All Saints Day 1942
Hidden by the thick pine forests of the Julian Alps, three hundred Slovenian guerrillas gambled that their mountain refuge would not be discovered. There had been no respite, no quiet from the war since the Germans invaded Yugoslavia. It was a foregone conclusion that the Partisans holding the mountains north of Ljubljana would be surrounded. They would fall that day. The combination of Nazi will, Italian numbers, and Ustashi treachery was irrepressible. There would be no surrender; only defeat and death.
The guerrillas were to hold the peak at all costs. They were to insure the safe retreat of their comrades, to insure an escape from Ustashi and German forces rapidly closing in on them.
It was fall. The rainy season. To the west of the Partisan encampment, the constant retort of German guns could be heard. It was November 1, 1942 and there was no more Yugoslavia.
“When will the rain end?” a young soldier asked nervously.
The youth strained his eyes. Cold November rain washed bits of native soil from his face as he spoke.
“I don’t know,” whispered an old man lying next to the boy. Both soldiers shivered, immersed in the mire that defined the Partisan position. The old man did not look up as he spoke. He did not allow his son to see the desperation, the hopelessness in his eyes. Instead, Frederick Kobe stared ahead, in the direction of the enemy.
“Maybe they missed us in the storm,” the son offered, speaking their native Slovene tongue.
“I doubt that. Keep still.”
The old man, a veteran of the Great War, turned his good ear to the wind. He strained to hear movement. He heard nothing. Nothing but the dripping of rain through the pine boughs. Nothing but the rumbling of the gale as it traversed through the trees.
Frederick’s weary eyes surveyed the ragged barrier his men had erected to provide a defense. He bit his lip to ward off a deep, unrelenting feeling of death. A wave of dread began to overwhelm him. He fought against its power. He was their leader. He could not allow himself to become clouded by emotion. If his men perceived fear, they would run, and running would guaranty their slaughter.
Perhaps if the Chetniks under Colonel Mihailovich and the Partisans loyal to Josip Broz had united in their resistance to the Germans, Frederick Kobe and his son would not have come to the mountain to die. But there was only hatred between the factions of the Yugoslav resistance.
Waiting for the Germans, Kobe considered the history of the invasion. He knew that Prince Regent Paul had signed an agreement with Hitler in a feeble attempt to forestall war. What was the word the English used for Austria? Czechoslovakia?
“Appeasement,” he murmured.
Like the English, the fools in Belgrade tried to placate the Germans. For forty-eight hours, Yugoslavia was part of the Axis. A bloodless coup removed the Prince Regent from power and placed King Peter II a seventeen year old boy on the throne. Embittered by the betrayal, Hitler ordered the German High Command to invade the Balkans. On April 6, 1941, the German 2nd and 12th Armies attacked Yugoslavia. By April 13, 1941, Zagreb and Belgrade, the country’s major cities, were in Nazi hands. King Peter fled to England via Greece. The Yugoslav Army surrendered.
But German thoroughness failed in Yugoslavia. In Serbia, Mihailovich escaped to form the Chetniks, guerrillas loyal to the monarchy. Serbian in nationality, the Chetniks guarded the ethnicity of their organization fiercely. In contrast, Josip Broz (known as Tito) formed a cadre of guerrillas based upon Marxist ideology, not ethnic heritage.
The Chetniks were a known quantity to the West. The Partisans were an unknown. Tito himself was a shadow, an enigma. Under Tito’s tutelage, the Partisan guerrillas created havoc for the Axis occupation forces.
And then there were the Ustashi; Croatian fascists who collaborated with the Germans; whose existence complicated the political picture dramatically.
Eli Kobe raised his head and listened to the sound of an airplane flying high above the trees. A splash of silver sliced through the mist. His father did not look up. Frederick knew the sound; the telltale exhaust of a Stuka dive-bomber probing the forest floor, hoping to see through the clouds to pinpoint the Partisan defense. Lost in his memories, the old man appeared unconcerned by the noise.
“Stukas,” the father remarked.
“It rains harder,” the boy offered.
