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Soft tales from a refuge camp ( prologue )

Unde este prea multă desteptăciune este si multă prostie.
Where there is too much cleverness, there is also a lot of stupidity.

—Romanian adage

It was late evening on October 9, 1944, at the Kremlin. In the spacious smoke-filled room, seven men gathered around an antique table richly adorned with intricate carvings. Five of them sat at the beautifully finished table, a pair facing the other three. Another two, of much lesser importance, respectfully stood at a small distance behind them.
On a baroque guéridon between two heavily curtained bay windows, a Chinese vase from the Ming period containing huge white chrysanthemums enlivened the otherwise austere surroundings. A large painting, signed “Shishkin” in Cyrillic, hung on the opposite wall. Ilya Shishkin was a nineteenth-century Muscovite artist who understood better than anyone else the melancholic poetry of the Russian countryside, which he rendered with unrivalled authenticity in his landscapes. The table was made of precious wood in Italy in 1880 for Czar Alexander II. It now belonged, as everything in the Kremlin, to the people of the Soviet Union, who enjoyed such valuable possessions through their self-styled representatives only.
The Moscow Kremlin was initially a fortified wooden enclosure masterfully rebuilt by Italian architects in brick and stone sometime in the fourteenth century. Within its anachronistic walls provided with ramparts, towers and battlements, this venerable structure contained an old imperial palace and other more modern official buildings of a variety of architectural styles, each reflecting some past era of Russian history. At the end of their successful struggle for power and after obliterating the ruling czars, victorious Bolsheviks made the Kremlin their headquarters. In the 1930s, its name became synonymous with communist imperialistic policies, which during World War II were willingly forgotten by Allied politicians eager to see the Kremlin exclusively as a symbol of resistance against Hitlerism.
The two principal characters at the meeting were both short of build, stocky, and smoked heavily. The one who was cleanly shaven preferred Havana cigars and the other, a stern looking man with a graying moustache, favored a briar pipe. Carefully dressed for the occasion, the former in a dinner jacket and the latter in a simple but fine military uniform without any particular sign of rank or medals, they sat relaxed at the table under the glittering crystal chandelier, conversing amiably through their interpreters, Major Birse and Comrade Pavlov. Their origins, background, and behavior were worlds apart.
The civilian was Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s prime minister, scion of one of the oldest British noble families, related to many kings, several long dead but some still alive. Trained as a cavalry officer, he had studied in the best schools, painted acceptable watercolors as a hobby, and wrote history when he wasn’t involved in politics. His position at the table was largely due to the will of his people expressed in democratic elections.
The soldier, Joseph Dzhugashvily, was a defrocked priest of humble origins and an ex-bloodthirsty bandit known worldwide as Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union. He had ascended to his current position by ruthlessly killing friends and foes alike, having a hand in the extermination of almost an entire Russian imperial family, and was solely responsible for the assassination of millions of his countrymen. He survived by bullying his colleagues into submission and by terrorizing, torturing, and brainwashing his people.
The two leaders had only a few things in common, one being that—for the moment—both were invested with extraordinary powers and commanded huge armies deployed on vast expanses of land and sea. Each separately controlled the life and death of approximately a fifth of the earth’s population. They also liked the good life and strong drink and—because they had eaten a fine dinner just before the meeting—were satisfied and friendly, like two big cats basking in the sun after a filling meal.
The topic of discussion was Poland, the country whose invasion by Germany had caused the war they were currently winning. As always, this was a delicate issue. To make things more complicated, each of the two leaders had a different government for Poland. The legitimate one was in London, where its members had taken refuge after their country’s occupation. It organized armed resistance behind German lines and recruited troops formed from Polish émigrés, who died gallantly by the thousands, side by side with the British, on several fronts around the world. The other was in Lublin, a small industrial city in eastern Poland, where it had been staged only days before by Stalin’s henchmen. This puppet government had already accepted the Soviet annexation of almost half their country’s ancestral territory. They would later be rewarded with an equivalent span of land taken from the vanquished Germans. For the moment, however, the Muscovite bosses needed time to consolidate their position. The proposal to bring representatives of both Polish governments to Moscow for mediation was therefore accepted with relief by the two leaders.
