Sasha Maslov is a Ukrainian photographer who lives and works in New York City. His work has been exhibited in various photo galleries and art spaces around Europe and the US. He is a regular contributor to a number of magazines and newspapers in New York and Europe, and he is actively pursuing work on his documentary projects.
My name is Ursula Hoffmann. I was born on June 15, 1922, in Poznan, Poland. When I was young, I was homeschooled. I really wanted to go to a school where there were other children, and eventually my parents allowed me to attend one with my sister, Elizaveta. At the time, we all lived in a three-bedroom apartment on Wiankowa Street, in one of the houses the Germans had left behind after the First World War. But my mother wanted to move to a bigger place, so we moved into a six-bedroom apartment on Ogrodowa, where I began middle school. The war started on my fourth year.
At the time, I was part of the Zwiazek Harcerstwa Polskiego Polish Scouts Organization. We were mostly older kids, even some who finished school already and were attending university. One of them was Irena Petri – a girl who took lead and helped to organize the scouts. Once the war started, we decided to take boys into our circle. Then some of our members brought their friends. It was important that we could trust everyone in attendance.
We were a group of thirty scouts. We called ourselves The Beavers, and we soon integrated into the Gray Ranks – the underground resistance. We had decided to name ourselves The Beavers because we gathered every week near the river, in a small town near Poznan called Lubon. We’d build a small camp near the river each week and when we returned it would be destroyed. We couldn’t figure out who was doing this, it was such a desolate place, but we soon realized it was beavers. So we took the name.
The functions of our organization were broad. One thing we did was provide basic education to Polish children. During the occupation, children weren’t able to have a basic Polish education, so we would go to houses and teach the school program. And we tutored one another as well – geography, history, writing, literature. No one wanted to learn mathematics because it was just such an awful subject. We were hoping the war would end soon and we could go on with our normal studies. We also taught some foreign languages, including Russian, as many of us understood that sooner or later the Russians would come. We organized small celebrations of Polish holidays as well. For example, May 3 was our Constitution day, November 11 was the Independence of Poland, as well as some religious holidays. All of these were banned.
The funny thing is that we moved our headquarters across the street from the Imperial Castle in Poznan, where in the same building was the office of Poznan Gauleiter – Arthur Karl Greiser, who was responsible for overseeing the German occupation of Poland. His office was on the second floor and we were on the first floor. We were very brave back then.
Before the war, my father worked in a company that sold coal. During the occupation, the Germans took control of the company, and a man named Erich Steffen was appointed director. He left my father employed there, but soon they began to send Polish men to labor camps in Germany. My father managed to escape this fate by agreeing to become house help for the new director.
In 1940, the Polish resistance was becoming more organized. Our group that was already part of the Gray Ranks began reporting to Armia Krajowa, which was the primary resistance force at the time. Our functions soon varied from underground parcel and mail delivery to sabotage. We were young and very reckless and some of us were caught and killed. The Germans didn’t tolerate or spare anyone they suspected as taking part in any resistance. Some, like myself, were lucky to survive. We had a simple phrase in the Gray Ranks that said: “Today, Tomorrow and the Day After.” Today meant the fight for Poland’s independence. Tomorrow meant the liberation of Poland from any occupants. The Day After stood for rebuilding the country to its former glory.
At the end of the war, we moved to the basement of a house in one of the Poznan neighborhoods, called Gorczyn. The Russians were coming through Poland at the time. I remember them knocking at our door and very uncomfortably asking for some coffee.
In January of 1945, I returned to my house here. The condition of the place we were staying had become intolerable. My house had also been destroyed, and was without heat and water, but my father used his connections to bring in a firm to help us restore some parts to the house to make it livable again.
I started work at a print company – one of the few around here with a printing press. I wanted to continue my education, but most of the schools had been destroyed. I occupied myself with work. I remember my boss joking that after I’d go and get my diploma, I’d be better than him because he never had a chance to finish his studies. The following summer, I intended to study French philology. But sometimes things don’t turn out the way you plan. I had gone on vacation with some friends, where I met a professor of a Merchant Academy. He persuaded me to switch my interest to the academy he taught at, so I did. In February of 1946, I furthered my studies there. In 1948, I finished my education, something I had been dreaming of for so long. I started to work and teach at the University of Economics in Poznan.
Later, I became a secretary of the World Organization of Armia Krajova, and kept in touch with many of the people I knew through the war. In fact, I saw some of them at my 90th birthday. With some people, you share something so precious that you want them to stay in your life forever, cherishing it.
My name is Stuart Hodes, originally Stuart Hodes Gescheidt. I was born in Manhattan on November 27, 1924. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. My father had trouble with his ears and went to a warmer climate. I think he and my mother just were happier apart. I attended PS 98 for elementary, then Brooklyn Technical High School, which was all boys. I didn’t like that. But I loved the things we studied, which included every kind of shop – sheet metal, woodwork, forge, foundry. . . I enjoyed working with my hands.
I was aware of the war far back as 1938. I was fourteen. I remember the day of the Pearl Harbor attack very well. My brother and I were in the kitchen of our apartment in Flatbush, and we jumped up and down in excitement. We both wanted to get into the war.
I wanted to be a pilot. I’d read the ads in the paper and in 1942, I went to a recruiting office in Times Square. I was almost eighteen by then. I asked about it and they said, ‘Well you’re going to be drafted in a couple of months anyway.’ They gave me all the papers. They told me that once I was drafted I should turn them in. And I was drafted into the Army Air Corps in March, 1943 – we didn’t call it the Air Force yet. We wore army uniforms. I went to Camp Upton in New York.
I spent basic training at Miami Beach, where I’d spent a year as a child. I was able to visit my old house. I had planted a palm tree after a hurricane and there it was, all grown up. From there, I went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in June for training as a Radio Operator Mechanic. I submitted my papers there. I was halfway through the course when they sent me to pre-pre-flight training.
I went to pre-flight itself in August, in Santa Ana, California. Ten weeks of tests. They tested us for everything. We had color blind tests. We were put in a room with tear gas. All the stuff an army recruit went through. One of the tests was to see if we could swim. We went to a pier and were told to take off everything except our shorts, so we left our clothes in piles and walked a few blocks away. They were going to count to ten and anybody not in the water by then was going to get washed out. I’d been a competitive swimmer, so I was pleased to lead the parade back to our clothes.
Each stage of training took about eight weeks. When it came time for assignment, the cadets there were going to either become a pilot, a navigator or a bombardier. My first training was in Wickenburg, Arizona. Everybody wanted to go to Oxnard because Jimmy Stewart was an instructor there. I got Wickenburg, a desert training facility.
And I loved it there. I had an instructor, one of the best teachers I ever had of any kind. You were allowed to go about ten hours of training, then you had to fly solo. I soloed at about nine hours. The instructor got out of the plane and walked away. He told me to take it around and land. No sooner had I gotten the plane off the ground when it hit me that I loved flying. I loved being in charge of the machine. Entering a new dimension. Absolutely was crazy about it.
I flew around and from then on I wanted to fly every single second. After we had our daily hour – we had a lesson two or three times a week – we would have to sign out a plane and practice. I would sign out the plane and after the hour in the air, I’d come down and ask if I could get another plane. Most of the time, they assigned me another.
Then I went to Bakersfield. I discovered a town about sixty miles away from there called Selma. I was in love with a girl with that name, so I’d fly over the town and at the end of my flying, I would always do a turn onto my back. Right into Selma . . . very Freudian, I was aware of that.
