During the Soviet occupation of Ukraine during World War II, some of Krystia’s family are harrassed; others are arrested and killed. When the Nazis liberate the town, they are welcomed with open arms. Krystia’s best friend Dolik isn’t so sure. His family is Jewish and there are rumours that the Nazis might be even more brutal than the Soviets.
Shortly after the Nazis arrive, they discover a mass grave of Soviet prisoners and blame the slaughter on the Jews. Soon, the Nazis establish ghettoes and begin public executions of Jews.
Krystia can’t bear to see her friends suffering and begins smuggling food into the ghetto. When rumours circulate that the ghetto will be evacuated and the Jews will be exterminated, Krystia must decide if she’s willing to risk her own family’s safety to save her friends.
The End of Them
June 28, 1941, Viteretz, Ukraine
I huddled close to my sister under the comforter and prayed that we’d live through the night. At any moment the door might burst open and we could be dragged from our beds.
Another gunshot. Running footsteps. Screams.
A low growling boom.
The bedroom flashed bright for one brief moment and I saw the terror on Mama’s face as she pointed the pistol towards the closed door. The room plunged back into darkness.
Silence. Moments passed.
“Krystia and Maria,” whispered Mama, “try to sleep. Maybe the Soviets will be gone by morning.”
How I longed to get back to what it was like before the war – enough food to eat, and not having to walk with my eyes cast to the ground, afraid to speak to a friend for fear of being arrested.
I lay back down on my pillow, listening for the next volley of gunfire.
We had all heard that the friendship between the Germans and Soviets had fallen apart, and that the Germans were pushing out the Soviets. But as that happened, the Soviets were like angry bees, attacking us civilians and stealing all they could as they fled.
As the minutes ticked by, Mama and Maria both drifted into sleep, and their rhythmic breathing muffled the sound of explosions — more distant now — but I could not relax. I tried to breathe slowly to lull myself asleep.
A low squeak of rusted hinges.
I bolted up. It sounded like someone opening the door of the cow shed alongside the house. I climbed out of bed, crept to the main room and pressed my ear against the wall.
A faint thump and then the crunch of straw. Someone was definitely in our hayloft. Was it someone fleeing from the Soviets? If we were caught hiding a runaway, they’d punish us.
If I were brave, I’d go there now and find out who it was but I was too frightened to do that. Instead, I got back into bed and closed my eyes, praying that whoever was hiding in the shed would be gone by morning. I hoped Mama wouldn’t wake up and investigate the noise. What if the runaway got scared and shot her? With Tato already dead, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Mama too. I forced myself to slowly breathe in and out, and prayed that the runaway would leave before we had to figure out what to do.
Somehow I slept.
Beams of daylight through the bedroom window woke me. All was silent. Mama slept, her pistol resting on her chest with one hand flopped on top of it. Even though I didn’t feel all that brave, I was the oldest daughter, so it was my responsibility to protect what was left of our family. I got out of bed, careful not to wake Maria, and slid the pistol out from under Mama’s hand. I put it into the pocket of my nightgown, then tiptoed to the big room.
With my ear against the wall, I listened, but now the only sound from the cow shed was Krasa’s familiar breathing. I peeked out at the road from behind the curtains. No soldiers. I grabbed the milking pail, opened the front door and stepped out.