Mara Sternbeck heard the distant rumble of Mark V’s. She looked along the irrigation ditch which ran parallel to the Kladno-Slany Road. No longer was she conscious of the warm sun which soaked through her light dress and bathed her body in its comfort. The chill of impending death was too close at hand.
Therese Slotnik raised herself on her elbows. She managed a fleeting smile but her lovely young face was strained and her lips seemed almost bloodless as she caressed the wine bottle now filled with its lethal load of gasoline. The other girls lay rigid, scarcely breathing as the clanking tank treads moved ever closer.
Mara was appalled with the futility of it all. Five girls—scarcely out of their teens —lying in an irrigation ditch waiting to do battle with a Nazi armored column.
She wondered about death. How did it hit one? Did it come in one blinding flash which blotted out everything else? Or did it allow time to think? Would one see her whole life passing in review? She was sure that in a matter of moments she would have the answer to her questions.
The blonde girl looked down at her hands. How hard and calloused they'd grown. Once they had been soft and delicate and the teachers at the Prague Conservatory had told her, “Mara, someday you will play with the Czech Philharmonic.”
A dream, Mara thought. Everything is a dream. This ditch. Jan. The Resistance. And now the dream must end.
“No!” she said aloud, startling Therese with the sound of her voice. No, Jan is not a dream. He is real. He is all that matters.”
A picture formed before her, blotting out the billowing clouds of dust which were thrown into the air by the advancing Nazi vehicles.
Once again she was in Hradcany Park in the lowering sunset. Once more Jan walked beside her and his hand reached out for hers. She put her arm around his waist and felt his slide over her shoulders. They walked in silence, Mara trying to match Jan’s long strides with mock serious intent.
At last Jan would begin to laugh and Mara would reflect his mood. She'd tickle him under the ribs, then, still laughing, she'd break away and run swiftly towards a secluded clump of trees. But Jan would always catch up with her. He'd lunge at her, grasping at a slim ankle and tripping her. She'd roll over on her back, heedless of the fact that her skirt had slid up over her hips, revealing the pure symmetry of her long legs.
Her eyes would be a bold challenge to Jan and her lips would part slowly, moist with expectation. She'd arch her back, straining to him as he held her. Her breasts rose and fell under her blouse with the ardor of the moment.
Then even before the kiss had ended, Jan would swing her up in his strong arms and his long legs would carry him across the street to the flat which overlooked Hradcany Hill.
Mara would wait in the hall, tapping her foot impatiently while Jan fumbled with the many keys on his ring.
She would think to herself, he is delaying purposely. He wants me to explode with my need for him. Jan is a devil. Still she would have to admit that part of the delight was in the moments of waiting when the waves of passion swept over her destroying all sense of modesty.
As she would whirl into Jan’s living room, she would work furiously at the buttons of her blouse. Now it would be her turn to fumble in her haste.
She'd feel Jan moving up behind her, sense his strong arms encircling her waist. She'd lean slightly backwards so that his strong young body would blend with the smooth line of her back. Her head would nestle against his shoulder and she'd await the touch of his kiss against the slender column of her throat.
Slowly her own hands would move over her flanks, moving upward until they met Jan’s. The touch would be electric. She'd guide him to the buttons of her bodice. There was no sense of shame as the blouse fluttered to the floor and the swirling skirt followed it.
It seemed only natural to Mara to be provocatively clad in shimmering pink silk bra and panties in the presence of the man she loved. It seemed only natural to lie recumbent on his bed as he concluded the ritual of stripping the last of her garments from the lush beauty of her body. It seemed only natural to give herself, first in willing surrender and then in ever growing passion. It seemed only natural later to curl up in his arms with her head pressed firmly against his chest as Jan slept and forgot about the perils which would face him the next day.
But nothing was natural in Prague. Not since the horror of Lidice when a whole town had died to pay for the killing of one maniacal pervert who'd worn the uniform of the SS.
