A True Story
Had it not been for the war, would I have got married in Stolin? There is such a town; it’s on the Goryn River, amid forests, far from a railway. I happened to be there by accident.
I was offered work in the forestry office at Stolin. It was wartime, 1940.I was a refugee and had nowhere to go. Stolin sounded all right to me. The Germans were in Warsaw, here we had the Soviets. It was not clear how it would all end. Meantime I got married.
My husband was a big, husky man. A nice fellow. He began nagging me: Let’s get married under a canopy according to the Law, otherwise my mother will be scandalized. Stolin is a pious town. But I was stubborn: under no circumstances would I go under the canopy. I am not religious. A civil marriage would do. But he tricked me: “Come to my mother’s for tea,” Benya said. I came, and everything was in readiness there, a rabbi in a broad hat, all the relatives, children with bouquets. “You silly little goose, don’t be bashful. It will only take a minute!” They locked the doors. Under the canopy I burst into tears—out of spite, but all around me they laughed. Through my tears I said to my husband, “Never, never will I forgive you for this!”
Later I went to buy myself clothes. Naturally I did not go to a store. What kind of stores could one find in Soviet Stolin? I went to the former landowner, Olekhnovska. She was an old woman. The Bolsheviks had taken away her husband and sons, and she had come to live in Stolin, on the edge of town. Her little house bordered on the fields. She sold her belongings, that’s how she managed to live.
I rang and a maid opened the door, a powerful woman, like a grenadier. “What do you want?” I replied sweetly, “I have to see Madame Olekhnovska on business.”
Olekhnovska came out: a graying woman, of proud bearing, in mourning. The Poles were having a rough time then, and she was an aristocrat, a pani, in the bargain.
I am a refugee from Warsaw. I lost all my things, nothing left to wear. Won’t you sell me something?
The maid returned from the kitchen, wiped her hands, and sat down at the table. I could see I had made a mistake. She was obviously not a plain peasant woman, but a relative. A conversation developed. I began to like everything about the house. The rooms were clean and homey. I had heard many good things about Olekhnovska. Hardly ten minutes passed before we became friends. I tried on some clothes, I turned around before the mirror, I laughed. They served tea with jam.
“How nice everything is here,” I said. “It’s so pleasant one hates to leave.”
“Then don’t go,” Olekhnovska said. “Maka, wrap up these two dresses for her. Take them, don’t be afraid. We won’t quarrel about the price. The person is important, not the money.”
That’s how the friendship between us began. I went to buy dresses and bought—life. Two months later they picked up old Olekhnovska at night. It was only to be expected—wasn’t she a landowner’s wife? I had an acquaintance in the NKVD, a quiet and courteous man. I ran to him: “Why did they take her? It must be a mistake!” But he answered: “I am surprised at you, Comrade Galya. She is a class enemy, and if she is sympathetic and good that only makes it worse. The Soviet regime especially dislikes sympathetic landowners. Leave her. Her case is lost.”
“That’s like it is with the Nazis,” I said. “All Jews have to be dark and have beaked noses, and if a blond and blue-eyed one shows up it’s so much the worse for him—he’s the first to be liquidated.”
My NKVD friend stared at me with his eyes bulging: “Comrade Galya, don’t ever make such comparisons. For your own good. And as for your Olekhnovska, the hell with her, I’ll arrange for packages.”
That’s how Maka and I began sending food and clothes to her in prison and were able to get her soiled clothes to launder.
One evening, unpacking one such bundle of clothes, I noticed a piece of tape, and I pulled it out. Penciled on it were the words: “Help me.”
How help her? What were they doing with her? We did not know and couldn’t guess. Next morning we went to the gate of the prison with the bundle of laundry.
There was a crowd at the gate. “They’re being led out!” The gate opened. About two hundred people were marched out, five to a row, bundles on their backs, old, young, all kinds. Olekhnovska was at the end of a file. Her cheeks had caved in, her kerchief hung over her eyebrows, her face looked mad. I shouted over the heads of the guards, through their bayonets: “Your laundry! Your laundry!”
