Soviet soldiers roamed these forests

This isn’t going to be a book review (despite being tagged as one – tsk, tsk), rather than a recognition of the impact books can have on our day-to-day routines. Take my daily stroll through the forest, for instance.

A couple of months ago I finished “Russian Partisans” (with a sub-header reading “WW2 – Limburg”), written by Arthur Wollants and Jos Bouveroux. I take it you can pretty much figure out the main subject by yourself; at first it didn’t come off as particularly enticing or inspired to me, neither. However, it’s a perfect example not to judge a book by its cover – a rather bland affair, in this case – while simultaneously trying to look past the rather stale publishing date (1994).

I’ll immediately concede this book isn’t going to be of too much interest to a great deal of folks, purely due to its focus on “setting” rather than “spectacular action”. In fact, there’s not an awful lot going on for most of the time – some belongings get nicked now and then, there’s the occasional dust-up between the local citizens and the “intruders” from both sides (Germans and Russians) – and yes: there’s some fighting and retribution going on as well (mostly at the end, and mostly involving collaborators). It all feels very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact-like. Surely, the setting for “Russian Partisans” is no Omaha beach or Berlin – it’s somewhere in between (but only location-wise): the Belgian province of Limburg.

I’ve always limped behind in terms of knowledge on World War 1 (due to my being Dutch, not Belgian) – so Limburg during that particular War remains something of a mystery to me. Stories about “den droad” (the Limburgish part of “the wire”, an electrified fence placed on the Belgian-Dutch border) have appeared in local newspapers every so often; there’s some dilapidated buildings supposedly part of what was once a WW1- airfield (used by the Germans) and the usual string of monuments with names of the fallen; other than that, it seems as if The Great War went by relatively quietly, in Limburg.

Now as for World War 2, things were a bit different. Off the top of my head, I can’t recall any major battles taking place around these areas (as opposed to Dutch Limburg). Resistance activitities in Belgium, though, are said to have been of substantial proportions (compared to Holland, once more) and Limburg was no exception to this rule. Which is why it makes sense for Russian partisans being able to remain out and about in the middle of what they’d probably call “nowhere”. To be more precise, they called it “Someone else’s country”*.

So, assuming these Russians didn’t arrive here on foot and out of sheer curiosity – how did they end up in a 1942 Limburg, of all places? Easy enough to answer, that one: they had been taken captive during Operation Barbarossa (and later operations, presumably) and were to be used as forced labourers. In effect, they’d been lucky enough to make it past the initial starvation camps, only to end up underground after all – working in the coal mines of As, Waterschei and Eisden (to name a few) under harsh yet bearable conditions, with relatively-weak soldiers and (e.g. Ukrainian) volunteers keeping an eye on them. Escaping from the mine-complexes was the easy part – the true challenge was to stay alive afterwards, making use of improvised, underground huts while stealing or borrowing supplies from the local population.

Surprisingly enough, the Russians eventually managed to slip into the tiny villages and small towns scattered throughout the Limburgish forests, enjoying the occasional sip of alcohol whilst planning the occasional attack on collaborating Belgians (“black forces”, as opposed to the resistance forces largely gathered under a “white” banner). Sometimes they’d take things too far – and that would be the end of a few more lives, just like that. A few lucky souls were sent back to the coal mines, only to escape again shortly thereafter.

Not much of a storyline, then. Still, interesting enough to me personally – someone from around the area described, someone with a (n admittedly rather-sudden) passion for all things Russian and an insatiable thirst for World War 2-knowledge. First off, there’s the intriguing thought of Soviet soldiers actually making it this far into western Europe; I never realized the Nazis had used Russian labourers past their “original” western borders – especially not on a scale like this (we’re talking about several thousand men) under such poor supervision. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s the setting.

I’ve lived here for quite a few years now, so I’m familiar with all the townships, villages, towns and cities mentioned. There’s a lot of familiar-sounding names in there, too – a doctor named like our own local doctor, for instance. And then there’s the forest, on the edge of which our house was built and referred to as “sparsely wooded area” by those partisans of yore. It helps to put things in perspective from time to time, indeed. I’ve always thought of “our” forest as a pretty impressively-sized collection of trees; however, compared to the incomparable vastness of, say, the Siberian taiga… well, “sparsely wooded area” would probably be too mild a description – let’s keep it at that.

Ever since I read “Russians Partisans”, I’ve come to realize that the trails I’m walking on on a daily basis may have been used by (former parts) of the Red Army not too long ago. Every now and then, my imagination will take me for an additional little hike, in hope of discovering one of those underground hiding places or even just a simple Mosim-Nagant bolt handle (never mind how it managed to travel alongside with its supposedly-disarmed owner for thousands of miles). A sudden gust of wind is usually enough to bring me back to reality; a reality in which I only have to take a look across a semi-convex plot of grassland, at the end of which stands an old, still-inhabited farm. Two Russians were executed there at the end of World War 2. I only know this because of a book called “Russians Partisans”, with its bland cover and its seemingly unspectacular contents.

Sometimes, a book can act as a plaque just fine.

* After their repatriation to the Soviet Union, most of the partisans were convicted to labour camps (conditions there probably a lot worse than during their captivity in Belgium) on accusations of “treachery”. The pieced-together memories of those involved have been “translated” into a heavily-fictionalized novel called “(in) Someone else’s country”, written by Abram Wolf.

The resulting book basically acts as a form of reparations for the partisans’ harsh treatment (upon return), making their actions appear very important and heroic in the great scheme of things, with battle scenes much larger in scale than had been the case in reality. As for their fate: some of the partisans were never heard of again, others actually made it back to Limburg (during Khrushchev’s policy of de-stalinization) for a quick polite visit to their benefactors.

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