Saturday, 13 March 2010

I have serialized my book, here is Part 3...

Meeting my first Soviet soldier,in my hometown in Hungary.

“The Red Army had occupied Baja in March of 1945 without any resistance, since the only southern bridge over the Danube had been bombed by the allies some 2 years prior to that, so the town had served no strategic importance to the retreating Germans. A 7 year old kid probably could not understand the nuances of whispering and worried adults’ conversations while they were huddling around their radios, listening to broadcasts about the ongoing war. However, I still remember the striking contrasts between what my father believed about the approaching Red Army and what our neighbors did.
The prevailing opinion was that these soldiers were an uncultured, pillaging and unmerciful bunch of thugs, better to be afraid of and avoid them, if possible.
The only exception voiced, characterizing the “liberators” so was my dad’s. He had advanced to the Red Army, too, his basic humanistic belief of decency and honor in everyone, particularly since our town prior to the Russians’ advance had been full of the soldiers of the Werhmacht who had set up camp in the town’s marketplace and had been peaceful with the civilian population.
So optimist that he was, my father could hardly wait, so that after months of waiting and uncertainty he could finally take a long walk in the center of town, albeit now under the “protection “of a different occupying army.
He had shaved off with great care his beard of many months that made him look much older and respected, and in his freshly ironed suit and trademark, colorful bowtie he would have made a dashing and impressive figure on the soldiers of the Red Army.
So that any soviet troops , even from a distance would judge dad to be a peacefully walking , unthreatening gentleman , he got me scrubbed and dressed with similar care, much to the vehement protestations of my mother, that “ for God’s sake don’t take the kid to those wicked Muscovites!”
Using the logic that during the previous night, as the Russians were moving into town, we had not heard even a single gunshot, father remained undeterred that Baja was “visited “by well meaning and peaceful soldiers. What’s more, any journalist worth his salt should feel his duty to rush to the scene and record events with the reliability of the eyewitness.
My father desperately tried to sell all this logic and reasoning to my mother, even though just weeks before that he was contemplating of fleeing Baja for the West, as did some of the families in the neighborhood , expecting the worst from the soviet “liberators”.
So, as a final act of insurance for good will, father decorated his cigar pocket with a silky handkerchief. Always a careful dresser in those days, but even more of a zealot for personal hygiene! The rigors of cleanliness he made sure were adhered to by his children come war or hell. Just as an example, my older brother and I became acquainted with the taste of ordinary house soap during the war, as neither bath soap nor toothpaste was available , so the morning and evening wash-ups were followed by vigorous tooth brushing with horrible tasting, homemade soap rubbed on our toothbrushes!
So the impeccably dressed gentleman took the hand of his clean scrubbed son , carefully threading the chain of his cherished pocket watch into the left pocket of his vest and with determined steps took off on our street in the direction of the center of town. The sleepy looking soldiers lying about on top of the armored car right on the first corner of our street were, a bit reluctantly, returning my father’s enthusiastic waving of hand. Most probably they were so surprised by the sudden appearance of this representative of the decadent West with his child that their sleepy gawking did not result in any action, but kept silently witnessing the parade.
Little further up the street two foot soldiers appeared, dirty and dusty with the famous Russian “guitars” on their shoulders. Dad cheerfully repeated the now well rehearsed greeting with the waving arm, to which he has added a striking “Welcome to our hometown” on his clean baritone voice. – He sang well, particularly after a glass or two.-
The stocky one of the two, with a somewhat oriental face approached my father, his eyes riveted to the shiny pocket watch; he then grabbed the chain and said in Russian: davai chas! While my dad did not understand the words , there was no mistaking of the intention because the soldier now decidedly pulled on the chain to which my father responded by taking several steps back onto the middle of the street, not ever letting my hand go with his left hand, and holding on to the chain of his watch with the other.
The uneven struggle could not have been going on more than a few seconds, but it seemed like eternity. I wonder whether it had occurred to my father, then, even for a second that the machinegun against his chest could have gone off, or in a lesser event its gunstock lands on his head, I don’t know.
The fact remains, that this self conscious and open-armed country writer had forsaken any common sensibility and reason, almost heroically defended his personal possession, against very poor odds while holding on tightly to my hand!
It remains a mystery at that moment that the arrival of a high ranking officer in an open jeep was God’s will or just a flick of fate.
The car came to a screeching halt in the middle of the street, to the point where the struggling soldier and civilian with kid in tow found themselves. In response to the officer’s loud cry the soldier let go of the watch’s chain and the sudden change in the relative opposing forces resulted in father’s falling to the middle of the street, still with kid in tow.
Terrible shouting had followed, but only from the lips of the officer as the soldier being reprimanded could only stay in stiff attention. We could not understand the officer’s apparent dressing down, but it was evident that father had escaped with watch and kid for the time being.
My dad had to realize that the neighbors’ doubts and anxiety about the approaching Red Army proved to be correct. With quick steps, still holding on to me with force, we returned to our house, where father had collapsed on the stool in the kitchen, both hands holding his face. He sat there, trembling, for the longest time, and even as a kid I understood that a whole world had collapsed in him that day.”
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