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Karineh Arutyunova

Pages from a Wartime Diary

I share a train compartment (it’s an old Austrian train, six seats to a compartment) with a pleasant young couple, quiet and polite, she -- visibly expecting, they half-embrace, smiling, then each becomes engrossed -- he in his phone, she – in her book.  But I had time to notice – his eyes, in feathery eyelashes, are bright, indeed, both of them are bright-eyed, chestnut-brown, radiant, eager.  One can feel tender tranquility radiating from them (as well as from the scenery gliding by outside the window). 


And then, suddenly, it’s as if something jolts me, and the dog, slumbering peacefully in my arms, opens its sleepy eyes. These are Germans.  Yes, indeed, they are German, their words rustle in German, and one can easily imagine his sturdy torso, now clad in a cotton tee, in a uniform and picture him writing a letter to his beloved Gretchen, Lizchen, Gerti or Johanna, to his young Gretchen, who is sniffling softly, or maybe even snoring, her palm on her seven-month (at least)-large belly.


He is writing from a Ukrainian village or a shtetl, where, just yesterday, they herded a crowd of “these miserable creatures, babbling something incomprehensible and barbaric in their barbaric tongue,” herded them into a ravine or a barn and – well, you do understand, my love, my dear Lizchen, my chestnut-brown, bright one…  What happened, happened, and – God is my witness – I didn’t want this, but I was made a witness and a participant – unwilling participant, of course – of what ensued (and not for the first time, I must add).  I felt bad, my beloved Ingrid, because I am not a killer, but I am a soldier, I have to follow the orders of somebody who is also following orders, we are all just following orders, we have no choice, although of course I feel sorry for these people.  But, my beloved Gerti, these are mostly communists, Jews and Gypsies, and we have our orders – I close my eyes not to see how they clutch their children, how their old men pray, how their prayers go up in smoke…  I used to close my eyes, I tried to avoid seeing, hearing, knowing, but I don’t need to do it anymore, I see everything, and I will never forget that young girl who looked, oh Gott, so much like you, something in her did anyway, she was bright-eyed and chestnut-brown…


Never mind, dear Gretchen, we are advancing bit by bit, it’s not easy but we have our orders – we are defending the Great Germany and the future of our children and, by the way, I wanted to tell you about the local scenery, the customs and mores of these … locals, whom we do pluck a bit because a hungry soldier is a bad soldier, and their eggs and bacon are exceptional. I keep thinking about you, my beloved, wondering whether you may be going hungry.  I will try to send you a small care package, I hope you can get it before the food gets spoiled, you need vitamins, both you and our future son.


I look up.  The train is gliding smoothly, noiselessly.  These Austrian trains are so comfortable, so quiet, and the landscape outside the window – these mountains and these red-tiled roofs, this mist and this blueness, and these pleasant, tanned, bright-eyed people in their FFP2 masks, and the invisible presence of the baby (and, thus, of God) who is about to enter this world to feel both joy and sadness, to know and not know, to see and not see.  I am looking at them and trying to understand, to imagine, to stir up (for the sake of the experiment) hostile feelings, but then I remember Hans Fallada, and Heinrich Boll, and even Remarque, I page through my favorite books in my mind, I shape a wall out of them, build a mighty fortress. “All Quiet on the Western Front; The Arc of Triumph; The Night in Lisbon; And Where Were You, Adam? Billiards at Half-Pat Nine; Through the Eyes of a Clown; Every Man Dies Alone…” – I mutter, turning the pages in my mind.  And my heart warms.  We should look at this world with the eyes of a clown and remember that dying is always done alone. 


We are approaching the station, the velvety voice of the announcer wishes us a happy journey.  The young man, he of the hazel-brown eyes, helps me get my suitcase from the overhead bin and smiles behind the FFP2 mask.  His young wife waves at me.  I smile at them.


“Zei gezund,” – that I understand, it’s what my Jewish grandma used to say.




When I asked my grandma to tell me about the war, she would cough meaningfully and ultimately comply (she could never say no to me).


But her stories were never serious.  She would talk about some funny incidents, about Yasha the foreman following her home after a night shift and how frightened she was, mincing along the tram line, about the oilcake that people in the evac train chewed on, about a full chamber pot emptied through a window of a speeding train (I guess there were no other options on that crammed train).  Her eyes would smile and then suddenly turn … not sad, vacant.  And I would wait patiently for her to come back, after several “weizmirs,” to our homey, cozy world on the Perov Boulevard. 


And she would always come back, and my patience would be rewarded by some sidesplitting story that almost knocks me off the three-legged stool. My grandma knew how to “take a pause” -- famous dramatic actresses could learn something from her.  Her pauses encompassed everything.  The cold, the hunger, the lice, the saving graces of oilcake, the stolen slippers, and the fear – for herself and for the kid, and for Yosef.  And the joy of staying alive and keeping the kid alive, and raising the kid (OK, so without Yosef).  And the fact that life went on, and is still going on, with all its horrible, irretrievable losses, it perseveres, and now here is this cherished, pampered little creature sitting in front of her and wanting to know about the war, who would have thought…


Take that, war, -- grandma winks, giving the finger to somebody unseen, sticking it right into its godless mug, and starts, coughing meaningfully: once (stay quiet, don’t you interrupt), so once, I was walking home after a night shift, I was young and beautiful then…  And the foreman was right behind me.  His name was Yasha, he was, you know, a handsome man.  I guess he liked me.  So here I was, walking along, so young and beautiful, in this dress with little inserts and these tiny cloth buttons along the front… What are you laughing at?  Look at her – laughing! What’s so funny?  You asked about the war, so I am telling you…




When I was little, war seemed almost like a piece of folklore.  Or maybe like a documentary they used to show before the main feature.  It was the moment of silence on the anniversary of the V Day.  The pathos of Soviet movies obliterated the reality of what had happened.  Possibly, this was the right thing to do.  My generation, born in the relative safety of the 1960s, could piece together a picture of the war from the memories of survivors, from imperfect newsreel footage, from books and movies.  Strange as it may seem, kids had no fear of war. What was this war anyway?  Every survivor had their own war.  My grandma’s stories about evacuation seemed more intriguing than scary to me. Freezing trains, hunger, fear of the unknown, women, children, old people – civilians all, torn from the mundane reality of the everyday.  But has there ever been any mundane, everyday reality in our country?  The string of my grandma’s memories stretched back far beyond the forties. There was no peace even before the war.  Hunger was also there even before.  I wonder how many truly peaceful years my grandma had during her lifetime.  And was her relatively peaceful old age truly the respite she craved?  Everything’s fine as long as there’s no war, -- that was her constant refrain.  Come on, gran, -- I would chuckle, indulgently -- what war?


