Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line




Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Introduction
Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing

        STALIN ORGANS

           All those outlawed soldiers were vaguely aware that events were soon to take a new turn and burst in upon their darkness. We lived in expectation of a visit without knowing whose hands we were going to fall into. Most probably it would be the Red Army’s: rumour had it that it was pressing forward relentlessly. Deep down, we knew only too well that the Front was only a few dozen miles off. A complete reversal of the situation was still possible in the sector since the allied forces under German High Command had been ordered to die on the spot rather than retreat.

          Certain battalions had regrouped and treated themselves to large scale punitive sorties, making lightning raids on territory they could no longer control, using the scorched earth policy, sabotaging, setting booby traps, burning, mining and worse – anything which might hinder the enemy in its steamroller-like advance. These units of political fanatics specialized in picking up all the deserters and runaways. More and more soldiers, seeing the turn events were taking, ‘forgot’ to return from their missions and wandered aimlessly in search of something to eat before surrendering to the Liberation Army. They were recaptured manu militari by their own forces. There was no time to waste on court marshals: they were brought back, arms securely bound, and shot in front of the troops by way of an example as traitors to the fatherland.

          In short, we were at the mercy of Providence as we crouched in our hiding place. If just one Partisan were to be caught and tortured till he revealed the whereabouts of this underground hideout, an Extermination Squad would arrive and turn the place into a Golgotha. There would be no need to waste ammunition: if one charitable soul just dynamited the exits we would all be dead within a few hours. The more I thought about it the less attractive the prospect appeared. I had a mad idea: why not escape and go back home? It was worse than foolhardy. I worked out that I was somewhere in the wilds near the Russian-Polish frontier, several miles on foot from home. Hang it all! I was dying to leave this place and see daylight again.

          Getting out was not a problem. There was only a token sentinel who snored with the rest of us by night, so certain was he that no-one would be reckless enough to go out into the darkness and get a stray bullet in him, whether Russian, German, Partisan or Hungarian – not to mention the local guerrilla groups patrolling the forests and as eager to shoot soldiers on the run as were the latter to fire back. They did at least have one thing in common: both fired at anything that moved – local Partisans because it meant one less Superman to be fed, and deserters whose nerves were on edge for fear of being either captured or re-captured. It was a veritable free-for-all.

          I could not help repressing a bitter smile at this pigeon shooting when I thought of the two chief instigators of the chaos taking a hard-earned rest in soft beds, one in the Chancellery in Berlin, the other in the Kremlin.

          I was in luck that night. The sentry on duty was the harmonica player whose nostalgic tunes I had heard when I arrived on Christmas morn. The instrument echoed faintly in one of the upper galleries. We had got to know each other through his instrument, which was a fine large chromatic one made in Germany. He had probably stolen it somewhere. Outside, it must have been pitch-dark because all those around me had been sleeping for some time. Whenever he was on guard, I used to go closer and listen. In theory this was forbidden but, having become his official teacher, I was allowed as a supreme reward to spend a little time outside at my own risk. It had been a boyhood dream of mine to have such an instrument but it was not to be and, strange to say, without ever learning to play I have always been able to, even winning a cup once in some competition.

          Leaning against a wall with his belt full of grenades, a machine gun in one hand and his harmonica in the other, my pupil was already waiting for me. Two very appropriate masterpieces were on the day’s programme: Kalinka and Lili Marlene. So the lesson began. He launched into an extract from the first piece then passed the instrument to me, smiling apologetically. It was not exactly difficult to play better: he was hopeless. I took up the piece, adding such a frenzied accompaniment and such rich harmonies that the poor man in despair took out a large bottle of eau de cologne from his pocket, smelling so strongly of patchouli that it evoked the Casino de Paris backstage, and took a huge swig to give himself courage. After the demonstration I handed him back his instrument and we repeated this little game four or five times in succession as usual. I waited till his eyes turned a little glassy before getting down to the more romantic part of the session. That particular evening, my friend did not want anything to do with Lili Marlene, while I for my part wanted to be out of this hospitable place before dawn. So, after playing him Viens, Poupoule! [Come on, my chick], I went straight into my favourite bravura number, Nuit de Chine, nuit câline,[sultry China nights]and, as he turned his back on me to light a cigarette beneath the tiny oil lamp on the wall opposite, I struck him on the back of the neck with his harmonica, which was as hefty as a cudgel. Silently, he crumpled into a heap like a wet rag. I felt sorry about it but if he had alerted his toadies, who knew the forest far better than I, they would have caught up with me in no time.

