Archive for the ‘Literary fiction’ Category
The below story is fiction. It is chapter 25 in the ongoing story, The Informant’s Agenda. You can find chapters 1-25 posted under the heading, The Informant’s Agenda
The minutes, hours and days tick on, but one loses track of all under heavy sedation and can seem an eternity has passed making one feel like a part of their life has gone missing. There was a sterile smell, the sound of the soft padding of feet near my bed, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors. When the bandages were removed from my eyes shapes and shadows moved in and out of my blurred vision like apparitions. My skin was red and blistered. My throat felt as if scraped with glass.
My family, and my supervisor in the U.S. were notified of what had happened. My mumbled pleas to speak to them went unnoticed until I would be, “physically able to talk coherently and process emotionally what happened.” I was told by the ‘doctor in charge’.
“You need rest right now. We’re taking care of everything. You’re getting the best care and attention. Then we’ll be able to assess what you need, and approve visitors and calls.”
Before I was released from the hospital I was put in touch with the American liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Odessa. They arranged for my things at the Ayvazovsky Hotel to be packed up and moved to my new room at an American agent’s home while in recovery. A nurse came in on scheduled visits to check on my recovery process and see to any additional care I needed.
Irina came to visit me twice to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion, and to tell me that it was reported that Vasyli’s and the superintendent’s bodies had not been found if they were indeed dead as reports speculated. It was then that I just lost it. I felt as if the train in my dreams had run over me, crushing me. What stared back at me in the mirror was not the ‘Monica Mengelder, archivist from Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.’, but a scarred, frightened woman, broken and alone in a country trying to make sense of what had happened, and why.
My heart ached to be home with my family. In my thoughts I was still sitting with grandmother Lisle at the kitchen table. We’d go through a whole pot of coffee and plate of cookies while looking at old family pictures scattered across the dining room table, some with grandfather Jacob’s sisters siting erect in front of the men on straight back chairs, their dour faces looking like they were constipated or something. Grandmother said whenever she tried to lighten things up with a funny joke or story the two unmarried spinsters hardly smiled.
“It was as if they just sat there with a pained expression on their face, so it was nearly impossible to get them to relax, or even open up, share anything about family secrets.”
“Did it ever work?” I asked.
“Rarely. At times I thought I saw a faint crack in their plaster face, until maybe they thought it was an indiscretion of some kind to loosen their corset strings a little.”
I laughed so hard I had to run to the bathroom to keep from wetting my pants. Too much caffeine that morning.
My tears now met with the energy bar when I thought about the fun we had in the kitchen stirring up a batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies.
Such a long time ago. I will never have those moments again with her.
My head ached. The dizziness and fatigue returned. There remained just a few pain pills from the prescription provided for me after my release from the hospital.
Newsprint swirled around on the paper before me. Reports of the accident filled space in local, regional, national, even some international issues. It was presumed an “accident,” an “irreversible mistake in judgement…to allow anyone other than construction personnel down in the unpredictable subterranean underground structure before the completed restoration, when there had not been a full inspection…” authorities were quoted to have said. The stories went on, “although the investigation continues, it has not been determined an intentional incident in nature,” but the blame and speculation seemed clearly directed at the superintendent and Vasyli, consulate of Ukraine, Odessa, both, “presumed dead.”
Maybe, if I had not ‘requested’ a tour of the Catacombs Vasyli and the superintendent…. If only I had not…
There is no time for self-reflection. I cannot do anything to bring back Vasyli or the superintendent, if they are… But, what I keep only to myself is not fair to those who deserve to know the truth. And, I know I cannot leave this country knowing what I know if first I did not try to report my findings, or inform the authorities of what I have learned.
Joyce E. Johnson (2016)
The Informant’s Agenda
Chapter XXIV (24)
Searing pain in my eyes from the explosion left me incapable of seeing anything or anyone beyond the smoke and debris. Yet, my feet were compelled to take one step at a time.
“The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not…want…” In spite of the oxygen mask I wore I could not contain the sobs that broke as I remembered each word, each verse of the 23rd Psalm, the one I learned as a child and recited to my Sunday school teacher.
My throat felt as if it had been scraped raw. It was difficult to swallow, but with each step feeling my way along I mentally recited it again as if standing before the class. “He makes me lie down in green pastures…” An image of green pastures on a Nebraska farm where cattle grazed contentedly came to mind. I coughed and felt the sticky bloody mucus make its way up to my lips.
