Oksana and Ruslana, Ukrainian girls playing in the streets of Lwów: dolls and sticks and rope. Sunup-sunset, never a cloud in the sky, even when it rains. Always tying and buckling one another’s shoes. When they fall or get scraped, they kiss one another’s bruises, broken skin. Sticky lips and fingers swapping sweets: one girl, the other.
“Will you love me forever, Oksana?” asks Ruslana, leaning close, the walk home quiet.
“Forever, Ruslana,” says Oksana, her head bobbing on Ruslana’s shoulder.
“To the moon?” smiles Ruslana, all jaw.
“And back,” says Oksana, all fang.
The Germans arrived in Poland in June 1941—on my birthday, of all days. The Russians were chased out of Lwów, fled. A German soldier broke the lock of the cell with his rifle, kicked the door wide open. I vomited in the open air. I vomited from fear. I vomited on the body closest to me—my brother’s. Around me, a sour, rotting garden: Mother, Brother, Sister. Brother was the last to die, just days before. I’d held him awhile, his head leaden in my lap.
“Es ist mein Geburtstag,”I tell the soldier, in poor German: birthday. I don’t know why I tell a stranger this. Perhaps because, with my little brother’s face turned away from me, with my sister and mother stiffening, it seemed impossible.
He bent down to me, boots magnificent.
“Ein, Sieben,” I said, unsure how to say the number.
“Simnadtsyat’,” he said in Ukrainian. Seventeen.
“Tak,”I said, surprised—but how did he know?
“Moya babusya,”he said, before I could ask. His grandmother was from Ukraine.
He helped me stand. His hand was steady, warm with beating blood. His uniform was dry, scratching the skin of my arm. I marveled at him, alive. I marveled at him, helping. We went together out the door. The air—
“Mnohaya lita,”he said, the sun in my eyes. The sound of it against the light almost stopped my heart. It means, in Ukrainian: Wishing you many years of life.
Ruslana and Oksana whisper about boys. They whisper the names of the ones they like—who is handsome, whom they would marry, though Oksana doesn’t think she would really like to marry any of them. The boys are like Oksana’s brother, Aleksander: squirrely and pocked. Ruslana says boys grow up to be like their fathers, but Oksana can’t imagine Aleksander being like their father, a Cossack, a patriot, broad and strong. The girls pretend to marry one another. One plays husband, one plays wife. They trade.
Oksana enjoys being married to Ruslana. She braids her hair. They hold hands and vow. They kiss, briefly, with chapped, dirty mouths. Oksana wants nothing more than to be this way, forever: secret and sweet. Ruslana loves the game because she is no longer an orphan. She can pretend to be noticed, loved.
They grow: legs and necks and chests, all limbs, hips bowed like boats, smooth like lacquered hulls. Ruslana bleeds first, joyfully, and Oksana prays she will too, and soon, fearing to be left behind.
Months later, when her blood comes, it feels like an accident. She feels a clench and a twist below her belly. She’s at school when it happens, and so she rushes to the washroom alone, sits on the cold porcelain and pulls her underwear past her knees to see. A burst of red-brown blood. She grabs some tissue paper and folds it between her legs.
Ruslana knocks on the stall. “Are you okay?”
Oksana tells her yes. Ruslana waits until the bell sounds, then walks away.
Ruslana didn’t tell her it would be like this. She didn’t warn her. Oksana wipes the tears from her cheeks, the blood spot antagonizing as an eye. The twist within her tightens, knuckled and hateful like a fist.
In the days that followed, the Wehrmacht carried bodies from the NKVD prisons and laid them out in the square. The old women wailed, prayed, covered their mouths with scarves. I slept in the street where people mourned. I identified my family, lying side by side, to the same German soldier who had opened my cell. He wrote their names down on white tags, slipped the tags onto their fingers. The kindness of it. Mother, brother, sister.
“Ist das alles?” he asked.
“Stalin,” I said, pointing to the distance. I made a gun with my fingers. I closed one eye to aim the rifle. I pictured my father, running away in the snow, nearly disappearing into a thicket.