          The way was clear and I had at least four hours until dawn, when the search could begin. It was a good thing they no longer had any dogs – they must have eaten them long ago. I snatched up his gun (so as to be able to shoot something to eat), took a few grenades from his belt (in case of any trouble with armoured vehicles – whether invading or liberating), his matches (to light a fire if need be) and, most important of all, his cap with its Red Star to make me look like a soldier. It was obvious from such a get-up I was from the enemy camp but I hoped the assortment would act as a pass key in the course of the long journey to come. True, got up like this, I was liable to be court martialled by any of the opposing armies but quite frankly I was past caring. All wanted was to see my family again and the rest was of little consequence.

          I silently slipped away. Outside, even a solitary star, like a dark, melancholy sun, was more heartening than the sinister atmosphere in the mine, where we wallowed in a nauseating stench of decay. I was in the heart of a great pine forest somewhere on the frontier between the Ukraine and Poland, but where exactly? A distant rumble to the East gave a clue: it could only be the Russian Army’s heavy artillery moving inexorably towards Hungary, for we did not have any such toys and the sound of the great Krupp cannons of our beloved protectors were quite different. As I plunged among the trees to go in the opposite direction, I reflected that a musical ear was of some use after all. I could not see a thing and was reduced to feeling my way along, making as little noise as possible and stopping whenever I heard anything suspicious – the slightest crack of a branch or the crunch of dead leaves. The forest of lofty trees grew denser and more impenetrable. I took care to avoid clearings and pathways. The moon shone on coppice-covered slopes and woods of giant pines. The tree tops were hazy in the pearl-grey light. There were bound to be swarms of snipers about and now that I was obliged to play ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ with the Partisans as well as regular soldiers from both sides I did not feel I had much chance of getting out alive. The endless, threatening roar like a mountain storm acted as a compass. So it was that I walked till dawn when, spotting the very forked tree I needed, I hoisted myself up to try and get a little sleep.

          A few hours later I awoke and continued walking south-west, slowly chewing as I went on the first of four slices of stale bread I had managed to put to one side. On the way, I threw away the gun, cursing the previous owner: the magazine was empty. I still had the grenades, which were not exactly ideal for shooting rabbits. Still, they came in useful the following night when I ran into half-a-dozen wolves fighting over the carcass of a young wild boar, a piece of which would have been most welcome. I had to do something, and quickly too, for the creatures were all set to leap on me and kill two birds with one stone. I just had time to pull out the pins of two grenades and throw them into the fray, with devastating results: no more wolves…and no more wild boar. I continued on my way on my jockey’s diet, using Dr Coué’s precept to persuade myself I was not hungry.

          The following day I had my first bit of luck since starting out: there was a brief shower and I was at last able to drink a few drops of water and was also overjoyed to see the forest thinning out at last to give way to an apparently boundless steppe scattered with stunted bushes. At last I was able to make more rapid progress but I had to be twice as vigilant on such open terrain. Far away on the horizon stood burnt out tanks and lorries, not far from a small hamlet. I decided to have a closer look. As I approached, an old peasant wielding an ancient magazine-rifle came out of a shed and, on seeing my uniform, said in a guttural Hungarian accent: "Where are you going?" "To Budapest," I replied, in a quite matter of fact tone. "You’re either mad or a deserter," he said resignedly. I had to agree – he was not entirely wrong.

          "What’s your job normally?" "I’m a pianist?" "That’s no sort of job," he said, looking pityingly at my unshaven face. "I bet you’re more dangerous at a piano than with a gun. Now, listen, if you want to find your compatriots, keep straight on and go through the wood ahead. Watch out: it’s marshland and that maquis lot have put mines along the only footpath. When you come out you’ll find a chapel full of wounded Hungarians and Germans waiting to be evacuated. Try and get a place on one of their lorries. After that, you’ll just have to hope for the best. Anyway, come in to have a wash and a bite to eat."

          I hesitated: the sudden, unexpected kindness of the old man seemed a little suspicious so I preferred to get going. It was nearly dusk by the time I reached the chapel, without a hitch but exhausted. There was nobody about, just a few Hungarian lorries, each with a large red cross on it, parked before the entrance. It was a large, Orthodox church with an onion-shaped belfry atop an impressive tower eaten away by verdigris. It was a good half hour’s walk from any other building and was probably a place of pilgrimage. The walls had been pitted by bullets of every possible calibre and much of the stained glass in the high, narrow windows had been shattered. One part of the ancient roof over the Baroque nave had been hit by a pretty hefty mortar and a cannon shot had left a gaping hole in the belfry. By the time I crossed the threshold it was nearly dark. The foundations, the thick walls and even the arches inside the place of worship echoed and re-echoed with distant artillery fire. The extraordinary echo outside as well as in had probably been intended originally to swell the liturgical chant. It took my eyes a little while to adjust to the dim light inside and when they did I saw some hundred bodies lying motionless on stretchers as a dozen doctors in overalls saw to them. By the light of a few candles, using a single makeshift first aid kit, they tried to extract various sorts of ammunition and shrapnel from their wounds. They operated and even amputated entirely without anaesthetics. There was not even any ether left and, in desperation, they gave certain patients pure alcohol, slightly diluted, to drink until they lost consciousness – their only way of lessening the agony of an operation.

