the depth of the water. He peered closer at their shack as muddy water sucked at its unsteady old brick piers. It seemed to be swaying with each surge of rushing water. He struggled back to the kitchen door, watched in dismay. The furniture was already damaged beyond repair and, as if a massive rogue machine was working underfoot, items were being dragged around and about, churning in the debris.

A sullen morning greeted them as people called across to each other, offering help. Already, the larrikin family above them had sent their adult son, offering accommodation to their foreign new friends.

Peter stood at the door of the dilapidated shed at the back of the allotment, looked back at the scene before him. He smiled wryly as he thought of life’s turn of events. He and Evdokia had waited all those years in Heidenau camp to find a place of safety, to eventually come to a place they could call home. Their single piece of furniture, the large wooden trunk, specially built for their sea voyage to another country, was squeezed into this shed, the only safe place now on their valley allotment. All that they could save of their belongings had gone into that shed and, except for the battered suitcase which he clung to, with its precious irreplaceable photographs and documents, all their remaining material possessions were again placed into that one large trunk.

He ran callused fingers along the edge of the well-worn trunk, observed the buckled and twisted iron strips of its lid, the result of the journey’s transits. He bit his lip, thoughtful, as he swallowed hard. These past weeks had pulled the emotional strings too well. The Glen Davis shale factory was to be closed, the workers to be paid off in paltry fashion. His family’s place of refuge was now three feet under water, with no prospect of returning to it before leaving the valley. He blinked away tears of dismay. He had prepared himself for the ravages of war, eventually, during the bombings. But not for this devastation, here, in far away peaceful Australia. He looked out again from this higher vantage point, and saw in the distance a church spire swaying precariously on its roof in the town’s centre. Neither singly, nor combined, could the three established churches of the valley divine a secure future for its inhabitants.

He looked up into the gloomy sky, which pretended to lighten with the morning. Jimmy had been right about his loyal darker-skinned Benny and Tom: they did see things that their relatively new arrivals in the valley could not. They may not have predicted the ‘sit in’ within the dark caverns of the mine by a group of miners, nor the arrival of the controversial visiting ‘Players’ from a sophisticated city who acted out scenarios for them within those caverns, just days before the flood. But their totems sensed with greater accuracy the disaster which was about to befall the valley.

It was as if there had been a visitation on this natural primeval haven: that somehow the valley had disinterred some of the ancient spirits that continued to remain a mystery to all within it. Living with nature had its dangers. But living with misapplied man-made laws, and ignoring the laws of nature, had even greater perils. The Glen Davis shale mines, the Capertee Valley and all its inhabitants, old and new, would suffer a fate, both economic and emotional. And Peter and Evdokia were a part of this.

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Evdokia, firmly holding her dish of vereneke that she had covered with her favourite embroidered napkin, picked her way carefully along the path that wove through their vegetable plots. She paused as Peter lifted the single strand of wire that delineated their back boundary from Vasyl and Stasia’s, and lifted her black skirt from the tangled grass that signified their neighbours’ property. He smiled, observing her meticulous hold of the heavy dish as she held it away from her new nylon blouse which she had purchased for this occasion.

His big pot of borshch, with its iron handle, was light in comparison to the heavy timbers and crates he now worked on, in the timber-yard of the large factory in Alexandria. Like a juggler, he balanced the pot in one hand, and a large covered dish of venehrad and the token gift of vodka for the party in the other. Walking closely behind her as they made their way to the back of Vasyl’s house, he sensed Evdokia’s renewed pride in her appearance, her deep blonde hair held gently in a bun at the nape of her neck with a new clip. He smiled again as he remembered her relieved expression when he announced he had at last found full-time work. More than a year of precarious living conditions after his family’s move from Glen Davis had at last come to an end: their economic survival made possible during that time by growing their vegetables, supplemented by Peter’s casual gardening work for doctors and business owners in Sydney’s leafy suburbs; then finally his eventual capitulation to apply for the meagre government unemployment payments.

He shuddered as he thought of the fear that reverberated through him as he approached that unemployment counter and faced the official. Too many years, too many experiences under Stalin and Hitler’s rule, had created these subconscious responses that shot out at him and shook him to the core, in ways that still surprised him. He knew he and his family were safe here, in far away Australia, and in sunny and friendly Sydney. But in many ways, it seemed more confusing, even isolating, than he had experienced, even in Germany, where he was expected to work and be usefully employed. This recent single, long year without regular work had left a dent, a certain shaking of his confidence, and had made him feel less valued. He grasped the vodka bottle tightly by its neck as he entered his friend’s house. He knew, now, that even in their most uncertain of situations there was a simple, acceptable aphrodisiac to be found, to ease the pain of the unpredictability in life.

“Ah, Dynasha,” Vasyl winked at his friends, knowing how to flatter them. “You well know how to please me… you’ve brought my favourite dishes!” He smacked his lips and patted Evdokia’s back. She blushed, then turned and busied herself next to Stasia, knowing Vasyl’s teasing and flattery of others upset his much younger wife. Peter grinned; he knew his friend’s teasing was all jest. But he sensed the situation and touched Stasia on the shoulder. “Our good friends… your generosity knows no bounds! You offer us your home here, even before it is completed, while your builder, Bayliss, put up our garage home—with all of us doing what we could to help him. And now, you are offering your home for Jacov and Anna’s christening party! There are no better friends than you, Stasia and Vasyl… we are all fortunate to have met you in Heidenau camp!” Now Stasia blushed, her tears forgotten, her generous smile returned. She turned her attention to the lunch preparations in her new kitchen which gleamed in her care.

Two dozen people were made welcome, and crammed into the lounge room, which had been cleared of its sparse furnishings. The trestle tables, dressed with white linen sheets, were laden with Ukrainian food and delicacies. The baptismal group arrived, the party began: drinks poured, shots of vodka prepared, heartfelt speeches volunteer

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ed. Peter observed the large gathering and took in the warmth of the feelings and the camaraderie of the group. He felt a sense of amazement at life’s turn of events. Half a dozen families, taken from disparate parts of the Ukraine during the German army’s retreat in the war, and placed in different labour camps within Germany, were now safe and well, meeting and sharing their gifts of food and wine in the most auspicious and optimistic of circumstances.