A guard raised the butt of his rifle: “Look out, or you’ll go with them.”
Terror seized me and Maka. We both stayed where we were. “That’s the end of Olekhnovska!” Tears poured down our faces. We returned to the empty little house at the edge of the fields.
That’s the end of Olekhnovska!
Two weeks passed and I began to argue with Maka: “You mustn’t stay at home without work. Why attract attention to yourself? Go get some work. Work in the forestry office.”
But I don’t know anything.
A lot that matters. None of us knew anything at first. I’ll show you. You’ll keep accounts. Aren’t you literate?
Maka began to work in the forestry office. She had a good head, practical. A month hardly passed and my Maka began to be promoted. She was bookkeeper, she was economist, she was boss—scarcely a chair was moved in the forestry office without her consent.
But no sooner had we arranged a peaceful life for ourselves than Hitler made his appearance. War broke out. News was brought that the Germans were coming. The end of June was hot. The Goryn River became shallow. Heat lightning flickered. With each passing day and night the panic mounted: the Germans were in Brest; the Germans were in Kobrin. At first the Soviet representatives were silent and, looking at them, we too said nothing. Our fright really began on the day we saw trucks in front of the City Council. They were going away! What would happen to us?
The Soviet authorities had no time for us. They evacuated four Jews in all from Stolin, local big shots. Many others scurried to find horses and wagons. The next day a long convoy left Stolin in the direction of the Russian border. It consisted of about a hundred wagons. All the young people left, and whoever else did not want to fall into the hands of the Germans. My husband, Benya, also left. Before his departure I gave him my word that I would look after his mother. We bid each other farewell without having any idea how long our separation might last.
But the fugitives did not get far. They were halted at the Soviet frontier: “Who are you? In wartime it is not permissible to clog the roads. Turn back!” Explanations did no good. After standing near the frontier for half a day, the convoy of Jews from Stolin returned, straight into the jaws of the advancing German army. As the wagons rolled slowly through the silent Byelo-Russian villages, the peasants stared with amazement at the funereal procession. At dawn they were back in Stolin. The Bolsheviks had all gone. The Jews stayed in the background. Looting had begun. The Germans were expected any moment.
The gates to the NKVD prison hung open now. Twenty corpses lay along the fence-prisoners shot before the departure of the Russians. Maka and I stole into the prison yard. We looked for Irene.
All Stolin knew Irene. She was a girl of eighteen, remarkably beautiful, a Polish patriot and daring as only a character in one of Sienkiewicz’s novels could be. Her family had been deported long before. She was detained. It was her own fault—imagine who she decided to start up with. Sitting in her cell, she sang as loudly as she could “Jeszcze Polska Nie Sginela”—the Polish national anthem. When we heard that Irene was among those shot in the prison yard, Maka’s first thought was, “Let’s go and bury her.”
We found Irene’s body, put it on a stretcher and carried it out through the gate. We were in a hurry. I was especially afraid. That’s all I needed, to come across the Germans while carrying such a burden. I, a Jew. We went out of the town to the edge of the forest and dug a pit under a tree. I did not dare look at her—her whole chest was black. What had they done to her before killing her? Maka crossed herself, and we left as fast as we could.
Three days later the Germans entered Stolin. There were not many—just four of them in a car. But it was enough—four Germans to the eight thousand Jews of Stolin.
In the summer morning the Jews were called together in the market square. A German official addressed them from the balcony of the City Council building.
You so and so’s, you vicious, harmful, useless people! You don’t want to work and nobody wants you. You are to blame for everything. You are notorious warmongers. But we will make you work and obey. And beginning tomorrow every one of you will wear a yellow star.
A dead silence hung over the square. Young and old stood with lowered heads.