“Pow,” I whispered. I watched my father fall. The German and I together looked to the bodies. Mother, brother, sister. I only felt the cold.
“Tot,” he said, soft.
“Tot,” I said. Dead.
He asked me, “Wie heißen Sie?”
I didn’t understand what he meant until he handed me a white tag. My name.
“Lev,” I said, hand over heart.
“Wulfgang,” he said.
I put the tag in my pocket.
The girls are older , and Ruslana has a secret: Aleksander.
Aleksander has unruly hands, an eager mouth, an energy. With Ruslana he is no longer the quiet thinker, the reserved observer. She feels safe with him and is thrilled by him. She finally sneaks Aleksander into her bedroom, the house asleep, and undresses for him with the lamp on, her white slip pooling at her ankles. She feels like a bathtub full of water, spilling. A wild shock within her body, her sex: a beat, a hunger, a hum. She leans onto the bed, which creaks under her weight, and the lovers look at one another, holding back their laughter, all smiles close to bursting. Learning together, unsure as lambs, they open.
“When will we tell Oksana?” Ruslana asks, after. A sigh. A nudge. “Are you so afraid of your sister?”
Aleksander’s arms tighten around her. His breath warms her scalp.
“I’m afraid of ruining your friendship,” he says. He covers his eyes with a free hand.
Ruslana kisses his shoulder.
“You can’t,” she says. “We wouldn’t let you.”
Ruslana is wearing a white dress, red and blue embroidery along the neck and sleeves and train. Their mothers have made for her a chaplet of kalyna berries, a bouquet of wildflowers. Oksana takes locks of Ruslana’s blond hair and brushes with a soft brush until the strands are smooth and shining. She separates the tresses and plaits her hair, forming multiple braids to make a crown.
Oksana has always been enchanted with Ruslana’s hair, ever since they were girls. The tangles caught with twigs, curled at the bottom. She’s been braiding Ruslana’s hair all her life. She’s happy for Ruslana and her brother, but sad, too, for reasons she can’t quite understand, angry with herself for being unhappy, for being envious—of Ruslana, of Aleksander, she isn’t sure. She wants to ask Aleksander to promise that he’ll never take Ruslana away, that they’ll never leave her. But she says nothing. Aleksander kisses his sister’s hands and says, “I’ll be good to her. I promise.”
The braiding done, Ruslana takes her new sister’s hands and says, “I love you, Oksana,”and kisses her cheek. Oksana’s heart drops. Her hands in Ruslana’s hands, she realizes that this is the happiest her best friend has ever been—of all the times they held hands under an altar—and realizes, too, how little that happiness has to do with her.
It was only a day before Wulfgang found me. He saw me standing in line for soup at the church. A man pointed out the Polish woman in front of me to a German soldier, who pulled her out of the line. She tried to swat the soldier off but he had a firm hold, dragging her away. I had heard about the Germans with the Jews. The Jews were rich in Lwów. They were doctors, professors. The woman said she was a teacher, a grandmother, that her grandchildren were at the hospital. The line for the soup moved quickly, and I didn’t intervene. It was during the commotion and all the attention she was calling to herself that we saw each other.
“Hallo, Lev,” said Wulfgang.He waved for me to follow him. “Kommen.” I was famished, and so close, but I left the line and followed him.
He introduced me to other German soldiers, and then to a few Ukrainian soldiers. One, Serhiy, helped translate what Wulfgang told me: “A Ukrainian militia,” he said, “supported by Hitler, Himmler.” I felt my heart lift. Ukrainians—we survived.
“The Führer supports the Ukrainian people,” Wulfgang said through Serhiy, who nodded as he said it. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“A new beginning, brother,” Serhiy said. “It is possible.”
Wulfgang and I looked at one another. He smiled.
Oksana learns from her father how to fire a rifle. It’s March 1939. “A great war is coming,” he says.
Ruslana watches her sister-in-law shoot, round after round. Bottle, bottle, bottle. They no longer run barefoot in the green where they played as children, as former husband and wife. Now, the weight of their boots ground them.
Oksana aims, eyes clear. A burst of glass. Ruslana eats an apple, squints one eye shut against the sun. She tosses the core into the dirt. “Aleksander says the Nazis and the Soviets—they’re unstoppable,” she says.
Oksana pretends not to hear, reloading.
“Oksana, you and your father’s friends can’t win. Aleksander says not even the Polish army can defend Lwów for long. We’re outmatched. Listen: We could go—”
“My brother is a coward,” Oksana says, aiming again. “This country isn’t Polish, it isn’t Russian or German—it’s Ukrainian. It will be a Ukrainian nation. I won’t leave my home like a coward.”
“Am I a coward?” Ruslana asks.
Oksana lowers the barrel, turns to her friend, her great love. She grins and holds out the rifle. Ruslana takes it. The green bottles would be almost invisible against the trees were it not for the reflection of the sun.
Oksana thinks, This is where we were happiest. Two girls, playing pretend. She watches Ruslana, and there is something about her she doesn’t like, though she can’t quite place it.
Ruslana aims. She is unwavering. When she shoots, the bottle explodes. She gives Oksana back her gun.
“Your father isn’t the only man in your family who knows how to shoot,” Ruslana says, “but your brother is the only man brave enough not to kill.” She turns and leaves.
Oksana realizes this is what she doesn’t like: how effortlessly Ruslana can walk away.
I went with Serhiy to join the Ukrainian army. His men gave me a uniform, a gun, a pack. I had a bed to lie on. When I went to the camp, there was a woman there. Sharp eyes. She was dressed in a uniform like the men. She glanced at me, then went back to work.
I asked, “Serhiy, khto to?”
He said, “Oksana Vyhovsky.”
“Be careful,” he said. “She’s a lion.”
The war comes, just as Oksana’s father had said. Aleksander and Ruslana attempt to flee Lwów, but fail. Oksana and her father stay to fight against the Russians, but the Ukrainian Insurgent Army can’t manage against a leviathan. Most of the Cossacks have joined the Red Army, hoping to divide Poland, healing a wound. Many Ukrainians in both the insurgency and the Red Army will die as heroes, but those who are captured become NKVD prisoners of war.
Oksana escapes the Red Army with what’s left of her troop—just two others, both men. One, Serhiy, is older; the other is baby-faced, named Oleg. Her father is missing, maybe imprisoned, probably dead. Oksana thinks of her brother with spite—that he should be with her, that Ruslana should be with her, fighting, close. She does not have it in her to hope for their safety.
Oleg tries to win her affection, clumsily, walking beside her like a dog as they make their way from camp to camp. Their fellow Ukrainians help them: house them, feed them, clothe them. One night, they stop at a home and are taken in, and the three of them sleep on the kitchen floor.
While Serhiy sleeps, Oleg whispers, “Oksana, are you awake?”
“Yes,” she says, staring into the black.
“Oksana,” he says, “you are too beautiful to be a soldier.”
She understands why Oleg wants what he wants, but she doesn’t feel it. The longer she is away from Ruslana, she realizes that she has only ever wanted Ruslana: to be near her, to protect her. She calls the feeling love but doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Oleg moves toward her in the dark, and then is on her. His scent is stale, his beard rough and curled. He tries to open her mouth with his tongue, puts his hand on her breast. Frightened, she turns her head and whispers: “Stop.”
He doesn’t. She says it again—“Stop”—and his teeth are biting her ear, her neck.The feeling is like an itch, like ants attacking the body, and she isn’t sure where to go, where to strike, how to become free. She takes her forearm to his throat, like she used to do when she wrestled Aleksander as a child, and she presses against his neck, gagging him. Holding firmly there. Tighter. When she turns to pin him against the wall he is remarkably pliant, and she pushes into his throat, his breath faint. Oksana feels her pulse race. The weaker he seems the more she wants to hurt him. She turns away, letting go.
