My name is Edmund, and I’m seventeen years old. Since last spring we’ve been inching our way over these hills: most of them bare, some sparsely wooded. The bald patches in the forest make our life difficult, but we’ve gotten good at camouflage and deception, and we’ve learned how to stay close to the ground, utilizing blind spots to surprise the enemy. The enemy knows it is dealing with damaged, resolute people; it unleashes its well-trained fighters, assisted by gendarmes and local farmers, who act as informants. We will not be easily defeated.
Daylight is a problem, but the night belongs to us. We also need to be very cautious at night, but over time we’ve learned the advantages of darkness. There’s nothing like lying in ambush on summer nights: you’re on high alert, picking up every sound, poised to strike like a panther.
At the end of the summer, the commander decided that we had to leave this place and head toward the wetlands, to the swamps and the lakes. Such a move would distance us from the fields and orchards that provide our vital needs but would give us several clear advantages: stagnant water is an obstacle, and an army is not eager to plod through swamps, cut off from its headquarters.
During the day, we are dug in and camouflaged, and we advance at night. Progress is slow but steady. Each day brings us closer to the goal. On the last few nights we could smell the water and celebrated quietly. But we must never rest on our laurels; the enemy is vigilant and follows us always. They try to outflank us and block the way to the wetlands. We outsmart them and ambush them. Our calculations have worked out so far, and we haven’t suffered many casualties, but who knows how this bitter struggle will end.
At the beginning of September, we arrived at the ridge overlooking Lake Tanura, a long lake surrounded by boulders. The previous day, the commander had sent an experienced squad to prepare rafts; they reached their destination, cut down trees, and when we arrived, a few small rafts awaited us on the water.
Several fighters went out on the first raft to check the opposite shore. We watched them row, ready to provide covering fire and to help them. The crossing was undisturbed. We saw them land, spread out, and carefully survey the area. After two hours, they signaled us to launch the remaining rafts.
The little rafts floated back and forth, carrying people and equipment. By the way, our equipment is not minimal; it includes hammers, knives, axes, saws, cooking utensils, and food. Not to worry, everything is well packed and travels with us from place to place, supervised by Hermann Cohen, about whom I will have more to say when the time comes.
By midnight we were all on the other bank. We saw right away that this was different territory, covered with thick vegetation and smelling heavily of dampness.
Ever since I joined the fighters, I’ve changed beyond recognition. The commander promises us that if we try hard, train diligently, and follow orders precisely, at the end of the course we’ll be fighters. Fighters do not complain; they grit their teeth and do not pity themselves.
Just one year ago I was a student, a teenager of average height with eyeglasses, and until last year I excelled at school. I don’t want to talk now about last year, when I was a tangle of contradictions. Presumably things will become clear when the time comes, but I will say this, my parents were greatly pained by the decline in my studies.
My report card glittered with high grades during my time at high school. I was my parents’ pride and joy, but suddenly my life veered off course, and their quiet happiness turned into shame. They were periodically called to the school and stood mutely before the vice principal, unable to offer a word in my defense.
The teachers grieved alongside my parents over my failure, especially the math and Latin teachers.
“What happened?” my humiliated father would ask in despair.
“Nothing,” I would say, over and over.
“Why aren’t you studying like you used to; something must have happened.”
The war was at our doorstep. People ran around in the streets, trying to escape the trap, but my parents were sunk in their depression. The decline in my studies concerned them more than the imminent danger. In those days I was blind and merciless. I felt that my parents were drowning in their own world and blocking my way. I didn’t speak up or make excuses, but without meaning to I was pouring salt on their wounds.
Now they are far away from me, and I’m here. Sometimes it seems that everything that has happened to me in these past months is a nightmare to be deciphered in the future. I will undoubtedly be found guilty, which is why I try hard to obey orders and be a flawless fighter.
The training is exhausting. The commander has no pity for stragglers; he demands extra effort, and weakness is forbidden. Those among us who do not meet his standards guard the base and help with the cooking. They chop wood and gather twigs for bedding.
Fighters, the commander calls us. Our training includes long runs, hurdling over obstacles, climbing ropes, advancing correctly in forested areas and swamps, carrying heavy loads. More than once, I collapsed, and had it not been for friends who supported me, I doubt I would have met all the demands.
I look in the water, and to my surprise I don’t recognize myself. My face has filled out and reddened, and my shoulders are broader. In a sheepskin coat I look more like a young farmer than a gymnasium
student. My hands are rougher, too. I’ve lost my previous quickness; a different quickness guides my steps. I can bend scraps of tin and iron, break poles, dig a trench in minutes. I doubt my parents would recognize me, and if they did, I wonder how they’d react. Deep in my heart, my transformation makes me happy. Every success in training, every compliment, makes me swell with pride, and I feel that on the battlefield, face-to-face with the enemy, I will perform to my commanders’ satisfaction.
The wetlands. Is this home base or the start of the journey? We press on through the thick foliage, where the darkness is greater than the light. Progress sometimes means strenuous chopping of trees, all hands clearing the path. I do not complain; I accept the difficulties as a duty and atonement for sin. The training exercises and ambushes do not weaken me. I assume that when the time comes, not far off, we will become forest creatures, and the trees and bushes will wrap us in a warm, wide mantle.
There’s no point wasting time with fantasies; better to clean the weapon, fix what’s left of my shoes. The soles are torn, and I tie them with string. That’s how it is for nearly all of us. Were it not for the cold nights, it would be easier, but the cold and wet are unrelenting. Thank God for the whispering coals that keep our clothes a little dry.
Copyright © 2020 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.