Stalingrad Madonna

The Stalingrad MadonnaAccording to the calendar, at Stalingrad as in the rest of the world, it wasnow Christmas. This was not Christmas as any civilian had ever envisagedit. By day grey skies lowered over the endless expanse of snow-coveredsteppe; by night a thin sickle of a moon cast a faint light on the frozenscene. The cold was pitiless. Let us see what it was like, that Christmas of1942, at 42 deg. of longitude east of Greenwich.

Six private soldiers were assembled in a mortar position on Point 137. Theseventh private who spoke to them had, once upon a time, been a clergyman inDresden. He said: “This Stalingrad Christmas is a declaration of our Faith, made in the frontline. He who lives to tell of it, or who remembers it in years tocome, should with open eyes and a proud heart cast his thoughts back to thecity beside the Volga, the Golgotha of the Sixth Army.”

They did not sit down to any festive board in Stalingrad. There were nobowls of apples and nuts and only a very few, very small Christmas treesthat had been included in the troops Christmas parcels. Any man luckyenough to possess a candle would let it burn for a few minutes, stuck intothe neck of a bottle, or standing on a board beside his range-tables, or onhis steel helmet, or in an empty crate, or on some twig that had once beenpart of a bush or tree. Then he would blow it out and put it carefullyaway. He would need that candle in the nights to come. This was no time forChristmas trees and speeches. Ammunition and bread were the finest presentsthat a man could hope for. But each man spared a thought for the comradewho stood beside him. There were many familiar faces missing, and those whoremained moved closer together. Their tables were boards and upturnedpacking cases, their glasses tin mugs. A lucky man might have schnaps inhis, a really lucky one wine, but few were as fortunate as that. For most ofthem, their Christmas cheer was ‘German tea’, or melted snow.

In these last few weeks, men had learned to express themselves with brevity.They were a silent lot these days. Thus did Christmas appear, at leastexternally. As for what the men felt, that is far harder to say sincefeelings can only be expressed during the moment of their brief existence.However, it is certain that their emotions leaped the many thousands ofmiles that separated this place of purgatory and doom from the homes ofthose whom they loved. What they all had in common was their universaldestitution and the grey sky overhead. During those Christmas days, that skywas flecked with much red, when the few remaining buildings burned, and itwas hard to believe that this could be God’s mantle. Nor could there bemuch talk of peace on earth. Why, they wondered, did the Almighty allowChristmas to succeed Christmas while His words of love were made inaudibleby the din of men engaged in mutual slaughter?

The Christmas cheer had been stored at Karpovka. The bottles were allbroken by now. Nine days before the encirclement was complete, a specialtrain of forty-three wagons had arrived from Oels. Part of its contents hadbeen brought across the Don and stored at Chir and Kalatch; three thousandseven hundred and sixty-four cases of wines, champagne, liqueurs, brandy.The champagne bottles had already burst in transit, owing to the extremecold. Retreating soldiers had tucked some ten thousand bottles under theirarms as they hurried past the warehouses. A hundred thousand more went downthe throats of the Red Army, toasting their victory. There were no lettersfrom home. Very occasionally a mailbag or two would find its way into oneof the transport planes, but what was that among so many? The truth is thatthree hundred and eighty sacks of letters, addressed to the Stalingradsoldiers, were burned at Shiov on the first day of the Russianbreakthrough, simply because the new Field Postmaster, who had just arrivedfrom Dresden, was not up to the job. True enough, a few Russian tanks werereported six or seven miles away; but why then did it not occur to him totoss one of his mailbags onto each of the trucks that were pouring by, noseto tail, along the road to Nijni-Chirskaia?

Three hundred and eighty sacks of mail take a lot of burning. When a mereone hundred had gone up in flames, the Russians arrived. In early Januarythe Red Army was still smoking German cigarettes. At Yassinovotaiathirty-two railway trucks, containing three and a half million Christmasparcels stood on a siding. The trucks were needed for another purpose. Theparcels were therefore taken out, stacked and covered with tarpaulins. Inlate January, on instructions from the Army Field Postmaster, the parcelswere distributed among the hospitals, in so far as they were still worthdistributing.

It was often said in the Stalingrad pocket that it was better to have acousin in the Luftwaffe than a Father in Heaven. A few dozen had cousins inthe Luftwaffe. For them, there might be roast goose, tongue in aspic, Chablisand Martell. For the others, there was bean soup, horse stew or turnipsboiled in the melted snow; iron rations or biscuit. Others again simply dinedoff the flesh of horses the wolves had killed, eaten raw and without salt.

For most of them, Christmas was a bitter day. They talked, wondered whetheror not they would get their ration of a one-quarter pound of bread, relied, ordid not rely, on their Fuhrer’s promises. Dr. Goebbels had thought up a goodidea for Christmas, a great wireless hook-up between German soldiers andcivilians wherever they might be. Listening to this cheery program inStalingrad, the soldiers cursed or laughed, depending on each man’stemperament.

During the night before Christmas, twenty-six men died. Their names wererecorded, and their comrades stood in mourning beside the holes in the snowinto which their bodies were lowered. Four weeks later tens of thousandswere simply left to lie where they fell. In a wooden house nearVorponovo, eleven men of the 71st Infantry Division were celebratingChristmas. At first, they sang ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and they sang itvery well. Then they began another hymn, ‘O du Frohliche’, and one of themplayed the tune on his accordion. They all knew the words of the firstverse: only three men could sing the second: with the third, silence fellsave for the accordion. Suddenly a strange voice sang the third verse loudand clear, a beautiful, strong voice. It came from the adjoining compoundwhere the prisoners of war were kept. Though he sang in German, the singerwas a Russian soldier.

On Christmas Eve, three men risked their lives fetching a small pine treefrom the little wood near Gumrak. They decorated it with stars cut out ofsilver paper, and candles, and ornaments made of blackout material. Thatevening the illuminated tree stood upon Hill 137, its candles visible fromafar. For an hour it stood there before it was destroyed by enemy mortarfire.

Very many people have heard the tale of the ‘Stalingrad Madonna’ withoutperhaps knowing how she came to exist nor who drew her. It happened in thedays before Christmas, in the ruins of Stalingrad on which the enemy’sshells and bombs were constantly bursting. The dug-out belonging to theSenior Medical Officer, Dr. Kurt Reuber, was divided into two by a hangingblanket. On one side of it Dr. Reuber tended the wounded and the dying; onthe other, where were his tiny living and sleeping quarters, he drew apicture for those poor men’s celebration of Christmas, the last Christmasthat most of them would ever see. He knew that words no longer meant muchto them, but that their eyes could still see. And in silence, this picture ofthe Mother, with her child swathed in a white mantle which yet seems toreveal an inner light, entered into his comrade’s souls. What Kurt Reuberand his comrades underwent is described in his last letter:

“Christmas week has come and gone. It has been a week of watching andwaiting, of deliberate resignation and confidence. The days were filled withthe noise of battle and there were many wounded to be attended to. Iwondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end, I decided on aMadonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into astudio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the pictureproperly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get theperspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencilsvanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonnaagainst, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage tosqueeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map as paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting myMadonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean towardeach other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize’security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John:light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these threethings in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and thesecurity that they represent. When we opened the ‘Christmas Door’, as weused to do on other Christmases (only now it was the wooden door of ourdug-out), my comrades stood spellbound and reverent, silent before thepicture that hung on the clay wall. A lamp was burning on a board stuckinto the clay beneath the picture. Our celebrations in the shelter weredominated by this picture, and it was with full hearts that my comrades readthe words: light, life and love.”

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. TheCommanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle ofChampagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we hadhad a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the groundas a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to thescene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter withits lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of thedying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could dofor him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that momentleft to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carolwith first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There wasplenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is latenow, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

Many dead German soldiers lay about the ‘Red Barricade’ factory. Four ofthem had been buried by their friends beneath a tank, which had been blownup on Christmas Eve. They had been buried there because there was no snowunder the tank. For a few hours a single candle burned upon the wreckage.There are many graves, but here was the loneliest Christmas in all theworld.