A Symbol of the Season

yevtushenkoMany years ago, I read A Precocious Autobiography, by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. One passage moved me to tears and I am sharing it with you this year, during this season symbolic of hope. In the darkness of winter, at least now in the Northern Hemisphere, we face the longest night, lighting candles and Christmas trees, and celebrating family and friends and love.

In Moscow in 1944, Yevtushenko and his mother stood in a crowd of Russians, watching 20,000 German prisoners of war marching through the streets, most to die in Russian forced-labor camps. This is what Yevtushenko said of the occasion — he was eleven years old at the time and, like every Russian, knew what had happened at Stalingrad:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors.

‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying,’Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

Tim Roth
Photo credit: Tim Roth
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