"Go tend pigs!" howls Patak. "You don't belong in the army."
The girls cast hate-filled glances in his direction, but remain silent.
They climb up and down the small slope. Legs turn numb and ears begin to buzz. Sweat runs from the corner of lips and between shoulder blades. Shirts stick to skin. Tongues are parched. Yet, the women continue to walk, up and down, up and down, while the voice hammers relentlessly.
"You are on the battlefield, they're shooting at you; grenades explode; flatten up as if to creep back into the earth; you crawl, you crawl; you slip between the roots, through the brush, flat on your stomach; I said, flat on your stomach; your head hugs the ground; your arms slide ahead, always close to the ground; the body follows. "Ah, what a bunch of dumbheads," moans Patak. (p. 219)
When I was in LA with my mom, we were sitting around the dinner table and my mom's caretaker, Alma, was talking about a woman she'd worked for who had died a couple of years before at age 100.
She'd been a doctor when the Nazis came into her town and fled across the river into Soviet occupied territory. That landed her and her infant daughter in a cattle car to Kazakhstan. After the war she'd married a rich Frenchman and lived in Paris until he died. Then she moved to one of their properties in Beverly Hills. Which is how Alma came to take care of her.
'Wow,' I said, 'She should have written a book."
'She did,' replied Alma.
|Photo from book - Ruzena Berler and Olga|
These quotes are from the book Cattle Car to Kazakhstan: A Woman Doctor's Triumph of Courage in World War II by Ruzena Berler.
Back to the training for Czech soldiers fighting with the Soviets after the Germans declare war on them.
Katerine is having some trouble keeping her butt down.
"'Hey, you, there. Who are you showing your ass to?"
Katerine bounds up.
'You, you . . .you are a rude bastard."
Half-strangled with anger, she runs to Patak.
'Swallow your tongue; swallow your filthy tongue," she cries.
'Ha, the ladies are angry; the ladies are willing to go to war, but only with gloves on and sitting in an armchari,' snickers Patak. "We'll see about that; we'll see. Now, back to your place. Step smartly and faster than that. After the exercise is over, report to me."
Drill is over and they are walking home.
"The group comes across a male detachment. A few wolf whistles are heard.
'These can't be women; they're more like camels,' mocks somebody.
All the men laugh. The girls, pretending not to have heard, keep on martching, staring straight ahead. Katerine, who turns her head, gets punched in the back.
'Oh, those bastards,' grunts Vlasta between her teeth. 'We must show we don't give a damn about them."
Yet the girls' feelings are hurt. How can one not resemble a camel when uniforms are so oversized that you feel lost in them, with those pants that make hips twice as wide as they are? Gathered at the bottom, too long, they corkscrew before disappearing into heavy laced boots. Pants with a fly, yet, for girls! And then, those waist-length blousons, instead of concealing the curve of hips, accentuate it even more.
Hours are spent sewing, cutting down, shortening, but skills are in short supply, and the results far from satisfactory.
And then, there are those who preach austerity - old maids, of course; thirty-five years old, if they are a day!
Easy for them, thinks Vlasta [who is 17]. Who could they still hope to attract? Milena is the worst of all. She's making fun of us and turns everything to ridicule. True, she isn't really mean, but after one of her barbs, you don't dare attempt anything to look a little better, for fear of being made a laughing stock, as it happened to Nadine."
Berler has a way of giving very detailed stories, in spare prose, so I feel like I'm there with her. There's relatively little narrative, mostly it's the stories that drop us into one location after another.
These personal stories offer us a glimpse into a world and place, from a point of view, that we seldom hear. And Berler is a keen observer of behavior. She's a woman I wish I had met. A lot of this book is striking - the interactions of the passengers in the cattle car, how the group of once stylish Polish women cope in the dilapidated old barn they're given to live in at the rural Kazakhstan village they're dropped in, the workings of the hospital, and the different ways these young women in exile deal with their sexual longings.
For this post I'm focusing on women who were in combat. It seems appropriate now that US military - 70 years later - is allowing women soldiers in combat. (I thought a better way to achieve male-female equality was to ban men from combat instead.) And this book offers some pretty graphic battlefield scenes that would make anyone think twice about signing up to fight. They're too long and complicated to include here. Berler must have known about the combat from the women she writes about. She was near the front, but as a doctor in a hospital at the urging of her Czech officer boy friend. (None of the women knew if their husbands, if they had one, were dead or alive and having male companions brought many benefits.)
The soldiers were part of a Czech brigade of about 900 - 30 were women - that was fighting with the Soviets. Milena, also a Czech, is a Party official who fought in the Spanish civil war and was assigned to indoctrinate the Czech women so that after the war they will welcome the Party into Czechoslovakia. The women, most of whom had been in horrible prison camps in the East under brutal conditions, are not particularly interested.
Back to Nadine and Milena.
"One evening, Milena came back, just as Nadine was examining her hair in a small pocket mirror. She'd first shampooed it, then carefully, strand after strand, wound it around torn bits of newspaper. The operation was lengthy and demanding, considering the mass of hair, the shortage of paper, and the minuscule dimensions of the mirror.
Milena considered Nadine's curly head for a long time, turning this way and that.
Finally, shaking her head, she dropped, with a thin smile, "I see on that head enough frizz for three poodles; perhaps not enough for a star, but certainly much too much for a soldier."
After another run in with Milena over lipstick and feminine underwear, the women rebel.
