The reason for my three-year-old son’s caprice was that there was no hot bread on the morning table. My attempts to calm the baby were in vain: he protested even more, and his whining grew into a loud cry. Then he began throwing pieces of bread on the table, which he was offered.
– Get that stubborn man out of my sight! – at one moment shouted angrily my father, who had been watching us in silence, frowning his eyebrows.
Not expecting such a reaction from my father, I froze for a moment. Then, without paying attention to me, I began to put pieces of cake in one pile and in turn kissed and brought them to the forehead.
– Take your son and leave the room! Now! – now my dad collected crumbs of bread from the table in the palm of his hand.
The little one, who had never seen grandfather so formidable before, cried out completely. And indeed, my father was always discreet and courteous. I took my son into my arms and headed for the door.
From an offense and anger I started shaking, and already at the door I said:
– Daddy, he is still a child. Quite small… Think about it, I was naughty. And so sometimes it is possible to get out of the house to see you, and you…
The father kept silent, instead he brought bread crumbs to his mouth and swallowed them, drinking tea at the end.
With displeasure I went to another room, where I hugged a pillow and cried bitterly. And so, I lay until my mother, brother and sister-in-law came to call me for lunch. No matter how much they begged and begged, I was adamant. Hugging my son, without saying a word, I looked somewhere far away. When the child fell asleep, my father appeared at the door. He held a plate with food in one hand and a cake in the other.
– Daughter, you have to eat on time, or you will ruin your stomach.
Having said that, he laid his handkerchief on the floor and carefully put bread and food.
– And then you may have a stomach ulcer. You know, there is no worse disease than this. It can be very painful.
I noticed how his strong hands, entangled with bloated veins, trembled. Deep wrinkles made his face look even more beautiful. For a moment, my father shifted his tired look to me. Seeing my determined mood, he took a deep breath and sat down in a chair in the corner of the room.
– It’s Sunday – he said sadly and looked towards the flowering apricot tree, and, in my opinion, revived a little. – It’s a spring Sunday! Spring has come! Warm days have come, the tree has begun to blossom. April in the yard. Mother Nature will unfold in all its glory. The charming smell of spring fills every cell of our bodies…
And then he rested his one hand on the window sill, the second opened the window sash. And I still sat silently and motionlessly, demonstrating my resentment. I stroked the fluffy hair of my sleeping son in order not to look at my father.
– And during the war, spring was the same – my father continued, thoughtfully wiping his palms.
– Spring awakening of nature blunted the horror of the war, helped to survive, to forget the reality, to endure what was happening around. At such moments shots from a happy childhood came up: here I am among my beloved parents, my sister, who was destined to live only four years. I can clearly see my father’s intelligent face, kind mother with her beautiful black scythe. But a hail of bullets and projectiles, shattering us, a heavy landing of caterpillars, shrill squeals of flying airplanes brought me back to reality.
And then I wanted to run out of the trench and shout loudly:
– Why do we spill each other’s blood? Why does this happen?
A bitter lump in my throat was choking me all the time trying to get out with a loud scream. At the same time, I could not express my thoughts, ask questions that tormented me. The realization that you are shooting at a completely alien person who has not caused you anything harm was painful and tormenting.
At such moment’s German guys – Karl, Sebastian, Paul – stood before my eyes at one side, and I with my comrades on the other. Why do we kill each other? Because before the war I lived in Margilan, and they lived in Munich or Dresden. There was no end to my thinking…
Daddy started talking about the war for the first time. Before, we talked to him very often on different topics, but he always tried to avoid this one. Papa got a family, children very late in life. When I was born, he was over fifty years old, so my brother and I became a light in the window: he literally trembled at us, cherished in every way.
On warm spring and summer evenings after work, Daddy used to put us on his bike and ride around the city. Then we would sit on a bench in front of the fountain and enjoy our favorite chocolate ice cream. And then Daddy told us interesting stories from his life, and even then, not a word about the war. When my brother or I were interested in his military exploits, he immediately changed the topic.
– …In Ukraine, not far from Lviv, our company was captured. On the train on the way to Poland, I did not leave the painful reflections and thoughts. We were taken to the outskirts of Krakow to the Auschwitz concentration camp – the most terrible and scary place in the world. The Germans called it Auschwitz, the local population – “death camp”.
The camp was divided into three settlements. Together with other prisoners, I was taken to the second ward. More and more prisoners entered the camp every day and were divided into four groups by the Germans. The first group included all those who were found unfit for work: first of all, the sick, the deep old, the disabled, children, elderly women, and men, who also arrived in bad health, of medium height or weak physique. Poor people immediately went to the gas chambers, where they found a terrible, painful death. Then their bodies were burned in crematoriums. In the second group, healthy, strong prisoners were selected for the hardest slave labor in the industrial enterprises around the concentration camp. The third group included twins, dwarves, people with unnatural physical characteristics, who then went to various medical experiments with the doctors of the Third Reich. The fourth group, mostly beautiful women, were selected for personal use by the Germans as servants or given over to the laundries and canteens of military units.
