City of Thieves

City of Thieves Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Germans lock their prisoners in a sheep barn for the night and while the others sleep, Lev, Kolya, and Vika sit up and discuss their plans for if Abendroth sends for them. Vika insists that they'll be searched for weapons. She removes her knife and digs a hole in the ground. She puts her pistol in the hole and insists on burying Kolya's too. When she's finished, she straps her knife to her bare chest using her belt. Vika takes Lev's hand, places it against her chest, and asks if he feels anything. He nervously shakes his head no.
Vika is beginning to show that she's apparently interested in Lev romantically. This is again a very intimate experience for Lev, and everyone (including the reader) is asked to consider Lev's youth in comparison to Vika's confidence and knowledge of how the night will progress.
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Lev asks what should happen with his own knife. Vika unstraps it from Lev's ankle, tells Kolya he can't have it because he looks like a soldier and will be searched carefully, and finally hides it in Lev's boot, making sure he can walk normally. Vika touches the spot below Lev's ear and draws her finger across his throat, telling him that if he cuts that open, it can't be closed.
Again, Vika touching Lev's throat in this way is a very intimate and action, but it's also tense as Lev is forced to remember that he's going to have to confront his fears of death and potentially follow Vika's advice.
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Several hours later, two soldiers escort Lev, Kolya, and Vika to the Party building the Nazis are using. Abendroth sits at an end of a long table, drinking clear alcohol, with a traveling chessboard already arranged. He's not the professorial type that Lev expected. Rather, he's a very large and strong-looking man. Lev realizes that Abendroth is a little drunk, sharing with the reader that he learned to recognize the different faces of drunkenness at a young age since all his father's literary friends were big drinkers.
Lev's upbringing didn't necessarily entail a focus on physical strength, but he is now finding his chess- and literary-focused childhood lessons coming in handy. His knowledge of how alcohol affects people differently allows him to see Abendroth as a man like any other, even if a powerful one.
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Abendroth, in perfect Russian, tells Lev, Vika, and Kolya that he's drinking plum schnapps, and asks who speaks German. Kolya answers, offering that his grandmother was from Vienna. Abendroth asks how Kolya learned that he plays chess, and Kolya mentions the soldier he spoke to earlier in the day, saying he was especially friendly. Abendroth snorts with amusement and disgust, and asks about Kolya's "Jewish friend." Kolya replies that Lev had the nose and no money.
Thus far, Kolya has been able to turn attention away from Lev's Jewish features, and it appears that he expects the same to happen here. There's the implication that the soldier Kolya spoke to will suffer for his friendliness towards his prisoners, indicating further that the Nazis are unforgiving when one doesn't follow protocol.
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Abendroth addresses his soldiers in German and asks Kolya to translate what he said for Lev and Vika: Abendroth knows a Jew when he sees one. Abendroth adds that he can also spot a girl, and asks Vika to remove her hat. She pauses but then complies. Abendroth turns back to Kolya and asks how it is that he can speak German but not read, and then asks Lev how he can play chess but also be illiterate. He doesn't give Lev or Kolya time to answer before declaring that all three of them are certainly literate, smart since they passed the Nazis' tests, and wanted Abendroth to notice them, knowing full well he won't set them free even if they win the chess match. Abendroth asks Kolya to explain the eggs, and Kolya says he hasn't had one since August.
Abendroth is evidently an intellectual match for Kolya, but we see that Kolya's earlier suspicions were correct. The situation begins to seem more dangerous when Abendroth indicates he knows that Lev is Jewish and Vika is female. We've already been given ample evidence of how the Nazis treat their captive female prisoners, and any Jewish individuals are in even more danger. The eggs remain an absurd and humorous story that Kolya can use to draw in his audience.
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Abendroth considers the situation and asks if Lev, Kolya, and Vika have information to trade, but Kolya says he simply saw an opportunity. Abendroth savors his last glass of schnapps and instructs the soldiers to search Lev, Kolya, and Vika. The man who searches them is only a year or two older than Lev, and he searches Lev and Kolya carelessly. When he moves to Vika, another soldier teases the boy, who is unnerved by Vika's stare and doesn't search her thoroughly. When he's finished, Abendroth says he can't release Kolya or Lev, but can let "the girl" go home.
Lev recognizes himself in the young Nazi who searches him—he's youthful and uncomfortable around women. This works to humanize the boy somewhat, yet his youth and inexperience also play into Lev and Kolya's favor, probably saving their lives because he cannot find their hidden knives.
