Mafeking, 1900, May 12th and the town has been besieged for almost seven months. Sergeant Major Goodyear of the Cadet Corps, 12 years old, pedals madly through lines of enemy fire carrying messages and what little supplies are left. He prefers the bicycle to the donkeys, faster, more manoeuvrable. The downside is you can’t eat bicycles and food is getting very short. He tries not to worry, concentrates on weaving round potholes and unexploded munitions. He doesn’t know it, but this is the last big assault before reinforcements finally arrive. B-P, the Commanding Officer, has held back troops nine times his own for 217 days, and in a few short days, Mafeking would be won.
Kimski Gopnik thinks of Goodyear and his dead donkeys while he sits shivering under the lee of a fallen tree. It is cold, but oddly thunder clouds have gathered over the mountains and lightening shrieks from peak to peak. His dog Smiv was so frightened that she has run off into the trees. Half an hour ago they heard the shot whistling through the cold air, heard the brief bark of protest. Kimski tries to stop the tears, freezes his face with snow. He knows what will happen now. The snow had covered their tracks as they went, but now little Smivka has given them all away. The soldiers will follow her tracks through the forest and find them. The stronger ones have gone ahead, are going to try to reach the gorge, drop down into the caves that line its sides. The younger ones, like Kimski, have volunteered to stay behind, to sweep over footmarks, crack branches, make false trails, try to melt back into the trees and down to the town before they are spotted. But for Kimski it is too late. He has twisted his knee and has no where else to go. He has whistled the alert but knows no one will reach him in time. He thinks of his mother, closes his eyes, tries to feel the warmth of her kitchen, smell the bread rising as she grinds up poppy-seeds, tells him how proud she is that he has joined the Cubs.
‘Just like your father,’ she says, and sighs, wipes her hair away with the back of her hand, grinds the pestle a little harder.
And like his father, Kimski too will soon be dead.
Abaft, abeam, adrift, astern, haul the warp from the weatherside, and carry away. You could drown a man in the linguistic undercurrent of boats, Right now, their rhythm gives me comfort and I try not to think what is happening below. Six blasts on the whistle and we know someone is in trouble. The thunder has closed the sky over us like a box, the lightening is so close the air is crackling, our skin tingles as it splits the air, sends shockwaves gliding over the surface of the snow. We’re in the hills of the Nizke Tatry trying to reach the river at Spisska Nova Ves. The Hitler Jugend have been tracking us ever since we left Bystrica. We didn’t think they were so close. But haven’t they always been close? Wasn’t Caĉek, their leader, at school with me? He always came in crumpled clothes and only ever wore one sock. He never told us why. Look at him now! All shiny in his uniform, just like the ones we used to wear, exactly the same ones we used to wear. We were all together then, proud of our hats and our badges, happy to shout out that we were the Scouts of Zvolenka, worked hard for the honour it gave us. And then came 1939, and our country was carved up like a chicken and handed out on other people’s plates. Midnight, and as the clocks of Munich chime, the men around the table pen their names to the paper. The Germans are there, and the Italians, the English, the French. But where are the Czechs? They are not represented at their own autopsy, and as September 29th slips in, we are hacked in two. If you axe a man off at the knees, the rest of him will soon fall. And so it was with us.
We’ve been trekking through these mountains all our lives, making camps and tying knots, setting traps, learning the names of trees and plants and the berries you can eat and those you can’t, making canoes and paddles out of hand-sawn planks, learning to box the compass and follow the stars at night. Now our uniforms have been confiscated and our huts occupied by the Jugend. Several of our Scoutmasters have been shot for insurgency. Others have managed to survive out in the woods, on the hills, in caves. We have brought them food and clothing. We have passed messages between them, formed contacts with the Partisan Alliance, kept clear the escape routes that will lead them over the border into Russia and finally to join the exiled government of Beneŝ in London.
I am running through the thin snow, my boots skidding on the frozen pine needles beneath. My breath comes short and hard, the air getting too cold to be comfortable in my lungs. We have gone past the gorge and lowered the men by rope and gaffe. We have brushed the ground at the lip, disguised the scuffle by overlaying tracks of wolf and bear which we have stamped in wood. We have caught and killed a small deer, sprayed its blood in an arc through the trees. Now we are slipping away like fish down a salmon ladder, separating, keeping to shadows and undergrowth. I can hear them, the Jugend, crashing up the path we have just left. The cramp in my side makes me stop, doubles me over, I lean against a tree gasping for air, the cold bark melting snow into my back. Thunder growls overhead, knocks shivers of ice from my hat onto the hands I have braced on my knees. Just one more minute I think, planning my route. I will speed my ascent, go up instead of down. I will go through the pass that will take me down to Brezno, I will…
Two strong bare hands have taken hold of my arms, forced them behind my shoulder-blades, sent me stumbling forward, my face hitting the frost-hard snow. My nose breaks with a crack and blood is forced through my mouth, gagging out dark and thick around my head. My hat has fallen off and someone grabs me by the hair, drags at my head, stretches the skin across my throat. I see two snow-sodden boots, one sock.
‘He died today, your Baden-Powell. Did you know?’
He laughs, puts the blade of his knife under my chin, whispers in my ear, ‘somewhere in Africa so I heard. Not much use to you now, eh?’
This isn’t like Mafeking, where the young scouts led their prisoners happily through the town and everybody cheered and laughed. This time the prisoners are trussed in a line and stumbled through the High Street, past the Scout Tower where we hid a man for seven days. Horrified, people stand in their doorways, holding scarves to their mouths. Men come out of shops and cafes brandishing the cutlery with which they had been eating. Someone shouts,
‘But they’re only boys!’ and people are running on ahead to our houses, fetching out our fathers if we have them or our mothers, but the soldiers don’t stop their procession. They take us to the field behind the bakery where the ground is slightly softer from the warmth of the ovens. Last summer it was stanchioned with sunflowers straining up towards the deep blue of the sky. Now it is dirty and bare, roughly run over with a plough. We are thrown shovels, told to dig. We dig, trying not to understand. Behind the low hedges and the circle of soldiers who stand by the gate, families shove and cry and wail and shout out our names, but no one answers. Too soon, the hole is deep enough although we went as slowly as we could. Too soon, the blood has dried hard as barnacles in my nose. Too soon the tears have frozen on my face, on all our faces. There are five of us. We have a combined age of 61. Bèla and Rudi whimper like abandoned kittens. I can see Bèla’s grandmother white-faced, crushed against the gate, clawing at a soldier who laughingly bats her off with his strong potato-pulling hands. I stare at the shovel as the soldier tells us to hand them back. I hold Jana’s hand and he holds Jacov’s. Together we stand, silently scanning the faces we want most to see. Then the Commander gives the order and the Jugend lift their rifles. My heart jumps within me like a rat trying to escape a hole, I cannot find my mother though I look and look, and Jana is squeezing so tightly the bones in my hand begin to break, the thunder still murmurs high in the mountains and I hear a buzzard keen in the rising wind and I feel the pinch of the cold air on my cheeks and without closing my eyes I -
Five small bodies crumple backwards into the dark grave and the sound of the bullets echo in a silence that will hang for a long time over the baker’s field. People weep at the hedge and the soldiers put down their guns and slowly start shovelling the hard earth back into the hole.
‘Let this be a warning to you all….’ shouts the voice of a man they all know. He wears two boots, his one sock hidden by his trousers, but already the crowd have closed their ears and are helping away those who cannot stand with the sudden shocking grief of it all.
Up on the mountain, Kimski has crawled down the hill and found the body of his dog. He has cleaned her up with fistfuls of snow and moss and hung his whistle around her neck. He has leant his head upon the cold fur, curled himself up from the world and gone to sleep. No one will find him and he will stay on the mountain forever.
Sunrise hits the gorge late and the snarl of wolves at its lips have taken the deer and dragged it deep into the wood. A gaffe appears, catches at the hard earth. Three men pull themselves up and over and start across the hills on the long trek down to Spisska. Two of them will make it over the border, one of them will manage to reach England and sign up with the Czech Air Force Reserves. He will be downed over Dresden and will never visit the graves of the boys shot dead in the baker’s field of Zvolenka in 1941.
Jacov Fialka who died at the age of 12
Karel Goldberg who died at the age of 15
Bèla Grinkop who died at the age of 13
Jena Janacek who died at the age of 13
Rudi Myshtek who died at the age of 8
Who Died in the Service of their Country & Upheld the Scouting Law
Remis velisque : they too gave of their best.
Note : the Scout Movement was very active in Czechoslovakia right up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Although not actively discouraged, many of the activities and areas in which the Scout Troops operated were absorbed into the Hitler Youth, who appropriated their uniforms and huts and organisation. Many of the Underground Leaders were former Scouts, and the code of conduct of Scouts led them to act as messengers and suppliers. Many hundreds died, not only in Czechoslovakia but all over Europe, carrying out these duties, tortured, shut away in concentration camps, or shot, hands bound behind them with barbed wire. Some are recorded as being as young as seven.