The Soldier in the Bell Tower

November 2014
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On the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

When the First World War broke out, my great uncle fled by running off to a bell tower.

“All the same, it's better than running off with another woman,” an old friend of the family used to say, obviously with someone specific in mind.

I've always imagined that war breaks out just like a river bursts its banks: climb up a tree or onto a roof, and you're saved. But I never knew what really happened to my great uncle: after all, children don't need to know the details of anything. 

As it turns out, the bell-tower didn't save my great uncle, quite the reverse: running off to the bell-tower led to such trouble that he came home only a few years later, barely alive. He spent most of his time sleeping and was very afraid of water.

As to the sleeping, my great uncle said there was no time to sleep in the trenches: there was shooting during the day, and they had to repair the defences at night. It was enough just to drift off and rats would start crawling all over you, looking in your pockets for food (and even your tobacco). It's a more interesting story with water. My great uncle wasn't afraid of flowing water, which you can see and hear, so much as the invisible water that soaks through walls and finds its way in from the bottom. He was afraid of any kind of moisture. When it began to rain, my great uncle couldn't sit in the house and would go out onto the porch and, from early November to around April, he would fire up the oven to prevent mold creeping in between the beams and under the plaster. My great uncle suffered from something called “trench foot”, but nobody knew what that was, apart from him.

In August 1914, when rumours began circulating in L'viv that Russian forces were approaching and people had to pack up and leave, my great uncle thought about where to go for a long time. Torn by fear and inertia, eventually he made up his mind and took what today would be called an “unusual decision”: he walked to the nearby town of Sknyliv and asked to join the monastery there. We don't know whether the monks were particularly surprised, but they allowed him to stay. And seeing as my great uncle couldn't do anything on the farm, the monks put him in charge of ringing the bells at the bell tower.

Gradually it became clear that my great uncle's decision wasn't so absurd after all: he managed to stay safe in the monastery for the first months of the Russian occupation. And this might have continued if it weren’t for a fatal indiscretion. That autumn, though, the line of the front fell so close to the town that artillery fire began exploding just short of the monastery wall. Regardless, the monks asked the bell-ringer to ring for dinner as usual, and soon enough a detachment of Hungarian soldiers appeared at the front gate, having decided that the monks were using the bells to signal to the Russian forces. And that was the end of it. The soldiers arrested everyone, took them from the monastery and, having kept them in water up to their knees for a few days first, issued them uniforms and rifles, and sent them off to the front.

To be sure, my great uncle should have been grateful to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and a string of other heavenly protectors for their presence in the Austrian officers' hearts, and for being left untouched by holy forces despite his sacrilege and guise. Presenting himself as a Greek Catholic monk and a pacifist, my great uncle received permission not to pick up a rifle from the first day. He could sit in the dugout or a quiet corner of a trench as long as he wanted and, in the end, he served his time by sweeping out the wet clay, cleaning the pots and clacking away at his rosary beads. (This might be a family trait. Countless times I found my grandfather or uncle in a corner of town somewhere, in a shelter or cabin, passing the hours peacefully behind his tools, endlessly fixing one and the...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka