Fragments of springtime
All five of us have deep inside our wallets, next to the Catholic holy cards, mother and girlfriend, and the devotion to the Virgin, a rose of the Alps. They were given to us by German girls, who were also students, one afternoon in which the sweet and humid landscape of Bavaria made us feel like embracing. The girl who walked with me through the forests filling the untranslatable fantasy of our looks with melancholy was Ilse. I remember her warm hands, her laughing at my linguistic efforts in the old beer-house, and her glassy eyes when we said goodbye.
Today, my memories of those afternoons are few, and they concentrate on how that white snow rose hidden in my wallet felt. Now, we don’t see the very green forests with deer and birds peeking out in their shy escape any more, but this monotonous and relentless Russian landscape. It is raining, it is raining gently, just like calm spirits seem to like. Our feet sink in the cold sticky mud with every step, while rainwater trickles down our capes. There is a strange feeling of anticipation in all the faces and in everything else. We all know the battlefield is near and today, I don’t know why, we already feel it next to us. Our hands shake with pleasure gripping our rifles, which will soon let out their metal scream onto the enemy.
Somebody has given the order to stop. The column stops slowly and we light several fires, around which there start to form improvised cheerful groups, on the side of the road. One of the groups is formed by us; they nicknamed us “The bohemians” back in the camp; we wear a blue shirt with a white swan under the green German uniform. Next to the fire, which is perhaps somewhat symbolic on this date, 12 October, we have lit our pipes and Carlos, as usual, has started an irrelevant conversation, full of jokes and hints.
A liaison rides past on a bike. He recognises us, reduces speed and shouts:
“Guys, we are staying here! We are three kilometres away from the front line!”
Tonight we relieve the Germans. He salutes us with his arm raised and goes away again.
At the beginning we are all left dumbstruck. Daniel is the first one to react. He turns to face us and says the following words only:
“About time, too!”
It is as if the news had taken away from our memory the idea of the 1,300 kilometres we have covered so far. All signs of sleepiness, exhaustion or hardship are gone from our faces. We stand up and we sing, just as we do on all the special occasions. And it is unfortunate that we do not know any hymn from the S.E.U. (University Student’s Union), because here, at this moment and in this landscape, its verses sung by us would have carried excitement and passion.
This German soldier who is whistling the song while the sun rises is dreaming of a blonde and exuberant Lili Marlen. We are both in the observatory, smiling at each other, we cannot talk any more, and looking at everything around us with indifference, because for us the landscape has already lost the spirit of a postcard, of a nice view in the outing to the country towards which we all aim the topified Kodak of our looks. The only truth we acknowledge is the overwhelming whiteness of the snow which surrounds and crushes us.
Some Eskimo angels, we saw them, brought us the winter. They flew past us, really high and ineffable, and then, flying towards the South, they flooded towns and steppes with the snow from their wings. But we know some blue archangels, of water, are ready to announce the spring to us, their spring, and this announcement comforts and encourages us.
Here, the spring will bring us the sentimental appearance of birds and flowers we are used to in southern lands. Here, spring, and I hope it comes soon, will be water, and nothing but water, and we will be as grateful for that first puddle we will see outside the shack as for the symbolic initial rose from the gardens.
Hence, our indifference before the landscape. I know that the ex-golden towers we can see towards the South are from Nowgorod. The Russians called it “the beautiful”, aristocrat and summery fifty years ago, rundown and lonely today, with its doors and its houses open, waiting for some distressing delegation. I also know that if I look towards the North, a bourgeois premonition of Leningrad will overcome me, and that, before me, towns with heterogeneous names, Sawod, Now-Nicolaiewscaja, Xenofonte… are being slowly destroyed by the artillery before our impassive watch; but I don’t really care about all this. I specifically see only the space they ordered me to watch, because my conscience makes me do it, this time, the frozen banks of the Wolchow, with the boats stuck in the ice, anxious to have fishermen and slippery fish on their decks. And although twilight must be today, with these frosty trees, of great beauty, as soon as I finish my watch I withdraw to our underground refuge, where a couple of burning logs will make me happier than the poetic contemplation of nature.
July has soaked this delayed springtime with blood. There is still some snow left to engrave initials on its white surface, but the roses which will soften the grave have already come out. We close our eyes to this anguish which overcomes us, because our best comrade-in-arms is no longer with us. Yesterday we took his body to Motorowo on a cart, a cart with wobbly wheels and old axes which screeched, against the light, with the steppe eternally illuminated, and we buried him in a garden, with his head facing towards Spain. It was twelve, that crucial hour at which all the cities in the world, with their lights on, proclaim the infinite existence of love. The religious medallions, the white swan on the blue shirt and that rose of the Alps, which a German student gave to him as a present, went with him. He left us an anthology of the good death and an arrogant stance before the inevitable, though. The soil fell over his body and the silent eagerness in the battle fell over us. Just like that, without shouting, we continued a more and more accelerated march towards the limits of our conscience. Yes, the dead bodies of the Falangists bleed, but that blood enters the veins of those of us who are left to rejuvenate our impetus.
I have his diary in my hands. It has blue covers and its pages are full of a very cramped and agile writing. All his confidences are transferred to the white friendship of the paper, and here with more purity. There are references to his eternal devotion to the Falange everywhere. He dictated the violence and the faith in the revolutionary task to himself. I read…
“The day when there isn’t an outstretched hand to show us the best way towards death will be a terrible day. If they didn’t expect efforts in the Falangist constellation, how would we justify our presence in this terrestrial camp?”
“They want to drive us to malevolence offering us the easy memory of the past as bait and comfort. And no, revolutions are not carried out by founding a museum of longing, but looking for the enemy with the front sight.”
“Slogans cannot be lost among the tepid pages of magazines that nobody reads. Slogans must be hammered onto enemy walls at the top of our voices.”
When I finish reading I notice the last page where he had written, in pencil and with big characters: “¡ARRIBA ESPAÑA!” (“ONWARD SPAIN!”)Luis García Berlanga
* Award from the SEU (University Student’s Union) of Valencia. Published in the newspaper Hoja de Campaña de la División Azul, no. 61 (21 March 1943).