We arrive outside Stalingrad. I say to my counterpart on the other side, "If you but had a place we might rest?" His eyebrows furrow.
I am a Wermacht artillery officer with my company. We don't want any trouble. We are here because we were sent, I say. I see, says Ivan. Well, there is this recently vacated boys military school.
It is a block of stalags somewhere in the Yurals. We drive there in our tracked vehicles, unpack all our gear. There is coal, and some grub. We build a fire and settle in to wait out the winter. From where we are, there isn't a cannon to be heard.
Is there a telegraph? One of my troop is an operator. Well, yes, says Ivan. We locate it, and I begin dictating battle reports.
It is bitter cold, and hard slogging in the mountains. The snow falls and the tracks freeze, and you cannot cross over the bodies in the hard rain.
Two words crackle back. How many? I carefully report, too many to count. We cannot tell the corpses from other berms and won't know until the thaw. We are holding on for the Fatherland. The operator cackles at this.
The Vladistaya Valley is a narrow gorge between rivers I'm told will be running swift with trout come spring. The sun is trapped between the ridges and it is very warm early and long for this climate. It must be held at all costs. It's far superior to Berchesgarten.
Ivan looks quizically at me sometimes, but he doesn't interfere. We are far less trouble than most Germans.
In the Vladistaya, there is a wealth of wheat and even fruit trees in summer. It is superior to the Yukraine. It is so prized that Stalin does not allow it onto any maps. The local citizens trust us now. They bring us eggs and milk. It is a tribute to the Hitler Youth we are so diplomatically successful. There is chocolate for our coffeee some mornings.
As the hard winter grows toward its end, Ivan says., well, now, you must know, there is no such place as the Vladistaya Valley.
And I say, no, of course not, and we're never leaving it neither.