How the War Began
I was born on 6 August 1926 in a village of Zagnitkov, Kodym District, Odessa Oblast’ (province), Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The village was near the administrative border between Ukraine and the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.
We were a very ordinary peasant family. Initially my father was a collective farm brigade-leader, later he worked as a forester, and my mother was an ordinary collective farm member. There were three children in the family: two boys and a girl. I was the youngest child.
On the threshold of the war our family material well-being was, I would say, quite good; we weren’t in need of anything. Our village was very large – around 16 000 inhabitants. There were four collective farms in the village and all of them were prosperous.
My brother and his classmates just completed their high school studies and they celebrated their graduation on the evening of 21 June 1941. It was a fine holiday in the village park. Generally life was right but the war shattered everything…
There was a club-house in our village. It was the place where the local youth liked to rest. We often played checkers there, heard recitals and so on. In that Sunday morning we were in the club-house backyard: I practiced on the horizontal bar and my friend climbed a cherry-tree. Because of the border zone military planes never flew over the village but at that moment we saw a Soviet plane flying very low over the center of the village. Both my friend and I literally fell down on the grass and began laughing at ourselves. (In a forest close to Zagnitkov a cavalry unit camped and in the neighboring village of Alexeievka an artillery unit was situated. So, perhaps that plane delivered to both of them some important information).
At noon a meeting was summoned and all of villagers came to know that the war began. I remember that it was a bolt from the blue for me. All of women including my mother began crying because of such a misfortune. At the same time most of the young villagers became enthusiastic. We were patriots and directed our steps to the voenkomat (the military enrollment and registration office) without delay. Naturally I was rejected as a minor, but a column of men including last night’s graduates left the village.
In order to help our motherland, we, the teens, offered to take part in constructing defense lines. For three weeks we drove during nighttime toward the Ukraine-Moldavia border and constructed the antitank ditches and several reserve trenches on the Dnestr River’s left bank. All of these works were well organized and our nourishment there was plentiful. (To be honest, now I think that there wasn’t a special need for these fortifications – their location was chosen poorly).
The head of our collective farm was summoned to somewhere and my uneducated father substituted for him. At that time our neighbor, who was a wagoner, fell sick and I offer to replace him. My mom categorically didn’t want me to do it but father allowed and I delivered special poles for the wire entanglements.
Not far from us the Red Army field-engineers constructed three pontoon bridges across the Dnestr River for our retreating troops as well as for a lot of Jewish inhabitants who crowded at the opposite bank. However, as soon as these crossings began functioning, a German reconnaissance plane flew in. Soon the bombers flew against the bridges and the parts of destroyed bridges along with people on them floated downstream. A lot of people perished before our eyes...
At that time I was the brigade-leader (elected as the only male in an all-female brigade). We were working on the riverbank under a steep slope and the bombs exploded not far from us. I should confess: it was the first time in my life when I felt a real fear. I pressed myself to the slope and saw the German pilots of the low-level planes laughing – they clearly saw that we were unarmed. So we had to leave that place immediately. My female subordinates helped me with their shovels to climb up the slope, then I took them out one after another.
Not far from that place a paved road lay and a lot of the Red Army weapons and equipment had been densely concentrated there. The German bombers flew in and a bombardment started. We were waiting it through in an orchard and I remember how apples fell on us following each explosion.
Can you imagine our feelings on that day?
Under German and Romanian Occupation
Everybody expected that the German troops would come from the west where we recently dug the defensive fortifications. However, they penetrated our defense somewhat further to the north and just passed round everything that we had prepared. Nevertheless, between Zagnitkov and Alexeievka our units strongly repulsed the enemy. During the battle the outskirts of our village were affected and there were even casualties among the villagers.
Some Red Army units retreated in the Odessa direction. We felt a bitter sorrow seeing how our retreating soldiers looked – tired, exhausted, dirty, with white stains of the dried sweat on their military blouses. They were very hungry as well. Our villagers tried to feed them up. My mom baked bread three times a day for them, we also gave them milk and eggs…
The German troops appeared in our village that afternoon. All our inhabitants hid themselves in basements and cellars. When it became quiet outside I sneaked out of the house and along with several of my friends reached the central part of Zagnitkov. There were also a few adults there.
Initially a group of German motorcyclists drove through. Shortly after an infantry column marched past us, then the armored troop-carriers drove. The Germans wondered at the absence of the Red Army soldiers in Zagnitkov. They also asked us which way had the Soviet troops retreated and departed to follow them.
At the head of the German infantry column was an well-aged gray-headed officer. Unexpectedly I saw our village tailor, a Jew, Gershko Shpigel’ directly approaching the officer while neighbors tried to stop him. Gershko asked the officer about something. Everybody wondered at the ease of Gershko’s manner to have contact with the German. Also his ability to speak German came as a surprise to us.
We stood not far from them but didn’t hear the conversation. We only saw that the German officer smiled and negatively shook his head. Later Gershko told us that his question was: “Is it the truth that the Germans will kill all the Jews?” And the officer calmed Gershko: “It’s just Stalin’s propaganda.”
