The English razor, Konstantin Paustovsky

by lapostina

I keep discovering Paustovsky. I don’t like reading about the war.  It’s even harder to translate: too much senseless bloodshed, pain and sadness. I asked my father why there aren’t any ”less sad” stories, he looked at me for a moment  and replied with: “Go and ask the Nazis.”

***

All night it was raining with snow. The southern rain was whistling in the rotting stems of the cornstalks. The Germans were silent. Sometimes our fighter, placed by the shore, shot from its guns towards Mariupol. The black thunder then shook the steppe. The shells were flying through the dark with such a roar, as if a piece of canvas was being ripped overhead.

At sunrise, two soldiers, with helmets glistening from the rain, brought an old short man into the khata ,where the Major was headquartered. His wet, checkered coat stuck to his body.Huge clumps of clay were stuck to his feet.

Without a word, the soldiers placed everything they found while searching the old man on the Major’s desk: a passport,  a razor and a shaving brush. They reported that he was captured in the gully by the well.

The old man was interrogated. He said he was Armenian and his name was Avetis,  he worked as a  barber  for the Mariupol Theatre. Later on he told a story which soon made its way around all neighbouring headquarters.

The barber did not have time to flee Mariupol before the Germans arrived. He hid in the basement of the theatre with two young boys, sons of his Jewish neighbour. The day before, she went to town after bread and never returned. She must of been killed by the aerial bombardment.

The barber spent more than a day in the basement with the boys. The children didn’t sleep, but sat huddled up to each other and listened. At night, the younger boy began crying loudly. The barber shouted at him. The boy quietened. The barber took out a bottle of warm water from his coat pocket. The barber offered the boy water, but he didn’t drink it, instead he kept turning away.The barber took the boy by the chin and forced him to drink the water, his face was hot and wet. The boy drank loudly, convulsively and swallowed his own tears with the muddy water.

On the the second day a German corporal and two soldiers pulled the children and the barber out from the basement and took them to the Chief lieutenant Friedrich Kolberg.

Kolberg lived in the abandoned apartment of a dentist. Plywood was nailed on the dislodged window frames. It was dark and cold in the apartment. An ice storm was passing the sea of Azov.

“What is this show about?”

“Three of them, Herr Lieutenant!”, the corporal reported.

“Why lie?”,  the lieutenant said softly, “The boys are Jews, but the old freak looks typically Greek, a descendant of the Hellenic, a Peloponnesian ape. I bet you. Oh! Are you Armenian? How will you prove it to me, you rotten beef?

The barber was silent. Kolberg kicked the last piece of the golden frame into the fireplace with the tip of his boot and commanded to have the prisoners taken to the empty apartment next door. In the evening, Kolberg came to the apartment with his friend Erli, a fat pilot. They brought two big bottles wrapped in paper with them.

“Is your razor with you?”, The Lieutenant asked the barber. “Yes? Then shave the heads of these Jewish cupids.”

“Why, Fri?”, The pilot asked lazily.

“The children are beautiful, no?, Kolberg replied. “I want to ruin them a little. Then I won’t feel as sorry for them.”

The barber shaved the heads of the boys. The boys cried with their heads lowered, the barber grinned. Whenever he was unlucky, he grinned crookedly. His grin tricked Kolberg, he thought that his innocent way of fun, entertained the old Armenian. The Lieutenant sat the boys at the table, uncorked a bottle and poured four full glasses of vodka.

” I won’t treat you, Achilles”,Kolberg told the barber. “You will have to shave me this evening. I am planning on visiting your beauties.”

Kolberg unclenched the children’s teeth and poured  into each boy’s mouth a full glass of vodka. The boys puckered, suffocated and tears streamed from their eyes. Kolberg clinked glassed with the pilot, drank his glass and said:

“I always preferred softer methods, Erli”.

“No wonder our great Schiller is your namesake.”, Erli replied. “They will soon dance the Mayufes for you.”

“As if!”

Kolberg poured a second glass of vodka into the children’s mouths. The children fought back but Friedrich Kolberg and the pilot clutched their hands,  poured vodka slowly, while carefully making sure that the boys drank every sip and shouted:

“Here! Here! Tasty? One more time! Excellent!”

The younger boy began vomiting. His eyes turned red. He slid of his chair and lay on the floor. The pilot took him under the armpits, lifted him up, placed him on the chair and poured another glass of vodka down his throat. Then for the first time, the older boy yelped. His scream was piercing and with eyes round from fear he stared at the the lieutenant.

“Shut up, Cantor!”, Kolberg shouted. He threw the older boy’s head back and poured vodka straight from the bottle down his throat. The boy fell off the chair and crawled to the wall. He was searching for the door, but, obviously, became blinded, he hit his head against the jamb, moaned and became silent.

“…by the night”, the barber said out of breath, “they both died. They lay there small and black, as if lightning had struck them.”

“Keep going!”, said the Major and reached for the warrant on the table. The paper rustled loudly. The Major’s hands were shaking.

“Keep going?”, asked the barber, “well, as you wish then. The lieutenant ordered me to shave him. He was drunk. Otherwise he wouldn’t of decided on such a stupid idea. The pilot left. The lieutenant and I went to his heated apartment. He sat at the dressing table. I lit the candle on the metal candle- holder , warmed water on the stove and began to lather his cheeks. I put the candle-holder next to the dressing table. You probably would have seen these candle-holders before: it was a woman with flowing hair holding a lily, and the candle was placed in the little cup inside the lily. I jabbed the brush with soap froth into the eyes of the lieutenant. He yelled, but I managed to hit him in the temple with all my strength, using the metal candle-holder.

“Outright?”, the Major asked.

“Yes. Then it took me two days to get to you.”

The Major looked at the razor.

“I know why you’re looking.”, said the barber. “You think that I should have put the razor to use.  That would’ve made more sense. But, you know, i felt sorry for it. This is an old English razor. I’ve been working with it for ten years.

The Major stood and reached his hand towards the barber.

“Feed this man.”, he said “And give him some dry clothes.”

The barber left the room.  The soldiers took him to the field kitchen.

“Oh, brother”, said one of the soldiers and put his hand on the barber’s shoulder-” My heart is weakening from the tears. I can’t see my aim either. To get rid of all of them to the last man, you need to have a dry eye. Am I right?”

The barber nodded his head, agreeing.

The fighter struck out from its guns.The leaden water rippled and blackened, but at that moment the colour of the reflected sky- green and cloudy, returned to it.

1941.