My dear Anna,
You remind me of my brother. You are fierce as he was determined to push your way through any obstacle, impassioned to stand up for what you believe is right. I know he would have been a good uncle to you, Anna. I know, too, that it is not only the absence of a photograph of my brother that frustrates you but that you hunger for the story of his death. I shall tell you.
This day I cannot release from my soul, even in death. It is the early morning. In my memory, I see the color of the sky, the military jeeps barreling onto the family farm, and the confrontation with the Nazi soldiers. Leaning against the door of the house, hands shifting deep within his trouser pockets, the face of his watch barely visible above the seam, my older brother speaks in hushed tones with me, my father, and our grandfather about the approaching advance of the Germans and days of hunger our family will surely know.
He fishes out a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and studies the price estimates for wheat, potatoes, beets, and rye. Each week he travels into Kyiv to bargain with the merchants hauling sheaths and bushels in an open wagon behind the family’s team of horses. He bargains but does not settle lightly—his business acumen is not merely talent but a necessity. There will be enough food if we are careful, he surmises.
Days before, I returned to the farm after escaping the Soviet internment camp. Newspaper headlines foretold the German army’s advances. I had left the farm in the hands of my brother, a man more devoted to the blackened wetness of earth between his fingers than scientific pursuits. In my absence, the land had seeped into every crevice, every pore of my brother’s frame until only human breath separated this man from the soil.
I am not worried about food. All of us have been hungry before and will be again. Though I worry about my parents and my sister, my brother’s future concerns me the most. My brother is not only a professor of agriculture; he is also a leader in the Ukrainian resistance movement. His life is in danger because of his politics.
– The Nazis will come for you if you do not leave the farm and go into hiding, I tell him.
My brother answers my criticism with his own retort:
– Serhij, we have no choice. We must fight the Nazis. These men are agents of the devil. First, Stalin killed our people, now Hitler’s armies think that they will take all that remains of our country, our land. I will be safe. You worry too much.
Between his fingers, my brother rolls tobacco, sealing the edges of the paper with a warm spit before handing the cigarette to me and turning to go to the barn to meet Michael, our family’s young farmhand. On this bitter morning, Michael and my brother begin to tend the horse team before collecting the eggs and milking the cow. The sweet fragrance of hay mingles with the warmth of animal breath, yet, the sky has turned against us early this year. Already that morning, Michael and my brother have ventured into the nearby fields to assess the damage of an early frost, to salvage enough to sell so we may eat.
The sound of staccato shots fired into the air is the first and only warning that Nazi soldiers have come. My mother and sister scream and huddle together, sobbing, their wailing drowning out the wind. I rush outside with my father to find my brother standing in the center of a swarm of young soldiers.
The unit commander, inches from me, orders me to produce birth certificates and land deeds. I counter him, demanding that he provide his own military identification. I am stalling, trying the distract the soldier’s attention away from my brother.
The hollow frame of my father sways on the porch. He taps his cane on the floorboards. His balding head sharpens his features. He is aging and feeble. My sister shrinks behind our grandfather. Mother’s raspy breath quickens. Over the commander’s shoulder, I see Michael’s frame peeking around the barn door. I shake my head to deter his advance.
The ring of Nazis closes in around my brother. Suddenly, my brother storms towards the commander, demanding the soldiers leave his family’s farm. The officer and my brother scream so loudly, their words are unintelligible. Pointing to the soldiers, my brother gestures vigorously towards the road. Sweat beads surface on his graying temples.
The commander makes the first move, drawing a pistol from his breast pocket, slowly backing away and extending his arm, the blunt end of the firearm grazing my brother’s cotton shirt. Silence. Jeep engines hum. Father’s cane stops.
– You are a dirty Ukrainian spy. This land belongs to Hitler now!
I watch my brother’s eyes move slowly, clockwise, before resting on the lines of my face.
– This land belongs to Ukraine! You are thieves and criminals, all of you!
– This is Germany’s land! Say it in the name of Hitler. This is Germany’s soil. Say it! If you don’t say it in the name of Hitler, someone will die. Who of your family shall I kill? Who? Your mother, your sister, your brother? Or perhaps I shoot you.
My brother draws his breath slowly before speaking, again turning towards me, knowing that this will be his last defense, then faces the German commander.
I have risen at dawn to coax weary horses to work in blistering heat and unmerciful cold. My hands are callused, my fingertips numb from the icy tentacles of winter. First, the Bolsheviks came to take our land, then you arrive, but it belongs to neither of you. This land belongs to Ukraine.- I harvest this earth, plant corn, and wheat from seed. Call me a spy if you like. Shoot me if you will. This land will never belong to Germany. I will not betray my family. I will never betray my country. Never!
Never. As the last word seeped from my brother’s lips, he collapses in a spray of gunfire, the commander’s bullet the first to pierce his breast. He lies writhing, a crimson stream of blood arching through the parched earth. His crisp cotton shirt, a maze of powder burns, slowly rises and falls in rhythm with his stilted breathing. He mutters, raises his fist towards the commander. Pieces of his watch crystal lay next to his wounded body, shattered by the preciseness of the bullet. I know that his only regret is that his family must watch him die.
I go to my dying brother and kneel beside him, pausing to listen to his faltering breaths. Our grandfather administers the last rites. I grip my brother’s hand, telling him the pain will soon stop—his breathing halts. I place my hand on his forehead, gently closing his eyes. My brother is in the hands of God.
Now you know the story I refused to tell you because my love for you has always been helpless.
Your loving father