Unit 15: Era of World Wars / World Wars
Russia's War (The Great Fatherland War)
From Kozhina, Elena. Through the Burning Steppe. trans. Vadim Mahmoudov (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000), 1-5.

German troops occupied our Cossack village on July 31, 1942. It was the eve of my birthday; the next day, I would be nine years old.

For the entire day we walked through the steppe, retreating. By now, "we" included only me and Mama. We were the only ones left alive.

Five months before, in February, the five of us had boarded a cattle train full of evacuated Leningraders after a journey through the "Road of Life" across frozen Lake Ladoga. At each stop, our railcar became roomier as the dead were carried out. At the Cherepovets stop, the body of my older brother, Vadik, was carried out. He did not live to his tenth birthday. There were no coffins; the emaciated bodies were simply put on stretchers and taken away to mass graves. Mama covered Vadik with a blanket.

"Take the blanket back," someone said quietly. "The living could use it."

"But what about him . . ." Mama did not finish. But also did not take the blanket back. As if it could still warm her firstborn. Or as if there were no longer any divide between him, the dead, and us, the half-living.

And there really was no divide. We all were getting weaker each day; food was no longer helping. At each stop, the railcar doors pulled open with a bang, and people carrying stretchers would peek inside.

"You got anybody?" they would ask.

Someone by the door would point toward a corner. "There. Take him."

"What, you don't even have a sheet to cover him?" the medic would ask disapprovingly as he approached a dead old man stretched out on the wooden floor.

"He's not mine. All his kin are dead, he's the last one. I would give my own sheet, but I'm too weak to get up--there it is, in the bag. Why not take it? I'm the last one, too; tomorrow they'll come for me. If we stay here until morning, you'll be the one coming for me."

Indeed, the train sometimes stopped for an hour, sometimes for a day. Nobody knew where it was headed, when and how long it would stop. Sometimes it stopped in the middle of empty fields or naked, leafless forests. Sometimes it stopped at a junction full of military echelons and other trains carrying coal. There it would be met by women with knapsacks of bread, eggs, boiled potatoes, salted pickles. They sold them unwillingly, often bartering them for the Leningraders' belongings. Mama desperately tried to buy anything we asked for. "We" were me and my three-year-old sister, Tanya; Grandma never asked for anything. She was already very weak and spoke little.

The train kept going and going, helplessly and senselessly, without a schedule, without a destination, like a leaf floating down a drying creek. Left behind was Lake Ladoga, frozen, it seemed, forever. Ahead were the scorching front lines, with German divisions pouring through them. The train was headed toward the front, and quite a few times we found ourselves under attack by bombers, just as in Leningrad.

At the Kuschevka stop, eighty kilometers from Rostov, we could go no further. The roads were cut off, the railways had been ground up by bombing raids, and the front was approaching us now much faster than we were retreating from Lake Ladoga.

They settled us in the hut of an old Cossack woman. A car took us to the gateway. Mama carried Tanya in her arms. Grandma and I thought that we could walk ourselves. As it turned out, I could do this only on a level surface. When I reached the threshold of the house and tried to step over it, I could not. With surprise, almost with shame, I stared at this small wooden hurdle over which I could not raise my foot. I tried again, wobbled, and had to grab the doorjamb. Inside the house, on a bench along the wall, sat a row of old Cossack women: all straight and unflinching, with grim, unfriendly faces that were strangely dark under their white headscarves. They watched me dispassionately. Their silent hostility made me stubborn, and for the third time I tried to step over the threshold. But with this what was left of my strength vanished, and I fell on the cold clay floor. I whispered, barely audibly and plaintively, as old ladies do, mocking my own clumsiness, "Oh, my God . . ."

Mama carried me to the bench and lay me down. I did not get up again.

Even the slightest movement made me go into convulsions. My head no longer held steady on my neck; it could only lie on a pillow. Sometimes Mama would carry me out to the yard, into the sunlight, but more often I stayed in bed. Life rolled on without me. At times I would open my eyes and see everything clearly, but could neither hear nor understand what was being said around me. Other times I could not open my eyes, but could hear every little sound clearly, too clearly. On one such occasion, I heard the landlady trying to persuade Mama in the next room:

"Leksandrovna, order the three coffins at once. Simpler for you. And cheaper. She will not last two days. . . ."

"No," Mama replied. I never again heard her say no so quietly and desperately.

Before I rejoined the living, my grandmother and little sister had died.

Then the bombings started. I was already getting up. I was so used to the sound of bombs from my time in Leningrad that I wasn't at all afraid. With a strange feeling of superiority, I observed the horror and panic of our landlady and her neighbors. The train station and the railways were bombed long and hard, and we lived very close by. Huge oil tanks caught fire, and heavy clouds of thick black smoke filled the sky.

We had to leave. Father had been at the front since the first day of war, an officer and a communist. Furthermore, we had heard the Germans hated Leningraders with a passion and often shot them on sight. Mama put some things into a satchel, and off we went into the steppe. Once again we did not know where we were headed or when we would stop.

Here my memory contains some gaps. It's like an old, damaged film: some shots are clear and sharp, some have only occasional distinguishable details, and some are completely washed away by my hunger and sickness in those times. Although months had passed since we stepped off the train, I was still too weak, everything inside me was slowed down, and I could not hold on to coherent memories.

But perhaps it was simply impossible to remember such things coherently. Around me were scenes of unbridled rout and chaos. The world was flying apart into thousands of pieces. Everything was permeated by smoke and a horrible burning smell; the steppe was tight and suffocating, as if squeezed inside a hot, sooty fist. Houses burned, grain fields burned, and oil tanks burst into flame. In the disorderly retreat, some things were burned deliberately, others caught fire from the bombs. All was left to destiny's whim.

From THROUGH THE BURNING STEP by Elena Kozhina, translated by Vadim Mahmoudon, copyright (©) 2000 by Elena Kozhina. Used by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

This website was produced by
Octagon Multimedia