This is the final installment in my series of stories from Ukrainian World War II survivors. I leave you with Maria. I first heard Maria’s story as a sixteen year old, while on a mission trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Her story sparked a passion in me to know more – to understand better how this Great War affected the world.
Maria’s story is the one that started it all. My entire life shifted when I heard her retell of the days she was taken to Germany and forced to build artillery for the enemy. Maria was a delightful woman to speak with. Her eyes danced, moving in rhythm with her words. I will forever be grateful to her for entrusting me with her history.
A story I now share with you.
“The morning came when we were to go to the station. My sister Anna and I left together. My older brothers were already gone, fighting on the front for our safety. Papa was very ill so he could not accompany us.
When we arrived [the Nazis] forced us all to stand in line for hours while they walked around screaming at us. Finally, we were inspected and separated onto different trains.
When I reached the front of the line, a German woman grabbed my hands and inspected them. She did the same to Anna. I found out later that they were looking for young girls with large hands who would be good at physical labor. I guess my hands were what she wanted because as soon as she looked at them, she pulled me away and pushed me onto a train by myself. Anna was sent to another train. I thought I would die of grief and fear that day.
I was only fourteen years old when they sent me away to work in an underground chemical plant. There were many other children there with me. Our job was to fill German bullets with gunpowder all day long. During that time, I never saw the light of day.
We worked long hours with very little food. For some reason the other children in the camp turned to me for support and protection. I don’t know why I was given so much responsibility, but I felt that I could not let them down. I soon became very angry as our captivators cut back our meals from two per day to only one per day. And worse, the food was often infested with bugs. We were all ill, and some children even died. I had to do something.
I refused to work one morning and, using broken German, I demanded better treatment. Instead, the two officers in charge beat me very badly. It’s a miracle that I survived.
I woke up days later. A young woman washed my face and as I began to stir, she sang to me. Her voice was beautiful, and I thought she must be an angel. It turns out she was a young German nurse who took pity on me, and had been nursing me to health.
I was sent to a textile factory after I recovered. This was a much nicer job. I was given regular meals and the work was easier. But I didn’t stay there long. After only a few months I was transferred once again, this time to a tank plant. Here I helped assemble German tanks. This was terrible work for a sixteen year old girl.
A few months after I arrived, word came that the war was over. The next day, I tasted freedom for the first time in two years. I walked out of the terrible camp with great joy, and also great fear. I didn’t know where I was or how to get home.
After a few days of wandering, I came to a train station. As a refugee, I had to sneak onto a train just before it left. I rode wherever I could find room. Sometimes, I could not find room inside a train car, I and was forced to hang on to the rails outside the car for hours.
After two years of near starvation and hard labor, I finally arrived home. It was many weeks before I found my family again. And I found them quite different.
My brothers were all killed in the war. My father had been sent to Babi Yar (a killing ditch outside Kiev, where the Germans killed over 33,000 Jews in three days). He survived this awful place, but not without emotional pain that haunted him. The life went out from his eyes. He tried desperately to continue to be strong for us girls, but he felt defeated. He missed my brothers very much.
Anna survived her years in Germany as well. She had a better time than I did. She was a servant in the house of a wealthy family. She was treated with some kindness though she was often scorned and abused verbally.
Those were very hard years for our country. No one was untouched by tragedy. Everyone lost a loved one. But we survived and we persevered. And now I am an old woman, but I’m happy. I have a wonderful family, and I am always loved.”
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.
I care only of the Lord’s saving grace.
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