While Churchill naively hoped for free elections in Poland at the end of the war, as Stalin shrewdly let him believe would happen, the Soviet dictator knew better. His armies had already seized the entire Polish territory and had unchallenged control over the so-called Lublin provisional government, in which several members were Russian subjects, one of them being a field marshal of the Soviet Union. Indeed, after that fateful evening, Poland didn’t enjoy free elections or any real political freedom for almost half a century.
During a short pause, Sir Archibald Kerr, the British ambassador who was seated beside the prime minister, opened his attaché case and produced a picture in a silver frame. It was Churchill’s autographed photograph, which he offered Stalin as a sign of appreciation.
So far, the evening’s discussions had gone smoothly. Years later, in his memoirs, Churchill would confess his lasting impression of the special treatment given him during that fated meeting. Coming from war-weary Britain, where not only food but also the simplest amenities of civilized life, such as hot water, were sometimes missing or rationed, the extravagant luxury of Russian hospitality overwhelmed him. He had been smitten with delighted enchantment by Stalin’s friendly manners and was in a concessionary mood. Churchill’s joviality further increased when the door opened and a blonde maid dressed in austere black and wearing a starched white apron rolled in a table of drinks. Four tall good-looking butlers followed, also dressed in black and carrying big trays of food. All five were colonels in the KGB, the Soviet secret police, trained as high-class waiters. On the trays were fine china bowls filled to the brim with black and red caviar, flat gold-rimmed plates loaded with smoked sturgeon and shrimp puffs, lobster on barquettes, and piles of smoked salmon canapés. The group came to a stop, accompanied by a faint clink as the bottles of brandy, vodka, and a fine selection of wines jingled together.
Outside that room, it was bitterly cold, and Russia was hungry. After the Bolshevik revolution and throughout the war, the lack of food was endemic. At that precise moment in many parts of the Soviet realm, people were dying of starvation and hypothermia. In the Kremlin, however, there was no shortage of any kind. The waiters immediately started to serve.
“The Balkans!” Anthony Eden, the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, whispered into the ear of the prime minister, who was just enjoying a sip of vodka. It was an appropriate reminder. The Soviets had already swamped Romania and Bulgaria with several divisions, fast advancing west and south. There were numerous disoriented Allied agents and British partisans in those countries, especially in Romania. If not stopped, the Red Army could also easily occupy Greece, where that prospect had caused a strong communist upheaval. A fratricidal civil war seemed imminent in that country, jeopardizing Britain’s major interests in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India. There were too many dangers lurking behind the scenes for comfort. Churchill put down the glass with a sigh. He really liked that vodka, but the time had come for serious business.
Comrade Pavlov took some time to translate the prime minister’s introductory remarks and proposals. In the meantime, Churchill scribbled country names and figures on a piece of scrap paper, which he then pushed across the table to Stalin. As an overture, he offered Romania and Bulgaria to the Soviets in exchange for Greece, with shared control of Yugoslavia thrown in as a bonus.
Stalin considered the proposal with a poker face. There was a sense of mounting tension in the air. Everything in the room was silent except for the antique grandfather clock, the work of the eighteenth-century Swedish clock maker Gustav Nylander, which diligently tick-tocked the seconds away. As all watched, Stalin made a large tick on the paper with his blue pencil, showed it for a moment to Molotov, his foreign minister, and passed the note back to the British. “Khorosho. Very well,” he said.
In less than a minute, the fate of over a hundred million people was sealed. The Iron Curtain had fallen, and a long night of horrors descended over a significant portion of Europe as other countries were included in the deal during the next few days. The British prime minister knew his deed was unethical and regretted it for the rest of his life until he died at the age of ninety-one in 1965. Stalin died in 1953 at the age of seventy-four, but he never regretted a thing.
The tension dissipated. Churchill took the glass and raised it toward the Russians. “God bless you,” he toasted, to the surprise of his company. It was a blunder, for everyone knew Stalin and his comrade Molotov were inveterate atheists and hated anything religious. Nevertheless, they all smiled, drank the finest Russian vodka, and were merry.
* * *
While the conviviality went on in the Kremlin, on a beeline two thousand kilometers southwest across the Russian steppes, right in the middle of the Romanian plains in Bucharest, the Popescu family celebrated Stefan’s eleventh birthday.
No big party could have been organized for that year’s anniversary. Six weeks earlier, the Russians had invaded their country; and since then, food had become scarcer by the day. People were also reluctant to go out at night, with so many unruly Soviet soldiers roaming the streets raping and robbing the passersby.
Food scarcity notwithstanding, Paula, Stefan’s mother, had tried her best and prepared—from whatever she could find through relatives—a special diner, which was, in fact, the only enjoyable part of the evening. The four previous years of war and now the foreign occupation as well as the heavy fighting with the Germans were on everyone’s mind. Bleak expectation was the prevailing mood in Romania during that fall, filled with uncertainty, and the small gathering at the Popescu was no exception. Among those present were Dan and Mircea, Stefan’s schoolmates living next door; his cousin George; his uncle Alexandru, his mother’s youngest brother; and Maria, his father’s sister, with her husband Dumitru, the parents of cousin George.
Stefan’s family lived in a rented apartment with a tiny dining room. His father, Andrei Popescu, was a public high school teacher, a category of employees that was always poorly paid by succeeding Romanian governments. He was a scholarly and honest man who would never have accepted presents from his pupils in exchange for better marks as some of his colleagues did in order to improve their standard of living. He neither involved himself in politics nor in the black market, which were rewarding pastimes for many of his countrymen, especially during the war. Andrei’s record was rather unusual in a society prone to survive through the use of shady deals inherited from the Byzantine. Admired but poor, his family’s modest lifestyle reflected Andrei’s moral and ethical standards.
Guests and family stood about or sat around the dining room table, extended and festively decorated for the occasion. Apart from being crowded into a small room, the party had so far been a culinary success. Paula was an accomplished cook and, knowing her guests well, had prepared a beloved dish for each of them.
The grown-ups talked quietly, their voices subdued to almost a whisper. Dumitru, a surgeon at the Central Emergency Hospital, had just broken the news about the spread of exanthematous typhus brought by the lice-ridden Russian troops, which raged not only across the countryside but also in the big cities. The hospitals were overcrowded, and several terminal cases were recorded every day, lately even in the capital. A vaccination campaign had started, but so far, the epidemic hadn’t shown any sign of slowing down.
“This is the seventh time in our history that the Russians have invaded us, and they have always brought with them long-lasting occupation, famine, death, and diseases. The last time it was cholera. Before, the plague. Now typhus fever. What else is new?” Andrei said.
“And this is only the beginning,” Dumitru murmured, shaking his head. “I hear the communists are ready to take over the government and install a regime of terror.”
“The communists? No way! They don’t have more than a hundred members in the whole country. Who will follow them?” Andrei asked.
“There are already more than that, compliments of the Red Army,” Dumitru said.
“A bunch of foreign agitators. Nobody in his right mind will listen to them,” said Andrei, who—as a youth—had had to fight hard for his rights. Brought up in the northern part of Romania, which prior to the First World War had been under Austro-Hungarian rule, he was a patriot and couldn’t believe someone would consciously give up freedom.
“You haven’t heard about Poland, have you?” Maria, his sister, asked. “Dumitru’s friend, who works for the British embassy, told us how a few days ago, the Soviets imposed their own government in defiance of the legal one. He also heard rumors about thousands of unwarranted arrests, torture cases, and assassinations. What do you have to say about that?”
“Rumors,” Stefan’s father deprecatingly said. “I don’t believe in rumors.”
“These are not rumors. And by the way, do you remember Katyn? Have you forgotten those Poles buried in common graves, all shot in the back of their heads by Stalin’s butchers?” Maria’s voice trembled.
Katyn is a wooded area in eastern Russia where Polish prisoners were shot and buried in common graves when the Soviet Union, in complicity with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland in September 1939.
“That was Nazi propaganda. Apparently, the Germans killed those Poles, not the Russians. Didn’t they, Alexandru?” Andrei looked inquiringly at his brother-in-law, waiting for confirmation.
“How can you say that?” Dumitru cried without giving Alexandru a chance to answer. “A Red Cross international commission of experts from neutral countries clearly implicated the Russians. Even General Sikorsky, the Polish leader in exile, agreed with their conclusion. Were they lying?”
“They were all misled into believing that the Russians did it,” Alexandru said. “Poland was still under German occupation when the commission started its inquiries. Surely, it was easy for the Nazis to feed them false information. The British government and Churchill himself vigorously defended Russia’s innocence in this matter.” He spoke with the assurance of someone in the know.
Alexandru was a handsome man in his early thirties. Intelligent and well educated, he had been a brilliant student at the Sorbonne. After continuing at the University of Gottingen in Germany for a masters in physics, his further studies had earned him a doctorate degree in mathematics from Oxford. Immediately after graduation, he was invited to give a series of lectures at Harvard. His professors predicted a great future for Alexandru. Unfortunately, the war had changed everything. Conscripted into the Romanian army at the beginning of hostilities, he was compelled to cancel the engagement with Harvard, and his scientific career came to a dead end. Alexandru wasn’t sent into the battlefield, however. His background and fluency in several languages recommended him for a different kind of warfare. He was drafted into the military intelligence and soon became a much-sought-after code breaker. Recently, he had been temporarily transferred from the army’s High Command headquarters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a polyglot decipherer like him was much needed. Because of his new job, he was supposed to be well-informed about what was going on internationally.
“Maybe it was some Nazi propaganda. Maybe, maybe. But those British could have been misled too by the Soviets. How could they be so sure? I don’t ever trust the Russians,” Dumitru said.
Stefan’s father looked at Alexandru, and both smiled conspiratorially. They had known Dumitru’s idiosyncrasies for many years. Paula and Maria didn’t smile, paralyzed by that inward killer of joy and happiness: the stab of visceral fear for their families and for their children’s future. But they kept their worries to themselves, hoping against hope. In the coming decades when things got worse, this would become a predominant feature of Romanian behavior.
The boys paid no attention to their elders. They noisily amused themselves at one end of the table while nibbling from plates that Paula kept refilling. Stefan was seated between Dan and Mircea, who were teasing him. Suddenly, Dan snatched the book Stefan held with crossed hands close to his chest and passed it to Mircea. The boys struggled for possession of the book, pushing the table, which shook dangerously. Stefan’s cousin George, who was thirteen and considered himself much older and more mature, stood up and looked indulgently over their shoulders.
The brawl drew Alexandru’s attention. After a couple of drinks, he was in a cheerful mood. “What are you guys doing here?” he asked the boys, who abruptly ended their scuffle and looked at him sheepishly. Dan laid the book on the table; the other two pulled on their clothes to put on a decent appearance.
“Nothing, nothing!” Stefan hurriedly answered.
“Then why all the excitement?” his uncle insisted.
“It was a storm in a teacup,” George said.
“I was showing them my present, the Admiral Peary’s book you gave me, the one about his last polar expedition. And . . .” Stefan explained.
“He was bragging senselessly, that’s why,” George interrupted him.
“I was not.” Stefan looked hurt.
“Yes, you were, silly,” Dan said. “You were lying and bragging.”
“Liar, liar,” Mircea chanted.
“You are the liar, not I,” Stefan shouted and jumped at Mircea’s throat. With a swift movement, Alexandru caught hold of his nephew, preventing him from hurting his schoolmate.
“Now, now. Stop it! No need to fight.” Alexandru grabbed a chair and sat down, still holding Stefan with one hand. “Let us see what the offending matter was.”
“He said he would become a famous engineer and explorer like Peary,” Dan said.
“So what’s wrong with that?” Alexandru asked.
“More famous than Peary, he said,” Mircea added.
“He bragged he will be the first to climb the Everest. But we know he is a sissy. He is afraid of the dark,” George said and looked down at his cousin. He already imagined himself as a true, courageous man.
