Leutnant Gerhard Kroneberg lay wounded, bleeding in the cold
beneath the trees, under a giant cedar. He lay on his back in the
wet snow. Trees of the forest – beeches, maples, oaks,
cedars – towered above him, their branches laden with
freshly fallen snow. It was nighttime. Snow was falling again.
The gelid air bit into the whiskered skin of his cheeks, like the
playful yet sharp and painful bite of a jealous lover. He thought
that if he didn't bleed to death, he would freeze to death. He
was a member of the German 6th Army. It was November
His wounding happened the previous day, November 29, during an
ambush. His unit, the 7th Reconnaissance Battalion,
scouted the enemy and terrain in a rural area northwest of
Stalingrad. After stumbling upon a large Soviet unit, they were
assaulted from all sides and nearly wiped out in heavy fighting.
Inside an ancient stone chantry, with the Holy Family looking on
from dark icons, the battle finally ended in ferocious hand-to-hand combat. Badly wounded, not knowing if any of his comrades
lived, Kroneberg played dead, imagining one of his daughter's
lifeless dolls. He lay still for several hours. Crawling away
after nightfall, he sought the cover of the forest, the cover of
the towering trees that stood over him like dark pillars holding
up the dark sky. Despite the darkness and snow, or maybe because
of them, the forest felt safe and embracing ... womb-like.
He woke with his right side, just below his ribs, burning. He
floated in and out of consciousness. Drifting toward sleep, he
remembered the day he had enlisted in the Wehrmacht. It
was the day after Britain and France declared war on Germany:
September 9, 1939. He had felt, still felt, a strong sense of
duty to his country. And he felt that enemies from the last war,
the Great War, were again wronging his country, enemies who had
already extracted a vicious and horrible revenge from Germany for
that earlier war, through the Versailles Treaty. Germany, he
thought lying there in the snow deep inside Russia, in trying to
right wrongs done to her in that treaty, had dealt with Poland in
the only language the Polish government seemed to understand:
force of arms. And now France and Britain were using the
German/Polish conflict as an excuse to try again to destroy
Germany ... the Americans ... Russians ... anvil ... hammer and
tongs ... hammer and sickle ... a two-front war .... He fell fast
asleep with his face in the snow.
Hit there, he thought, slowly waking, feeling his bloody
side. Can't open my eyes. Awake, yet unmoving ... can't move: the
metamorphosis. Not soaked or frozen. Why? He struggled to open
A hand caressed his forehead.
"Sleep now. You need rest," a small voice said.
At first the words sounded like they came from inside him, slowly
drifting up from deep down, like an air bubble slowly rising
through the depths of the sea. Time slowed. It seemed like his
own voice that he had heard or the voice of another but inside
his head, as in a dream. Things seemed alien, not part of him:
the voice, his body, his thoughts felt distant, separate,
"Shh .... Rest."
He again felt the caress of that small voice and that gentle
hand. Now the voice sounded like his daughter's. His mind went
far away, back to Germany and his home and family. He saw her.
The voice caused her to appear before him: his little girl, Lise.
Part of him knew it was not her. Yet, another part of him knew it
was her, as real seeming as the fresh blood he
tasted in his mouth. She looked up at him, her sweet face turned
toward his in loving expectation .... His little daughter: eager
and trusting, lovely, her hair tied with a pale, green ribbon.
Her image was exceptionally vivid .... Slowly it became
translucent, wavering and fluttering like a small flame in a
draft, ghostly and sepulchral .... He woke fully in the next
instant, with shells landing and exploding around him. Reaching
out to cover and protect his daughter, he saw that he was alone
in the dark Russian forest, lit only by the blinding, deafening
explosions of artillery shells. A round landed nearby,
demolishing a large oak tree. He felt new, painful burning
sensations in his neck and thigh: he didn't know if they were
from wood splinters or shrapnel, or both. He tried to move away
from the splintered, shivered oak tree. God is love, he
thought, God is spirit, dragging himself, inching along
the snowy, ice-cold ground. Shells often land, he remembered, one
after another, in the same place, the nature of artillery, twice
more. My God, please don't take my sweet daughter from me, or
me from her, not again, not twice.
