The action takes place in Germany, during the Second World War. The protagonist is a teenager Sergei, who was hijacked to Germany, to Arbaytla-ger. The narration covers about three years of the hero’s life. Non-human conditions of existence are described. Arbeit camp is better than concentration camp – the extermination camp, but only because people are killed here gradually, excruciating by overwork, hunger, beatings and bullying. Prisoners of Arbeit camps wear a “OST” badge on their clothes.
The central event of the first chapters of the novel is the escape of Sergei and his friend Valka. First, a prison is described, into which the teenagers caught after escape escape. During the search, the main character finds a dagger, but the Germans somehow forget about him. The children are beaten and after several days of prison, in which they get acquainted with some Russian prisoners of war, they are sent back to the same camp. On the one hand, Sergei is now more respected by the campers, on the other – the return to the camp is worse than death. The author reflects on how necessary was the adolescent love, how he sought it exactly and how the German fascist machine did not allow him to be at least someone loved. Every day for fifteen hours, children, hungry, freezing, are forced to work – to roll heavy lorry with ore. They are followed by the German fowarbeiter Paul. The group in which the main character works, consists of two Belarusians – the hindered Andrius and impudent Volodya – and two Poles – the strong Stefan and the moribund Bronislav. Teenagers hate their master, try to annoy him as much as possible. The most important thing is to be cautious, because on the slightest occasion you can get accusation, and then they are expected not only to be brutally beaten, but also to a concentration camp.
One day a Gestapo commission comes to the camp. Children see their football players in the form of stormtroopers. The author discusses the nature of the Germans, their responsibility for fascism. The hero in the locker hides a stolen sack of potatoes, which he was given to the campers for storage, and in the sack – all the same dagger. Sergei understands that if all this is found, then he, most likely, is waiting for the execution. Distraught with terror, he tries to hide. However, the Germans during the search pass a cabinet with potatoes. So once again he manages to avoid death. At the same time, by the way, in the camp, Eskman is also hiding – a strange person of incomprehensible nationality, a polyglot hiding from the Germans in a Russian arbutlager. Prisoners hide it, try to help with food. Sergei often talks to him. Already after the search Esman notices on the stairs a camp translator. He immediately informs him, Esman is being led away. A confrontation is arranged. Esman does not betray anyone. The entire camp is punishable by deprivation of food for a day. For years the starving camp, where bread is the main value, is a real tragedy.
After the escape Sergei transferred to work in the foundry, the military plant. With every day of unbearable work, the hero’s hatred for the Germans grows. He is so weak that he can not physically counter anything against them, but his strength is that “I saw it, it should not have died.” My knowledge was tens, hundreds of times more important than myself… I should have as soon as possible tell, convey my knowledge to everyone. “
In the camp there is an ordinary life: people change clothes for bread, try to find cigarettes, play cards. The author watches camp characters – they describe: Lev-crank, Nikolay Sokolik, Moskvich, Pavka-barber, Papa Zelinsky, Ivan Ignatievich, etc. Everyone has his own story. After escaping, the hero, unable to endure such a life any more, tries to “scribble” – to inflict himself some kind of severe trauma to be recognized as unfit for work. Sergei puts his hand to a red-hot stove, receives a severe burn, but is not even allowed to see a doctor. However, the next day he is beaten to death almost to death by a master in the shop, and only then he is left in a barrack. A typhus epidemic begins in the camp. Sergei is in a typhus barrack. Here for teenagers courtship impregnable and all beloved doctor Sofya Alekseevna. In the camp there are new policemen – Fritz, Wart, Perebit-Polomani Wings. Sofya Alekseevna is trying to keep the children in the hospital longer so...
In the new camp, in Langenberg, Sergei finds himself in another camp society. He is greeted by the elder from the Russians: “Not a tenant.” Here they work at a rolling mill; hunger is even stronger – the end of the war is approaching, and the Germans are unable to feed Russian slaves. Once, however, one German who decided to have some fun puts a candy on the fence. The author says that when she was divided into five, she was eaten, the children simply had a “shock, taste tragedy”.
As extremely exhausted, Sergei transferred to the factory “Folken-Born.” Here the conditions are better; he works as an assistant roofer. From time to time he has the opportunity to shake a pear and eat half-rotten fruit. Once Sergei, who has been coughing for more than a year now, the factory director passes a pack of anti-asthmatic cigarettes.
In the new camp – new acquaintances. There are many French people here, of whom Jean and Marcel are attracted by the hero’s special attention; there are also Russian prisoners of war – Vanyusha, Petrovich and Arkady, who are especially eager to make friends with Sergei.
Indeed, he succeeds, and he helps Vanyusha steal German pistols and carry them to the camp. Once they, having got out of the camp, kill one German who could bring them to them.
It is obvious that the war is coming to an end. The camp is preparing an uprising, prisoners in secret meetings are speculating on what to do, what kind of “politically correct decision” they are required to take. On Sundays Sergei and Vanyusha go to volunteer work – to see the city and get bread. During one of these sorties they go far enough than attract the attention of the Germans. After them a patrol is sent. Only thanks to the confident behavior of Vanyusha during the search they do not notice the pistols. For Sergei Vanyusha – a role model, he looks for his respect, but full of confidence does not appear. A few weeks before the end of the war, Vlasovites appear in the camp, from which the Germans are trying to get rid of. They are hostile to both Russians and Germans. The hero watches with interest, hunted, betrayed and betrayed.
The most important thing in the last weeks before the victory is the expectation of the shooting: rumors are circulating that the Germans will not leave anyone alive. It is in this case that weapons are accumulated in the camp. In the spring of 1945, there is little work, a lot of time prisoners spend in the bomb shelter – the Allies bomb Germany. One night, the prisoners try to execute the senior master. The prisoners and Sergei get out of the camp, reach his house, but the enterprise ends unsuccessfully.
A few days later, Americans come to the camp. Described as “crazy Sunday days of liberation.” The fire, which was invisible under the sun, was cracking in the camp parade, the dry, etched tree, burnt by our breathing, inhaled the camps, which had been pulled out of the barracks, The empire collapsed with a tank clank, but there was such silence that it was heard the sun is shining”.
Sergei and his friends are making their way from the American zone of occupation to the east – to their own. They pass through the crowds of disarmed Germans, feeling their hatred of themselves. One of the nights they are almost killed. Wanderings through the American territory last until August 1945, until they are handed over to the Russians under Magdeburg. “I was at home in 1946, with a feeling that I knew everything about life, but it took me thirty years of experience to tell me something about my main life experiences.”