          The surgeons had been working in these dreadful conditions for thirty-six hours on end. One of them came up to me. I gave the regulation salute out of habit. "It’s odd to see someone who can still walk on his own two legs," he said by way of a greeting. I told him briefly about my escape from the mine, passing discreetly over how I had managed it.

          "Your misfortune brought you luck," he said. "Your battalion was wiped out in a surprise attack by the Russians. When the Partisans captured you, this makeshift hospital was twenty miles behind our lines. Now it’s twelve miles in front. The Red Army is on our heels and there isn’t even enough petrol in the lorries out there to evacuate anyone. Heaven knows what will become of us!" I asked him what I could do to help. "Nothing, my poor chap," he replied wearily. "What did you use to do for a living?" I told him and his face lit up. "In that case there is something you can do for us. Go up there to the organ. It’s the only thing more or less intact in the place. Go on! Sit at the keyboard and play something for us. Anything. We could do with it."

          I silently obeyed. I glanced over the centuries-old instrument and asked for someone to work the forge-like bellows, which were essential to keep the air pressure in the pipes constant, and began to improvise on some old Hungarian hymns and then on the National Anthem. My fingers attacked the melodies in a kind of fury, transforming them little by little into a flood of grief whose resonance and power were redoubled by the resounding noise outside. As they mingled with the constant roar of explosions, they seemed to be appealing to the heavens to witness the inner and outer suffering of us all. Above the choir stalls, through a breach in the roof, blue flashes seemed to spatter the frescoes and faded icons whenever there was a blast. The long, final, dissonant chord spun between the arches of the nave before fading away outside.

           It was heartbreaking to think of what would happen to all the injured if they were not fetched by the next day. I came down from the organ loft, passed between the surgeons, still rooted to the spot, and silently left the chapel.

          I walked towards the woods a few hundred yards off, hoping to get through to the new Hungarian HQ. I had barely taken ten steps when I felt the cold touch of a barrel in my back. Two freedom fighters were standing one on either side of me. It was like a reunion: I recognized the greasy fur hats with the tiny star twinkling on the front. Luckily for me, I had not shaved for four days so they did not recognize me. Just as one of them was going through the routine search, an almighty bang laid us all out flat and blasted us with hot air. As I lay full-length on the ground, I glanced over the plain and saw the rafters of the chapel outlined in raging flames. All that remained of the nave was a heap of rubble and we could hear the crackle of all those silent, motionless bodies. The tower with its wooden belfry was like a firebrand. It gradually leaned backwards and toppled slowly and majestically down into the inferno. Apparently, the building had been struck by a long-range missile. But why just then? The tarpaulins of the lorries flared up one by one, then the lorries themselves blew up, setting off the blaze inside the chapel once more until nothing was left save a blinding ball of fire.

          I looked away, full of remorse. Had the organ resounding down the valley like a huge bell brought about the horrific tragedy? Seen in that light, the idea was not very plausible. The enemy’s heavy artillery must have been dozens of miles away on the other slope of the mountain which I had glimpsed in the falling dusk. Stunned by the very thought of such a possibility, I got up on a sign from the two ruffians and walked on ahead as if in a trance. Unlikely as it was that the music could have set off the bombardment, there had been one shot, just one.

          A few weeks after my attempted escape I was back in the burrow like a rat, in the same state of degeneration as the other prisoners. I had become incapable of attempting or even considering running away again. My chief aim in life had become to get to the cooking pot at midday. One or other of the peasant women, her face reddened by the steam from the boiling soup, served us a portion of a hot but lamentably watery substance which ensured our survival, however precarious, till the next day.

          Day after day, sitting up or lying down, we gazed blankly at the little flame of the old lamp and waited only for the broth prepared by the Partisans’ wives’. There were not enough bowls to go round so that some drank their portion from their helmets. The soup was boiled in huge cast-iron cauldrons, which could each have held several people. I realized that our ‘hosts’ must after all have had a considerable stock of food. Though we were wracked with hunger, it never occurred to anyone to try and find where it was. They were happy enough in the knowledge that it was inexhaustible.

          In an attempt to fight off boredom I sometimes took a stroll along the neighbouring galleries, strolling as slowly as possible. There was no reason to hurry. Sometimes I stopped when I came to family or a man sitting by himself on the ground. We exchanged a few banalities before I went to the other gallery, whose dimly-lit entrance looked from a distance like the gaping jaws of some weird beast. I went in and was soon able to make out other lights. By the light of the flickering flames first the forms then the features of the people sitting or squatting there gradually became visible. Other people, other faces, more questions, followed by more vague answers, in an attempt to keep up a semblance of optimism, as was expected of the others – usually in vain. I seemed to have been wandering for all eternity when I finally found my way back through the maze of grottos and galleries to my heap of straw. Time passed inexorably yet seemed motionless.