Paradoxically, the older I get, that is, in a sense, the closer I get to my grandma, the intervening decades  seem more and more provisional, same as my understanding of the cyclic nature of life.  Same as the concepts of war and peace. The stories from my childhood no longer resemble a piece of folklore.


And what is this war, anyway?  Is it when everything becomes black and white? Or when there is shooting?  Bombing? Treacherous killings? Vandalism? When you lose your home? When you have to run? When you have to seek shelter?  Is it the cold? The hunger? The privations?  Where is the watershed between the illusory sense of peace and the reality of war?


Perhaps it is the stories I heard as a child that do not let me forget that all reality is illusory.  And help me understand that war is no less a natural human condition than peace -- like everything else endemic to human nature, like good and evil – and just as inevitable as life or death.


It’s not the epic that breaks your heart, it’s the commonplace.


Say, a basketful of oranges left on a balcony.  The dog’s layer in a corner.  A quick thought: I should do the laundry and let it dry in the sun. 


So first you bathe the dog. The dog, completely stunned, hovers on its crooked legs, shakes itself dry – from nose to tail – and rushes to the balcony to get warm.  Then you make coffee, place the cup among the tubes of paint, forget about it, go for another cup.  What kills you is the commonplace: “Call me on Wednesday, I’ll be home all day.”


I’ll be home.  Your everyday life is fragmenting into pieces, like a toy constructor.  No single one is important.  A coffeepot on the table, some figs on a plate.  You put the pieces together in your head, examine them one by one.  Suddenly – did I wash the brushes?  The brushes are brand new, I bought them just a couple of days before the…  I still wrote about people then, about people buying furniture the day before the war. The war, its rancid, sinister mug, its bared teeth, so terrifying, were already looming behind everything, unmistakable – and, yet, -- here they were, some buying furniture, household goods, so necessary in everyday life, others – oranges, brushes and canvases.




It’s a sunny day.  Sirens chase one another.  Outside, you hardly know whether to run or to crouch.  On the other hand, a drugstore has opened.  I’ve bought some valerian root for the dog, hope it works.


There are so many things I could write about.  About faces and eyes, about politeness and the amazing serenity (outward), about dignity, and about the extraordinary value of every angle seen in the daylight.  Avidly, one tries to capture the shade cast by a building, by a tree, by the latticework, to capture the air, the awareness of life.  You want to drink it up like mineral water, head tilted back.


But the siren sounds again, and you are running again, and there is not enough air, and something is wrong with your legs, all of a sudden, they turn strange, weak, useless. 


Abruptly, apart from everything else, I am gripped with a sense of longing, which I try to chase away.  It is ridiculous to long for paintings when life and death are at stake.  Nevertheless, that’s what I long for.




I am not taking pictures, it’s forbidden, and, besides, taking pictures is far from my mind when sirens are wailing and I am stumbling on the paving stones, then on the tiles, then again on the paving stones. My face is getting wet from the watery vapor.  The Sofia church, the Mikhailov slope, I could touch everything with an outstretched arm. I want to embrace everybody I run across.  These faces… I have never seen such faces. The youngest of them bear the stamp of such seriousness, such wisdom.  That rapid transition into a different state. These kids are not running anywhere, they ignore the sound of the sirens, even though it beats against you, haunts you, raises rancid slime from within you.  Today, I am examining all of this too closely, realizing clearly (what a sudden and belated realization) how much I love it all. These streets, these buildings, the sounds of this tongue. The affinity with all of it. Sympathy with life.  Here, in this besieged city, madonnas are clutching newborn babes to their bosoms.  Look at this very carefully.  You have seen it somewhere before.  The tenderness of a palm as it protects this new life, miraculously sprung into existence.  That’s what that premonition was about, I did have it, I must admit it now, why was I not paying attention, pushing it away, using every pretext, except the real reason?


They are getting ready for something.  Something inevitable.  But you can never be ready.




Human voices sound exaggeratedly ordinary through the window thrown ajar (for the first time after winter).  Somebody is chatting in the yard between the buildings, some women on the benches across the yard, children’s voices from the playground, birds’ chirping drowns out everything else, even the yapping of a small dog that looks like a dirty-white, raggedy toy.  The sun has pulled out all stops, it is warming the cowering earth with such intensity, and -- all of a sudden -- everything changes its shape and meaning, the trees are pregnant with a premonition, they wax languid, new life is taking root in them.  You long to cast aside the vise that’s squeezing your head and spine, forget the news that drive you to distraction, -- “don’t panic, that’s the most important thing, just don’t panic.” Your head is filled with the most trivial of thoughts: I must buy this, that, and the other.  You impulsively buy food, the kind you’ll never eat, you just want to stock up, to hoard – why not buy eggs, for example? OK, so you don’t like eggs.  But there’s always the possibility that you will grow to like them.  Same as bread that’s going stale and all sorts of other stuff. 


A woman is carrying a bag of oranges that blaze like little suns.  Well, you can’t go wrong with oranges, can you?  They are great for quenching thirst… particularly if there’s no water.  Wait, you need to stock up on water.  Matches, salt, what else?  Nothing elaborate, just simple and abiding things, like a kerosene stove.  No, kerosene stoves are better left in the past.  After all, we do have electricity and heat.  Wait.  Maybe a kerosene stove is not such a bad idea.  You could learn how to use it.  You really should have made some general provisions already.  Well, just in case, nothing extravagant.  As if you are preparing to go on a nice, short holiday.  A small suitcase, blue and cheerful, we’ve crossed so many borders together.  No, experienced people insist that a backpack is much better, it’s easier to run with a backpack (don’t ask where to). And some food for the road…  Medicine, bandages, first aid kit. 


