Authors: Peter Englund
At half past five in the morning they finally pull into the station at Suwalki.
She sets off on foot in the raw, cold autumn darkness, accompanied
by an acquaintance from the town, a doctor’s wife. The road is churned up and difficult to follow. It slowly gets light. She sees Russian soldiers on the march, some of them drunk. She sees damaged buildings and flattened fences.
The children and the household staff are still in Vitebsk, where they have taken temporary accommodation. Stanislaw has been called up by the Russian army and gone off to serve as head of the sanitation engineers in the newly taken city of Lemberg. But before he disappeared he managed to travel to Suwalki, which had just been recaptured, and bring back two trunks of clothes and the news that the house was still standing. He had not wanted to say anything about the damage, merely saying it would be best for her to go and see for herself.
Which is why she is here now. She would really like to bring the children back as soon as possible, now that the Germans have been pushed back towards East Prussia.
When they reach the doctor’s house Laura goes in to get her breath back and to gather her strength. She is more than a little afraid of what she is going to find—as a woman who grew up in New York she has no experience of this kind of situation. She is offered coffee and at about half past seven she sets off again.
At last she reaches her house, which is waiting there for her in the morning light.
She goes in. She can hardly believe her eyes.
Everything has been torn, smashed, ripped out, spilled, hurled around, knocked over and fouled. Every drawer has been pulled out, every wardrobe emptied. She wades around in the confused wreckage of the things that had once made up her home. The smell is indescribably awful. Laura goes from window to window, opening them, breathing deeply and holding her breath before going on to the next window and opening it. The library has been completely vandalised. The contents of all the shelves have been emptied and the floor is invisible beneath a layer of torn books and papers, scattered documents and engravings.
The remains of the dropped soup tureen are still lying on the floor in the dining room, along with a thick, crunching carpet of broken glass, dirty china, filthy cloths—all of it trampled by rough boots. The German soldiers and officers who lived here until a couple of weeks ago simply hurled the dishes and glasses on the floor after using them, then used new ones and done the same with them.
Laura goes into one of the pantries. Glass jars are lined up in neat rows. They used to contain jam, marmalade, honey and bottled vegetables. All the jars have been emptied of their original contents and filled with human excrement instead.
She gives orders for Jacob, the workman, and his wife and daughter to start clearing up. Meanwhile, she is going to draw up a list of everything missing and take it to the police.
Michel Corday takes the train back to Bordeaux
There are times when he moves among people as though he were on a different planet, surrounded by absurd incomprehensibilities. Is this really his world? In one sense, no. Michel Corday is a forty-five-year-old civil servant at the Ministry of Commerce and Post but he is also a socialist, a
and a friend of peace. He writes literary criticism and political articles for the newspapers and has even published a number of novels, some of which have been reasonably successful. (He was in the army at one time and several of his works—
Coeurs de soldats
, for instance—reflect that background, whereas others deal with the sufferings of society or of the heart.)
Michel Corday was originally a nom de plume,
and this retiring man with a moustache is in some ways a fairly typical turn-of-the-century intellectual with a double life: he cannot live by his pen alone and thus also needs his job at the ministry. The distance between his two lives is not, however, really that great: he has changed his name so that even his
civil-service self is now called Corday. Everyone knows he is a writer and he is a close friend of Anatole France.
During the first days of September, when it really looked as if it was impossible to stop the Germans, the government had left Paris and the staff of the ministries had gone with them. They had left the city by car in a state of panic—“the refugees at the station had been trampling one another as if they were in a burning theatre”—and found a safe haven in Bordeaux. Corday’s ministry was accommodated in an institution for the deaf and dumb in Rue Saint-Sernin. Now, however, since the Germans have been held on the Marne for over a month, more and more people are saying it is time for the government and the ministries to move back. Corday’s own family was evacuated to Saint-Amand Longpré and this evening he is returning to Bordeaux after visiting them.
To Corday the outbreak of war was a disgrace and a defeat and he has still not reconciled himself to it. He had been ill at a seaside resort and consequently all the news reached him through newspapers and telephone calls. The picture had been slow to take shape. He had tried for a while to distract himself by reading but it did not work.
Every thought and event caused by the outbreak of war came as a bitter and mortal blow struck against the great conviction that was in my heart: the concept of permanent progress, of movement towards ever greater happiness. I had never believed that something like this could happen. It meant that my faith simply crumbled. The outbreak of war marked my awakening from a dream I had nourished ever since I started thinking.
The children on the beach were playing war games: the girls were being nurses and the boys wounded soldiers. From his window he watched an artillery troop marching away singing and it made him burst into tears.
Out of the jubilation and chaos of those hot August days a new and alien world really has emerged.
It is partly a matter of externals: all these women who have stopped using cosmetics for “patriotic reasons”; all these uniforms everywhere—uniforms have become high fashion; all these growing queues at Mass and at confession; all the floods of refugees, laden with bundles; all the blacked-out streets; all the roadblocks manned by overzealous,
domineering militiamen; all these troop transports carrying healthy men to the front and bringing the wounded back from it.
But also of internals: the permanent barrage of patriotic verbal formulae, as highly strung as they are obligatory; the new and uncompromising attitude—“kindness, humanity—all that has been swept away”; the hysterical tone that is manifested both in propaganda and in people’s conversations about the war (one woman told him that we should not weep for those who are marching off to the front—it is the men who cannot take part in the struggle who are to be pitied); the confusing mixture of generosity and selfishness; the sudden inability to perceive nuances of any kind—“One dare not say anything bad about the war. The war has become a God.” But Corday is doing his duty as a good civil servant.