And what do you think – we still could hear the cannonade when a German sondercommando (a special detachment) arrived. They arrested all local Jews and drove them away. It was said that the prisoners had dug a trench on their own before they were shot there and covered with earth…
There were many Jews in Zagnitkov before the war. Now part of them managed to go into hiding where they could and I definitely know that many villagers helped them. For example my father once encountered Dionis Lapushin in the forest and brought him into our house. We closed windows and took supper. When father suggested Dionis sleep on my bed he unexpectedly refused: “No, no, don’t worry. I’d better sleep under the bed.” The persuasion didn’t help, so we put enough straw on our clay floor for his bedding. The next early morning Dionis said goodbye to us and disappeared again…
After the Germans our new “masters” appeared – the Romanians. What can I say? It was a disgraceful army: all soldiers were dirty and ragged but at the same time they carried their very long rifles with attached bayonets (therefore they looked like short men).
The troops went through and the commandant’s office of two officers and a platoon of soldiers stayed in our village (it was a common office for three neighboring villages).
Do you know, the Romanian administration made our life unbearable. Romanians treated us as terribly as only they could. Initially they expropriated and took out the main collective farm’s property such as livestock and grain. Then they began inspecting the private housekeepings. Seeing the Romanians’ intentions people hid everything. Thereafter our “masters” started to take from people whatever they liked (for example, fur-hats). In that way I was deprived of my wonderful new shoes, a gift from my uncle, and I walked home barefoot. However there weren’t any show executions in Zagnitkov (maybe because all of local Communists abandoned the village beforehand). Nevertheless many of us were beaten unmercifully.
In fact, the Romanians kept our collective farm, they just renamed it into “community” – it helped them to control us easier. They promised to distribute the land among villagers when the war ended. And during entire three years of occupation we worked as members of that “community” for nothing. If only they would give us a kilogram of grain or some money! Everything up to the last bit had been transported under escort from the field direct to the railroad station, then to Romania. There were three water-mills and one windmill in Zagnitkov. Not a sack of grain was ground for these three years! How could our people survive? Only if they managed to hide anything that was edible or to steal it elsewhere. However, if you were caught stealing, a Romanian would beat you till you drop.
Yes, our life was very hard… Local schools were closed. Hungry, ragged, insulted villagers – that was our actual life. Sometimes you just went by a Romanian and got it with a stick in the neck for nothing…
I had an offer to work as a clerk in the administration’s office but I refused. I managed to work as a driver of an ox-drawn wagon. Sometimes I was lucky to put a handful of grain in my pockets.
We didn’t have the very elementary things, even matches. People made a fire with two pebbles. In the morning you look at the roofs of neighboring houses in order to find where the chimney smokes. Then you visit the household and they give you some punky piece…
The lack of salt was our special suffering. You can cook some kasha or soup of grain but you can’t eat it unsalted! I remember that once in 1943 mom told me that Romanians delivered salt to the local store. They didn’t sell it – you could only barter it for some food. Mom gave me a small bag of corn meal for exchange and I went there. There was already a very long line of our villagers near the store. A few tipsy Romanians with leashed police dogs walked along the line. They dragged out two very old men, about eighty years old, and suggested them: “You’d enter the store momentarily if you dance first.” I still remember how they laughed at the miserable “dancers.” (At the same time I don’t remember the result of my own mission).
While the overwhelmingly majority of our villagers hated the Romanian administration, a few of villagers willingly collaborated with the occupiers. I remember an one-handed veteran of the WW-1, who was on the Romanians’ side. Even my classmate and former friend Stepan Mogilevskii collaborated with them. He did it zealously, with all his heart. Stepan was an advanced student but at the same time he behaved like a hooligan and was a harmful teen. Also he hated Jews. Stepan was twice on the verge of being expelled from school but each time a group of parents stood up for him and he remained in our class. Also I know that Stepan was drafted after we were liberated. I don’t know whether he had fought at the front but soon after the war Stepan served in the railroad militia. He was caught taking away some goods from peasant passengers under the threat of arresting them. Stepan was arrested and our village received a letter of inquiry from the judicial investigators. They had asked the village council to send them the Stepan Mogilevskii’s testimonial and I revealed in it what a person he was (I was the secretary of our village council at that time).
Stepan was sentenced to a relatively short imprisonment. I knew where he lived after being in jail and I had several opportunities to visit that locality. However, I had absolutely no intention to see Stepan…
During the Romanian occupation several of our villagers became policemen. All of them were good people who tried not to harm anybody. Moreover, they always tried to help anybody. Therefore, after we were liberated all villagers spoke favorably of the former policemen. There were no criminal prosecutions against them…
There were in the village a couple of real traitors. I’d mention just two villagers of that kind whom I remember: Zhurba and Piletskii. They were actively loyal to the new rule and caused much harm to our villagers. After our village was liberated both traitors had been judged and then taken away. Piletskii had a son, Sergey, born in 1925. After the war he appeared in Zagnitkov being a junior lieutenant. His father’s fate was a surprise for Sergey. As far as I know, at that time he was demoted but what happened to him later is unknown to me…
As I had already narrated, most local Jews were shot by the German sondercommando. However, on that day several Jews managed to hide. What happened to them under Romanian occupation? First of all, some of them were hidden in our villagers’ homes. Then, I definitely know that out of my numerous Jewish classmates only two girls survived – Zhenia Shpigel’ and Tasia Fel’dman. I also know some more facts.