I dump a bunch of pills onto the table – “for everything.”  My god, a human being is such a bottomless pit.  You never can predict what they may suddenly need.  Pills for insomnia, for allergy, for headache, for heartache… Tiny, multicolored capsules are rolling around merrily.


A sun ray bursts into the room, interrupting my scurrying thoughts.  The sun leaps in though the open window, frolics, plays with the pale curtains.  The dog stretches in its layer.  Isn’t it great, being a dog.  Dogs don’t plan, they just run if it comes to that. Without batteries, flashlights, reflux medication… They have no use for three pairs of jeans, four sweatshirts, tees, socks, shoes. 


I do buy some eggs in the end, but I don’t forget an orange either.  It will glow in the dark, like a bright, orange lightbulb.




Your whole life is one long passage.  From one state into another.  And from that one into a third.  Just as you begin to feel some stability, some rootedness… You’ve made a painting.  You’ve planted a tree, you’ve nurtured it.  It’s not forever.  Nothing is forever.  Someone would come and cut it down.  At the very roots. 


A long procession of busses crawling through the night, along fields woods rivers.  Children screaming, dogs cowering by their owners’ feet.  Old people.  In ordinary times, they tend to be quarrelsome and flighty by turns, but now everybody shows a stiff upper lip.  And the faces – it’s as if we are acting out the last scene of a play.  There’ll be no play after this one.  They clutch purses with documents.  Their legs are swollen and their eyes -- biblical.   “Eternity stretches on, plots keep repeating themselves, but not the faces -- never that.”


I seat across a couple.  Elderly, heavyset, their bags rustle as they search for their passports. 


You always lose everything, -- she hisses, -- you can’t so anything right.  Dumbass.  He is searching diligently through his jacket pockets, wiping sweat from his brow.  For the hundredth time, they turn their bags, bundles and baskets inside out.  Something falls down, rolls under a seat.  They are cursing, swearing at one another, as if by rote, in helpless fury.  But here he is, stout, slightly ridiculous, five hours later, when the bus breaks down somewhere between Skvira and Belaya Tserkov, men to the right, women to the left, but there is no left here, everyone is crawling up the same hill, some fall down, old people hold hands like small children, crawling, relieving themselves in front of everybody…


And here he is, stout, slightly ridiculous, handing her a snowball he’s just made from the fresh snow, laughing.  As if they were kids, and this is a school outing, just a school outing, not a via dolorosa. 


Some old couples are cheerful, all puffed-up, they are going to join their son.  These are going to America.  And those – to Israel. Romochka is already in Bucharest, he’ll pick us up.  Such pride in their eyes.


Romochka.  But, you know, we sure will miss our apartment.  We have such a great apartment, on the Victory Boulevard. No, it’s not large really, but, you know, we don’t need a large one.  It’s just the two of us.  Me and Henrich.  God knows whether we’ll ever see our windows again, only He knows. 


It’s easy to make friends on the road. At least for a short while.  Sticking together with your own. People are naked.  On display. Some of them make you want to escape to another bus.  Others – to never be apart from now on.


You close your eyes, but she just keeps on talking.  About Romochka, what a wonderful son he is, and about Henrich.  Henrich looks like Pasternak.  These lovely fiery eyes.  Proud, laughing, all-knowing.


This crossing seems so strange.  This … outing is just too long.  It’s dreamlike.  A bus on an empty road.  Children wailing desperately, dogs whimpering.  People crawling up a snow-covered hill.  An elderly man, carrying his mother in his arms.


-Semochka, I need facial surgery, -- she whines, staring straight ahead.

-What for? – he asks tiredly.

-I’ve become so ugly, so horrible, nobody wants to look at me.

-Ma, -- he smiles, -- if you have surgery, you’ll become so gorgeous that somebody is sure to steal you away, do we need such trouble?


On my left, a phone bursts into Ukrainian national anthem.  Everybody winces.  A voice rustles like sandpaper: Sofochka, we are on our way. Don’t worry, we are coming, it’s better than nothing.  No, it’s warm, nobody is shooting at us, it’s just that we’ve been stuck here for four hours.  Maybe five.  But everything else is fine.


Another voice -- from the right, its arrogant tone drowns out everything else. It’s loud, grating.  It’s a voice of authority, of command.  A voice of somebody who always knows best.  We are moving again, grey faces loom in the dark. So far so good.  The truly scary thing would have been mass panic.  A crowd, crushing you.  Panic would not spare the vulnerable, an old man, a child, a small dachshund called Lucretius Benjamin.




Sure, in a war (and there is a war), one has no time for romance or nightingales’ trills.  Although it is exactly romance and nightingales’ trills that are absolutely necessary, a veritable lifeline, in a world of black and white.   All shades and hues are gone.  One is either a hero or a monster. If you are not with us, you are – without a doubt – against us. Everyone just holds onto whatever they have.  For some it’s geranium, for others – pansies. 


I honestly don’t know how I would have fared on that bus had it not been for the dog’s warm haunch next to me.  Had it not been for the fact that the crowd, a moment ago crazed with fear, wariness, and fatigue, suddenly becomes human, intimate, funny, and touching.  Hot coffee at a gas station, dirty snow along the road shoulder.  A sudden feeling of oneness with the world, with humankind, not with some abstract body, but with some very tangible humanity before you.


Here is a man’s hand, squeezing, caressing a woman’s hand.  Neither of them young, indeed, they are quite old.  She closes her eyes.  He wraps a shawl around her shoulders.  Nothing else.  But for some reason, I feel such peace, such unshakable certainty that everything will be all right. 


Everything is all right as long as there’s the dog’s warm haunch, the woman’s radiant eyes.  When people remember the important things in the face of danger and calamity.  As long as they let old people through, indulge kids.  As long as they – exhausted, stern, war-singed – pull cats, dogs, and canaries from the rubble and from locked houses.   Even amidst this horrible, apocalyptic scenery, somebody waters flowers, puts out food for cats and dogs, takes care of others.