“So it does. That may make it difficult for the Germans to find us.”
The old man leaned his rifle against the wall and placed a raw, callused finger to his lips. Silently, the farmer prayed that the rain would slow the Nazi advance. He hoped the weather would force the Germans, Italians, and their Ustashi allies to retreat down the muddy incline of the forest slope.
The discharge of a rifle rang out from below, indicating that the battle was joined. Immediately, the air filled with a chorus of small arms fire. Sounds of war merged with natural thunder to form a massive, onerous symphony of death.
Frederick and his son could not see the battle begin. But the old man knew the tactics the Partisans would employ. He visualized, in his mind’s eye, his countrymen leaping over the logs and stones that served as their breastworks. He heard their terrible Slavic battle cries resounding beneath the dark foliage of the mountain forest. He knew his countrymen were brave. He also knew they were outnumbered. Their brief forays into the advancing enemy would momentarily disorganize the assault but the Partisans on the mountain could not stop the methodical approach of the Germans.
From the beginning of the rains in September, the sun refused to shine. That day, the rain continued to pour down upon the bleakness that had become Yugoslavia. And the Germans continued to advance.
Lying beside Frederick, listening to the chaos of the German assault, Eli Kobe stared at a pool of muddy water forming beneath him. His fear would not allow him to look up, to see the progress of the battle.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned”.
The words were Latin, not Slovene. It was the Feast of All Saints. The thin, sickly form of Father Luba, a Catholic priest, scurried from Partisan to Partisan. Stopping briefly beside each soldier, the holy man heard confessions and served communion.
“Don’t fear, my son, for you are now at one with God. May the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be with you.”
The priest labored towards them on his hands and knees, his cassock torn by the thistle and brambles of the underbrush. The grease of the Slovenian mud soiled his woolen half cloak. Eli glanced nervously at Frederick. His father was an agnostic who tolerated Catholics because he’d married one. The Slovenian farmer would likely push the little priest away in disgust if Luba got too close. Eli held no such hatred. He was Catholic, like his dead mother.
Frederick Kobe’s eyes glared out from beneath the soggy cowl of his canvas poncho. Instead of shoving the intruder away, the farmer merely grunted and slid aside, allowing the priest to kneel next to his son.
“Father, I have no sins to confess other than my fear, my fear of dying.”
“Bless you son. But fear of battle is not a sin, it is natural.”
A thin, skeletal hand, its fingers devoid of any muscle or fluid, touched Eli’s brow. The priest’s skin was cold, colder than the rain. Instinctively, the boy recoiled.
“Your sins are forgiven, my son, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Again, ancient Latin echoed in the confines of the hedgerow. The words leaked out of the priest’s throat, a throat dry and parched despite the abundance of water around them.
“This is the body of Christ, son. Take and eat it in remembrance that he died for you and feed upon him in thy heart for salvation from all thy sins.”
The boy took the host and swallowed it quickly. Whatever the bread’s true power, it seemed to warm him as it slid down his throat. Satisfied with his work, Father Luba made the sign of the cross and scurried behind tree stumps and boulders to minister to the next Partisan soul. Eli returned his attention to the battle and peered over the edge of the makeshift wall.
The boy was able to make out the forms of his retreating comrades as the first position of defense fell apart. Individual soldiers darted from tree to tree, collapsing towards the protection of the wall. Here and there, a Partisan would cry and fall, the victim of the unseen enemy. Slowly, the shapes of the advancing Axis soldiers began to emerge, never fully visible, seeming more like apparitions than flesh and blood. The boy raised his ancient fowling piece to his shoulder and aimed. He felt the strong grip of his father’s hand lower the muzzle of the scattergun.
“Too far, Eli. They’re too far away to waste your precious shells upon. I’ll tell you when.”
Frederick didn’t take his eyes off the scene before them as he spoke. His eyes remained fixed on the enemy’s advance. The boy began to shake uncontrollably in anticipation.
“Wait, son, wait. You’ll have chance enough to kill one of those bastards, I promise. You’ll have more chances than you want.”
