I always admired my grandfather's courage. He had fought in the war on what we nowadays think of as the wrong side, but he had never been a believer in the cause. Sometimes a rifle is pressed in your hand and your choice is either to fire and worry about being shot from the front, or not to fire and be sure that you'll be shot from behind.
He was young when he was drafted, barely 16. Before he left he gave his first kiss and a promise to a girl. She waited five years until the end of the war, surviving on just five or six letters that she kept as treasure.
The war ended but even the defeat was celebrated. Not openly, but in the hearts and eyes of the people. People never wage war, it is politicians that wage war. No soldier that ever stood in the line of a rifle believes that war is heroic, only those divorced from reality, those that sit in tidy offices, those dream of war.
Soldiers came home with thin bodies and bandaged limbs. They hugged their wives and women before they fell onto beds and relived the front in dreams that made them toss and turn and wake up from their own screams.
His girl watched with tears in her eyes while her sister and mother each welcomed their men home. She heard the men scream at night and each scream lodged a stone in her throat. She prayed that the man she had kissed did not have to scream and then she prayed that the man she had kissed was alive enough to scream. Then she prayed for forgiveness for her selfishness.
The other men, when they came, were often so thin that their women, when they welcomed them, were scared of hugging them too tightly for their spines or ribs might break. Especially those that came from the East were thin, the skin of their faces sunken into their cheeks.
Two years after the war a scarecrow knocked on her door. An old man, forty at least, the arms thin like bare bones, a hard and dirty beard that had long stopped growing for want of nutrition and his skin a gray with blue and black patches. His lips stretched into a black-toothed smile. She stepped back into the house. The door was closing fast.
"Wait," he said. "It's me."
Even after hot meal and shower and shave she still recognized nothing except his eyes and the shape of his nose. It took two weeks before she thought that he was true and another two before she was sure.
Sometimes, on those days where she took him along to the market, the sellers called him her father. The man in the leather chair had to ask her twice and then demand another witness to make sure that he was the man he claimed to be and not his father or uncle or another older relative.
The war had stolen his youth.
When my grandfather spoke about the war he never spoke about his experiences. He spoke in the abstract, the way you speak about a movie or a book, not even the way you speak about history.
"They were overrun. Hundreds of kilometers, there was no resistance at all. Then General Winter, as the Russians call it, attacked."
"The troops still got further. There were villages, poor people. It wasn't a choice; the supplies weren't coming. Everything was taken. All those that didn't run were shot."
Sometimes he talked about the early phases of the war, when everybody was hopeful, when things were going far too well and easy. He always said, not with pride but in a matter-of-fact way, that the war would have been won if it had been against one or two or five countries, rather than against half the civilized world.
But my grandfather refused to speak about the things that happened at the end and after the war. When he was asked he didn't reply. He only shook his head and looked away.
My grandmother said that she heard strange things when he was asleep. She heard him begging for food and water, for a blanket. She heard him beg that someone stop. She heard him beg that someone let him go. She heard him beg for forgiveness.