The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XX, (20)

Chapter XX (20)

The Zemlyanka

Vasily met me in the hotel lobby the following morning, dressed and ready for our adventure into the ‘bowels of the earth’ as Irina had put it, referring to the Zemlyanka, Russian for ‘dugout’.

It was not difficult to see why he had the attention and affection of so many single women in Odessa with his charismatic charm, easy smile, eyes the color of dark chocolate, and amber-colored hair like polished copper. He had that effect on me as I tried to think of something to say upon our meeting. But, my bumbling attempt at light humor only made me more self-conscious.

“When I went to bed last night I dreamt of rats, lice and fleas crawling around my feet, working up my pant legs as I climbed out, screaming and wishing for the frozen tundra of a Siberian frost.”  

He laughed. “I promise you it won’t be as bad as all that. Actually, the area has been treated with a chemical to avoid that problem when someone is down there, but is not hazardous. It has adequate ventilation. But anytime one goes underground, whether or not it is reinforced in concrete or steel, the earth settles, causing cracks or weakness to the subterranean structure, and more so with these zemlyankas over sixty years old. They are damp and cold inside. I have insulated rain slickers, water bottles and flashlights, even hard hats in my car if we need them. The site we’re going to today is not large, but structurally sound, with a floor to ceiling clearance of seven feet.” He led the way out to his SUV parked in the front entrance of the hotel.

We headed northwest, through Tiraspol, then north towards Vinnitsa skirting the eastern edges of Moldova and Transnistria, into the remote black forests of Ukraine. The drive was long, but relaxing as I listened to Vasily share some of the region’s history. We passed small clapboard and concrete block homes along the roads leading into industrial areas suffering from economic decline.

“There is a stark contrast up here in the north from that of the modern city of Tiraspol.” I said. “Is it better employment opportunities in the cities that draw people away from the small towns?”

“Somewhat, yes. There are successful established Ukrainians living in Tiraspol that employ many of the predominately Romanian and Russian residents up north.”

“What is the ethnicity of Ukrainians living here, now?”

“Well, the majority are a mixture really of all ethnicities. German and Jewish who chose to remain here. But, there are also Russians, Armenians and Turks; I guess kind of like in the U.S. a relative mix of everything and everyone who now calls this country ‘home.’ We are now reentering Ukraine, after switching in and out of Moldova and Pridnestrovie.”

Vasily slowed down, exited the main road and pulled onto a dirt path leading into a dense forest. After another couple of miles or so we came into a clearing that opened up and the Zemlyanka came into view covered in overgrowth and foliage.

“I had an engineer inspect it recently for any signs of unstable areas in the case it collapsed on someone. I’m responsible to check on these things occasionally to make sure they do not become some homeless person’s campsite while trespassing. So, since you asked to see things, “real and unaltered,” I think were your words, I was in a position to honor your request.” He looked over at me and grinned.

“Oh, well thank you then for allowing me the opportunity to see it.”

“My pleasure. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

He handed me one of the insulated slickers, a hard hat and flashlight, then donned his own, and turned on an LED lantern. When I turned on my flashlight Vasily led the way down uneven stone and wood steps into the interior to what looked like an earth cave.

The inside was cold and dank, the earthen floor made of hard packed black soil.

There was evidence of further excavation beyond the interior, but was blocked by large wooden slats pulled across the smaller, narrow opening in the form of a large X preventing further exploration. A warning sign, Держите вне, ‘Keep Out’ was nailed on the boards. A small primitive rusted wood stove leaned to one side. Thick tree limbs four to six inches in diameter stretched across the top and up the sides forming the walls and ceiling to hold back the earth, supporting the structure now covered in overgrowth and moss. Ventilation areas opened up through the earth and wood ceiling to allow for air flow and circulation. But, the walls and ceiling were so insulated from outside noise that our heartbeat and breathing was all we heard in the tightly closed space, the blackness so consuming all we could see was what surrounded us shown only by the light from Vasily’s LED lantern he held aloft, and my flashlight, which I’d handed to him while videotaping the inside.

“This is just incredible, how a group of Jews on the run could escape their captors, their killers, and build something of this sort so fast, moving earth, cutting down trees, transporting it all, a wood stove even, and never know for certain how long they could stay here, before moving on. It is amazing how industrious they were when their lives could be ended at a moment’s notice. According to my research those living in the German occupied territories of the Soviet Union were almost always shot on sight, or rounded up for mass extermination, not usually transported to the death camps, except for those forced to march to Transnistria. I’ve heard survivors’ stories of those who escaped during the relocation from the ghettos. And stories of the horrors that awaited all who didn’t.” I said.

“Yes. The ones who did get away often found others on the run, and hooked up with partisan groups who built these, or found refuge with sympathetic villagers. There were a lot of them, hundreds actually who made it to a secure place before the end of the war. Some were sympathizers from other ethnic groups that hated the Germans so much they joined up with them. Their inclusion in the Jewish partisan groups often equipped the group as a whole with more knowledge and resources giving them an advantage over their enemy. But, in places where the anti-Semitism was so great the Jews would form ‘Jewish only’ groups to keep out spies or informers from betraying them.”

When I finished videotaping the inside I turned off my camera, and put it away. A feeling of claustrophobic like suffocation and dizziness from the lack of fresh air and sunlight came over me. Not wanting him to think me a wimp, I said nothing as we walked back up the steps to the outside.

Like another historical icon to its past the Zemlyanka would remain untouched, another memorial to those who forged on with the will and courage it took to survive.

As we headed back to his SUV I looked around at the serenity of the forests, thinking about the sad things that happened here.

“These woods seem kind of eerie, quiet even. More so maybe, when the sun doesn’t shine, or shadows merge in around the trees as it goes down. But, I imagine they provided some protection for the partisans when they hid in them, or wherever to evade detection from the Nazis. The thought of frightened, desperate people with nothing to defend themselves, running for cover from a hail of bullets makes me shudder.” The image chilled me as I stood shivering in my jacket.

“Yes. But, imagine their triumph too, when they surprised Nazis with weapons of their own to fight with, watching them go down under the blows of a wooden club made from these trees, or piece of scrap metal shaped into a saber or knife. They took whatever they found, invented new ways to use it, and then learned the skill of survival. Most often they had nothing but the clothes on their backs when they escaped during relocation. It took small victories like that to form an army of commandos.”

“You sound like one who knows it well, or heard it told by ones who lived to tell it.”

“That is true. Their stories were passed down to our generation well before they were made public, or shared with the West. We Ukrainians see it with the perspective of one who understood their will to survive under impossible odds. One cannot just stand there, vulnerable before his attacker waiting to die. He has to be prepared to fight, with the intent on killing him first. If he is going to have to defend himself he better know how to overtake his enemy, under the worst of conditions.”

“True. With that perspective one can relate to the victim running away, cowering in underground bunkers while pursued, or the one courageously facing his attacker. History is a powerful tool, teaching us to be better prepared for things coming after, whether it is political fallout, or wars not yet fought.” I replied.

“Yes, but it’s a new day, and a different generation. As a member of the consulate it is often times necessary to remain neutral on old issues, if it helps to advance us, compete in the global market.  Be more open, focused on raising the standard of our lives, putting behind us the catastrophic disasters and political mistakes of the past in order to move forward in the twenty-first century. It does not benefit us to worry if there will be another Genghis Khan, Lenin, or Stalin rising up.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Simply put, there is sometimes too much written about the lives and crimes of those killers and dictators from the old Russia to feel any redemption, and the right to put it behind us, in order to build a union with equality for everyone.”

“Are you saying that the media should not exercise their right to report on the horrors committed under a deranged lunatic, or the dictatorship that kept your people oppressed, imprisoned under false charges, in constant fear of their lives? What about your revolutions that brought down a socialistic regime so a democracy could be created? Those are events that changed the course of history in Europe and Russia. It grabs the attention of the world, the kind of attention that makes the press want to report it, and the historians and archivists to document it. I think the majority of people in the free world would just hope your elected officials see that those horrors never happen again.”

Vasily’s head jerked back, his dark eyes pinned on mine, his expression sober, I felt certain of one thing: That I had just made a huge mistake once again running off at the mouth.

_________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

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