Author’s Note: I posted this on my personal blog yesterday, May 9, on what we Russians and people in many other Soviet countries celebrate as Victory Day, to mark the surrender of Nazi Germany and end of World War II in Europe. In European countries, it’s celebrated a day earlier, as Victory in Europe Day. For some reason, Americans don’t mark it on either day, in spite of U.S.’ very substantial contribution to the war effort.
I wrote this post in OpenWriter, just in case my mom asked me to repost it here. Which, suffice to say, she did. I hope that, if Nadya and any of my mom’s grandkids that may come along read it, they will get something out of it, even though many people in this post aren’t related to them at all. And I hope that people who aren’t family that come across it will get something out of it as well.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazi Germany’s surrender. But with the shadow of COVID-19 hanging over the world, VE Day/Victory Day commemorations have been scaled back significantly in Europe and the parts of former Soviet Union that still celebrate it. (Except, God help us all, in Belarus)
In Chicago, the big banquet that would usually be held in honor of veterans, Holocaust survivors and Siege of Leningrad survivors was, of course, cancelled – though the Chicago Association of World War II Veterans and the Jewish United Fund have been congratulating them over the phone and delivering presents.
In the last decade, the number of veterans, and people old enough to remember the war first-hand has been plummeting, as more and more of them die of natural causes and illnesses. Great-Grandpa Viktor barely said two words about his service, and he’s no longer around to ask. Great-Grandpa Fyodor passed away when I was four. I have only a vague idea of what Grandma Kima’s, Grandpa Roma;s and Grandpa Slava’s lives were like during the war, and I can’t ask them now. So I decided to share some of the stories I did hear, from family members who are still around, and those who are no longer with us.
(Age 6, besieged Leningrad, 1941)
I was with my grandma, waiting in line for our daily rations. This piece of bread – you couldn’t even call it bread, with all the other stuff they put in it – was all we had. As we got our rations, these was this woman who lunged at us and tried to take the bread away from us. We pushed her away, and… she just dropped.
And I kicked her. Thinking back on it now, I’m ashamed of myself, but back then, all I knew was that I was so hungry.
When we would go outside, we would sometimes see something lying on the sidewalk. You didn’t want to look too close at those piles. Everybody knew that, sometimes, people would just drop dead while they walked.
One winter day, I was playing in the yard, when a young couple approached me. They said “Little girl, would you like some candy?” But I knew better. There was no candy during the Siege. So I ran into my building as quickly as my little legs would carry me. And it’s a good thing I did.
Otherwise I would’ve gotten eaten.
(Age 3, behind the front lines, circa 1942-1943)
When my daddy was fighting out in the front, my mom and I were evacuated behind the front lines, to this village. And the men in the village, what they used to do, they would come up to me and say “Little girl, who is your mommy?” I would tell them, and – I didn’t understand it then, but they would try to hit on her.
All I knew then was that my mom got pretty annoyed with it, so she said – “if you tell anyone who I am, one more time, you’ll get punished, you understand?” And, of course, I said – “yes, mama.”
One day, I was playing outside – my mom was busy working, so she left me alone. But when I tried to make it back, I got lost. And it seemed like the more I walked, the more I’d get lost. But then, I came across a soldier, and he asked me – “Little girl, are you lost?”
I was in tears and I said that I was.
“Well, don’t you worry, I’m going to help you. Who is your mom?”
But I remembered what my mom told me and said “I won’t say.”
Now, the soldier was pretty confused by that. He asked me again, and I just kept saying “I won’t say.”
He led me down to the local command and brought me to his commander. And the commander said: “Don’t be afraid, little girl. I’m an officer with the Red Army. You know you can trust me.”
“Yeah,” I said, because he did look nice and trustworthy.
“Good,” he replied. “Now, can you tell me who your mommy is?
“No!” I was really upset. “I won’t say!”
I’m not really sure how long they kept me. But I know that when my mom showed up, she was frantic.
“What were you thinking, Tanya!” she demanded. “I turned the entire village upside down looking for me.”
And all I could say was – “Mamma – you told me not to say!”
Grandpa Gena P.
(Age 5-9, Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1941-1945)
When the war started, my dad went off to serve. So it was just me, my mom, my older brother, Nikolay, and my younger sister, Nina. I remember when we were trying to flee, my mom carried Nina in her arms, while I ran with her.
The front lines moved pretty quickly, and we found ourselves in occupied territory, and the Nazis quickly started running things their own way. They dissolved the collective farms, appointed their own village elder to run things.
I remember once, I was sitting outside the house, with my winter boots on, when this soldier… Now, I don’t know if he was German, or Hungarian or Romanian – because Axis weren’t just Germans, you know. Anyway, he said – “Give me your boots.”
Luckily, my brother overheard it, and he came up and said – “I’m a guerilla fighter. You understand? A partisan.”
The soldier’s eyes went wide and he said in his accent “parteezany?” and left us alone.
Now, there were actually guerrillas operating in Rossona. My brother did join in. ANd he arranged it so that my family and other families in the village could evacuate behind the front lines. It was harrowing, let me tell you. We had to wade through the swamp, we were shot at… but we made it.
My brother kept on being the guerilla fighter. And, when the Red Army liberated the area in 1944, they took him into the regular army. By the time he made it to Berlin, the war was over. But they wouldn’t discharge him until 1958. You have to understand – so many soldiers got killed, they wouldn’t let anyone go.
We got back to our village in 1944. We would up living in the Nazi dugout. So many things were bombed, especially what Nazis used as storage sheds. We’d go scavenging.
I got myself a machine gun. You see, there were soldiers lying dead, their bodies decaying, and they still had their weapons on them. All kinds of weapons. And I got a machine gun. Later on, Stalin ordered everyone to turn the weapons in to the Red Army, but by that point…
I have no idea what happened to that machine gun – the dugout collapsed while we were away, and when Nikolay and I went to dig it up later, we couldn’t find it. Maybe somebody else dug it up and took it.
My mom stepped on a Nazi mine and got blown apart.
They wanted to put Nina and I in an orphanage. By some miracle, our dad heard about it, made it back, took us home. But we really weren’t sure which way it was going to go for a while.
I was supposed to start school in 1944, but everything was in such a bad shape that it didn’t happen. 1945 – same thing. I finally got to start school in 1946. After I graduated, I ended up going to college in Leningrad, and, well, you know the rest.
I feel like, in recent years, there has been the urge to whitewash the Great Patriotic War. To focus on the heroism, while playing down or ignoring some of the rougher edges. But this isn’t what I got from the stories I grew up hearing. There was heroism and bravery, but there was also horror and deprivation and death. There was trauma that echoes through the generations.
That is part of the history I want to pass down, from the grandparents who passed them on to me.
Happy Victory Day, dear readers. За Нашу Победу.
And may the memory endure forever.