By Mike Ormsby
The bell in the village church bongs to the faithful and here they come: pretty girls with posies, boisterous lads in straw hats, farmers and their wives. Three elderly women shuffle along, clad in black; they plod up limestone steps and into the cemetery. We’re here to honour brave soldiers who fell in some corner of a foreign field that will be forever Romania. It’s Heroes’ Day. The youngsters get time off school to come and sing sad songs.
Two boys try to jump the queue on the steps, but a stiff-backed, wrinkled fellow in a dark suit raises his walking cane. His genial glare says it all: Wait.
We gather before a marble memorial. The priest chants mournful litanies to the dead. Birds chorus from silver birch trees. A fellow in a jumper swings a pot of incense. I bow my head and muse on the poor souls beneath us who perished in conflict.
The service ends after about an hour and the gloomy atmosphere lifts. Little kids romp in the cemetery. Teenagers clamber aboard a horse-drawn cart. The old gent with a cane chats to a friend. They wear old military medals. I ask if I may take a photo; the men click heels and stand to attention – shoulders back and chins up. Snap.
The shorter fellow asks if I’m German. “Pass for a German, you would. And I should know. I served in Operation Barbarossa.”
I notice a speck of blood on his shaven neck. He’s lucky to have a neck after Barbarossa.
“And how about you, sir?” I ask the taller fellow.
He explains, in a rasping voice, how the Romanian army helped the Hungarians to protect the German army. But then the Russians launched Operation Uranus.
“November 19, 1942. Fifth Tank Army got us. Pincer, like a crab.” He gestures with wiry fingers. Crab. “I was twenty-one. The Russians captured thousands of us. Brutes, they were.”
He must be, what, around ninety-five? He survived, when more than three hundred and fifty thousand Romanians did not, once the Russians got hold of them.
“Lucky to make it home,” he adds, moving on.
Our friend Doamna Diţa drops by our house, bearing milk from her cow. My wife Angela stashes the milk and I fill the kettle. Diţa glances around our home, as if to make sure. Of what, I’m never sure. We tell her about Heroes’ Day. She seems unmoved. “Uh-huh.”
Her weather-beaten face is criss-crossed with lines. She’s frail but formidable. Eighty-six years old and still gathering mushrooms, despite bears.
I show her my photos from the church. She knows all the kids, perhaps because it takes a village to raise a child, especially when so many parents are picking sprouts in Italy. I show her my prize shot of the two elderly men. She jabs a finger. “Him and his medals.”
Angela brings cups, saucers, and chocolate biscuits. “How do you mean, him and his medals?”
“He fought at Stalingrad, Diţa, did you know?” I add.
Diţa munches a biscuit. “I know he was a brute. Taught us in the village school.”
Angela dips a biscuit into her tea. Our guest raises an eyebrow. “Doesn’t the chocolate melt?”
“Not if you’re quick,” says Angela.
Diţa dips a biscuit. “Like this?”
I gaze again at the photo, baffled. “A brute?”
Diţa nods. “Tyrant! Beat us with a ruler. Poked his knuckles in my shoulder. Pinched the skin under our chins. It hurt so much, one girl would pee herself. He called her Pişăcioasa – Little Pisser. He’d mock her, Let’s ask Little Pisser! She would weep all the way home. We hated school. No wonder I’m so dim. He should have stayed in bloody Russia. What are these biscuits called?”
This story is from ‘Palincashire – Tales of Transylvania’. Mike is the author of bestseller ‘Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania.’ Literary critics dubbed him ‘The British Caragiale’.