He looked along to the table’s end, to the children sharing seats as they squeezed together, Nadia and Ola among them. He sighed as he looked around, and contemplated. Each man and wife at this gathering had waited for moments such as these: each one had made a commitment to give their children a life of security and safety, of freedom of opportunity, and freedom from the stresses of Europe and the Cold War that were still dogging the old continent. And each man and woman knew what it meant to have lived under a totalitarian regime, be it Stalin’s or Hitler’s.

He touched his thumb and felt the pain. It still throbbed, the extensive dark bruise a reminder of the inconsistency of hard timber and bent nail no matter how accurate the hammer in his factory work. He watched Evdokia as she turned to each of her companions, offering them the food and saved-for delicacies. His heart panged as he realised, again, how much she enjoyed the comfortable conditions of a normal household and completed house. His chest tightened as he realised with dismay the receding dream of a complete home of their own on their block. His ‘average’ labourer’s wages were so controlled, the overtime hours so sought by other union members, that he had to be satisfied his weekly pay packet was able to feed his family and left just enough for incoming bills. He sighed. He was not a pessimist but, realistically, he could not see a way out of this dilemma. He was grateful for what he had. But he could do no more at this present time. This was no longer Glen Davis, in which generous shifts were offered, but Sydney, the state’s capital, where more than a few extraneous costs were incurred in order to hold on to a menial job for which he left his ‘garage’ house at dawn and returned to in the dark.

Jacov broke his thoughts. “Did you know, Peter, next week the builder will start on the foundations for our new house!” Jacov’s booming voice held everyone’s attention. “That builder, Bayliss—he is such a good man—he stepped over the ground at the back of our big army tent. Why, he’s even found a plan to build the foundations behind the tent! This way, we will still live here, just as we do now, and save for the new house at the same time!” His huge shoulder jostled Peter’s, in nudging jest. “And when are you starting on your new house?” He looked from Peter to Evdokia and saw her blush, but pushed on. “Ah, yes! You have that problem of the canal running right across your block! Won’t the Council let you build there, now?” He grinned as a dozen curious adults listened with interest. Peter blinked and hesitated, caught between joking at the situation and expressing his real concerns of affordability. But Evdokia spoke first.

“Why, Jacov, we already have our house plans… they have just recently been drawn up. The Council says we can build our house in front of the canal—it will still be in the right place at the street front.” She blushed again, glancing at Peter. He smiled as he watched his dignified wife state their case. The party’s atmosphere calmed and the children returned to their excited chatter.

Jacov’s voice boomed out again. “Ha, ha! But it will have to be a small house, then! Smaller than ours, when we finish!” Evdokia blushed again and bowed her head. She was lost for words. They had all come together to celebrate his baby’s baptism and had brought these specially prepared dishes for the party. She had not expected to be confronted, even exposed like this. Peter moved quickly to diffuse her discomfort. Jacov could be somewhat raucous, even boastful at times, and Peter now sensed that their near neighbour, charged up with drink, was enjoying prolonging Evdokia’s discomfort.

“Ah, fellows! Look! Only half the vodka bottle drunk! What sort of party is this, without more shots to merry us along?” He grabbed the bottle and poured small shots for the company, interrupting their bombastic neighbour’s probing. “Na Zdorovia! Na Zdorovia! And may your baby girl grow to be as pretty as you, Anna, and as strong and healthy as you, Jacov!” Glasses clicked, people congratulated them again; the party continued, the atmosphere saved, just in time.

“Some song! Some song!” Vasyl’s cheeks were glowing, his thick black hair slightly matted and stuck to one side from constant handling. The vodka bottle was near-empty and the party guests were restless for more entertainment. The priest, sensing the moment, blessed the group and left surreptitiously, on pretext of being needed elsewhere.

They were all in good voice, the good food and plentiful spirits making them game. “Veprahaete xloptsi, koni…” they all returned to their favourite folk songs, of horsemen and countryside and gallantry steeped in their own Ukrainian villages. Peter stood with his friends, arm over shoulders as they sang one song after another and, as if it were second nature, Evdokia and the women harmonised to the men’s gusto.

Mykola knocked politely at the back door, but no-one heard. He stepped into the crowded lounge room and blushed as he realised how jovial the group had become. He carefully placed the gramophone to one side against the wall, but held on to the box of vinyl records. He stood alone, enjoying the conviviality, but somehow not being a part of it. His face gleaming, blonde hair brushed back and with his new shirt still creased at its folds, the only sign of his day’s work at the Gosford quarry was the residual dirt beneath his fingernails which he could not remove at the kitchen sink of their garage home. He winked at Nadia and Ola: he had promised them this music, if he returned early enough from the quarry.

He placed the record box on a small side table in the corner and took out a newspaper. Despite his lack of formal education, the elementary English he had self-taught enabled him to make out enough words of significance.

“Look, Batko,” he used the formal address as he handed the Sunday newspaper to Peter. “They’ve announced it in the newspapers, and on the wireless as well! They say it’s espionage, right here, in Sydney! They say Stalin’s men are still on the lookout, even though he’s been dead a year!” Their friends quietened, and urged him to go on.

“This Russian official in Sydney—Vladimir Petrov—he secretly defected, asked for political asylum to stay in Australia, some weeks ago. And now his wife, Evdokia Petrova—she’s also an official here, in Sydney—she was being forcibly taken back to Russia! Look…” he held up the newspaper’s photograph, “the Australian officials had to struggle with the KGB men to stop her being bundled out of Darwin, back to Moscow!”

Peter again felt that pitted sensation, which even the potency of fiery liquid could not dispel. Stalin’s regime was still attempting to spread out its tentacles, even to the opposite side of the globe. Malenkov and Khrushchev now had new suits and new slogans in their dealings with the Western democracies. But the lessons of gain they learnt during Stalin’s long reign were too useful, too profitable, for them to make any real changes to their new-found authority.

The men now talked politics. The women turned to each other to chat about family concerns, encouraging their restless children to continue their play outdoors.

Nadia and Ola hung back. They had waited many weeks for Mykola to play his records and had eyed the box he had placed up high on the kitchen dresser for safety. He opened the gramophone, wound its handle and tightened the glistening needle, then carefully took out the vinyl record from its brown paper cover and, as if conjuring some magic for a moment or two, placed the needle exactly on the right groove of the vinyl. The guests hushed as the lilting notes of ‘La Paloma’ reached out across the room. The men hummed, the women swayed to the strains of the lingering romantic piece that they had heard many times across the squares of Naples. Evdokia’s eyes filled with tears. Peter, too, felt his eyes moisten, as bittersweet memories of their Ukraine and of Naples flooded back unexpectedly. He knew how much they loved their music, and their dance. He also remembered his Vanya, his ‘double’ in the back streets of the Neapolitan city, the pursuit that ended in so much heartache.