The moments with Jan had been stolen on his infrequent visits to Prague. As a colonel in the resistance, Jan had become a much sought after prize by the Gestapo. They had referred to him as a cowardly traitor in the pay of England and had increased the price on his head.
More and more, Mara had found herself locked out of his life. On their infrequent moments together, she had heard him cry out in his sleep and she had hugged him to her naked bosom, trying to ease away the dreams which haunted him.
Sometimes in the darkness he would whisper, “I may disappear for a long time. If I do, don't believe anything you are told. No matter what or where, I will return to you.”
And she'd kiss him and try to stifle the dreaded words of separation. But the coldness would surround her and when she finally fell asleep herself, she would always be tormented by a dream in which Jan's hand clawed out of an open grave, beseeching her to reach out for him. But something held her back and despite all of her struggles, Jan's hand always eluded her.
Nov as she waited in the ditch, she remembered the last night. It had been six months ago. In the morning, Jan had left without so much as a farewell. She wondered whether he had had some sort of premonition.
She closed her eyes and recalled his promise, spoken so many times in the flat across from Hradcany Park. "I will come back to you."
Now she knew that she had broken the faith by joining a disorganized group of partisans who substituted sheer courage for finesse and weaponry.
Immediately after Jan's disappearance it had seemed the thing to do. It was too late to worry about that now. Besides, she told herself, Jan would not have stayed away this long had he still lived. Jan had told her to wait. He had warned her against participating in meaningless raids which merely cost Czech lives without inflicting any meaningful damage on the Nazis.
But Jan had not returned. He had been nowhere around that night when the two non-coms of the despised Nazi Kaminski Division had dragged her into the back alley. Her flesh still crawled at the memory of one of them holding her in his huge arms as the other systematically divested her of her clothing. Then they had taken their turns with her, finally leaving her crushed and bleeding on the slimy cobblestones.
She could hear their drunken mouthings as they had staggered down the street after venting their lust on her. "If you have any complaints over a Mujik's love making, send them in triplicate to General Andrei Vlassov," one of the rapists shouted. The other belched his approval.
In the drainage ditch, Mara Sternbeck touched herself. She felt that the marks of the Russian turncoats' filthy hands still besmirched her. She grasped her stolen Schmeisser machine pistol more tightly.
The tanks were rolling closer now in a spread out battle line. Between them the infantry unit loped along, bayonets at the ready. They were fanned out on either side of the road for about a hundred yards.
Already Mara could make out the hated insignia on the Mark V's—the trappings of Vlassov's division of Tartars, traitors and torturers moving relentlessly down the road to sweep up anything in sight. The turncoat Russians did their Nazi masters proud.
The skirmish was exceedingly brief. A few desultory shots over the drainage ditch. The chatter of small weapons and the ineffectual ping of light caliber bullets slamming like so many hail stones against the Russian armor.
The Russian foot soldiers stood back, letting the tanks move in. Two Mark V's swung off the road and moved down the length of the ditch, their 20 mm mounts depressed, their machine guns blazing away scant inches over the heads of the terrified girls.
Mara huddled with her arms thrown over her head, feeling the cool earth of the ditch against her cheek, waiting for the bullets to slam into her soft body.
"When death comes, it must be in a blinding flash," she whispered to herself. The words were lost in the grinding gears and clanking treads of the oncoming tank.
But pain did not come in the form of a bullet.. Instead it slammed into the small of Mara's back sending the pain racing through her entire frame. Desperately she wriggled to be free of the crushing weight. The cries of her companions crashed against her ears.
The pressure eased ever so slightly, allowing Mara to roll over on her back. Then it slammed down on her again. A huge jackboot ground down on her flat belly, pinning her to the ground the way a bug is pinned to a board.
The skull which leered down at her was smooth shaven and yellow. It had all of the cruelty of the rapine legions of Ghengis Kahn etched into the eyes and the twisted mouth.
"Women!" the Tartar shouted. "They send women to fight the Kaminskis. Women are for serving food and Vodka. Women are for playing. Women are for amusing us in many ways. But for fighting in ditches. Bah! Women are nothing."
