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TO SOW OR NOT TO SOW
THE Bachka Odred when I found it some days later was living very privately in a wood on the most westerly spur of the Frushka Gora, in the bad lands infested by Ustashe to the south of Ilok. Practically the whole partisan army of the Bachka was present when I arrived, though it is true that Sveta and some others were at that time beyond the river; and it was possible to hold a review of all the forces which the Hungarian Government, using not less than five thousand gendarmes and several battalions of Hatarvadasz—frontier guards—were striving manfully to hold in check. They were all together when I got there, having supper outside their gamekeeper's cottage, and it was exciting to realize that the whole nefarious apparatus of terrorism—what the Hungarians called the dark influences of the Underground—could be seen at one time. On Hungarian reckoning (and it was true) they were responsible for a long series of acts of sabotage, the burning of hemp warehouses, destruction of wayside railway halts, occasional derailing of trains, murder of gendarmes ... and in course of time their repute had grown so great that the wide Bachka, over three thousand square miles, echoed with it.
However, at that time they were living very privately, for they were twenty-five and the enemy, in this western part of the Frushka Gora, was uncomfortably strong. Their role was a raiding one. During the course of the winter they had been expelled little by little from the Bachka by pressure of circumstances and ineffectual leadership; and now, in the spring, it was their business to get back over the river and to stay there until they had at least used the ammunition and explosive they would take across with them. Their losses during the winter had been made good by the inclusion of new recruits; and the party was on that account uneasy, inexperienced, not sure of itself. Conditions across the river were difficult enough to make each of them feel it a little like a death sentence to be sent across; and only the real enthusiasts took it with a good grace, volunteers though all of them were.
They had been for several days on this wooded knoll overlooking the Danube; and they were spoiling with inaction. They knew that they were the farthest outpost of resistance, the ultimate extension of it; and although this was a source of legitimate pride it was also a cause of gradual demoralization. They had nothing to do but to wait until the complicated conspiracy of crossing was complete; and in the interval they wandered about the woods and wondered if they would be alive in two weeks' time.
The weather was splendid and made the landscape more than ever like the Quantock hills in summertime. There were the same trees, chestnut and ash and young evergreen, the same gently sloping hills, the same fold and lap of ploughland, now green with knee-high wheat, the same scraping crickets and crawling ants and spiders in the grass, the same slanting sunlight. And thick in the close-tufted grass there were the same beds of wild strawberries, hard but wonderful to find, that grow on Quantock, in the valleys below Crowborough and Holford, Stowey and Saint Audrey's. The Odred in its unprecendented strength of twenty-four men and one woman sat in the shadow of the trees and gloomily considered the future.
Part of their gloom was due to the fact that they were out of place in Srem, and that the Frushka Gora had them only on sufferance, their right and proper place being across the river in the Bachka. They felt like fish out of water; and they were conscious that the nearby villagers who supplied them with bread and meat and other food looked a little askance at them as an unnecessary burden. The Bachka was rich beyond the dreams of avarice: let the Bachka support its own Odred. Srem had enough troubles of its own. Vizich and Jips, Liuba and Neshtin, little villages of the western Frushka Gora, had suffered grievously from the last offensive, and there was scarcely a household in these villages which did not mourn at least one male death at the hands of Vlassoff's bandits. Black George and I stayed a few nights in Vizich but the sorrow that hung over the village drove us out to the woods to sleep. There was one old man who had lost two sons in a single afternoon, some six months before, and the horror of it was still living with him, so that he was well-nigh useless about the yard and must be left to croon softly to himself in a comer and feed the hens. I remember that he was collecting puzh, edible snails, the afternoon of our coming, collecting snails and muttering indignantly to himself.
We bid him good evening and went to ask the women of the house if they could feed us that night. George went in and talked to them: I stood in the doorway, in the smell of cooking and pig fat and babies' rags, and watched the old man collecting his snails and sorting them into a basket. He was a very old man indeed, but large and bony, unwashed for many months in mourning at this frightful loss he could not understand, and muttering to himself.
"Fascists ... Fascists ..."he muttered. "Oh, my God, my God; none of them have suffered like me...." and the tears fell from his dull blue eyes on to the snails in his basket. Then he saw a stick in the yard that would make good firing, and he put the snails that he had in his hands on to the ground and got up and collected the stick, a silly little stick, and brought it up to the doorway and went past without a word and gave it to the women of the house. "Thank you, granpa," they said. And he went out and sat down again with his snails. Later on they came to tell him that the supper was ready and he went in to eat it, not worrying to wash himself or brush his trousers that were covered in the dust of the yard. And yet he was dignified in his mourning.