Serhiy wakes at the noise, but Oleg has already retreated, returning to his place on the floor.
In the morning, Oleg is gone. Neither Oksana nor Serhiy say a word to the other. Neither mention his name. Sometimes Serhiy studies Oksana when she is unaware, while she is building the fire, hunting, marching ahead, and he feels a quiet respect, a quiet fear.
For the next two years, Serhiy and Oksana hide together, house after house. It’s not long after the Red Army declares war on Germany that Oksana and Serhiy are discovered by a soldier while hunting for rabbits.
“Don’t shoot!” Serhiy shouts in German, hands up. “We’re fighting the same enemy as you.”
Oksana doesn’t raise her arms. She holds the hunting knife in one hand, a dead white rabbit in the other. The German officer walks up to her, a full head taller, but Oksana doesn’t flinch. Her expression is disgust, distrust.
“Nazi,” she says to him. He nods. Patient, amused.
She uses the knife to point at herself. She says, “Cossack.” The officer steps away, a grin on his lips. He waves for Serhiy and Oksana to follow him. They do.
When the Luftwaffe arrives in Lwów, pamphlets flutter through the air like enormous petals. surrender, they say in Polish: poddaanie się.
Then the bombs fall.
The bombs fall.
The bombs fall.
It takes ten days for the Poles to surrender. The Wehrmacht leaves Lwów to the Red Army, who turn the Poles and the Ukrainians who resisted over to the NKVD. It isn’t long before Aleksander and Ruslana are caught by Soviet soldiers, who yank hoods over husband and wife and toss them into the back of a truck. A Polish man is there with them. He is praying to Saint Michael, though he does not sound afraid.
When the Pole finishes the prayer, Ruslana says with him: “Amen.”
The hoods come off only after Aleksander and Ruslana are bound to their chairs, facing two officers—one older, one younger. Without a word the soldiers begin beating Aleksander, as if attempting to split him open. He spits out teeth, his saliva syrupy red. He groans and trembles but does not speak. Ruslana curses and begs them to stop. The younger one holds Aleksander’s head up to remind him that his wife is a witness.
Then Ruslana speaks clearly, from another place within her: “Fuck you. Fuck you. You think you’re heroes? You think you’re better than the Nazis? Communists, fascists—you’re all dogs castrated by your master. You worship whoever feeds you, whoever beats you. You’ll die like dogs, shot in an open field. Fuck you, cowards.”
The officers look at one another. As if noticing her for the first time, the older officer turns to Ruslana and asks: “Where is his father? Where is his sister?”
He flashes a baton and strikes her stomach with it, and her bones feel like water. Aleksander screams at the officer to look at him, look at him, but the officer ignores him, facing Ruslana. She lifts her head to meet him eye to eye.
“Fuck you, Soviet Nazi. You caponized dog.”
Aleksander writhes in his chair, scraping the floor.
The older one pushes Aleksander over in his chair, and the thud of his thin frame on the concrete reminds Ruslana of cracking bramble under her boot. The older officer stands over Aleksander, unzips his pants, and urinates. She can smell it. She can see it drag the blood from his head onto the floor and run. It makes a sickening, gentle sound against his skin.
“A man who cowers behind women is not a man,” he says to Aleksander. The younger one grins. “I will show you how to train a bitch.”
He then comes for Ruslana, untying her feet, ripping her dress. The officer lifts her up from the chair, pins her against the cell wall, her neck twisted over her shoulder. The younger soldier stares at them as if hypnotized. She hears Aleksander say something, or maybe it’s a noise he makes—she can’t be sure—and the younger soldier disappears, leaving her line of sight, which is listless, unfocused. She leaves herself, goes elsewhere—
Ruslana is discarded on the cold floor, wet with blood and urine. Her hands, still bound, are trembling but she can’t feel anything. She feels nothing—not pain, not fear. She feels without feeling. She stares at the younger officer, who hesitantly lights a cigarette, avoiding her. She thinks he can’t be older than eighteen.
“Help us,” she says. Staring, he flicks the ember and ash away from her, not on her.
The older officer returns. “Get them up,” he says, and the younger officer obeys, lifts them both up with considerable effort. Aleksander does not look at her, and she realizes: They’re taking us to be shot.
They’re taken out of the cell, Ruslana’s dress torn, Aleksander’s clothes wet and bloodied. They emerge into the sharp September air, somewhere in the woods. A knot tightens in her throat. Nothing is familiar. Yet this is not a dream.
The Polish soldier is being taken by two handlers just ahead. He is shouting, and Ruslana recognizes his voice. He is a monument, heavy-footed, bloodied by his jailors but no less fearsome. Ruslana lets a cry out and the Pole turns. She wonders if he remembers her voice.
A flash of metal, a slight glint where his hands are joined, but no longer tied behind his back. A blade? It must be a trick of her mind, she thinks. Delirium.
The officers take Ruslana and Aleksander toward a pit hidden near a tree line. The older officer tells them to walk ahead, their hands still tied. The Pole’s handlers turn to see them coming.
“Any word from Abramov?” one of the handlers yells at the older officer.
“Just moments ago,” he replies. “The four of us will stay here tonight, then connect with his regiment in the morning.”
The handler nods and pushes the Polish soldier toward the pit’s edge, just a few paces ahead, then unsnaps his holster. As she and Aleksander approach the pit’s edge, Ruslana sees the younger soldier retract in her periphery, and she closes her eyes. A shot goes off and she shrieks with the sound of it—a first shot, then a barrage of shots behind her as Aleksander pushes her down into the pit, landing on her. Hours seem to pass. And finally Aleksander whispers, “Don’t move.”
He waits. And waits. And then he gently, slowly works at the binding around his hands until, finally, they’re loose enough to unbind her own. Once they’ve untied each other, he pulls her up. She sees one of the Pole’s handlers with his throat cut, sees the Pole beside him, lifeless, and the other handler bleeding from a wound in his eye, gun in his open hand. As they peek above the pit’s edge, she can see the older officer, shot in the abdomen, and past him to the younger one, shot in the skull.
Ruslana crouches in the woods and gags, hurls a violent inside-out. She touches her face and realizes she is covered in blood—her husband’s, the officers’, her own. Aleksander reaches for her and she curls into him. And as her husband buries his face in her neck, saying they have to keep running, she wonders if it was a mistake to have prayed at all.
She struck the Jewish woman, she struck a Polish woman. Both seemed to die instantly. She killed children, two boys. An old man. She killed oftentimes without help, by her own strength.
One younger Jewish man, about my size and weight—I couldn’t take him on my own. Before I lost him, after he pushed me back and almost got free, she struck him with a baton and the Jewish man fell. Blood poured from his skull onto the asphalt. It didn’t seem real, the way it happened.
Oksana Vyhovsky, she didn’t stop beating him, even after he was dead. The German soldiers watched, some smiling. One whistled. Oksana Vyhovsky told me that the man was a fool for trying to escape. We talked awhile. She mentioned she had a brother. I asked her where her brother was now. She wiped her eyes, and I couldn’t believe the sight of her tears. But there was no gentleness in her, still.
Aleksander and Ruslana flee to his father’s abandoned farm. There they find broken glasses, dishes. Broken furniture and scattered clothes, torn curtains and ripped table coverings. His mother’s jewelry—all he had left of her—is gone, the porcelain keepsakes shattered. Broken toilet and rummaged cabinets. Splintered baseboards and windowsills. They spend weeks sweeping, dusting, wiping. They wash their hands, cut by the shards of the home, ragged as wool.
They avoid the outside. And in the small home, they avoid one another. They rely on what’s left in their pantry, on visits and gifts of food from trusted friends, who are fewer and fewer. They put a dresser in front of the door, use an armoire to block the window. For days at a time, there is barely any sunlight, no breeze.
