Monday, December 22, 2014

The Escape

Newly fallen snow muffled the sound of Markus and Monika’s footsteps as they walked toward the barn. The fifteen-year-old twins looked for tracks in the snow, but were amazed to find no trace. They huddled close together as they circled around the back of the building, holding their oil lantern to illuminate the way. There was no explanation why they’d seen light coming from the dilapidated structure. Then they saw a spruce bough thrown behind a pile of firewood. It had been used as a broom to cover tracks in the fresh snow. They knew someone was must be watching them.

“The soldiers are gone,” Monika spoke out. “They will not be back for another hour, or maybe two. It’s Christmas Eve and they will want to get back to their camp.”

“Shhh!” hissed Markus. He gestured for his sister not to talk, but it was too late. A tall man stood to his feet and appeared in the window.

“The Russian soldier – the one they call “Captain” – was he with the rest of the soldiers?” he asked. The teens stood speechless, not sure how to answer; not sure if they should answer. The man motioned for them to go to the side door.

The side door of the barn opened inward and did not leave any trace in the snow, but as Monika looked closer, she could see the outline of his footprints, cleverly swept over with the spruce branch.

“Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you,” said the man as he motioned for Monika and Markus to come into the barn. They reluctantly stood at the entrance, afraid to step inside.

“I only want to stay long enough for the soldiers to finish their last check of the border,” said the man. “And then I’ll be gone.”

“Why are you heading for the border?” asked Markus without thinking. “It’s closed and you could be arrested or shot if you try to cross into Austria.”

“Do you think I don’t know that? Would I be here if it wasn’t for the chance to cross the border?”

Monika noticed something about the man and remembered where she had seen him. “You’re a Hungarian soldier. You've been here before, with the other soldiers.”

The man pulled his coat to cover his face. “It’s better if you don’t recognize me. This is the last farmhouse before the border and they suspect your family of helping people get across. That’s why they are always stopping here.”

“You are a soldier.” Monika now recognized the man. He had questioned her parents and been to their farm before. “You’re the one who threatened to take my Grandmother away if we ever helped anyone.”

“It would be better if she was in a hospital,” stammered the man. “Things were bad with the Germans, but they are worse with the Russians in control. Anyone who crosses that border will be glad that they did.” The man paused and tried to change the subject. “You never told me if the Russian was with them. How many soldiers were with him?”

The Second World War tore Hungary in many directions. German occupation had been harsh, with thousands of young men conscripted and thrust into battle as a part of the Nazi war machine. When Germany started to lose the war they depleted the country of its food and resources to help soldiers on the front lines, leaving a prosperous nation to starve. Once defeated, the occupied regions were carved into Eastern and Western controlled nations, with Bucharest now hosting a puppet government controlled by the communist regime.

“Yes,” answered Markus. “The Russian soldier was here. There were four other soldiers and they had a guard dog.”

The man nodded, then began searching his pocket for something. He pulled out a tin cigarette case, but groaned to see that it was empty. “I don’t suppose you have ...” He paused and thought for a moment. “Where are your parents? Why is your father not here?”

“They went to town to attend the Christmas Eve service,” replied Markus.

“My grandmother is not well and we stayed here with her,” Monika pointed back to the house. “We should go back to her. Do you want to come?”

“You Christians are so predictable,” mocked the soldier. “The one thing that the Communists are going to do that the Nazi’s didn’t do is to crush this country and rid it of all its superstition. They’re arresting priests and pastors in the cities.”

Just at that moment their Grandmother called from the back porch of the farmhouse. “Monika, Markus. Where are you? Is something wrong?”

“You go,” said the man, pointing to Markus.

“And you stay.” The soldier pulled out a revolver and motioned for Monika to step into the barn. “Tell your grandmother that there’s a problem with the animals, then come back.”

Markus looked at his twin sister, afraid to say anything. She obediently stepped into the barn.

“Do what he says. He won’t shoot. A shot at this time of night will be heard for miles and he doesn’t want the soldiers back here.” Monica closed the barn door as Markus trudged back towards the house.

The soldier sat down on a bale of hay and put away his gun. Monika stood in the corner, keeping an eye on the intruder.

“Don’t worry. Things are so bad that they don’t have enough bullets to go around for all of the guns. Only the Russian and maybe one other soldier keep ammunition in their guns. The rest of the soldiers might as well be carrying sticks and stones.”

“Then why are you afraid of them?” Monika asked.

“You have no idea,” said the man as he searched his inner pocket for a letter. He pulled out a tattered piece of paper and unfolded it. “My sister and mother escaped before the start of the war in 1939 and now live in Australia. They tell me that the rest of the world is doing well and that there is food and prosperity. They are safe and don’t have to worry about the Russians or anyone else telling them what to do.”