On the way to Saint-Amand the train had been stormed by women pressing fruit, milk, coffee, sandwiches, chocolate and cigarettes on everyone in uniform. In one town he had seen boys wearing police helmets and acting as stretcher-bearers. It is impossible now to find a waiting room at any of the stations: all of them have been turned into temporary hospitals for the wounded or stores for military equipment. On his return journey, somewhere between Saint-Pierre and Tours, he eavesdrops on a conversation between two families: “Both of them talked of the men they had lost in terrifying tones of resignation, as if they were simply talking about the victims of a natural catastrophe.”
In Angoulême a man on a stretcher is carried on board and placed in a neighbouring compartment. The man has been wounded in the back by a shell splinter and is now lame. He has a nurse travelling with him to tend his wound. There is also a blonde woman whom Corday takes to be either the injured man’s wife or his mistress. He hears the woman say to the nurse, “He refuses to believe that I still love him.” When the nurse goes to wash her hands after examining the wound, the blonde woman and the injured man begin to kiss passionately. When the nurse returns she pretends not to notice and just looks out into the night.
A small non-commissioned officer is sitting in the same compartment as Corday. He has just returned from the front. The two men chat. At four o’clock in the morning the train stops at a station and the soldier gets off. A girl throws herself at the little man and clings tightly to him. “Just to think that so much love, the love of all the mothers, sisters, wives and girl-friends, has so far proved powerless against all this hatred,” he thinks.
The kiosks at the stations they pass display rows of cheerfully
colourful illustrated papers, all of them with a publication date in the first days of August. No more have been printed since then. It is as if a new era has begun.
Laura de Turczynowicz and an acquaintance spend today in the Augustów Forest near Suwalki, searching for deserted or orphaned children. (They have already found several, including a four-year-old carrying a baby of six months, who were so desperately hungry they had been eating earth.) She meets a man who tells her that their summer villa has been destroyed by the Germans, but he has found Dash, the children’s white dog, alive. She writes:
Every hut was burnt down; gruesome work it was. Many times we saw dead men. I wondered why we struggled so to save our lives when so many had gone down. Going through the forest at dusk, we heard a child’s cry, but could not locate the sound. In our search a wounded horse plunging through the underbrush came upon us. He passed so near I could have touched him. Frightened, I clung to a tree for dear life.
Pál Kelemen is wounded north of Turka
It is a beautiful night—starry, cold and with a bright moon. Pál Kelemen’s horse is reluctant to leave its warm stable and venture out in the chill, biting wind. The army is once again in retreat: forwards and back, forwards and back again. Since a new line of defence is being established, their orders are to see that the retreating units do not get stuck and come to a halt. By about two o’clock in the morning the new line should be ready and, hopefully, occupied by the fresh infantry that are already on their way up to the pass. The task Kelemen and his hussars have been given is close to impossible since it is difficult to gain any kind of overall picture of the situation in the darkness. The road is already in chaos. They ride slowly up against the flow, through a sluggish, grey stream of men, horses, wagons, guns, ammunition carts and pack-mules.
In the moonlight he sees what look like long, black streaks in the white snow: they are the freshly dug trenches. He can hear the sound of rifle fire—the Russians have begun to push forward there. He notes that the stream of retreating men has thinned out but that there are still scattered groups of fleeing troops. Kelemen and his men point them in the right direction. The road is icy and slippery as glass. They have to dismount and lead their horses. Kelemen writes in his journal:
Meantime the Russian artillery has commenced firing along the whole length of the front sector. I get into the saddle again and push ahead that way. The moon is setting, and in the stiffening cold the sky is becoming overcast. Smoke balls of the grenades and shrapnel drift heavy beneath the clouds.
Some abandoned army wagons stand on the road without men or horses. We have just passed them when I feel a sharp blow near the left knee and at the same time my horse grows restive. I imagine I have struck my leg against something in the dark. I touch the place and instinctively bring my gloved hand to my face. It is warm and moist, and now I feel a sharp throbbing pain.
I say to Mogor beside me that I think I have been hit. He rides up close and discovers a small wound on the rump of my horse also. But horse and rider are still able to keep up. Here one could not possibly dismount. There is no dressing station anywhere in the neighborhood. And to try to get to the infantry first-aid on the front is far more dangerous, since they are now under barrage fire, than to ride on as far as we can.
In numberless simple yet kindly ways, Mogor valiantly tries to divert my attention from the wound. He soothes me by assuring me that we will surely meet some marching troop soon where a doctor will be on hand.
It grows steadily brighter. In the east, the sun comes up with gaudy rays. The sky is radiant, the snow-wrapped mountains sharply distinct from the dark green pine forest. My leg seems to be growing, lengthening. My face burns and I grip the bridle with rigid hand. My horse, fine intelligent animal, picks her way among the snowy clods of the road with feet still sure.
At last we reach the southern slope of the pass. Here, protected from the wind, the road is not so hard, and by the time
the full splendor of the sun flows over the valley before us, the outlying houses of a village are in sight.
In the market place we meet Vas, who, agitated, asks the cause of our delay and grows panicky on hearing the story from Mogor. The village school has been hastily transformed into a first-aid station overnight, and, with Vas on one side and Mogor on the other, I ride to the schoolyard gate.
The scene is beginning to blur before my eyes. I cannot dismount any more; my left leg is numb. Two aid men lift me out of the saddle while Mogor leads the horse from under me. They set me down cautiously. As my left foot touches the ground the accumulated blood squashes in my boot. I cannot stand. With the thoughtlessness of the very young, Vas holds his pocket mirror before me, and I see a strange, yellow old face instead of my own.