“Tato,” Mykola took Peter aside, “I have to tell you something… Mama must not know yet…” Peter sensed this was a moment his son could not put off. They moved to the adjacent kitchen. “Tato…” Mykola blushed, uncertain how his news would be received. “You know how difficult it is to get full-time work, even now…” He looked at his cut hands, his chipped nails that were unprotected in the torn gloves given him for the casual work in the quarry. “I know you and Mama are doing all you can… The house… we will never be able to save quickly enough for that, as things are.” He took a deep breath, stood taller, his eyes levelling with Peter’s.

“A few friends of mine… from the quarry, and friends from the farm I worked at… we are all going together, to Cooma. They have work there—they call it ‘Snowy Mountains Scheme’.” He paused, watched Peter’s brows furrow. “It’s a huge government project… there is work for everyone… and as many shifts as we will want.” He stopped and put his hand out, touching his father’s chest, anticipating the question. “It’s for young men, Tato… they all live in large dormitories, in camps scattered in the bush—and they don’t see their families. They’re constructing this Adam

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inaby Dam… They want as many of us young men as possible. And…” he swallowed and lowered his voice, blushing again, “it will be the best way for us to save our money. I’ll be sending money home for you and Mama, to put into your savings book.” He cheered up, his burden relieved. “Then we can build our home here, much sooner—and we will even have a bedroom each!”

Peter’s eyes glistened, his feelings of losing Mykola to work away from home again mixed with feelings of pride for his son, who was still not yet of legal age but was a man in all respects.

Someone had changed the vinyl record again. The strains of Mykola’s favourite record, of Mario Lanza’s song from ‘The Student Prince’ soared above all other songs. Peter felt the gnawing pang as he took in the beauty of the music and the voice, and poignancy of the moment. ‘The Student Prince’ may have been a co-incidental title for Mykola’s favourite record. But Peter knew that, both in his outward actions and in his inner goodness, even before he left for the Snowy Mountains, his son was already a prince in heart and in life.

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“Peter, it is time for lunch!” Peter looked up from the far end of the lush garden and waved to the doctor’s wife as she waited at the sun-drenched kitchen door, then he continued tugging at the stubborn growth. He had to complete the new drain that ran through the thicket before the day was done. The back screen door snapped shut, then opened a few minutes later.

“Peter, it is such a nice day… will you have your lunch under the trees?” the modulated voice enquired. He looked up again and rested his aching arm on one knee, watched as the doctor’s wife carried the tray to a weathered timber table that had the appearance of a speckled tablecloth as sunlight flecked and danced through the leaves. He sank his trowel at right angles on a grassy patch and took off his gloves as he strolled to the outside laundry. He gauged it was already midday, the sun perfectly placed overhead, the shadows not yet forming in this large, rambling garden.

He washed, using the familiar worn but clean towel left for him and brushed at his moistened hair. A recent newspaper, atop the discarded pile on the shelf, caught his eye. He carried it back to the table and spread out its front page of dramatic and disturbing pictures, frowned as he studied the blurry images of a Russian armoured car and crew guarding Budapest airport and a Soviet tank blocking the highway to the Austro-Hungarian border.

The doctor’s wife re-appeared with the large teapot, wisps of her long wavy hair caught in the pot’s steam as they strained at her tight hairclips. “I will bring some cakes, later, Peter… we are also eating our lunch.”

“Danke,” he grinned and nodded. He welcomed all manner of food, and in this Viennese household there was an abundance.

She looked across to the pictures of tanks and soldiers, and the headline, ‘Russians Overrun Budapest’. She frowned. “Scham, scham,” she whispered, and shook her head. Their eyes met. Though from different countries of origin, and from different strata in society, each knew what it meant to leave a homeland that one loved. She sighed, then, deep in thought, she returned to the safety of her home.

He, too, sighed. There were such contrasts in the lives of people in this world. Here, in peaceful Australia, there was optimism and such a youthful exuberance for the enjoyment of life. Yet Europe was still bedevilled by the Cold War antics and resultant misery of so many hapless innocents. The Berlin blockade may have ended, but the invisible ‘Iron Curtain’ of the Cold War brought a new intensity of rivalry between east and west. He studied the front page: the tanks and military jeeps, the evident chaos and distress of Budapest’s invasion by Soviet troops made clear even to a Ukrainian migrant not conversant in English. He folded the top sheets and put them to one side. He would show these disturbing pages to friends familiar with the language who would interpret the details.

Four hours of work in the garden had given him an appetite. He ate with gusto, quaffing down several mugs of strong black tea sweetened with sugar. He marvelled at how quickly time passed in this gardening work. The expansive grounds had come alive and nature once again provided so generously in this leafy northern suburb of Sydney. He closed his eyes and smelled the blossoms, listening to the competing birdlife as mother birds fed and trained their young. Another honeyed fragrance wafted past. He breathed in a long remembered scent as dappling sunrays and blooms swayed in a light afternoon breeze. This grand old garden was half a hemisphere away from a certain kolkhoz garden he had visited all those years ago, in which he first walked with Evdokia, but in the warmth and ambience, and temporary removal from other cares in the world, they were similar.

He took a deep breath as he shook himself from his reverie. Stalin had gone, but the new Politburo was now one of a constant rotating door, through which his henchmen came and went, and returned again, with Khrushchev and Bulganin the present surviving heavy-weights. He shook his head and laughed as he remembered the absurdity, the tense atmosphere, those two years ago at the Alexandria factory, as news of the Petrovs’ defection broke around the nation. “You’re not one of those, are ya, Peter?” the alarmed Paddy had spat out at him, his rough Irish accent confusing him. “You’re not a commo are ya, mate?” Paddy had ribbed him, only half-jesting. “You know his missus was dragged off a plane at Darwin, dontcha? What’s ’er name…?” Peter’s face had reddened: he had already been told the details of Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia Petrova, as each dramatic day unfolded. It had cost him dearly that pay-day at the Erskineville hotel, to salvage his Ukrainian pride and convince his fellow workers that he was not a Communist. “But,” he thought now as he returned to his gardening work, “these Petrovs are now in hiding, with new identities… it can’t be an easy life for them, living under these conditions, even in sunny Australia.”

