By some miracle, the shed at the farthest end of the alley had survived the massive bombing raids. Everything else around had long since been reduced to rubble.
Sergei huddled inside, behind the door, waiting. It slowly opened, rusty hinges protesting loudly. He lunged at the intruder, the pain in his damaged leg temporarily pushed aside. Caught by surprise, the figure in tattered field gray, crashed to the dirt floor with Sergei on top of him. The old man blindly reached for the neck, and using every ounce of strength he had, squeezed. The man in uniform struggled weakly. His coalscuttle helmet rolled off to one side.
He’s only a boy, Sergei thought, like my Arkady. He stopped pressing. The youth was now unconscious, allowing the Russian the opportunity to search him unmolested.
No rifle, he noted. No gloves, no greatcoat, and the soles of his boots are worn through. The Germans had expected to take Stalingrad long before winter. They’d seriously underestimated their enemy.
Sergei pushed the door closed. The struggle had sapped his strength. He pulled enough from the little reserve he had left to grab a brick. The soldier was coming to, and the Russian wanted to be prepared, just in case.
The younger man, recovering his senses, propped himself up on one elbow, feeling his neck with his free hand.
“You speak German?”
“Ja, a little,” said Sergei. “How old are you?”
The youth hesitated for a fraction of a second before he replied, “Eighteen.”
The old man snorted, “Sie luegen.”
“Okay, sixteen,” admitted the boy.
“Where’s your rifle?”
The boy shrugged. “I threw it away,” he replied.
With that, as December 1942 gave way to January 1943, a strange alliance was cemented. The German boy-soldier was a deserter, although escape was unlikely. He was, after all, trapped in a city surrounded by the Russian army. He was desperate for the safety and warmth of the family that lay a lifetime away in Germany. Sergei, one of 10,000 Russians left in the devastated city, wouldn’t survive the winter in his condition without help. His wife, Viktoriya and their son, Arkady, were buried in the rubble at the head of the alley under what had once been their apartment block. Hans and Sergei needed each other.
“Here, have a cigarette,” Hans said, handing Sergei a stub that he had found. Foraging had become his regular routine in those dark days since the boy and the man had come to share the shack at the back of the alley.
“I don’t smoke,” said the old man.
“Take it anyway. It will warm you up.”
Hans had stripped every distinguishing mark from his uniform, and wrapped in the old man’s coat, wandered out each day to confiscate what he could to keep them alive.
“Some planes got through to Pitomnik.”
“More summer uniforms and black pepper?” The relief supplies for the German 6th Army had been less than impressive in those early months.
Hans laughed. “Better than that.” He dug into the deep pocket of the pea jacket and pulled out a can. The old man stirred the little fire that kept them from freezing to death, while Hans pried the lid off his treasure.
“Verdammt,” Hans muttered when he pinched his finger with the pliers.
“Don’t swear,” admonished Sergei.
“What? I can steal, but I can’t swear?”
Sergei grinned. “Stealing is useful, swearing is not. God forgave Rahab for lying to save lives, he’ll forgive you for stealing for the same reason.”
Hans didn’t believe much in God. The Fatherland was god; or so he’d been told. In spite of his circumstances, Sergei seemed to have an irrepressible faith. They’d argued a lot about it.
“How can you believe in God when your family is dead, your city destroyed, you’re starving and cold? What kind of God is that?”
“He’s the kind that sent a scared German boy stumbling into a shed to help keep a Russian, his enemy, alive.”
This vignette is fiction but the battle for Stalingrad between 1942 and 1943 was brutally real. Over two million people died. Life on the Russian Front was horrific. For the remnants of the German 6th Army, and the Russian civilians trapped in the pocket (kessel, literally cauldron), it was one step above hell. The wars that men begin out of greed and selfish ambition boast little compassion and even less morality, but perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere in their midst, a spark of humanity lights the darkness.