“He leads me beside quiet waters.” There was the hiking trail my cousins and I took along the Blue River where the water narrowed in places and we walked across the river on rocks. The water was so still and transparent in places we could count the fish swimming downstream as we sat with our legs dangling over high boulders while fishing.
“He restoreth my soul.” Tears washed the sting from my eyes when I thought of the time I walked down to the altar in our Lutheran Church to pray and asked Jesus to be my ‘Shepherd.’ The pastor told us we were like His little lambs following the ‘Shepherd’.
“He guides me in the paths of righteousness.” He spoke about the ‘cost’ of what it meant to ‘follow.’ I knew my faith walk would not be an easy one as I entered college, and hung with kids that partied hard.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” No matter how many times I felt fear and anxiety while here in the former Soviet Union countries I told myself that He was with me wherever I went. And, yet I still went to sleep afraid and dreamed those dreams that came to me each night.
“Your rod and your staff; they comfort me.” Though, I kept my bible with me at all times, promising God to read some each night I was too exhausted much of the time from a day of archiving names, documenting records, and photographing cemeteries.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” All those times I shared meals with Irina, Vasily or ones served by Olga at her Inn I did not know if they were my ‘enemy’ or ‘friend.’ There were so many strange things that happened during these months that made no sense I continually wondered who it was spying on me.
“You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” Lord, I don’t know if there is anything in my life that seems worthy to be anointed by you, but my cup certainly overflows right now with more than I can handle of bad luck, but I will trust you either way. I will believe there is going to be good that will come from this, as I follow after you, and dwell in your house, that secret place where you reside in my soul, but I pray that you do not let this stream of bad luck continue if I make it out of here alive.”
What felt like a nudge came from behind like the arm of someone pushing me. It thrust me upward, forward through a fissure that opened before me.
A rush of sweet, fresh air engulfed my senses. Hands lifted me, wrapping me in what felt like cool, soft sheets under and over my body, and I heard the sounds of sirens and screams everywhere, people yelling, “Over here!”
When I drifted off and quiet returned there was a sterile smell and the soft padding of feet, and hands adjusting tubes, IVs and monitors around me in a hospital.
My eyes stung from the effects of the gases emitted during the explosion, my skin still burned like that of a very bad sunburn, and my throat was painful and tender, but knew I was making progress. When I was released to go back to my hotel to rest up and recuperate I decided it was time to prepare for my return home to the states. In my heart I knew I was more than ready, anxious even, but I knew too there was still some last-minute things I needed to see to, or people at least I wanted to say ‘goodbye’ to.
Irina came to visit me more than once to give me news and updates on the investigation of the explosion. And also to inform me that Vasily and the superintendent had both died of injuries sustained in the explosion.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)
The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter XXIII (23)
“Hi, Vasily. I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I’m sorry I’m a little late.”
He smiled. “No problem. If you’re ready then, we’ll go. We’ve a long day. We’ll be using the headlamps. It’s dark and cold down there.”
“I thought the catacombs were not open to the public. Irina told me they weren’t ready yet, that there’s still work being done in the tunnels.”
“We can get into some parts right now if we go down with the engineer on the project. We’ll be meeting him there.”
Two hours later we descended the narrow passageway deep into the bowels of Odessa’s underground city, and pulled on our headlamps adjusting it to the darkness. An oxygen mask was included. The smell of dampness trapped between centuries old earthen layers of limestone and bedrock filled the interior cavernous tunnels. Compressed clay and mortar filled gaps where water or sand from the Black Sea had seeped through openings leaving its salty residue to merge with the mold.
“Much of this area that is decayed will be sand blasted and redone using a composite of granite and marble, eventually. Electricity will run throughout and plumbing put in. Shops, museums and such will be added in time.”
“Do you wonder if there were any who ever went mad while confined down here under the earth for months or years at a time?” I said.
Vasily nodded. “Possibly. But, it was a fortress designed to shelter them from many things, including their enemies. The alternative was death or captivity. Dating back to the late 1700’s under the reign of Czarina Katherine the Great it would make the Zemlyanka seem like a mere anthill or dugout in comparison. The catacombs are as old as Odessa’s history. Their tentacles stretch for 1,500 miles, the largest and longest on record in the world.” he added.