Lying in bed beside her husband, Ruslana wants to reach out and touch his neck, his waist, but the memory snaps in place—an impulse in her body, a revulsion. Many nights, instead of reaching, she keeps still.
Aleksander lies with his back to her, waiting for her to fall asleep before turning to face her, her shape in the pitch. One night, before the light is out, he offers his hand and she takes it. They don’t speak, but they withhold nothing. Weeping at the other’s touch, they lie naked for the first time since their capture, tender and unsure. They sleep curled like the bodies in Pompeii, like a mirror of one another, a reflection of the same soul.
Nearly a year passes in Lwów at the farm. Russian soldiers have come to their door more than once. The couple use false names, claim to be cousins. Ruslana’s hair is cut in a sharp bob at the jawline. Aleksander uses a cane, imitates a limp. The siblings welcome the Soviets into their home. The Soviets ask if they know the man and his daughter who once lived here. Aleksander, speaking in Russian, says no and asks how they can help. A portrait of Lenin, which Ruslana had sketched, hangs above the mantel. The soldiers sip their tea but are disgusted by Aleksander’s limp. They do not stay long.
By midsummer 1941, the Soviets are gone. Aleksander has decided he will make the short walk into Lwów. The Germans have come. A new occupation. Flags red and black and white, some with swastikas. But Aleksander has heard rumors of another army that has arrived, one that will treat them kindly. Their flag a red stripe above a black stripe. Ukrainian blood spilled on the earth: The flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Aleksander insists on going out alone to find word of his sister and their father. He goes to the market, to the city center, where he feels alien without Ruslana beside him. He keeps steady and slow. He learns soon enough that his father is dead for certain. His sister, however, is alive.
“Einsatzgruppen?” he asks, worried. “And the UPA? Is it true?”
“Yes,” says the neighbor, smiling. “It is good to be Ukrainian, my friend.”
Soon enough, he sees her: far-off, but he knows it’s her before she can turn her head. She’s in uniform, hair in braids. Aleksander walks toward the crowd. She has a small girl by the arm. A young UPA soldier, no more than eighteen, is beating a Jewish woman. The child is screaming and Oksana has a grip on her. A man and a woman in plainclothes join by taking stones to the Jewish mother, striking her back, her shoulders, her legs. The crowd becomes a circle, closing in on the scene. They jeer and spit and howl.
Aleksander pushes his way through the crowd to the Jewish woman, then to Oksana. He pulls away the child from his sister, shaking her.
“Oksana!” he shouts. “Oksana!” As if from across the sea, as if desperate to wake her up. Then she recognizes him, stunned. The crowd has stopped. The young UPA soldier has stopped. They all are watching. Oksana feels herself opening, a sudden tremor causing a split within her. Equal parts of her surging: one part aching for him, the easy gait he shared with their father. To embrace him, reunited. The other part—
Oksana pushes her brother away from her. His eyes are wide when she screams at him,“Soviet sympathizer! Traitor!”
She strikes him down with her baton. She strikes the child. The crowd devours Aleksander and the child and the woman like a pride.
He charged into the crowd and I hadn’t noticed because of the Jewish woman. When she gave it, the command, Oksana was taller than a general. She left her brother’s body in the street. I called to Oksana to wait, and she wouldn’t slow. It was the child who frightened her when the crowd parted—little body mauled, broken bones.
I went to touch her shoulder. Her uniform and hands were bloodied. I wanted to comfort her.
“I need to find Ruslana,”she said. She pushed me away and I went back to the street.
When I returned, Wulfgang was there, over Oksana’s brother’s body, and the little girl’s. Serhiy was there too. He said Wulfgang wanted to know where Oksana had gone.
“To look for her lady lover,” I said, intending a joke.
Wulfgang looked at me. Something behind his face changed a thousand ways, like a boiling, unlike himself.
“Wo?” he asked me, but I didn’t know where.
Ruslana opens the door, taking Oksana in her arms. Oksana still seems like a child to her, despite the uniform. Oksana curls her fingers in Ruslana’s dress. Ruslana kisses her cheek, the crown of her head, pulls away to look at her and sees the blood on her hands, her boots.