The man's spirits seemed to be soaring. The truth was that he had swilled down enough Vodka to kill a normal man. The laugh never left his face as he savagely ground his weight into Mara's body. The eyes remained diabolically small and pig like in the yellow skull.
The Russian reached down and grabbed Mara by the hair, yanking her to her feet. Excruciating pain lanced through the young girl's scalp causing the tears to flow down her cheeks. She managed not to cry out.
The scene before her was a tableau out of hell. Therese Slotnik squirmed mightily on the ground, but her efforts were to no avail. The Russian who had seized her gripped her wrists and twisted them viciously behind her back. He unwound a length of cord from around his middle and bound her pinioned arms.
The other girls received the same treatment. Mara knew that she too was being tied.
When the Resistance women had been completely secured, they were made to stand in a line before their captors. The Tartar with the yellow skull moved among them, probing their flesh with a short quirt.
He cleared his throat, eyeing each girl in turn. When he spoke, the thickness of his accent made his words almost unintelligible.
“I am Ivan Boris Skorovitch. If you have not heard the name, I will tell you about myself,” he roared. It was obvious that he had the Russian penchant for speech making and melodrama.
“I am Commissar for Interrogation of the Kaminsky Division. I have sworn an oath of loyalty to my great ally, Reichminister Heinrich Himmler. Do not think that because of my Russian background I am your friend. I believe in the New Order. The New Order demands that the Fuhrer rule all nations. To this end I have pledged my sword and my life.”
The speech rattled on interminably. Mara found her mind drifting. The ropes chafed the tender flesh of her wrists and ankles. The pain in her stomach where Ivan Skorovitch’s hob-nailed boot had twisted so cruelly sickened her. She knew that death would not come in the one cleansing, searing flash. Instead it would be drawn out by this Mongolian turncoat who had chosen to serve a master from Hell.
Skorovitch outlined the defection of the Russian Division to the Germans. Again and again he called on Andrei Vlassov’s name as if he were summoning up some super deity.
“Only the stupid peasants fight against Germany,” he ranted. “Andrei Vlassov has shown us the true way. He has brought us from the desperation of defeat to glorious victory. We will see Andrei Vlassov ride into Moscow to take over the Kremlin and when he does, Ivan Boris Skorovich will ride at his side.”
Mara wondered how many Czech patriots had been subjected to the same harangue before being lined up against a wall and shot down by the marauding Russians who were charged with security in the Prague environs.
A bearded Russian on a motorcycle raced up to Skorovitch and pointed up the road. Behind him a huge lorry rumbled.
Moments later, Mara felt herself being tossed into the air like a sack of potatoes. She heard the uncouth cheers of the Russians grouped around her at the sight of her bound body crashing onto the smelly floorboard of the truck.
A foot came to rest on the base of her spine.
The man grinned ominously showing a full set of stainless steel teeth. The butt of his rifle slammed down on Mara’s hip and this time she could not contain the cry of pain which bubbled from her lips.
As the lorry rolled over the rutted road, Trudi Galanta managed to wriggle close to Mara. Her face was dirty and tear stained. The Russians had ripped away most of her dress and what was left barely covered her full young body. The Schmeisser toting guard let his eyes rove over the provocative black panties and bra which were exposed to his view.
“What will they do to us, Mara?” the young girl whimpered.
“Perhaps they will hold us as hostages.”
“Will they shoot us?”
“I don't know. They're drunk and wild. I don't know what they'll do.”
“If they prepare us for execution, will you stand close to me?”
“Of course. We will show them that we can die bravely. In a way that will be our victory.”
Trudi sobbed deep in her throat. Her breasts rose and fell violently. “I don't want to die!” she blurted. “It’s wrong for us to have to die!”
The Kaminski Division guard prodded Trudi with the sharp point of his bayonet. “Stoy!” he growled. “No talking!”
“Pray!” Mara whispered. “It will help you!”
The Russian’s foot caught Mara in the side. She gasped at the explosion of agony. “Stoy!” he warned again.
