Feed your enemy

Feed your enemy

My maternal grandfather was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was only twenty when World War I broke out and soon, as a musician with a young wife and a year old baby, he found himself in the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Galician (Eastern) front, sitting in a fox hole, clutching not his beloved violin but a loaded gun and waiting for the next attack of the gargantuan Russian Imperial Forces.

My maternal grandfather was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was only twenty when World War I broke out and soon, as a musician with a young wife and a year old baby, he found himself in the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army on the Galician (Eastern) front, sitting in a fox hole, clutching not his beloved violin but a loaded gun and waiting for the next attack of the gargantuan Russian Imperial Forces.

He was captured and kept as a POW for sixteen years in Siberia, unable to send home any sign of life. A decade later, being officially declared dead, his name was carved on the fallen heroes’ memorial of his village. Grandfather’s eventual arrival home was as unceremonious as his departure. Opening the door, grandmother saw a disheveled beggar insisting, “I’m your husband”. She fainted.

As a boy I heard many fascinating stories from him. There was a favorite one in which a brave soldier, compelled by conscience, fed his enemy and certainly influenced the outcome of the War. Today, when armed conflicts are raging again, remembering this unknown hero seems appropriate.

The brutality of World War I cannot be overemphasized. Modern weapons used with outdated military strategies meant hand-to-hand combat for millions of soldiers with staggering numbers of wounded and dead. The War soon turned into a trench warfare, freezing the lines between huge armies for years to come.

It was a miserable experience to live in a dugout. The soldiers could not drain and clean the trench after every shower, which turned it into a putrid sewer of floating garbage and human waste. Standing in filthy water and mud in ordinary leather boots caused painful foot infections. Such an environment was good only for the rat population.

If life inside the trench was inhumane it was much worse on the outside. The ditches of the adversarial armies, which ran parallel to each other, were separated only by a few hundred feet. They were the feared no man’s land, the killing field where most of the mutual butchering took place. Sharpshooters, hiding behind sandbags watched the opposite side and an accidentally raised arm or head immediately triggered a rain of bullets.

The Russian Imperial Forces were rich in manpower but poor in equipment. Their high command, led by the Tsar himself, gave no value to human lives as they tried to overrun enemy trenches. In the wee hours, suddenly thousands of Russians would climb out from the relative safety of their ditches and with guns in hand would try to race across the divide before being hit. Behind them was the second row of attackers without guns. They had to take their weapons from fallen comrades and run a few steps before death arrived. Then came the third, the fourth, and often a tenth unarmed line of humanity.

Such senseless attacks turned into a sheer extermination that lasted for hours. There was no need for aiming on the Austro-Hungarian side; just shoot toward the defenseless approaching Russians. The only time the shooting stopped was when guns got red hot from the constant firing. The bloody strip was covered with the thick smoke of gunpowder, which cloaked the final agony of thousands of screaming soldiers. This memory of mountains of dead haunted Grandfather for the rest of his life.

By the second Christmas, both sides were at the end of their endurance. The infamous Russian winter, coupled with a meager food and clothing supply, had already taken its toll on the soldiers. The Austro-Hungarian High Command, as a Christmas gift, gave a freshly baked loaf of bread to each of their soldiers. It was received with great joy. The smell, the texture and taste of that bread took them back home to their loved ones, to a warm room and clean bed, to a table loaded with food. Many decided to consume the gift in tiny bites to make it last longer.

A farmer boy from Transylvania had a different idea.

“In our village at Christmas we are supposed to make peace with our enemy”, he said “You take food to that person to show your good will.”

“I guess, I should take this bread to our enemies, the Russians.”

Then he called out, “Does anybody here knows the name of bread in Russian?”

“It’s Hleba” yelled back someone.

Before anyone could stop him, he raised the loaf over his head, higher then the top line of the trench, and yelled as loudly as he could, “Hleba, hleba!”

No bullets came. To the Russian peasants the meaning of bread was the same as to the Hungarians. It was the gift of a caring God, a sacred source of life, something you must kiss before you cut. Shooting the bread would have been the same as shooting your own mother.

Before long, the Transylvanian was standing outside the trench and slowly walking toward the Russian line, clutching that loaf as an only shield against instant death. By now hundreds of curious heads on both sides were watching the unfolding event. Reaching the middle of the strip our man stopped; but kept repeating the life-saving word, “Hleba, hleba!”

Then a miracle took place. A Russian climbed out of his trench and carefully walked to the Hungarian. At this point an almost fatal mistake occurred. The man with the bread reached under his coat and pulled out a huge knife. A cry went up from the Russian side. It faded only when he cut a large slice of bread and with a big smile, handed it to his “enemy”.

Within minutes hundreds of men followed the example. The killing field, where thousands had met their violent death and every square inch was soaked in human blood, turned into an island of peace and reconciliation. To the Hungarian bread, the Russians brought sausage and bacon, shared tobacco and (what an absurdity!) drank vodka to each other’s good health. They even showed pictures of their loved ones: the babies, the bald little boys, the small girls with a large beret and the scared-looking wives, all waiting for father’s safe return. Later, they had a singing competition and played music together. Those innocent strangers who were damned by some distant interest to massacre each other, to live on death row, to be hangman and victim at the same time – became friends. It was a wonderful Christmas.

Only later it became known why the officers from both sides had been absent from such a momentous event. They desperately had called their commanders for instructions. The Russians reacted first. Using all means, they were ordered to stop such a gathering because it was harming the fighting spirit of the Imperial troops. Immediately officers appeared, and ordered the soldiers back to their trenches. Those who moved slowly or not at all were whipped. (The wicked leather lash called “kanchuka” was part of an officer’s standard equipment.)

The Austro-Hungarian leadership responded even more harshly. They coined a name for the “crime” committed by their soldiers: ‘befriending the enemy’. It was defined as an act of high treason, a serious offence that required an instant court marshal.

Though at this time the soldiers obeyed their superiors, the news of this extraordinary event spread like a bush-fire along the hundreds of miles of trenches. Despite the orders, illegal contacts between the soldiers increased to the point that eventually the entire Eastern front collapsed, – as did the Russian Empire.

There are no historic studies or research that would demonstrate any connection between the act of one brave man and the outcome of World War I but the people of faith know that the Lord of History could use even a loaf of bread to direct world events!

It is certain, however, that the psychology of warfare used in today’s conflicts gained its first lessons in that War. Namely,

1. Leaders must continuously demonize the enemy to keep troops fighting.
2. Then prevent them from discovering a human face on that foe.

Otherwise, soldiers do more “harm” than shooting – they cease shooting.


Laslo Medyesy

Laslo Medyesy is a missionary with the Reformed Church in Hungary, based in Budapest, Hungary. He serves as professor of theology in the Department of Theology of the Gaspar Karoli Reformed University in Budapest.