Josua and Lukas - Boys Uprooted by War
by Ruwen Rouhs
Neighing horses awakened Josua rudely. "The panje-horses are fighting back while hitched to the carts" Josua mumbled to himself rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Slowly he got back to reality smelling Lukas's hair still reeking of the fire and the roasted pig of the night before. His head was thumping. Now he remembered. After the lieutenant's vigorous admonition not to feed Josua any vodka, Tischa had all the more persuaded him to try it telling "The lieutenant is a fuddy-duddy! You are fourteen, right? In my village a chap of your age has to have at least his first hangover at this age!" Finally Josua gave up, tried a sip and coughed up his lung. Bound to making his new friend drunk the first time and feeling sorry for him at the same time Tischa got some raspberry juice to make the vodka more tempting. Josua liked raspberry juice and the story ended as Tischa intended. Talking with hand and feet they pledged eternal friendship and began to call each other Josua and Tish. Now hardy awake in the dark room Josua could neither remember walking back to the cottage nor finding his doss besides Lukas, except for Tish's arm across his shoulder before he dropped dead.
" Josua, you have been quite tipsy last night, when Tischa came dragging you along!" Lukas laughed. "The lieutenant was quite mad at him and gave him hell! He nearly chucked him out on his ear!" when Josua glared at him amazed, he added, "Fedja saved Tischa's neck and later he even was allowed to spend the night in the kitchen with the lieutenant and his Fedja ! The three were snoring all night long!"
Only now Josua became aware he had not been sleeping on the straw sacks in the kitchen but in the Old Man's bed. "Where is our host, the Old Man?" "Probably already in the kitchen, clearing away the rubbish! The lieutenant had banned us into the back room, needing the table to enter the new frontlines into his maps. Fedja assisted him." bouncy Lukas added "He didn't need spies, he told me, slapping me across the backside." "Did he hurt you?" "Naw!" Lukas giggled, wagging his head, "It was more like petting me and he me called Attaboy!"
The curtain separating the backroom and the kitchen was busted open. Together with the warm kitchen air Fedja and Tischa entered, "Time to say Good Bye to friends!" Fedja said with breathy voice and Tischa sighted, "One day you get a friend, the other day you have to leave him! Don't forget us Josua! Don't forget us Lukas!" Meanwhile Josua had tumbled up from bed and was staring at the two young soldiers in disbelief. Slightly trembling because of his hangover, he asked, "But why? But why? Can't you...!" Fedja cut in "No! We soldier's have taken an oath of allegiance! Our hearts are sad as yours. But..." then he flicked a wadded soldier's jacket over Josua's shoulders, "But that's our gift to remember us, me, Tish and the lieutenant ." He abruptly turned and fled from the cottage tears in his eyes.
Tish smiled, kissed Josua on both cheeks, bowed down to Lukas, slipped a goody bag into his hands, "Good bye, little brother. We will meet us again for sure !" Then he turned, leaving the new friends. What Tish didn't say but think was "We will meet us for sure again, if not on green meadows on earth then over the clouds in the sky.
First the reconnaissance team left the chapel on horseback, then the platoon followed most of the men riding on the carts. The place looked deserted now and Lukas as well as Josua missed the noise of the soldier's voices, the loud instructions of the lieutenant and his corporals and the neighing of the horses hitched to the panje-carts.
Before sunrise the Old Man had left the place to avoid a clash with the lieutenant because of the damage the platoon had done to the chapel. Returning to the place he ran into two sad boys, Josua wrapped up in a too big, wadded army jacket and Lukas wearing Josua's anorak as an additional shell above his own, much too thin coat. "We are already missing Tish and Fedja!" they announced in unison. "We made friends!" Josua declared, while Lukas emphasized "Even with the lieutenant ! He is sending you his deeply-felt apologies, because of the mess his soldiers have left." "They had to leave in a hurry ! They received order to reinforce frontline immediately!" Josua added. "We just can hope guardian angels will spread their wings to keep our new friends alive, Tish, Fedja and the lieutenant ." "Not only these, but also my blond-haired twin friends!" Lukas completed Josua's request searching the sky for guardien angles. But up there were only hoodiecrows cutting across the sky from east to the west.