As part of the second group, I was sent to work in heavy industry, which was half an hour from the concentration camp. Spare parts for tanks were produced at the factory, so the work was extremely heavy and harmful. The premises were so stuffy that by the middle of the day the prisoners became incapacitated. All day long, like slaves, we had to listen to the severe insults of the German guards and tolerate their whipping. We were fed with broth of potato peel and stale black bread.
In the evening, on the way to the barracks, many impoverished prisoners were lying down with fatigue, and then the annoyed Germans simply shot them. Someone gathered all courage and strength and reached the brick buildings, but on the way up to the next floor he lost consciousness. He also followed his comrades to the other world.
We worked even on Sundays. Here, life and death went hand in hand. When machines failed or were to be repaired, we, the prisoners, were forced to have a day off, which was in the spring and summer months. On such days, we were taken to a large square surrounded by a wire fence and kept under the open sky, be it rain, hail, or the unbearable heat.
In our part of the camp there were four gas chambers and as many crematoriums. On weekends, we often watched the prisoners being led into these cells. Among them, we could see very young ones. Everyone knew that after some time they would be burned alive. While our clouded consciousnesses were trying to digest the situation, a monstrous smell was coming out of the crematorium chimneys, from which we were all turned away. And there were more and more ashes of the dead near the crematorium, and they eventually turned into a whole mountain. Prisoners brought to work in crematoriums, one after another, took into their cars what was left of the poor people. It is painfully bitter to realize that only recently they were alive and steadfast in their imminent death.
Once, if I am not mistaken, in April of 1944, on another day off we were dragged to the site. The prisoners, exhausted by hunger and difficult conditions, resembled living corpses: they gathered in one place with difficulty while moving. The prisoners were seized by fear because it was Easter. Everyone knew that on the festive days, the Germans entertained themselves in every way, mocking the prisoners.
For example, they organized running competitions: the first one who reached the finish line remained alive, and the other three were immediately waiting to die from a hail of bullets. If they wanted to listen to the song, they ordered several prisoners to stand in formation along the wire fence. One acted as a soloist; others sang with the choir. Woe performers were forced to sing songs praising the Nazis. The worst thing was when the prisoners were forced to run back and forth with their right hand raised, with a loud cry “Heil Hitler!”, which gave them a great pleasure. Especially this “entertainment game” was widely used when Jews were led into gas chambers. The prisoners, raising their right hands high without taking a breath, had to greet the leader of the Nazis and escort the doomed into the arms of death. If someone did not do it properly, he would follow the Jews to the gas chamber.
But this time the guards seemed serious. There was no trace of the festive mood, and in the faces of these brutal guards unbridled vigilance and caution were reflected. It also turned out to be suspicious that the commandant himself was carrying out the inspection. The SS men, with automatic rifles in their hands, stood humbly beside the wire fence. From afar, a black car appeared. At the sound of the approaching vehicle, the commandant and his assistants ran out of their block and lined up in a row.
The car stopped right in front of us. Because of the rain that did not stop all night, it was covered with mud and clay.
– Heil Hitler! – the commandant and soldiers greeted the guest in one voice.
The military official greeted everyone and began to look around. He was tired and looking sadly at the ash mountain near the crematorium, at the gray and horrible barracks. Then, he approached the wire fence and began to watch the prisoners.
He was a broad-shouldered, statuesque man of forty-five to fifty years old. Accidentally, his gaze fell on my side and he called me to his place with gestures. Here, an interpreter approached the chief.
– Are you Jewish? – the officer asked, looking at me from head to toe.
The young interpreter translated every word he said.
– No, an Uzbek… – I answered without raising my head.
– Do you see the car? – he pointed at his car.
– Yes, I did…
– In half an hour you have to clean the car. The time has been going by…
The first time I did not hear his instructions, only after the second explanation I nodded my head as a sign of consent.
The driver of the car and one SS man brought a bucket of water, a rag, and I settled down to work.
For the first time in my life, I stood beside such a progress of technique, watched it with my own eyes and touched with my hands. Before that, I only looked at them in post cards. My father had a well-known caravanserai in the district. There I had to meet a Kokand arba and phaetons of Russian officers. During the collectivization, it was taken away from my father and then I never saw anything like this again. And here in front of me is a real car – black, shiny, with a soft seat and a lot of devices. Behind the body I could see the name “Mercedes”.
Despite the exhausted strength and fainting, I wiped the car shiny. Having finished my work, I returned to the ranks of prisoners. I sat down on the ground and leaned on a wire fence and breathed. The chief, accompanied by the commandant, left the building, and started checking my work. He circled the car, walked around the body with his index finger and was satisfied. Then he shouted something out to the commandant, who in turn gave instructions to the soldier standing nearby.
Meanwhile, the chief, leaning against the body of the car, smoked. Soon, a soldier appeared, holding a whole plate of white fresh bread. The chief together with him approached the fence and called me. When I came to him, he patted me on my bony shoulder and said that the contents of the plate were now mine. There were slices of white bread in the saucer, the smell of which made my heart beat faster and I almost lost consciousness. After hugging the food, I hurried back. Seeing five dozen eyes, I felt uncomfortable. At that moment I wanted to close my eyes and eat delicious bread, but my conscience did not allow me to act selfishly.
