So we began our trek through hell to hell. In the morning it was often twenty below or more and the horses we had pulling the troikas were not happy. So unhappy were they that they died. All of them. That made the villagers very unhappy as they took the places of the horses. They may have been subhuman but they knew how to dress for the weather. Felt boots, layered clothes, and the socks. The socks were the big secret. They didn’t wear them. Instead they wore squares of cloth that they folded around their feet inside the boots. I had befriended the Grandma of the clan whose house we occupied by looking the other way when it came to food rations and who got what and how much. I also liked playing chess with her son who had a paralyzed leg.
I liked her. She made a great soup called borscht out of beets that I really liked. She also introduced me to sunflower seeds. I got pretty good at cracking the shells with my teeth, extracting the meat with my tongue, and then spitting the shell out. She was ancient. At that point in my life anyone over thirty was old so she must have been at least sixty. It was hard to tell an Ukrainians’ age, poor dental care, hard work, children, and the sun aged the Ukrainian women far faster than their German counterpart.
She noticed me one day sitting in front of the stove scraping the dead skin and blisters off my toes. Before I could stop her she grabbed my ratty socks and threw them into the fire. That quickly produced a smell that was almost as nasty as was emanating from my feet. I looked at her amazed. I was sucking in wind to expel in a bellow of rage when she held up hand and said “Stop!” In German. She went over to a small wooden chest and pulled out two squares of cloth made of wool and felt mixed material. She knelt down in front of me and wrapped my foot in one. She didn’t speak much German, and I didn’t speak Ukrainian, but with a pidgin mix of the both I understood she was telling me this was the Ukrainian way. Since I didn’t see any Ukrainians sitting around in front of the fire watching their toes die, I decided to pay attention. She showed me how to wrap my feet correctly using the cloth and smiled at me.
She smiled even bigger when I demonstrated that I understood and wrapped the other foot as she had shown me and put my boots back on. The smile was either my reward for figuring it out quickly, or for putting my boots back on and stopping the stench.
Frost bite was something we learned a lot about that winter. The results are not particularly appealing. Light cases of it will turn your fingers or toes, or if you’re really lucky like a guy in the other platoon, your nose grey. Grey because the cold has frozen and damaged the flesh. You also get really nice blisters that look like warts. Good blisters popped clean. Bad blisters, when popped, bleed.
If the frostbite is really bad the skin turns black. If it stays black it can be cut away because the flesh is dead. There was nothing like sitting in a smoky Ukrainian shack watching Hans getting two of his toes chopped off for amusement. That’s what happens when you don’t have a radio or books. Minor surgery on other people becomes entertaining.
We arrived in Borisov seven days later. The last two days were the worst as we ran out of food. We had underestimated how many calories we would burn walking in that cold. As the food ran out the cold felt even worse. The next winter we made sure we carried extra tins of lard to eat. Anything with a lot fat in it, that is what the body needed in weather like that. Drinking alcohol was a major mistake. Stefan the company drunk died that way. The alcohol may feel like it is warming you up inside, especially if you’re standing watch outside, but that is a lie. The bottle he took with him to keep him warm killed him.