This next chapter is the story of Tamara and my Opa. I keep the scene in Nikopol, but I return to the conversation between myself and Cait…
An old stone bridge is decaying. Long grass weaves itself through the crumbling rock. The river bed below that once was ten feet deep with fast moving water is now dry. The river has since been diverted. My Opa used to use the bridge as a diving board. I can hear the laughter as he and his friends jump into the river. I can hear water splashing. The laughter echoes in between the bridge walls. This bridge is one of the many places my grandfather and friends visited to escape the summer heat.
“This is where it took place?” Cait asks, pulling me away from the laughter and returning me to the bridge.
“Yeah, he hid the boat down the river in a little inlet and approached the German officers guarding the prisoners.” I pick a rock up from a top the bridge and launch it in the direction of my story. Almost at the same time we both sit on the edge of the weathered bridge. “He returned from Kiev in late summer of 1942. The city was much different then when he left. The Germans had implemented new law, government and schooling. They had brought ‘Germany’ to the area.”
“Tell me how she was caught?” Cait asks.
“Her father was part of the Russian resistance, stealing from Nazis supporters, ambushing supply lines and blowing up train tracks. Tamara’s mother routinely provided food for the resistance fighters. The fighters’ found refuge across the river, in the Sand dunes of Nieder-Chortiza; where my Opa and his friends spent their summer days. She found out that the Germans were on to her actions, so one night Tamara’s mother didn’t come back. Tamara was left to take up her mother’s cause; she too began bringing food across the river. She was 15.” Cait reaches for my hands. “Not long after she began delivering food, Tamara was caught.”
“What was racing through your Opa’s mind? I can only imagine.” Cait says.
“Part of me thinks that he was calm, methodic and deliberate in his choice of actions. I don’t think he second guessed what he was going to do. Behind us there were docks, which were used as rope barges that brought fresh produce across the river. The Germans had put the prisoners to work unloading produce off the barge. I know it was September because my Grandfather remembers Tamara unloading watermelons, so it had to be fall. My Opa walked straight up to the German officers who were guarding the prisoners and in his newly acquired language asked if he could talk to his Girlfriend. I can imagine the officers were impressed by this Russian peasant speaking fluent German. They obliged and together Tamara and Opa walked toward this bridge we sit on. Neither one spoke a word, once they reached this little inlet”, I point again, “they got in the boat my Opa had hidden earlier and he began rowing her across the river.” I close my eyes, “I can hear the splashing waves against the side of the boat; no one speaks, my Opa just rows. Tamara has a cut under her left eye and her face is bruised from the beatings she took during interrogation. When they reach the other side, Tamara gets out and instead of hugging or kissing each other goodbye they just stand there, looking at each other for a minute. After a pause my Opa sticks out his hand. She grasps it, they shake hands and then he begins paddling back across the river.”
“Did they see each other again? Mike?” She shakes my knee. Cait’s eyes glisten in this uncomfortable heat.
I turn my head and look at her, trying to think of the correct answer, “No, they never saw each other again,” I respond. “He was so worried that she would be lined up against a wall and shot, or worse sent to the camps.”
“Did people know about the camps?” Cait asks.
“That is a topic to discuss in itself and later as we continue on I will explain, but in short, yes everyone knew what was going on.” I reply.
“What happened to your Grandfather? Did the guards catch him?”
“Yup, not two minutes after he arrived back on the other side. The guards nabbed him and dragged him to the police station. There they tied him to a chair and beat him to a pulp, I mean almost to death. His face was a swollen mess, all black and blue; he had broken ribs and was eventually knocked unconscious. I think the only reason he wasn’t beaten to death was because his brother Victor was one of the officers. Victor was able to convince his fellow comrades to spare his brother’s life. When my Opa awoke he was being carried home by his father.” I drag my forearm across my eyes, taking sweat with it. “He must have known he would be caught. There is no doubt in my mind he knew. ”
“Do you think he was scared when they caught him?” Cait asks. Her hands are still clutched with mine.
“You know I think he probably was, but being that I think he knew what was coming from the beginning, I think he was quiet; I think he just let it happen.” I respond.
“Then why not stay with Tamara on the other side?” she asks.
“I think there were two reasons. The first being the most important… family; I don’t think he would have left his family.” I respond. “As much as this story hurts it is the one I respect the most. It makes me proud to be his grandson. I tell myself that this was the most important moment in my grandfather’s life. I hold onto it tightly in my heart. This is where he defied authority, where he questioned the norm, he saw something that was wrong and acted upon it. He acted on impulse with heart, courage and passion and it is a story that will never leave me.” Hesitating to continue I kick at the dirt with my leather sandals.
“You said there were two reasons?” Cait asks.
“This is where it’s going to start to get difficult. As much as my grandfather cared for his friend and wanted to protect her and keep her safe, I think he was also intoxicated with this new language and regime that occupied this Ukrainian landscape.”
“What do you mean?” Cait continues to question.
“I think he was curious.”
“Curious?” she asks.
“Think about it, a regime that wore clean pressed uniforms, long black leather boots; they had cigarettes, shiny weapons and brought ‘order’ to the area.” I pause searching for words, “All during my grandfather’s childhood he wanted to be respected and revered, that’s what my Opa saw in the Nazis. For my Opa he was intrigued by this new government that demanded respect.” Cait is confused with my response.
“Yeah, but what about Lisa, the arrest and beating of Tamara and the fact they almost killed him? Why go through the entire scenario of rescuing Tamara.” She asks.
“It’s hard to explain, but I think those were seen as separate issues.” I pause. “Separate in the fact that on one hand he was acting on impulse, he wasn’t thinking about the Nazi ideals, he was thinking about the safety of his friend. On the other side, the Germans showed interest in him by sending him to Kiev, and it was a chance to be respected. Before the Germans, he was seen as a poor, dirty Russian peasant who came to school in torn clothes and coal on his hands and face. This was a chance for much more.”
We are quiet for minutes on end. We just sit on this bridge, not speaking, her hands locked with mine. The sun begins to set and for the first time the heat begins to taper off. I look west, the sun straddling the grain fields.
“So that’s Nikopol”. I say. She squeezes my hand.