Once in winter my father being in the forest caught his sight of marks left in snow by the unshod feet. He followed these marks and found in a pile of brushwood our Jewish villager lady Enia. She began crying: “Uncle Dmytro! Don’t give me away…” Father calmed her, gave Enia his footcloths to wrap her bare feet and led her to the bee-garden in the old orchard. Enia was put into a lodge there. Soon he brought some food for her and Enia spent the night there. I don’t know where Enia hid later but she came through the war. I remember her postwar exclamation: “Our villagers are very kind people! In any other settlement I would be given away.”
By the way, there was in Zagnitkov one more lady Enia of Jewish origin. Long before the war she married a Ukrainian and had been baptized under name Efrosinia. Only her Jewish accent could disclose her, and the Romanians began finding fault with her origin. However, the villagers stood up for her so actively that the Romanians left her alone.
I remember one occasion in Zagnitkov when a local Jew was given away. My Jewish classmate Liusia Shpayer’s father had filed some profitable post that we ironically called in Russian a “warm place.” Before the war the Shpayers lived in clover, they even had a housemaid, and Liusia’s mother was so fat that she couldn’t walk without somebody’s assistance. Liusia was a beautiful girl, the best pupil in our class. When it became clear that the Romanians exterminated Jews, her father turned to his good acquaintance whose unmarried son Andrey hadn’t been called up for the Red Army service because of some health problem. Liusia’s father said: “My wife and I are doomed to death and the only chance to save Liusia is to marry her to your Andrey. If you agree I give you everything I own right up to the pants that I’m wearing…” Actually, a traditional Orthodox wedding ceremony had come about and Liusia began wearing usual Ukrainian women clothes. She became indistinguishable from other young female villagers. The couple existed for a short time. Evidently someone reported her to the Romanians. They took her to the same place were many Jews were killed by Germans. Liusia had been shot there as well…
After the war a monument to our killed Jewish villagers had been set up at the local cemetery…
Now a little about religious matters. According to the Soviet district administration’s decree, our church stopped functioning in 1939. The Romanians reopened it and brought their priest. I don’t know where they unearthed such a person: almost an invalid, cross-eyed, beggarly looking. Moreover, he preached in Romanian.
Once my mom’s friend lady Maria visited us and they had a long talk. Later my parents told me: “As lady Maria asserts, there is in the church a list of teens who didn’t attend public worships and you, Vania, are named in that list. The Romanian suspected these teens of being Komsomol members…” Since then I began attending the worships.
Let me turn to another topic – the underground actions. Up to me, there wasn’t a real underground in our Zagnitkov. Nevertheless, some unofficial breaking news from the front reached the villagers. It was spread secretly, whispering in neighbor’s ear. For example we knew about the Red Army victories near Moscow and in Stalingrad.
As a teen I didn’t hear a word about local guerillas but some facts made me sure that they acted. Two times the building of the local commandant’s office was damaged in a strong fire. Also not far from Zagnitkov a few freight trains were derailed.
Liberation. Military College
It was being felt that the front line became quite close to our village. In one wonderful morning of March 1944 father brought breaking news: the commandant’s office was already empty. Soon we got to know that the Romanians had time to burn to ashes the jail with political prisoners inside in the town of Rybnitsa. I’m sure that nothing of what have they done shall be forgotten
There weren’t serious battles in our locality, only rare short skirmishes took place. As I remember, our people bumped into an injured Red Army scout in the field. They picked him up and rendered first aid.
It is impossible to express in words the elation that gripped everybody in the village. People greeted the Soviet soldiers like their sons and brothers. We showed them the way where the Germans retreated. Some villagers even accompanied the troops as guides.
In a week or so I already was in the voenkomat as a member of a group of twelve local guys born in 1926, which were dispatched to military college in the town of Novograd-Volynskii. What was the reason to select me to that group? I think there were three factors: a Komsomol member; a guy decorated before the war with “Voroshilov’s Marksman;” I was the tallest and the strongest one among guys of my age.
Novograd-Volynskii was recently liberated and we were settled in some smashed up caserne without windows and doors. Seemingly there was a German military sewing workshop there – numerous ends and odds of German uniform were scattered all over the floor. Everyone made a bedding of them and put a brick for pillows – that was his bed. Every night the air alarm awoke us.
The study in the college was very intense it lasted all day long. I think that we were given enough important knowledge and skills. There were even movable targets at the training ground.
I was lucky to be trained by very good and experienced instructors in the college. They were hearty men, who tried to train us to the best of their abilities and treated us like their children. For example, the training company commander Abramov was recently disabled after injury at the front. Both our sergeant-majors, Podkovyrkin and Cherepanov, former frontline warriors, helped us as much as they could, they also deserved kind words.