Another moment of truth came when I graduated. You had to go to school for multi-engine planes, bombers, or for single-engine planes, which were fighters. I was sent to a twin-engine school because they needed bomber pilots. Part of the reason you wanted to be a fighter pilot was the glamor, but the secret was that they were also safer. The casualties were fewer than bombers. We weren’t fire-breathing Top Gun types. We wanted to survive.
I was in the air one day, practicing. Being a co-pilot in the right seat. My instructor gave me a skill building exercise. You put it into a climb and give it a little more throttle. You put it into a dive and you pull back throttle. The idea is to keep it at exactly the same speed. The cruising speed was 140 knots and the instructor showed me how. The needle moved slightly. And he told me to try. When I did, the needle didn’t move at all. He said, ‘Wait a minute. . . let me take it.’ He thought the gauge was broken. He was a wonderful guy and I was real lucky. He said, ‘I’m going to make sure you go to first pilot school,’ which he did.
I almost missed the war. When I got to Italy, we were two months from the end. My high point as a pilot was flying the Atlantic. We left from Labrador to fly to one of the Norwegian fjords, but it was socked in with weather, so we flew to the Azores instead, and from there to Morocco. The flight to the Azores was very nice, very thrilling. The reason we didn’t go to the fjord was that a storm passed overhead. We were cancelled. The next day we passed through the same storm. This was when I put all the theory to use. It was a large front, six hundred miles each way. So you find a saddle and you go through it. I went through at about 12,000 feet and we were smashed around. But we came through fine and spent the night in the Azores with the rain coming down. The next day we flew through it again. But this time it wasn’t so bad and I went through low. We stopped at Marrakech and the storm passed over. The next day, on the way to Italy, we passed through it a third time but now it was weak. We landed in Cairo and spent the night. From there to Sologne, not far from the spur of the boot.
We were given tents. I guess we flew about two missions a week. I flew seven of them. One night I’m looking up and they’re shooting flares and that’s how I found out the war was over. Because I only flew seven, I wasn’t qualified to return home early.
Another mission, we were sucked in. The target was covered by clouds. We were allowed a Target of Opportunity. I think this was my sixth or seventh mission. We looked for a bridge. We were over the Alps. We found one and bombed it. I turned the plane on one side because I wanted to see if we’d hit the target. That was the first time that I got a real sense that I was maybe killing people.
I was reassigned to the army during occupation. But first there was a project to fly troops back to the USA on their way to the Pacific Theatre, which turned out to be a lot of fun. We were transferred near Naples, a town called Pomigliano. About two or three times a bunch of soldiers would climb in a B-17, which was a very bad transport plane. It couldn’t hold many. The bomb bays took up too much room. There were thousands of the planes sitting on the ground, millions of gallons of gasoline, why not use them? We’d fly across the Mediterranean, past Sardinia, along the coast of Africa, then we’d turn through the Straits of Gibraltar, drop our soldiers off and fly back. It was a two-day thing. I don’t know how many of those I did.
But on one of them, flying to Italy, I heard on my telephone that the Japanese ad surrendered. It was Victory in Japan Day. I told the soldiers, ‘You’re going home now. You’re not going to go to the Pacific.’ By the time we landed in our field they were all too drunk to walk. That was a nice day.
Not long after that, I was sent back to Foggia for the occupation. Instead of a tent, we lived in a very nice building. That’s when I discovered I had no job. They didn’t need pilots anymore. I was being assigned dreadful tasks. Officer of the day, latrine inspection, god knows what. Someone asked me if I’d like to join a newspaper. I said, ‘Sure.’ ‘Well you’d be our pilot because we have stories in Rome and in Pisa.’ I said, ‘Well, fine.’ So I joined and I got out of all the other stuff. They began to let me write articles. That’s when I discovered I loved writing.
We had press cameras and we had our own jeep. We had a dark room and all the film we could conceivably use. What they called the Class 10 Warehouse. The size of an airplane hangar filled with lab equipment. Cameras, enlargers, the works. We interviewed people like Padre Pio, who’s now Saint Pio – we wanted a picture of him holding his hands up with the stigmata showing. But we didn’t dare. That turned out to be one of the best years of my life.
We were offered a chance, some of us, to go to college in Zurich or Lausanne. I could have gone to either one, but I wanted to get home, so I did in the summer of 1945. It was great to come home and see my folks and go back to college. I went to Brooklyn College, attending to be a journalist or a writer. Because I had liked what I’d been.
But then an odd thing happened. My first job was as a publicity director for a summer theater in Bennington, Vermont, where an actor friend of mine – I’d known him from college – told me that he was studying dance with a woman named Martha Graham and I went back to college with her name in my head.
One day I was down in Manhattan and I looked her up in the phone book and found that her studio was very close. Lower Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. I signed up for a month of lessons. Long story short I became a dancer, a foolish thing to do. I stayed a dancer most of my life. Until I was eighty-five. I don’t know why except that I enjoyed it. And this, people don’t quite understand… it’s like flying. When you fly, you’re magically taken away from the everyday world. When you dance, the same thing happens only you’re still on the ground. But you’re really in another place. I guess I liked that.
I stayed with Martha Graham for eleven years. I started doing Broadway shows. Some roles I was a replacement and some I was there from the start of the production. I started doing night clubs because it was extra money. I did television between shows. Then I started teaching and I worked for a while for the New York State Arts Council, which I liked. When I was offered a job running a dance department at NYU, I took it.
I was in my late-sixties when I stopped dancing, and I was deciding I would try to write again. I wrote a couple of books and one was published in 1996.
Soon, I got my orders to come back. I went in a victory ship. We played poker on the way. I didn’t win. We spent as much time as we could in the mess hall. That’s when I first heard a direct broadcast from home. It said that milk was 25 cents a quart. We said, ‘Turn the ship back around!’
One day I was given my pay and I took the bus to Manhattan, then the subway to Brooklyn. I rang the bell. My mother was there. It was nice.
But I wasn’t quite out of the army yet. I had to go back. I was asked if I wanted to join the reserves and I said yes. I joined and was in for four years, kind of wondering if I should stay in. I liked the army. But I couldn’t fulfill the requirements, which was at least one weekend a month, when we went out to a field and flew. So at the end of four years, I didn’t reenlist. And about two months later, all the reserves got called up for the Korean War. I had a good reason for not wanting to go. I had a good life. I knew then I wanted to have a family and I wouldn’t like not being with them.
My cousin was an intelligence officer and he said I should have joined. He said that the pilots were always given first choice of everything. Any good deal comes along they give it to a pilot. ‘Yeah but I wanted to be a writer.’ He says, ‘You could have written military history. You’d probably be at the Pentagon by now.’
In another lifetime.
My father moved to Argentina in 1915, during the First World War, but he decided to return and enlist. He became a hero, because the army was fleeing after a defeat and forgot a cannon on the field. During the night, my father went back alone to retrieve the cannon with a cart. He was shot between the ribs. This gave him asthma. And when the Germans came to our door during the Second World War, my father went downstairs and they took him. We thought we would never see him again. The Germans thought he was a partisan, then they determined that because of his asthma he could never be an active partisan—though he might be someone who aided the partisans.
From 1943 to 1945, we were basically between a rock and a hard place. We feared the Germans would lose the war. The partisans had become stronger.
Two two young partisans, who were friends of mine, were discovered by the Germans and displayed in the square, hanging from meat hooks, left to rot in the open air. By then, it had become a common opinion that the Germans were now an enemy. And the partisans were just as out of control. They were started stealing food and robbing people. They were an armed political party, which you couldn’t fight back against.
