FRIDAY, JULY 28, 1944
Somebody had shot a political officer.
At least—I thought. My Russian wasn’t anything at all to be proud of. But I had been handcuffed to this chair in this office listening to the junior officer out at the front desk shout into a telephone for over an hour, and I was pretty sure that was what he was saying between expletives: Somebody murdered a zampolit last night—yes, murder—shot twice from behind at close range.
The culprit seemed to be one of their own men, which meant it wasn’t me. I doubted I would be here, sitting relatively comfortably in this office, if they thought it was me.
My pistol, the Walther they took off me when they arrested me this morning, sat on the desk in front of me, pointing at me accusingly. It was half the reason I was here—carrying a weapon without authorization—and I guessed it was in here as evidence. It was the only thing I was carrying, which was the other half of the reason. I didn’t have any papers. I had a perfectly valid excuse, but so far nobody had been interested in listening to it. Everybody had just assumed I was Polish Resistance—a courier, perhaps, and apparently stupid enough to blunder right into a Soviet patrol.
The problem was I didn’t know how to prove I wasn’t. I knew enough about Soviet justice to know you were guilty until proven innocent. Sometimes even then.
The desk belonged to Comrade Colonel F. Volkov, 64th Rifle Division, NKVD. There was a nameplate. There were also two photographs in frames—I didn’t know of what; they weren’t facing me—and a fountain pen in a holder, all precisely arranged. The drab green papered walls were empty, though you could see the odd dark spot here and there where previous occupants had hung things. They were still clearing out this place from the German occupation. Lwów had been in Soviet hands for all of twenty-four hours. The dust hadn’t even settled.
Somebody shut the office door behind me, muffling the sound of the ongoing telephone call.
Comrade Colonel F. Volkov came around the desk, unbuttoning his coat. He folded the coat neatly over the back of his chair, laid his briefcase on the desk, and set his smart blue cap beside it just so. Then he sat down facing me. He didn’t look at me yet. He opened his briefcase and took out a piece of paper—my arrest report, I presumed—and spent a minute reading it in silence.
I knew how these things worked. I could guarantee you he had already read it. This part was just for show. But I wasn’t complaining. It gave me a chance to size him up. I would put him at thirty-five or forty, prematurely gray, handsome in a stiff, austere sort of way—absolutely unremarkable to all appearances, but I knew better. You didn’t get to be comrade colonel of the NKVD by being unremarkable.
“Maria Kaminska,” he read aloud.
“You may speak in Polish,” he said disinterestedly, not looking up. “Tell me if I need to make any corrections. Polish national, sixteen years old, resident of Bród, arrested for unauthorized possession of a weapon.” He eyed the pistol just briefly. It was a German pistol, the Walther, which I assumed was doubly suspicious. “No identification.”
“Yes—I mean, no corrections.”
“Where is Bród?”
I didn’t blame him for having to ask. There were about thirty-seven little villages called Bród in Poland. Bród just meant “river ford.” It was the sort of name I would make up if I were a spy or something.
“On the Slonówka River in Wolyn Province,” I told him. “Ten kilometers from Radziwillów.” Four days’ walk east of here. I didn’t have a map, but I had divided the distance up by days on the big map in the train station back in Tarnów.
I couldn’t tell whether the names meant anything to him. His face was expressionless. “Why are you in Lwów?”
I wasn’t, technically. They had arrested me on the road west of the city. But I didn’t think Because your men brought me here was the answer he was looking for.
“I’m just trying to go home,” I said.
“Home from where?”
“Rüsselsheim—in Germany. The Opel automobile plant there. I was—”
“Ostarbeiter. Taken for slave labor.” He looked up for the first time. There was something almost hungry in the way his eyes searched over my face. “You escaped?”
“During the bombing. There was an air raid—the Americans. The overseers left our barracks unguarded while they were in the bomb shelters. I started running.”
“You’ve come from Rüsselsheim on foot?” He sounded more surprised than suspicious.
“Just from Tarnów. That’s where the rail lines stopped. I hopped trains from Frankfurt.”