“Surrender your coats and all valuables,” continued the German. “Hand in your gold and your money. Beginning tomorrow you must not walk on the sidewalks. Walk in the middle of the street, and for all I care, you’d better not show yourself at all.”
The crowd stood in dead silence with lowered heads. The following day the Germans set up a Judenrat and a “Jewish police force” to enforce their orders. The nightmare began.
Some days later Stolin was flooded with thousands of Jewish women and children from Davidgorodok nineteen miles away. Partisans had appeared in their neighborhood. There might have been some Jews among them. It was not known who did the shooting, but the vengeance that followed was swift. All Jewish males over twelve in Davidgorodok were rounded up and taken to the outskirts of the town, and all of them—between two and three thousand—were shot. The women and children were ordered to leave the place in an hour. Any Jew found in Davidgorodok would be shot.
It was a sight to see them come, a crazed mob of old women and newly widowed younger ones, many of them with babies in their arms, and little girls dragging smaller children after them—thousands of women with dishevelled hair, so petrified with fear that they could neither cry out nor shed tears. The Germans had not given them time to weep. All night they streamed along the road from Davidgorodok to Stolin like a procession of ghosts. The peasants they met crossed themselves in fright and made way for them. Some of the peasant women gave them bread and water. Others cursed them and set their dogs on them.
I had to take work as a servant. Maka hired me as a maid. At that time Jews and Gentiles could no longer live together, but Maka got permission to select a Jewish woman for a servant, and I stayed with her, and when all the Jews were locked up in a ghetto she got me a pass. During the day I worked in her home, at night I returned to the ghetto. It was then that the Jews began selling all their possessions for food, and the transactions were handled through me. I brought the things to Maka, and she traded them to her neighbors. I was afraid to carry the food to the ghetto myself. Maka would follow me on the opposite side of the street till we reached the ghetto fence, and then, choosing a propitious moment, she would throw the bags of flour and grits over the fence. That’s how we fed ourselves in the ghetto.
Somebody must have informed the Germans that Maka was friendly with me, for one of them came to check whether I was really a servant. I was standing near the oven making dinner when a tall, lean German with sunken cheeks came in. I was afraid to look at him. “What are you doing here?” “I am cooking dinner.” The German went up to the oven, raised the lid from the pot and sniffed at the contents. He must have liked the smell. He seemed about to say something. I supposed he would ask for a spoon. But he controlled himself. He sniffed once more, waved his hand and left.
When the Jews were removing to the ghetto, they had had to abandon their homes, furniture, basements stocked with food, and other things, and go to a neighborhood at the edge of town where only the poorest people had lived before. The ancient Jewish town of Stolin itself was made purely “Aryan” by noon of that day. But in the ghetto they found an unexpected boon—the vegetable gardens planted next to almost every one of the squalid shacks. The former owners had left potatoes, onions, cucumbers growing in them. Even some fowl had been left behind. The first few days the Jewish women tried to lure the chickens by calling “Tzip, tzip, tzip.” But the chickens did not know Yiddish and would not come until they heard the call used by the peasants, “Ooh, ooh, ooh.”
Eight thousand Jews lived behind the ghetto’s barbed wire fence. Gradually rumors began reaching us of a kind that nobody could or would believe: stories of what had happened in Sarny and what had been done to the Jews in Visotzk. There were young people among us who wanted to get weapons, to flee to the forest, to organize resistance. But it was too late. They had the will, but lacked the know-how and the decision. There was no one to call “Ooh, ooh, ooh” to them. Besides, the rabbi of Stolin had decided otherwise.
Thus said the rabbi of Stolin, pillar of Israel: “Don’t dare! As we have lived so shall we die, according as God wills it. Is a forest a place for Jews? What are we, wolves? Our place was and remains in the house of prayer.”
My pass was good only till six in the evening. One evening Maka refused to let me go. That same evening an SS detachment came to Stolin and surrounded the ghetto. I remained outside, on the “Aryan” side. Maka had deceived me by saying she had gotten permission to keep me at her home overnight. When night fell, she left the house, locking me in.
