Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead.
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Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Read The First Chapter Of Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead

We have just received the first chapter of Tovarish, I Am Not Dead.. and have posted it here for you to read!

Of course, you can always purchase the entire book - it's on sale now!


Blood and Death


Blood in the Snow

September 1939. The war caught up with me in the little town of Stryy, in what was then south-east Poland. Around me the screams of the injured, crying for help, filled the air: screams that became more agonized still when a massive bomb exploded near the centre of the town, killing and wounding scores of people.

I ran to the edge of the enormous crater it had made and eyed the scene with horror. Parts of bodies were scattered here and there: arms, legs and dismembered trunks – while those still living screamed and moaned in distress. I scrambled down and managed to clear the debris from a man who was still alive. Getting him back up the steep side of the crater was not easy, but by clawing at the rubble and dragging him through I managed it.

Others had run to the crater too and were desperately locating and freeing casualties. Standing on the edge was a Polish army officer, hands on hips, shouting instructions to the civilians working below. There were two seriously injured men still down there: one was a bearded Jew, a Chasid, with his arm blown off, crying for help in Yiddish. The Polish officer had seen them too; and, although he had not gone forward to save anyone himself, he continued to shout out his commands. One of the passers-by jumped into the crater and was trying to free the other victims. The officer shouted to him and pointed to the two badly injured men who were lying close to each other. When the man went over to them and was about to start freeing the one with his arm blown off, the officer cried out:

‘Zostaw Zyda! Leave the Jew! Take the other one!’

I can still hear those words today. But the man, a Jew himself, took no notice and continued to clear the wreckage.

Once we had rescued all the injured we could find we returned to the top of the crater, looked at one another, and saw the same instinctive rage in each other’s eyes. We turned on the Polish officer, snatched his gun away, and threw him down into the crater. Stains of blood, not his own, seeped across his uniform as he lay wedged between the corpses.

‘Get me out of here! Help!’ he whimpered.

I stood where I was. But the other man went back into the crater again, pulled the officer to his feet, and got him to the top. Then I waved my clenched fist in his face.

‘You see!’ I cried. ‘A Jew has saved you!’

He was shaken and humiliated.

‘Tak, tak. Yes, yes,’ he snuffled.

A food truck had been hit by the blast of a bomb, and people were looting and carrying off the food. As the three of us stood watching another plane flew in very low, strafing the street with machine-gun fire. When it had passed I picked myself up and looked at the destruction around me. To my horror I saw that, of the three of us, I was the only one alive: the other two were lying on the ground, both riddled with bullets. I could feel a warm trickle of blood running down my back: there was a shrapnel wound in my neck.

But, wounded or not, I had at least survived. No, I was not dead – though little did I guess, as I stood there in a semi-trance with my own blood gradually seeping all over me, how many dangers I would have to survive, how often I would have to thank not only luck but my own resourcefulness and sheer determination to go on living, and never never to give in over the next six years if, at the end of that time, I would be able to claim, proudly and gratefully: ‘No, my friend, no, my enemies, despite everything – I am not dead!’

That summer had been one of the finest within memory. I had been spending the late summer holiday at the resort of Truskavice in south-eastern Poland, an idyllic break for a young medical graduate living in Warsaw, brought to an abrupt close by the German invasion and blitzkrieg.

Young men were hurriedly called up for military service by special radio announcements and instructed to report to the nearest military centre, but within days the German invasion had totally disrupted communications and it was impossible to comply. I was doing my best – Stryy was en route to

Warsaw– when Poland was subjected to another, sudden blow. Two weeks after the German invasion, the Russians marched forward into eastern Poland and occupied all the territories east of the Curzon Line.

Were they justified? What must be said is that, despite the treacherous stab-in-the-back of the Soviet leaders, most of the inhabitants of eastern Poland looked upon the Russians as protectors. The Russian army did not fight the scattered remnants of the Polish forces; they simply rounded them up without fighting or killing; and to the Poles the Russians looked a better bet than the Germans, whose pretext for invasion had been the freeing of down-trodden German minorities. But the situation was not simple, for the Ukrainian Nationalists, who detested Russians and Poles alike, occasionally made forays from their forest hide-outs, heavily armed, and attacked the Russians. There were even, despite their status as official ‘allies’ since the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact that virtually partitioned Poland, some full-scale engagements between the Red Army and the Germans, with infantry, artillery, tanks and air support involved – a presage of things to come.

