combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Two Daughters

          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 30, 1942.

          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 his eyes.

          "Shh ...."

          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, foreign.

          "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 awakened him.

          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 harmed!"

          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 and mortars.

          "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 children.

          A few minutes passed with no sign or sound from the church.

          "All squads report mortars and rockets ready," the radioman yelled.

          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 rubber.

          "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 ebullient vivacity.

          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 must hide."

          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 the room.

          "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.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones