An image of black and white, it seeps into my consciousness often, particularly when I find myself holding tight my children.
I pick up my toddler and snuggle her close, and I think of the mother – of the hollow, vacant eyes staring numbly ahead as she holds her child so similarly.
I lay on the floor by my ten-year old, and it appears again. When the children shriek through the house, filling each corner with delighted laughter, I find myself once more drifting to this woman. Who was she, and what was she thinking as she held her children in her arms and waited to usher them to death?
Oh September 29, 1941, the German army stationed in Kiev, Ukraine began a mass execution of Jews. Having been told they were being transported, thousands of Jewish men, women, and children lined up just outside the city, at Babi Yar, a ravine that would soon forever be known as “the killing ditch”.
By the end of the day on September 30, just under 34,000 people had been murdered.
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.