When Valya was three years old, she fell on a hot stove and burned her face and was ill for a whole year, all that year from three to four. Her mother died soon after, and her father was left with seven children.
When they buried her mother, Valya’s father said, “Now, look at her and remember her.” He put them all around the coffin and told them again, “Try to remember your mother.” There they were, all seven children, dressed in black. Valya’s dress had an ornament like a small cross. She remembers that, and how all her brothers and sisters cried. Their mother had died giving birth to her eighth baby.
She passed away at a hospital fifty kilometers from where they lived, and when her mother felt she was at her last, she asked somebody to call Guri, her husband, and tell him that she wished to say a few words. So, she lay in bed waiting, her eyes on the door, and when she saw that door open, she was so weak she could only say, “Guri, please take care of our children,” and then she died. She couldn’t live a moment longer. Of course, she still comes back to Valya in her dreams.
While Valya was only the fifth child in this family, she was the second sister, so when her oldest sister left home a couple of years later, Valya had to take care of the house. It was a good family all the same, and they were kindhearted, and approximately everybody was equal. When Valya was seven, she could already bake bread in a stove where you had to use a flat wooden spade to insert your loaf of dough, and everybody was happy when she made her bread because it was tasty.
Her father was a switchman and worked on the Smolenskaya section of the Soviet rail system at a town called Pridneprovsk. Since his children had no older woman to help them now, Guri married again. And his children were not upset by this new wife but loved her, for she was a nice person, and they even called her Mama. She was very kind to them, even if she was not healthy and had been married twice already; but her only child, from her second marriage, had died and now this was a third marriage, and Guri and this new wife did not have children together.
It is possible the stepmother married Valya’s father so she wouldn’t have to stay on a collective farm but could live with a man who did not need a wife to work outside. Sometimes Valya wondered why he did marry her, because she was sick a lot, even hospitalized; but though she did not help so much as hoped, these children needed her to feel like a family, and so they waited each time for her to return from her sickness. She did care for Guri’s children. Sometimes when Valya’s father went to Smolensk or to Vitebsk and returned with something special to eat, he would say to his new wife, “You see, there are so many children and they are so young, so I can only bring back this small thing for you,” and the wife said yes, but when he left, she usually divided it all, and never kept it for herself. She lived with them for years before she died and they all grew up with her, and Valya’s father lived on beyond that, and did not pass away until he was eighty-seven years old. Even when life was not easy, they always had their father.
Valya was very shy. Always upset about her cheek. One side of her face remained scarred from that burn when she was three. The medical cures in those days had been wrong. They used to put on some type of bandage that would dry out, so when they took it away from her skin, it left a mark. Besides, this treatment was painful, very painful. Valya remembers crying through the whole year. She even heard some people say, “Maybe it would be better if she died, because if a girl has a face like this, she does not have happiness.” It made her a quiet person, she feels, who kept everything unhappy inside. She never was emotional. She went through things and never screamed at anybody, just felt unhappy inside.
Children, however, were never cruel to her in school. Valya had four brothers, so it was not easy for children to insult her. Her brothers and sisters were all healthy, and so they had a special feeling for Valya. They pitied her because she’d been sick for that entire year and they saw her suffering. Her father even said, “You know, when you were a child I spent more time with you than with all my others. I was always keeping you in my hands for that whole year, you cried so much.” Valya grew up believing that this scar on her cheek had taken away her beauty as a woman. She had a nice body, she had nice teeth, but because of her cheek she did not consider herself attractive. And yet there were always men around her. It was strange. She didn’t know why she attracted men, but she did. Even when she was already married and was traveling from Arkhangelsk to Minsk to join her husband, at a time when it was difficult to buy train tickets and she was standing in line for hours to get one, there was a captain standing behind her and they talked for three or four hours while in line. This captain said, “I don’t know if you’re married or not, but if you can marry me, then we’ll register, and you’ll be my wife.” And she thought, “He says this even though I have such a problem with my cheek!” And she was maybe twenty-three or twenty-four years old. He was very serious. But she said, “I’m going to my husband; I’m married.”
Perhaps, she would say, it was because people knew she could make a good home. All this time she was growing up, her interest was housekeeping. She made everything clean; she kept Guri’s house spotless. It was a cottage with two rooms, one for his seven children and one for Guri and his wife. There was no kitchen, but in her father’s room there was a stove and she cooked meals there. On holidays, like New Year’s, they put their decorated tree in the other room, where seven kids slept on three beds.
By every railway station was a small house, usually in a field near the railroad tracks, and its first floor was an office, but the top floor was given to whichever station man lived there with his family. So now, whenever she passes a small railroad station, she feels sad. Her childhood had not been easy, but somehow she likes to remember it and enjoy it, and so this sadness is equal to a recollection of nice moments in life. She enjoys such sadness.
In high school she studied German as a second language, but students were always told that fascism was a totalitarian regime and they were in a democracy of socialism, and, of course, she never saw a German until they arrived in a large group soon after the war began, in June of 1941. She remembers that the fields were ripening and Germans were already in Smolensk. They came so quickly. Everywhere, Russian troops were retreating, leaving behind many tanks, retreating. Germans kept coming. They were masters of this place. First there were planes, and then Germans showed up themselves, but first there were airplanes high and low, bombarding them. Bridges, their railway station, burned villages. These planes came for a week, then tanks. They occupied everything. The Germans brought their laws, and didn’t allow anyone to leave home and walk even a few kilometers without some special pass.