          I now realize, with hindsight, that I had reached the depths of despair at this period in my life. Such a feeling is difficult to shake off for it only takes a hold on someone once he is past caring. During my stay, or rather captivity, I was foolish enough to leave my mind and will to hibernate, believing that a vegetable-like existence would increase my chances of survival. In any case, I was not there to think but to suffer, endure and – who knows? – do penitence. Unconsciously, I must have imagined – and the environment certainly contributed – that in plunging to the depths without the possibility of resurfacing for air, I could for the time being leave my brain, which was more of a hindrance than a help, in storage. I had suffered deprivation for so long that it did not seem too high a price to pay for some kind of hope. Unfortunately, I did not take into account the physical deterioration provoked by such living conditions, soon to be followed by a dulling of the mind. After several months without once leaving the depths of the mountain, I thought I had attained an ideal state of equilibrium? How wrong I was: I had reached zero, the point of no return. I had not yet sunk, as I thought, to the depths of insensitivity and indifference. In fact my downward decline was only just beginning. Until then I had not understood, though it diminished day by day, the primary importance of the subconscious energy that feeds one’s actions and still more one’s thoughts. Will-power, which might be thought to be fundamental, is no more than the visible part of the life force, like an iceberg floating in the consciousness of each one of us, whereas four fifths of it lie deep in our subconscious and are subject to its laws. There is little joy to be had in observing one’s mental decline when one is lucid but helpless to do anything about it. For me, the worst catastrophe which can strike a human being is to witness hour by hour the inexorable destruction of his spiritual vitality. I would rather have been struck down by a physical disease which I could have come to grips with and used my will-power to overcome. A bodily disease would have numbed my mind and set it at rest, but waiting helplessly while nothingness gradually invaded, submerged and paralysed all one’s resilience, that I could not accept. It was worse than death: one’s innermost self was destroyed. The victim was transformed into a living corpse and yet, paradoxically, though its inner substance was no more, the body was spared. I had grown to accept the idea of physical death but the finality of spiritual annihilation is something that still makes me shudder with horror.

          Looking back from afar over that period of my life, I can take a more balanced view of the ravages of that hideous cancer of the mind which grew perniciously until it transformed me almost into a living corpse. Thank God, my physical resistance was once again a match for all my sufferings or else I would have fallen victim to the same sad fate as the others. Again, I do not mean death: physical death in such cases is a merciful release. I mean a particular form of existence in which a person’s organism merely vegetates. Many people die like this, their will-power eaten away by the void within. In the case of the least resistant, even the desire to survive rotted away. One merely needs a body to go through the motions of living, but experiences like this mercilessly sweep away any lack the inner force to surmount them.

          What point was there in wandering about the mine, that labyrinth of nothingness from which time had been banished? First I cut down on the number of daily walks then stopped them altogether and lay most of the time on my heap of rags. This gradual withdrawal was a matter of complete indifference to me. All notion of day and night had gone and I fell asleep at any time. Disordered fragments of my past would come back to me in my dreams. I even on occasion dropped off while the one and only meal of the day was being served. Hunger and thirst tormented me less than when I had first arrived and my state of torpor became more or less permanent. A curious numbing feeling was the sign that outside night was falling – it replaced the notion of time. However, this instinct was not to be trusted since I was sometimes aware of it more than once a day. In any case we were some fifty yards below ground level, which made any real judgement impossible. The difference of atmospheric pressure, hygrometry, etc., between the inside and outside worlds, further accentuated by the surreal effect of the constantly pale, flickering light, threw out even the most assured in their calculations. Our watches had been taken away from us on arrival so that time was no longer something tangible.

          And so I lived from then on, an exact replica of all the others, until I lost even the longing even to see daylight again. Sprawled out full-length, reluctant so much as to get up, I suffered the pangs of hunger yet left half my portion uneaten, whereas it was no so long ago that I had thought we never got enough. As I stood in the queue, it dawned on me that I had not seen a number of familiar faces for quite a time. "They’ve escaped?" I whispered rather enviously in the ear of the man next to me, in the rough and ready German everyone was obliged to use. He shook his head: "No, they’ve gone." I nodded knowingly, thinking, "He’s even madder than me. I mustn’t upset him." He guessed my thoughts and continued, "It’s quite true. The furthest gallery is fifteen miles long and ends in a precipice about sixty yards below where we’re standing now. There’s nothing to stop those who are tired of life going there." He looked me straight in the eye and repeated, "All those who prefer death to a life spent waiting for the supposed arrival of the Russians. The Partisans turn a blind eye to such disappearances – it means a few less mouths to feed. I can’t take much more," he said slowly, getting to his feet slowly, "I’m Czech. One half of my family was massacred by the Germans, the other half by the Reds. I’ve nothing left to live for. I’ve got two last cigarettes. We can smoke them on the way to the pit. Coming? Not yet? Well, we may meet again soon," he whispered as he moved off.