But in general, confused though the situation was, when the Russians did arrive the people welcomed them. The Red Army soldiers, from private to general, assured the populace that they had come to help them, to save them from the German fascists. Whatever their reservations about the sincerity of the motives the Russians expressed, the people knew they had no choice and in any case they preferred the Russians to the Germans. Very simply the Russians looked kinder, ordinary, more friendly and smiling, whereas the image created by the German soldier was a cruel, frightening one. And, naturally enough, we were afraid; all the news we heard concerning the Germans confirmed our fears. Consequently the Russians appeared to some extent as deliverers.

But then, very rapidly, things changed. The Soviet Government hurriedly organized a plebiscite in the occupied territories and incorporated them into the USSR. Their thirteen million inhabitants were declared to be Soviet citizens. As my place of birth was Warsaw, this new declaration did not apply to me and I was still legally a Polish citizen, technically a member of the satellite rump state the Germans had set up, the ‘General Government’ – though I remained in what had been the Polish province of Galicia which was now a part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of the Ukraine – as indeed it remains today.

The Soviet economic and administrative system was quickly introduced. This was not to the taste of many people. There were deportations and arrests. It was not to my own taste. I made up my mind, like countless other Polish citizens or ex-citizens, that I would have to get out. Obviously there could be no question of returning to Warsaw now – that would be out of the frying pan perhaps but into the fire with a vengeance. No, the obvious escape route was in the south-east, across the border to Hungary or, better still, to Romania– both neutral countries, Romania being pro-allied whereas Hungary was both pro-German and anti-Semitic. And fortunately I was in the south-east. Therefore my first move would be to go to the nearest large city, Lvov, and from there make my plans to cross into Romania and go on to wherever I should decide. I was not alone. From all parts of Poland and the Ukraine people were converging on Lvov, each and every one with a fixed idea of how to get away and which country eventually to go – Poles who wanted to continue the fight determined to get to France, others like myself with no reason for loyalty to the Polish state, wanting only to escape from the tyranny of the dictatorships and rebuild our young lives elsewhere in the wide world outside.

In November 1939 Lvov, the traditional gateway into Poland, was occupied by the Russians, and army personnel of all ranks, officers and soldiers, men and women, thronged the city. They sat in the cafes and crowded into the shops where most of them bought watches, silk stockings and luxuries to take home to Russia. They seemed quite jovial and had pleasant manners and appearances, especially the women who were good-looking.

I was a very young man full of the joy of life. She was an elegant woman, a doctor of medicine with the rank of major in the Soviet army. I was first attracted by her beautiful blue eyes which she fixed on me as we sat in the Palace Cafe. I moved straight to her table and started an entertaining conversation with her. Her military uniform rather intimidated me, but I was overcome by her eyes, and I could see she had fine breasts in spite of her uniform. I forgot she was a major in the Soviet army, and my state of excitement became obvious. It was around five in the afternoon. I told her that, since she was a doctor and I was too, we should go to my room to continue our conversation on medical matters. Kira (by now we were on first name terms) laughed and replied:

‘Of course, but we can talk here too, it’s so pleasant.’

I asked for the bill and stood up, holding my coat in front of me to hide my embarrassment. She reacted against this and blushed at the idea of leaving the cafe with me in front of all her brother officers. She must have been about thirty-five -I was much younger. I took her by the hand and said: ‘Let’s go!’ There were no taxis to be had and my flat was some distance away, but we walked. I opened the door and followed her inside, took off her greatcoat and drew her to me.

I unbuttoned her tunic and put my hand on her breasts – I confess I have a weakness for firm breasts. She tried to resist but I gave her no time, she was helpless against my onslaught. As we embraced my hand touched an enormous pistol she was carrying and the touch of that cold metal momentarily cooled my desire. However I went on undressing her and, as I did so, she whispered, ‘Niet, niet, proshu astabtye. No, no, please stop.’

But she continued to remove her clothes and, as she did so, I kissed every part of her body. She got on to the bed wearing nothing but her knickers – they were long red flannel ones, and I couldn’t get them off quickly enough. Here we were on the bed, flaying around like two fish in water, she heightening my ardour by her continued resistance and cries of ‘No, no’, and now I was denied entry by her red flannels. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t pull them down, so I tore a hole in them and finally reached my target. Her cries gradually changed from ‘Niet, niet’ to ‘Kak charasho! How wonderful!’

