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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193

In the year 1917, the Russians were nearly beaten, and the Germans contented themselves with consolidating their hold on Russian territory from Riga south through Poland. With the end of the bitter fighting, a camaraderie grew up between the German soldiers and their Russian prisoners. Even so, Sergeant Grischa Iljitsch Paprotkin was determined to escape. His work was not difficult, and his cheerful strength had made him foreman of the labor gang and a general favorite with his German captors. Grischa, however, thinking of his wife and son far to the east, made his plans as he loaded lumber into freight cars on the railroad siding. He made a tunnel in the car, a wooden tunnel about the size of a coffin. That night, he succeeded in concealing himself in his hideout. Before daybreak, the train pulled out of the station. Grischa did not know it, but his train went far to the south. After four days, the train came to a stop. With his stolen pliers, Grischa opened the door and walked cautiously away from the railroad tracks. Guided only by his small compass, he set his path toward the east.

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The thick underbrush made traveling difficult. Somewhere along the route Grischa picked up an old umbrella. By binding several ribs together with a string and using a long thong, he had a serviceable bow. Another rib made an arrow. With patient waiting, he could shoot rabbits in the snow, and he seldom went hungry. One day he came to the blasted area of a battlefield, where he built a fire in a ruined dugout and heated snow to make water for a bath. Taking off his upper clothes, Grischa stretched out and began to wash himself.

Two people, attracted by his fire, surprised him in his retreat. One was a Russian soldier, a deserter, and the other was Babka, a small, dirty woman whose gray hair justified her name, “Grandmother.” Both were armed. After they became acquainted, Grischa knew he was in luck, for they were the leaders of a band of refugees camped comfortably nearby in a wooden house made from old German dugouts. Grischa stayed with the refugees the rest of the winter. He cut wood energetically and traded in the villages of friendly peasants. He slept with Babka, who was young and vital under her misshapen clothes. Three years of war had turned her hair gray. Under the shrewd leadership of Babka by day, and warmed in her bed at night, Grischa became strong again.

The band of refugees scattered in the spring. Grischa and two companions were the first to leave. Grischa felt reasonably safe. Babka had given him the identification tag of a dead Russian soldier, and he called himself by a new name. He was no longer Grischa Paprotkin, an escaped prisoner, but Sergeant Pavlovitsch Bjuscheff, a deserter from the Russian army who was trying to get back to the Russian lines.

In Mervinsk, the Germans had established military headquarters. With little fighting to be done, the rivalry between field troops and the military police grew more bitter. The troops under old General von Lychow were technically in charge of the town, but the military police under General Schieffenzahn had been stationed in Mervinsk so long that Schieffenzahn had consolidated his hold on the whole district. Von Lychow was a Prussian, a stern man but just and compassionate; Schieffenzahn was an upstart more concerned with power.

Outside the city stood several rows of small wooden villas. Many of them now housed German officers. Grischa, gaunt and dirty, came upon these villas one day and hid in an empty one. A few days later, alert military police discovered him there. The man called Bjuscheff was not really afraid at his trial. Even when they said he must be a spy because he had spent so many months behind the German lines, he was easy in his mind. They would merely hold him prisoner a little while in the town of Mervinsk. Surely the war would end soon. The court, however, declared that a Russian deserter who, according to his own story, had wandered about in German territory for nearly two years was by definition a spy. Sergeant Bjuscheff was condemned to die. Scarcely understanding what he was told, Grischa was led back to his cell. When the truth dawned on him, he called out so violently that an officer came to quiet the disturbance. Grischa told the officer his whole story. He was not Bjuscheff the deserter, but Grischa the escaped prisoner.

Ponsanski, a famous Jewish lawyer and aide to General von Lychow, questioned the prisoner. Impressed by the story of changed identity but interested only from a legal point of view, Ponsanski collected all the evidence he could and went to von Lychow. With the general’s permission, two guards who had known Grischa in his former prison camp went all the way to Mervinsk and identified him. With legal logic, Ponsanski claimed that the court-martial decision should be set aside. All the evidence, depositions, and signatures were put in a neat packet and forwarded to Schieffenzahn with a request that the Komandatur indicate which military court now had jurisdiction over the case of Sergeant Grischa.

In some way, Babka learned where Grischa was imprisoned. Walking barefoot, she went to Mervinsk in the disguise of a peddler woman. She was now carrying Grischa’s child. Her plan was simple: She would bring berries and fruit to the post to sell to the Germans. She would get in to see Grischa. Then, after she had become a familiar visitor, she would poison the guards’ schnapps. With the Germans dead, Grischa could walk out a free man once more. Grischa, however, would not agree to her plan. He knew that all of his papers had been sent away for final judgment. Anyway, the war would soon be over.

When Grischa’s papers went to the Komandatur, they came before Wilhelmi, his aide. Knowing the temper of Schieffenzahn, Wilhelmi recommended that Grischa be executed. When that advice became known in Mervinsk, von Lychow was indignant. A new request was forwarded to Schieffenzahn. Schieffenzahn grew weary of the affair. Hearing that von Lychow was coming to see him, he sent a telegram ordering Grischa’s execution within twenty-four hours. Von Lychow protested. Because the old Prussian had influence at court, Schieffenzahn telegraphed a reprieve.

That telegram was never delivered in Mervinsk because of a snowstorm. Grischa knew at last that he would be shot. When Babka brought in the poisoned schnapps, he poured the drink down the drain. He was shot according to Schieffenzahn’s orders, and he died like a soldier after digging his own grave. His child with Babka was born just after his death. In Berlin, von Lychow smarted. He drew up the full particulars of the case and presented his report to the emperor. The kaiser promised to demote Schieffenzahn, but his mind was distracted by a present of a jeweled casket. Because of the kaiser’s joy in a new toy, Schieffenzahn got off with a light reprimand. The case of Sergeant Grischa was closed.

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