          I never saw him again. I fell asleep. When I woke up a few hours later, I was no longer sure whether the conversation had actually taken place or whether it had all been a dream. To be frank, I had been living as if buried alive for so long that it was difficult to know which were the cataleptic waking hours and which the periods of sleep haunted by strange apparitions. However, the very thought of vanishing quite unnoticed was enough to discourage me for quite some time from yielding to the temptation to go anywhere near the notorious precipice.

          I did everything possible to this end. I started going for walks again and forced myself to eat regularly, thinking that each bowl of soup might be the last before our liberation. Then came a change of events, though not in the way I had hoped for. We were informed that food stocks were getting low so that from then on we would get only a little ‘light’ soup every forty- eight hours. Before that our rations had comprised, besides the broth, a few potatoes, old carrots and dried beans with, on special days, a tiny piece of salt-bacon rind, which had to be chewed patiently to make it edible. After tasting their ‘new recipe’ soup, a revolting liquid with potato peelings and beetroot skin floating on the surface, I realized the worst was yet to come. ‘Keep going’ replaced ‘survive’ as my password. Time fed us drip by drip as if we were voracious stalactites and our experience of it was like that of a foetus, a cosmonaut lost in space or a prehistoric animal living in light years. The worst hours were not the waking ones now: the sleepless nights with their periods of dreams and hallucinations were what I feared most.

          During one of those endless nights, I had the unpleasant feeling someone was observing me closely as I lay there. I was at once on the alert. On looking up, I was astounded by the sight which my brain, accustomed as it was to the most improbable happenings, registered before my eyes could. A slant-eyed Russian soldier with high cheekbones and wearing a fur hat with a little star was staring at me so fixedly as to accentuate the trace of distaste in his expression. His face, bent over mine, was like an ogre’s – the perfect identikit portrait as drummed into us valiant warriors by the former pro-German command which it had once been my honour to serve. I had solved the enigma before I could even shake off my torpor: if he was there it could only be due to the Partisans. If so, he could not be alone, which meant the whole sector was under Red Army control. Conclusion: I was free!

          The flash of understanding in my eyes must have surprised my visitor: he suddenly got up and walked jerkily off to continue his round of inspection, with one of the men who had brought me here going servilely ahead. God alone knows how much I had been longing for that encounter and that look. Still lying there half asleep, I thought of that face looking into mine as though examining some freakish specimen of ox in a zoo which did not quite fit the description in the guide book. But now, what with one thing and another, I was not even pleased to see this member of the Liberation Army. To tell the truth, I was past caring. My stay underground had left me completely indifferent to my past or future. This was the moment I had been waiting for so long as to have given up all hope. I was going to be able to leave this tomb at last. I could not have known that the arrival of the Russians so far from meaning freedom was to lead to another succession of tribulations, another tunnel to get through.

          The Partisans in the burrow, wishing to impress the Red Army, had quite simply turned us over to them as prisoners exactly as if they had fought and captured us fully armed. This was far from being the case. Nearly all the ragged soldiers in the mine were deserters. Some knew the area and had come of their own accord to hide until the Soviets arrived. Others like me sometimes wandered for weeks in the surrounding forest, hoping to come across the Partisans and put themselves at their mercy and were brought here without the least resistance after being found half-dead with exhaustion and hunger. The lies of the Partisans were to have a radical effect on our destiny. Everything has its price, as they say. What many of us had believed to be a stay of our own choosing was in fact nothing less than internment, a mere foretaste of things to come. Our freedom had been the high price paid for our board and lodging.

          The rest of my captivity followed its usual pattern: we were ordered up to the entrance, where we were made to line up. A few Russians sorted out the grain from the chaff, so to speak. On one side, the armed men who had been our guards up till then, together with their wives and children, all shabby but clean. On the other, the ‘enemy’, in rags and stinking with the accumulated filth of many weeks. Watched over by dozens of warmly-dressed soldiers, we set off across the endless, virgin snow of the steppe towards Slovakia, i.e. the Czech-Hungarian frontier. At the end of the first day’s march we came to a village, under Russian control of course. We were herded into a shed after being given a hunk of black bread and an onion each. The well we had been given permission to drink from was frozen over so we ate snow. I thought with regret of the vile soup, which had at least been hot and seemed a luxury compared with this fare. Still, no-one left a crumb of his rations, knowing we had a long march the next day and that the Russian – and German – cure for fainting was a bullet in the back of the neck: tit for tat. As I chewed on my bread, tough as mule, I felt there lay a glimmer of hope in the fact that our new masters obviously had not paid too much attention to the Partisans’ lies or they would have shot us as potential enemies in the first coppice they came to, just as the Germans would have done if ever, by some misfortune, they had arrived first at the mine. Amidst such turmoil, it was better to be serving under a flag, whatever its colours, than to be walking across open country without belonging to an army.

