It was the April of 1943. The long, hard, hungry winter had finally come to a close and the world heaved a sigh with the coming of spring. This winter had truly been a tragic one for my family. My brother had been killed in action and my little sister came down with typhoid fever which took her life. She had only been twelve years of age. Father was missing; we hadn't heard anything from him in over four months. And to add to all the hardships, that winter had seen Germans occupy our town! What little food we had soon shrank to tiny rations as the Germans took most of it for themselves. My family had one comfort though; our little room was too small to fit any of the officers, so we had been left in peace. Others were not so lucky and had Germans living with them, using all the comforts and making the owners nothing more but servants in their own home.
It was a scary, frightful time. Mother would go to the little church every day and would spend a long time praying. In those days, the long forgotten, abandoned church suddenly became popular again. This was both strange and surprising. Religion and faith in God was against the law, but as Mother said, when you are in the middle of a long, horrid war, God is the only person you can really turn to. It was the honest truth in our little town. Father Maxim, who had already served four years in prison for his faith and had literally been the outcast of the town, suddenly became the person everyone ran to. Even Tamara Vasilievna, a proud and fierce atheist, would ask my mother to say a prayer for her two boys out on the frontlines.
Like Mother, I would go down to the church daily for comfort and prayer. This was a novelty for me. Before the war the church had been closed down. Father Maxim had to baptize us in secret at his house. The church opened again soon after the start of the war and Mother, Sveta and I began going there together. My brother, Mitya, didn't understand why we bothered. Mitya joined the army in 1942, as soon as he turned 18. It was out there on the frontline that he had found God and faith in Him. This alone was able to sustain me when we received the news of his death. My one concern now was for Father, who was somewhere out there, possibly dead, and still without faith.
I had turned sixteen in the fall, but hadn't been going to school since I turned fifteen. With no money and hardly any food, I had gone to work. Every day I would put in nine hours at the sewing factory. Mother worked all day as well. Sveta, our dear little Sveta, had kept on studying and had always been talking about wanting to go out and become a war nurse. Mother always said the war would end before Sveta was be old enough. As it turned out, it was Sveta who would end before the war did.
So by the spring of 1943, the war had really taken just about everything from us, except one thing: our faith. It was this faith alone that kept me going through every bleak and dreary day that made up my current life.
One evening after work, as usual I went into the church for the evening service. When it was over, I remained after most everyone had gone. I wanted to be alone. Tired from another long day, I just wanted a moment's worth of peace. The church was not empty however. Father Maxim stood not far off and Vera Sergeevna had just walked up to him.
"How are you, Father Maxim?" I heard her ask.
"I have no complaints, Vera Sergeevna, God is good!"
This was Father Maxim's standard reply. No matter how bad things were, he never had any complaints and God was always good. I often wondered how he managed to keep the same attitude, no matter what happened.
They went on to talk about something, but I tuned out, focusing on lighting my candles and praying.
"Now, now, Vera Sergeevna, I know how you feel, but remember, God told us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who use us spitefully."
Those words interrupted my prayer and made me focus on the conversation.
"No matter how terrible men are, they still need our prayers. Remember, it is the bad men more than ever who need to turn to our Savior. Christ himself begged his father to forgive his tormentors when he was dying on the cross!"
I turned my attention to the crucifix that hung on a chain around Father Maxim's neck. Not owning a Bible of any kind, my knowledge of Christ and his life was very limited. Of course, I knew he had died and rose again, but the details of it all were vague to me. I tried to imagine Christ praying for his enemies while he was dying. Somehow, I couldn't. Surely Father Maxim got something mixed up! My eyes slowly focused on the scarred hands of the Father. I knew they had tortured him when he had been in the prison. They had broken all his fingers and ripped out the fingernails; the result of such treatment where ugly, crooked, and downright frightful hands. How could Father Maxim, who had been treated so terribly, speak so calmly about loving your enemies and praying for them? Somehow it didn't make sense to me.
Pray for those who use you spitefully?
Those were mighty strange words. Was I supposed to pray for the Nazis? For those arrogant, ruthless monsters who stole our food and instilled terror into our very souls? Only today, I had been waylaid by some soldier who pestered me and pestered me and came right near to molesting me. And what of all the reports of how they burned villages, destroyed homes, and killed innocent women and children? Pray for the likes of them? Surely not!
