The Matljary Diary

J.P. Stern

In the High Tatra Mountains above M., 28.x.1944. Anniversary of the Founding of the Republic. The fifth under German occupation, and we pray it may be the last. We’d been promised reinforcements today, waited all day, at last they came. What a crew – worse than useless. As far as I can tell they are Prague coffee-house Jews, the lot of them. They all speak Czech – of sorts (!). It does seem to have taken them a long time to discover their patriotic vein … Heavens, what specimens! You only have to look at them to see they don’t know one end of a rifle from the other – a game of chess or rummy seems to be the only kind of exercise they’re used to. Still, now they’ve come to join us, we must make some use of them. Better late than never, I suppose.

29.x. They all turn out to be university graduates, of course, except the one who was chef at the Hotel Pariz. We put him in charge of the cookhouse straight away, and I must say you certainly can tell the difference. What are we going to do with the rest, I wonder. Most of them are lawyers – what else! – but there is a real doctor among them, too, and he’ll come in handy soon; we’ve been without an MD so far. Among the lawyers there is one, Dr F.K., they all seem to look up to – very quiet, though.

30.x. As I expected, the language question is proving troublesome and is aggravating our relations with the new lot that arrived two days ago. It’s bad enough their talking nothing but German among themselves – they also organise reading groups and read German poems and stories to each other, and our chaps are furious. You can hardly blame them – after all, we’re here to fight the Germans, not to fill our minds with their nebulous Teutonic poetry! I had to say something to Dr K. about it, simply because he seems to be the most sensible one among them – also he seems to be fairly old, though he doesn’t look old at all – and he said he well understood why we were angry and he hoped we would bear with them. He then added that some people could not live without literature – people who hadn’t much else in life, so to speak – and he thought that as long as these reading sessions didn’t interfere with people’s ordinary duties, we should let it pass. Fair enough, I suppose.

Somebody said Dr K. isn’t really a lawyer at all but an author. In German of course.

31.x. This rumour about Dr K. being an author turns out to be a lot of nonsense, as I expected. I asked him point blank and he admitted that he has hardly published anything. How can you call yourself a writer if all you’ve done is a few stories about animals and that sort of thing. (We read some La Fontaine at school, the year before the Germans closed all our secondary schools, but that was in verse.) In fact he worked in an industrial insurance office – bilking the workers of their rightful insurance money, I don’t doubt. Still – he doesn’t look like a capitalist hyena to me. As a matter of fact everybody seems to like him – I mean our chaps too – and since he is not very strong, everybody offers to help him, with the lugging of provisions etc. (They’re none of them very strong, this ‘Anniversary Crew’, as we call them, worse luck! You don’t grow muscles by moving pawns across the chessboard ...)

I’ve noticed he doesn’t even keep a diary, though he seems interested in the fact that I do.

I.xi. 1944. There is no doubt that Dr K. is proving a useful addition to the camp. It turns out that he knows the region well – seems to have spent several months in hospital in Matljary; and even though it’s years ago (well before I was born, I believe), he seems to remember the region quite accurately. Of course we have our Slovak liaison men who come over from the next camp and know the mountains like the back of their hand, but they’re not always around. Besides, Slovaks are a bit funny, as we know to our cost: look at what happened in ’38 and ’39, when they left the sinking ship and set up a state of their own, with Hitler’s blessing. And whatever you may think of this new lot – though they’re not exactly a heroic breed, they won’t go over to the Germans, that’s for sure! Poor devils, most of their relations are in German camps anyway.

2.xi. Shared the late watch with F.K. I asked him how to he came to join us. At first it sounded like the usual story. Says he was in his lodgings in Prague one morning, still in bed, when a couple of uniformed men came into his room to arrest him. Sicherheitsdienst, I imagine, he couldn’t remember their insignia (typical!), only that their uniforms were black and had pockets everywhere. He says he asked them their names (!), as if that was likely to cut any ice with the SD, and told them that they had no right to be in his lodgings, and that he had done nothing wrong, nothing that could give them the right to arrest him. He seemed at first to think it was all a joke – one of the men looked familiar, like one of the porters from his insurance office. It was a most peculiar story – I asked him whether he had forgotten about the German occupation. He said no, he remembered it all right, but that it took him some time before he realised that they really had come to take him away. Apparently he thought it had all happened before, though the way he said it I couldn’t make out whether in reality or merely in his imagination. (He does seem to be a writer after all, lots of imagination and a bit slow on the uptake, I suspect.)