Walking up to the cottage the Old Man found a document pinned to the door reading in big letters: "Armiya Komandnyy Punkt", "Army Command Post!" For a moment he was about to tear it down, then however he got the meaning. This official document issued by an officer of the Red Army was more valuable than money. Not in his dreams he had expected this favor by the lieutenant. He turned to Josua and Lukas, "You both sure have won the heart of the lieutenant 's soldiers but also his own! Look here!" he pointed at the sheet of paper with official seal, "Now we are under the protection of the army at least around here!"
Entering the cottage a something unexpected hit him. Happy like a four year old because of a bag of sweets the Old Man called to the boys, "Come on in Josua, come on in Lukas! Look! There is bread, sausages, flour and lard! Do you get it! Enough food for the weeks to come!
The battlefield left behind by the platoon was a wonderland for Lukas. Searching amongst the rubbish left around the burned down fire he retrieved a handful of cartridges, a broken jack knife, a wet cigarette box with five papierossi and several bottles each with still a slug of the clear vodka. His most valuable find however was a hand grenade. When he called Josua pointing at the small pineapple-shaped grenade, his big friend got the jitters, "Don't! Don't touch it, Lukas! The grenade may shear of your hand in case it explodes! It may even kill you." Running up to his friend, he discovered that the pin was missing. "Its defused, but it still is dangerous. I learned about hand grenades in our youth group at school. The team leader showed us ugly photos of careless boys who had lost some fingers playing around with defused grenades."
While Lukas had been attracted by shambles around the fireplace, Josua had wanted to know what had happened inside the chapel. Opening the side entrance to the nave a disgusting stench nearly made him turn around on the spot. The soldiers had spent the night in there and now the air was reeking of unwashed bodies. Entering the chapel he became aware of the mess inside and at the same time realized why the lieutenant, his batman Fedja and Tischa had preferred to stay in the cottage. Some infantrymen had not only had spent the night here, but being bloated with fatty pig meat and juiced up with vodka, they had thrown up and passed out in puke. Others obviously hadn't made it to the outside anymore and had relieved themselves in the corners of the chapel. With satisfaction he realized however that non of them had been so impious to use the broken altar stone for his business. While Josua still was inspecting the mess the Old Man, entering also, threw up his hands in horror. "Where is the deference of holy places? Does war destroy all inhibitions? Does war turn men into pigs?" inspecting the devastated room he asked Josua for help. "We need to clean the room to restore its dignity, even if this chapel was profaned already by the church its walls still rebreath the prayers of the innumerable pilgrims."
Just in this instant the burbling sound of P-2, the Red Army's biplanes, draw nearer and nearer. Pale-faced Josua withdraw from the side-entrance of the chapel and attempted to hide away under the bench seat of a pew covering his ears. But in vain. The ear-shattering burbling increased to an infernal noise as the three plane in a nose-dive inspected the place around the chapel nearly raising the roof. Wiggling their wings for greeting they went away leaving Josua with chattering teeth. Not so Lukas. "The planes have waved at me! Really! I even could see the pilot in the first plane! He waved at me! He smiled at me! He brought me greetings from my blond-haired friends, because they couldn't say good bye this morning!"
However Lukas wasn't right. Next instant the dive-bombers were moving in circles in the gray air above the village just some miles away. From the distance the small planes reminded Josua of harriers circling river flood plains in search of prey. They didn't stay long. Soon the trails of black exhaust melded with the gray clouds at the western horizon and the flaring up fiery glow followed by dead-sounding explosion marked the next target of their deadly cargo. Lukas was shocked. His reaction however was not as intense as the one of big friend. Josua sobbed convulsively and in a fit of black despair he ripped the watch, Tischa's present, from his arm and threw it into the gray snow slush the remains of the white tablecloth spread out by the clouds around the chapel the day before. Lukas surprised by the over-reaction of his friend, picked up the watch, "It was not Tischa! No! Not your friend Tischa, not your friend Fedja, who dropped the deadly bomb load. They are our friend." He passed the pilot watch back to Josua, "Please put on the watch again! Tischa and Fedja love you!" The Old Man, shaking his head in resignation, put his arms around the boys and ushered them back to the cottage, "Don't vent your frustration on a dead object! Do you believe in earnest you can blame war and dead on a watch? Do you in earnest believe the war is to blame on your friends. Keep Tischa's watch!" What the old man didn't tell Josua, was his premonition of Tischa's dead. Instead he invited the two, "Let's eat, let's strengthen our physical condition by a meal, prepared from food provided by our new friends."
The Trek of the Prisoners of War
Lukas' after lunch nap was suddenly cut short. Sitting up straight on the straw sack he listened into the twilighted room. Sound in foreign language echoed in the narrow valley, mixed up and on with short blobs caused by the firing of guns. "Josua! Josua wake up! Guns! Voices!" Still half asleep Josua listened to the approaching sound: "Dawai! Dawai!" Forward march! Go! Go!" Cusses Josua hadn't heard before, volleys of Russian cusses followed by the short blubs of shots slowly approached the chapel. "The Red Army! The Russians are coming!" Josua hollered at the Old Man, who had retired into the backroom.
The boys sneaked to the edge of the chapel to watch the approaching trek. A bewildering file of men in rows of four came into sight. The men waking in front were wearing heavy fetlock-deep coats and field-caps with earflaps. The badges had been removed from the coats but Josua recognized the men as officers of the defeated German Army. "Prisoners of war!" he whispered to Lukas. Most of the privates following the officers were not clothed for the icy weather. The fewest did wear hooded parkas, with the hood down, most of them were clothed only in light army jackets not fit of the time of the year. Some were wearing ear caps against the cold, others used women headscarves against the biting cold.
At the very end of the trek Josua spotted two small figures, too small, too young to be regular infantry men. Their dark blue uniform betrayed them as members of Hitler Youth, the Fuehrer's last ditch defense, not more than cannon fodder to the Red Army.
For Josua it was easy to recognize them as members of Hitler Youth because of their dark winter uniform, a short battle dress style blouse, a long-cut ski pants and a field cap with flaps covering their ears. These uniforms were to thin for a weather like this and neither of them was wearing a field coat against the stinging cold. They had not even a woolen blanket around their shoulders to fend off the cold. The bigger one was limping, he smaller one was wearing a sling on his right arm and had bleed through bandages around his head. They walked hand in hand, the limping one guiding the bandaged one.
Back home, living with his parents in name, he had envied the boys being members of the Hitler Youth for their uniforms, the brownish shirt and the black extremely short leather pant in summer and the dark winter uniforms. He had envied them because of the badges sewn to their shirts and blouses and the Swastika armband. Most of all however he had envied them for the boys for the scout like activities they were undertaking, like hiking and camping. Later on he also envied them because of the military training they obtained. As the war progressed and the German Army went short on soldiers they had been trained as messengers, signalers, weather observers, as ammunition carriers as well as gunners. He had hated his uncle in name, because he was strictly forbidden to join the Hitler Youth. Now however he pitied these boys for being wounded, killed by a bullet or the explosion of a bomb or for stumbling into war captivity. In hindsight he admitted that his uncle was right. Compassion hit him like a bullet. He had to help these poor boys, he had to help them to escape war captivity. He had to help them to dash for freedom.
Josua looked out for the guards of the prisoner's trek he had ignored so far. "Red Army soldiers," he told himself "shorter than most of the captives, muffled up in wadded, full-length coats were securing the column of prisoners, rifles shouldered or holding the Pe-Pe-Sha, the sub-machine gun, at the high port." Up and on one of the soldiers stopped pushing a lagging behind captive with the butt of his gun, cussing and swearing at him, firing bullets into the sky. Josua counted about a dozen of guards on both sides of the trek and some more in a panje-wagon to follow. Further down two more panje-wagons were showing up at the curve of the rural road coming from the village. In his head Josua worked out the chances to free the two Hitler Youth. "Less than one to a hundred." he reckoned, "Not now, not while the trek is still moving. No! I can't undertake a rescue mission now. My chances will increase as soon as the prisoner's trek will settle down for the night. But where would this be? At the Chapel?"
" Josua, Josua, the trek has stopped! Do you also suppose they will stay here?" Lukas attempted to pull Josua away from vantage point at the corner of the chapel, "Let's go inside! I am afraid!" Josua was afraid too, but he wanted to known more. "No, no, lets stay here and wait for the soldiers, if they want to stay here they better realize we are not dangerous, they better realize we are just kids. Stay!" Josua left the cover and headed Lukas at his hand to the soldiers walking down the small path from the road to the chapel. The sudden appearance of the two boys irritated the corporal in charge of the trek of prisoners. Raising his sub-machine gun, he called back to his team of guards, who immediately took cover in the roadside ditch. When Josua raised his hands waving his once white, now dirty gray handkerchief, the corporal relaxed and waved the two boys nearer. Searching them for weapons and finding none but a small pocketknife and some shells, he ordered his men to check to see if there are enemy soldiers around. After a while one of his man came back slightly nervous "Armiya Komandnyy Punkt" "Army Command Post" he informe d his superior. Nodding his head, he ordered the trek to move to the chapel then he turned to the boys using a broken German, "The lieutenant of the infantry platoon leaving this morning advised me to stay here for the night. He told me about you and the Old Man!" Then he ordered Josua and Lukas to walk ahead of him to the door of the cottage. He inspected the document carefully and then urged the boys to enter the room. The cottage was empty. The Old Man was neither in the kitchen nor in the backroom. Josua shrugged his shoulders, "We are alone! No Old Man! Only we two boys! Dva malika!" pointing at Lukas and himself, " Dva malika". But the corporal insisted "Where is the Old Man? Where is he? Mal'chick!" Josua shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, then "In the village, I guess. In the morning he told me he had to get supplies there!" pointing down the road. The corporal wagged a finger at Josua and Lukas to enforce their discipline, ordered "Stay here!" and left.
Rescue of the "Cannon Fodder"
Meanwhile the prisoners of war had been ordered to line up in a single file in front of the chapel for roll call. The counting had to be repeated four times, as the number of prisoners each time differed slightly. Since it got dark the corporal finally decided to close the roll call and ordered the captives relieve themselves on an edge of a meadow backed by a dense woodlot before they were locked up to the chapel.
Josua looking for an opportunity to contact the two young soldiers figured out that this was a unique situation to accomplish the rescue attempt without causing a stir. Stealing up through the wood to the bushes at the edge the strip of land used by the prisoners for squatting or peeing he waited till the alertness of the guards was distracted. The moment came soon as the impatient corporal fired volley bullets with his sub-machine gun into the dusky sky to announce the end of the comfort break. In the resulting pushing and shoving of the captives trying to be the first to enter their night quarter in the chapel Josua used the wake-up call the Hitler Youth to attract the attention of the two youth.
The short call caught the attention of the limping youth. Spotting small a person hiding at the edge of the wood he took the youth with the bloody bandages around his head by the hand and guided him stooped to the forest edge. As the pushing and shoving of the other captives at the side door of the chapel demanded all the attention of the guards Josua was able to sneak with the two to the cottage without being noticed. Once inside he opened the trap door to the underground storeroom and ushered them inside without providing any information.
With eyes wide open Lukas had watched Josua bringing in the two boys in the German uniforms. He even was more surprised when Josua hid the strangers in the underground storeroom without giving an explanation. While he still was considering to ask Josua about the two, a Russian soldier pulled up the door of the cottage and crudely summoned both to the field kitchen in front of the chapel.
The Evening Song
Anticipating the worst Josua as well as Lukas were surprised as the young soldier acting as cook at the field kitchen handed them mess kits filled to capacity with soup and spoons. The smell of the cabbage soup with chunks of fatty meat made Lukas nearly puke. Quashing the nausea he tried the first spoonful of shchi, that was the name of soup, and gegan to enjoy it. The mess kit was hot and warmed up his fingers blue with cold. Looking at Josua he began, "Who are the soldiers you did…..!" However Josua interrupted him abruptly telling with loud voice, "The German prisoners all are in the chapel. They have to spend the night there. All of them!" he emphasized. "At the roll call and none of them was missing! All are in the chapel!" turning to the corporal, "Isn't it so? Or are you missing one of the captives?" "No, not one of the prisoners, but where is the Starik, the Old Man from the chapel I was told about by the lieutenant!"