All night I lay awake in the dark, listening. The wind tore at the shutters. I thought I heard shooting in the distance. Maka did not return. Could it be that partisans had entered the town? Or had drunken Germans fired the shots? Why was Maka still not home?
At dawn there was a strange silence as if the whole town were dead. I wrung my hands. There was not a sound outside; the street was deserted.
Maka returned at nine in the morning. I was terrified when I looked at her. Her face was white, her lips blue.
Maka, I want to go home, to the ghetto.
There isn’t any more ghetto, Galya. No one is left alive.
I was frozen. Maka looked at me strangely, as if we were both in a dream.
“What are you saying?” I said, without hearing myself talk.
I did not hear her answer. But I already knew that all were dead—my poor husband among them—and that my own turn would come soon. I wanted to wake up, but could not. Maka was first to rouse herself. I saw her eyelids tremble, then her eyes came to life and assumed a human expression. She touched my arm.
What are we to do, Maka?
There is nothing to do. Wait till it passes.
That was the simplest solution—to wait. But Maka had said, “Wait till it passes,” as if she hadn’t quite understood what she was saying. To wait till the war was over, to survive Hitler and the evil that had deluged half the world—was that what she meant?
She led me by the arm into the other room. There were two rooms in all, and in the first, which one entered from the hall, stood a large basket. It was a wicker basket for laundry, with a lid that didn’t quite fit. It was a yard long and about two feet wide.
It was the only place in which I could hide. There was no time to look for another. Had the Germans found me in Maka’s house, they would have killed both of us. I curled up in the basket. Maka dropped an apple in. The lid went down. Maka covered the basket with a long embroidered peasant towel. There I lay and waited for the Germans to leave Stolin.
I waited for a year and a half. Don’t be surprised. You can live in a laundry basket if the alternative is a German bullet. I wasn’t so much afraid of death itself as of falling into the hands of the Germans.
I lay in the basket on my back, my knees up and my feet resting against one of the sides. With difficulty I could move and even turn, and I could stay in this position about three hours. The basket stood in a corner so that it was not visible from the window. This was important because people going by, and especially acquaintances, often looked in through it. We did not dare close the shutters of the window for fear of attracting attention. Only in the evening, once it was dark, could I get out. During the day I lay in the basket in the empty house waiting for Maka to come back from work. When it became intolerable, I would open the lid and sit awhile. The first two days I ate nothing. I couldn’t collect my thoughts. The third day I ate the apple.
That same day neighbors called on Maka. They talked about me.
Galya also perished. A pity about her.
But Maka said: “Find someone else to pity. Such a frivolous girl, a goat, an unstable person.”
The Jews were all Communists. It will be better without them.
But Maka said: “Let’s wait and see if the Germans are better than the Jews.”
Then they chorused: “Oh, what a terrible people! Such barbarism has never been seen before. Who knows what will happen to us if the Germans win the war?”
I lay in my basket in the other room and listened.
Some days later someone claimed to have seen me being led to execution. “Policemen in thick coats led Galya, and she was barefoot and undressed, and her face was bloody!”
A pity about Galya, the hearers said.
I pitied that other “Galya,” my sister in fate if not in fact, a person just like me. Did it matter what her name was? But I wanted to live. Oh, how I wanted to live. One to survive of all the rest. One against all the rest. The mere fact that I breathed was a triumph. And Maka was with me.
After the “liquidation” of the ghetto the Germans collected all the possessions of the victims, sent the better things off to Germany, and distributed the rest to the local people. I pleaded with Maka: “Go get something. Maybe you’ll find something that can be used. This way we don’t even have a rag to wipe the floor with.” Maka went and came back with a package. We opened it that evening.
First we found a vest, an old, worn and stained vest with some of the buttons missing. A stub of pencil stuck out of one of the pockets. Then there was something crumpled together. We unfolded it and it turned out to be children’s shirts, three of them.
