For ”Front-line photos” I used the story of Mrs. Rodica Codrea’s, born Oproni, natural father from Zorani. Her father was a combatant on the Eastern Front in 1941, fighting in the Romanian 4th Army, taking part in the capture of Odessa. The 4th Army, formely the Romanian 3rd Army ”Transylvania” in the inter-war years, was made up of soldiers recruited from the historical territory of the Ardeal region. It seems the men from the Făget-Margina-Zorani-Sintești area were also incorporated into this fighting force. The story of Soldier Oproni is a typical war story – after three days spent in trenches facing a village held by Russian forces, without food, the Soldier Oproni together with a fellow soldier sneak into an orchard close to the village. They are both captured by women soldiers and counted like in a children’s game. Oproni’s fellow soldier is shot. The Soldier Oproni, let go after the summary trial held by the women in the orchard, suffers a traumatic shock and manages to get back home, telling his daughter the story.
A few hours beforehand we had visited the museum of Sintești village, where there exists a wall dedicated to the heroes who fought in the First and Second World Wars. Talking to Ciprian Mert, the son of Emil Mert – the founder and curator of the museum, I learned about the great number of men that left the village to fight on the front-line. And the incredible small number of men who returned whole. Those lucky enough to come back brought stories about the war with them. ”Front-line photos” is an attempt to re-capture the experiences of those men, thousands of kilometres away from home, fighting in a war without understanding its purpose, but witnessing and living its consequences fully. It is a piece of lost and buried history. In all the villages we passed through there are monuments dedicated to war casualties. But their stories have been forgotten.
On the 13th of August 1941 the wind changed, as it did every year, before autumn set in. They were fighting since the 31st of July without respite, passing through the first line of defence, through mine fields, rows of barbed wire and anti-tank ditches. They took pillboxes head-on, using hand-grenades, and luck, and bayonets, and they couldn’t remember any of it, or didn’t want to remember it. Or couldn’t anymore, because they had forgotten how memories work.
They had crossed the Dniester. They smoked at night at the bottom of the fox-holes they had dug mechanically, whimpering with their hands clutching the shovel, trying to burrow as fast as they could into the earth, before being caressed by shrapnel or bullets. They cupped the cigarette inside the palm of their hand for fear of the Kukuruzniks that haunted in the night, floating overhead like predators over the moonlit sky, floating like blackened dragons who watched over the earth and the humanity that hid like worms in the ground when it heard the click-clack of their propellors, looking for the faintest sheen of light in order to pounce, strafing positions, bombing and not letting anyone catch a wink of sleep, weaving nightmares on the star-riddled sky at which the men gazed, trying not to think of the war, but the stars were silent amongst columns of smoke rising up and lullabies and signal rockets, shrouded over and engulfed by the sound of the airplane that reminded them all they were forever at war. Even in their dreams. The Russian called it Kukuruznik, ”the crop duster”. The Germans called it die Nähmaschine, the sewing-machine. The Romanians didn’t call it anything. They hadn’t yet acquired the gallows-humor necessary, but there was still time in which they could try out their creativity, between a drink of țuica and a worm-eaten piece of stale bread.
The Germans were taking Pervitin, and their boundless maniacal energy was waking them up before dawn, dreaming the same dream that was going to lead them all into Valhalla, breathing in Blitzkrieg, shrouded in the methodical aura of their mechanized madness, fuelled by the amphetamine euphoria nudging them ever forward, grinning.
The Russians were putting up a rugged and disorganised defence, grasping for their vodka, fighting out of the fear caused by the thought of disciplinary battalions, the terror of commisars, dying moronically because of the absurd orders doled out by incompetent politikos, watched over by the paranoid NKVD cadres while the Great Comrade Stalin was in hiding, writing up orders and STAVKA directives divorced from reality, ordering everyone to courageously step into the meat grinder, signing death warrants out of strictly strategic rationales from a holiday home 2000 kilometres away, refusing to believe that the whole catastrophe was his fault alone, seeing Hitlerite conspiracies and cosmopolitan subversions everywhere, perpetrated by infiltrated foreign agents who were trying to destroy the Communist Heaven he had built up using the sweat and blood of millions.
