Ivan Lobanovitz was my enemy.
Not only was he my enemy, he was the enemy of my country—the enemy against whom my father was fighting somewhere in the Karelian Isthmus. Oh, I knew it wasn’t Ivan Lobanovitz’s bullets my father was dodging over there—at least not anymore—but somebody just like him. You see, Ivan Lobanovitz was a prisoner of war, a Russian prisoner of war.
The year 1943 was a horrible year for the little spunky country of Finland, which was making a truly valiant effort to fight an enemy 50 times more powerful. The war was dragging on. The years of fighting had left their marks. Even though all school children 15 and older were required to spend most of their summer vacation laboring on farms producing food, it was not enough. They could not replace the experienced farmers, and the situation had become very serious indeed. War is fought within the country as well as on the front lines, because the army that doesn’t eat cannot fight.
But sitting idly in prisoner-of-war camps was a large group of able-bodied men eating up the ever-dwindling food supply. Soon someone came up with the idea of using them as the badly needed farm work force. These prisoners were carefully selected—fanatics and extremists were weeded out—and the men were placed in larger and more productive farms where there was at least one man, however old, who could handle such a person. The plan was desperate, and even dangerous, but so was the situation.
When I first saw Ivan I told myself that he was an enemy. He might have killed many dads like mine and many brothers like my friend Eila’s. I wanted to hate him. The problem was, Ivan didn’t look like an enemy, or what I thought an enemy should look like. He was just an ordinary man. Not handsome, not ugly, just a man like any other. He was large with a nondescript face and sad eyes, and his hair was “any-color” brown. When he came to my grandfather’s household he was 32 years old.
Hating Ivan was difficult, and soon I gave it up. He didn’t know any Finnish, and none of us knew any Russian. Since he was a very quiet person our communication was almost nonexistent. My grandfather had been in Butte, Montana, years before as a mining boss and had learned to give commands without knowing the other person’s language, so he was well qualified to work with Ivan. Ivan did the work as best he could. He never said much. Soon he had blended in with the family and other farm workers so well that we all but forgot his “strangeness.” But he had to wear the hat and jacket of a prisoner, and the big V on his back reminded us that he was a vanki.
Ivan was always hungry. Farm workers are usually hefty eaters, but none of us had ever seen anyone with an appetite like Ivan. As long as it was edible, Ivan ate it. The food was always very simple. In the morning we had a huge pot of mush, often made of rye or barley flour. It tasted very good eaten with fresh milk and butter. There was always some left over, and at supper time that cold mush was given to Ivan. He ate that and then joined with the rest of us and devoured enormous amounts of potatoes and gravy, or thick stew, or whatever. Even today when any of us is very hungry, instead of saying, “I could eat a horse,” we say, “I could eat an Ivan’s portion!”
Ivan loved children and spent much of his limited spare time with my uncle’s little ones. In time he had learned a few Finnish words and was able to communicate to us that he had had a wife and two children of his own, but that they had all died in one horrible night when his small town in the Ukraine had been bombed. That explained the sadness of his eyes. We also learned that he had worked in a shirt factory and had hardly even seen a farm before.
I had long since stopped trying to hate Ivan. It just wasn’t possible to do so. “Faceless” people can be enemies, but once the enemy takes on a face the enmity often ceases to exist. Besides, Ivan himself had no hate in him. He slept in the main house with access to any room at any time of the day. It never occurred to any of us that he could be dangerous.
One day a man paid a surprise visit to check on the prisoners. Ivan was wearing his V jacket, but instead of his prisoners’ hat he was wearing a regular worker’s beanie which my grandfather had given him. The man grabbed that hat from Ivan’s head, threw it on the ground, and jumped on it screaming and hollering. I wanted to kick him, but I witnessed the commotion from the upstairs window too far to do anything about it.
It was a constant wonder to Ivan that the Finns were so “civilized.” His eyes had not been gouged out nor had any other such atrocities been inflicted upon him, as he had been told would happen if he was taken as a prisoner. He had been taught to fight to win or die but never to give himself up.
One evening Ivan found a little children’s book depicting the war. Brave little mice were chasing the cowardly and ugly rats and beating them easily. With the red star insignia on the rat’s helmets they were easily identified as Russians. Ivan studied the book with his normal seriousness, then suddenly burst into a roar of laughter. With his few words of Finnish and familiar gestures, he explained that they, too, had books like that—but, of course, the Finns were depicted as the rats.
In late July we were cutting hay in the fields several miles from Grandpa’s other lands and away from other people. We had worked there late the night before and left a large wagon full of hay in front of the big shed. Ivan was to come in the morning before the rest of the crew and fork it in. In those days the hay was not baled as it is now.
The next morning I was sent with Ivan to work in the shed, to push the hay further as it came in and also tread on it so it would be packed tighter. My family were not thoughtless, uncaring or even stupid; it just never occurred to any of us that we could have been asking for trouble.
We worked hard and fast that morning, because the faster we worked the longer we had before the rest of the crew arrived. After the hay was all in and trampled tight, we found a shady spot to rest and enjoy the food we had brought. I cut and buttered the bread and Ivan poured the milk. We ate in silence mostly. Occasionally I pointed to something and Ivan said it in Russian and I tried to repeat it to his amusement. But when I said it in Finnish and he tried to repeat it, it was my turn to be amused.
When we had finished and I had started to put the food away, Ivan asked for a knife. Without the slightest hesitation I handed the big leather-sheathed knife to him. I do remember the long look he gave me when he held the knife in his hand and slowly unsheathed it. Then he reached for the bread that was still on the cloth between us, cut a large piece, handed the knife back to me, and went to feed the horse.
I will never know what thoughts went through his head at that moment. I certainly didn’t think anything of it—then. But years later, after becoming aware of the harm that human beings are capable of doing to one another, I shudder inwardly at my childish trust.
I was a girl of 15 whose father Ivan knew to be an army officer fighting against his people. He could have killed me, taken the knife and the food basket, and run into the nearby forest. More than 2/3 of Finland is covered by thick forests. That late in summer they would have been full of wild berries so that even a man of Ivan’s appetite could have survived there for some time. By shedding his V jacket he would have looked like any other man. He would have had to be lucky and very clever, but it would not have been impossible for him to make it to the Russian border.
When the time came to exchange the prisoners of war and Ivan had to leave us, he cried like a child. He was afraid that all the prisoners would be shot at the border. We tried to reassure him, and he promised to write. He even said he would send us a boxful of Ukrainian apples, which were “big as human heads.”
I don’t know if he made it home. Maybe he just got busy with his life, because we never heard from him again.
I have often wondered why he didn’t take the chance to escape when he had it that July morning. I have come to the conclusion that Ivan was a truly good man. Having traveled a lot I know there are millions and millions of these quiet “Ivans” all over the world.
I believe that Ivan had that innate goodness that allows a person to embrace eagerly the gospel message. I wish I had known about the gospel then. Maybe someday, when the borders are open to our missionaries, someone will find Ivan and introduce him to the gospel. I hope so.
You see, although he was an enemy, Ivan Lobanovitz, wherever he is, is my friend.