Something broke within me. Till that moment, I hadn’t shed a tear. Now my heart tore loose from its moorings and I wept hysterically. Maka, though a stolid woman and not given to emotional outbursts, shook all over and her color changed. She grabbed the package and threw it into the fire.
At the very beginning we had decided that I would escape into the forest, to the partisans. Weeks passed in anticipation. It was necessary first to establish contact, then to steal out of town. I kept on nagging Maka: When do I go into the forest?
Every day we risked our lives. I wanted to relieve Maka of the tension, and I was sick of the basket. What kind of a life was it, in a basket? Whatever else happened, my place was with the partisans, in their wintry clearings deep in the forest—cold but free.
Maka made cautious inquiries. Finally the time came. One winter night we stole out of town into the fields and, following a ravine, came to the forest. Maka went in front; I followed her with a broom and swept away our footsteps in the snow. We went deep into the forest, where the wind died down. All was silent. We reached a clearing and Maka hid me in some bushes. “Sit here; they will come for you.”
She went away and I was left alone. I sat in the snow and waited. I wore felt boots and three kerchiefs around my head. Above, the sky was starless, silent, without a ray of light.
A day passed and a night, and another day and night. Nobody came. I began to freeze. During the day woodpeckers pounded away in the thickets; at night the owls hooted. I had no strength to get up. I slept much. I’d wake up and think: “Maka has abandoned me. I’ll die here. I’ll fall asleep and won’t wake up again.”
On the evening of the third day I heard someone walking. It was dark and I could not see who it was, but then I recognized Maka’s voice: “Hey you, frozen? Come on, lively!”
She handed me a bottle of hot milk and lifted me to my feet. But I trembled and could hardly put one foot in front of the other. We walked a considerable distance. We stumbled, sat down to rest, then walked again for about two hours. Then we reached a clearing with a tent in it. A horse was tethered to it, and a peasant stood outside in a sheepskin coat and a hood. He carried an automatic rifle. He was a partisan.
Halt. Who are you?
“Women, comrade,” Maka answered. “Friends.”
The peasant came up close. His face was very young, his eyebrows were covered with hoar-frost.
Take her to headquarters, comrade. She is a Jew, the only one saved from the ghetto.
The peasant looked at me sideways and said nothing. In his silence I sensed spite, irritation, hostility. In a breaking voice I said, “Take me, I’ll be useful.”
“What do you think we have here, a hospital? What could we use you for?” Then to Maka: “Take her back where you brought her from. Lively, now. I don’t want you around here, damn you. And I don’t want to have to say it again.”
He raised his automatic. I wanted to lie down in the snow. Let him shoot. Why should I go on living and torment others? Maka stared into the peasant’s face, then looked at me. “Let’s go home, Galya.”
It was getting light when we slipped through the fences into the yard and went into the kitchen. Now it makes me laugh to recall it. I ate a piece of pork with a large piece of bread and lay down in my basket, fed, contented. This was home—my basket and my friend Maka. After the three nights in the forest, I was happy to be back in the basket. The bedding was soft. Nothing more was needed except to sleep and sleep. By the time Maka returned from work in the evening I had recovered completely. There was Maka, with her big behind, square-cut like a chest of drawers, and I alongside her like a kitten.
You, Galya, if you were thrown off a roof you’d land on your feet.
The town appeared to have been deserted. The empty streets were silent Few policemen were to be seen, and the Gestapo did not put in an appearance. Stolin was not the same as Warsaw, where people were hunted day and night, everyone’s face was scanned, and voluntary detectives spied on every apartment. In Stolin there were much fewer people, and they were simpler. All through 1943 I lay in the laundry basket, hidden away from the world behind locked doors, and nobody suspected that Maka was concealing anything.