At the same time the commander of the other training company was a young Armenian. You had no reason to take offense at him: he demanded everything from the cadets just according to regulations but how did he exhaust his company! It was pitifully to see the show. I remember how he demanded from them a cheerful marching song after the hard field training, while everybody was exhausted and overladen like a donkey. Moreover, the road was entirely sandy – each step wasn’t easy to perform… I can’t forget his shout: “I don’t see the spark in you!” Such a dry-as-dust and inhuman officer!
However, our study came to the end in some three weeks: our college was urgently dispatched to help the regular troops in the Korsun’-Shevchenkovskii area, where a big German force had been encircled.
It was a season of terrible roads – snow, mud… We were mixed with common soldiers and directed to form a defense line. We dug everything needed and held that line. Although there weren’t intense fights at that section of defense, we suffered there our first casualties. Nevertheless, we didn’t let the enemy pass through. That was my baptism of fire…
After that we returned to Novograd-Volynskii. There was a special formation summoned, and the chief of the college said: “Now you are battle-hardened warriors and you are ready to defense our Motherland!” All of us were given the rank of senior sergeant. Then we received the dry rations. The college’s small brass orchestra took part in the farewell ceremony. When the martial music sounded, many of us shed tears. Then we made for the front.
We marched toward the front only by night. Once the “buyers” appeared, and we found ourselves in different units. In such a way I became a military man of the 522nd Rifle Regiment of the 107th Rifle Division of the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front.
At the Front.
I was appointed the platoon commander and straight off we went into combat actions. We liberated the cities and towns of Shepetovka, Kremenets, Ternopol’ and many other settlements of Khmel’nitskii and Ternopol’ oblast’s. Kremenets and Ternopol’ were destroyed more than in half, never before and nevermore did I see such ruins. After the liberation of the L’vov oblast’ including the city of L’vov, we reached the Polish border near the city of Pshemysl’.
While in Poland, we tried to break through with a rush the defense line near the city of Zheshuv but failed. We lost many tanks during that attack. Then our battalion performed a successful reconnaissance attack. It was a high-priced success: only seven soldiers remained in my platoon. (I was awarded with the medal “For the Bravery” for that battle, however, our HQ hadn’t medals available – so I received just a certificate. Later it got wet in my pocket and finally became unreadable. So I remained without that medal). I think that a reconnaissance attack is a reasonable combat operation. It makes it possible to uncover the enemy’s weapon emplacements and to estimate its strength. As to losses, you can’t win the war bloodlessly…
After the mentioned mission we were shifted to the near rear for reinforcements, so other units realized the break through of the Zheshuv defense line.
Then we continued fighting in Poland. For the forced crossing of the Visla River and seizing the Sandomir bridgehead here many of us were decorated. For example, our company commander was recommended for the highest status of Hero of Soviet Union and I was awarded with the medal “For the Bravery.” What can I say regarding these fights? It was like an iron rain. Although we suffered numerous losses, we were lucky when being wet through and dog-tired we reached the opposite riverbank. While we were taking positions and trenching in there, my soldiers called me to look at an Italian soldier, who was chained to a machine gun. Thank God that he didn’t fire! The Italian began weeping and explaining with fingers that he is a father of three. Our guards led him to the rear…
We stayed some four months at the bridgehead. During that period we fortified our positions well although the Germans didn’t attack us. Instead they often transmitted by loudspeaker special propaganda broadcasts that urged us to give ourselves up.
Only on 12 January we started the offensive. The artillery bombardment before the attack was so powerful that some of our “freshmen” made water into their trousers…
We went ahead and there were victorious fights every day. It was said at that period “The Germans taught us how to advance, in return we taught them how to retreat.”
Next were successful fights for the encirclement of the Polish city of Krakow. Shortly after we began chasing the enemy there the reconnaissance reported that at the German rear some “camp of death” exists, where prisoners were incinerated.
A combined temporary detachment had been formed: about thirty tanks with six to eight armed to the teeth riflemen sitting on each tank. We were also given dry rations before setting off for the mission. On 26 January the attachment broke through the German defense and advanced toward their rear without any resistance. Occasionally we met some German trucks and destroyed them right on the spot. Our column got deeper into the German rear for forty something kilometers and encircled the camp and neutralized its armed guard. Then we dug our tanks in and the next morning our units reached the camp. As it turned out that camp was one of a group of camps named Osventsim # … (Osventsim is Auschwitz in German). In the entire Osventsim camp formations around four millions of people were annihilated.
As a participant of that raid I was awarded with the 3rd Class Order of Glory. I also know that the commander of that tank raid was Zharchinskii, a former principal of a high school in Moldavia…
On 2 February we forced the Oder (Odra – in Polish) River. It was not so wide there but its current was rapid and water was muddy and yellow. And on 6 February somewhere behind the city of Breslau I was injured. We attacked some small settlement. The roofs of its buildings were covered with red-white tiles. Perhaps some German HQ was situated in the settlement because the fire of long-range artillery prevented our attack. While saving myself from an explosion I dove into a shell-hole that was full of water. Of course, I got wet to the skin. We continued to try to advance and suddenly I felt that some mysterious force pressed me to the earth and at that moment a heavy shell exploded nearby… I don’t remember anything after that. I lost consciousness and came to my senses in a hospital. As it turned out I was injured in the left forearm and in the right ankle. One more fragment of a shell touched the top of my head. Besides, I was seriously shell-shocked…
Reminiscences and Reflections of the War
Let me start with the strongest feeling that I experienced at the front.