After some time Kira eventually confessed to me that it was the first time she had betrayed her husband and, to make matters worse, it was with a capitalist, myself. I replied that it was the first time I had had to make love through a tear in a pair of red flannel knickers. So our discussion of medical topics had become a practical demonstration. I might have repeated the attack but I caught sight of the offending underwear and lost the urge, and the pistol on the floor didn’t help matters either.

She must have sensed how I was feeling and quickly pulled a sheet over her, saying:

‘We Soviet women do not give such great importance to things like underwear as you in the capitalist world.’

I would have made love to her again, since she was beautiful, and I loved women older than I was; but those flannels were just too much, and the moment passed. That was my first, but not my last, sexual encounter with a Soviet female officer. War is, however, surprisingly inducive to love-making; and it was less than two months later that I found myself breaking a train journey towards the Romanian border at the town of Stanislav in order to pay what I imagined would be a last visit to a very beautiful friend of mine, Cristina, a well-known singer with a most attractive voice.

We – I was with a little man, Manek, who had pleaded with me to help him to escape too – took a droshky, a horse-drawn cab, from the station. It was dark when we reached Cristina’s house and I tapped on the window. She rushed out when I spoke, recognizing my voice: ‘Kochanie! My love!’ she greeted me. She was completely oblivious of the presence of my friend Manek – at least till our first raptures were over – but then came the problem of where to put him for the night. Cristina had a girl-friend who usually slept in the same room, which was the largest in the house, but there was no second bedroom for Manek. This wasn’t the only difficulty: Maruha, her friend, didn’t like the look of him. We could have divided the room with a curtain, but it was obvious that he felt out of place, and so he said he would go to a hotel for the night. He gave me an envious look as he left and said he would come back in the morning.

Cristina was as lovely as ever, and she produced a large bottle of vodka which we proceeded to drink by the tumbler. Maruha joined in the drinking with us, but it soon became clear that her presence was not required, and she went into the bathroom. The poor girl must have stayed in there for two hours but, in the end, the noise and shouts she heard made her knock at the door and she came back into the room. She was a dark good-looking girl, and I encouraged her to come in. I love women too much to see them suffer. Old and young, one must treat them well. But I had not foreseen that Cristina would become jealous. She suddenly bit my lip and called me a ‘Swine!’ However, Maruha’s instincts had been aroused and were not to be left unsatisfied. I did the best I could that night to satisfy both those Polish girls – the last, as it happened, I was to make love to for many years. They seemed to have no complaints.

Next morning, poor Manek returned. He wasn’t bad looking, but he had no life in him, no personality. We knew a train would be leaving for Kolomyya at noon, and from there it would take about two hours to reach Novoselitsa on the frontier. It was late November and got dark early, around four o’clock, so I wanted to arrive in Novoselitsa in plenty of time to reach the River Prut, the actual border, by four.

We all sat down for a chat and a drink before leaving, and Cristina confirmed that the Russians were shooting people trying to escape across the frontier. She cried and begged me to wait, not to leave now; but once I have decided to do something I never go back -I have been like that since childhood. Manek however was shitting in his trousers with fear; and he decided he couldn’t go on. He tried to make excuses and explain but I was only too pleased to be without him as I considered him a liability. So, saying a fond farewell to them all, I set out for the station by myself.

Hours later, about three thirty that afternoon, I was trudging through open country; snow-covered fields very close to the frontier. It must have been about twenty degrees below zero; I was lightly clad in a grey suit, blue coat and white scarf, all autumn-weight clothes. I breathed in deeply through my open mouth: it made my lungs ache. I was happy to be alone.

At first I walked fast past the notices which read:

ENTRY STRICTLY FORBIDDEN EXCEPT TO RESIDENTS, OR TO THOSE WITH SPECIAL PERMISSION, but I felt I was being observed and purposely assumed a slow steady pace. Two Soviet guards were coming towards me wearing heavy winter greatcoats and carrying rifles mounted with bayonets which flashed in the waning afternoon light.

I came to a little house. In front of it, on the opposite side of the road, rose a snow-covered bank about ten feet high. On the far side of the bank was my objective – the River Prut. Between the road and the river was a wide snow-covered expanse, treeless, without cover of any kind. Lights began to twinkle on the opposite bank, almost half a mile away.