“What happened? Have you been hurt?”
Then: “Where is Aleksander? He went to look for you, sister. He’ll be so happy you’re safe.”
Oksana takes Ruslana’s face in her hands. “I thought you had gone. Promise you love me. Promise.”
There’s nothing sweet in this. Ruslana tries to gently move Oksana’s hands from her face but is all too aware of how much effort it takes. She smiles at Oksana, whose eyes are locked and dilated.
“Of course, Oksana. Always.”
Oksana kisses her but does not close her eyes, her hands still cupping Ruslana’s face. Ruslana doesn’t pull away, doesn’t resist. She feels the unevenness of Oksana’s breathing, the loud pulse in her wrists pressed against her temples. Just a soldier in her home. And somehow sisters, eye to eye.
“Oksana,” Ruslana says again, “where is Aleksander?”
I followed Wulfgang to the apartment, to the address he found on an ID in the dead man’s wallet. He ordered Serhiy to stay behind. I glanced at Serhiy, who kept his eyes on the ground. He knew, I think, what he always knew. Wulfgang ordered me to follow, and we went.
The door was opened, the two women inside. They saw us enter and the woman, face burnt from tears, seeing my uniform, said to me in Ukrainian: “Please, I want my husband—what has happened to my husband?”
Wulfgang touched my shoulder and moved me aside, he aimed his gun at her skull and Oksana fell, dead, and the other woman—I realized, her beloved Ruslana— dropped to her knees. She looked at Wulfgang, then at me. Wulfgang nodded to me. Tell her, he meant.
Ruslana trembled, unable to speak, unable to move. Her eyes wide. Wulfgang said something to me in German, an order, and Ruslana said, “Brat, bud’ laska.”
“Ruslana,” I said, kneeling to her, but before I could say another word, she opened her arms.
In 1944, the Red Army liberated Lwów from the Nazis. When the city was taken, Wulfgang had already gone. I don’t know if he lived or died. I buried the white tag he gave me.
“Danke,” I whispered to him. To God.
I was taken away to a Gulag with other soldiers in the UPA, where, after some years, I was liked by my keepers. They told me I was a hard worker. I told them that I was tired of working. They laughed.
They told me their stories as soldiers in the Red Army. They were decorated heroes. I was a Nazi. But we were all Ukrainian.
“You chose the wrong army, druh,” they would say. I reminded them that the Soviets killed my family, that Stalin starved Ukrainians in their own homes. How could they choose to fight alongside the Bolsheviks, who proved to be no different than the Tsar?
They would nod solemnly, and say in tense, lowered voices: “It wasn’t the right time, druh. Accept it. You let the wolf in. He ate you alive.”
After Stalin died, I was free among them. I changed my name. I have a daughter now, a Ukrainian wife whose parents were starved to death by the Soviets, her first husband killed by the Nazis. She understands me, though she disagrees. I am grateful.
I’m on the cusp of being an old man, but happy to be alive. My wife never talks about the war to our daughter, though I don’t mind sharing it, at least some of it. It feels like another life. A life that isn’t this one, that we didn’t own, but are responsible for nonetheless.
My daughter is nine and the Soviets are in Berlin. The American president has been shot. Even the children in Lwów know about it. My daughter told me she is afraid to die.
I think, often, of the Jewish and Polish men and women I killed. I think, often, of my dead family. I tremble a little in the daytime. Nightmares too. I am, often, ashamed to be alive. And I don’t know what to say to my daughter to make her feel safe. My wife and I avoid her eye, try to tell her that it’s normal to feel that way, that the fear will pass. That it’s okay to feel afraid of death but that the joy of life is just behind this fear if you want to find it.
One night, while putting her to sleep, my daughter asked if I was afraid of death. I told her I wasn’t. She asked if I had no more joy in life, if that was why.
I kissed my daughter and whispered to her a song.
Mnohaya lita, I whispered. Mnohaya lita, a prayer.