A burst of a sharp ‘Sieg Heil!’ and the rumble of the major’s car mowing away reached Werter’s ears from behind the window. He sat in silence for a moment then switched on the army radio transmitter. Lili Marlen’s raspy voice sounded so painfully nostalgic that he shivered. How quickly the hut cools off. How cold this country is… I wish the girl would come soon.
He shot a quick glance at the door, then shaking his head as if driving the thoughts away, refilled his fountain pen.
The Eastern Front
Den 5 December, 1941
Meine liebe Mutter,
I received your very nice letter and was very glad to hear that everything is well with you and my lovely sister, my dear Gerdi. I am fine and well myself.
Never before could I imagine that I can be so far away from you. And yet, I’m here, thousands of kilometers away, in this God abandoned country.
Huge fields lay around. The horizon touches the vast dark forest on all sides.
I have joined the motorized squadron to which I was assigned when it was on its way to our current position.
We are stationed in a hamlet some four kilometers away from an old city with many beautiful churches, which I was told, were used as storehouses by the Bolsheviks. The village is of thirteen shacks with rotten straw roofs, all set on one side of an unpaved road.
Major Schuette and I quarter in the house that is in some degree habitable. It has a broad, brick, white washed Russian stove that is the best thing in this hut. It quickly warms theroom and wards off the icy winds pretty well—except towards mornings.
I consider it an honor to be Major Schuette’s aide-de-camp. He is a hero. He got his first Iron Cross for the campaign in France. The second, for Poland, he received from the hands of the Führer himself.
He teaches me life. His favorite expression is ‘All is permissible that leads to experience.’
You cannot imagine how fond he is about my playing harmonica. He says it reminds him of our beloved Germany.
I miss my violin so much, but here it would not survive this dreaded weather and the roads. My thoughts turn to my beloved Berlin, and I have a great wave of homesickness for you and my lovely Gerdi. I remember our quiet evenings when we used to play violins with her and you accompanied us on piano.
He took his mother’s picture from his breast pocket and laid it in front of him. Involuntarily, his hand rubbed against his heart.
I have to shoo these sweet thoughts away. First, we have to free the poor people of this country from the bloody Bolsheviks.
The village looks uninhabitable. Only now and again, one can see a woman. I did not see any children. I wonder where they hide them. Neither have I seen any men. I surmise they all are at the front or hiding in the woods. There is a lot of talk about partisans.
The peasant women I saw all are dressed in the similar quilted jackets the color of something between gray and brown and they wrap their heads in drab headscarves. I did not see a single friendly face.
The hostess and her daughter stay in their cattle-shed. They kindle the stove for us, fetch water, clean the house, and launder our clothes.
A German-Russian phrase book helps me to convey Major Schuette’s orders to them and besides, I learn new Russian words every day.
The girl—I think she is about seventeen—may know German; I have found a besmeared German language schoolbook in the house, but she pretends not to understand.
There rose in his mind how the other day when he, hearing her busying with laundry in the anteroom, could not suppress the urge to see her and opened the door.
She turned to him with a start and all her curls quivered. From her hands, still warm after the wash, a faintest wisp of steam uncurled. Questioning, she raised her eyes at him. She looked especially pretty like this, with her curls damp from the vapors.
His eyes involuntarily passed over her small girlish breasts, usually hidden under her clumsy quilted jacket but now clearly discernible as she leaned over the tub.
A dim feeling that it was wrong to have such thoughts disturbed him. He sighed and returned to the letter.
We get our hot meal twice a day from a kitchen in another village a kilometer away. Also, I can’t help mentioning that the hostess spared a chicken so we can enjoy fresh eggs. How nice of her.
We have no shortage of anything and still I miss your cookies, especially with pink icing, and coffee. The way you brew it.
The outer door creaked and there was a sound of footsteps in the anteroom. He knew it was the girl. He heard her brushing the snow off her boots with the twig broom at the door.
“Come in,” he said, even before the knock came.
She stepped in, bringing a breath of cold air with her. She swept a frightened glance around, and visibly relaxed, edged towards the stove. Moving cautiously, she pressed a bunch of firewood to her chest. A fine fluffy curl escaped from her kerchief.
How nice it would be to run my hands through it, to touch her curls and stroke them. But that was out of the question. He loosened his collar.
