The Pripyat Marshes

My son Tad is studying the Holocaust at school. Every night he tells me about the report he’s writing on the Pripyat Marshes Massacre. He’s learned the Nazis, before moving into the marshes, murdered ten thousand Jews in one day. In Pinsk, and Pinsk wasn’t a big place, was it? The town must have felt different after they were gone.

More were killed the next day, he says, the biggest mass killing of civilians until Babi Yar two months later in September of 1941. Tad’s friend Logan is doing his report on Babi Yar. “They marched the people to the edge of a ravine ten at a time, made them kneel in front, shot them.”

They forced them to strip first. To humiliate them, make them less likely to resist. Or, he thinks, they wanted the clothing for German civilians. Women, not the soldiers, would have done the sorting, looking for concealed valuables, Tad believes. The soldiers herded the people and shot them. Logan said at Babi Yar the soldiers were issued brandy before the shooting.

I wonder if the students should address the subject in so much depth. It’s a class for gifted children but they’re only sixth graders, after all. I won’t say anything because Tad is there on sufferance. Last year he pushed his teacher with a table. To get him back into the class, as he wanted, we had to tell the school more about the treatment he’s receiving for his mental illness than we would have liked.

Tad doesn’t know if the soldiers who shot the Jews living in the villages along the marshes, were given brandy. At Babi Yar they shot 33,771 in one day, but there weren’t as many people living in the marshes.

Peasants, he calls them. You’d say subsistence farmers now. I don’t suppose they had much.

At first they killed partisans and Russian soldiers, sparing civilians with “agreeable” attitudes towards the Germans, but then Heinrich Himmler said there should be more deaths, and ordered all Jewish males over the age of fourteen to be shot.

The Jewish women and children were to be driven into the swamps to drown.

Tad says he’s not sure why different methods were used, thinks it might be because the soldiers didn’t want to kill children at close range. “They may not have had the stomach for it,” he says.

But the marshes were shallow and the ground underneath was firm so the women and children were shot after all. He isn’t sure if they were taken from the marshes for this or killed standing in the water.

Tad thinks he knows a way they might have lived.

Some marsh plants have hollow stems, could be used as straws. The villagers would have known this, he says, could have taken a few on the march to the marshes, or better yet, pulled the pith from a young twig to make it hollow. Twigs and hollow grasses would have been plentiful that time of year.

Once in the water they could have gone under water slowly, as if they were being pulled down, held their face just under the surface of the water, breathed through the straws till the Nazis left. Of course, he concedes, it would have been difficult to teach babies and very young children to do this, but surely some lives could have been saved?

The Nazis burnt the villages: Dvarets, Khochan’, Azyarany, Starazhowtsy, Kramno, others, before they left, he knows, but he thinks the survivors could have hidden, foraged for food. The marshes, are big, he points out, 104,000 square miles. Some of the Jews might live there still.

I tell him not to put the part about the straws in his report.

“Oh, I know that. It’s just speculation on my part.”

He must have gotten the idea for the makeshift breathing tubes from the old Disney Robin Hood cartoon, the one with animals instead of people.

In the show, when Robin Hood and Little John break into Nottingham Castle to free Friar Tuck, who was to be hung in the morning, the sheriff attacks Robin Hood with a lit torch, forcing him to dive into the moat. The sheriff’s men shoot arrow after arrow into the water.

Tad, no matter how often he saw the show, was frightened by this part, relieved when he saw Robin, far from the arrows, breathing through a reed straw, safe.

I made him a green tunic and put a pheasant feather in a newspaper hat for when he wanted to be Robin Hood. I was Lady Marian and he rescued me. After Amy, his little sister, was born, she was included because she’d cry unless I held her. Klucky, he called her, Marian’s lady-in-waiting. A plump chicken. Nothing he’d want to talk about now.

He wonders if the Nazis tricked the women and children from the swamps by telling them they could go home.

Next year, he says, they’ll have another Holocaust unit, read The Diary of a Young Girl. He’s looking forward to it, he tells me, gamely. “There’s so much to learn and it’s all so interesting.”

Jane Snyder’s stories have appeared in Heavy Feather, Atlas & Alice, Umbrella Factory, Frigg, Pithead Chapel, Writer’s Foundry, and Wrath-Bearing Tree. She lives in Spokane.