What’s more, Maka became friendly with a German, a quiet, solid citizen who served as a civil official in the town. It was an intimate affair—Maka made no pretense to being a nun. Before the German came we would move the basket into the closet that was near the hall. It was a cold closet and Maka would cover me with a coat. I would lock myself from the inside and wait till the German left, which would usually be at dawn. I would hear him slip the bolt of the door of the hall. Then I would get up and bolt it after him, and run and climb into Maka’s warm bed. Hardly opening her eyes, she would continue her deep, peaceful genuinely “Aryan” sleep.
Only once did we have a scare. This happened when Dasha, an old peasant woman, came to Stolin from her village. We had both known Dasha well. She used to bring butter and eggs to sell. I lay in my basket and listened to her conversation with Maka. Then Maka went out and Dasha remained alone in the room. Dasha was a devoted and completely trustworthy friend. But who could tell how honest and decent a person would be, left alone in an empty apartment?
The old peasant woman sat for a time and sighed. Then she went up to the mirror and stood before it for a good while. She opened the bottle of perfume and sniffed at it. Then I heard her opening the dresser drawers. After that she went into the kitchen and looked into the pot. From the kitchen she went into the small room near the hall, the one in which I was concealed, and stopped near the basket. My breathing died down. She stood near the basket for a long time without making a sound. I was beginning to think that she had left the room, when she slowly and cautiously raised the lid and looked inside.
I lay on my back, knees uplifted, and stared directly into her overhanging, wrinkled face. We had not seen each other for a year and a half. My face was greenish, my eyes wide open like a specter’s. Dasha stood bent over a moment, then, without uttering a sound, collapsed to the floor. She had fainted. I got out of the basket, stepped over her, and ran to the hall to lock the outside door.
A quarter of an hour later, when Maka returned, we made Dasha swear before an icon that she would never breathe a word. Both our lives were in her hands now. We tried to frighten her as much as we could. For one thing she was a friend. Besides, she believed in God, and knew that the Germans had lost the war—they had already been driven back across the Dnieper. Nevertheless we could not help being made uneasy by the fact that a third person knew about me.
In the end I got so used to living in the basket that I even got myself a little dog to help while away the boredom of staying under lock and key in an empty apartment. By this time the Russians were only seventy miles from Stolin. The white, friendly little puppy would race about the place. Maka called him “Tiny,” but I named him “Tiutik.” He became very attached to me and got used to the idea that my place was in the basket. But he could not understand that this was a secret. During the day he would skip about the basket barking and wagging his tail. It was pleasant but dangerous to have him around. Had the war lasted much longer we would have had to get rid of him. But 1944 was at hand.
Early in 1944, German rule in Stolin came to an end. The Germans retreated slowly, like a beast with a broken back. Long before their departure they began to quiet down and stopped terrorizing people. Their chief officials left, then their police vanished. The population of the town was prepared for evacuation. Maka got ready to go. As a Pole she had no reason to stay behind to greet the Bolsheviks. Her road led west to Poland.
Then came a night when artillery boomed, machine guns fired constantly, and trucks roared by. Maka and I were certain that Partisans or units of the Red Army had entered town. Early in the morning Maka went to find out. Suddenly I heard Russian being spoken outside the window. It passed over me like a flame. There could no longer be any doubt: the Soviet forces had taken Stolin. I carefully looked through the window: soldiers were standing before the door. They began pounding on it with their rifle butts and shouting, “Open up!” Without thinking an instant, I unlocked the door: “Come in, comrades.”
Gray uniforms, sheepskin hats, Russian faces. It was so long since I had seen people’s faces.
Why did you lock yourself in?
I was afraid. I was alone in the house.
I’ll bet you didn’t lock yourself from the Germans.
What are you saying, comrades! Three years we’ve waited for you. You’re our liberators.
One of them, a tall, black-bearded man, came up close to me:
Who do you take us for?
I said nothing.
Who are we? Answer!
You are Russians, naturally, Russian soldiers.
I was frightened. My legs shook. I didn’t understand a thing. A chill went through my heart.
We’re not the ones you are expecting. We are Vlasovites.