Our voices seemed to bounce off the walls of the open chambers we entered but when we came through the narrow pass we could hear other voices reverberate through the tunnels we navigated through. We were not alone. Assuming they were the voices of the construction crew Vasily and the engineer did not seem overly concerned we had come so close to encroaching upon their work site.
We continued on, while he told me more of the catacombs’ history.
“Over time leaks and slime deposits from the Black Sea formed the smooth surface on the stone floor beneath giving it that slick, wet finish, so step carefully when coming down into the interior chambers.” He pointed to what looked like hieroglyphic symbols and ancient drawings on the limestone walls. “Early inhabitants of the tunnels used tools to carve pictures leaving their deep impressions for the generations after of the things that went on. All of it tells a story, stories of war, their adversaries and the life they led while in hiding.”
As I stepped from one chamber into another Vasily and the engineer stopped to talk. When I turned back to them to wait for their lead Vasily said, “It’s OK, Monica. I’ll catch up. I just need to speak to the engineer for a moment.”
Nodding, I turned a corner to view another wall. Unaware of any concern, or their conversation I walked through the chamber studying the pictures carved on the walls.
“Oh, this is amazing, all these symbols, drawings and signs. There is one of the Czarina Katherine in a carriage, or troika with a caravan of sorts, wagons following, and Cossack soldiers guarding it.” I mumbled to myself.
It was all so surreal, like De ja vu all over again, the dream I had the night before. The sound of the train with its screeching wheels rolling along the tracks. But, it wasn’t.
It was a hissing sound coming from the direction of a connecting chamber. Then I heard what sounded like an explosion from inside the tunnel and it started filling with a cloudy substance. When I yanked on the oxygen mask and tried to run back towards Vasily and the engineer I could not find them. Walls buckled as if straining under the weight of the earth, large sections broken, lying everywhere. Scared out of my wits and thinking they might not be able to reach me, or worse that they were caught in the explosion, or cave-in where I’d left them I felt vulnerable and alone in a cloud of sickening fog that smelled like gas.
The dizziness, fatigue and nausea I experienced grew stronger as I braced myself against the walls for support. I screamed for Vasily, the engineer, anyone who could hear, but no one answered or came back. The blackness rushed like a wave, surrounding me. It soon grew quiet, eerily quiet.
There was little I remembered about the turns and passages we came through earlier. Everything happened so fast I could not think clearly, but knew I needed every bit of strength I had left in me to make my way out of there. The tunnels seemed to branch off in all directions and I could not be certain which way to go as I could barely see anything beyond the cloud that smothered what air there was left to breathe. My legs felt heavy, unable to move. My eyes were burning from the gas or smoke emitted in spite of the headlamp and the oxygen mask I wore. My lungs were stinging. Struggling to breathe I yelled again for help. But, no one came. Running my hands along the wall I felt cool air drafts wafting down from fissures nearby and stumbled about following it as I breathed in the fresh salt air and tried to make my way back the way we had come, praying as I went. God, help me. I don’t want to die here. Show me the way to go.
The above story and characters is fictional, but the Catacombs do exist under the city of Odessa, Ukraine. They hold mysteries and stories as old as the city itself. There is information and images available on Wikipedia and the internet of the catacombs. The above image is one I took from the internet. When I visited the former soviet republics and Russia in 1989 and toured the city of Odessa our tour group was able to see parts of the catacombs open to the public. This is chapter 23 of, THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA, a novel and work still in progress to be continued as new chapters are drafted and edited. Thank you for following the story if you have been, and for any comments.
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)
By Joyce E. Johnson
Billowing clouds of ivory forming in the sky
Lift into the rising dawn, a glow cupped in praise.
Trees, tall and reverent shade the shallow space.
I walk, forcing every step
To give the earth my son, his grave.
Looking up, beseeching to heaven, I cry,
“Why God? Why did you take my baby, my child?”
He answered back.
“I know how you feel.”
“For, I once gave up mine, too. And I will watch over yours.”
“Let me take your sorrow, and I will give you joy.”
“I promise a tomorrow when there will be no more pain.”
Footnotes: The above book, Flash Fiction is a collection of 100 word short stories and poems written by fifty talented authors for this edition created and edited by Madison Woods, the original founder and creator of the Flash Fiction writers group known as, Friday Fictioneers now under the direction of Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. My flash fiction/poem, SURRENDERING is one of the fifty included in this book which can be found and purchased through Amazon.com. All of my short stories under the ‘Flash Fiction’ category can be found under that heading or under, Friday Fictioneers, many of which are written in a free style poetic form.