"Ah, my lads," he said, "it's nice to see you, nice to see you ..." and then he would confuse the two of us, sitting there young and straight beside the table, with his two sons who were dead, and he would peer suddenly at us and his eyes would fill with tears and the tears would drop unheeded on the table until one of his granddaughters came and wiped them away, and dabbed his eyes with her handkerchief. But he took no notice of her and went on weeping, silently, unconsciously. And Black George would look shy and shift his feet and talk to the old man's daughters. This happened several times.
He told us the drift of his tragedy. It seemed that they had been feeding the pigs one day, about seven o'clock in the evening, and the elder of his two sons had gone down the yard to bar the gate;
and then without warning a dozen Fascists had come into the yard and rushed up to the pigshed and caught all three of them before they could run to escape. They had not had time even to run back through the yard into the fields at the back, as they usually did when Fascists came; and in any case, as he said, this would not have saved them for the village was "blockaded" by Fascists and they stood with guns at every possible exit of the village. So they simply came into the yard and took his two sons away. That night they had locked their prisoners, about seventy of them, in the village church; and then, in the morning, they had let some of them go after a severe beating, but thirty of the prisoners they had marched down the lane to Jips, and in Jips they had machine-gunned all thirty and burnt the bodies in a heap. The old man's two sons had been among the thirty.
Few people in these villages slept at home now that the worst of the cold weather was past. Well accustomed to the enemy's habits of raiding at dawn—and then of blockading the whole village so that none could run out into cover of the fields—people took the precaution now of sleeping in the woods until eight o'clock in the morning; and at eight o'clock, if you were about, you could see their scouts creeping back to the village to make sure that all was clear, and then the old men and women and the children would come traipsing back with their baskets and their blankets, and settle in the village until nightfall.
In exceptional cases this migration became an organized mode of living, and practically the whole population of a village would absent itself by night until the danger hours of dawn were past and it seemed fairly certain that the enemy would not come that day. Particularly was this so in the villages along the south bank of the Danube, threatened as they always were by sudden onfall from motorized enemy approaching along the riverside road. All who were liable to arrest by the enemy—whether because they had sons or daughters or husbands with the partisans—betook themselves off into the woods every night. There they would live in huts made of branches arranged in penthouse form and thatched with leaves.
The presence of death was very strong in these villages. The old people sat in the darkness with their heads in their hands, as if they were praying and expecting death in the morning. They had seen death in all its forms, even in its most horrible, and they seemed overshadowed by it. "If we live ..." they said, and meant it not as an empty phrase but a fatal gesture to the gods of war. We came quietly along the village street at twilight, hoping to find something for our evening meal, and people looked at us, shyly, curiously, sometimes affectionately, as if to say: "Here are partisans, partisans ..." The girls made much of us, the men (if any were left) helped us quietly and stolidly, the old women and the mothers took comfort in our presence and were kindly and thoughtful and fearful even for us. There was a night in Susek when they woke two of us at dawn, three shivering women, desperately whispering: "My God, my God, they say it's them. They've come. For the love of God, go quickly..." and stuffed crusts of bread into our pockets as we went, knowing that we would be hungry.
The partisan movement here was weak because the enemy was too close, and also because the population was very mixed by nationality and traitors were therefore many. Each village would have its resident terrainats who worked on behalf of the communist party in particular and of the partisan cause in general in an endeavour to stimulate local interest and political activity. These terraintsi led an arduous and dangerous life, for they were tied fast to the little area in which they worked and must not leave it unless hard pressed; their usual routine was to go to ground in someone's baza as soon as danger threatened and to wait there, sometimes for days, often without food or water or proper ventilation, until the danger was past. Only the strictest behaviour could gain for them the approbation of the peasants, who would quickly note the slightest weakness; and they succeeded in winning over peasant sympathies, when they did succeed (and that was more often than not in my experience), only by self-denial and self-sacrifice. Often they were women.
One night when we were in the woods behind Ilok there was a konferentsia at Vizich, a meeting called by the village committee of the Anti-Fascist Women's Front in order to discuss policy. Policy might be anything from the sewing of shirts for partisans to the attitude which was to be adopted towards drunkenness in husbands. Upon this occasion it was an attempt on the part of the local committee to persuade the men from sowing sunflower seed as the Germans had ordered, and to get them instead to sow wheat as the partisans wanted. Black George and some of the Odred attended on behalf of the army, the new order of things, and the lads in Bosnia;
I attended in no particular capacity but was generally believed to represent the Allies; later on in the evening Great Britain was more effectively represented by the level humming overhead of long-range night bombers on their way to Budapest.