On their distant left, Eli watched Father Luba kneel over a badly wounded soldier. The injured man was exposed, having fallen just beyond the protection of the hedgerow. The holy man and the dying soldier were visible only as shadows. But the boy knew that the stricken Partisan was receiving the Last Rites. Eli Kobe watched as the priest applied the sign of the cross to the man’s forehead. Without warning, the mountainside trembled, rocked by a barrage from the German guns. Before Eli could cry out, the priest and the wounded man vanished in an explosion of mud and vegetation.
The youth’s eyes grew wide; his lean, innocent face contorted by the suddenness of the carnage. When the dirt settled, there was nothing left of the priest or the dying soldier. Nothing but a shallow crater in the dank earth. The bodies were consumed in the maelstrom, leaving no evidence or trace that the men had ever graced the mountainside.
Shell after shell followed the opening barrage, screaming down upon them, punctuating the German’s proficiency in the art of warfare. 88’s. 105’s. Mortars- they all killed the same. The munitions screeched across the storm’s canopy and dropped into the quiet of the forest like hawks upon prey. Each type of round emitted its own unique sound as it fell into the Partisan’s lair but the death each caused was identical in its finality.
The boy and his father huddled behind their crude barrier. They inhaled gunpowder. Acrid sulfur singed their nostrils. They heard the moans of their countrymen, the cries of pain, the prayers to Christ ringing out across the wood. The rain continued. Faint, moist drizzle dripped from the blackened needles of the pines.
Frederick had fought in the Great War against the Austrians. As a young infantryman in the Serbian Army, he’d seen artillery barrages before. He’d seen men die in battle. The space of twenty some years had not changed the way the Germans and their allies brought death. The space of twenty years had not changed Frederick’s hatred for them.
Shivering, cloaked with the mud of the hillside, Eli Kobe wondered how his country had come to be at war with itself, knowing that Yugoslavia had been created out of the dust of the Great War; a forced unity of disparate, warring cultures.
In the North, the Slovenians and the Croatians, predominantly Roman Catholic, had long been part of the Austrian Empire. In the South, from the time of the fall of Constantinople on, Serbia, Bosnia, and the rest of the what would eventually become Yugoslavia, had been under the control, the rule, of the Ottoman Turks; except for isolated periods of history when Serbia and Montenegro managed to break free and form anemic kingdoms; kingdoms more of myth than reality in terms of historical significance.
The isolation of the North from the South entrenched the Moslem and Orthodox Christian faiths in Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia. Even after a united Yugoslavian nation emerged out of World War I, tying the North and the South together in an uneasy constitutional monarchy, years of ethnic and religious unrest simmered just beneath the surface of the new nation. The German invasion stirred this unrest into a tempest, a tempest that fostered the Ustashi persecution of Moslems, Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies.
It was this history that Eli Kobe thought about as he shook in the bleakness of the damp Slovenian forest, his body shuddering from the cold, from the fear of the rapidly ascending battle. It was a history of foreign invaders driving wedges between the Slavic peoples, wedges that sought to destroy the splintered nation’s ability to resist.
From somewhere in front of the Partisan line, the ghost of Milan Balich appeared through the fog, a gray specter suddenly outlined by the light of incoming missiles.
A logger by trade, Balich was the eyes and ears of their section of the Partisan defense. He spent his days silently watching Nazi troop movements. He spent his nights sabotaging enemy positions. His rifle had slain fifteen or more German officers from a distance, from the safety of the forest’s deep silence. He killed with no remorse; the Ustashi having murdered his wife and children as they huddled helplessly in a ditch on the road to Sisak.
Balich was Croatian but loyal to his country. Barrel-chested and thick armed from his years in the woods; he seldom pulled the trigger on his rifle without killing his target. The woodsman addressed his superior in Serbo-Croatian, the universal language of the Partisan forces.
“Frederick, it’s bad. There are three divisions of Germans with the traitors. They have heavy armor and artillery. Two more divisions of regular Wermacht mountain infantry came in from Zagreb. I count at least twelve to fourteen thousand men, forty to fifty tanks.”