I walked up to the door and knocked. A girl of about twenty appeared and asked me inside.

It was invitingly warm and cosy. An orthodox Jew was sitting at a table. He looked up. ‘We don’t want you here,’ he said in immediate alarm. ‘You will get us into trouble. Get out. Now.’ He would have said more, but the girl looked at him. Rather shamefacedly he repeated, more pleadingly: ‘Get out of here!’

From the window I could see that the guards were retracing their steps and coming slowly back towards the house. The girl came forward and asked her father if she could give me a hot drink. He became agitated. I intervened and said : ‘Look, I have come to visit your daughter. I have no intention of crossing the frontier,’ and I winked at the girl.

She said : ‘Yes, father, I asked him here.’ He looked at us both, and we all looked at each other. He knew the girl was lying and that I had lied but he accepted it and for a moment it looked as though my situation had altered. After what seemed several minutes he asked me to sit down. I kept the road in view, and could see the heads of the guards and their bayonets as they walked along a dip in the road, their bodies obscured by a bank. They were still coming towards the house. The father saw them too, and shouted: ‘Now there will be trouble! They’re coming here!’

It was a desperate moment for him and the girl, and only later did I reflect that the fault was entirely mine. The room had three windows, hoary with frost on the outside. Through one of them I could make out the lights beckoning me across the river: behind us the empty fields stretched away into the distance. I pressed my nose against the window which overlooked the road – the guards were much closer, steadily approaching the house. It was dusk, but the clear skies and the snow gave good visibility.

The old man was getting whiter and whiter. His eyes stood out from his head. ‘Oh my God! How shall we explain this?’

Before I could answer I saw that the guards had stopped and were standing only a few yards from the house. We all looked at each other, listening – ‘He’s inside the house. Let’s go in,’ said one. There’s no need,’ his companion replied. ‘He’ll have to come out sooner or later, and we’ve made fools of ourselves enough times before when they’ve had visitors. Let’s wait outside.’

‘Alright, but I don’t like standing here in the front. Let’s go round the back.’

Without consulting the old man, I opened the front door and went out. ‘What are you doing?

Why don’t you go about your business and move on? I asked the old man to make me some tea, but he’s frightened. I don’t know why, because I didn’t come here to drink tea. I’m really interested in his daughter. Please, carry on ... move away ... you understand ... she’s a lovely girl. Do you want to see my papers?’ – and I put my hand in my pocket for my non-existent papers. They looked a little nonplussed. ‘There’s no need for that,’ the shorter of the two answered, ‘but you must be gone from here before nightfall.’

He laughed and took out some cigarette papers and a tobacco pouch to fill himself a cigarette. I quickly reached for the long Belomorcanal cigarettes which I had loose in my pocket and offered one to him. At that time I was a heavy smoker.

He laughed and said: ‘Thanks no, I prefer my Machorka.’

‘Alright,’ I replied, ‘let me try one of yours.’ He offered me a smelly cigarette which was not at all pleasant.

I turned with a cheerful wave and went back inside. The girl was full of gratitude but the father was still petrified:

‘You may fool them, but you don’t fool me. I know why you’re here, and I want you to go now, immediately.’

I paced up and down the room looking from each window; the guards were walking away in a northerly direction. I could see the River Prut and even make out people standing on the opposite bank in


. I had been there only twenty minutes, but to the old man it was obviously twenty minutes too long. I thanked the girl for the tea, and thanked him too. He, with tears in his eyes – old men are very changeable – pronounced a blessing over me in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand entirely, but I knew he had asked God to help me. I certainly needed God’s help – but I also needed the girl’s information.

‘How deep is the water?’ I asked her. She replied that it was very shallow at the edges, and about two yards deep in the middle with a very swift current. That didn’t sound too good. But, as always in the most difficult moments of my life, I remembered my mother whom I loved very much and who had died very young. I called on her to help me and be with me.

A handful of zlotys had remained in my pocket, and I placed them on the table: ‘If anything happens to me, honour the memory of my mother, she died in the month of December.’

The old man pushed back the money: ‘Please take it, we don’t want it.’ His daughter looked at me with woe-begotten eyes. I suppressed the urge to kiss her, squared my shoulders, walked out of the house, crossed the road, clambered cautiously over the bank, and started to wade through the snow which came up to the top of my thighs. I reckoned that for the first stretch the house would give me cover, and that I could be seen only from the Romanian side. As the snow became less deep I started to run as quickly as I could, and broke into a sprint as I neared the river.