          Early next morning, we set out again, stopped for a few minutes at midday and by evening reached another village, where we collapsed at the spot designated. Our march continued for at least a week. The quantity of miles covered put the finishing touches to our clothes, not least our shoes, which had been in a sorry state from the outset. Despite all our sufferings in the mine, I was among those who resisted best. For one thing, I took care to keep my evening rations for the next day’s journey, eating a little something from time to time so as to give my body the illusion it was getting a few extra calories as a reward for the extra work required of it. Secondly, I had learnt from my previous military experience that inwardly to reject an order one was obliged to obey made things twice as hard for the body because it put up a resistance which it was then forced to repress, besides having to make the effort demanded anyway. So I plodded mechanically on with the others like a robot, making sure not even a passing thought of giving up slowed down the pace set by the soldiers. My body advanced as though weightless and detached from my will. I only became aware of my physical exhaustion once we reached our stopping place for the night. For the soldiers leading us from point to point it was mere military routine: if we were worn out by the previous day’s marching and advanced less quickly they only had to accompany us part of the way. Every morning as we set off, insults were hurled at us: in Georgian dialect one day, Ukrainian the next, then Caucasian and heaven knows what else. We did not care. We had no idea where we were going, though hoping deep down in our suffering bodies that we would get there as soon as possible. Heaven was good enough to lend an ear to the ardent hope which rose from our exhausted carcases.

          After a good week’s march, we arrived at a village which had obviously been fortified quite recently. It was surrounded by a high hedge of barbed-wire with here and there a wooden watchtower. We were herded inside and the iron gates banged to behind us. In short, we were in a newly-built concentration camp. We were divided into sections and allotted wooden huts. The blocks were numbered but not laid out in lines. Together with one of my fellow-sufferers, I went into one. As soon as everybody was inside, the door was slammed shut. The way in which the sentinel on duty had kicked it showed all too clearly what he thought of us and presaged a stay full of unpleasant surprises and as yet unknown ordeals. Discipline was strict but, contrary to my expectations, this was not a penal camp: no-one was deliberately ill-treated as in the notorious German camps. It was in fact a sort of open prison.

          The days passed slowly and monotonously by. The first few were spent seeing to the wounds and fissures the forced march had inflicted on our feet. It was a long time before they more or less healed since we had been underfed for so long and, in particular, were lacking in vitamins. We took advantage of the free time granted us each day to leave our huts and hobble off on visits to each other. To tell the truth, we tended to seek out those we supposed had a few shreds of tobacco left. Nobody in the camp attempted to count the passing days. Our jailors aside, I am not sure any of us could have given the exact date or even said what day of the week it was. At least we now lived above ground, but the effects of the deep-seated indifference and apathy contracted in the mine were still apparent in the dullness of our minds. Under such conditions, why should I have cared more about one day than another? Nothing changed with the passing weeks, least of all the menu: a little black bread and a few pieces of sugar of dubious taste each morning. At midday and in the evening there was the habitual queue for a bowl of soup, a blackish beverage thickened with some fatty, rancid substance more like lard than anything else. Though prepared in the Russian manner, this gruel was a far cry from the delicious, creamy soups which were the delight of Parisian gourmets in the renowned Russian cabarets and restaurants of the capital.

          At the beginning of my period of detention, I spent most of the time trying to think up a way of attracting the attention of the nachalnik [commander of a prison camp] to the injustice most of us were victims of. Several times I thought, without much conviction, of asking to see him in order to explain my case. Somehow or other the right moment never presented itself. In the end I lost courage and then, shortly afterwards, began to hope again. It was easy to understand why I should have hesitated. Such a powerful overlord as a nachalnik was not going to waste his time giving credence to the muddled stories of an insignificant individual already listed by the Partisans as a sworn enemy of the Russians. What is more, I did not know their language and only spoke German very badly. It would have been too much to hope for to find a Hungarian interpreter able to speak at least one of these languages. Even so, one day the opportunity I had given up all thought of presented itself in oddly unexpected fashion.

          On the day in question, I was going for my daily walk on my own, as I mostly did, lost in thought, my eyes fixed on the ground and walking straight ahead, passing between two rows of huts bordering on the barbed wire hedge round the camp. In general, only I came to this spot at all regularly. Today, things were different. Head still bowed, I was preparing to cross a small junction when I suddenly bumped into someone coming from my left and nearly fell over backwards. Like me, the man had been walking with his hands behind his back ruminating so that we saw each other too late. The collision threw him off balance and he landed on his backside, looking at me crossly as he groped for his officer’s cap, which had fallen to the ground. From the insignia on his jacket I realized I had had the misfortune to knock over the Commanding Officer in person.

