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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Girl's Pleading Eyes Strip Revenge of All Appeal

My cousin Lyova from Odessa joined the army as a volunteer in the first days of World War II. The Nazis shipped his parents off to concentration camps along with the rest of my many relatives who weren't evacuated in time. They were all executed.

When Lyova learned of this he, like many others who lost family or friends, swore to avenge their deaths.

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In the spring of 1945, after a relentless and bloody campaign, my cousin's regiment crossed the Polish border and entered the first village abandoned by the enemy. That evening, when the fighting died down, the order was given to stop for the night and get some shut-eye. But Lyova and his buddies weren't interested in sleeping. They had waited four long years for this moment.

"You lost more than anyone; you go first," Lyova's comrades told him.

Two soldiers volunteered to accompany Lyova. They stopped outside a small two-story house on the edge of town. The door was locked, so they knocked, first with their fists, then with rifle-butts. They heard footsteps inside and the door opened. On the threshold stood an elderly German with a kerosene lamp.

After letting Lyova in he hurried up the steep staircase, muttering something in German all the while.

Upstairs in the darkness a woman shrieked, terrified at the sight of a Soviet soldier. In the dim glow of the lamp Lyova saw a gray-haired old woman and a young girl of 12 or so.

Just like my sister, Lyova thought. She probably looked at her executioners with the same terror in her eyes when they came to our house.

The room was in shambles, with broken dishes and glass on the floor. "Russian soldiers," the old man said in German. "Why did they do this? What for?"

Mixing Russian words with the German he remembered from grade school, Alyosha shouted: "Why? What for? Are you serious? Be thankful we didn't kill you." Raising his rifle he added, "Yet."

The old woman, sensing the danger, roused herself and handed Lyova a letter. "From my son at the front. He's a kind boy," she said, and told how her son had shared his rations with hungry children in Ukraine.

"I have a letter, too," Lyova said menacingly. "From a friend in Odessa. About how the Germans murdered my family. You understand?" Lyova shouted, cocking his gun. But he already knew that he wouldn't shoot. Avenge whom? Not revenge. A merciless battle with enemy soldiers, but not with this old German, or the old woman shaking with fear, or the girl, on her knees and begging a soldier not to shoot her.

"And I didn't shoot," my cousin told me after the war. "I couldn't. The other soldiers who had stayed outside didn't say anything when I came out. They understood."

Vladislav Schnitzer is a journalist and pensioner living in Moscow.