It is an inexplicable phenomenon or a mysterious fact that I came through the war. Indeed, many times I experienced such combat situations that I certainly was on the verge of being killed in action. I still don’t know who or what guided me – my fate or something else? Although I had been baptized in my infancy, I grew up a non-believer and in the wartime I didn’t wear a cross on my chest. The only item that could be considered as some kind of my talisman was the red handkerchief. My classmate, a good friend of mine, embroidered it with affecting words “To Vania as a token of remembrance.” She handed it in to me when I was leaving for the war.
I participated in three forced crossings over rivers. Now it is difficult even to imagine but at that time we didn’t feel anything special as if we were injected with some tranquilizer. I also remember that my overcoat was perforated in several places…
My only one hope was – let the damned war come to the end sooner.
In the next paragraphs I’d like to mention my closest frontline friends. As you may remember, there were twelve of our villagers who entered the military college. Only eight of them were dispatched to the front after the graduation. (One of the four was an excellent shoemaker, the second was a musician, and the third was a wonderful singer. The fourth of them deserves a special explanation. He was the worst cadet in the college, our officers-instructors rebuked him constantly. As a result of his poor progress in studies he was given the rank of just private first class and remained to serve in the college. He didn’t see the front at all).
And we, the eight villagers, tried to keep in touch during the combat period. Of course, each of us had his own platoon, his own duties. Sometimes you receive your friend’s conveyed hello or breaking bad news...
My best friends were my former classmates Kolia Kirsanov and Gavriil Kravets. We also studied at the military college together and were platoon commanders in the same battalion. My dear friend Kolia Kirsanov perished in action on 12 January 1945 in Poland near the city of Krakow. And Gavriusha Kravets was seriously injured. Later he rose to the rank of captain. We didn’t see each other for some thirty years but then we managed to exchange letters with each other and ultimately our unforgettable meetings took place…
Now I’d like to devote several paragraphs to the commanders.
I never saw our division commander Petrenko but by all accounts he was a good commander. Our regiment commander was Kul’chitskii; I don’t remember anything special regarding him. The well-aged battalion commander Kompaniets was like a father for us. There was something wrong with his feet, he could hardly walk. Usually we saw him on horseback. Nevertheless, he often visited our trenches and checked everything there. As I remember it, Kompaniets was decorated with the Kutuzov Order.
I saw our Front’s Commander Konev twice. Once he visited us on the occasion of handing the awards to our warriors before the solemn formation of our division. Many of us wondered why that high ranked commander arrived in the dangerous first-line zone. By all accounts Konev was a good military leader. At that time we didn’t hear a bad word about any Soviet commander of the highest level. For example, about Zhukov – we knew: Zhukov always brings the victory. Even Stalin took account of Zhukov. Of course, you can read all sorts of far-fetched and discreditable information yet.
Of course, my brightest memories concern my direct commanders. How wonderful was our company commander Kalabashkin! He was very young, a Muscovite born in 1923. Being a handsome and cheerful guy, he always crooned some song while walking, and we looked at him admiringly. I remember him wearing a green military blouse made of English cloth with several attached decorations. Instead of the greatcoat he just threw a waterproof cape over his shoulders. His terrible death was already just around the corner…
It happened one night in Poland. After a strong fight we were shifted to the nearby rear and fell deeply asleep. The sleep, not the food, was the only thing that we dreamed about in the trenches. So, during that night Kalabashkin, his orderly, a sergeant-major who was the Communist Party group organizer, and the cook along with his field-kitchen – all four men disappeared! Next day we went ahead and soon found Kalabashkin’s and the sergeant-major’s brutally bayoneted bodies. Nobody else was found. Unforgettable Kalabashkin was a cheerful and kind man. Soldiers liked him very much…
In general, I consider that I was lucky to deal with good people in my life, no matter where I had found myself. For example, since our first days in the rifle regiment the experienced soldiers treated us like their children – helped, supported, advised…
I took very hard the death of each frontline warrior. It was even unbelievable: just now both of you ate soup from one mess kit and now he is killed… Do you know, we got used to the deaths at the front line quite quickly. I was very young at that time but had never cried. Only being well-aged I became somewhat tearful, especially while watching some touching movie or hearing a popular song of war times…
Some people asked me to tell them what in the war gave the strongest impression to me and I answer confidently – the Osventsim. As you understand, I saw at the war a lot of blood and deaths around me, and everything was terrible, everybody deserved pity. However, when we saw in Osventsim these miserable children – it was something else. It was absolutely impossible to look at them: entirely ragged; their heads looking enormous on their famished little bodies; their eyes looking like two yellow onions… Watching that sorry sight you can’t think that they were born for life… And what a heavy smell was in the barracks… I often remembered Osventsim after the war in day-dream and in my sleep… Let me change the topic because I’m feeling bad while remembering Osventsim’s horrors.
