In June of 1945, while still in Germany, my grandpa bought a notebook and started putting his wartime experiences on paper. He never got past the very beginning. I don’t know what grandpa intended to do with his diary, but, in retrospect, the whole family is lucky that nobody outside the family saw those records back then: grandpa would have been executed as “the enemy of the people”, had some of the Stalin’s police read some of the opinions expressed in the diary. Thank G-d, it did not happened. The diary stayed in the family. My grandparents brought it with them from Russia. And now I was finally able to go through my grandfather’s records, translate them into English and present them on this web page. So, let us let my grandpa speak.
11 June 1945.
If I had something to do, something that would let me forget how much I missed my family and my loved ones, or simply something that would not leave me any free time, perhaps I would not have this desire to write. Today, when I was thinking how much I’ve been through, I started to feel guilty that I don’t have any records of my experience regarding such an enormous event, in which I participated and which shook the World.
I’ll be satisfied if I succeed in describing what I went through during 4 years of the War. It will be very hard for me: after all, I don’t have enough education and talent for writing. Besides, faulty memory will probably make my work even harder. But, I’ll start anyway.
Sunday, 22 June 1941, Odessa.
It’s a day off work. After breakfast my wife asked me to go buy something at the store. I stopped at my mother’s on my way, then headed toward the shop. While on my way, I saw my brother (1). He invited me to stop by his place and listen on the radio to comrade Molotov’s address. “Some extraordinary event”, he added.
At the first Molotov’s words I felt goose bumps on my body. I immediately felt that something terrible had started. I realized that all the predictions I heard and read in the papers came true: there will be a war and it will be very hard. I realized that everyone would have to say good bye to his happiness, to everything that interested him in his peaceful life. I was in a terrible mood. Everybody understood what had happened. Everybody wanted to do something, but did not know where to begin. After all, for all the hardships that everybody complained about there was a good excuse: “At least, bombs are not falling on us, like in England. So, we are more than lucky” (2). But now the bombs started falling on us too. Kiev, Sebastopol and Moscow had been already bombed today. Around 4 p. m. an air raid was announced. German air force is already flying above Odessa.
In the evening they announced mobilization of certain age groups.
23 June 1941.
As I got to work at 7 o’clock in the morning, I realized that everybody around me think pretty much the same about the events. Many of the people expressed an opinion that if it is a war, at least it is good that it is against Germany, and it is good that we, probably together with the Allies, will be fighting against fascism. (3) Despite good relations with Germany for the last 1 and a half, almost everybody I knew hated her with all his heart as a fascist country, especially for her “race theory”. The hate somehow got mixed with disgust: what this country had come to. This country used to be so well respected by everyone and gave so many great people to the world, and now – this. And it seems to me that majority of the people thought that if it is a war, then it is good that our enemy is hated and despised by us. We hated them for a long time for all the crimes we knew about from the press and the radio.
In an hour many guys already had their military summons and they headed toward recruitment stations. Military age men were waiting for their turn for the summons. Nobody was in the mood for work. At the end of the business day my military papers were returned to me. All the qualified personnel were attached to the plant. I was among them (4). This night they were announcing air raids all the time. Anti-aircraft fire was heard all night. Odessa became one of the cities, where civilian population had experienced all the “joy” of modern war.
25 June 1941.
Today we had a propaganda meeting. I was very impressed with the patriotism of the speakers. It was obvious that people who just yesterday were unhappy with some of our laws and regulations (5) (there were enough of such people during new reforms (6)), today considered it unimportant. After all, now we all had a common enemy. It was like in a large family: just yesterday its members argued amongst themselves, but today they see the danger for the whole family and they forget their disagreement. We need a strong family. Today people laugh at complaints about shortages of soap or sugar (7). After all, that was a family disagreement, internal to my family. So, a common enemy of the family, enemy of the Motherland, should not get involved trying to “resolve” our family affairs. The enemy has miscalculated. He thought that some of our family members wanted his help. Of course, every family has its black sheep. But it’s all for the better: the black sheep will be weeded out.
22 July 1941.
During the day today we were bombed. The first air raid in the city was insignificant. At 9 o’clock in the evening Odessa lived through its first real air raid. There were casualties.
23 July 1941.
In the morning I went looking for my loved ones. Everything was OK. Also, There were no casualties in the shops where I worked.
The people realized that the horrors of war had started to full extent. It was obvious from the newspapers that the enemy was moving pretty fast.
17 August 1941.
The evacuation of the shops’ (8) equipment is coming to an end. The direction had to be changed: city of Nikolaev (9) was already occupied. Everything was sent to Mariupol (10). Workers involved in dismantling and packing of equipment decided to get together for breakfast tomorrow for the last time.
18 August 1941.
We got together for breakfast, got our last pay, said our good byes, and everybody went his own way. Nobody could take his family to leave together with the equipment. This was up to every worker of the shop.
19 August 1941.
An order has been issued for the mobilization of everybody born between 1885 and 1923 for the defense of Odessa. People have been through a lot during these 2 months. Many friends were killed. Others were hit with personal tragedies. One guy’s family had been killed and his wife had gone crazy. Another guy’s wife had been missing, so he was left by himself with an infant, but tomorrow he has to come to the recruitment office. Tragedy for the people has begun.
22 August 1941.
In the morning we all got onto trucks and went from the recruitment station to the 6th Station (11), where a summer military camp was located. From there, with the help of other soldiers’ relatives, I was able to pass my new address to my family.
For me all the events were extremely important: I wasn’t fully fit for service, never served in the military. In addition, I was physically weak because as a teenager I was sick with tuberculosis. My mother tried to protect me. Plus, starting from 12 years of age I had to support the whole family. So, my job was hard enough on my health. I always had a not vengeful, very peaceful personality. The Army for me was a great unknown. I just could not picture my role in the Army, despite the fact that between 1937 and 1939 I attended a Combat Medic training.
27 August 1941.
My mother and my wife visit me every day. When I start talking to them, I almost want to cry. I realize that everything around me, my hole life is getting destroyed. Everything I loved, everything that was making my life worthwhile, all that is being lost. In addition to that, I was sure that my family won’t be able to evacuate without me and, thus, will be killed. I had even less doubt in my own demise. I thought that since even experienced soldiers get killed, then I will be killed on the first day. So, I had no doubt that I will be killed. I also have to add that moral of many people was very low. Most of them were fit for limited duty. Why throw those people into the line of fire, it seemed, when even regular units cannot withstand the pressure.
At around 11 a. m. my mother, wife and brother came to visit me. For some reason I was sure that tomorrow I won’t be sent to the front yet, so I invited them to come tomorrow. I thought they would still see me. However, as soon as they left I learned that I was included in today’s list to be sent to the front. I received my uniform and changed. So, today is the last day of my life. I wrote a pretty sentimental good bye letter. During the day we were ordered to form up several times. In the evening I asked my friend’s wife to pass the letter home. People were amazing. I think if any valuable was laying on the road (just with an address), any woman, regardless of how busy she might be, would take it to the destination. Hardship brings people together.
In the evening we were formed up. We were told that we would move out during the night. Then we were separated from the others.
I have to say that it never even occurred to me to desert. I was sure that chances for survival are the same in any case. Besides, I was disgusted even with the thought of that. So, I argued against the hints some guys were throwing, trying to convince them that they would not get away with it.
28 August 1941.
At around 3 a. m. we were given the SVTs (12) and 2 magazines with ammunition. About half of us saw these rifles first time in our lives. We were shown how to use it. And that completed the training with a weapon to be used in combat. (13)Within an hour we were already sitting in the trucks.