When the war ended on April 25, on Liberation Day, I was headed to work. I met a man that was a fascist and he asked why I was going to work. He told me not to go to work. “Today is a special day,” he’d said. “Nothing is going to happen.” There were a lot of people gathered in the town square. The partisans were able to come out of hiding. They gathered twenty people they suspected of being fascists and put them in trucks and took them to the woods and shot them. I knew a girl that owned a hotel. The Germans had occupied it during the war. The partisans decided she was a spy, though she only owned the hotel, and they killed her. After killing those fascist men, the partisans displayed their wives in the square with shaved heads. But this ended when it began to storm and everyone scattered. Eventually, with the war over, the curfews ended and there were parties in the stables.
During the first election following the war, I worked as a telephone operator. I aided old people with voting from their homes. The election was basically between the Republic and the Monarchy. I was for the Monarchy but they lost.
I met my husband in 1947. He had escaped from his military headquarters after the war, and stole civilian clothes from a window. When I asked what he wanted to do for our honeymoon, he said he wanted to go to Venice so he could return the clothes that saved his life. So we did that.
After that, I worked in a government office for nine years. Then I worked for a shoemaker. My husband died in 1961. Everyone that came back from Russia seemed to die young.
My name is Michele Montagano. I was born on October 27, 1921, in Casacalenda, Italy. My father was an elementary school teacher there and we used to live in a small town. I studied in Casacalenda and then I went to Campobasso High School. I finished my high school almost the same day when Mussolini declared war. I graduated high school in 1940. On September 14, 1940, I travelled to Rome for studying law. In 1941, I was called back by the state to enlist as a soldier. Thus I joined the army on Feb 1, 1941. I took an official army course and became a sergeant. I was sent to Cephalonia and Corfu in Greece with the Acqui Division of the Italian Army. It is the same division that Hitler destroyed in 1943 in the Cephalonia Massacre. I returned from Greece soon, as I had to take another course to increase my rank in the army. I was promoted from being a sergeant to a lieutenant in Italy.
In September 1942, I was sent to North Italy in Gorizia. I was one of the GAF, who were a group of soldiers fighting against the Tito Partisans. This group of soldiers resembled Alpini soldiers, as they used to wear similar hats. It was a tough situation as it wasn’t only the army against us, but there were people without uniform all around the mountains and valleys who were fighting us. In the daytime, they were smiling and saying hello to us, but during the night they were our enemies. The Tito’s Partisans did not have uniforms, so you never know who they are, which made it very difficult. Besides that, it was freezing temperatures that winter, which I’ll remember for a long time.
In September 1943, the state ordered us to immediately return from Yugoslavia. We had orders to bring with us all the people that we could on our way back to Italy: teachers, civilians, farmers, etc. Thus we had to take every one we found on the road. Thus we had quite a sizable crowd of civilians and soldiers heading back to Italy. On the other hand, the German Nazis were still in the city of Cremasco, Italy. It was easy for the Germans to arrest all these people and put them on the train to Germany. Italy just became the enemy of Germany and they didn’t know that all these people were from Yugoslavia. Therefore the Nazis caught us on September 11, 1943, exactly two days after we returned from Yugoslavia. They put us in the train wagons and the German soldiers then asked us, “Where do you want to go?” They further asked, “Do you want to fight for Germany or you want to fight with Allied Troops?” There was a German soldier who was asking these questions to each one of us as they were putting us on the train.
But everyone provided the same response: “We don’t fight against the United States and England because our King said now our enemy is only Germany!” Just a few freshmen accepted to fight against the Allies, but the vast majority refused to fight against their country and they willingly chose going to the prison camp. Therefore the train took us to the German camp, but we were given a choice. The point is that this was the first and the only time that Nazis asked their prisoners to choose whether they want to fight with the Germans or with the Allied troops. They never gave a choice to any of their Polish, English or any other prisoners before, and had directly sent them to the camps. The worst thing was that the Germans treated us like animals. We had been punished in a really bad way. There were about 50 or 60 passengers in each train car, which was closed and we remained inside without fresh air for nine days. We also remained in the train wagons without food and water. The German soldiers used to stop the train at five o’clock in the morning each day, in the freezing weather, and would give us two minutes each to attend to our personal needs outside.
We were then taken to various places, including Chesnokova, on October 1, 1943; Ternopil, Ukraine, on November 2, 1943; and to Ciche, Poland, on December 27, 1943. They were really angry with us and they gave us very little food, about one piece of bread to each of us per day! It was very cold in December and January but we had to stand outside, either during the day or during the night, so that the Nazis could count us. We couldn’t sleep well. We had been severely suffering from cold, hunger and lack of sleep.
The Italians still fighting for Germany had a newspaper they put out. And German soldiers would give it to us occasionally hoping that some of us might think about joining the German Army after all. They hoped we’d become like some other Italians and would fight against the Allies. From the newspaper, I came to know that my father was also a German prisoner in a nearby camp. So I asked the German officer if I could see my father, and he said yes! It was the first time I heard a Nazi saying “yes” to anything. I later found out why he said yes.
In my father’s camp there were a lot of high ranked officials such as lieutenants, a captain and a colonel and a few generals. A few of them had died because of the cold weather and from starvation. The people who were left accepted the offer to fight with Germany against Italy, including my father. That’s why they took me to see my father, because when I returned to my camp I could tell my fellow prisoners about the situation in my father’s camp. I could tell them that if we didn’t agree to fight against our country, we would die here!
It was a beautiful reunion with my father. Everyone in the camp got emotional and happy when I kissed and hugged my father. A few minutes later, my father told me that he was going to join the Mussolini party and fight with the Germans. Though I respected the decision of my father, which was made very much out of necessity, I felt like I was going do what I had set out to do, and not join the Germans. Therefore we were father and son by nature, but enemies by politics!
They let me stay with my father for 20 days. But I didn’t change my mind in these 20 days. However, my father did change his mind once and told me that he would not join the Mussolini party, as I would be left alone here. But I told him that, “No, you have to join the party as your other sons are waiting for you back in Italy.” I told him that it could be the only way he could be freed from this prison. After 20 days, my father was set free and taken back to Italy. I was taken back to my prisoners’ camp. Before leaving, I told my father, “I swear on the flag of Garibaldi to have my faith in the Italian republic and Italian King.” I further said, “Now, I swear I will never give even one of my fingers to Hitler.”
When I went back to my camp, I told them the situation about my father’s camp. Thus the prisoners in my camp divided into two groups. One group consisted of the people who accepted to go against their country, and the second consisted of those people who didn’t agree to fight against their country. I was among the second group. The people who agreed were also taken back to Italy. Other people, including me who didn’t agree, were taken to another prisoner camp. The other camp was close to Poland, and the rumor was that there was a strong Polish resistance growing. So we had a hope that we will be freed. They took us all completely naked. They used us like a shield because the Polish people knew that there were Italians who didn’t accept to fight against the Allies.
The Polish people tried to save us and to take us back from the Germans, but they couldn’t stop our train. We were taken by train to another camp in Sud Boston, Germany. We arrived in Germany on March 24, 1944. In Sud Boston camp there were a lot of university teachers. They all used to have discussions about international law. I designed a regular discussion panel, similar to university courses, in the camp. There were discussions with the professors, and it was like taking courses at an Italian university. I was 21 years old and I used to listen to the professors with intense concentration. However, some kind of sickness broke out and the Nazis stopped coming inside the camp. They used to bring food and water on a rolling cart and just leave it by the door. At that time, we suddenly felt free, as we didn’t see the faces of Nazis for a long time.
An agreement between Mussolini and Hitler took place, which required that all the army officials and soldiers would be considered as civilians. They should also go to work like civilians. But all the officials said, “No, we are officials and we would not do the concentration camp work.” They refused to work and give up their uniforms. They took us from the Sud Boston camp to another camp where there was no more military people. For the next five days we refused to work as civilians. In this camp there were 214 soldiers and Italian army official who refused to work. The German soldiers then divided these 214 officials into groups of ten. For every ten people, they picked one person. In this manner, they picked total 21 of us. And then one of the German prison guards said, “You’re never going to see these friends of yours, as we are going to shoot them.” At this moment, 44 of the other officials, including me, came out of the camp and said, “If you will kill our friends, you have to kill us, too, because we will never work for you. As we are officials and the international law says that you cannot make official soldiers do civilian work.” The Nazis then took us instead of the 21 they picked earlier, and took us outside to be shot. Most of the soldiers had pictures of their wives and kids and they started looking at them and praying. We waited for six hours to be shot, but nothing happened. Later we heard that it was decided on the government level to leave us alive to avoid conflict with the Italians who were loyal to Germany. Anyway, we transferred again to a new prison, where they had all kinds of people. The guards were mostly Russian and Polish, and those people were animals. They used to kick the prisoners all day long to let them die with broken heads and bones. This camp was called Unterluss, where our destiny was basically death for everyone who ended up there!
We stayed there for 40 days, and six of our fellow soldiers died. One of them died by getting shot in the head and the other five died because of the beatings. We stayed only 40 days and then the Allied troops appeared. Just like that, in a day the Allies took everything over and we were free. We exploded with happiness when we heard on the radio that our war was officially over. That was in the beginning of May 1945. At the same time, I was worried about my father.
Right before the Americans came, we asked the Germans to give us some bread before leaving, as they made us starve. They said, “If you want bread, you have to sing for us, because you are Italians and you are good singers.” We started to sing and after that they left us all the bread they had. The Americans facilitated provisions of the most basic things we needed, as we were not only starved, but were naked, too. The Americans also took us to the hospital, and we stayed in a hospital in Celle for like 15 to 20 days. We were then taken back to another camp where approximately 14,000 Italians were waiting for the train to take them back to Italy. However, the Vatican assisted by sending hundreds of trucks to pick up the Italians from Germany. I was on one of these trucks.
When the truck passed through the Garda Lake in Italy, I saw the blue sky, the blue water and suddenly my heart felt joy and I knew I was home! I came back to Italy on September 1, 1945. I rushed to see if my father was alive and I was really happy to see him at our home in Maurizio. However, I found a catastrophic situation in Italy because my mother and father had three more children who had no food. These three kids were my cousins. My mother adopted them after the death of their parents. I only stayed for a few months with my parents and my little cousins.
Then I decided to leave for north Italy to search for a job. I found work in Milan at Shell Petroleum, but I was really depressed because of the horrific thoughts about the German camps. However, I fell in love with a woman in Milan and forgot about all the misery and pain of the concentration camps. Later, Shell sold the company to an Italian company and I lost my job. I came back to my family again in Maurizio, and started to study. I graduated and then started working again at a bank in Campobasso. I then fell in love with a young lady in Casacalenda and we got married. We rented a house in Campobasso. We had two kids, a boy and a girl. Unfortunately, my wife left us all aggrieved seven years ago. I live with my nephew now, who takes care of me. My daughter also lives with us and my son lives close to us. We get together four to five times a week and we have dinner together. The only sadness in my life is that my wife left me so soon.
I was born on March 28, 1927, a few months after Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean. I spent most of my childhood in Northeastern Italy, in a small village just 20km from Udine. My parents worked on a farm. I attended a school where all the farm children went. It was never interesting to me. From an early age, my interest was in engineering, but I could only attend a technical school once the war ended.
I must say, I didn’t care for the war. I didn’t support either side, despite being Italian. I was interested in aviation. I was fascinated by how precise everything had to be in order to operate a machine as complex as an airplane.
There were a lot of air battles around Udine between Americans and Germans, Italians and Americans, between factions of the Italian army. After September 8, 1943, Udine went under German administration and we were bombed a lot, mainly by the Americans. I always got excited when a plane was shot down, so I could go explore it. I would rush over to the site of the crash and tried to recover whatever parts I could. I would take them home where I had a small workshop, where I dismantled and reassembled all the parts I found.
Italian partisans carried out some attacks in my village in 1944. They came to our house one night. I was frightened and didn’t know how to deal with them. They were suspicious of the German presence in the village. But the Germans stationed there were mostly engineering and construction staff, and worked building runways in the surrounding areas. You see, this location is a convenient distance from Munich, Slovenia and Monaco. They wanted to search the house. My father got into an argument with them because he didn’t want guns in the house. They searched and didn’t find much – my father once had a rifle, he was a hunter, but it was confiscated by the Germans after they’d come through the village.
I found work as a mechanic in a nearby village. Two Germans ran the shop. One specialized in engines and the other was a general smith. Three others worked for them. They were very kind to me, and very keen on teaching me. I helped German soldiers repair their trucks and tanks. I also worked on the airfield. I am still thankful to them for setting the foundation for my future career. I was interested in the work, not the politics. The Germans were here and we had to live with it. Many people understood that fighting them wasn’t worth it. But of course, many people also resisted. My brother worked with partisans and I was unaware. He had a radio transmitter in the attic of our home and no one knew.
In the spring of 1944, Todt, a German organization, began working on a project nearby. This organization basically existed to coordinate large engineering projects around Europe at that time. Of course, that late in the war, most of the projects were now dedicated to defending Germany. There were plenty of trucks and tanks, all kinds of necessary machinery, but there weren’t enough people to work on them. So they asked locals. People came from all around – some from Padua, from Treviso, Pordenone, Frioli, Udine. There were so many they had to build a barracks to host the workers that arrived. Even my brother worked for the Germans for four or five months. I remember some locals were displeased because their horses and cars were confiscated for transporting dirt and cement to build runways.
Some runways were already functioning in full, in Gemona and Risano, some other villages around Udine. Usually German planes took off in the evening to bomb around Bologna, in Central Italy. They would return, having to land at night or early in the morning, when it was extremely difficult to see the runway. There were many incidents when bombers crashed after missing the runway. Lots of German pilots died that way.
By autumn of 1944, the Americans attacked so often and intensely, German troops began to withdraw. Construction stopped. They just left everything behind – empty runways, abandoned mines, construction sites.
One night, American planes bombed our area. I stood on the roof to watch it. One of the trains on the railway exploded. I think it was carrying tanks or some sort of heavy machinery. This was fun for me, because of the explosion and the fireworks, the flare from the blast. That’s what it was for me at the time, a kind of entertainment and excitement. I had no idea what war really was, I didn’t understand the scale of what was happening. I never thought the Wehrmacht occupying our village was a bad thing. I was always fascinated by their technology, and I didn’t mind working with them for the sake of playing and studying these machines.
After the war ended in a year I joined the army and went into aviation mechanics. I passed the tests with flying colors. After that, I attended a mechanical design school. Not only because of my interest, but because times weren’t easy for my father’s farm. We needed machines to farm more efficiently. I wanted to learn how to design them.
I almost immigrated to the United States because I couldn’t find work. There was a committee working and interviewing people who wanted to work in America. They asked me what my profession was. I told them I was a mechanic. I was asked to show them my hand. I hadn’t worked for several weeks and my hands were clean. They thought I was lying and I didn’t get to go.
I worked hard all my life on things I truly love. I am proud of my family, my faith – I’m a Catholic – and last but not least, I am proud of my craft.
