So this week in my Grandfather’s story, there is a bit of a shift. First I bring the scene back to Nikopol, Ukraine. But instead of returning the story to conversations between myself and Cait, I bring the story to conversations between my Opa and I. The importance here is that it was from the last time My Opa and I were together in Nikopol and was written from a conversation I recorded while we sat drinking a cold beer in the city centre of Nikopol.
The other shift that makes this conversation important is the subject matter. The date and title of this section ‘June of 1941’ is important for two reasons, the Germans arrive in Nikopol and he meets … Tamara.
Together we sit on a concrete step. My Opa’s school is behind us. The pale green plaster is peeling and the dark green trim is rotted through. The two story school in the city centre lays vacant collecting dust. Today this section of the city is considered ancient and dead. The new portion of the city, the industrialized centre is a few kilometers north of us. The steps we rest upon are shaded by large oak trees. My grandfather and I share a cold piva in this May heat, while we look out onto the city centre.
“How did you come to know her?” I ask continuing our conversation.
“We went to school together. She was a year older then I and went to school in the afternoon when I went in the morning.” He responds.
I know these answers but talking and uncovering 65 year old facts are a process, one can’t just pull them up like a computer, it’s more like a card catalogue. One has to start at a specific topic and go through each card one at a time until the context gets big enough that you stumble upon the piece of information that you are looking for. I then can link the story to hard facts. My Opa’s mental process is strong but like any catalogue there is a little dust that one has to clean off.
“You know Mike it was around the invasion of the Germans that she became my ‘girlfriend’.” My Opa uses his fingers as a quotation mark to finish his sentence. “We were coming back from the river, I walking her home, when we passed a gathering of people by the Mayor’s office.” He points across the square in the direction of his old house. “Through a loud speaker we could hear Stalin talking of the German Invasion and the beginning of the War.” My Opa pauses, “I guess that was May of 1941.”
“Are you sure Opa?” I respond, knowing the date is incorrect. I need him to uncover this fact so he can continue the story. “Were you still in school?” I ask.
“Oh. No, we were done school and we had been swimming in the Dnieper all day. It must have been the middle of June.” My Opa smiles.
This realization will help him continue his story. See I know that the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. So now I can date this event in my grandfather’s life and the beginning of his relationship with Tamara; ‘hard facts’.
“We just stood and listened, it was rare that we would hear Stalin speak. It was kind of exciting and adventurous.” Opa takes a swig from the bottle and passes it back to me. “When the Germans arrived some two months later, they came from that corner of the city.” Opa points to our left. “Diagonal from us, the Russian fighters had set up a machine gun that fired spurts of bullets across the square. Only two bombs were dropped on the city, one here in the centre, which was a dud and the other exploded in the industrial section. The day they attacked, Elfrieda and I were coming back from my sister Anna’s work. Her work was located from the area in which the Germans were advancing from. Together Elfrieda and I crawled across the square avoiding the barrage of gunfire.”
The facts are endless now. I know he is remembering these events as if they were being replayed for us right in front of our eyes. I remain quiet in these situations, I just let him talk and try to record as much information as possible.
“It was something to watch the Germans marching into the city. They marched in perfect formation, black leather knee high boots polished and clipping on the cobblestone streets. They made quick work of the remaining Russian soldiers. I was mesmerized by their structure and order, everything for them went like clockwork. The invasion, the occupation, everything seemed effortless. There was only one officer that accepted the Russian surrender here in Nikopol. Tamara and I watched as a line of Red Army soldiers collected. The soldiers had their rifles in hand. They stood waiting their turn to hand over their weapons. The German Officer took the rifle, broke it over his knee and threw them into a pile. After the soldiers were finished they were gathered and put into waiting trucks that took them to a concentration camp.” My Opa stops for a minute, “you know Mike I don’t know why I found them so impressive?”
My thoughts shift to his school mate Lisa.
“I do Opa; they were clean, cut and polished. They were regimented, represented power, skilled and were flashy. You were 13 years old, you were a kid.” I respond trying to comfort him.
“I felt a lot older” my Opa says. I take another swig of beer; it has lost its refreshing taste. His body language has changed from sitting up to hunched over.
I need to get his thoughts back to Tamara. “You dated Tamara all through this time?”
“Yes, well I wouldn’t really call it dating, Mike, I don’t think we ever kissed, let alone held hands.” He pauses. “You know actually it was on these steps that her friend came up to me and said, ‘Harry, Tamara would like to date you.’ I stood up and said ‘you can tell her that I accept’. That’s how it started Mike.” The spark that had disappeared in his eyes a moment earlier has returned.
“What did she look like?” I ask.
“Oh, Mike she was a beauty. She was the same height as me, long blonde hair and deep blue eyes.” He pauses, “eyes so deep that when they looked at you they looked right through you.” His voice lurches as he speaks. “She was amazing Mike, most of the time she was dressed like us boys, but sometimes she would wear a sun dress that her mother gave her. I can still see her in my mind, Mike.”
My Opa doesn’t look at me; I smile and pat his back. I love seeing my Opa like this, it reminds me that he his human, like me. It also hurts because, I know the story that happens next and I don’t like thinking about a childhood that ended way too early. I am not ready to talk about that yet. I need to know the events in a chronological order, next is Kiev.
“Opa did you speak German together?” I already know the answer but I need to change the subject matter.
“Oh no, it was always Russian, I didn’t learn German until the spring of 19-” my Opa pauses, “must have been spring of 1942.”
“Where did you learn it?” I ask.
“In Kiev, at a German boarding school the Army had set up. There we learnt military drill, to write and speak German, science and arithmetic, grammar and literature. It didn’t take long for me to learn the language.”
“How long were you there?” I ask.
“I was there till the end of summer.” He replies.
“Were you the only one to go from Nikopol?”
“No, there were six of us, but I was the only one from our group.” Opa now gets up and we begin to stroll around the city square. The sun is now straight above us. This May heat of 45 degrees is unrelenting, I understand why as a kid my Opa spent all of his time at the river.
We continue walking and our conversation breaks; there is silence in the heat. We pass the mayor’s office and continue down the gravel road, leaving the city center. We are still silent as we pass his house. We now start to follow the winding river. The tall grass blows in the light spring breeze. It does not bring relief from the heat. We have left the small house behind and there is only countryside now in view. After a few minutes we reach a bridge and I realize why we have walked this way. I don’t know if I am ready for this next story.