The Last Green Valley Page 1

Author: Mark T. Sullivan

Genres: Historical , Fiction


People told me I would never find another untold World War II story like that of Pino Lella, the hero and basis of my historical novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I honestly believed I would, however, and paid close attention to the dozens of letters and pitches I received from people telling me other stories from that time period.

They were all wonderfully interesting in their way. But none of them matched my criteria, which were that the underlying tale had to be inherently moving, inspiring, and potentially transformative to me and so to readers.

Then, in November 2017, I was asked to speak about Pino to the noontime Rotary Club in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. A retired dentist came up to me afterward to outline a story a local man had told him. It caught my attention immediately.

Two days later, I put the man’s address in my GPS and saw it was less than two miles from my own. The closer I got, I felt odd, and I had no idea why. It wasn’t until I pulled into his driveway and got out of my car that I realized I was no more than two hundred yards away from the home where I’d first heard Pino Lella’s story nearly eleven years before. That story changed my life.

I went to the door, knocked, and my life changed again.

Within fifteen minutes of listening to the particulars of the story of the Martel family, I was more than interested. By the end of two hours, I believed I had a tale to tell that would be a worthy successor to the tale that inspired Beneath. And I’d heard it in the same little neighborhood where I’d first heard Pino’s story. What were the odds of that?

For the next fifteen months after that first meeting, I interviewed survivors and researched and traveled to critical locations in the story, including the ruins of an abandoned farmhouse in deeply rural, far-western Ukraine. From there, I retraced the dangerous and remarkable journey of a young family of refugees on the run westward in a wagon with two horses, often caught between the retreating German armies and the advancing Soviets in the final chaotic year of World War II.

I trailed the Martels’ route through present-day Moldova, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, where the way split: one continuing west and another doubling back east more than eleven hundred miles to the former site of a deadly Soviet POW camp set in the bleak postwar rubble near the Ukrainian border with Belarus.

Along the way, I interviewed participants and eyewitnesses to the “Long Trek,” as well as Holocaust, military, and refugee historians, who helped me to understand the context in which the Martels’ story unfolded and why. I also listened to the recordings of people, long dead, describing the ordeal and felt in awe of the grit, humanity, and spirit they showed in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and odds.

Even though I had all that information and understanding when I sat down to write this book, there were holes in the tale not completely explained by the limited material I had to rely on.

To bridge those gaps, I have been forced to draw on my own suspicions and imagination to bring the story more fully to life. What you are about to read, then, is not narrative nonfiction, but historical fiction based on an extraordinary tale of World War II and its aftermath.

As I am finishing this novel, the world is engulfed in the crisis of a century, and the way forward seems as dangerous and unclear as it must have been for the Martels when they set out on their journey. It is my dream that their story will give comfort and courage to the afflicted and a better understanding of what ordinary people can endure and achieve even when all seems lost.



Chapter One

Late March 1944

Romanian Governorate of Transnistria

A cold wind blew in the dawn light. Bombs echoed from the north and east. The rumble of war was getting closer by the minute.

Twenty-eight-year-old Adeline Martel struggled out the back door of her kitchen in heavy winter clothes, carrying a crate full of cooking utensils toward a covered wagon harnessed to two dray horses in front of her modest home in the remote, tiny farming village of Friedenstal.

A damaged German Panzer tank clanked and rattled past her in the early-morning light, upsetting the horses. Trucks filled with wounded German soldiers streamed after the tank. Adeline could hear their cries and tortured sufferings long after they’d passed, and she could see more trucks and more horse-and mule-drawn wagons like hers coming from the east, silhouetted with the rising sun at their backs.

“Mama!” cried her younger son, Wilhelm, who’d run out the back door behind her.

“Not now, Will,” Adeline said, puffing as she reached the back of the large V-shaped wooden wagon with oiled canvases stretched over a wooden frame to form a bonnet for shelter.

“But I need to know if I can bring this,” said the four-and-a-half-year-old, holding up a rock, one of his latest prized possessions.

“Bring your wool hat instead,” she said as she found room for the crate along with a second one that held dishes, cups, and baking tins beside a third that contained crocks of flour, yeast, salt, pepper, lard, and other essentials for their survival.

Emil hustled around the other side of the house, toting a keg-shaped barrel with a lid.

“How much?” she asked.

“Eight kilos dried pork. Ten kilos dried beef.”

“I left space for it back here.”

Another tank clanked by as her thirty-two-year-old husband grunted, hoisted the small barrel into the back, and began lashing it to the wall of the wagon.

“I’ll get all the onions and potatoes from the cellar,” she said. “Bedding’s packed.”

“I’ll get the big water sack filled,” he said before another bomb hit to the northeast.

Their older son, six-and-a-half-year-old Waldemar, came out from behind the house, pulling a small replica of the larger wagon about a meter long with the same high sides and back and the same wooden axles and wheels with tin nailed around the rims.

“Good boy, Walt,” Adeline said, pointing at the wagon. “I need that.” She took the handle from him and turned the little wagon around. “Follow me. Fast now. I need your help.”

The boys followed her to the root cellar and helped her frantically dig up their stock of potatoes, onions, and beets. Then they moved them to the little wagon and hurried back to the larger one. There were more German trucks and crippled armored vehicles on the road now and dozens of covered wagons and horses, all heading west, all trying to outrun Joseph Stalin’s armies, which were on the attack again.

The air stank of horse dung, engine exhaust, spilled petrol, and toiling humans. The din, the cold wind that spoke of a coming storm, the sickening mélange of smells, and the nervousness of the horses all conspired to put Adeline further on edge as they loaded the contents of the root cellar into burlap bags while Emil lashed a large rubber bladder of water to the side of the wagon along with the bucket from the well.

Overhead and to the south several kilometers, a German fighter plane roared past them, belching smoke from its engines.

“Mama,” Walt said, “I don’t like all the loud noises.”

“That’s why we’re leaving,” Emil said as he loaded the burlap bags into the big wagon, then looked at Adeline in irritation. “We should have been up and gone with my parents.”

“We weren’t ready to go with your parents at four a.m., and as usual, they weren’t waiting for us,” Adeline replied sharply. “And . . .”

“And what?”

She watched another tank go by, took a step closer to him, and said quietly, “You’re sure, Emil? Running with the Nazis like this?”

Emil responded in a whisper. “We can stay and wait for the bear that we know will kill us, or rape you and kill me and the boys, or imprison us all in Siberia. Or we can run with the wolves that will protect us until we can make our escape west. Escape the war. Escape everything.”

Three days before, a German SS officer had knocked on their door and offered them protection if they would gather their belongings and move west. After the visit, they had argued for several hours. Now, Adeline gazed at him, still in turmoil over the decision, but feeling what she always did about Emil: his moodiness and quietness aside, he was not only a good man, he was a tested man, a fighter, and a survivor.

“Okay,” she said. “We run with the wolves.”

“What about our little wagon?” Walt demanded.