I was born in Austria in 1926, in the city of Korneuburg. I attended high school in Stockerau. At fifteen, I was conscripted. At the time, I was not enthusiastic or fanatical, but I did admire the regime. I was happy and felt well-protected. For me, the war began in 1933. They supplied us with food vouchers. We were taught about the war in school, and we helped out, focusing on civil activities, like providing the population with water, as well as construction efforts. For twelve years, I was part of the Hitler Youth. As part of my duties, I supported farmers during their harvest seasons-this was because many farmers were also soldiers. As a consequence of this, our lectures were limited. The public required our service.
In 1943, I was stationed at Wiener Neustadt, working for the Luftwaffe. We defended against American bombers. Later, I transferred to a different unit in Poznan, Poland, that helped provide medical treatments. After this, I returned home and became an active member of the military. By June of 1944, we received orders to repel the invasion of France. But when I got to Paris, I was immediately sent home because the Americans had landed successfully. By that September, I was transferred to Slovakia, as part of an attempt to reassemble a Panzer division that had been destroyed during the Russian campaign. In December 1944, we moved to Germany, near the Eifel mountains, where Gerd von Rundtsedt unsuccessfully mounted his counter-offensive. After this, we marched through Luxembourg to Belgium because most of the transport means had been destroyed. We were very poorly equipped at this time. We lacked winter equipment and we were starving. We spent much of the time on our journey hunting deer in order to feed the soldiers. Along the way, some farmers and other military units we passed provided some relief. We intended to meet the Americans in Bastogne, but we lacked the equipment and necessary support and failed. For instance, we had to sew our own winter clothes out of things like curtains and cushions. The population suffered because we were taking their materials. The Americans detected us early and repelled us. I am very lucky that I wasn’t wounded. Many other soldiers with me were wounded or killed. I was then tasked with gathering the wounded and caring for them at a hospital.
There were three of us tasked with caring for the sick and I was the only one that carried a gun. We searched the grounds near the hospital, which was a territory that had been captured by Americans and subsequently abandoned, and we found food in the forest-breakfast foods, chocolate, things we hadn’t seen for a long time. But when we found it, we were spotted by the Americans. I wanted to open fire, but the others asked me to surrender. We had no chance.
They imprisoned us and we found ourselves sent to a camp where many of our colleagues already were. They questioned us, hoping to know if we knew anything about the “wonder-weapons” they suspected our military was developing. After that, they moved us to a former German airfield in Compiegne, France. We were integrated into the larger camp, which totaled about one hundred-thousand people. We lived in tents, in January cold, and we had little food, no beds or winter supplies. Then one day, we received many supplies. They gave us straw for the ground, a stove, some more food. We were surprised by this. It turned out there was an independent commission arriving from Switzerland, consisting of Americans, British, Swiss and Germans. They were there to check on the quality of the camp. Once they left, the supplies were all taken from us.
I had a friend in this camp. Together we decided to escape from our imprisonment. Escape was relatively easy, as there were few guards-it was basically an open field, so we just snuck away. After three days we met a young farmer who was inquisitive of where we were from, where we were going. We spoke little English, but we pretended to be Americans. He didn’t believe us. When the farmer went to notify the authorities that we were hiding, other farmers from the village surrounded and captured us. One of them spoke German and treated us kindly. Much to our surprise, we were taken into a house and he cooked for us and we were allowed to eat as much as we liked. I asked why he was feeding us and he said he had been a prisoner of the Germans and they treated him well, so he wanted to give back something. We were hoping to be freed, but they still intended to hand us over to the French police. We were then taken back to the camp which we had escaped from.
In March, we were asked to volunteers for a labor camp. I did because I thought it would take me farther east, closer to Germany. I was lucky because I ended up in the city of Russ. I was tasked with maintaining the garden of the headquarters there. They provided me with plenty of food and it was not a bad time.
There were three of us, as before, and one of us worked in the kitchen. He snuck us extra cans of food. We stored them in the yard and planned for another escape. We waited three weeks to leave, and this time we had plenty of supplies. We only traveled at night and no one detected us. However, one day, we were feeling thirsty and we had an orange with us, and two of us wanted to eat it and the other wanted to conserve it. He left after an argument over the orange.
The remaining two of us ran out of food by the time we reached Verdun. There, we passed some fighting grounds of the First World War. There were many signs warning us to beware of landmines. It was here that my friend decided he would rather surrender rather than continue the journey. We agreed to one more night and then he would surrender. Eventually, we discovered railroad tracks and walked along them, expecting a train to eventually pass. Instead we came across a train that was starting up and we waited for it to begin departing and jumped on. The train was guarded by Americans and we lost each other there. I didn’t know if my friend had gotten on the train. This was a cargo train and I found many boxes in it. I hoped they would contain food. I realized that someone was moving from car to car, and at first I thought it was one of the guards, but it was my friend coming towards me. When I asked him if there was food on the train, he said, “No. All of these boxes are filled with weapons.” The train was headed east. It soon passed a train station and it was bright and there were many French and American guards. All but one of them overlooked us-a French soldier spotted me. I saluted him and he saluted back and nothing happened.
The next day, as the train was crossing a large river, I said to my friend, “This could be the Moselle river,” which I knew was the border. On the other side, the train decelerated to go around a curve and it was here we jumped off. We watched it pass and at the end of the train there were American soldiers with machine guns. When they saw us, we saluted them and they saluted us back. We were very lucky. For a month and a half, we walked across Germany. We rummaged through the ruins of homes, searching for supplies left behind by their former occupants. This was 1945 and the war was over.
By May 1947, I was back in school. I lived in an apartment and the house beside us was occupied by a Russian soldier and his family. The Russian barracks was across from where I lived. On a day in June, I was studying and heard a lot of noise outside. Some Austrian and Russian kids were fighting. I shouted at them and they left. Later, they returned, teasing me and throwing rocks at my window. I got into a physical altercation with one of the kids and got arrested. I was taken to Vienna and given a short trial and sentenced to three years, the maximum penalty for hooliganism. Over the next several weeks, I was shipped across the Soviet Union by train, all the way east. Because I wasn’t a political or war prisoner, I was categorized as a common criminal and sent to a Gulag labor camp among murders and thieves, harder criminals. They took us by boat to Magadan, in the Kolyma region, where there was a goldmine. I lived in temperatures as low as -50 °C. I got weak from the scarcity of food and couldn’t fulfill my duties. There was a quota and because I didn’t meet it, they gave me even less food. After a while, I had dropped to just 36 kilos.
One day I escaped the camp and survived nine days on my own without food. Based on my experience in France, I had thought that it would work out. I was lucky that after nine days, without orientation of the area, I somehow ended up back at the camp. I fell unconscious shortly after arriving. This was a psychologically difficult period. I didn’t think I would ever get out. There were no Austrians. It was mostly Russians, some Germans. I was alone.
Much to my surprise, I was eventually released from the camp.
Immediately, I went to the police and told them that I wanted to go back home. The officer asked me if I had money and I said, “No. I have nothing, but I expect that the Russian government which has taken me here for free, will also take me back for free.”
The officer replied that when I was taken to Siberia, I was a prisoner.
Now I was a free man and it was my responsibility to get back. I had to find a job, which was difficult, because I had no work experience. Luckily, I found one at a nearby hospital, utilizing some skills I learned in the war. After four and a half years of this, someone advised me to write a letter to the Austrian embassy. I did and got a passport sent to me. At this time, I was living in a barracks with a lot of ex-criminals, some of whom had been sentenced for over twenty years.
The day we heard on the radio that Stalin had died, everyone was crying. I didn’t know how to hide my feelings because I was happy he was dead.
