A Train Ride with History
It is not often that you meet a World War II veteran anymore. And it’s probably even less likely that you share a train car with one in Azerbaijan. And this is the situation I found myself in Thursday night on my train ride from Lənkəran to Baku. I’m also not someone who relishes travel for the opportunity to talk with fellow travelers and locals, so my engaging in conversation with this veteran was even more unlikely.
Yet, it happened. I want to put my veteran friend’s name here, but I can barely pronounce it, much less spell it. It was something like Möhüfüzə (any Azeri natives can help with that name, is it close?) I got on the train and Mo was already there, sitting on his lower bunk. Mo is an old guy. He was hunched over a bit, leaning an arm on his knee, his pressed black pants and white long-sleeve buttondown wrapping around his portly frame. As I entered and greeted Mo, extending my hand, he sat up and shook with his left hand, the one he had been leaning on. His right hand doesn’t exist; his entire right arm was gone. I sat down and we both started complaining about how hot it was on the train (the air conditioning, if it’s working, only works while the train is moving; since Lənkəran is the first stop, it hadn’t had much time to cool off the car).
After I looked out the window for a while, just outside our room, I sat back down and Mo and I went through the normal greetings. And I learned that he is the owner of the Veteran’s Club in Lənkəran, a place in Dosa Park in the center of the city where old men go to play games like backgammon and chess and to drink tea. It turns out that Mo was heading to Baku for a conference with another 100 or so veterans, though he wasn’t very specific about what they were going to conference about. He’s from Vilvan, a village just north of Lənkəran city in the foothills of the mountains, just after Girdəni, right before Ösakücə. He had been a school director there for decades after his three years of military service and a few years working in the collective farms of the Soviet Union.
This is good information, but the interesting stuff came in the morning, when we had about 40 minutes left in our train ride as the sun was coming up. I asked Mo about his time in the military, his service in the war. In addition to his losing his right arm, he also showed me a place on his neck where he had been shot. He told me that he served in the Red Army from the beginning of 1943 to the end of 1946. And that he had served in the North Caucasus, Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and Belarus. I’m not up on my history of WWII in these areas, but Mo went on to tell me that while in Belarus, they came upon the mass graves of thousands of people in the city of Pinsk. He estimated it at about 22,000 people in those graves. That is stunning.
As I said, I’m not up to snuff on my WWII history here, so I had to talk about this with a few people and check out what I could find on Wikipedia pages. After a bit of research, I think we’ve figured out that Stalingrad and Belarus were two of the most violent theaters of the war. Belarus was marched over multiple times by the Germans and the Russians, the Nazis carrying out a scorched earth campaign as they retreated in the face of the Red Army. Pinsk in Belarus was a site of a massacre by the Nazis who liquidated a Jewish ghetto, killing as many as 10,000 people in one day, approximately 24,000 people total (in a city with a population of 30,000). Stalingrad was the site of a battle that totaled nearly two million deaths from both sides, among the most brutal and costly battles in recorded history.
I would like to be able to say more about this, but there isn’t much, really. I just spent a night on a train with a man who saw more horror in a couple of years than I’ve seen, or will likely see, in my life. He was chatty and friendly, and seemed pretty sharp. He told me the number of his unit was 28-83. After getting off the train, we walked slowly, him a bit hunched over as he shuffled along. We stopped at a bench to rest for a few minutes, as it’s tough for him to walk for longer stretches. As we were sitting there another veteran friend he knows named Atabala, from the neighboring region of Masallı, walked by and he called to him. I was introduced, they exchanged a few laughs, and we all got up to walk on to the end of the train platform. I said my goodbyes and left them as they sat down to tea, the sun just coming up over them as the morning set in.