A half hour later, the lorry slithered through a barbed wire gate and into a compound of stone buildings. The five girls were seized and carried into a filthy structure whose windows had been nailed shut. Once again they were forced to stand for long minutes, trying to balance themselves on their fettered feet.
As Mara’s eyes grew accustomed to the dimly lit room, a chill of horror constricted her heart. She saw the menacing chains which dangled from the overhead rafters. She saw the collection of knouts with the ugly barbs dangling from their multi-stranded tips. Her eyes moved to the glowing brazier with the irons already heating.
With a shudder of revulsion, she wondered whether this was the way Jan Stracnize had died. She wondered whether he had died bravely. She wondered if she would die bravely.
At last the door to the chamber creaked open and Ivan Boris Skorovitch's massive frame moved into the circle of dim light. He was followed by three other Russians—all wearing the Nazi uniform.
"Ah, my pigeons are all in the coop. Now my pigeons will tell me all about their activities and their friends. Then when they are done speaking, they will entertain my troops," Skorovitch spoke almost with reasonable good humor.
Then his voice changed. It became a flicking whiplash, shrill and crackling. "My pigeons will learn what it means to attack men of the Kaminsky Division. We have our ways of showing them."
He shuffled his bear-like body to a pile of velvet cushions which had been scattered on the floor. He gave an order and one of the Russians took an evil looking knout down from its hook.
Skorovitch licked his lips. With indolent precision, he studied each of his captives, measuring them. Mara found herself holding her breath until her lungs almost burst with the strain. In terror, she waited for the Russian's fiendish decision. Guilt at the thought that she was praying to be spared the agony to come sickened her. She knew all too well that even a second's respite from torture must be bought at the expense of one of the other young women.
Skorovitch mentally stripped her of her clothing. His mind's eye examined her hanging nude and quivering before him. The idea built up in him and he decided that Mara would wait. She would be a fitting climax for his depraved orgy. In his insanity he reasoned that the most beautiful of the women he had brought in should suffer the longest.
He raised the knout and made a short chopping gesture towards Therese Slotnik.
Therese's face blanched. The muscles around her mouth quivered. She looked wildly from one to the other of her captors as they grasped her arms and hustled her forward. But with some superhuman effort, she managed to stiffen her spine. Her expression was one of cold disdain for the Russians.
"At least I suffer for my country," she murmured in a hoarse throaty voice. "I do not sell out to monsters."
One of the guards slapped her across the face with his open palm. Her head snapped back. Therese looked at him with complete loathing. Then very deliberately, she spat in his face.
The gesture was magnificent in its futility. Quickly the Russian henchmen of Hitler ripped the ropes away from her. They gripped her wrists dragging them over her head.
Mara heard the sickening click of the manacles and the deadly rattle of the chains as Therese’s body was pulled upwards. In a blur of her own tears, she saw the Russian stripping Therese’s dress from her and attaching heavy weights to her dangling feet. She watched Skorovitch rise from the cushions and waddle towards Therese. She sensed the burning horror of the evil man’s touch as it moved over the silken clad sheen of Therese’s panty clad hips.
Therese twisted her head over her shoulders. Already the muscles in her thighs and hips twitched from the torturing strain of the weights which clanked from her ankles.
Skorovitch drew out the moment of malignant anticipation until all of the women in the room almost screamed with it. Ever so slowly, he dragged the heavy knout across the floor, letting the sharp barbs scrape. His pig like eyes held an insane fury. The individual thongs made a hissing noise as they sliced through the air. They cracked sickeningly as they twisted around Therese’s hips, swirling and tearing with fearful intensity.
The rattle of chains filled the room. Despite the weights which held her, the convulsions of Therese’s muscles caused her body to dance involuntarily. So great was her agony that it smashed the breath from her lungs making it impossible for her to scream.
Pain was everywhere before her eyes in millions of little red whirls which surrounded her, always closing in. She waited for the next bestial caress of the knout, and the next.