Balich leaned against the log wall and wiped excess moisture from his brow with his sleeve, staining the cloth with the dirt and filth he’d been crawling in for days.
“What’s happening to our forward lines?”
Frederick Kobe leaned forward and kept his voice low. He sought to keep their conversation private, out of the other men’s hearing.
“We pushed their lead units back for a bit, then they opened up on us with mortars. We had to fall back into the trees.”
“I saw. Look.”
The farmer pointed.
“You can see them coming.”
Balich pulled himself along with his elbows until he was next to the wall. He raised his head above the edge of the protective cover and looked into the forest below.
“What units are they?” Frederick asked.
“I can’t tell. Germans, for sure.”
“Can you slow them?” the elder Kobe asked.
“I don’t think so.”
The boy pulled himself up to the wall.
“I see them too. They’re at the edge of the woods a few hundred meters from us.”
Frederick crawled next to his son and viewed the battle. He nodded in agreement.
“He’s right. They’re about to break through. Where’s their armor?”
“Advancing up the north logging trail. Their Panzers are supported by an SS unit. They’re less than a thousand meters from us.”
Balich wiped rainwater from his eyebrows and pulled himself back behind the wall. He spoke in short, halting sentences. His teeth chattered as his body fought off the penetrating cold.
“Their mountain infantry has taken the forest to the east and west of our main line. They’re advancing more slowly, more cautiously. But they’ll be here within minutes.”
Eli Kobe strained to hear every word the Croatian spoke. He was startled by his father’s voice. He sensed urgency in his father’s words.
“Get to Comrade Doyich. Tell him the Germans are breaking through.”
The weight of a callused hand, its grip firm and authoritative, pressed upon the young guerilla’s shoulder.
The words leaked out from the boy’s blue lips. Cold and lack of sleep showed on Eli Kobe’s face. He rose from the mud and left the protection of the barricade. The older men watched as the youth climbed the open slope behind them. In seconds, the boy’s form melted into the thin, desperate atmosphere of the mountain.
“It’s good you sent him, Frederick. Perhaps he’ll reach the camp and escape. He’s too young to die here.”
The elder Kobe didn’t answer Balich. He spoke softly to his departing son.
“Live to fight another day. Kill them for me.”
The soldiers turned their attention to the battle and waited for the Germans.
From airfields to the east, the Luftwaffe sent three squadrons of Stukas. Within minutes of leaving the front line, Eli heard screams pierce the air above him. Though the rain and fog made it impossible to see the airplanes, he now knew what made that terrible, horrific sound.
Before Eli made Doyich’s command post at the summit, hell was turned loose upon the mountain. Bombs dropped by the German airplanes tore through the trees, splintering old growth conifers, creating gaping holes in the Partisan line.
Dodging falling timber, Eli scrambled towards the peak. By the time he reached the place where Doyich’s command bunker once stood, it was no more. No flag waved, no tents remained, no comrades were left to greet him. Tens of corpses, battered by the Stuka’s winged death, bloodied beyond recognition, welcomed him. Wounded soldiers saw his shadow and called to him. He did not answer. He was afraid. The stench of the dead, the smell of the dying made him retch. His stomach convulsed even after it was emptied. He could think of nothing but running, running away.
He scrambled down the rocky slope, sliding on mud and loose rocks as he retreated. His head grew feint, his legs gave out. Covered with grime, dripping with the sweat of fear, he clawed at the wet earth until he was again standing. His fowling piece was gone, lost in the tangle of the rocks and undergrowth. He left the gun and continued his mad scramble down the slope.
He was lost, in pain. He began to cry. His course downhill became a blur, more an uncontrolled fall than a measured escape. In the dim light of the forest, he could not see those around him, though he heard the voices of other Partisans as the battle rose from the valley below, inching its way up towards his father, his friends. Voices cried out in Serbo-Croatian and Slovene, their tone pathetic and panicked:
“They’re through. There, on the left, they’re through. Stefan, come here. Bring men. Stefan…”
A burst of small arm’s fire. Then silence. His comrades were dying where they had dug in.
