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  Texas : Features : Ghosts / World War II :

"Letters from Russia"
Our Little Hero

by James L. Choron

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James L. Choron
Editor's note: Author James Choron writes: "This isn't a "Texas" story, but it's one that I think Texans will identify with. A "different kind of war story", it's one of the saddest, but most heroic paranormal cases I've ever dealt with." "The photo shown below was taken about eight years after the end of the war and has been verified by the Eastman Kodak Professional Laboratory as authentic. Although both parents are still living, the family has never seen the photo. The man who [has the negative] is a friend, and thinks that it would be too traumatic for them."

Former East Texan James Choron shares this poignant and unforgettable story that has its origins in WWII. It was sent to coincide with what Americans used to call VE Day for Victory in Europe. Mr. Choron states that the Soviet-U.S.-British Victory over Germany remains the second-most celebrated holiday in the Soviet Union. - Ed.
Our little hero Our Little Hero

Photo of the Cherkirov family taken in the early 1950s. Note upper right hand corner.
Klyzma is one of the dozens of tiny villages that make up the region known as Podmoskovi, which literally means, "below Moscow" or "outside of Moscow". It is an old place, dating to the middle of the 15th century. In recent years, however, it has become, like all of the surrounding towns and villages, a "bedroom community" for the capitol, populated by mid and upper level business people and civil servants who don't mind the twenty minute commute into Moscow, in exchange for peace and quiet and "good air". These "new people" reside side by side with families who have lived in Klyzma for generations some for centuries. In the mid forties, a period which many people refer to as the "late unpleasantness", Klyzma had other guests, who were not quite as welcome. The little town was part and parcel of a strip of land that changed hands between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army on a weekly, sometimes hourly basis. Like Mamontovka, Pushkina and Tratovka, it sits on the Ucha River. It's value to the warring armies resided in the fact that the village was located at a natural ford, a point on the river which was shallow enough to cross without a bridge.

Klyzma, like most of the other villages in this area has one main street, which is more-or-less paved, half a dozen tiny shops and kiosks, and about that many houses. It has a school that was built around the turn of the century, five or six apartment buildings which were constructed in the late forties and early fifties, and a cemetery, which sits off by itself on the western fringe of the village, surrounded by a grove of fir trees, and is connected to the town by a narrow, winding, one lane dirt road that leads ultimately to the village church.

Every afternoon, about sundown, if you pass the cemetery, you will see an elderly couple with a small girl standing in the cemetery. The old couple tends a tiny grave, surrounded by a wrought iron fence, while the child quietly plays in the snow or in the dirt depending on the season. They are there every day, rain or shine. It's a touching site, the old man and old woman appear to be in their late seventies the little girl, about six or seven. If you look closely, you will see that the man's left hand is stiff, and motionless, shrouded in single, black leather glove. The woman helps him lift things that his artificial limb can't manage.

The grave that they tend has a simple monument, one of the few which has no likeness of the deceased attached to it. Instead, it bears the simple inscription, "Cherkirova, Valentina Borisovna, 18 April, 1935 - 25 June, 1941". Beneath this line it says simply "Our Little Hero". Around the stone, hanging by a tattered red ribbon, hangs the solid gold star of the Order of Hero of the Soviet Union.

The medal does not belong to little Valentina, but it should. It was won by her father, the man. Boris Cherkirov was foreman of the Klyzma Tractor Factory in the wartime years. Because of his missing left hand lost in an accident in the factory, several years before the war, he was not called into the Red Army when the Germans invaded Russia in May of 1941. Instead, he and his wife, who also worked in the factory, stayed at their posts, and with the rest of those who were either too old, too young or too lame, kept the factory going producing tank motors instead of tractors.

Little Valentina was gathering berries on the outskirts of the village, one afternoon in late June, when she heard a strange sound. It sounded like the tractors that her daddy's factory made, only lots of them… dozens, maybe even a hundred. She had never seen so many tractors before, so she climbed up on a small hill to take a look. Tanks. The first wave of the mighty German juggernaut was advancing toward Klyzma, and the ford of the Ucha river as part of their attempt to encircle Moscow.

Valentina, of course, did not know this, but she knew what a tank was. She had seen them in the parades that her father had taken her to in Moscow on Revolution Day. She also knew that her country was at "war" although she really didn't understand exactly what "war" was. She saw the black crosses on the sides of the tanks, and knew, from what her father had told her, that they were German the "Nimitzim" and she knew exactly what to do. Her daddy had told her. She had to let the village know that they were coming.

The village of Klyzma, like all villages in the area, had an old, hand cranked siren, mounted on a short platform, that was used to summon the fire brigade, when there was a blaze in the tiny town. It could be heard all over the surrounding area, and was never used, except in an emergency.

Valentina jumped up from where she was and ran to the platform, which was in the center of the village. She climbed quickly up the steps, and then, with all of her baby strength, swung down on the rusty carank. At first it moved slowly. She hung there, in the air, for a split second, her tiny feet not quite touching the ground… The crank handle was above her head, and it took all of her weight to get it to move at all. Finally… slowly… the crank began to swing, and the siren began to let our it's low, mournful cry. In the factory, on the other side of the village, Boris, his wife, and the rest of the workers heard the sound, dropped what they were doing and ran to investigate.

Once out of the factory, the rumble of the tank motors was unmistakable. While Boris and most of the workers ran to get the weapons that the Government had left for them for just such an emergency Valentina's mother desperately cranked at the single telephone in the factory to summon help. The first 75mm shell struck the signal tower just as Boris and his workers came into view. At the time, they had no idea who was giving the alarm. No body was ever found. Grimly, they dug in, and fought off the Germans until the Red Air Force came to the rescue with a flight of "Stormovik" dive bombers. It was only a company, thank God. They were able to hold.

In the confusion, no one thought to look for little Valentina. It was simply assumed that she had hidden somewhere, as she had been taught to do, and would come home as soon as she saw that it was safe. It was not until the next day that they discovered who had sounded the alert, and in doing so, saved the village. In the ashes and rubble of the shell l crater that had once been the signal tower, a stunned father found his little girl's pail and one of her tiny shoes.

Boris Cherkirov won the Order of Hero of the Soviet Union that day, for his part in leading his factory workers in their dogged defense of Klyzma. After the war was over, He quietly hung the medal around his only child's headstone.

Sit and watch as the old couple tends the grave. Watch closely as the little girl who is with them plays at their feet. Then when they go, watch little Valentina wave goodbye to her parents, and slowly vanish into the mist that forms around her tiny grave. You see, the Cherkirov's can't see her. They don't know that she's there, but everyone else does.

© James L. Choron
May 1, 2004

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