– Take, Umar! – I first approached my Tashkent friend. He did not immediately dare to stretch out his hand, but after the second time I offered the bread to him, he broke off a piece and put it in his mouth. And he returned the remaining half on the saucer.
– Look, what bread! – I said when I approached a young boy from Tajikistan. – Naufal, try it.
He also took only half of the slice. The rest of the prisoners did the same. The last slice was given to a Kazakh comrade.
When I returned an empty plate to the soldier, the chief came to me:
– Are you crazy? – he said nervously. – It was a reward for your clean work. Instead of satisfying hunger yourself, you gave everything to the last crumb to others. Why did you do this?
Before my eyes, like a film, flashed a young wife of Umar Islambekov, who had children before our captivity, the old mother of Naufal, Niyazov’s father, who lost one leg, and many others.
– Why did you do this? – he repeated his question.
– Because in the Homeland their native, favorite people are waiting for them… And nobody is waiting for me… – my voice trembled.
Having heard my answer, the officer took a deep breath. And then I looked into his eyes. In his tired look, I could see something else, human. For a moment he thought, then threw a cigarette and looked around. With sorrow, he looked at the crematorium, at the mountain of ashes, and said: “Got vergib uns, wir sind alle Geschöpfe”.*
After giving instructions to the commandant, he headed for the car. On the way he looked in my direction and whispered something to the interpreter. When the black car disappeared from view, the SS man led me, on the instructions of the interpreter, I did not know where. At these moments, as if feeling guilty in front of me, my friends pressed harder and harder against the wire fence. Their eyes full of pity and despair accompanied me towards the imminent death.
– Islambekov, Chariev, Niyazov … My friends, do not remember me wistfully …
As we walked, my whole life flashed before my eyes. Mom, dad, sister… Our house… The garden with the duck trees…
But the thought that there was no one to mourn me helped to accept death. On the way, everything whispered a prayer that I learned as a child. But somehow the soldier took me to the dining room. I followed him silently, then he ordered me to sit down at the table. Very soon, the cook brought food on the tray: a few slices of white bread, steak, and apricot juice.
While I was digesting what was happening, the interpreter was sitting in front of me.
– The Brigadeführer** ordered me to feed you. That you sit, eat…
With trembling hands I lifted a spoon. The translator, having taken out a notebook from his pocket, began to consider a small photo of some woman.
– Tasty bread? – he asked with a smile.
In response, I nodded my head. With shaking lips, I broke the bread and started to eat meat. Immediately, I felt a burst of energy.
– Do not be shy about it. Eat it, you’re welcome – it is already lunch time.
And your friends will soon be fed. From today on, you will be properly fed. Instead of boiled potato peel, you will eat potatoes in uniform. This is an order of the Brigadeführer.
Having put the spoon on the dish, I shifted my astonished gaze to it for a moment. He, not paying attention to this, cheerfully asked:
– What is your name?
For the first time, I could see the translator so close. He was the same age as me, about twenty-five years old. He was a nice, kind guy.
– My name is Odil – I answered.
– And me – Richard. I taught Russian at the Berlin University. Unfortunately, I was not able to finish it. In 1938, I was drafted into the army and remained there through the war.
Richard was still with me for a little while, got up and headed for the door. Turning back, he looked at me, then at the still life hanging on the wall.
– Very soon your troops will reach these places as well. There is not much left … It will be over soon.
Nine months later, at the end of January 1945, a Soviet army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Umar Islambekov did not see the day, shortly before he died of typhoid. But he was very young, he married at the age of 18 and left for the front at 19. Naufal hanged himself in the deep autumn. And how many of my friends and comrades could not withstand the harsh life of a concentration camp, and this terrible place was their last refuge. Only me, Niyazov and a few more managed to survive in the death camp.
…Many years have passed since then, but those days are still alive in my memory. Especially on such spring days I remember that magical Sunday of 1944, the story of white bread, when those happy faces of the prisoners who tasted a piece of the most delicious delicacy stand before my eyes. I remember my enemies – Brigadier and interpreter Richard, who in spite of everything, showed mercy and compassion. Perhaps among them were the same ones, who did not find answers to many questions that tormented them. And seeing so much blood, death, and conscience around them, they still woke up in their stale souls. This explains the action of that officer.
Daddy was silent. Finally, I got up and went to the window. The room became cool, so I shut the window. Standing there for a while, I got closer to my father. I wanted to say something to him. He was looking somewhere far away, his hands clinging to the handle of the chair were shaking.
– Daddy, forgive me… – I rushed into his arms.
I cried, Daddy cried too.
– You know… you know, my daughter… every piece of bread, every little one means a lot to me. I still want to share my bread with them…
* Got vergib uns, wir sind alle Geschöpfe – God have mercy on us, animals that have lost their human form.
** Brigadeführer – a special rank of senior officials of the SS, corresponding to the army rank of major general.