Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Somewhat Gory War Story

“One of our outposts was a desolate stretch of forest where, several times, the Japanese had crept up in the darkness and killed and mutilated our sleepy, half-starved sentries. Thus, among our commander's first official acts was to place me in charge of this post, along with three other Jews and one new Russian boy, presumably included to keep us from talking too freely.

“I was deathly tired from having been on guard duty the night before. But I could see already what kind of a bird we had here, and I wasted no breath complaining. I did, however, ask him for a machine gun to help keep us from being overrun by a surprise attack.

“He gave me an aristocratic look and said, "Just go and do what you're told."

"I need a machine gun. If you'll come with us, I can show you why."

"You think I've nothing better to do? I know you Jews. You'll fall asleep and we'll lose the gun."

“I tried to control my voice. "Without the gun, you may lose five men."

"Four less of you to deal with after the war," he muttered, not quite under his breath.

“I felt confirmed in my suspicion that we didn't have a friend in this new Fonya, but of course what he had said was nothing more than government policy at this time. It didn't occur to the genius that if we were killed, it would endanger the entire camp.

“After supper, we proceeded to our isolated post, holding on to each others' belts in the darkness. I would not say that our spirits were exactly glowing. We knew that if we ran into trouble, we were entirely on our own. But at least our shift was only for two hours at a time.

“…We settled down to watch and listen. Three hours later no one had come to relieve us. Somehow, I was not surprised. It was too dangerous to send back one man to seek our replacements. For all of us to go meant deserting our post, which might just have been what our company commander was counting on. Finally, well past midnight, some shadows appeared and, being challenged, gruffly gave us the password. It was our relief. They were Russians, and they had a machine gun.

“Too tired to go back to camp, we fell asleep in a nearby trench. A while later, we were awakened by sharp automatic fire. Our replacements, it seemed, had all gone to sleep and one of them had been stabbed to death. But the attack consisted of only three Japanese, one of whom was killed by the machine gun; the second was wounded, and the third had surrendered.

“At daybreak, we marched back to camp with our two captives. The wounded Japanese pitiably pleaded and gestured, but no one understood him. It seemed to me he was offering to tells us anything we wanted to know if we would let him live. One of us finally went to look for an interpreter.

“Meanwhile, our commander arrived on horseback, flashing his drawn saber and grinning like a sportsman at the two Japanese, who sank to the ground and started to plead. Our commander asked for volunteers to behead the two captives. Most of the Jewish boys turned away in disgust. But the response was so enthusiastic from the others, the only solution would have been to draw lots. In the end, the commander decided he wanted to do the job himself.

“A stake was driven into the ground and the captives were tied to it in a way that left their heads exposed. They were no longer pleading, but all my nerve endings could feel the hatred in their eyes.

“Our commander had drawn back far enough to give his horse a running start. Now, with a shout of joy, he came galloping toward the stake. One slash and both heads plopped to the ground. Some of the men started a make-believe football game with one of the heads, while the other was picked up by a group now doing a Cossack dance and skillfully tossing it from hand to hand.

“I turned away. But I realized that I, too, had already become brutalized, because I felt no more than a mild twinge of disgust.

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