July 10, 2010

Guest author, Elfi Hornby

Dancing to War © 1997 Elfi Hornby
non-fiction, 296 pages, $16.95
From time to time, I like to feature books by Northwest authors other than myself. My guest for July is Elfi Hornby. I hope you'll enjoy this excerpt:
In victory or defeat, war is about death, suffering and destruction.
It is the taker of youth, the taker of dreams.



An eerie, dead darkness shrouded the city of Poznan, Poland on that early January morning in 1943. The unlit streets remained deserted. The blacked-out buildings gave no hint of life within. Only occasional gusts of wind, whooshing around corners, rattling a loose shutter or door, broke the dark, ghostly silence and momentarily cleared the air of soot and smoke. It seemed as if Poznan and all that dwelled within it had fallen into a coma or under some evil spell.
My colleagues and I sat shivering on our trunks and suitcases in the back of a canvas-topped truck, waiting for the driver to take us to the railway station. Cold and miserable inside and out, our usually animated group had slipped into brooding silence. Suddenly sucked into the eye of a vicious storm, a bloody, merciless war, we pondered our helpless, hopeless situation and our chances of survival.
There were eleven of us: eight girls, dancers, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one; Hannimusch, a matronly singer and our accompanist; Egon Molkow, our director, ballet-and-taskmaster; and his wife, Hilde, mother hen and go-between. I was sixteen, the youngest in the group.
Our small, traveling dance company had recently left Berlin to begin a new tour through eastern Germany. Relieved to escape the nightly bombing raids on the city, we grudgingly accepted the tedium of wartime travel, from late and overcrowded trains and broken-down buses, to unheated hotels and theaters. At least, we were no longer in the line of fire.
We had spent less than two weeks on the road when our troupe received a summons to appear and audition before the German Military High Command in Poznan, Poland. It superceded all prior commitments and put us on the next train to Poznan. We knew that the military on occasion drafted shows for the sole purpose of entertaining its troops, and speculated with some excitement that we might be sent to France, Belgium, or to some other safe zone.
In a whirlwind of events, within only three days after arriving in Poznan, we had auditioned, were approved and processed like draftees, were given a number and handed our orders—a six-month assignment to the Russian front.
The Russian front!!! Our first reaction was, “No! This can’t be happening! Not to us! They would not…they could not send us girls, adolescents to the front, into the bloodiest of all battle zones! To Russia…in the deep of winter? No! We aren’t soldiers, we are dancers.”
The Russian Front!!! Orders every soldier feared. Orders often given out as punishment. Too many of our men who had been sent there never returned. The lucky ones got wounded. It was like a death sentence.
Also, the timing could not have been worse. The German army had just suffered its biggest, bloodiest defeat of the entire war at Stalingrad, which left it crippled and its front lines virtually defenseless. Our soldiers complained bitterly about shortages, from winter clothing, to supplies, to ammunition and equipment. Now they faced a stronger-than-ever Russian army, preparing to launch a new major offensive and had nothing left to stop it. Morale among them had plummeted to its lowest point.
What could they want with girls at a time like this?
Our orders listed Smolensk as our immediate destination. On a map at headquarters, it showed Smolensk to be only twenty some miles behind the lines, protruding into enemy territory like a burr. A severe winter freeze had temporarily stalled the fighting there, but once the weather eased, we would be caught in the thick of it. We felt like sacrificial lambs sent to appease the God of war.
During the short, bumpy ride through the narrow, cobbled streets of Poznan to the railway station, my mind raced down a road of gloomy scenarios. Six months from now, where would I be? Dead? Wounded? Or even worse—captured by the Russians? We had heard stories about another troupe like ours that had been captured and was later found raped, tortured to death and mutilated. Would I live to see my seventeenth birthday? I thought of home and my parents. It would break their hearts when they found out. They have had no say, and would not even know about my fate until they received my letter. That could take from one to two weeks.
Dry, voiceless sobs shuddered up my throat.
The truck stopped. With flashlight in hand, the driver came around to the back and lifted us down. Laden down with bags and bundles, we trudged behind our director, Herr Molkow, through a tunnel made of rocks and sandbags to a massive door which opened onto the enormous, empty lobby of Poznan's railway station. Our entrance stirred up a drone of ghostly echoes. Molkow waited until everyone was accounted for, then ordered us to stay there while he oversaw the transfer of our baggage.
Left standing in the middle of this immense, empty space our group appeared lost and abandoned. Our voices drowned in the reverberations of Molkow’s footsteps that multiplied to sound like an army, marching. The echoes hung in the chilly air long after he had disappeared into the shadowy recesses of the depot.
I scanned the dimly lit space for a bench, a counter or shelf, anything where I could set down my load. Nothing. Grimy outlines on the inlaid, marble floor still indicated where such furnishings used to stand, but the place was gutted, plundered. Scrap lumber closed off broken ticket and concession windows. Holes in the stone walls with wires sticking out suggested an earlier presence of lighting fixtures. A low-wattage bulb on a long, thin wire dangled from high above a domed ceiling, casting a dim, shadowy light, the only light inside the station. It was also the only clue that the station was still in operation.
My eyes lingered on the still undamaged, ornately sculpted border that banded the cupola and two supporting marble pillars. It spoke of Poland’s better days, of a time described in dusty old romance novels I had read.
The straps and handles of my bags and bundles cut into my arms and hands. Reluctantly, I set them on the dirty floor to allow the blood to flow back into my freezing, tingling fingers. Inge and Erika did the same. The three of us usually hung out together. Inge was from Hamburg, a quiet, shy, wispy, frizzy-haired dreamer with eyes like a fawn's, only months older than myself. Erika, already seventeen, was my roommate and best friend. Square and solid in build and character, with a no-nonsense attitude, she was my bulwark; my source of stability and advice. In many ways, she and I were opposites. She was orderly; I was disorganized. She respected and obeyed rules; I questioned and challenged them. She was level headed; I was impulsive. I was her source of entertainment and adventure, and she made sure that I did not step off the deep end. She anchored me; I gave her flight. We were a good combination. We needed and depended on each other.
All three of us had signed on with the Molkow Ballet under a government required apprenticeship contract. As minors, we had to attend and graduate from a State-approved program for artists that included more than just dance training.
Other books by Elfi Hornby:
Shadow of Defeat
So, This is America!
Blogger's note:
This is one of my favorite books!
Janelle Meraz Hooper

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