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)
Chapter XXI (21)
The Czarina Catherine
We entered the high-rise building in downtown Odessa, rode the elevator to the 15th floor and walked down a red carpeted hallway to The Czarina Catherine.
The manager greeted Vasily with a hug, and traditional kiss on each cheek, then directed us to a corner table in front of a large viewing window.
“What a spectacular view from up here.” I said. The sky lit up with the bright lights of Odessa.
Gold hurricane lamps sat on each of the small tables with crisp white tablecloths, porcelain china and crystal wine goblets. Waiters moved effortlessly between with trays of food carrying caviar on slices of toasted baguette bread with cups of thick chowder. Pickled herring appetizers with creamed cucumber and diced tomato filled another plate.
Beet colored glass sconces on the walls provided soft lighting for the intimate atmosphere. Portraits of past Russian czars and Czarina Catharine, and oils of Odessa, the Black Sea, and Ukrainian landmarks lined the walls.
In one corner violinists and stringed instrument musicians played old Cossack and Ukrainian melodies. Dressed in red and gold embellished vests, white ballooned shirts, black, billowing pants and shiny black boots they looked like they had stepped off the pages of a history book.
“The architecture of this building on the outside looks like one from the fifties, or old Soviet era, but the inside is all contemporary. Was it recently remodeled?” I asked.
“Yes. The building is old. It used to be a drab, gray apartment building, but has since been converted over to offices and restaurants except for the remaining remodeled apartments on the top floors above.”
“Back home we have those kind that are restored attic apartments in old warehouses and downtown buildings. They are called Lofts.”
“’Loft’ apartments. Nice concept for an attic room. Those here that would qualify are hardly bigger than a cloak room.”
“Some of those on the east coast have circular stairways winding around and up to the ceiling, taking up a whole floor. Those kind come with a hefty price tag or lease.”
“Impressive.” He nodded as if taking a mental note of everything I said.
“The paintings and icons on the walls here look much like those I saw in, The Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg on my first trip to Russia.”
“Oh, these are reproductions I assure you, but still come with ‘a hefty price tag.’ I don’t remember seeing on your records when we first met that you visited Russia before this trip. Were you here as a tourist then, or for your job?”
“As a tourist, mostly. Since my family had ancestry from the Ukraine, and my cousin, Jeremy was serving an internship abroad we came over together. We did some local tours to places visited.”
“Interesting. And did you find this time around that the ‘Old Motherland’ was changed?”
The waiter interrupted our conversation to take our dinner order. Vasily gave him our entre and wine choices, speaking in his fluent Ukrainian dialect without needing to refer to the menu. Moments later the waiter returned with the first course: a cup of borscht beet soup with the pickled herring appetizers.
“Yes, drastically. In answer to your question on ‘change.’ With the new democratic government in place, and capitalism and entrepreneurs flourishing, it was as if they had stepped off a set of the middle ages into postmodern times. Such drastic changes of things and places from yesteryear to the new look today. The former, old ‘Gum’ department store looked more like a defunct ‘dime and ten’ store, when I went by there, with it decaying and falling apart.” Then I caught myself, rattling off like a self-righteous critic again from the still great super power of the west.
Vasily lifted his wine glass as if gesturing, “Well. Here’s to change, then”.
Our glasses came together. “To change.”
“Change did not stop there in Petersburg, and Moscow, but changed all over old ‘Mother Russia’. Even into the Siberian provinces,” he added, with emphasis.
“Yes, I know. So, with all the changes I cannot help but wonder why there are still so many areas closed off from the public. The Moldavians especially are so tight-lipped on subjects like what happened during the Holocaust, and famine of the 1930’s, Bolshevism, Stalin, purges and Lenin eras. I’m still trying to figure out what their problem is with an American wanting to visit some historical sites, and…oops, sorry.”
“I think perhaps that is because people want to move forward, not dwell on the past and so they refuse to discuss what has been only painful, like a wound reopened.”
“But, don’t you think that a wound heals faster when it is cleaned up, exposed to the air, the poisons drawn out, and bandages kept off?”
“You’re quite the philosopher with your impressive metaphors. But, to answer your question; there is still a visible scar, while exposed.”