The passport I got was valid in all of Europe, but I wasn’t allowed to travel beyond 20km of the town I was working in unless I transferred. I wrote letters to multinational corporations, asking to be moved from the area I was restricted to. I got permission, finally, in October, 1953. I soon sent a letter to the embassy and asked them to remit the money for my journey home. But I never heard from them. I hadn’t spent much of my pay and had gotten extra wages from a labor dispute with the hospital where I worked. I traveled to the port, where the last boat was leaving the next day.
After that, the water would be frozen for eight months and you no longer had access to the river. I couldn’t get a ticket and the boat left without me. My permit to leave would expire in just four weeks. So I went to the airport, which was thirteen kilometers away, only to find that there would be a three week wait. Frustrated, I went to an officer of the secret police and I lied, putting my passport on his desk, that I was an Austrian journalist and there was a conference going on in Moscow and I was stuck here. He looked at my passport and found no proof of entry, but he believed me and supplied me with a voucher to get my ticket for the next day.
It was a small airport surrounded by mountains. The only transport to this region, even to this day, is by plane or boat. There are no trains or roads. Every day, only five planes departed from the airport. They were small, seventeen-passenger planes. After we took off and were passing the mountains, I looked down and saw smoke-it was one of the airplanes, the exact one that had departed just before mine. The flight to Khabarovsk was five hours. I went from there to the Trans-Siberian rail station and found I couldn’t get a ticket for two weeks. Luckily, I still had enough money for a flight direct to Moscow. There, I discovered that the ambassador of the Austrian embassy was a relative of mine, which I didn’t know. I made it to Austria by train.
I learned that my mother had died during my time away. There was no home waiting.
It was a challenge reintegrating, from a society of criminals to a civil, European society. I had left home at fifteen and now returned at twenty-eight. After all this, I finally finished school. But I didn’t want to socialize with anyone. I didn’t want to speak to or meet new people. I wanted only isolation and so I decided to become a woodsman. I felt like a foreigner in my own land.
At the end of the war, we did get to see American footage of the concentration camps and the massacres, and we thought it was propaganda-we laughed at it. None of us knew about the crimes of the Nazis. We only learned long after the war was finished, and even then we couldn’t believe it. I only reconsidered my thoughts about the regime after I returned from Russia.
One time, my sister asked me whether I’d like to see my father in the north. She recommended that I take a bus. I asked how far it was. She told me it was eighty kilometers. I replied that I didn’t know why I should buy a bus for that distance. I could walk it.
Eventually, I met a woman. I had lived for years among only men and they had been paranoid, some criminals, others spies. I just wanted to build a family. The forest where I worked belonged to a nobleman. I had to apply for his permission to have the marriage approved and he declined my request, so I terminated my employment and got married anyway. I am still with her.
My name is Hans Brandt. I was born in Chemnitz on December 25, 1925. I went to school here.
I was sixteen when I was conscripted. At seventeen years old when I started to learn to work with anti-aircraft systems. I was sent to Czechoslovakia first, in Mahrisch-Ostrau, for training. I advanced in rank while rebuilding our units, then we went on to France in 1943, near Paris. There, we built new units. I was tasked with securing airports. I don’t remember the names of the towns anymore.
When the Americans arrived in France, on D-Day, I went to Regensburg. We were given the orders to retreat and that’s when I was captured. I was eighteen.
They took the prisoners through many towns in France, to display us like a symbol. There were two or three thousand of us imprisoned in the camp. We got very sick, because for several days we didn’t have anything to eat or drink, we could barely stand. We were told that the food we did get was from destroyed German shipments. They also divided us into several groups, and I was part of one tasked with going into the forest to cut firewood.
By the winter of 1944, I was in a place called Wood Camp 2 in the north of Normandy. I remained there until 1945. Before the Americans came, it had been a fully-equipped German camp, but it had been destroyed, and we had to rebuild everything for the winter weather. I think this was in February.
Later, I was transferred to another camp in Le Mans. In March, to Marseille, where I remained until April 3. We went from there with a ship to Gilbraltar, to New York over twenty-six days. By then, Germany had surrendered.
In May, I was sent to a smaller camp and was put to work with dairy machinery. We were observed by Americans, but they were forbidden to talk to us and we weren’t allowed to talk to them. I never learned any English. I only ever spoke German with other prisoners. There was an American woman who gave us orders directly, but this was forbidden so the Americans shot her in the leg. Just because she spoke to us. But the man who shot her, he was sent to Japan to fight because her punishment had been too severe. Mostly, we communicated through motions, moving arms and legs. Some of us communicated through English. We didn’t understand at the time why he shot her.
We were in groups of ten people in the camps, and we wanted to survive so we decided to say we were all artists, all musicians. To avoid the harder work. The Americans believed us. There was one very tall man, a man who looked like he’d worked hard all his life. They asked him what instrument he played, and he said, “I play the harp.” They never asked us to play these “instruments.” I said I played the trumpet.
In November, they moved us to Boston, where I worked at a paper processing plant. At the beginning of December, we were sent to La Havre on a big ship. The George Washington. There were three or four thousand prisoners aboard.
From there we left by train and the Americans turned us over to the French. We arrived in Berlin, where we mined in the mountains for coal. We were to be paid, but we only got half of our salaries, with the other half promised to us once we were free. I tried to flee the mine in April, but I was recaptured within a few weeks. I stayed there until June 4, 1948. Eventually, the prisoners in the east were turned over to the Russians. We came to Eisenach and we were checked out in the hospital for illness and injuries. I was freed December 6, 1948. We never got our money. The French kept it. The Russians gave us a single Mark each, in small change.
After the war, I returned to my town, to the place where I had worked as a locksmith. The manager asked me if I would enroll in studies because many educated men had been killed in the war and those with good education were in demand. I was interested in studies, but I had no background, so I had to study in Chemnitz, in a facility for workmen and agriculture. Then I went to Dresden and studied to become an engineer. I finished my studies in 1957.
In the meantime, the town changed its name from Chemnitz to Karl-Marx-Stadt. I worked so well when I came back that I was promoted to Second Director. We built cooling systems for trains.
In 1967, however, I became very sick and was too sick to work in my profession.
When I regained my health, I worked only in the planning aspects of the work. By 1990, when everything changed again, I was sixty-five. I was lucky, because after the train factory closed that year and many people lost their jobs, I was able to retire.
I had been friends with my wife before the war. She was a widow and had a son. Her first husband had died in Slovenia. We married in 1950 and had four more children together. The children all went on to have good professions. They were able to travel after 1990, as before they were only able to travel around East Germany. Later on, they traveled the world.
We had a wonderful garden that the family would work on together. I just prepared it for the winter. But I’m getting too old to tend to it now.
I am Dolzhnikova Lidya Evgenievna. I was born in the Kherson region, in Kotovskiy district, somewhere on a farm. My childhood was not that memorable. We worked a lot and I grew up with my mother and my brother. Of course, I remember the famine in 1933 and 1934. My little brother was bloated from hunger. So my mother took us to the seaside with her while she caught fish.
When the war started, we were in Crimea. My brother and I were very active from the beginning. I was only fourteen and my brother had just turned twelve. We dug trenches and dugouts around Ishun’, where the big defensive line at the entrance to Crimea was. The Germans were coming to us on land and we were doing everything possible to not let them through, into Crimea. But in the autumn of 1941, there was a horrific battle. The Germans broke through the defense line. So many of our soldiers were killed and drowned in the salt lakes that were around the trenches. It seemed like the water, the earth and the skies were on fire. Our soldiers were falling left and right, and Germans were just coming through, one tank after another, one motorcycle after another. I couldn’t see the end of it. How we didn’t die there I don’t know.
All the kids that were helping the soldiers there and managed to survive were taken to Ishun’. Meanwhile, Germans were moving along the western coast of Crimea. They made it to Balaklava, where they won another battle, going all the way to Sevastopol.
Before the Germans came, we had anti-aircraft guns sitting in our backyard and they were firing all the time. I was very scared. One time I was outside and they started shooting those guns, and something hit me. Apparently the side of a shell had just brushed my side. The doctor told me, “You must be a very lucky girl.” Our soldiers took good care of me. Then our house was bombed and destroyed. We were moved to another place to live, where we stayed for the duration of the war. This was in a village called Pravda. We shared the house with another family. Then some Romanian soldiers who were coming through with the Germans took over the house. They made all of us live in the kitchen while they took the living room and the bedrooms. They would come to the kitchen and ask for food. They didn’t speak Russian so they would try to explain that they want some food. My mother said, “No food. I have my kids I have to feed, not you.
Then they left down to central Crimea, and all of them, as far as I know, were sent to Sevastopol. There were horrible, bloody battles there too. Life under German occupation was frightening. They started sending people back to Germany for work. We were lucky to avoid it—my brother had to hide in a chicken coop, or wherever he could, during raids. I was saved by Shedavchenko Tanja, an old woman who hid me in her stack of straw. I was a healthy young girl, and I was afraid of being taken to Germany. My mother poured acid on her shoulder, so every time Germans would try to take her, she would show them her shoulder and they’d leave her. They wanted to avoid any deformed or sick people.
Nevertheless, life went on. Our mother was an educated woman. We were very artistic. She spoke Russian and Ukrainian, and taught us languages and literature. My brother and I would stage little plays in the Village House of Culture for the people in the village. We staged scenes from Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. Our mother taught us to dance and to draw. We wanted to be children. There were good aspects and there were difficult aspects.
I remember a German officer came with a goose once. He handed it to my mother and pointed to the stove. He said, “Cook it.” So she did. When it was ready, the officer cut edges of the wings with his knife and handed them back to her. He pointed to us and made a motion like he was eating with a spoon. He was saying, “Feed your kids too.”
Most people from that time are gone now. Crimea was different before the war—it was very diverse. After the war, the Germans escaped, the Estonians escaped. Jews were killed or escaped. The Tartars were displaced. There were very few people left. Then Russians from the Tversk’ region settled here.
After the war, I studied at a technical school. After graduation, I worked as an electrician for a year. I was transferred here to Kriviy Rih, where I worked in the coal mine for a while, as an electrician. Then I was transferred to the Factory of Mining Equipment, because I could get an apartment through work.
My husband had passed away by then. We had a son together, but we lost him when he was young. I live by myself now. My nephew lives nearby and helps out. There is a social worker that comes around and also helps. I need it sometimes. I have Parkinson’s disease. She comes around twice a week, making my life much easier.
My name is Dmytro Verholjak and I was born in Manyava, in the Ivano-Frankivs’k province of Ukraine. When the first Soviets came, my brother told me he’d rather flee to the West instead of serving the Russians. Later, I searched for him, and with God’s help found him, after fifty years of not seeing him. He was in Australia. Our family had been heavily repressed by the first wave of Soviets, then the second wave almost wiped us out.
During the German occupation in the war, I moved to the Ternopil’ province and found work on a farm. There was no work where I lived, and when I left home my mother told me: “The bread you earn with your hands will taste the best.” It was hard to say goodbye to my mother, we loved each other very much. Another thing she told me was that no matter how hard things got, to never take my own life, that it was the biggest sin you could commit. I remembered that so clearly, how she said it, especially later on, when I was in a camp.
The people I worked for on the farm were very nice, civilized. I am very thankful to them for all they did for me, for what they taught me. I was there for four years, and by the time I returned home to Ternopil’ska oblast, the Russians had arrived as so-called “liberators” – throwing people in prison, sending others to work in the mines to the East. I saw how they tortured people and humiliated Ukrainians. I felt there was little for me to do but join the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. I spoke with the partisans in my area and said, “I’m going with you.” They didn’t want me because I was still a kid. They said, “We have our path, but you have to wait to follow this path, in twenty or thirty years.” I told them I wasn’t leaving them. So one of them shrugged his shoulders and turned around so I followed them.
The first time I was injured was a year after I went underground. Five bullets in my foot. I was living in the forest with a few others, all young kids. We were busted in the forest by the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. There were five of us and they fired at us. I got hit then, in my left foot. I wanted to blow myself up with a grenade so they wouldn’t take me alive, but once I realized I could still walk, I threw the grenade in the direction they were shooting from and ran with the others. They fired more shots, blindly, but didn’t hit anyone else and we were able to escape. I had a total of three injuries when I was with the insurgents. That first injury has haunted me all my life. A nurse bandaged me once after that incident and for three or four weeks after no one maintained the wound and it was literally crawling with bugs. It smelled badly enough that people didn’t want to be around me.
One time I was left alone, because I couldn’t walk, while two others went off to the village to get some food. I was found by Honta, an older member. He asked why I was all by myself and why no one took care of me. I told him the story of how I got injured and no one attended the wound for a month. He got angry and told me to hang tight, told me that wasn’t the order of things, that he would take care of it and I would never be left alone again like that. Then he left.
Later that night, my guys came back and told me that they’d never leave me again. The next morning the nurse found us in the forest with another partisan. When she took the bandage off, we saw that the wound was crawling with all kinds of insects. She kept saying, “Don’t worry, if there are bugs it means there are no germs.” I don’t know what kind of medical school she went to, but at that time, I had no idea what she was saying. Now I understand she was trying to get me to calm down. As she was cutting my pants with scissors, I was thinking these are my only pants, what am I going to do? The nurse said that when you’re alive, you can get new pants, but if you’re dead there’ll be no pants for you at all. She stepped away momentarily with the other partisan she’d arrived with, our commander, and started yelling at him: “How could you let this happen? How is it that your soldiers aren’t even trained to change a simple bandage?” Soon after, those in command decided that the nurses would need to train the soldiers to treat each other. I knew a little Latin, so it was easier for me to learn that some others. But for the most part, we didn’t even know simple hygiene at the time. We didn’t have paper or pencils, and that’s not even including the lack of equipment. And I was learning to do everything with my own wound. After I learned many of the simpler things and could walk, they asked me to travel to one of the insurgent centers in a different village, where there was a wounded person that needed to be taken care of. I learned how to give injections there. I practiced on pillows, of course, before I did it to people. After this, I was sent from one stanitsa to another, taking care of the wounded as well as acting as a courier for messages between groups.
Doing that, I learned all the paths through the mountains. I walked everywhere – my legs were so huge that if I sat, my knees would practically be under my chin. I was a big, healthy guy at that time. They gave me a nickname: Oak, like the tree.
Even after the war ended, we carried on fighting against the Soviets. They were as bad as the Germans, if not worse. The NKVD were everywhere, looking for insurgents. They tried to bribe or scare people for information. So many of us were killed or sent away. I was finally arrested in 1952, after being sold out. They tortured and interrogated me, put chemicals in my food. There was an agent with me in my cell that was on a “special diet” while they basically fed me poison.