3.xi. First lot of snow. We spent the day improving the bivouac, sawing and piling up firewood. The sun came out at about noon and I got everybody out of their tents to do some exercises. I wonder how we’re going to survive when the real winter comes, with this new lot to look after.

4.xi. F.K. told me that once he realised these two men had come to arrest him, he made up his mind to try to get away. ‘Not like the last time,’ he said (?). He quite simply pretended he had to go into the next room to get dressed and somehow managed to slip out of the house by the back stairs – a miracle he got away with it. After that he made his way into the Slovak mountains with the help of our underground network, the usual story.

‘Not like the last time.’ I couldn’t make out what he meant by that, and so I asked him. It seems he was referring to a story he had written years before, which also began with a man being arrested. But in the story the man more or less accepted his fate, and although he was left at liberty, he actually started looking for the court of law that would be prepared to try him. Like a mouse looking for the cat that will eat it up! It sounded a most peculiar story, and I told Dr K. so. After all, he himself had said the man was innocent, that somebody had been spreading lies about him. I got a bit worked up about this – it seemed like a complete non-sequitur – I had actually forgotten that what we were talking about was only a story. What could be more absurd, when you think of it, than arguing about a piece of fiction that wasn’t even published, for God’s sake. In our situation, with the German line in the Ukraine collapsing, and the Germans retreating westward and likely to run into us any day.

Yet I can’t help feeling that this peculiar story is connected with our situation. And so, when he said, ‘You’re quite right, it was only a story, and not a very clear one at that’ – I didn’t want to hurt him and so didn’t rub it in that the thing hadn’t ever appeared in print – when he said that, I felt that I had somehow missed the point, and that he had really meant to say something quite different.

Then I remembered his saying that some people just couldn’t live without literature – people who hadn’t much else in life, I suppose – and I said I could see how important it was to him, even though it was only a story he had written ages ago. He smiled – I don’t want to sound soppy over this, but he has a beautiful smile, gentle and intelligent and not a bit superior.

‘Perhaps the only kind of fiction that should be written is the kind that life catches up with, don’t you think?’ he said. I replied that I hadn’t given much thought to such things (which wasn’t quite true), and that all I could think about right now was getting a chance to fight the Germans. But obviously, as far as that story of his was concerned, life had not just caught up with it but had proved that the story was all wrong: the man should surely have resisted his arrest (not just asked those two SD thugs for their papers), he should not have let them mess him about endlessly but told them where they got off, instead of hanging about and even looking for a court that would be prepared to try him etc.

‘Perhaps that’s why I never published that story,’ he replied – but again I had the feeling that somehow I had missed the point.

As I write this, it occurs to me that this story of the man’s arrest wasn’t really any more peculiar than Dr K.’s own arrest, or the reason why we’re all here, too.

5.xi. The weather has improved. Surprise, surprise – most of our ‘Anniversary Crew’ turn out to be total civilians – somehow or other they managed to avoid conscription during the Republic and the only time they’ve ever seen a rifle being fired was in the fairground! God’s mercy on us all, what are we going to do with them?

6.xi. I talked to F.K. about that queer story again, trying to get him to say why the man was being harassed, what he had done etc, making what I thought was a very obvious point: ‘The truth is that a man cannot be guilty simply because he is what he is.’

‘As you say, that is the truth. Unfortunately some stories get written by authors who just don’t see the shortest way to the truth.’ There was a note of irony in his voice, but I felt I would not give in.

‘No, no – only a god can condemn a man for what he is. A god, or the Germans.’

He did give me a look of surprise then – I’ve noticed he seems to be surprised at the most obvious things people say.

7.xi. I’m doing rifle drill with them, but not firing practice. We have no ammunition to spare, and besides, we don’t want to announce our presence prematurely! We are waiting for the Russian break-through, that’s the time for letting the Germans know we’re here.

So I spent most of the day explaining how to strip our good old Czech Bren gun, clear stoppages, assemble ammo belts and feed them into the m.g. etc. I watched Dr K. It really is ridiculous – he has an extraordinary admiration for anyone who can strip the gun efficiently (seems to think it’s a miracle to be able to do it under a minute, the Sergeant-Major does it in 45 seconds flat!) – yet he himself is not in the least clumsy, though you can see from the careful way he picks up the parts that he is not used to handling machinery of any kind.

I said something like that to him, and he grinned with pleasure. ‘I’m sure you’ve never come across a less soldierly person than I am. I sometimes think all this is happening on another planet from the one I used to live on, sending occasional missives to the earth. A writer’s imagination is unpredictable, especially in its weaknesses. But, you know, I have many reasons to be glad I am here, many reasons to be grateful.’

Several of the new lot are in a funk about being asked to handle the gun, full of lousy excuses – why, one of the lawyers actually said they ought to be regarded as ‘non-belligerent partisans’!! I ask you. I told them in no uncertain terms that nobody asked them to join us in the first place, but since they were here they’d better jolly well do as they’re told.

Dr K. has not asked for any special privileges. All the same, I don’t think it’s right for him to go through all this bull. I wonder why. I mean why I think so.

I wish I could read some of his stuff, even though it is in German. It appears that a lot of it was burned. By the Germans? Nobody seems to be sure.

Incidentally, I don’t like the way he admires everybody and everything. Sometimes I think he behaves like some snivelling old jew, trying to make up to me.

8.xi. Truly, I’ve never had such weird conversations in all my life. Today it occurred to me that perhaps he really is a very important writer. I’m sure I can’t think why I suddenly had this thought, but I felt I had to find out more about it. I tried to draw him out in various ways, like asking whether he had written a great deal more than he actually published, whether he was a perfectionist, what literary movement he admired, who were his favourite authors, and who influenced him most. In the end I got a bit embarrassed – I could see that he thought all these were pretty silly questions but was too polite to say so. Finally his very silence made me blurt it out: ‘Are you a very important writer?’ I asked and, as though that question wasn’t weird enough, I added: ‘You’re really a sort of king among writers, aren’t you?’

‘You have said it,’ he replied, and for a brief moment his smile became almost a grin. ‘A secret king, though.’

9.xi. It’s ten days since F. joined us, and somehow the atmosphere in the camp has changed. There is much less shouting and cursing and ordering people about pointlessly – it’s as though everybody had become more gentle, more considerate.

F’s smile is gentle, not a bit superior, yet there is something strange and chilling about it. Like a gleam from a treasure trove far away.

10.xi. Went over to the other side of the camp (some brilliant wit calls it ‘our Kosher Reservation’, I’m sick and tired of these ‘jokes’), to listen to K. reading one of his stories. It turned out to be a grotesque tale about a singing mouse called Josephine. It did not remind me either of Aesop or of La Fontaine, nor indeed of anything else I’ve ever heard of.

It seemed to be mainly about the relationship between this prima donna mouse and her audience – and yet the precise nature of that relationship remained unclear. Was this mouse, Josephine, meant to need her public, the mouse nation, in order to perform her ridiculous singing act, or was it the public that was supposed to need her and her singing, so that they could feel as one nation and in that way stand up to any danger or threat from the enemy, whoever that was? One couldn’t even make out whether her singing was meant to be any good! Half the time the narrator (?!) was saying that it was much the same sort of whistling noise that any mouse can produce, and perhaps not even as good as that, yet the other half he was saying that it was quite unique and something very special.

Anyhow, why on earth write about a mouse, when all he’s really doing is writing about himself, his own writing?! As if that was something so very special ... But perhaps it is?

Incidentally, I noticed quite a few of our chaps among the audience, they seemed to have come over for the reading. I was glad about that – I must confess I did feel a bit embarrassed to be there on my own.

It was quite dark when he started, the air was thick with smoke. I thought once or twice he found it hard to breathe.

Later. Embarrassed about my embarrassment, really.