He passed no one. There was no retreat. The mist and fog that made it impossible for him to find his unit also kept him from harm. He stumbled on, his face a mass of cuts and bruises. His woolen pants and jacket were caked in mud. His eyes, his eyes were full of fear.
“Father,” he screamed aloud, though there was no one to hear his voice but the enemy, “Father, I’m coming.”
But he could not outrun the assault on the hedgerow by the enemy. Frederick Kobe was already dead, his heart punctured by the smooth steel of a German bayonet.
A shadow appeared out of the forest. Then another. And another. Helmeted forms moved through the haze. Germans.
Eli Kobe fell to the ground. He felt for the familiar walnut stock of his shotgun. It was gone, left somewhere up mountain. He was unarmed. He was seventeen.
Soon, he thought, I will be dead.
One of the shadows approached him. A small figure. An enemy soldier. The man carried his Mauser pointed at the ground. The German advanced without caution, without regard for the Partisan defenders. Other than Eli Kobe, there were no Partisans left. The boy remained still, just as his father had taught him when they hunted deer. He controlled his breathing but his heart continued to pound beneath the wet wool of his shirt.
Surely, he thought, the German can hear the thump, thump, thump of my heart.
Hidden by a thicket, he watched the soldier. The man was thoroughly covered by a gray storm coat. The edges of the coat scraped the wet soil of the ground as the man advanced. They were alone on the mountainside, the other soldiers having merged with the forest. The German, looking to be nineteen or twenty, walked to within a few feet of the boy’s hiding place, his steps noisy and careless. The German stopped, as if he suspected something.
I’m unarmed. He’s older and likely stronger, the peasant thought.
Kobe noted the corpse of a Partisan, a huge man he did not recognize, a few feet to his left. The man had no jaw. All that remained of the dead Partisan’s face was a small piece of flesh hanging loosely from where the man’s chin had been. The skin of the corpse was milky white, beginning to turn gray, the color of the Nazi’s coat, the color of the sky.
The corpse had no gun. It did have a knife; a long bladed skinning knife. Eli fixed his eyes on the soldier. The German became more cautious and raised his rifle in anticipation of something.
Kobe held his breath. Reaching across the corpse, he patiently eased the knife from its sheath. Kobe’s eyes remained riveted on the slender back of the enemy. The German stopped and placed his Mauser against the wet trunk of a thick spruce tree. The enemy soldier kneeled and removed his gloves before digging into the trouser pockets of another corpse.
Foolish Hun, Eli thought, Partisans have no money.
The soldier crouched over the dead man, engaged in his search, his rifle two steps away. The boy sprang from the soggy ground. Wet leaves and mud dripped from Kobe’s clothing as he rose. The sound of debris falling called the German’s attention to his attacker but it was too late. In an instant, Kobe covered the distance between them. With a severe motion, Eli planted the point of the knife in the center of the German’s back. The blade sliced cleanly through the storm coat, hit a rib, and deflected into the man’s heart. The soldier turned to scream, his eyes bulging, surprised and in terror of death.
Eli clamped his hand over the man’s mouth and shoved the blade deeper. The point pierced the front of the storm coat. The German collapsed to the ground without a sound. Thick, warm blood coated the palm of the young Partisan’s hand.
Exhausted, Eli Kobe sat down on the musty carpet of the forest floor and began to cry. He did not look at the German. One arm of the dead man rested across the Yugoslav’s hips. Kobe did not have the strength to push the German aside.
He sat there for what seemed an eternity, alone in the forest, unwilling to leave the dead man, unwilling to move. Then he realized that the guns had stopped, that all was silent on the hillside.
Gathering his courage, Kobe touched the pallid flesh of the dead man, rolled the body away, and stood up. Using the tattered edge of the German’s coat, Eli tried to wipe the man’s blood from his hands but he found that the half-coagulated liquid would only smear.
After collecting his thoughts, the young Partisan gathered up the German’s rifle and cartridge belt. Above him, the November sun broke free of the clouds, warming the youth as he began to walk down the mountain.