My health declined there and eventually I was sent to a camp in Pot’ma, somewhere near Vorkuta in Mordovia, for twenty-five years. There were Pols, Russians, other Ukrainians there. Everybody. They quickly learned I had been a medic and I was sent to work in the camp’s hospital. The warden was against this, he was screaming, “Do you know who he is? He’s a nationalist, a Banderivets!” and the nurse told him, “I don’t care who he is, as long as he is treating others, he will be working here.” That was twenty-five years of my life. They were “correcting” me and didn’t correct anything. When they released me, I was very nervous. My sister arrived to meet me at the gates. It was 1980 when I finally got back to Ukraine. But even free, they didn’t let me do much. I couldn’t work as a doctor or a medic with my record. I had to stay in my village all the time and I wasn’t allowed to leave my house after 10pm. This was my freedom.
But I got a job as a masseur. It was tough to even get that job, but I managed it. I worked as a masseur for ten years, from ’81 to ’91, when Ukraine finally gained independence. Now I’m here in Markova and the people from the village help me a lot. I have a pension.
This is how I only started to live freely after I turned eighty.
My name is Anatoliy Gavrilovych Uvarov. I was born in Moscow, to a family of government workers. Both of my parents worked in the Supreme Soviet of the People’s Economy – that was a large government institution. At the time, both of my parents were Engineer-Economists.
In 1931, I attended public school. I studied there for nine years, then in 1940, there was the possibility to attend one of several special military schools. I wanted to be either a pilot or a sailor, and I went to the first one that became available, which was the naval school. So in my tenth year, I continued my education through the military school and graduated exactly a week after the war broke out.
Everyone that graduated was then sent around the Soviet Union to continue their military education. I was sent to Leningrad, which is now Saint Petersburg, to be trained in the Dzerzhinsky High Naval Engineering School. In summer of 1941, I went through basic training. That autumn, the school had to be moved from Leningrad because the Germans were steadily approaching the city. We managed to move everything just days before the Siege of Leningrad began on September 8, to a town called Gorky, where Nizhny Novgorod is now.
In a nearby village called Pravdinks, we attended lectures and further training, but the number of students had been reduced by nearly 70% because many of the cadets had been sent off to the front, or had stayed behind in Leningrad to fight. Most of them died because they were basically a shield. You have to understand that this was a very hard period for Russia-someone had to stop the German machine. Their soldiers were well-trained and well-equipped and we didn’t have much of an army at that point, so we did what we could. About a million and a half kids who had just gotten out of school were killed within the first two months of the war. Some were my classmates.
Out of about 2,000 people, there were around 500 left. I was among them. This was October, 1941, and the German army was approaching Moscow. The Soviet government needed to act to defend the capital, so they were creating new battalions. One was a Marine battalion where another half of our school went. So just a few months after the evacuation, there were 250 students. But those who were on the front line weren’t there for long. Stalin ordered all students taking part in the fighting to return to their schools.
We trained on military ships in the summer. Even though it was wartime, my classmates and I attended our first naval training on the Caspian Flotilla, in May 1942. This was especially active because there were a lot of Germans going through the Caucasus trying to get to Baku and capture oil rigs. This ‘floating anti-aircraft battery’ was basically a regular vessel that had been rebuilt in the war to use with one anti-aircraft gun on the bow of the ship and one on the stern. We were oriented with its operation, but mostly we carried and handed off shells to the gunners. There was a lot of fighting there.
The oil traffic was busy. Tankers came from Baku and transferred oil to the smaller tankers that would go through the Volga river to the refineries, and the Germans learned this was happening. They began to bombard the transfer points. All of the Caspian facility was involved taking down German planes.
Our ship was called Polyus. We were effective and active enough that the Germans were trying to bomb from higher altitudes, reducing their accuracy. I remember only one bombardment that reached a tanker. It was night and the oil had spilled and caught fire over the water. A terrifying scene. It looked like the sea was on fire. I could see people jumping from the flaming vessel. There was nowhere for them to go but the fire in the water.
I spent the summer of 1942 on this floating battery. Initially, we were defending the oil traffic. Later, we transported soldiers from Astrakhan to Makhachkala. The Germans were still approaching Baku and we tried to get more army personnel there.
We went to Astrakhan to pick up the soldiers. God, it was hot, so many mosquitoes you wouldn’t have known where to hide from them. We made eight trips because we could only take up to 500 people each time. Most of the soldiers came from Central Asia and barely spoke Russian. They were poorly dressed. Some didn’t even have shoes. But we needed to take as many as we could. It was nearly impossible to get through the deck, it was so full of soldiers. When we needed to change shifts near the engine, we’d have to search for gaps between them.
The Caspian Sea isn’t big, but it’s very unusual. After a storm, it has these strange, swelling waves – long and very tall waves. And many of these soldiers were uneducated, poorly fed. We would lose them during a storm. They would sit on the edge of the deck to, you know, relieve themselves. A wave would throw them off the ship. It was pitiful to watch.
Soon I returned to the academy and was there until the winter of 1943. I graduated in early 1944, and the following winter I was sent with the other cadets to join the Northern Fleet, where I served in a small submarine M-201, a so-called Malyutka, which means “the little one,” but it broke down almost immediately and was recalled for repair. I was approached by my director superior and asked if I wanted to join one of the submarines that was headed into battle. Of course I said yes. He sent me to the town of Mlotovsk, which is now Severodvinsk, where another submarine was being repaired and was almost ready to rejoin the Northern Fleet. The submarine was a beauty, an S-16 – new and large, with a powerful diesel engine, six torpedoes and a crew of around sixty people. I was appointed to the engine team, because I was formally educated in diesel engines. We did some drills, and soon headed straight to Polyarny, where the base of the fleet was located. In October of 1944, we embarked on our first combat mission, to Nordkapp, which is the northernmost point of Norway. This was a point of crossing for the Northern Convoys, a group of vessels that carried strategically necessary supplies to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk: food and various goods, military gear. These convoys were formed in various ports of Iceland and Scotland. Each would consist of fifteen to thirty vessels and would be guarded by few military ships until their destinations. German planes regularly attacked those convoys. These were goods delivered under the Lend-Lease program between the Soviet Union and the Allied Forces.
The day the war ended, I remember I was on night duty on the submarine. Everyone was asleep. I heard on the radio that Germany had surrendered, but I couldn’t celebrate with anyone because I wasn’t allowed to wake people up. I had to wait until morning, when I gave the signal to wake up the crew with a fife. Everyone was ecstatic. Someone started a pillow fight. We didn’t have much of a celebration. When we returned to the base, there was a fireworks show, with pistol signals on the outskirts of the town we were stationed. We went to a small restaurant nearby, had a bottle of wine to warm up, then returned to base. I continued to serve for another five years, on submarines in the Baltic Sea. One of them, interestingly enough, was a trophy boat from the Germans. It was very well-made. I spent two years improving it and learning how it was put together. After finishing my service, I decided to continue my involvement with the military and went on to teach. First, I was sent to Sevastopol, where we just reopened a Naval academy. I returned here, to Pushkino, near Leningrad. In 1983, I retired from the military sector. I continued to help out with classes, as a civilian.
I was awarded with a medal, “For the Victory over Germany” and this happened during the Victory Parade in Moscow, on June 24, 1945. It was . . . something outstanding. An incredible parade that occurred just a month and a half after the war, by order of Stalin. About 15,000 took part in the parade. I will never forget the day. It is something that’s stayed with me my entire life. I have some footage of the parade. Sometimes I show it at schools during talks, or to cadets at military academies. The youngsters are always so interested.
I learned English and can proudly say I achieved a good comprehension of the language. I’ve been to the United Kingdom few times, meeting with my brothers in arms – people who took part in the Polar Convoys. Also, I’ve been writing articles about the experience, I have been active in sharing my experience during the war.