The authentic quotation—“this house reeks of blood”– comes from Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” Cassandra speaks it, the prophetess cursed by Apollo never to be believed in her prophetic truths.
I have a good nose for war, having spent the first five years of my life in a world in which war was the normal world. My father told me that I wasn’t born into a world. I was born into a cataclysm.
So, I think I know something about war.
Take August 6, 1945. Well, perhaps it was the day after. Or the day after that. Since May, the war in Europe had ended. In the village, by now, the grain harvest had been collected. There had been a meal in the courtyard with all the laborers laughing and drinking to peace. They had told jokes. My favorite was the joke about how the village used to direct the Nazis to where the partisans were waiting in ambush, “Follow this road. Straight ahead. You can’t miss.”
I had even gone to the fields, fearless in June, carrying lunches for the workers, wrapped in a kitchen towel. They had been turning the earth over, for sowing. Unlike in the spring, last year, no plane had swooped down to shell the road. And even then, someone, leaping from the fields, had thrown himself/herself down on me and carried me into the culver.
In the courtyard, no one mentioned the atrocities. The day, for example, when the SS erupted into the houses, shouting, “Raus, raus,” and at gunpoint, marched the village to the train station. Three hundred of us, to watch a boy being hanged. They left him hanging from the water pump for three days.
No one mentioned the night we piled mattresses on ox carts and left the village deserted so that the Nazis could burn only the empty houses. The partisans had killed a Nazi high official, so villages were burning. We fled into the woods.
At Easter, which was late that year, end of April, 1944, seventeen men were hanged, eight kilometers down the road—hanged from the chestnut trees along the boulevard where market day was held. My father and two uncles had been rounded up but not hanged. My mother had walked down that boulevard to the castle prison and had walked back with our men released. She begged to be blindfolded on the way back.
No one whispered any longer about who—which partisan– had been caught and killed by mobile murder squads in the death camp in Trieste (Italy). Ninety-two death specialists from Einsatzkommando Reinhard had run the camp. They were veterans of “Aktion Reinhard,” the elimination by mobile death squads of two and a half million people in Poland and the east. They had run Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. They had come to Trieste after the fall of Stalingrad to stop the advance of Tito’s armies north. Having lost the east, they were holding on to the south.
The death camp is not famous. It had only one oven, built by the engineer Lambert, the same who built the ones at Auschwitz. Generally, Jews were not killed here. They were shipped north. Partisans were. About five thousand. Which meant almost every village knew about La Risiera, the rice-processing factory, converted to death camp.
All this and more was in the past on that 7 or 8 of August 1945, when I was chasing my puppy, and my uncle was raking the bocce court. He was wearing a white shirt and dark trousers. The sun had baked him dark. When the portly man approached him from the road, I stopped running and paused to listen. Oh, it was something about a cow’s disposal, wounded in the fields by a mine. Nothing unusual. But then, the man had leaned forward, and my uncle had stopped raking. I heard, “A big bomb. Somewhere in Japan. Hiroshima. The Americans. It will be the end of the world.”
I stood in the scorching day suddenly gone chill. I took my dog and walked to the stable, tied him down safely, so he could not roam and be hurt by village boys throwing stones. In the cool darkness, I went down to the floor and embraced him.
Holding him close, I started planning how we could survive the next war.
And here I am, all these decades later. And here is another Hiroshima remembered.
And war is in the air again. And will it be the end of the world? If Cassandra spoke, even I wouldn’t believe her because I don’t want to.
Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: email@example.com