It was dark when we got there. The konferentsia was being held in the ruins of the Vizich schoolroom; the committee had provided three chairs, one table and a paraffin lamp. They were taking full advantage of the circumstances and enjoying themselves no end, sure in the knowledge that all the young men were away with the partisans and the old ones nothing like a match for the women. If it hadn't been for the women there would have been no meeting, for the old gaffers who were left would never think of calling one on their own account. And meetings were a new thing, a sign of the times, a proof of modernity, and an occasion for almost any kind of village by-play.
The paraffin lamp stood on the stove, its yellow light showing a sea of pale faces under their head shawls. The atmosphere was wonderfully thick; but after a time nobody noticed it. The room was packed tight and once inside you were kept on your feet by the sheer pressure of stout peasant bodies standing four-square and pushing and heaving whenever they had a mind to it.
Everyone was talking at once, of course, for that was the only generally accepted way of talking. The terrainats of Vizich was a fierce young woman with gaunt cheeks and wide black eyes, conscious of the importance of her mission to the exclusion of all else, hard with the memory of her husband dead in Bosnia, determined that these people should understand of their own free will the revolutionary importance of what was happening to them.
She stood at the top end of the room and looked down at all of us, crushed and sweating and talking there; and when she was ready for the meeting to begin she rapped on the table and appealed for silence. We stopped talking gradually, and after five minutes of her rapping there was enough silence for someone else, another woman but this time a member of the local committee, to read the evening's news. The old gaffers listened in resentful silence, belching every now and then to emphasize their independence and their perfect right to interrupt a woman's conference if they had a mind to; and the reader, a peasant woman with a cheerful red face and a tone of eternal optimism and amazement, gave us the news.
The light was bad. Also people are not always quite accustomed to reading. "Eh, um ... Units of the army of national liberation ... that's our army, that's what they call it ... are engaged—yes, engaged—in hard fighting in the Kordun and have thrown back three enemy attempts to eject our men from these positions ... Yelitsa, bring that lamp a little nearer—no, you'd better stand here and hold it for me ... and our boys, it says, yes, that's right: our units have blown up seven trains on the main line Belgrade-Zagreb ... that's important, of course, because God knows what these Schvabs don't carry in these trains——"
The fierce young woman said: "Here, I say, Militsa, don't take all night. We've got a big discussion after this."
"Don't worry, dearie: they've got nothing to do. Gaffer Yovan there hasn't done an honest day's work for a month, and that I know——"
Murmur at the back.
"Oh, no, you haven't. Gaffer Yovan! I've seen you, mornings, not doing a thing: and there's that daughter of yours with her bad lung——"
Louder murmur at the back. Rapping by fierce young woman. "All right, dearie. Here, where was I—Eastern Front. Yes, Eastern Front——" She takes off her spectacles and looks round at us, immensely happy—"Eastern Front. Hm—it's very good, they tell me. Formations under the command of Marshal ... Marshal ...can't read it-"
"Tolbukhin," we suggest.
"Possibly. Anyway, formations of the Red Army under this Marshal What's-his-name have stormed their way into Sebastopol after some of the most furious fighting of the war. Whereas the German army needed twenty-two days in which to take Sebastopol during their criminal invasion of 1941, the Red Army has retaken this great port of the Black Sea in three days.... Think of that, dears, in three days...." She breaks off to give us her commentary on the news. The Red Army was not advancing at the moment because they were preparing for another great leap forward. The British and the Americans were bombing this town of ... town of ... yes, Berlin, that's it ... and there was something (but not much) going on along the snail-like Italian front. The Hungarians were catching it, too....
Our bombers go humming overhead.
And then to village affairs. The terrainats opens the ball with a vigorous appeal to the village not to sow sunflower this season.
"That's what the Germans want you to do. That's the orders that come from Berlin. They need your sunflower seed; and they need it because the glorious allies—our glorious allies, my friends— are starving them and destroying them. The Germans have to come to Serbia for help. But we ask you to sow wheat. The partisans ask you to sow wheat. The lads from your village that are fighting in Bosnia are asking you to sow wheat. It's food we need, my friends. So what's it going to be: sunflower for the Germans or food for us?"
"They say we've got to sow sunflower——" Gaffer Yovan has held his peace for long enough. Never before, probably, has he seen such a thing as a woman's meeting. His contempt for it curls round every word that he utters.
"Who says that? Who says you've got to sow sunflower? The Fascist authority or the people's authority? Don't forget, friends, that nowadays we've got the people's authority to settle with: we don't take account of the authority of Stoyadinovitch, or Tsvetkovitch, or Pavelitch, or Neditch. It's the people's authority that we listen to."
But Gaffer Yovan is not to be put down. He has another go.