I should only note that we didn’t punish the captured guards of the camp. We just transferred them to our HQ. I don’t know their further fate.
Although my combat experience was not as long, I’d like to share with you some more of my general reflections about the war.
- I already mentioned that I was lucky to deal with good people in my life. I would say the same regarding our military political workers. Our divisional Political Department managed to organize a few concerts for the troops. A truck was the stage and different actors, opera singers, and some variety performers entertained us. These concerts helped the warriors to relax and elated them.
I want to mention our well-aged Communist Party group organizer separately. In our company he was held in common respect for his kindness. He had been brutally murdered along with the company commander Kalabashkin.
As you know, the highest Soviet politician was Stalin. I still believe in him now as I believed at the war. I don’t justify his severe repressions but a lot of achievements that the country realized under Stalin and his personal modesty made mе a Stalin supporter.
- There were people of different ethnic origin in our company. Most were Russians and Ukrainians. Among the latter we had a few soldiers drafted in Western Ukraine, we called them zapadentsy (the Westerns). I’m a native Ukrainian, too, but they were somewhat different, even their language differed from mine. Nevertheless, we got on perfectly with each other and never separated them. I remember two zapadentsy who were excellent warriors – Zhuk, the hand machine gunner, and Maletskii, the “Maxim” machine gunner. I remember that after a strong fight Maletskii was decorated with the 2nd Class Order of the Patriotic War. I also remember that our PTR (anti-tank rifle) crew consisted of two Azerbaijanis: Aliev and Tuftaliev. They always made everybody laugh when they pretend to complain: “Just a small mess kit – for two of us. Why then is a heavy PTR for two of us as well?”
Despite our company’s multi-national composition we lived like brothers, without any conflicts. And generally, such brotherhood, mutual aid and friendship you could find only at the front line.
- In general, all our soldiers tried to contribute their individual share to our common Victory. Soldiers of my age didn’t even think of being captured, and so I was – I always kept one hand grenade for myself. Nevertheless, there were rare cowards and even deserters among our troops. Here is a story about one of them.
At that time we were holding defense at the Sandomir bridgehead. Sometimes the Germans broadcasted trough a loudspeaker funny “invitations,” namely: “Ivan, come here. I’ll give you a cigarette since your bitter tobacco came to an end!” Or: “Ivan, come here. I’ll pour for you 100 grams of vodka since your flask is dry for many days!” One of our zapadentsy newcomers believed the broadcast and decided to go. He was a tall bald-headed man aged around forty. That night our reconnaissance group entered the no-man’s-land and he followed their route. When the deserter bumped into their ambush he took them for Germans and shouted “Hail Hitler!” The recons escorted him back. The next day he was executed before the regimental formation… There was the only case of that sort in our unit.
- What can I say about German soldiers, their armament and Germany itself?
First of all the German soldiers should be given their due for the discipline and combat readiness. In fights German troops mostly relied on their combat experience, while we usually pinned our hopes on “hurrah” neglecting our losses.
Their armament was good. I had never used it but once Ostap Rogovets, my subordinate, made use of a seized German machine gun: his fire repulsed the enemy’s attack. After the fight Ostap praised that machine gun.
In comparison with us the Germans were very well equipped and supplied. When a German soldier became a prisoner you could find anything in his knapsack: bread, cookies, rum, even butter and honey.
No rage and no spite remained in me toward Germans. Both the German soldiers and we were just soldiers and carried out our commanders’ orders respectively. I don’t hold evil on the Romanian people except those who treated us so cruelly. During the war we had a special strict order regarding how to treat the POWs. The order prohibited killing or torturing any prisoner. I never saw anything of that sort.
It was noticeable that the living standard in Germany was definitely higher than in our country. So were also solid buildings and perfect roads. As a forester’s son, I paid special attention to German forests. They were well-groomed everywhere. On the other hand, the German soil is far not as fertile as ours is.
- I should say that we were supplied with armament and ammunition very well. My personal weapon was the PPSh (Shpagin submachine gun). It was a wonderful armament for that time. I remember one episode that happened on the outskirts of some small town. The Germans unexpectedly appeared nearby and I mowed them down point-blank. At that juncture my PPSh didn’t put me in a spot. Its only weak point was that a grain of sand disabled the PPSh. I don’t know how many Germans I killed in that fighting. I never made such a calculation.
In contrast to how we were fed while being cadets of the military college the food supply at the front was quite good, too. In that college we were supplied by the small rear rations, moreover, all meals were cooked disgustingly. It was just unbearable.
And at the front, in my opinion, we were fed well. Of course, usually our meals were tediously unvarying but quite ample. To tell you truth, I wasn’t a big eater during the war, maybe some soldiers weren’t so satisfied with food as I was. (Instead, I was a big smoker at the front).
Sometimes because of the combat situation our field-kitchen was unable to deliver the food to us, and we had no choice but to turn to local residents for something edible. I remember that people in Poland lived poorly, often without bread. Nevertheless, they gave us potatoes, sour or whole milk, and even milk soup. (In general, the Poles treated us somewhat cool, without warm greetings).