"'Milena, why do you say that?" ask Nadine and Katerine at the same time.Things progress.
'Because the time is past for being girlish,' explains Milena. 'The world is crashing down; Russia's bleeding. Each day, thousands of men die. . ."
"Where they'd been striving before to enhance their value as women, they now strive to be admired as women soldiers. They feel capable of excelling there, and are eager to prove themselves. So, they manage to be near the men during range practice, and sneer audibly when counting the missed targets. This unnerves the men.And they get back at Patak.
'Bragging, as usual,' they retort. 'You already look ridiculous behind a simple gun; you'd be frightened to death behind a cannon.'
'How would you know about that?' replies Nadine.
'Try it then.'
'Why not?' May I?'
The officer is caught in the game, just like his men.
'Go ahead and try,' he allows.
Nadine squats behind an anti-tank gun, and carefully locates her target in the scope. She shoots. The shell hits the bull's eye.
'Hurrah!' cry the girls.
The men only shrug
'A lucky shot, that's all.'
She shoots again and again. Even without the scope, she manages to hit the target - even as it is progressively moved father and farther away.
'The road to success is often opened through chance,' comments Milena, philosophically. 'Who would have thought that plump Nadine, curly as a poodle, had it in her to be an artilleryman?'
'Big deal," interjects Vlasta with a tinge of jealousy. 'Some success - being promoted into the art of killing!'
But enthusiasm is contagious, and now they find themselves incorporated into the complete program of target practice. Like the men, they learn to handle machine guns, to hit a moving target, to strike an armored vehicle with an anti-tank cannon, to arm a grenade and throw it, and to dig a foxhole while remaining flat on their stomach.
The women do find an opportunity to get back at Patak.
Katerine was punished for insubordination after the incident during the exercise in the steppe. Nothing but bread and water, and a twenty-four hour confinement at the bottom of a hole dug inside the casern perimeter - no fun at all, particularly at night, for she dreads the dark, and recoils from bugs and rats. How long such a lonely night can be, and how bitter the anger it fosters!It's a dark night.
The girls are deeply moved by Katerine's distress.
Vlasta declares resolutely, 'Something must be done. We can't allow ourselves to be treated that way.'
Milena, who never misses a chance to preach her party line, smiles soothingly.
'This is only an example of the old fascist methods. Such things could never happen in the Soviet Army. Rapport between soliders and officers is humane and based on comradeship. Discipline is willingly accepted, and one relies upon awareness of a shared goal, as well as a common duty to the country. . .
'I've had it with Miss Guiding Light. She's a pain. If she'd been through what we went through, she'd sing a different tune," grouse the girls. . .
Nevertheless, the girls have lodged a complaint with the colonel about the uncouth way their lieutenant treats them. Meanwhile, they prepare their own personal revenge.
"There is no moon, and the sky is overcast on the night Jarmila is on watch duty in front of the casern's entrance leading to Headquarters and Bachelor Officers' Quarters. A driving rain begins to fall, and periodic blasts of wind rattle tightly closed doors and windows.The book is available online. I found a copy through inter-library loan. A fascinating World War II story and just one degree of separation between me and the author.
'Hey, here comes Patak,' rejoices Jarmila, watching a dark shadow hastening to the gate. 'I guess our intelligence services are well-informed.'
Through indirect channels, the girls had learned that Patak, sent two days before to Kujbishev, wouldn't probably be back before midnight. And rain started to fall as if on order.
'Stop!' she shouts, aiming her gun. 'Give me the password.'
'I don't know it,' replies the newcomer. 'I was away on orders, but you know me; let me in.'
It is Patak, all right, and is he mad!
'One more step, and I shoot.'
'Come on; don't be an idiot.'
'Stay where you are, or I shoot,' warns Jarmila, her finger on the trigger.
'Call the officer of the day,' demands Patak.
'No. I have to wait until my relief comes. I can't leave you here unwatched.'
'You've got to be out of your mind!' shouts an exasperated Patak, taking a step forward.
The barrel of the gun comes to rest firmly against his chest.
'Don't you dare move,' orders Jarmila, who, sheltered under the small roof protecting the gates, watches Patak as if he were a huge bug pinned to a cork.
He stops, at a loss, then tries to reason with her.
'Look, I know you're doing your job, and I understand. Only you mustn't overdo it. I am an officer. I outrank you, and you must listen to me.'
'Stop!' yells Jarmila. 'Don't take another step.'
The wind is howling now. Fine slanted cords of rain whip against the man's head and body. Having left in glorious weather, he didn't bother with a coat. His feet sink deep in the mud, and he is soon soaked to the bone.
No one is in sight; nothing, but the howls of the wind and the patter of the rain, that gun pressed against his chest, and rage burning in his eyes. Minutes pass slowly.
Soon, we'll have been in that stand-off for half an hour, rages Patak inwardly. Face to face with the insolent girl and her mocking eyes. I'll be the laughing stock of the entire unit. But what can I do?
Another half hour drags on as though it would never come to an end, before the relief sentry appears at last and Patak can return to his quarters.
'Hurrah, we got him!' shout the girls, awakened by Jarmila's arrival. They gather around her, warm up some tea for her, and rub her hair dry.
'He'll remember it,' they repeat, very pleased.
He did remember it, and for a long time - especially in the hospital where he was sent to nurse his pneumonia. (p. 227)
I forgot to mention that the book is copyrighted 1999. So the author would have been in her late 80's at that time. The images, nevertheless, are very vivid.