Weapon of peace
The Kontakion to the Cross hails it as “Weapon of peace and unconquerable standard of victory.” These seemingly paradoxical words came to my mind as I read this remarkable story by Archimandrite Ambrose Pogodin from the current Orthodox Life (January-February 2013). ¶ Even though the story is long for a blog post, I give it here in full with the kind permission of the publisher, Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville NY. Do your soul a favor and subscribe to this edifying journal. (Subscribe here. $22 annually in the US.)
One of my parishioners told me the story of his cross. Here it is in his own words.
I was born in the USSR. My father was the chairman of a kolhoz and my mother was a schoolteacher. My father was a Communist Party member, while my mother was a leader in the komsomol. I was raised in the spirit of materialism. My grandmother was the only religious one. When no one was at home, as we huddled together on the stove, she taught me to pray; and, to tell the truth, what she told me was much closer to my heart and understanding than that which I heard from my parents. My grandmother — who, as I later found out, baptized me without my parents’ knowledge — died when I was still quite young. Yet those few prayers that she had taught me remained etched in my memory for a long time, as among the few beautiful things that I chanced to experience in my younger years. Yes, perhaps these were the only beautiful things in my life.
Gradually I forgot all the words of these prayers; after all, I did not hear them repeated anywhere: I was never taken to church, and I did not take it upon myself to go, knowing that I would incur the rage of my parents if they were to find out. Besides, I wasn’t particularly drawn to go to church. How can one be drawn by something one knows nothing about? I attended a Soviet school and graduated from the tenth class.
It was at this time that the war broke out. Hitler unexpectedly invaded Russia, and his troops cut into the very heart of the country almost without opposition. Among many others, I was sent to war. And here, at the front, I remembered many of the prayers that my grandmother had taught me. And I was not alone; our commissar also prayed when two German tanks attacked our trench and we had nothing but rifles.
I did not have a cross, and I wanted one very much. I felt that if I had a cross around my neck, nothing bad would happen to me.
Soon there was an incident… or I should say, the Lord God — to Whom be glory forever! — gave me the opportunity to acquire a cross.
In the fighting near Kharkov, our patrol captured three Germans. They were taken by surprise, panicked, and offered no resistance. Senior lieutenant Yershin, the commander of our patrol, took their weapons, all the information necessary for the staff, and ordered them released. They were young — mere boys.
It often happened that such chance prisoners were “simply” shot, to avoid having to bother further with them, or else they were sent, if there was a lull in the fighting, to the regiment division. But lieutenant Yershin was a man of heart, and to those few of us who were close to him, he showed by example and precept not to harbor hatred towards the vanquished enemy and not to pour out one’s anger upon defenseless prisoners. “Remember, the way you treat others is the way they will treat you. If you do evil, it will inevitably come back upon your head, whereas if you do good, you will receive the same from others.” I think he was right. Of course if in our patrol there was a bad apple, a member of the SMERSH [“Death to Spies,” a counterespionage arm of the Soviet secret police], it would have been dangerous for our commander to act as he did, but we all supported his convictions.
And so, three of us soldiers (I was the senior) led our captives into the forest in the direction of the German lines. They were terrified, particularly one of them, a very young fellow who sobbed as he walked. They were all certain that for them this was the end. When we reached the outskirts of the forest, I motioned them towards the lines and said, “Get along, Fritz; go find your compatriots!” At first they did not understand, but I gestured expressively and they understood. They still did not wholly believe that they were being released, and, anticipating a bullet in the back, they advanced hesitantly, but the farther they drew away from us, the more they increased their pace: finally, they realized that these “Ivans” were letting them go.
We stood watching them, when suddenly one of them, the one who had been crying, pulled away from the other two and began walking back in our direction. The great emotional effort that this demanded was evident in every movement of his body. The closer he drew to us, the greater was the fear written in his eyes. It was the same fear seen in a dog’s eyes when his master summons him in order to punish him, and the dog, trembling with dread, crawls back to his master in abject submission.
At last it was evident that he could not master his fear any longer, for when he was still ten paces away from me, he took something from his neck and, indicating that it was meant for me, he turned and raced back to his companions. Soon we lost sight of them. Only then, probably, were they assured that a bullet would not hit them in the back.
I walked over to pick up the object intended for me, and saw that it was a gold cross on a chain. On the reverse was inscribed, “Christ — my life.” It was written in German, but with the help of a dictionary I was able to translate it. I was overjoyed and put the cross on my neck, asking my friends that they tell no one of the incident.
Kharkov passed from hand to hand. The SS divisions were particularly active there. Our detachment was thrown into counter-attack. The Germans surrounded us, and the few of us who survived were taken prisoner.
Captivity was bitter, oh, how bitter! One day a car carrying some officers drove into our camp. It turned out that several prisoners had escaped. In the confusion, a German guard had been killed. We expected that there would be hell to pay — and we were right.
The Germans divided us into groups and began to execute us. As a senior, I was also singled out for execution. I was taken with three others. We were ordered to take off our shirts. Mechanically and hurriedly, we obeyed. They aimed their rifles at us. I remember all this down to the smallest detail. In another moment the officer, an older man with a mustache, would give the order to fire. It is hard to die; how I wanted to live! I closed my eyes and prayed: “Lord, for the sake of my grandmother, save me!”
I don’t know how it happened, but the next thing I knew, I was being shaken by the shoulders. I opened my eyes: the same elderly officer who was giving commands to shoot was shaking me by the shoulders and shouting something at me that I couldn’t understand.
The shooting stopped. I was taken aside. The officer sat me down and again asked me something I could not comprehend. An interpreter was called. He spoke Russian, but even that was no help: I heard the words, but I didn’t understand their meaning. They gave me some schnapps to drink and left me to come to myself. When I did, at last I understood the words of the elderly officer related to me through the interpreter:
“I am the father of that soldier whom you released. When you were taken out to be shot, I saw my son’s cross on your chest. My wife and I commissioned this cross to be made for our son when he was sent off to war. I understand that it was you to whom my son had given his cross. One good turn deserves another. I managed to persuade the general to stop the executions.”
Then I remembered and said, “Yes, he was the young one, the one who cried.” The lieutenant, looking at the interpreter, said, “A German soldier does not cry!” But then he turned his head and hurriedly took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his eyes, adding hesitantly, “Well, sometimes he cries.”
Later I was sent to Germany, where I lived out the rest of the war tolerably well. After the war I again made contact with the elderly lieutenant and his son, the very one who had given me his cross. His joy on seeing me was beyond words. And I, in turn, was very glad to see him.
I made a little cross of wood, carved it and finished it with a knife, took it to be blessed, and gave it to Johann (that was his name). From that time we became “cross brothers.” We spent some time living together in perfect harmony until I became restless and left Germany. They are always asking me to come back.
By the way, not long ago I sent Johann a real gold cross, the best I could find, gold, with the inscription: “Preserve and save,” but he gave it to his little son and continues to wear the simple wooden one that I made for him.
— Translated by Mary Mansur
The image is of a “Soldier’s Cross,” reputedly given by the Tsar to his troops. The back reads, in Slavonic. “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered…”, the Psalm verse so well known from the Pascha service. From the Holy Cross Hermitage site.