I was astounded at the sight of men carrying bunches of plain flowers on Kyiv streets on March 8, the women’s day.  I was astounded at the sight of children zooming on their scooters along the parking lot during an air raid. I was astounded by the calm reaction of their parents.  These people, who understand everything but want to “save face” astound me.  It turns out that saving face matters.  It certainly matters when there are children around.  One should be careful not to scare them. 


War does not cancel tenderness.  War does not erase love, on the contrary, it’s a tiny ray of light that saves you in impenetrable darkness.


Yes, only love in time of war and cholera, the eyes of women, men, and children, and that hand, squeezing another.


The bus hits potholes, wobbles, it’s dark outside, and I, eyes closed, am petting my blanket-wrapped dog.  Life has so much unexpected (as well as expected) beauty, imagining that it may all be gone one day is horrifying.




In the morning, I gingerly reach for the phone.  I have to say, the phone has become a source of anxiety.  Every time it pings, my heart skips a beat.  Now what? Where? How many?  The same news come from several sources at once.  How scary it is to scroll through these pictures of bombed-out, mutilated buildings.  There are lives somewhere inside these gaping maws.  Not ideal ones, no.  You can’t tell what used to be in the spaces where these dark gaps now are – what kind of furniture, was it new or old, what was written on the book spines -- a direct hit turns everything tangible into ash…  Every morning, as I open my eyes, I try to make sense of this new normal.  Not mine yet.


One’s private life is no longer private.  I have witnessed that time and again.  In a hospital, for instance, the depersonalization of everything personal, dehumanization of everything human. But not in wartime, no.  Only in peacetime.  When there’s nothing heroic, nothing uplifting.  When there’s nobody to shield you, save you.  


War is a different matter altogether.  Life’s value goes up.  Like sugar’s, salt’s, flour’s.  One life per customer.  As much as you can carry.  Life’s every detail becomes priceless, matchless, unique.


How much sugar do you take?  One spoonful? Two?  She is drinking coffee from a tiny, exquisite cup, every sip -- a communion.


Signals from prior life break through.  How do you like your coffee – what flavor, strength, density.  Imagine, all of that mattered at one time.  All these little trifles, charming nonsenses.  


War, so inhuman at its core, makes the human shine through.  It emerges out of the blue, glitters in the sun, changes colors.  A pleasant man about town whom you knew in your old (social) life, his face transformed suddenly, has issues with your dog.  And all that is pleasant, sociable, glamorous about him falls away, like last year’s foliage.  Baring what’s left.  Nothing more, nothing less.


Another man – somebody you previously only knew on-line, without ado, puts your dog in a tub, washes the fear and the road dust off it…


Salvation becomes the meaning.  These old people, they can barely walk, their life energy wanes right before your eyes… They must be saved.  Children born just days before the war, they are breathing the air of war, they don’t know any other.


Arms stretched across (and through) borders, customs.  The triumph of humanity on the brink of the abyss.  Confronted by the obvious.  This humanity is the only thing that can defy evil.  Life, full of silly particulars. A dog, slumbering in a corner, birds, chirping outside the window.  Coffee made in a cezve, strong, dense, steamy.  A phone on the table.  The human is right here, you can touch it.  But so is the other, as hard as it may be to believe. 




The opposite of hell is every single day, its everydayness and its uniqueness.  It’s the opposite.  The underside.  Festive streets, people walking along them, the river flowing under your window, the carillon of bells, its long reverberations, the dog, prone on the balcony – all of this is the opposite.  On the other side is – oblivion, one must remember that every moment. 


Everything is where it’s supposed to be.  Here is the balcony, the view of happiness from so many dreams, here are you, here is the air, but the old world is gone, the old you are gone, this moment right here is all there is.  Like calm before the storm.  Life’s bright façade, through which the true state of affairs can be barely discerned.  This is the frightening truth we all have to live with.


It’s as if you are no longer here.  Have not been here in a long time.  OK, so you still have some needs.  A roof over your head, sustenance, the inertia of existence and expression.  But something is broken.  It can never be fixed. 


You walk by, not brushing against, not touching.  Cathedrals, saints, holy images.  Presumably you should feel something like religious extasy (not really my thing generally), some uplifting.  Something.  At least some sensation.  But there is no extasy because there is no me.




Lately, I’ve been watching old newsreels.


For example, post-war Paris.


Black and white frames flash by, but you can discern the mundane particulars of life behind them.  The Eiffel Tower looms, legs wide apart, silhouettes seen through its iron latticework, people hurrying across the street, young girls in laconic, deceptively plain raincoats, and here they are at the tables of numerous street cafes and restaurants.


I stare eagerly at the bored, lively, everyday, festive faces of these Parisians.  Here is a manteau-clad woman, her platinum pouffe, her sculpted neck, her tender nape, a row of tiny buttons down her spine, she clearly knows her own worth, she has survived the occupation, so now her hairspray and mother-of-pearl lips glitter as she casually examines first the milling crowd and then her own lovingly filed nails.  Her bored mien, her cute doll’s face.


At the next table, cheek by jowl with her, as is common in Paris, an elegant monsieur, or maybe not a monsieur but an American tourist named John or Peter, no matter.  His legs, in perfectly ironed, striped trousers, are spread confidently wide, his hair is parted with precision.  He has also survived the war, and his face expresses nothing beyond just being in this frame.


And here are some lovely girls, avidly gazing at something in the window of an expensive boutique, giggling and jostling one another.  The something is clearly well beyond their means.  So the older, more  realistic one is tagging at the other, who is glued to the magnificence behind the glass. 


They have survived the war.  They grew up in the war.  Making ringlets with hair curlers, wetting their lashes, using their first, black market, lipstick.


And here is a gentleman studying a newspaper, he wants to see what is going on with the markets, with the labor situation, with real estate, read divorce announcements – a garcon is speeding by, twisting around, juggling a full tray. He is just a kid.  He grew up in the war and outgrew it.


