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Ladislav Mňačko: Smrť sa volá Engelchen (Death Is Called Engelchen)

Volodia is a young partisan fighting against the Nazi occupation of his country. The war is ending. The Red Army is about to occupy the local town. Volodia and his fellow partisans are trying to clear out the last remaining German soldiers. Things look quiet so Volodia, covered by his friend and fellow partisan Fred Kubis, dashes across the road. He feels as though he has been hit by a tractor but it is, in fact, a bullet in the back. He falls and hears Fred calling but loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he is lying on a pile of coal in a cellar, with no feeling in his legs. He is eventually taken to hospital where the doctor is able to remove the bullet without difficulty but Volodia has no feeling in his legs and cannot walk. He has to lie on his stomach. The novel tells the story of how he gets better over time, aided by the doctor and Nurse Eliška, coupled with his memories of the partisan group, in particular the events at Ploština and his affair with Martha, a Jewish woman.

When he joined the partisans, they were unsure of what to do and spent their time destroying telegraph poles and pretending to attack the Hungarians over the border. While scattered over the region, they were primarily based in a village called Ploština, where they knew the people and the people protected them. We learn early on that something happened at Ploština but do not learn what till near the end. We also know that Martha was involved. Indeed, she visits him in the hospital early on, telling him that she is planning to emigrate to Canada as she can no longer stay in Czechoslovakia. To her surprise, he is well aware that she is Jewish and she confesses her shame about what she did. We learn from her and also later in the story that her job was to sleep with influential Germans to gain information, which, of course, makes her feel great shame, not least because so many of the Jews in the country were sent to Auschwitz and most people were unaware of her partisan role.

Volodia’s first major job for the partisans is when he is sent by Nikolai to deliver an important message some 30 kilometres away. It is when picking up the message from Nikolai that he first meets Martha. His next job is to find out from the local gendarme who it was that betrayed five of the partisans who were captured and hanged by the Germans. When he is about to set off for the village where the gendarme lives, Martha comes with him. She takes him to a safe house, where they stay and start their affair. He extracts the information from the gendarme with a few threats. (We later learn that the man who betrayed the partisans is hanged in the village in front of all the men of the village.) Thereafter we follow the activities of the group. The group captures a German general but it is Martha who kills him. We learn why when she shows the marks of where he had her whipped and it is then that we learn of her role. Other activities include capturing a German air support captain and getting him to persuade all his men to surrender to the partisans. The Germans are allowed to go free but all their equipment is destroyed. However, while on a mission, apparently to deliver wood to a German collaborator (the father of Fred Kubis, who was with Volodia when he was shot), they see a group of SS officers, including the very real Otto Skorzeny and his assistant Engelchen. Engelchen is the German for little angel but is also used to mean death, hence the title of the book and the frequent references by Volodia to keeping a step ahead of Engelchen. Skorzeny and Engelchen have come with a Jagdkommando – a unit with fierce dogs to track down partisans – to hunt down and destroy the commandos. The rest of the book is about the fight between the two groups and how Volodia and his group more or less survive against a technically superior enemy.

The story is presumably based on Mňačko’s own partisan experiences in World War II. Whether the events are true and whether the Martha character is real, Mňačko tells a gripping story of the partisans and their actions and how they grew from boys to be tough and often ruthless men. However ruthless they do become, they still retain a soft side. When Fred inadvertently lets two prisoners escape, they narrowly vote in favour of executing him but no-one has the courage to kill him and he is let off. Even the tough man, Peter, a Serb, shows a kinder side at times. They shoot many Germans but let the fifty or so air support troops go. They even keep two German deserters, who turn out to be very useful to the group. What happened at Ploština, what will happen to Martha and what will happen between Volodia and Eliška are key to the plot but this is, above all, the story of a group of men fighting under difficult, hostile and dangerous conditions and, more or less, surviving.

Publishing history

First published by Slovenské Vydavatelstvo politickej Literatury in 1959
First published in English by Artia in 1961