The first train
The grief and suffering which the Serbian population had to endure in flight from the enemy, is difficult to put into words. With heavy hearts, putting their trust only in God, the poor refugees abandoned their homes. Old people, women, children, all took flight. Inestimable masses of people moved forwards, further, ever further. With how much pain and sympathy I think about the children in these trains. Half-naked, with holes in their shoes, dirty, they held onto the hands of their mothers, who often also had a whimpering baby in their arms. Tears of emotion spring to my eyes when I see a ten-year-old child picking his little brother up and putting his last piece of bread in his crying mouth. In the crowd which flowed, tired and cumbersome towards Mitrowitza and Ipek, I noticed a tall, strong peasant from the Morawa valley. She was wearing the beautiful, colourful clothes of the women from that region, and she had a small sack on her back and a basket in her hand. Her son, a healthy, well looked-after peasant child, as they are common in the mountainous areas of Serbia, trotted along beside her. »Do you know where the Morawa division is?« she asked nearly everyone she passed. Her husband was serving in that division; she was bringing him the bundle of clothes that she had on her back. She wanted the father, who had been in the field for four years, to finally be able to see and hug the little one. With a wheedling voice, raising his big eyes full of childish innocence, he held out his hand and begged, »Tschitscha, daj mi hleba.« (Uncle, give me bread.) And the fellow travellers put a gold coin in the begging hand, instead of the bread which they didn’t have themselves. Here and there there was surprisingly a nice house: large barracks, a lot of mosques were noticeable. In the city, thousands of exhausted, pale refugees. People slept in the open, at temperatures of minus fifteen degrees, with no fire, because there was no wood. The provisions which they had brought with them were almost finished. The livestock which they took with them, exhausted from the effort, lay mostly at the roadside. Fear and desperation filled them when they thought about what was to come. How were they going to get over the threatening stone wall which rose up in front of them, with the delicate children, in the severe cold, with no bread? It was Sunday. A service was being celebrated. The Serbian and Montenegrin Metropolitans were celebrating mass in the church of the patriarchy. It was dead silent in the huge space. The prayer of the old Metropolitans sounded sadly down from the high vault, »Tschitscha, daj mi hleba«, when a soft voice interrupted my thoughts. The little boy who had begged from us on the way, with the same words, stood before me again. The time to flee was pressing. All luggage was left behind. But bread, you had to have bread. The cold and the snow drifts got worse. With weary steps the miserable train set off towards the notorious Zljeb. Suddenly, it stopped. Thousands of carts, dismantled artillery and motor cars, got tangled up with each other. There was no way forward. The order was given to burn the waggons and destroy the guns and munitions. Everything which could not be carried was to be destroyed. Only the livestock was to be saved. Everyone had to spend another night in the open, wherever one happened to be, next to the fire built from the remains of the smashed up waggons. People dragged up wheels and pieces of wood so that they would not have to lie on the icy stone floor. People spoke sadly and quietly, until tiredness overcame them. The frost became more severe and the fire diminished. First light fell on hollow, pale faces, in which the horrors of the night were still visible. The freezing children whimpered their only humble desire. Just a piece of bread, which resembled the black earth, or a cold potato, had to satisfy the craving of the pitiful little ones. Guns, carts, equipment, everything was thrown into the void. Then off we went again, one after the other; over frozen rocks and stones, more bent over than standing up, slipping and stumbling. Suddenly, a cry, a horse fell from the narrow path into the depths; and then another cry, more desperate and piercing than the first: the man leading it had fallen after him. The hours passed, marching laboriously, death and destruction confronted the refugees from all sides. A horse which had died of exhaustion lay at the side of the road, an ox with its entrails hanging out, a human being with its skull caved in. A group of tired and weakened animals had been left behind. They stood motionless, only their sad gaze followed us. And then we were surrounded again by darkest night: We scraped the snow aside with our hands and feet, to make a fire. But how were we going to light it, when everything all around was wet or frozen? A We heard a sobbing, a quiet, unending crying. We went towards it. In the dim light, we recognized the peasant woman from the Morawa valley who had accompanied us so far with her little boy. She sat, leaning on a fir tree, her face deathly pale, in her arms she held a lifeless little body, at whose head a little wax candle burned with a trembling flame. »My child has died, and I don’t know how to bury him«, said the poor mother, with trembling lips. Our breath faltered, we trembled. Cold, hunger and sickness had destroyed this flourishing life, before his loving father, whom he had set off to look for, had held him in his arms and kissed him. We dug his grave beneath the fir tree under which he had died, and we cut his name into the rough trunk: »Slobodan Ljubinkovits, from Morawa, 1908-1915.«
With bare heads, and, gazing sadly at the little grave, we paid the unhappy child our last respects. His sad fate will always for us be indelibly linked to our memories of the tortuous flight to the terrible Zljeb. The lucky ones among us, to whom the almighty gave the strength to endure so much suffering and deprivation, and survive, still hear the echo of the little boy’s sad, »Tschitscha, daj mi hleba«.