And there are some charming old ladies and local pundits walking their spitzes and lapdogs along well-groomed paths in the very heart of Europe. Five, ten, fifteen years ago.


They survived the war.


These are the same streets along which wretched women, heads shaved, were paraded five, ten, fifteen years ago, the crazed crowds screaming their vengeance, their thirst for humiliation, for just deserts.


What happened to those crowds?  Did they transform into these well-meaning passers-by, the denizens of bistros, cafes and restaurants? 


How quickly the scars heal, how overflowing is the human stream, how fast other people’s children grow, how inevitable the change of tableaux.


I scroll through the frames fervently, trying to get to the very core, the beginning of the end.  I want to feel the pulse, the flow, the beat of the new life where the gaping explosion craters used to be.  I see a pawnshop being demolished, a summer veranda erected in its place, tables and umbrellas installed.  


The survivors live ardently, mastering the new times.  Of course, it is possible that a new crisis is brewing somewhere, perhaps in the Caribbean, but the newspaper has not yet been read, a light breeze is playing with its pages, and coffee in Paris, as you know, is served with a delicious brioche, and those most fortunate will live to see the next war. 




If one could only wrap oneself in the past, like in a threadbare blanket that smells of home.




There is always a risk that the home you return to will not be the same as the one you left.  There is always a risk that you will not recognize it.  That it will not recognize you.  You are not the same, and neither is your home.  It takes time, time you both need, slow, meticulous time, before you finally remember.  Where the candles are kept, how the door groans on its hinges, what you did with the winter boots.  What this ineligible scribble means.  And whose paintings these are, anyway.  Surely, they can’t be yours?  There is no war in them.  All these clowns, little ballerinas, young peasant girls…  You cannot go back.  You will never enter through the same door you left through.  You left in haste, having locked the door securely, you abdicated.  The home greets you frostily.  It is full of suspicion.  It remembers your hasty leave-taking, but it claims it never lost hope.  The walls are silent, but they look distinctly estranged.


Come on, -- you whisper in despair, -- here I am, I am back, you know I always come back.  When somebody was waiting for you, -- it retorts, looking away, -- when you had a reason to.  You never loved me for myself.  I was just a necessity.  Convenient when you needed me.  Just remember how you hammered nails into me… I was willing to suffer through that… I know that a home without paintings on the wall is no home.  At least for you. 


Yes, it is, -- I whisper, my forehead against the window glass, -- or it was at one time.  When it was so full of life that there was no room for paintings.  When it was ringing with voices, when children’s hurts were lurking in the corners.  When weightless snowflakes were falling, and the light was always on.  Windows were shining through the snow, kitchen windows, living room windows… 


-- Ah yes, -- it suddenly cheers up, animated, -- I remember how happy we all used to be.  There were no paintings, but the aroma of home baking was wafting, dough was rising, tiny black cherries were being inserted into the dough, apples were being sprinkled with cinnamon, and strudel was bursting with poppy seeds…  I remember, you would stand just like this, next to the window, daydreaming, fantasizing… About the impossible, the chimerical. Mainly about being as far from me as possible.


OK, so I liked to stargaze, but where did the hammer go?  I want to drive in one more nail, just there, a little to the right and up.  I need the paintings to be hung.  You think it’s crooked?


Every day ends, both good and bad ones.  Sometimes it feels like all you need is to hold your breath.


One step down the stairs, two.  A whole flight of stairs.  The day is so peaceful.  Strangely peaceful, like days used to be when you were a child.  Snowflakes are flying down towards the earth, covering it.  Enveloping it like a down shawl.


It’s Sunday, my friend, the day people gather round a large table in the largest room.  See that light?  It’s getting brighter and brighter, paper garlands light up between the curtains.  You can see a little boy, his long johns carefully patched, a bandage on his ear, playing with a new fire truck.  Merry firemen in orange wests, ignoring the snow, are climbing up the ladder.


Eclairs are glowing on a baking sheet, chocolate is stewing, thickening, doing its best to reach the right density.  The air is redolent of cinnamon, a moist poppy seed, mixed with sugar, it’s ripening, swelling.  Life endures there, its reflection multiplying in enduring winter mirrors.




Suddenly, you realize how ephemeral everything is.  Your huge little world, your walls and doors, your roof and your table, and this feeling.  Of being home.


You are home.  Nothing else matters.


First, everything drifts, scatters, turns into pieces of a puzzle, fragments of a whimsical mosaic.  Everything is alien, the familiar seeps through time with a great effort. 


Earthly existence.  It seems simple.  This concept, so solemn, so archaic, indeed, rests on archaic truths.  Just like you yourself are.


Here is your cup, your table.  Here is your wall, in meticulously chosen color, here are the wrapped up (just in case) paintings.  Here is a coffee spoon, clinking against the edge of a cezve, a book coming into view from the deceptive Sunday quiet. Silence.


You are home, finally, you walk through the door as if you have returned clandestinely from a long, long journey.  It’s the nature of home.  It would guard the warmth as long as there is somebody to claim it.  This corner exists as long as a dog sleeps there, reminiscing. The window exists as long as there is someone to look through it.


You don’t have to hurry when you are home.  You don’t have to do anything in particular.  You don’t have to do anything at all.  You can turn off the news and cry into a pillow.  I wish I could, but tears don’t come.  I have no strength for tears.  All I have is a sense of the fragility of the hear-and-now, of the brittleness and the mystery of the common, the everyday.  The coffee spoon, the wind outside, the chestnut and the maple, and the key that, oh God, refuses to fit into the keyhole.


These voices.  Kharkiv, Kyiv, Chernovtsy.  Guarded at first and then, after a hundred kilometers, growing close with the kind of closeness that only grief and the road can bring. 


You enter a jam-packed bus, cradling the dog, and, suddenly, you exhale.  OK, so it’s stuffy and bumpy, and jaunty Russian pop songs (these seem intractable, eternal) are too loud, but you are actually moving. You are going somewhere.  Towards the sunset over Pshemyshl, towards a cheerless border crossing, towards a gloomy Kyiv morning, an empty town square, towards yourself, standing, perplexed, at the crossroad of all paths and opinions, towards this coffee spoon, the ochre-colored wall.