He crawled farther along the rock-hard, cold, wet earth. More
snow swirled down around him, a blizzard burying him, suffocating
him. The stinging, wind-blown snow gurged around his eyes, into
his eyes, blurring his vision, blinding him. Blacker night came,
but for that he'd prayed, to hide him from his enemies. The
frozen ground under him reddened where his warm blood mingled
with the snow and ice.
He had to stop crawling, felt he couldn't go another meter, not
one. A shell landed close behind him with a deafening roar. His
ears rang, like cathedral bells rung by a tireless bell-ringer,
reverberating without end. Then there was silence, or what he at
first perceived to be silence, but was truly the sound of a
winter night in the forest. Laying his hand in the wet snow, he
closed his eyes and rested. When he awoke, when dreams too
horrible to dream interrupted his rest, he crawled again. A
towering cedar stood above and a few feet in front of him. The
ground rose under the tree forming a pine needle-covered mound
around the base of the trunk. He slowly crawled up to the very
foot of the great trunk and wrapped his arms around it as far as
he could, pulling himself into the tree. His arms were several
meters short of reaching all the way around. He rested the side
of his forehead against the hard, rippling bark, which felt like
the vertical rigid pillow of a monk, yet drier and somehow warmer
than the snow-covered forest floor. The gnarled wood felt good
against his skin. He closed his eyes, heard the wind sibilating
through the branches above. He fell asleep.
He dreamt of his little daughter playing in the garden of their
house, near Wiesbaden, in the wooded hills near the River Rhine.
Sun-spackled, she examined flowers or leaves. She chased
dragonflies or moths. A loud cawing cacophony broke the idyll: a
large, scraggily raven sat on a propinquant fencepost, glowering
down at his daughter. He heard a rumbling on the street of large
engines, metal moving over stone, growing louder each moment
– tanks, he thought. Sounds of aircraft low
overhead, of many boots treading in the alley behind the tall
fence. Explosions shook the earth. His daughter screamed and ran
toward him as gun fire ripped into the fence and into the garden
where a moment before she had stood smiling, laughing. Laying in
the snow, his forehead pressed to the great tree, her screaming
He woke to the stillness of night in the forest. He remembered
other screaming. Three months before, his unit, the
7th Reconnaissance, had again been out in front of a
German offensive, leading a breakthrough deep into territory that
a few days before had been far behind the Soviet front lines. It
was September 21, 1942, late in the afternoon. The 7th
Reconnaissance advanced cautiously – like a panther slowly
advancing on its prey, ready to dash in pursuit or lunge for the
kill – up a narrow two-track dirt road, approaching a
village north of Rostov, west of the River Don. Wide, flat fields
of wheat and barley stretched off across the steppes as far as
the horizon. They took small arms fire from a copse of trees in
front of them and to their left, from a group of Russian
irregulars. They'd caught the irregulars off-guard, no doubt in
the midst of preparing some fiendish, deadly surprise, and
probably thinking that German forces were still several
kilometers away. Kroneberg's commander, Major Johann von
Stubbens, ordered his men to return fire. The Germans leveled an
intense fusillade on the copse, including fire from the heavy
machine guns on their two half-tracks. They killed several enemy
fighters; the rest fled on foot toward the village,
Krasnogvardjeskoje, about half a kilometer down the road. After
searching the copse and finding twelve dead Russians, the Germans
cautiously pursued. Von Stubbens wanted to find out what the
irregulars were doing, or destroy them, or both.
Charily, like Odysseus passing Charybdis and Scylla, the Germans
entered the small village. Low, primitive buildings, white or
brown or natural wood, stood on both sides of the two-track dirt
road that was the main street. They entered the buildings, one-by-one. They kicked open each door, looking for men and arms but
found neither. The few shops were empty. In about half the houses
they found old people or women or children. In several dark, low-ceilinged houses where they found no one, they found signs that
people had just left: a boiling, whistling samovar, exiguous
meals of bread and cheese or sausage or cabbage scantily eaten,
soap-bubbled baby's clothes left in a wash tub, a fire in the
hearth. The people they found, the old people and women and
children were frightened, crouching in corners, hiding under beds
or in root cellars. It wasn't until they approached the old,
brown, wooden church at the other end of Krasnogvardjeskoje that
the Germans took fire, a steady fire coming from more than one
location in the church. The dark church, by far the largest
building in the village, loomed over the village like a dark,
brooding grandfather, a familial patriarch, a sentinel, watching
over his children and grandchildren, protecting them from
physical and moral evil. Von Stubbens ordered his men to surround
the church. "Put down your weapons!" he yelled at the church in
German. "Come out with your arms raised and you will not be
After a few minutes, a short, black-robed priest with a tall
black hat, and a chest-length white beard, came out of the double
front doors. Slowly, achingly, he descended the steps in front of
the church, his deliberate pace denoting calm, patience and old
age. The old hieromonk slowly crossed the road, hands raised
above his head. He walked to the small house where von Stubbens
had taken cover with Kroneberg and three other soldiers. As the
priest came through the door, Kroneberg heard the rumble of the
half-tracks as they took positions on the edge of the road, on
either corner of the church. Two squads of soldiers on foot
covered the other sides and rear of the church, including men
armed with heavy machine guns, flamethrowers, rocket launchers
"It might not look like much," the wrinkled, old priest said in
good, high-pitched German, indicating the church, his large black
sleeve flapping as he moved his arm. He stared up into the faces
of the foreign soldiers. "Yet, we have ancient, priceless relics
there ... and women and children."
"The women and children may come out. We will not harm them," von
Stubbens said. Von Stubbens was fifty-four years old. He had
served in the Wehrmacht, the German Army, since before
they called it the Wehrmacht, since 1919, when they
called it the Reichswehr under the Weimar Republic,
before Hitler took power. He had fought in front line units since
the beginning of this war. He was grizzled and strong, spoke in a
commanding voice, and was a good soldier and commander. He had
not risen higher in the ranks because he had openly opposed the
Nazification of the army. Among other things, he had protested in
writing to his superiors about the elimination of the army's
chaplain corp, and about the requirement, starting in 1933, that
every soldier swear an oath of personal loyalty to the
Führer, Adolf Hitler.
"Two N.K.V.D. men are there," the priest said, saying the letters
as if uttering the secret name of Satan, or of Koshchei the
Deathless, the mighty subterranean serpent, the great demon of
Russian myth. "The women say they will not leave their husbands
– the N.K.V.D. watch them."
"N.K.V.D.?" von Stubbens said. "Dear God .... Father, we have to
capture or kill those men. We don't have time for a siege. You
must tell them. Tell the villagers."
Dear God, thought Kroneberg, the N.K.V.D. was
Stalin's secret police. One of their functions: to prevent
– by force, and summary execution, if necessary –
all unauthorized retreats.
"I see," the priest said, looking at the ground, shaking his head
sadly. "St. Paul said unto the Ephesians," he went on, calmly,
looking into each face, each in turn with his bright eyes,
speaking in tones solemn and trebly. "And grieve not the holy
Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil
speaking, be put away from you, with all malice; And be ye kind
one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God
for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
"The rest of the men in the church – besides the N.K.V.D.
– they are villagers?" von Stubbens asked.
"Yes. Except two from a nearby village. I must go now, or they
will think I have stayed too long and talked too much."
"Go," von Stubbens said. "Tell them they must surrender or die."
The old priest closed the door behind him, took three steps
toward his church and was hit by bullets from at least two
semiautomatic weapons firing from the church. The Germans in the
small house and the heavy machine guns on the half-tracks
immediately returned fire and killed a shooter in the church, but
it was too late: the old priest fell dead in the road, his blood
pooling and mingling with the soil at the bottom of the ruts,
like the sacrificial blood of Christ mingling with the soil
beneath the cross.