* * *

He hurried up the platform stairs, but still had to queue at the busy turnstile barrier of their new home’s suburb of Bankstown. He smiled as he looked around. He was still surprised at the pace, the life and vigour of this working-class suburb which seemed to be transforming even during these past eighteen months since he and Evdokia settled here. Already, on this late Saturday afternoon, the streets were crowded with residents and visitors dressed to travel by train to the city, or to frequent one of the three cinemas near this station. A new small shopping mall across from the station enticed the inhabitants, and Australians and migrants converged and frequented several new ‘delicatessens’, some even ordering ‘cappuccino’ coffee at the mall’s milk bar.

He stood a few moments, observing a young generation of tanned tennis players and casually dressed swimmers who had returned from the Olympic-sized pool a short distance from the station. The resounding success of the recently ended Olympic Games, in Melbourne, had at last given Australia a place on the world stage in a way that no government could achieve. He grinned as these tall bronzed children reminded him of how swiftly his own Nadia and Ola were growing, as they participated in their sports at school and through the social clubs at their nearby Australian church.

He passed the local hotel, closest to the station. The happy larrikin sounds of Australian men laughing and joking drew him, but he hesitated and decided to continue on his way home. He needed every pound he earned to reduce their bank loan, which was compressed to a punishing five year term, and required both his and Mykola’s wages. He strolled the short distance to their small post-Federation brick bungalow, the last of the sun’s rays almost blinding him as they fanned out from a breathtaking pink-hued cloud. Through the softening haze at a cross-street he waved to Katya, another of Evdokia’s many new acquaintances in this multi-lingual suburb. He still paused for those few moments before crossing the road to their new home, and marvelled at his good fortune in settling on a home closer to his Alexandria factory work, still wondrous that the miracle had happened, that he had found good people in the bank and solicitors who had made this purchase possible.

Evdokia looked up as he walked into the dining room, a strange expression on her face. “What is it, Dyna?” he asked as he touched her shoulder and kissed her brow. The room was dim. Then he caught sight of an envelope in her trembling hand. Tears rolled down her cheeks, her self-control dissipating.

“Dyna… is it bad news?… Let me see!” His first thoughts were of Mykola. He took the letter, held it up and frowned. He took a deep breath as he opened out the folded pages and studied them. A lightning rod, it seemed, hit him in the pit of his stomach as he read the Ukrainian words; his fingers smudged at the indelible ink markings of words eradicated by a Soviet bureaucrat. He felt momentarily lightheaded, a strange mix of elation and fear: feelings he could not explain even to himself, at that moment.

“Why, Dyna… it is from your family… your older sister Olha has written this!” He shook his head, puzzled. “How has this been possible? We have not approached any Australian officials. Could it be…?” He looked up, his eyes settling on the framed picture of Christ on their mantelpie

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ce, honoured with its small embroidered linen cloth Evdokia had hidden through all the years since leaving their Ukraine.

“This must be our priest’s work, here, in Sydney! But… it has been some years since we placed your family’s name on his list to the Russian authorities!” He swallowed as he remembered how difficult it was for him to exclude his own family’s name, in order to protect Vanya, if he was still alive.

Evdokia wept quietly as Peter stood at the window and read her sister Olha’s simply written letter. He swallowed hard, the pages trembling in his hand. His eyes filled with tears.

“All these years, Petro… my Klavdina and Yakim died all those years ago… my Klavdina, even before the war ended, my Yakim soon after. All those years… and they never knew, then, if we were still living, or dead…” She let out a wrenching sob.

“Dyna, Dyna…” Peter was still lost for words, but he tried to comfort her. “Dyna… perhaps this is our God’s way… They may have suffered more had they known we were taken so far away, to the German camps, to the thick of the fighting…”

She looked up, and around her, her eyes searching for something, resting on the enlarged and now tinted photograph of Manya, in its gilt frame, then to the neat bundle of letters from Mykola bound by a tight rubber band as symbolically as he, too, was bound in his man’s work at Adaminaby Dam. Her eyes returned to Manya, fixated on the gilt frame. Suddenly, she turned to him, eyes red, glaring. She had not heard his attempt to comfort her, only ‘fighting,’ ‘German,’ ‘camps.’ Something, from somewhere deep within her subconscious, seemed to unhinge, loosen, let go. She turned on him, her face contorted, her voice unlike anything he had heard before: of anguish, venom-like, accusative, uncontrollable.

“Why,” she lashed out, “if you had paid more attention, you would have seen my Manya limping… you would have done more to save her… you… you could have saved her, if you really tried!” She stood up, her deep unresolved anguish, all those years ago erupting, seemingly inexplicably, like an unidentified volcano, unable to stop. “And Vanya… your Vanya! He was my Vanya, too!… I took care of him all those years… Do you think he would have lived if it had been left to you?” She moved to go out, turned on him again. “And Ola, our Ola… we almost lost her, too, thanks to all your careless card-playing with your friends on the deck! You never knew how languid she had become… so close to…” Then, “And now my Mykola, my poor Mykola…” She caught her breath, pulling back a sob, hiding her gnawing concern about their shy but dutiful son, doing a man’s heavy work. “If it weren’t for him, and his big wages at the Dam, you wouldn’t have any of this!” She waved her arm wildly at the room.

“Dyna, whatever has brought this on? Why do you say these things, after all this time?” He appealed to her once more: “We have all suffered, Dyna… we can’t keep score of these things, now… not here, after all this time…” He moved towards her, to calm and comfort her, but she waved her arms away from him, her fury expended, though strangely the pain still ached deep within her. She retreated to her vegetable garden for solace, unable to even remember any of the accusations she had just poured out at him. The invisible worm, borne of pain and despair at Manya’s passing, and locked in all those years ago in the chrysalis of hopes and expectations that could not be reached, in the circumstances of their lives, had made its way to the fore, had surfaced: too late for it to metamorphose into a butterfly, no longer able to hide its festering, redundant poison.

Peter stood frozen, unable to comprehend what had happened. He slowly put his hand in his pocket to search for his handkerchief; instead, took out the neat white envelope the doctor’s gentle wife had given him, with his day’s wages. His eyes rimmed with tears as, at each accusation that ran like a repeating recording through his mind, he answered as best and as truthfully as he could.

He blinked away at his moistened eyes, looked at his watch. There was still time to walk to the local hotel, buy some lubricating and anaesthetising liquid before the six o’clock closing time. He knew he could not return to the house too soon: knew he would need to tramp the streets of this pulsating town until the hotel opened again for its eight o’clock session. He also knew, as he stepped out into a mild but cooling night, that by night’s end, he would have found a coterie of drinking mates to share his day’s wages with.

