Stalingrad Hearts by Jeb Greenberg

Mr. Johnson watched as the class shuffled in lethargically, their enthusiasm tempered by the warm spring weather and impending commencement ceremonies.

Most appeared disheveled, with bleary eyes and blank faces signaling the strain imposed by the taxing semester. Though the recent balmy weather was a harbinger for the promise of summer the students’ wardrobes stayed entrenched in the bitterness of winter: baggy sweatshirts and leggings for the women; sweatshirts and joggers for the guys, the only difference being the discarded stocking caps and boots left at home.

Final Exams beckoned the following week, and as the students became inundated with balancing the demands of long-deferred papers and projects with the urgency of studying for finals their faces invariably revealed their stress, the vibrancy and excitement found earlier in the semester disappearing under the competing avalanches of responsibility and 250-word minimum discussion questions.

As the students’ entered the large, modern space some said a quick hello or smiled in Mr. Johnson’s direction; most though made no mention of their arrival or his presence, instead preferring the company of their phones and laptops or the brief respite offered in the undemanding silence. Mr. Johnson took no offense to this though. Though graying and firmly entrenched in middle-age, he still remembered what it felt like to be a student. From the perch of the nondescript wooden desk he watches the scattering procession slowly fill his classroom. The minutes slowly trickle by on the digital clock mounted above the doorway, but Mr. Johnson is in no rush to begin.

He knows it’s a stretch to call this “his” classroom. Though his long-ago education professors had emphasized otherwise – “You must own your space, otherwise you are merely a pawn and toy for the students’ delight,” he remembers them railing, the words forever burned into his consciousness – he knew he was just a passing visitor. As an adjunct professor, he had neither an office or designated classroom, instead roaming the sprawling campus teaching his theories. A nomad, a vagabond, a mercenary-for-hire – all accurate depictions of his career.

This semester he had Philosophy 101; a requirement for all freshman on a humanities track, a cheap and easy elective for most others. The current class is a motley of both depictions. The freshman – still idealistic and hungry for the college experience – normally occupy the front pews of the space. They arrive early and always with their laptops or the new iPad, longhand note-taking being seemingly archaic. They review their notes from the previous session and prepare for the upcoming lecture by skimming the readings again. Their attention is undivided, but their rhetoric is textbook and banal. For Mr. Johnson to extract an original thought from the group takes considerable effort and prodding.

Interspersed throughout the rest of the classroom are the elective-takers, undeclared-majors, and I-need-three-credits-and-this-class-isn’t-in-the-morning students.  Mainly upperclassmen, they arrive – when they do arrive that is, as their attendance is best described as sporadic – with no materials except their phones and questionably-filled “water” bottles on Fridays. Dispersing themselves in groups of two’s and three’s they isolate in the back recesses of the space, preferring anonymity over involvement.

Though their attention is mostly indifferent and their papers full of Wikipedia and Quizlet citations poorly disguised as academia Mr. Johnson enjoys their banter when they do choose to engage. The seniors especially are full of humor and perception and natural wit, seasoned by the rigors of college and supplied with the depth and understanding the idealized experience is supposed to entail. There have been moments that Mr. Johnson has been grateful to them for having broken the drudgery of his mandated course material, the definitions and theories and case studies and introductory bullshit juxtaposed with free-flowing discussions about their actual lives and experiences. As a measure of his gratitude he overlooked their plagiarism and absences and gave them all passing marks.

As Mr. Johnson waits for the last few, straggling students to arrive – looking out the window, he sees the immediate parking lot is at capacity and the students who drove would have to park a half-mile away from the quad – he gazes at the bucolic campus. As if cued by the impatient angst of its population the resurrection of spring had belatedly surfaced. Seemingly overnight the snow melted and the flowers bloomed and the saturation of colors began in earnest. Birds found their voices and lawnmowers roared again after their hibernation. It’s the time of year the campus was at its most aesthetic and one of the few moments Mr. Johnson was truly proud to be associated with such an esteemed university.

