New York, NY (Summer 2016)
Author’s Note: The Romanian veteran in my story is traumatized by the suffering he witnessed during World War Two battles, but in Romania PTSD is not very well-known yet.
Listen, dear lady, I have one more year and I’ll turn 90. I was 18 when I fought in the Second War.
During our two-week training our sergeant tormented us. He constantly hollered, “Down on your bellies! Eat dirt! Crawl!” We had to crawl. “Bounce on your feet! Hop! Hop! Hop!” He came to me, “Man, is this how you follow my orders?! Down on your ugly mug! Eat dirt!”
He put his foot on my back and was pushing it. Well, I was down, but I had to get up quick when he ordered, “Attention! Up on your feet!” so I didn’t lie all the way down on the earth.
Dear lady, he tormented us for two weeks!
Then our regiment got an order to go into battle.
We marched towards our positions up to a hill above Turda.
We dug trenches for the cannons, we got ready and waited. Now the Germans and Hungarians were getting closer to occupy Turda. Our army started shooting at them with our cannons. Shoot, aim, shoot! Disaster! The end of the world! Mud, clods of earth! Then the Germans started shooting!
We were afraid. Dear lady, we lay on our bellies and only peeked to see. Were they coming or not? We had no reinforcements. No one had our back. We waited and waited and waited. We didn’t notice that at about 400 meters on the hill slope soldiers were coming towards us. They were coming and coming and coming. Then we saw about twelve Germans uniforms, young men, like us! They were lying low, then quickly leaping forward three steps, then crawling on their bellies. We couldn’t shoot at them, dear lady. Our feelings of human belonging, our love for mankind didn’t let us, man…
I had the machine gun with the cartridge box ready to go. The box held 300 bullets on a belt. I could have fired again and again. But I didn’t. The poor guys were crawling and crawling. One of our men—must be that the devil curled his tail and his pitchfork tipped off his evil brew cauldron!—The poor dumb head stood up. He was killed immediately and fell down.
We were all on our bellies, trembling in fear.
Man, a radio call comes in from the observatory point asking what are we doing?! Why aren’t we attacking the enemy?! How can we be so unprepared to shoot a man?!
We had only received two weeks of training. How can one shoot a man when one can’t even shoot a dog? You pity it! So how can you shoot a man?
We waited, waited, waited for the troops. Perhaps the army would come from the Hungarian lines or from somewhere else. We saw the German troops approaching, just 200 to 300 meters away from the hilltop. They wanted that position to occupy Turda. When we saw that, we started to shoot. I saw with my eyes two soldiers as they turned in the air and fell down.
Then we saw airplanes coming and coming, squadron after squadron, and they saw us, and they banked in recognition, so we could see the Romanian insignia on their side. “Man, these are our Romanians!” Then our allies, the Russians, came. They had huge tanks. Those Russians didn’t think twice, they mowed down the orchards with their tanks, broke through everything in our villages.
Besides the tanks they had Katyushas, rocket launchers.
Oh, Lord, even now I can see those bombs flying around.
And such a heavy attack, my lady, started on Turda. The Russians were marching forward and forward and forward, like the pig goes to his troth filled with leftovers, that’s the way they marched!
After they arrived in Turda, they occupied it and they started drinking their lives away.
Well, we found a large cellar, filled with caskets of wine.
We looked at the spout, but the wine didn’t flow. We didn’t know that there was another spout on top of the casket that had to be opened, so the wine would flow. We shot the casket near the bottom, dear lady, we place our canteens at the holes because the wine was gushing out as if you peed! Forgive me, but that’s how forceful it was gushing. We filled our canteens with wine, we tasted it. We didn’t drink, we were afraid. We didn’t want to lose our mind getting drunk! Our lives were at stake.
Oh, but when the Russians came, dear Lord! Hardheaded oxen, I can’t put it milder, for that’s what they were, hardheaded oxen! They shot their pistols in the caskets, up to the middle, wherever. The wine started flowing in rivers! In less than ten minutes the wine was up to our ankles on the cement floor. We ran to our unit, one couldn’t stay in that flooding! But the Russians carried on in the middle of the town, for the Russians weren’t cautious, they wouldn’t hide in shelters. All of a sudden the Germans ambushed them and oh, they slaughtered, massacred them.