The Romanians had joined in and were playing, nobody knew what exactly, steered into the fight, poorly equipped, participating in one of humanity’s greatest farces, that would in time become history.
Propaganda had created monsters and they had awoken from their slumber, gobbling up everything in their path. And all men were marching obediently, like sleepwalkers, towards the final victory of no one knew what, wobbling on the edge of the abyss. A great dialectical battle was being waged in the east betwwen Marxist-Leninist materialism and the racial theories of National-Socialism. The argumentation was being backed up with war munitions and only the dead were gawking distractedly at the living, unable to tell them the punchline, yet. Because in the end, it was the delivery that killed you.
The 4th Army had succesfully waged the first part of the offensive, but as they were closing in on the city the defense was getting more and more rabid. Snipers were making their presence known, many of them women volunteers from the Komsomol. They had run into anti-tank crews, also made up of women. At first they were horrified, but then they started getting used to it. War was teaching them about the equality between sexes. And about the stunning indiference of death, that harvested everything that others sowed. Without turning up its nose at anything or discriminating in any way. Death was a grand old dame. And each and everyone of them developed their own sense of humor. Or fell silent, turning inwards. Thinking about something else. Refusing to take it all in as one big joke.
They passed the Hadjibei Heights and Kagarlâc Manor being slapped back constantly by counter-attacks, artillery and mortar barrages. The days had seeped into each other. And in front of them streched an endless horizon that shone its light on them indifferently, and night came on and they couldn’t sleep because of the fatigue.
The sunrises were always blood-red there and they watched them silently, sleeples as they had been for days. They moved slowly, full of dust, numbed, dreaming with eyes open while the steppe was being lit up in front of them, the sun rising slowly and melting away the shadows, licking them gently and carelessly, drying them up on the inside. They all blinked, blinded by the explosion. It had scraped the air like a rusty blade passing over a thick canvas giving way, slashed to ribbons with a deafening rip. The shell fell short with a dull thump, scattering an acrid smell and a shockwave that hit them all deep in the pit of their stomachs, laying them flat, pushing all the air out of their lungs. They opened their eyes. They were whole but shaking. They were hungry. And thirsty. And afraid.
Home was 1000 kilometres away to the west. Before them lay the second line of defence of the city of Odessa, and right in front of them lay a village mounted on the top of a hillock, surrounded by orchards. The 4th Army was moving along the entirety of its front-line supported by German elements. An ant-hill of brown silhouettes with yellow armbands on their right arms was teeming across the steppe scorched dry by the August sun, brooded over by reconaissance aircraft, and the little ants in jackboots were heading at a brisk pace, with fixed bayonet, towards the rising sun which seemed to want to swallow them up.
Red dust clouds were being stirred up in the north where the 1st Armored Regiment was moving out, and on the horizon the humming of the Polikarpov aircraft coming to welcome them in could be heard, flying with the sun at their back, at 5oo metres, like a swarm of locusts. Small black clouds started appearing on the sky that hadn’t even turned blue yet, and the husky tobacco corrupted cough of the flak was filling in the gaps in the silence. The horses were neighing restlessly and the officers were yelling out at the men to dig fox-holes. As the Polikarpovs were flying over them changing course towards the positons to the ”Colonel Poenaru” Tactical Group, that had orders to take Hill 58 on the Makarovka-Vygoda line, they were on their stomachs hitting the dessicated ground with their shovels while the mortar fire from the village was creeping closer. The earth was vibrating with each new explosion.
Oproni wasn’t a very good shot, but he could dig. He was the first to finish his emplacement, hiding in it well, piling up all the extra dug-up earth in front of him in order to serve as shield. He poked his head out once in a while, watching the village that was 500 metres away, rising up from between the surrounding sun burnt orchards. One could only see the bloated wooden steeple of the church from the fox-hole. Meanwhile the mortar fire had died down. It seemed like they didn’t have a lot of ammunition, but the occupants wanted to let the Romanians know that they’re ready and waiting for them. Suddenly silence set in, and the wind that started to blow brought to their ears, from time to time, the dull thumps of an artillery barrage executed with grand enthusiasm by their German allies, who were methodically shwacking a sector of the front.
