The Compassionate Enemy

The Compassionate Enemy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

The Compassionate Enemy

War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first time I saw the enemy, he was pointing a machine gun at us. It was early spring of 1945, and my grandparents and I had just emerged from a bunker, where we had spent a terror-filled night.

I was nine years old and lived in Hungary. World War II was playing havoc with our lives. My grandparents, who were raising me, and I had been on the road in our horse-drawn wagon for many months, searching for safety. We had left behind the village of our birth in the Bacska region because Tito and his Communist partisans were closing in on the region.

By day we moved swiftly, ready to jump out and take cover in a ditch if warplanes approached. By night we camped with other refugees along the roadside. I usually lay bundled up in my featherbed in the back of the wagon, cradling my cat. War was almost all I had known during my nine years of life.

After Christmas of 1944, when we were almost killed in a city bombing, Grandfather decided that a rural area would be safer, so we moved and settled in a small house that had an old cemetery as its neighbor. Here Grandfather, with the help of some neighbors, built a bunker in a flat area behind the house. And on that early spring day in 1945, we spent the entire night in the bunker. Warplanes buzzed, tanks thundered, bombs exploded over our heads all night, but finally at dawn everything grew deathly still.

Grandfather decided it would be safe to go back to our house. Cautiously we crept out into the light of early dawn and headed toward the house. The brush crackled under our feet as we walked past the cemetery. The markers looked lonely, separated by tall, dry weeds. I shivered, holding on to my orange tabby cat tightly. He had spent the night in the bunker with us. Without warning there was a rustle in the bushes just ahead. Two men jumped out and pointed machine guns directly at us.

“Stoi!” one of the men shouted. Since we were from an area where both Serbian and Hungarian was spoken, we knew the word meant “Stop!”

“Russians!” Grandfather whispered. “Stand very still, and keep quiet.” But I was already running after my cat. He had leaped out of my arms when the soldier shouted, so I darted between the soldiers and scooped him up.

The younger of the two soldiers, tall and dark-haired, approached me. I cringed, holding the cat against my chest. The soldier reached out and petted him. “I have a little girl about your age back in Russia, and she has a cat just like this one,” he said, gently tugging one of my blond braids. “And she has long braids, too, just like you.”

I looked up into a pair of kind brown eyes and my fear subsided. Grandfather and Grandmother sighed with relief. Both soldiers came back to the house with us and shared in our meager breakfast. We found out that the Soviet occupation of Hungary was in progress. Many atrocities occurred in our area, as well as throughout our country in the following months, but because the young Russian soldier took a liking to me, we were spared.

He came to visit often, bringing little treats, and always talked longingly of his own little girl. I loved his visits, yet I was terrified of the Russians in general. Then one day, almost a year later, he had some sad news. “I’ve been transferred to another area, malka, little one, so I won’t be able to come and visit anymore. But I have a gift for you,” he said, taking something out of his pocket. It was a necklace with a beautiful turquoise Russian Orthodox cross on it. He placed it around my neck.

“You wear this at all times, malka. God will protect you from harm.” I hugged him tight and then watched him drive away, tears welling in my eyes.

World War II was over, but for the people of Hungary a life of bondage was at hand. Many men, like Grandfather, who had been involved in politics, or deemed undesirable, were being rounded up by the secret police, never to be seen again. Not long after the end of the war, the dreaded knock on the door came. The police had come to take my grandfather away. Fortunately, Grandfather managed to flee and went into hiding. Then it was just Grandma and I, trying to survive as best we could. Fear became our constant companion, and prayer our solace. Sometimes I would finger the cross the soldier had given me and wonder where he was. Was he back home with his own daughter? Did he even remember me?

Time passed in a haze of anxiety and depression. Then in the fall of 1947, a man came to get us in the middle of the night. He said he would take us to the Austrian border, and we’d be reunited with my grandfather. We traveled all night to a place where the ethnic Germans of Hungary were being loaded into transport trucks and deported from Hungary. The man gave us counterfeit papers so we could cross the border to freedom. When we arrived at dawn, a weary-looking man with a thick, scraggly beard and a knit cap pulled low over his forehead was waiting for us.

“Grandpa!” I cried out, rushing into his arms. It was so wonderful to see him again. Then we walked toward the transport truck loaded with dozens of people and got on, fake papers in hand. I knew if we were found out, it would mean Grandpa would get hauled off to prison and, worse yet, he might even be executed. I glanced toward the Russian soldiers who were coming closer to inspect the papers. Fear gripped my heart. Then I looked up as a guard boarded our truck. I caught my breath.

“Grandpa,” I whispered. “Look, it’s my soldier, Ivan! He is checking this truck.” I wanted to leap up and run to him, but Grandpa shushed me cautiously.

“Maybe he won’t recognize us,” he whispered, pulling the knit hat farther down his forehead. He seemed afraid of Ivan! Then the Russian stood before us. My grandfather handed over our papers without looking up. I leaned closer to Grandfather and put my hand protectively on his shoulder, peering cautiously at Ivan, hoping to see the familiar kind sparkle in his eyes. But he was intent upon the papers, his expression grave. I didn’t dare to breathe. Finally, he handed the papers back to Grandpa.

“Everything is in order in this vehicle,” he said. Then winking at me, he walked away and got down. The next instant the truck began to move on. I looked over my shoulder and caught his eye.

“Thank you,” I mouthed, holding up the cross hanging around my neck. He nodded discretely, then quickly turned and walked away. And as we crossed the border to freedom, we all sighed with relief. Although we had suffered much sadness during the war, one blessing will always stay with me: the memory of a kind soldier who turned my fear into faith, and showed me that compassion can be found anywhere, even in the eyes of an enemy.

Renie Szilak Burghardt

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