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Lev asks for Abendroth's word that he'll let Vika go, and Abendroth agrees, after wondering if Vika likes "the Jew." He then invites Lev, Kolya, and Vika to sit, but Kolya insists on the eggs. Abendroth's patience is wearing thin, and he tells Kolya that he has the power to kill Kolya and rape Vika later. Kolya, rather than staying silent, agrees that Abendroth can do all these things, but insists that Lev will play terrible chess if Kolya's dead, and asks for eggs one more time. Abendroth mutters a command to the boy soldier and motions for the three to sit.
Abendroth agrees to Kolya's demands because he sees that he's able to exert his power in a place he believes to be safe. Abendroth certainly doesn't think that his power will be in danger, even if he loses, and the eggs are an absurd request but inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. He also reminds Vika of her tenuous state as a woman, as she's especially prone to sexual violence.
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Abendroth pulls out a coin to toss and begin the chess game with Lev, telling him he can keep his queen. The opening moves are classic and no indicator of skill. Lev addresses the reader, saying that he can still write out every move of this game with Abendroth. As the game continues, Abendroth remarks that he hasn't had a good game in a long time, and tells Lev that he'll keep him around to play chess with. The young soldier returns with a box of eggs.
As Lev and Abendroth play, Abendroth is humanized to a degree. Drinking has apparently been his only distraction from the war (aside from the girls in the farmhouse) and he desires intellectual stimulation like anyone else.
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Two soldiers now stand behind Kolya and Vika, and Abendroth and Lev begin exchanging pieces. Abendroth remarks that Jews make great violinists and chess players. Lev ignores him and keeps playing, but soon realizes that his plan with Kolya and Vika, while not spelled out initially, is obvious, and it will be up to Lev to slit Abendroth's throat. He thinks of Abendroth's strength and feels that he can't possibly murder him, but continues playing.
Abendroth mentioning Jews at all reminds Lev that Abendroth is truly a vile person, their shared love of chess aside. As Lev realizes that he's going to have to kill Abendroth, he retreats into what he knows he's good at and concentrates on playing.
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After another sequence of moves, Abendroth has unknowingly committed a fatal error. Lev looks at Vika, proud of his victory, but Vika is reaching for her knife and Kolya is ready to push himself up and tackle the soldiers. Lev pretends to scratch his calf as Abendroth studies the chessboard, finally realizing his defeat. Abendroth smiles and declares it beautiful.
Abendroth's intellectual defeat from chess signals the greater defeat that's coming for him. Lev is still unsure of the situation he's gotten himself into, but is going to have to accept it momentarily, as his willingness to participate will mean triumph or defeat.
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Abendroth then realizes what Lev is trying to do and tackles him to the floor. Abendroth reaches for his pistol but becomes distracted as Kolya and Vika attack the two soldiers. Lev reaches for Abendroth's gun just as Abendroth pulls the trigger, managing to push it enough that Abendroth doesn’t hit Vika or Kolya. Abendroth punches Lev in the face and Lev sits up and stabs Abendroth in the chest. Abendroth falls and doesn't try to go after Lev.
Fortunately for our protagonists, they are able to take Abendroth completely by surprise, and when he’s a little too drunk to function at full mental capacity. Further, we see that Lev is able to accept what he needs to do, and, faced with pressure, follow through with it.
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Kolya struggles with one of the troopers, and Lev runs to help and stabs his knife into the man's back. Vika finally pulls Lev off the dead man and asks for his hand. He realizes he's missing half of a finger on his left hand. Vika wraps his finger with a strip of wool from one of the German's pants.
The adrenaline continues, allowing Lev to save Kolya as well as himself. It's intense enough that Lev doesn't even realize he's lost his finger. Vika shows her care for Lev by wrapping his finger.
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Kolya grabs the guns from the dead soldiers, as well as the crate of eggs. He opens a window and he, Lev, and Vika jump out into the snow and run from the Party building. When they reach the edge of town they head for the woods. Lev thinks that he's never been much of a patriot, thanks to his father, but that night he felt a surge of love for Russia.
Finally, Lev has become a man (according to his approximation of what “manhood” means) and done something heroic, and he associates this growth with being Russian and part of something larger than himself. As this climactic scene ends, we see that the legend of Lev (as David’s grandfather) killing two Nazis in a knife fight was, it seems, actually true.
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