“What the most terrible thing about the war?” I asked my grandfather.
Probably under the impression of a movie about the war, he somehow thoughtfully kept silent, tarried with an answer, but I insisted:
“It was terrifying for you?”
And I heard:
“Well, they shoot there, they can kill you…”
“You quickly get used to it…”
It is necessary to say that my grandfather did not like to watch movies about the war, he always did, but he did not like it. He rose, left to smoke, again returned, was uneasy, said that it [the film – ed] is all wrong, that it wasn’t like this, that is not able to be removed, and again reaching for a cigarette and left again sharply waving his hand, as though waving away something, and a little later returned to the screen.
And it was interesting to me what was incorrect and what it was really like. Therefore I continued to insist:
“Weren’t you afraid at all?”
Today I understand that even in the most terrible film about the war, we still see only its ceremonial, heroic side. And that it’s scary to even imagine what my grandfather’s eyes saw. How could he explain the horrors of war to a ten-year-old child?
He was silent. With a habitual gesture, he reached for a cigarette again. He lit a cigarette in silence, looking at me through the smoke of the cigarette… Then he spoke.
“The most terrible thing about war is the rain!”
“Rain?” I said, perplexed and disappointed.
“Yes! When it pours non-stop day after day.
Especially here in Ukraine, when we liberated it, it was just autumn and rain. Cold. The black soil was muddy, the cannons were sinking into a swamp, and we were on the offensive. We carried them out with our hands. You can’t pull them out with a car, they slide. You push them and push them – in any way – a lot of strain. We tried harnessing the horses — they get bogged down to their bellies, we had to pull them out too, and they immediately fall back in again. We had to abandon cars. You rest against it, but there is nothing to rest against — your feet slip in the mud, they move, we fall, covered in mud from head to toe, but you can not move cars from their place… So the cannons were carried out by their hands. We fight back, and then there’s again the attack… And a new one… A soldier puts his foot down, it falls in, and he loses a boot. He put his hand down there — there is no boot, it went into the quagmire. It’s cold, autumn, and it’s raining…
We reached the trenches, fought off the Germans, it became dark. We rejoiced – we will place sentinels and will take at least a little nap until the morning — we had no strength any more. But no such luck. The rain pours non-stop, the soil got so wet that it does not absorb water any more, and the trenches start to fill with water. You can’t get out of the trench — the Germans are close, they will immediately mow you down with gunfire, snipers shoot — as soon as someone stirs an inch… So we sat in icy water. Whoever dozed off, sank — they choked, drowned.”
“How did they drown? In the trench?”
“We appointed persons on duty in turn. Some sleep, others watch. You can’t see it in the dark, you were guided by the splashes. It could happen that the duty officer dozes off — everyone was exhausted — and here there was only one hope – that someone nearby will hear ‘gurgles’ and will pull them out.
And at dawn we attacked again.”
“Do you remember how the skin on your fingers wrinkles when your hands are in the water for a long time?”
“The whole body becomes like that, the skin is wrinkled. There is no place to get dry. Everything is wet. And there is no place to get shelter. The rain did not cease for weeks, our uniforms became rotten and their tissue started to unravel, our boots were left behind in the mud (where could we get the spare ones? – it was an offensive).”
“So you, probably, caught a cold all the time … You were ill?”
“We weren’t ill. We didn’t fall ill in the war.”
“I do not know why — nobody was ill.”
“Grandfather, and then.”
“The next night we were standing on a hill, still wet, but at least not in the water. We settled down under a tree and fell asleep. We woke up in the morning, but we couldn’t get up.”
“We got frozen to the soil!!! It happened at night, our greatcoats were wet through — after all you can not wring them, and in addition they soaked in liquid mud, so that’s why we got frozen to the soil. It was necessary to unbutton it and to get out of it. We tried to tear them off, but they remained firmly attached, and it was no use — the ones that were tore off turned stiff as a board. Like laundry that is dried in the frost. So we went on the attack in our gymnastyorkas.”
“Well you defeated the Germans?”
“We won,” he answered thoughtfully, continuing to look somewhere in the distance, through time.
Maybe back then I was a little disappointed by this non-heroic story. I expected to hear something else, some secret, I wanted to know what the worst thing was about the war, or that my grandfather was such a hero that he was not afraid of anything at all.
I do not know, I do not remember. But I listened spellbound… I remembered … I remembered as if I was there. Not in the trench filled with water — my childlike imagination could not even imagine it, but under that tree where the greatcoats froze. And I slept there with my grandfather, my back pressed against his warm belly, under his protection, covered with that same greatcoat, and I was not afraid. I saw the grey morning, the branchy tree covered with frost, and the steam rising from their wet gymnastyorkas. And then we went on the offensive…
Here it is – genetic memory, the connection of times and generations.
Then I heard many another heroic stories not from him, but about it, about his feats and wounds, about the reasons he received ranks, medals, and awards. But I remember what I saw through my grandfather’s eyes.
Thank you, grandfather! Now I know what the most terrible thing was about the war. I believe you …
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