In mid January 1945 I became a commissioned officer in the rank of lieutenant, it also meant that I’ll receive an additional officer’s ration. Simultaneously I received the officer’s uniform including boots instead of shoes. I continued to wear the helmet. I used it not only to protect my head, but also as a scoop when my foxhole was half-waterlogged. Since the day when I became an officer my money allowance increased. There was no need of cash at the front so the entire amount of my monthly allowance was transferred to my personal saving-bank account.
- When I remember myself in a combat period I see a guy who was wet or sweaty or being chilled to the bone and was ever dirty and unwashed. Of course, at the first opportunity everybody tried to execute at least some primitive hygienic procedure. The most uncomfortable consequence of our grubbiness could be lice. Fortunately we were free of lice – it was a subject of regular examination. Quite often we were temporary shifted from trenches to a near rear for washing ourselves. On a chosen place in a forest each of us received a small wash-tub of hot water. You break several piny twigs for bedding under your feet, get on it and wash yourself. Only after finishing these procedures and drying yourself with a towel you would receive the clean underwear. Then you dressed yourself and the sergeant-major would give you 100 grams of vodka – you feel warmth as if you are on the Russian oven…
By the way, I want to express some alcohol-related reminiscences. As I remember, we had received the vodka ration only in winter. And I never saw a drunken soldier in a battle. More dangerous problem was alcohol-related poisoning.
When we liberated the Polish city of Krakow, many tank-wagons full of alcohol stood at the railroad station. Our Red Army soldiers pounced on them with mess kits or metal mugs in their hands. It was impossible to stop them. Those, who overdid their drinking remained on the spot (some of my platoon, too). That was the only case, never more did something like this happen. When I was transported to the hospital after being injured and later in the Priluki hospital I saw many soldiers who became blind from methyl alcohol. Some of them just cried, others hoped that their children would take care of them…
- There were among us those who loved looting. They inspected both deserted houses and the dead soldiers’ pockets. Most popular objects of their search were watches. Some looters collected dozens of cheap German die-cast wrist- and pocket watches. (At that time not many people in the USSR, especially in the rural area, possessed a watch and it was a sign of prestige to carry one).
A Temporary Disabled War Veteran. My Work and Late Retirement
On 6 February 1945 I was delivered to a hospital in the Polish city of Krakow where I had an occasion to see our “All-Union Seniorman” M. I. Kalinin. It turned out that he looked just like we got used to seeing him at his photos. Kalinin rounded there wards and cubicles and asked injured patients how were their families doing, what were their problems. Kalinin’s assistants noted down all requests.
Later I was transferred to Ukraine in the city of Priluki, evaco-hospital # 1932. I remember that there were many young women in the hospital’s staff – nurses and medical orderlies. There was a permanent shortage of blood for the blood transfusion at that time. And these girls were the main blood-donors. In the morning you would see her smiling, pink-cheeked and a few hours later she looked tired, almost turned blue.
(By the way, I can’t comment on different stories related to the “campaign wives” at the front. The fact is that there weren’t couples of such sort at the level of platoon commanders, at least in our regiment).
I wasn’t treated in the Priluki hospital to a full recovery. The matter was concerned with my mother’s poor health. She had a serious stomach ulcer. Father sent me a letter: “Vania, if you can, come home, mother is near death…” I produced the letter to the chief of the surgical division captain of the medical service Shuvalova but she refused: “By no means! Your forearm and ankle are still in a plaster…”
In every ward and cubicle of the Priluki hospital we had a radio loudspeaker. In a day or two after my meeting with Shuvalova everybody heard the long-awaited announcement of the capitulation of Germany. I’m unable to express in words the elation which gripped all of us… It was something absolutely special… Exclamations, weeping… Pillows, cups, even crutches flew up to a ceiling…
In some week or two a session of the committee that discharged recovered patients took place. During their meeting I walked here and there along the hallway and when the session came to the end I entered the room.
- What do you want, sonny? – some doctor asked me.
- I want home.
- You’ll never do it! You should be treated and treated…
At that moment Shuvalova said:
- His situation is a special one. I read the letter…
The committee went to meet me! Because I still couldn’t speak normally after being shell-shocked they qualified me to the first group of the disabled within one year. Instead of plaster my doctor put on some brackets and I left the hospital accompanied by a nurse. That was my end of the war…
I remember that day, May 23, in details. When we reached our family’s house the front door was open but I was afraid to enter not knowing what kind of news is waiting for me… In a moment father rushed out of the door and embraced me warmly… He gave us some refreshment and the next morning we went to the Kodyma railroad station. The nurse left back for Priluki and we had difficulties to reach Kotovsk, where my mom was treated in the local hospital. There weren’t normal trains in that direction so we boarded a freight train consisting of tank-wagons. We found a place at a short platform. As we stopped at Slobodka station, a militia (Soviet police) sergeant-major pulled us off and began finding fault with my father: “You are a law breaker…” He escorted us to the local militia-office. An easy-tempered middle-aged junior lieutenant was sitting there. You know, I was so hurt: just two days after the hospital, with blood oozing through the bandages, having all needed papers… The junior lieutenant sympathized with us. He drove out the sergeant-major from the suite and calmed me, gave me a glass of water. Then he helped us to board the next freight train.