There was a time that this color was all-important.  Any why?  No reason… To make life warmer.




The morning sun is like a ray of hope.  Nothing bad can happen when the sun is out.  But storm clouds gather, and I remind myself that it’s autumn, that’s how it is, what kind of autumn would it be without the leaden storm clouds reflected in the puddles? 


While I am writing this, the sun breaks through the grey again, showering the world with its light, bestowing (no matter if it sounds too lofty) the gift of hope.  The sun and morning denote hope.


As evening approaches, everything congeals, the only salvation then is the nearby playground.  There is salvation in the hubbub.  While children are playing, the world stands still, clouds part, weapons become pointless.  


There are things that just cannot coexist.  For instance, murder and a sun ray.  Murder and apples, artistically arranged on a platter.  Children playing in a playground.  A painting one must finish.  A tome of Dickens with a bookmark sticking out, the spine embossed in gold.  A blanket covering a sleeping dog.  Somebody’s laughter in the pitch darkness.




A bright morning in Kyiv.  You only get such bright mornings in autumn and in childhood.  It’s as if the twittering birds, the morning dogs trotting along the morning paths, all proclaim: everything is as it should be.  Everything is as it should be – the smooth, buttery chestnuts fit so snugly in your palm, roll underfoot. 


There are a lot of new faces in the building, new kids.


It’s a tranquil, bright morning, moving towards noon, it’s hard to believe that the night and predawn misery, with its shrieking sirens, even exists, that’s something I still can’t get used to, they must have fixed the sound and now it breaks through the closed windows, and, with it, nocturnal nightmares burst into the life of the bedroom suburb, so bustling just a moment ago and now – deserted, only some faraway window lit. I listen to the dog’s snuffles, go to it, pet it, hear the answering sigh.  Finally, the all-clear.


A whole life has passed from the war’s beginning, babies born just before it started are about to utter their first words.  I bet these will be peaceful words, the same they would have been at any other tine.  Daddy, mommy, gimme… 




It’s particularly unfair in the middle of the night, or just before dawn.  You forget when you sleep… Almost.  During the day, mundane concerns distract you.  Dog owners in the park, young mothers with prams, children’s voices.  An old woman shuffling along a fence.  I bet she does not get the air raid alerts, she doesn’t own a cell phone.  This may well be for the best.  Isn’t it bliss not to hear, not to know? 


You, in contrast, are afflicted with hearing every rustle, every squeak.  You distinguish the low frequencies in the hum of the universe.  Or the high ones.  Or even the alien ones, Martian perhaps.  That’s what this is.  Mars attacks.


Is this the dog sniffing or… Nah, it’s the dog.  Touch its nose, its haunches, the nimble vertebrae, the tender ears.  A sleepy, living life.  Happiness.  Move your pillow closer and try to breathe in unison. 


Remember the spooky spine-chillers from childhood?  They are all true…


Every monster has a name, a date of birth, marital status, work seniority.  When he was little, he played with Pokémon, and now that he’s grown, the prospects are just breathtaking.  So many opportunities to apply oneself.


“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all…”


Don’t you worry, silly.  Mommy will protect you, go to sleep.  


Finally, the all-clear.




Killing at five in the morning, or even at six – that’s doing it in style. While you sleep, we are working.  Pursuing an objective.  It’s just work, you better not interfere, five o’clock is the best time – the target is relaxed, it can’t run or hide, particularly if it is encumbered by a child or by somebody old, the oldsters can’t get away anyhow, the child will be de-nazified, and while it is sleeping, we’ll de-nazify its mother, its father, the neighbor, the canary and the dog, we were taught to pursue our objectives, five is perfect, nobody is in the way, just some birds twitting, they usually start to twit just before dawn, you never know whose birds these are, whose shores they’ve come from, what language they twit in, but the serge says we have to work today, I think I heard a shout, or a moan, or perhaps a howl, I can’t tell, I was sleeping like a log, couldn’t wake up, but I think I heard a child crying, calling somebody, in some language, haven’t we de-nazified them all already, the objective has been achieved successfully, the serge said so, everything just as it should be, I just don’t get what the birds are twitting for, it sounds like “mommy” or “help,” but I’ve forgotten what any of this means, it’s above my pay grade, I don’t even know what you are on about, I am just working, money is good, no, this is not a war, I didn’t know anything, this necklace will be just right for sis, and these rings, these trainers should fit my little nephew, I worry whether the size is right, but I guess they will be OK.  




The absence of light (and communication) is akin to oblivion. It falls on you abruptly, with no salving halftones or preambles.


The world around you collapses.  Material things disappear -- no, one can still find them and, with the help of a flashlight, save them from complete oblivion.


Turns out nothing has actually disappeared, it’s just you.


Actually, you’ve never existed.  The illusion of existence has been artificially maintained with substitutes, imitations, in other words, ersatz of all kinds.  The habit of positioning oneself in space through sight, hearing, unnecessary connections, the sense that you are doing everything right, as it should be done, for the best.


Otherwise, there is no you.  Really.  The torture of darkness, of immersion into its depths and layers.  Everything you’ve got is yourself.  Finally!  The sense of ownership should make you happy… But alas.


When the light comes back on, it finds you in the exact same spot, essentially in the same pose. You are now used to being invisible or, rather, not being at all.


The romantic interlude with candles was over last week.  A feeble thought stirs somewhere – what if… -- but you are ready with the answer --  I don’t exist anyway, what difference does it make?  The physical world (outside the range of light) has lost all meaning.  No, it still exists.  Somewhere, life is going on, it is full of movement, colors and hues, it slips through the fingers like some precious, rare fabric.   Silk, velvet, brocade.  All these folds, shadows, artfully lit contours, create an illusion of being.


The world still exists. It’s just that, dependent as it is on the scheduled energy shut-downs, it does not belong to itself anymore.




The fridge is the first to announce its presence.


