“They came from the east”, he said. A pot of malt ersatz coffee stood steaming on the table between us. We both took it black.
“Fearsome warriors on horseback they were, a fierce barbarian horde, the most lethal mercenary tribe to plunder and pillage Europe for centuries. They fought for the Russian Czars against the Poles you know, and then for the King of Sweden against the Russians. They fought the Turks and the Persians in turn. They fought Napoleon. They fought for anyone who promised them a country of their own. They were the Cossacks and they were feared by all.”
“I was 23 when they came to our valley”, he said. “Of course, everything was different then, it was 60 years ago after all.”
I looked out the window, the crags of the Dolomite mountains looming over the valley below us, shadowy in the twilight. Their house was perched by the steep edge of the tree-line, one of ten clustered around a small church. Barring indoor plumbing and electricity, time already seemed to have stood still. A city girl meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, I had been startled by a sheep peering into the bathroom window that morning.
“I was one of the only boys left in Lienz. At the beginning all my friends volunteered, and I was eager to fight too, of course. But the army didn’t take me because of a goiter. Years later, it was different. They were rounding up everyone they could get their hands on, boys of twelve, thirteen. Grandfathers. I would’ve been drafted except for a tractor accident on my father’s farm.” I looked at his blunt carpenters hands folded on the checked tablecloth, and I wondered if his father had been equally capable … and practical-minded enough to manufacture a minor glitch in his machinery when called for.
“The fighting was all but over, the war had really been lost years ago. Now everyone left alive was fleeing west, trying to outrun the Soviets and reach the Allied zones. American was best, of course, but we all trusted the British too. At the time.”
What did you know? I wondered, and when? What of your neighbours? Did you believe the propaganda in the papers, on the radio? Did your priest preach of sacred duty to the fatherland? Did your mayor hang the swastika with pride? Growing up in Austria, you are taught to respect your elders, but whenever I see someone of that generation I always ask myself – what did you do to survive? Or rather, what did you not?
“Stalin had it in for the Cossacks especially. They’d been vicious in battle against the resistance partisans and they hated the Soviets. It was 1945 when they fled from Yugoslavia. They fought their way through to the British, who put them in an internment camp here on the river Drau. Enemy combatants, you see. Prisoners of war who surrendered voluntarily.”
What did they look like, the men? I asked. “Men? There were entire families. Husbands and fathers on horseback with their women and children trundling behind them in carts. Old and young alike. Defeated they were, but proud too. They’d been beaten before, and regrouped. And they were safe now, under Churchill. Or so they thought.”
Yalta, I remembered. The treaty, a betrayal to some, the salvation of Europe to others. Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt – men with moustaches, waistcoats and cigars, divvying up a continent with rulers. Most refugees who had fled the east were granted safe haven. The Cossacks, with their democratically elected leaders and their nomadic freedom, were not.
“They settled in happily enough here, for the most part. Made friends with the villagers, helped with the harvest. They were waiting to see where Churchill would resettle them. Perhaps they would have been happy to stay. They certainly didn’t bother us. But they were to be sent back to Russia to face execution. Cattle cars came to the train station, this time sent by the British. Soldiers encircled the valley, the internment camp, trying to round them up. We could hear them all the way up the mountain. The screaming. Men. Women. Horses. Mothers threw their babies into the river to drown and jumped in after them. Men cut their wrists as the soldiers dragged them toward the train tracks, trails of blood wending behind them.”
And you heard this? I ask, you saw? “Yes. Yes.”
A long silence. We gaze out the window to the mountains beyond, as if listening for echoes. “Those they caught were sent to the Soviet Union, where they were shot. The Communists executed men, women and children alike. But some, some managed to escape deportation. They hid in haylofts, scrambled up cliff faces to abandoned sheep sheds. The mountain farmers helped to shelter them if they could.”
Did any of you shelter anyone in the years before, I wondered. Other refugees, perhaps the very partisans hunted by the Cossacks and the Nazis? There had been only one Jewish family in the town of Lienz before the war, or so I’d read, and not one of them survived.
“But most of them” he continued, “ran away and hid in caves. The British spent months clambering about the mountains, searching for the ones that got away.” He chuckled briefly. “Those caves, some of them were crevasses, narrow slits between rock-faces. Some were no bigger than holes. Tricky to climb into, but even more difficult to get out again. Kossakenloecher – Cossack holes – we call them to this day. When we talk about them at all.”
He paused. I wished for a cigarette. “Because some of the holes aren’t empty. We had archaeologists here last summer, searching for remnants. A medal here, a belt buckle there. But they didn’t get very far, didn’t climb high enough, or stay the night.”
Another silence, more tense this time. Do you mean to say there are still bones? I asked. “Bones… it’s not their bones I worry about.” he replied, and crossed himself reflexively. “Some nights, when the stars are out and the moon is low, you hear the river screaming. And some nights, even closer, you hear the rocks scream back.”
He makes eye contact for the first time in what feels like forever. “We put you in the guest room” he says, “it has a balcony. It’s looking to be a lovely clear night.” I dutifully assure him that it is a lovely room, careful not to to mention I’ve taken down the various crosses and icons hung from the walls, a constant reminder of my status as godless-city-girl-evil-influence-on-beloved-son.
He grunts assent and, rising from his chair, bids me goodnight. “I’d lock the windows and doors before turning in if I were you.”
Credit To – cinekat