* * *

The priest sang his last blessing to the congregation as the choir, located in its tiny upper box, harmonised: “Hospode Pomelye, Hospode Pomelye, Amin, Amin, Amin.” Peter crossed himself again and looked past the row of men he stood with in the small Granville church, caught sight of Evdokia and smiled. She, too, smiled and blushed, then crossed herself as the service ended. They moved towards each other in the queue, to kiss the old priest’s cross, before leaving the service.

“Petro,” she said gently, still somewhat flushed as they stepped outside, “do you think we could thank our priest for his recommendations… They must have heeded his requests, those officials in the Ukraine.”

Peter nodded. Their eyes met: both recognising that, though some things never remain the same, other things abide with them both.

“Petro…” her voice faltered, “you write so much better than I do… Perhaps if you write our reply to my sister Olha, you could ask her—very obliquely, that is—of any news of your family… That way… perhaps we may even one day have some word of Vanya… without him risking reprisal from the authorities… if he is still with us…”

Peter smiled and nodded, then winked at her. She blushed again and bit her lip, holding back her emotions. He took a deep breath, the first that did not cause an ache in his heart since that day, weeks ago. He knew her goodness throughout all these years, knew what they had both been through: that they had been through so much, perhaps too much. And even though the inexplicable happened, that fateful Saturday, that seemed to have no apparent logic or reason to it, he could not condemn her for her depth of feeling. He would write to her sister Olha, use words couched in such a way so as not to offend the Soviet authorities, do everything possible to facilitate news of Vanya.

As they farewelled their friends at the church steps, the bright late-spring day welcomed them, even embraced them, giving them hope. He looked up to the modest spire of this compact Orthodox church. Already, he and Evdokia had received their share of miracles in the turmoil of these past decades of war, migration and peace. He could only wish that, whatever happened to Vanya, he had not suffered unduly, unnecessarily. That is all that logically, and reasonably, he could now pray for. All else was superfluous, in this unpredictable life.

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“Horko! Horko!” a hundred wedding guests called out across the plain hall beautified with ribbons and tulle embellished with the last of summer’s heady flowers. “Horko, horko! Show us who’s in command now, Voloda!” others persisted. The young bride and groom laughed as they cut their layered cake and, with the ribboned knife left symbolically secure in the heart of the lowest tier, turned to each other and kissed passionately, to rowdy approval.

Peter grinned and whispered to Evdokia, gently touched her coiled hair as they watched, in happy unison, at a table close by. She blushed, whispering her reply. He laughed as they shared a private joke. Their eyes met, glistened, each recalling their own simple wedding, long ago, under such different circumstances: one that had embraced their affections, their promises and hopes and, even one day, their love.

“Come on, Voloda! Show Raisa your wedding steps! Come on, groomsmen! Bring your lovely ladies out to the dance floor!” The Master of Ceremonies, unused to this task and exuberant after downing his extra shots of vodka to give him courage and authority, waved the wedding party onto the dance floor. Strains of a fine orchestra playing ‘The Blue Danube’ prepared the wedding party as the gramophone’s full volume gave the cue. Peter smiled. This was another of Mykola’s favourite music choices, selected thoughtfully and transported with great care to the wedding of his close friend. Voloda, seeming taller and even more dashing with his dark hair slicked back, grasped his Raisa and, laughing, they stumbled through their bridal waltz in the popular Australian fashion.

Soon the guests followed, their Master of Ceremonies commanding the orchestral piece be repeated several times. Peter, following the steps of the wedding party, held Evdokia closely, moved easily to the rhythm of the grand piece. They laughed as they faltered and swayed to the uplifting music. He looked across at the dignified men on the dance floor and smiled: by night’s end the older men, fired up by their powerful clear liquid shots, would dare each other in the obligatory ‘kopak’ dance that was already becoming anachronistic to a younger Ukrainian generation.

Evdokia glowed as they returned to their laden table to chat with their friends and participate in each moment of the joyful occasion. She looked admiringly at Peter and blushed as he playfully patted her. She could smile again at life, at last, grateful that their schism was not long-lasting, grateful that her husband never reproached her for her inexplicable and uncontrolle

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d eruption almost three years earlier. She had returned to her balanced state of mind, thankful that her family remained happy, together.

She watched with tenderness as Mykola sat engrossed with the wedding party, courteous and attentive as Best Man, while Nadia and Ola danced and joked with their young friends at the back of the hall. She realised, with a pang, that four years had passed since her family had shared their last formal occasion together, at that fateful christening. Now, Mykola’s recent news that he would return permanently, perhaps even by the year’s end when their crushing mortgage payments would be completed, excited her. Instinctively she clasped her hand to her heart, to still it. Peter watched closely and, gauging her thoughts, patted her reassuringly. He knew her sense of balance, and composure, would be near-complete once Mykola was safely back home from a national project that already had revealed its many dangers.

His eyes strayed to a farther table, settled on another younger friend he had not seen for some time. He sauntered over and joined him. “Alexai, my good fellow… why are you keeping to yourself here, with all this music and celebration? Come, join me and Dyna and the others… you know Raisa’s family at our table!”

“I can’t Petro… I have my reasons…” He glanced at the wedding party, at the newly married couple laughing and sharing a private conversation, and turned away, to face Peter squarely. Painfully shy, his fingers played with the full vodka shot for a few moments, then he downed it in one gulp, coughing at his embarrassing act of bravado.

“What is it, Alexai, dear man… this is a special occasion… it’s merriment for all of us! And you know Raisa’s family well, I know that much! Come and celebrate with us!”

“I’m too late, Petro… I’m ten years too late!” He frowned, ran his fingers through his hair to distract himself and straightened his neat tie.

“Too late, Alexai?… What are you too late for? There is no clock here, man… and in this fine country, we have all our time ahead of us, every one of us!” he cajoled the gloomy man.

Alexai stole another glance at the newly married couple. Peter followed his gaze, then suddenly realised. Raisa’s family had befriended this sombre gentle man. It had become his family since their arrival and transport to the Bathurst and Parkes hostels, and even on to Sydney. Then, inexplicably, he had moved away to new quarters. Peter eyed him, then looked to Voloda, and surmised that the dashing groom had unexpectedly returned earlier from Adaminaby to be near Raisa.