No, not so, first, the light comes on.  It breaks out so dazzlingly, always unexpectedly, that it almost hurts your eyes which have been adjusting to life by touch.  But if the light is switched off, then it is the hum of the fridge you hear first.  Like right now.  This very second.  The fridge is back.  As if it were alive, its large, white body shivers, and life recommences.  You want to throw yourself at its clean, virginal lines, embrace it like your best friend, -- where have you been, buddy, why did you keep silent, showed no sign of life?


So, in the beginning there was the hum of the fridge, and not the Word as we used to believe in our naivete.  Then – the glow of green lights announces the advent of the most important thing – communication.  An orange light blinks, and then green.  I barely breathe lest I scare this miracle away. You’ve been taught by the new reality to make quick decisions.  First call – to those most dear.  The most important conversation.  How much happiness the live sound of a dear human being can bring, as it fights through the provider’s blockages and malfunctions.


Being there.  I guess it becomes the most important thing.  You being in their lives, they – in yours.


And, of course, the steady, guttural hum of the white colossus, and the dazzling (enough to hurt your eyes) light.  And every cell in your body, astonished, is absorbing its every particle, photon, and proton.  I can hear electricity’s grateful flow along the wires…  By the way, I still don’t know where it comes from, what it consists of, it’s high time to revisit the physics course I so neglected in the eighth grade.




Winter isn’t here yet, but I think these twilit days and evenings will leave something very profound behind.


A row of dark houses, another row behind it, and still more behind.  There is something very encouraging in these people walking by with flashlights of different shapes and intensity.


I have time “for myself” now.  It doesn’t have to be profitably spent. No, it’s just for me alone, framed by dark windows and the hot radiance of a candle.


Thinking about the inevitability of winter, the inevitability of cold, hard times.  But today, in this warm evening of late autumn, I hear happy voices, laughter outside my window, and I want, more than ever, to believe that it will all turn out to be OK.




Subway train skips the Kreschatik station, this is yet another sign of the current times.  The train is speeding past, sprinting, head lowered… like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.  


In normal times, subway is just subway, with its unmistakable smell you remember from childhood, not the best of smells perhaps, but somehow reassuring.  Here you are, a dressed-up boy (or girl) of the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s vintage, led by the hand, plunging into the vortex of the animated, seething crowd.  This is Kreschatik, baby, whose walls, with their multicolored tiles, guard childhood memories, not just yours, but of all these silent people crowding round you now.  On the other hand, of course, I may be wrong because the great migration of people is relentless, it’s happening all the time, so God knows what percentage of native Kyivans is there among today’s subway users.  


In any case, the subway is one of the constants that provides proof of the city’s existence, one of the arteries crisscrossing it.  Stay clear of the closing doors, -- and daylight is gone, and the passengers, having feasted their eyes on the Dnipro’s blue-grey waters, the sky reflected in them, enter the tunnel, and I exhale, relieved.


The small, cozy cafes are always full to the brim because they always have light and heat.  You want to keep watching the faces of the young because the young, no doubt, have it easier.  They have it so much easier than the elderly, tied to their walls, their floors, their plumbing and radiators, rapidly losing heat.  The young have WiFi and other paraphernalia, like power banks.  They have WiFi, power banks, and time.


Old people do not have WiFi.  Here’s a guy awkwardly trying to push phone buttons – what the heck does it say? The phone is ancient, antediluvian, it doesn’t have the millions of telegram channels and calendar announcements regarding what and when one must be ready for.


Instead, old people have memories.  They remember the subway’s festive smell, the little flags, the speeches, the party functionaries on the dais.  And this feeling of assurance, you know?  Military parade on TV screens, festive table spreads, local delicacies.  Na z’drovie, Vassily, here’s to our victory.


My mom knew this butcher, Slavik.  Any foray for meat was quite un undertaking.  If you wanted to “procure” decent meat, you had to get on the subway, get out at Kreschatik, walk to Leo Tolsoy street, right up to the sacramental door, from which emerged, stooping slightly, ordinary looking people, their faces bearing an unmistakable stamp of chosenness. An unobtrusive sign under an arch. A puny man in a dirty white apron greets mother, waves at her, and my happy mother, chortling, disappears behind the door, while I rove aimlessly around the yard, an old Kyiv yard, strewn with fallen leaves or crushed chestnuts.  The time crawls endlessly, I keep shooting despairing glances at the unassuming door, behind which the fate of the holiday pilaf, or grandma’s stew (remember the heavy and spicy gravy) is being determined.  On our way back, we stop at the Karl Marx factory store and buy the yummiest chocolate Chaika, as well as some toffee and hard candy.






This deceptive silence, it is perilous precisely because it lets you forget, and you try to live like you did before, you stop checking the news obsessively, and you almost get used to the quiet, uplifting holiday atmosphere, and then you suddenly remember that the world has collapsed, that it is on fire, and that everyone who is in it or is about to be born is writhing in pain and horror, is being killed time and again, and even if one can still question some things, that – cannot be questioned.




There is nothing as sobering as a well-founded fear of oblivion.  Every moment is brimming with the throbbing sensation of being alive (and desire to live).  In our normal existence, we ignore this piercing sensation, we don’t focus on it.


As soon as an illusion of serenity takes root (only an illusion, mind you), the mind gets busy dealing with other, less lofty matters.  That thirst for life is replaced with the practicalities of existence in wartime.  


Just a minute ago, your heart was about to burst, and you could feel nothing but that chilling urgency, but half an hour passes, an hour, and here you are fretting whether there’s enough food and water in the house, whether the batteries in your flashlight and the other portable devices are charged. 


People in the streets are full of unexpected dignity.  And it’s not the dignity of someone living in relative safety and prosperity (in a free and just world, where the relationship between rights and obligations, between freedom and duty has long been governed by functioning laws).  It is the dignity of someone who has made his or her choice (sometimes, alas, dictated by the absence of choice, in the case of those who cannot move).  This is the dignity of someone who is surviving against all odds.