He took out his fountain pen and made a note in Russian in the margin of the paper. “How long since you were taken?”
“Two and a half years.”
The pen paused.
“That winter—after the invasion.” I was careful not to say the German invasion, which would draw awkward attention to the fact that there had also been a Soviet one. I didn’t want to do anything to antagonize this man. “February twenty-third, 1942.” I had held on to that date. I had held on to the memory of that morning—the last time I saw my parents’ faces. I had been so afraid I would forget their faces.
Comrade Colonel F. Volkov put his pen down.
“You may find,” he said carefully, “very much has changed in two and a half years.”
Dear God, did he think I hadn’t thought about that?
“I know,” I said.
“I wouldn’t go any farther east,” he said.
There was a warning in his voice. It made my heart clench like a fist. “But—”
“I’ll write you a pass.” He opened a desk drawer. “Turn around. Go to Przemysl. Register with the Red Cross there. It’s possible they may be able to put you in touch with any of your family who might—”
He cut himself short, but I knew what he was going to say.
Who might still be alive.
It had been two and a half years. I wasn’t stupid. I had heard the stories. I knew what the Germans had done to my people, to his people. There were Russian Ostarbeiter with me in the Opel plant.
“But I’ve come all this way.” Helplessly, I watched him take out another piece of paper and pick up his pen. It was a struggle to keep my voice steady. Not like this—not when I was so close.
He wasn’t listening. He wasn’t looking at me anymore. His head was bent as he wrote. The conversation was apparently over as far as he was concerned.
“Please.” Maybe I was stupid. He was letting me go—didn’t even ask any questions about the gun—and I was arguing with him. Not even arguing. Grasping for any and every little excuse like a little kid who couldn’t take no for an answer. “All I need is a few more days.”
He opened another drawer and took out an ink pad and a rubber stamp. He inked a bloodred hammer-and-sickle seal on the corner of the paper. “Whatever you might find in Bród—I can guarantee it’s not what you want to find.”
I tried to shrug indifferently. It was awkward with my arms spread, wrists cuffed to the chair arms. “It’s still home.”
He didn’t look up. “Not anymore. Not the home you knew.”
“I promised. I told them I would come back.” My throat was tight—anger and desperation and hopelessness all at once. I swallowed fiercely. I was not going to cry. “Please. Just four more days.”
He sighed just audibly. He returned the stamp to the drawer. He slid the paper across the desk toward me under his fingertips.
“You may use it as you wish,” he said, “but my recommendation is that you go to Przemysl.”
“Thank you,” I breathed.
He ignored that. “Since you’re not going to take my recommendation, consider this a warning.” His voice was cold. “This is still contested territory. A pass from me is a death sentence in the wrong hands. UPA or Resistance thugs won’t care that you’re a civilian.”
“I know.” At least—I knew what he meant by Resistance. There had been a Polish Resistance squad in the wood outside Bród. A few of them were Polish army soldiers who had avoided internment or deportation under the Soviets during the first invasion, the 1939 invasion. Most of them were boys from Bród who had slipped one by one into the wood in the weeks and months that followed.
I had no idea what he meant by UPA. Another partisan group? The only other partisans I knew of were the Soviet ones—escaped POWs, stragglers left behind when the Germans invaded in 1941. They couldn’t be who he meant—not if he was calling them thugs.
He pushed his chair back and came around the desk, taking a key from his pocket. He unlocked my handcuffs and dumped them on the desk. He didn’t move right away, so I was still trapped in the chair, suddenly aware of how close he was—suddenly aware that it was entirely possible he was expecting a little favor in return.
Panic roiled my stomach. I fought it down, gripping the chair arms. Breathe. Think. My pistol was still there on the desk. I doubted it was loaded, but you could bet I would make it do some damage.
He didn’t touch me. He wasn’t even looking at me. He reached across the desk for one of the framed photographs. I let go of the chair arms slowly, cautiously. My heart was racing.
He held the photograph in his hands for a second. His shoulders were stiff.
“If you could tell me—” he started.
Text copyright © 2022 by Amanda McCrina