The sky was grey the day I met him. It was 2003, and I was in Kiev, Ukraine looking on a quest to speak with the men and women who’d fought valiantly in “The Great Patriotic War.”
Leonid sat behind his desk and looked at me warily, not generally accustomed to people wanting to hear his story. His back was bent, his face bearing the lines of one who’d lived through hell on earth. Through the translator, he asked one simple question.
“Why do you want to know?”
I was a 24 year old pregnant American in Ukraine with a thirst for history. I wanted stories. I wanted to hear them and to tell them. But this man – this man had lived the stories. They weren’t romantic, and they certainly wasn’t as neat as most movies had made them seem. Leonid’s history was alive with the sounds of men dying. He could smell the gunpowder and fear, all mingled together in a story of heartache.
He was a veteran.
The men and women who lived this history are slowly fading into the past. Their stories are all we have left, and we must be willing to listen. We must gather them, and preserve the words if we cannot preserve the sights and sounds. This is why I continue to search for the right publisher for my novel.Because I believe the stories must be told.
We must continue to write books and make movies so that these veterans will understand that we want to know because we want to honor them. And for the men and women who are serving today, the ones living new stories, fighting against our own modern day terrors, we must show them that we respect their sacrifice. That their stories are worth hearing and telling and honoring, too.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“Because I believe your story is worth telling,” I told him.
His eyes glistened and he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands gently in his lap. He took a moment to gain his composure before speaking.
“I was 16 when the Nazi’s invaded my country. My father went to the front immediately and died very quickly. Though I was not yet old enough to enlist, the Red Army allowed me to fight as a volunteer. When I was 17, I entered the front lines.
The men in my unit were not much older than me. They were 18-25 years old, all of us boys. We were afraid, but we had courage in our hearts.
There are a lot of stories I could tell you of those years, but I won’t tell you all of them. Most are too painful. I do remember one evening, though. It was near the end of the war, and we knew that we were winning. We were in Russia at this time, and the winter months were finally ending. It was still cold, but we could feel spring coming. We were by the fire after another long day of walking. We hadn’t seen battle that day, but we knew we could meet a fight at any time. That was part of the fatigue, knowing that we would run into the battle at any moment.
We heard a sound coming from the trees behind our camp and we all stood up. I remember my heart beating so fast I could hardly breathe. A man shouted from the darkness in a language I recognized, but didn’t understand. He was speaking English.
My friend, Pavel, spoke English and responded. He told us to put down our guns because these men were friends.
The Americans sat with us by the fire that night. They gave us cigarettes and vodka. I didn’t understand the conversation, but I remember the camaraderie we all felt. We were different, but we were also the same. We were young men who had survived. We had seen the very worst of mankind, and the very best of mankind. We were all scared, and we were brave.
We were soldiers.
They left the next morning, and not many months later we got news that Hitler was dead. This is the story I want you to know. I want you to know that those years were dark and painful, but there were good things that happened, too. I will always remember that night when I sat with friends from another land.
These are the stories you should tell. Thank you for listening to me.”
To all the veterans who have served in the fight against oppression, I thank you. And to the men and women serving now, I am so very grateful. Your story matters today, and it will matter fifty years from now. Thank you for your sacrifice.
Benjamin Semenovich Shapolov grew up in Southern Ukraine, near Odessa. Raised in a family of Bible-believing Christians, Benjamin’s story is unique and awe-inspiring. A well-educated man, Benjamin worked hard throughout the war to protect and save the Jews in his area from both the Germans and the Soviets. His life was miraculously spared on numerous occasions.
I will never forget the afternoon I spent with this warm, gentle man. He had a kind face, large eyes, and a mouth prone to wide smiles.
This is his story:
I was born into a family of believers, and I knew the Lord from childhood. My grandparents and parents both taught me strongly to keep the gospel. I was accustomed to look for, and recognize, the will of God.
Right after my father died (in 1932), the horrible famine of the 1930’s began. My mother was left with seven children and herself to feed. It was in these conditions that we lived when the war began. We were always in need – always hungry. We often had only weak soup to eat, but the Lord faithfully kept us through that time and no one died.
In 1937, when I was fifteen, my uncle brought me into the city (Odessa) to live with him. In 1939, I returned to my mother’s village in the northern region of Odessa as a qualified accountant.
The collective farm that my family lived on nominated me to be their bookkeeper when I returned. Though I was only seventeen, I was well-educated and willing to help.
Before he died, my father had a good friend who was a Jew. They often sat in one another’s company and sang hymns together. Early on, our Jewish friend asked the leader of the collective farm to help him build a canteen on his property. When asked why, this Jew replied that a war with Hitler was fast approaching and this canteen would be a hiding place for the Jews.
The leader of the farm agreed to help and for years this canteen was host to many hiding Jews. This was a secret – very few people knew about it. Throughout the war, someone hid inside that canteen everyday.
Because I was the official bookkeeper of the collective farm, it was my duty to issue passports to the villagers. I and the leader of the collective farm both believed in God and we decided to issue all Jews passports in order to help them.
The Soviets frowned upon giving passports to Jews, but without this proper documentation, they were at the mercy of the fascists. The leader and I decided it would be better to save our countrymen by issuing them passports than to submit to the law of the Soviets. By issuing out those passports, we were able to save over three hundred Jews in our region.
When we developed these passports, we always left off the fact that a person was Jewish. Sometimes we had to change a man or a woman’s name from a Jewish name to a Ukrainian name. Now this was very dangerous work, but I always knew that I was following the plan of the Lord and I pressed on without fear.
Three times we were betrayed for doing this work, and each time we were sentenced to be hanged. But the Lord saved us every time, because the Commandant of the German regime who was assigned to our village was a believer in Christ. His mercy saved us, and we continued to help the Jews.
In 1944, the Germans left our village and the Soviet Army came. The Soviets demanded to know how so many people in our village survived the occupation so we gave them the list of names of the people that we had saved. We thought that perhaps we would be commended for our actions, but instead they looked at the list and spoke to us harshly.
For our actions of saving the Jews, the Soviets sent us to a penalty battalion to finish out the war.
We were sent to the front line without any weapons. We were told that the only way we could be redeemed was by our blood. If we were wounded, then our blood would redeem us. If we were killed – our life would redeem us.
So [at the age of 22], I was taken to the front line without protection. Without armor or weapons, we had to get very creative in our battle tactics.
We took empty cans and boxes and cut holes in them so that when we threw them they whistled, sounding like incoming bombs. We frightened the Germans so much that they ran, leaving behind all their weapons and armor. We didn’t have to fire a shot and they all left.
The Lord saved me many times in those years, and by saving me, he saved many other people. Those are only the main important points of my personal history. There are many other stories, but the most important thing to remember is that the Lord saves.
Because I began my service in the Red Army in the penalty battalion, I was never recognized as being a Soviet soldier. But that doesn’t matter to me now. It means nothing to me.
Today’s story comes from a man named Oleg Dimitrievich. I met him at a local school one afternoon in Kiev after I finished speaking with a group of students. He heard what I was doing, and asked if he could tell me his story.
I will never forget this man. His hands were weathered and rough, nervously ringing his hat as he recalled the memories that haunted him. He told me his story with tears coursing down his cheeks, and he wanted to make sure that I understood that the men and women who fought in this war were more than just soldiers.
You must know that I and my comrades, we were all just ordinary people. We were not special. We were just young men and women doing our job. The battalion I took part in was a fine battalion. We fought hard for our country. We were good men – learned men. Many of the men loved to write poetry. We were deep thinkers and philosophers and singers. We were more than just soldiers.”
Oleg Dmitrievich remembered those days of war with raw emotion. He described the heat of the bombs, and the sounds of the bullets as they buzzed by his head. Out of 600 men in his battalion, less than 50 survived.
This is his story:
I was a simple officer in the Great Patriotic War. When the war began I was still studying in college, so I did not join the front until March of 1942. I was 23-years-old at the time.
I would like to tell you my impressions of the war. You see, my memories of that time are not just stories, they are realities. The deaths, the battles, the bombings – they are all real to me. You are just listening to these stories, but I was living them.
You must understand that many people in my country have covered up facts about this period of history. For many years, people have tried to cover up their shame by burying the truth beneath a mountain of propaganda. We have hidden ourselves from the truth.
And what is the truth? Many people do not know that when the Germans first appeared, people in our country, especially those in small villages, accepted them. They thought that perhaps Germany had come to liberate them from the Soviet Rule. They thought it was the establishment of a new Revolutionary period. So, as the Germans marched into the villages, people threw them candy and sweets. They listened to the German songs and tried to sing along. This was hard for those of us fighting the war to see and understand. We felt betrayed by their acceptance of the very people we were trying to overcome. This is the truth.
There is one particular episode that stands out vividly in my mind. It was late in the afternoon, and I had somehow gotten separated from the men in my battalion. I was walking down the road, unsure of where I was when I saw two Soviet soldiers sitting on the side of the road with their backs to me. I thought that perhaps they were sleeping, but I needed help so I decided to disturb them. I approached and asked for directions but received no response, so I gently nudged one of them. It was then that I noticed that they had no heads. This was a terrible shock. This was life on the front. You never knew what horror each day could bring.
In 1944, I took part in the liberation of [the town of] Kam’yanets Podilsky. It was difficult there. Kam’yanets Podilsky was a small town surrounded by rolling hills. There was a large bridge that crossed a deep gully. This bridge was old and beautiful. It led to the old fortress. This fortress is one of the most remarkable sights in our country. Through determined fighting, the Soviet soldiers had managed to save that fortress from complete destruction. But they could not keep the Germans out completely.
The Germans had taken control of this town and were monitoring the main bridge. We worried that we would not be able to usurp them. So we decided to trick them. We waited until night to begin our attack. We shined our tank lights down upon them as bright as we could, so they were unsure of whether we were enemy tanks or their own tanks. Then, our division rushed forward, and somehow, through that simple trick, we were able to retake the bridge.
After this time, I participated in the liberation of Lviv. In Lviv, we faced an battalion of Ukrainian rebels called the Banderovtsy. They were an ugly, terrorous people. We did not know about them before we got to Lviv.
(Sidebar:The Banderovtsy were a group of men and women who fought zealously under their leader, Stepan Bandera. Their sole aim was to see Ukraine become an independent nation; therefore, they often fought not only against the Germans, but against the Soviets as well. There is a great divide between Ukrainians as to whether the Banderovtsy were patriotic soldiers or ruthless killers. In Western Ukraine, the Bandersovtsy are often hailed and remembered with pride. But elsewhere, they are often shamefully scorned.)
At one point, we found ourselves in a small village outside of Lviv where wounded soldiers were being treated. I do not remember the name of this town. There were thirty-one people in this village when I arrived, and we wanted to evacuate them to a hospital. I left one morning to get a car to send for the wounded, but by the time I returned, all of them had been slaughtered. The Banderovtsy had been there. This was terrible.
We were always on edge during this time of war. We never knew when an attack would begin. Fear mounted only in the still moments of the night, when we had nothing but our thoughts to keep us company. During the day, we did not have time to fear. You see, fear appears only when you are idle – when you have nothing to do. But, if you have a goal and know what you are working toward, you are busy and you can neglect your fear.
This was my experience in the Great Patriotic War. I feel it is a pity that we had to fight this war. It seems it should not have happened. But I am grateful that I took part and helped lead this country to victory over the fascists. We fought to the victory!”
In 2003, I packed a small bag with a few changes of clothes, and my mom and I (and my 5-months pregnant belly) boarded a plane for a month-long adventure in Ukraine.
I had this dream, you see.I dreamed of writing a book – of telling the stories of the men and women whose history captivated me when I was sixteen years old. I wanted the world to hear their words, to glean the wisdom for living that these people could offer, from a perspective that was completely unique.
We landed on March 16, 2003, and for the next month, we toured through Central, Southern, and Western Ukraine. Each city we stayed in offered a new group of World War II veterans, of former partisans, and of survivors who happily met with us. I soaked in the fascinating stories of survival that these men and women offered.
For reasons that are too numerous to list, I was not able to compile all of these stories into one book like I wanted, but they became the backbone of my novel. They are the voices that I hear when I read my book, and they form the current that drives the novel from beginning to end.As I continue to push forward toward publication, I feel like it’s time to share some of these stories with you all.
These stories are more than just interesting recollections. They are ripe with wisdom for life. They dance with the bravery of a people that refused to give up, refused to be steam-rolled. Most of the people I spoke with were children when the war began. They were teenagers dreaming of the future.
I hope you can feel the power of their words, and appreciate the beauty of the human spirit. Sometimes I sit back in wonder at these first hand accounts I was given. These men and women, most of whom have since passed away, trusted me with their stories so that I would tell the people in the coming generations to come that life is truly a gift. It is to be treasured.
For the next four Mondays, I will be giving some of these stories to you. Today I share with you the courage, bravery, and spunk of a woman named Elizabeta Yepifanova:
The war began in 1941. Here in Ukraine, we were raised with a definite air of patriotism, much like Americans. There was a national hatred of those who wanted, and were trying, to occupy our Motherland.
When the Germans occupied our city (Vinnitsya), they took away all forms of communication from us. We had no radio, no newspapers, no way of receiving news from the front. But there existed many secret organizations, and those who smuggled radios listened and wrote out newsletters by hand and distributed them.
There was a library in Vinnitsya at that time named “Krupskaya Nadezda” after Lenin’s wife. A secret organization formed at this library under the leadership of Ivan Bevza. Because the organization worked undercover in the library, those of us involved had to make sure that we always walked in and out with a book in our hands. But instead of going in there to read or study, we were talking to Ivan Bevza and he would tell us the times and places where operations would take place. So the library was our partisan meeting center.
The Germans were very afraid of the partisans. We were unpredictable and well protected. They never knew where we would strike next…
I remember a certain episode in my many years as a partisan when my friend, Sophia, and I met two German soldiers who thought we were quite pretty. We worked out a plan that seemed so simple at the time, but now I realize that it was quite dangerous.
We invited the two Germans to our apartment and they readily accepted. We prepared some food for them and when they came, we immediately had them take off their coats and get comfortable. I guess they naively believed that women weren’t a threat to them because they left their guns in the foyer with their coats.
Not long into our evening together, I excused myself to go to the neighbors to borrow something. Instead, I grabbed one of the officers’ guns and left, quickly racing across town to the meeting place.
After a few moments, Sophia excused herself saying she was going to get me. She grabbed the other gun and also left, but she was afraid she wouldn’t make it across town fast enough so she went to the top of the building and hid.
A few moments later, the Germans came running out of the building – frantic. This incident earned us positions of leadership in the partisan camp. We participated in numerous operations such as that one, where we played on the foolishness of innocent young German boys. It was great fun.
What I want young people today to know and understand is that this life is a gift. It can change in an instant. You must know what you believe, and why you believe it, and when the time comes to defend the ones you love, it’s okay to be afraid. Courage is always victorious over fear, and it comes in the moment you least expect. This is what I want young people to know.
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