Oproni turned to the boy and the Red-Head smiled at him as he always did, but now the smile was maniacal and the eyes a bit gone. He was digging hurriedly while the others were cussing at the boy, out of fear he might get shot. But the village’s occupants didn’t seem too willing to scuffle. They were well hidden in the shade, waiting for the Romanians to break the ice. Or die of thirst. The sun was going up in the sky and Oproni could feel his skin getting hotter and his brains starting to simmer under his helmet.
The Captain had taken out the map, cursing the Lieutenant while the Corporal was watching them both, holding his tongue. The men were given orders to link their fox-holes and whip-up some trenches. The Captain had gotten lost and had lead them into the wrong sector because he couldn’t read the map. The Lieutenant, who was as illiterate in map reading, could not withstand or counter the scatologic erudition of the Captain. The Corporal, the only one who could correctly read the map, had no say in the matter. Because no one had asked his oppinion on anything. Yet.
Oproni tried falling asleep after linking his fox-hole with that of the red-haired boy. He had learned to take the war. It didn’t take him long. He fell asleep in an instant. He was dreaming of the fountain in the yard of his house in Zorani, the shade of the plum trees and his wife’s smell.
He was woken up by a nagging creaking noise. The earth was shaking. Somewhere on the left, off the road leading into the village, a string of Panzers was being silhouetted rising out of a dip in the ground, stirring up dust and noise, heading north. The tank commanders, in black uniforms covered in a copious layer of dust, were standing half out of their turrets, with goggles over their eyes and binoculars hanging from their necks, ears hooked into their radio head-sets. On each tank four or five Panzergrenadiers in feldgrau had climbed on, smoking and blinking spasmodically, scanning the horizon. The ones holding the village kept quiet, letting the column pass, waiting for the Romanians, because the Romanians were much move civilized guests than the Germans.
The Captain was hectic, waving his yellow armband, motioning wildly and quickly expending his German language vocabulary. Because he had no radio, his squeaky voice didn’t reach very far, and those on the tanks were waving back at him, not understanding his invitation, oozing away next to the road.
The planes came out of nowhere, the hoarse drone of the Ishachoks being drowned out by the racket of the tank engines and the squeaking of the tank treads. The Little Donkeys, as the Russian had nicknamed their stumpy, small and fast planes, were coming in drawing and arc, rounding the village at 200 metres altitude, coming low and flying by the Romanian positions, falling on the rear of the German column. Oproni noticed one of the pilots was blond. The tanks burst into sparks but the Little Donkeys had no big calibre guns. At besy they could chip the paint off the German armour. And deafen the crews inside. They knew this, but it was their duty to try. At least slow down their advance.
The Panzergrenadiers miraculously survived, getting away with a scare and hiding beneath the tanks while the Ishachoks were resuming their arc in order to try their luck again. The tank turrets swung into the direction of the oncoming planes, also ready to try their luck.
Oproni grunted every time a tank fired, gulping anxiously while the Red-Head took out his photographic camera and was taking snapshots enthusiastically. He had run ouf of film somewhere past Chișinău, but no one had the heart to tell the boy, or the courage, fearing Oproni as they did. The poor lad had a screw loose and Oproni cared for the boy so that no one bothered him. He knew the boy’s father well. The father owned a photography studio in Margina and Oproni had promised to look after the boy.
The Captain was getting ready to order the sector to open fire on the incoming aircraft when, from behind them, they could hear the cold and precise hum of the engine designed by Bayern Motor Werke, purring in the Messerschmidt’s fuselage with the marking of the Romanian Royal Air Force on it, flying by the four Ishachoks, climbing fast and breaking up the Russian formation. The Russian craft changed course trying to gain altitude and speed, but their enginer were strakly inferior and the Romanian pilot shot them down one by one like some big fat lazy sparrows that burst into flames slamming into the ground, adding to the columns of black smoke that started rising all over the front-line. The armored convoy set out again and the Messerschmidt disappeared to the north-east, dipping its wings from side to side at the Romanian positions in the form of good-bye.
