The Story and the Man Behind Army of Worn Soles
August 12, 2015
“AS AN OFFICER, you’re much better off,” Maurice told me one day in his kitchen after I finished washing the dishes. His daughter, who was and still is my wife, and her mother were in the living room, talking. “Better uniforms. Better pay—even a third lieutenant, the lowest officer rank, got five times the pay of the soldier.” So much for the equality of the communist state, I thought.
“The officers got good leather boots, the soldier got canvas boots,” Maurice continues. “They wore out fast. At the beginning of the war, when we were running from the Germans, those canvas boots would wear out and fall off their feet. The army had no more boots to give them. Some boys would wrap newspapers around their feet just to keep walking.”
I tried to imagine walking across whole countries, retreating from the most powerful and feared military machine at the time, with nothing on my feet but old newspapers. It was an image that stuck with me for a long time—decades, in fact, and it became the basis for the title of my third novel, Army of Worn Soles.
The conversation had probably begun with a complaint from me or Roxanne about the food in our university cafeteria. Maurice had replied by telling us about the food he had had in the army in World War II. “Soup with fish heads floating in it, and a little piece of bread.”
At first I dismissed it as a typical “We had things much harder when we were your age” story. But I pursued it. “What army was that?”
“The Red Army of the USSR.”
That gave me pause. “You were in the Red Army? When?”
That led to a long discussion. I had to know this story. It was very complex
Maurice, my father-in-law, was born in Canada in 1919 to ethnically Ukrainian immigrants from Poland. His father had a successful business in Montreal that washed windows on tall buildings. They had a house, a car and were the first family in their neighbourhood to install a telephone.
Then came the Crash. The Great Depression erased a lot of the elder Bury’s business, and the family decided that Mrs. Bury, Maurice’s mother, would return to Poland where they still owned a farm, along with Maurice and his sister, Anna, or in Ukrainian, Hanya.
They arrived in Poland, near the city of Ternopol, now called Ternopyl, Ukraine. Maurice and his sister grew up there. In 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets divided Poland between themselves, and the Bury family were citizens of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Then in 1941, when Maurice was 21, he received his draft notice from the Red Army.
He went to the local armory to report, thinking he could talk his way out of it. He showed the recruiting officer his Canadian birth certificate. The communists didn’t care about that. “You live here now,” he said. “You must help to defend the motherland.”
Because Maurice had some university education, he told me, he was put into officer training. That’s when he told me about how much better off the officers were than the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers.
Less than three months after being drafted, Maurice and his cohort were called upon to face the onslaught of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR and the greatest land invasion in history.
But what was Maurice’s experience of these momentous historical events? Very personal. They involved food, clothing, shelter and the myriad minutiae of life as a soldier in a retreating, despairing army. The men had no illusions of a chance of victory, despite how strenuously the political officers tried to enforce communist philosophy.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I thought of writing Maurice’s war experiences down as a book. But it took me decades. Roxanne and I lived in a different city than her parents. I started a career. We would visit Roxanne’s parents fairly often, and sometimes I would ask about his experiences in the war. It wasn’t a subject that he brought up often.
I know, those sound like excuses.
At some point, I decided to get serious and write a book. I sat down with Maurice and took notes. I worked those notes up into a draft of a story, and showed them to Maurice.
That was when Maurice had his first heart attack. He recovered well, and read and corrected what I had written, which was most of what became Army of Worn Soles.
But it was the beginning of a long downward spiral for Maurice, who passed away at the end of 2003.
I had most of the book drafted, but it needed a lot of work. I also needed to do a lot of background research into the history of the war, the weapons, the uniforms and the movements of the army groups across Ukraine, Poland and the rest of the “Eastern Theatre of Operations.”
It was difficult to write. Difficult to imagine, difficult to find all the details, and difficult to deal with the welter of emotions.
But the greatest difficulty lay in figuring out which order to tell it in. Should I sstart with Maurice’s escape from the POW camp, or in Berlin in 1945? And where to fit in his childhood in Montreal? It got very complex.
Finally, I was telling all this to a friend, who is not a writer. He suggested “Why don’t you just tell the story the way it happened.”
It still took time, but that decision made it so much easier. I broke the story into three sections, and Army of Worn Soles is section 1.
I just wish I had been able to publish it before Maurice passed away.