“Alexai… you are a good man, and handsome… you will find a wife soon, too, I am certain of that!” He patted Alexai and changed the conversation to cheer him. “And you may be sitting near us, too, for our naturalisation ceremony. Look!” he searched the inner pocket of his suit and brought out his prized document authorising the date and seating arrangement. “It’s very soon, within the month!” He leaned forward, closer to Alexai, as a group of inebriated amateur musicians, friends of the bridal party, rammed up the volume of their instruments and belted out a folk song.

“It’s too late, Petro… and there are no girls here… They don’t want a man in his late-thirties, with no prospects… one who can only speak broken English.” He too leaned forward. Usually so reticent, he blurted out: “Petro, I’ve cancelled my form to be naturalised. I’m going back, Petro… back to the Ukraine!” He glanced around quickly, then, eyes widening as if he had just won a prize, continued, “I’ve found a sponsor, to help me go back, very soon… this man, called Yuri… no, you wouldn’t know of him, Petro, he operates from the Russian Social Club, in the city… they have dances, and concerts… in a basement, a kind of nightclub, in George Street!” He cleared his throat, full of vodka courage now. “This Yuri… he says they will give my papers clearance, almost immediately!” He grinned, pleased with himself. “And Petro… my mother and sisters are waiting for me… At least I’m wanted there.” He wiped at his eyes. “And things are different now in Russia and the Ukraine, Petro: that’s what Yuri tells me… and… he knows!” Alexai tapped his nose with his finger, as if he were giving a secret sign.

Peter looked at this emotionally-beaten man who, too, had been forcibly taken to the German labour camps, who had no family here other than Raisa’s and who, still so painfully shy and reticent, could see no future for himself in this new foreign land. Peter shook his head and bit his lip, but resisted remonstrating with him. Stalin was not long dead. Now Malenkov was removed as Khrushchev’s equal, the new leader’s denunciation of the totalitarian tyrant seen among optimists as the sign of a new beginning for the Soviet Union, and for the Ukraine. But the Cold War was still spreading its glacial tentacles everywhere around the globe: even tighter, in East Germany, Hungary and other eastern European countries; in Asia, the African sub-continent, even here, in far away Australia. This country may have done its penance for the Petrovs’ defection, with the Soviet embassy’s re-establishment just months ago, but he sensed this meant there would be even more opportunities for Soviet agents to operate within the normal confines of government.

He sighed. He knew what this meant. The Soviet system, now under Khrushchev, espousing all the rights of democracy in its ‘up-dated’ constitution, gave with one hand, but took with both, like a Machiavellian magician intent on twisting the lives and fates of people within its grasp. He bit his lip again, and felt blood run. Alexai could not, would not hear this counter-argument. He would find, tragically, and too soon—and with perhaps even more heartache than he was feeling now—how cruel, and how punishing, his choice to return to Khrushchev’s ‘new democracy’ would be.

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Peter smiled at Evdokia as they stood proudly, holding a Bible, and followed the two-thousand throng uttering the Oath of Allegiance at the nation’s largest naturalisation ceremony. His throat tightened with emotion, his eyes moistened as he mouthed the words of a language he had not properly learnt. But he sensed the sombre significance of this pledge and the dignity and importance of the occasion.

The Council and the dignitaries, political and civic, had placed great import on investing into citizenship so large a number of migrants from over twenty countries and had provided a tenor and soprano in a recital of songs from diverse parts of the world, honouring these welcome newcomers. The stage of the Civic Theatre, with its plush red velvet curtain hiding the large screen that vicariously transported its film-goers to other worldly places on week days, was now decked out in red, white and blue ribbons. Above these silky bands a huge portrait of the Queen gazed regally, kindly, at them.

Peter suddenly jerked, as the memory of another portrait flashed at him, from all those years ago: a poster of Stalin willing the workers on to their collectivisation goals. He broke out in perspiration, then collected himself. How different this portrait was, how different its purpose. It took pride of place in a setting representing a system of dual responsibilities: responsibilities of the government and of the people to respect individual and collective freedoms, and of concern not only for oneself and one’s own family, but for the young, free nation that honoured and pursued a respected political and judicial system.

Leaving Nadia and Ola temporarily, he held back tears as he and Evdokia joined the line, as new citizens, to receive their Certificates of Naturalisation from the proud robe-bedecked Mayor. The date, 21st June, 1959, typed neatly on each parchment, imprinted on his mind. It was a date he would always remember, and quote proudly to his friends: the date from which he at last had a country that welcomed him and to which he belonged.

* * *

Evdokia waited impatiently, trying to contain her excitement, but feeling a certain anxiety, as Peter approached the front gate. They greeted and kissed, but she held on to his arm.

“What is it, Dyna? Is everything all right? You seem agitated.” She could no longer contain herself and pulled out an envelope from her apron pocket. In the receding light he noticed the yellowed colour, not unlike the parchment of the Naturalisation Certificates they received the previous Sunday. He dismissed the envelope: he would wait until he had rested from his work and the overtime hours before dealing with another administrative formality. But she held on. He looked at the envelope again. With the light fading, he squinted to read the words.

“Why, this is addressed to you, Dyna… but the sender seems to be… Vanya?” he whispered, as if to himself. He stepped inside and put down his battered globite work-case, sat at their dining room table adorned with its nylon lace tablecloth and large vase of Evdokia’s favourite imitation flowers. Inwardly shaking, his mouth dry from the shock, he carefully unfolded the yellowing paper with its obligatory bureaucrats’ indelible markings; then smiled, tears rimming his eyes, as he absorbed Vanya’s careful words and simple style. Always shy and self-conscious, Vanya’s words reached out to him as though he were speaking them.

He put the letter down slowly, thoughtfully, and studied the origin’s address again. Vanya had remained in their Sumskaya Oblast, and had been moved further north again and again, and now lived even

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closer to the Russian border. But he was safe. Simply but obliquely conveyed in his letter, he had married his young sweetheart some years after the war, once the authorities approved their move to the same kolkhoz. Their two young daughters were well.

Peter sat motionless, trying to regain his composure, mixed feelings racing through him: elation alternating with despair, the memories of that last night in the hillside hide-out flooding his mind like a film’s image repeating itself over and over again.

Evdokia, keen to read the letter, struggled at deciphering the Russified words. At last, she placed the letter carefully on the mantelpiece, subconsciously symbolising that this was now one more record of a loved one to hold closely in one’s heart and mind, each new day.