The Captain was enthusiastically congratulating himself together with the Lieutenannt, the dilemma of the map being forgotten, while the Corporal looked on as calmy as before, rolling himself a cigarette. The Red-Head has quieted down and was sucking on a rock hard biscuit, trying to soften it. He quit and threw it away, falling into his hole, humming his lullaby.
It was quiet again and the sun had gottten right on top of them, pressing patiently on their skulls. The Captain was patroling the positions cockily, inspecting them, while the Corporal was coming right behind him, trying to present the smallest possible target. The Captain insisted on being saluted although the Corporal tried explaining, half-heartedly, to the boyar offspring that what he’s doing is not very intelligent. But the Captain wasn’t going to listen to a pleb. The were well past Oproni’s position when a shot rang out. A flock of titmice burst out of the high grass like the Captain’s brains did, curing him of his stupidity. The Russian sniper had waited patiently for the Captain’s idiocy to be reveal itself to him in all its splendor, in order to confirm his rank. His bullets were reserved for a special category of fool. The Corporal murmured ”oh, mother!”, the Lieutenant yelled out from a firing hole ”light the fuckers up!” and the whole sector opened fire. Somewhere from inside the village two heavy machine guns wryly engaged in dialogue, follow by some flegmatic mortar fire, then quiet set in again, dotted here and there by swearing and the Corporal’s voice yelling for a medic.
The men were thirsty. And hungry. The Lieutenant sent a runner to ask about the mobile field kitchen and it was well past noon when the boy came back atop a wagon drawn by a nag that could barely breathe the air that had acquired the consistency of melted wax. In the wagon there were two enormous kettles and a barrel of water.
They unloaded the barrel and put it aside, getting ready to unload the kettles when the dull cough of the mortar tube could be heard, spitting its shell at their position. They all ducked for cover, except the horse that was weakly and without much conviction trying to pull a weed out by its roots. A big popping sound was heard and the horse, wagon and kettles disappeared in a plume of smoke. It was raining cabbage ciorba, planks, bits of wheel and horse chunks. Someone let out a ”fucking hell” sourly, and the each started rolling a cigarette in unison, puffing happily, knowing that at least the water barrel had been spared. ”Beginner’s luck” said someone, not even deigning to spit spitefully towards the enemy positions.
They drank copiously and the sun seemed to abate its burning when they were disturbed by the sound of a Kübelwagen advancing neurotically towards their positions. Two officers and a radio-man got out of the staff car. The officers headed towards the Lieutenant, incensed, arguing with him mutely, because he didn’t understand what they were saying and they didn’t know how to say it so that could make themselves understood. The Radio-Man was looking at the Corporal and the Corporal was just shrugging, bored. The Corporal asked the Radio-Man for a cigarette, they started talking, found out the Radio-Man is from Charlottenburg and knew Romanian. The Corporal was from Remetea Mică and spoke pidjin German and finally the Romanian side understood what the German side was demanding of it. The remarks of ”Scheißschlamassel, Schweinerei, die feindliche Positionen schenllstmöglich übernehmen, aber dalli!” were translated by the Radio-Man from Charlottenburg into ”They respectfully request that you occupy the enemy positions in order to free up this sector. The Officer does not want to be delayed. More than he already has been.” The Lieutenant nodded curtly and the Corporal passed down the order. Oproni sighed tiredly, checked the catch of his ZB rifle, told the Read-Head to stay behind him, stuffing hand-grenades into his pocket.
The staff car left, leaving the Radio-Man behind in case a liason with the artillery elements was needed.
The orders were passed down from man to man along the line and the company was waiting for the order.
”Come on!” hissed the Lieutenant without much heart and the plutoons were on the move, trying to cover the 5oo metre stretch of open ground as fast a possible, heading for the shade of the orchards.
Oproni had fixed his gaze on the church steeple, his head empty. The first gusts of evening wind were blowing, cooling them. They had managed 200 metres and no one had fired on them yet. They were waiting to hit them dead on. Oproni started scanning the winding of the ground, looking for a place he could duck into should he still be alive after the first burst of gunfire. The Read-Head was at his back prancing like a gangly kid.