"Cease fire!" von Stubbens yelled. "The women and children," he
said to Kroneberg, who stood next to him, peering out a front
window of the house through the smoke, smelling the acrid, burnt,
gunpowdery smell. After the firing stopped, they heard women
screaming and, faintly, what sounded like children crying, almost
like the cries of distant seagulls in a fog. "We don't even know
how many women and children are in there," von Stubbens said,
looking down at his muddy, badly-worn boots for several long
moments. A house of God, he thought ... women and
children. He looked up and stared without sight at the
church. "Prepare to fire rockets and mortars. Radio the other
squads: rockets and mortars on my command – no
flamethrowers. On my command!"
"What of the women and children?" Kroneberg asked, echoing his
commander's unfinished thought.
"I don't know, Kroneberg .... They shouldn't be there."
Kroneberg felt the horror in his gut, a nausea, the horror of
what might happen. He also knew what he imagined every German
soldier on the Russian front knew: this war with the Soviet Union
was a fight to the death between the two nations, that only one
nation would survive. To lose this war would mean the physical
destruction of the Fatherland, the destruction of German homes
and families, the rape and torture and death of German women and
A few minutes passed with no sign or sound from the church.
"All squads report mortars and rockets ready," the radioman
As Kroneberg looked out, he saw three men wearing civilian
clothes dash from behind the right side of the church: two men
ran in front spraying submachine gun fire at the small house and
the half-track, another ran behind carrying a brown cloth bag in
each hand; the bags seemed to contain good-sized pinecones.
Kroneberg saw that the man carrying the bags also held a grenade
in each hand. The sacks are full of them, he thought.
"Grenades!" Kroneberg yelled.
Semiautomatic weapons' fire erupted from several openings in the
church, targeting the house and half-track. Two grenades thrown
from the church landed next to the small house. The machine
gunner in the half-track turned his weapon, training it on the
three running men, now barely fifteen paces away and fast
approaching. The grenades exploded, raising clouds of smoke and
dust, obscuring the Germans' view from the house. Kroneberg,
looking toward the half-track under assault, could see nothing
because of smoke; his ears rang from the grenades that had
detonated a few meters in front of him. Dimly, as if hearing
through water, he heard the half-track's heavy machine gun open
up. The smoke cleared a little and he saw that the two leading
attackers had fallen.
The bag-carrying man kept coming and was now two meters from the
half-track. With one finger on each hand, he pulled the pins from
grenades in his palms and dropped one into each sack, then threw
one sack under the vehicle and one into it through its open top,
just as his body was severed, a little above the waist, by point-blank fire from the half-track's heavy machine gun; his lower
half continued forward two steps, unguided by its now missing
upper torso and head – his upper body, screaming and
spewing blood in streams, fell backwards, hit the ground hard and
was quiet. Explosions ripped the half-track, shredding and
blowing it apart; all six German soldiers in or near it died.
Burning pieces of the destroyed armored vehicle rained down for
meters around, like a warm rain of burning metal and leather and
"Tell the other half-track to back off twenty meters," von
Stubbens yelled to the radio man. "All squads open fire with
everything except flamethrowers."
Every German weapon and gun, except the flamethrowers, now opened
up on the church. Within one minute, explosions from mortars and
rockets tore the ancient wooden structure. Fires started almost
immediately as secondary explosions rang out from inside the
church. Heavy machine gun fire filled the air inside the church
with flying bullets. The din of the attack deafened. Kroneberg
could not hear the screams of the women and children but heard
them in his head. Within five minutes the defenders had stopped
firing from inside the church. The church burned, slowly
collapsing in on itself, becoming a ruin. Round after round
slammed into the dying bethel with lethal accuracy. The Germans
fired for three more minutes. The burning walls were falling; the
rest of the church had collapsed. No one had come out.
"Cease fire!" von Stubbens ordered, furious at himself for losing
so many men and a half-track.