“I will! I will be the first on Everest, and I will become a professional engineer. Just you wait,” Stefan shouted in a vindictive tone of voice, struggling to escape from his uncle’s grip, “till I will grow up. Then I will show you.”
The boys just laughed at him.
“Yeah, yeah. What do you know about climbing? You have never been on a mountain,” George said.
“Uncle Alexandru will take me with him and teach me climbing. You promised, right, Uncle?” Stefan asked, ready to cry from frustration, his face reddened from emotion.
“I don’t believe a word,” Dan said.
“It is true. Next summer, I will take him for a couple of hikes in the Carpathians,” Alexandru, who was one of Romania’s leading mountaineers, confirmed.
“Hikes? That is not real climbing, is it?” Mircea asked.
“It is a long way from hiking in the Carpathians to conquering Everest,” George said acidly. He knew geography, had read about expeditions to faraway lands, and dreamed of becoming a rock climber himself.
“So it is. Yet this will be a start for him. He will learn, if that is what he wants. Everybody can do the same with adequate training.” Alexandru stroked Stefan’s hair. “He is a good boy. He will become a great climber.”
“Maybe,” George hesitantly agreed.
“What do you mean by maybe? When I lecture at Harvard, we will go together to climb in the Rocky Mountains. I need a partner. Afterward, we can try our hands in the Himalayas.”
“I would also like to come with you to the Rockies. Would you take me, Uncle?” George asked.
“Of course, if you are ready.”
“When will that happen?” George’s father asked, smiling indulgently. He came near their group and put a hand upon his son’s shoulder.
“Pretty soon. The Germans will be finished by next spring. The war will end, and we will be free to travel again,” Alexandru answered.
“Are you sure the Russians will let you go?” Dumitru was serious now.
“The Russians? They will be back in their country by the end of next summer. The Allies won’t let them hang around after the war is finished.” Alexandru spoke with confidence. “We will be free as we were before all that madness started. Take my word for it. You will see.” He stood up.
“Oh, don’t be childish, Alexandru. There are millions of Soviet soldiers under arms. By the time Germany capitulates, they will be all over Europe like hungry locusts. What about the communist puppets they bring with them? They will set up under the protection of the Red Army’s bayonets collaborationist governments, which in return will let them stay forever. Nobody can stop them. Nobody will be able to order them back. The French don’t count, and the British and the Americans are far away, while the Russians are here to stay,” Dumitru said, frowning impatiently.
“I can’t say too much, but we have guarantees. Our friends won’t let us down. Churchill always loved Romania. He is a cousin of our late Queen Mary, a distant uncle to our young King Michael, don’t you know? He is a great man who knows history, our history. He will protect us. If nobody else, then the British will restore our freedom. I am absolutely certain.”
Winston Churchill was his hero, and Alexandru never lost his trust in the British.
Four years later, when he was dying a violent death, he was still hoping the Anglo-Americans would soon liberate his country. But at the time of his nephew’s birthday party in that troubled autumn of 1944, none of those present could have imagined, even in their wildest nightmares, the atrociousness of Alexandru’s last days.
Paula came in with the cake. Happy exclamations welcomed her as nobody expected such prodigality. The boys, who had forgotten their dispute, surrounded Paula with cries of delight, watching her light the little candles. They pushed Stefan close to the table, where he concentrated on blowing out all eleven flames. A burst of applause followed, and everybody joined in to sing the traditional birthday song, “Multi ani trăiască! May he live many years!” Then slices of cake were passed around on small plates, and more drinks were poured into glasses.
Demanding attention, Alexandru raised his glass. “May God grant Stefan many happy years. May he become a famous professional engineer and the first man on Everest,” he toasted with a broad smile on his handsome well-tanned face.
Everybody present clapped their hands and cheered noisily. Paula gave her son a motherly kiss. She was unable to have more children and loved him more than anything on earth. The others also hugged and kissed him.
Stefan blushed, pleased to be the center of attention. One day, he would become a great man like Peary, he believed. Hadn’t his uncle said so? Alexandru, although young, had the reputation of being a sage; and Stefan, like everyone else who knew him, trusted his uncle’s judgement.

Gabriel Watermiller    8/16/2012


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