FOR INTRIGUE THAT KEEPS YOU GUESSING
At the end of the war, 35,000 Russian Mennonite refugees were concentrated in Saxony and Thuringia… But at Yalta in the Crimea, Stalin had demanded that “all who were born in Russia” be returned to the Soviet Union. GEORGE K. EPP, University of Winnipeg
August 19, 1942
The Wehrmacht soldier blocked her way. “Halt. Wer geht dort?”
She trembled. “Kaethe Kranz,” she replied.
Why had he stopped her? Did she look like a thief? What if he searched her and found the precious barley in her pocket? What would he do? The Kossacks had shot anyone they caught stealing grain, but she desperately needed the barley to make coffee for her husband.
The invader tapped the barrel of his gun with his right trigger finger. For now, he aimed his weapon toward the ground and squinted at the falling sun behind her.
“Can you speak German?”
“Where do you live?”
He pursed his lips. “I can guess that. Where in Osterwick?
She pointed to a kiln-dried mud brick cottage with fired clay roof tiles ahead of her on the left. It was a plain dwelling that only contained two rooms. A stone path led up to its door from the dirt road where they stood. She had to watch her step. More than once she twisted her ankle on the hardened ruts left by the muddy trail of wagon wheels baked in the hot sun.
He turned from her to look behind him. Tattered clouds of smoke still hung over the village. When he turned back to her, his face was grim. He scowled and gripped his gun. “You burned your crops. You will be punished.”
She flung her loose jacket wide open, revealing her gaunt frame. “We’re all skin and bones.”
She re-bundled the jacket about her, suddenly embarrassed at her shameless exposure to the enemy. She had responded without thinking, an impulsiveness that often got her in trouble with the village elders. But, she had proved her point. She could see the realization in the German’s eyes.
“Our Führer told us the Ukraine is the bread basket of Europe. How can you be starving?”
More contrite, she nodded: “Life was good before the Bolsheviks overtook our villages. Stalin forbids us to practice our religion; we are forced to ship our grain and produce to Moscow while we are left with little to sustain us. When the Russians heard you had invaded, they scorched the land. When they starve you, they starve us more.”
“We’ll see about that.” The German soldier slung his gun over his right shoulder. “You must talk to my commander. Come.”
“Please, I have to go home.”
“After you talk to my commander.”
“Please . . . it’s my husband . . . he’s dying. I have to go to him. He must not be alone. You understand?” she beseeched.
“My orders . . .” He looked directly into her eyes and hesitated. He then scuffed the ground with his right boot. “Are you sure he’s dying?”
She nodded. Her teeth chattered. She clenched her jaw, fighting to control an unexpected chill despite the hot August sun. Was it fear, or had her husband’s spirit already left his body? Such things she was not allowed to believe, but she was born with a gift that made her question Mennonite teachings. She often knew things before they happened. Bernhard! No. Not yet! I have it. Wait for me.
“I’ll go with you.”
She strode forward, forcing the German soldier to step aside, and heard the German’s jackboots squeak as he followed her.