The Ukrainian Week interviewed eyewitnesses of the Second World War, and their stories are far removed from the idolised image of the “Great Patriotic War”
The events of the biggest war in the 20th century can still be found stored in the collective memory of Ukrainians in a very politicised form. The restored practice of Soviet-style state celebrations on 9 May and Russia’s targeted informational influence are further entrenching Russian-Soviet war myths. All of this only distances us from understanding the true humanitarian dimensions of this catastrophe for Ukrainians. It also keeps many people from framing the question in the following way: Did Ukraine have any “victory” at all in this war?
Oral history can be a powerful weapon in deconstructing these myths. The stories told by eyewitnesses and participants in the war, which were banned from public discussion under the Soviets and which became known to our contemporaries only many decades later when communism collapsed, often shatter the victorious discourse and glorified image of the “Great Patriotic War” created and fostered in the Soviet Union. Testimonies of ordinary people paint a fundamentally different and more realistic picture of those years which is not even close to the ritual-like speeches by “professional” veterans who have traditionally later generations their polished and prefabricated “truths” on 9 May.
The Ukrainian Weekjoined the Oral History Centre at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University and Lviv’s Territory of Terror Memorial Museum to prepare a special project in celebration of the end of the Second World War in Europe. The authors made a conscious effort to omit “historical eyewitnesses” belonging to any political camp as their memories have largely become captive to military or ideological propaganda. Instead, we focused on the stories of “small people” who bore the brunt of wartime atrocities. At the same time, we tried to interview residents from different regions and show that the war had different effects on Ukrainians in different parts of the country and left different traces in local memory.
This small study proved the most important issue to most people was simply that of survival. We are accustomed to viewing the war as an important political event and seeing great battles and large movements of troops. In contrast, nearly all living testimonies quoted below speak about ordinary everyday problems: work, food, housing, medical care and so on.
Hursky was born into a peasant family on 19 January 1926 in Nekhvoroshch village, Zhytomyr Region. In 1942, he was taken to Germany into forced labour and worked at a gunpowder plant in Munich. In 1944, he tried to run away, was captured and then imprisoned in Dachau until April 1945.
“We were poor, very poor. In fact, we had a miserable existence from the beginning to the end. But no-one was at liberty to say that. Everyone survived as best he could, as they say. So many of our people welcomed the Germans almost by offering them [the traditional] bread [and salt]. They thought that the Germans might put an end to this situation and life would be better. So they met with no resistance from the peaceful population […]
“About work [in Germany]: the police with dogs brought us from the camp to the plant’s gate. We went through the gate, and they went back. When he finished work, the policemen would keep us at the checkpoint until everyone was there. And then we were escorted by policeman with dogs back to the camp […]. When I recall that, I realise that I don't know why I was so fortunate to survive. I just don't know.”
Ivanov was born into a peasant family in 1927 in Dashkivtsi village, Khmelnytsk Region, and worked in a collective farm during the war.
“When the Germans came, they plundered everything. There were many big calamities during the war: there was famine, cold, no food to eat. We were all waiting and hoping to be freed. [The Germans] did not consider us to be human. They looked at us as a kind of race meant only to labour for them. They put themselves higher and just treated us like slaves. Some who held grudges against the Soviets welcomed [the Germans].”
Shakalo was born into a peasant family in 1925 in Stepani village, Cherkasy Region. She studied in a vocational college and worked in a state farm during the war.
“It was a time when an extremely large number of events took place in a short period. There was a famine, collectivisation and war – all of this together. Before people could recover from one disaster, another one hit them. We could no longer understand what was better for us or what was worse […]. It was hard to believe that the Soviets would come back, because [the Germans] went very far into the country, too far… People welcomed the Red Army with tears and joy – but not so much the troops as each their own child, their own husband. These people rejoiced. Those who received death notices did not care. They were even envious.”
Ivanytska was born in 1925 in village Dmytrovychi, Lviv Region. She went to a teachers seminary in Yavoriv and worked in the local aid committee during the war.
“[The Soviet troops] entered our village [in September 1939] and organised a public meeting. They were dressed very poorly. Everyone was waiting for brothers from Ukraine, but when we saw those poor men and then saw their actions on top of that… They immediately took away our cows and exiled my father’s brother Hryhoriy who was married to a Pole. Why? Because they had a quota to exile so many people to Siberia. Father, of course, waited for us to be exiled, too. He died in 1941. In 1939, they drove us hard to build military fortifications, and my father had to go […]. We had nice horses, so my father had to go there and dig those trenches. This is where he was overexposed to cold. The first Soviets did not leave any good memories, even though I had a nice and even loving attitude to them initially… We were wary of the Germans. They came, you know, as a menace: armed, hard and so dangerous. It was like an ominous cloud was moving on us. But it was probably even easier to work under the Germans.”
Riabchenko was born in 1925 in Snityn village, Poltava Region. In 1943, he was sent to forced labour at a metallurgical plant in Berlin and later worked at German plants in the Ruhr area and Vienna. In 1945-48, he served in the Red Army. He was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to 25 years of camps for “anti-Soviet views”.
“[On his stay in Germany] When we arrived at the camp, it was surrounded with wire – not barbed wire but high, four-metre sections of fine-mesh wire. We entered through the gate and came to the commandant of the camp. This is, they told us, where you will be working. You will receive all the instructions. I worked as a cleaner in a foundry shop at the plant. If I had been employed normally, I would have earned 200 marks per week. But like any foreigner, I was paid just 10 marks. And the work was just horrible. I quickly lost weight. And then I worked at the ruins in Berlin. Then a bomb hit the plant and destroyed the foundry shop. So we were sent back to Wilhelmshagen to a labour exchange and from there all the way to western Germany to the village of Wintersfeld. I was assigned to a military hospital to work as a car mechanic. I found myself in an Ostarbeiter camp like everyone else. Everyone like myself lived there and worked in the hospital. We lived in barracks, went to work and back to the barracks and turned those screw nuts non-stop.”
Savchuk was born into a peasant family on 23 February 1925 in the Transcarpathian village of Velykyi Bychkiv and went to school during the war.
“When the Hungarians came (in March 1939 in Transcarpathia. – Ed.), everyone fled to Russia. This is when the persecutions against the communists and Sich members began. But most of them were gone […] We eagerly awaited the Soviet army, very much so. We imagined that there was, as the communists said, a paradise – but no-one could reach us from there (of those who were in prison). It was only in 1944, when those men from the Czechoslovakian corps started to come home (Transcarpathians who fled from the Hungarian occupation to the USSR in 1939-41 were sentenced to 5-8 years in the GULAG for trespassing the state border and were mobilised into a Czechoslovakian unit in the Red Army in 1942-43. – Ed.), they were deeply grateful to Benes, the president of Czechoslovakia in exile in London, who got them released. […] Half of them died there. At that time, around 20,000 young Transcarpathians went [to the USSR]: high-school students, communists, Sich members and patriots. Communist propaganda told us that they would find political shelter there and that the Fascists were advancing and would occupy our territory.”
Susol was born in 1928 in the Perevolochna village, Lviv Region. She was deported by the Soviets together with her family to Tobolsk in Siberia in 1941.
“We hoped (after the Soviet troops entered Western Ukraine in September 1939. – Ed.) that we would have a much better life, that there would be no taxes like we had to pay in Poland and that there would be work, because we did not have any. But it wasn't like that. The first repressions began in 1939. And in 1940, there were truly serious repressions. Families, largely Polish, were exiled. My two brothers were arrested. The system did not change for the better. We were simply being urged to join a collective farm. My father had worked hard to buy the land we had (around nine hectares) and refused to hand it over to a collective farm. We were exiled to Siberia later, in 1941. We were worked to death there […], but no-one paid us money. We were starving and our bodies were bloated. They gave us 300 grams of flour a day to survive on. And nothing more. It was very hard. I starved for so long. Our everyday life began with getting up early and going to the collective farm. This despite the fact that we were not members of any collective farm. But we were told that if we did not submit (it was wartime then), we were in their power, even though we were still citizens of the Polish state and not Russia.”
Katsuba was born in 1938 in Kryvyi Rih.
“The plant was blown up (by the Soviet troops as they retreated. – Ed.), and my parents were left without work. We survived on what we got from our land and cattle, and then the Germans came and took away our cow. We did not have water. The Soviets blew up the plant and the water pumping station as they retreated […]. The Germans made my mother do forced labour – loading chernozem on carriages that took it to Germany […]. The Soviet troops were greeted as victors, but very few men returned! If they enlisted 50 men, about 17 returned. The were widows left with small children […] People did not treat the victors very well. They were given small pensions. Many were disabled. And we did not know what to do with all these people who were disabled. They were given a pension of some 12 or 20 roubles. They simply could not survive on this little money. How could the disabled be treated this way? People were dissatisfied because of all of this. The entire city was destroyed during the war. We had to rebuild everything from scratch.”
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