Franz Werfel: War behind and in front, outside and inside
From Star of the Unborn (1946)
Translated by Gustave O. Arlt
…I wan’t afraid of the infantry attack of the reinforced Russian army that was to drive us across the endless beet fields of this countryside in disorderly retreat only a few hours later. I was not even afraid of captivity, although I mechanically felt for the leather pouch that hung from a cord around my neck. In this pouch my mother had sewed a few gold pieces in case I should be taken captive. I distinctly remembered falling asleep again, cheerful and carefree, my head on my arms.
And I remembered just as distinctly that much had changed when I awakened, or rather, when I was wakened, an hour later. The dial of my clock no longer glowed, for the moon shone into the room even more brightly than before. But that was not all. Not only the moon and the ticking time shared Pani Pozñanskà’s hole-in-the-wall with me. Someone had climbed in through the open window, had moved one of the wooden chairs next to my bed, and sat there looking at me. It was a soldier. Who else could it have been? Outside of Mrs. Pozñanskà and a couple of ancient Jews there were no civilians in this front-line town. It was a mud-bedaubed infantryman who had come straight out of the trench that ran along the edge of the village. The man had a typical trench-beard, the kind that grew even on the youngest men, stubby, bushy, matted, blond in spots, brown in others, and both in the same square inch. Such uninhibited, luxuriant facial vegetation always reminded me of rolled-up, rusty barbed wire.
The soldier sitting on my bed was in full kit. His rolled pack bulged above his shoulders. Suspended from two dirty bands crossed over his chest his canteen hung on the left, his ration bag on the right. He held his rifle between his knees. He had drawn the short, sharp bayonet from its scabbard and, much to my surprise, he carved off a good solid hunk from a loaf of sour-smelling black bread. The remainder of the loaf he stowed away methodically in the ration bag. Now he held the thick slice of bread in his left hand, and with the bayonet in his right he made painstakingly regular incisions in the slice. I was fascinated by the skillfull manner in which he handled the dry, crumbly, rye-and-corn war bread so that not a particle feel on the floor. And now he pushed the first cube of bread into his mouth and began to chew slowly and thoughtfully. At the same time he kept staring at me intently, unwaveringly, from two very deep-set eyes. Or rather, he didn’t stare at me with any kind of eyes, but with two attentive, shadowy, black spots. It was a horrible dismal stare. I felt the man’s hatred in every slow, taunting motion. More than hatred. The man was a reproach personified. And this nameless reproach was directed against me personally, as though I were responsible for everything, for the grime, the war, the barrage, and death. I remembered with great clarity that I accepted the intruder’s reproach with all my soul as I lay there in the moonlight, I, who wasn’t any more than he, a common ordinary soldier. I didn’t wonder a bit why he had climbed in my window, of all people, instead of into that of the commanding general, or at least of a major or a lieutenant-colonel. Without shifting his gloomy, eyeless stare from me he shoved the next cube of bread into his mouth with the same hand that held the bayonet. The man stank of filth and mud and weeks of unwashedness and also of iodoform, as though he had been wounded and had a bandage under his uniform. His overcoat was no longer fieldgray, or rather fieldblue, as Austro-Hungarian Army regulations prescribed, but yellowish brown, like a plowed field or an open grave.
I tried to break the spell that held me, to utter a word, to move my hand. I couldn’t. Then I was almost certain that the soldier here beside me was a dream soldier. Despite the consciousness of danger I closed my eyes for a few seconds in order to give the dream a chance to dissolve. When I opened them again the infantryman had leaned his rifle against my bed and had risen to his full skinny height, as though the time for action had come. He was no longer chewing. He was only staring. But his stare was no longer the horribly dismal stare of personified reproach; it was an objective, calculating stare from small, pale, real eyes. His right hand was behind his back. His left hand lay on my chest. It was fingering the leather pouch with the gold pieces. It was tugging at the cord.
Then I understood at last. I was lying under the knife of a murderer. And then I managed to scream, “Who are you? What do you want?”
It was a terrible thing to be lying under the murderer’s knife. Anyone who hasn’t experienced it and survived the experience cannot possibly comprehend it. I lay helpless in the sleeping bag that prevented me from struggling. As I screamed I knew perfectly well that my scream forced the murderer’s hand, that it compelled him to plunge the concealed bayonet into my breast. I expected the thrust with a deadly certainty.
But the soldier turned his head toward the window. He had heard something that I had not yet heard. “Military patrol. Room inspection,” he said briefly with a foreign accent.
“Military patrol” was our word for Military Police. I recalled that I heard these words with relief. My window had been open and the Military Police on their rounds had checked to see who was sleeping here. Everything was in order. But in the next second I knew that this man in the filthy, stinking uniform, in front-line kit, without a brassard and corporal’s insignia, could never be in command of a military patrol. At last I untangled myself from the sleeping bag. I leaped to my feet. To the window. He could only be a few feet away. Many soldiers were running around outside, buttoning their coats, strapping on their pack-rolls, shouldering their rifles. “Military patrol,” I shouted, but no one paid any attention, for the Russian barrage had already begun. A few moments later it had grown into an unbroken, inarticulate roar. The first shells began to drop. The black trees that were explosions grew out of the ground. A house at the other end of the street received a full hit.
I dressed calmly. General Brusilov, whose shells whined through the air, had saved me from the hand of a murderer. It was really quite illogical that the murderer should have been frightened off by the artillery fire…