11.xi. Told the Sergeant-Major that there are plenty of jobs for Dr K. to do without his having to mess about with Bren guns and getting his fingers filthy and septic. To my surprise the SM instantly agreed. Dr K., on the other hand, said he wouldn’t have it. He said he disapproved of ‘Josephine’(!), with her constant petitions for recognition and for exemption from the ordinary chores of the mouse folk – it was part of her ridiculousness. (I hadn’t told him I thought she was ridiculous.) He said he really wanted to be treated like everybody else and to go through with everything the others have to do. I was very glad he reacted in this way, but didn’t tell him so. On coming back to my tent in the evening I found an envelope with a note from him:

You think practical work is too coarse for me – that I am in some sense too good for it and should leave it to others. I too used to think this – used to think that not being very good at practical things was really a proof that I was good at my writing, at expressing my admiration of those who are good at practical things. The circumstances of my life – of all our lives, and mine too – were very different then. I could only admire what I was excluded from, what was done by others. I could accept that exclusion and even rejoice in it – or rather, not rejoice in it but lament it and from that lament – or perhaps it was no more than an endless complaint – draw the substance of my writing. Describing life among other people, I was describing a life determined by other people. In that way I came to have an exaggerated expectation of what happened on the other, the practical side of the world.

Things are different now, so different that I look on my own writings and on my own past life as on the life and writings of a stranger. I have never been so involved as I am here and now with you all. Perhaps this is why I can no longer describe this piece of world, except to say that I am not too good for it.

He seems to have an eerie capacity for answering my questions before I’ve had a chance to put them.

12.xi. He lent me a copy of the ‘Josephine’ story, but I must confess that reading it didn’t make things much clearer. It seems to me that everything that is said about the mouse, about her singing and her relationship to her nation-public, is contradicted and cancelled out by its opposite, so that in the end the reader doesn’t know where he stands.

‘Do you mean it is as if you hadn’t read the story at all?’ he asked.

No, I said, it was much more confusing. After all, when La Fontaine writes about a beast or a bird, a clear message emerges – about the need for cunning or wariness, or the importance of prudence.

‘The importance of prudence – my father had a very clear message about that, and about many other virtues. I think that’s why I so admired him. I even admired him because he believed that all my “writing” was arrant nonsense and a waste of time. Can you think of anything funnier than my trying to convince him of the opposite? Knowing all the time that the only thing that might possibly convince him would be my publisher’s account books in fifty years time?’

I remembered him saying that some people have only literature in order to make sense of their lives, and so I asked: ‘You admired him for being contemptuous of what mattered to you most?’

‘I admired his assurance and I also knew that there wasn’t enough of it for both of us. Of course, I could describe him and his immense power, and I knew he could do anything in the world except that, but as to having a message – any message – for other people, how could I presume?’

‘It sounds like mock modesty to me.’ I was suddenly afraid of having hurt him by saying that, and I realised that the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt him.

‘Perhaps it is. But not because I secretly think I have a message, but because my real purpose, which is quite different, is not at all modest: to present a piece of the world, raised on a shield. Of course, it isn’t the whole world, and I can’t hold it up for very long.’

‘You say your purpose is not really modest, yet you hide it behind a metaphor which seems to be deliberately trivial.’ And I read out to him that passage in the ‘Josephine’ story where he writes: ‘To crack a nut is certainly not an art, therefore no one would dare to call together an audience and crack nuts in front of them by way of entertainment. But if someone nevertheless does so and succeeds in his intention, then it does cease to be a matter of mere nutcracking. Or rather, it is a matter of cracking nuts, but it becomes apparent that we have overlooked this art because it was well within our powers, and that this new cracker of nuts was the first person to show us its real nature; and it might then be even more effective if he were a little less good at cracking nuts than the majority of us.’

‘Perhaps it’s only by arousing the reader’s irritation that metaphors come into their own. Besides, when one raises the world or a part of it on a shield, one raises it only a little distance into the air. Yet it isn’t like not having raised it at all.’

‘You keep on speaking about the world. Do you mean our world? Frankly, I don’t recognise any of it.’ This wasn’t really true – he was right about his metaphors being profoundly irritating.

‘Don’t you really? Perhaps you’re just impatient, and are looking for superficial resemblances. I only describe what I see.’

‘But why this game of hide-and-seek?’

‘You must ask a higher authority. I only describe what I see.’

It sounded like a brush-off.

13.xi. Most of our supplies are stored in a fairly roomy cave in the rocks at the eastern end of the camp, and the CO has given strict orders that nobody is allowed there except on duty. As F.K.’s hoarseness, or whatever it is, has been getting worse, I asked the Adjutant whether we couldn’t rig up a bed for him in there, quite close to the entrance, so he’d have some protection from the weather (which is no better than what you’d expect in the High Tatra at this time of the year). To my surprise the A. said he’d already got the SM to organise some extra blankets and a proper camp-bed. Of course K. refused, and had to be ordered to kip down there. ‘It’ll be even more confusing than out here, among you,’ he said.