As she was busying herself about the fire, stirring the logs in the flame, deliberately, as it seemed to him, prolonging her time to stay in the warming room, he glanced from beneath his eyelids at her.
Her neck twisted continually in the direction of the table as though by a strange force. The plate with a thick piece of white bread richly spread with butter and marmalade, missing one bite at the corner seemed to magnetize her. Two rosy blushes in her cheeks and a hungry glitter in her eyes betrayed her.
He reached to her shoulder. She flinched and looked up with her wonderful blazing eyes, and said with her lips, without any voice, “Bread.”
He understood and he felt how the color spread thickly through his face. “Wie heist Du? Die Name, die Name. Meine Name is Werter.—What is your name? The name, the name. My name is Werter.” He pressed his index finger against his chest then pointed at her. “We heiβt Du? Mariya? Anna?”
“Serafima, Serafima,” he repeated while cutting off a thick piece of bread and then covering it with butter and marmalade.
With her eyes, she followed every move of his fingers, breathing in shallow, quick gasps.
At the sound of the opening door, she turned abruptly.
“Herr Major!” Werter started and a blob of marmalade fell from the knife to the floor.
The major’s lips twisted into a cynical smile. “You seem to have a good appetite, today.” He strode to the table, bent down, and pushed the plates and a saucer with butter aside. “You, Lieutenant Lindberg, deliver a report to Oberst Martens.”
As he wrote something on a piece of paper, Werter buttoned his jacket and put on his cap.
The major sealed the paper carefully and extended the envelope to him. “Confidential.”
“Yawohl, Herr Major!” He raised his right hand to the brim of his peaked cap and made for the door.
The biting cold wind chilled him instantly. Four kilometers to the headquarters and back. On foot, it’ll take at least two hours, he thought, all at once feeling a shaft of ice in his chest.
Behind the house to the right, shielded from the howling wind, a group of soldiers gathered around the bonfire, smoking. Although they drew their shoulders up and jumped from one leg to the other, they laughed loudly and cheerfully.
Beside the outermost hut, he saw a soldier checking the ignition of his motorcycle and ran, waiving his hands. “Hey, Obergefreiter! Where are you to?”
“Nowhere, Herr Lieutenant.” He tossed his hand to his temple. His face was almost hidden between his upturned collar and his cap, which was pulled down as far as it could go. His red nose projected long streams of vapor, which vanished instantly in the icy air. “Because of this merciless cold I have to warm it thoroughly every two hours. Otherwise, in case of battle alert it may not—”
Werter cut him short. “To the headquarters, there and back, I have an urgent dispatch.”
On the move, it was even colder because of the strong headwind. They drove along the forest wrapped in snow and predatory silence. The vehicle skidded and jolted. The muffler banged and the gears stridulated as the motorcycle lurched off the snow bank and away. From time to time low mumbles emerged from the driver’s covered mouth, protesting the condition of the dreaded Russian roads.
Sitting hunched in the sidecar, his knees drawn up to his chin, Werter rubbed his gloved fingers, grabbing convulsively the cold iron of the sidecar’s handle when the motorcycle bumped into endless frozen ruts.
It seemed the minutes wore on agonizingly slowly, and a dull disquietude crept into his consciousness.
At last, they turned to a short street lined on either side with kitchen stoves surrounded by piles of charred logs. In front of a three-story brick building that housed a temporary regimental H.Q., the driver hit the brakes, bringing the tormented vehicle to a halt.
Some of the windows of the building were intact, some were bordered with plywood. Mantled with snow, a statue of a man with his hand stretched upward was headless on its pedestal.
A frost-bitten-faced sentry exchanged salutes with Werter and let him in.
“To Oberst Martens. From Major Schuette.” He left the dispatch with the Oberst’s orderly, and after raising his hand in the “Hitler” salute, hastened outside.
Stamping his feet, with his hands pushed deep into his pockets, the driver stared at the church that was hit, but the tower with its magnificent onion dome was saved.
Werter, too, halted for a moment, taken again by the beauty of the half-destroyed cathedral then jumped into the sidecar. “Back, Obergefreiter, step on the gas.”
A vague unrest that something must be happening there and he could not, was not able to prevent it, scorched him.