Now the only sound Kroneberg heard was the fiery crackling and
crumbling of the church, and occasionally a round or several
going off as the fire reached unexploded munitions. The normally
fragrant country air smelled of burnt or burning leather,
gunpowder, metal, wood, flesh and hair. That evening they
couldn't enter the remains of the church because of the heat and
smoke. As night came on, they secured Krasnogvardjeskoje and
spent the night there. They could afford to stop for a few hours
that night: they were still several kilometers ahead of the
leading heavy Panzer formation, the 1st Brigade of the
9th Panzer Division. The 7th Reconnaissance
Battalion was also a unit of the 9th Panzer. They
buried their dead.
Early the next morning, just after dawn, Kroneberg and several of
his comrades entered the still smoldering church. It was a
beautiful September morning, with no hint in the warm air or
cloudless blue sky of the torturous Russian winter that lay
ahead. Chickadees and blackbirds twittered and called in nearby
bushes and trees. Bodies were strewn throughout the smoking
ruins. Just inside what would've been the front door of the
church, Kroneberg saw a mother, dead, burned, sprawled
protectively over the bodies of her three young children. He saw
this pattern throughout the smoking ruins: mothers and fathers
had died trying to protect their children. Men's bodies were
draped over women. Others had died alone. There were blackened
bodies of Russian fighters, like horrific statues, some still
sitting up, still clutching weapons in their charred, black
hands. He thought of his own wife and child, felt that he was
going to vomit, and fled from that charnel house.
He recollected as he lay wounded in the snow three months later,
his head propped against a tree, his forehead pressing into the
bark. He remembered the horror, the screaming, the sense of
helplessness, the inhumanity, and felt himself becoming weaker as
he lay there. Loss of blood, he thought ... I'll bleed or freeze
to death. He crawled again, believing it his only hope; he felt
that he had to do something, that he could not
just lie in the snow and die while he still had strength. For his
daughter's sake, he felt he had to survive. Crawling slowly away
from the tree, he crawled about thirty meters to another tree
where he collapsed. He fell asleep. He dreamt of his daughter.
Later, waking when he felt her hand on his shoulder, he saw that
it was not her, his daughter, but a little Russian girl about his
daughter's age. Someone else's little daughter, he thought,
someone's precious sister and granddaughter.
"You must come with me," she said quietly. "Other soldiers are
near." Inexplicably the little girl spoke broken German. For a
moment Kroneberg wondered if he were dreaming again. With the
help of the girl, and a large stick, Kroneberg got to his feet.
He struggled to remain standing, leaning on the girl and the
stick. They walked through the deep snow and woods. Though he was
only forty-four years old, he leaned on her like an ancient
grandfather. New wet snow fell softly. The man walked into the
snow not knowing why, for a moment not remembering. He felt the
cold air but was not cold. They came to a clearing. A small log
cabin with a smoking chimney stood on the edge of the forest.
"This is my home," the little girl said, as Kroneberg limped
across the threshold.
"Where are your parents?" Kroneberg asked, collapsing into a
chair next to a table, leaning his elbows on the table.
"They are dead," she answered, looking him in the eye for a
moment. She wept almost noiselessly as she slumped into a chair
across from him, covering her face with her hands.
"I am very sorry," Kroneberg said, seeing, imagining the
suffering of this girl. The cabin smelled of a wood fire, and of
potatoes and onions: an iron skillet of them sat on a wood-burning stove against the wall, to the left of the table. On the
opposite wall to the right was a small window, below which was a
neatly made single bed; a stuffed bear and a homemade rag doll
sat side-by-side on the pillow. The wall across from where
Kroneberg sat, opposite the front door, held an alcove with a
double-bed, also neatly made-up. A small, dark icon of the Virgin
hung above the headboard in a golden, gilt-edged frame: she
looked mysterious, and yet sad, as if grieving the harm that had
come to the people who lived in that cabin, the harm she had not
prevented, or could not prevent. A tall, solid-looking, full
bookcase stood next to the bed.
Kroneberg found it difficult sitting upright in the chair –
the child noticed and helped him to the double-bed in the alcove.
"Thank you," Kroneberg said, struggling to sit on the bed. "What
is your name?" he asked, falling over into the bed, then lying
still. "How old are you?"
"Milena," the girl answered shyly; she grasped his right
shoulder, one hand under his arm and one hand on his shoulder,
and helped lift him so that he sat with his back against the log
headboard. "I am nine years old."
"Thank you, Milena .... I have a daughter your age .... Where did
you learn to speak German?"
"My father, and grandfather and grandmother, were ethnic Germans.
My mother and her family were Russian."
"Do you have brothers or sisters?"
"No. My parents wanted to have more children. But they couldn't.
My mother used to say to me, 'You will have to do, and you do
marvelously.'" Tears came into Milena's eyes and she looked down.
Kroneberg thought of the history he knew of the tens of thousands
of ethnic Germans who had settled and homesteaded in southern
Russia and the Ukraine since 1850.
"Where are your grandparents?"
"All dead," Milena said, tears running down her face; she turned
away – she wanted him to think she was strong, as she felt
Mary must have been after the Crucifixion. She went to a cupboard
and picked out a red tin plate and a small wooden spoon. She
filled the plate with fried potatoes and onions from the skillet
on the wood stove, and carried the plate gingerly across the room
and gave it to Kroneberg.
"Thank you," Kroneberg said. "This is very good," he said,
holding up the plate after taking a bite. "Did you make it?"
"What about your aunts and uncles?" he asked, chewing.
"The ones that lived around here are dead or in the army –
two uncles in the army. I don't know if they are dead. Two other
aunts married brothers – Party officials – and they
moved to Rostov. I don't know if they are dead."
"I have a daughter your age."
"What is her name? Does she look like me?"
"Her name is Lise. She does remind me of you. Like you, she is
very pretty and very dear."
After Kroneberg ate, Milena unbuttoned his grey tunic and white
shirt and examined the wound in his lower chest, on his left side
just below the rib cage.
"I will get linen for a bandage, and water and vodka to clean
it," Milena said.
The bullet was still in the wound but the bleeding had slowed.
Kroneberg thought that, if he could get medical attention, he
might have a fair chance of surviving. Milena helped him clean
and bandage the wound. He was very thirsty and she brought him
water. He lay back on the bed, his head on the soft pillow and
thanked God for this kind girl. He watched her as she prepared
their meal, as she carried firewood or water. A deep sadness lay
on her, like pain too old to have a name; yet, life was also in
her, a spirited and vivacious life, healthy and overflowing. He
felt that her extraordinary kindness somehow came out of that
unusual, seemingly contradictory, blending of deep sadness and
Milena did resemble his daughter. Petite, yet strong, with light-complexioned skin, she had long, coal black, curly hair, with
ringlets that occasionally fell over her forehead; she often wore
a red or white lace ribbon in her hair. Her eyebrows were
prominent and coal black like her hair; her eyes were big,
luminous, intelligent and a brown like bronze. Her lovely face
was sweet and round, full but not plump, and rosy-cheeked when
she was warm or cold or working.
She took care of him for two days and three nights. She cooked
for him, changed his dressing, stoked the fire. She helped him
bathe and dress, read stories to him or played the flute. He
rested and healed and felt exceedingly grateful.
On the afternoon of the third day – after a delicious lunch
of cabbage and mushroom soup, and black rye bread and butter
– he fell asleep. He dreamt of his daughter as a young
woman. In his dream, she was married to a man of Russian-German
ancestry. She and her husband and their baby lived in a house
next to her childhood home, the home where Kroneberg and his
wife, Edda, still lived. The sun shone brightly through the
kitchen window. He sat at his daughter's kitchen table, his
curly-haired baby granddaughter gently bouncing on his knee. Lise
moved around the cookroom preparing breakfast. On the stove,
bacon sizzled in an iron skillet, coffee percolated in a tin
coffeepot. It was a day in late May. The smell of lilacs and
freshly-mown, dew-covered grass flowed in through the open window
and mingled with the smells of frying bacon, brewing coffee and
cinnamon-raisin bread baking in the oven. His daughter wore a
blue dress and a white apron. Her black, curly hair framed her
beautiful, sweet face, round and sculpturesque. She smiled at him
and her smile warmed his heart, like the sun warming beach sand
on a hot summer day. He felt his little granddaughter moving on
his knee; the baby cooed and talked. He caressed the baby's hair.
