"Bankowsky writes with a scalpel and his prose may be likened to the gathering forces of a tornado. When the climax of his new remarkable novel is reached the impact is at once ineluctable and devastating.... The novel is a work of revelation." --Kansas City Star
"Characters of a quasi-mythic stature...A LESSON FOR ALL MANKIND." --National Review
Acknowledgement is also made of indebtedness to Jan Karski's eye-witness
account of conditions at Belzec in the fall of 1942. See Chapter
30 of his Story of a Secret State.
Am I a Jew?
What is truth?
What I have written, I have written.
Paintless wooden domes and cupolas bleach gray under the autumn sun. Old bronze bells hang limp in towers. Pigeons doze amid eaves and rafters. Mosaic saints and Madonnas gleam on limestone walls. Nothing stirs. Neither breeze nor bird song disturbs the repose of the Uniat monastery of St. Procula, high in the southern uplands of eastern Poland.
A short distance down the rutted road, however, where a rocky cliff juts up out of the surrounding trees, a crowd of Ruthenian goatherds and their families are gathered in a small clearing. Kneeling before a high spiked iron fence hung with crutches and canes and ikons, they cross themselves as a broken- down one-horse droshky with automobile tires circling its spoked wheels emerges from the shade of the forest. It is followed by a procession of hairy, bearded monks in black robes and hats with veils trailing down their backs. They carry planks and ladders, spades and tools of various sorts. In the droshky their Igumen sits under a red parasol, a huge cigar fuming in his beard. Mechanically he dispenses airy signs of the cross over the bowed heads of his parishioners with the wrong end of a flashlight.
When the droshky reaches the spiked fence, the brother at the reins dismounts and unfastens the padlocked gate with a great iron key hanging from his cincture. Leading the horse through, he halts the procession at the foot of the cliff before a great rooted boulder. After helping the ageing Igumen down, he lifts a basket and a long-handled baker's shovel out of the droshky bed. In the basket is a loaf of brown bread and a small water jar. Placing the basket on the baker's shovel, he slides it up to the elbow into a small barred window cut into the cliff wall beside the boulder. He turns his face away and screws up his nose under his whiskers. After a few moments he withdraws the shovel again and shows the Igumen that the bread and water jar are still in the basket. Then as the brothers cross themselves and kneel in the dust, their shoulders still burdened with the planks and ladders and tools, the Igumen pulls his cigar out of his whiskers, takes a deep breath, and leaning into the window shouts, "Father Szesc. This is Igumen Nakrasov. Can you hear me?"
The only sound is the raucous chirpings and flutterings of birds amid the nearby trees. A hush has fallen over the crowd kneeling at the gate.
"If you do not give a sign, Father, we shall have to roll away the stone."
There is no sound now. Even the birds have ceased. After a long silence, the Igumen motions to the kneeling brothers. They rise, crossing themselves, and begin immediately to dig holes under one side of the boulder and to fashion levers of planks and nearby stones to fit under it. Then after the horse is unhitched from the droshky and the ladders tilted against the cliff, the brothers fasten the harness to some iron hooks protruding from the top of the boulder.
When all seems ready and the brothers have taken their places along
the lengths of the levers, the Igumen nods. There is a slap of reins, and
only the creaking of the levers and the heaves and grunts of the brothers
and the straining of the horse against the harness disturb the miraculous
silence of the morning.
The stone has not been moved in almost thirty years. Not since All Souls' morning in 1942, when the Igumen retrieved the bullet-riddled corpse of his prodigal Brother Szesc from the German authorities and had it hastily sealed into the dark hermitage in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms in a decade. He had hoped thus to discourage rumors of miracles, of the corpse's not having shed a single drop of blood, of its having remained standing like a monument over the fallen long after the massacre at Moczary was over .
But rumors of miracles not only persisted, they flourished. When food
left at the site of the tomb began regularly to disappear into it, even
the Igumen was moved to concede that his martyred brother had apparently
not died of his wounds as had perhaps been too hastily imagined that morning
after the massacre, that he had instead undergone an incredible if not
miraculous recovery in the depths of his tomb. Nevertheless, all through
the years, to this very day, the rumor persisted among his parishioners
that their miracle-making saint and martyr, like Lazarus, or even Christ
Himself, had been resurrected from the dead.
For a while it looks as though the stone may be immovable. But slowly, as the ball of noon begins its almost imperceptible descent of the sky, it begins to roll, revealing a cleft in the face of the cliff behind. When the opening is finally fully exposed, the Igumen hands his parasol to a brother. And with his cigar in his fingers and his hat held up to his nose, the flashlight at arm's length before him like a sword, he stoops into the darkness within.
The noon sun does not follow him. It hesitates under the massive shadow
of the rock and fails to penetrate at all into the deep recesses of the
sharply biased window. Only the artificial beam of the flashlight traverses
the black ceiling and walls. Like a spotlight on a darkened stage it falls
first upon a massive wooden crucifix suspended from a dripping wall. Then
on a huge sealed wooden coffin in a niche under it. Below that, on the
bare dirt floor, it settles on a ratty straw pallet. A corpse-- dark-robed,
white-whiskered, baldheaded, barefooted, shrunken, emaciated--lies there
with its bony fingers folded on its
breast. At the foot of the pallet is a bundle of neatly rolled dust-covered clothing. A pair of jackboots. A cartridge belt and empty holster. And tilting on its kickstand against the wall, a rusted old web-spoked motorcycle emblazoned with the fading runes and death's-head insignia of the Totenkopfwachtsturmbanne Waffen SS.
