Published Humanitas, Volume XI, No. 2, 1998
This story is loosely based on an encounter between the Russian photographer Yevgeny Khaldei and the American photographer Robert Capa, as reported by Michael Specter of the New York Times, in a July 1995 interview with Khaldei. The latter died in October, 1997, at the age of eighty.
Leon Chadeyev limped into the cafeteria of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. Although he had been demobilized, he still wore his military overcoat and boots and his cap with the red star. His camera hung over his shoulder in a frayed case, held together with string. His weathered face and graying eyebrows made him look older than his thirty-seven years.
A few staff members and lawyers were still eating lunch in the banquet hall that served as a cafeteria for the international war crimes tribunal. The room smelled of sauerkraut, cigarette smoke, and dampness. Some of the Victorian stained glass windows had survived the bombs and filtered the pale sun into red and blue patches onto the floor, glowing between the shadows of wood-filled panes. The drafts of the bitter winter of 1945 swept through the cracks of the dilapidated building.
Chadeyev got a mess bowl of lukewarm pork stew from the buffet and sat down at an empty table. He ate slowly, indifferent to the food, his mind numbed by the tedium of the court sessions. There were no images here, only words and documents. Even the Soviet military prosecutors and judges, whom he could follow without waiting for the interpreters, seemed to mouth empty formulas when they accused the Nazi criminals of violating obscure treaties.
Suddenly, the heavy double doors swung open and a group of US military police came in, escorting a tall, flabby man in handcuffs who seemed to float in his coat. Chadeyev, turning, recognized Field Marshal Hermann Goering’s pomaded hair, long, sensuous mouth, and deeply furrowed forehead. There must have been some unusual delay allowing a prisoner to eat in the cafeteria, Chadeyev thought, since normally the defendants returned to their jail cells during recess. He jumped up and fumbled for his press pass.
As Goering came nearer, Chadeyev saw that, although his waxy color showed the effects of imprisonment, he held his head high and his deep-set eyes looked around the room as if he owned it. The prisoner’s pudgy hand pointing to a corner table made Chadeyev’s mouth tighten with rage. For an instant, he measured the space between himself, Goering and the guards, imagining his hands on the flabby throat, but the moment passed and he gripped his camera even tighter.
By the time Chadeyev caught up with the group, Goering was sitting between two MPs. One of them was loosening his handcuffs. A young officer, in hard hat and gleaming white belt, who remained standing and alert, frowned as the photographer hobbled towards him.
Chadeyev handed the officer his press pass, which said TASS/PHOTO in roman and Cyrillic letters. He uncapped his lens and waited impatiently, unsure whether to risk confiscation of his film by snatching at the chance to confront this murderer. Suddenly, Goering jumped up from the bench, his face purple with anger, his pale eyes nearly bursting from their sockets and spat a staccato stream of German words at the photographer. The American officer stared at Goering’s face, which was contorted with hatred.
Chadeyev stood immobile as the stream of insults washed over him. He spoke no German, but Goering’s tone was the same one that he had heard blaring from the loudspeakers, the verbal assault preceding the machine guns, in every Russian village and town, and he recognized “Russische” and “schweinehund.” Although he remained outwardly impassive, he could feel his whole body tightening on the grief and fear that he had fought for five long years.
The young officer only hesitated a moment before shouting:
“Shut up, for Chrissake, shut up. Who the hell do you think you are?”
They were now both screaming and the guard nearest to Goering, an older man, calmly turned and slapped him. The prisoner slid down on the bench, his hot face pale white. That was how Chadeyev, taking his time and pulling slowly on the frayed cord, captured him: a collapsed balloon. He waved a salute to thank the officer and returned to his table. Goering, still muttering, started to eat with his handcuffed hands.
As Chadeyev cut the pork that his Jewish ancestors would never have touched, he worried whether the winter light was enough to capture Goering’s greedy, sensuous face. The doors swung open again and a noisy group of civilians, two men and two women, burst into the now somnolent space. When they noticed Chadeyev, they headed to his table. A tall man with a heavy camera plunked down a bottle of cognac, and shouted in English, “Recess, recess! The court has finally agreed to a Christmas recess! We are flying home, we are riding home, we are walking if we have to!”
The Russian did not understand them, but opened his arms to indicate welcome. Although his orders were to avoid informal contacts with Westerners, the opportunity, in the near-empty room, to sit with these well-dressed, cheerful people seemed irresistible.
A young woman in the group, dark hair flying behind her, went to the buffet and returned with glasses. The other, an American blonde, haltingly translated from English to Russian. Chadeyev thought she said that the court would soon reach a verdict, that the whole trial would be over, and he beamed.
The cognac felt warm and strong. Chadeyev admired the American’s equipment and repeated its name.
“No, no,” the second man corrected him. “Not Spit, Speed Graphic.”
They noticed his own camera and, by repeating the name and by gestures, he communicated that he had photographed Goering, who had already left with his guards.
“Wow!” the American said, offering him cigarettes and chocolates, generously tossing an extra pack of Camels. “What else have you got?”
“Reichstag,” Chadeyev said, “Reichstag.”
They were puzzled, until he fished out of his pocket the large five-ruble victory stamp that had his photograph of the soldier placing a huge, bullet-scarred Soviet flag on the tower of the Reichstag building. The arms of the soldier, still a boy, were sharply outlined, straining over the smoke and flames. In the background, heroic statues on the Baroque roof echoed his gesture, while far below, Berlin apartment houses with shattered roofs and bombed-out windows stared out of blind eyes at the ongoing battle. Chadeyev’s companions passed the picture in silence.
Chadeyev reached into his pocket again and pulled out a folded issue of Pravda with his byline in Cyrillic and his photographs of liberated Budapest: two worn-faced Jews in the ghetto, with the star of David still sewn on their coats, their eyes staring out of famished faces, amazed to be alive. In another picture, a beggar kneeled between two children in discarded adult clothes, one of whom played an accordion. The beggar’s mouth was open in wail or in song and all three looked lost among the indifferent legs of passers-by.
“And you took these with this?” the American asked.
Chadeyev nodded, adding the few English words he knew:
“OK camera OK.”
The others laughed.
“When I come back, I’ll bring you a better one,” the American said.
Through their interpreter, Leon asked what kind of pictures the American took.
“Oh, nothing, soldiers on beaches, dying, you know the stuff. But here, look at this, my real pride and joy.”
From his wallet, he pulled a snapshot of a tall dark woman with her arms around two girls. She wore a shiny pageboy, a dress falling in soft folds, and silk stockings. A shy adolescent leaned her head on her shoulder, while a snub-nosed four-year-old Shirley Temple faced the camera boldly. So that was what he was going home to, Chadeyev realized. But when they asked him to show his own family, he shook his head.
“What? no Natasha, no Tatiana, no—Ninotchka?” the American girl teased.
The French woman, who was still holding his pictures of Budapest, turned to the American who spoke for them:
“Ask him whether he is Jewish, himself.”
When he understood her question, he shook his head in denial, distrustful of these foreigners. But, with her eyes still on him, he wanted to explain:
“So, you see, I had no one to lose.”
“Sometimes that’s better,” she replied: “Oui, c’est mieux.”
She handed him the newspaper across the table. She had pushed up her sleeve while they drank and he saw, tattooed on her pale skin the blue-black digits of her concentration camp number. Abruptly, he leaned over, and pressed his lips onto her skin, right above the mark. Then he jumped up awkwardly, his face hot with embarrassment. He gathered his hat and camera, while they protested:
“It’s all right Ivan, stay, stay!”
But he left anyway.
Outside, a cold rain was falling and the early darkness of the winter evening was coming on fast. Once he got past the barbed wire checkpoints of the grounds of the Palace, Chadeyev started to cross a long empty space of rubble, the remains of the old city, to reach the suburbs where his quarters were. The sharp, damp smell of earth rose between the ruins. There were bodies among that rubble, he knew, German bodies decomposing.
In spite of the cold, the cognac and the encounter still glowed within him. So, they would be going home for good, he thought. These women were right: he should marry. After all, he got a salary from TASS, there would be apartments being built. He imagined someone less glamorous than they were, a woman with strong arms and a warm heart, maybe a young widow or someone who had lost her fiancé, as so many had. . . . Only the wounded could understand each other, he thought.
He wished that he had been able to tell these sympathetic strangers his own story. He would have done it in the same detached, matter-of-fact way as the witnesses who described their experiences in concentration camps, when they said, in level voices: “So I was separated from my wife and children and never saw them again. . . .” “They took my baby from my arms and the soldier crushed her head against a wall. . . .” Because, he knew, no amount of fear prepared you for these blows, and you could not assimilate them: you watched, already annihilated, as they happened to someone you used to be.
Thus, his images of his own losses had become snapshots, just a few of the many he had collected in the vast historical drama where he played a part. In one of these, he was a ten-year-old boy, before the Revolution, looking out a back window, while his mother and sister shelled peas, while his father read next door. And the next second, dust, shots, and horses invaded the village, like a cyclone, and Cossacks threw down the door, cursing and shooting. A bullet hit his thigh and he woke up at dusk, surrounded by his mother’s and sister’s dead bodies lying among the overturned furniture in the devastated room. His father lay bleeding and groaning by them. He crawled over next to him and held his hand helplessly, for what seemed like a very long time, the nearly lifeless eyes turned upon him, until the groans stopped. He then crawled away until he found a house that took him in, and all he had left of his family was the pain he cherished in the bullet’s space.
That is what he wanted to tell the French girl when he said he had no one to lose—not that the pain could be evoked again and again, as by her white arm and the blue numbers on it. Or by the old woman amidst the ruins of a city, who yelled at him for taking pictures of her suffering, to whom he mumbled, embarrassed, “What can I say, Mother, we are all suffering.” Or even of defeated Nazis, like the scene of family suicide that he came upon one morning in Nuremberg, father, mother, and daughter, sprawled over park benches, a small hole made by the revolver lying by the man bleeding at each temple.
The sound of a truck being driven at great speed behind him broke into his thoughts. He barely had time to hobble out of the way and throw himself against a wet post on the side of the road, slipping part-way down the muddy ditch. A military vehicle with its lights dimmed whizzed past him. Chadeyev cursed the driver: what was there to rush about?
The rumble of the car soon died away. Then he became aware, in the silence of the evening, now completely dark, of the sound of his own heart pounding. He held on awkwardly to the post before clambering back on the pavement. He let out a deep sigh. It was a relief to think he had been frightened. He had followed the Red Army to its final victory, stonily counting every day, and now, a drunken idiot in a truck could scare him, jolting him out of thoughts of homes past and future.
He patted his camera, which had swung against the post, and found it unbroken. His limp was more pronounced, as it often was from fatigue.
When he got to the villa where he was quartered, he went straight into his darkroom. He locked the door and sacrificing the rest of his film developed his shot of Goering. His hands shook when the wet negative emerged from its bath. The collapsed figure of the prisoner sagged over the bench, contrasting with the stiff MP on his left, expressionless under his helmet.
Chadeyev stared at the picture and noticed that the eyebrows were raised, the mouth puckered and sagged. There was fear in that face. He hung up the picture to dry. He realized that it no longer mattered to him what Goering felt. Soon, he would leave the world of murderers and victims, of history unfolding like a battle-scarred flag, for ordinary life where people could get hit by speeding trucks.
As he rinsed his hands, the wet coldness of his walk returned to him. He wondered if the American really meant what he said and would get him a new camera on some black market. He tried to imagine what pictures he would take with that wide lens, unlike any he had taken before, without people, without their pain.
He rejected images of wheat fields under a summer sky, of shivering birch forests and of the scrubby taiga brush, until he recalled the frozen sea the Russian soldiers had crossed on the Murmansk coast. If he could go back, maybe there would be an iceberg, glittering in the distance. He would sit on a rock and the waves would come crashing in, their white crests fanning out and sparkling in the sunlight, and he would photograph wave after wave after wave.
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