Mara had never believed a person could die so slowly and so horribly. She almost breathed a sigh of relief when the fiends finally cut Therese’s lifeless body from its gyves.
For his part Skorovitch examined the surviving woman with animal cunning. He wondered if any of them realized that he had not asked them one question. No, he decided, they were either too stupid or too cowed by what they had seen.
To hell with interrogation, he thought. The partisans meant nothing. A few of them skirmished with patrols of the Kaminsky Division. So what? Who cared about a few dead Russians? Who cared about anything but the need for satisfying the cravings which always bubbled so close to the surface of the Mongolian madman.
A new idea began to form in his debauched mind. These young women were indeed exquisite. To have his will with them in one drunken orgy would leave him restless and upset within a few days. Now that they had seen one of their number whipped to death, they would provide interesting companionship for many days and nights.
Was the threat of torture not way the Czars had maintained their discipline? Was this same threat the entire basis of the Nazi ability to keep a whole population cowed by the use of only one mercenary division? Why would it not work with women who were kept chained in solitary confinement in Skorovitch's dungeons?
Without understanding the change in plan, Mara felt herself being stripped of her clothing and dragged off to a stench filled, airless and lightless cell.
As the hours passed and she heard the scurrying noises of many small feet racing through the cell, Mara knew that she must soon go mad. No longer could she differentiate between what was happening and what was going on in her own mind.
Nor could she keep count of how many times Skorovitch came nor how many times the guards unchained her hands and allowed her to eat, nor of how many days or weeks or months passed as she stayed in the dungeon.
Nor did she understand why when the pneumonia struck she was moved to another cell where there was light and air and the chained were removed from her.
Mara Sternbeck had moved so far into a world of self-imposed blackness against the horror of her life that nothing could touch her.
Even on the day when the firing came close and finally stopped and the strange man in the strange looking uniform placed his stethoscope back in his pocket and nodded his head at the stretcher bearers, she had no sense of change.
The Medical Lieutenant attached to the 175th AMG Field Unit watched the girl being carried toward an ambulance by two enlisted men and his eyes narrowed.
“Nobody’s got the right to do that to another human being,” he said half-aloud, half to himself.
“She kept mumbling something, sounded like a name. John or Jan or something,” a sergeant who'd been in the room said. “What do you figure? Husband or something?”
“Who knows?” the medical officer answered and his voice was sharper than he meant it to be.
“Wonder where the guy is?” the sergeant persisted as if he felt that finding the man might do something for the Czech girl D.P.
“Could be anywhere, in one of our camps, with a resistance group. Anywhere at all,” the Medic said. Although he didn't mention the pile of corpses he had seen at Mulhausen, he knew that this was the most likely hiding place for the man named Jan who provided the girl with a reason for having lived through her ordeal.
“What do you think of her chances of getting well, Doc?” the sergeant wanted to know.
“Physically I'd say she’s in relatively good shape. Much better than most we find. It all depends on how much of a beating she’s taken mentally. We've got some pretty good psychiatrists around. They might be able to do something for her.”
“Must have been a beauty,” the sergeant said in awe. “Still is except for her eyes. It just ain’t natural, Doc, they have no expression at all. Just like a couple of marbles.”
“I'd like to get hold of the bastards that did it to her,” the doctor said. The sergeant looked at him in surprise. This was the first time he'd ever heard him curse.
“Let’s hope somebody took care of that detail,” the sergeant answered.
There is reason to hope that Ivan Boris Skorovitch did pay for his crimes against the Czechs as did his general, Andrei Vlassov. United States Army records show that high officers of the Kaminski Division tried to arrange with American Forces for their surrender during the last days of the war and were turned back.
The American officer in charge of negotiations made it painfully clear that their debt must be paid to the Russian Army since one of their crimes was desertion to the ranks of the enemy.
Further documentation shows that Vlassov who headed the Russian turncoat army was hanged in Moscow during 1946 following a secret trial.
One can entertain the thought that Skorovitch shared the gibbet.