They would kill you. Germans were hanging people on trees. Valya saw that: young partisans on trees. She can see it to this day: There was an alley, and down this alley were young people hanging. Sometimes, on one tree, two people. Everyone in their village went down to look. They were all in horror, but they went to look, back then when she was sixteen and the Germans had overrun all this country she knew.
Her father had been working at the railway station, and the Germans passed through and kept him working. And he did. He had to earn a living. But they were very cruel in other places, and burned many villages. So, all the Russians who were working for the Germans in these villages were worried. They might be punished later. Certainly her father worried. He didn’t say anything; but everyone worried about her father being punished, and they talked about it among themselves, and later they would wonder whether Stalin would do something in time to come. Her family always felt marked. Yet, she was never a collaborator, never. She’d always lived honestly in her life. Besides, those Germans beat her father.
Valya still remembers. Their family had a cow but no fodder. And when trains would pass, hay was sometimes left on the station platform, swept out from boxcars. Her father would gather such remains. And one time, some Germans coming by on a train decided he looked Jewish because he had black hair and a black beard and black eyes and was wearing a hat. There were three Germans and they pounded his face and he lost some teeth. Something was always wrong with his teeth after that.
When he managed to get back home that night, he cursed in a way Valya could not repeat. He said the strongest swear words, Iob ikh mat. Very strong. She could not say it aloud. It meant doing something sexual to your mother. All of Guri’s life, he remembered that beating. He had to stay home for two weeks. Later, he was afraid, but he went out again to pick up hay on the station platform because their cows needed it, and he always worried about being beaten again, but then, they were all afraid.
Later, the Germans took her father and her brothers and two of her uncles away. While they didn’t burn the railroad station, they smashed every window. And these Germans raped a lot of women, but not her stepmother, because she was not seductive enough, and none of her sisters or herself, because they were children. Then they tried to burn her house, but they lit it quickly and moved on, and Valya had some water she had been using for washing, so she poured enough on to stop their fire. Neighbors screamed at her and said if any Germans saw it, they’d burn other houses. It was very difficult. They were all standing in their yard, and these Germans had killed their dog, and all the villages around their station were burned.
Her father and her brothers had to stay a year and a half in the German prison camp, right until the end of war. It was fortunate that she could even see them. She and her younger sister and her stepmother would walk. It was thirty-five kilometers away, and they were allowed sometimes to bring food. Because there was a lot of snow, the family had killed their pigs and hid them. That way, her stepmother could boil meat and take it to her brothers and her father. In fact, they sacrificed their own food, though their men, in turn, insisted on giving back a portion. All the same, on their return, they would have to beg on the country roads. They were always hungry all this while that she was fifteen and sixteen, no shoes, no dresses. Once she heard her father talking to her stepmother, and he said, “My daughters are growing up without anything to put on. Take my suit; maybe you can alter it into a dress.”
And once, in fact, when Valya was fifteen and her sister fourteen, they were dressed in such old clothes that some Germans called them matki, which is a rude word, like “old bags.”
One day in June of 1944, with no warning, many Germans came and took every person her age and put them on a train, loaded them into a boxcar, closed it, and transported them away. All the girls were crying. It happened around noon, and they were rounded up and brought to the railway station. They told them not even to bother changing clothes, just took them along in whatever they were wearing, and she learned later that her father couldn’t find her when he came back from camp, and fell to his knees and wept, but there she was, in a boxcar, jammed in with so many other girls, and no toilet. They had to pull up a plank and make a hole in the floor.
It was a long train, and they had been picked up from a place where they had been working with shovels; they had to climb up into the boxcar without even the kind of plank that cows go up.
“They just pushed us in there and closed the door. These Germans didn’t scream at anybody, didn’t beat us, but they were very strict. People were in there already from other places; they kept collecting people at each station. Later, after more stops, it was jammed.” She would never forget what she saw on this train to Germany. “No painter could make that picture. On all faces, only fear, as if life had ended, horror had followed. It was dark inside. And then we had to make that hole in the floor of the train.” She doesn’t remember what tool they used; maybe there was already a little hole and they widened it with their fingers.
Valya never saw even one town and doesn’t remember anything about Poland except that she was told, yes, you are crossing Poland. And then they came to a transit camp, where they were told to line up and take off their clothes, and their teeth were checked as if they were horses, and every other part of their bodies, and they were given injections, all in a line naked, both men and women. It was very uncomfortable; they didn’t know what was going to happen next; they were all standing there nude without really knowing what was to come. She didn’t feel ashamed, because everyone else was also without clothes, but it was uncomfortable. To this day Valya thinks the injections given them on that day kept her from getting pregnant later.
Then they were given back their clothes, and this time they were on that train for a week, with just a little food, a spoonful of soup, and room to sit down on the floor, which was better than when this train first went from Byelorussia to Poland. But everyone still had a bad expression, as if they were going to be executed. Even now Valya can’t stop crying when she remembers.
Eventually they arrived at Frankfurt am Main and stayed in a camp with wooden houses and heard that Germans burned a lot of people in giant stoves, but all these girls she was with were young and were going to be put to work, not killed, although anyone was in trouble who looked a little like a Jew.
Excerpted from Oswald's Tale by Norman Mailer. Copyright © 2007 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.