Absorbed in appreciation Mr. Johnson doesn’t notice the footsteps that creep into the room, the students that slink in unnoticed. He’s lost in the dynamics of the quad, the enamel of sunshine varnishing the red brick buildings, the allure of the approaching summer. In just a few weeks is his annual risorgimento to the Amalfi Coast. He can almost feel the warm water of the Mediterranean and sniff the smell of the fresh pasta and revel in the hazy stupor of the wine from ingrained memory. The thought brings a smile to his face, as it customarily does.

The memory is tinged with a hint of bitterness though, the unsavory seasoning of the aftereffects of the failed economy. The economists may have declared the recession over, but to the common folk – the people with 401k’s and mortgages with slowly receding interest rates and car payments – the effects still cast a lingering spell. Mr. Johnson reads The Wall Street Journal; he has a digital subscription to The Washington Post. He’s stayed abreast of the economic developments, and though money is a bit tighter than he’d like – thanks to the freeze of his annual, 2% cost-of-living raise – he’s going to be alright. His frugality during the generous years and the augmentation of his salary through freelance assignments has afforded him a measure of reassuring security some of his non-tenured colleagues aren’t privy to. Though his relationships with these colleagues are strictly professional and never veer into the personal, he’s heard the whispers in the communal breakroom, read the bleak Facebook statuses, and seen the Beemers and Mustangs traded for Acuras and Malibus. Even he can deduce the obvious.

Though unfortunate, his sympathy doesn’t lie with these highly-educated, mostly middle-aged white men. Invariably, their demographic will find a way to pull through. His sympathies lie with his students, particularly the soon-to-be graduating ones. Yanked from the incubators of college and thrust into a world where institutions fail and presidents lie and people don’t give a shit about a degree if it doesn’t come with two years of requisite work experience, they’re in for a rude awakening.

He wonders if they – and he is part of that ambiguous and far-reaching they –  have failed them. If his generation – Generation X they’ve been proclaimed – is the cohort that accentuated the downfall of the American economy as the reports are claiming. If their greed and materialism are the reasons the banks have failed; the housing markets crashed; the dollar sunk. Privately, he harbors resentment – and lays the majority of the blame – at the hands of the preceding Baby Boomers, but that’s a needless and speculative argument. It’s not he or they that will suffer the most; it’s them, the naive and blissfully nescient students fidgetly waiting for class to begin.

Mr. Johnson thinks of them as the true victims of this extended recession. He fears their idea of a utopian adulthood – perpetuated by an adolescence watching shows such as Friends – has been ghastly doomed, with the perpetrators of the crime exonerated and allowed to fade into their pre-arranged twilight. Their generation, the oft-maligned ‘millennials’, get to bear the brunt of the mistakes of their predecessors. They get to enter a race that’s already lost, an obstacle course they’re not prepared to scale. They get to chase a dream that’s been indefinitely deferred, possibly even rendered obsolete. Their grandest Manifest Destinies are to simply pay off their student loans before the accumulated interest dwarfs the actual tuition paid for. All their diplomas come with fine print none of them know how to read.

The chattering murmur of the students abruptly interrupts his internal monologue. Instinct tells him it’s past time for class to begin, the undertone of impatient angst palpable in the room. With each passing moment fleeting attention spans are at peril of being irrevocably lost, his lecture doomed to insignificance before the first syllable is even uttered.

Mr. Johnson isn’t naive to the significance of his class in the students’ hierarchy; he understands they have more consequential exams to prepare for than his open-note, open-book final the following week. He fully expects everyone to pass his final and will probably curve the exam to ensure so. Furthermore, wasting their time with needless discourse is of no interest to him, as Italy and the Amalfi Coast immediately awaits him beyond the formality of entering final grades.

Springing to his feet, Mr. Johnson walks notelessly to wooden podium gracing the front of the classroom to deliver his final lecture of the semester.

He stands there silently.