A blood bath.
This is something I’ll never forget, dear lady.
We went further on. We crossed into Hungary.
We faced attacks but we escaped them. We arrived in Czechoslovakia.
We barely stopped for one moment, and another attack started and we had to fight, so the enemy didn’t have time to settle into position. So they kept on retreating and we followed them, Go! Go! Go! After twenty kilometers we arrived at a forest. We stopped to make sure they weren’t waiting for us, so we wouldn’t fall into crossfire. Our cannons were ready to fire.
Then four covered-up Hungarian wagons appeared on the road, with ammunition. We got an order not to shoot. Our men were up at the observation point. “Don’t shoot until you get new orders!” Dear lady, more wagons, more soldiers coming, German, Hungarian trucks and other military cars, all running from the front line, so the advancing Russians wouldn’t catch up with them. The road got jammed for about 700, 800 meters or so. They were getting fire from the rear and they saw the road was clear, nobody attacking, so they used it for retreating.
All of a sudden the order, “Cannon 6, Cannon 5, and Cannon 4, fire at the column! Cannon 1, Cannon 2, and Cannon 3, fire at the column!” We started to shoot on both sides. The enemy had no escape. When they saw that we’d massacre them, the poor soldiers didn’t know where to go, the road being crowded with military cars, trucks and wagons. At first we shot at cars, trucks, wagons, and cannons, but we wouldn’t shoot at enemy soldiers.
But then, we couldn’t help but shoot everything.
We shot, and we shot.
It was a massacre. A bloody massacre.
We got an order to advance. When we got closer to them, “Joj Istenem! Anyám!”/“Oh, Almighty Lord! Mother!” wailing, wailing, wailing from the wounded. Some in German, some in Hungarian, some in Czech….
But we had to march. We had to push through them. There was no other way but on the road.
Our horses wouldn’t step over the dead.
And we walk and we walk, dear lady.
We arrive near Banská Bystrica, in the Tatra Mountains. At the end of the town there was a small forest to our left, with thin trees, like my arm. Our commander says, “They’ll kill us all on the road. We should go through the woods. Daylight doesn’t come there that quickly.”
We hear some noise in the woods. We hear movement, human voices. What if someone comes out of there to kill us? We could hear voices, as if whispering. We go into the forest. We see trenches, holes dug out of the earth, dirt mounds, watch the shadows, and as daylight comes through, we start seeing better. Dear lady, we see around the trenches 200-liter barrels, with some lime. “What’s happened here, man?!” We were scared. Lord Almighty, what are these noises we hear?! We went closer.
The Germans, beasts, for words fail me, what did they do? They took the Jews to Auschwitz in Poland, at the crematory. But they didn’t get to take them to Auschwitz before the front line arrived. They made the Jews, poor souls, dig their own trenches, forced them into the trenches, shot them and threw lime on top of them. Almighty Lord, there were old Jews, younger Jews, some barely 17 years old, some dead, some wailing.
We didn’t have time to watch. It was broad daylight. We knew we were in trouble.
We went through hunger, struggles, much hardship.
But here comes the day, May 9, a beautiful day, full of life and goodness… We arrived in a village in Austria. There were fewer major attacks now. We settled by the edge of the village. We were tired.
In a barn attic we found hay. We fed the horses, and then, dear lady, joy and happiness tumbled over us!
We get an order, “War has ended. Today, May 9th, war has ended.”
Such joy, my lady! We fired our rifles in the air. On that endless field as far as the horizon other soldiers started shooting tracer cartridges and the night sky got illuminated!
The whole world gets illuminated with joy that the war has ended. It was the first time we felt such happiness!
And this is how our lives have been. We’re thankful for the little that we have.
Dear lady, I wish you good health and a handsome man.
Ella Veres is a writer/performer/visual artist. Her work draws on her experiences in Transylvania, Romania, where she grew up, and New York City, her home now. She published over 100 journalistic materials in Romania, Hungary, and the United States. Her interview archive amasses over 200 life stories, some of which she processed for print, some for stage. She is currently finalizing The Scourge, a material about drinking in her place of birth.Follow Hektoen International via social media to see more featured content.