The second train
The train has pulled out of Vienna North Station. The lights of the capital are fading in the distance; the train is thundering towards the Hungarian border. The hand luggage has been stowed. The first sitting for dinner is starting in the dining car, which will accompany us until Budapest. People stroll curiously through the carriages. Who is on board? An overview is quickly obtained. Perhaps one would have expected it to be a little different, more dignitaries, a little more representative; but in the end one is satisfied. Two dozen representatives of the press are there, to convey the significance of the journey to the public. We four Austrians, who were joined by four Hungarians in Budapest, have organized ourselves straight away, and it was a good job we did so. Another compartment carries a gentleman who was also travelling on a diplomatic mission, accompanied by his charming wife and their pretty little dog. »Pucki« is the first dog to travel on the Balkan Express, and already feels like a peacock. I shared my compartment with the writer Felix Salten. Our first visitor after dinner was Ludwig Ganghofer, who came from Munich, and was travelling to Nisch. It was a midnight visit, because we had left Budapest just a few minutes before twelve. We had been received there with Magyar warmth. It’s true that there was no gypsy music, they are now fiddling the Russians a bloody dance, and that is more important. Ganghofer was fresh, amusing, and very moved by the deep significance of the events in which we were participating. He talked like a young kid, and we swapped war memories. However much you have seen and experienced, it’s still a pleasure to listen to him. The refrain of all his stories is praise of the beauty of war. He talked about the humour which erupts even in the most tragic moments of battle; the great Shakespeare of the world theatre can still mix seriousness and play in the right proportions, even on the stage of war. In the middle of street-to-street fighting, reserves are advancing over the bodies of the fallen, a young NCO leaps around a corner, straight onto a corpse. A brief glance backwards, a muttered, »Sorry…, Excuse me…« and he’s gone. That’s the kind of story that Ganghofer told, and we traverse the dark solitude of the puszta, where the poor shepherd’s wives dream of their »red devils«, who are fighting in Volhynia. The Belgrade carriage, which came from Munich, is uncoupled; the cry for morning coffee, or a dining car, is in vain. There is no refreshment available yet, and the restaurant carriage will not join us until two o’clock in the afternoon in Nisch. Passengers on the Balkan Express should take note. The tracks pass through gently wooded hills towards Jagodina. The slender delicate mosque with its moorish doors and slender minaret interests everybody less today than the little hut in the station, in which a German soldier is serving hot tea. I had fortified myself earlier; the experienced Ganghofer had brewed tea in the compartment, unpacked a chicken, which his attentive wife had packed for him, from his hamper, and invited Salten and me to breakfast. Ganghofer’s breakfast was certainly a speciality of the first Balkan campaign. The long-awaited restaurant car is hitched on, and taken by storm.