14.xi. Another note from F.K.: ‘You are sure to have noticed how hopeless I am at talking to people – I think my bad throat must be a confirmation of my incompetence. Yet writing letters is even worse: the misunderstandings and mistakes which fill my life were all carefully prepared in the letters I have written. But I do like writing letters which aren’t real letters but only envelopes for stories, like this one:

The three stages. There was a writer who was least unhappy, or so he thought, when he lived alone. And although he took little notice of the world, he discovered that in what he wrote he could foretell the future. When he wrote of war, war came upon the country, and when he wrote of pestilence, pestilence came, though not always in the form in which he had described it. He was not a stupid man, and he saw that all he was ever able to foretell were disasters, but it took him a very long time to see that. He was not a bad man, and he also saw how eager people were to make all that he foretold come true, but that too took him a long time to see. And when he wrote that the material world was real enough, but that it was only the evil in the spiritual world, his mind was divided between being pleased that what he had written turned out to be so splendidly true, and being frightened. Seeing at last how things were, he couldn’t make up his mind whether to continue writing, which was all he knew, or to give it up, which seemed like giving up his life; and this hesitation made him very unhappy. This was the first stage of his life.

Then came the war and the pestilence he foretold, and he found that, whether he liked it or not, he could no longer live on his own. But as soon as he came to live with other people, partly in order to help them in the war he foretold, but largely because he needed them for his own protection, he found he couldn’t write another word. There was peace of mind, he felt at first, in this silence, but it was a peace of mind he couldn’t distinguish from emptiness. That was the second stage.

Now he realised that what he had to look for was the pure power of description, the art of writing without foreknowledge or intent. That, he thought, would be the third stage. He liked the sound of those words – the third stage. But everything in his world had always gone in pairs – good or evil, spiritual or material, here or there – and so there is not much hope that he will ever reach that third stage.’

15.xi. With every day that passes F.’s cough, his hoarseness and breathlessness are getting worse. It’s no good putting him on patrol duty.

His face is permanently set in a smile of apology.

The MD examined him at length and sounds very pessimistic.

There are signs – mainly intelligence gathered by our chaps when they last went down into Matljary village – that the German line to the east of us is at last beginning to break. Like some terrible ice floes, about to start their drift westward. It seems doubtful whether we can keep F. here much longer – the fighting may start any day.

16.xi. F. gave me his copy of the ‘Josephine’ story – for safekeeping, he said. By chance I came across these lines – they seemed to jump out at me from the typed page:

The threats that hang over us make us quieter and more modest, and more amenable to Josephine’s imperiousness; we’re glad to assemble and crowd together, especially as the cause of it is to one side of our tormenting preoccupation; it is as if, in great haste – for haste is essential, Josephine too often forgets that – we were drinking together a loving cup before battle.

How terrifying a single sentence can be.

17.xi. The MD went down to Matljary after dusk. Apparently he knows one of the doctors at the local hospital (this is where years ago F. spent some months as a patient). He got the doctor to promise to find a bed for F. if things get worse. The MD has asked me to talk to him about it.

18.xi. From the pass above the camp where we keep a permanent patrol you can look down into the Matljary valley, and with field glasses you can make out the village. F. insisted on coming up with me – it’s a climb of ten minutes and I thought he would never make it. He picked out the village with my glasses and then identified the hospital. I thought it was the right moment to break the MD’s verdict to him, but found my throat so dry with excitement that I couldn’t say anything. As I was trying to get the words out, he said, ‘Whatever happens, you must promise me not to put me into that hospital. What I saw there was much worse than an execution, yes, even than any form of torture. Surely, we ourselves haven’t invented the tortures but have learned them from diseases – no man dares to torture the way they do.’