“But, time cannot heal a wound if first there is no reason to cover the scar. And, I think a country cannot move into the future with change if they are not willing to talk about its past, and deal with the things that caused those infected wounds in the first place.”
“Are you philosophizing again, or are we in another debate? It sounds a little familiar, like the conversation we had earlier today.” He said, smiling, keeping a calm exterior.
But, I could see the glint of cold steel in his eyes, and they no longer reminded me of melted chocolate. And, I realized I had once again fallen into debate and needed to cut the crap, change direction. As deftly as I could, I switched back to the earlier, safer conversation of ‘Odessa’s new look.’
“Odessa has so many beautiful things to see and do, but I have not had much time to get out and visit those things on my ‘to see and do’ list.” I said, hoping to redeem myself, and hoping he would still want to escort me around, if I could only keep my mouth shut while doing so.
“Well, we will change all that. Starting tomorrow I will show you places that are now restored to beautiful malls, museums and shops. And, there are other places I think you will find right up your – how do you Americans say – alley.” He said, holding his wine glass up, then added, “To new ventures.”
“To new ventures.” I repeated.
At times I was ready to chuck all my work back into their musty old file drawers, visit a few more interesting sites, then head back home.
By the time the waiter came out with our next course of the meal, I was thankful to focus only on enjoying my prime rib served with a horseradish sour cream sauce and chopped spinach and potato cheese puff with fresh chives, followed by Creme brulee.
Three hours later after a leisurely walk along the avenue near Odessa’s old opera house and Pushkin’s Square Vasily drove me back to my hotel.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)
Chapter XX (20) Part 2
It happened every time someone expressed opinions contrary to my own, and I countered back much like my old college days, when I was on the debate team. It was not really important, anymore whether I had made a point, but that I may not have made a friend. Irina, I knew would have berated me. Grandmother Lisle would have warned me with a gentle rebuke to be respectful. My cousin, Jeremy would have shaken his head, not surprised at my boldness. And my father would have lectured me.
But, Vasily surprised me. His face and expression was hard to read. At first I thought he was angry. He had a right to be, the way I come off speaking whatever is on my mind without first thinking. But, then he laughed. Not sure if he was setting me up, or just testing me, but I felt my face grow red from embarrassment.
“What are you laughing at? Is it something I said, or did?”
“Well, It’s just that… you have a way of pushing the, how do you Americans say? ‘Pushing the envelope?’ Your strong opinions, free speech, all that stuff you Americans do. It is so spontaneous. You get so… well, kind of defensive. It’s gutsy, easier to gauge a person’s reaction to things, especially you Americans. And you’re different.”
Although I believed he did not mean to be hurtful, or condescending by his blunt or honest assessment of my character, I could not help but wonder if he thought me brash.
“Oh, I get it. Well, you have just seen me do a ‘Monica thing.’”
“What is a ‘“Monica thing?”’ he asked, with a confused expression.
“Well, my family calls it a, “Texas Oil gusher.” I gush out like a Texas oil well spilling out on everyone, because I don’t always think before I speak.”
He burst out laughing. “That… is so funny.”
While I stood there wishing we could start all over, he was enjoying the moment at my expense.
He smiled, and put up his hands as if to surrender. “OK. I will admit that I was testing you. It was not fair. It’s not exactly the right way to build ‘diplomatic relations’ with the West is it? Truce?” His smile sent little creases up under his eyes.
“Yes. But please, no more of that. I’d rather you not see me when I get on issues that are…well, debatable. I can be rather bull-headed.”
“I can believe that.” He smiled. “Let’s get back. I had a few other places I wanted to show you today, but we’re running out of daylight. We can see them tomorrow. We missed lunch too, so instead I’d like to take you out to dinner tonight to a great little place called, The Czarina Catherine where the music is live, the wine old and sweet, and the cuisine authentic. I’ll give you time to get cleaned up and change. Being down in that zemlyanka is dirty. As our engineer would say, it looks like I came away with ‘soil samples’ on me.”
“I can agree on that, and thanks for the dinner offer. It sounds wonderful.”
We started back. He slid a CD into his car stereo, and the sound of Ukrainian jazz filled the car’s interior.
My frequent checking over my shoulder at cars or people behind me was becoming an all too frequent habit here. But, I kept that to myself. For now.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2014)
Chapter XX (20)
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)