Slowly, the students register his presence, much like how eyes gradually acclimate to the luminescence of light after being shrouded in profound darkness. Conversations end and papers are shuffled away. Laptops are brought out of their bags and powered on with a whoosh. There’s a rhythmic clicking, as pens are opened, closed, then opened again, ready to write down a flurry of last-minute notes. With this being the penultimate class before the final even the most apathetic student is present and attuned today, leading to a full lecture hall, and – as Mr. Johnson thinks honestly – a rapt audience for the first time all semester.

When he securely has their attention, Mr. Johnson makes no attempt to speak. He instead gazes impassively at the students, regarding each one as his optics snake their way through the aisles. Seconds of silence drawl on, each longer and progressively more awkward than the last. The silence becomes unnerving, as the students – so accustomed to the presence of noise in their lives and the steady drone of lecturers in the classrooms – begin to glance at each other uneasily. Someone snickers and a cell phone buzzes and goes unanswered.

The silence is unbecoming of what they’ve come to expect of Mr. Johnson’s class. His classes are built upon discussion and open discourse. Often, he merely plays the moderator to his philosophizing students, with a typical class beginning with the posing of a question or thought and from there letting the argument proceed as it may.

But silence?

No, silence is the antithesis of philosophy, expressly discouraged and penalized in the form of appropriated “participation points.”

A long minute passes.

Angst has grown to registered, visible confusion, evident in their furrowed, questioning brows and whispered conversations. “Is this a test?” “Are we in trouble?” “What the fuck is happening, dude?”

Finally, Mr. Johnson clears his throat and offers a slight smile.

“Who here has heard of the Battle of Stalingrad?”

The students – if possible – regard him even more quizzically than they did during his sustained silence. After sixteen weeks of Socratic Theory and allegorical debate, they’re posed with a question about… Stalingrad?

Tentatively, a smattering of hands raises in acknowledgment.

“Ahh, good,” Mr. Johnson exclaims. “Some of you are aware, I see.”

Puzzled and taken aback by the bizarre start to this last class, the questions begin coming in waves, shouted from all angles of the room:

Aware of what?”

Is this going to be on the final?”

Do we need to take notes?”

Wasn’t Stalingrad a map in Call of Duty?”

With a wave of his hand and the pursing of his lips, Mr. Johnson silences the queries.

“For those of you who don’t know, I’ll provide a brief history lesson. Simply, Stalingrad was the climactic battle of World War Two.” He pauses to let that sink in, though most of their faces don’t register the significance of such a statement.

“Who’s seen Saving Private Ryan?”

A majority of their hands shoot upwards, accompanied by an approving murmur.

“D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy, customarily gets the acclaim, especially in our Western culture. The margins of our history textbooks are filled with the exploits of that fateful day. Hollywood has seized upon that story and mythologized it.”

“But,” and he pauses, in hopes of adding significance to his words, “Stalingrad was undoubtedly more important.”

He strokes his dark, curly hair. “Before Stalingrad, the Nazis – and I use that term purposefully – were considered unbeatable. They were on a path of destruction and domination, with their fascist ideas and racist ideologies driving them onward. Eviscerating Poland. Through France. To the outskirts of Moscow. Wherever Hitler set his eyes upon they conquered, and they plundered, and… and they killed.”

Softy, he adds, “The world was a darker place in those days.”

He pauses again, this time to collect himself before continuing. “And at Stalingrad, which – not to make this too much of a history lesson now – was a critical city because of its access to the wealthy oil reserves of the Caucuses, the plight looked bleak yet again. The Nazis had taken eighty percent of the city by August; the Soviets were disorganized and distraught and their resistance was weakening by the day as they were pushed out of their city. Stalin – their dictator – issued a mandate that made retreat punishable by immediate execution to curb desertion, forcing the remaining Soviet soldiers defending the city seemingly into the unenviable dilemma of death by the Nazis or death at the hands of their own countrymen.”

“With these conditions victory for the Nazis simply looked inevitable,” he admits. “Another bloody rung was to be added to their step-ladder across the continent as their blitzkrieg pushed onward.”

