A journal of narrative writing.
Christmas ’56
Andre Kocsis

The peasant turned down the lantern, so the room was in half-darkness, kissed his wife on the cheek, and opened the door. He looked around for a moment, and then signalled quietly that we should follow him. In single file we made our way through the barnyard, toward a small copse of trees along the edge of a field. The moon was bright enough so we could at least see the ground a few steps in front of us, even among the trees.

We stayed on a narrow path near the field for about a half hour, and then we came to a fork. The peasant stopped for a moment, then turned left, which led us deeper into the woods. The trees were getting bigger, and it was darker. We stumbled along for another twenty minutes, when the trees ended abruptly, and we were at the edge of a large open space. A dirt path led up a hill, with large boulders strewn about, and rough patches of grass. We were no longer on cultivated land.

Our leader paused at the edge of the forest, waiting for everyone to catch up. He looked around at us, and whispered, “You must stay very quiet from now on.”

Not that anyone had made any noise in the previous hour, but his exhortation did serve to make us even more careful.

One by one, the sixteen of us stepped out into the pale moonlight that lit the path, and in single file followed the peasant’s steady footsteps. My family was around the middle of the line. Here and there, I saw a scraggly tree as we trudged steadily uphill along the meandering trail.

At the top of the hill, I could see the silhouette of a tree larger than the others we had passed, its gnarled black branches thrust toward the sky. Two large boulders rested at its base, right next to the dirt path. Our leader was just past the boulders when two dark figures, quiet as specters, stepped out from behind the boulders, blocking our path. The front of the line stopped, and the rest of us bumped up against them.

The two Russian soldiers held sub-machine guns pointed at us. For some seconds, an incongruous silence held sway, as the soldiers stared at us, and we stared back. They were young, even I could tell that, no more than eighteen. The guns hung by leather straps from their shoulders, and they swivelled the short barrels back and forth, as if to cover all of us evenly.

“Dokument,” one of the soldiers said in a commanding tone.

Our leader took the canvas knapsack from his back, and carefully pulled out two bottles, which glinted in the moonlight.

“Vodka,” he said, and extended them to the soldiers. They just stared at him, so he put the bottles at their feet. He reached into the knapsack again, and pulled out a watch, offering it to them.

“Chassiy,” he pronounced carefully the Russian word for “watch”. They again stared at him for a moment, but finally one of them took the watch from his hand, and examined it curiously.

This served as a signal to the rest of the group, and they all crowded around the soldiers, removing watches and bracelets, thrusting their valuables at them. The recipients of this wealth hastily stuffed each item into their pockets with one hand, all the while holding their guns with the other.

Finally, the burst of generosity exhausted itself, and our little group stood in a circle around the soldiers. Again, we stared at them, and they stared at us. Then, our leader put his now empty knapsack back on his shoulders, and the rest of us took this as the signal to retrieve the luggage we had dropped along the path.

Before my mother could reach the one small suitcase we had not lost in the run from the train, one soldier shouted, “Nyet!” Startled, everyone froze. The two soldiers now moved around behind us, blocking our way to our possessions. Waving the barrels of their guns down the path, they shouted, “Davay, davay!” Even I knew that this was a command for us to be on our way.

So, lightened of all our possessions, we continued along the dirt trail, which now led down the other side of the hill. Every once in a while I glanced back at the two soldiers. They stood in a heroic pose at the top of the hill, holding their guns. In silhouette they very much resembled those statues in Budapest, erected to honour our liberators at the end of World War II.

After another half hour we reached a wider dirt road with deep wheel ruts and a grassy strip in the middle. We went along the road for another few minutes and reached a rise in the terrain. Our leader called a halt, and we all crowded around him. He pointed along the road, and we could see a cluster of lights in the distance.

“Just follow this road to the next village. You’re in Austria now,” he said.

Then, without another word, he turned around and started walking back. I stared after him, but was shaken out of my reverie by the sound of my mother’s sobbing. My father put Miki down on the ground, and embraced my mother, who buried her face in his shoulder. Miki was suddenly overcome with emotion, and clutched at my mother’s leg.

“Mommy, mommy,” he said tearfully. She disengaged herself from my father, and swept Miki up in her arms.

“It’s alright, my darling, everything will be fine,” she said, wiping the tears from her face.

My father looked down the road, where the rest of our group, ignoring our family crisis, was becoming a small indistinct smudge in the frail moonlight. I turned back in the other direction, but our guide had now disappeared. We stood on that rutted road, all alone under the open sky, caught on the cusp between two worlds.

My father took Miki from my mother and set out with determined steps toward the lights, and my mother took my hand as we followed him. Not much later, we found ourselves walking along the silent, cobble-stoned streets of a little Austrian village which reminded me of a picture I had seen in the book of fairy tales which now rested in a drawer in a little apartment which I would never see again.

The windows of the little houses along the street were all dark, but up ahead a red glow spilled on the sidewalk, from a storefront. We approached cautiously, and then stood mesmerized by the sight which we now beheld. Red Christmas lights framed a window crammed with the most wonderful toys I had ever seen. There were dolls, big and small, in fancy dress, and with long hair, and cars of all colours, and balls of all sizes, and even a tiny electric train that ran around on a track that twisted among all the other toys.

My father stood with one arm around my mother, the other holding Miki, all three staring at the window, their figures bathed in the red glow of the lights, hope on their faces as they looked at the promise of a new life.