Amidst tectonic faults filled with rainwater, somebody sells bunches of soaking wet dahlias.  Well, to be honest, just a singe bunch.  OK, the beauty of apples has a practical side – you can feed them to a child or an old person, but flowers?  In this November, almost winterlike, bareness, their shy appearance reminds one of life’s joyful fabric.  Their wet petals, amid icy encrustations on the soaked-through boxes, are a challenge, or maybe a promise… of beauty, totally useless, but so necessary to those who live and breathe.


There is nothing more melancholy and unexpectedly disarming than Christmas tunes broadcasted in the only supermarket left open in the neighborhood.  Dim light, going on and off all the time, or complete darkness through which some silhouettes can be vaguely discerned, lit by flashlights.  Against the backdrop of Christmas music, full of childish anticipation of a miracle.  Hands, carefully palpating, sorting through luminous persimmons, pungent citrus fruit – tangerines and dark orange clementines, hemmed in by dark leaves.   


A quiet line to the check-out counter.  Machine-gun fire of the cash register.  Rustling, sighing (almost a prayer) – “bud’ laska.”  A youngish man, sitting by the door on a piece of cardboard.  A dog, lying meekly next to him.  The silent, expectant eyes of each.




It’s odd, expecting … not the miracle of Christmas, not the gifts of the magi.  It’s so odd expecting murder on schedule.


While expecting murder on schedule, winter has come. While expecting murder, snow has fallen.  And the sky has cleared up.  While expecting murder, children are sledding down the hill, women are crying in a church, and the promised heavens are singing about something heavenly.




During our provisionally peaceful life (peace is always provisional, never universal, it exists solely within a particular frame of reference), we have acquired this enduring idea that only some physical cataclysm, some random natural event can bring calamity and catastrophe.  That somebody sentient is trying, determinately and methodically, to annihilate me, my dog, my relatives, friends, acquaintances – seems absurd, senseless… 


Pauses between strikes are immediately filled (like new grass growing) with details familiar to one’s eyes and ears.  There, in the distance, is a young couple with a light pram and a goofy, long-limbed fox terrier.  This could look like a family idyl if one didn’t know that there is no electricity, heat or water in their apartment, so their morning stroll under winter drizzle is really a necessity.


The world of the apocalyptic and sinusoidal.  A ragged, rhythmic picture that encompasses a drawing of flowers on the asphalt, Christmas carols (which abruptly and painfully remind you of a different time), and a sudden human smile that bestows meaning on the narrowing living space.




War.  Like a musical theme, it gains in strength as it emerges from the dimness of an orchestra pit.  The conductor’s baton goes up and the light dims, becomes subdued, the color of war comes through here and there—it’s khaki.   The usual railway station bustle becomes austere, muted, almost noble.  Another wave of the baton, and the huge flywheel starts moving, violins soar tragically, French horns boom dramatically, while -- somewhere -- supersonic jets are speeding up, increasingly sophisticated weapons are being delivered, human rivers are running east and west.  Peaceful rustling comes from the seats nearby, muted voices, baby’s gurgles, countryside – wintry, commonplace, monotonous (and thus striving for the absolute) – is gliding by beyond the window, becoming the soothing and redeeming component of this magnificent music score.  There is an illusion of direction, of control, and it gives one hope that the madness, the universal chaos are also subject to some laws, some pattern even, and this pattern will not allow this gray, lackluster landscape – or us, gliding by – perish.




History is quite simple.  You put on earphones, select the language – and are told to go to the next room, turn right.  You turn right, match your step to the measured tone of the audio guide, slow down, examine the models, the photos with the accompanying explanations, note the dates, the numbers, one should know history, for instance, these laughing teenagers should know history, so that – by piecing fragments together, correlating dates, looking back (essentially into the preceding room) – you can discern the patterns in the events.


Continue, take a break, visit the museum restaurant, breathe deeply, because the next room will not be easy, it may take you breath away.  Can you see the bombers, flying so low, can you hear the humming?  Yes, this is the room you were warned about, but – just two rooms ago – a phonograph was playing, twittering and bleating could be heard, milk and honey were flowing, girls’ hair was being braided, kids were playing, jumping onto moving trams, nothing even remotely hinted at any patterns.


But now a screen comes to life, the word Anschluss across it, and you shrink away although this is just a movie, you can leave for the next room at any time, but you realize it will not be any better, the density, the sheer volume of data is too much for you, all these photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, voices, they were stored in these dusty boxes only to end up under this glass at your eye level, and you cannot turn away, isn’t this why you are here, to see, to remember what you’ve seen dozens of times before – the star of David on a white shirt, a mincing old woman, her back, her legs, a bundle in her hand, children walking alongside her, her inadequate coat, her bunched-up stockings.  Or this little girl, her dreamy, brown eyes narrowed, her hair tied in a large bow, a haughty cast to her mouth, the kind of smile reserved for beloved, pampered girts, boys too. 


They are still sitting at their windows, and their world still seems invulnerable, a candlestick, a radio set, an open score on the piano, soft, muted light, one can wrap oneself in it, soak up its warmth, store it for the long, cold Warsaw night ahead.


You are encouraged to proceed to the next room, to carefully observe the details, and you, breathless, trudge after the mincing old woman, after the kids following her in single file, of course, you can plead tiredness at any moment and leave, without looking back.  


But you walk on, glancing at the letters that will never be read, at the photographs you will forget in a minute, at both sides of the screen, you walk on, unresisting, because this is only an audio guide, not a posse of dogs, not an actual person prodding you on with a bat or a bullet, and you can always stop, catch your breath, but perhaps this is an illusion, because, all of a sudden, you crash into a wall, you try to smash it down, the inevitability of what happened and the inexorableness of what is happening taking your breath away, but then you are thanked for your time, it only took a couple of hours, and the hum of the bombers is left behind in one of the rooms, and the laughing teenage girls return their headphones, put on their colorful jackets, and then you notice that one of them has a false leg, which doesn’t prevent her from ascending the stairs gracefully, like any other girl her age, smiling faintly, looking forward to her life.  


Kyiv – Kishinev – München – Kyiv - Warsaw

Translated by Lena Mandel

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