In Kotovsk we visited the hospital: my mom was so weak after the surgery that she didn’t even recognize me. We three together returned home in two weeks…
As soon as I returned home, the head of the village council offered me to be the council secretary. After some hesitations regarding my wound and the terrible malaria agues, I accepted the post. There were only few men in the village, most either perished or were invalids. There wasn’t a man to work at the council. At the same time I agreed to hold one more office: to be a head of the local military registration board.
At that time my entire financial position was 16 000 rubles in the saving-bank account. Don’t think that it was a big sum. Everywhere in the country was such a ruin and famine, so one kilogram of grain cost more than 60 rubles. Not long before my marriage I bought a suit for 4 700 rubles. (I wore it during our wedding ceremony, however there were still my military boots on my feet: I couldn’t afford new shoes).
Along with others I was an eyewitness of the famine 1946-1947. At that time all Soviet peasants hadn’t passports or other identity certificates. So, they were unable to depart from their village anywhere because the paper examination was set up everywhere. Nevertheless, after seeing in the village council office many visitors who were swollen from starvation and knowing how the elderly people and especially children suffered from undernourishment, I dared myself to break the law. I had access to the official seal for legal documents and once when my chief left the village for some business trip, I wrote out and affixed the seal to about two hundred identity cards. Almost all of the people who had these cards went to the Western Ukraine, which wasn’t affected by famine. Unfortunately, quite soon the railroad militia discovered that inexplicably many travelers were from the same village, namely Zagnitkovo. I was unmasked. My chief experienced troubles, and I received a strong written scolding as a punishment. It was quite a safe end for these times…
I executed the mentioned duties in the village for four years running until the share-holders of our local consumers’ cooperative elected me the manager (I didn’t want to – but they persuaded me). I worked there diligently and we even won the all-district contest. Nevertheless I didn’t like that work and decided to follow in my father’s footsteps – to become a forestry specialist.
I was taken by the two-year forestry school in Moldavia. After the graduation I was dispatched to the Kotovsk Mechanized Forestry (KMF) as a divisional technician. It was a hard (we started there from nothing) but fruitful work during ten years running. Our KMF won the all-Union contests several times. Then it remained only to work calmly. However, the Moldavian Republic Minister of Forestry recommended me for a promotion. I resisted as hard as I could but they forced me to capitulate.
Again I had to start from zero level. That was the Bozieny Forestry where I worked for 25 years…
Besides my official duties many times after the war I was invited to speak at public meetings as a veteran of the Great Patriotic War. For example, in 1977 on the occasion of the Red Army Day I took the floor at the Culture House of the village of Bozieny, Kotovsk district. I narrated where and how I fought including my participation in the liberation of the concentration camp Osventsim. The next day a local inhabitant Guriuk Dmitrii Fedorovich, born in 1911, went up to me and tearfully narrated me his odyssey. He had been drafted in 1944 after Bozieny was liberated.
In a combat at the front Dmitrii was captured and shortly before the end of the war their group of prisoners was transferred to Osventsim. And just on their point of being placed into the oven, we liberated the camp! Guriuk told me: “Yesterday, while listening your speech, I was crying constantly…” Can you imagine, we were neighbors for 17 years but didn’t know how close at hand the fate had brought us together… Since then on when we met each other tears welled up in our eyes.
Our village lost almost one thousand inhabitants during the war. Being the head of the local military registration board, I organized the reburial of warriors who perished on the territory of our village. We found 27 scattered individual graves and reburied the remains in a common grave. 20 names were etched on the obelisk, seven fallen soldiers lie nameless. Later in the center of the village a fine monument was set up to the memory of our fallen villagers. All their names were etched on the monument.
Our family was lucky: all of us came through the war. My older brother Alexander, born in 1923, although covered with wounds, returned alive. He fought as a scout and was decorated many times.
I ‘d like to note that the participants of the Great Patriotic War were beyond the attention of the Soviet mass media during several years after the end of the war. It was inexplicable and even offensive… Sergey Smirnov, a writer and a Central TV-journalist raised that topic and roused the audience of many millions. In all mass media appeared columns such as “Veterans, respond!” I read these columns regularly and finally in 1977 I had written a response with my address to some Western Ukraine newspaper (our last reinforcements at the front were from that area). In some six months one soldier of my platoon, Zhuk by name, responded to me. Soon another, Maletskii by name, made himself heard. Do you know, they were my subordinates at the front but I had associated with them just a little. However when we met each other after the war we were like brothers. It turned out that both of them were injured shortly after me, therefore, I still don’t know where our division had fought up to the Victory Day, as well as who of my frontline friends had come through the war…
I retired only in 1985 – my health began “floundering” sometimes.
My wife and I brought up three children. We have now six grandchildren and even five great-grandchildren.
|Interviewed, recorded and initially edited the Russian text by:||N. Chobanu|
|inally edited the Russian text and translated it into English by:||I. Kobylyanskiy|
|Edited the English text by:||T. Marvin|