The original story was published on https://ourlifelogs.com/2019/04/08/the-great-escape/
1883. Does the year tell you anything specific? Perhaps you know that the first telephone call between New York and Chicago happened that year. Maybe you know that the Russian monarchy, the rule of my home country, was fading into the pages of history. I do not want to drag you into historical facts. I want to tell you about the adventures of a boy who cheated death.
So, let me take you back to 1883 as I knew it.
In a small village, south of the Voronezh River in southwestern Russia, I was the fifth out of six children. I was born healthy, loud, and gleaming. When my mother, Ekaterina Pavlov, looked at me and bundled me in her arms, she shed tears. Were those tears of happiness? I do not know for sure.
I will always keep a warm and tender place in my heart for my mother and grandmother. Not so much about father though. He ran a dirty business as a dishonest horseman, and I almost didn’t know him because he was always away from home. Still, we got by. My five siblings and I helped my mother and grandmother on the family farm, in the summer we played on streets that were filled with sunshine, and we studied and read in winter months. However, the one thing that was keeping me up all night long was astronomy. I was thrilled by how much was hidden in our universe. I got my hand on as many possible books on the subject, spending nights on the roof with youthful curiosity, never guessing that one day the knowledge would save my life. Please excuse me for racing ahead. I will get to that part soon. For now, let me tell you what happened in my life before the war.
On Easter Sunday in the year 1907, I met Tatyana. At the time, I did not go to our small village church to see miracles; rather, I attended for the routine and respect of my grandmother. But on this particular morning, I recognized the holiness of God’s creation in the form of a young woman. I was memorized by her simple, yet royal demeanour, the way the sun lined her body, and the long blond hair that slid down her back. As the service ended, we both went our separate ways home where our holiday celebration lunches were prepared—mine, in the village, and hers, in the home of her uncle, the governor.
I did not see her again until that summer while I was working as a stable boy for the governor. I succeeded in horseback riding, perhaps getting that special passion for those strong animals from my dad. He stole horses, and I loved training and riding them. For three months, I taught Tatyana to ride the horses, and she taught me how to love. We were married in 1908, and within six years, Tatyana and I welcomed two children into our lives of laughter and happiness.
Then World War I came. I was ordered to put on a soldier’s suit and to leave my young family with nothing more than a promise that I’d be back to see them again. From the first day at the training camp, nothing felt like reality. I have never experienced a similar fear, disinterest, and lower expectations in my life as I had on the battlefield. It was an experience of daily routines in trenches where we ate, slept, talked and shared stories. On the other hand, we had forefronts where we were hiding fear, fighting for the country and our Emperor. Along the lines, we thought less of the enemy as victims of political games and did what we could so we could go home alive. After those battles, we gave words of praise to heaven like, “Thank you that it wasn’t me who got killed today.” In the quiet hours after the battles, I wondered who I was praising. I wondered if they heard me.
All the dead bodies on fields, sounds of weapons and guns, dust on boots and faces would have no end if it weren’t for the day when I lost my troop in the forest and was captured by German soldiers. The resistance was useless and I, mentally saying “goodbyes” to my family and friends, practically welcomed my destiny. I was sent to the other crowd of captives, former soldiers from Austria, Russia, Italy, and other countries with languages I couldn’t recognize. We were out on the train and brought deep into Germany where, since September of 1914, more than 100 thousand French, and 90 thousand Russian soldiers were held captive.
Because I was captured at the end of a frigid December, my fellow prisoners and I struggled to keep healthy and warm as our quarters were outside. We dug deep holes in our tents so that we could sleep on the frozen grounds without getting frostbite. The food that was served in the camp was terrifyingly poor and caused many illnesses. All my life, I never avoided hard work, but by the end of the day at my logging station, my bones ached with weakness and thirst. The work was killing me.
At the camp, all lines between social classes were erased. Farmers, peasants, teachers, musicians, educated and uneducated men alike, had to work equally hard. I had two young men working beside me. They were brothers and students of the music conservatory of Vienna. They were Russian Jews whose parents moved to Austria as soon as they were born. I saw their suffering and I blamed myself for not being able to help. However, we grew close. No matter how tired we were at the end of the day, there was always some time for us to talk. In broken Russian, they described their home country to me, the spoke of their parents and their hopes to get back to studying as soon as the war was over. I told them about my wife, my two children, and eventually, about my plan of escaping the camp.
The plan I was carrying in my mind was born as soon as German soldiers captured me that December. Looking at stars every night, I could easily identify which side of the country we were in. I also realized that being guided by the night’s sky would be the best option for us to get to Eastern Europe, as far away from Germany as possible. The brothers listened to my hushed plan with wide eyes. We would escape separately after evening roll call. Within a 10-minute interval, each of us would take turns as the guards changed shifts at the control tower. The only way to escape was through a sharp space in the fence that some dogs broke through. Even though they tried to fix it, it was still the weak spot of the wall separating us from our desired freedom. At first, the brothers were skeptical. I understood that. It was not an easy decision to take, but we all knew that there was nothing to lose. We either risk it all or die from hunger and hard work. We risked it.
In 10 minutes, the three of us had twisted ourselves through the metal opening and silently stole into the surrounding forest, creeping deeper and deeper into the night’s cover. At dawn, we decided that it was time to orient ourselves, to make our way to Eastern Europe. I looked around, seeing nothing in the blackness ahead, then lifted my eyes to the sky. What I saw amazed me. The sky was full; full of diamonds that were blinking and almost waving at me.
Suddenly, everything I had ever learned about stars just made sense right there in the middle of a death circle. The stars pointed home. Slowly but surely, I started walking, and my two companions just followed. As I walked through the forest, trying not to make any sound, I thought about my family. In between the leading stars, I saw the smiling faces of my kids. I heard Tatyana’s laugh. I had to get back to them. I had to keep my promise.
During the day, time moved slowly as we hid in the bushes. But at night, the minutes flew by as we ran from the German officers. The only constant was the fear of being caught. This was our routine until we reached a small town near Bakewell, England. The countryside was peaceful and quiet even though the war was storming fast around the capital city.
We were exhausted, hungry, and sick when a kind old couple met us on the street. They brought us to their house and quickly began to prepare dinner. They were Protestant Christians who were deeply sure of their faith. Remember, I had never been one for the strict obligations of the church, but the war had softened my heart. And looking up into the night sky left me feeling small, my mind budding with the hope of something or someone who was in control, who was listening. And so, we began talking over our plates, and the couple began sharing their beliefs, pointing to Bible verses that sang truth. With the help of the musician brothers’ translating, I heard answers on many of my religious questions. Eventually, the meal was done and the table was clean. As the brothers and I shifted awkwardly in our seats, unsure of where to go, the couple told us where we could make our beds. They told us we were welcomed to stay with them until we were strong enough. And we did.
As we regained our health in their tiny red brick house, I continued asking questions. I felt thirsty for the guidance, and they gave me the answers I desired. Finally, as the brothers and I set off to the train station, I accepted the faith of the old couple. On the train ride to Vienna where my companions would depart, I was overcome with an indescribable spiritual satisfaction. I had escaped death twice—not just physically, but spiritually as well. I had mixed feelings about going home. I couldn’t wait to see my family, look into my wife’s eyes and hug my children. On the other hand, I was scared that they would not accept how I’d changed.
I came back home in September 1915, on a hot and dry, Indian summer day. When I saw Tatyana, I did not say much about the war. Instead, I just told her and my children about the journey I made, people I met, and the new faith I was carrying in my heart. I told them that what I received at the end made it all worth it.