" Here I am!" a voice in the back of the corporal announced, "I am back. I took a shortcut to the village to get food, just at the time you walked the prisoners of war up the street. But now I am back and...?" The corporal sized the Old Man up. Realizing that he fitted to the description of the lieutenant he handed him over a thick envelope. "The lieutenant asked me to give this to you. It's the book he took by chance. He told me the devilkin would miss!" Grinning he pointed at Lukas, "Is that the boy?" When the Old Man smiled and nodded his assent, the corporal asked Lukas, "It's a book with drawings and poems. I like poems. Do you know a poem? In school we learned a poem of Matthias Claudius. We learned even to sing it. I like it! Do you know The Moon has been arising?"
In a sentimental mood the corporal struck up the song and after the first line Lukas and Josua joined in the evening song:
The moon has been arising,
the stars in golden guising
adorn the heavens bright.
The woods stand still in shadows,
and from the meads and meadows
lift whitish mists into the night.
The world in stillness clouded
and soft in twilight shrouded,
so peaceful and so fair.
Just like a chamber waiting,
where you can rest abating
the daytime's mis'ry and despair.
Behold the moon - and wonder
why half of her stands yonder,
yet she is round and fair.
We follow empty visions
and artisans' ambitions
because our minds are unaware.
So, brothers, in His keeping
prepare yourself for sleeping;
cold is the evening breeze.
Spare us, oh Lord, Your ire,
let rest us by the fire,
and grant our ailing neighbor peace.
(1740 - 1815)
Once the last verse had faded into the night, all guards clapped their hands smiling and the corporal stated, "In time of peace we three would give an excellent trio!" The singing probably saved Josua's, Lukas' and the two young German soldier's life and probably also the one of the Old Man, because the men of the guard squad urged the corporal to stay and celebrate the evening by singing Russian folk songs and getting drunk. The Old Man and his two boys were allowed to retreat into the cottage and go to sleep.
The Führer's last Ditch Defense
Back in the cottage Josua was nervous like never before. Should he or should he not tell the Old Man about his "guests"? As Lukas watched him as well as the Old Man anxiously, the guardian of the chapel finally got suspicious. "What happened while I was away? Should I know about it? I hope you didn't put us into a hazardous situation!" While Josua cast down his eyes searching for the apposite answer, Lukas got bold. "Josua has saved the life two young soldiers. They are down here in the storeroom. We have to hide them. Tomorrow they can make an escape!"
The Old Man made a jerk then went pale. Carefully he walked to the window, pulled the curtain closed and then checked the door. "What? What in heaven is gotten into you, boy? What in heaven do you think the corporal will do if he finds out two soldiers are missing? What in heaven do you think the corporal will do if he finds out you helped them to escape? That you have concealed prisoners of war?" Closing his eyes, "You have endangered not your own life! You have gambled also with Lukas' and my life, not to speak of the lives of the young German soldiers. Aren't you aware that the danger has still hovering over all of us? The danger will not have passed when the guard squad has left without missing the two!"
Josua was frustrated! He had expected the Old Man would applaud him for rescuing the two like he himself had he taken up Lukas and him without questioning. For a moment he had to search for arguments to persuade the Old Man. "Please Sir!" he begged wavering voice, "Please have a look at the two! They are just boys, not much older than I. They have been Hitler's cannon fodder, the last ditch defense of the Nazis! Both are wounded." attempting to make a point, "Sir, they wouldn't survive the long march into captivity. Please Sir, first have a look at them before you make your decision." Playing his last card, "Both are wounded, the one limping is named Jonnie, the other one Freddie, has an arm in a sling and the bandage around his head is bleeding through. Without your help they are lost!" The Old Man's hart softened and knowing no way out he agreed to visited the young Germans in the storeroom.
Checking the trembling young men up in the wavering light of a kerosine lamp, his heart melted and he had to admit Josua was right. Especially the one wounded on head and arm aroused his compassion. It even increased while the other told what had happened to them. "I am Jonnie. My friend Freddie got wounded by the shrapnels of a hand grenade at his right arm and his forehead. When I found Freddie in the dirty snow he had passed out, maybe because of the pressure of the explosion, maybe because of the wound at his head. After he came up from coma he couldn't remember his name, he didn't remember my name, he had lost his memory. Since then I have to walk him like child. Everything is new to him, he even had to learn how to eat and drink. Please Sir, help him! If we are separated, Freddie would get lost and I have promised his parents to bring him home save."
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