I had covered about four fifths of the distance and was only about a hundred yards from the river when the rifle shots began. The intervals between shots told me it was a sniper. I started to swerve and zigzag, then other snipers opened up cross-fire from other directions, I knew they would get me, but I had to keep running. From the other side of the river I could hear the Romanians shouting encouragement: ‘Run! Run!We’re here!’

The shots came faster and faster. I threw myself on the ground and started to crawl the last five yards to the water. I heard more shots: the pebbles jumped and split around me. My hat had gone; there were drops of blood on the pebbles. I lay there. Everything grew still around me. I could smell the spent bullets.

On the other side they shouted ‘They’ve got him! He’s dead!’ My blood froze on the stones. I tried breathing deeply and, when I felt that there was no major injury, I crawled slowly to the river. I was still well within range: they had only stopped firing because they thought me dead. I moved imperceptibly so that they wouldn’t realize I was still alive.

However, as I reached the river’s edge, a burst of machine-gun fire spattered the water in front of me. If I moved they would finish me off.

One of my hands dangled in the icy water, and I could hear the Romanians shouting to each other: ‘Yes, he must be dead. They would have got him in any case, he would never have made it.’

As I lay there, I realized too late how I had made my mistake: I shouldn’t have crawled towards the river. If I had stood up and run, the snipers could not have continued firing for fear of hitting the onlookers on the opposite bank where they were waiting for me with blankets.

I was weak from loss of blood, I could hear horses coming near, then two mounted officers circled me, armed with machine-guns and revolvers.

‘He’s dead.’

‘You’re wrong, Comrade,’ I replied. ‘Tovarisch. I am not dead!’

They made no attempt to lift me out of the water.

‘You are no comrade of ours. If you were you wouldn’t be running away.’

One got down from his horse while the other covered me with the machine-gun. He tried to lift me but I resisted. ‘Don’t touch me, I can get up alone.’ But when I stood up all I remembered was falling down again.

I fell face down. One of them turned me over, and I heard him shouting: ‘Call for help. Get a stretcher.’

They put me on the stretcher. I vaguely remember soldiers moving about me and watching the steam of their breath in the cold air. The voices on the other side were raised in protest and sympathy as I was carried across the snow and on to the road in front of the house where I had started my attempt. They laboured up the steep, sloping bank and brought me to where an open army truck was standing on the road. As they lifted me on to it I saw the girl come out to the doorway, pale and panting. Perhaps she thought I was dead.

The officer in command shouted: ‘Skoray, bistro! Hurry!’ As we moved off, soldiers jumped aboard and sat on the seats along the sides of the truck.

In spite of my weakness I knew my wounds were not serious, but the bumping movement of the vehicle made me feel worse. I told myself: ‘Keep your mouth shut till you get to the hospital.’ From time to time I opened one eye to look around me to see if there was any chance of escape, but all I could see were the vast grey skies above. I had the sensation of swimming, as though I was going under an anaesthetic in the old days when a mask was used over the mouth. The smoke of their Machorka cigarettes nauseated me. They held their weapons at the ready so that there was no possible chance of escape.

After about three miles we reached the barracks in Novoselitsa. The truck slowed down and came to a halt, I heard the noise of heavy doors being unbolted and the truck moved inside. The back flap was released and the soldiers piled out quickly: I counted four of them. My stretcher was lifted out and I was carried through a dark door. I kept looking about me every so often with one eye.

‘Ifpodval! To the cellar!’


Richard Prescott said...

A very dramatic opening chapter if a little unbelievable.To have sex with three women, on one occasion a threesome what a way to go never mind the start of the adventure.A bit stereotypical that Russian women don't care about their underware.Was it so easy to just jump in to bed with virtually anyone in those days, surely things weren't that easy.It is interesting that the Russian's were seen as friends this is a different view than that portrayed by today's society.The role of the western allies does not appear to be invovled many Polish people must have seen their lack of activity as betrayal.

Stuart Urban said...

Thanks for your comments, Richard. As the man's son, I have to say that you are not the first to doubt some of what my father wrote! But if, one day, you see the documentary film that I am now finishing about him, you will perhaps change your mind. Whatever people thought of him, his magnetic and forceful personality was such that he could get his way in almost any circumstances!

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