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A gay atmosphere greeted Peter and Evdokia as they stepped onto the visitor’s deck of the Aurelia . Peter retrieved the visitor’s pass from his pocket and, studying the cabin numbers, looked about for Alexai.

“He should be here, Dyna… we are on the right deck… and we’ve not come late…” Then he noticed Alexai, dressed formally in an ill-fitting suit but with clean white shirt and nondescript tie, in close company with three other men. Peter watched them closely. His stomach tightened, his suspicions confirmed. The other men were like clones, almost indistinguishable from each other: pokerfaced, eyes watchful. All wore uniform-like black suits, which could merge easily in a crowd. “They could be mistaken for undertakers,” he thought, to relieve his concern, but he knew better. Alexai looked up, and blushed as he recognised Peter. He excused himself from the men and strode across.

“Good people! This is unexpected! I sent you those passes, but never expected you could come at such short notice to farewell me! My other friends, from the wedding… they did not come, they said their farewells earlier…” His face saddened. Then he noticed Peter still observing the other men. “Oh! That’s Yuri, my sponsor, and his companions… they all met at the Russian Social Club… you know, in Sydney, the one I told you about!” Peter’s gut reaction returned. This Yuri and his cohorts had not befriended Alexai out of a genuine desire for friendship. They were too determined, too calculating for that. He sensed they would now have a hold on this gentle innocent and somewhat naive man for a long time to come, through their contacts in Russia and the Ukraine.

Alexai, unable to sense this at such a momentous time for him, took them to his cabin, which he shared with other male passengers. They clicked half-shots of vodka with him for his future and dipped the fresh rye bread in the smetana that they had brought for the occasion.

The first short, sharp horn sounded. Peter’s heart sank. He feared for his friend, who had not found ways and some comfort in forging a new life for himself in a new country. He wished him well, but sensed that their excited and somewhat agitated friend would, ultimately, suffer reprisals. Alexai had placed all his hopes on his re-union with his ailing mother and his sisters. But there were no guarantees that he would be placed in the vicinity of his remaining family, and he had convinced himself that life was different in their Ukraine now that Stalin was dead. His loneliness, his love for his ill mother, was greater than his understanding of the Soviet system, even under their new leader.

Ultimately, Alexai would have to play the Soviet’s game: either he would ‘co-operate’ if he wished to see his relatives again upon returning to the Ukraine or he, too, would face a modern-day gulag sentence, as had so many other hapless returnees. The new Soviet poster may now have a new face and a new ‘benevolent’ leader, but the system remained the same. It was too effective to change.

* * *

As the tug-boats pulled determinedly and unsettled the Aurelia  from its dock, Peter leaned his arms on the high rail of the wharf, watching each movement as the ship gently swayed and pulled further and further from the shore. Nearby, Italian picnickers had already spread out their blankets on the grassy patch and began laying out their simple food and carafes of wine in bottles reminiscent of the Mediterranean tradition. Someone had set up their wind-up gramophone player, balanced carefully on a low stool.

Peter turned and watched, then caught his breath as the lilting, even plaintiff, words of the young Maria Callas soared across the park in the calm of early evening:

“O mio babbino caro
Mi piace bello bello…”

He stood motionless, enraptured. He had not heard such purity of voice since that fateful day in the back streets of Naples, when he happened upon the children’s choir. Tears swelled without warning. Although he didn’t understand the words, he understood their emotional reach: the yearning.

The light was fading. His heart felt laden with emotion. Surreptitiously, this tourist ship returning to its Naples base was fading before his eyes, merging with the glistening inky-black that was creeping in from the open waters. Almost without warning, as night cloaked Sydney’s harbour, the stars began to appear, sprinkled across this great southern hemisphere evening sky.

It was time to go. But he paused as he immersed himself in the celestial beauty, the spiritual calm of the night. He instinctively felt in his jacket pocket: took out the seating ticket of their naturalisation day, and Vanya’s letter. He felt the thick rough envelope, knew its contents by heart. He had freedom, and safety, now, and a country he could always call his own. Vanya had his country, stood on its soil, but had no freedom to call his own.

His mouth quivered as he tried to form a prayer. He looked up at this church of the nightly stars. His life’s—soul’s—mentor, Taras Shevchenko, must also have gazed at these myriad of stars, during all those years of his exile and incarceration in the gulags, so many decades ago. The philosopher poet had prayed, had appealed to humanity and to the human spirit to awaken, rise up above all else, to improve the human condition, everywhere, and especially in his Ukraine.

From somewhere in the depth of Peter’s past memory, Taras Shevchenko’s Testament  reached out to him:

“…Then, in the mighty family
Of all men that are free,
Maybe sometimes, very softly
You will speak of me?”

He gazed at the deep mysterious night sky; could barely pray. That dove of freedom had long left its Naples port; it was not destined to fly this far. His heart ached so. For Vanya. For Ukraine.

He would keep looking to the night sky: search the stars for Taras Shevchenko’s constellation: draw on this great philosopher’s strength, seek the way to his spiritual home. It would be a journey shrouded in the mysteries that the universe could not easily reveal.

He knew it would be a long night.


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Ukraine’s history was indelibly intertwined with that of Russia; more so with the ascendancy and zenith of the Romanov dynasty, and its end at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Seemingly invincible, the old Russian empire, stretching west to east from Poland to Vladivostok, and north to south from the Arctic Circle to Odessa in the Black Sea, fell as the last Romanov Tsar was executed at Ekaterinburg in July 1918.

The eruptions prior to, and following, that fateful act, were unprecedented in modern history. A society of over one hundred different nationalities, held together theistically by the Russian Orthodox Church, with Nicholas II as their Little Father, under the ancient concept of benevolent despotism of the ‘divine right of kings’, was torn apart. The cost of Russia’s involvement in the Great War of 1914 to 1918 had become unbearable. Two and a half years of slaughter and military incompetence left the empire in near-bankruptcy, the peasant soldiers leaving the carnage of the battlefields in their thousands to return to the safety of their lands.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks took advantage of the chaos and disintegration of Russian society with their ideals for a ‘classless’ society, based not on nobility privilege, but on equality of all men and women. But the schisms in the Russian empire were too great, as Monarchists pitched themselves and their private armies against Revolutionists. Within weeks of the Bolsheviks’ grasp of power in October 1917 a civil war erupted, to last three horrific years. With, at one point, only an enclave around Moscow as their stronghold, the Bolsheviks implemented measures, temporary in Lenin’s thinking, for dictatorial controls over all of the empire’s peoples.