          The incident was unintentional on both sides but such was not the opinion of the two officers walking a few paces behind him. They each grabbed me by an arm, shook me furiously and yelled in my ears in Russian. Though not knowing the language and despite my astonishment, I understood perfectly well what they meant. Meanwhile, the Commanding Officer had recovered his cap and, while his guards pushed me about until they had recovered their breath sufficiently to give me a real going-over, he got to his feet and, dusting himself down, made a sign to them to let me go. I made a gesture of apology, mumbling in what to him must have sounded like Esperanto. He had calmed down somewhat and muttered a few equally incomprehensible words, looking rather put out, and then asked me in German what I was doing there. Taken aback by his own idiotic and inept question, he instead asked my name, nationality, etc., as a way of demonstrating to his subalterns how magnanimous he was. From his unusually calm, clear manner of speaking, I could tell the incident was forgotten. I seized my chance and tried to make the most of it. I did not give him a direct answer but began to explain how I came to be in the camp. I tried calmly to describe my escape. There was no need to worry about talking too much: my very basic German saw to that. Since I wanted to be as clear as possible, I gave a real one-man show, miming – as far as possible – various events I could not express in words. The nachalnik’s attendants were uneasy at the proportions the St. Vitus’s Dance I was performing before their Commanding Officer were taking - unless they feared I was unbalanced and might make an attempt on his life - and grabbed hold of me again. Their zeal annoyed him as he was evidently interested in my story, so he told them to release me, pushed his cap pensively back on his forehead and nodded to me to continue. When he finally realized I was just one poor deserter among many who had surrendered of their own accord, contrary to what the Partisans had said, his eyelids, hooded up till then, opened wide and there seemed to be a glimmer of compassion, almost of kindness, in his gaze.

          My story finished, I looked him straight in the eye as if to say, "It’s up to you now." He stood deep in thought, apparently unaware of the sound of my voice, and asked my hut number. Then, to my surprise, he gave a salute, which I returned automatically, before walking swiftly away, flanked by his officers. I went slowly after them on my way back to the hut, feeling there was a glimmer of hope for the first time in ages.

          Sadly, for a long time to come, nothing much changed in our daily routine. Quite the contrary, as the weather grew colder and colder with the advance of winter and with clothes so worn that even a tramp would have refused them we felt it all the more. To make matters worse, quite a lot of us had torn our shirts or sweaters into strips to make temporary bandages for our injured feet, since it was preferable to keep on the march in the cold than get a bullet in the back of the neck, the punishment for any show of weakness, as I have said.

          My wardrobe was in no better state than the others’ since we had all been living in the camp for at least three months, at a guess. One biting cold morning, I was on the point of making my usual round of the yard to warm up before the midday soup. Suddenly an officer yelled out in an arrogant voice, reducing everyone to a deadly silence. We were ordered to return to our huts at once and remain there until further notice. This unexpected order dismayed us. Nobody knew what to make of it and we feared the worst. Some whispered that we were to be deported to Siberia that very day because of the Partisan’s false evidence. Everyone’s spirits were at their lowest ebb. For once, I envied the pessimists who, long since resigned to their loss of liberty, envisaged the future with mournful indifference. Some went as far as to give a doleful description of life in the salt mines, in comparison with which our stay underground had been sheer bliss. Our agonizing was, thank heavens, short lived.

          At lunchtime we were allowed out and made to fall into rank. The Commanding Officer himself was there between a double line of soldiers, who towered over him. A shudder ran down my spine at the sight of so much ceremony: previous experience had taught me that this kind of pomp was a means of announcing something important and, in general, disagreeable (especially in wartime). As soon as everyone was in line and silent, the Soviets saluted their Commandant, who then began reading a speech – in Russian, of course – which was then translated into several languages for the benefit of our Babylonian community. The essence of the declaration was that the war against Nazi Germany was in its decisive final stages. Virtually the whole Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary had either been liberated or was about to be, thanks to the efforts of the glorious Red Army, now on the point of freeing Vienna from Hitler’s clutches. To celebrate these unprecedented exploits in a duly dignified manner, the High Command responsible for the Eastern Front had decided to amnesty all those whose military activities had not exceeded certain bounds determined by a number of committees likewise responsible for vetting the political past of each detainee. All prisoners thus freed would be fully re-equipped and transported to various assembly points where, after a short period of further training, they would be able to participate in the final grand slam which would destroy the German hydra once and for all.

          "All reinstated prisoners," the German interpreter continued, "will fight in the newly formed democratic armies of their countries of origin, under the guidance and benevolent protection of the great Red Army. The selection of prisoners to be liberated has just been decided on. Those whose names are called will break ranks and line up at the far end of the yard."

          The final pronouncement fell like a condemnation. Hearts pounded and butterflies entered many a stomach. Yet for the first time in ages there was a spark of hope in every eye. All trace of apathy had gone form their faces and they looked alive and human once more. I was filled with happiness before even knowing whether my name was among those chosen. Anyway, it was called and I went off at once to join one of the groups at the end of the yard. We all went into a building, one of the few solidly built ones in the camp. It was the stores. I was straightway issued with a brand-new uniform, boots, a machine gun, made in Russia with a magazine shaped like a Camembert cheese, spare ammunition and a combat helmet adorned with a large red star. I was so relieved at no longer being a pariah that I did not even feel the biting cold as I changed in a corner of the yard.

          After a journey of some hundred miles, the convoy of massive lorries dropped us off in the yard of a camp on Hungarian territory under the command of officers of the recently formed Hungarian Democratic Army. The soldiers billeted there not long before greeted our arrival with shouts of joy. The order to fall in rang out once again as the lorries left shortly afterwards. The Colonel, flanked by his Hungarian staff, spoke a few words of welcome with unexpected warmth, more or less repeating what the Soviet Commander had already said. The officers then moved along the ranks, stopping before each of us for a few moments to ask for a few details about our service record and rank in the former Fascist army. I gave a brief account of my adventures and said that previously I had served in the cavalry. Our regiment had been decimated by the Russians almost as soon as fighting broke out and I had been transferred to a tank unit after a short period of training, during which I had graduated to bigger tanks. I had fought on the Front until my unit was almost totally wiped out. Seeing no other solution, I had seized the opportunity to leave the pro-Germans. I told my story in a completely neutral manner, using a telegraphic style to avoid giving away the least hint of my horror of war and my disgust with army life. The officer listened with a combination of attentiveness and curiosity and asked me to continue. I ended by insisting that desertion had seemed the only solution seeing as our territory and army were being exploited by the Nazis. The former Hungarian Command was by then completely subservient to the German High Command and had lost all right to make decisions, thus forcing us to fight for a lost cause, one for which I had not the least wish to die. I was at the end of a line and while I was talking a few other officers, their tour of inspection over, came to join their friend, who was still listening attentively. One of them came up to me, placed a hand on my shoulder in a friendly manner and said, "Nothing of what you said surprises me in the least. All the officers here are charged with organizing a new democratic Hungarian army after deciding, while on the Front, to get in touch with the Red Army at the earliest opportunity. After a short period of military and political training, we returned to fight beside the Red Army to liberate Hungary once and for all. But training for our new army will be more tricky," he smiled, "because the Cavalry Corps wasn’t adapted to this kind of warfare and has been disbanded. What is more, we can’t transfer you to the Tank Corps for the moment as it isn’t yet in operation. To be frank, one might almost say it has been disbanded," he went on, trying to repress a mischievous smile, "as the big new T-34s still haven’t arrived. But don’t worry," he concluded blithely, "you’ll have plenty to do in the meantime. We’ll find you something."

          He then gave the troops the rest of the day off so that they could get some rest and moved slowly away again, passing between the ranks of soldiers standing to attention. Early next morning, along with several warrant officers, I reported to the sub-lieutenant’s office to receive the day’s orders for the unit I had been in charge of during my somewhat hectic period in the Tank Corps. It would be truer to say I was a survivor of the unit.

          I was given the same rank in the new army. Keeping the men in tip-top physical condition was the order of the day – I could not help smiling at the graciousness of the expression – until the Infantry received its required quota of heavy armoury, when we would return to the Front to fight alongside Red Army in a final large scale offensive which would finish off the Nazis, by then on their last legs. It was early in March, 1945 and the Germans put up such a dogged resistance that it was quite impossible to imagine the war could end soon. Quite the contrary: the latest offensive in the Ardennes, though a failure, may have lead those who were not actually there to believe that Hitler’s troops still had plenty in reserve. This was the moment when the Red Army joined up with the American troops, thus splitting Germany in two. The Russians did everything in their power to take Berlin for they did not wish to share such a glorious, historic victory with the Allies. The Hungarian battalions which flew to their aid knew this and our unit was transferred to an abandoned school, not far from the barracks, reserved for the purpose. There was, of course, no longer any question of our being demobilized. On the other hand, we were all very happy with the turn of events when we found ourselves back in our own country after so many tribulations.

          My home and family were not all that far off. Please excuse me if my life story has been more redolent of gunpowder than the sweet smell of success one expects in a famous artist’s memoirs but this unfortunate hitch was, I can assure you, entirely beyond my control.

 

 



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