“Why didn’t you go with them?” Monika asked.

The man put the letter down on the bale beside him and rubbed his forehead. “It’s complicated,” he said, “Very complicated.”

“Did they force you to join the army?”

“No, I joined the army on my own. It was the best way to ...” The man stopped without completing his sentence.

Monika sat on a bale across from the man. She leaned in, looking for an answer. “It was the best way to do what?”

“Bah! You’re only a child, what do you understand of these things?”

“My father always says it is best to talk about things, even if they’re hard.”

“Yes, I think he must say things like that. He seems to be a good man and he helps many people. He does help people, doesn’t he?”

Monika sat silently, unsure if she should answer the man.

“You don’t have to answer that. We know that he’s been helping people and that this barn has hosted many other fugitives. We just never seem to catch them when they’re here.”

“You never said why you signed up for the army,” Monika returned to her question. “You said it was the best way to do something.”

The man folded his letter and put it back into his pocket. “My mother and sister escaped on the day that they took my father into custody. It was eight years ago. They went around to all of the houses of the Jewish families in our neighborhood and painted the David’s star on our doors. He tried to stop them when they came to our house and they took him away. We never saw him again and my mother knew that it would not be safe.”

Confused, Monika slowly asked a series of questions: “You are Jewish? How can that be? How could you be part of the army?”

“My mother was Jewish and we lived close to her parents in Bucharest; my grandparents. My father was Hungarian, so my name has nothing Jewish about it. I thought the best way to go undetected was to join the army. I never dreamed that it would get as bad as it did.”

The man shook his head as he continued. “I don’t know why I am telling you this. I can’t even begin to tell you about what I saw. You know that the Germans forced us to be part of their war.”

“So you will try to go to Australia?”

“Yes, or to any place far away from here.”

The sound of Markus running through the snow interrupted the conversation. He spoke in hushed tones as he opened the barn door.

“The soldiers are on their way back,” said Markus as he caught his breath. “They must not have gone all the way to the border. There’s no reason why they should be back so soon.”

“Put out that light,” the man said as he grabbed the lantern from Markus. “They can’t know that anyone is here, in the barn.”

The man stood at the window, watching as an army vehicle drove along the country road toward the farmhouse. “Is there any place where I can hide? Do you have any secret door or a hidden compartment?”

Monika looked at Markus. He shook his head, as if he was hiding something.

Monika reached into a gap in the wall and tugged at a rope hidden behind the door frame. A narrow rope ladder dropped from the upper part of the barn. “Go up there. There’s a small shelter built under the bales.”

The soldier stood for a moment, hesitating to climb to the hiding place. “So you have been helping fugitives. I knew this place was suspicious! Every time we stopped here the Russian acted like he was on to something.”

“You won’t tell him, will you?” Markus stammered.

“Please, you said you wanted our help,” Monika added. “We only tried to help you.”

“This is not going to work,” said the soldier as he started to climb up the rope ladder. “I don’t think this thing will hold me.”

“Just pull the rope up when you get to the top,” said Monika. “You have to be silent. Don’t move around or they will catch you.”

The army truck pulled onto the yard and two soldiers made their way to the farm house. They went inside and stood at the door, talking with the elderly lady. After a short conversation they left the house and walked in the direction of the barn. Monika grabbed a pail and started to fill a trough with oats.

“We’ll tell them that we’re getting things ready for when Father and Mother return from church,” she said to her brother. “They know that our parents went to town to go to the Christmas Eve service.”

Markus peered through the window, watching. “They’re following our tracks, right here to the barn,” he said. Monika joined him at the window.

“Look,” she said. “They found the spruce bough and are looking for more tracks.”

One of the soldiers called out to the others in the truck to bring a better light and the guard dog. Soon all of them; the Russian captain in his fur hat and grey coat, together with four Hungarian soldiers and a snarling German Shepherd, were walking around the perimeter of the pasture. The twins watched as the group stopped at the edge of the fence, interested in something they found.

“The dog found his tracks in the forest,” Markus’ eyes widened. “Look! Now they’re coming towards us.”

“Stay where you are,” said a stern voice from the loft. “I’m coming down so you won’t be in trouble. I have an idea.”

In a moment the tall Russian captain stepped into the barn, followed by two of his subordinates. The two other guards and dog flanked the building, making sure that there was no escape route.

“We know you are in here,” called out the Russian. He and the other soldiers shined bright flashlights as they surveyed the entrance. They started at one end of the barn and began to check the stalls.

At the far end of the building they found the twins seated on a bale, their hands hastily tied with a rope. The soldier stood behind them with his pistol drawn.

“Captain,” said the fugitive. “I have been waiting for you.”

The Russian motioned for the other soldiers to back away. He pulled out his revolver and slowly cocking the trigger. “So, it is you Gorsken. We could tell that it was someone with military boots. What are you doing here?”

“Leave me and leave this place. I don’t want to harm these children.”

The Russian stared at the defector, then at the children. “He will not hurt you. His gun has no ammunition. If he makes one false move I will put a bullet through his brain.”

The soldier started to say something, but stopped short as the Russian aimed at a spot right between his eyes.

“Now you put that down,” said the Russian without taking his eyes off the soldier. “You’ll do exactly as I say, or the next move you make will put you into your grave. Now put that gun down. Right there, on the ground. And sit down, over there.” He pointed to a corner opposite the children.

The soldier reluctantly backed off, placing the gun on the ground in front of him.

The captain stepped into the stall with his revolver drawn and ready to fire. He went over to the soldier’s gun and kicked it into a manure filled-gutter.

The Russian motioned for one of the other soldiers to untie the children. “Where are your parents? Why are you here alone?”

“They went to church, sir,” Markus answered. “They went for the Christmas Evening service in town. They will not be back until late in the night.”

“We stayed to care for my grandmother,” Monika added. “Please help us.”

The Russian turned his attention to the two soldiers with him. “Go call the others. I will take care of this … this situation.” Obediently the two men turned and headed for the door, leaving the Russian, the twins, and the fugitive.

“Close the door behind you,” yelled the Captain as the soldiers left the barn. He waited for the slam of the heavy door and for the two men to be out of hearing distance.

“This isn’t going to look good on my record,” the captain addressed Gorsken. “Defectors are a black mark on a commander’s report. You leave me with limited options.” He took a step in the direction of the fugitive.

“Brother,” interjected Monika. “There’s something you should know about him.”

The word ‘brother’ caught both the Russian and the soldier by surprise, but before anyone could do anything, Monika finished her thought. “He’s Jewish and wants to go find his mother and sister in Australia.”

“You should not have said that word,” the Russian said, his lip quivering.

“I’m sorry,” said Monika. “I thought you should know.”

“Brother?” The open-mouthed soldier could barely utter the word. “What?”

“Do you think that all Russians are God-haters and communists? We are part of a family that reaches across borders. These are good people, and whatever you do to them, you do to me.”

The Russian then turned to the children. “You must tell your parents that I can no longer come here. My orders are to return to Moscow by the New Year. It seems like I may join our friend on a midnight journey of my own. But I will not come through this place. I do not want to put you in any danger, nor do I want them to know about our arrangement.”

“Arrangement?” The soldier took a small step forward. “What kind of arrangement?”

“That’s none of your business,” the Russian turned on swivel, his revolver pointed directly at the chest of the defector. “And how could you be a soldier in a Nazi-controlled army and a Jew? Don’t you know what the Germans did to the Jews?”

“My mother is Jewish,” said the Hungarian soldier. “I’m only half Jewish. I’m ashamed to say that I know exactly what Hitler did to the Jews. I was there.”

The Russian stood speechless. “Then I’m left with no choice. We don’t have much time.”

“What are you going to do?” asked the Hungarian. “And what is this place? Have you been operating a safe house all this time?”

“You ask too many questions,” said the Russian. “Look no further than to the One we celebrate on this evening; then you might understand why we do the things we do.”

“But there are so many things to explain,” retorted the fugitive.

“What do you mean?” exclaimed the Russian.

“Do you know what the others call you? Do you know what we call you when your back is turned and you’re not listening?”

“I don’t care what you call me,” retorted the Russian. “All I care about now is keeping this family safe.”

“I will cause them no harm,” said the man. He waited for a response from the Russian, but there was none.

“We call you the Phantom Assassin. We have other names, but that’s the name that stuck.”

The Russian glared at the defector. “What do they call me?”

“We call you the Phantom Assassin because you insist on taking prisoners out into the woods by yourself, and then you come back alone. We see the death reports, but no one ever sees the bodies.”

“That is, until now.” The Russian did not look pleased.


Monika and Markus were sent out of the barn, leaving the Russian captain and Hungarian defector alone. The children were joined by the four Hungarian soldiers who escorted them towards the farm house.

As they walked the silence of the night was broken by a single, ear-piercing gunshot. The reverberation caused accumulations of snow to slide off the barn roof and fall off branches. The soldiers looked back, but made no effort to go and see what happened.

The Russian came out of the barn. He walked briskly and ordered the soldiers to get into the truck. He did not look back as Monika and Markus watched from the porch.

Later that evening Monika and Markus went out to greet their parents as they returned from the Christmas Eve service. They told their parents of all that happened, but there was no sign of a struggle. Everything in the barn seemed in perfect order, but as they investigated further they discovered a single set of snow-covered tracks that went out from the back of the building. They headed through the pasture in the direction of the border.