"That's not for discussion now. That's a village matter; that's a private matter, between ourselves, that is——" several old gaffers murmur their approval and belch more loudly than ever. "That's together with the question of cows. We men will settle that——"
Gaffer Yovan and the terrainats are old enemies. She gets back at him, knowing the women are on her side: "And don't cows interest women? Don't we women have to know when it's right to put the cows to pasture? Aren't there households in this village being run by the women because the men are dead, or away in Bosnia, eh?"
"Well, if you know anything o' cows, let's hear it!"
Uproar follows this thrust, and there is a brisk exchange of compliments. The terrainats, hard pressed but keeping her temper, at last restores order and goes on with the meeting. By this time all the women are fanatically on her side and a vote is taken against sunflower that leaves Gaffer Yovan and his colleagues in a minority of five. But we feel that the meeting has been inconclusive. Too little preparatory work has been done in Vizich.
The next item on the agenda is a call for volunteers for a village ploughing party. There is a fearful shortage of labour and much land is lying idle.
"Also, we've decided that the village shall take over the monastery's fallow land, for there's no-one in the monastery—they've all run away, the old rascals—and the land's going waste. Now who'll volunteer to sow and plough?"
Three women volunteer to sow and plough, although properly speaking it is man's work.
The meeting concludes in a wave of song. This at least is positive, unanswerable, assured. All the same, the Pankhursts would have rejoiced; for this embryo of a woman's movement was a good deal more promising than it seemed on the surface. The men in Bosnia whom these young women, still embarrassed and unsure of their freedom, would one day marry, were growing daily used to the notion that women might be individual and independent beings—they had women, intensely individual and independent, fighting in their own ranks.
"It's quite simple things we want," a woman said to me one day, "we don't want the men to have the right to beat us: that's the main thing. And then we want to have some say in how things get done and to be listened to...."
Meanwhile they kept the villages together, did all the work themselves, held their own meetings to their hearts' content, and waited impatiently for the war to be over. They fed us with open-handed hospitality, regarding this as part of their duty towards the men who were away. On the whole we ate far better than the enemy did. After the burnings in Bosut someone found a hard boardlike substance on the ground which at first was thought to be part of a human skeleton but later was established to be enemy bread, compounded largely of beans and other vegetables. The enemy in Srem did not normally eat white bread. We did.
Neshtin beside the Danube, the southern terminal for crossing the river that spring, was a village famous for its hospitality. To spend a few days in Neshtin, waiting for the next courier link across the Danube, was to be treated to a round of feasting such as could have existed in few places in occupied Europe. They gave us of everything they had, and regularly ate everything they had because otherwise they reckoned that the enemy would get it; and this meant, as was universally admitted, that they lived a great deal better than they had done before the war. I wrote down in my diary a single day's menu.
On rising at dawn: Half a tumblerful of rakija. Breakfast: Fried eggs (four each) and spring onions with fat bacon. White bread. Wine.
Elevenses (caused by insistence of next-door neighbours, who are determined to feed us no matter what time of day):
Wine and freshly-baked scones.
Lunch (arranged by Stanko the day before on severe request by an old gaffer who is reputed to have the best wine in the Frushka Gora):
Fresh paprikash stew. Fried fish steaks (Danube fogash). Roast lamb and potatoes. Sweet cakes. White bread and wine.
Teatime (following crisis in relations between Stanko, our guide, and the mother of three sons in Bosnia determined to see if we can drink wine as well as they):
Wine and buns.
Supper: Fried lamb (basted in butter). Sweet cakes. Wine and white bread. Contemptible enemy. He had a miserable time by comparison.
Our days of waiting to cross the river passed quietly. Sometimes we went down to Neshtin and had supper with Stanko and went out to the Danube, flowing past the backyard of his house, and stood on the bank and looked across to the enemy side. By contrast with the knife-edge insecurity of the Bachka the Frushka Gora seemed a pleasant peaceful place where we might live safely until the end of time. Whenever we crossed the Danube it was like going into occupied territory; the Frushka Gora in comparison seemed free and ours.
We sat on the bank at Stanko's the evening before we crossed. We were wondering, I suppose, how long we might last, and how many of us would come back to this side again. The water here, swollen by spring rains, might be as much as a thousand yards across. That evening there was thunder in the air; as we stood watching the other side, the enemy side—low and flat, far-reaching, leading up into the enemy's vitals—a long thin ridge of black storm-cloud formed from the east to west, like a knitted frown barring us from entry. Then the north wind came up and blew this black cloud over our heads in wind-scattered pulses of rain, ragged, wind-driven haphazard, leaving the night sky pale and serene. On the other side there were a few lights, enemy lights. The river was silent as a lake, and black with the night. We stood on the brink, waiting. Across the water the enemy lights winked yellow in the darkness.
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