Through the calibrated lens of the Zeiss 7 X 5° military field glasses, the distant motorcycle trailing a cloud of dust on the sandy road along the main watercourse to the river San seemed as silent as the rest of the Valley of the Swan, a vast sub-Carpathian marshland some eighty or ninety kilometers south of the monastery of St. Procula.
From his second-story orderly room window, Waffen SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Christian Jan Romansky commanded a view of the entire valley, a region so flat, so desperately monotonous, that in any direction more than a kilometer or two from the marsh village of Moczary the eye saw nothing but interminable water, marsh and sky. Around the village, however, the waters of the canals reflected the cows grazing along their banks, the enormous stacks of marsh grass topped with wooden crucifixes, and the cones and gyres of the hooped fishnets strung out on poles to dry; and since it was Harvest Day, the flat-bottomed skiffs of the peasant families poling their livestock and produce to market.
Even on market day, even with all the activity in and around the village, an immense silence hovered as always over the valley, a silence disturbed only by an occasional military launch patrolling the marshes, or a motorized vehicle entering or leaving the supply depot. Or as now, by the train on the military railroad linking Nisko on the west bank of the San with the Lwow-Lublin line in the east. And so when the motorcycle, trailing its cloud of dust down the sandy road along the canal, converged with the train streaming down the track on the opposite bank, the shaveheaded children in the peasants' skiffs covered their ears with their hands. The shawled women, leaning on their poles or sitting on kitchen chairs or baskets of produce nursing infants, shook their fists. And the farmers and fishermen in their sheepskin hats and vests and cloth leg-wrappings desperately hung on to their livestock as horses bolted p overboard into the shallow canal and dashed for shore towing their skiffs behind.
A competition was obviously in progress. Waving his field cap wildly, a transport officer hung by one hand and a leg from a ladder on the steaming engine, and the goggled cyclist used his riding crop on the flank of his machine like a jockey in the home stretch. As they approached the village, however, the road and the track diverged. And as the braking engine moved off behind the village toward the depot marshaling yard, the cyclist barreled across the pontoon bridge and roared straight up the village street.
Some villagers with iron hooks had just pulled a burning thatch of reed and marsh grass down off the roof of one of the rough- hewn log houses lining the street, and were beating at the flames with long-handled twig brushes which, like the iron hooks, lay along the outside walls of all the houses for just such emergencies. The cyclist roared down on them, tearing through the flaming brush like a circus daredevil, bathing the villagers in a wake of smoke and hot cinders. And without looking back he ripped up the kilometer-long street and plunged headlong into the almost impassable maze of the village market.
Not only was it Harvest Day. It was the week of All Saints and All Souls as well. And since early the previous evening the peasants had been arriving from every part of the marsh, from the remotest outlying futori. Many of them had slept in their boats and wagons overnight and by reveille this morning the market area was already congested. Wagons full of firewood and lumber--birch logs, sawed planks, shingles, fence posts, pickets, twigs for baskets, wooden wares--and hayracks piled high with marsh grass and reeds and rye were lined up in front of the church ready for the official weigher. Wagonloads of geese and ducks with their feet tied together; chickens housed in wire coops; calves and large black-and-white hogs restlessly circling their stakes; live sheep carried about on the backs of their owners; fruit- and vegetable- and fishstalls filled with carrots, turnips, cabbages, potatoes, gourds, apples, pears, grapes, plums, eggs, wicker baskets of mushrooms, strings of fish--these and the laden boats beached on the waterfront so congested the market area that access to the guard shack and main gate of the 5O1st Waffen SS Engineer Company (Supply Depot) by any vehicle larger than a cycle seemed virtually impossible.
Even the cycle seemed to be having a time of it, even under the gloved, expert hands of Waffen SS Obersturmftihrer Nikolaus Hermann Thiele. Through his field glasses, Christian could see the grinning handsome face of his young Executive Officer under the rakish panzer beret and tank goggles as he wove and skidded his machine at full speed around the wood and hay wagons and smack into a sea of frantic livestock, and, leaving in his wake a number of overturned coops and stalls, erupted into the cleared area before the depot gate.
Gunning his motor and returning the crisp salutes of the gate guards with his riding crop, he roared straight down the company street toward number three loading platform, where his detachment of green-uniformed Ukrainian militiamen were hastily trying to form a column of twos before their commander reached them. At attention, not one of them moved a muscle under the shower of gravel accompanying Thiele's skidding halt. Christian couldn't help smiling at Thiele's show of long-suffering patience, as he sat there on his bike with his gloves in his belt and his riding crop under his arm, cleaning his fingernails with a pearl- handled stiletto he carried sheathed in the calf of his cavalry boot, as the engine with the two cattle cars and the caboose made its way slowly through the marshaling yard gates at the far end of the depot.
(to be continued)
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