How blessed I am, he thought, to be here with them in this
moment, to have survived to be here.
He woke to Milena shaking him, saying, "Soldiers are coming. You
They heard rifle shots at some distance, a burst of semiautomatic
fire, then more rifle shots. Russian voices yelled. What might
they do to Milena, Kroneberg thought, if they discover that she
has helped me? How can I prevent it? He could not get past that
idea, even after imagining rationalizations from superior
officers and his wife. They would speak of duty ... of duty to
Fatherland and army and family. His wife would speak of, and
claim for them, his love for her and his daughter. She would
speak of their love for him, of how no one could replace him, and
that he should never leave them voluntarily. He answered her in
his mind: our parents live and – God forbid, anything
should happen to me – they will help you and Lise, as will
our surviving brothers and sisters.
"Please, hand me the gun," he whispered to Milena, pointing to
his weapon laying on the kitchen table.
She gingerly handed him the weapon. He took her hand, gently
squeezed and patted it, and smiled, "Don't worry, Milena."
She squeezed his hand in return. "You should hide," she said, a
plea in her eyes and voice.
"Milena," he said, standing, putting on his grey field-coat, "I
want you to sit on your bed facing the kitchen."
She sat on her bed. They heard Russian voices drawing closer.
Kroneberg walked jerkily to the kitchen table, his wound stabbing
him with pain in every step. He sat on the kitchen table chair to
the right of the front door, across the room from her bed.
"I will not hurt you, Milena. Do you believe me?"
"Yes," Milena said, her small voice coming from the other side of
"No matter what it might look like, I will not hurt you ....
Thank you for everything."
"What are you doing?" Milena asked, alarm in her voice.
"Milena, please don't worry. I will not hurt you."
She looked scared. Kroneberg heard steps just outside. He raised
the barrel of his gun, pulled the bolt handle back, and pointed
it at Milena, his forearms and wrists resting on the table, his
trigger finger on the trigger-guard. He put his head down on his
arms, keeping the gun pointed at Milena. Something thudded
against the door, then a more violent crash, and the door
splintered in the middle and flew open. An olive-uniformed,
helmeted, high-booted Russian soldier ran through the door,
quickly followed by another. Both wielded submachine guns. The
first Russian soldier immediately saw the German sitting at the
kitchen table, his head on his arms. In almost the same instant
he saw the German's gun pointed at the little girl. Kroneberg
raised his head. Both Russians trained their guns on him and
fired. Their aim was good. Twenty-one bullets struck Kroneberg.
His body jerked rapidly as the bullets hit, jerking like a puppet
whose strings are pulled too hard and too quickly. He fell off
the chair onto the floor. He was dead. Milena sobbed but did not
move from her bed.
"Any more Germans?" one soldier asked after they had thoroughly
searched the cabin and didn't find anyone else alive.
"No," Milena answered, crying, looking at Kroneberg's body.
"We'll relieve you of this one, Miss."
Each soldier lifted one of Kroneberg's legs and pulled him toward
the door, pulling him like a deer they might have shot while
hunting before the war, leaving a wide trail of his blood on the
floor. A small, round, silver-metallic box clattered to the
floor, falling from Kroneberg's tunic pocket.
"Wait," one of the soldiers told his comrade. They dropped
Kroneberg with a thud. "Not silver," the soldier said, picking up
the box, examining it, shaking his head. "Tin or something. Just
pictures. A woman, and a little girl." He tossed the small box
onto the bed next to Milena. They picked up Kroneberg's legs,
ready to haul him away.
"Close your door, Miss, and lock it ... as best you can. Other
Germans may be near. Goodbye, Miss."
Dragging Kroneberg's body through the doorway, they left Milena
alone in the cabin.
by William A. Sutfin
... who is a writer, teacher and tutor, and is currently involved
in extending his teaching credentials. In 2004, he won a writer's
grant from the Vermont Studio Center for a short story.