Dinner time was fast approaching, so I left the church and headed for home. We lived in a tiny little room on the second floor of a two story building. It was an old, moldy thing, but it was home. After our simple, skimpy dinner Mother went to see Grandmother Valya. The old lady had come down very sick and, what was more, had only recently received a letter informing her of the death of her son.
As for myself, I grabbed a shawl and headed off to the little building that had once been the town club. Before it was a place filled with dancing and music; now it was broken and empty. The Germans had used it as some sort of headquarters, but then the boiler exploded. The heating system was so ancient that they decided it would be cheaper to find a new place then try to fix the heating. I knew the door was locked, but the window was open and I slipped through. I would come here from time to time to be alone. It was dangerous, but I didn't care. Once inside, I closed my eyes and gently spun around, memories of my father and brother filling my mind. The room was mostly dark, only a little patch from the moon came through the partially closed drapes. At last the peace and quiet I had been looking for flooded my heart.
Suddenly I heard the window squeak open and footsteps hopping inside. I stopped dancing and turned to face whoever who had just entered. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by now and I could make out the figure as he stood by the window. My heart nearly stopped and my eyes widened in horror. A young man had just climbed through. From his uniform I instantly guessed he was a German!
I froze, not knowing what to expect. I wanted to scream, but couldn't find my voice. He walked up to me, in an awkward sort of fashion; almost as though he was...shy!
Something told me I had seen him before. All at once it hit me. Earlier today, out in the street, there had been that German soldier who had been pestering me. I tried to ignore him, but he just wouldn't go away. Finally, in an attempt to get my attention, he had roughly grabbed my arm, making me drop my basket and spill the contents all over the road. At this point, another soldier walked up and roughly shoved his comrade aside, barking out some German words in his direction. He then stooped and, collecting the contents back into the basket, handed it to me with a smile and a kind word, though again in German. I had nodded and ran off without so much as looking at him. What I did catch, before I hurried away, was a pair of clear blue eyes.
They were the same blue eyes that were bashfully looking at me now. This was the same soldier who had come to my rescue. He walked up till he stood just a few steps away from me
Taking a deep breath and placing one hand on his chest, he said, "Eric!" Then he pointed his other hand at me and gave sort of a nod in my direction. I realized he was introducing himself and wanted me to do the same.
"Natasha," I found myself saying.
A smile appeared on his face, and he said something in that language I didn't understand.
"It's nice to meet you, too," I stated, not knowing what else to say. "Do you speak Russian?" I asked, looking at him intently and doing some hand motions, hoping he'd get the point.
A firm shake of his head told me he didn't.
"I don't speak German," I shrugged. We stood silently for a few moments. He was looking at me, while I was starring at the ground.
He shifted a little and after a moment's hesitation, extended his hand, palm up, fingers only slightly bent, in my direction. It dawned on me that he was asking me for a dance.
My first reaction was to recoil. I wasn't going to dance with a Nazi German soldier! Besides, the last time I had ever done a waltz was with my father, before the war! I hardly knew the moves.
But then...I had never been asked to dance by a young man before. The war had started when I was fourteen, and now, at sixteen, there just weren't any boys to ask me. His eyes gazed into my own so expectantly that after a pause I haltingly placed my hand in his. After all, it was just one dance. Who knew when I would be asked again!
He slid his arm around my waist and drew me closer to him. I placed my hand on his shoulder. He seemed a little awkward in the way he handled me, and I wondered if this was his first waltz as much as it was mine
The entire floor was ours and he swept me across it. When we started out we were both very awkward, considering we had no music, but pretty soon he caught a steady beat and I followed him. At first I had been very shy and stared at the ground. But by and by I gained some courage and looked up into his face. He really had the bluest of blue eyes, and his hair was so blond. It was of course cropped quite short, but there was enough of it to keep him from looking completely bald. His features were rather square, his jaw especially. Now that I was close enough to really study him, I realized he was a lot younger than I had originally thought. He had a good build, not at exactly large or muscular, but robust and healthy. The most enchanting thing about him was his smile. His lips were still so boyish, and when the corners turned upwards, his whole face lit up. Before I knew it I was smiling back at him. As we held each other's gaze and waltzed across the floor, I forgot about the war, I forgot about everything. Suddenly, it was a time of peace again, the hall was filled with boy and girls coming to dance and socialize, and the young gentleman who held me in his arms was successfully dancing away with my heart.
At last we brought our dance to a close. He kissed my hand in gratitude. I blushed in reply. I had never experienced such behavior from boys before; I'd never even been courted by one. Young men were scarce these days.
I glanced at the window; so did he. I guess he was probably thinking the same thing I was. Both of us knew we couldn't stay for here together. If we were to get caught, I knew it would certainly be the end for me. Alone, at night, with a German — that could only mean I was a spy. I didn't know what would happen to him if he were caught with me, but he could easily be accused to be spying as well.
He reached out and lightly touched my dark brown curls, grasping a little lock of them and pressing his other hand to his chest. It took me a while before I understood what he wanted.
"You want a lock of my hair?" I asked incredulously, pointing towards my hair and then at him.
"Ja, ja." He nodded vigorously and reaching into his pocket, pulled out a little pocket knife and opened a tiny pair of scissors.
Taking the scissors, I took some of my curls and snipped them off. Handing the scissors back to him, I noticed something on the floor.
"You dropped something," I said, reaching over and picking up the paper. Unfolding it, I saw it was a photograph. A man and woman were seated on two chairs. In the arms of the woman sat a girl of about five years of age. Right behind the couple stood two young men. The one on the left I recognized to be Eric.
"Is this your family?" I asked, pointing to the people on the photograph. "Is this your Mama and Papa?"
"Ja." He said as a gentle smile spread across his face.
"This must be your sister, and this must be your brother." I went on. "Is your brother also fighting?" I pointed to the other boy and then pretended to hold a gun.
The smile faded and he shook his head. He ran his finger across his neck and I got the point: his brother had been killed in action.
Reaching out, I put my hand on his shoulder.
"My brother was killed too!" I pointed to his brother, then to myself; I also ran my finger across my neck. His face clouded for a moment, then brightened, then became sad. He shook his head and said something. I could tell from his tone of voice he was sympathizing with me.
"War," I shrugged, "I suppose we shouldn't expect less than what we get."
He reached out for the photograph. I pressed my lock of hair into the crease, folded it again and handed it to him. He gave another bow and said something that sounded like "Danke." I guessed it meant, "thank you."
"You should go out first." I pointed towards him, then out the window. "It will be safer if you go first."
He frowned, and pointed towards me, then towards the window and spoke some more in German. From his hand motions, I guessed maybe he wanted to walk me home.
"No, no!" I violently shook my head. "If someone should see, we could be killed!"
He sighed, sensing my logic.
"Don't worry, I know my way home," I reassured, even though I knew he didn't understand
Eric bit his lower lip and hesitated for a moment, then leaned over and placed a kiss on my lips. My eyes grew wide as saucers. After asking me for a lock of hair, did he dare to steal a kiss from me? He pulled back, and with a bashful smile hopped out the window.
I stood stunned for a moment. My sense quickly returned and I hopped out the window, shut it behind me, and ran silently towards my home. The streets were dark, and I kept to the shadows, afraid of being noticed. Running up the stairs two at a time, I paused at the door for a moment to catch my breath, then silently opened and shut it behind me. Turning around, I found myself confronted by a worried and angry mother.
"Just where have you been all this time?" She demanded of me.
I brushed past her and ran to the window, drawing back the curtains a little and peaking out. Down in my heart, I knew he had followed me home, to make sure I had gotten back safely. I wondered if I would be able to catch a glimpse of him. Only the empty streets greeted me, and with a sigh I turned to face my mother and her wrath.
"Natasha, where have you been? I came back here and you were gone! Can you even imagine what I felt, what horrible thoughts went through my head. Not knowing where to go, I've been waiting here close to panic! I had just made up my mind to go out and look for you. It's the middle of the night for mercy's sake!"
"I was over at the dance hall," I replied.
"What where you doing there at this time of night? We have a curfew; what if you had been caught! And how on earth did you get in?"
"One of the windows has a broken lock."
"And what were you doing there?"
"Just waltzing around. I got to thinking of Father and Mitya and completely lost track of the time. I'm sorry I made you worry. Is there any tea? I'm thirsty!" I walked over the teapot. The water was still a little warm. Being too lazy to try and heat it up again, I figured coldish tea was better than no tea.
Mother followed me and sat down on the other end of the table.
"Where you there alone?"
My mind raced; I couldn't tell her I had been with a German, yet at the same time, I didn't want to lie to her.
"Who could I be with at this time of night?" I said, striving to keep an innocent face.
"I don't know; maybe Julia or Marina decided to join you in this crazy idea."
"No, no, there is no one in our little city who would dare do something so random with me," I laughed and settled down to drink my tea.
"Mama," I said after a moment of thought, "Do you think there could be good Germans?"
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Well, German soldiers who don't really agree with Hitler and aren't happy with this war, but are forced to fight for some reason or another?"
Poor Mother just couldn't get the point of this strange question. "I wouldn't know," she stated at last. "If there are any, it's a pity we don't see them around here."
"Maybe they know they can't say anything, or maybe they're afraid that if they behave differently they'll get in trouble or—"
"Natasha, what is it with you and suddenly analyzing the Germans? Finish your tea and get ready for bed!" Mother stood up and went to her cot.
I was in no hurry to go to bed. I dreamily stared into the cup, my mind filled with blue eyes and charming smiles. He had a chipped tooth, and it had made him look so adorable. My lips still burned from the kiss. Not the kiss he had stolen; the kiss he had given me in replace of the lock of my hair. At last the tea finished and I stood from the table and waltzed over to the mirror. I looked at my thin, pale frame; the dark eyes, the unruly curls, the small chin and lips, and round nose. My gaze drifted to my hands, worn thin from hard work.
"Mama, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked her, twirling from one side to another and playing with a strand of hair.
Mother turned towards me in total shock. "Natalia Dmitrevna! Beauty isn't something you need to worry about right now. Good looks won't get you anywhere! Strength and endurance is what you need and it is the only thing you should strive to have! Now get into bed, you have to go to work tomorrow!"
Tearing myself away from my reflection, I washed my face and changed into my nightgown. "But honestly, Mama, do you think I'm pretty?" I persisted.
She looked me up and down. "You may have something there! Now go to sleep." With those words she blew out the candle.
"Not much encouragement from you." I grumbled under my breath as I snuggled under the worn blanket.
He had looked at me with such adoring eyes; surely they must have seen something beautiful, something worth adoring! I couldn't be all ugly if he looked at me the way he did. I smiled in the darkness as the memories of that hour played in my mind.
"So, this is what first love is like," I thought with a sigh and, closing my eyes, went to sleep.The next morning I shot out of bed with uncharacteristic eagerness. Mother didn't say anything, she would only glance at me from time to time and shake her head. I hardly noticed as I busied myself with ironing my old dress and trying to tame my stubborn hair.
"Natashinka, it's time to eat," Mother called to me. "Natasha, Natasha, Natalia, Ctepicheva Natalia Dmitrevna, who am I talking to?" Mother finally lost her temper. "Get away from that mirror and come eat breakfast!"
"Coming, coming," I absently called.
"Natasha, are you in love?" Mother suddenly asked.
Turning my attention from the frustrating task of getting the ribbon to tie neatly, I asked in a surprised voice, "Who could I be in love with?"
"I don't know! It's just you're behaving very suspicious. If I didn't know better, I'd definitely say you were in love with someone."
I shrugged and focused again on that stubborn hair ribbon. At last I managed to get it to look semi-decent. Gulping down my breakfast, I rushed into my sweater and coat, kissed Mother goodbye, and dashed out of the house.
"Why are you in such a hurry?" Mother called after me. I hardly heard her. I tried to walk nonchalantly, while at the same time keeping a steady, quick pace.
"Natasha, you are a silly girl!" I told myself over and over again as I neared the club. "There is no point in coming here."
Going round the back, a delighted gasp escaped from my lips when my eyes picked up something carefully stuck into one of the windows. Rushing over, I gently pulled out a snowdrop. I ran my hands through the little petals, my cheeks growing pink with delight. Of course Eric had left it there for me. It had been stuck in the very window we had climbed through.
Turning on my heels, I ran towards home. I had to get this flower pressed before it withered. Mother was just leaving when I crashed into her.
"Natasha, what is the meaning of this?"
"I'm sorry Mother, I forgot something," I hurriedly said, rushing into the room. From under my pillow I retrieved the last letter Mitya had sent me. I placed the flower in between the sheets of paper. Next I put the letter in a book and put another book on it.
"And what exactly did you forget?" Mother asked, walking in behind me.
"My...uh...my..." I glanced around the room. "My scarf!" I grabbed the scarf and tied it around my head. I ignored my mother's suspicious look as we walked back out the door. I guessed she was catching on, but I wasn't about to help her out.
I barely made it to work on time. As I worked, my thoughts were for once filled with something other than hunger and war. They dreamily floated in the direction of a castle on a cloud.
Forbidden love, what could be more romantic? A German soldier and a Russian girl, this was the sort of things they wrote about in stories, just like Romeo and Juliet. I was dying to get out of this annoying factory and back to the club. Why was I stuck here day in and day out?
At last the work day came to a close and I, along with the other girls, went on our way home. As we walked down the cracked streets a battalion of soldiers crossed the road. We all stopped to let them pass.
"I wonder where they are going," The girl next to me, Marina, said.
"Probably being sent to the front," Julia answered.
I scanned the crowd and drew my breath. There, in the sixth row, right at edge was Eric. His eyes locked with mine and he gave the smallest nod and a smile. I discreetly smiled back. Soon the battalion was gone and we continued on our way home.
My dream castle was in ruins and the cold reality returned. What had I been thinking? If anyone found out that we had danced together I would be accused of a spy and killed. Sad and despondent I came back home.
I opened the book and pulled out the flower he had left me. It had probably been his way of saying goodbye. Of all flowers to give, it was a snowdrop; the flower of hope. Was he trying to tell me something? Trying to keep me from giving me up, telling me to be brave and keep on? I pressed the flower to my chest and shed tears. Tears for the soldiers at the frontlines, tears for the soldiers who would never return home, tears for the cities that had been bombed, the homes which had burned, and for the lives that were ruined. I cried for the loves that had been lost, and for the loves that never had a chance to be discovered. Slowly I lifted my eyes and gazed at the crucifix that hung on the wall. All at once I found myself praying, and not just for our own boys at the frontlines, but for the German ones as well. I prayed that the war would end and they would all be able to return home to their families and put this hell behind them. I prayed they would be able to forget the horrors they were being forced to commit. I prayed that God would restore peace to all our lands. When my prayer was finished, I wiped my tears and gently placed the flower into Mitya's letter and put it under my pillow.
The war years dragged on and then at last they came to an end. The war was over, and the Germans were gone. The Soviets had freed our town. With the end of the war, another surprise took place. Father returned home. As it turned out, he had been a German prisoner of war but he had managed to escape. However, it was not destined to be a happy ending. When the authorities discovered Father had been a POW, they took him away. They said he was a spy and sent him to a labor camp in Siberia for twenty years. Anyone who had been associated with the Germans was sent away with the same verdict. Fear gripped my heart; what if somehow someone was to discover of my night with Eric? That evening I pulled the snowdrop from under my pillow and with tears glistening in my eyes, I burned my only memory of him. I made a promise to never speak of him to anyone. I would bury that night in my heart and lock it for good.
The seasons went on changing. I grew from young girl into young woman. I met an honest Christian boy and we married, though now we had to keep our faith a secret once again. The end of the war and also brought an end to the Christian rise. The church was once mored closed down and it would be nearly fifty years before it would be reopened. Being a Christian meant less chance of getting a job and less pay even if you did find one. It also meant you could go to prison. We practiced our faith in secret, just as Mother had done before the war.
The years kept moving on. My father returned from the labor camp a broken, crippled man. He died soon after, but not before confessing to us that he had found Christ in the concentration camp.
I faced every hardship life threw at me, but no matter what, I kept my promise. I never mentioned Eric to anyone, not to my mother, my husband, or my children.
Then the times began to change, the old world fell apart, and things became different. One spring day, my granddaughter brought me a bouquet of snowdrops she had collected on her walk. As I held them in my hands, my thoughts drifted to my first girlish crush, and I remembered the night of my first real waltz, which I had danced in the arms of a German soldier.
And I decided it was time for my story to be told.