The ‘one-party’ system, emanating from the Kremlin during the civil war, brought in a range of reforms and modifications that were to forever change the society of Russia and the empire, including the Ukraine. By the civil war’s end, in March 1921, and with Lenin’s introduction of his New Economic Policy (NEP Scheme) the privileged monarchical society based on the nobility was gone, along with its Russian Orthodox Church. In its place was an efficient yet flexible bureaucracy, extended voting for workers, education opportunities,

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land reforms—and now a new national military regime, forged in the Red Army, based on modern education and military technology.

Lenin now turned his attention to better implementing his reforms, and to encourage small land-holding farmers to improve their yields, in order to allow Russia to grow in agricultural and capital wealth which was so necessary for the Russian empire to become fully industrialised. The Bolsheviks’ natural leader, he saw no reason for naming his successor: his untimely death in January 1924 provided opportunity for Stalin to seize power, not by coup, but by stealth. By the end of 1928, Stalin had either sidelined, expelled from the Politburo and the Bolshevik Party, or exiled almost all of Lenin’s original supporters—keeping only the young Bukharin, who was so like Lenin in appearance and ideology, but was now under his control, as the popular ‘people’s Bolshevik’—all the while strengthening his complete grasp over the Politburo and, ultimately, the whole of the Russian empire.

Stalin’s Five Year Plans, begun in the countryside even before the 1929 official date, targeted the independent small farmers, most of whom were in the Ukraine, the empire’s ‘black-soil’ region, its perennial ‘bread basket’. His collectivisation struck off all of Lenin’s land production policies; worse still, it dismembered the very social group which produced the grain for the empire. With the Ukraine’s grain output constant, yearly, and it being geographically placed ideally for all food grown in a Russian empire, which had seen privation and poor harvests every second year of the previous Tsarist regime, the disruption to the Ukraine’s wheat and other production was catastrophic.

Understandably, the Ukrainian farmers were unwilling to give up their land without a fight. But this is what Stalin wanted. Labelling any farmer unwilling to leave his land a ‘kulak’ (wealthy opportunist farmer under the old regime), his ruthless methods of charges, imprisonment, executions, and sentences to Siberian labour camps, at the same time starving the Ukrainian people of grain for the sowing season, had the desired effect. Over six million Ukrainians died in the period 1929 to 1933. More importantly, for Stalin, he took absolute control over the Ukrainian people who, even under Lenin’s leadership, had been respected and encouraged to increase their farm productivity, which was so vital to the welfare of all of Russia. From a society which saw the Tsar with his ‘munificent benevolence’ bumble along, yet not take away farmers’ livelihoods, Russia, by the early 1930s saw its new ‘Tsar’, Stalin, a totalitarian dictator, ruling with an iron fist, supported by his legions of soviet cadres, akin to unionists, eager to gain his support. Few of these would have realised that they, in turn, would become Stalin’s victims as the Five Year Plans faltered and as Stalin, with brazen power, took on first the soviets, then the bureaucracy, the Bolshevik Party and, ultimately, the Red Army forces, to irrevocably change the nature of Soviet society: a police state, ruled by fear.

His decimation of the armed forces, in the purges from 1934 to 1939, cost Russia and all its people dearly, as Hitler turned on his previous co-signatory of Poland’s fate, and invaded Russia in June 1941: the infamous Operation Barbarossa, in a three-pronged attack. Yet again, the Ukrainian people suffered as Hitler’s armies secured control over most of the Ukraine, its agricultural and other resources supplying his growing military empire in years to come. Hero Stalin used his genius to hide behind young untried soldiers and marshals and hastily created generals, as they fought valiant campaigns to stop Hitler’s armies within forty kilometres of Moscow. With over twenty million Russian, Ukrainian and other nationalities’ lives lost in the struggle against Hitler’s imperialism, it could be said that the Soviet Union people’s victory over Hitler was in spite of, rather than because of Stalin, whatever his image and speeches from the Kremlin portrayed at the time.

But again, all those touched by the war were affected in different ways: in the Ukraine, more so than in other regions, as German armies retreated, and took back with them over eight million labourers to Germany’s heartlands, many of them Ukrainians; most of them, never to see their homeland or loved ones again.

It is to the credit of peace-loving peoples the world over, to the attempts made by the new United Nations after 1945, and the true desire of so many western countries to uphold the ideals and laws of democracy, that we can say, with a certain tempered pride, that Europe itself has passed from its dark days of Mussolini’s, Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes to a more honest appraisal of society under totalitarian dictatorship; though we should be ever vigilant of such a return.


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My kind and generous-hearted parents shared with us, their children, and with their many friends, the stories of their life in Ukraine and the journey of their removal from their country. It is a precious inheritance for which I am immensely grateful, as it portrays the richness and depth of their culture despite the hardships endured by them and their countrymen and women during that time.

I am also grateful to the writing members of the informally-named Bay Road Writers, present and past, for their tolerance of my halting efforts and their encouragement throughout. My especial thanks go to Anne Lovell and Margaret Grace, whose talent, wisdom and forbearance know no bounds.

That I could be so fortunate as to have found such a professional publisher in Caroline Webber is yet another gift bestowed on me, in her superb mentoring, editing and publishing skills and knowledge, which have enabled me to complete this personal journey of honouring my parents and their lives, in what is for me the only meaningful way that I can.

Caroline’s suggestions, and Gloria Tsang’s sensitive interpretation of the story in the cover design of this book, are very much appreciated.

My appreciation, thanks and love go to my children Rodney and Jacqueline for all their encouragement in my writing endeavours.

My heartfelt thanks, reserved until now, go to my husband Ric, whose humour, kindness, support and love endure beyond all else.


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First published in 2017 by Green Olive Press

Green Olive Press

5 Lindsay Street

Brighton VIC 3186


Copyright © Olga Chaplin 2017

Olga Chaplin asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this book.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any other information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

Creator: Chaplin, Olga, 1944- author.

Title: The man from Talalaivka: a story of love, life and loss from Ukraine / Olga Chaplin.

ISBN: 9780992486068 (paperback)

Subjects: Immigrants--Australia--Fiction. World War, 1939-1945--Conscript labor--Germany--Fiction. Ukraine--History--1921-1944--Fiction. Ukraine--History--Famine, 1932-1933--Fiction. Ukraine--History--German occupation, 1941-1944--Fiction.

Dewey Number: A823.4

Cover and internal design: Gloria Tsang/Green Olive Press

Printed in Australia by Griffin Press

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