The summer of 1942 was another disastrous one for the Red Army, and, in spite of the closing sentences of Stalin's outbreak-of-war speech: "The enemy will be destroyed. Victory will be ours." I think most people felt - without of course daring to say it aloud - that hopes for any sort of victory were gone by now and that it was only a question of how much - if anything - of Soviet Russia will be left when it was over.
The initial German advance during the first summer was easily explained. They had treacherously and unexpectedly attacked in force, and Russia needed time to recover balance and mobilize her resources. The freezing of the frontline in winter may have been due more to the Russian winter than the Russian army, but behind the lines huge reorganization, mobilization, and training were taking place, and the next summer, according to newspapers and radio, Russia would show them what's what.
When the snow melted and the mud dried, the German army surged forward again like a river freed from its ice. Leningrad was blockaded; the Germans stood a t the gates of Moscow; by the end of the summer their Sixth Army reached Stalingrad and was breaking into the city in house-to-house fighting, while other divisions were rolling towards the oil fields in the south. It looked like another winter might delay the final disaster again but not prevent it.
When it finally set in, with Leningrad and Stalingrad still holding out, it was assumed that the two cities were holding out because of their names; that Stalin was pumping and sacrificing enormous manpower and equipment because the fall of a city named after him or Lenin would be a much greater blow to national morale than that of a mere Lvov, Kiev, or Kharkov.
Then something strange and unexpected happened: the Russians broke through the German front left and right of Stalingrad and, with a pincer movement, trapped the Sixth Army in the city. We saw a wide horizon of snow in the newsreel, with little black dots moving in from left and right, finally meeting, and then close-ups of Russian soldiers embracing.
Weeks began to pass, with the possibility of the German army breaking out of Stalingrad fading, and then, one day, the triumphant announcement came: exhausted and without food or ammunition left, the German Sixth Army has surrendered. The ninety-one thousand prisoners included Field Marshal Paulus and twenty-four generals.
A few evenings later, the shoemaker from across the street called on my mother. He was a quiet, simple, and uneducated Russian who worked in some shoe repair shop and moonlighted by occasionally repairing shoes at home for neighbours or acquaintances. It had to be done carefully. Private enterprise on a small personal scale was officially legal but taxation was such that one would be completely ruined and, unable to pay, probably jailed. Therefore he only repaired shoes for the people he knew and trusted. Shortly after we moved to our knew lodgings the soles of my boots started peeling off; our landlady, Aleksandra Vasilyevna, introduced us to him, and he repaired the boots for a reasonable fee.
Now he sat down and, after the preliminary "how are you"s and some small talk about the weather, he cleared his throat and said there was something he wanted to ask my mother in private. She sent Stella and me out of the room, and afterwards repeated the conversation to us, asking us not to tell anyone, for obvious reasons.
"Giza Sigismundovna," the shoemaker said. "I would be very grateful if you could explain something to me, because you are a highly educated person from abroad who understands about the big world outside Russia, and I am a simple uneducated man who has never been out of Barnaul and never finished school; and I also know that, your own husband being in prison, you will not report on me for asking such a question. This Germany: we've known for years that they are much stronger and more developed than we are, and that we don't stand a chance against them in case of war. If any proof was needed, the last two summers proved it. And now, all of a sudden, this thing at Stalingrad. I mean, we are we, and they are the Germans; what on earth has happened there and how do you explain it ?"
What mother told him was fairly similar to the official version, only in a simpler language and without the propaganda. She started with history. Over a century ago, she said, a similar thing happened when the French under Napoleon invaded Russia. France was as strong then as Germany today, and Russia was even more backward, and the French have even taken Moscow, but finally the Russians threw them out. She thought that something similar was happening now; that whatever the political system and the suffering of the common man, the Russians are probably stronger than they themselves had suspected, and, especially after the invasion and the atrocities, more determined than ever not to let foreigners overrun their land, and that Stalingrad might well be the beginning of it. The shoemaker was still doubtful, saying that it was winter again now, and God knows what the next summer will bring, but when he left he seemed to be carrying his head higher than when he came.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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