I didn’t understand. He explained that during his time there he met a man who was dying of a throat disease. In the end the man couldn’t talk at all and just wrote slips of paper with messages to the people who sat at his bedside. ‘I’ve remembered what it said on those slips.’ F. said, ‘they were perfect sentences:

I’d especially like you to take care of the peonies because they are so fragile.
And move the lilacs into the sun.
To think that once I could simply venture a large swallow of water.
Ask whether there is good mineral water, just out of curiosity.
Please see that the peonies don’t touch the bottom of the vase. That’s why they have to be kept in bowls.
Mineral water – once for fun I could
A little water; these bits of pills stick in the mucus like splinters of glass.
How trying I am to all of you; it’s crazy.
A lake doesn’t flow into anything, you know.
See the lilacs, fresher than morning.
You’ll have to warn the girl about the glass; she sometimes comes in barefoot.
By now we have come a long way from the day in the tavern garden when we
But now enough flowers for the time being.
Show me the columbine; too bright to stand with the others.
Scarlet hawthorn is too hidden, too much in the dark.
More of the water, Fruit.
Yesterday evening a late bee drank the lilac water dry.
Cut at a steep slant; then they can touch the floor.
Put your hand on my forehead for a moment to give me courage.’

I wondered how he came to remember those disconnected sentences and asked him whether he thought they were symbolical or had some special literary value.

‘Forgive me, I embarrassed you,’ he said; and: ‘You didn’t really mean to ask those questions.’ And then, alter another pause: ‘But you are quite right. They are what I am looking for – pure description.’

19.xi. The first Very light signals from our neighbouring partisan battalion came early this morning, announcing German troops crossing the north-eastern mountain ridge. We were in readiness all day.

20.xi. Our first day of action. How can a single day bring victory and defeat?

At 8 a.m. we received a signal: an isolated infantry detachment is entering the Matljary valley. It was a brilliantly sunny November day, the beech woods were ablaze with colours. We slithered down the mountain-side with our Bren gun carrier on patches of fresh snow, and found a good ambush directly above the road, only a few yards of which were visible from where we were. No sooner had we got our two guns in position than the first German soldiers appeared in the roadway below us: a fairly bedraggled lot. We waited till there was quite a sizable crowd on our section of the road and then let go. Complete panic and decimation, no attempt to shoot back, they didn’t even try to find out where the firing came from. They lost some twenty men, after our first burst of fire a number managed to hide in nearby houses. We would have liked to leave our ambush and get in among them, but as soon as movement on the road stopped, the CO ordered us to pull out and we came away without a single loss. I was in action for the first time and of course I was terrified that I might fail (helping to feed in the ammunition belts) – but elated when I didn’t; it was all over in a few minutes.

We were all immensely bucked; clambering back to camp, I was thinking of the words I would use to describe it to F. He had stayed behind with four others. Before leaving we had told them to mount a guard of two on the opposite side of the camp, the wooded part at the end of a steep little path that leads up from the valley to the west of us. We didn’t really think there was any danger from that side.

They were all dead. How the Germans came to discover that path – how many they were, whether they got detached from the rest and lost their way – we shall never know. The guards had undoubtedly put up a fight – one could see that from the positions of the bodies, and their magazines were empty. What had happened to the others wasn’t clear. F. had been shot through the forehead, slumped over the last remaining Bren gun. The Germans had taken most of our food stores and tried to set fire to the camp, but only in a half-hearted way.

They had taken the ammunition belts but left the gun in position, with F. spreadeagled over it. The barrel was clean, but it seemed that he had tried to fire it. We shall never know for certain. I think he would have wanted to fire it. Not from any hatred or warlike feeling – as he himself once said, he was the least soldierly person you can imagine. But he did, in the end, make his choice, he wanted to be involved. ‘Not like last time,’ he had said.

21.xi. We buried them this morning on the eastern pass, close to the spot where F. had looked down into the valley with my field glasses. One of our chaps, a carpenter, made two crosses and three stars of David from the sweet-smelling wood of the mountain pine. No names.

The CO spoke at some length, first on the ‘no difference of race or creed’ line, then on ‘death to the Fascists’, the word ‘German’ was never mentioned. Every inch the professional officer.

Our friendship was so short – sometimes it seems as if it had never been. Like a gentle ghost passing in our midst. Strange: since it happened I have hardly thought about his writing – only about the man. Would he have liked that?

The Sergeant-Major talked about him on the way back from the pass. He said there was something special about him, everybody seems to have felt that. I wonder what it was. Perhaps a kind of grace, a way of making us feel that there is something special about each of us. The SM would have understood that, but I didn’t say anything.