They made it whole to the edge of the orchard. There was shade and the air was cool. It smelled of peaches, apples and plums. The quiet had gobbled them up. The hillock rose gently at first and then it steepened and Oproni could see the fences of the first huts through the trees. The Lieutenant motioned them to stop. Some were looking for fallen fruit on the ground, nagged by hunger. The Lieutenant ordered them to fix bayonets. There was a chance of hand to hand combat.
They moved out again. It was getting dark. Oproni was sweating and felt like he was burning up inside. They started climbing up the slope when something clacked and a voice rang out.
”Streliat!” someone yelled out hoarsely and noise crashed down into the orchard, lit up by the muzzle flash of a heavy machine gun. Oproni threw himself on top of the Red-Head, tasting dust. Leaves and branches were falling amongst the moaning and the gasping. Some grenades popped and the machine gun fell silent. They moved up a few more metres and the company was hit in its left flank by machine gun bursts and grenades. They replied with grenades and rifle fire. Silence. The Russian machine gunners were firing short bursts from concealed positions then retreating, melting into thin air like ghosts, swallowed up by silence.
The Lieutenant was cussing and ordered a bayonet charge. He managed to get on his knees and the burst of fire opened him up as if someone had pulled on a hidden zipper concealed under his skin, and the Lieutenant came undone, splattered on the steep slope. The Corporal called the retreat and the company ran for it pushed along by some mortar fire.
The sky was livid and the wind rose up red dust-devils swirling on the horizon. In the orchard birds were chirping and the Red-Head was snapping shots again, smiling dumbly. Oproni nestled into the trench watching the sky darken slowly, like a photograph developing backwards, unable to close his eyes.
In the moonlight the Kukuruznik was lurking, letting its shadow lap the ground. Most of the men were sleeeping, and Oproni was thinking about writing a letter home. The Red-Head was talking in his sleep to his father about lenses and exposure. Oproni started ferreting around in his knapsack after a pencil and paper, thinking about writing to his wife in the bluish light, but he changed his mind. The chatter of the aircraft gave him no peace. He crawled out of his hole leaving his weapon behind and taking his shovel, heading away from the trenches, looking for a spot out of the way. Thick cloud cover was coming in from the south, from the sea, passing quickly, covering the moon. Oproni stopped and started digging a small hole to relieve himself. The darkness had engulfed him. The Kukuruznik went to sleep.
He squatted. The quiet was deep and Oproni thought he could hear the waves hitting the shore a few kilometres away. He had never seen the sea. He got dressed and headed for his position groping his way in. The clouds had thickened and a dense darkness had set over the earth. He stumbled over somone and started swearing and the fuss woke up the whole sector. Someone who had fallen asleep in his post came to shaprly and started firing in the darkness. The Russians in the village replied and the night filled with tracers. The firefight died down quickly. They were tired. And sick of it. The Red-Head slept through it all. Oproni propped himself on the trench wall and fell asleep.
On the second day the Corporal set off with the Radio-Man towards the command post to report the deaths of the Captain and the Lieutenant. They weren’t in much of a hurry. The men were ravenous but hid in the trenches keeping clear of the sun as best they could while it was mercilessly singeing them. Water had become scarce again and the men were morose. Ravens and magpies had gathered in the orchard, attracted by the remains of those who hadn’t made it our alive. Oproni could hear the ravens cawing with pleasure. The Russians in the village sent some mortar shells over before noon and then probably just hid in the shade. The Red-Head was watching the sky, smoking, singing his lullaby and smiling.
The wind had stopped and it was like a bell jar filled with heat had set over them, drowning out sound. The Red-Head was talking about food. Obsessively.
Before sunset, the Corporal returned on his own, carrying a shoddy trolley along which held a small barrel of tepid water. And no food. The men asked him what’s going on and he just shrugged disgustedly letting them fill up their canteens. They were going to receive new orders, but he didn’t know exactly when. The Germans had had enough of it and had left the sector, looking for a fight someplace else. The front had moved, a breakthrough had been achieved and they were making a push against Odessa’s last line of defence. As for them, they were just left stranded there, facing the village, forgotten. They had to stay put until someone remembered they existed.