We arrived to the staff office of an active unit. There we dismounted off the trucks, and the trucks went back. At the staff we were given a guide officer and were sent to the front lines. After we walked about 300 meters the road split in two. I don’t know, whether the guide really did not know where to go, or he got scared, but he would not take us further, stating that he did not know which way to go. We stood there for about half an hour and then returned to the staff office. There we decided to wait till the morning and went to sleep. When I woke up majority of the guys were gone. There were only 4 of us left. We decided that the rest must have gone back to the 6th Station. So, we decided to follow. In a couple of hours we saw a car going back to the city. We knew the driver, and he did not mind giving us a ride. We decided to stop by our homes on the way and say goo bye to our families. Under the circumstances I suggested to stay together (14), say our good byes and go back to the 6th Station. But two guys disagreed. I realized that they were up to something and don’t want any interference. We arrived in downtown. The city was startling with its dead silence. It was especially startling to those who knew this city as happy and loud, as most of the southern cities. One of the guys, who also was not going to sneak away, went with me. We stopped by my house first. The whole family and relatives had gathered. We said good bye. I especially remember saying good bye to the grandmother. She blessed me with trembling hands. (15)The farewell was so final, like sending a man to his death.
We rode a tram to the railway station, got off and headed to my buddy’s house. Near the railway station a patrol stopped us. I felt sorry for my buddy because of such a bad luck. I got to see my family, but he didn’t. They took us to the military commandant. I explained everything to him and asked permission to stop at my buddy’s house near by. The commandant did not allow that and sent us with another group of detainees to the garrison commander. We were waiting there for about an hour. Then a commander’s driver came by. The guy was a little drunk. He started telling us about the garrison commander. He said that if the commander only suspected you to be a deserter, he immediately ordered you shot. Here is how he did it: he would ask a suspect to hand over his rifle and then say how good the rifle was. That would be the first sign that this person would be shot. The deputy commander came, formed us up and started questioning. He questioned my buddy, then me. I repeated my buddy’s statements and even tried to be even more precise: the truth should not hurt us. He questioned everyone. The garrison commander came to us with a lieutenant. The deputy was reporting to him about everyone separately. About me he reported that I was lying and that he had no doubt I had deserted. Obviously, he was trying to determine the truth not by story told, but by looks. After all, he did believe my buddy. (16)Our infractions were exactly the same. Yet, he believed my buddy, while about me he decided that I was lying. The garrison commander looked at me with disgust, took my rifle from me and said that I don’t deserve such a good rifle. I said that I was not familiar with this type of weapon anyway. The commander trusted his deputy’s conclusion. He handed the rifle to the lieutenant near by. I already had no doubt abut my fate. I even did not react when I was ordered to get a receipt for the rifle in the office. My hands were trembling. I thought it was useless trying to prove that everything I said was the truth, that I actually consciously made a decision not to desert, based on principle. I came to the desk for the receipt and asked the secretary whether it was a sign that my fate had been decided. I was trying to get a glimmer of hope for me. He said that he could not tell for sure, but it would seem that way. I think I was less scared than hurt because of the bad luck I had during such hard times. They say that “there has to be a fortune to complement a misfortune”. Another secretary was preparing a list of detainees to be sent to the front. So, when the garrison commander ordered to include us, several guys condemned to death, into the common list, I realized that I was saved. I almost wanted to cry, despite the indifference that at the same time overcame me. We were all formed up and told that any of us would be detained again, the judgment would be swift. We got on a truck and went to the 6th Station, then – to the 4th Station (17). There we were given rifles and at night sent to the front. I was very exited. Despite this excitement I was impressed with one realization. I suddenly understood that those who were in the management positions during peace time, intellectuals accustomed to respect, would have much harder time to serve as privates, obey orders of the commanders that might be younger or not as smart. At the same time, the commanders would have problems with those people until they resign themselves to their fate. One of such intellectual soldiers was approached by a handsome young lieutenant carrying a book. The lieutenant asked the guy how he got into this group. He replied that he missed his original group. The lieutenant started to berate him rudely, and he started arguing with the lieutenant, being upset about lieutenant’s rudeness. I just wanted to say to him: “Calm down, my friend. This is the army, and that’s the only way. You have to forget your politeness and sentimentality”.
Slowly things came to order. We arrived to the front and dismounted from trucks near the staff office of a combat unit. There we found shelter in a gazebo. A little later we were ordered to form up, and a fat lieutenant took command. In a couple of hours a unit Komsomol (18)leader came. He told us how great this regiment was and what to do in combat. Then he said that in the evening the battalion commander will come over and assign everybody according to his specialty.