The class looked at Mr. Johnson with eagerness in their eyes for him to continue. Mention of Nazis stoked their attention, as the fascination with their barbarity was ubiquitous.

“But, in one of the greatest maneuvers in modern military history, the Soviets surprised the Nazis with a powerful counter-offensive. Over a million men pushed against the Nazi northern and southern flanks preserving their hold on the city. Lightly defended by a conglomerate of Hungarian, Romanian, and Italian soldiers forced into conscription, the Soviets broke through their lines. Routing them, their success was absolute when their forces met and they had encircled the Nazi 6th Army within Stalingrad.”

“And with that move,” Mr. Johnson says, his face solemn and his voice grave, “the hunters were now the prey.”

A student in the back says, “Woah.”

Stepping from behind the podium, he continues. “To make a long story short, a few months later, the Nazis – or what was left of them – capitulated. The surrender was highly embarrassing to Hitler and his Nazi cronies, while being hugely uplifting to the Allied tripartite. The defeat crippled the Nazis military capabilities, rendering them on the defensive for the remainder of the conflict and precipitating their eventual demise.”

A student raises her hand.

“Yes, Kate,” Mr. Johnson says.

Frowning, she asks, “Why are you telling us this?”

Mr. Johnson smiles.

“Ah yes, the crux of this long-winded monologue,” he says.

He begins to slowly pace the front of the classroom, rubbing his two-day old stubble as he walks. The students’ eyes are glued to him.

“What ultimately makes Stalingrad so memorable isn’t the strategic importance of the battle: it’s the horror that eclipsed the city and the men within it.”

Back-and-forth he paces.

Kate begins to speak again. “You’re not answering the -”

“Shhh!” someone hisses.

“The Soviets strangled the Nazis within the city. Their resupply routes severed, slowly they began to starve. The weather turned cold. Then colder. Men were frightened to go to sleep, having watched their comrades fall asleep in the ghastly Russian winter and never wake again. All the while, some of the most intense combat ever was being waged. Block-by-block the Soviets advanced through their decimated city. Sometimes, the Nazis occupied one floor of a building and the Soviets another, shooting at one another through holes in the floor. It was the absolute manifestation of modern urban warfare.”

Back-and-forth he paces.

He holds up three fingers. “Three days. New soldiers to the city had a lifespan of three days after arriving. However, if you were an enlisted soldier – usually a mere eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, plucked from University and your mother’s home to wage war for the Fuhrer and the Motherland – you survived an average of a day.”

He pauses, speaking slower and softer now. “A. Single. Day,” he says, pausing after each word for emphasis.

Mr. Johnson quits pacing.

“You’re probably wondering what the fuck this has to do with me.”

The expletive catches the students by surprise. Some stare at him, mouth agape at hearing his profanity in such a conservative environment; others suppress giggles.

“During the course of the battle thousands of young, otherwise healthy Nazi soldiers began simply keeling over dead. Perplexed at their sudden deaths, the Nazi High Command airlifted their finest doctors to Stalingrad to conduct autopsies on the corpses. They thawed the frozen bodies. They sliced their hearts open. Instead of blood, a clear, waxy liquid oozed out.”

A sea of young faces waited expectedly. There was nary a sound.

“They died of prolonged stress. Stalingrad Heart, it was later termed.”

Mr. Johnson takes a breath. His vocal cords tickled after such a soliloquy. But he was not quite finished. Not yet.

“It is foolish to compare life to battle. One is horror; one is simply what we make of our existence. But,” he says, wagging a single finger in the air, “a Stalingrad can take many forms.”

He gazes one final time at his class.

“I pray you all have the strength to battle yours.”

 

Jeb Greenberg

 

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

 

One thought on “Stalingrad Hearts by Jeb Greenberg

  1. Hi Jeb,
    I thought this was quite brilliant.
    The lesson and the lesson within the lesson was so poignant and relevant.
    I didn’t know anything about this condition and was fascinated to read about it.
    You have written a story around events that must be told, remembered and learnt from. Sadly only two of those will apply.
    I am looking forward to reading more of your work.
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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