Night was coming on slowly and the men were dozing, startled once in a while by the gluttonous cawing of the ravens that were still feasting. Oproni fell into a fretful sleep, nagged by fear and hunger. The hoot of an owl woke him up. His belly was aching. He looked to his right searching for the Red-Head but the boy was gone. The others were fast asleep. Here and there someone snored, but quietly, knowing even in sleep to make as little noise as possible. The Russians in the village were sleeping as well. The moon was up in the sky and silence reigned.
From the orchard he could hear rustling and a muted giggle. Oproni went to wake up the Corporal but the man sweared at him through gritted teeth and turned over, falling back into sleep. Oproni returned to the trench and pricked up his ears. The rustling had stopped. The Russians seemed unaware that they were having company. Oproni wanted to laugh and didn’t know why. He took his weapon, crossed himself and started crawling towards the orchard. The night was warm, but he was shivering, ice blocks passing along his spine. He moved slowly, making his way through the tall grass, trying to make as little noise as possbile. If he could get his hand on the Red-Head and they would be both safely back, then he would have him sent to the field hospital, so a doctor could check up on him. Before beating some sense back into the boy. It was clear the boy needed to be taken off the line. He would write to the boy’s father who had some acquaintances inside the War Ministry.
Oproni felt tired. He turned on his back to rest, watching the stars. He fell asleep without knowing it.
He woke up as the sky started to turn red before dawn. He started up, remembering where he was and crawled to the edge of the orchard. The darkness seemed to have caught fire unde the drought exhausted trees. Sunrise was coming on. Holding his breath he started looking for the boy. He found him asleep under an apple tree, with a smile spread over his lips, getting wider. His knapsack was full of fruit. He was preparing to hit him awake with the butt of his rifel when Oproni felt something poking the small of his back. He heard a hoarse and thin voice speaking to him in Russian. He froze. He let his rifle drop. And turned slowly.
There were five of them. Small and dirty. The seemed like maidens playing soldier. The one threatening him with her gun motioned him to keep his hands up. Another one, her head shaved bald sporting a black eye, headed for the Red-Head kicking him in the ribs with her boot. The boy jumped to his feet, whimpering. When he saw the women threatening him with their guns, he started laughing. The one with the hoarse voice was watching Oproni with a questioning look and he was trying to explain that the boy’s mind was gone. He tried smiling at her but the woman sneered at him as if she had just tasted something horribly bitter. A blonde stubby one gathered their weapons and checked the Red-Head’s knapsack. She found the camera and the fruit taken from the orchard. Oproni started praying in his head. The Red-Head was still laughing when one of them hit him in the stomach with a rifle butt. The boy fell to his knees coughing and shuddering with laughter.
The hoarse one cocked her gun. Oproni closed his eyes, thinking of his wife. What was she doing that morning? He was hearing someone count down in Russian. Were they counting them down? Should they be running? Or were they playing hide and seek? Should they be doing the hiding or the seeking? The Red-Head’s laughter had turned histerical. Oproni could feel the light of the sun on his eyes, burning out the darkness from the world. The countdown had reached zero, Oproni heard a dull pop and his ears started ringing. The Red-Head’s laughter had stopped.
He opened his eyes and watched the boy, who was smiling distractedly at the sky that could be seen through the trees in the orchard. A third eye had opened on his forehead through which the boy could now see what Oproni couldn’t fathom could be seen without eyes. The man started laughing, unable to take it anymore. The women watched him silently and then turned their backs on him, taking with them the knapsack and the camera of the boy from Margina.
Oproni slinked through the soft morning air, heading slowly towards the trenches, bursting into laughter. He passed everyone still asleep and Oproni was laughing, passing the Corporal who was rolling a cigarette unfazed, watching him with eyebrow raised, asking Oproni what was so damn funny. He got scared when he saw the man’s eyes. He asked Oproni again what was so damn funny. Oproni shrugged moving his head from side to side, knowing no one could understand, and headed home.
They commited him into a first aid centre and took him to the back of the line. They diagnosed him with battle shock and exhaustion. In a month he was back home in Zorani, in the shade, with his head in his wife’s lap. Still laughing. Trying to forget it all.
This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2017-2018 book.
Photo credit: Iulia Cotrău