We had lunch. Then all of a sudden we heard that our defense had been broken. First the communication man came over, then the battalion commander called everybody, and we moved out with rifles at the ready. That same fat lieutenant lead us. I am ashamed to admit that I had tears in my eyes. We were walking over unharvested wheat. There was some mortar fire…
This is were the diary ends. This was that first combat when grandpa was wounded the first time. I still have questions I’d like to ask my grandpa, but I can’t any more. All I can do is remember him and thank soldiers like him.
1) Uncle Joseph, grandpa’s younger brother, died several years ago in New York, NY. (back to text)
2) The first reason we were all lucky that nobody outside the family saw these records: after all, there could be no hardships to complain about in the “worker’s paradise”. (back to text)
3) This phrase is another reason why it is great that nobody saw these records back then, probably the major one: if people were relieved that the war was against Germany, then it was also possible that the war might be against the Western Allies. Indeed, in 1939 and in 1940 the relations with Germany were much better than with England and France. In fact, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland, there was a very real possibility that France and England might support Finland militarily. That would create an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, which would be disastrous for the rest of the world. (back to text)
4) This is that draft deferment that I mentioned on my grandfather’s page. He did not use it because grandma did not want to evacuate with the factory and leave the rest of her family behind. (back to text)
5) This is yet another example of my grandpa being not careful enough: how could anybody be unhappy with Soviet laws? (back to text)
6) He probably means the reforms introduced around 1939, like jail time for being late for work for more than 20 minutes. (back to text)
7) This one is interesting: I always thought that the shortages like these were commonplace only in the 70s and 80s, but right before the war the shortages were actually eliminated. After all, all those people in prisons did not really need soap or sugar, did they? So, I thought putting people in jail was a big saving for Stalin’s regime. I guess, I was wrong: even depriving people in jail of all the necessities did not solve Stalin’s problem. (back to text)
8) Shops where grandpa worked. (back to text)
9) Nikolaev is a city east of Odessa. It is located where the Bug river comes into the Black Sea. Odessa was surrounded by the Germans at that time, so the only way out was by sea. (back to text)
10) Another city east of Odessa, on the shores of the Azov Sea. (back to text)
11) District of Odessa. (back to text)
12) SVT – Samozaryadnaya Vintovka Tokareva (Self-Loading Rifle of Tokarev). This was a Soviet semi-automatic rifle, similar to M1 Garand. For details look here. (back to text)
13) No wonder the Soviet losses were so horrendous. (back to text)
14) There were Military Police patrols everywhere. A single guy in uniform with a rifle and without any papers might be considered AWOL and a deserter and, thus, arrested and shot. (back to text)
15) Grandpa is talking here about my grandma’s grandmother. I don’t know if there is a Jewish blessing, or that’s how grandpa interpreted what the grandmother said, but that’s what he wrote. This was the last time grandpa saw the grandmother: she died in evacuation, while grandpa was at war. (back to text)
16) I am not sure if grandpa actually thought about that, but I personally think that there could be only one explanation for this: anti-Semitism of the deputy commander or the commander of the garrison, or both. My grandpa was Jewish and looked Jewish, and his buddy was Russian or Ukrainian. (back to text)
17) Another district in Odessa. (back to text)
18) Komsomol stands for Kommunistichesky Souz Molodezhi (Communist Union of Youth) – Russian for the Young Communist League. You could be a member of it from 14 to 27 years of age. At the same time it was not a part of the Communist Party, so from 18 to 27 years of age you could be a member of both. When I was in high school the Komsomol membership was pretty much automatic, once you turned 14. So, I was nagged by teachers to become a member as soon as I turned 14, at the end of 8th grade. I finally gave in, while in 10th grade (the senior year in a Soviet high school): if you weren’t a Komsomol member it could hurt your chances of getting into college, which meant being drafted into the military. I finally threw away my Komosomol membership card when my family and I were crossing the Soviet border in 1989. (back to text)