But I had no idea what Vlasovites were. It was the first time I had heard the name.
Please explain. I never heard about Vlasovites, and I trembled all over.
We are for Russia. We are against kolkhozes and sheenies.
Everything turned dark before me. I couldn’t understand. Some others came up. “What is she jabbering?”
But the black-bearded one, who was their leader, shouldered me aside: “The girl lost her head out of fright. Go on, go ahead and get us something to eat.”
I went into the kitchen and Tiutik ran after me. I stood over the pots and tears streamed from my eyes. What a terrible world that knew no mercy. Now the Russians had come and they too were “against kolkhozes and sheenies.” What was one to do with oneself?
The commander came in after me: “What are you bawling about, silly?”
If you were the only one here waiting for the Reds to come we’d finish you fast. But that’s just the trouble, you hear the same story in every house, and—well, you can’t shoot everybody.
I lost all control and cried out: “Kill me! I don’t want to live! I haven’t told you everything about myself.”
So that’s how it is! All right, give out, tell everything just as it is.
“I’m a Jew!” I cried out.
He clapped his hand over my mouth: “Don’t holler!”
He looked around to see if I had been overheard, then closed the kitchen door, moved a stool to the table, and said: “Don’t get excited, sit down and tell me how you managed to survive. And don’t be afraid of me.”
I told the whole story from the beginning, how Maka saved me, how I had lived in a basket for a year and a half. I talked and I wept. I had no handkerchief. A washcloth lay on the table. I wiped my eyes with an end of it. The commander wiped his with the other end, for he was crying like a child.
If she saved you, that means you deserved it. If you’ve survived this far, it’s your fate to live. We won’t touch you.
He took a cross from his neck and handed it to me. “I’m a simple man. Believe me, I want to live, too. I want to come back to my wife and children. You think we’re so happy fighting next to the Germans against our own people? Fate is playing games with us. All we want is peace, peace for everybody, on our own soil, without oppressors. Take this cross. My wife gave it to me. It’s saved me thus far and it will save you from misfortune. And give me something in return, as a remembrance—anything you choose.”
I had nothing to give him. Maka had a ring, a plain ring with a blue stone, so I gave it to him. It didn’t even fit his little finger.
At this point Maka rushed in shouting: “Who gave you permission? Who allowed you to break in here and make yourself at home?” Then she saw me with the commander, and she lost her speech from fright.
The Vlasovite went up to her and put his arm around her shoulder. “I know everything. You are a hero. There aren’t many like you in the world. But see to it that Galya keeps her tongue on a leash in the future. A misfortune almost happened. And you won’t have to wait long. The Reds are already this side of Visotzk.”
Some days later Maka left Stolin. The town was deserted. Only frail old women remained. They went into hiding. The houses were inspected to see who remained. All doors had to remain open, and our house stood gaping. Maka took along whatever she could, but left me a supply of food. A hiding place was fixed up for me in the chimney.
There I hid for a week. All around was emptiness and fear—not a soul anywhere. It was like a No Man’s Land where only marauders and patrols wandered around. Tiutik dashed about the deserted yard, unable to comprehend what had happened to all the people. Had anyone spied me in my hiding place he might have taken me for a witch about to take off on a broom into the night sky.
On the seventh day I heard Tiutik barking furiously and somebody calling him: “Tiny!” Only Maka used to call him by that name. And it was Maka. She came into the kitchen and shouted up the chimney: “Alive yet? Come down, quick.”
I climbed down, letting my feet dangle first and looking for a foothold, but Maka grabbed them and yanked me downward and I descended in a cloud of soot and dust, like a real witch, sneezing violently, and as black as a chimney sweep. I sat down on the edge of the oven. Maka roared with laughter.
How she laughed! She held her sides, her face was beet-red and tears streamed down her cheeks. Her thick legs were planted apart, her mouth was wide open, and her face was all wrinkles as she gave herself to gales of insane laughter.
I looked at her and burst into laughter too.